Sunday, December 9, 2018

What Do You Expect This Christmas? (Part 3)

In this series I've explored the unmet expectations of our Christmas celebrations as well as unmet expectations in the first Christmas. We considered Simeon:

Simeon is an old man, and he’s been watching and waiting for God’s deliverance his entire life. He sees baby Jesus and knows instantly that the moment has finally come. God has answered his prayers! 

But Simeon doesn’t stop with these celebratory words. He ends with a sober warning:
“This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, but he will be a joy to many others. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” (Luke 2:34-35) 
Jesus is not all puppy dogs and rainbows. His birth would make a horrible Hallmark movie. Instead, his coming exposes the hearts of every woman and man. People will either love or hate this man. Because of Jesus, lives will be ruined. Secrets revealed. Hearts pierced as with a sword.

Detail of "The Killing of the Innocents" by Leon Cogniet
(1824) - Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France /
Giraudon / The Brideman Art Library
And it doesn’t take long. Before the baby can walk or talk, King Herod catches wind that a special child has been born, destined to be “king of the Jews.” Herod calls himself King of the Jews, so this baby is a real threat to his own power. In his paranoia, he orders his men to kill all the babies in and around Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt as political refugees just in the nick of time, thanks to a foreboding nightmare. But that’s just the beginning. The birth of the Messiah is not what anyone expected.

Jesus grows up and is ready to begin his work as God’s Messiah – his anointed king. And it works out just as Simeon foretold when Jesus was just a wee little thing. Rather than a sword to pierce the Romans, Jesus’ words are like a sword that pierces the hearts of all who hear him, even the Jews, exposing their hypocrisy. His first recorded sermon in the book of Luke chapter 4 ends with the Jewish congregation trying to throw him off a cliff – literally.

We can’t embrace Jesus as our hero or teacher or prophet or king without his sword piercing our hearts, too. His words are life-giving, but they require surrender on our part – he’s in the business of releasing us from our sins and our fears. Transformation begins by exposing what’s deep down inside. Every one of us must decide: what will we do with Jesus? There is no neutral. We cannot hold him at arm’s length. We either let him do his work in us, or we reject him. That’s the surprise of Christmas.

It’s not just the first Christmas or our first encounter with Jesus where this happens. Whether we’ve been a Christian for 6 months or 60 years, Jesus’ coming has this effect on us every year. In the frenzy of the holiday, what we care about most becomes obvious. Our stress levels rise and fall with our expectations of ourselves and of others. How will this look to the neighbors? What kind of friend am I? What should I bring? Why wasn’t I invited? … If we surrender our expectations to him, we’re free to receive whatever he has for us. If we try to control things by clinging to our own expectations, we’re in for a tough ride.

Dear desire of every nation
Joy of every longing heart

What is the desire of your longing heart this Christmas – more than anything? And what do you fear most of all? As we approach Christmas – the day that celebrates Jesus’ coming into our world – our desires get exposed along with our fears. I leave you with this heartfelt advice for how to navigate Christmas this year:
1. Release your expectations for yourself and for others. Part of finding contentment is having a sober assessment of who we are and what we can reasonably accomplish in light of what God has designed us to do and what else is on our plates. We can’t do it all! Stress enters the picture when we expect more of ourselves than God does. Does he expect us to do all these things? If not, then why do we try to do them?
2. Refuse to numb your disappointment. When we feel things start to crumble and our expectations are unmet, the temptation is to numb the pain – binge watching, binge eating, frenzied activity, shutting down emotionally, oversleeping, spending sprees, drinking, perhaps – anything so that we don’t have to feel the disappointment. In fact, some of you have become so skilled at numbing that you would say you don’t have any expectations at all this Christmas. You’ve stopped caring. Numbing our disappointment actually prevents us from experiencing the gift of Christmas. Instead of numbing, here’s what I recommend:
3. Invite Jesus into the mess that is your real life. Come to him honestly, achingly, desperately. Jesus doesn’t wait to enter our world until it is neat and tidy and ready to post on Pinterest. He walks on stage in the middle of Act 2, when everyone has forgotten their lines and the whole show is on the verge of disaster. That’s his cue. It’s the part he plays masterfully. Jesus isn’t overwhelmed by your schedule or shocked by your family dynamics. He didn’t come to affirm us but to redeem us. Transformation is what he’s all about. Bringing joy and hope and rest in the midst of life’s mess is what he does best.
What will you do with Jesus this Christmas? Will you release your expectations to him? refusing to numb your disappointment and inviting him into the mess? His coming brings rest, hope, joy, and so much more, but not when we’re holding him at arm’s length and trying to do things on our own.
Come, thou long-expected JesusBorn to set thy people freeFrom our fears and sins release us
Let us find our rest in theeIsrael’s strength and consolationHope of all the earth thou artDear desire of every nationJoy of every longing heart*

Or in the words of another of my favorite Christmas carols,
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.**


*"Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus," Charles Wesley, 1744 
**"O Little Town of Bethlehem," Phillips Brooks, 1868

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

What Do You Expect This Christmas? (Part 2)

In the first post of this Advent series, I raised the issue of unmet expectations in our Christmas celebrations. In this post, we consider the first Christmas, which did not go as expected.


The Holy Family (Photo: C Imes)
Sweep away that image of a peaceful nativity. We know better. Is life with a newborn ever a “silent night”? And giving birth in a crowded house with distant relatives and their livestock is hardly a picture of “peace on earth.”

The first Christmas had more than its fair share of disappointments and unmet expectations. The Jewish people had been hoping and praying and waiting for centuries for a Savior.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus
Born to set thy people free

God had promised to send the people of Israel a king in the line of David, a Messiah –someone who could crush those who oppressed them and finally set them free. But that was a long time ago. In the meantime, other nations had dominated and abused them – first the Assyrian empire, then the Babylonians, then the Greeks, now the Romans. The Jews were weary of being mistreated. The Romans taxed them heavily and policed them ruthlessly. Jewish residents had no citizenship and no say in government. They were harassed about their worship and way of life. But for centuries they had held on to the promise that God would send the Messiah to crush their enemies and make them submit to God’s rule, ushering the Jewish nation into a glorious new age.

Finally Christmas came. A helpless baby was born to a young virgin whose fiancĂ© nearly called off the wedding. They had to travel across the country during her pregnancy for a census – the Roman oppressors’ way of counting them so they could extort more tax money to pay for an ever-expanding empire. Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem only to find that their relatives’ guest rooms are full. The implication is that they must sleep on the floor near the animals. The best cradle they can manage is a feeding trough.

This is Christmas? This is the coming of the king in the line of David? This is the one who will crush the enemies of God? It’s hardly worthy of an Instagram post, much less an angelic announcement.

An angel had appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him about the child: “Joseph son of David … do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

This must have come as a bit of a slap in the face to Joseph. For a people longing for deliverance from the Romans, imagine the effect when the hero shows up to save them from themselves. You are your own worst enemy. Ouch.

From our fears and sins release us
Let us find our rest in thee

When he’s about 40 days old, Mary and Joseph head to Jerusalem to dedicate baby Jesus at the temple. This is part of the Christmas story less well known. To figure out what’s going on, we need to understand a bit of history. When God rescued the Jews from slavery in Egypt back in the Old Testament era, the firstborn sons of Egyptian families died in the 10th plague. From then on, God asked Jewish families to dedicate their firstborn sons to him. That’s one reason Joseph and Mary visit the temple.

But Mary has a second reason for going. Every Jewish mother also offers two sacrifices for purification after childbirth. Childbirth is to be treated with great reverence because it is a matter of life and death. So when a new mother has finished bleeding, she is to bring a lamb and a pigeon as an offering to God, symbolizing her cleansing. Poor families may bring two pigeons or doves if they cannot afford a lamb. This is what Joseph and Mary do. Being poor, they bring two birds. Not what we might expect for the birth of a king!

"Simeon's Moment" by Ron DiCianni
(Photo: C Imes)
While they are at the temple, Mary and Joseph meet an unlikely character: Simeon. We pick up the story in Luke 2:25:
“At that time there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was righteous and devout and was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him and had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Messiah. That day the Spirit led him to the Temple. So when Mary and Joseph came to present the baby Jesus to the Lord as the law required, Simeon was there. He took the child in his arms and praised God, saying, 'Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace, as you have promised. I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!' Jesus' parents were amazed at what was being said about him." (Luke 2:25-33 NLT)
Simeon is an old man, and he’s been watching and waiting for God’s deliverance his entire life. He sees baby Jesus and knows instantly that the moment has finally come. God has answered his prayers!

Israel’s strength and consolation
Hope of all the earth thou art

But Simeon doesn’t stop with these celebratory words. He ends with a sober warning. We'll consider what it could possibly mean in Part 3 of this Advent Series.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

What Do You Expect This Christmas? (Part 1)

Expectations. The holiday season can be a minefield of emotions, can it not? So many hopes. So many fears. So many disappointments. So much to get done. So little time.

Sometimes I catch myself wondering, “Why can’t things be like they used to?”
It’s true that life was simpler way back when -- smaller social circles, fewer distractions, more stability. But do you remember how things really were? 

Photo: C Imes
You’ve watched children open presents. They’re too young to have a well-developed filter. Their faces show everything. “Thanks, Grandma,” through clenched teeth with sidelong glances at Mom and raised eyebrows. “Wow! How did you know?!” with squeals of delight. “Oh. I have this one already” (trying not to cry).

We have all been the child who didn’t get what she really wanted for Christmas. And many of us have been the parent who tried our darndest to select the right gift, only to have our child give us “that look” or melt into tears.

I was “that child” when I was about 10 years old. Mom was in the dining room wrapping presents. When I walked into the room she scrambled to hide something under some loose wrapping paper. But it was too late. I had seen it. A big bag of … bird seed. I remember being puzzled. Bird seed? Why is mom hiding bird seed? It didn’t take long to conclude that I must be getting a bird feeder. And in the time between Mom’s wrapping day and my opening presents, I became obsessed with birds. I read about them. I watched for them outside. I thought about where to put the bird feeder in the back yard so I could see it out my window. Birds had never been on my radar before, but now they dominated my thinking. And then the big day came – time to open presents. I eyed the pile of gifts until I found the one that was sure to be my bird feeder. They had saved it until last. I ripped open the paper with a twinkle in my eye. They couldn’t fool me. I had figured it out. I opened the box . . . and sat there, stunned. It was a sleeping bag. I think I cried. I was so confused. “Mom, what about the bird seed?” Now it was her turn to be surprised. “Bird seed? That was for Grandpa and Grandma’s bird feeder.” She never imagined that her little trick to throw me off course would be so effective. The sleeping bag was beautiful, covered with rainbows and sailboats and puffy clouds. But I was devastated.

I’m grown up now. I don’t cry about presents any more. But that doesn’t make Christmas any easier. Not only do I have my own expectations to manage, but I’m also affected by the expectations of everyone in the family. The grown-up side of Christmas can be intense – the cooking and planning and shopping and decorating and fitting extra parties and Secret Santa and evening programs into a schedule that was full to begin with – the extra family time with its range of dynamics and loss of routine. I don’t get to do as I see fit because half a dozen other adults are in on the decisions and multiple calendars have to be considered.

Our Christmas holiday doesn’t take place on an empty stage. It shows up in the middle of Act 2 in this drama that is life with a whole cast of human characters with all their foibles – the addict, the perfectionist, the narcissist, the chronically anxious, the workaholic, the loner, the argumentative, the jokester. Most of us can identify ourselves (and our relatives!) somewhere on that list. And the way we imagine the ideal Christmas is often far from what actually plays out.

Those two family members refuse to celebrate together, forcing us to choose sides. This one is likely to be in a foul mood. I’ll be high strung. She’ll be withdrawn. He won’t offer to help. They’ll be picky eaters. She’ll drink too much. He’ll complain loudly. My feet will hurt. We’ll spend too much. They’ll raise their eyebrows.

Is it any wonder why some of us dread the holidays?

Photo: Virginia Howard
Christmas doesn’t take place on an empty stage. It shows up in the middle of life at full throttle.

This shouldn't surprise us. Even the first Christmas was no different. Sweep away that image of a peaceful nativity. We know better. Is life with a newborn ever a “silent night”? And giving birth in a crowded house with distant relatives and their livestock is hardly a picture of “peace on earth.”

The first Christmas had more than its fair share of disappointments and unmet expectations. I'll talk about those in Part 2 of this Advent series. In the meantime, ask yourself this question: What am I expecting this Christmas?

Friday, November 2, 2018

Introducing the Majority World Theology Series

I've written before about what we stand to gain when we read the Bible with the Global Church. It's getting easier to do just that.

Introducing the Majority World Theology Series.

The brain child of Gene Green, then at Wheaton College (now Academic Dean of NAIITS), K K Yeo of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, and Stephen Pardue of Asia Graduate School of Theology, this series is making a major contribution to Global Theology. With grant funding, Yeo, Pardue, and Green gather majority world scholars each year to contribute to a project on a specific theological theme written from their cultural location. They present their work at the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Institute for Biblical Research. It's been my privilege to witness several of these gatherings in person.

Scripture and Theology in Global Context at ETS 2015,
(left to right) Gene Green, Emily J. Choge Kerama, Jules 
Martinez, Raymond Aldred, Sung Wook Chung (photo: C Imes)
Stimulated by the conversation with other participants and observers, each contributor revises their essay for publication in a collected volume (published by Eerdmans and Langham Literature). Each chapter includes a bibliography of other sources on that theme from the author's area of the world. The result is a collage of insight from which the rest of us can learn. Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity and The New Face of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South, gave the series a raving review in The Christian Century

The most recent volume to be released in the Majority World Theology Series includes essays by the following global scholars on the topic of the church:

Ecclesiology (2018)
Veli-Matti Karkkainen
Ruth Padilla De Borst (Costa Rica)
Wonsuk Ma (Korea)
Stephanie A Lowery (Kenya)
Carlos Sosa Siliezar (Guatemala)
Xiaxia E Xue (China)
Peter Nyende (Kenya / Uganda)
Munther Isaac (Palestine)
Four other volumes are already available from Eerdmans (pictured above):

Christology (2014)

The Trinity (2015)

Pneumatology (2016)

Soteriology (2017)

The volume on Eschatology will release in 2019. We can all look forward to that! (Did you catch what I did there?) A seventh series of conference presentations on the topic of Scripture is tentatively planned for 2019. Hopefully that means we'll see a volume on the doctrine of Scripture in 2020.

A huge thank you to Green, Pardue, and Yeo for their excellent work on this project. Most faculty in theology and biblical studies are acutely aware of the need to listen to global voices, but these men have turned that sentiment into action. The result is both affordable and immensely valuable.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Surprisingly Simple Secret to Passing Your Classes

This won't take long. It isn't rocket science. I have just two rules, and I'm guessing they work in just about any class -- high school or college, trade school or university. I know they work in mine.

"If you're on time, you're late" - Ron Nickel (Photo: C Imes)
Rule Number 1: Show up to class on time.

Being habitually late or absent costs you more than you know. You miss the "vibe." You miss instruction. And you quickly become out of step with the rest of the class. As one of my colleagues said recently about real jobs in real life, "If you're on time, you're late." You should be arriving at least 5 minutes early so that you can get settled and ready to learn. Breezing in at the buzzer means that it will take the first few minutes for you to be fully present. Often these first few minutes are when important announcements are made about assignments and tests, or when goals are laid out for the session. Miss that and you'll start missing points unnecessarily. You also run the risk of distracting other students and annoying your professor. You want the professor to think well of you when grading your work. We try to be unbiased, but we are human, after all. It can't hurt to send the signal that you don't want to miss a thing.

Rule Number 2: Turn in every assignment.

I suspect that many students are waiting for the right mood or the ideal work environment in which to really buckle down. Others await a stroke of brilliance that will propel them to greatness. You don't need an ideal environment and you don't need to be brilliant. You just need to get it done. A mediocre score on a mediocre paper is far better than a zero on the magnum opus you didn't write. Consistency is a lot more important in life than genius. Just keep chipping away at it and silence those voices that tell you it's not good enough. It is. It's good enough to pass the class.

Pretty simple, isn't it? Show up and get 'er done.
Simple doesn't mean easy. School is a lot of work. But no one who has followed both of these rules has ever failed one of my classes. No one.

The Fine Print (for those who want more): 

Better done than late, but better late than never. Missing a deadline so that you can improve an assignment is not usually a good idea. One late assignment often snowballs into multiple late assignments because the class has moved on to the next project. All those deductions drag your score even lower, eating away at any advantage you thought you could gain by improving your work. Just bang it out and turn it in on time. 

Sometimes life gets overwhelming and you have to make a calculated decision to skip or skimp on an assignment. On the (hopefully) rare occasion that you just can't get it done, find out if you can turn it in late and take a deduction. Nothing drags your grade down like a zero. If this happens more than once a semester, it's a sign that you're trying to do too much or that you need outside support to help you get back on track. Scale back so you can get your money's worth from your classes.

While I have your attention, I should warn you: Don't take shortcuts. Plagiarizing an assignment or cheating on a test will not help you in the long run. You may feel like it's your only option because you don't have time or don't understand the material well enough to stand on your own two feet, but you do have other options. Talk to your professor. (We actually want to help you!) Talk to the TA. Seek help from library staff or classmates. Learn how to give credit where credit is due. There is no faster track to failure than cheating. Even if you don't get caught, you'll carry the weight of that lie until you come clean.

You can pass your classes. You just have to want it enough to do the work.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Calling all World Changers!

I have an unlikely bit of advice for all those hoping to change the world:

Invest in Institutions

Photo: C Imes
Gordon Smith puts it even more strongly. In his latest book, entitled Institutional Intelligence: How To Build an Effective Organization, Smith claims that “institutions are essential to human flourishing” (3). Essential to flourishing? That’s a strong claim.

But without institutions, this world spirals into a free-for-all reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. Driven by whims or personal passions, under the constraints of our own energy levels, our positive intentions don’t last long. And without the checks and balances and combined wisdom of a group of like-minded colleagues, we run the risk of steering in the wrong direction. For lasting change, we need structures in place — structures that harness and manage resources in service of a common mission.

The Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College,
an institution with a long history of training Christian leaders.
(Photo: C Imes)
I've been gradually realizing this as I invest in our 96-year old college. It may sound dull, but we need institutions the way we need a roof over our heads. We can last without shelter for a few days, maybe, but for long-term flourishing, we need a sturdy place to live. So do our ideas, our energies, and our talents.

You can increase your IIQ (Institutional Intelligence Quotient -- I just made that up) by reading the rest of my article over at The WellBy reading Smith's book, you can become even more institution-savvy.

What are you waiting for? The world needs what you have to offer.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Should you consider going back to school?

You've been thinking about going back to school, but you're not sure. Are you too old? Is this too random? Here are three factors that might mean it's time to enroll:

1. You have unanswered questions.
        You're no longer satisfied by pat answers. You want to dig deeper. You know there's more out there than what you've been taught. You want to find out what you think for yourself.

2. You have time on your hands.
         You've reached a stage in life where (unlike most people you know) you are a bit bored. You look at your calendar and wonder, "What should I be doing?" or "What's next?"

3. You're considering a career change for the next season of your life.
         You know yourself better now than you did when you finished school and entered the world of adulthood. If you had it all to do over, you'd choose differently. Why not do that now?

One of the joys of my job is to invest in students who are coming back to school after a long time away -- the military veteran training for a new line of work, the stay-at-home mom whose kids are now grown, the retired missionary still hungry to learn, the relatively new believer who feels a tug to pastoral ministry after a career in oil.

One of my students discovered the difference a caring nurse can make when he and his wife lost their third baby in a row. He enrolled in our nursing program, hoping to be there for others in difficult times.

I'm no spring chicken myself. I finished my PhD at 39 years old, a decade older than most of my classmates. I suppose it runs in the family. My Dad went back to school for a degree in counseling in the middle of a career as a remodeling contractor. He graduated with his MA the year after I graduated with my BA. And though counseling did not become his bread-and-butter, it better equipped him for lay ministry in the church and on the job.

When people find out you're heading back to school, they may be surprised. They may try to talk you out of it. It's a sad reality that those whose dreams have never been realized often become naysayers to the dreams of others. Don't let their pessimism dampen your enthusiasm. On the other hand, you'll want to make sure that those most affected by your decision are on board. It will make the journey much more joyful if you're pulling in the same direction.

At the end of the day, this is between you and God. If he's called you to do it, he'll provide the strength to do it.

Many schools offer Adult Degree Completion programs for those with life experience going back to school to finish a degree. Lots of schools offer courses online so you can learn without relocating. Others allow community members to audit classes for a reduced price. At Prairie College, if you're 55 or older, you can audit a course for just $25. What are you itching to learn?

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Bridging the Gap between Academy and Church

A bridge is a powerful metaphor for the ministry of teaching.

Suspension Bridge at Bowl &
Pitcher State Park, Spokane, WA
(photo: C Imes)
I'm no civil engineer, but I'm certain that a stable suspension bridge must have a firm foundation on both sides of whatever chasm it's designed to cross. For me, that means having a solid grasp of the material I'm teaching from a rigorous, scholarly perspective but being able to explain what I've discovered in ordinary language.

Getting a PhD helped me to drill down deep into bedrock. I left no stone unturned in my quest to understand my central passage. I also thought about implications for a range of other issues.

But my Freshman students would glaze over if I waxed eloquent about the obscure sources I consulted in doing my work. They need to hear how the Scriptures matter for their own lives using words they (mostly) already know. They need something more accessible.

And so I build a bridge. Using stories, I tell them what I've learned and why it matters, bringing scholarship across to the shore where they live. Using their questions, I lead them back over the bridge to access scholarly sources for themselves.

Crossing Bridges
Bowl & Pitcher State Park
(photo: C Imes)
Being a "popularizer" doesn't usually earn one points in academia. Sometimes it undermines credibility or arouses suspicion. Thankfully, that's not the case at my institution.

I feel a strong passion to communicate with those who want to understand the Bible but will never enroll in seminary. It's why I'm writing a book with InterVarsity Press that will tell the big, wide world what I learned in grad school. It's also why I keep blogging.

I once heard Lauren Winner speak at an academic conference on writing for general audiences. She recommended that academics publish their scholarly work first and then produce down-to-earth books. This ensures that they are taken seriously by the academy, while remaining helpful to the wider culture. I'm following her advice. My dissertation came out in print in March. Another scholarly essay is nearing publication. Most of my attention this summer has been on my new down-to-earth book.

I don't think every academic is called to build bridges. Some are uniquely wired to spend longer hours in their "ivory towers," away from the tyranny of the urgent, producing good work that will benefit other academics over the long haul. This, too, is an important calling. (See Jen Pollock Michel's great article on this topic in Christianity Today). We must carefully discern our own gifts and our own limits, investing our time where it makes the most sense.

We need ivory towers. Each generation must wrestle anew with truth and beauty and meaning.
But we also need bridges, lest the insights of careful study fail to meet people where they live.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

TIME, Trump, The Death of Socrates, and The Art of Biblical Interpretation

Journalism ethics is all the rage this week (literally), with a provocative TIME magazine cover on the topic of immigration. (With apologies to readers interested in the politics of immigration and assurances to those weary of the debate, this post is not about immigration, but rather the relationship between art and truth). Are the facts at odds with the truth?

The Facts: President Trump has never met this girl from Honduras. Her separation from her mother at the border was only momentary, as her mom was searched. Afterward they were (at least temporarily) reunited as they awaited processing.

The Truth: Still, the girl comes to represent the many hundreds of children who have been separated from their parents while seeking a better life. The moral outrage following the public's realization of this is understandable, no matter how you propose to handle illegal immigration.

TIME's cover reminds me of a painting from the 1700's -- "The Death of Socrates," by Jacques-Louis David. David depicts Socrates surrounded by his disciples, on the verge of drinking his death sentence in poison. He teaches until the final moments of his life, remaining stoic in the face of death.

"The Death of Socrates" by Jacques-Louis David (1786)
Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Here's the connection with TIME's cover: Plato, from whom we learn the story of Socrates' death, was not present when it happened, yet David depicts him seated at the foot of the bed, slumped over and facing away.

Why include such an inaccuracy in this painting?

The Facts: David knew from Plato's own writings that he was not present at Socrates' death.

The Truth: Plato was deeply affected by Socrates' death and opposed it. By positioning him at the foot of the bed, looking away, the artist accurately captured Plato's disposition toward the death of his esteemed colleague. If Plato had been missing from the painting, we would lose this central point the artist is trying to make -- a point that coveys the truth of history creatively.

From time to time, feathers are ruffled when someone dares to suggest that the writers of Scripture  were brilliant artists. To some, this implies a disconnect with truth and a denial of divine inspiration. The second objection is easily solved. The God who created all things endows humans with creativity and invites us to participate in his work. As a prime example, take Bezalel and Oholiab, the men charged with designing the tabernacle (Exodus 31). These men were Spirit-filled and skilled creatives, in spite of the fact that their task was to construct something that already had very detailed blueprints. If their creativity was not a valuable asset for this project, God would have been better served finding an automaton. No, he chose humans, men who had spent years honing their skills in weaving and engraving and woodworking and all types of art.

But does art imply a disconnect with truth? Put another way, would the exercise of artistic license in the production of sacred Scripture get in the way of truth?

A great place to test this theory is in the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each tell us the story of Jesus. With their words they paint a portrait for us of his life and ministry. They share much in common, at times even whole episodes or chapters. But there are differences, and some of these are rather puzzling. Did Jesus drive out the money changers in the temple at the beginning of his ministry (as John tells it)? or at the end (as Matthew, Mark, and Luke recount)?  Some Christians assume that Jesus must have driven them out twice -- once at the beginning and another time at the end of his ministry. But could this be an example of creative license?

Each Gospel writer introduces us to the historical Jesus by showing us something distinct about who he really is -- the Jewish Messiah (Matthew), the suffering Son of God (Mark), the Savior for all people (Luke), the Son who reveals the Father (John). To show us what is true about Jesus, in some instances they are best served by rearranging events so that everything will point in the direction they want us to look. This is not because they are trying to hide the truth, but because truth is their main concern. They arrange the details so that we as readers don't get muddled -- so that we can see what they see.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke may have saved this story until the end to illustrate how the opposition to Jesus gained momentum, resulting in his crucifixion. On the other hand (I suspect this is the better explanation), John may have chosen to tell us about the temple cleansing earlier because he's arranging the episodes of Jesus' life topically. The temple cleansing fits a string of stories illustrating Jesus' redefinition of Jewish institutions (sacred vessels, temple, rabbis, and sacred sites; John 2:1-4:54).* The cluster of stories among which the temple cleansing sits is followed by a series of stories in which Jesus redefines Jewish festivals (Sabbath, Passover, feast of Tabernacles, and feast of Dedication). Together, these two clusters make up the "Book of Signs," where John presents 7 signs that reveal Jesus' identity and call people to faith, setting us up for the "Book of Glory," where Jesus is glorified by offering his life on the cross.

However you slice it, artistic license is clearly at work. Either somebody moved this event out of chronological order, or all four gospel writers chose to omit a second occurrence. In my opinion, the truth has been gloriously served.

*For a fuller discussion of John's arrangement of material, see Gary M. Burge, Lynn H. Cohick, and Gene L. Green, The New Testament in Antiquity (Zondervan, 2009), 216-219.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Making Summer Work

This week I published a short piece over at The Well, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's blog for Women in the Academy and Profession. A very simple trick is working wonders for my summer schedule. You can read about it there.

The basic idea is that I write until noon and do other stuff after that.

There are exceptions, of course, like last week's dentist appointment, faculty interview, and farewell party that ate into my mornings. But by refusing to let my to-do list eclipse my writing time and scheduling everything possible in the afternoons, I'm enjoying great momentum. As the halfway point of the summer quickly approaches, I'm happy to say that the first draft of my next major writing project is also about halfway done.

I'm thankful for the good advice of other writers that helped me craft my own plan.
  • Write 500 words first thing every day. Save editing for later in the day. (My daily goal is 750).
  • Write in the "gaps." Don't wait for long stretches of time. Seize the moment. Thanks to Scrivener, I'm discovering that I can easily write in 10-minute segments.
  • Set personal goals to keep you motivated. I have a chart listing all of my current projects (including blog posts here and elsewhere, journal articles, conference papers, and books), and I've mapped out where I'd like to be on each project by the end of each week of the summer. When I have a free hour, I can dive into the next project. 
What simple step can you take to ensure that your most important tasks get done this summer?

Monday, June 11, 2018

#readwomen: Taking the Challenge

Last month, InterVarsity Press launched a new campaign that piqued my interest: #readwomen.

IVP (and its parent organization, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) has long been a champion of women authors. So why did this campaign grab my attention?

Two reasons:

(1) Because I was about to submit a book proposal to IVP. Here was a publisher that not only seemed interested in my work, but was making a concerted effort to market books by women authors.

(2) Because I know from experience that books by women in the areas of Bible and Theology are few and far between. Don't believe me?

My Personal Biblical Studies Library. Books with their spines showing
were written (all or in part) by women. (Photo: C Imes)
Here is a photo of my personal library in Biblical Studies and Theology. After I heard about #readwomen I wanted a visual illustration of how few women publish books on the Bible and Christian Theology. I turned backwards every book written by men so that only the spines of those written by women are showing.

During my doctoral studies at Wheaton College, we were required to read and write reviews on 35 key books in the field of Old Testament. None of these were written by women. We were also to become familiar with the contents of another 193 books in preparation for our comprehensive exam. Only 9 were written, co-written, or edited by women. I did the math for you. That's under 4%.

My dissertation is published by Eisenbrauns in the Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement Series. Though it is the 19th volume in the series, mine is the first written by a woman. That's 5%.

My (mostly) New Testament shelves
with books by women showing.
(Photo: C Imes)
After a tour of my office, a colleague asked why I think so few books in Bible and Theology have been written by women. The answer is undoubtedly complex, but I suspect that the primary reason is the decades-long prohibition in many denominations of the ordination of women. Ministry roles open to women have not typically required seminary education, so women have often not been encouraged to pursue learning. This has resulted in very few female role models for women who feel drawn to biblical and theological studies. Without the training to write academic works, these women have invested their many talents elsewhere. 

It should be clear from this photo that I owe most of what I know about the Bible to men. I am immensely grateful for all the men who have trained me through their writings. I do not for a moment wish that these men would stop writing. Keep on, brothers!

Nor do I wish for any of these books by men to disappear. Now that I've taken photos for you, all the books by men are turned back in their rightful direction, where I can continue to refer to them often. Still, I'm thankful for the #readwomen campaign because if we only read books by men, we're not getting the full picture of what there is to know. If we only read books by white authors, or by North Americans, our view of things is still partial.

According to PhD research by IVP senior editor Al Hsu, "women read fairly evenly between male and female authors (54% / 46%), but . . . men read 90% male authors and only 10% female authors. That’s why the #ReadWomen campaign is needed, to highlight how we all benefit from reading women’s voices and hearing perspectives from the whole body of Christ."

Men and women are different. God made us different. And for that reason, we need to listen to one another. We bring unique perspectives and life experiences to the table.

Two summers ago I wrote about my compulsion to write (it's okay to laugh at the redundancy). Every one of us has something we must do. Something without which we feel out of sorts. Writing is one of those things for me. Seeing my bookshelves with so few spines showing was a powerful motivation to get busy. I've had a sign on my office door since school got out: 

Summer Schedule
Please email with anything urgent.

It's working.
Every day, writing comes first.

And I have good news -- 

InterVarsity Press has just offered me a contract for my new book!

This one will unpack the research from my MA thesis and PhD dissertation for a wider audience. I discovered so many things that every Christian should know, but at the moment all that learning is hiding behind a lot of academic jargon and other languages. Most people would find it a frustrating read. In the words of my grandma, who kindly bought a copy of my published dissertation and attempted to read it, "It's not just the Hebrew that's a problem. I can't even understand the English." In contrast, my new book is written like a series of blog posts in plain English so anyone can read it.

Meanwhile, what's on your summer reading list?
Here are a few of my absolute favorite books by women:

Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership
and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation
Sandra Richter, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament
Karen H. Jobes, Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the Catholic Epistles
Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church: Recovering God's Global Vision for Women
Lynn Cohick (co-author), The New Testament in Antiquity
And if you haven't read the Sensible Shoes series yet by Sharon Garlough Brown, don't waste another minute. Brown blends fiction and Christian formation in a captivating way!

Will you take the challenge? Which one will you read?

Or maybe, like me, you'll take up the challenge to write a book this summer. 
What have you learned that others could benefit from hearing?

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Racial Injustice Today? (Part Five)

Bryan Stevenson is a modern day hero. As a young lawyer, he devoted his life to the cause of justice. His work on death row uncovered the sobering realities of systemic racial injustice today in our prison system. In my most recent post on Racial Injustice, I cited a number of statistics pointing to injustice in the American court system. African Americans living in the US today are much more likely to be given the death penalty than white Americans accused of the same crime. Decades of injustice in our court system have resulted in a largely disproportionate number of black inmates on death row, many of whom were not given a fair trial.

One of these was Walter McMillian, an upstanding business owner who was put on death row before he even faced trial for a 1986 murder he could not possibly have committed. Innocent until proven guilty? Apparently not if you're black in America. McMillian's only "criminal history" was a consensual affair with a white woman. McMillian was at home with his family at the time of the murder. Dozens of people could vouch for that, as there was a fish fry fundraiser for church members going on in his front yard all that day. His arrest satisfied a white community bent on finding the perpetrator of the crime. He was framed by a white social outcast with criminal background whose outlandish accusations against McMillian were a ploy to gain attention and a more lenient sentence. The accuser was known as an unreliable witness with a colorful history of criminal activity. The concocted story was corroborated by a black prisoner in exchange for payment and for his own release from prison.

When the key witness later recanted his testimony, investigators didn't take him seriously. The trial was moved to a neighboring county, where the black population was low so a nearly all-white jury could be guaranteed. McMillian was found guilty and sentenced to death. Appeal after appeal, met with miscarriage of justice until 60 Minutes made the story national news. After 6 agonizing years on death row, further investigation revealed conclusively that McMillian was innocent.

Stevenson "founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of our criminal justice system" (from the back cover of his book, Just Mercy). He has courageously entered some of the darkest and most dehumanizing spaces of our nation in an effort to restore dignity and beat the drum for justice. He tells his gripping story in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a New York Times Bestseller readily found in your local library. Just Mercy is undoubtedly the most important book I've read on my quest to understand racial inequality in the United States. Stevenson's decades of work as a lawyer has taken him behind bars and into courtrooms and archives where you and I will never go. He brings dark stories out into the light, where they can awaken us from our ignorance and indifference.

McMillian's is only one of the many stories Stevenson tells -- stories that began in the 80s and 90s or more recently that are only now seeing the light of justice.

I invite you to listen to Stevenson himself as he describes another problem in the US criminal justice system, the sentencing of minors to life in prison without parole. He writes about a boy named Charlie who watched his mother's live-in boyfriend (a police officer) slug her in an alcoholic rage. She fell to the floor. Blood poured from her head, but the boyfriend had gone into the bedroom, leaving her unconscious in the arms of her son. This was the fourth time the man had beat her to the point of needing medical attention. Fourteen-year-old Charlie unsuccessfully tried to stop the bleeding. Finally, he went to the bedroom to call 911 for help, but found the abusive boyfriend there sound asleep. Before calling for an ambulance, Charlie found the abusive man's gun and shot him to protect himself and his mother, who he thought might already be dead. Charlie was sentenced as an adult for killing a police officer and sent to an adult prison. There he was repeatedly and brutally assaulted and raped by other prisoners (116-126). Stories like Charlie's should leave no doubt about the brokenness of our criminal justice system.

Because of the tireless work of the Equal Justice Initiative, it is now "constitutionally impermissible" to sentence children who are not guilty of homicide to life imprisonment. In cases of homicide it is no longer mandatory to sentence children to life without parole (295). This will help young people like Charlie who act in self-defense. Over 100 prisoners have been released from death row. But the work of restoring dignity and working for a more just society is just beginning.

In April 2018, a new museum was opened in Montgomery, Alabama. It unveils the sordid story of America's recent past in order to open the way for a more hopeful future. Rates of arrest, conviction, and incarceration still make it more dangerous to be black and innocent than to be white and guilty. This should not be. In his late 20s, Stevenson himself was confronted by police without cause, who illegally searched him and his car while parked outside his own apartment, quietly listening to a song on the radio. He knows firsthand how dehumanizing the wrongful assumption of guilt can be. That evening, his only guilt was being black in America.

The roots of racial prejudice still run deep. Although the US federal prohibition on inter-racial marriage was abolished in 1967 (Loving v. Virginia), by 2011 46% of Mississippi Republicans still supported a ban (29). As long as we see those with different skin color than our own as anything other than fellow humans made as God's image, we perpetuate an injustice that looks at a human and sees something less. I fear that as white Americans slowly leave behind prejudice against those of African descent, it will merely be replaced with a new "Other" -- immigrants from the Middle East or Latin America, or Asia.

Bryan Stevenson's book is no easy read. It will wreck your day, as this blog post has wrecked mine. But the longer we hide from reality, the longer injustice prevails. Let's work for a better future -- for everybody. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Human. What will it take to live like we believe this is true?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Shattered: Top Ten Myths about the Ten Commandments (Part 3)

In the first two posts of this series, I identified 9 myths about the Ten Commandments that are pervasive today. You can read those posts here and here. But I've saved the best for last. Today I'm tackling the myth that sent me on a 5-year quest for answers, resulting in a PhD and a published book. I've been waiting 7 years to share this with you!

Myth #10. The Ten Commandments prohibit the use of Yahweh's name as a swear word or in false oaths.

Exodus 20:7 reads: "You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain, for the LORD will not hold guiltless one who takes his name in vain."

I've asked a lot of people what they think this verse means (we'll call it the "Name Command"). Most people assume that the Name Command teaches that we're not supposed to use God's name as a swear word (as in the flippant, "Oh, my God!" or the harsher "God dammit"). Instead, we should use it reverently. I agree that we should honor God's name by using it reverently, but I do not think swear words are the problem that the Name Command seeks to address. 

Photo: Banner of Truth Trust
Others suggest that the Name Command prohibits false oaths. This interpretation has a very long history. To cite just one example, consider Question and Answer 93 from the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. What is the aim of the third commandment? 
A. That we neither blaspheme nor misuse the name of God by cursing, perjury, or unnecessary oaths, nor share in such horrible sins by being silent bystanders. In summary, we should use the holy name of God only with reverence and awe, so that we may properly confess God, pray to God, and glorify God in all our words and works.
However, the Name Command says nothing about oaths or cursing. In fact, there are no speech-related words at all. Translated simply, it says, "You shall not bear the name of Yahweh, your God, in vain." Perhaps this is why I've been able to count 23 distinctly different interpretations of the Name Command. It seems like an odd statement -- how does one "bear" God's name? It's no wonder that interpreters have often gone to other passages (either inside or outside of the Bible) hoping for clarification.  Most assume that "bear the name" is short-hand for something like "bear the name on your lips," which would be to say the name, or "lift your hand to the name," which would mean to swear an oath.

But there's a much simpler explanation. We miss it because it involves a metaphor that's unfamiliar to us. Shortly after the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, God gave instructions to Moses regarding the construction of the tabernacle, which will house the two stone tablets, and the official vestments of the high priest, who will officiate. The article of clothing that is of central importance to Aaron's position as high priest is a cloth chest apron studded with 12 precious stones. These stones are to be inscribed, each with the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Yahweh instructs Aaron to "bear the names of the sons of Israel" whenever he enters the sacred tent (Exodus 28:12, 29). Aaron literally bears their names. He carries them on his person as he goes about his official duties. He serves as the people's authorized representative before God. He also bears Yahweh's name on his forehead, setting him apart as God's representative to the people.

As special as he is, Aaron is a visual model of what the entire covenant community is called to be and do. At Sinai, Yahweh selected Israel as his treasured possession, kingdom of priests, and holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6). All three titles designate Israel as Yahweh's official representative, set apart to mediate his blessing to all nations. By selecting the Israelites, Yahweh has claimed them as his own, in effect, branding them with his name as a claim of ownership. Because they bear his name, they are charged to represent him well. That is, they must not bear that name in vain. This goes far beyond oaths or pronunciation of God's name. It extends to their behavior in every area of life. In everything, they represent him. They are his public relations department. The nations are watching the Israelites to find out what Yahweh is like.

Not convinced yet? Look at Aaron's blessing in Numbers 6:24-27. After Aaron's ordination  as high priest (where he was clothed with the special garments) and the consecration of the tabernacle and people, his first official act was to pronounce this blessing over the people (see Leviticus 9:22). It's very likely that you've heard the blessing before. It's often used in churches and synagogues:
"May Yahweh bless you and keep you;
May Yahweh smile on you and be gracious to you; 
May Yahweh show you his favor and give you peace." 
But have you ever read the following verse? "So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them."

You see? It's quite explicit. God put his name on the Israelites as a claim of ownership. They wore an invisible tattoo. They were not to bear it in vain.

Prairie College, Three Hills, AB (Photo: C Imes)
Perhaps an illustration will help. Imagine a group of students from Prairie College (the Bible college where I teach) who drive to Calgary on a Friday night wearing their Prairie College swag. They go to a bar, get totally hammered, and begin to pick fights with the other customers. Soon, they are kicked out and stagger off to their cars to drive home. On the way home, their car swerves over the center line and crashes head on into oncoming traffic, killing both drivers instantly and injuring several others. When this story hits the news, what sort of impression will it leave about Prairie College? These students may not think of themselves as representatives of the college, but by enrolling as students and wearing the name, they identify with the school. Like it or not, people's impressions of Prairie are largely formed by the behavior of its students.

So, too, with the people of God. Drawn into a covenant with Yahweh at Sinai, like it or not, they have become his representatives. At the top of the list of covenant stipulations inscribed on the stone tablets are two commands that set the stage for all the others: Worship only Yahweh, and don't bear his name in vain. These two echo the covenant formula repeated throughout the Old Testament: "I will be your God, and you will be my people." The rest of the 613 commands in the Torah flesh these out in more detail.

And that is what I think the Name Command is all about.


Much more could be said, but this is a blog post, not a book. If you have more questions, you'll find a 186-page justification for this interpretation in my book, Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai: A Reexamination of the Name Command of the Decalogue. After a brief introductory chapter, chapter 2 engages with other interpretations throughout history, chapter 3 provides extensive word studies of each of the key words in the Name Command, chapter 4 explores the literary context, and chapter 5 delves into conceptual metaphor theory, connecting the Name Command with the high priest and the wider biblical theme of "bearing Yahweh's name."

In the meantime, watch for the biblical theme of "bearing Yahweh's name" as you read the Bible. It's all over the place, once you have eyes to see! You can start with 2 Chronicles 7:14 or Ezekiel 36:20-21 in the Old Testament, and 1 Peter 4:16 or Revelation 14:1 in the New Testament.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Why Andy Stanley's Statement on the Old Testament Concerns Me . . .

Andy Stanley rocked the internet this week by saying that Christians ought to “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament. No doubt a great many who heard this were relieved. There’s a lot of gnarly stuff in the Old Testament that people struggle with (I should know. I’m an Old Testament professor whose students line up to see me during office hours.) Stanley’s pastoral motivation for making the statement is commendable. He has watched countless people leave the faith because they could not swallow the Old Testament or its God. His hope was to win them back by focusing on the resurrection of Jesus. But unhitching from the Old Testament is not the right solution.

Stanley is not the first person to talk this way. Not long after the resurrection a leader arose in the early church who felt the same way. His name was Marcion. Marcion saw a strong distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New Testament. He rejected the Old Testament and even those New Testament books that he thought were “too Jewish.”

And he was rightly condemned as a heretic early in the 3rd century.

But why?

What’s so important about the Old Testament?

Stanley concedes that it is inspired, and that it gives us the “backstory” so that we can understand the New Testament. That in itself should be enough to motivate us to keep reading it. The New Testament makes little sense without it. But the relevance of the Old Testament goes deeper than that.

New Testament authors consistently use the Old Testament as their primary source for ethical reflection. In fact, they appeal to the Old Testament far more often than they appeal to things Jesus said while he was on earth, not just for the backstory, but to guide their behavior.  In other words, they are not just reminiscing about the “bad ole’ days” when they cite the Old Testament. It remains their authority. It tells them how to live after the resurrection.

Stanley made his appeal for Christians to “unhitch” from the Old Testament while preaching on Acts 15. This is a grand irony. Acts 15 narrates the proceedings from the first church “council” meeting. Leaders have gathered to figure out what to do now that there are Gentiles who want to become disciples. Do they have to convert to Judaism first? Or can they follow Jesus as Gentiles? Conversion requires circumcision, but these folks have already received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which complicates matters. The Spirit is a sign of covenant membership, but these are not Jews, at least not yet. What to do?

James stands up in the meeting and delivers the clincher. He quotes Amos 9 (which is, if you don’t know, in the Old Testament). It’s a mic drop moment -- not because he has just undermined the Old Testament Law, but because he demonstrated from the Old Testament itself that Gentiles can be considered covenant members without first converting to Judaism. The council is unanimous – no circumcision necessary for Gentiles. Still, they issue 4 directives for Gentile Christians – no eating food sacrificed to idols, blood, meat of strangled animals, and no sexual immorality – each of which is associated with pagan worship practices. The reason given for these directives is the law of Moses (Acts 15:21). Did you catch that? The book of Acts demonstrates precisely the point that Stanley's statement seemed to deny, namely, the law of Moses retains relevance for both Jewish and Gentile believers.

Reading it well can be tricky. Each cultural situation requires us to re-engage with it, asking new questions as we seek to be faithful to the covenant. But what we cannot do is relegate it to the archives as something of merely antiquarian interest.

So before you head out and buy your copy of the new “Perforated Bible” (which allows you to remove the parts you don’t need), wait first and read the New Testament. You’ll discover that the Old Testament cannot be so easily dismissed.


Update (3/29/19): Stanley requested an interview with Dr. Michael Brown in July 2018 in which he clarified what he meant by his controversial statement. I can now better appreciate what Stanley was trying to do. That is, Stanley sees the early church leaders unhitching from the wrong worldview they had developed, a worldview associated with the Old Testament law that had misunderstood it at some level. The evidence of this worldview is Peter's unwillingness to enter a Gentile home before his vision in Acts 10. That mistaken worldview was in conflict with the new covenant and it was time to let that go. Stanley doesn't want to get rid of the Old Testament altogether. He affirms that the Old Testament, when properly understood, is essential and enriching to the Christian life. He insists that we should take our cues from Paul and Jesus for how to read it.

Stanley's primary burden is to introduce people to the reality of the resurrected Jesus first, before trying to make sense of the Old Testament. He wants them to set aside any baggage they have about the Old Testament that prevents them from entering into a relationship with Jesus. So the Old Testament is not discarded, but put on hold temporarily. I'm relieved that we have more common ground than it seemed at first. I've updated this post in light of Brown's interview, which was recently shared with me, but I'm not deleting it because Stanley's original statement still concerns me. I hope I've articulated an important corrective to the growing sentiment among Christians today that the Old Testament is irrelevant.