Reflection on the Incarnation

At the end of every school year I have the seniors in my Bible class do a reflection project where they can choose any number of methods they want to reflect on any of the topics we covered through the year. The first semester is focused on basic Christian doctrine, what you may know as the systematic topics of Christian theology. We talk about the Trinity, Creation, Salvation, the Church, Satan, Demons and Hell, and the End Times among other things. In the second semester we turn towards ethics, and talk about Sex, Entertainment, Alcohol and Drugs, War and Politics among other things. We do projects or essays on each one, and take a few quizzes along the way. 

This year I had one senior who was an avowed atheist from the time he came to our school. Approximately 25% of our upperclassmen identify as agnostic or atheist privately in a survey our spiritual formation committee, which I help lead, sends out each year. I love having them in my classes and I plead with them to share openly and freely and work hard to create an environment where they feel safe to do so. According to the Fuller Youth Study “Sticky Faith” being able to share doubts and ask questions about one’s faith is one of the key data points discovered when figuring out which students gain and retain their own faith once they leave their homes. My experience confirms this. So this senior chose to reflect on the theological category of Christology, the study of Christ, for his final project. The only thing was, he didn’t want to actually present it because he didn’t want to out himself. In the presentation he sent me he claimed to be Christian, though he was still working through many of his questions. He said the study of the person and the work of Jesus Christ had changed his life. I was stunned, and grateful. I don’t need much more motivation to keep doing what I’m doing than that. It got me thinking about all the fluff we try to throw at youth when we do ministry to them. They are learning advanced math and science, getting ready to do their military service, and absorb more digital media than any other youth generation combined. They can handle some theological education. In fact, they crave it.

I wish I had learned advanced Christology when I was in high school. I didn’t really learn it in any depth until I was in seminary, and as soon as I did I felt robbed. It was a similar sensation to when I first ate Indian food as a 19 year old. I said to myself, where in God’s name has this been all my life? I should have had this from the age I was able to consume whole food! I felt the same about Christology, and I still do. To this day I feed both Christology and Indian food to my students as a matter of divine command, duty, and privilege.

As it’s Christmastime, one subcategory of Christology I’m reflecting on is the Incarnation, the act of God adding humanity to his divinity, fully God and fully man. What I think is fun is that each of the four Gospels come at the life of Christ from slightly different angles depending on their experience and context. They have the same compass as they write, the true Jesus is their north star, but they all have different maps they plot for getting there, with various intersections. The first three Gospels have so many intersections that they are known as the synoptic Gospels, because they share much that is the same. However, when you read them, and even more so when you truly study them, you see all kinds of details that distinguish them from one another. Some critics try to use this to say they are lying. But in actuality it lends itself to their authenticity. I truly love reading them more and more as I age. Considering all the variety in the Gospels is quite a task, a book length one. But one simple thing I like to do is just notice how they all start differently.

Matthew is writing to a Jewish context and his book is full of quotes and allusions to the Old Testament that his audience would readily understand. It’s even designed in a way that sections itself into a kind of retelling of the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, the foundation of all true Judaism and Christianity. But he starts like this. “1 The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham:” (Mt. 1:1, NASB). A genealogy of the promised Messiah, via King David, via Father Abraham? A religion and culture obsessed with Old Testament is all ears. There’s plenty in there for all peoples, and even in the original audience there would have been non-Jews familiar with the Old Testament. But before getting in to Jesus’ birth narrative, Matthew gives an epic backstory that many cultures find a bit negligible. I’ll never forget the time one of my Indian friends told me about his church mistakenly printing the Matthean genealogy in an invitation to their Christmas service. But not having the money to reprint they past them out anyway. To their surprise a Hindu stranger came, holding the invite. They asked him why he came. He said that none of his gods had a family history like his own, but this one did. He wanted to hear more. That’s incarnation.

Mark is writing in a more Graeco-Roman context, heavily influenced by the early church leader Peter who was in Rome later in his ministry according to history, serving the church there. There are fascinating studies about Mark against the backdrop of the imperial cult of Rome, and how Jesus is presented as a triumphant king in their context. Mark starts this way. ” 1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1, NASB). What’s fun about Mark is that it’s short and fast. I like reading those who study the book and feel they can find Peter’s personality behind it. Quick thinking, looking for the action, and moving forward with haste. Mark rushes headlong toward the final week of Jesus’ life, when no other than a Roman soldier declares Christ to be God. But Mark begins with an allusion to Genesis one, when he says “the beginning,” and then says it’s good news of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God. Good news was what was declared when Roman kings came back from war victorious. Mark skips the birth narrative to state simply, when Jesus began, he began as a victorious king. And when he ended, even Roman soldiers sworn to the emperor were bending the knee to him. Many Romans were asked to fight and die for their king, to defeat his enemies. None had a king die for them to defeat their enemies, and then conquer the greatest enemy, death. That’s incarnation.

Luke is awesome. He’s possibly the only non-Jew to write of a Gospel, or any book of the Bible as far as we can tell. And he was a scholar. Though Paul writes the most books in the New Testament, Luke write the most words. The first sentence of his Gospel takes four verses. He’s writing a researched and historical narrative of the life of Christ and all the events surrounding his life, and then after he ascended into Heaven in his sequel, Acts. Some scholars debate the genre of Luke, as the other Gospels are more clearly ancient biography, some argue Luke is ancient history, along with Acts, because it’s more event focused than person focused. It appears that some person either named or under the pseudonym Theophilus is a patron paying for this research. He or she has a cool name, it means “lover of God.” Luke starts this way. “1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4, NASB). Few research papers have started so powerfully. Luke was a physician and a traveling companion of the apostle Paul. What a special life. As a physician it seemed Luke was quite keen on how Jesus dealt with suffering people. He’s also interested in details so he goes back to before Jesus was born to when his cousin, and the final Old Testament style prophet, John, was born. He would later be known as John the baptist, and he made the authorities so mad they put him in jail and later cut off his head to keep him from telling them they were wrong. This still happens to those who proclaim Christ today. Luke captures elements to the these stories others leave out, including a song Mary, Jesus’ mother, sings when she is told of her virgin birth. If you study the origin of other religious leaders, or gods or goddesses, the historicity of their lives can often be completely detached from human history, or hard to establish in any official records, or quite negligible to their teachings, or simply reveal that they were really not divine at all. It’s certainly of little interest to know the “exact truth” about them, more just to get a sense of the rules to be on their team. But Jesus entered into human history, and opened himself up to investigation, scrutiny, and from his earliest followers they didn’t just engage him with their emotions, that’s only part of being human, they also engaged him with their minds, seeking to be as exact as they could in their understanding of his divinity and his humanity. That’s incarnation. 

Of the earliest Christians, particularly those who were Jesus’ disciples, and who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write scripture, the apostle John lived the longest, and wrote the latest. Though he didn’t write the most books, or words, he did write in the most genres represented in the New Testament, penning a Gospel, three letters, and the only book of prophecy, Revelation. By the time John wrote his Gospel, Jewish and Greek Christians were mingling more and more in various cities around the Roman empire. It’s believed he wrote primarily to those in the region around Ephesus with churches that were diverse. He writes about Jesus in a way that clearly fulfills themes in the Old Testament, but also in a way that utilizes, and shows a deep awareness of, Greek language and thought. He explains geographic locations in Palestine that Greek Christians wouldn’t understand, as well as Aramaic words. His audience appears to have been mixed and integrated, and his writing reflected that. He starts his Gospel this way. “1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1, NASB). John directly quotes Genesis 1:1 when he starts his Gospel. Unlike Matthew, he’s not starting from Abraham. Unlike Mark, he’s not starting with Jesus’ ministry. Unlike Luke, he’s not starting with the birth of John the baptist, and then later with Adam in his genealogy that goes back to the first man. John starts with the beginning of the world, and even before, Christ was there, and as you read the first chapter, you find Christ was doing the creating as part of the divine Godhead. John is not a synoptic Gospel, his is the cosmic Gospel. And once you get to verse 14, this “word” that was with, and was, in fact, God, you read that he “became flesh.” And when he became flesh, he dwelt with his people, and they saw his glory, it was the same glory Moses had seen, and the same glory the Greeks were striving after with their “words,” their logic. But this glorious word wasn’t something that would kill them, but who would die for them. And it wasn’t some esoteric and distant stoic philosophy about how to detach yourself from the world of pain and emotion, but entered into your pain and emotion, and lived there, and took it in, took it all in, and let it kill him. And that word rose again, and lives even now. And you can read that word, and you can follow that word, and you can speak that word, and one day be with that word forever. That’s incarnation.

Why on earth would I let my students, or myself, swim in the shallow pool when this ocean is ours? Merry Christmas. 

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Kind and Nice

I’m currently listening to instrumental Christmas music that my wife has playing in the background of our Sunday evening. Some say it’s too early. We don’t care. 

Growing up in a Christian home, and in a pastor’s family especially, one of the expectations is that people are “nice.” I kind of laugh when I think about this, not in a cynical way, but because there are so many problems with the notion. One of them is indeed that you can find just as many mean people in a church as outside of it, in many cases anyway. I personally find the difference to be that in a church, at least in one of any measure of health, you will also find confession, repentance, and forgiveness as well. This is what makes the church, the healthy one, different. Not the absence of conflict, but the presence of forgiveness at scale. Another reason I laugh is all the ways that niceness has been perpetrated to some of the most tragic and unkind ends. I once had a pastor who said “it’s not kind to be nice to an evil person.” The idea is if you welcome an abuser in to your life, or home, or the church, and in order to be nice to them you let them do whatever makes them comfortable, you are in fact being unkind to those they harm. You may in fact have to be something other than nice to them to truly be a kind individual. 

I find this to be resonate throughout the biblical narrative, something that perplexes the hyper-moral secularist, and even progressive Christians. They love to cut out the Old Testament, or say God didn’t really kill his son Jesus for our sin, or some other thing that cuts some of the blood and guts out of the persona of God that they don’t find to be very “nice.” I find in every context I’m in the norm for deciding when, how, how often, and to whom to be nice too will reveal the real worldview of the community. In business who gets the default, the leaders, the employees, or the clients? In a school, is it the administrators, the board, the parents, the teachers, or the students? If the debate is brought to a vote, because some issue has been raised, who is going to be treated the nicest? Who gets their way and why? 

One of the things about Jesus I honestly love is that he rips in to the Pharisees, and hard. Some of them come around and join his team. By the time we get to the Acts of the Apostles, there are Pharisees in the Christian church. That’s amazing. Hard words led to soft hearts. I think it’s because those who were humble could see he was right about their hypocrisy. But in chapters like Matthew 23, Jesus just straight lays into them. It’s brutal. And the more you study the history and language of the time, the darker it is. But you don’t need to dig too deep to know that saying things like like this are harsh, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” (Mt. 23:15 NIV). I know there are times I need a hard word. I’ve had abusive people lay in to me needlessly, sure, I’m no glutton for that kind of punishment. But the idea that the God-become-flesh nicest man on earth laid out some sick burns against the prideful who were leading others away from him gives me peace. Because when you really go through you life, you see the need for this kind of leadership. Sometime you have to say hard things, and it doesn’t make you a mean person, it makes you kind to the right people, the innocent, the helpless, the weak. And in Jesus’ case, it makes you exceedingly honest and committed to the truth. Everywhere I have been there has been a need for that kind of leadership, and a craving for it. There hasn’t always been a knowledge or an initial acceptance of what it looks like, but when it is manifest over any amount of time to any effect, it is appreciated by the right people. 

I want to be a kind person, and have always tried to be. Most think I am. I was voted the friendliest guy in my senior class in high school. But to do so I have to be guided but what is just and righteous, and that involves hard things and harsh words sometimes. There is definitely a balance, and a need to default to being as kind as possible. Too often it is believed that as a personal of faith, it is only possible to be kind, and that is only true if you know when, how, how often, and to whom to be kind to. Jesus knew, and I’ll keep trying to follow his lead. 

Tolkien’s other stories

I’m listening to the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack tonight. I haven’t seen the recent film yet, but I plan to once it’s out for streaming. I just didn’t have time to get to the theater here in Korea, and this film wasn’t exactly worth it to me. However the flick has had surprisingly staying power in the Korean theater. Often films come and go quickly, they move quick when ticket sales dip. I’m OK with Queen. They aren’t my jam really, but I find it fun.

A few years ago I decided I was listening to too many podcasts, reading too many blogs and articles and not listening to nor reading enough books. So I decided to always have a hard copy, a kindle, and an audio book actively being read and to track my reading with Goodreads. My goal this year was to read 100 books, though I’m only at 53 and not likely to make up the difference. Still, I’ve managed to increase the intake of long-form content in my reading diet which has been good for me. Because of my schedule and my audio learning style, audio books have become a big deal for me. I subscribe to Audible and use Christian Audio as well when they have deals. I’m loyal to whatever is cheapest and legal….est. Usually audio books are more expensive but sometimes they are dirt cheap. One surprise was finding Tolkien’s shorter stories for really cheap prices on Audible. So far I’ve listened to four of them and they were quite fun.

The Smith of Wooten Major was a book I had previously never heard of. Tolkien was writing a preface about fairy tales to an edition of MacDonald’s Golden Key that ended up a fairy tale in the process. He was intending to illustrate how fairy tales work, and so this story in many ways is a simple illustration for how Tolkien thought of fairy tales. This story has a young smith’s son participating in a feast for good children that takes place every 24 years in their village, with a cake that has many items inside for the children to find. The smith’s son eats a star that gives him a special access to a town a town called Faery on his 10th birthday. There he travels and meets the King and Queen of Faery, and he earns the name Starbrow because the star he ate appears on his forehead. After 24 years he must return the star and go back to his common duty, training his son in the craft of blacksmithing. It’s a story filled with longing and loss, that while light for most the plot ends up feeling quite heavy. An hour to listen or 149 pages to read, Tolkien never lets a story lover down.

Mr. Bliss is a short children’s story written by Tolkien and published posthumously in 1982, inspired by his personal adventures with his first car, and his sons toy bears. It was published as a picture book but I had fun listening to it. Mr. Bliss bounds about through a story interacting with hobbit like creatures of all kinds in hobbit like ways. This was clearly an early iteration in his formation of hobbit culture, even with two characters from LOTR that found their inception in this work, Gaffer Gamgee and Boffin. An hour to listen, or 107 pages to read, another fun foray into one of Tolkien’s creative worlds.

Farmer Giles of Ham is a fun and short story by Tolkien about a Medieval farmer whose dog warns him about a giant that he successfully scares away, to them be called upon by the locals when a dragon is about. I believe this story is only tangentially connected to the world of Middle Earth in the sense that it comes from the same lore family, shares many themes and with a similar tone to the Hobbit. By the end Giles faces down the King, whose sword he used to tame the dragon and get its gold, to much fanfare in his village of Ham, who then esteem him more than the King. Lots of fun lessons about life, luck, unlikely heroes, and bravery. 127 pages or 2 hours of fun yet epic narrative in the Tolkien manner.

Finally, Roverandom is the one I just finished listening too. It is by far the most fun of the short stories I’ve listened to from Tolkien. This one must have been written after a long draw from strange leaf of the shire. A dog named Rover bites a pant leg of a wizard and gets turned into a toy. He ends up meeting all kinds of wild characters and travels to the moon and the depths of the sea seeking the wizard who cursed him in order to make him normal again. Apparently this was written for Tolkien’s son once his favorite toy went missing, in order to cheer him up, to then be published much later once Hobbit was a hit. It’s Toy Story meets Homeward Bound meets Pinocchio. 3 hours or 116 pages of tripped out, imaginative fun.

I recommend the credit plans on Audible. I get the biggest one at $230 a year for 24 credits, and a book is usually one credit. I’ve never used more than one credit per book. That’s about $10 a book. So any audio book under $10 that I want I usually buy outright and save my credits for the real monster prices to save more money. Christian audio is usually more expensive but they have regular sales when books are around $5. If you like listening to books it’s a great way to add 20 to 30 books a year to your diet (or more). I listen at 1.5 speed usually as well, plus I travel internationally quite a bit and enjoy listening then, and have a waterproof bluetooth speaker in my shower, because I’m insane, and because I just enjoy redeeming the time. But hey, whatever floats your boat. If you don’t like it you can read someone else’s blog. 

That’s it tonight dear reader. After telling you I cut most blogs out to read more books I’m glad you took time to read mine. Now go read or listen to something awesome.