Justify Me

It took me a few seconds to recognize his seizure, two seats away. It took a few more to remember what to do, and by the time I had the wherewithal to “spring into action!” three others already had. Moments before, we’d all been 3 minutes from the end of our Hebrew quiz; now all 60 students were silently staring at our corner of the room. A sense of shame slowly settled into my spirit; why am I such a terrible first responder? After Campus Safety, and eventually the paramedics, came, our class was dismissed early and we stumbled out into the mid-morning sunshine.

Wandering toward the library, I approached a few other students and mentioned how awkward I feel in medical crises, fishing for an “It’s ok.” They offered something of the sort, but I still related it to Annie and another classmate, looking for more justification.

If you’ve spent much time observing amateur musicians, in a school orchestra or leading worship in church, you’ve probably experienced a similar phenomenon. When our voices crack, we give exaggerate our smiles and look for a friendly eye (or away entirely, if we don’t think there will be any), wanting to be assured, “It’s ok!” Even standing in the congregation, we start a verse early, singing half a word into the lull, and can’t quite move on without acknowledging it to our neighbors. We long to be justified. We’re looking for someone to tell us we don’t have to feel bad anymore.

Who will tell us that we are, from the bottoms of our feet to the tops of our heads, from infancy to our furthest future, from our loudest laughs to our deepest tears, “ok”? Who can? Perhaps on Tuesday, that student can forgive me for not rushing to his aid. Surely our pew-mates can let us off the hook for messing up our lines. But will we ever meet the poor who we have overlooked? Who can pardon us for pillaging our planet? Who has the authority to absolve us for our pride?

Only the God of the world can truly call us justified for all we have done in this world.

1. If you believe that God has extended this justification to you in Christ, then rest assured–rest, assured–that it is there for the taking. From silly embarrassment to deep shame, God has already redeemed us from out guilt and has a plan for restoring us to his design. While we do need to reconcile with others, we don’t have to look to them for our ultimate justification.

2. If you believe that God has extended this justification to you in Christ, then tell others about it!

3. Recognize that other are looking for justification. They’re looking to be valued and accepted. They’re not always interested in spiritual realities, but most people are ready for a good friend. At the very least, listen and encourage. Build a relationship across which your hope in Christ can flow.

Deep down, we’re all seeking justification.

Poignant Prayer

It's easy to get lost in the Corpus Christianorum while forgetting that we are the Corpus Christum.
I find myself lost in the Corpus Christianorum, forgetting the Corpus Christi.

Seminary is intense. At least, for one who’s trying to catch up with the second year students and squeeze as much from readings, lectures, and office hours as possible, it’s busy, challenging, and thrilling. Blogging won’t take time from of our church involvement (which is growing) or our jobs/classes (which are getting heated), so it has taken the only seat left, which happens to be in the back.

However, we had a moving seminary-wide prayer chapel today, that I’m open to sharing with you, but mostly want to process and memorialize for my own heart. The time of Scripture reading, singing, and prayer was all the more poignant because of this season’s intensity, and it was a vital reminder of God’s preeminence in my life.

I walked down the hill to our apartment with three snapshots:

  • Walking in late, I caught the end of Dr. Lintz’s introductory remarks: “…would we rediscover our identity in the presence of God.” How easily we–especially those of us full-time focusing on theology, ministry, etc.–forget that we are not working toward a good enough understanding to be with God. Rather, we have been brought near to God by Christ and that relationship gives us value and meaning. In seminary, it’s easy to forget that the presence of God is not something to be dissected, it is something to be acknowledged and received.
  • Partway through, we were given a few minutes to sit silently, open to the voice of the Lord. God’s “speaking” is much debated across the church, and this all quickly bubbled into a verbal question in my mind, the moment we were released to listen: “Who am I to presume upon the Lord.” An answer immediately followed, and here I feel no need to distinguish between the Holy Spirit and theological cognition: “You are my son.” Without the gracious favor of God, everything we do would be presumption in his universe, but as sons and daughters of the Living God, we are invited into a much more glorious life.
  • Toward the end, we had a time of prayer for the nations. A Powerpoint ran up front, each slide presenting a country’s name, a picture, and a couple prayer requests. We had about 20 seconds with each country, and prayed in the South Korean style, with everyone praying out loud at once. It was easier to pray for some countries than others; my words caught as we prayed for countries rife with slavery or rape. It took me a few moments to recover digest my immediate sadness, and pray grieving prayers. I was shocked, however, by my reaction to the slide the read, “Japan.” I don’t know what prayer requests the Student Justice Association picked for that country, because as soon as I slide came up, I just hung my head and wept. I grieve for the lostness of Japan. I grieve that there is so little gospel light there, for the waves of disillusionment and suicide. I am so sad for my ancestors’ country, and I could only bring a wordless prayer. Even this was an important reminder, that the substance of our faith is not essays and philosophy, it is the true growth of the Kingdom of God.

Given a few moments to pray with the people next to us, my request of God is that my learning would not pull me away from prayer. As Andrew James, our student body president of sorts, reminded us: We do not want seminary to be a transactional experience; we want it to be a transformational one. If you think of me, pray for me, that in these two years I would not simply learn more about God, but that I would be drawn closer to him day by day.

Jesus and the Slicker

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The siren song of fame haunts me in Gordon Conwell halls. The brick buildings, the wing-back chairs, and Dr. Gibson’s bow ties all make me think of a happier Dead Poets Society or a duller Harry Potter, and I want the admiration the Academy evokes in my mind. I still want to write, but I long to be read. I still want to teach, but I seek to be sought after. Practically, success could be God’s path for me, but as for my heart, I’m struggling to dispose of the lust for admiration.

In the flurry of orientation, events would end and I would be torn between the student next to me, in need of a friend, and the professor up front, who I hoped to befriend. Even among the faculty, I couldn’t help wondering who could most benefit me, get me into the program I wanted to get into. To my shame, I was discovering my inner “Slicker,” the campus fast-tracker Fitzgerald derides in This Side of Paradise:

Public Domain (Source)

The slicker was good-looking or clean-looking; he had brains, social brains, that is, and he used all means on the broad path of honesty to get ahead, be popular, admired, and never in trouble. He dressed well, was particularly neat in appearance, and derived his name from the fact that his hair was inevitably worn short, soaked in water or tonic, parted in the middle, and slicked back as the current of fashion dictated. The slickers of that year had adopted tortoise-shell spectacles as badges of their slickerhood, and this made them so easy to recognize that Amory and Rahill never missed one. The slicker seemed distributed through school, always a little wiser and shrewder than his contemporaries, managing some team or other, and keeping his cleverness carefully concealed.*

(It’s a bit uncanny to be teased about one’s haircut and glasses in a passage from 1920). The Slicker impresses peers, professors, and potential employers, but his veneer appears gaudy when held up against Jesus’ Beatitudes. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Our friend Daniel McDowell preached a timely sermon on Luke 14 last Sunday, where Jesus lambastes a whole dinner party full of Slickers:

“Do not sit down in a place of honor…for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v.8, 11).

“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (v.12-14).

“…there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who ‘need no repentance'” (15:7).

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And [Jesus] said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (16:14-15).

Woe to us if we, like the Slickers, like the Pharisees, live for others’ acclaim. It is not wrong to end up admired, but if we set out to become famous we will make the wrong decisions all along the course of our lives. When we seek our own honor, God secures his own glory by putting us down. When we pursue proper humility, God displays his own magnanimity by lifting us up.

Last week someone asked President Hollinger how to get involved in the GCTS community. His answer, along with Daniel’s sermon, has become a vital reminder to me this week: “Friendship.” There are societies, jobs, events, etc., but he emphasized that we must not underrate friendship during our time here. Upon reflection, I realized that my vanity often creates “fame vs. friendship” situations. When I walk into a room, I often seek the people who will help me advance, rather than the people in need of kindness. Meeting new people,  I often evaluate their utility, rather than inherently valuing the image and the Spirit of God in them.

As I’m learning to let go of fame and gratefully receive friendship, God is teaching me remarkable things. Our various neighbors who have persevered through sickness, sacrifice, and suffering are teaching me more than I ever expected about the world. In appropriate proportion, networking is wise, but I don’t want to spend these two years grasping for the coattails of the renowned and the published. I want to create friendships with the faithful and the meek, regardless of their acclaim, to nurture a humble heart, and leave exaltation to God’s wisdom.

*Fitzgerald, F. Scott. This Side of Paradise. Kindle Edition, location 450.

Numinous as they are Numerous: The Donkey Prophecy et. al.

Photo Credit: Ropaolo (license)

I stumbled out of Lecture Hall 1, marveling about a donkey.

The “Casket Empty” overview of the Old and New Testaments by Drs. Carol Kaminski and David Palmer had injected me with new understanding and excitement about the Bible. In particular, I was unexpectedly thrilled about the Old Testament prophecies that pointed to the Christ (revealed as Jesus in the New Testament). Until today, if anyone said “Messianic Prophecy,” I fought to keep my eyes from rolling, my gratefulness for Jesus warring with my distaste for cyan websites with out of date fonts.

Oftentimes, preachers and webmasters will try to stun their audiences with sheer numbers of “messianic prophecies Jesus fulfilled.” One About.com article vouches for 44, one website conveniently lists 365, and messianic-prophecy.net eschews numbers for more of a click-through oriented system. Tongue-in-cheek citations aside, these proclamations often cast seeds of doubt in my linear mind for two reasons: First, they often overreach in the pursuit of a large figure. Second, they often try and fail to “prove” Christian orthodoxy on this point alone.

Skeptical of these methods, but thankful for Jesus, I was confused. My appreciation warmed when I started looking to them as a means of adoration, rather than apologetics, but this morning I realized that I was still missing the main point. I was letting the sheer number of messianic prophecies eclipse their numinous elegance. Let me share Dr. Palmer’s example that left me marveling about a donkey.

Scene 1: The handsome, victorious, anointed King David watched his legacy crumble. Having disobeyed God as ruler and husband, the war in his home was spilling into the streets and threatening to crash the country. His son, Absalom, was turning the people against him. So, despite God’s promises that his line would reign forever, he fled Jerusalem on a donkey, in shame.

Scene 2: Eventually, the kingdom split, the people sneered at God, and the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. Almost 500 years had passed, and by the time Cyrus let some prisoners of war return, the city was virtually gone. Rebuilding the temple and the walls, they could only restore a fraction of its former glory, but a kernel of hope remained: Zechariah spoke the word of the Lord: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Scene 3: Another 500 years went by before Jesus of Nazareth caused a stir in Israel. He performed signs and proclaimed the kingdom of God throughout the Judean countryside. When the proper time arrived, he made his way to Jerusalem (the people did not know he headed there to die for the sins of the world). How did he enter the city? On a donkey, “to fulfill what what was spoken by the prophet,” and to reveal himself as the true “the Son of David.”

Dr. Palmer deftly summarized this progression in a simple parallel:

David fled Jerusalem on a donkey, in shame
The Son of David entered Jerusalem on a donkey, in humility

What a picture of God’s faithfulness! What a moment of mercy! Though David was a sinful man, who forfeited his throne, God sent his own Son to rightfully reclaim it in humanity’s name. Accuracy is a divine mark in the Biblical prophecy, but so is allure.

We should not pin up messianic prophecies as incontrovertible proofs (though for some they are persuasive evidences, for which we should thank God). Rather, we should trace them through the Old and New Testaments to inspire adoration of God Almighty. To this end we must not allow their quantitive magnitude overshadow their qualitative majesty.

Queue This Up: Trip Lee’s “Robot,” “War”

Every so often, I listen to or read something that speaks for itself, needs little commentary, and I recommend adding to your reading list or iPod for your next long wait, run, or drive. Queue this up:

 

Art can accomplish many types of good. It can magnify greatness, reveal evil, and persuade people. Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son shows what words cannot describe. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces draws us into truths about divine sovereignty we would otherwise overlook or reject. Art can also clarify understand and even evoke better emotions on subjects we’re already familiar with. On his 2012 album The Good LifeTrip Lee accomplishes these last two purposes particularly well with his tracks “Robot” and “War.”

The first, “Robot,” is a helpful reflection on the idea that Paul expresses in Romans 6 when he calls us “you who were once slaves,” but declares that in Christ, “sin will have no dominion over you.” Though the essence of the truth is fully expressed in the word of God, Lee effectively amplifies its tone. In his holy defiance and desperation, he attempts to draw a generation back to this doctrine, which they have not made space for, but desperately need.

The second track, “War,” reveals the spiritual battle we live in the midst of, with a rare and proper tone of significance and victory. What are we to make of the one called Faithful and True who, “in righteousness judges and makes war”? What does it mean, for our daily lives, that “death is swallowed up in victory”? Amidst the chorus, “When death and life go to battle, ain’t no tellin’ what’ll happen,” Lee calls us back to these questions, which should arouse neglected celebration.

Good music cuts us like a scalpel. The artist’s character and worldview determine whether they will leave life- or death-giving implants in the spaces they’ve carved. Hopefully you can find some time to listen to these two songs today. More importantly, I pray you can value and recognize the kind of music that cuts clean and implants the mind of Christ.

“Humbled and Encouraged”

“I’m humbled and encouraged.”

I don’t know how many times I said it walking out the door. The people around me were probably sick of hearing it, but that’s exactly what I was (and am): humbled and encouraged.

Annie and I had the opportunity tonight to go to Dr. Hollinger’s and meet other students who are new to Gordon Conwell. Coming in the door, we were thinking about when to arrive and what to wear and how to come across, but by the time we departed we were simply marveling at the remarkable people with whom God has blessed the Church.

We met a couple who had been imprisoned for Jesus, a lady who wants to work with inner city teenagers, a pastor from Kenya, a Bible translator, counselors, missionaries; the list seemed to go on an on. Some laughed about their persecution; others wept out of gratefulness for our Savior. What a blessed evening!

Photo Credit: David R. Tribble (license)

On our trip home, I was struck by the incredible diversity of the church. Not only do we come from a range of cultures, locales, and perspectives, we are also headed out to just as many contexts and ministries. The best illustration I can think of is the intersection at the top of a teepee, that brief space where a number of poles come together before branching out in just as many unseen directions. Seminary is an amazing intersection of brothers and sisters, from hundreds of pasts going to hundreds of futures. For these few years, we meet together around the Word of God.

However, our diversity does not end with our features and experiences; it extends, deep within us, to our personalities, gifts, and desires. I often wonder why anyone wants to do anything other than preach (especially anyone getting an M.Div.), but as each person shared his or her vision for the future, I could only “amen” each dream. Yes, you must teach the Old Testament. Yes, you must go back and correct heresy in your native country. Yes, you must become a hospice chaplain. 

We should expect no less, considering the vastness of the Father who made us, the vivacity of the Spirit who indwells us, and the significance of the Christ who we embody in the world.  Peter, in fact, commands us to live out of and into this God-given variety when he writes, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

So let us, dear friends, celebrate God’s various gifts. Let us surround ourselves with his diverse church, that we might be humbled and inspired. Finally, let us develop, practice, and leverage the skills, opportunities, and desires God has given us, that while our generation carries this torch, the Church might duly embody Christ.

One Thing You Should Know About Each of the Minor Prophets

Six months ago, I learned that I’d have to take an “Old Testament Competency Exam” during orientation. I’d heard that the (“required”/remedial) OT Survey class is actually a great course, so my prayer this morning was: God, if I should take this class, please help me to fail this test. If I should take a different class, please help me to pass it. I’ll find out in a few hours how I actually scored on the test, but I was pleasantly surprised to confidently answer questions that I would have been flummoxed by a few weeks ago.

This test–or whatever grade I may get in the survey course–will matter very little in the throne room of God. However, I’m thankful for the incentive to know God’s word, therefore God’s redemptive plan, and therefore God himself more vividly. The Old Testament review has reminded me how valuable that first section of the Bible is, how much it teaches us about “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” I learned a fair amount about the broad sweep of the OT, a good amount of new material about the prophets (who are largely unfamiliar to me), and walked away with a new set of hard data: Who the prophets prophesied to.

I truly recommend this last part. If Tim Tebow improved his speed, he could get a little bit faster (but he’s already fast). If he improved his strength, he could get a little bit stronger (but he’s already strong). If he improved his throwing, he could potentially be a much better quarterback, because that’s his weakest attribute. Similarly, most of us are familiar with the beginning and end of the Bible, but know very little about the prophets in the middle. This is a great section of Scripture for us to know about, because there is so much potential to grow in our weakest area. Looking back on studying for this exam, I recommend the aspect that was most helpful to me, learning one thing about each of the prophets: Who they were prophesying to. Toward this end, I want to pass on one suggestion and two tools.

  • A Suggestion: The best preparation for this exam was reading through the Old Testament. It took me about 8 months (I’d already started, for purely devotional purposes, when I learned about this test), but taking my time helped me savor and comprehend the vivid characters and big picture. The New Testament is vital to the Church, but if you’ve never read through the Old Testament, it’s a great way to get to know God better.
  • Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 11.18.24 AMA Tool: Like I said, the most beneficial part of this process was learning who the prophets prophesied to. A website I discovered in my Greek class, Quizlet, has become an invaluable tool for memorizing information, so I made a set of 16 flashcards that simply matches each prophet with his audience. You can check those out here. I recommend, in the “Study” category, using the “Learn” feature, and using trial and error. It will continue to test you on the cards you miss each round until you get them all right.
  • Another Tool: You’re also welcome to the flashcards I actually used to study for the exam. Using Arnold and Beyer’s Encountering the Old Testament, I assigned three important words to each book and made another set of flashcards. Before using the cards, make sure to check out this explanation to see what each of the terms is meant to remind you of in the book.

I hope at least one of these is helpful as you seek to know God’s word and God himself. Many of us have neglected the Old Testament, especially the prophets, but as we will pick up more understanding from these texts, we will have a better sense of our Creator, Redeemer, and Lord.

Dawn

With nothing but a day to fill, I cycled to the shore
Alone, I ventured further than I’d ever gone before
The town still dead, I rose, embarked, not knowing what I’d find
Or whether there’d be anything worth leaving else behind
I, skidding, stopped at each fog field, to pin for show and tell
And having seen, I weighed return, pride sated, self-impressed
But stray rays piqued through the smoky swells
So on I spun, half-caught–half-not–by vernal interest
I gasped when round the bend I turned:
The sea, eclipsed by he in heaven perched!
My dreams now underfoot, I yearned
To, waking, touch the face too bright to search
As I returned I saw I’d judged it wrong:
The shroud burned off now crimson painted lawns
Was all my road so lively all along?
Is all so right, so lovely as this dawn?