Initial reflection on my new daughter arriving from Africa

I know some of these more personal posts may only be of interest to a few close friends and family members, but they are also here to help me remember – later.

From last Saturday night the day my new daughter arrived:

Absolutely everyone is asleep now. All FOUR children upstairs, and my wife, recovering from severe jetlag. I am here on the couch reading a theological essay. It’s only 9:30 PM, but I feel like collapsing on the couch. I really have no idea what tomorrow holds. I assume that Abi will get up sometime in the middle of the night and will likely not go back to sleep. Not sure what I’m going to do with her – I barely know her! No time like the present to start though. It is certainly strange to have a fully-formed walking talking child “born” into your family. Some people have said that for a while it feels like babysitting. I don’t get that impression at all. All the preparation and meeting her at the orphanage last fall laid the groundwork for me totally and immediately accepting her as my daughter and seeing her as instantly integrated into our family. What that actually looks like day-to-day though is still a big mystery. The hour or so that the children all played together tonight makes things seem very promising though. Remarkably so, especially after a steady diet of terrible stories in books and training material authored by social workers. My expectations had been loosed to be very low indeed. Perhaps needlessly though? The challenges will come, I have no doubt. They come continuously with all three of the other children. Still, so far my only real impression is that she is just like them: fantastic, and very much in need of a father, mother, sisters, and brothers.

A walk downtown after a blizzard

For nine days I was “single-daddin'” it (to turn a noun into a verb) while my wife was picking up our new daughter in Africa. One evening, while my mother-in-law was here to help, I took a break for a couple hours in the evening to walk downtown with my book. A terrible snow-storm had just struck the day before, but then it had briefly thawed and rained for a few hours before freezing again, making for a very unusual shell of sorts on top of the snow. The following is nothing more really than an exercise to write about my walk. I liked a few parts of it though, so I figured I should post it.

The crusted snow covering everything reflects in an impossible fashion, like a bad bump map seen by an early raytracer in the mid nineties. (Would you know what either of those things are if you don’t work in 3D graphics software?) That must be like an artist talking about faded paint and how the colors just don’t look the same since everyone started using those damn curly lightbulbs.

The ice is hard and shimmering, but breaks easily under foot, glove, and especially tire. I’ve helped push two cars out of the snow while on the short walk downtown. We are far enough north that chains offer freedom rather than slavery.

I went looking for a quiet place to read and think and perhaps have a drink. The quiet bar just lost it’s liquor license, so apparently I’ll be drinking water – in a Tom Collins glass, on ice, with a twist of lemon. It just goes to show that presentation is half the story – in more than just cocktails. The snow is treacherous, but beautiful. It also has two stories.

The man at the next table tells a story, revealing himself to be a logger, and the son of a logger no less. He looks the part. He says “God Damn” every other sentence. His friend is a trucker. His choice filler is “fuckin'”. they’ve spent the whole time discussing heavy equipment and engine maintenance. So like men! The ones with Ph.Ds discuss rocket engines, but the conversation is identical.

The crawfish soup is dressed up with tails this time. The cook asks how it is since he usually pulls apart just the meat. I tell him it certainly LOOKS more interesting, but should perhaps come with a crunchy cautionary from the waiter. Agreement ensues.

A couple of girls walk by, on their way to the club. They wear heavy coats but shorts so small they could double as undergarments. If you got to know that girl, what sort of wife and mother would she make? Could it be any more obvious that she expects no one to ask that question? Where she is going, the men aren’t going to ask either. Instead, they could go to certain churches where everyone is asking – but the shorts are a turn-off there, but so is the coat.

Thursday is often a slow night, but not with thousands of college students who have just been informed that class is cancelled tomorrow due to the bad weather. Still, there is one guy studying Latin at the next table. He looks up as the two clubbing girls walk past, then back down.

Another couple is talking about the wild and strange surface of the snow again. Both wish they had their cameras with them. Who knows when it will ever look like this again?

It’s getting to be late January and the Christmas lights are waning here. Some are still up, but off. In Ethiopia today, it’s Epiphany. Flags line the street as their Christmas goes out with a bang. We front-load ours with so much noise and gift-giving that when Christ is finally born it’s too loud to hear him crying in the cradle.

Teaching a fundamental skill versus straight information impartation

(Warning: Unedited education theory rambling henceforth.)

One reason why Aural Skills (Ear training and sight singing) was the very best class in college was that it was the most like the establishment of the Kingdom of God. (I know, I know, this analogy is a stretch, here, but work with me.) The Law was heavy indeed, but redemption (albeit self-redemption) held even greater sway than all the law. You could fail and fail and fail throughout the year, but if you passed the final exam, you passed the class. End of story. All your previous failures were erased. The teacher knew that the journey might take you through some very low and dark places. If he wanted people that could perform on par from day 1 – what would there be to learn? Instead, we all got our asses kicked really hard. The question was not, “Can you do this?” but rather, “Here is how to do this. Now let’s do it over and over and over together. After a year, we’ll see if you did it enough to be comfortable with it now or if we should keep doing it together some more.” (Fail and repeat the course.)

This the opposite of, say, a history course where you read and listen to lectures, memorize the narrative, and the prove that you were able to pack it in your brain by answering some test questions every few weeks. If you drop the ball on one test, an A is no longer possible. Now, this may be an adequate way to learn some material, but how much more powerful is the immersion experience of the first method?

This is what I wonder: If the first method is the only really effective way to learn certain fundamental skills, while the second method is decent at non-fundamentals – what if the first method were used to learn everything else as well? It’s just called first-hand experience. Yeah, some deep pedagogical theory there, right? Blow you mind.

It’s simple. What was the most valuable thing about music school at the university? The private lessons? The theory? The history? No. Those were OK, but what was really fantastic was playing in hours and hours of ensembles every single day: Wind ensemble three times a week, choir three times a week, jazz band twice a week, marching band 5 times a week, chamber ensemble, studio, and at least once concert – every single week. That’s about twenty hours a week of real, completely tangible, dialed-in music making. Who cares if you could audition for the highest group? Just show up and play (or sing). How can you help but learn? You’re drowning in it! (In a good way.)

Now I love lectures too, but only if I can engage what is being discussed with the same level of intensity as watching the conductor. Possible – if the teacher is an especially good speaker or the material particularly and obviously fascinating. But most of the time? Not so much. I can tell you with full confidence: no amount of listening or study will make you like Brahms. The first symphony is a snore fest. But go actually PLAY some Brahms, every day for 2 months, and then try to tell me with a straight face that it doesn’t totally rock. (I was very fortunate to rehearse and perform his third symphony, double bass, when I was 16. Changed my life.) Reaching this sort of level of engagement is possible with any topic, but I feel that our most common pedagogy often gets in the way. School could be getting in the way of you learning something really amazing.

New daughter

I hear she’s talking up a storm – excited to show her new mommy everything. All I have are a few email reports from my wife and a couple of quick snapshots sent over African dial-up fast internet, but after 18 months of paper pregnancy and a brief few hours last fall, I finally get to meet her this coming Saturday.

Tolkien on work and non-hobbies

I absolutely love this quote from Tolkien. (I stole it from the Oxford Inklings blog, but it’s worth throwing in the scrapbook.)

When asked by a journalist what made him “tick” he answered:

“I don’t tick.  I am not a machine.  (If I did tick, I should have no views on it, and you had better ask the winder.)  My work did not ‘evolve’ into a serious work.  It started like that.  The so-called ‘children’s story’ [The Hobbit] was a fragment, torn out of an already existing mythology.  In so far as it was dressed up as ‘for children’, in style or manner, I regret it.  So do the children.  I am a philologist, and all my work is philological.  I avoid hobbies because I am a very serious person and cannot distinguish between private amusement and duty.  I am affable, but unsociable.  I only work for private amusement, since I find my duties privately amusing.” ‘

In contrast, a terrible Sabbath teaching with zero grace

While researching the history and theology behind the Sabbath, I came across a LOT of posts and articles like this one. I’m not going to link to it – just give a few excerpts. This sort of thing is very common. I’ve heard it before many times.

“In my own life, I try to take at least two walks each day – these short 45 minute Sabbaths refresh, renew, and revitalize; they inspire me with new ideas and enable me to respond compassionately to the people around me. Time spent in Sabbath comes back to me in greater creativity, inspiration, and compassion. I try to take more extended Sabbaths – an afternoon or a day apart, without internet or working, on a regular basis. On Sundays, I try to study and spend time with my family rather than do business tasks.

Martin Luther is reputed to have noted, “I have so much to do today that I need to spend extra time in prayer.”

Today, make a commitment to a few minutes of Sabbath – a time of prayer and meditation, a walk, a conversation with a friend, devotional reading. Time is relative and Sabbath opens us to spacious living, and rest that rejuvenates.”

Can you feel the weight of the law crushing down on you? Nice suggestion – take a 45 minute walk each day to revitalize? What if you’re a single mom? (Heck, what if you’re a married mom?). That Martin Luther quote gets pulled out ALL THE TIME to try to exhort people to pray more. What it really does is just make you feel like a loser. (Unnecessarily so.) Finally, there is a plea to “make a commitment” to get your act together by observing the Sabbath more. Automatic fail. Bleh.

No grace to be found in one word of this ridiculous prescriptive preaching. The author probably thinks he’s being really helpful and biblical too. It’s all good advice, but no good news. This sort of thing doesn’t help anyone.

Play by play of a church service, 150 AD

I hear a lot of people criticize the “institutional church” in various ways. Talk about an easy target! Nonetheless, one of the things that is often implied is that the contemporary church service is a silly later invention with little or no relation to what the apostles actually did. While we have little evidence of what the first century church looked like exactly (home gatherings with meals are most likely), I was surprised to find this pretty detailed account that isn’t much older.

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

-Justin Martyr, First Apology 67

So, let’s see:

  • They meet on Sunday as long or as short as time permits
  • They read some from the Old Testament (prophets)
  • They read some from the New Testament (apostles)
  • The leader gives a teaching and exhortation (sermon)
  • They all stand up and pray
  • They distribute bread and wine, then pray and eat
  • They take up an offering and those “well to do” give some.
  • Then they are done.
  • (They probably sing somewhere in there, but it’s not mentioned in this account)
  • Later that day, the deacons distribute food and money to the poor or absent in the congregation.

So there we go. From AD 150, that looks shockingly like a pretty vanilla church service. There would have been people in the congregation whose parents knew the apostles personally – only one generation removed. Did they stand up and say, “This liturgy and order of service is a bunch of trash! Let’s get back to what Jesus taught us!” No, they didn’t say that. Instead, this is what they actually established. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea.

I’m appealing to history here to argue for the legitimacy of traditional Christian worship gatherings, though I don’t really have any problem with most “alt worship” ideas either.

Loving the law but not relying on it: A few more thoughts regarding the Sabbath

Galations 3:10 says:

“All who rely on observing the law are under a curse.”

Is this at odds with so much of what the psalmist says? What about, for example:

With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches.
Psalm 119:13-14 (ESV)

The key word there is “relying”.

The trick here is what are you relying on the law for? Anything? If you are relying on your observance of the law to save you, to redeem you from death, then indeed, you are under a curse.

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, etc.” from Psalm 1. What does he do? His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.

This must be an OBSERVANCE of the law of sorts. But if he is RELYING on this to save his life, then he is under a curse – an impossible burden on his back that he cannot lift. Observing the whole law will crush you. It is as heavy as the weight of the entire earth. For the earth to hold you to the ground, it needs to have a certain mass and gravity. The only way to exert this is by being impossibly large and crushing. The law describes nature as the Lord created it. Jesus saves us from the death that naturally occurs to us due to our corruption and rebellion.

The Sabbath rest in time and space is naturally healthy to our bodies, the environment, and society. But it cannot save us. To put a burden on people to observe the Sabbath is to put a heavy weight upon their neck that they cannot bear. They may be able to bear it, on the surface, while reaping some benefits, but this is only cosmetic. The only one who has done the law justice is the judge himself, Jesus Christ. The fascinating thing about Christ is that we are told he is our judge, AND our intercessor. What charm do you use to ward off the wrath of God? You’re works? You’re prayers? You’re petitions to the saints?

Michael Card, when singing about Christ as Jubilee, describes what it it will be like, “To look into your judges face and see your savior there.” Jesus Christ is the only thing that can satisfy the law – the whole shmere. And he did. His life on earth is the fullfillment of the Sabbath. It is a perfect sabbath. We rest in Christ because the burden has been lifted. Before that, how could we really rest?

Can you really rest on a Saturday if the roof on the house is leaking? When there is water dripping on your bed? The furnace is broken and the pipes in the bathroom has frozen hard? Can you just chill out and take it easy? That is no rest. The same is true of our sinful lives. Can we rest when we have been nasty and hateful to our family members in recent memory? We still feel dirty – and angry – about our lies and lust, even if not all of it is immediately obvious to outside observers. Can you rest in this? No. But with Christ, you can. He IS the jubilee. Your bank account is empty and your credit card maxed out on raucous living, just like that of the Prodigal son. But you get it all back – you are returned to your place of sonship in the house of God. This is a real Sabbath rest. The Grace of Jesus Christ is the sole enabler of this. He IS the real Sabbath. Like nearly everything we see in God’s relation to OT Israel, Jesus is the fulfillment. The old was a shadow – a signpost pointing to the new. The new is here.

Concering the Sabbath (Part 4/4): Conclusion, Jesus as Jubilee

Now, I would really like to bring this all back around to Jesus.

I think to understand what Sabbath was really about in the first place; we need to connect it back to the Jubilee, which provides a much clearer connection to Christ.

When Jesus first began his ministry, he stood up and read something very significant. We find this in Luke 2:16 and onward:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
(Luke 4:16-21 ESV)

“To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” That’s the year of Jubilee. (Lots of theologians agree that that is what he is talking about there. It’s probably listed as a cross-reference to the Jubilee laws in Leviticus 25 if you have a study bible.) Jesus picked just this passage and said, “Today this Scripture is FULFILLED in your hearing.”

What he is saying is, “I AM the Sabbath. I AM the year of Jubilee. The slaves being set free? The debts cancelled? That was just a shadow, but not anymore. I have arrived! The rest, the seventh day is HERE right now, in the flesh, right in front of your face. I’m it.”

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has this to say about how Jesus handled the Sabbath:

“So why would Jesus so pointedly cut a swath through this great and God-given institution? The only explanation which will do – but it will do very well indeed – is that Jesus believed he was inaugurating the new age toward which the entire Sabbath institution had been pointing. He had come to announce and enact the Jubilee of Jubilees, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the time when God’s purposes and human life would come together at last.”
-N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, p.180?

This is what Jesus was talking about when he announces:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.”
(Mark 1:15 ESV)

To continue to focus on the Sabbath is to step backwards and look at the signposts that point to Jesus instead of looking at Jesus himself. His amazing resurrection is the only thing that enables us to celebrate the “rest” in the first place.

Before Christ, how could we really rest? We were commanded to, but the world was broken and we were lost in the mire of our sin and its curse.

Imagine, could you really rest on a Saturday if the roof on the house was leaking? Could you sleep in if there was water dripping on your bed? What if the furnace was broken and the pipes in the bathroom had frozen hard? Could you just chill out and take it easy? That is no rest! The same is true of our sinful lives. Can we rest when we have been nasty and hateful to our family members in recent memory? We still feel dirty – and angry – about our lies and lust, even if not all of it is immediately obvious to outside observers. Can you rest in this? No. But with Christ, you can.

He IS the jubilee. Your bank account is empty and your credit card maxed out on raucous living, just like that of the Prodigal son. But you get it all back – you are returned to your place of sonship in the house of God. This is a real Sabbath rest. The Grace of Jesus Christ is the sole ENABLER of this, and he prefaces it with no burdensome prerequisites. He, Jesus, IS the real Sabbat. Like nearly everything we see in God’s relation to OT Israel, Jesus is the fulfillment. The old was a shadow – a signpost pointing to the new. The new is here.

Let’s pray.

Thank you God, for providing us with this marvelous rest, even yourself. Dear Jesus, let us know freedom from the burden of sin and the demands of those around us. Grant us that rest you have won for us. Amen.


Note: I found Ben Witherington’s 7-part blog post series on the Sabbath to be an excellent resource.