Monday, July 4, 2011

Interpreting Revelation

It can be a bit intimidating to be the resident ‘Bible scholar’ when morning staff devotion time comes around.  As our staff look at the Bible together, there is an opportunity for people to make comments or ask questions.  When a thorny theological question comes up, I know I really ought to be ready to shed some light on the subject.  That’s what I went to school for all those years, right?


So, recently morning devotions have been a bit nerve-racking, as we’ve been moving through the book of Revelation one chapter at time.  If any book of the Bible holds the record for the number of ‘thorny theological issues per page,’ it would probably be this one.  Now, I can’t say that I don’t know anything about the book.  I practically teethed on dispensationalism.  My Dad was a great lover of Biblical prophecy, loving to discuss all the details in his devoted eagerness for his Lord’s triumphant return.  So, Revelation is NOT unfamiliar territory.


But I still have my own questions about the book – as about eschatology in general.  So, lately, I’ve just kinda been hoping that people won’t ask too many questions.


It became clear this morning, however, that an M.Div. isn’t necessary (!) to get God’s point in this final book of the Bible.


We had just read Revelation 12, which is of course packed full of detailed symbolism.  The woman clothed with the sun.  The red dragon.  1260 days.  In my mind, I’m already figuring out how to phrase my interpretation of the symbols.


And one of our staff speaks up with her interpretation.  Something like this:  The dragon is the devil.  He’s doing everything he can to hurt the woman.  But the woman is following God’s ways.  And God takes care of the woman.  He protects her, and even the devil can’t hurt her.  So, if we follow God’s ways, He will take care of us too.


Now, she didn’t really articulate all the symbolic nuances in the passage.  But that’s when it hit me.  She got it.  She didn’t get bogged down in symbolic details.  She just summarized the basic message of the “big picture” of the entire book of Revelation:  The devil is going to try to do a whole lot of stuff to make the people of God suffer.  Things are going to get tough.  But God is victorious over the devil, and if we just stick with God, then we’ll find ourselves on the winning side.  Because in the end, God wins.  End of story.


I’m not trying to say that the details in the book of Revelation aren’t important.  They’re there because God wanted them there.  But I know from experience how easy it is to miss the forest in our zeal to examine the proverbial trees.  This staff person didn’t make that mistake.  She got it.



Sunday, April 24, 2011

Listen and Obey

The words "listen and obey" are words I'm using a lot these days. My son, after all, just turned three. He came through the "terrible twos" without being terrible at all, to speak of, but his independence - and the stubbornness that goes with it - has been kicking into higher gear recently.

He loves Jana Alayra music, and knows the lyrics which talk about how we "choose this day" whether or not we will "listen and obey." So, I find myself citing those familiar words quite frequently as remind him that he needs to be attentive and obedient to the instructions his Mommy and I give him.

Obviously, an attentive and obedient child is a lot easier to live with. It's easier to protect him, care for him, enjoy him, and get out the door to church on time - when he listens and obeys!

But it hit me the other day that this whole theme of listening and obedience goes way beyond my own parenting convenience. It goes way beyond me as his father.

I realized that, in my own relationship with the Lord, I still have to face the continual choice whether or not to "listen and obey." Listening can be quite a challenge, since the Lord's voice directing my own life journey isn't quite as clear as me saying, "Come wash your hands" to my son. Listening requires attention to the Lord's leading, and a willingness to hear whatever it is He might be saying. Obedience is a challenge too. I'm not so different from my son, after all. I get my own mind and heart set on something, and I often want to keep doing what I want to do rather than align myself to the Lord and His plans.

So, as I teach Davey Will to "listen and obey," it's not just about being a "good little boy," as important as that might be. It's about learning a skill that he will need to apply the rest of his life as he learns to walk with the Lord - saying no to self and personal inclinations, attending to His leading, and committing himself to follow even when it's not easy or comfortable.

I can't say I'm the best example to Davey Will of listening and obeying, but I've got new perspective on why it's so important. For both of us!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Chaos of Christmas

Christmas was a bit disappointing this year.


Maybe it’s just that I had good, warm memories of last Christmas.  Last year (2009), was our first Christmas as a family (with Davey Will) in Cambodia, and we had a special time of celebration with Sopheaktra’s family.  Plenty of gifts under the tree for everyone.  I was finally healthy after about a month of on-and-off illness.  It was a great season.


This year, I don’t know.  It just wasn’t quite the same.  Because so many of our extra resources have gone into the ‘big Christmas present’ called our house, we didn’t have a lot extra this season to put a whole lot of presents under the tree (though we did well enough!).  Our get-together with family was on Christmas Eve, and people were just getting off work, so we got off to a much later start than expected.  Sopheaktra’s sister and her family also moved into their own home this year, plus just had a new baby, so finances were tight for them, too.  Having two toddlers in the family (Davey Will and his cousin) only added to the chaos, as they each seemed to be more interested in the presents the other one received – and they expressed that interest quite vocally and emotionally!  Our Christmas morning got off to an interesting start, with a policeman at our door.  It turns out he just wanted to get a copy of my passport, since we’re new to the neighborhood.  A minor hassle, but any encounter with ‘the system’ is a vivid reminder that social systems here in Cambodia are broken and often riddled with injustice.  So, yes, Christmas was just a bit chaotic this year.


I think one reason that Christmas can be so disappointing is that we have pretty high expectations of what Christmas ought to be.  I have a whole chain of wonderful Christmas memories to base those expectations on, and our (American) culture only reinforces what the Christmas experience can and should be.


But the chaos of this Christmas reminded me that it is those expectations that are themselves off the mark.  Christmas isn’t supposed to be a season of warm fuzzies.  Christmas is chaos.  Mary and Joseph didn’t put their newborn in a pack ‘n’ play.  They put him in a feeding trough.  Their baby was presumably surrounded by stinky animals.  They were soon joined by a group of shepherds, who may well have been stinky too.  I am positive that none of those shepherds – at any time – burst into a perfect solo of “O Holy Night.”   I’m reasonably confident that Mary and Joseph did not have any time to discuss the whole experience over mugs of hot apple cider and those marshmallow Rice Krispie treats.  And the whole picture is set in the context of the burdensome demands made by an oppressive, totalitarian political regime – the Roman Empire.  It wasn’t a pleasant holiday experience.  It was chaos.


And that moment of sheer and utter chaos transformed history.  It transformed me.


So, I reckon I can put up with a few minor inconveniences that occasionally fall short of my ideal of the ‘perfect Christmas.’  It’s not about getting the perfect holiday experience.  It’s about remembering the birth of our Savior in the midst of hectic, chaotic, high-stress situation.


So maybe a chaotic Christmas is just right.




Friday, November 26, 2010

Spinach and Chocolate Cake

When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus’ answer was twofold:  love God (with everything you’ve got) and love your neighbor as you love yourself.  So, how many love commandments are there in this response?  Just two.


Some well-meaning interpreters of Scripture would tell us that there are in fact three love commandments here:  love God, love your neighbor, and love yourself.  They might insist, “Jesus tells us that we need to love ourselves in order to truly be able to love our neighbors.”


But I’m afraid that this interpretation, while probably well-intentioned, is mistaken – both grammatically and theologically.


For example, consider the instruction, Eat spinach as you eat chocolate cake.  How many commands have I issued?  Just one:  eat spinach.  I’m not commanding you to each chocolate cake!  In fact, there’s a good chance that I would prefer for you to STOP eating chocolate cake altogether.  But the command to eat spinach is based on a very good assumption:  the listener really likes to eat chocolate cake, and does so with eagerness!  In fact, the force of the command – as stated – depends on that assumption being true.  If I’m not sure whether the listener really likes chocolate cake or not, then phrasing the question in this way actually serves to undermine the impact of the command to eat spinach.  And to suggest that, when I say, Eat spinach as you eat chocolate cake, I really mean, If you don’t currently like chocolate cake, please learn how to eat it ravenously so that you can then fulfill my command to eat spinach with the same gusto – well, that’s just ridiculous, isn’t it?


By the same token, the very syntax of the phrase, Love your neighbor as yourself, must NOT be taken as a command to love oneself, implicitly or otherwise.  Jesus is making the very legitimate assumption that all of us really do in fact love ourselves.  NOT that we necessarily have the highest opinion of ourselves, since that is often not true. But we are passionately devoted to what we perceive to be our own best interests.  I’m no psychologist, but I would suggest that this understanding of self-love could hold true even to people who quite vehemently “hate themselves.”


So – we are already pretty well preoccupied with ourselves.  We don’t need another command to reinforce that.  We need to hear Jesus’ commands to love God first and love others with the same passionate commitment we give to our own interests.


And, yeah, eating more spinach might not be a bad idea, either.




Sunday, October 10, 2010

Culture Shock and the Incarnation

This article was written for my ministry newsletter in July 2003.  I thought of it recently, because the same fundamental challenge remains – even after eight years of ministry in Cambodia.




Immersing oneself in a new culture is not easy.  I just returned from a trip to Svay Rieng, a province in the southeast part of Cambodia, near the border with Vietnam.  I had the opportunity to go as one of the teachers for a regional youth leader seminar.  I am glad that I was able to participate, but I have to admit that the time was a challenging one. 


I have been here for over a year.  Though by no means a “veteran,” I am feeling more comfortable with the language, and feeling a certain sense of “belonging” here.  But culture shock has a funny way of sneaking up on you.  Among the nine people running the seminar, I was the only foreigner.  While I was able to teach my workshops for the seminar in Khmer, I am still far from able to follow the playful banter around the dinner table. So, instead of the warm camraderie I might have hoped for, I felt somewhat left out.  And the fact that some of my friends and colleagues seemed to enjoy teasing me – teasing that I couldn’t fully comprehend! – only made me feel worse.


I struggled with hurt, anger, and frustration.  “Don’t they realize how hard it is for me to be here with them?”  “Don’t they realize how much I’ve given up to come to Cambodia in the first place?”  “Don’t they realize that, even though I haven’t mastered the language, I’m not stupid?”  “Can’t they show me a little respect?”  Such selfish thinking only fueled the fires burning inside my heart!


Those struggles have led me once again to reflect on an awesome mystery – the mystery of the Incarnation.  When Jesus stepped out of the glories of heaven to enter a virgin’s womb and be born in Bethlehem with a feeding trough for His first crib, it was a lot bigger jump than a move from comfortable, affluent America to developing Cambodia.  He had to struggle with the mundane realities of life on this planet.  He had to sweat as the midday sun beat down on Him.  He probably had to eat food that wasn’t as tasty as it could have been.  He probably had to scratch a bug bite or two or twenty.  (I don’t actually know if they have mosquitoes in Israel!)


But the final chapters of that story were the worst.  He had to suffer the betrayal of one of his closest companions.  He had to endure the mockery of men who were not worthy to be in His presence.  And He had to undergo the injustice of being nailed to a cross and dying as a common criminal.  He could have said, “Don’t they realize who I am?”  “Don’t they realize how much I’ve given up to come here?”  “Can’t they show me a little respect?”


But He didn’t.  He endured it all.  And He did it for me.  I will probably never completely get past “culture shock.”  Instead, what I must do is constantly put my trust in the one who endured the “culture shock” of the Incarnation, so that I might enjoy the goodness that He has stored up for me.  And by His grace, I desire to keep pressing on to share that goodness – the joy of following the Incarnate One – with others.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fences and neighbors

Growing up, I remember hearing the phrase “good fences make good neighbors.”  The phrase is actually quoted in the poem “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, but the origins evidently are even earlier.


Hmm…good fences make good neighbors.  As I understand the phrase, it suggests that getting along well with your neighbors requires a clear demarcation of “my space” vs. “your space.”  Respecting each other’s boundaries, each other’s “personal space,” is essential for good relationships.


My Cambodian mother-in-law has said something using similar terms. 


Sometimes, when we’re tempted to get frustrated with our neighbors, she will say, “remember, neighbors are your fences.”  Wait a second, that’s different.  She’s suggesting that “good neighbors make good fences”!  What she’s implying is that the function of a good fence – protection and safety – can be provided by good neighbors.  If you have a good relationship with your neighbors, they’ll keep an eye on things for you.  You want to have good relationships with your neighbors, so they serve as your fence.


That strikes me as illustrating a key cultural difference between an American mindset and a Cambodian mindset.  The American mindset says, “respect my personal space and we’ll get along fine,” while the Cambodian mindset suggests, “let’s make sure we get along and I won’t have to worry so much about my personal space.”


Reading the wistful tone in Frost’s poem, I suspect he would have preferred the Cambodian approach.



Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wants and Asking

It’s incredible to me that a two-year-old knows how to operate a DVD player.  Our son, Davey Will, loves to watch videos, and he actually knows how to put the DVD’s in the player and get them going.  It’s amazing to me.


Now, I still try to do most of the handling of the DVD’s myself, because our toddler hasn’t yet learned the proper way to hold them to keep them from getting scratched and all.  But I often let Davey Will pick out the video he wants to watch, and then I put it in for him.


But picking DVD’s can be tricky.  For instance, sometimes Disney DVD’s include not only the disc that actually contains the animated film, but another disc that has “special features.”  The discs tend to be decorated about the same, so little two-year-old eyes cannot discern the difference.


And so it is that my little boy has, at times, asked for me to put in the Jungle Book Special Features disc.  He loves the movie, the “Jungle Book,” and so I assume that’s what he wants to watch.  But when I go to put the right disc in the player, he gets upset.  He thinks that I’m not giving him what he clearly asked for.  Which, in reality, is true.  I know he asked for the behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Jungle Book, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what he really wants to watch.  (He has watched it on occasion, though!)  So, as he’s fussing and rapidly approaching “temper tantrum” stage, I get a little bit frustrated.  In my heart, I want to say, “Look, I’m going to give you what you want, not what you asked for!”


And then I realize how often I can be like a two-year-old boy.  I can get so upset when God doesn’t give me what I asked for.  But maybe God, in His infinite wisdom, knows much better than we do what we really want.  And in His incredible grace He allows us to fuss and whine while He moves to give us what we want, not what we asked for.