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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Bad preaching

I’m listening to Ryan Adam’s Prisoner album tonight. I don’t know why, I’m just in the mood for some moody rock and technical musicianship. That can happen after lesson planning for the week after being in traffic for a few hours. 

The title may lead the reader to think I’m about to dunk on some specific bad preachers. I’ve made a habit of such practices in that past, but not tonight. I’m not in that bad of a mood. What I do want to talk about is the nature of bad preaching, and the practice of noticing it, assessing it as such, and doing something about it. At root is really the challenge of coming up with a consistent definition of what preaching is, and what makes it bad and/or good. My dad is a full time preacher and I’ve grown up around it all my live long days. After swearing off public speaking when I was 10 years old, I have preached at least monthly since I was in high school, in some format at least. I was a total boss at 10. Something else I grew up around was opinions on preaching. I got one sermon per week, but I got endless opinions on said sermon. Likewise, regarding my own preaching, I give one but the opinions are many. And these opinions take all the many shapes in like manner to the blogesphere’s eruption of opinions on all things foodie, political, and cultural. That is to say, they are endless. When I was little my parents listened to one other pastor on the radio other than the sermon my dad gave every week. That was about the only variety in homiletic consumption they had. Today however, it’s easy and common to inundate oneself with an ever flowing sermonic fountain. There are worse things to listen to, for sure, but it begs the questions regarding not only the quality, but the assessment of the quality by it’s hearers.

I’ve been thinking that the same thing I think is wrong with bad preaching is also what is wrong with bad opinions about preaching. Weak theological education, which is an extension of weak discipleship. There is a bit of a vicious circle when it comes to this. The ill-formed disciple hears a bad sermon and thinks it’s good, or thinks it bad but for the wrong reasons, and then times this cycle of possibilities across a given congregation, and now multiply that by the internet. The exponential disaster that is the aforementioned scenario aside, what really bothers me is the preaching that comes out of untold thousands of dollars of theological education and still doesn’t even come close to the mark of being good, but yet gets popularized and then bolstered as legitimate because of the paper that hangs on the preacher’s office wall. So what is good preaching anyway?

I had a simple formula come to me from several teachers in my life. Without going into detail the basic idea is that true Christian preaching proclaims the central message of the Christian Bible, which itself is the core teaching of the creator God, and his primary act was sending his son Jesus Christ to die for the sins of mankind to save them for himself, such that good preaching proclaims the whole of the Bible through the lens of this central, divine, act of salvation, and making clear all it’s depth and all it’s ramifications. The proclaiming act for the Christian preacher involves both clear and cogent teaching on relevant subject matters related to any given text from the Bible one is preaching from, but also, very importantly, to be emphatic and passionate (at some level in line with one’s personality, not fake) in the declaring of the truth of the good news of God’s kind rescue of mankind. The ditches that bad preaching finds itself in, now and through history, is related to either not teaching the whole counsel of scripture, or not proclaiming it’s central theme, usually favoring secondary themes that obscure Christ’s work in favor of man’s. There a listing effect that occurs when preachers, churches, or denominations decide something other than all of Scripture is really where the power of good preaching, and by extension the Christian life, is. Furthermore, even where all of the Bible is taken seriously, there can be an aversion to center the preaching and therefore the life of the church on the finished work of Christ. This may all seem dogmatic for a late night blog. At the least I will lean on one of our agreed upon intellectual betters, dear reader. The good chap Chesterton said the following, and I know we’ll both agree. “A teacher who is not dogmatic is simply a teacher who is not teaching.”1 I’m a teacher, and I intend to teach something here if for no other reason that you will know precisely what it is you are disagreeing with. However, at the best, what I’m really saying is this.

If the Bible is God’s word, and if Christ is central to it, and if central to Christ is his work on the cross, then what is it in one of his preachers that drives them away from it? Can it be said to be anything good in the end? And yet today our sermons are often filled with anything but. Why? Why self help? Why prosperity? Why moralism? Why not the cross? These questions have book length responses elsewhere, but tonight I reflect on where asking these questions lead, and it’s to some dark truths about the health of today’s churches in many cases. And as a bit of preacher myself, I look inward to where it’s darkest, and the only light there is Christ. And he’s enough. And he’s who I’m going to share.

That’s it dear reader. My Monday starts tomorrow where I am. Wherever you are I hope the light of Christ is there, and that you get a better glimpse at it from what happens on your Sunday. 

  1. Chesterton, G. K. (1910). What’s wrong with the world. (p. 246). New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.

Frodo as Pastor

Every year at least once, sometimes two, three or ten times, I rewatch Lord of the Rings with my wife and/or friends. This year I managed to watch the extended additions with her and showing significant portions of the theatrical version of the first two films to all six of my classes while they were given time to finish their final projects in the last weeks of school. We suffered a pretty major earthquake a couple of months ago, so the whole school is in what I call an “earthquake grace” mode, giving a bit of mercy all around. Lord of the Rings and class time to finish projects felt like an appropriate mix of therapy without sacrificing my educational agenda. It’s on Netflix in Korea so there are Korean subtitles, and surprisingly many of my students had never seen it, or only seen it once when they were much younger. Few to none properly understood the themes nor the source material or any information on the source himself, Tolkien. I was able to educate them properly, having haphazardly put the movie on at first, I’m now planning an Inklings club for next year to make sure the Korean youth in my care do not escape their educational experience without proper and full immersion into Narnia and Middle Earth. God forbid!

This time watching it I was also in the middle of assessing the spiritual formation efforts at our school, and in general I tend to think about pastoral care as I go about my business day to day. My dad is a pastor, and even though I’m adopted I think it’s safe to say it’s in my blood. Watching LOTR over and over with my classes and then at home while thinking about spiritual formation, for some reason I singled out the storyline of Frodo in my mind. While watching Fellowship of the Ring a few of my classes happened to end when Frodo was in Rivendell taking up the mantle of ringbearer while the pantheon of warriors fought with each other. My students were positively transfixed (and angry about having to wait until the next class to continue on). They feel small and powerless, and now understanding the context of the story and who the author was, and what the Hobbits represented, it honestly inspired them. Many of them have suffered severe spiritual abuse from family and churches. There are many awesome Christian people in Korea, and many wonderful pastors. But there are also regular scandals that would make the worst of the western evangelical industrial complex  blush. Regularly in the news are things like pastors killing people including family members, fist fighting during meetings, embezzling money, having affairs with significantly younger women, so on and so forth. One student told me about an article that detailed a pastor bringing a gun (illegal to own in Korea) to a meeting and hiring mafia bodyguards to intimidate his own elders at a meeting. Aside from the inspiration for a film script that I hope to submit to Netflix, I was stunned and completely ashamed this behavior was associated with church leaders here. The impact has been huge, and in this neo-confucian culture a lot of times they deal with shame by erasing it as quickly as possible, not processing it at all. This has left many of the youth very unsure about how to move forward with their faith, or if their faith is secure, with their churches. I’m sure many of my western readers of faith (or of former faith) will have little trouble relating to that. Just imagine if our culture was built on collectivist honor and shame more than individualist innocence and guilt, and try to process how a child would navigate these issues. How do you trust spiritual authority? How do you process the evil in your own life when such evil is dominate in those who are supposed to be guiding us into the light?

Enter Frodo. The humble among the powerful know they can’t handle the ring’s power, starting with Gandalf and ending with Galadriel. The scene when Galadriel was tempted by the ring had my students convinced she was evil. When I explained her backstory and what that scene was really showing, that even though she was good she could be corrupted, they expressed tangible fear and dread, and remained glued to the story. How could Frodo withstand the temptation? How could he carry such evil to its destruction when all the high ranking and powerful characters could not?

These little souls carry many burdens and they are desperate to share them. When they do, they give the listener power. This is part of the pastoral experience and a big part of the life of a Christian community. If we don’t have openness and honesty coupled with wisdom, love, humility and care, we have serious danger. With each relationship and each conversation, little rings of power are being handed over to those in leadership. Those in pastoral care are trusting those doing pastoral care to help them destroy the evil in their lives, whatever form it may be, not to use it against them. And yet even Frodo faltered at the end, but he had his Fellowship, and the one remaining member with him, Sam, to get to the precipice. Even then, without a demon creature to exploit Frodo’s weakness with his pure rage, no goodness from within Frodo would have finished the job. It took a divine plan from outside of him to properly do what needed done, and in ways that none of the Fellowship would have planned or thought of.

As I watched this year I thought of how I want our spiritual formation at the school to look a lot more like Frodo. We aren’t wizards or kings or warriors. We’re common people with an uncommon task. I wish more pastors felt this way, and more training was done in this tone. For now I know I can’t leave my students with swords and shields and traditional forms of power, but with the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Somehow, in unexpected ways, through these means the light reaches into the darkness, and evils are vanquished.