Wednesday, March 30, 2011

learning to listen

I just finished listening to a church history course lecture on Medieval Spirituality.  Spirituality is a hot topic again in our day, but it often comes in the form of a thinly-veiled quest for personal power or fulfillment or peace of mind rather than a genuine attempt to know God and align ourselves with His will.

Medieval Spirituality centered on the practice of prayer.  Unbroken communion with the Most High was the goal.  As Henri Nouwen said, "Jesus was all ears. That is true prayer: being all ears for God. the core of all prayer is listening, obediently standing in the presence of God."

But to listen we have to shut out the noise. And in our technology-saturated culture that is harder and harder to do. Our computers and cellphone and ipads call to us.  Facebook updates and blog posts (like this one!) pull our attention away from our need to be still and listen.  Charles Ringma (Dare to Journey wtih Henri Nouwen, reflection 52) speaks of it as an "outward momentum" that prevents us from "time for inwardness."  He says, "It is not only that we are busy doing things, nor that we spend a lot of time thinking about what should be done; it is also that we become restless when there is nothing on our immediate horizon.  We are therefore outwardly focused even when we have the opportunity to enter the inner sanctuary for refreshment and renewal."

I know that restless feeling all too well.  I feel a compulsion to check email again (even though I checked 5 minutes ago).  I feel like I'm missing something so I check Facebook or find a blog to read or call my mom.  For some of you the TV or the refrigerator becomes your quest for that something. All the while what we need most is to be still.  To be unplugged from constant status updates and breaking news.  To listen.  Just listen.

It feels odd at first.  It's awkward and empty.  But as we train our minds to focus on the unbounded love of God, we can learn to drink deeply of that love, and silence becomes sweet.  I, for one, would like to get to that place where listening prayer is as natural as breathing.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

double digits

It's a crazy feeling to be the parent of a kid who is entering her double digits.  TEN.  Where has all the time gone?

Ten years ago today we were wondering if our baby would ever arrive.  The three days that she waited until after her due date to arrive were the longest three days of my life.  But then she came. (Surprise!  I had myself convinced it was a boy!)  And so did the wonderful, challenging, joyful and exhausting world of parenthood.  Eliana's name means "God has answered" in Hebrew.  God answered our prayers for a child after the heartache of miscarriage. 

 In her ten years Eliana has lived in four houses, a duplex, two apartments, and a townhouse in three different time zones. She has attended a private preschool, two public schools, and has been homeschooled in two different houses. She's been part of six different churches ranging from Mennonite to Methodist.  Perhaps most impressively she's been on no less than 100 airplane flights.  In spite of all the transition she's been through in her 10 years, Eliana is bright, friendly, and resiliant. She's excited about moving to the Chicago area and making new friends.  Last month she took an important step in her spiritual journey by being baptized.  We were thrilled.

Eliana is an avid reader, and her favorite thing to do when she's not reading is plan parties.  She's managed to have 12 birthday parties in 10 years, but her 10th birthday party was the best one yet, with an American Girl theme.  For several years she's been talking about becoming an elementary school librarian when she grows up (a natural choice).  Recently she decided she would like to be a teacher in Ecuador.  Whatever she does she'll do well.  She's mature, level-headed, motivated, and creative.  We love you, Eliana, and it's a joy to be your parents!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

priesthood of all believers?

There is a widespread, popular assumption that the Bible teaches the concept of the "priesthood of all believers."  This is usually taken to mean that each of us individually has access to God without needing a mediator (other than Christ).  Since all of us are priests, we are free to interpret Scripture on our own, and (in its most extreme form) the line between clergy and laypeople should be erased altogether.

In my research on 1 Peter 2:9-10 for my thesis, I was exposed to a book by John Elliott entitled, The Elect and the Holy, where he sets out to explore the biblical foundations of the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” Such doctrine is usually traced to 1 Peter 2:9, where Peter calls believers a “royal priesthood” (or “kingdom, body of priests” depending on how you translate it). Elliott traces the Old Testament development of that theme as it arises from Exodus 19:5-6, and demonstrates that when Moses called Israel a “kingdom of priests” (the source of Peter’s phrase in 1 Peter 2:9), this does not preclude the establishment of a Levitical priesthood just a few chapters later. In other words, “kingdom of priests” was NOT an attempt to abolish a distinction between clergy and laity. Jews were not being encouraged to strike out on their own. Exodus 19:5-6 was expressing that Israel as a whole was elected and set apart for God’s service.

Similarly, the New Testament church is elect and set apart for service. First Peter 2:9 describes the purpose of this election: “that you may declare the praiseworthiness of the one who has called you from darkness into his marvelous light” (my translation). Peter does not intend to do away with clergy and laity. He goes on to give special instructions to the elders in chapter five. Clearly he sees a role for church leaders.

Those entrusted with leadership roles in the church are responsible to explain the scriptures to those who do not or cannot understand. I am all for English Bible translations and personal Bible study (see my preceding post). But all of us wear glasses when we come to the Bible, and we need one another in order to see what we’ve missed because of our own faulty perspective or expectations. We need our leaders to guide our understanding of the big picture of biblical theology so that we are not swept away by wrong interpretations. The Bible is, as the Reformers insisted, perspicuous (that is, understandable), but we are not all equally skilled at understanding it. That is why God gave teachers to the church (Eph 4:11). There is no shame in not being a teacher. “Each one should use whatever gift they have received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Pet 4:10)  All of us are elect, and we all serve the Lord, but we still need teachers and leaders in the church to help us understand and choose the best path. Rugged individualism simply can't be found in God's design for the church.

Monday, March 21, 2011

did we really need another new English Bible translation?

In a word, yes. 

I used to lament the fact that so many English Bible translations were available while some languages had none. While I do feel that whenever possible our resources should be used to bring the message of God's Word to those who have not yet had opportunity to hear, I no longer groan when I hear of another English version. The English language, like all languages, changes over time. As you may be aware, this month a revised version of the NIV was released. Danny lost his Bible several months ago, and we've been waiting until now to replace it.  Personally, I'm excited about this attempt to correct some of the errors in the 1984 NIV as well as respond to ways that the English language has changed since then. I've just finished writing my thesis on 1 Peter 2:9-10, and I'm happy to report that the NIV 2011 does a better job with the phrase laos eis peripoiesin than any other English translation to date (except for the TNIV, which is being replaced by the NIV 2011).

One positive change is a moderate step toward gender-inclusive language. The TNIV was criticized in some quarters for capitulating to a liberal feminist agenda. The NIV 2011 takes a mediating position between the 1984 NIV and the TNIV. The translators (headed by Dr. Douglas Moo of Wheaton Graduate School) did extensive research on the state of the English language so that the wrong impression was not given to readers. My daughters are growing up in a world where "man" is rarely used to refer to the entire human race irrespective of gender. I want them to have a Bible available to read that does not give the impression that they are second-class citizens of the kingdom of God. Where the Greek can be reasonably assumed to intend a mixed-gender referent, the NIV 2011 seeks to use an English term that gives the same connotations.

Gender-accuracy is not the only benefit of the NIV 2011. The translation committee has also adjusted the translation of certain phrases to more accurately reflect the ambiguity of the Greek. N. T. Wright, former Anglican bishop of Durham and now lecturer at St. Andrew's in Scotland, goes so far as to suggest that one cannot possibly understand Paul's point in Romans by reading the NIV (1984). [I read this in his recent book, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision.] In particular, Wright was referring to the phrase dikaiosune theou, which could either refer to a righteousness that God imputes to us (implied by the NIV 1984, "righteousness from God"), or the righteousness which God himself possesses ("righteousness of God," NIV 2011). Indeed, the NIV 2011 has come a long way towards recovering the possibilities latent in Greek. Therefore, in my view, it was an important, and justifiable use of resources. How many millions of people read the NIV? It is probably the world's most common translation in use today. I'm so glad that it has been updated to reflect advances made in biblical scholarship and changes to the English language. For more information on these improvements, click here

New English translations are probably the best opportunity for Bible scholars to make their work available to the general public. We know a lot more about both Hebrew and Greek than we did in the 80's. More manuscripts have been discovered, and the work done on the Dead Sea Scrolls has helped to clarify the meanings of many obscure biblical words (especially those that only occur once). So why buy a copy of the NIV 2011 if you already own a copy of the NIV?  Because it takes you a step closer to what the Bible really meant to its original audience.  In hundreds, maybe even thousands, of little places the translation committee adjusted the English to more accurately reflect the Greek and Hebrew originals.  And -- for those of you who don't plan to learn Hebrew or Greek -- that's worth celebrating!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

salt and light

Those who know us well are sometimes surprised that we have allowed our children to attend public school rather than homeschooling them. While my own schooling has been one factor, another has been our desire to interface with those who do not yet know Jesus.  I had the privilege of a strong Christian education for my entire childhood, but I knew very few unbelievers (I can think of 2 families off hand). We understand the value of Christian education, but we have decided that for now our children can learn math, reading, science and social studies in a public school setting and then process with us any occasion where there is a "rub" between what they are learning in the classroom and what Scripture teaches.  The journey has not been entirely without its challenges, but on the whole our kids have had a good experience. A comment by my professor, Dr. Garth Rosell, in a lecture on early church history captures the heart of why we have chosen this path:

"The early Christians did not compartmentalize life as we so often do, but they lived out their Christian lives in the society as salt and light, and they trusted God that he would preserve them in the midst of the dangers of that larger culture and actually make them agents for the reformation of that culture."

We were reminded of this the other day when Emma reported her conversation with a classmate. "I asked him if he believed in Jesus," she said. "But he said, 'No,' so I told him all about the Bible before school started. Of course I stopped when the announcements started because we're not allowed to talk then. But I finished the story at recess." I asked her what stories she told him (hoping that it wasn't all hellfire and damnation this time). She replied, "Well, most of them really. Like the Lord's Prayer, and the story about the man who got hurt along the road and nobody would help him, and stuff like that." When asked how he responded she said, "He said that he did want to believe in Jesus and that he would talk to his parents about it." Well done, sweet Emma!

We continue to pray for God's protection over our children, and there may come a day when the benefits of public school education no longer outweigh the dangers, but for now we seek to be salt and light.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

the speed of your soul

My devotional today reminded me of the wise words of a good friend.

First, the devotional: Charles Ringma, in Dare to Journey with Henri Nouwen, talks about "The Matter of Balance." He says, "We frequently play one priority, discipline, or grace against another. We emphasize one thing only to neglect another.  For example, we pray, but fail to work.  We serve, but fail to be inwardly renewed.  to hold together various spiritual disciplines, priorities, and emphases remains one of our biggest challenges -- and one of our most pressing needs."

Now, for the wise words: Dr. Jeff Arthurs, professor of preaching at Gordon-Conwell and a long-time friend and mentor, chastened me once by saying, "Minister at the speed of your soul."   In other words, only you know how much is too much to have on your plate.  And as soon as there is too much, your soul will suffer and you will be depleted and have nothing to give.  I like what he said because it takes the focus off of what others are able to accomplish and puts it back where it belongs, on what God has designed me to do.  We need a balance between soaking in God's love for us and pouring that love out for others.  One without the other will not do.

In my experience, life requires re-balancing on a very regular basis.  It's impossible to keep this balance at every moment, nor does God ask us to.  Urgent needs do arise, and during some seasons all efforts to minister are met with closed doors. Jesus gave and gave and gave, but he also took time away for prayer and communion with the Father. Personally, I'm relishing the opportunity to soak after an intense season of output.  My soul is catching up with me.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

utterly adorable

You know you've been busy when the thought of completing a semester course (from start to finish) in 6 week's time sounds downright relaxing. Seriously, with my thesis, PhD decision, and last Saturday's speaking engagement behind me, a huge weight has been lifted and I am delighting in the freedom. Life has been on hold for the past 2 months and now I can catch up without feeling as if I'm neglecting something urgent. The kids have enjoyed having more of my attention.

This morning I joined the family for "morning exercises" (a few minutes of stretching before breakfast). I groaned as I tried unsuccessfully to touch my toes. Easton thought he'd be my little helper. He ran over and touched my toes for me!  I may not be limber, but my toes have officially been touched! What an adorable kid.

Emma is soaking in the return to routine and becoming her cheerful self again.   The other day it was time for chores and her legs were mysteriously tired (this often happens at chore time).  I told her she had no choice but to work anyway. A few minutes later she came to find me with a glowing report: "It's amazing, Mom! I reached down to pick something up to obey you and my legs were suddenly healed!  They're not tired anymore!"  Darling. She has decided that she wants to be an author and illustrator when she grows up. Her current project is organizing her bedroom library so that books are available for the general public to check out. She's also busy making lists of books to write someday that Eliana and I "would let our kids buy." She thinks perhaps if she wrote a good plot to go with Hello Kitty or Sponge Bob than I would reconsider my position on popular children's books (which tend to be lacking in substance and style).  I've reassured her that I do think Hello Kitty is cute, and I would certainly want to buy any books she writes, but Sponge Bob may not be redeemable.

Eliana is (gulp) almost double digits now. She's been making big plans for her 10th birthday for over a year now.  Those of you who know her well know that planning parties is the highlight of her life.  It's been so fun to see her maturity this year in planning (the ideas are becoming more reasonable and thoughtful). To help her celebrate we took her to Party City and let her pick out the supplies she needed.  We majorly splurged, spending $30 on decorations to fit her red star, American Girl theme.  (Normally we make do with what we have). I would do that 10 times over just to see her face light up the way it did.  The next morning I was headed to Wal-mart to find a few things we still needed.  She stopped me and looked me right in the eye: "Ok, Mom, now don't go all out.  We already had our shopping spree.  The party is gonna be just fine."  Gotta love that girl.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

find and replace

I have officially finished my Masters thesis [insert huge sigh of relief]. It has been an exciting project to work on in many ways, but the past few days have been swallowed up by the most tedious of tasks: editing. Each of the 81 pages, 201 footnotes, and 35,000 words had to be carefully checked for errors.

Yesterday I was counting my blessings as I used "find and replace" to locate every instance where I had two spaces and needed only one, every time I capitalized the word gentiles or scripture (and shouldn't have), and every place where I wrote out a whole word like "Exodus" when I should have abbreviated. I would still be sitting here editing were it not for the terrific programmer who invented "find and replace." God bless him or her!

It made me think.  Wouldn't it be nice to have a "find and replace" function for life?  I would love to "find" all the messes in my house and replace them with "order."
..."find" exhaustion and "replace" it with energy.
..."find" impatience and "replace" it with gentleness.
..."find" stress and "replace" it with peace.
..."find" greed and "replace" it with contentment.
..."find" grumpiness and "replace" it with joy.
..."find" conflict and "replace" it with unity.
..."find" pride and "replace" it with humility.
..."find" unforgiveness and "replace" it with grace.

Then it hit me. We do have a "find and replace" function for life. His name is the Holy Spirit. And He delights to search our hard drive to help us become who we were meant to be, if we will submit to the sometimes painful and often tedious process of "finding" and "replacing" what is there.

"Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting."
Psalm 139:23-24

"Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin."
Psalm 51:1-2

Come, Holy Spirit, and edit my life.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

a long story with a happy ending

In the fall of 2006, more than four years ago, I started an MA in Biblical Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC.  During that first semester I spoke with several professors about PhD programs, asking for their recommendations.  Ray Lubeck, one of my mentors from Multnomah Bible College, suggested that I keep an eye on Wheaton.  While their PhD program was quite new, with a unique focus on Biblical Theology, it looked like it was going to be a strong one.

Twenty-one months ago I first sat down face-to-face with a professor from Wheaton to talk about their PhD program.  Dr. Greg Beale said that if I wanted to be a competetive applicant I would need to come in swinging; having only one MA was like fighting with one hand tied behind my back.  Since he was leaving Wheaton to take a position at Westminster, he recommended that I correspond with Dr. Daniel Block, professor of OT.  Ironically, our discipleship pastor had just driven up to Wheaton to meet with Dr. Block, and he spoke very highly of him. 

Within a month Multnomah (our alma mater) announced that they had hired their first woman Bible teacher, Dr. Becky Josberger, who had written her dissertation under the supervision of none other than Daniel Block.  I contacted Becky right away to ask her about her expereince working under Dr. Block. She responded enthusiastically, saying that studying with him had been one of the chief highlights of her life.  I quickly checked out a book from the library, The Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament Book-by-Book, so that I could read what he had to say about Deuteronomy. It was outstanding.

Around this time I was offered a job as a TA for Greek or Hebrew at Gordon-Conwell.  Danny told me that if I felt like I could handle that much work, then I should take an extra class instead so that I could graduate sooner.  We had no idea then how important that would be...

Eighteen months ago I wrote to Dr. Block for the first time, introducing myself, asking several questions, and exploring whether our research interests were a good match.  He wrote back right away with great information about Wheaton's program and a responded favorably to my research idea. We met for the first time three months later at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in New Orleans, Louisiana (Nov 2009). The hour we spent talking literally flew by.  I had one big question for Dr. Block that day: Should I take my time to finish my current degree and add extra experience to my resume? Or should I press ahead full-speed so that I can apply next year (to begin in 2011)? He did not hesitate.  "Hurry and finish," he told me. "I am nearing retirement and I may only accept one more batch of students." Three months earlier that would have been nearly impossible, but becuase of Danny's wisdom in encouraging me to take two classes at once, I would just be able to finish in time.

Dr. Block and I corresponded throughout 2010, discussing possible research ideas.  I kept him abreast of what I was doing to strengthen my application (reading certain books, learning German, visiting the campus, etc).  I began to focus my research assignments towards a possible dissertation topic.  In September of last year I was taken aback when I learned that Dr. Block would only be accepting ONE student this year.  We began to research other schools in earnest, seeking a good backup option in case I wasn't accepted.  Each time I found one I liked, Danny would ask, "What if they say 'no,' too? Will you wish you had applied elsewhere?" After 4-6 weeks of complete preoccupation with this we had decided on four other schools: Fuller Theological Seminary, Asbury Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Princeton Theological Seminary.  Completing my applications to all five schools took another month. Twenty-five transcripts, seventeen essays, twenty-two recommendations from seven professors and mentors, and countless emails later, my applications were complete. 

I had an opportunity to meet doctoral supervisors from all five schools in Atlanta in November, at the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature.  I came away feeling like it would be a privilege to work with any one of them, but my heart was still at Wheaton. We were encouraged to learn that Dr. Block was going to be able to accept two students after all, but sobered to hear that he was in conversation with 30 other applicants for those positions.  Aside from a strong focus on Biblical Theology and integration between disciplines (OT, NT, Sytematic and Historical Theology), an all-star list of faculty, and a stellar reputation, Wheaton offers a full scholarship to each student in their PhD program, plus a generous stipend in exchange for working as a TA. This makes for a competetive application process.

I was notified one month ago that I had made the first "cut" and was being invited to interview on campus. In the interim period I received offers from two other schools (Fuller and Trinity). I've spent a number of hours talking with professors and former students from Fuller, trying to get a sense for the ethos of the school and whether we could afford to make the move to Southern California.  I tried to make good use of my time in the Chicago area by visiting Trinity's campus and checking things out around Wheaton: a house for sale, an elementary school, a preschool, a church, as well as the local public library.  I took lots of pictures for the family, wanting to give them a sense for what life in Wheaton would be like.  I felt relaxed at the interview, and enjoyed the opportunity to share more about how God has led us in this direction.  There were a couple of questions, though, for which I was totally unprepared.  I hoped that my eagerness to be formed as a Christian scholar would outweigh my ignorance of the current state of Old Testament theology.  Apparently it did.

It's amazing how God works.  I didn't want to put the house on the market until after I had received an offer of acceptance, and after our pear trees were in bloom and the grass was green.  Danny felt like it was important to put it on the market by March 1st, but wanted to have all the home improvements completed by then.  Well, guess what?  My parents arrived a week ago to help us get the house ready to sell. We now have a new deck, new kitchen floor and sink, and lots of other improvements to make the house "turn-key ready." Yesterday the trees bloomed, the grass turned green, the renovations were complete, and I got the happy phone call from Dr. Block at Wheaton.  The sign is in the yard and we're all in awe of God's timing.  My parents left this morning, but were here just long enough to hear the good news and celebrate with us.  And, while Fuller, Trinity, and Asbury are all great schools, with great professors and unique communities, it's clear to us all that Wheaton is the place for which God has been preparing us. We have lost count of the number of times we have been told by mentors and friends, "Wheaton would be the perfect place for you!" And so with joy we embark on this next phase of our journey.  To God be the glory!