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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Random reflections after two years of teaching the Bible in South Korea

After spending most of my life never planning to go, much less live, in Asia, I can now say South Korea is my home. I haven’t posted a blog since being home in the US and reflecting on what it was like to be gone for a year and a half, longer than I had ever been away, and then return. Since then I’ve been busy. My new principal, whom I love, green-lighted a proposal a colleague and I made to completely reshape the Bible curriculum at our school. The changes were so severe we were taking class time away from other core classes, classes that help Korean students on their version of the SAT, which is the most sacred of all sacred cows in Korean society. The cut was deep, and the fallout was not small, but we are doing it. I say that to say my head has been down, buried in curriculum design and implementation, trials and errors and fixes, collaboration, and tirelessly learning about the full scope of Christian education and then ruthlessly defending my key convictions when they are threatened (I say with equal measures of pride and shame). And all of this in an ESL, cross-cultural context (AKA hard). Yesterday was the last day of the semester. I’m tired, but yet again, like a switch being flipped, I’m reflective, and I am blogging. I don’t know why this is a pattern for me, but it is.

One of the things that takes up a lot of my brain space is comparing the history of Christianity and evangelicalism in the western cultures that are very native to me with what I see here in Korea, particularly how the youth I teach are aware of and responding to it. There are similarities to be sure. They have been brought up in Sunday school learning basic stories of the Bible. They have a basic framework of what the Bible is and says, and what a biblical worldview is, or what it should be. However, Christianity is very young in Korea. While young, in some ways it is deeper. Christianity attached to Korea in a time of desperation and identity crisis at a culturally systemic and deeply profound level. Korea has been invaded countless times and its people forced to change and be subservient in ways that most Americans can’t comprehend. It leaves a lasting impact, an imprint on the collective psyche, especially as a collectivist culture. There are words in their language that capture this deep sadness. They all carry it, and I as a fellow human can grasp it generally, but as a foreigner will never grasp deeply. Christianity in Korea steps into that sadness, and sinks into the souls of those who follow Christ here, and it gets into crevices of the human soul that I’m still learning about. In the West Christianity goes deep intellectually, and historically. In Korea it goes deep spiritually and emotionally.

That distinctive in Korean Christianity buys it something. It buys passion, and community. It buys profound and energetic prayer lives and assertive evangelistic efforts. Korean churches send more missionaries out into the world than any other nation with the exception of the USA, and I think per capita they take the cake. However, there are clear and present deficiencies and I see them all the time. I teach many Korean missionary children and the other children I teach are usually kids of faithful, local Korean Christians. I think it is fair to say I see a sample of the future of Korean Christianity every day in my classes. To be honest, there are some disturbing realities on the horizon.

The lack of Christian history in Korea specifically, but Asia more broadly, combined with the increasing rate of secularization, is concocting a potent mix. I see many of the same trends from when I was in high school, trends that mirror the American millennial generation. The same questions and concerns that arise from those who are done with church, and/or claim no religious affiliation. This is concerning on a few levels.

One is almost purely cultural. This collectivist culture is losing its collectivism in relation to family and religion, which is being replaced by the internet. What do we all know about the internet? It’s good and bad, but there’s a lot of porn, there are a lot of video games, and there’s a lot of advertising. With the diminished voice of family and church in the lives of youth, these other sources of “knowledge” and “pleasure” are becoming the primary sources of “life.” Korea boasts the fastest internet in the world, and I love it and hate it. Content needs curation, and curation is the fruit of wisdom, or the lack thereof. I see a great dearth of wisdom in Korean Christian youth. There’s a cultural gap between old Korea and the new as well as Korean culture and western culture. There is some overlap, but not all of new Korea can be called western, per se. It’s complex, and there are few if any contemporary, native, Korean Christian leaders speaking to youth in a way that makes sense to them. One of the biggest complaints in my class is they want to talk about the stuff we talk about in class with older Koreans, but can’t due to these cultural gaps in experience, knowledge, identity and worldview. They are being told what to think but not how. Korea, with its fast internet, the longest working hours in the world, it’s reputation for its rapid rise as a capitalist economy, has a fast paced culture.

Another level of issues is ecclesial. The church has syncretised with this fast paced cultural reality without enough reflection, and the youth are paying the price. I find my biggest asset as a foreigner is that I have to go slow by default in order to do anything. It turns out that that is what these kids need. The language barrier helps us both slow down enough to process the information in the Bible, and in Christian history, and the intersection between those things and modern Korean culture and what it all means, in general, and for them specifically. I’m still learning how to do this well but it is being done. I know I’m not a savior, for sure. I hate anything I see or find in myself that smacks of spiritual imperialism. I have much to learn from Korean Christians. But missionaries and/or Christian educators, empowered by God the Spirit and equipped with the Bible, are nothing if they are not able to speak with at least some authority on these matters. I tell my students, “as an outsider I’m an observer who can serve as a mirror to let you know what I see, but it’s up to you to change things.” After two years I can say with authority that Biblical literacy in Korean youth is poor, theological literacy is dismal, and ethical literacy is a flaming meteorite penetrating the atmosphere and is going to hit with epic impact. These students have been so primed to focus on their math and science education such that the humanities are not an afterthought, they are hardly a thought at all. It’s Korean SAT (KSAT) or die. Churches have full days of prayer for the their youth on test day. Students, by government mandate, are allowed to skip a huge majority of my (and all) classes in the Fall semester order to receive special tutoring  for the KSAT, and churches are falling in line. The suicide rate in Korean youth is highest the day the KSAT result come out. It’s literally life and death. Most of my seniors say the number one reason they haven’t committed suicide is for fear that they will go to Hell. I appreciate the church’s discipleship around biblical authority on the doctrine of Hell, but I find their lack of discipleship on Christian identity deplorable. My Korean colleagues are mixed on this issue, and my head goes spinning most days when something related to this comes up in staff meetings. Welcome to my life, and my personal lack of ability to be diplomatic despite my best efforts, I read the biblical prophets too much…

At this point, I’m just tired as I write, but I felt compelled to do so. I’d like to think that others can benefit from my reflections in some way as I do from so much content I try to curate on the internet. I hope this is the case. I’ll try to write more as I have energy. These reflections are fresh, and born out of the tired end of a long and laborious semester in a foreign context. I love what I get to do, and what I do feels important. I feel inadequate to the task, but I trust God brought me here for a reason, so I rely on him as exclusively as I am able day to day.

 

Remembering when I was my student’s age

The first semester of the Korean school year is rushing towards it’s conclusion. This means preparation for all the end of term activities, a rise in discipline issues along with colleague frustrations, and the inability to not daydream of summer plans. It also means we’ve been with our students for the better part of five months now, week in and week out, along with some weekends. For me, it means that my Korean students are used to the weird American, with a hair style featuring what they tell me is the potato look, a way of thinking that is decidedly more cosmopolitan than the homogeneity they are used to,  and a body modeled after the spoon as opposed to the chopstick. Their getting used to me, and my getting used to them, this event horizon in one of millions of globalization experiences of our time, brings many unknowns with the joys and pains of openness and honesty, the glory and burden of trust.

While attention spans, including my own, have all but flown the coop, at least once a week a class discussion emerges bearing this weight of trust, and with it questions that land with growing penetration each time I receive them. Time for reflection is short in this busy season, but when I get it I return to the times when I was in 7th grade and 12th grade respectively. I try hard to think about how I understood the world at those times, and then try to imagine being Korean, or being a third culture missionary kid, as this covers the full range of my student base. It feels like a futile attempt at contextualization every time, enough so that I wonder if I’m doing more harm in my attempt at relevance than any good.

Kids of any culture are playful if nothing else. This play weaves in fluidly to my student’s every social interaction, as many of them have known each other for years, and as Korean culture binds it’s people together with a type of bond I don’t think I will ever know. They all know what seems like hundreds of games they grow up playing with each other. Guess which way I’m going to look, get it wrong and get slapped on the back. Rock, paper scissors, lose and get slapped on the arm. Say a number in a really dainty voice, do it wrong and face the shame of the room until you do it right. These type of quick and silly games break out like a pandemic and retract as quickly when something else takes focus, all while holding hands, massaging arms, shoulders, sharing snacks and drinks, notes for class and leaning on each other’s shoulder. In a given day I’ll watch two of my most macho seniors touch each other more than I have made physical contact with my best bro in my life. There’s not an ounce of sexual tension. One of my best friends is from India, and we discussed how friends of our respective cultures acted around each other at length. The western discomfort of Indian male friendship made the global scene in popular Canadian comedian Russel Peter’s joke about how they often hold each other’s pinky finger while they walk together. I watched that stand up show with a group of Indians while in grad school, and we all laughed hard, because many of them had made their American friends uncomfortable without knowing it and some had learned in harder ways than others. Comedy is often the medicine the globalizing world needs. I try to offer it as often as I can myself, to much less success than Mr. Peters thus far.

Often when teaching, my entire periphery is dominated by this cadence of play and learning. When a class discussion emerges, the play may subside completely or just in the immediate area where the student or students are talking to me and each other. I teach, play in all these small ways takes place, a discussion emerges, I shush those who are too loud and distracting us, someone goes to the restroom, a class activity, play and touch in various forms passes around the room like a virus, the class comes back together, a time of reflection and response, someone loses what was once a quiet game of guess which way I was going to move my hand and gets smacked loudly, a video is watched on the theme of the class, various postures are attempted to find the best way to lean on friends to achieve the maximum comfort of all, the video ends and complaints that the lights came on too quickly are silenced by a round of relevant questions before class ends. This is somewhat typical. As the semester has progressed this planetary system of social and educational behaviors in orbit around each other have been interjected with the deep realities of life, so deep they appear as black holes in an otherwise controlled chaos. Suicide, parental neglect, abuse, spirituality, sexuality, the purpose of life and the meaning of death. These realities fall into the scene with ease for my students, part of the cadence. As a foreigner my cadence is, assumption, fail, embarrassment, sadness followed by anger followed by acceptance, repeat, one point of wisdom added, one million points needed to win the game.

I sometimes feel like the well constructed walls of adulthood and culture block me from being helpful. But I remember my adolescence well enough. I remember sadness, confusion, unending questions, new feelings, doubts and despair. I remember parents, teachers, friends and student workers who offered wisdom, hope, friendship, hugs, pats on the back, and the appropriate rebukes when needed. Nothing I learned in school prepared me for life more than those things. As the bond deepens between my students and I, and as the welcomed honesty flows with all its joys and burdens, I’m trying to remember when I was there age as much as I am able to help me teach and offer the best wisdom. This week I realized their questions were helping me deepen as a person. That my kids honesty was helping me be more honest with myself, and consider my past more carefully. As I climbed this existential mountain, I realized that I was becoming part of the cadence of the classroom too, that my place in this community was spanning age, culture and sometimes creed. As I processed the revelation, someone got slapped hard to my left, the loser of a Korean folk game I’ll never understand or be able to pronounce. One point of wisdom….