31 March 2013

Easter: Resurrection

Illustration by Jim LePage
Darkness. Silence. Despair. Hope strangled and life stifled.

Then Sunday comes. Easter.

Easter is by far my favorite holiday.

This morning I breathed the cool morning air and was reminded that one day, after I am long gone and buried, I will breathe again.

Easter is not about Christ's death. Neither is it about we as Christians dying and "going to heaven." Easter is about God's vindication. It's about God's triumph over death and our subsequent triumph that will occur in the future. Christ is the first fruit of the resurrection, and we are promised to follow (1 Cor. 15). Christ's past is our future.

Many times we emphasize God's sacrificial death and focus very little on his resurrection. Honestly, Christ's death isn't enough. We in the West seem to talk a lot about the justifying nature of Christ's death, but I think that the Eastern Church gets it right. If Christ only came to die, then he could have been killed in the slaughtering of the innocents and provided atonement for our sins. No, there's more to it. The wages of sin is not just spiritual death; it's physical death.

—The spiritual consequences of sin have been undone through Christ’s death, but the physical consequences are still upon us. This is the promise of the resurrection: Christ will defeat death once and for all in his second coming. Without his return, our hope in God is futile.

Did the grass rejoice when it felt Jesus once again? Did the wind dance when God breathed again? Did they mourn when he ascended into heaven?

I miss someone I've never really even met. But my soul and my dying body eagerly anticipate my Savior's return, when both spiritual and physical death will be finally overturned.

28 March 2013

Questions from Students: Jesus' Limitations

Illustration by RadoJavor
"So did Jesus always know that he was going to die? Or did God reveal it to him?"

Believe it or not, but there are Biblical scholars who have actually dedicated their lives to studying what it means for Jesus to be fully human/fully God. As a human, there is a strong possibility that Jesus did not know everything that was going to happen to him. It could very well be that Jesus had a limited look into the future. For example, when Jesus is awaiting his betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was said to be "distressed" about what was going to happen (Greek: ekthambeisthai). A better rendering of this word is "terrified surprise." In other words, Jesus does not really know what is going to happen.

However, when we look at his life and all the tensions he was creating with the religious leaders and Roman authorities it becomes obvious that Jesus is going to reach a climax and be at least threatened with death.

Also, if we read Jesus in light of the prophets of the Old Testament, we can safely assume that he is going to have the same fate as they did. Even if Jesus did not know exactly what was going to happen, he probably had a good idea.

I think that this actually makes Jesus even more profound. As a human, he probably didn't know all that was going to come, yet he remained faithful to his Father. He was terrified, yet he willingly chose his death, even though he could have easily done it another way.

26 March 2013


After twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues. Everyone was saying that I was doing well, but something inside of me was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger. I began to ask myself whether my lack of contemplative prayer, my loneliness, and my constantly changing involvement in what seemed most urgent were signs that the Spirit was gradually being suppressed. It was very hard for me to see clearly, and though I never spoke about hell or only jokingly so, I woke up one day with the realization that I was living in a very dark place and that the term "burnout" was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death.- Henri J. M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, page 20
Nouwen put succinctly into words exactly what I have been feeling this semester. I am exhausted -- physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. I am tired of feeling so much pressure from the academic arena to "succeed." I am tired of trying to impress others and of trying to appear "brilliant" or "profound."

I'm hanging my hat up and resigning from the lifestyle academia thrusts upon me. It's not worth gaining the whole world if I lose my soul in the process.

"Giving up" has such a negative connotation in my American culture. It's often analogous with defeat and failure, but maybe it shouldn't be. Surrendering is not always a bad thing.

Sometimes raising that white flag is actually the bravest thing you can do. 

07 March 2013

The Bible and Inspiration

One of the challenges of teaching a general ed class on the entire Bible is that freshmen just aren't developmentally ready for some of the critical thinking that is required. A hurdle I have to guide the students past at the very beginning of each semester is the theories of Scripture's inspiration. Is it more divine (dictation) or human (intuition), or maybe a bit of both (dynamic)?* Of course, this raises some tough questions from the students. This semester, one student wrote:

"If the Wesleyan belief is the hybrid between the Divine and Human, how do you actually distinguish between what you do take as what is considered true and straight from God and what maybe is exactly not? Maybe that question is just a personal opinion on what one decides to believe, but i was just wondering what you thought about it."

These students keep me on my toes. There are two challenges: presenting an answer in such a way that is understandable to a 19-year-old student and quelling the panic when they realize that the Bible may have some mistakes.

Here is my carefully thought-out response:

God has a history (literally) of partnering with flawed human beings and using them for his glory. The Bible is full of examples. Even Jesus was fully human. He probably was clumsy sometimes and misspelled some words in school. Does this make him less than the perfect sacrifical Lamb that we needed? Of course not! Jesus wasn't sent into the world to be the world's best spelling bee winner. Jesus was sent to be sinless, not mistakeless. In the same way, God also partners with the Church, a body made up of both God and humans interacting together.

The things that dynamic theorists would view as "human" are inconsequential to the message the original authors were trying to convey when they wrote Scripture. In the OT world, for instance, if a woman did not bear children it was thought that it was her fault, that it was her womb that was sterile. Modern science tells us that sometimes it's not the woman, but it's the man who's actually sterile. The Biblical people did not know this. This does not make the story about Sarah untrue, because the authors were not making a scientific claim about how a woman's womb functions. The plain meaning of the story, that Elizabeth could not bear children, is still understood. This is what the authors want us to know.

It is important to note that Christians who hold to a dynamic theory of inspiration would NEVER say that Jesus never resurrected from the dead or that Moses never led the people out of Egypt. Since communicating these events were the authors' intent, we trust that they are not lying to us. The problems arise because the Israelites lived in a particular cultural and historical location. We have faults and inaccuracies in our own modern culture as well. But this does not prevent our intentions and ideas from getting across. When it all comes down to it, the Bible's intent is to communicate salvation history. Because of this, who is to say how to separate the Bible between the human and the divine? I don't think we can make that definite distinction. We thus believe that the Bible, in its entirety, is sufficient to lead us to God and salvation.

That's the beauty of the Bible -- God, in all his mercy, chose to partner with flawed creatures and to communicate his truth through a finite language. The end result is something that is both beautifully human and divine, not one or the other. It's a mistake to try to separate every part of Scripture into one category or the other.

*I recognize that these are very broad categories and some people may even fall into a hybrid category. Since this is an entry-level class, we don't go into great detail about all of the various theories of inspiration.

Ordinary But Determined

By Jim LePage
For those of you who are the best of the best, the brightest, the ones voted “most likely to succeed” in high school, the cheerleader or the star athlete, I have good news for you: God can still use you.

God has a habit of using the most unlikely people to accomplish tasks for his kingdom. All throughout the Story God used the weak, like Gideon and Jeremiah. He used women, who were deemed worthless in Jewish society, like Ruth and Deborah. He used people with sinful pasts like Paul. He even used children, like Esther and Mary, who were probably no more than 13 years old. God loves to use the people in society that we would look at and deem completely short of greatness. God loves to use the ordinary.

One person in particular that God chose to use was an ordinary man by the name of Nehemiah. Nehemiah had a very normal job, perhaps even a very mundane job. He was a cupbearer for the Persian king. Nehemiah was the guy who drank the king's wine before he drank to make sure that no one had poisoned it. As you can imagine, this was a very blue collar job. No Israelite child would list this occupation as the job that they hoped to obtain when they grew up. You know the saying "Every job has it's poison?" Well, this one really did...

Nehemiah lived during a very difficult time period for the Israelites. After disobeying God multiple times and not keeping their covenant with Him, God finally permitted foreign nations to come and occupy their land. Many Israelites were dragged away to live in a foreign nation away from the Promised Land and were forced to serve in a pagan kingdom.

Finally, a king named Cyrus the Great assumed the throne of Persia and permitted the Israelites to return to Israel and rebuild the city. Nehemiah remained in Persia serving the king, but when he heard the news about what was going on in Israel he was cut to the core.

Here's how the story goes according to the Voice translation:

Hanani and the Judean Men (to Nehemiah): It’s a disaster. The survivors of the exile who are in the Persianprovince of Jerusalem have been wronged and are hated. The wall of Jerusalem has been reduced to piles of rock, and its gates consumed by flame.
Hearing this, I was overwhelmed with grief and could only sit and weep. For days I mourned this news and sought the audience of the True God of heaven, praying and fasting before Him.
Nehemiah: Notice me—Eternal One, God of heaven, great and awesome God. You are the keeper of the covenant and loyally love those who love You and follow Your commands. Now, pay attention with open ears and eyes to me and see how I, Your servant, plead day and night for Your consideration. I confess our wickedness, not just for Your servants the children of Israel, but for my family and the household of my father, Hacaliah. We have acted extremely wickedly toward You. We have rejected Your commands, disregarding the regulations and judgments You gave to Your servant Moses to show us how to live. I ask that You remember Your words to Your servant Moses,even when we did not. You told him, “If you are unfaithful to Me and choose another, then I will send you away and you will live separate from Me—you will live as aliens in strange lands; but if you have a change of heart and return to Me and walk according to My commands, then no matter how far you have gone, even to the places beyond the horizon, I will gather you and bring you to the place of My choosing, where My very name dwells.” They are Yours, God—they are Your servants; they are Your people whom You liberated from the exile by Your initiative and power. O Lord, hear Your servant praying to You and pay attention, and not just to my prayers but also to the prayers of these very Jews whose greatest joy is to live in fear and awe of You.I am asking for success today, God; please make sure this man is compassionate to me, Your servant.

So the Israelites had returned and were restoring the nation to the way it was prior to the foreign occupation. They had finished the foundation of the Temple and were beginning to rebuild the walls surrounding Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the Israelites faced opposition building the walls. As it said in the passage, the walls had been torn down and the gates were burned to a crisp. This may not seem like a big deal to us today, but this was devastating for the Israelites. —In the ancient world, city walls were a symbol of strength and stability. A city without walls was vulnerable to being attacked by other hostile nations. Further, the ruined walls portrayed Israel’s God as powerless to the other nations. This was huge insult to Yahweh. Yahweh couldn't even protect his own nation from being attacked. This was deeply humiliating.

By Lydia Nichols

When Nehemiah hears the news, he sat down and cried for days. Plural. I don't know about you, but I don't think I've ever really cried about anything indirectly related to me for several days. This probably wasn't the neat, tidy kind of cry. The kind where a few drops of tears roll down your face and you're still photogenic. This was the snotty nose, bloodshot-eyed kind of cry. The first thing Nehemiah does is he cries for people thousands of miles away. Now, these people weren't in his immediate circle of influence. Back in ancient times, this was incredibly far away. They were a long trip away by camel. By the time you arrived back in Jerusalem, it would be like Oregon Trail. You would look like different people, somebody might have died along the way. This was a far distance. 

It would have been easy for him to say, “Man, that’s awful. My heart goes out to my peeps in my homeland. Keep me posted on Facebook about what’s going on. Send me a picture on Twitter. I’ll be praying for y’all.”

It is so easy to dodge suffering. I don't know about you, but I’m really good at ducking pain. Whenever we feel any sort of discomfort, we immediately try to find a distraction. Suffering is like Hot Potato -- as soon as it comes, we try to toss away lest it burrow within us.

We've all been there. We were watching our favorite TV special when a commercial about starving children comes on. The commercial shows pictures of little kids living in the filth of slums with their bellies protruding from hunger and for a while we're moved. "Man, that's awful. People don't have access to clean water? Children are susceptible to malaria because of their living conditions?" We may shed a little tear. But then suddenly our program returns on TV and just as quickly we forget what we just saw and what we just felt. We find ourselves saying, “Hunger... I’m hungry… Man, I want some Cheetos!”

We’re good at being upset about something for a while, but we do not allow the burden to sink deep into who we are. We've incredibly good at dodging pain.

Let me ask you this, "What breaks your heart?" What disturbs you? What makes you comfortable? What, when you slow down and take time to reflect, makes you cry?

* Maybe it directly relates to you. Maybe divorce breaks your heart. Your parents went through an awful divorce, or your friends, and you strongly believe that no one should have to go through this. Or maybe family members who don't know God or who have walked out on him break your heart. You think about those around you not living a life of worth with their Creator and you are cut to the core.

* Maybe you become upset when animals are abused or we as humans damage God's creations. Unfortunately, creation care has been underemphathized by Christians or sometimes even labeled as unimportant when compared to other things. But God has affirmed the goodness of his creation time and time again through the Biblical narrative. The birds of the air, the flowers of the field, the mountains, the valleys, the entire ecosystem is subjugated to pollution and depletion. These environmental factors largely impact others. Prolonged droughts and invasive species are a result of our sin, and they are often causes of famine (which leads to poverty), economic crisis, and widespread migration.

* Poverty, homelessness, children without parents, loneliness, depression, diseases... the list goes on.

So what breaks your heart? What area of suffering have you been hesitant to enter into? God didn’t put us here on this earth so that we can accumulate things and live comfortable lives and then die. God put us here for a purpose, and that purpose is building up his kingdom here on this earth. We become kingdom people when we invite suffering to resonate amongst us instead of pushing it aside, and we build His kingdom here on this by the ways that we pray for and participate in his work.

Like Nehemiah, God can take your misery and turn it into ministry.