Sunday, November 27, 2016

Amazon's Call for Sabbath

"Sundays should come with a pause button." 

So said Amazon in the email we just received.

Was Amazon trying to make a profoundly theological statement? Probably not. (They actually wanted us to "pause" what we were doing and go shopping.) But they capitalized on our collective longing for a break from a to-do list that never seems to end. And in so doing, they pointed to the wisdom of Yahweh's command at Sinai: "Remember the Sabbath."*

The fact is that we all need a break. A rhythmic time of rest. A chance to recharge so we can re-engage our work with fresh energy.

Sabbath is less about attending a worship service (this is important for other reasons) and more about recognizing that we are not machines. We all need to hit the "pause button" or we will quickly reach burnout.

For the Israelites, just rescued from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt, the Sabbath was a weekly reminder of their freedom (see Deuteronomy 5:12–15). Yahweh was their provider. They no longer had a harsh taskmaster who required ceaseless labor. Six days of work was sufficient. Every member of the household, even the animals, were afforded a day of rest. The very architecture of God's creative work recognized the delightful rhythm of work and rest (see Genesis 2:1–3). As a nation, Israel was to model their work week after God's (see Exodus 20:8–11).

Our problem is that we often fall to one extreme or the other. On one side are those of us living a lifestyle of laziness, doing as little work as possible and prioritizing entertainment -- social media, TV, Netflix, and computer games absorb our attention hour after hour. On the other side are those of us who never unplug from work. Task-oriented emails, income generating activity, and household chores permeate our evenings and weekends until our days are indistinguishable from one another. We never stop because if we do, we're afraid we'll be snowed under. We can't rest because we'll fall behind. We must keep pushing or we'll lose our competitive edge.

For those of us in this latter category, Sabbath saves us from ourselves. We are our own most ruthless taskmaster. For us, Sabbath signals our surrender. Jesus is Lord. Not me. God is in control. Not me. The Almighty is my provider. Not me. I can rest in his tender care.

Sabbath is more than a schedule change. It involves a radical reorientation of our perspective. 

Sundays do come with a pause button. We just have to have the discipline to push it. When we do, we'll find that it is one of God's wisest and best gifts.

Did you hit the pause button today? If so, what life-giving and restorative activity took the place of the work you set aside?


*I'm aware the Sabbath falls on Saturday, not Sunday. But in keeping with the rhythm of the early church to meet for worship on Sunday, I'm thinking of that day as the Christian "Sabbath."

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Remembering the Alamo: A Thanksgiving Homily

The crumbling facade of a stone building is missing its roof and part of its second floor. A pile of stone rubble sits in the courtyard. In front of the building are a horse-drawn carriage and several people in 1850s-style clothing: women in long dresses with full skirts and men in fancy suits with top hats.
By Unknown - Frank Thompson, The Alamo (2005),
p. 106, Public Domain 
"Remember the Alamo!"

The cry, unbidden, echoed through my mind the moment I saw it. I was staring at Google Maps, locating my hotel in relation to the rest of the conference venues. And there it was: "The Alamo." Right across the street from my "home base" in San Antonio.

I paused, 5th grade history lessons distant and faded.

"Remember the Alamo?"

What exactly was I supposed to remember? Something about Texas, I think. An old fort, maybe? But that's as far as I got. Whatever happened there had long ago had been discarded as one of those "useless" facts that would not help me in real life.

Israel was also called to "Remember!" Remembering was not just the means to an "A" in history class. It was the key to the survival of their faith. Without memory, faith fades.

And here's where the Alamo comes in. Why don't I remember the Alamo? Because I only heard about it once, in a history class. In order to truly remember, in order for it to matter, the story must be consciously inscribed on my memory through recital. I don't remember the Alamo because the story has not become part of my story. I ceased to tell it as soon as the childhood test was turned in.

Psalm 135 and 136 are psalms of remembrance. They walk through Israel's history, retelling what God has done and thereby keeping those memories alive for each new generation. Psalm 136 sounds the rhythmic refrain, "his love endures forever."
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good.
His love endures forever...who by his understanding made the heavens,
His love endures him who led his people through the wilderness;
His love endures forever...and freed us from our enemies.
His love endures forever. (Psalm 136:1, 5, 16, 24)
For Israel to cultivate a faith that endured, they knew they must keep telling the story.

My quick weekend trip to San Antonio left no time for sightseeing. I attended three breakfasts, two receptions, ten paper presentations, a council meeting, seven meetings reconnecting with friends and mentors, a podcast interview, and two publisher meetings. In between all this I wove my way through the book displays, hunting for spring textbooks, pitching book ideas, and buying the books on my list.

I was told it only took a half hour to see the Alamo, but since my hotel was a 10-minute walk from the conference venue, and I was going strong from 7am to 10:45pm each day, I missed the opportunity to see it.

The Alamo (Photo: Rex Koivisto)
Ironically, though, I will always remember the Alamo. I will remember it as the place where God came through in a dramatic way for me. I arrived in San Antonio with a "hole" on my resumé. I was (essentially) unpublished. Sure, I had written several book reviews, and I had a small contribution in a student resource on the Septuagint, and I had been blogging for years, but in order to get a permanent job, I would need a book contract. This was the next crucial step in my transition from "student" to "professor"—to demonstrate that I could and would make an ongoing contribution to scholarship.

I went to San Antonio with one prayer and one goal: a book contract.

And I came home with two!

It was a miracle weekend, and we will always be grateful.

Wikipedia tells me that the Alamo was an important battle in the fight for Texan independence. It was not a victory, but a battle the Texans lost to the army of Santa Anna. That defeat became a rallying cry for Texans to join the cause and take back territory. In a sense, then, my Alamo was years ago, when I stared failure in the face and considered giving up.

I am so glad I didn't. God has carried us through thick and thin.
His love endures forever!

What has God done in your life this year? Today is the day of remembering. Tell the story as you gather with family and friends. Only in the retelling will we "remember the Alamo."

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

the best news since graduation

It's been a really big year for the Imes family.

  • First, there was the last-minute call from the department chair at George Fox University, inviting me to teach a spring course . . . immediately. Of course I said yes.
  • Then there was my successful dissertation defense on April 1 -- an event that was actually fun!
  • I came home to a brand new car (my first ever), a surprise from my parents.
  • All of us returned to Wheaton for my graduation in May and reconnected with so many dear friends.

And it felt like the whole world was celebrating with us.

In the intervening months I have had speaking engagements, dissertation revisions, a summer intensive, a fantastic week of VBS, a publishing project for Zondervan, and a new semester with three great classes -- Exodus and Psalms at George Fox University, and Prophets (online) at Multnomah University.

But this . . . this is the best news since graduation. Last week I descended on San Antonio with thousands of other scholars for the annual meetings of the Institute for Biblical Research and the Society of Biblical Literature. My hope was to return home with a book contract. I got two!

My dissertation has been accepted for publication in the Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement Series with Eisenbrauns. The title is Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai: A Re-Examination of the Name Command of the Decalogue. I hope it will be available by this time next year! It's especially gratifying to have my work appear in this series alongside two of my "Blockhead" brothers (a.k.a. students of Daniel Block), Matthew Patton and Austin Surls. Both men have been stellar examples of solid scholarship paired with a servant's heart and commitment to the church. It's an honor to be in print together. Soli deo gloria!

A peek at the Illustrated Genesis in Hebrew, by Timothy McNinch
I also come home from San Antonio with a surprise contract to produce an Illustrated Exodus in Hebrew for GlossaHouse. It will include the entire Hebrew text of Exodus with an English translation. The illustrations were done by Keith Neely. I will create the text boxes and speech bubbles, insert the text, adapt the pictures as needed, and provide an English translation. It will be a great resource for Hebrew Reading classes or students who want to keep practicing their reading skills.

I also had a very positive conversation with another publisher about writing a book for laypeople that includes insights from my MA thesis and doctoral dissertation. I'll submit a formal proposal for that project in the next few weeks.

It was "The Year of the Publisher" for me at SBL. I'm so grateful for these opportunities to contribute to the scholarly community as well as build resources for students and laypeople to enhance their understanding of Scripture. I've got my work cut out for me in 2017!

Monday, November 7, 2016

election day encouragement

It is hard to imagine a more sobering election cycle in America. I watched the primaries with interest and the nominations with alarm. I am quite simply speechless. Are these really the best candidates for President that our nation could produce? I'm tempted to list the shocking specifics that make this election unprecedented, but you've had enough of that already, and my goal is to encourage you.

I borrow the words of the prophet Micah:
"Listen, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel.
Should you not embrace justice, you who hate good and love evil?" (Micah 3:1–2a)
"Hear this, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel,
who despise justice and distort all that is right;
who build Zion with bloodshed, and Jerusalem with wickedness.
Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price,
and her prophets tell fortunes for money.
Yet they look for the LORD's support and say,
'Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us." (Micah 3:9–11) 
Like ancient Israel, this campaign season has been drenched with distortion and lies, wickedness and injustice, and yet the candidates vie for endorsement from religious leaders. Tomorrow as millions of Americans head to the polls, they will likely send a clear signal that it's okay to cheat your way to the top, okay to take advantage of the system, okay to abuse power to get what you want, and okay to consider yourself above the law. To be clear, I am not vilifying any single candidate. Either major party nominee will bring with them to the White House a long list of offenses. It's enough to invite despair.

But then there's the Psalms. I've just read through the "enthronement psalms" -- Psalms 93–99. These psalms are intriguing, in part because they directly follow the despair of an apparently failed Davidic covenant (Psalm 89), in a section of the book that mentions neither David nor another human king. Who's in charge? How can we have enthronement if there's no king? For those in exile, this was an urgent question.

For the enthronement psalms the answer is simple: Yahweh is king over the whole earth. And what a candidate he is!

God is utterly blameless:
"Your statutes, LORD, stand firm; holiness adorns your house for endless days." (Psalm 93:5)
God is full of loving compassion for the weak:
"When I said, 'My foot is slipping," your unfailing love, LORD, supported me." (Psalm 94:18)
God is praiseworthy:
"Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise." (Psalm 96:4a) 
 Even his foreign policy is celebrated:
"The LORD reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice." (Psalm 97:1)
God will make just decisions and treat people fairly:
"He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity." (Psalm 98:9b)
Now that's a leader I can get behind.

And so on this election day, vote your conscience. Make every effort to elect leaders whose character will compel them to uphold justice and govern wisely. Choose the best you can. But remember this: our hope does not rest in humans. The one who sits enthroned above all is the God who saves.
"Exalt the LORD our God and worship at his footstool; he is holy." (Psalm 99:9)
Against the black backdrop of this election cycle, this is very good news indeed.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

the surprising beauty of unanswered prayer

Do you ever wonder if you're missing something when it comes to prayer?
I'm right there with you.

Our prayer life is often anemic.

We pray for good weather, safe travel, good health, a good night's sleep. We pray for good news from the doctor, success in our job interview, a good grade on a test. We thank God for all the blessings we enjoy -- like food, shelter, family, friends. And then we dive back into the cacophony of noise and images and urgent to-do lists that distract us from thinking much more about it. In a pinch we send up a rocket prayer for peace or strength or wisdom to make it through whatever threatens to make us late to our next appointment or miss our next deadline.

Is that all there is to it?

The more I read the Psalms, the more I'm convinced that we need a prayer overhaul.

The Psalms invite us to come as we are, to express the full range of our most carefully guarded thoughts in God's presence. They model for us raw emotion -- unflinching honesty, unhinged violence, unabated longing, unadulterated gratitude, unfiltered praise. Biblical Psalms run the whole gamut of attitudes and experiences -- settled, wrestling, protesting, celebrating, lamenting.

Until we're desperate for another way to pray, I suspect most of us prefer the cheerful psalms -- psalms that offer reassurance and comfort, reminding us of all that our great God has done, assuring us of all he will do to make things right. But there comes a season when these psalms merely rub salt in the wound. It is then we need the darker psalms -- psalms that echo our own experiences of alienation and struggle, psalms willing to voice the questions we thought were off limits. Most of these darker psalms have a note of hope that resolves the tensions of the psalmist's experience. They begin with questions and end with answers.

But not all do. This week I discovered two psalms that break the pattern: Psalms 88 and 89. These come at the end of "Book 3" of Psalms (Psalms 73–89). Neither one ties a neat bow on the psalmist's ache. They simply leave it there, heaving and trembling, waiting for a response. And that response never comes.

Psalm 88 is strikingly different from other lament psalms for other reasons, too. While others complain about vicious enemies who attack, bent on destruction, Psalm 88 mentions no human foe. Here the problem is none other than God.
You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves . . .
Why, LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:6–7, 14; NIV)
Can you see the direct challenge to God? Instead of resolving this tension with a closing note of hope, the psalm ends in darkness.
You have taken from me friend and neighbor — darkness is my closest friend. (v. 18)
In Hebrew, "darkness" is the final word of the psalm. No happy endings here. The psalmist has dared to confront God. And now he sits alone in darkness.

Psalm 89 begins with praise, and a long recital of all the cosmic wonders God has done. We might initially think that this psalm offers relief from the despair of Psalm 88. Another long stanza retells the glorious covenant with David from 2 Samuel 7 -- God's promise that David and his descendants will reign over God's people "as long as the heavens endure" (Psalm 89:29). This is the centerpiece of Israel's national theology, her most treasured promise.


Everything changes in verse 38. Clear through to verse 51, the psalmist confronts God with the brutal reality that does not match God's promise.
But you have rejected, you have spurned,
you have been very angry with your anointed one.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant
and have defiled his crown in the dust. (Psalm 89:38–39; NIV)
The psalmist is understandably distressed. We could understand if Israel's enemies attacked her king. But God? And he dares to call God to account.
How long, LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire? (v. 46)
And then the piercing question, one that looks God full in the face:
Lord, where is your former great love,
which in your faithfulness you swore to David? 
Whatever happened to the Davidic Covenant? Has it expired? Can we no longer count on God to fulfill the promise?

The last word of this Psalm in Hebrew is Mashiach (=Messiah). But this is no triumphant Messiah. He is the subject of mockery, shamed, plundered, and scorned, with his crown and throne in the dust.

Don't be fooled by the statement of praise in verse 52. This is not the end of the psalm. It is the standard closing to the end of this "book" within the larger book of Psalms, added by the editor of the entire collection (see 41:13; 72:18–19; and 106:48). While it affirms that the LORD is still to be praised, it does nothing to answer the psalmist's prayer.

We sit, with both psalmists, in the dark, in the dust. Waiting.

I find a strange comfort in these psalms. They may be unanswered, but they have been kept for us. That in itself implies that God heard their cries. The fact that these appear in sacred Scripture tells me that unanswered prayer is a normal part of the experience of faith. They invite us to bring our darkest and most dangerous questions to God. Doing so does not disqualify us from the faith. Quite the opposite. Doing so is the prerequisite of faith — trusting God with how we really feel and with what we really think.

These unanswered psalms are a snapshot of faithful prayer. Having voiced our desolation to God, we wait. That praying, that waiting — they are the stuff of faith. And while we don't see an immediate answer to Psalms 88 and 89, they are beautiful in their own way because they preserve a part of our shared experience. They show us we are in good company. And because they are tucked in the middle of a host of other prayers, answered ones, we know that they are not the end of the story.

Do we perhaps avoid certain kinds of prayer because we doubt they will be answered? God invites us to pray without holding back. No desire is too deep, no darkness is too ugly, no hope is too outlandish, no accusation too blasphemous. We can say it all. And then we wait.

Perhaps this is what we've been missing.