Monday, December 22, 2008

Festival of Lights: Thoughts on Hanukkah

Last night the sun's setting marked the beginning of Hanukkah. Since there is some confusion about the holiday in Christian circles, I thought I would try to shed some light (pardon the shamelessly cheesy pun!) on the festival from my limited knowledge and experience.

When I talk with Christian friends about Jewish culture, many want to know, "Is Hanukkah a Biblical holiday?" The answer is no, the festival did not originate with the Biblical cannon; its origins were recorded in the apocrypha in the Book of the Maccabees during what is called the inter-testimental period (meaning it occurred during the roughly 200 year lapse between the Old and New Testaments). Even so, for the Jews it is an important celebration of God's enduring faithfulness to His people. And as such, it can provide some helpful wisdom and encouragement for the Church.

The eight-day festival commemorates God's deliverance of his people from the hand of the Seleucids, the Syrian-Greek army that controlled much of the known world in the second century, B.C.E. ( or A.D.). Antiocus IV Epiphanes was the Seleucids' leader, and he sought to Hellenize the world and to make Palestine a model Greek community. He overtook the temple, turning it into a site of pagan worship, and made all Jewish activity punishable by death.

In 167 B.C.E., a Jewish priest named Mattathias refused to worship the pagan gods and killed the man who stepped forward to offer a sacrifice in his place. He fled to the wilderness with his five sons, and in 168, his son Judah Maccabee led a revolt against the Seleucid army. Miraculously, they prevailed. When the Maccabean army went into the Temple, they found only enough ritually pure oil to light the Temple's menorah for one night. But the oil burned for eight nights, long enough for new oil to be cleansed.

Each day of the Hanukkah observance, Jews offer thanks for God's provision in these miracles by reciting the Hallel, a prayer comprising Psalms 113-117. The Hebrew word Hallel comes from the phrase hallelujah, or, "praise ye Yahweh." Hallel simply means "praise," so the five Psalms collectively known as the Hallel are exclamations of adoration. Jews recite the Hallel on Hanukkah and at Passover--both festivals of freedom--to thank God for His past kindness and to praise Him with confidence for future blessings. In other words, it is a joyful expression of His hesed or "covenant faithfulness."

The joyful words "Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name be the glory because of your love and your faithfulness" resonate from within the walls of Jewish homes and synagogues on the eight days of Hanukkah, which occurs during winter solstice, the darkest time of the year. Jews today used the servant candle in the middle of the menorah to light one candle the first night, two the second night, and so on until all of the candles are lit on the eighth night. The lighting of the menorah symbolizes the darkness that was dispelled by the two miracles of Hanukkah.

As we celebrate the Christmas season, let us rejoice that the darkness has been bathed in light once and for all in the greatest of God's miracles--the Incarnation of His very Son!

"I have come into the world as light so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness."
John 12:46

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Seeing Past the Empty Living Room

Last night Matt and I attended a Christmas dinner at the local prison. Matt's been thinking about getting involved in a mentoring ministry there, and he was invited to attend the annual Christmas party in order to check things out. I was the plus one.

We went through security and a guard escorted us to the gymnasium, where all the men of the Jericho Project (a community of inmates within the prison) were waiting for us. These men live by a covenant of love for Christ and respect for one another in units separate from the rest of the facility. They choose to be a part of the Jericho Project because they want to see their lives transformed, both while they are incarcerated and thereafter.

Matt and I were seated at a table with a Vanderbilt law professor and three inmates, twenty-year-old Spencer, 30-something Andrew, and middle-aged Kenneth. While we ate our Cracker Barrel catered dinner (a real treat for them, they confessed), we chatted about their daily Bible studies and about Men of Valor, the group of mentors that provides them with individual spiritual counsel. They told me about their professions before being incarcerated, and Spencer admitted that he's never had a full-time job. Upon his release, he hopes to get into real estate in Southern California, where his sister lives. Kenneth and Andrew talked about their kids. I have no idea how these men ended up in jail, but I know that in the few months they've been involved with the Jericho Project, walls have indeed come down. Jesus Christ has torn down the stony walls of their hearts (Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26), evidenced by their very real joy and kindness.

After we ate, a group of the men sang and several inmates and mentors shared briefly. Finally, Mr. Lee, a member of the Men of Valor board gave a Christmas message. He talked openly about his wife's death several years prior, and how his four young children had dealt with the trauma. One of his twin sons, both of whom were with him at the dinner last night, had expressed uncertainty about Heaven. The then nine-year-old was perplexed by how Heaven could be a happy place if his mother was, as everyone told him, watching him from above. (I won't go into how obviously wrong this is theologically speaking--in Heaven we will be worshiping the Almighty God, not concerning ourselves with the foolish things of this present realm!)

Mr. Lee gave his son a beautiful illustration that day, which he shared last night. He told his young boy to picture Christmas morning at their house. His brother and two sisters receive everything they wanted, the living room is overflowing with gifts. But at the boy's place, there is nothing. He searches the room for even one gift belonging to him, but to no avail. Then, through tears he peers into the doorway leading into the kitchen and sees his mother, a smile creasing her face as she tries not to laugh because she knows this will be the best Christmas he's ever had. In the hallway behind her is the go-cart he's been pining after for months!

Mr. Lee likened this illustration to our own desperate longings. Our focus on the here-and-now sometimes keeps us from seeing past the living room of our circumstances. But if we would only look to the kitchen door, to see what marvelous things our King is planning for us, we would be encouraged and delighted!

As I sat at that table surrounded by inmates who have been changed by the scandalous grace of a Savior who took their sin upon Himself, I felt such kinship with them (and not only because I am also in desperate need of grace). Surely their days are filled with longing for something other than the empty living room of prison life. This transitional season of my own life can feel a little empty in a different-than-I-expected sort of way. But hope is being sure that what God has promised us will be accomplished (Luke 1:45), that the kitchen will hold new surprises in our life here on earth and ultimately in the life that is to come.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us...For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Romans 8:18

Monday, December 8, 2008

As the Romans Do

This may sound a little cliche--and I just hate to sound cliche--but Rome is my favorite city in Europe (Paris is a close second...oh I am cliche aren't I?!). But truly, there is something so breathtaking about walking through a modern city--with cars whizzing by and people rushing off to work--and then suddenly seeing the Colosseum or Palentine Hill. I just love the juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern.

When I lived in Italy, Rome was my hub for travel every
weekend, since it was just two hours south of my quaint little Perugia by train. Of course I adored Papa Mio, the darling Italian man whose ristorante I frequented when passing through town, and the sights: the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish steps (where great writers like Keats and Shelley sat and wrote when they came to escape the cold of London), the Vatican, and the Colosseo. But it was a trip with my history of early Christianity class--and my professor, Alessandro, who looked like a Greek god and lived in a studio on the river with his gorgeous wife--that caused me to fall in love with the tension between old and new.

We traipsed around the city with Alessandro for hours as he pointed out all of the landmarks, showed us the sites of current archaeological excavation (it is amazing how much is still being uncovered all over the city!), and told us about the architectural significance of several centuries-old basilicas. Finally, we approached the Colosseum and saw where archaeologists are digging up the gladiators' barracks. And then, from a tiny side street tucked behind the Colosseum, we entered a little twelfth century basilica called San Clemente (St. Clement's in English). The preservation of the basilica is exquisite, but what's even more amazing are the treasures that lie beneath it.

First, you make your way down a long stone staircase that leads to a house church where early believers worshiped. The Collegio San Clemente has deemed it a fourth century place of worship, but because it is connected to a large house that is still under excavation, Alessandro told us that it could date back to before the time of Constantine, when Christians worshiped in the houses of wealthier church members. I get chills thinking of early believers fearlessly worshiping the one God just steps away from the Colosseum, where they would be executed if they were discovered!

Below the middle level lies a first century house and the hall of a mysteric cult devoted to the worship of Mithra, the Roman sun god. Worship of Mithra was widespread in ancient Rome, but the mysteric cults associated with Mithra were just that--mysterious. There are few writings about practice, as the religious rites were passed to only a few initiated members. As we walked down the tiny staircase, Alessandro pointed out the cave-like room where cultists would have been baptized into the following by the blood of a bull, which was sacrificed in the room above.

All of that sounds pretty gross, but once we were back out in the crisp October air and lounging by the Tiber, Alessandro explained the significance of San Clemente's three tiers. Apparently, the ancient city is subject to reverse erosion. Instead of the earth being washed away little by little, as is the case in some cities, the sediment from the Tiber has built up over time so that the city gets a little higher each year. To preserve the city, its patrons must rebuild their homes, businesses, and places of worship every few centuries. (You can watch a brief tour of the basilica's three levels here. It takes a few minutes to load, so be patient.)

But what's truly compelling about this story is that early Christians were intent on replacing the old, pagan places with new, Christian places. They understood that at the center of the Gospel is God's constant working to make all things new. They understood that the Kingdom being ushered in was meant to replace the old earthly kingdom (2 Peter 3:13). The Roman believers represented this principle very visibly as they transformed the old into new in their city, even as they themselves were being made new by the covenant blood of Jesus.

As we prepare to celebrate our Lord's birth, some are disturbed by the many pagan roots of the holiday we call Christmas. Indeed, December 25 was chosen for the observance not because of its historical accuracy, but because that date coincides with the Roman festival to Mithra, the very same god whose worship site lies buried beneath San Clemente.

The connection is disturbing, as it shows how easily we Christians fall prey to the trappings of this world. I would argue, however, that this connection can also be a source of joy for us as we dwell on the lesson of the Roman Christians, who were eager to portray God's work in the world by physically exchanging the old for the new. To be sure, there are still many secular manifestations of the Christmas holiday. But just as it is our Jesus (and not Mithra) who is worshiped in a little basilica down the street from the Colloseum, so is He the One whose coming we celebrate at Christmas.

Let us rejoice that He is gloriously at work in the world, securing for us a "city that is to come" (Hebrews 13:13-15)!

He who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making everything new!"
Revelation 21:5

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Simchat Torah

Voices lifted in song, they take turns clutching the Torah scrolls to their chests as they dance through the aisles of the synagogue. Spinning, hopping on one foot and then the other. Eyes closed. Spinning, spinning.

A year ago, I spent my first Shabbat with the congregation Tikvat Yisrael in Richmond on Simchat Torah, the most joyful day of the Jewish liturgical calendar, and now my favorite Jewish holiday. I arrived a few minutes late to the 10 o'clock service (pretty early for a college-girl) and was a bit bewildered by the scene unfolding around me. It only took a moment, however, for me to be utterly captivated.

Simchat Torah comes on the heals of Sukkot, the festival in which Jews remember God's provision for them in the desert (see previous post). Of course, the pinnacle of their time in the desert was the meeting at Mt. Sinai, where God imparted His covenant and His Word. The tradition surrounding Simchat Torah, or "the Joy of the Torah," gives voice to a topic I've written about a lot recently: God's revelation. For Jews, and especially for our Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ, the revelation of God is always cause for celebration and joy.

As I took everything in, one of the ushers approached me to explain that this celebration was part of the centuries old tradition of thanking God for the gift of His Word. He went on to say that because the Greek word Logos from John 1:1 can be translated Torah in Hebrew, the holiday takes on a special significance for Jews who embrace Jesus as Messiah. And then he said something I'll never forget. With a joy that penetrated to the depths of my heart, this dear man exclaimed, "Yeshua has become our Torah! The Torah dwells among us!"

As the Torah scrolls danced by my pew, those around me lovingly touched the scrolls and then kissed their hands (a practice that is not reserved solely for this holiday, but that occurs every Shabbat). I followed suit, completely swept up in the worship of the God who speaks powerfully to His people, the God who would lower Himself to dwell among us. As they danced we sang:

Hineh ha Torah!
Hineh Yeshua!
Hineh ha Torah!
Hineh Hu ba!

translation: "Behold the Torah! Behold Jesus! Behold the Torah! Behold He comes!"

Both the tradtion and the song are beautiful reminders that God has fulfilled His promise in Jeremiah 31:33 where He speaks through the prophet: "'This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel at that time' declares the Lord. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people." The word "law" here is the word Torah in Hebrew. So when Jesus proclaims that He has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), He is saying that He is the one who will enact the New Covenant in which the law will be on the hearts of God's people. In Jewish understanding, as I have noted before, the lev, or "heart" is the seat of action and emotion. The implication, of course, is that if God's law is written on your lev, then everything you do will be influenced by Him. Messianic Jews recognize that the Torah is written on their leviym (hearts) in the person of Yeshua!

In non-Messianic synagogues, the words that are sung obviously do not revel in the provision of Jesus. Rather, the worshipers pray Ana Adonai, hoshia na, which translates "Oh Lord, save us." What's interesting about this prayer relates again to the Hebrew: the volative verb hoshia stems from the root yeshua, meaning "salvation." This is the Jewish name for Jesus. So even as they celebrate God's gift of the Torah removed from the One who has fullfilled it, non-Messianic Jews affirm their need for God's saving grace.

This year, Tikvat celebrated Simchat Torah on Wednesday, the actual day that culminates Sukkot. Needless to say, I was disappointed when I arrived at Tikvat this past Saturday morning, expecting to sing Hineh ha Torah. I had been thrilled to find that Homecoming weekend coincided with the day I thought my Messianic friends would celebrate the holiday that marks my first anniversary of worshiping with them. Nevertheless, my time with them was sweet as the scrolls were taken from the ark and danced around the room, and as we praised the God who has become our Torah.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
John 1:1, 14

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Today is the last day of the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, and that means my favorite Jewish holiday, Simchat Torah, is on the horizon. As I've waited for Wednesday, and more importantly, as I wait to celebrate Wednesday's significance at Tikvat Yisrael in Richmond this Saturday, it dawned on me that Sukkot has a special significance to me this year.

The Jewish festival of booths, as it is often translated, is a week for celebrating God's provision in the desert. Jewish families build a "booth" or a small hut in the backyard to resemble the temporary homes inhabited by the Israelites as they were lead by God's Spirit in the pillar of cloud. The family then eats all of its meals picnic-style in the booth for the duration of the festival. Children are encouraged to line the sukkah with pictures, and sometimes the family even sleeps in it. As Lauren Winner has remarked, "It is while sitting in the sukkah that you learn lessons about dependence on God, that even the walls of your brick house are flimsy."

As I thought about Sukkot and lessons of dependence, I recalled my Jewish studies professor telling us that one rabbi called the first sukkah "clouds of glory." I am really struck by that language as I continue to apply the principle of the pillar of cloud day-to-day. The walls of our lives may seem oh-so-flimsy in times of transition or uncertainty, and the desert is cruel. But we can trust in the God who always provides, who continues to speak to us about where we're headed and the plans that He has for us. As we anticipate Simchat Torah (literally, "the joy of the Word," which I'll discuss when I return from Richmond), let us give thanks to the God who provides and who speaks!

"After leaving Sukkoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night."
Exodus 13:19-21

Note: I love what A.W. Tozer has said about the observance of special days in Jewish culture: "By innumerable distinctions God taught Israel the difference between holy and unholy. there were holy days, holy vessels, holy garments. There were washings, sacrifices, offerings of many kinds. By these means, Israel learned that God is holy. It was this that He was teaching them, not the holiness of things or places. The holiness of Yahweh was the lesson they must learn." So as we reflect on these "holy" days, we must also remember that it is a Holy God we are worshiping, not a day or a ritual.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

God With Us: Futher Thoughts

My friend Sarah and I had a good heart-to-heart last night, and (without even thinking about my post from yesterday) I found myself expressing how difficult it is for me to live in God's presence. I believe that He has a plan for my life beyond my comprehension, and I believe that He will prove Himself mighty on my behalf, but let me just be frank: I rarely dwell on His presence with me in the ho-hum and the hustle-bustle. So it seems that my post from yesterday, though I believe it all intellectually, was meant to convict me practically.

In thinking about my unbelief, I was near tears this morning as I listened to a lesser-known Caedmon's call song, "Rest Upon Us" on the way to work. I thought I'd share the lyrics. Notice the three-fold nature of God's revelation (in keeping with the three ways He "makes Himself small") mentioned in the chorus:

my soul is weary and my cup is dry
I am so in need of you
though my righteousness is rags
your mercies are new

so Lord, come down to me,
so my heart can see,
how encompassing your grace can be

Holy Spirit, rest upon us,
Breath of God, touch my soul,
come unfailing love of Jesus,
rest upon us, rest upon us,

my mind is heavy and my days are long,
I lift my eyes up in the night,
my heart it weighs me down,
but your burden is light,

so Lord, come walk with me
until my heart believes
all the bounties that your grace can bring

Holy Spirit, rest upon us,
Breath of God, touch my soul,
come unfailing love of Jesus,
rest upon us, rest upon us,

I will wait for you
I will wait for you
you rest upon us
come rest upon us

Resting today in the assurance of God's presence!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

God With Us

You probably know that Immanuel, one of the names designated in the Tanak (Old Testament) for the messianic figure, means "God with us." The name Immanuel didn't lead Jews to look for God incarnate but rather for the assurance of God's presence; still, it's not difficult to see how that prophetic name for the coming Messiah reached its fulfillment in the person of Jesus, the God-man. And this notion is far more than just a name to sing songs about in December; God really is with us!

As Lauren Winner has said in her memoir Girl Meets God, "Here is the thing about God: He is so big and so perfect that we can't really understand Him. We can't possess Him or apprehend Him. But God so wants to be in a relationship with us that He makes Himself smaller than He really is. Smaller and more humble [in His still] infinite and perfect and beautiful self, so that we may be able to get to Him, if even just a little bit."

First, God made Himself small for us by giving His Word. The Israelites were able to "get to Him" because He spoke to them through the vehicle of human language, first audibly, then through judges and prophets, then in t
he written canon of Hebrew Scripture. And today we Christians have not only the Tanak, but also the New Testament to guide us in our understanding of God. And this Book is no less a miracle and no less an Incarnation than the Son; in fact, the Apostle John tells us (John 1) that they are inextricably linked. What a paradox we live in that we can know God intimately even as we wait to know Him fully (1 Corinthians 13:12)!

Next, He made Himself small by coming to us in a manger: the "fullness of God in helpless babe" as Keith and Kristyn Getty put it in their modern hymn, "In Christ Alone." And this is the doctrine that is so unbelievable to Jews: how could a Holy God who has instructed us to believe that he is ONE, duplicate Himself in the form of a human being? And surely, the doctrine of the Trinity is an impossible one to conceptualize fully, as I talked about in a recent post titled "HaShem." But we Evangelicals believe that regardless of our ability to completely understand God's nature, He is above all, three in one. And so Jesus, "being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedience to death--even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:6-8). This is the Gospel, and it would not be possible without the God-man. If God were not an incarnational God, we would be stuck making sacrifices once a year to get close to Him.

Finally, He made Himself small by giving us the Holy Spirit. And this is no small thing. To have the Spirit of a Holy God residing within our hearts is a mighty thing, indeed! There are many who want to de-emphasize this revelation, and others still who want to overemphasize it. It's important for us to remember the significance of God's promise to His people in Jeremiah 31:31-33:
"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. 'I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.'" I'll write more about the nature of God's covenant with His people in a coming post, but for now lets suffice to say that this promise was fulfilled at Pentacost when the Spirit came to dwell in the hearts of the believers. We can stand on the promise that the Spirit will guide us in all truth (John 16:13), will intercede for us on behalf of God the Father (Romans 8:27), and will impart perfect peace (Romans 8:6).

And so, as Tozer has said "God hides nothing. His very work from the beginning is a revelation--a casting aside of veil after veil, a showing unto men truth after truth." God, by His very nature is a God of revelation. He is incarnational in His approach to us, wanting us to get a taste of Him in this life so that we may feast on Him in the life that is to come. We may not have Him here with us in the flesh any longer, but we do have the assurance of God's presence through His Word and His Spirit. He is Immanuel.

For more on this concept, look for a post in the coming weeks about my favorite Jewish holiday and some pretty profound Messianic traditions!

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
Isaiah 7:14

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Art* Music* Justice*

I've been so excited about Sara Groves, Sandra McCracken, and Derek Webb's Art* Music* Justice Tour, and particularly the upcoming show in Brentwood, that I thought I'd put in a quick plug for the tour. All three of these artists (along with a few others who are joining them on the road) have a heart for issues of social justice and have thus put together this tour to benefit International Justice Mission and Food for the Hungry. It's stopping in several cities over the next month or so--check it out! You can buy tickets for the show at Christ Community on Tuesday, October 21 here.

For more information on International Justice Mission, a ministry that's close to my heart, visit or see the sidebar of my blog for the link. To learn more about Food for the Hungry, visit

Look for a post about the event after October 21st!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Outside the Camp: Light Amidst Darkness

Last night, as I caught up with my mom in one of those really priceless hour-long chats, we found our way to one of my favorite topics: how to be light to a dark world.

As I told my mom about my frustrations with the cultural Christianity here in Nashville, and as she shared some of my sister's recent struggles at church, I was reminded of a quote I just love from Shane Claiborne's book, The Irresistible Revolution. While Claiborne and I come from quite different theological understandings, I do appreciate what he has to say about being light.

"Do not let your eyes adjust to the darkness, but neither fall asleep in the light."

That is the difficulty of the Christian faith, isn't it? It seems our natural inclination is to do one of two things: either we cease to notice the darkness we're in, slowly assimilating just like the Israelites did again and again, or we let our Christian environments strip us of all boldness and fervor. Most of us are either letting our eyes adjust to the darkness or we are falling asleep in the light!

I love my life in Nashville. I love having Christian bosses I can talk about theology with. I love living with a sweet Christian family. I love having an abundance of godly people around me who will encourage and admonish and pray for me. All these people in my life who truly "get it" are such a blessing from the Lord!

But some days, I start to wonder, how am I supposed to be missional here? When everyone I interact with day to day is either firmly rooted in Christ, or just considers himself a Christian thanks to church attendance, it's pretty difficult to even find the darkness! It makes me miss my college-girl years terribly, and I'm reminded of the dramatic way in which God revealed His call on my life to go into the darkness...

It was November of my senior year of high school, and I was in the midst of college applications, standardized tests, and campus visits. My youth pastors, Matt and Brandon, were taking a small group of high schoolers to a Passion event in Peoria. It was a fun night of worship and fellowship, culminating in getting to hang out with Chris Tomlin and his band. But the most meaningful part of that night was Louie Giglio's talk on Hebrews 13:12-13:

"And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore."

Giglio spoke passionately about the tendency of Christians to hide out in little pockets of light, refusing to go into a dark world. He shared his passion for Boston, the city he believes to be the darkest in the nation. (Having visited there twice since, I tend to agree with him.) He pleaded with us to go into the darkness, to "go outside the camp" as Jesus did. I was dumbfounded. I had been wrestling with whether to choose a Christian or a secular school, and the Lord had cut to the heart of the matter, convicting me with such force that I knew immediately the path I was called to take.

It was those verses that motivated me to initiate spiritual conversations on an almost daily basis my first semester at Richmond. It was those verses that challenged me to pray that God would send me into a dark sorority during recruitment second semester. And it was those verses that sustained me through my college years at times when my Christian community seemed like more of a scattered remnant than a cohesive family.

This is just another way I'm called to wait for now. This cloud is in a holding pattern, and I'm waiting, albeit not-so-patiently, for the Lord to reveal where it is He wants me to venture "outside the camp." It occurs to me, too, that I'm waiting to see this city awake from her slumber!

I'll close with more wisdom from Claiborne:

"That is what the Kingdom of God looks like. Christians blaze through this dark world and set it on fire with their love. It is contagious and spreads like wildfire. We are people who shine, who burn up the darkness of this old world with the light that dwells within us. And perhaps the world will ask what in the world passed through here."

Friday, October 3, 2008


One of the most beautiful things to me in studying Jewish culture and the Hebrew language has been learning the earliest names for God. Because I believe the meanings of these names are foundational to our understanding of God's nature, I'd like to share what I've learned with you. Most of this information comes from my Jewish studies professor, Dr. Frank Eakin, at the University of Richmond. He likely would not agree with much of what I've applied to these facts because of our differences in faith and theology, but I am indebted to this wise man, nevertheless!

The old Shakespearean "a rose by any other name" adage, would not have made sense in a Hebrew context. The Hebrew/Jewish people were pretty infatuated with names. I was just pointing this out in some youth curriculum I wrote for a friend's church. I shared with these students that, in Bible times, parents often waited to name their child until his or her personality was clear! In some cases, God would tell the family what to name a child (Isaac, Samson, John the Baptist, and Jesus all spring to mind). And so we see that names were of critical importance and had great meaning.

This principle is clear, too, in stories of spiritual transformation: Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah. Jacob (which means "trickster") became Israel (meaning, "one who struggles with God") after he wrestled with God in the night. And this name, Israel, was passed on to the Hebrew people when God enacted His covenant with them, the implication being that although they would continue to struggle with Him, He would uphold His covenant faithfulness.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Hebrew names for God are rich in meaning. The first name for God used in Hebrew scripture is found in Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." The word used is elohim, which is a plural word derived from other Near Eastern cultures and generally meaning "gods." Surprisingly, in the Tanak, it is used singularly. Here it is linked to the singular verb bara, meaning "he created." Bara is seldom used in scripture and is only attributed to God, so we know that the word elohim is being used singularly to speak of ONE God. Scholars have noted that the name probably refers to the "muchness of God." I love that! He is one, but He is much. Much, much more than we can ever comprehend, much in the sense that He is worthy of our praise. The fascinating thing is that, when we think about this name through the lens of Jesus, we can see that "the muchness of God" also refers to the Trinity. So right there, in the very first words of the Biblical text, we know that Jesus is one with the Father and the Spirit. (This idea is further affirmed in God's saying, "Let us..." throughout the story of creation. Either He is schizophrenic, or He is talking to Someone.)

The next crucial name in the Biblical narrative is found in Exodus 3:14, when God tells Moses "I AM who I AM...this is what you are to say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" Further significance of the name "I AM" is found in the Exodus account of God's covenant with the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 19-20). In Near Eastern culture, there were two types of covenant: 1.) a parity covenant, or one between two equals, and 2.) a suzerainty covenant, or one initiated by a king or army on behalf of a lesser power. The suzerain would enact a covenant based on the premise that the lesser power would uphold certain conditions. But at Sinai, God turns the Hebrew covenant understanding upside down: He promises to uphold His covenant with them regardless of adherence to the Law (we call this attribute God's chesed, or, "covenant fidelity"). It is in this spirit that He calls Himself "I AM," YHWH in Hebrew.

Scholars are unsure how the name for "I AM" was pronounced, but they have established that it sounded something like Yahweh (Jehovah was a mistranslation by early Germanic scholars). The reason for this uncertainty is that the Israelites were not allowed to say God's covenant name. Even the High Priest was only permitted to utter the sacred name once a year--on Yom Kippur, or, the Day of Atonement, which occurs next Thursday--in the Most Holy Place! Instead, the Israelites referred to God as HaShem, or "The Name." In other cases, they used the more general title adonai, meaning "my Lord."

comes from the Hebrew verb, yihiy, or "I will be." (A more accurate translation of Exodus 3:14 would be "I Will Be as I Will Be."") So God is literally telling His people that, at the crux of His nature, He is completely reliable, completely faithful, the same forever. Above all, He is consistent, even when His people are utterly inconsistent.

Whenever you see the word LORD (written in all caps) in the Old testament, the author is using the sacred name, YHWH. (In other words, you could translate "the LORD, God" to mean "YHWH, God.") I noted this fact in the Bible study I recently wrote and asked students why they thought the New Testament writers no longer used this construction. I directed them to Matthew 27:51 and Hebrew 1:1-9 for help. When Jesus died on the cross, the temple veil was torn in two, a literal reminder that all who are in Christ now have access to God.

Because there is no more Most Holy Place, and because the temple was destroyed by Roman soldiers in 70 A.D., the Jews no longer have a place to say HaShem. As they observe these High Holy Days and as they approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, there is a degree of uncertainty about the individual's standing with God. There is no longer a place to make the sin offering, and so the Jews wait in hope that they have achieved right standing with God through their works and repentance and not through blood atonement, as God has always required. But because of the work done on the Cross, atonement is finished once and for all. We need not be afraid to utter His name!

"Those who know your name will trust in you, for you LORD have never forsaken those who seek you." --Psalm 9:10

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

On becoming a baseball fan

It wasn't so very long ago that I held my breath on days when the Cubbies weren't doing well. Matt will deny that those days had any affect on his mood...I know differently. But last Thursday as we watched the Brewers score four runs in the seventh inning, I suddenly realized that my own interest in the Cubs has become a dangerous thing. Instead of worrying about Matt's countenance, I was genuinely concerned that I might not be able to thoroughly enjoy the rest of our time in Chicago if the Cubs were to lose. What has become of this un-athletic girl who used to care less about sports?! It seems I've been captured by the American Pastime.

It was the perfect day at Wrigley. The crisp September day permitted short sleeves, the sun was in full view, and the breeze off the lake was cool, not cold as it often is this time of year. Even better, the Cubs have been playing consistently well all season, and Matt and I couldn't wait to disprove those stupid Completely Useless By September signs that start showing up this time in the season. We sat in someone else's abandoned 10th row seats and marveled at what a wonderful day it was shaping up to be. But in the ninth inning with the Brewers up by four runs, Cubs fans started leaving the park.

All I can say is that anyone who left missed the chance to see "the game of the year" as Matt called it, because in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, the Cubbies got four runs to tie up the score. What are the chances?! It was exhilarating! Three innings later and after an exhausting hour of standing every time the Cubs were at bat, we had seen nearly every pitcher in the bullpen. The crowd went wild when finally Derek Lee hit a line drive to send Marquis home. (Matt, in particular, was exulting because the Cubs fans behind us had been trash-talking Lee's hitting ability for a good bit of the game.) We hugged and cheered with the people around us and then quickly made our way closer to the dugout. What a blast! When it was over, the day culminated with a fabulous dinner in Wrigleyville and new Cubs t-shirts (see below).

In terms of hardcore Cubs fanship, I felt as though I had been pledging all year, and this was I-week (initiation). After a game like that, there's no turning back. I don't anticipate blogging much about baseball--I'll leave that to Matt. But for all those in my life who have been/will be surprised at my new interest (I'll leave obsession to Matt, too), it seemed an explanation was in order.

Matt's recap of the 12th inning, published with permission:
Daryle Ward pinch hit for Kerry Wood to start the inning, and drew a walk.
Jason Marquis entered the game to pinch run for Ward.
Reed johnson successfully put down a sacrifice bunt to move Marquis to 2nd base.
The Brewers intentionally walked Soriano to make it to 1st and 2nd, one out.
Theriot hit a deep fly ball to right, allowing Marquis to tag up and move to 3rd.
Then Lee lined/looped a single to center to score Marquis.
Then the Cubs stormed the field and celebrated with Lee.
And the fans went nuts.
And we went nuts

For Matt's lengthier description of the day, visit Matt's blog.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Geraniums: Yeilding Our Best

One of my daily responsibilities as an optician/receptionist is to water the plants, including two potted geraniums just outside our front doors. When I first started at my new job, I was horrified at the state of the two outdoor plants now under my care. The one on the left was completely devoid of any color; no signs of life were to be found anywhere on its dried out stems. The one on the right had several flowers, but they looked perilously crisp. Having seen my mom take care of her geraniums every year for as long as I can remember, I knew that these plants needed water--and fast!

On my first day opening the office on my own, I headed immediately for the watering can. I frantically phoned my mom, setting off the security alarm in the process. I knew I needed to dead-head the dying flowers (or lack thereof), but I had no idea how far down I was supposed to pinch them off. Once I attended to the situation with the alarm, I let her explain the science behind dead-heading. (What can I say? The office I work at is a brand new practice, and I have to be zealous about my little tasks to make myself useful.)

I've been watering consistently and dead-heading for roughly three weeks now, and my gardening exploit has been very satisfying...well, sort of satisfying. The plant on the left is absolutely BLOSSOMING with nearly two dozen beautiful red flowers and several more budding. I'm quite dazzled by its beauty, really. Every morning when I make my way out to the front stoop of our little office, I'm still surprised to see it so full of life after it seemed, well, so...dead. I would be pretty proud of my green thumb, except that the one on the right is all but dead now. No matter how much I water it, the plant looks dried out and lifeless. As I've contemplated this, I can't help but reflect on the spiritual implications of The Dead-Heading Principle:

Aren't you and I just like those silly plants?! There are so many things in our lives that are dried out and rotting; they need to be plucked right off the stem if anything lovely is ever to grow there. And it's when the Gardener comes around and takes the only life we've got away from us that we get the chance to flourish. It's painful! But in due time we see that all His pruning and uprooting really is clearing the way for who He's destined us to be. I don't mean to beat this metaphor into the ground--I know I've appealed to it once before in my post about the Shack. I'm just really startled by the imagery of God dead-heading me just like I do those geraniums every day.

And all of this talk about plants reminded me of one of my favorite passages in Elisabeth Elliot's book Passion and Purity: "God's ultimate plan was as far beyond our imaginings as the oak tree is from the acorn's imaginings. The acorn does what it was made to do without pestering its maker with questions about when and how and why. We who have been given an intelligence and a will and a whole range of wants that can be set against the divine Pattern for Good are asked to believe Him. We're given the chance to trust Him when He says to us, 'If any man will let himself be lost for my sake, he will find his true self.' (Matthew 16:25 NEB)"

Maybe the one on the right, that dead, crispy one, will see some life yet this fall.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone and the new has come!
--2 Corinthians 5:17

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Lion King, Forbidden Fruit, and an Enemy Who Fears Us

One of the highlights of my weekend was hanging out with the kids I live with and watching the Lion King. They are still on a Disney high from their recent trip to Orlando, so the movie was preceded by a show of their own to songs from the soundtrack. After their stellar performance, we settled in with a "snacky" dinner of cheese and crackers and chocolate milk for a wonderful movie that I hadn't seen in several years.

When The Lion King first came out, I was a slightly self-righteous nine-year-old with an ax to grind against Disney for all the "circle of life" nuances in the movie. My irritation didn't stop me from loving the movie itself (in fact, my baby sister who was just two at the time watched it every day for nearly a year, and I joined her quite regularly), but it did prevent me from noticing some of the overtly biblical themes woven throughout the plot. It's amazing how a crew of Disney filmmakers can write such a redemptive story, probably without even realizing it! It speaks to John Eldredge's theory that the story of redemption is written all around us in the world, and especially in movies, precisely because God created the world to speak of His Son.

Probably the most striking example of this, at least in my mind, is the relationship between prince Simba and his uncle, the villain Scar. Scar is jealous of his brother, Mufasa, the true king, and of Simba, heir to the throne and is plotting to take over the Prideland. There are two critical events as all of this is unfolding. In the first, Scar, knowing that Mufasa has told Simba not to venture outside the Prideland, practically dares the young cub to do so. He lies to Simba about an elephant graveyard where only the bravest lions go. Suddenly, we can see the resemblance between this devious lion and the Father of Lies, that serpent who dared Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Of course, once Simba has taken the dare and been rescued from near death at the hand of the hyenas, Scar is the first to cast shame. "Simba, everybody knows about that," he says looking down his nose at embarrassed Simba. And isn't this just how our Enemy comes against us?! By first tempting us and making sin look so desirable, and then pointing the finger in our faces once sin has yielded its painful consequences.

Second, Scar creates a plan with the hyenas to kill both the king and the prince. Scar tells Simba that his father has a gift to give him, but he must wait patiently in the gorge. Meanwhile, the hyenas startle a large herd of wildebeests, creating a frantic stampede headed straight for Simba. Scar plays the hero by fetching Mufasa and alerting him to what is about to unfold, and Mufasa hurries to rescue his cub. But just as the king hurls Simba safely unto a rock above the pounding hooves of the wildebeests, Scar cruelly throws him down into the stampede, out of Simba's sight. When the dust has settled, Simba finds his father lying lifeless in the middle of the gorge. Scar approaches and, with a look of sheer evil, asks Simba what he's done. As Simba tries through tears to explain what has happened, Scar tells him to run away and never return. Simba does run away, leaving Scar to take the throne and weave a tangled web of famine and hunger. And this is the most cruel tactic of our Enemy as well: through his lies he convinces us of our guilt, rendering us useless for the Kingdom of God as we run away from our calling with our tail between our legs.

All of this symbolism, and we haven't even gotten to the redemptive part of the story yet!! After hiding out in the jungle with Timone and Pumba, Simba's childhood friend Nala finds him and tells him about the awful things that have happened since he left. Simba stubbornly refuses to go back, until he happens to meet Rafiki, the baboon. Rafiki, who understands Simba's place as the true king, reminds Simba of his calling. "I know who you are," says the baboon. "You're Mufasa's boy!" The monkey wisely reminds Simba that who he is isn't nearly as important as whose he is. Simba goes back to the Prideland and does battle with Scar in order to restore the Prideland. We all need a Rafiki in our lives to remind us that we belong to the King and have been called to defend His Kingdom!

The spiritual implications of this movie speak to our lives in Christ. It is true that we are in a battle for the Kingdom of God and for our own hearts! To quote Eldredge again (from Waking the Dead), "You have an Enemy who knows what you could be and fears you!" And friends, this is perhaps the truest lesson of The Lion King: that just as much as we serve a God who is after our hearts, we also have an Enemy who will stop at nothing to destroy them (this is after all, why Paul commends us to "put on the full armor of God"). We can choose to allow the Father of Lies to defeat us with our own guilt or we can choose to remember the One to whom we belong and to courageously fight, taking our place in the Kingdom as co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17).

"Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart, in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water." Hebrews 10:22

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Gentle Whisper: Further Meditations on the Spirit of God

Some days it's hard to live where the cloud settles. It feels like everything is in a holding pattern, and I'm just waiting for the pillar of cloud to pick up and move to show me what's supposed to come next. In thinking about that imagery for the Spirit last night, I remembered the story of Elijah.

It's easy to envy Elijah; after all, he was privy to one of the most amazing mighty acts of the Tanak (Old Testament). The story, which can be found in 1 Kings 18-19, goes something like this:

An evil king named Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, are in control of the kingdom of Israel and thanks to Jezebel's ties to Baalism, idolatry has taken over the worship of the one true God. Yahweh instructs his prophet Elijah to challenge the prophets of Baal to a contest. If the Baalists can convince their god to send fire down on their altar, then the people should worship Baal. But if the God of Israel responds to Elijah's pleading for fire on his altar, then the people should worship Yahweh. So the whole company travels up to Mt. Carmel. The Baalists act like fruitcakes, dancing and singing and even cutting themselves (scholars refer to this act as "sympathetic magic") in effort to get a response from the pagan god of fertility. After hours of this nonesense, Elijah begins to mock them, asking if perhaps their god is on a trip or maybe in the men's room (1 Kings 18:27). And then, at Yahweh's command, he ups the ante. Elijah douses his altar with water.

Of course we know that the flooded altar is no match for the God who created both fire and water. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob comes through as promised: he sends fire down to consume the altar, and the people of Israel are humbled. In obedience to God's decree, Elijah has the Baalist prophets slaughtered, and the people rejoice in Yahweh's victory. Just when it seems like all is well, Elijah lets worry get the best of him. Rather than resting in the sure provision of his mighty God, he slinks off in fear! And ironically, he ends up cowering at Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, where Yahweh enacted His covenant with the Hebrew people. As Elijah sits there defeated, an angel approaches and tells him to wait for the Lord to pass by. First comes a mighty wind, but God isn't in the wind. Then an earthquake rumbles through, but God isn't in the earthquake. And then a fire burns up the ground, but God isn't in the fire. Finally, there is a gentle whisper, and that whisper is the Voice and the Presence of the Almighty God.

The Hebrew word for wisper or breath is ruach. This is the same word used in the account of creation found in Genesis 2 when God "breathed into [Adam's] nostrils the breath of life" (Genesis 2:7). Fittingly, in Hebrew, the Spirit of God is referred to as Ruach Elohim. So the Spirit of God isn't a display of power or splendor, rather, it (really, He) is that still small voice that speaks when we quiet our hearts to listen. And just as Yahweh spoke to His people on Mt. Sinai through Moses, just as He spoke to Elijah in the hush of a whisper, just as He spoke through the pillar of cloud, He continues to reveal Himself as the God who speaks to His people today.

Even as I sit and type, I am deeply convicted that I am so like Elijah. In the face of all that God has done to prove Himself in my life, I remain unconvinced that He will come through for me. As Beth Moore reflected on Isaiah 55:8-11 in her blog earlier this week, "sometimes we're so focused on the seed that hasn't shown a harvest that we ignore the bread sitting right in front of us." And what's more, I wait for Him to move me by some act of mightiness when I should be listening for the still small voice, the ruach that resides within me and wispers gently to my heart. I claim to be about waiting on this cloud, but in reality, sometimes I'm looking for God in an earthquake!

In spite of all that remains to be accomplished in my life here in Nashville, and in the midst of the direction I'm still seeking, I'm resolved to stay here where the cloud has settled and wait patiently on the God who speaks.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Made a Minister: Thoughts on Ephesians 3

We left off in Ephesians 2, where Paul appeals to the body of Christ to live as a unified temple for the Lord Jesus. In Ephesians 3, he elaborates on the beauty of the gospel that knits us together.

Paul views the gospel as a gift from God to be passed on. By employing the word "stewardship," he makes it clear that our knowledge of God is not to be horded. Rather, we are to share it! He writes that God's grace was given to him for others (v. 2); in other words, God has given Paul a testimony. The apostle boldly writes that God has revealed things to him and to others that previous generations have not understood.

This idea of revelation is one we've been discussing at length in Systematic Theology I. In a book called The Revelation of God, biblical scholar Peter Jensen describes the gospel as the primary revelation of God throughout history. Although God reveals Himself in creation, in His word, and through His Spirit to individuals, Jesus' lordship is the pinnacle of revelation. All else that God reveals points to Christ alone. And according to Jensen, the gospel revelation Paul writes of "is the very means by which God prosecutes His work in the world...the means He uses to to inform the world of its central truth...the way he applies the atoning death of Jesus to men and women."

Because the gospel is the primary means by which God is at work in the world, Paul's claim in verse 7 is audacious. How can he claim to be a part of something so holy and so grand?! The paradox, of course, is that Paul's words also reveal humility. He understands that it is only by the goodness of God's grace that he is a part of this ministry. Like Paul, we need the chutzpah to remember that we are invited to join in the work of gospel-sharing, and the humility to recognize that of our own accord, we are utterly unable to do so. Paul writes that the call of the church to speak forth the wisdom of God is only enabled by Jesus, "in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him" (v. 12). When we boldly preach Christ as the world's central truth, we are joining God in the purpose of His coming kingdom. It is not our efforts that procure the work, yet He works in us "to bring a light for everyone" (v. 8)!

The chapter closes with Paul's sweet prayer on behalf of the Ephesians: that they who are "rooted and established in love" (v. 17) might be strengthened in their understanding of the gospel. (Surely this is what the Spirit continues to intercede for us today, for as Martin Luther observed, "We leak the gospel!") And the necessity of this prayer is attributed to the glory of God: "Now to him who is able to do far more than all that we ask or imagine, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen" (vv. 20-21).

Living to expound the mystery!

"The only way that we will come into that high place of anointing and power to seize the moment, to advance the kingdom, to swim against the tide, to go against the odds, to sail against the wind that's the world is if you and I are resting in the consistent nature of God. You and I have a testimony of what God is really like living in our hearts in such a powerful way that it drives everything...the testimony of what Jesus is really, really like."
--Australian preacher, Graham Cook

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

La Pausa: Reflections on my semester in Italy

[Beautiful Piazza Italia, where I often went to write, take in the view, and think about sheep]

This week marks the second anniversary of the beginning of my time in Italy. That may sound a bit dramatic (okay, I guess it is a little dramatic), but I continue to be influenced by the things I did and saw and learned while living abroad for four months. Especially now that I am starting my first "big girl" job, going back to school for my masters, and working part-time retail, I need to remember those lessons learned in the quiet of train rides and chilly nights in my apartment. I wrote this essay in November of 2006, around the time I started to prepare myself mentally to leave my little hilltop hamlet of Perugia.

When I first arrived in Italy, the Italian culture presented a great many difficulties. For instance: how Italian women could so effortlessly climb the steep hills of Perugia in stilettos while I stumbled along in flats, or the fact that my washing machine took three hours to complete a cycle—and why, for that matter, the appliance was located in my kitchen. I gawked at Italian lovers who passionately kissed in the Piazza, shivered at the thought of a cold winter in my centuries-old apartment with only six alloted hours of heat per day, and struggled to understand how the Italian word for “flower” could be a masculine noun. After nearly a whole semester here in this foreign land of romance, cappuccino, and fine leather, these difficulties have become a part of my cultural understanding, part of the brilliant beauty of Italy, part of my college experience. But the greatest of these mysteries, the one that continues to challenge me, and the one that I still struggle to comprehend, is la pausa.

At precisely one o’clock--the only time Italians are ever on time, mind you--I stop picking up wireless from the business across the street, it’s next to impossible to find a panino for lunch, and the bright orange APM buses are overcrowded with teenagers coming home from school. Everyone hurries home from work to eat pranza, traditionally the largest meal of the day in Italy, with their families and to take a nap before heading back to work. It is as if life stands still until three or four o’clock when everyone resumes their positions, albeit the schoolchildren, who stay at home unless they’re involved in sports or music. Italians refuse to be conquered by their work, or to let it completely define them.

If there’s one thing the Italians know, it’s how to live well. They savor every bite and every flavor of a meal and rest on the Sabbath, even extending it to Monday in some cases. They’re not stingy with affection—they kiss friends, family, even new acquaintances (and not the silly air kisses; they literally kiss each cheek!), know when to spend extravagantly and when to save, treat themselves to
gelato not because they’ve lost a boyfriend or need a pick-me-up, but just because, and take their time strolling down the corso or mingling in the piazza.

And so I found myself feeling, quite frankly, displaced. Not because of the language barrier, or my ancient apartment, but because I, the activity junkie, had been transplanted to the land of Cone Lickers. Yes, Cone Lickers. That’s the term Donald Miller used in
Through Painted Deserts to describe the vacationers at a ranch where he worked one summer. And even though I’m technically the “vacationer” here, I have found myself surrounded by them.

I arrived in Italy expecting mile-a-minute fun and constant activity. I was determined to suck every ounce of excitement and experience I could out of these three and a half months in Europe. Despite the warning of my much wiser sorority sister, Sarah, that my study abroad experience would likely be slow at times, I insisted that I was going to learn Italian, travel the entire European continent, and get involved in ministry all over Italy. In spite of my weekend travels to far-off places, the weeks here are slow, allowing me a chance to catch my breath.

In fact, the Italian way of catching one’s breath was a cultural nuance I learned something about even before arriving in Italy. While working as a youth director in a rural area outside of Richmond this summer, I had the opportunity to attend a forum on youth ministry with seven visiting Italian Baptist pastors. On the last morning of the conference, I rushed up to Sergio, one of the pastors, to ask for his contact information. Forgetting that he hadn’t spoken English in twenty years, I excitedly blabbed about something to him. Putting a hand on my shoulder, he said in his thick Napoli accent “Chelsea, you are wonderful. But take a breath!”

I’ve been learning a lot about sheep here. Not just because they dot the Umbrian countryside that surrounds this little hill I’ve come to call a temporary home, but because I’ve been reading a book about the twenty-third Psalm. You know, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”? Apparently sheep are really stupid. In order to rest, every obstacle must be cleared for them: danger, hunger, thirst. They literally need a shepherd, or they cannot sleep. That’s a little how I’ve felt here: like my Shepherd had to clear every obstacle—friendships, activities, work—and bring me to the green pastures of Perugia. He has had to make me lie down in them, for I am so utterly unable to be still on my own. It’s a constant struggle even here. Sometimes I just feel unable to rest while everyone around me goes on licking their gelato cones. I’ve wanted so much to soak up the Italian culture, and yet, in stubbornness, I’ve rejected the most central part of it again and again by persisting in my quest for constant activity. But slowly, I am learning the value of slowing down and the necessity of rest. Little by little, I am learning the rhythm of pause.

No matter where life takes me from here, I shall always remember the green hills that surround this cozy little Medieval city, for they will always remind me of the way life is meant to be lived. Whenever I think of them, I’ll remember to be careful with myself, to take time to linger over a meal, to enjoy beauty and ponder truth. I’ll recall the wise lesson learned from my Italian friends: that a life lived well isn’t so much characterized by busyness or productivity, but by the intentional savoring of each day. I’ll always be thankful for this time in Italy, my very own
la pausa.

Friday, August 22, 2008

An Ephesians 2 Tidbit

It seems Beth Moore has been reading Ephesians chapter 2 lately as well! Check out her latest blog post to see how she is praying for the women's gathering in San Antonio this weekend. And if you're a woman and have never been to a Beth Moore event, it is definitely worth looking into!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Fellow Citizens: Thoughts on Ephesians 2, part 2

The second part of Ephesians 2 begins with the word "therefore," referring back to the previous sentence in which Paul tells the believers at Ephesus that God has already prepared the "good works" He has for them to do. The concept of unity Paul lays out in this portion of the letter, then, seems to be one of those "good works" assigned to the body of Christ as a whole. Taking our cues from the Trinity, whose members relate to one another in perfect unity and love ("The Shack" illustrates this concept beautifully), we see that unity is indeed an endeavor to which every believer is called.

This "therefore" is followed by a command to remember that we were separated from Christ when we lived in the flesh. He makes it a point to remind new Gentile believers that before Christ atoned for their sins, they/we were separated from God's relationship with Israel. And then comes the call to unity, which Christ has already provided: "For He himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility." Because of Christ's fleshy death, there is now no need for us to live in the flesh, and therefore, true unity between Israel and the Church is possible. (It is interesting to note that in 70 B.C.E., a mere 40 years after Christ's death on the cross, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. While the destruction was a pagan, not a Christian undertaking, perhaps it was a God-ordained symbol expressing the shift of the Temple's existence from a physical structure to the hearts of believers.) While scholars make a variety of arguments for what is meant by “Israel” in this passage, it is clear that as those who have experienced the grace of God, we are to seek to keep peace (). Of course unity in its truest form is only possible where there exists the perfect love of Christ. It is also clear that Christ has given us everything we need to keep unity. Verses 15 and 16 say that He first made peace and then He preached peace. There is a beautiful principle in this: He only asks of us what He has already accomplished!

I can only begin to understand what this unity is supposed to look like. As I try to wrap my mind around it, I think it is one of those Kingdom concepts I have discussed previously, in that there is an already/not yet element at play. We are already called to act upon our knowledge of the Trinity and our understanding of what Christ asked of us, but we do not yet see the full implications of perfect unity and love. With that in mind and my limited understanding of eschatology as well, I believe we are called to passionately pursue relationships with Jews, both Jewish believers (also known as Messianic Jews or Jewish Christians, depending on how they choose to practice their faith in Yeshua) and Jews who are not yet in Christ. This includes support of Messianic movements that seek to preserve Jewish custom and to reach out to fellow Jews. I believe we are also to promote peace in Israel-Palestine. Even recognizing that God has indeed promised the land to His special people, Israel, we can acknowledge that Christ "has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility" between Jew and Gentile.

I graduated with a minor in Jewish studies, and verses 20-22 outline the reason I’m so infatuated with Jewish culture. Verse 20 says that the "household of God" has been built on the sturdy foundation of Jewish heritage (the apostles and the prophets), and that Christ--who was himself a Torah-observing Jew--is the cornerstone. Here is the amazing part: "the structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you are also being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit" (verses 21-22). There is no more temple because WE are the temple! Both individually and collectively as a community, the dwelling place for God's spirit, that same ruach elohim the early Jewish believers knew, is IN US! What a beautiful picture God has given his people in the stories and the symbols of Jewish teaching. He is, after all, the God who speaks to us in pictures we can understand.

"'The church, in its whole existence, must be a token of the salvation it has received. Its whole life, lived in a convincing way, would be a call to all men to believe the good news, to experience a change of heart and to unite themselves with its Messiah. This is how Israel and the Church must confront one another, not in theoretical debate, but in existential dialogue; not in an uncommitted battle of words, but in committed competition. By its whole life the Church must witness to the reality of redemption. Is this the case? Is this the witness of the Church? The Jews do not think so. The reality of redemption asserted by the New Testament seems to them, particularly in light of the Old Testament, to have been an illusion' (Hans Kung, The Church, London: Search Press Ltd., 1967, p. 149).”

Sunday, August 17, 2008

His Workmanship: Thoughts from Ephesians 2

Chapter 1 of Ephesians left us marveling at the grace of God, as seen through the sometimes difficult concepts of the Kingdom and the Trinity. As we move on into chapter 2, I'm impressed again by God's grace, as shown to us through the marked difference between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit. Verses 1 through 3 paint a bleak picture of what it looks like to be lost in sin: "following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience" (verse 2). Verse 1 talks about the death of this supposed "life" in the flesh, and verse 3 reminds us that we ALL came into the world this way because of the sin nature we inherited at the Fall. Note that this is not to say that our hearts are bad. They were merely infected by the choice of humanity to sin. Even so, as I read these first three verses, I find myself weighed down by all that needs to be overcome in my life.

But Paul doesn't leave us in this dark state for long. (And perhaps intentionally, the scribes who canonized the scriptures and marked verses don't even begin a new paragraph before letting Paul begin to speak about the wonders of God's grace!) He begins verse 4 with the two most powerful words in the whole passage: "BUT GOD" (emphasis mine, although I imagine that Paul might have written it in bold also). We were lost in sin, BUT GOD. We followed the prince of the spirit of the air (our Enemy, Satan), BUT GOD. We were dead in the trespasses and sins, BUT GOD..."made us alive together with Christ" (Ephesians 5). And more than offering us life, verse 6 says that by grace he "raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places!" No more darkness, no more triumph of the Enemy--Christ has made us His co-heirs that we may have victory in this life and even more in the next!

Just today my mom and I had a conversation about the gift of being able to clearly see our inadequacies. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, "for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." In light of those verses, how kind of God to remind us in our day-to-day living that we truly are incompetent (as I remarked in my last post) and incapable apart from His equipping us to live in the world. It seems that as I am made continually more aware of my inadequacy before the Father, I am more and more in awe of the "BUT GODs" that unfold in my life every day. And as we live in that continual revelation of His grace, verse 10 says that we begin to realize the good works He has prepared for us to do. We are His workmanship, and He equips us even in our inadequacy!

In the shadows; My spirit weak
Love broke through the darkness and lifted me
And I know you'll never let me go

In the storm in the raging sea
Love conquered the fear and delivered me
And I know you'll never let me go
--Hillsong United

Friday, August 15, 2008

"I'm a Mess!!"

That is a mantra I often repeat (or sometimes exchange for, "I'm a disaster!"). My experiences in Christian counseling and reading John Eldredge's books revealed that my "false self" is that of competence. I love to pretend that I have it all together. But anyone who really knows me realizes this is not the case. All too often I lose my car in an airport parking garage, travel fifty miles in the wrong direction on the interstate, or use baking soda instead of baking powder, turning the cherry cobbler into cherry mush. While these experiences can sometimes be humiliating, I've been slowly learning to laugh at my messiness (which, as my roommates and my mother can attest to, is actually quite literal in the kitchen!) Perhaps this is why I've always been so drawn to I Love Lucy. Lucy is transparent about being a mess in a way that I longed to be in my younger years. Now that I have (mostly) given up trying to appear competent, she encourages me in my learning.

I truly am a mess. So when I read about a different kind of messiness in "The Shack," I was moved to tears. I won't give away the plot of this recent bestseller, which seems to be especially popular in Nashville. Some parts are a little cheesy, and I certainly don't agree with everything Young writes, but taken for what it's worth (one person's imperfect understanding of God), it's good literature.

My favorite part of the book is when Mack, the protagonist, is working in the garden with Sarayu, the embodiment of the Holy Spirit. Here is a snippet:

It was chaos in color. His eyes tried unsuccessfully to find some order in this blatant disregard for certainty. Dazzling sprays of flowers were blasted through patches of randomly planted vegetebals and herbs, vegetation the likes of which Mack had never seen. It was confusing, stunning, and incredibly beautiful.

"From above it's a fractal," Sarayu said over her shoulder with an air of pleasure.

"A what?" asked Mack absentmindedly...

"A fractal...something considered simple and orderly that is actually composed of repeated patterns no matter how magnified. A fractal is almost infintely complex. I love fractals, so I put them everywhere."

"Looks like a mess to me," muttered Mack under his breath.

Sarayu stopped and turned to Mack, her face glorious. "Mack! Thank you! What a wonderful compliment!" She looked around the garden. "That is exactly what this is--a mess. But," she looked back at Mack and beamed, "it's still a fractal, too."

..."But it really is beautiful, and full of you, Sarayu. Even though it seems like lots of work still needs to be done, I feel strangely at home and comfortable here."

Sarayu stepped toward him until she had invaded his personal space. "And well you should, Mackenzie, because this garden is your soul. This mess is
you! Together, you and I, we have been working with a purpose in your heart. And it is wild and beautiful and perfectly in process. To you it seems like a mess, but to me [sic], I see a perfect pattern emerging and growing and alive--a living fractal."

Perhaps I need to spend even more time declaring what a mess I am--not my mind and its sometimes spastic functions, but my heart. I judge others and neglect to show grace and think of my own comfort and fail to forgive and overindulge and gossip and show contempt for my neighbor. I dwell on things that aren't lovely and refuse to be content and look to my own strength and put myself before the good of others. I am a mess!! But in all that mess, the Holy Spirit is at work because of Christ in me! God sees me, in the midst of my messy heart, as a lovely work in progress.

Let us live as beautiful messes before the Lord who sees, and chuckles, and gets out the hoe!

"...He who began a good work in you will be faithful to carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Philippians 1:6

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Restaurant Review: The Franklin Mercantile

I've been hearing about the Franklin Mercantile all summer, mostly from the family I live with, and I've wanted to check it out. It's known in picturesque Downtown Franklin (picture the streetlight scene from The Notebook) as a great place to grab a sandwich, but the owners recently added a dinner menu. I thought it might be a good place for dinner when my family came to visit--we've always explored Downtown Nashville when they've come in the past, so this time we decided a trip to Downtown Franklin was in order. After perusing Main Street and checking out our options, we settled on the Merc. The prices were moderate, and generous looking portions adorned the plates of alfresco diners.

We opted to eat inside, mostly because the outdoor tables weren't big enough for five. But the interior proved charming, with eclectic wooden and Formica tables topped with vintage table cloths, a cozy couch, and varying art displays throughout the restaurant. The menu boasts an impressive beverage list, but the sweet and fruit tea, served in old fashioned Ball jars, was the creme de la creme. The tapas-style dinner menu is fairly short, but full of tempting options, of which we tried several.

Matt had the shrimp bruschetta and Taylor and Dad each had the tapas burgers, which are essentially sliders on baguette with a bruschetta garnish. I consider myself something of a bruschetta connoisseur, after a semester in Italy of perfecting my own bruschetta recipe, but I was impressed with the flavor of the tomato-basil blend. Mom and I split the tapas burgers and the raspberry chicken with pecans, which was by far my favorite dish. The raspberry glaze was light, but flavorful, and the chicken was perfectly seared. An added plus was the delicious sweet potato pancakes on the side.

We were too full for desert, but I'll save that for another day. With great food at reasonable prices, I think it's safe to say we'll go back. And for those who are familiar only with the Merc's sandwiches, I heartily recommend checking out the evening menu!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Heartache of Ministry

It seems that if ministry is your heartbeat, especially church ministry, the Enemy is going to come against you through politics, backstabbing, and betrayal. Most of the friends I look to for wisdom and counsel have been in lay or career ministry at some point, and well over half of them have been deeply wounded by others in the church. My own ministry experience is no exception.

Hardly a day goes by that I don't feel at least a twinge of heart-wrenching sadness over the church I worked for two summers ago and the way things ended there. In regards to the politics and betrayal, God has been good to lend His healing balm. But concerning my relationships with those kids--my desire for them to know how fiercely I still love them, and thereby to know how much more their Father and Creator does--it tears my heart out. I understand, I think, that fiery devotion of Paul's for the believers in Rome. He so wanted to be with them, to hold them to his chest in brotherly love, and to instruct them in the ways of Christ. But he could not get to them. I feel that same burden and must continue to believe that "he is able to guard that which I've entrusted to Him" (I Timothy 1:12).

The other part of the enduring sadness is a longing. My summer with those kids bespoke something other-worldly, that glory known before the Fall. It's as if God whispered to my heart, "Do you feel that? This is what you were made for. This is what I had in mind when I knit you together." I think maybe it was so me because I was so out of my element--a sense of adventure--doing something I was good at--a sense of purpose. It was without a doubt the most beautiful season, not to mention the most fun summer of my life. It was formative in understanding my life's calling: I know that I must mentor and teach and challenge and nurture and venture out if I am to manifest even a hint of the glory God put in me before time began and restored by the blood of the Lamb.

That season was punctuated with two pivotal bookends: a painful sophomore year at school and a difficult but also beautiful semester in Italy. During my sophomore year, a time when I regularly cried myself to sleep and wondered what the Lord could possibly have in store for me that I needed the discipline of such a desert, I read Psalms 65:9-13 and my heart was deeply ministered to.

"You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly...You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty and your carts overflow with abundance." And crown that difficult year with His bounty He did! That summer was the abundance I had waited for.

Perhaps God, in His knowing that all good things in this life must come to an end so that we may someday take hold of what is better in eternity, applies that same principle to the here and now. Maybe He had to end my time at the church so that I could move on to the next assignment. What if they had hired me (as opposed to throwing me out!) upon my return from Italy? I would have missed out on Third Pres and on Tri Delt things and on Nashville and Forest Hills BC. Part of me feels it would have been worth it, but that's probably the same part that doesn't fully understand how far Heaven will outweigh this life.

"...yet I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard that which I have entrusted to Him until that Day" (I Timothy 1:12).

An Update

[An e-mail sent to friends at home/school regarding new developments in my life. If I left you out by mistake, you can catch up here.]

Hey, friends!

Just wanted to write and give you a little update on my life post-graduation. I have been mourning the loss of my college-girl days, but living in Nashville has been an exciting change! While it's been disheartening not to have a job all summer, I've used the time to visit with friends, get settled in a new city, and go to several weddings. I've also been doing some writing and starting to flesh out some ideas for girls' ministry curriculum. I've been living with a sweet family with a seven-year-old daughter and an almost-six-year-old son. They have blessed me by opening their home--and their lives--during this time of transition.

My life seems to be filled with children, actually. For the past month, I've been working at Pottery Barn Kids, where I sell kids' furniture, facilitate sing-alongs, climb ten-foot ladders, and clean up after not-yet potty trained two-year-olds. Needless to say, working retail has been quite a humbling experience! I've been thankful for the stellar discount and even the not-so-stellar income, however, and plan to continue working there on a casual basis so that I can afford to furnish a Pottery Barn/Williams-Sonoma apartment sometime soon.

The big news is that I have a "real" job! I will be working for a friend who recently opened an optometry practice called the Spectacle Shoppe here in Franklin. It's in a cute planned community called that my mom, who visited last weekend, would kill to live in :) I have jokingly said that I'll be a "lay optometrist," since I'll be helping with eye exams and teaching people how to put in contacts, so Matt made up the word "loptometrist" to describe my new occupation!

In addition to starting work in two weeks, I was accepted to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and will begin a class or two at the extension center here in Nashville next Monday. This was a big decision for me, since I never thought I was interested in graduate school! As recently as April I had said I at least needed some time off before going back to school, but as soon as I handed in that thirty-page thesis, I knew I was ready to start classes again. It's funny how the Lord prepares us for things in different timing than we might expect. Check back to keep up with what I'm learning in systematic theology this semester!

Thanks to all of you who have so faithfully prayed that the Lord would make a way for me here in Nashville! At times it's been difficult to trust that I'm where I am supposed to be, especially since I passed up a great job opportunity at my church in Richmond to move here and be unemployed!! But I can see how God has provided just a little at a time, thereby confirming the presence of His Spirit. My dear friend in Japan once pointed me to Proverbs 4:12, which says "as you go step by step, I will open up the way to you." That wisdom has really resonated in my life this summer! I've also been encouraged during this season by the story of Israel's desert wandering in Numbers 9. Verse 17 says, "wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped." Thanks for continuing to pray with me that the Lord will make clear my life's overall calling and the individual assignments He has for me along the way!

Would love to visit with those of you in Bloomington/Chicago when Matt and I are home September 18-21, and with all of you in Richmond over homecoming weekend, October 24-26! And of course if you're ever passing through Nashville, give me a holler!

Living where the cloud settles,