Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Savoring the Riviera: Another Tidbit from Italy

Some days, I'm ready to buy furniture, get a dog, and finally be settled. Then there are days when I especially miss the thrill of living and traveling overseas. On those days, I read through my old essays and journal entries from Italy, and I realize that I'm not quite ready for a puppy. The essay that put that spirit of adventure back in my heart today is about my first full weekend abroad:
We arrived in the quaint beach town of Levanto, just north of Cinque Terre today, and I’m enchanted. I had heard the Riviera was beautiful, but somehow my preconceptions of the haunting Mediterranean prevented me from believing it could really be the “beach lover’s paradise” my guidebook described.

There’s something about all beaches that is universal, and I sensed it here even stepping off the train: the salty smell to the air, brightly colored buildings that glisten in the sun like little jewels, and—once you catch a glimpse of the water—the waves crashing upon distant crags of rock, becoming more evident as the tide comes in. A strange feeling of being at home sweeps over me, an odd phenomenon, considering I’m from the middle of the Illinois prairie.

But then, there is also something so European about this place:
focaccia stands on every corner, little girls running topless into the surf, Tuscan style buildings dotting the shore behind me, rocks stabbing my feet as I wade into the water. And then I remember. This is not just a weekend escape to the beach, or one of my endless excuses to spend time baking in the sun. I’m in Italy—a whole semester to explore and to try to find myself at home here.

This past year, my writing has been more anthropological than anything. I’ve been digging through rubble in hopes of uncovering my memories. But this semester, I am writing to preserve memories, for I have learned that they slip away too easily, a ship quietly pulling away from port until it is only a white-tipped spot in the distance. This semester, a perky young teacher from Minnesota warned me when we met on the train, will slip past in the same way. “Cherish every moment;” she smiled wistfully as she gave the command.

But how to explore the all the material—the people, the emotions, the places, and the scenery—how to really capture it all on film, much less on paper? I know that I cannot keep it, anymore than the harbor can keep the ship. And yet I wish I could bottle it up to drink deeply of on days to come when life doesn’t seem so golden or the future so deliciously ripe with the unknown.

Photos (from top to bottom): an Italian girl sunbathing below the hiking trails, a Vernazza fisherman bringing in the day's catch, brightly colored beach umbrellas in Monterosso, getting ready to set out on our [very long] hike from Levanto with a weekend's worth of stuff on my back.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The "Already" and the "Not Yet""

I have written before of the theological notion of the "already-not-yet" aspect of the Kingdom of God, and today I read something in one of my texts for Systematic Theology II that clarifies it beautifully. John Frame, a noted theologian who teaches at the Reformed Theological Seminary's Orlando campus, writes:

"We live in tension between this age and the age to come. In Christ, the age to come has already arrived, but the present age, dominated by sin, will not expire until he returns. Christ has delivered us from 'the present evil age' (Gal. 1:4), so in him we already have the blessings of the age to come. But sin remains in us until the present age comes to an end (1 John 1:8-10). So while we are risen with Christ, we must still seek the things that are above (Col. 3:1-4). We have died to sin (v. 3), but we must 'put to death' the sins of this life (v. 5). So the Christian life is an atempt, motivated by God's grace, to live according to the principles of the age to come. We are motivated by the goal toward which God steers the ship of history."

With all that in mind, it is no wonder that Frame writes (as I have often said with far less eloquence): "It is a pity that the church's teaching on eschatology, the last days, has been concerned mostly with arguments about the order of events."

Rather, we should be fixing our eyes on what it means to live as Kingdom people who await the glory to come!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Grace to Give: Choosing Forgiveness When It Feels Like Personal Death

Is there anything so difficult as forgiveness?!

I can think of few things that pierce our hearts as painfully or wound our pride as deeply as the thought of forgiving a wrong. It can feel so very...unjust to let someone off the hook, especially when they haven't even acknowledged how much they've hurt us.

And yet...again and again the Scriptures command us to do it. Throughout the Tanak, God establishes Himself as the God of forgiveness (Leviticus 4, Psalm 103, Jeremiah 31:31-34,). And then, in the New Testament, Jesus revolutionizes the idea of forgiveness by telling His disciples that they too will have to forgive (Matthew 6:12). He adds insult to injury by telling us that if we refuse to forgive, the Father won't forgive our sins (Matthew 6:14-15 and 18:35). I don't think this is so much a cruel ultimatum as it is an indictment of the condition of our hearts. If our hearts are soft toward God and receptive of His grace, that grace will abound as we forgive others. As my pastor exclaimed in a bellowing voice in Sunday school a few weeks ago, "GRACE. ALWAYS. BEARS. FRUIT!"

And who is more justified in asking us to forgive than our Lord Jesus? As I've sought God this year in the process of forgiving a dear friend who has greatly wronged me, He's been faithful to bring to mind the picture of Jesus on the Cross. As I gaze on His suffering--the cancellation of my debts at His expense--the wrongs committed against me pale in comparison. How petty and foolish to cling to unforgiveness in light of the lavish grace that's been given to me! Surely I have grace to give. The bounty I've received provides an excess to spare (John 1:16, 1 Timothy 1:14).

Two things have become clear to me as I've lingered over this image of Jesus:
1.) Forgiveness always comes at significant personal cost. Perhaps the statement in Hebrews that "without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness" (v. 9:22) is not only literal, but figurative. Forgiveness will always be costly to us. Just as Christ died on the Cross to show us grace, we too, will have to die--to ourselves--in order to show grace to those around us. (See Romans 12:9-21.)

2.) Forgiveness identifies us with Christ. After Christ's death and resurrection, the early believers understood that they, too, would suffer to be made like Christ. (Acts 9:15-17, Romans 8:17, 2 Corinthians 1:5, Philippians 3:10-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:5). And what brought about the suffering of our Savior? His readiness to forgive our sin! So there is no better way for us to be identified with Him than when we forgive, and especially when we forgive those who do not know the depth of their wrongdoing against us. As we learn to cry out with Christ, "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34), we are transformed into His image, a spectacle bearing witness to the gospel of grace.

In light of this, is there anything so lovely as forgiveness?!

My heart grows light every time I read Psalm 103:1-12:
1 Praise the LORD, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

2 Praise the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits-

3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,

4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,

5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

6 The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed.

7 He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the people of Israel:

8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.

9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;

10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.

11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;

12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

Praise the LORD, O my soul! What glorious grace that we are forgiven! And as He redeems our lives from the pit of sin, we are given the grace to forgive others. How I long for my heart to overflow with forgiveness that someone might see the gospel etched upon my life.

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
--2 Corinthians 9:8

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Extra! Extra!

Several months ago I learned of a website called myMISSIONfulfilled that is maintained by the Women's Missionary Union (axillary to the Southern Baptist Convention) that is geared specifically toward encouraging young women in living missionally. Some of you may remember the WMU from Mission Friends, RAs or GAs, but now the WMU is seeking to reach a demographic that may not be at church on Wednesday nights. The site is full of Bible studies, stories of world missions, and sage wisdom about how to share the gospel wherever you are. A link to the site had been listed in the sidebar of my blog since this fall, but I want to formally recommend it to you now. You can visit it here.

I've felt really privelaged the past couple of months to do some freelance work for the publication. My first article--about missionary endeavors in Sudan--launched this week. You can read it here.

My editor has asked the writers to plug the site as much as possible--so please check it out this week as you have a chance, even if you're not a twenty-something girl :)