Saturday, December 14, 2013

Four Christmas Passages in the Bible You Rarely Hear About

If you were raised in a Christian background, you have probably heard the traditional Christmas story dozens of times in your life. Most likely these tellings were replete with the typical characters: Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the three wise men, the little town of Bethlehem, etc. And that’s good! Because that traditional story has a lot of meaning in it: God choosing to come to humanity in the form of a powerless baby, and revealing himself first to the humble Mary, the lowly shepherds, and the pagan Magi. The Omnipotent one becoming the weakest of all, and in so doing raising up the meek and the outcast.

Yet, there are at least four sections to the Christmas story that I do not think I have ever heard a sermon preached on. They’re all right there in Luke chapters 1 and 2, but for whatever reason (lack of time; difficulty?) they are glossed over in a lot churches. And that’s too bad, because they are powerful. Here are the four parts; please take a few minutes to reflect on each and what they would mean for you this Christmas. (I have also provided some of my own thoughts, but please ignore them if they distract you. I think the text speaks for itself.)

1. The story of Anna.

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)

Anna. Married at …16? 17? Seven years married. Then sixty years alone. Widows in Jesus’ day were devoid of legal status and often powerless, unless they managed to remarry. Anna never did. Instead, she focused all her attention on worship, prayer, and fasting. What faith! While she could be on the Temple Mount, she, as a woman, could not go far inside: past the Court of the Gentiles, but not into the Court of Israel (where men could enter). Anna was caught in the middle, tasting the glory but always wanting more. Like many, she looked forward to the liberation of Jerusalem from the greedy, idolatrous Roman Empire. Unlike many, she put all her energy into praying for God’s kingdom to appear on Earth. And then! Finally! The one of whom the prophets had spoken: Meshiach. What rapturous joy must have consumed her tiny frame. No wonder she spoke about it to all around her! The first evangelist.

What are you thankful for this Christmas? What are you still longing to see?

Oh Lord, grant that we would have the faith to worship, fast, and pray for your Kingdom to come…and the strength to persist in doing so all the days of our life. Amen.

2. The story of Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist)

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:67-80)

Temple Priest. Righteous. Blameless. Infertile?
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth join the legion of characters from the Bible that are unable to conceive. A mark of shame in ancient Jewish society, childlessness drove these characters to desperately seek God, year after year. And then! An angel appears! Zechariah and Elizabeth are to have a child—but not only that, the child who will prepare the way for the Meshiach.
Zechariah prophesies about Jesus and John, despite the fact that neither has even been born yet. Two children, brought into the world through miracle, linked in a common destiny to change history. John would prepare the way for Jesus, to teach about the tender mercy of God, about the forgiveness of sins, and that the dawn is coming in a land of darkness. Jesus would come to bring that dawn, to bring that salvation, to guide his people out from the shadow of death---death! No longer would that specter haunt humanity. It would be banished forever in the light of God’s infinite love and glory!
And Zechariah gets to be there at the very first glimpse of the dawn.

What are you longing for? Where do you need God’s light to shine in your life?

Oh Lord, grant that you would enable us to serve you without fear. Guide our feet into the path of peace. And rescue us out from the shadow of death. Amen.

3. The story of Simeon.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

you may now dismiss your servant in peace.

For my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:

a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

and the glory of your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother:
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be spoken against,
so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.
And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:25-35)

Simeon’s prophecy is striking in a few aspects. We see the first understanding that Jesus was coming not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles (non-Jews) as well. This would probably have struck Simeon’s listeners as surprising. The Meshiach was supposed to crush the Gentiles in battle, not grant life-giving revelation to them! Secondly, we see that this child, Jesus, is destined to “cause the falling and rising of many in Israel.” Jesus would cause many to fall out of favor (the rich, the powerful, those who thought themselves close to God) by revealing their true nature and exposing their “whitewashed tombs” for all to see the dead bones within. But those who were downtrodden and downcast would be lifted up: the poor, the sick, the prostitutes, the sinners.

But Jesus, this “light of revelation,” would not be welcomed by everyone. Radical change has many enemies. Jesus would “be a sign that will be spoken against.” And the persecution would harm those closest to him: his mother’s heart would be broken too. But all of this was part of God’s salvation.

What inner thoughts of your heart does Jesus’ message reveal?

Oh Lord, thank you for your Meshiach, and for the light of revelation he has given us. Amen.

4. The story of Mary

And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.
(Luke 1:46-56)

Perhaps the most radical speech of the Christmas story, Mary’s song (the “Magnificat”) is a pronouncement of God’s kingdom and a denunciation of the existing order. To put the spotlight on a woman in the patriarchal 1st century was remarkable in itself; for Luke to write out her stridently prophetic words—even more so. Mary speaks in the present tense, anticipating and trusting that God will do all that he has promised: to life up the humble, fill the hungry, and be merciful. Those phrases are beautiful. In the Pax Americana, we would much prefer to skip over the other phrases, where God brings down rulers, scatters the proud, and sends the rich away empty. “Isn’t that a bit harsh, God?” we might ask. But like the humans in the Tower of Babel, or the rich young man who asked Jesus for the secret to life from above, perhaps the best thing God can do for the powerful is to humble them and take away their things. Only then can they be empty-handed and contrite, ready to receive his blessings. 

Are you proud? Let God humble you. Are you humble? Let God lift you up.

Oh Lord, extend your mercy to me, a sinner. Fill me with good things, and help me to release those things that keep me from embracing you. I love you. Amen. 

Snow in Bethlehem last week? Miracles can happen. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Four Modern-Day Parables

Here are four modern-day parables I wrote to try to explain the Kingdom of God. Three have previously been featured on facebook, but the princess one is brand new. I hope they are all thought-provoking and enjoyable!


1. “What is the Kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it?

There once was a princess who lived in Jerusalem. One day, a prince from a faraway, powerful kingdom came to her city. He lived in Jerusalem for three years, and soon fell in love with the princess. The princess loved him back, and after the third year the prince proposed to her. He then told her that he had to first return to his own country to settle accounts with his father, but that he would return soon. The princess hated to see him go, but trusted in his promise.
As the months passed, many of the princess’ courtiers began to mutter that the prince had left for good, never to return. Others advised the princess to stop thinking about the prince as a person who was engaged to her, but rather a beautiful ideal to strive towards. But the princess ignored them all, and waited patiently for her fiancĂ©.
Eventually, after two years, the prince returned, explaining that he had been delayed because his father had wanted to invite as many people as possible to attend the wedding. The next day, the two were married and their kingdoms united.
However, all the courtiers who had expressed doubt in the prince were forbidden from attending the massive wedding feast. They were locked outside in the darkness, where they groaned and gritted their teeth in hunger. 

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

2. “Who is my neighbor?”

In reply, he said: “An aid worker from a Christian charity was going down the road from Kabul to Kandahar, when he was attacked by smugglers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A military convoy happened to be going down the same road, and when the lead driver saw the man, passed by on the other side. (The driver feared it was a set-up for an ambush). So too, a humvee carrying the US ambassador also passed by on the other side (the ambassador had an important meeting with the district governor). Soon, a member of the Taliban, as he traveled with his donkey, came where the man lay; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on an antiseptic and giving him some morphine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out three hundred American dollars and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Then the member of the Taliban went on his way. Two hours later, an American drone fired a missile at the inn, thinking it was a Taliban base. The missile killed all inside: the innkeeper, his wife, their children, and the aid worker.

Now tell me: which of these characters acted as a neighbor to the aid worker?”

“…the one who took care of him.”

“Then go and do likewise. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

3. “What is the Kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it?

A small community of humans lived among the Vulcans. Every Friday night, the humans would cook dinners and invite the Vulcans to join them to eat, sing songs, and tell stories. And every Friday night, the Vulcans would politely decline. The humans’ music and laughter would echo long into the night. Eventually the Vulcans became angry at the disturbances, and deported the humans back to Earth. There, the humans continued their weekly gatherings—but now, so many people would join them, they scarcely had room enough to stand!

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

“A young Jedi Knight once sent a request for a meeting with Master Yoda. Master Yoda sent back a message- "Meditating, I am, in the Room of a Thousand Fountains." Not wishing to disturb, the young Jedi waited. The next day, he sent the same request. This time, Yoda replied: "In the training room, I am." The next day, the young Jedi sent his request a third time. This time, Yoda wrote: "Eating in the cafeteria, I am." Annoyed at Master Yoda for dodging his request, the young Jedi Knight gave up.
Weeks later, the same young Jedi ran into Yoda in the Main Atrium. Yoda asked him why they had never had a meeting. Exasperated, the young man cried out, "Because you always had an excuse! You never made time for me." Yoda slowly shook his head. "My son, sadly mistaken you are. My heart was to see you, and I told you where to find me. Wanted you to join me, I did. Sad was I, when you never showed."

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Where Feet May Fail

I can relate certain periods of my recent life to the Hillsong albums I was listening to as I experienced them. What would my experience of Jerusalem be without the knowledge that he meets us like springs in the desert (“Desert Song”), and that he longs to “Tear Down the Walls” and welcome us into his “Arms Open Wide”? What would sophomore year of F&M be without the realization that God wants to break our hearts for what breaks his, and wants to raise up a new generation that seeks his face (“Hosanna”)? What about my flight back from Ghana, flying above the clouds as the bass of “Father” merged with the hum of the engines, as if everything around me were groaning for the heavens to be rent, for God come back to his children?

Now, 7 months into TFA, a new Hillsong album, new realizations, and new glories to be experienced.

“Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)”   A year ago, my InterVarsity staff worker gave me a “hope”, a picture frame with an artistic revelation of what she felt God was telling her about me. It had a picture of a wasteland, and a caption: “The desert is God’s means for building his saints.” I had no idea that 6 months later, I would indeed be entering into the harshest desert of my life, of teaching in inner-city Baltimore. I hated it at first. But I’m starting to see that, like Jesus, like Israel, I too must go through trials and temptations to prepare me for the hard work that lies for me later in life.
The song “Oceans” sings, “Sprit lead me where my trust is without borders/let me walk about the waters/wherever you would call me/take me deeper than my feet could ever wander/and my faith would be made stronger/in the presence of my Savior.”  The words come from an occasion where Jesus walked on water towards the disciples, who were struggling to row against a fierce thunderstorm. Peter cries out, “Lord, if it is you (if you are the one who saves, if you do love me, if you can truly deliver us!) then call me to come to you on the water!” Come, Jesus says. And so Peter walks upon the waters, his faith is made stronger. But then his eyes doubt, and his feet fail, and he starts to sink! Oh God, but you called me here! Why are you letting me drown! So Peter calls upon the Name of Jesus, and immediately, Jesus takes his hand and pulls him up.
I know God led me to teach in Baltimore. I know he led me here to plant seeds. I know that, as the psalmist promised, “he who sows in tears will harvest with shouts of joy.” I know my faith will be made stronger. But then I sink! My feet may fail, and I sink beneath the waves! But every time I have called out, Jesus has reached out his hand and caught me. Saved from self-doubt, from self-condemnation, from sin. This experience has been harder than anything I’ve ever done. Yet I have grown so much. Some things can only be learned by stepping into the desert, by walking out onto the waters.
Last Friday, at 6am, there was a men’s prayer gathering at my church that I had decided to skip. Until God helped me get all my work done quickly and I found that I would have enough time to make it there and to school on time. At the prayer gathering, I met a twin: a guy from upstate NY, went to a small liberal arts college, and had a PA girlfriend. We prayed together, encouraged each other—and perhaps our paths will never cross again! All I know is that for that day, God gave me what I so desperately needed, and the day was so much better for it. I had cried out for help, and God answered.

Northwest Baltimore
An Orwellian phrase, who can believe? Yet I tell you this has grown truer every day—when the anger against my students rises up, when they refuse to stop talking, when they deliberately do that which I told them not to do—Love is War. To love my students is to war against myself, to war against fear, to refuse to let apathy or anger get in the way of my mission. A war that must be constantly fought, never given up.
The alternative to love could be anger, or it could be indifference. When a student was having a panic attack yesterday, I could have sat back, and at first I did. Other students were already working to comfort him, and the nurse had sent him back to sit in class. But instead I felt the smallest whisper urging me forward. So I asked him if he wanted prayer, and he nodded a small yes as he bent over wheezing. The other student and I laid hands and I prayed calmly, asking God to give him peace and full breath. Before I had said amen, his wheezing had ceased and he sat peacefully. I then gave him something to eat. This student, who I have at times previously been angry and frustrated with, was able to experience love because I fought against laziness, apathy, and anger.
Tomorrow, I want to make sure I show love to another two of my students, Destiny and Diamond Barnes, who had an older brother who was shot dead last week. They expressed almost no emotion when they told me (death is all-too-common in the inner city). But that does not excuse me from an obligation to love, and to mourn with them.
I also want to make sure I continue my conversations with Micah. Poor, sweet Micah is small and suffers many health problems. Poor Micah is not so sweet as he insults others, picks fights, and blows up tiny insults into major issues. I knew Micah was a Christian, so I asked him if he had ever heard that Christians were supposed to “love their enemies.” He said he had. I asked him if he had heard that Christians were supposed to “pray for those who persecute you.” He said he had. I asked him if he had heard that he was supposed to “forgive others so that you might be forgiven.” He said he had. I then told him that if he called himself a follower of Jesus, he would need to do the things that Jesus did. I challenged him to pray for those who bullied him, to bless those who were his enemies, and to forgive them in his heart. Micah then took my green dry-erase marker and made believe it was a microphone, and pretended to be a pastor!  He gave a “sermon” on the very topic of loving one’s enemies, while I played devil’s advocate: “But Pastor, what if they call my mother a b?” “You still must love them, just as our Lord and Savior Jesus did!” Micah wants to be a pastor when he grows up. So I’m going to keep on challenging him to join in this war of love.

“Oh to be like you/ give all I have just to know you/ Jesus there is no one beside you/ forever the hope in my heart.”
The scandal of grace is this: that God actually loves us, while we were still sinners, and even knowing that we would keep on sinning after he died for us! Why?
I had a revelation last Friday. Here’s what I wrote as I sat outside Panera, with a bright sky as snow flurries scattered around: “This moment is glorious. The sun of your pleasure shines bright, your snow of mercies and favor alight upon my face, and your sparrows keep me company—for you provide for them. You love the least of these. And you take care of them.” The sparrows sat around me, hoping for a crumb I did not have. So I went inside and bought a French baguette.
As I sat and journaled and worshipped, I felt God’s heart for the sparrows—I loved them, as I scattered crumbs. I longed for them to come close, to eat from my hand—but they were afraid. So much like humans! And yet I still loved them, and cherished them, and wished them well—sparrows! If I, an imperfect human, can love and care for sparrows, how much greater must God’s love be for humans, for the people made in his own image. I am still learning that God loves me for who I am, instead of the things I do. May we all learn to accept this scandal, and to run to his arms, open wide just for us. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Eliyahu, Meshiach, and the Salvation of the World

Today was a great day for me, particularly my Judeophile self. [Is that a word? I just made it a word. After 5 months in Israel during my junior year, I have developed a love for Jews and Israel, and I relish every chance I get to interact with that culture.]

First, I saw a bumper sticker for Obama, but ‘Barak Obama’ was written using Hebrew characters. I was pleased with my ability to read Hebrew (I took 11 credits’ worth of that language) and posted a picture of the bumper sticker on facebook, as you may have seen. I also spent some time looking for a way to type Hebrew letters on my phone so I could tell my friends Happy Hanukah, although I ultimately gave up.

I also spent some time in first three chapters of the biblical book of Luke.

[In Luke, we come across Jews who are longing for Elijah (‘Eliyahu’ in Hebrew), who will prepare the way for the Messiah (‘Meshiach’). In Luke, 1 we meet two childless women (the Bible is full of them!), as well as their husbands. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah await a child, and then an angel appears promising a child “in the spirit and power of Eliyahu, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17). The angel, of course, is quoting directly from the prophecy in Malachi 4:5-6, in which God promises that he will send Eliyahu before the Meshiach arrives. Soon after Elizabeth becomes pregnant with “Eliyahu,” her childless cousin Mary is told by an angel that she would bear a son to be named “Jesus” (or “Yeshua” in Hebrew). Yeshua would “be given the throne of his father David”…in other words, he would be the Meshiach. Finally, in Luke 2 we meet the Jewish prophets Simeon and Anna who also are awaiting Eliyahu and the Meshiach. When they meet baby Jesus at the Temple for his dedication, they praise God that they were able to see the Meshiach before they died.
So in just two chapters of Luke we meet Eliyahu, Yeshua the Meshiach, and the Jews who are eagerly awaiting both of them.]

This evening I walked into a gift shop owned by a Jewish man, Mark Levine, and his wife. [It turns out they live in Carlisle, PA and know my friend Rachel Jetter!] In their shop I found a cup that had two things written on it in Hebrew. On one side it said “Cos Eliyahu”—the Cup of Elijah/Eliyahu. At Pesach (‘Passover’), Jews must always have a chair at the table that is open for Eliyahu, since they never know when he will come back to prepare the way for the Meshiach.

On the other side of the Cup of Eliyahu was a phrase I did not know. It said “Cos Yeshuaot Asha.” I asked Mark (who spent 10 years in Israel) what it meant. We talked about how the name “Yeshua” (Joshua/Jesus) means “redemption” or “salvation”, and so the phrase probably means “Cup that brings salvation.” Mark helped explain that when Eliyahu comes, he will be bringing God’s salvation because he will be ushering in the kingdom of the Meshiach. I was able to confirm and clarify this understanding further after a great conversation with my good friend (and Hebrew expert!) Adela, who also studied abroad in Israel with me.

So, in conclusion: I started today reading in Luke about Jews who eagerly awaited the coming of Eliyahu—who would prepare the way for Meshiach, who was named Yeshua, the bringer of Yeshuaot (salvation).

Then I ended the day by actually meeting Jews who eagerly await the coming of Eliyahu who will prepare the way for the Meshiach, the bringer of Yeshuaot (salvation).


Today was a great day for me, particularly my Judeophile self.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Six Stages of Society

1.     The family. Decision-making is easy, and internal conflict rare. More important tasks like gathering food and basic survival are more important.
2.     Then families organize together into tribes or city-states. Because of the small scale, true direct democracy is possible at this state. Tribes may fight each other at regular intervals in somewhat ritualized battle, but large-scale, devastating wars are impossible.
3.     Then the tribes in a geographic area organize into nation-states and empires.  This is where war begins, and democracy must be forgone in place of representative rule, monarchy, or dictatorship. Wars become total, as the state takes the place of God.
4.     Once people realize the State has become too powerful and dominant, they rebel. This is the Revolution, and it is a time of great tumult and hope. If the Revolution fails, the State remains in power. If it succeeds, a Revolutionary State is formed.
5.     As time passes, the Revolutionary State—once thought to be the salvation of the people--falls prey to the same excesses and errors that the original State had. Thus the Revolution itself must also be rejected. Then the society must go back to another stage.   

Here are 5 examples showing this to be true, both fictional and nonfictional.  

Example 1: Hunger Games. As we assume Stage 1 happened in the distant past, we then know that families organized into Districts 1-13 (Stage 2). After a devastating war, the districts are subsumed under the Capitol’s control (Stage 3). As Katniss Everdeen foments revolution, District 13 takes the opportunity to rise up in the Revolution. The rebels plan to start a new Revolutionary State (Stage 4). But Katniss, at the end of book 3, recognizes that the Revolution is heading towards the same excesses that the Capitol had originally gone, and rejects the revolution and assassinates President Coin (Stage 5). She moves back home, marries, and lives a peaceful life with her family (back to Stage 1).

Example 2: Star Wars. Stage 1 is also implied, as each sentient species developed itself on its home planet. Stage 2 occurred as systems and small-scale empires (such as the Hutts, or the Hapan Empire) organized little sectors. Gradually these systems organized into the Republic, a grand consortium of systems that ruled relatively effectively for thousands of years, while also enduring brutal wars against rival empires like that of the Sith. That was Stage 3. But the Republic grew corrupt and was taken over by the Emperor, and so the Rebels started a Revolution (Stage 4). The Rebels succeeded and established a Revolutionary State based on freedom. However, in the Expanded Universe we soon see the New Republic (later the Galactic Alliance) falls prey to the same corruption and errors that the Old Republic had. The revolution must itself be rejected—it is not the answer either.

Example 3: Revolutionary States like the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Iran, France (late 18th century), and the United States. These nations of course were (or still are) all Revolutionary States. The founders rightfully rejected the errors of the State before them and thought that they could bring forth a new nation founded on better principles—whether it be religion, freedom, communism, or “egalite, fraternite, and liberte”. However, soon enough the Revolutionary States become the very evils they sought to replace. America soon would have a high rate of taxation, like the British Empire had. China and the Soviet Union turned violent against their own people, just like the oppressive monarchies before them. France turned to the guillotine. Thus even the Revolution, no matter how high its ideals, must be rejected. As the Beatles sang, “You say you want a revolution/well we all want to change the world/…but when you talk about destruction/Don’t you know that you can count me out.”

Example 4: The Jews. The Jews started as one man and his family: Abraham (Stage 1). As his progeny grew more numerous, they became 12 tribes, organized and governed by a loose consortium of judges and prophets (stage 2). Eventually, the 12 tribes would clamor for a king, which HaShem (G-d) would reluctantly grant and they would enter Stage 3: Monarchy. But as the State grew powerful, it tramled on the poor, the widowed, the aliens, and the orphans. Thus Revolutionaries—the prophets—would rise up to criticize and seek to bring change. However, in general they were unsuccessful and Israel never entered a period of a Revolutionary State. (Perhaps the Macabean Kingdom might count as they revolted against Hellenism, but I don’t know enough about that time period to take a firm stance). 

Example 5: The Church. The Christian Church was founded essentially as a small family of disciples and close friends of Jesus, but soon it rapidly spread to different cities that functioned as tribes. Each city had a somewhat different culture and interpretation of how to follow the Bible, for better or worse. A lot of the New Testament involves the disciples trying to correct incorrect doctrine of a certain church or settle disputes between different cities (i.e. Jerusalem vs. other cities). This was stage 2. Stage 3 came into play with Constantine and the advent of the Holy Roman Empire. This existed for a long time, seemingly better than the pagan Roman Empire of before. But in reality, it fell prey to the same excesses and abuses of power as any authoritarian system. Then came Stage 4: the Protestant Reformation/Revolution. The Protestant Reformation took a couple centuries to totally displace Catholicism as the main power structure in the Church, but by now we see the extent of its strength. However, in our postmodern era we are now entering a period of Stage 5, where we realize that the Revolution has become as unforgiving, cold, and inflexible as the State it had replaced. We see a new rise of independent house “family” churches or city-based “tribal” churches (stages 1 and 2). This “Emerging Church” is a good answer to the problems of the Church, but it of course is not the final state of affairs.

How must the world end? Is there an end to this cycle of power, or must it continue on forever?

If you are a Jew or a Christian (and maybe a Muslim? not totally sure you guys’ end times theology), you must believe that one day it shall come to an end and we shall enter stage 6: Heaven/Perfection. According to the Jewish and Christian prophets, when the Messiah comes to (re-)establish his reign in the world and firmly plant God’s kingdom for all time, the world shall begin anew. In stage 6, we see a combination of various stages. Each man will “have his own fig tree,” a very Stage 1 view of things, as if we will all have family farms again. But we’ll also live in community with each other with every “tribe” which sounds Stage 2. But ultimately we all live in the New Jerusalem, a city with members of every nation—all citizens of the kingdom of God. We will have a perfect monarchy with a perfect king with perfect justice and perfect democracy—because all voices will finally be heard. Thus we will have a perfect stage 3 and no need for a Revolution. In Stage 6, we have perfection. We have heaven on earth. The Holy Kingdom (and it’s actually holy this time) will reign supreme under the Messiah. 

The Good Taliban

“Who is my neighbor?”

In reply, he said: “An aid worker from a Christian charity was going down the road from Kabul to Kandahar, when he was attacked by smugglers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A military convoy happened to be going down the same road, and when the lead driver saw the man, passed by on the other side. (The driver feared it was a set-up for an ambush). So too, a humvee carrying the US ambassador also passed by on the other side (the ambassador had an important meeting with the district governor). Soon, a member of the Taliban, as he traveled with his donkey, came where the man lay; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on an antiseptic and giving him a bit of morphine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out three hundred American dollars and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Then the member of the Taliban went on his way. Two hours later, an American drone fired a missile at the inn, thinking it was a Taliban base. The missile killed all inside: the innkeeper, his wife, their children, and the aid worker.

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Very Brief Update on the Past Two Months in Baltimore

Teaching has been going really well. I have learned more and grown stronger in the past two months than any other similar time period. I’ve seen God answer prayers like never before, especially as I rely on him more and more for patience and help in loving all my toughest students.

I have joined an incredible church, the “Gallery” Church (because we’re all God’s “masterpieces”…get it? It’s actually pretty cool). I’ve been going to a small group and even went to the church retreat, which was awesome as well.

Today the sermon was especially interesting, as it talked about the journey Jesus takes in Mark 11 up from Jericho to Jerusalem, where he is to be crucified. My slightly pedantic interest in Israel’s geography was indulged as he talked about this “ascent” and drew connections to the songs of ascent in Psalms.

At the end of the service, the pastor took a few minutes to invite all the teachers to the front to pray for them. One of the teachers had just lost several students in a house fire, a fire which had in fact occurred right across from my school in some of my students’ neighborhood. The house had 12 people living in it, some of them into dealing drugs but the others just innocent family members. A possible case of arson started a very fast-moving fire that killed 4 children and a grandmother. Two other people survived only by jumping out the window, with injuries, and one woman had to drop her baby into someone’s arms. Absolutely horrific.

And for those of you who didn’t hear: last week, on the other side of my school, a recent altercation was ended when a pregnant woman came out of her house holding an AK-47 assault rifle to scare away the hostile group of people. When I asked my friend Ibrahim if someone had ever pulled a gun on him, he said, “are you kidding me?,” and pointed to a scar on his head where he had been grazed by a bullet after being robbed.

But, please know that I share these tough stories more to remind myself of why I am here than to try to brag, saying how hard life is here or to try to improve my street cred. In all honesty, the majority of my students are well-behaved, crime rates in Baltimore are substantially improved from the 1990s, and I am feeling more on top of my job. But sometimes it’s too easy for me to forget that even in the midst of a beautiful city, people can have some terribly tragic stories. My calling is to meet them where they are at, engage with them, and enter into the stories. The same sad tale of desperation, poverty, and brokenness can be broken, and it must be broken.

Please be praying for me as I help to build the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of love, here in Baltimore. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

An Olive Branch to the Left

[The second of two editorials I wrote in the summer of 2010, the first being "Giving to Caesar". Hope you like it! A special thanks to Liz Albright for her encouragement and advice as I wrote this.]

 I am a Christian at a private, secular college. Needless to say, my fellow Christians and I face an uphill battle to be known as the loving bearers of the Gospel instead of the angry and divisive Christians displayed in the popular media. Thus the question is how to connect with fellow students while holding to the truth.

One political issue I’ve seen conservative Christians generally drop the ball on is the environment. Many have sided with the Republican/capitalist view that more important than endangered species, global warming, and ecological damage is the preservation of a strong American economy. They fearfully point to the “Climategate” scandal or extremists who call for a massive decrease in the human population (such as the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement) as reasons to reject environmentalism.

But while the environmental movement does have its extremists (like any movement), I think conservative Christians are misguided and shortsighted to ignore the merits of its arguments. Putting aside all questions of whether global warming is primarily caused by humans or not, it is obvious that severe environmental harm has been inflicted on the Earth by humans—one need look no further than the Gulf of Mexico. Damage to the environment, justified by conservatives in the name of “energy” or “jobs”, harms people in the form of less arable land, polluted food, and sickness. And we must ask if the few cents saved on gas or food is worth destroying entire species of plants and animals that God specifically designed to endure for his glory? Humanity’s first task was to be stewards of the earth, and there is no reason that we should ignore that now.

Moreover, by working with environmentalists to protect the earth, we have a huge opportunity to talk about the Christian view of Fallen man. For decades, Humanism has trumpeted the false claim that humans are born good but corrupted by their environment. Now we can show the Biblical truth that the exact opposite is true: humans are bad and corrupt their environment. Over and over in Scripture we see the literal and metaphorical connections between sin and environmental degradation (Genesis 3:17-19; Hosea 4:1-3; 1 Kings 8:35; Jeremiah 23:10). Likewise, the sins of insatiable greed and selfish overconsumption by modern Americans harm the Earth. Christians, by joining in with calls to protect wildlife, will earn the right to share the God who can fix the root cause of the greed and overconsumption.


Working to protect the earth can also complement and foster the development of other Christian values. Environmentalism stresses the importance of caring for the community rather than one’s personal interests. And the environmentally friendly practices of living simply, buying less, sharing, and frugalness could start to uproot the thorns of materialism that too often choke out faith. As the prophet Ezekiel wrote, the problem with the people of Sodom, perhaps like that of America, was that they “were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).

We can limit abuse of the poor and needy in other nations by making sure that when companies extract resources they pay fairly, mine safely and do not wreck ecosystems beyond repair. Perhaps it is makes sense that Jesus sent the disciples out into the world with nothing but the clothes on their backs, a staff and a tunic (Mark 6:8); he did not want them hindered or distracted from their mission by the things of this world. The added benefit of following their model, besides aiding the spread of the Gospel, is that a simple lifestyle will help to save the environment.

Some Christians hold that the earth’s resources are infinite, and that the American lifestyle can and should become the norm. But is it really so hard to believe that God only gave humans as much as we need, not as much as we want? The American way of life is unparalleled in human history. Every average “Joe the Plumber” enjoys luxuries like clean water, plumbing, technology, healthcare, education, and entertainment that in the past were only available to the top 1% of societies. This lifestyle is not seen as the enormous blessing it is—instead it is fought bitterly for as an American “right”. That would be fine if we lived on an infinite planet. However, unsustainable practices wreck forests, pollute ecosystems, and create poverty all around the globe. According to a recent UN environmental report, if everyone on the earth lived as extravagantly as Americans do, we would need five earths just to supply the resources.

It is a Christian obligation to defend the good of everyone else above our own. Limiting our economic and personal interests which damage the world may cost us some money or personal comfort. But it will gain us friendship and perhaps a chance to witness with this rising generation of environmentalists as well as the “least of these” who we hurt with endless consumption. The aftermath of the Gulf oil spill offers Christians a unique opportunity to show humility, apologize where needed to environmentalists, and start working to preserve our planet.

Giving to Caesar

[One of two editorials I submitted to WORLD Magazine in the Summer of 2010, although unfortunately they were turned down. Let me know what you think! Special thanks to Rob Zambito for his helpful edits on this one.]

One political movement that is almost universally derided by both students and faculty at my college is the so-called “Tea Party” movement. Even if some of my conservative Christian friends are sympathetic with the Tea Party’s concerns about universal healthcare, they are extremely hesitant to associate themselves with the group itself. And I think that, in general, they are correct to do so. Any political movement that puts Christians’ rights and wallets above all else threatens our opportunity to witness and, more seriously, disobeys Jesus’ radical message. Christians are called by him to be meek and ready to give more than they are asked—a call that stands at odds with the focus on individual rights in the Republican Party.

First, let’s remember the historical situation Jesus was in when he preached a Gospel of selfless love. The Jews were under the military rule of the Romans, an idol-worshiping pagan empire whose ruler believed he was God. The rulers were appointed, not elected; taxes were heavy, and any soldier could demand help carrying his pack (note that compared to this, even the most radical leftist proposals sound tame).

Despite all this, Jesus commanded acquiescence to the Romans. Implying that money and finances were ultimately to be considered of the world, he told his disciples to “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:13-17). Even if those taxes to Caesar supported an idolatrous, aggressive, and evil empire? Yes. Walk twice as far to help an enemy soldier carry his heavy backpack (Matthew 5:41)? You bet. Material comfort and possessions are fleeting, lacking real worth, and must be let go the moment they conflict with the command to love.

It seems that Jesus’ methods of fighting a government he disagreed with are totally different than those that humans would normally think of. Instead of insisting on liberty and freedom, he asked his followers to give up their rights. This upside-down Gospel is completely counter-intuitive to human understanding…but it’s God’s way. And Christians run the risk of being spit out like lukewarm water if we do not follow it completely. 
Theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer, discussing the Beatitudes, wrote that true Christians “possess no inherent right of its own to protect its members in the world, nor do they claim such rights, for they are meek, they renounce every right of their own and live for the sake of Jesus…they will not go to law to defend their rights, or make a scene when they suffer injustice, nor do they insist on their legal rights. They are determined to leave their rights to God alone…they show by every word and gesture that they do not belong to this earth” (The Cost of Discipleship). 

In contrast to those Bonheoffer wrote about, when we look at the current political incarnation of conservative Christianity, we mostly see people who do nothing but insist on their own rights. Rather than accept persecution and remember that the meek and poor in spirit are blessed, Christians act as if God’s people depend on tax breaks, legal support, and lawsuits to protect themselves. 

Perhaps this flaw lies deeper within American history than we are ready to admit. The American Revolution was a war fought against taxes. Taxes! Tens of thousands of the individuals with same language, culture, and God killed each other in a dispute over money.
Now, I’m not saying that America has not also done good for this world. But let’s face it, as far as living up to Jesus’ commands in the area of loving our enemies (Matthew 5:38-39, 44-48) is concerned, the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi is a better example for us than the Christian George Washington. Gandhi’s nonviolent protests also brought about social and political revolution, but claimed the moral high ground in a way our Founding Fathers never could. 

Now, getting back to the Tea Party movement, besides the disobedience of Jesus’ commands, I think that the excess of emotion is misplaced. If even a fraction of the vitriol involved in it was instead expressed against human trafficking, starvation, or any other human rights issue, I think we would see much more real, positive change than is currently being achieved. Large-scale, nonviolent protests can be used for good, but mostly this occurs when they demand the rights of others (such as the abolitionist movement did) instead of their own rights.

The best alternative may be for the Tea Party to give liberals what they want, but on God’s terms: Christians should (and some already do) give up large portions of their income to support those who are without health insurance, as well as those who are poor, imprisoned, immigrants, or unable to afford an education. Doing this would create truly meaningful relationships, opportunities to witness, and fulfill God’s perennial command to take care of the hurting. Such love would bring “Change” better than any social program ever could.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Moral Confusion and the Role of the "Chosen One" in the Star Wars: Episode III Universe

[Originally written October 17, 2010. For a follow-up blog, see "Anakin Skywalker: Tatooine's Messiah"]. 

Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith upends the moral compass of the traditional Star Wars universe as the millennia-old tension between Jedi and Sith comes to a head. From the very opening scrawl, a moral impossibility is thrust upon the audience. “War! The Republic is crumbling under attacks by the ruthless Sith Lord, Count Dooku. There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere.” This seems impossible. How can there be heroes on the vile side of the Separatists’ droid armies AND on the side of the Republic’s clone troopers and Jedi? How can evil and good exist on both sides?

     This highlights the moral proposition that Lucas gives us in Revenge of the Sith: that the same moral “flaws” that are thought to lie solely on the Dark Side exist just as much on the Light Side. Lucas’ criticisms here show exactly why Anakin, the Chosen One, was needed to bring balance to the Force—a role that he does not fully accomplish until Episode VI.

     The institution of the Jedi Order, like any institutionalized religion, is not immune to the vices and weaknesses of beings. While called ‘defenders of the peace’ by Mace Windu in Episode II, by Episode III their role has grown into one of exerting force through the military. Jedi are now ranked as “Generals” and lead battalions of clone troopers on a myriad of worlds across the entire galaxy. Spread thin, they are far from the community of each other and have their consciences worn down as they watch their campaigns kill millions. In a strange twist, many Jedi grow closer to their clone troopers than they do to each other: long-term fighting has shifted their mindset to be like clones that have been specifically bred to fight and kill.

     Moreover, the special insight the Jedi have from the Force has been disappearing. Even in Episode II, the Jedi know that their ability to sense the future has diminished. By now, it is completely gone, so far gone that they cannot discover the Sith Lord right beneath their noses. Thus the Jedi have turned into super-soldiers with special abilities, but they have no ability to be moral prophets, blinded by the growing power of the Dark Side (Or are they blinded by their own faults? Does Jedi militarism detract from their focus and thus keep them from being able to grasp what is truly happening in the galaxy?)

     The Separatists, while certainly rebels, only desire more freedom from the over-centralized, corrupt Senate on Coruscant. In particular, they want more freedom of trade and commerce—hence the support of the Commerce Guild, the Banking Clan, the Trade Federation, and Techno Union. As the war drags on and claims billions of lives, some start to wonder if the war is worth fighting. This is another element of Lucas’ critique: the Jedi are blindly serving the Republic, when they cannot be sure they are actually fighting for the best side. Padme wonders aloud, “Have we become the evil we sought to destroy?” Yet this is a question the Jedi never stop to ask. Like America in the Vietnam War, they continue to fight without really knowing why. Later on, the remnants of the Separatists form the nascent Rebel Alliance, and the ‘enemy’ becomes the good guy.

     Additionally, the Jedi are over-dogmatic. Anakin Skywalker is the classic foil to the Jedi. He is special, the “Chosen One” with greater Force potential than any Jedi, and yet is nearly refused from the Jedi Temple because Yoda deems him too old and too afraid. Anakin is the Jedi who breaks the rules, who knew his family, who gets married. Anakin, despite his mastery of the Jedi way, finds himself an outcast, a reject, from the inner circle of the Jedi. Partly that is his own fault because of the secrets he hides even from Obi-Wan (Padme, the Tusken Raiders), but the Jedi Order is at fault as well. Mace Windu especially harbors deep, obvious disdain and mistrust of Anakin. When he is appointed to the Jedi Council, Mace pointedly shuts him down and makes sure Anakin knows he is only accepted provisionally, without the ranking of Jedi Master. This is especially hurtful to Anakin in particular because he needed the Master ranking to access secret Jedi Holocrons in hopes of finding a way to save Padme.

     Jedi dogmatism alienates Anakin and provides leverage for Palpatine. “Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?” he asks Anakin. “I thought not. It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you.” Palpatine has done two things here: painted the Jedi as withholding of vital information, and shown himself to be the Provider of this information to Anakin. Jedi dogmatism forbids the teaching of Sith legends and practices, not realizing that they would soon pay for their ignorance. After all, prior to Darth Maul’s appearance in Episode I, the Jedi Council had claimed that the Sith had been extinct for millennia— a serious miscalculation.

     Another realm of Jedi dogmatism lies in the area of the passions. Episode II highlights this tension perfectly: Anakin struggles to explain to Padme how the Jedi can be forbidden to love, and yet also are called to take care of the galaxy. Can one care for another being without loving them in some way? Perhaps, but the deeper problem is what to do with passions when inevitably arise. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan had had their own flames when they were younger, but they had been with fellow Jedi and only after more extensive training. Anakin, on the other hand, had been taken in at ten years old, after many of his passions had been allowed to grow (“I sense much fear in you” Yoda says in Episode I).

     Anakin’s forbidden marriage to Padme flies in the face of Jedi laws against attachment. These laws had served the Jedi well for centuries, as attachment did not mix with the semi-nomadic, risky, and servant role the Jedi had in the galaxy. Attachment could breed greed, jealousy, and favoritism. The danger was that a Jedi would threaten the greater good in order to save the one they cared about. As Yoda tells Anakin, “You must learn to let go of everything you fear to lose.” But can one blame Anakin that he has emotions, when these come so naturally to humans?

     Thus when Anakin states that the Sith rely on their passion for their strength, the viewer wonders if perhaps that is what Anakin is doing as well. In the fight against Dooku aboard Grievous’ ship, it is only when the Count goads Anakin on that Anakin truly starts fighting fiercely. It seems that Anakin does use his emotions to defeat Dooku: his fear for the wounded Obi-Wan’s life, his anger against the evil Dooku, and his pride (“My abilities have doubled since the last time we met”). As they battled right in front of the captive Supreme Chancellor, Palpatine could hardly have missed what was happening to Anakin… and had been happening: “Remember what you told me about your mother and the Sand People?” he reminds Anakin of his massacre.

Two blue lightsabers. Who's the bad guy? Who's the good guy? Maybe it's not so simple...

     Another contradiction on the side of the Jedi is that while they emphasize cool, dispassionate thinking, they also rely heavily on “feelings”. In the beginning of Episode III, both Obi-Wan and Yoda separately advise Anakin to “search [his] feelings”. This is essentially a euphemism for “listen to the Force”, and we’ve heard that before. But Palpatine gives Anakin the same advice, to search his feelings about the true intentions of the Jedi. And it works—Anakin dwells upon his growing doubts about the Jedi, and those doubts are reconfirmed upon reflection. This is not manipulation by Palpatine. The Force truly is telling Anakin about the flaws in the Jedi. After all, they asked him to spy on Palpatine, and Mace Windu refuses to trust in Anakin. Lucas therefore uses the Jedi’s own mantra against them. Thus when Palpatine states that the Jedi are planning to take over the Republic, Anakin senses enough truth in that statement to not reject it on face.

     Lucas’ critique of the Jedi dwells especially on their veiled moral relativism. Obi-Wan screams at the end of Episode III, “Anakin, the Sith are evil!” Anakin replies, “Well from my point of view the Jedi are evil!” “Then you truly are lost,” Obi-Wan states with finality. Yet this is highly ironic, for only twenty minutes earlier Obi-Wan had told Anakin: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” Thus Obi-Wan’s own position is to be relativist when it suits him and absolutist when it suits him. This is true elsewhere in the movie as well. Jedi dogmatism says never to execute prisoners, and doing so to Dooku does give Anakin a guilty conscience. Yet Mace Windu is perfectly willing to execute Palpatine. The moral relativism of the Jedi is deadly to their case, because it is only in being morally superior that they can claim any kind of authority. Once Anakin sees that they operate according to their own interests, like any cause, he feels much less obligated to side with them.

     The fight between Mace Windu and Palpatine is the tipping point of the whole movie. Anakin, knowing Mace is morally wrong to want to execute the unarmed Palpatine, tries to dissuade him. He is also conflicted with many emotions: He is in a forbidden romance with Padme and has promised to save her. The Jedi show disdain for the Chancellor and have asked that Anakin betray him. The Jedi have passed over him, the Chosen One, to lead the mission against Grievous, even though he is a more capable Jedi than Obi-Wan at this point.

    Palpatine, on the other hand, offers him respect, influence, freedom to feel emotions, and new powers to save anyone he loves from dying. Anakin probably did not intend to kill Mace Windu, but he did choose to stop him. This betrayal could not be undone, and now Anakin knows he has lost all his friends and allies. Except, perhaps, for Padme. And thus with his new identity (Darth Vader), he was willing to do anything, including invade the Jedi Temple, to save her.

     Anakin did not turn to the Dark Side because he was evil. He reveals his true intentions when he tells Padme that they could overthrow Emperor Palpatine, rule the galaxy and make things the way they should be. He just wanted the freedom to love Padme and the ability to right all the wrongs he saw. The Jedi had shown themselves to be selfish and rigid, while the path of the Sith allowed him to keep his power and emotions. Anakin turned to Palpatine because he faced rejection everywhere else.

     And in the end, Palpatine was the only thing keeping him alive. After his injuries in the fight against Obi-Wan, Darth Vader was bound by Palpatine’s power to manipulate midiclorians to keep him from dying (just like Darth Plagueis could do). Thus in Episode VI when Vader throws Palpatine into the Second Death Star’s reactor shaft, he knows he is dying not because of injuries (which only involved a severed artificial hand and some electrical shocks), but rather because he had just killed the source of his life. In a final act of defiance, Anakin takes off his helmet to look at Luke in his own power, no longer dependent on the Emperor.

      So was Anakin the Chosen One? Did he bring balance to the Force? I believe that despite his fall to the Dark Side, Anakin did bring balance. I have argued that the Jedi were corrupt and misguided, listening only to their narrow view of the Force instead of what the Force actually demanded of them. The Sith, in turn, were too selfish, using the Force solely for personal power. Anakin provides a bridge between this gap. He uses the Force and obeys its moral code, but also allows himself to feel emotions and to have attachments to people important to him. While he is forced to choose the Dark Side for a while, there is still good in him. And it is not the moral code or regulations of the Jedi that bring him back to the Light. As we see in Episode VI, it is love for his son that finally causes Vader to turn against Palpatine, freeing him at last. Like God towards us humans, it is Love that redeems.

     The New Jedi Order, which Luke starts after the events of Episode VI, has fixed the problems of the Old. Jedi are now allowed to love, marry, and have children. They are accepted into training despite being “too old”, and there is a greater knowledge of the dangers of the Dark Side. Anakin truly did bring balance to the Force at last, in a role that radically changed the Jedi Order forever.