Thursday, January 26, 2017

Digging a little deeper

About 23 years ago, I was a teacher at a private Christian school in Bethlehem, Pa.

There admittedly were a few problems with this scenario. For one thing, the school used the A Beka curriculum published by Pensacola Christian College, and  I just couldn't get on board with its narrow and dogmatic approach to everything. Among other things, I objected to its simplistic view of history and to its rigid insistence on one worldview instead of allowing students to develop their own.

We were an evangelical school, and among other things officially believed in the six-day creation described in Genesis 1. The school had been founded by an Assemblies of God church, and the church took the Bible literally, even the poetic bits.

This may seem odd to people not familiar with creationist thinking, but it's unwise to underestimate the human mind's ability to find logical consistency. Skeptics will ask how Noah fit all those animals onto the ark, for instance, but this isn't really a challenge. Just imagine Noah taking juveniles or eggs, and the species differentiating as they spread out after the flood, and the whole thing becomes a lot easier to believe.

As a teacher I favor giving people the tools to find truth rather than just telling them what to believe. I was expected to teach the creationist viewpoint, but I still wanted my students to understand the principles behind evolution even if they didn't believe them.

This meant that I often had to find or create my own materials to supplement the curriculum. The A Beka test on Darwin asked, "Explain why evolution is wrong." The test I gave asked, "Which model of life's origins do you believe? Support your answer."

I wouldn't even tell my students where I stood on the issue. That upset a few students, but what really caused problems for me with the other staff was my approach to staff devotions.

Devotions typically are shallow readings of Scripture or other stories with the weight of Peter Rabbit, intended more to make us feel good than they are intended to challenge us to think more deeply about God or a life of holiness. Poems like "Footprints" or "The Touch of the Master's Hand" are popular material for devotions. These things reassure us that God is in control of things, and no matter how it seems to get, everything will turn out all right in the end; that we are special to him; and so on. "The Velveteen Rabbit," with its focus on how love makes us real, makes for a good devotion.

I've never been a big fan of such an approach to matters of faith when it comes to adults. I've always felt that the purpose of reading the Bible is to discover something new about holiness and our pursuit of God. Its messages of social justice and liberation should afflict us when we feel comfortable and make us think of a better way. Too often we use it to lull ourselves further to sleep.

If you read a story like Joseph and all you come away with is that Joseph forgave his brothers for mistreating him, and we should also forgive people who have been unkind to us, you have failed dramatically at understanding the story. There is so much more to learn by digging into the material, understanding the motivations that drive the characters to act the way they do, and grasping the authorial intent behind the story.

We were required to attend devotions every morning before school would start. The other teachers hated when it was my turn.

The other teachers read essays by authors like Max Lucado or short stories from books like Chicken Soup for the Soul. These were stories about the legacy a good teacher can have, or the value that lies hidden within each person. I shared readings that had made me think, or that shed light on something familiar from an unexpected angle.

Once it was a passage from Orson Scott Card's "Speaker for the Dead" in which Card retold the familiar story of the woman caught in adultery and explored the tension between justice and mercy. All things considered, it was a decent meditation on how Christ strikes the perfect balance between justice and mercy, and thus brings us neither death nor corruption, but a full life.

As John the evangelist tells the story, the Pharisees brought the woman to Jesus as a test to see if he would uphold the Mosaic law and approve of her execution. Instead, Jesus famously replied, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone," and pointedly ignored the woman's accusers until everyone had dropped their stones and walked away.

In Card's first retelling of the story, the teacher in Christ's place spares the woman's life because he is corrupt, and sees an advantage in letting her live. In the second retelling the teacher kills the woman himself because justice must be upheld or the law will lose all meaning. That actually elicited a horrified gasp from one teacher.

A different time I shared a passage from Don Richardson's "Eternity in their Hearts," a book about redemptive analogies found in pre-Christian cultures. The book contains dozens of these, and argues that they providentially serve as a doorway for the gospel story to enter new cultures and grow organically in the culture without the baggage that comes with traditional missions work.

I am a former missionary and I find this sort of thing fascinating. The other teachers found it tedious. Evidently some of them must have remarked to the administration what a bad fit I was at the school.

"You don't do devotions the same as everyone else," the principal observed during one conversation we had.

No, I suppose I didn't, and I still don't. As I've aged, I've found that the Bible has found new ways to afflict me in my comfort. One of the most constant themes in the Bible is the divine obligation we are under to look out for others and to oppose injustice whenever we see it rather than turning a blind eye to it.

I live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, where my chief concern each day is not whether we'll eat, but what I'm going to make my family for dinner. If I get pulled over by the police, I can be confident that the worst I'll get is a ticket but there's a good chance I'll just get a warning. Not everyone is that fortunate. Particularly in the past week, the question "And who is my neighbor?" has become one with profound implications for how I live.

The school in Bethlehem was actually my second year teaching at a Christian school. My first year was at Cradle of Life Christian School in Haiti. We had staff devotions there only three times a week, instead of every day, and because we had a much larger staff, it took longer for each of us to have a turn. The only guidance there was the same as at my second school: Share what God is teaching you.

So one time, when it was my turn, I did. I shared the questions that had been piling onto my shoulders the entire time I had been in Haiti, about whether the evangelical gospel of forgiveness was really relevant in a country with such crushing poverty, or if it was incomplete and missing something.

I read a page or two from "The Grapes of Wrath," and shared how Jim Casy and Tom Joad had affected my thinking when I had read the book six months into my Haiti experience. I read passages from the book of Isaiah, and how they were challenging my understanding of the gospel. And mostly I shared about the need I saw every time I stepped outside the school gates or left my apartment on Rue Pelerin 7.

No one in the staff objected in my hearing to what I shared, but the school administration didn't seem very happy with it. I was put on probation the next day. A month later I was fired after I shared the same thing with my students.

I've never been a fan of devotions, but I'm pretty confident I did that one right. I pray that we all get it right during the next four years.

Copyright © 2003, 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Epiphany: Feast of the Three Kings

I wonder if the three magi were disappointed when they finally found Jesus.

The magi, traditionally referred to as the wise men, would have arrived in Bethlehem around the time Jesus already was toddling around on two feet and speaking in two-word sentences. Jan. 5, also called Epiphany or Twelfth Night, celebrates their arrival in the traditional Christian calendar. In Mexico and the Caribbean, this is also known as the Feast of Three Kings.

We don't know much about them. The Bible never tells how many of them there were, where exactly they came from, or even what their names are. It tells us that they saw a star that they understood was announcing the birth of a new king, and they came to find him and to worship him.

Over the years, people have tried to fill in the gaps. Because the Bible mentions three gifts, tradition has asserted there were three magi as well. It also gives us names: Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar. Lew Wallace, the author of “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ” suggests that they were from Egypt, India and Greece, respectively, to stress the universal message and appeal of the gospel, but there's no basis for any of that.

The gospel uses the Greek word magi, the plural of magus, so it's a fair assumption that they were occultists of some sort. Given that they were following a star, they very well may have been astrologers. At the same time, I've read scholars suggest that they may have been wealthy merchants, magoi, who came to sell expensive wares to Herod; and other claims that they were Jews living in Babylon who saw the connection between the Star of Bethlehem and a prophecy in Numbers 24:17.

These are all interesting ideas, but what I can't help but wonder is how they reacted when they arrived. The gospel of Matthew says that they initially went to Jerusalem and met with Herod the Great, which seems like a fairly obvious thing to do. If you're looking for a newborn king, the home of the current reigning king does seem like a logical place to look.

Except Herod had no son young enough to meet their expectations, and his own people reportedly cited a prophecy from the prophet Micah that the messiah would come from Bethlehem.

I can't help but think that the magi must have felt some sort of letdown when they finally arrived. When my own children were 2, their personalities were truly starting to emerge. This was the age when they were starting to speak, follow simple directions, and start to explore the world with enthusiasm. It's also when the tempers began.

Over the weeks and months that the magi had been following that star, did anything really prepare them for the sight of a child who still didn't have all his teeth, who walked confidently but still fell down and cried when the ground was uneven, and who liked to bang his bowl on the table to get attention at dinner?

I wonder how they reacted when Jesus kept screaming his head off because an exhausted Joseph was trying to carry him on his left shoulder (not his right) while walking (not bouncing) inside the house (not around it outside) and talking soothingly to him (not singing). If you don't have children yourself, you can trust me on this. That's exactly how Jesus would have behaved when he was 2.

Talk about first impressions.

One presumes from the gospel that they had expected some sort of god-man who lived in a mansion. Instead they found an ordinary child with working-class parents who lived in a small house in a godforsaken little town on the outskirts of nowhere.

You can almost imagine the three of them arguing outside in the street about whether they had the right address, if they had misunderstood the message of the star entirely, and even whose idea it was to bring all these expensive gifts for a Capricorn, anyway.

God can be so disappointing when he doesn't do things the way we expect him to, and yet that's what keeps happening. He exceeds our expectations by reaching so far below them that in the end we're stunned by how sublimely perfect his wisdom is.

At some point the magi realized that they did have the right address. The Bible records that they gave their gifts and worshiped, one presumes while Jesus grabbed their beards, pulled their noses, and played with their lips.

And when they realized the threat this completely ordinary child posed to the people in power, the Bible says that they snuck out by another route.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.