science / God

Something not many people know about me is that I went to a STEM-focused high school. It was called the Math Science and Technology center, and to get in you had to write an essay. Mine wasn’t very good, and my confidence in my math skills was already waning as my pre-high school progressed.

At some point I received a letter – I was on the waitlist! 

This wasn’t awesome news, since my older brother John had already been in the program for a couple years, and he was flourishing in all subjects STEM-related and otherwise. But it wasn’t terrible either, because there was still a chance that I could join my immediate family’s new academic tradition.

Finally, a week before school started, I came home from soccer two-a-days to another letter:  Continue reading “science / God”

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Let Go? [Never!]

Silas, our 3 year old, learned to ride a bike yesterday.

He asked a little girl, Autumn, if he could borrow her pink Frog bike. As she consented, I thought about how to make sure to preserve the integrity of the bike itself since it was clearly on the more expensive end of kids’ bikes.

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I was shocked at what happened next.

As I released the handlebars and relaxed my support on his back and arm, reality unfolded at a pace my imagination could not match. He was balanced and stable, moving faster than I could keep up with at walking speed.

I let go.

Silas was on his own, and he proceeded to ride all over the playground.

After recovering from the shock, my first instinct was to tell Kaile, which I immediately did as soon as I got home [I didn’t cheat and send a text message!]. She was, of course, delighted, so now we are left to brace ourselves for the task of keeping up with him.

Today, in the wake of this moment, I cannot help but continue to reflect on his newfound two-wheeled freedom.

Looking back a couple years, was meaningful when our boys first learned to walk; it was unadulterated joy to watch them first craft words [both boys] and sentences [still waiting on Maelin for that!]; it is presently an incredible gift to observe them interact positively [ie *not* hitting or pushing one another for any length of time].

But there was something so poignant about first riding a bike. It’s an either-or kind of skill. Unlike speaking, reasoning, and walking, riding a bike without training wheels is, unlike so many things in this world, rather binary. You’re doing it-or, well, not.

Suddenly, I was transported to a sloping driveway in Big Rapids, Michigan, in the very early ’90s. Probably not wearing a helmet, I remember piloting my $5 purple banana-seat down the driveway after my dad let go.

They let go.

I let go.

There really is something profound about this process of letting go.

Over a lifetime, each one of us either chooses to or is forced to let go of identities, occupations, relationships, habits. Parents have the very visceral experience of letting go as their children move to new levels of independence.

Along these lines, it seems letting go of one’s child is a process that comes with cultural expectations. As an American with many generations going back in time on both sides, my culture tells me I need to let go, to promote autonomy, to encourage my kids to find their voice and engage their world. While I have some nuance that I place on this strong push for independence, I generally agree.

And yet, for my family and community of faith, we have a special narrative framework in which all of this letting go / autonomy-seeking is couched. The story of God’s creation, preservation, and ultimate restoration of the world and the cosmos through Jesus is my larger framework, and any letting go I do fits into this bigger picture.

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As I reflect on the present-tense grace and long-term hope that my faith offers, my mind also wanders to that time later in life when letting go hurts. Frankly, I assume my kids are going to reject my voice in their lives, whether gently or overtly. In the maturation process, I can’t imagine even most of childhood, latency, and adolescence to be free of challenges and heartache. I’m open to being surprised, but I brace myself as I hear so many stories from other parents.

I think of a friend who has a child in the Army. She worries about him, as one might expect, and prays for his well-being, certainly his physical preservation, even as she also prays for his spiritual, emotional, and relational journeys.

She let go.

I [am/will] let[ing] go.

And when my son rides off on his bike on his own, it’s a picture of my limitations as a parent. I felt tears come to my eyes as I walked home with Silas on his bike and Maelin [somewhat] content in the stroller, imagining our toddler at other milestones in his childhood and later years.

Back to the narrative framework of Christian faith/hope.

So many times in Jewish/Christian Scripture we hear the biblical authors referring to God as a Father. Some texts also give a deep sense of maternal qualities as well, and we conclude how something about God’s character is like that of a parent.

But here’s the problem.

Not all human parents are good. And sadly, some die before having the chance to parent, or they leave, or they’re separated as refugees, or they’re conscripted into a war, or…

Anyway, I’d contend that every parent [myself especially included] inculcates their child with habits and predispositions that are harmful. We could call it the filial passing-on of the sinful nature. Yes, we of course pass on tons of good qualities as well; but it’s a mixed bag, isn’t it? We are beautiful, good beings, created in God’s perfect image, yet we, to varying levels, are simultaneously corrupted at our core by sin.

It sounds old-school sometimes to say it this way, but the term *sin* can be quite helpful. In short, sin separates us from God and each other. Conversely, because of God’s transforming grace made apparent in Jesus, we are reunited with God-and with one another as well. As we experience the massive forgiveness God extends to us, we cannot help but keep one another’s sins in perspective.

Remembering God’s grace toward us, we are left with no other option than to extend it to others. 

But God doesn’t just forgive; God also restores. God gives 2nd and 5th and 194th chances, “grace upon grace” as John 1:16 phrases it. The grace we receive helps us pause, take note, then [eventually] search for opportunities to extend that same grace to others.

Back to letting go.

I think one of the most meaningful steps in the journey of faith is when a child’s faith becomes their own. The training wheels-mom and dad and church friends-eventually come off as we launch into an educational journey, military service, or a regular job, and at some point, so many of us discover there was something real and life-giving and salvific happening throughout our entire life, and we didn’t even know it.

On that same *letting go* concept, I’m struck with this closing thought:

Parents let go. Then their children, who often become parents must also let go; and the pattern continues. But God, from what is revealed in written Scripture, is and always will be a good and loving and patient parent. And he even loves us enough to always correct and restore and redeem our wandering selves. Instead of bracing for a future moment of letting go, we can be sure that in God our future is secure and safe, that through Christ our Lord is making all things new through the power of his Spirit.

Unlike Kaile and me and all human parents,

God doesn’t ever become disinterested;

God doesn’t become impatient with us; 

God doesn’t get disappointed in us;

God doesn’t leave us;

God doesn’t let go. 

***

 

 

 

Jesus Calls Us to Die. Literally.

Not long ago, a friend of mine challenged me theologically on how the Christian church is to interpret the teachings and example of Jesus, particularly in terms of nonviolence.

Here is my response.

The text in question, primarily, is the Sermon on the Mount, spoken in 1st century Palestine to Jesus’s closest followers, plus an apparent crowd of Jewish folks from nearby villages may have been listening in. Looming large is the question of how Jesus’s teachings relate to Christians living in the 21st century, whether American-or not-and how to receive the radical challenge Jesus gives his Jewish-turned [over just a few years]-multinational audience.

Jesus begins his sweeping homiletic discourse with the Beatitudes [verses 2-12]. Essentially, Jesus insists that we are blessed or happy or in a really good spot when our present conditions are, seemingly, not so blessed.

Already, Jesus is painting a picture of a very different world

Next, salt and light [verses 13-16]: Jesus calls out a special community, a people set apart to flavor the world with a new way of existing [i.e. the Beatitudes!]. They are called also to be a model, an example, a “city on a hill,” a light set on its stand to brighten planet earth with new ways of coexisting, governed by a new law of love.

Interestingly, Jesus goes on to connect his teachings to the Jewish law that came into practice centuries earlier, the ancient code that set the people of Israel apart from the nations as a people who knew the one true God, Yahweh.

What is happening here? Is Jesus insisting all the details of the law must continue? Shall the new converts following Jesus continue wearing clothing consisting of just one fabric, or can they mix it up [Lev. 19:19]? Can they plant two kinds of seeds in their fields now? How about that bacon they have always wanted to try?

Without a doubt, Jesus is underscoring certain aspects of the law while reappropriating other portions of the ancient Jewish code, for as his earth-shaking sermon continues, he casts new light on six categories of human interaction. Each teaching assumes knowledge of the exterior guardrails of the law, the rule-keeping; but Jesus’s words get at the inner motivation contained in the human soul: 

  1. Anger
  2. Lust
  3. Marriage/Divorce
  4. Language
  5. Self-Defense/Retaliation
  6. Loving One’s Enemy

How can Jesus on one hand insist he’s fulfilling the law, and holding followers to do the same, while also re-working it?

I turned to one of my commentaries, searching for quality language and scholarship to help give meaning to how exactly this fulfillment/completion paradoxically radicalizes-and changes-Old Testament law:

It is inadequate to say either that none of the Old Testament applies unless it is explicitly reaffirmed in the New or that all of the Old Testament applies unless it is explicitly revoked in the New. Rather, all of the Old Testament remains normative and relevant for Jesus’ followers (2 Tim 3:16), but none of it can rightly be interpreted until one understands how it has been fulfilled in Christ. Every Old Testament text must be viewed in light of Jesus’ person and ministry and the changes introduced by the new covenant he inaugurated.*

I bolded that last section because it’s important. We don’t see many Christians holding tight to the ancient laws, and this is one of the theological reasons why. Jesus changed everything, so much so that we now observe all of Scripture using the new lens of His teachings and atoning work on a Roman cross.

It’s not that the law disappears; instead, it is seen in new light.

Possibly the strongest example of Jesus radicalizing the expectations of the law follows in 5:38-42. Here, He actually overrules the Torah! Referring to the lex talionis or “an eye for an eye” presented in Deuteronomy 19:15-21. Exodus chapters 21 and 22 codify self-protection norms; for example, a nighttime intruder can be killed, but if they break in during the day, the defender is guilty if they kill.

Not so for Jesus.

Here, he insists even self-defense is prohibited:

 

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.** 

Emphasizing various cultural factors, a number of theologians have attempted to soften the theological force of this passage. And it makes sense why this happens: how could we possibly live like that?

It seemed appropriate to turn to a respected scholar for insight. No matter how we look at it, Richard B. Hays is pretty hard to keep off a top-5 list of theologians of our era. What might he have to say about the Sermon on the Mount? After a thorough defense of how the teachings of Jesus square not only with the Matthean witness but with the whole canon, he offers his perspective on the how the strange pacifist teachings found in the Matthew 5:38-42 work in reality:

“The posture of the community is not to be one of supine passivity, however. The actions positively prescribed here are parabolic gestures of renunciation and service. By doing more than what the oppressor requires, the disciples bear witness to another reality (the kingdom of God), a reality in which peacefulness, service, and generosity are valued above self-defense and personal rights. Thus, the prophetic nonresistance of the community may not only confound the enemy but also pose an opportunity for the enemy to be converted to the truth of God’s kingdom.”*** 

My last blog post was on my own convictions regarding gun violence, and it contained some political questions native to this important discourse. But I didn’t touch on examples that may help some of us rethink our assumptions. By assumptions, I mean the characteristic attitude that I have anecdotally found to be almost universal among a great percentage of Americans: “if someone comes into my house, they’d better be ready to deal with ME and MY GUN.” 

That attitude is as deeply felt as it is widespread. For so many Americans, it is part and parcel of our national framework for seeing all of life.

What might be another approach? Like, an actual example?

How about the 2006 West Nickel Mines Shooting? On an early October day 11 years ago, Charles Carl Roberts entered an Amish school and, after a hostage situation, shot 8 out of 10 female hostages aged 6-13 years old. He killed 6, including himself, and there were 5 non-fatal injuries.

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It wasn’t long before the Amish responded. But it wasn’t with calls for justice; instead, the response was the embodiment of forgiving love. They decisively forgave the shooter, and took it upon themselves to visit his surviving family. They also set up a charitable fund for Marie Roberts, the shooter’s wife.

 

One Amish man held Roberts’ grieving father in his arms for nearly an hour, allowing him to simply let go of his tears and lean, literally, on someone who apparently cared. 

I also think of certain movements, revolutions in the history of the world that feature nonviolent actions. Imagine the work of Martin Luther King Jr. suddenly infused with violence and self-protection? Is not the power removed?

Yes, we know that there were small pockets of violence that erupted among protesters, but this was not characteristic of the Civil Rights movement as a whole. I must imagine that if it had been, America would not have made the same progress.

Going back a bit farther in history, it’s hard not to mention Dirk Willems, an Anabaptist who was imprisoned for his beliefs. After forging a simple knotted rope, he escaped from a window, then fled his captors over the surface of a frozen castle moat. He was thin from prison rations, but his heavier pursuer fell into the ice.

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Gripped with compassion, Willems turned to pull the man out, and was able to save his life. Unfortunately, the man was less than grateful; Willems was imprisoned again, this time in a far more secure facility where the possibility of escape was nought.

 

He was then burned alive.

Such a radical act smacks greatly of the kind of enemy-love Jesus enjoins us to practice. If this isn’t “do not resist the one who is evil” I’m not sure what is.

Unfortunately, we too often attempt to soften the strong words of Jesus in his great Sermon. Instead of recognizing them for what they are and attempting, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to respond with our lives, we theologize about how the commands of Christ are impossible ideals [Reinhold Niebuhr].

We revert the Old Testament lex talionis eye-for-an-eye paradigm that Jesus modified. We talk about how we’re just looking out for our families, a noble cause indeed.

We as Christians have the hope of New Creation, of heaven being reunited with earth, of rejoicing forever with the family of believers; yet so many of us cling to our guns, our 2nd Amendment *rights*, and our middle-class worries about the safety of our families.

So many Christians are positionally convinced on a great many other ethical and soteriological questions, such as what constitutes a marriage, what salvation means precisely, what loving one’s neighbor means, creation care, and a host of other important questions.

We have verses to back it all up of course.

As an American, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who feel compelled to arm and defend themselves out of fear of attack. I am uncomfortable with passivity when it comes to the safety of one’s family. And I recently wrote about this, in some detail.

I write my position as an invitation and good-hearted challenge, not as the sole way of reading Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. There are many who see it differently.

I understand that we receive grace and how God’s forgiveness is boundless. At the same time, I am reminded that the same Jesus who insisted we turn our cheek; that we are not to resist an evil doer; that we are to give away our cloak and tunic; yes, that same Jesus [in the same Gospel account!] invites us to take up our cross and follow Him [Matthew 16:24].

He also says, in the next verse, that those who lose their lives for Him will find it. Much of the time, this is certainly metaphorical.

But what if it were literal? 

It was for Stephen, who was stoned to death for insisting Jesus was Lord [Acts 6].

It was for Philip, whose head was bound to a pillar before he was stoned to death.

It was for James, who was thrown down from a great height before being beaten to death with a club.

It was for Simon Cleophas, crucified under Roman emperor Trajan.

It was for Ignatius, torn apart by wild beasts at a Roman circus.

Ignatius_of_Antioch-martyrdom

I want to spark new thoughts on this topic of nonviolence, not get into the weeds on American politics [though I do have some thoughts on that!]. My goal, really, is to encourage a new look at old words.

Friends, Jesus is calling us to great things. He’s calling us to rise with Him in baptism, to walk with Him in new life, to become-with the community of believers-a light on its stand.

And he’s calling us to die to our old self.

Or maybe, every once in a while and in a tragic story that makes no sense this side of eternity…

…to literally die. 

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, pp. 103–104). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

**The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 5:38–42). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

***Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to Christian Ethics [San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996], 326.

The World Is Upside Down.

Internally, everyone wants things to be a certain way. Whether in the world, in one’s community, or in one’s own life or even one’s soul, we all have a sense of how life is fundamentally supposed to be like.

As a kid, I remember so vividly the pain my mom experienced after her mom died of cancer. It crept up on her so quickly, and seemingly without any warning. She would be grading papers [she taught Spanish, English, and French] and suddenly she’d be in tears after some small trigger memory of Virginia Kester.

Even when I was little I knew death was a terrible thing. Things weren’t the way they are supposed to be then-and decades later, it’s no different.

And I think we all relate to this in some way or another.

We desire peace when things feel chaotic or violent; we long for harmony in relationships when connections with others feel fragmented; we search for health and well-being when we or a loved one is sick.

There is something within every single human being that desires something different and better. We can tamp that feeling down, suppress it with various means, we can distract ourselves; but when we look into our souls, we desire something different and better. 

Jesus taps into this feeling in his famous Sermon on the Mount. And this world-shaking sermon [I don’t think that’s an overstatement in the least] begins with an sermonic upending of the systems and powers that seem to govern our world.

The term *blessed* means something along the lines of God-favored, happy, and at peace. Jesus is telling us that either right now or in the coming age, we are blessed when these things happen [or we act in these ways].

Take a look [remember, it’s Jesus talking!] ::

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

***

Now if this isn’t the exact opposite of what’s normal, I’m not sure what is. Jesus’s way of seeing things is akin to turning every single cultural value precisely on its head. As an obvious example: when is it blessed to mourn? Or, out of the average 100 people, how many do you think are truly pure in heart [as I write this, I’m doubting whether I would fit the category!]?

A few years back, I saw a map like the one below and thought to myself, gosh, that would be so strange to flip north and south. Then I awkwardly realized that flipping north and south also flips east and west. California would be the east coast, and Maine would be super far west! And Canada looks a bit like Africa with lots of water and ice gaps.

upside.down.map

Just as my perception of the world was radically jarred by seeing from a different vantage point, I recently thought through how Jesus’s words stand so starkly against the way we typically see things in American culture. Here’s my annotated version of the sermon on the mount from my American cultural vantage point [and remember, I live and work in Silicon Valley!] ::

Blessed are the rich in spirit since they’ve obviously got real motivation to press forward with their fitness, career, relationships, and… everything else. #goals

4 Blessed are those who don’t need mourn, because the gods have obviously smiled upon those people so much that they don’t experience any real setbacks in life. #brightside

5 Blessed are the driven, for they will inherit the earth [or at least a good position in the company with some sweet benefits and stock options]. #getitdone 

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for being outwardly seen as a good person, for they will be honored among their peers and in magazines-and probably seen as wonderful, philanthropic people. #humanitarian 

7 Blessed are those who know when and when not to show mercy, for they will be seen as kind and giving people. #love

8 Blessed are those with a pure criminal record, for God will see that and be totally impressed. He’s not worried about the affair that stayed quiet after decades. #sopure

9 Blessed are the peace-desirers, for they stir the pot on Twitter and have just the right thing to say about every news headline; and their sayings make people talk more about justice. #dumptrump

10 Blessed are those who are not persecuted because of anything, for they’re obviously toeing the line and getting along with everyone pretty well. #getalong

11 Blessed are you when people don’t insult you, persecute you, or falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of the things that you stand for. #staycool 

12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward on earth, for in the same way the empire prospered in ages past, it prospers now when you follow these key tenets for successful living. #motivation

Not sure if these alternative beatitudes are much of an exaggeration, honestly. If I look in my own soul, I oscillate between terror and frustration when I see my own inclination to my list of *revised* beatitudes. There are some that strike closer to home than others [like verse 10!].

Anyway, I think there’s something within each of us that longs for Jesus’s version to be true, whether or not we even care at all about the guy. We want purity of heart, I think. If God personally offered to offer any one of us the gift of a pure heart, would we not accept it? 

And wouldn’t we all love to inhabit a world where meek people were honored and given a special place? I’ll bet we’d all appreciate working for a meek boss.

That bit about hungering after righteousness, too, makes me imagine what the world would look like if everyone actually lived out lives of deep integrity. Marriages would flourish! Political and business corruption would disappear! Prisons would empty! Racism would be quelled, and marginalized people would be honored.

Imagine if we so elevated peace as a virtue that we finally decided national interest are less important than human lives. Our wars would cease, and bullying would end.

If we imagine deep within our God-breathed consciousness, we can relate to desiring to see God’s kingdom being made real and tangible in our world. We can picture the end results of living as Jesus is inviting us to live: how things are supposed to be.

But, for some reason, it’s so hard to create the kind of seemingly upside-down world that looks like what Jesus is identifying. Thankfully, we also learn in Scripture that God is ultimately making all things new, that heaven and earth will eventually be made one, that the church is the bride of Christ and is set apart to play a key role in bringing about this upside-down kingdom.

We who are Christians believe insist that God is offering to impart the teachings of Jesus to us, through the power of the Holy Spirit. We actually think God’s kingdom is made visible through such spiritual transformation.

Have you met someone who sees God deeply present in their life even as they experienced a divorce, powerful addiction, or disease?

I’m telling you, this stuff is real.

If we don’t even believe this stuff, we still relate to the desire for Jesus’s way of seeing things to be the status quo. We all have the commonality of imagining how things are supposed to be.

And what if this isn’t all just some strange religious fantasy? What if the beatitudes actually became the norm through the power of God working to make all things new? What if we all just lived as if his teachings were true?

What if the map we’re all reading is upside down?

***

The Model Student

So.. I’m a youth pastor. With that comes a particular set of preconceived notions, at least for a lot of people. There is an archetype for who and how youth pastors are and how they act.

Annoying t-shirts.

Frosted tips [ok, in like.. 1999].

Bro-ey guilt-inducing talk: “yo, Jen, you should totally swing youth group tonight. Jesus is gonna be there, so, I mean..”

Ok, so maybe that’s somewhat of a start. Now let’s think for a second about the purpose of ministry that is specific to young people. We need to ask the question, “what is our goal?” 

I’ve got some answers to that, but sometimes what happens in my brain is I imagine all the various ways a deep and resonant faith in Jesus can affect someone’s life. So, to allow you in on it, I created a diagram of what sometimes comes to mind as I think about work with students here in San Francisco.

First, the “Model Student.”

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Next, the “Actual Student.”

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You have now entered my brain. Thanks for coming. If you’re curious where this is going, finish up. If not, have a quick laugh if it tickles you then find something else to read. 

Ok, so there are some really impactful ways a genuine and authentic faith in the risen Jesus can change a person. I have written not a few blog posts on how my faith intersects with my life, and Christian practice is a subject that looms large in our culture.

Now, the point: is it really this simple? 

These silly comics point to actual truths, but I think what is most ridiculous is the thought that a model person or model student is actually as pure/spiritually wonderful as the comics suggest. In other words…

I’m afraid we’re all a bit more complicated. 

Right? I mean, come on. Yes, there are spiritual greats, there are saints. But each of us is internally mixed and our loves aren’t quite 100% pure. Do we all genuinely love our neighbors-and our enemies-as ourselves, like Jesus teaches? Or do we secretly harbor quiet judgment about folks who think [or vote?] differently than we d0?

People of faith fall into this trap.

People without faith do too.

And what’s the difference? I’d advocate that Christian faith does a pretty good amazing job at revealing the honest truth about our true selves. We’re all failing to fully love others-neighbors and enemies-as God loves us. We’re all failing to fully care for creation in all the ways we can [and yes, the Toyota Prius uses fossil fuel. And so do fully electric cars-they have to charge, after all].

The honesty about how we really are at the deepest level reveals that we are all a mixed bag. We do the right thing, we do something that compromises our values. We make progress, we relapse. This is the journey of faith.

But that Christian honesty is backed up with an action plan: repentance, forgiveness, and a lot of grace for when we don’t measure up to the high standard of loving God/others deeply.

God’s grace, shown in Jesus, floods the scene. Jesus models forgiveness to the folks gathered at his execution: “father forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing [Luke 23:34 MSG].”

Following Jesus is no path for the faint of heart. Yes, Jesus comforts-but he challenges us too. That’s where my little “model student” diagram falls hopelessly short. All the things are important, but I left out the deepest aspects of faith: love for God and love for neighbor/enemy.” After all, you can’t really separate those two concepts anyway. 

That is what I yearn for in the model student.

And that is what I, though I so often fail to embody it, strive for as well.

Advent = Active Anticipation

The human story consists of lots of waiting:

Pregnancies.

Job opportunities.

Finding your soulmate.

Standing in line to get brunch.

For each of these, we can make use of our time in any number of different ways. We can either effectively use the time at hand or become impatient and even downright frustrated with all the time on our hands. Take it from me-I love my soulmate, my kids, and my job, but as I waited for all of these I cannot honestly say I always waited with active anticipation. Sometimes I did, sometimes not.

And what do I mean by active anticipation?

With our children, active anticipation meant lots of prayer, stroller research and procurement, parenting books, and talking to friends with kids. And, well, lots of other kinds of anticipation. At worst, I was just nervous about a baby in our family. But at our best, Kaile and I actively anticipated the birth of our two boys.

With my job, active anticipation meant prayer, listening, networking, possibly too much education, and genuine effort at all the jobs preceding my current ministry work. At worst, I was preoccupied and missed out on opportunities that were right in front of me. At best, I actively did these things in anticipation of God providing the right *next* job opportunity.

With my soulmate/wife, active anticipation meant prayer, *crafty* romance, discernment, and listening to the wisdom of friends, family, mentors, but most of all to God’s Spirit. I really do see God at work in the foundational months of our relationship. At worst, I compromised friendships because of my new relationship with Kaile [and did late-night walks with her when I should have been sleeping or studying!]. At best, our years dating helped each of us understand the other as we actively anticipated the challenges of married life and the rigor of the family life we hoped to have.

Now, the turn to Advent.

advent-downtown

Again, the human story in God’s world consists of waiting and anticipation:

The world waited for God to show up before He made promises to Abraham.

Israel, Abraham’s progeny, anticipated release from Egyptian captivity.

The people of Israel anticipated a Messiah [Jesus] to prove God faithful.

Israel’s expansion, the church, anticipate Messiah’s return.

For each of these, the people groups represented either made or currently make use of their time in various ways. In Exodus, we learn that the cries of the enslaved Israelites ascended to God, sort of like the smell of smoke rising up from a fire. They actively anticipated freedom, yet strangely wanted to return once set free. When the Jewish people settled along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, they actively anticipated a messiah-especially as they were feeling crushed under the heel of the oppressive Roman empire.

We hear this anticipation in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament, and most poignantly in the Songs of Isaiah.

And now, we Christians actively anticipate the return of Christ. He appeared on earth, ministered, died, rose again, ascended to heaven, then promised to return-and we take this very seriously! We actively anticipate/await his return by practicing our faith. God is made known in the natural world, in the cosmos, in Scripture, and in the church. That last bit-the church-is important!

I write this as a Christian, and with the purpose of offering the church [all folks who follow Jesus!] a thought on how to participate in Advent as we continue toward Christmas.

Here are a few very specific ways we can actively anticipate the return of Jesus during the waiting season known as Advent.

1. Be still and know that God is God. 

How often do we genuinely slow down and notice God? As well-known as this invitation from Psalm 46:10 is, it may well be equally ignored. We are sometimes so caught up in ourselves that we miss out on an awesome, meaningful conversation, a beautiful vista, or a small opportunity to help a stranger. The hand of God is at work within all of life, and he speaks; however, we need to listen [and yes, I’m speaking straight to myself here]!

2. Forgive someone. 

Send a message or write a letter to a friend or family member with whom you’re at odds. Have a real conversation with someone at your workplace. Open up that old memory of frustration toward someone far away who hurt you, and see if God used time to help heal-then make the human connection and let them know there is forgiveness.

Practicing forgiveness is hard work! But it’s necessary work. Providing motivation for us to forgive, we learn in Scripture that God’s goals for human interaction are so perfect

3. Love others by giving away your time/talent/treasures. 

Funny that we’re heading toward the end of the calendar year, a time when people often give to charity or to churches to save tax dollars! But giving money away is only one way to bless others like we have been blessed by God. There are a host of ways to give away our time: plug in to your church and serve in youth or childrens’ ministry. Mentor someone. Get involved in a local charity. Serve food at a shelter in your city. Prepare hygiene kits at a domestic abuse center. You know there’s something you can do to the least of these, as Jesus calls them in Matthew 25. And as you do good unto them, Jesus tells us it’s as if we’re doing it for him.

4. Honor the People Closest to You

For some reason, it’s easy to be extra mean to family members. Since we are comfortable with those closest to us, we are often also the meanest. As we long for all things to be right and good and made new through the work of Jesus, we can actively anticipate his arrival by doing the difficult daily work of nurturing relationships with our spouse, kids, sisters, brothers, and parents.

5. Get Creative

I can sit here making lists of ideas for you, but chances are you have some ideas of your own that might just work better for your situation. Don’t let me stand in the way of an incredible opportunity or world-shaking idea.  

Thanks, But No Thanks.

Maybe you remember O Brother Where Art Thou, a Cohen brothers film from 2000. Set during the depression in the American south, the plot follows a small group of inmates as they attempt to get their lives together.

Everett, played by George Clooney, is especially interesting to me. Unlike his two simple companions, he sees no need for religion, no need for God, no need to pray to a nameless and non-attentive character in the sky.

That is, however, until he suddenly needs divine help.

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Our inmates, during the final scene, have been caught by a ruthless county sheriff and are about to be hanged for their crimes.

Suddenly, Everett’s atheism evaporates as he falls to his knees, searching the heavens and praying for rescue. It is a poignant moment in a film that can too easily be seen as a fun ride lacking any depth.

Soon a floor rushes through, sweeping away the gallows.

And, needless to say, sweeping away Everett’s concerns about God.

He quickly dismisses the flood scientifically, insisting it came because of a state hydroelectric project. And whether that’s the case or not matters little, because Everett believes it to be the case. He puts his faith in science and in himself, ignoring the possible link between God and the life-saving flood.

No need for me to draw connections between Everett’s tendency to draw near to God during distress and the human tendency to do the same. It’s a universal trait. If we are honest with ourselves, we will see parallels between our own actions and his.

Now, a brief story from Scripture.

You can read it in the Bible’s Old Testament book, Daniel, chapter 6.

So there’s this guy, Daniel, a Jewish man who has been taken into exile from his former home by a group of marauding Babylonians led by the well-documented leader Nebuchadnezzar [who long name has surely confounded Sunday school teachers ever since ever!].

Maybe you already know the story of Daniel and the lions’ den, but if not, I’ll summarize for you. The new king, Darius, has appointed advisors who have become jealous on account of Daniel; he is a foreigner, but he is wise and is appointed to a special leadership position within the kingdom.

And the other advisors can’t accept that.

Without much forward thought, they get Darius to sign a law that prohibits prayer to any god but him, Darius, the king. And they cleverly get him to sign.

Soon, Daniel is busted for praying to the God of Israel.

Following his typical daily routine of authentic prayer, he isn’t trying to be politically divisive or antagonize anyone, but he does feel convicted to pray to the God in whom he believes, and not to a human king.

Though Darius is sad and fairly upset about the situation, he has to follow through: after all, it was his law. He stays up all night, sleepless and wondering whether Daniel will make it in a den of lions.

And… Spoiler alert… Daniel makes it. He is found alive and unharmed.

Daniel and Everett from O Brother Where Art Thou strike an interesting contrast, do they not? Everett prays during the one time he is in genuine trouble. And after his rescue, he immediately discredits any possibility of God’s involvement.

The account of Daniel is altogether different. Here, we don’t even hear mention of him praying while he was in the lions’ den, only before. And after his night in the den of lions, he credits God for having rescued him from the vicious animals.

Friends, I want to be like Daniel.

I want my prayer life and spiritual practices to go on whether things are awesome or awful, to honor God with my time and talent [and treasures too!] whether or not everything is going well.

I want practice gratefulness, and not just at Thanksgiving.

As a side note, prayer and spiritual practices are widely regarded as healthy and life-giving. The Harvard Medical School acknowledges the research on the benefit of being thankful, and even of acknowledging God’s care. Check out the research they point to here if you’re curious.

In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised that grateful people are happier and healthier. And of course, as a rule of thumb, it will generally be more difficult to be thankful when we are doing really well-for then we are distracted from God. It can also be difficult to pray after a painful loss or searing rejection.

And yet, practicing faith through these daily rhythms is what Christians are called to. These prayer habits of gratefulness and petition just happen to harmonize with our physical health. The theme of physical and spiritual health running a common course comes up more than I realize!

We must continue to pray, continue to believe, and continue to be open to God’s leading in every moment. And when we do these things, more and more we notice how God has been at work all along. Then, when difficult times come, we will have an established pattern of being attentive to God; we won’t have to awkwardly stumble back to God and re-learn who God is.

But if we do drift away, we have every reason to know that God still listens and receives us back. God demonstrates grace throughout Scripture, grace for people who forget about Him and grace for people that misunderstood Him.

And though we make every effort at being constant in our prayer and in our faith, our passions are still divided, mixed with some lingering pride or un-forgiveness or quiet hate. And yet, stubbornly, we pray, waiting with expectation for the day Christ makes all things new.

 

 

 

My Life Was Threatened.

It’s true.

Just a week ago Kaile, Silas, and I sat down with my parents, Ann and Greg. We were in the Richmond near Geary and 19th at a little Indian place. Moments after we had settled in with our naan, chai tea, and tikka masala, I heard the man behind me speaking.

His voice grew louder.

And louder.

I’ll kill each one of you. But I will spare the mother because of the baby inside. I’ll f*cking kill all of you with my bare hands. You’ll bleed out instantly. You don’t deserve to live another day.

I looked across the table at my father, whose now-graven face and hazel eyes were locked on the non-gentle man issuing threats. I mouthed the words, “is he talking to us?” Since my back was to the crazed man, it seemed that turning or standing to confront him would do more harm than good. “I don’t trust that guy in the least,” came my dad’s whispered reply, still making eye contact with the man who had now stood to his feet, continuing the threats.

As my palms began to sweat, I thought through a list of possible outcomes: would he attack? Would I literally risk my life for my wife, toddler son, and 60-something parents? Am I really the pacifist I profess to be? Does self-defense count?

As the threats continued, my dad slipped out of his seat and quickly went to speak with the owner of the restaurant. In an instant he was there to gently ask the man to go about his day. My dad’s experience working in an urban pharmacy helped reinforce the wisdom of seeking a local expert, the restaurant owner.

Still breathing threats of violence, he walked out of the restaurant and down the street.

Phew.

Unsurprisingly, the fellow who threatened the four earthly people who know me the most was one of San Francisco’s numerous mentally unstable denizens: likely homeless, probably addicted, surely lacking in needs that most of us take for granted.

Yes, it was startling, but no, this incident is not typical in my life. I can count with one finger the number of times this kind of thing has happened [yes, once is all].

The experience made me think of certain Psalms that I’ve never quite been able to comprehend. Take for example Psalm 140. In the NRSV verses 10-11 read like this:

Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise! Do not let the slanderer be established in the land; let evil speedily hunt down the violent! 

Whoa whoa whoa.

That’s a little much, isn’t it David*?

These verses and others like them are picked over by skeptics: the Bible incites violence! How is this good advice for anyone-much less the word of God? Yeah, I get the reaction. Much ink has been spilled as an attempt to discredit Jewish and Christian faith on account of the anger found in the Psalms [and elsewhere, but that is another story].

Is it really too much? Should we toss out these angry imprecatory** Psalms and keep the nice ones that talk about quiet streams and shepherds and mountains?

I’d say no. In fact, I wonder how much violence has ceased because of these Psalms. Here’s the twist. The anger in these Psalms could just as easily be directed to the writer’s enemy. But look! It’s not directed at the Psalmist’s enemy; the anger is directed straight to God.

Indeed, many of the Bible’s Psalms came during dark times of loss. Some have come from very specific situations in individual lives. The angry emotion contained in these poetic phrases comes from lived experience, not from abstract or existential feelings.

As I write, I can almost hear a response: “good grief, Ben, most people don’t have that kind of anger, and if they do it’s just a mental instability and they probably need therapy.”

I don’t buy that for one second.

What if the anger came from a terrible loss? From genocide? From having lost a child to abduction or murder? From having seen family members shot or tortured? When human beings go through upheaval of this nature, anger is an inescapable response. You bet therapy is in order, but any therapist understands and counsels the wisdom of effectively coming to grips with one’s emotion and finding the best way to move through it.

These Psalms encourage those experiencing rage to find its proper channel: prayer.

Only in connecting to God can we become open to the true darkness within our own souls. Only in connecting to our Savior, Jesus, can we find someone who truly identifies with human loss-yet who also communes with the Father and the Spirit.

Ignoring our anger leads us nowhere, and acting on it will surely lead to further destruction. Consider the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Desmond Tutu and other leaders helped the citizens of South Africa move forward after countless acts of murder, racism, inexcusable and unspeakable hatred carried out under the banner of apartheid. Little doubt some seriously angry pray-ers sought solace in a God who is concerned for justice yet allows humankind to be his agents.

Going back to my opening story, I’ve thought more about the situation. No, I’m not praying imprecatory Psalms and asking God to avenge me. The man at the Indian restaurant probably needs some antipsychotic medications, a meaningful community, and a sense of self-worth; he needs hope; he needs Jesus.

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Photo Credit: Susan Ragan of Reuters

But the experience is also teaching me to empathize, in small ways, with folks, rather unlike my middle class self, who do in fact have reason to pray their anger to God. Take for example the family and friends of Alejandro Nieto, shot numerous times by San Francisco police in 2014 at Bernal Heights Park. He was armed only with his licensed tazer that he was legally carrying for work [he was a full-time security guard]. An example from a different perspective comes from the grieving family and friends of police officers Liu and Ramos of the NYPD who were killed the same year, 2014, in their police vehicle. Neither had any connection to acts of police brutality.

There are a great many situations that lead our hearts to a pure and unadulterated anger. Resonating with the heart of God, we desire justice and for the law to do its strong work.

And yet, Scripture insists we pray our anger to God. As we do, we remain honest to the depth of our emotions yet also to the hope we have in his justice. After all, Jesus was unjustly accused and killed on account of it. And yes, in his desperate hour, he prayed that God would allow for another way, but eventually his prayer went unanswered as it turned into, “not my will but yours be done.”

God hears, yet even Jesus, the Son, did not always receive the answer he desired. But, with Jesus as our advocate, whether we are ecstatic, underwhelmed, or incensed, we still pray.

And why not start with the Psalms?

 

 

Footnotes

*Biblical scholarship has opened up our modern view toward the authorship of the Psalms. Some are certainly traced to David, but certainly not all. King David most likely wrote some, but assuredly not all of these artfully-crafted poems.

**Imprecatory or its noun format, imprecation, are words used in biblical studies to describe Psalms or other passages that espouse anger and violence toward the writer’s enemy.

 

Religion Controls People [Quick Read]

The title of this post is a complaint I’ve heard from atheist friends. To be sure, there are many instances in human history when powerful people have taken the teachings of Scripture and used them to abuse others and gain power for themselves.

I lament that my own Christian faith has been abused for purposes of control.

I lament that atheism [Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot] is abused for purposes of control.

I lament that Islam [ISIS, Al-Quaeda] is abused for purposes of control.

The common denominator here is not faith. Nor is it the systematized rejection of faith we know as atheism. The common denominator is people. Scripture teaches that though we are created in God’s image [Genesis 1:26-28] we also rebel [Genesis 3] from God. This ancient narrative finds contemporary support in the everyday: why are some people so angry? Why are some people so gracious? Why do some people seek power and wreak havoc on the earth? Why, when I look in my own life, am I such a mixture of good feelings and frustration? How can a crime boss plan and manage a complex system of drug distribution and murder then come home to his family with smiles and hugs, remaining faithful to his spouse?

Pablo Escobar. William Wilberforce. Hitler. Mother Teresa. Kim Jong II. Isaac Newton. Idi Amin. Martin Luther King Jr.; these were all humans with capacity for good, bad or mediocre lives-yet some did so much good while others worked or work for such destruction. What controlled these people? What controls me? 

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Student by Wayne Thiebaud, 1968

My wife and I enjoy the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and we find ourselves returing to Wayne Thiebaud’s fascinating work. Student is one of my favorites, and much better in person. I continue to wonder how this representation of a student is absorbing the world around her. She reminds me of my mother at that age, though of course I’ve only seen pictures. How is she processing the teaching for that day? Is she just waiting to be released from class? Does she hope to someday be a teacher herself? Do her textbooks do justice to American history or are they grossly one-sided? Does she feel controlled by others?

The South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco consists of lots of control. The economy in our city is controlled by marketers and purveyors of technology. Apple, Maserati, Coach, North Face, and H&M do a great job controlling where our money goes. People are controlled by the small smoldering tubes of tobacco or marijuana they inhale hourly. I walk by desperate souls every day lying next to a pile of needles, eyes rolled back, controlled by the powerful chemicals surging through their frail, undernourished bodies.

It’s my conclusion that we are all controlled by something, by someone, by factors we hesitate to name or by forces we comprehend all too well. Thing is, we need to discern how we are being controlled and who we want to control us. When we take a close look at our lives we see patterns of health and patterns of destruction, large or small; and these are informed by the factors that control us.

Looking to my faith/religion, it does indeed control me. My faith confronts and challenges me. It flies in the face of logic to love my enemy, something Jesus was adamant about, or to pray for those who want to harm me. Jesus redefines adultery by telling me that even secretly desiring a woman besides Kaile is the same as literal cheating. These are Jesus’s commands-is it control? He says some strong stuff! Give away my money, my possessions? My time? Ouch, Jesus; can’t I just keep it all?

I’m not great at doing all these things-just ask someone who knows me for an honest account of my foibles and failures. But I’ll bet people who have known me for a long time will be able to note how much I’ve changed over my years. I regress too, but do think there’s some overall forward motion. Maybe you relate to the pattern of ups and down that a critical look at our lives can reveal.

 

Attempting to see things as Jesus sees them, I try to imagine a world where people all literally tried to love God but also love their enemy, to give away their time and possessions, to pray for those who sought to harm them. I’d like to live in that kind of world. 

What’s ironic is how the Christians I know are also the freest people I know. Free to feel, free to give, free to encourage, free to laugh at themselves, free to lament, free to admit failure, free to love.

So there-religion controls people, myself included.

 

Tel Dan: Ancient Insights May Lead to New Hope

 

After seeing pillboxes from the 1967 Israeli conquest that expanded southern Israel into the Sinai peninsula and northern Israel into the Golan Heights, I felt impelled to research the Six Day War, the conflict between Israel and her neighbors: Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria that has political ramifications that certainly last even in our present day.

As I continued to read my little screen on those winding mountain roads, we soon found ourselves filing off the tour bus at Tel Dan, a hilltop fortress in the heart of the mountainous far north of Israel. Genuinely, what we discovered was even more compelling than I had hoped. First, we visited the temple complex. Here, our beloved professor Dr. Jonathan Greer guided us through these ancient places of cultic worship.

One may ask why they were worshiping here, for surely there was a magnificent temple available in Jerusalem. Indeed there was, and there was a time during which faithful Jewish worshippers who were able to make the long journey on foot would have made their pilgrimage to their city, Zion, the still-influential city “on a hill” (literally, it is on a hill!) in the south. 

Unfortunately, Tel Dan exists in part because the fabric that had held Israel together as a united nation soon ripped apart near the end of the 10th century BCE. I Kings 11 outlines the foibles of King Solomon, ruler of Israel, and his descent into impure worship. He sets up places of worship for his various wives and essentially appends other deities to the list that should have begun and ended with Yahweh alone. The next chapter of I Kings reveals how Jeroboam, inspired by Ahijah the priest, leads the ten northern tribes of Israel in direct rebellion against what became known as Judah, the southern kingdom. Rehoboam, the angry king of Judah, wanted to preserve his kingdom, and prepared to fight, teaming up with a contingency of Benjamites. But a prophet, Shemiah, spoke into the situation and assuaged concerns, helping the kingdom to divide peacefully. 

Soon after, around the end of the 10th century, the people in the northern kingdom, Israel, were worshiping at Bethel in the south of Israel and at Dan in the far north. They sought new ways to practice faith and to sacrifice to God in their newly formed kingdom, and in so doing they needed new priests. These they found, and this is where the archaeological findings at Tel Dan intersect with the literary contours of Scripture. 

Walking into what remains of the temple complex at Tel Dan, I found myself taken aback with the sheer size: the structure’s footprint is massive. Its design seems to have been almost entirely influenced by Pentateuchal instructions; the archaeology teams have unearthed a temple base that almost perfectly matches the Solomonic Jerusalem temple that Rehoboam inherited in the parallel yet rival kingdom of Judah. As we walked through the structure, we discovered one fascinating place for cultic practices after another. In front of the broad stairs that lead to the holy place, there was a massive altar where non-Levite priests prepared sacrifices to God. There were places for ritual washing, for placing animal skins, a garbage area for animal bones, and a well-organized design flow for all of it. Dr. Greer carefully detailed how some of the findings, including a full set of altar utensils, reveals rather orthodox Jewish worship. He even expected mixed worship before the dig, but the findings showed that these Israelites seemed to be following the ancient rites for Yahweh worship. One hope for the discoveries at Tel Dan is to help make sense of the cultic worship at Jerusalem. Not only is the larger Jerusalem temple obscured by several rebuilds and ensuing hypothetical archaeological confusion, it is presently buried under an enormous mosque. Political tensions will almost certainly prevent research efforts for generations to come. The Tel Dan explorations will shed light on how worship was simultaneously proceeding in Jerusalem. 

The temple was not on its own on the hilltop. The hilltop’s natural entry points were well reinforced with thick (10ft+) surrounding walls and watchtowers, all of which are in unbelievably great shape, especially when one considers their age-easily 2800 years. There is a massive gate that allowed in the residents and screened the wrong visitors, and the walls and gate worked in tandem with the natural defense the city’s hills provide. 

As we left the site, which many researchers believe was destroyed in 732BCE under the Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser III, my thoughts returned to my reading on the Six Day War of 1967. I was reminded that wars have cyclically consumed the people of this land for millennia. Kingdoms rise and fall. Throughout, the strategic places remain the same, for certain valleys and ridges offer superior regional defense. The instruments of war have changed, to be sure, but the patterns of human motive have not. And in the West in the 21st century, we are certainly not immune to these capricious impulses. America has its own skeletons in the closet: slavery, genocide, unjust wars and civilian casualties over several centuries. How does this ancient temple connect to our desire for peace and justice-the challenge of Israel’s prophets?

The temple at Tel Dan was a place originally meant to honor the true God, Yahweh, the God who revealed himself in the Patriarch and who reveals himself in creation and who sustains all things. Though flawed in many ways, God’s grace toward his covenant people, Israel, paved the way for his personal and incarnate entrance into the world through Jesus. At the right time, God sent his Son, Jesus, into our world, into the mess in which we have preserved it. Indeed, there are messy patterns I my own life that do not promote life and peace and hope and the greatest virtue, love. Even so, while we were sinners (a great biblical word for those who do things that harm others and our connection to God), yes, even as we continued in rebellion, God reached out: Christ died for us. For this reason, we are liberated to put our minds to work and do our best, God helping us, in making sense of the details and nuances that give shape to the narrative of our faith. Will the work being done at Tel Dan pave the way for deeper faith in the lives of Christians? This far in the dig, it clearly has that possibility. 

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If you find yourself interested in the dig, whether from the funding standpoint or whether you discover an interest in personally helping with the dig, see more at http://www.teldanexcavations.com.