Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Face Set Like Flint

In Isaiah 50, the prophet gives a tremendous example of what it means to obey God in complete trust. He says that he has been obedient even though it has caused him to beaten and humiliated. This is an interesting statement in itself because to be beaten or shamed in the ancient world was often thought to be a sign of one's god abandoning them, In spite of this, the prophet remains confident that God has not only not abandoned him but will, in fact, vindicate him in the end. He believes, even as he is being oppressed and abused, that ultimately no one can stand against him because God is on his side. Those who oppose him will slowly wear out like a moth eaten garment. As a result, the prophet says that he has set his face like flint. He is so rigid in his determination to be obedient and faithful that there is an enduring, stone-like quality to his countenance. In v.10, the prophet calls upon his fellow Israelites to have this same trust in God, hoping that his own obedience will stir them to faithfulness as well.

Why does the prophet have such unfailing confidence that God is by his side? In v.4, he says that God awakens him every morning and speaks to him. It sounds as if God has been preparing the prophet for this moment for a very long time. He was not simply born ready to endure this suffering in obedience to God. Instead, it was the regular discipline of listening to God every morning day after day that has prepared him for this moment and empowered him to set his face like flint in the midst of persecution.

I imagine that Jesus read passages like this one and saw himself in them. I imagine that he knew that his radical proclamation of the kingdom of God would eventually land him in serious trouble and that he too would be beaten and humiliated. And I imagine that this is at least part of the reason that he constantly sought those lonely moments of solitude with his Father; he knew that when the time came he had to be prepared for that moment which would test his trust in his Father. It was only by this radical demonstration of faithfulness that the rest of Israel could be stirred to the same trust in God.

If this is true, then there is a crucial lesson for our own spiritual formation here. It is unlikely that many who read this will suffer physically for our faith in the way that the prophet or Jesus did. Nevertheless, we all face times of tragedy that challenge our faith in God. We lose a loved one to death, face difficult circumstances in our own lives, or even witness the suffering of others and wonder where God is in all of this. I think instances like these are at least part of the reason that we need a regular habit of listening to God in our lives; through prayer, meditation, scripture, worship, and any of the other means of grace by which God speaks to us. Those practices can sometimes feel mundane at the time but it is only by regularly seeking God's grace through them that we can endure in those challenging times in which we must be filled with a rock solid trust and faithfulness. To come to those difficult situations in life without any preparation would be like stepping up to the plate against a major league pitcher without ever having taken batting practice. However, if we continually seek to hear God's voice morning by morning then when the time comes we will not only be able to be faithful in our own struggles but we may even stir others to greater faithfulness as well.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lent and the Economy.

Insightful reflections on Good Friday and the economy from an insightful biblical scholar, Walter Breuggemann.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Welcoming Spring

A New Covenant for Our Sin Sickness

"Behold, days are coming", declares the Lord, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah"... "I will put my law within them and on their heart I will write it and I will be their God and they shall be my people."

Jeremiah writes these words as the people of Israel continue to live in exile in a foreign land. The rest of Jeremiah 31 is focused primarily on the promise of Israel's return from that exile. Jeremiah speaks of the day when Israel will no longer live in a foreign land but will return home and see their nation restored. Jeremiah dreams of Jerusalem being rebuilt and the people living under God's rule once again. The people long for their punishment to come to an end; they long to return home.

But in the few verses that make up the sermon text for this week God speaks through Jeremiah to a larger problem that needs to be remedied. Yes, the exile is one very serious problem that needs to addressed. But it is mostly just a symptom of the real problem; Israel's unending cycle of sin and idolatry. It is that sin that landed them in this mess in the first place. Furthermore, the exile was not the result of one sin or even one generation's sins. It was the result of the piling up of the sins of generation after generation. Much of the Old Testament could be seen as a record of the inability of Israel to avoid sin. Therefore, Israel needs more than just deliverance from their exile. They are also in desperate need of deliverance from their slavery to sin.

This is what the new covenant promises. God says through Jeremiah that one day he will take the Law that had been written on stone tablets and write it on the hearts of the people. The people will no longer have to teach each other about God because they will all know God. This is a promise that God will grace his people in such a way that the power of sin over them will actually be broken and the cycle of sin can come to an end. It is a promise that God will take steps not only to treat our symptoms but to heal us of our illness.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Caribbean Vacation

I don't think I realized how badly I needed a vacation until it came close to time to leave. I was so excited to leave for the Caribbean that I could barely sleep on Thursday night. It didn't help that we had to get up at 3:15 a.m. Friday morning in order to get to the airport by 4:45a.m. for our early morning flight that departed at 6:10 a.m. Fortunately, the flight to Florida was more or less uneventful. We had a rather long layover in Chicago during which we met a mother and daughter who were on their way to a wedding in Texas and a Mormon family with whom we had an interesting discussion about faith. Hannah was fussy at times due to the confined spaces and long periods of having to sit still but did pretty well most of the way. We arrived in Florida just enough ahead of the rest of the Metcalfe clan to get something to eat before we went down to pick up our luggage from the baggage claim. Once the whole crew was together we rented two vans in order to get to the hotel where we would be staying for the night before leaving for the cruise Saturday morning. The "crew" included Jess, Hannah, and I, Mark and Joy (Jess' dad and mom), Miranda, Nate, and Olivia Patenode (Jess' older sister, her husband, and their daughter), Emily (Jess' younger sister), Andrew and Joline (Jess' younger brother and his wife), Jen and Emma Duschene (friends of the family), and Dirk and Mardi Ellis (also friends of the family and of our church family here in Clinton as well by an interesting twist of fate). We went out for dinner that night and picked up a few last minute items at Target and then tried to get some rest before the big day. Unfortunately for us, Hannah was so completely exhausted that she was wired and didn't sleep well at all. After only about an hour of sleep, she woke up at 1:30 in the morning screaming so hard that I thought something was physically wrong with her. Eventually, she did drop off to sleep for the rest of the night and we made catching her up on sleep a priority for the first few days of the cruise which we did fairly successfully.

Saturday morning we drove about an hour from Orlando where we had spent the night to Port Canaveral. We grabbed some breakfast near the port and then made our way to the terminal. We dropped off our luggage to be loaded onto the ship later and then most of us made our way through security while Mark, Nate, and Dirk returned the rental vehicles. Apparently, the Avis shuttles where a bit slow but they eventually made it back and we all boarded the ship together. We grabbed lunch at the buffet on the ship before we even found our rooms. I also enjoyed my first slice of pizza from the 24-hour pizzeria on board ship at that first meal, an action I would repeat many times over during the trip. The ship left port sometime that afternoon and we were at sea for the rest of that day and all of Sunday as well since we had to make our way all the way down to Mexico. I was glad we were at sea for the first day because it gave us the opportunity to explore the ship right away. (It also gave us the opportunity to begin to adjust to the constant rocking which wasn't enough to make you sick but was enough to make me a little dizzy and unbalanced the first night). Nate, Andrew, and I played some mini-golf and volleyball. There was half a basketball court as well on which I won a game of knock-out later in the day. There were also two small pools which I didn't realize were filled with salt water until I jumped into one of them. (The pools really gave you a sense of the boat rocking as they sloshed back and forth.) Other forms of entertainment included hot tubs, lots of live music, a theater (which I think our room must have been directly above), a deli, a grill, a small library, shops, a casino, a kids camp, and probably a few others things I'm forgetting. We realized pretty quickly too that it was college spring break week so we were on quite the party ship.Despite the many forms of entertainment, I would say there were probably two things I enjoyed about being on the ship itself more than anything else. One was simply being in the warmth and sunshine of the Caribbean in mid-March. I thrive on sunshine and it felt so good just to soak it up. The second highlight of the ship in my opinion was the dinners (or supper, as many folks here in Clinton would say). The great thing about the dinners was not only the exceptional quality of the food and the service but also that you could order whatever you wanted without fear of not liking it because if you didn't like it you could just order something else. As a result, I tried some food I hadn't had before including oysters, snapper, smoked salmon, duck, and crab cake of which the snapper and the duck are probably the only things I would eat again. The prime rib I had the last night was amazing and the steak and ribs were pretty good too. We also enjoyed getting to know our servers Baryo and Arifin very much. (My father-in-law took some excellent pictures of the ship's interior and the food which you can view here along with the many other pictures he took.)

On Monday, we arrived in Cozumel, Mexico, a small island that has been developed pretty much just for the sake of tourism. After we all ate breakfast together and spent a little time on the deck surveying the coast, we made our way to the bottom of the boat and out onto the pier toward the tourist village. There was a tiny bit of rain and clouds that morning but they dissipated pretty quickly. We didn't have any plans for the day in Cozumel so we walked around the shops for a little while and took some pictures until we decided to head back to the ship for some lunch. After lunch, we left the babies with their grandparents and Jess, Mandy, Nate, Emily, and I decided to just walk along the coast outside of the tourist village. Of course, there were an unbelievable number of taxis waiting to take us wherever we might want to go on the island but all we really wanted to do was get away from the tourist scene a bit and enjoy the sunshine. We probably walked about a mile and a half when I stopped to get a soda. We hung out in that spot for a little while before we made the walk back to the ship.On Tuesday, we anchored off the coast of Belize City, Belize which is a tiny little country on the east coast of Central America bordered by Guatemala and Honduras. Belize was the only place that we stopped where there was not a pier at which the ship could dock. So after breakfast, we had to wait our turn to board a smaller boat that would take us from the ship into shore. Upon arriving on shore we were immediately overwhelmed by a multitude of people offering to take us on a variety of exotic excursions around Belize. However, Nate and I were somewhat determined to find the churches that we had worked on when we had been to Belize before, myself about 10 years ago and Nate about 12 years ago. We weren't sure we would be able to accomplish this task since it had been so long since we had been in Belize but the lady at the information desk assured us that if we asked a taxi driver about the Church of the Nazarene then he would know where to take us. So we found a taxi driver and quickly learned that a taxi ride in Belize is an adventure in itself. Our taxi driver only let up on his aggressive driving when he pulled to the side of the road to buy a beer which he drank while driving us to our destination. In spite of this, he did safely deliver us to the Church of the Nazarene... well, one of them anyway. I knew immediately upon arriving at our destination that this was not the church that I had worked on during my work and witness trip in high school. Nate was pretty certain it was where he had worked though he couldn't be sure since he had worked on the foundation of the building and had not seen the finished product. We learned later that everyone in Belize City knew of this Church of the Nazarene because there was a high school there which many of the residents had attended. Fortunately, the pastor of the church was there when we arrived and we got to meet him and the pastor of Belize City First Church of the Nazarene, which is the church where I had worked on my previous trip. We talked a little bit, prayed together, and exchanged e-mail addresses so that we might keep in touch. Our taxi driver then took us to First Church so that I could see the building I had worked on 10 years ago. We spent some time there and got to know Sandra, the pastor's wife, who eventually walked us back to the tourist village where we had began our journey and was ironically only a 10 or 15 minute walk from First Church.

On Wednesday our port was Costa Maya, Mexico. This was the one place where Jess and I had booked an excursion. So we left Hannah and Olivia with Mark and Joy and Jess, myself, Nate, Mandy, Emily, Andrew, and Joline all took a tour bus to the Mayan ruins at Chacchoben. Lizbeth was our tour guide and Nestor our driver. Lizbeth educated us greatly about Mayan culture, Chacchoben, and the surrounding area along the way. We learned that the Mexican government does not allow anyone to live in Costa Maya except those who work in some tourism related job and it showed. Much of our bus ride was through protected wetlands and un-inhabited areas. We also learned that most of the ruins at Chacchoben have been rebuilt according to how archeologist believed they were originally structured. However, there was one structure where the the original red stucco remained intact. It was fascinating to stand just inches away from something that was 1700 years old. The rebuilt structures were impressive as well, especially the main temple which set on a mound 40 ft high and was itself an additional 60 ft high, all built by an ancient culture dating back to as early as 1100 B.C. (though most of Chacchoben dates to 300 A.D.) with its primitive and limited architectural equipment. It was about an hour long bus ride between the ruins and the tourist village which left us just a little more than an hour to walk around there for a bit before getting back on the ship.

Thursday was another day at sea as we made our way back across the gulf. I had been intentional early in the week about making certain that I didn't get a sunburn so as not to ruin the rest of the week by doing so. Now that we were nearing the end of the week I was much less cautious and wanted to get as much sun as possible. As a result, I was a little pink by the end of the day but only my right shoulder proved to be much of a burn at all.

On Friday, we arrived in Nassau, Bahamas. After walking around the market near the pier briefly, Nate, Mandy, Olivia, Jess, Hannah, and I made our way to the pirate museum. You could tell that it was not a high budget museum but it was interesting nonetheless and we learned some interesting facts about pirates. As we left the museum, much of the rest of the family was already waiting for us outside. I made my way across the street to take pictures of a cathedral that had caught my eye and everyone else eventually followed. We then walked around some more of the city and shops. With just a few hours left at our last port of call, Jess and I began to realize that we really hadn't spent any time on the beach. That may sound odd on a Caribbean cruise but actually none of the ports where we stopped had beaches immediately available. Instead, you had to take a taxi to the nearest beach a few miles away. Nassau was no different but Jess and I decided it was worth the taxi fair to to get a little beach time in before we headed home. So the rest of our group went back to the boat, taking Hannah with them, while Jess and I found a taxi to take us to what was probably the most beautiful beach either of us has ever seen. (Our taxi experience here was similarly aggressive to that in Belize though minus the beer and slightly less expensive. However, this time we didn't really mind because it meant more time on the beach before we had to get back to the boat.) We didn't go swimming but we were able to walk up and down the beach enjoying the warm sun and sand and gorgeous blue water for just over an hour or so before we had to head back.

On Saturday morning, we arrived back in Port Canaveral. We met to leave the ship around 7 a.m. to make sure we had plenty of time to get to the airport. It was a good thing too. We waited for the shuttle from the terminal to the Avis car rental place for about 45 minutes. Then when we arrived at Avis we found that they had given someone else the vans we had reserved. Mark and Nate made their way to the Thrifty Dollar car rental place across the street where it took about an hour to secure two other vans. We then had our hour drive back to Orlando where we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways in the airport. Jess, Hannah, and I grabbed some food before heading to the security checkpoint. When we arrived there we realized that Hannah was not marked on either of our boarding passes so we had to go back to the check in counter in order to have it changed so that we could get through security. We did finally make it to our gate on time only to find that our flight was delayed because of rain in Atlanta. Between the delay at the gate, the delay on the runway, and the holding pattern they put us in over Atlanta, we stepped off that plane about 10 minutes before our connecting flight was supposed to leave. "Fortunately" our connecting flight was delayed as well so we didn't miss it. However, we didn't ultimately get home until after 8 p.m. 13 hours of traveling with a one year old is no small task but it was worth it.

It was a truly an amazing vacation and it has really rekindled my interest in traveling outside the United States. Of course, the cruise itself was amazing, relaxing, and a whole long list of positive adjectives that I could use to describe it. It was one of those rare things that actually lives up to its hype. It was truly the vacation of a lifetime. However, I think more than anything it reminded me of how much I want to see other parts of the world (especially the warmer parts:). It has even given new life to a desire to do work and witness trips. Repeatedly while on this vacation, Jess and I talked about how great it was but how much we wish we could really get to know the people more and get to know their stories and what their lives were like rather than just saying "no thank you" to all of the things they were trying to sell us. So much about this trip reminded us that we have so much to learn, so much to experience; that behind the seemingly infinite number of unfamiliar faces we encountered there are an equally unlimited number of stories waiting to be told if only someone will listen, if only someone would hear what it is like to spend a day in their shoes. I believe that as we hear the stories of others, especially from those whose life experiences are vastly different from our own, it gives us greater persepctive on our own story, even on the Christian story. I hope it will not be long before I get to see other parts of the world once again. Whether for sabbath or for mission, I hope that my own story will continue to be given greater breadth and depth as it becomes intermingled with the stories of others around the world.

You can view the rest of the photos that Jess and I took here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Delivered for Life Together

The Ten Commandments.

At first glance, they appear to be a simple list of "Thou shalt's" and "Thou shalt not's". Do this. Don't do this. Honor your father and mother and God's name. Keep the Sabbath. Don't have other gods or idols. Don't murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet. Simple, right?

Well, like most things in the Christian life, yes and no. The commandments are pretty simple and straightforward. We at least get a basic idea of what is required of us but like most things in scripture we have to figure out how the details work out in real life. For example, do only small man made statues count as idols or shall we include everything that distracts us from God in that category? Of course, we know we should value life too much to commit murder but what does that mean when it comes to abortion, capital punishment, war, and poverty? When it comes to keeping the Sabbath, should we follow the examples of the Pharisees? And what does it actually mean to honor your father and mother?

The intersection between sacred scripture and real life is one of complexity and ambiguity.

Despite the difficult tasks we face in sorting out these ethical dilemmas, there does seem to be one overarching theme that is clear in Exodus 20:1-17; God has delivered Israel for the specific purpose of living a certain kind of life together. Before a single command is given, God makes a statement about himself and his relationship to Israel. "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." The God who delivers is the same God who gives these commandments. God didn't just deliver Israel so that they might be free to do as they please and thereby end up enslaved to their own desires. God delivered Israel so that they might be a holy people. He delivered them so that they might be different from the other nations; a reflection of God in their life together as a people.

So while there is and should be serious and meaningful debate about what it means to be holy, there can be no question that we are, in fact, called to be holy. We are called to be a different kind of people. This is precisely the reason God has delivered us from our sin in the first place. Not simply for our own sake but so that we might be a truer reflection of him in our life together.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Covenant of Walking


A simple, ordinary, everyday activity. It is a constant, steady motion; not running but not standing still either. A destination is probably implied but is not necessarily the whole purpose or even the most important part of walking. If it were then we would probably choose another way to get there, one that is faster and more efficient. It is a pace that allows you to observe what is around you, to interact with those you meet along the way. It doesn't require any special skill or talent. It only requires a willingness to begin and to continue.

"Walk before me and be blameless."

This is how God chooses to state his covenant call to Abraham in Genesis 17. In other words, this is Abraham's end of the bargain; the part of the agreement with God that Abraham has to live up to. Of course, the rite of circumcision is mentioned just a few minutes later and that will become extremely important in later Judaism. But at this point in the story, circumcision is not the covenant, it is only a sign of the covenant. The covenant itself is that if Abraham will walk before God and be blameless then God will make him a father of many nations and kings and will establish this covenant as an everlasting covenant with Abraham's descendants.

The covenant is amazing in its simplicity. God doesn't give Abraham a destination to reach in a certain amount of time. God doesn't give Abraham a finite task to complete. He doesn't give Abraham certain rules to follow or ask for a list of his qualifications. He simply says "walk before me. Journey with me. Trust that I know where I am leading you even if you don't know where you are going. Live everyday knowing that I am walking with you."

And just in case the whole "be blameless" thing really gets you worried, know that most of the time in scripture this word doesn't mean perfection or sinlessness. Most often it means completion. So God isn't saying "Walk before me and I'm watching to see if you take one wrong step." After all, Abraham takes several wrong steps along the way and God doesn't abandon him. God is saying "Walk before me and see it through to completion. Live with integrity and consistency. Don't lag behind where I am leading you and don't run on ahead by yourself trying to get there without me. Keep a steady pace walking with me. Know that the journey with me is as important as the destination. And if you look up and realize that you have wandered off on your own, look around and you'll see that I'm not too far away, pointing you back to the right path.

Such is God's covenant with Abraham. Such is God's covenant with us. God calls us to a journey; a journey characterized by our continued trust in Him and the obedience and faithfulness that is the result of that trust.