Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#1] [Final Post in Series!]

Theology has teeth.

This is what I’ve learned throughout seminary. Here’s why.

Having graduating seminary, I have continued reading books within the world of theology. But I have also ventured into new territory. Recently I finished Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Before that, I devoured Eric Metaxas’s eponymous 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer.

My college chaplain, Ron Kopiko, always said that we say what we believe but we do what we value. If one is interested in finding someone who genuinely did what they valued, look no further than the unassuming Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer

Born early in the 20th century, he grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and men just as a then-obscure Austrian man grew in hate and anger and favor not with God but with a few nationalistic henchmen. As Adolph Hitler carefully assumed control in a debt-laden and politically compromised Germany, Bonhoeffer pursued his vocation in pastoral ministry and professorship.

Before it dawned on most of the elites in Germany, Bonhoeffer sensed Hitler had the worst of intentions. Wooing over the clergy in Germany who were willing to pay a high tax for a very fragile peace, Hitler did his best to spiritually legitimate his actions by subverting Christian beliefs. Attempting to obscure the reality that Jesus himself was Jewish, the Hitler-subservient Reich Church of Germany tossed out essentially the entire Old Testament. It simply didn’t fit with their current goals of destroying lives and calling on the German people to denigrate and destroy the Jewish people. Jewish theology, to them, had no place in their version of “Christian” practice.

True, many leaders in the church bowed to Hitler’s increasingly uncompromising demands. But there were many brave clergy who said no to Hitler. Risking income, status in the community, and their lives, Bonhoeffer carefully coordinated a resistance plan to Hitler’s grab for spiritual power. He leveraged his influence in various international church councils while petitioning his fellow German believers to practice a bolder faith. Bonhoeffer helped sift out the true disciples, the true Christians whose faith meant coordinate action.

Eventually, Bonhoeffer realized Hitler was politically unstoppable. The way he had managed to leverage nationalistic fervor through propaganda made any kind of resistance futile. Begrudgingly and with great fear for his soul, he became a part of a plan to assassinate Hitler. This was for the sake of the Jews, the disabled, the homosexuals, and all other people groups Hitler sought to exterminate, but it was to him a duty to God.

Bonhoeffer’s beliefs were strong enough that he risked everything–even his standing before God, the way he saw it–to live out his discipleship after Jesus.

There are few people who, like Bonhoeffer, have taken Jesus literally when he said, “take up your cross and follow me[1].” He was imprisoned for several years and eventually hanged on April 9th, 1945. Bonhoeffer’s no to Hitler meant a yes to the call of Jesus Christ.

May we, as Christians living in the 21st century, search for ways to take up our own crosses. Theology is not abstract or distant or irrelevant; at its core, our theology informs how we act in the world. And whether or not we talk about theological things, we say what we believe then do what we value.

Bonhoeffer valued Jesus.

That’s the start. Then comes the taking-up-our-cross part.

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[1]Bible, New Testament, Matthew 16:24.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#2]

This is one of the most important discoveries of my entire seminary journey. After studying the difficult aspects of Christian faith and practice-the peripheral-the core components of faith burn way brighter.

To me, seminary was a time to lean into the most difficult questions of all.

School for pastors should include some of this, right? One would imagine that Christian leaders, with all their various abilities and giftings and sense of call, would still struggle with particular questions.

It’s true.

Instead of offering a straight-up theodicy I’ll say a few words on God, then tell a couple stories. The stories really do communicate the best.

But first, a few words on God.

Early in the Bible, we learn that God has created all things. Genesis 1-2, the accounts of creation, are poetic. But they are also brazenly polemic! They speak strongly against any other God but Yahweh, the God of Israel. With forceful language, these two chapters subvert other gods who were held in high esteem by neighboring peoples, and exalt the God of Israel, the true God.

And the place of people within the order is very high. And yet, God gave people free will. Humanity had the ability to decide how to act. So, ultimately, humans allowed evil to enter their world. Bad news, everyone; it’s our fault. And we can either blame our ancient ancestors or blame God.

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Or, we can blame ourselves. Then, from the depths, we can cry out to God and observe his multifaceted plan for transformation. We can look to the hope he gives us in the history of the world, recorded in the pages of Scripture, and seek Jesus Christ, the Son of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit he left his for his church.

Ok. On to the story.

The first story comes from my final Old Testament class. We had been moving through the Pentateuch [the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy] and noticed these monumental acts of God. The biggest, without a doubt, was the Exodus.

The Exodus was God’s act of delivering his people, Israel, from the superpower of the day-Egypt. Egypt is still fairly powerful, but not like the second millennium BCE! The only real competitor was Babylon to the far east.

After all the talk about dates, miracles, and the moral authority of God, things got personal. I probed and questioned. One other student and I really got after our professor about miracles. We wanted to hear about his own experiences with miracles.

It all started with a question. I now feel a little embarrassed about it. I asked, after pressing him on a bunch of questions, “care to share?”

Share he did.

Our professor shared the story of moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan, from the East Coast. Amidst the busyness of moving, they had not the time to fully establish their son in the network of doctors in West Michigan. See, their son had a genetic condition that causes severe internal difficulties. One such difficulty lay within the young boy’s intestines. On one of his first evenings in Michigan, our professor’s son experienced an intussusception. This meant that a part of his intestine was folding in on itself.

As the boy sat, racked with severe abdominal pain, our professor and his wife paused to consider their options. They could go to the emergency room, where none of the doctors knew their son’s medical history. They could attempt to contact their physicians back east, but it was late in the evening. They planned to take him to the emergency room, but first they cried out to God for mercy.

A few minutes later, they gathered their things and prepared to leave. God, as it appeared, did not answer them this time.

Then, their son came to them from the living room. “I’m tired,” he explained. “I’m going to bed.”

Astonished, they asked him if he was feeling alright. “I’m fine, just tired,” he went on to explain, then climbed the stairs and headed to sleep.

Turns out God did listen to their prayer, and that he did act, and that he did show himself fully capable. Sure, maybe it was a fluke. Maybe the prayer had nothing to do with the healing. Maybe. But I doubt it. I guess about 3 of every 4 American doctors believe in miracles. They’re the ones who have witnessed such things, the ones with decades of training and experience, the ones on the forefront of medicine.

As I sat listening in class, I felt very small. I felt faithless. I felt as if I’d challenged and failed. I felt as if I’d been put in my place.

In my smallness of question-asking and challenging, I had become distracted from the largeness of God, even in my own life and my own experiences.

And today or in 50 years I may not understand the intricacies of exactly how the historical events of Scripture have been recorded. I may have a few doubts, concerns, and questions that hold out in the recesses of my mind regarding the formation of the Bible. But I don’t doubt the basics anymore: God is good. Jesus lived, ministered, died, and was raised to life, then ascended. He’ll return. Scripture speaks to the reality of God. These things are true.

Much of my seminary journey took me to the fringes of faith. My studies took me to tough places, and my classmates and I were burdened with difficult questions. But all the unknowing that takes place at the fringes pointed us back to the core dimensions of faith.

And, for us, the core now burns brighter.

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Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#3]

Hilariously, as a kid I’d mistake the word “seminary” for “cemetery.” Naturally, later in life, there was the mental connection that ensued: were these two terms more similar than different?

Theological studies may not sound exciting, just like chemistry or math or art history may sound boring. This all depends on the hearer. I have a relative who is fairly wealthy on account of his recording studio. His studio does jingles and background pads for the likes of Apple, McDonalds, and Kelloggs. This may sound boring to some. But it may sound exciting to others. It’s all in the hearing.

Whether or not theological studies has its share of excitement is beside the point. What I want to get at is this: can theology professors profess both academic biblical knowledge and spiritual vivacity?

My answer is an unequivocal yes.

Though I cannot speak for every seminary out there, I can speak from my own observations during my six years at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.

One professor I had was very heavy-handed about his beliefs. He respected the people with whom he did not see eye-to-eye, but he had a very strong opinion on all things theological. Another professor had a lot of baggage from his ultra-conservative background, and at times it showed.

Each professor had their share of difficulties. But even the professor with the strong opinions and the professor with the ultra-conservative background clung tightly to the message of Jesus. They really do seek to love their neighbor, and their enemy too. They really do seek to bring every action into alignment with their heartfelt beliefs.

The modeling I saw during my seminary years was probably more important than the content of the teaching. I saw women and men teaching who genuinely and passionately pursued the holiness of God made clear in Jesus.

I recall often the phrase my spiritual formation professor would use. She said, “spiritual practice is getting up to see the sun rise; it’s happening whether or not we take the time to see it.”

Spanish Sunrise

Indeed this is the case. When it comes to knowing God, there is a seeking involved. My professors understood Matthew 7:7-8:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”

That’s Jesus speaking.

There is a whisper of Paul’s example found in I Corinthians 11:1:

“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”

Something powerful, something resonant, exudes from those living the kind of life that is worth being imitated. I thank God for the women and men who, in the beginning of the 21st century, have sought to follow Jesus.

Especially, today, I thank God for my seminary professors.

Top Ten Things I Learned in Seminary [#9]

The same concept outlined in #10 goes for Greek.

Because of my newfound linguistic skills, I learned that Oikos, the Greek yogurt that you may love, is called “home” in Greek.

“Home yogurt.”

vanilla-greek-yogurt-quart

My Greek skills hold up okay in the world of Koine Greek, especially when I conjoin my seminary skills with Bible software like my Logos 6 package or my languages collection from Accordance.

It’s true that working on a biblical language helps one to see Scripture differently. One professor who used to teach at my seminary likened it to, as opposed to black and white, seeing in color.

I think that was a good comparison.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#5]

Weakness is strength.

Doesn’t sound right, does it?

We live in a culture that exalts power. We may dream of influential positions in global corporations or long for a bigger voice in our local community. We Americans, of all people, delight in the possibilities that exist in the individual.

At the beginning of the 20th century, rags-to-riches novels impressed on the culture a sense of dramatic optimism. Suddenly it seemed as if anyone with the will power could rise through the ranks in commerce or industry and command armies of workers.

As history tells, this is not the case for everyone. Opportunity exists to gain power and influence, but acquiring it is difficult.

Within all this, God sees weakness differently. He sees it as strength.

If one reads any of the New Testament accounts of the death of Jesus, it is apparent that he was not exalted by his own power. Instead, God the Father gave him strength through the Spirit. John 16:5-16 describes the closeness of the three. Verse 15 reads: “All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.”

After three days, God glorifies Jesus, raising him from the dead. The first book after the four Gospel accounts is Acts, and at the very beginning of this book Jesus is witnessed ascending into heaven.

Weakness is strength.

Just like Jesus, we are strong when we are weak. When we lean into the grace of God, we find ourselves giving him glory.

Paul, one of the most committed early followers of Jesus, explains how this works in a letter, 2 Corinthians 12. God explains to Paul that, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

When Paul attempted to do things in his own strength, it did not bring God honor. It probably didn’t bring Paul that much honor either. Instead, glorifying himself likely just made other people irritated. The same principle goes for all of us.

God is interested in doing incredible things [just look at the miracles of Jesus and of the Old Testament that preceded him!]. God also wants people to know him.

Let’s put this into contemporary context. It’s meaningful when people serve other people. Right? It’s so cool to see businesses and churches and individuals serving the common good. Now here’s where the weakness/strength paradigm is vital. For the person or church or business who does something meaningful, that can inflate the ego. Very easily can doing good cause us to think we’re ok.

But when we do good through weakness, there is only one option for others to believe: God is at work.

The natural world understands this concept. Annie Dillard talks about this in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The fecundity of nature, she says, is indomitable. A farmer somewhere thought squash were especially powerful, and he used a scale to test how much pressure these seemingly insignificant and feeble vegetables could exert. They pushed the scales to the thousands of pounds as they slowly grew, cell by cell, fueled by the growth of God. Weakness is strength.

In the human world, when someone is unexpectedly kind, it’s striking. When someone really seems to have the right to be vengeful and maintains tranquility, it’s noticeable. When a family loses one of their own to violence then responds with forgiveness, it speaks. It spoke in October 2006 in the wake of the Lancaster County shootings. A man brutally killed 10 young girls in a one room Amish school. The response from the Amish, even amidst their mourning, was forgiveness. Leaning into the strength of God, they never said it was ok or justifiable, but they forgave. Ironically, the man who killed the girls couldn’t forgive someone for having killed his own daughter.

God’s world is different. In God’s world, weakness is strength.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#4]

Here is the next installment of my little reflection series on my six years of theological study in the seminary context. I have also, of course, been influenced in my writing by ministry experience within two different faith communities.

My focus here is on the two most important Sacraments for Christians: baptism and communion.

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Let’s face it. We live in a transient world.

My iPhone was slated to be out of date about a year from the date of its release. Apple’s calendar for new products moves almost as fast as seasonal fashion updates. Interior design may be a bit slower, but pretty much everything in our culture is rapidly shifting.

Undeniably, this has psychological consequences.

When we move so quickly, we miss out on things. Personally, I think tattoo culture grows out of this. Not going to lie; I love tattoos. Done right, they’re just so cool.

But why is it that we desire tattoos?

I’d like to make the case that part of our [and my] interest in the permanency of tattoos is on account of the impermanence of other fixed realities in the world. We’re always going to be transitioning to a different area, moving into a new friend group, trying a new app, purchasing a new piece of technology.

Baptism is altogether different than all of this.

Communion is also entirely unique.

I’ll take a stab at explaining. Water is ubiquitous, at least in the Midwest. We in the West usually don’t turn on our faucets each day wondering whether there is enough water to push through and give us clean hands or a cold drink.

We are not disquieted by an evening sip of red wine. Neither are we overwhelmed by a quick sandwich at lunchtime.

But in the context of Christian worship, our senses are opened to new realities when we witness baptism and communion. Let me talk about why this is the case.

Water cleanses, purifies, refreshes, and sustains. Jesus, according to Scripture, is living water.

Physical water points us to the living reality that we call God.

The waters wrapping the earth are powerful indeed. Scientists tell us the oceans slowly circulate, and every 500 years, like a giant game of tag, they all trade places. Deepest waters from the North Atlantic collect in an enormous basin as cold, salty water from Greenland and Norway sinks. This pushes the warmer waters south, between the Americas to the West and Europe and Africa to the East, until it hits the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which pushes the water east, where it circulates. The Pacific contributes greatly to the drama, adding sun-warmed water that winds up back in the North Atlantic.

How many glasses of water have I drunk over the years whose molecules once also nourished Jesus during his time on earth? Maybe those lively atoms helped to wash him in the more ancient Jordan River as he emerged from his own baptism or quenched the thirst of the disciples as they shared a Thursday evening meal with Jesus before his death.

When I think about my own experience of baptism, it was the muddy waters of the Muskegon River coursing Westward out of Houghton Lake and on to Lake Michigan that cleansed me. The people who had spiritually nurtured me during my earlier years sang hymns in the same sun that warmed Saint Augustine as he wrote and guided a community in North Africa. There is a deep spiritual connectedness to which the Sacraments, communion and baptism, point.

Paul says in baptism we are buried with Christ, then raised with him. We often think of this in a profound spiritual sense, and we are right to think this way. But in the Sacraments we also experience physically the connection we have with him. If baptism and communion were two arms, I would picture them holding with one hand on the physical world, and with the other holding the hand of Jesus incarnate. Somehow the wind of the Holy Spirit would blow, and the presence of the Father would be tangibly felt.

When we see these actions in the church, may our imaginations soar.

My imagination soared when my wife and I took our son, Silas, to be baptized. At three months, we as a church placed him gently at the feet of God, knowing we cannot open his eyes to see God on our own, but that we can do our best show him the path.

Over his wide open blueberry eyes, our pastor’s tender hand imprinted a tiny cross that dripped gently across his smooth forehead.

Silas Everett

And I wondered who had been baptized in that same water. John Wesley? Bonaventure? Saint James? Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

For sure, our precious Silas Everett Videtich. May he forever live into that sacramental reality.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#6]

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary early this month, this is the next of my seminary reflections. This is the fourth post, and one of the meatier ones.

#6

As broad as the various expressions of Christian faith are, God is broader.

I used to wonder why it was that so many Christian denominations exist. I thought to myself and to others, “are we not divided against ourselves?”

Well, I suppose in some ways there is some division. The church is filled with redeemed rebels, people who God is gently leading toward right living. No doubt, there latent tension between followers of Jesus.

But this is what I learned at my interdenominational seminary: God is really big.

The map below illustrates well the diversity of faith in the United States.

us.map.of.denominations

The concept of God’s vastness may sound simple. And in a sense, it is.

The more I have learned about the enormity of our expanding universe and the tiny, intricate complexities of cells and atoms, the more I have begun to understand that God is really, really big. During the earliest days of God making himself known to humanity, people quickly realized this.

Ancient scribes tried their best to record everything they understood about God and write it all down. Have you ever read the Pentateuch? Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are not exactly light reading! There are some literary snags, some difficulties, some overlaps, some confusion to be sure. But at the heart of the Pentateuch we see God’s strong covenant to redeem and restore humankind through a people group, Israel.

Various tribes did their best to respond to God over long periods of time, falling away and coming back. The prophetic class called the people of Israel to repentance, over and over again pleading on God’s behalf and on their behalf to be faithful to their calling. Kings rose and fell, with only a few truly loving and serving God with their whole hearts.

So it is, it seems, within the Christian church.

Over the twenty centuries since Jesus, the Son of God, revealed himself in the Ancient Near East, the church has sought to follow his directives. Evangelism, spiritual formation, and the slow building of the church has ensued since the days of Jesus’s physical presence, and the church leans readily into an eternal future where heaven eventually meets earth. The people who have responded to Jesus seek his grace for forgiveness and also his justice to roll down.

But amidst all of this, people groups have conflated their beliefs with the tenets of Christianity. Sometimes this wasn’t a bad thing at all. Paul, a Jew, and many of the other early Jewish followers of Jesus, continued many of their cultural practices: food laws, circumcision, sacred ritual habits. These things continued, and for the most part it was a question of how to integrate new believers into the church. The church’s conclusion was that newcomers did not have to adopt Jewish practices to follow Jesus. Many Jews held on to their practices, which was totally ok. Surely some slowly let go.

Fast forward to 1095. Western peoples, who had come to understand much of what Christianity meant, conflated their own feudal belief system with the religion of Jesus. The Apostles, who had gotten to know Jesus, would be thoroughly confused to meet European people calling themselves Christians. These Europeans conflated Christian principles of salvation and repentance with their tribalism, their honor culture, and their desire for conquest. To the chagrin of billions of Christians who would follow, this relatively tiny group of warriors and leaders forever caused confusion. But the church reformed and repented.

And so goes history. Just because someone takes up the exterior mantle “Christian” does not mean that person is walking in step with Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and close to God the Father. It means, quite simply, that they call themselves a Christian. The same goes for groups of “Christians.” Scripture teaches that God evaluates the heart [I Samuel 16:7, Jeremiah 17:10, and others]. God perceives the actions of people, and he alone judges.

Because God evaluates the heart, it can sometimes be difficult to know which groups of Christians are genuinely walking in step with Jesus. Jesus himself teaches his people not to judge. The term in Matthew 7:1 is krinete, a Greek term translated accurately as “judge.” Isn’t this the Bible’s most-quoted verse? Isn’t this why so many people say “don’t judge me”? Later in the chapter Jesus says something else. He says that his followers can recognize [epiginosko] people, bad or good, by the deeds they do, the “fruit” they bear. That is not to say Christians should judge [krinete] bad people; instead, we recognize when people are not to be followed.

Thus, the history of Christian faith becomes more complicated!

Richard Foster wrote a book called Streams of Living Water in which he talks about the variety of denominations within the Christian church. Masterfully, he explains the contributions of various worshiping traditions who have done their best to faithfully know, follow, and serve Jesus. But no one group, in my opinion, has arrived. Each group of Christ-followers must journey forward, revealing the largeness of God and imitating the world-transforming Son of God, Jesus.

God is really big. When we read about different groups of people trying to serve God-conservative, liberal, traditional-we are to recognize them by their fruits. Most Christian denominations that come to mind-Baptist, Lutheran, Mennonite, Catholic, Reformed-are examples of groups of people who have done their collective best to be sensitive to the teachings of Jesus and to respond accordingly.

As broad as the various expressions of Christian faith are, God is broader.

The Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#8]

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary early this month, this is the next of my seminary reflections. This marks the third post. They are out of order, except for the last few.

#8

Preaching is as scary as I always thought [but it can also be powerful!].

One of the more intimidating aspects of the pastoral vocation is this: speaking in front of a lot of people. Those people may be judging you, or they may offer great charity. Those people may come interested, or they may come with impatience and plenty of other things to think about at that time. Those people long for a sense of the eternal, of deep purpose for life, of grace and truth; but they may not have gotten enough sleep the night before.

And there they are at church.

Scary, right?

Now, let’s add to that.

I’m not someone who was naturally drawn to speaking in front of people. My college speech class illustrates this perfectly. The goal to was to eradicate ums and uhhs from our speeches, and also to memorize our main points. I couldn’t remember the next point, and I knew I couldn’t say uh or um, so I just stopped. It was probably about 8 or 10 seconds. Yeah.

If you listen to me preach nowadays, don’t be deceived. You may initially think I’m calm and poised, but don’t let that fool you! I am not! Well, at least beforehand. As I move into a message, somehow God’s Spirit seems to slowly calm my nerves, and I allow him to animate me. Somehow, my hands even seem to work with my words as I tread holy ground. Somehow, the people out there who always used to intimidate me have turned into people who simply long for an experience of God.

Just like God used Moses, a guy who stammered and lacked confidence and poise, God can use a guy like me. God can use a guy who wasn’t always a natural with words and with communication. God can use a guy who hated public speaking for the first two decades of his life. For me, this has been evidence of my calling that I have been given grace to do the communication that pastoring requires. That’s not to say I’m killin’ it. But I’m taking steps. The meme below says it all.

onedoesnotsimply.meme

God calls various people in various places to proclaim the hope contained in Scripture and made most evident in the Son, Jesus Christ. This is a serious, scary task. That can [and does] make us young pastors terrified!

But the incredible thing about preaching is this: it sticks. I still remember concepts and illustrations from the sermons my pastor preached growing up. I remember the story about bitterness that featured Eskimo hunters who dipped an icy blade into blood, then planted it in the snow. When a wolf would smell the blood and lick the blade, they became so intoxicated that they failed to realize their numb tongue was being cut open. That’s harsh, but it’s what we do to ourselves when we fail to forgive and harbor bitterness against others. Preaching sticks.

That stuff matters. It’s terrifying, and it matters. A lot.

The Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#10]

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary early this month, here are a few of the things I’ve gained. This is my second post. They are out of order, except for the last few.

#10

It’s extremely helpful to know Hebrew when it comes to reading peoples’ tattoos.

The other day I glanced down at my new friend’s tattoo. Her name is Camille. Her tattoo looked almost exactly like the one below, except it didn’t have the little vowel dots, known as “vowel pointing.”

selah.hebrew

It spelled out a three-letter word. S – L – H would be the Anglo equivalents. I thought about what it might mean for, well, I don’t know, probably 3 minutes. Finally those long classes spent poring over Hebrew text came back to me. “Selah,” I said to her. “That’s cool.” She looked at me as if I was some kind of mystic, like I had just read her future. Nope. It was just those handy #seminaryskills.

We talked about Hebrew for a few minutes and about the concept of Selah. It is used in the Psalms as a directive, as a musical term meaning “pause.” That’s a concept we could use in our world, whether or not we’re reading the Psalms.

And hopefully we are reading the Psalms, meditating deeply on them, praying them, taking them to heart, and writing them on our soul.

Try reading through Psalm 8 a few times, slowly. Seriously. Just try it.

The Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in May, here are a few of the things I’ve gained. I’ll be posting about one per day, out of order, over the next ten days. Some will be awesome. This one, #7 starts us off lightly.

#7

The best stories rule the world; and the best story is the strangely compelling narrative of Jesus.

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Try as I might to find meaningful stories to communicate the reality of God, the story God has given us is simply the most compelling story the world will ever hear. My favorite movie is Clint Eastwood’s 2008 masterpiece, Gran Torino. SPOILER ALERT: I’m about to give away the plot. If you haven’t seen the movie, go see it, and skip this post.

Anyway, I’ll make it simple. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a crotchety retired Polish-American line-worker from Highland Park which is couched within the city limits of Detroit. He’s angry that all his white neighbors have moved away to the suburbs surrounding Detroit, angry that his kids are distant, angry that his priest [he’s Catholic] is young and inexperienced, angry that his wife passed away, angry that poor Hmong refugees now surround his neighborhood, angry that crime rates are up and that Detroit is struggling.

But something happens within Kowalski. I’d say it’s nothing but the power of God. Some may say it’s an old, angry gentleman who experiences an inner revolution. But I’d say it’s the life-transforming power of God.

He takes in a young neighbor, Thao, who had attempted to steal Kowalski’s prized car, an early ’70s Ford Gran Torino. At first it’s restitution, and Thao does odd jobs to make up for his attempted crime. But soon, Kowalski becomes a real mentor to Thao. Thao needs a father, and Kowalski coaches him on how to gather tools, hob-nob with the good-ol’-boys, fix things, and even gets him a construction job.

Gran Torino

Kowalski makes the mistake of roughing up some gang members who had been trying to recruit Thao into their drug-running enterprise. Soon, the gang retaliates and shoots up the Thao’ house and rapes his sister.

Outraged, Kowalski takes things into his own hands. His priest comes over to confront him, but even though he makes a serious confession, he hides his plan from the young minister.

By this point, I’m expecting a shootout between Kowalski and the gangsters. No good outcome is really possible here, right? In the light from streetlamps, he storms in and yells at the gangsters from the sidewalk. Then, provocatively, he reaches his hand into his vest pocket. They light him up, cutting him down with automatics. As he bleeds out, the watcher learns Kowalski was unarmed the whole time; he was reaching for a lighter for his cigarette.

Instead of continuing violence, he absorbs it, laying down his life for his new and foreign neighbor, the neighbor who tried to steal his car.

Kowalski’s actions were powerful. But they were only powerful because they mirror the greatest action of all: Christ’s work on the cross. Jesus suffered and died, absorbing violence instead of continuing it. But where Kowalski did plenty of things to deserve anger–maybe not murder, but certainly anger and distrust–Jesus was a perfect sacrifice.

Kowalski discovered the deepest meaning of love: it’s laying your life down for your friend. And his story is compelling because it mirrors the greatest story-the story of Jesus.

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