Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Today is one of my favorite almost-unknown holidays: Reformation Sunday. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, beginning the Protestant Reformation. Many churches celebrate this historic event on the last Sunday in October.

The church that I grew up in didn’t do much for Reformation Sunday, with one notable exception. Our organist and choir director Mr. Spicer is very conscious of all dates that had special significance for the church. He changes the music for seasons of the liturgical calendar like Advent and Lent and chooses songs to mark Pentecost, Ascension Sunday and Trinity Sunday. (I imagine some of my Christian friends are scratching their heads, surprised that such days even exist.)

When I was in high school, for Reformation Sunday Mr. Spicer would do two things. One is that he would have the choir sing an impressive, chant-like rendition of Psalm 46. The other is that we would sing Martin Luther’s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

This was a powerful experience. I wish I could convey the sense of awe that accompanied Mr. Spicer’s version of this hymn. He pulled out all the stops (pun intended). To quote my parents, on verse 3, Mr. Spicer would open up the pipes on the organ and let the demons out. You could hear the chaos of “this world with devils filled” and had no choice but to cling to the melody as best you could. The whole arrangement did a great job of expressing the dangers and challenges that we face as followers of Christ, but it ended on a triumphant note that proclaimed our hope in the ultimate victory of God.

Even apart from the amazing accompaniment, this hymn still gives me great comfort when I’m feeling afraid or discouraged, especially if I think spiritual warfare is involved. It’s definitely one of my favorite hymns.

So without further ado here are the words to “A Mighty Fortress.”

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevaling.
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers,
no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours,
thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill;
God's truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Don't Worry – It's Just the End of the World

One of the downsides of growing up a Christian is that I’m a bit too used to Jesus. I’ve read all the Gospels before, so I tend to skim over some of the interesting, profound and downright weird things Jesus says.

I ran into one of the last of those as I was preparing for a Bible study last week. Among other passages, we were looking at Luke 21:25-28.

“… And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Wait. What? Jesus was just talking about all kinds of horrible things happening. Earlier verses talked about wars, earthquakes, famines and plagues. Now even the planets and stars are moving out of their orbits. To me, the logical response to all of this would be to hide. But that’s not what Jesus says to do.

Well, He did warn the people in Judea to flee when they saw Jerusalem surrounded. But that was talking about the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. The second half of the passage is focused more on the Second Coming, also known as the end of the world.

So to summarize: when the city of Jerusalem is destroyed, we should run, but when the whole planet is destroyed, we should, “straighten up and raise [our] heads.” When we got to this part in my Bible study, the whole class started laughing. I don’t blame them. This is very counterintuitive. But it has to do with the bigger picture. When the whole world starts falling apart, it’s a sign that God is about to put it back together again. And when He does that, the world will be far better off than it was before.

But what does this mean for us today? I’ve heard people claim that the Second Coming is going to happen in the near future, but I’m not convinced. It could, but I really don’t know. However, I do know that when I watch the news, it tends to make me depressed. There’s so much death, destruction and corruption in the world right now. Sometimes it seems like things are really falling apart.

If the problems we see in the world are in fact a sign that the end of the world is near, we can face the future with confidence because Christ will return soon and make everything right. In fact, the horrible things that are happening are all a part of God’s plan.

But if the problems we see are just problems and not at all related to the end times, we can still face the future with confidence. If God can use even the destruction of the world for His glory and to bring about something new and better, how much more can He use the other problems we face, problems that are, well, not the end of the world. Obviously, as Christians we should do what we can to bring the world into better alignment with God’s will. But whether we succeed or not, God, who governs all of history, has a plan that will never fail. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

On Being a Racial Minority

I’m pretty much the opposite of what most Americans think of as a racial minority. I’m a white girl who grew up going to a mostly-white school in suburban Connecticut.

I was raised on the belief that racial discrimination was wrong, and I acted accordingly. Of course I saw that people looked different, but I tried to treat everyone the same, without making assumptions based on what they looked like. One of my closest friends in high school was Indian (that is, her parents were from India). I even had crushes on boys from at least four different races.

But as I tried to ignore racial differences, I also ignored the different experiences of people of different races. I condemned obvious instances of racism but missed a lot of the subtle prejudices in the society around me and possibly in my own heart. The first time I considered that I might be missing something was when an Asian American friend of mine in college kept mentioning race. He’d make comments about how he felt in large groups of Asians, compared to how he felt in large groups of white people. I began to wonder: could the fact that I grew up as a majority have blinded me? If my race were something that made me different, would I consider it more important?

That question was answered for me when I moved to Asia a year ago. Now I am a minority. And I notice it.

Last year, I had pretty bad culture shock. There were a lot of things involved with it: the language, different habits, uncertainty about how to act, confusion about how to get around, sheer exhaustion and so on. But one thing that really got on my nerves was the sense that people could take one look at me and know I was foreign. It was like I had a big neon sign saying “wai guo ren” (Chinese for “foreigner”) hanging above my head.

Most people weren’t mean about it. Sometimes they were quite friendly and came up to me to practice their English. Sometimes they complimented me on my Chinese (even if I didn’t deserve it). But sometimes when I walked into a store, they would hide or run around looking for an English-speaking coworker. Sometimes they shouted “HELLO HELLO HELLO” until I acknowledged them. Sometimes small children stared at me on the subway.

Is it the same as the experience of a minority in America? No, not at all. I think it’s probably better in some ways and worse in others. On the one hand, culture shock combines with the fact that I look different to make me feel even more like an outsider. On the other hand, I think it would be harder to feel like you stood out if you were in your home country at the time.

So do I understand what it’s like to be a racial minority? Not really. I know what it’s like for me, but each person’s background and personality will make their experience different. Do I understand it better than I did two years ago? Absolutely. Am I more understanding and empathetic to those who have this kind of experience? I hope so. At the very least, I now know that race does matter. It matters because it’s part of how people experience the world and consequently a part of who we are.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Glimpse of Autumn

Taiwan is beautiful during the fall. The weather is neither too hot nor too cold. I am comfortable outside wearing short, long, or medium-length sleeves. It doesn't rain all the time like it does in the winter time. Even the humidity either disappears or just isn't obvious because the temperature isn't so extreme.

And yet New England is also beautiful in the fall. I miss the leaves that change into such a wide variety of colors. I miss walking through rows of apple trees and trying to find the perfect apples to put in my bag. I miss the smell of earthy smell of freshly fallen leaves. I miss the taste of a freshly picked apple and the thick sweetness of apple cider.

This poem is an ode to autumn in New England.

A Glimpse of Autumn

A leaf of gold is set in silver wood
A ruby blossoms on a maple tree.
A moment – then the forest is ablaze
Its colors blend in autumn harmony

A cloud of cotton crowns a gust of wind
Which plucks up leaves that playfully take flight
They pirouette as trees all laugh with joy
My heart joins in and dances with delight

A silhouette against the azure sky
A flock of geese toward warmer weather roam
Like them, my soul has journeyed long and far
In memory to touch my distant home

Monday, October 1, 2012

Famous First Words

I love hearing stories about the beginnings of relationships. I especially like stories about how people met their spouses. Sometimes, they don't seem particularly special or romantic at the time. For example, a woman who used to work at my current company met her husband at an ESL Bible study. She was his teacher, and the first thing she ever said to him was, “You’re late!”

Stories like this just show how little we know about the future. So often we meet people who will have a huge effect on our lives, but we have no way of knowing it at the time.

But of course, relationships involving God are completely different. He knew everything that would happen in the history of the human race, which makes the first things He said to people especially interesting.

The first thing in the Bible that God said to a human is a blessing: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). There’s a lot that could be said about this verse, but I want to focus on the kind of relationship it suggests. When God created people, He wanted them to experience an abundant, fruitful, successful life, which would involve enjoying and taking care of everything in the world.

The next thing he said was, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food” (Genesis 1:29). Again, this is God blessing people, giving them an abundance of delicious food and allowing them to enjoy creation. Although the Bible does not mention this specifically, I’d like to point out that this includes chocolate – truly proof that God had our best interests at heart!

The creation account in Genesis 2 focuses more specifically on God’s creation of human beings, and the first recorded words in this account are very similar: “You may surely eat of every tree in the garden …” (Genesis 2:16). Yes, God goes on to give one exception to this sweeping statement, but the main point is still that Adam has an abundance of food – food he didn’t work to grow, because it was right there.

To me, this is a reminder of how central grace is in God’s relationship with us. We Christians tend to think of grace in terms of God’s forgiveness for sin. But any gift that we do not deserve or earn is also grace. Here, God gives grace by blessing people and showering them with gifts before the people have done anything at all.

So unlike the stories of human relationships, the story of God’s relationship with humanity is the same from beginning to end. God has always related to people on the basis of grace, giving generously long before people start serving Him. And God’s grace will continue to be the source of all our blessings even into eternity. In the words of John Newton, “’Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”