Saturday, March 30, 2013

What is the Meaning of Easter?

Tomorrow, we will celebrate Easter. If you're like me, you probably know enough about Easter to smile and nod when people mention it, but not enough to get too excited about the day itself. I mean, there's the pastel parade and the egg hunt and the fun (or perhaps, awkward) family gathering, but aside from that, why all the fuss? And I am saying this as someone raised in the church-- surely I should know by now why its a big deal! But for me, having been raised in the church is part of the problem.

Here's what I mean. Often, the Christian faith is promulgated as "people who believe Jesus died on the cross and rose again." And yes, that's true. But often, Easter is dwindled down to "Yay! Jesus rose again from the dead!" and everyone is expected to act excited-- but that can be about as effective as saying, "Yay! white smoke came out of a chimney!" In other words, without knowing the context of the story (ie. white smoke came out of THE chimney, announcing the new pope's election!!!), the details can seem like meaningless information. This weekend as Easter has approached, I've had to sit back and "revisit" the whole story in order to understand why Jesus being raised from the dead means what it does-- and why it should excite me. 

To do so, I've had to remember that Jesus' story began long before my white, Western, Protestant tradition took shape. In fact, it began long before Jesus  was even born-- it began with creation. God created a good world, where everyone got along: with each other, with God, and with the rest of creation. There were no family feuds, no awkward conversations about "religion," no thoughtless destruction of created things. No tsunamis or forest fires or elementary school shootings or orphans. Sin-- humanity's rebellion against God-- was the foreign agent that fractured creation at its seams, like a virus that spread through a body, causing the brokenness we now experience every day.

The Good Creator God, who had every right to respond in judgment, chose instead to set into action a Plan that would rescue the very creation that rebelled against Him. He started with one man, named Abraham. "I will make you into a great nation...and through you, all the nations of the world will be blessed." Often, the story of Abraham's offspring, Israel, gets cast in a nationalistic light-- as if God picked favorites and only cared about one group of people.  Israel was chosen by God, but not to sit and gloat about their status. Rather, they were chosen to be the vehicle through which God would rescue the whole world; to be a community that reflected what creation was originally intended to be.

It is in the context of Israel's story that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection make sense, because He is the culmination of Israel's story. He was the offspring of Abraham-- the one through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed; He was the vehicle through whom the world would be rescued. He was the one who demonstrated through His perfect life what creation was intended to be-- what humanity truly looks like, when not tarnished by sin. And He was also the sacrifice, who shed His own blood to "wash away" the sins of all who long to be restored to right relationship with God. These were the tasks that God gave Israel to do in order to bring peace to all creation; and this is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus is Israel.

So, what does Easter-- the celebration of Christ's resurrection from the dead-- mean in context of the whole story? It means His rescue plan was successful because in His death, Jesus took sin-- the foreign agent that has wreaked havoc on creation-- upon Himself, and left it in the grave when He rose again. The ultimate enemy has been defeated, and the pivotal act in God's rescue plan has been accomplished. What it means for me is that through trusting in Him and following Him, I am rescued as well. The sin that has tarnished my own life and relationships-- fear, anxiety, lust, anger, bitterness-- is nailed to the cross with Christ and put to death. The life I was intended to live by my Good Creator-- one untarnished by the damaging effects of sin-- is made possible through the new life achieved by Christ. What's more, in following Christ who is Israel, I get to be a part of His rescue plan-- as one of His own, I'm invited to be about what He is about-- caring for the world He created and seeking its full restoration. 

That is something to be excited about.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Help: What Should I Write?

I have been blogging here for almost three years now, and while I was somewhat nervous to start, I'm really glad I did it anyway, because it has been such a good exercise for me. I wanted an opportunity to practice communicating what is most important to me: how Jesus Christ is changing my life and my relationship to the world around me. I've hoped it would be a little window into the world of a Christian, ie. here's how [this] Christian thinks about food, growing up without a father, sex, recycling, her favorite musical, etc. I've hoped it would be an honest reflection of my own story and how Christ entering it has changed everything, and that it would be relevant to others, wherever they may be on their journey. So, while I absolutely write for "my own health," I also want it to something that actually ministers to whoever reads it. 

That said, I'm asking for your help. If you read my blog, why? Are there certain issues you are hoping I'll address here? Are there certain topics you like reading about, or others you wish I'd drop? Do you have any suggestions for future posts or series? I can, and most likely will, keep writing about whatever is floating around in my head-- for my own health!-- but I would love to know what, if anything, I can write that would minister to you. You can respond in the comments section, or message me privately if you have something to share! I really would love to hear from you!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Confessions of a Hebrew Student

Last week, my Hebrew professor was talking about the discipline of studying a language. She mentioned that the whole point of focusing on something like grammar is so that it can become "subsidiary:" as readers of a language, we don't focus on things like jerunds or participles; rather, we read the sentences those words build, in order to understand what is "focal:" the ideas and meanings they convey. What's so unnatural and difficult about studying a language is that for a time, we have to make the "subsidiary" focal-- memorizing the alphabet, practicing handwriting, mastering vocab, remembering how participles decline-- AKA boring stuff, that we suffer through in order to get to the good stuff, being able to understand a language. 

But, she also reminded us that this is something we've committed before the Lord to do, something we feel called to study. We've signed up for school and therefore, doing it well is an act of obedience and worship. In that way, something like studying vocab is more than just focusing on the subsidiary: it's focal too, because worship is the main focus of our lives. If worship yesterday looked like being a good barista at Starbucks, and worship today looks like studying Hebrew with integrity, and worship tomorrow looks like changing diapers with grace or preparing a sermon with humility or noticing a neighbor's need and helping to meet it, then it is focal: it is an end in itself, not just a means to an end. 

I nodded and smiled and said "amen" during her little sermonette in class, then found myself cursing later after I sat scratching my head for hours during the homework. "This is way too hard. How ridiculous! I quit." As I looked around the room for something to throw-- hard-- I remembered what she said about the very act of studying being focal, in the sense that it is about worship. It is a sanctifying endeavor. I realized that a vocab list had been used of the Lord to expose my pride, impatience, and anger. I remembered that obedience sometimes means doing things that aren't fun, don't feel good, and have no instant gratification to offer. I understood that this Hebrew homework session was actually about far more than mastering vocab; it was about my heart. 

What does obedience look like for you right now? Does it comfort you to know that the difficult, slow, boring, and frustrating times are ones of great significance in your life?
 

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Different Kind of Beauty


 

Last week, we spent a few days in the "country." For residents of Dallas, that's not saying much. But since we basically live in a concrete box, I am always pretty amazed every time we come into contact with, say, real grass. And trees. And I've written before about how the Texas, er, topography, doesn't really do it for me-- but-- I am growing to appreciate it. I'm growing to see more of God's personality and presence in things that before would have seemed, just, brown. 

On a walk, we passed something unusual: a cactus growing out of a rock. It struck me because it was a living plant that was surviving-- and thriving-- in a hard place. And while a few years ago, a cactus would have seemed to me boring and generally unattractive, I now find them beautiful in a way. They are strong; they endure; and they grow in hard places. 

I'm not currently in a hard place in life. Our time in Texas has for the most part been more like a bed of roses. But much of my life has been more like the rock: hard, dry, extreme. Survival often seemed like a one-in-a-million chance. And looking back, I can see how God not only provided all that I needed to be sustained in the midst of my circumstances, but adorned my life with a cactus-kind of beauty. It may not have always looked like I wanted, it may not have always felt good or fit my definition of beautiful, but it was reflective of His provision and His grace in its own unique way. And that made it beautiful. 

I'm not currently in a hard place in life, but I know people who are. As I saw the cactus, I thought of them. I thought of my mother who has persevered for over a decade now as a widowed mother of six. I thought of my friend whose first year of life in the desert-- across the ocean and far from all she's ever known-- is coming to a close. I thought of countless others whose lives have mirrored this cactus' story, who have not only survived in hard places, but thrived. I thanked God for the beauty He has put on display through them, and for the reminder that everything reflective of His grace and sufficiency-- whether soft or hard, brightly colored or faded by the intense rays of the sun-- is beautiful.

 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

What Jesus has to do with My Grocery Bill

In the last few years, I've gotten really interested in food. I've always loved eating it, but since getting married and cooking for another human being, I've begun to love selecting and preparing it as well. What's more, my eyes have been opened in a small way to the incredibly extensive impact that food has on my own quality of life, on the dynamics of human culture at large, and on the earth in which we all live. In other words, food is a pretty big deal! A friend of mine once pointed out that the average American spends 9 years of his or her life eating. 9 years! As a Christian, which means a person whose whole life is given over to the lordship of Jesus Christ, I've begun to realize that Jesus probably has something to say about what I do with that-- incredibly important!-- time.

That being said, I don't want to focus this blog post on an argument for or against a certain "school" of thought concerning diet, purchasing choices, etc. Rather, I want to confess that in the last few years, the Lord has been convicting me to submit even this part of my life to Him as an act of worship,  obedience, and love. What I have found is that this call challenges idolatry on both "sides" of my heart as pertains to purchasing and eating food: 

First, it challenges my idol of pleasure and convenience. Like I mentioned earlier, I have always loved eating. In fact, I love the taste of food so much that I can be in a bad mood all day if I don't get exactly what I want for lunch. Yea. In other words, eating what I want is pretty dang important to me. So if Jesus calls me to abstain from certain foods because of the way those foods are produced? Thanks but no thanks, Jesus. I'll just pray for people in other countries while I chow down on this chocolate that is a product of their enslavement. I'll just wax poetic about God's care for animals as His own creation while I enjoy this mutilated and mistreated chicken that was overgrown for the sole purpose of me getting more meat per bite. Or, maybe I'll be convicted enough to make an effort to be "choosy" when purchasing food, so long as it's within a price range I deem reasonable. Spend more than $2 for a dozen eggs? Don't think so. I'd rather go on claiming that I "can't afford" to do things like that, so that I can keep spending $3 a day on a latte. 

Second, it challenges my idol of control and pride. As I've slowly, over time, found some of the above to be a little easier to follow through and do, I've been quick to award myself the badge of "Awesome Human Being." On more than one occasion, I've noticed myself cruising the aisle of Whole Foods (or some equally granola-laden store) feeling oh-so impressed. Wow, look at all of us and our ethical choices! We are truly global citizens, and such good stewards of our own bodies. It's a shame the rest of our fellow Americans haven't fully embraced the truth yet. In other words, I easily begin to believe the lie that I have total control over my own future ("if I eat like this, I won't get cancer") or that my own obedience somehow gives me the right to look down on others ("if you really cared about people in Africa, you'd stop eating that.") 

But the reality is that submitting to Christ's lordship over what goes in my grocery cart and what goes in my mouth calls me to repent of both of these idols. I am to obey Him, not my belly or my beloved checkbook. And I am to worship Him, not my (meager!) attempts at following His lead in my life. I am to relinquish autonomy over my eating habits, and the delusion that I am the savior of the world. Christ's lordship takes priority over "the desires of my flesh" to overeat or indulge despite my convictions, and it takes priority over "the desires of my flesh" to control my own health. He is Lord, which means He's in charge-- of my choices, my checkbook, and the cancer cells that may or may not develop in my body. It is His lordly care-- for chickens, coffee farmers in Africa, and me that makes relinquishing "control" to Him a life-giving and freeing activity.

What about you? Have you given much thought to what Jesus has to say about food? Which idols do you tend toward? What are your fears, values, struggles, or concerns when it comes to food?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

No Ash Without Beauty-- Art and the Gospel Pt. 2

On the heels of being stimulated by Gideon Strauss' discussion of beauty and justice at Art House Dallas (I just wrote about it here, and you may be confused by the rest of this post if you haven't read it!), I came across this blog post that approaches the same topic from a different angle: 

"The LA Times recently awarded Pope Benedict the title “Pontiff of Aesthetics.” In this piece, Charlotte Allen praises His Holiness for reminding “an increasingly ugly and debased [world] that there is such a thing as the beautiful.”

But to Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict’s previous title) what constitutes beauty? Here is his answer from his message titled “The Beauty and the Truth of Christ:

“In [Christ’s] face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love that goes to the very end.”

For Pope Benedict, the definitive standard of beauty is Christ’s broken body. Calvary is horrifying, but where else are we to find redemption?"

This is another way to frame the conversation: in Jesus Christ, justice and beauty intersect. In Him the whole story is held together-- the injustice of our sin and the beauty of God's Creator Love-- because in Him, The Beautiful One took the injustice of the world upon Himself for our behalf

Ambrosino's article reminded me that the horrific event central to the Christian gospel-- Christ's suffering-- is the event that ultimately redeems my own suffering, and that makes it possible for me to find beauty even in the most unjust experiences of my life. It is the Crucified Christ that has given me the permission and power to face the "ashes" in my life and the world around me rather than avoid them or stuff them under the rug. And it is the Risen Christ that has given me hope to see those very ashes blossom into something new, alive, and beautiful. That has pretty massive implications, I think, for artists-- and the rest of us. 

"...as any artist will tell you, there is no beauty without ash; but as any Christian will tell you, there’s no ash without beauty." 

Read his whole article here.  

 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Beauty, Justice, and the Christian Story

Tonight, a friend and I went to an event hosted by Art House Dallas, where a bunch of cool, artistic people gathered to discuss the relationship between beauty and justice. The man leading the discussion was a philosopher-artist-guy with a South African accent and a bow-tie. And it was at a pub. So, it was pretty much the most hipster thing I've done all year, slash maybe ever. Not being a "practicing" artist myself, but having studied music and being passionate about things like beauty and justice (ok, and beer), I really enjoyed tagging along and listening to the great observations of my artist-friends and colleagues! 

The man who spoke, Gideon Strauss, is actually a philosophy professor, so he kept making apologies for being abstract and philosophical and heady and all that. And it's certainly true that using big words like "aesthetics" and "artistic coherence" can seem disconnected from real life-- but as he spoke, my excitement grew because his words connected with my own experience. They entered my world and made sense of it, and gave me a vision for entering the life experiences of others. 

The basic premise of his presentation was that as human beings, we all inherently feel the importance of both beauty and justice. When we look at our own human story, this makes sense: God made the world good-- beauty reminds us of "how things are supposed to be"-- we were created to reflect and enjoy it around us. But because of sin, the world is broken-- and the injustice we see reminds us that this is "not how it's supposed to be"-- and as God's image bearers, we long to see that justice restored. Gideon reminded us that these two innately felt realities, beauty and justice, are part of the same story. We were created for beauty. Since that has been corrupted, justice is what restores it. 

At the heart of this story lies the Christian gospel. Because sin corrupted the beauty of God's creation, God Himself entered in to restore it. He brought justice by undergoing the greatest injustice of history-- by taking on human flesh and dying in the place of sinful people. In doing so, He beat death at its own game and rose victorious to a new life-- beyond corruption and beyond the brokenness that has so distorted reality as we know it on this side of things. What that means for us is that through faith in Jesus Christ, the One crucified and raised on our behalf, the beauty of our humanity can be restored. What's more, through faith in Him, we get to be a part of restoring that beauty to the whole world, because that is what He's about. 

So, back to what this has to to with my daily life experience. If the Christian gospel is ultimately about God doing justice by restoring creation to its originally intended beauty, then there is no dichotomy between justice and beauty. An artist who cares for human suffering ought not wonder if his calling to create beautiful things is somehow insignificant or shallow. A musician who finds great meaning and ministry in bringing music to others ought not feel guilty for following her call to sing. And a pastor who loves to write poetry or read Tolkien aloud to his family ought not wonder if he's wasting his time on less "holy" things. All of these people, in their different ways, are doing justice by creating beauty. They are being about what God is about-- restoring creation to its original goal: reflecting and enjoying Him, the Beautiful One.  

Have you experienced a tension between beauty and justice in your own life? Have you ever thought about those two terms in relationship to the Christian story? Is it healing for you to think that your artistic passion might be a holy calling? What are some other implications of this connection that I didn't mention?