Monday, August 22, 2016

On Remembering We Are Dust

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. – Psalm 103:13-14

Three months ago, the summer stretched in front of me, weeks and weeks with no fixed schedule where I could devote myself to everything I wanted to get done. I planned to learn German read both fiction and nonfiction, whip my mom’s garden into shape, reconnect with old friends, write a large part of a novel, compose several blog, practice my flute regularly and shop for a house. I wish I was exaggerating. Classes start tomorrow, and not all of that got done. Not even close. My summer is just like life in general: so much to do, so little time.

If someone walked up to you and said, “You are dust,” you’d probably be very confused and a little offended. If they explained that in the Bible, comparing people to dust is a way of emphasizing mortality, you’d be less confused, but probably still offended. Our culture does everything it can to forget about death. We encourage our kids to reach for the stars and promise that if they work hard they can be anything they want to be. We spend hours exercising and go on all kinds of diets so that we look young and attractive. Even our meat comes in pristine shrink-wrapped packages with all the icky organs removed, so it doesn’t remind us of the animals it came from.

It’s tempting to think that reminding people of their mortality – or any limit – is unkind. People want to be encouraged, to have people build up their self-esteem. But actually, recognizing our limitations is far kinder than denying them.

Psalm 103 associates God’s compassion for humanity with His remembering that they are dust. Often, we are least compassionate when we forget human limits. It’s easy to get impatient when you think someone should be able to do something for you, but they don’t. And if you’re in a position of authority, expecting people to do more than they’re capable of can make their lives miserable. New professors, for example, are infamous for giving unreasonable amounts of work because they don’t know what students can handle.

The same goes for my attitude toward myself. Too often, I forget that I am dust. When I think about everything I tried and failed to do this summer, frustration and discouragement threaten to overwhelm me. There are so many good things to do, and one lifetime is far too short to get them done. But I don’t have to do everything. I am dust, and creatures of dust need time to rest. And God knows I am dust. He will not be disappointed that I can’t do everything. He knows my weakness and has compassion. Paradoxically, God extends compassion and mercy precisely because He knows we are dust. He loves us not because we can do so much but because we need His love so desperately.

Friend, when (not if) people fall short of your expectations, remember that they are dust. And when (not if) you disappoint yourself, remember that you are dust. And rejoice that God also remembers we are dust, forgives our sins and comforts us in our weaknesses.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Grace in the Law

The distinction between law and grace has been part of Christianity practically since it first began. The heart of the gospel is that it is God’s grace, and not the Law, that saves us. We can’t establish a right relationship with God by keeping His commands because none of us keeps those commands perfectly. So God chose to act, becoming human in the person of Jesus and dying for us so that our sins could be forgiven and we could become children of God.

Some Christians have an unfortunate tendency to associate the Law that cannot save us with the Old Testament and grace with the New Testament. This makes the Old Testament little more than an obsolete relic of an age without grace when people struggled to be obedient enough to save themselves, proof of the problem Christ came to solve. Or it becomes a collection of inspiring stories about heroes who can serve as models for faith and good behavior. Now, the Old Testament does show us humanity’s desperate need, and it does give us role models and moral instruction, but it’s more than that. It’s the oldest record we have of God’s grace.

Yes, I said the Old Testament records grace. And to illustrate this I’m going to turn to Exodus20, the chapter that contains the Ten Commandments. This chapter is one of the clearest, most concise statements of God’s law. But notice the first thing God says in it: “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2). Before God commands the Israelites to do anything, He points out what He has already done. The Exodus was the defining event of Israel’s history. It made Israel a nation, brought liberty to its people and demonstrated dramatically that God had chosen them and was willing and able to overcome anything that opposed them. It was the moment that fulfilled God’s promise to Abraham, when He swore to make Abraham’s descendants a great nation. And God did all this when Israel was helpless. They had done nothing to deserve God’s favor, nothing to merit being rescued. The Exodus was pure grace.

And so, God begins the Law with a reminder of grace. It is because the LORD is their God and has established a unique relationship with them through the Exodus, that they are to worship no other gods, to refrain from making idols, to respect God’s name and so on. Even the laws relating to relationships with other people reflect the fact that these are people made in God’s image, so the way they relate to each other reveals their attitude toward God.

The Law is rooted and grounded in grace. Even at the beginning, when God first revealed it to Israel, He began by pointing out the grace they had already received. And so it is with us. The New Testament has much to say about how we ought to live, and the moral laws within the Old Testament are still binding on Christians (though ceremonial laws and stipulations about Israel’s government are not). If we have truly received God’s grace, we must obey God’s law, and if we appreciate God’s grace we will want to. But we must never let law become prior to grace. As with Israel, so with us: God saves first, and obedience is a response to that.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

How Not to Defend a Castle

When I was 10, my father taught me how to attack a castle. Dad was teaching at a university in Germany for four months. My whole family went with him, and we spent much of the time traveling around Europe and exploring historical sites.

Shortly after we arrived, my parents, my 7-year-old brother and I visited a castle in the nearby town of Wurzburg. It was a hot day in early September. To get to the castle, we had to climb a hill turning back and forth along switchbacks through a vineyard. My brother and I were getting hot and uncomfortable, so my mom said to my dad, “We need to do something to distract the kids.”

My dad called us over and said, “Let’s pretend we’re Vikings, and we’re attacking this castle. We have to walk up this hill wearing armor and carrying metal weapons. And you see those little holes in the wall? People are standing behind those holes shooting at us.”

And so he continued. When we finally made it up the hill, he pointed out bastions jutting out from the wall on either side of the gate so that archers or gunmen could attack us from three sides. He showed us the draw bridge, the portcullis, and the murder holes in the ceiling through which the castle’s defenders would drop rocks and boiling oil on our heads. There were two walls with gatehouses whose corridors turned to make it difficult to push cannons through. After looking at the defenses for a while, I asked my dad, “Why are we attacking this castle, again?” It seemed like a poor life choice.

But during the Thirty Years War, that castle did fall. The story of its fall is a textbook example of how not to defend a castle.

The young lieutenant in charge of Wurzburg Castle heard that the army of Gustavus Adolphus, the king of Sweden, was coming to attack his castle. The normal procedure at this point would be to stock up on supplies, hide in the fortress and wait for your enemy to get close enough to shoot them through those arrow slits I saw. But this young lieutenant had a better idea: why not send a line of men with guns outside the gate? They could shoot one volley at the incoming army and then retreat inside the gate and pull up the drawbridge.

Unfortunately for him, the attacking army arrived quicker than expected. The defending troops panicked and fled before they had a chance to shoot. They ran inside the gate and slammed it shut, but not before the other army was on the drawbridge. So, they couldn’t pull the drawbridge up, which meant that the moat was useless.

The lieutenant was disappointed, but he was not ready to give up. There was still a second wall with a gatehouse. So, the defenders wheeled a cannon out between the gatehouses. They planned to fire it at the attackers when they broke through the gate, and then wheel the cannon in through the second gate while the attackers were stunned. What could go wrong?

But the Lieutenant hadn’t counted on the attackers’ secret weapon. They had a group of crazy Scottish engineers who approached their general and said something to the effect of, “Ooh! Can we blow up the gate? Pretty please?” The general agreed, so the engineers put together a bomb called a petard and hung it on the gate.

The defenders stood around the cannon waiting to hear the sound of a battering ram. Then the gate exploded. The defenders panicked and fled through the second gate, leaving the loaded cannon behind them.

The attackers entered the courtyard between the gates and said, “Hey, cool! It’s a loaded cannon!” Then they turned it around and used it to blast open the second gate.

Thus, Wurzburg Castle fell.

Why am I telling this story? First, because it’s funny. Second, because of a tendency I see in my own life to make a similar mistake.

Several psalms compare God to a fortress, a place of defense to whom people can go for help. Martin Luther’s great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God” was based on Psalm 46. It was also written in Germany, possibly in a castle similar to the one in Wurzburg. Psalm 18:2 says, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”

The young Lieutenant’s big mistake was failing to trust his fortress. Instead of relying on the built-in defenses that so impressed me when I was 10, he relied on his own strength and planning. He sent his men outside the fortress’s protection, foolishly thinking that their strength could defend the castle better than the castle could defend them.

But how often do I do the same? When anxiety presses in on me, when something goes wrong in my life, or the lives of my friends, my country, or the world, I tend to ask, “What can I do to fix this?” And sometimes, the answer is, “nothing.” But instead of accepting my helplessness and trusting in God, I try to find my own ways of making things work out. Or I panic and abandon the things I can do, leaving a loaded cannon for my enemies to use.

Defending a castle does require effort, and God graciously chooses to use us to make a difference. But we cannot rely on our own power. We must take refuge in our Fortress, trusting Him to protect us.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

On Empathy and Race

In a previous post, I discussed the importance of empathy in communication, especially when it comes to issues of sexuality. But there’s another hot-button issue where empathy is just as important, or more so: race.

I grew up in a white family, where my parents almost never mentioned race. I had Black, Hispanic and Asian friends, and I don’t think I reacted differently to them because of their race. I just thought of them as friends. But what I didn’t understand was that my friends of different races have very different life experiences than I did.

Race is not a biological category. There is no “gene” for race. It’s a social construct based on certain physical characteristics that are common in people whose ancestors lived in certain parts of the world. But the fact that it’s a social construct doesn’t mean it’s not real. It’s real enough to be one of the first things people notice when they look at someone. It’s real enough to have been the source of tremendous amounts of conflict in history and today. It’s real enough to affect people’s lives profoundly and even to cut those lives short.

I attended a celebration for a mime group’s anniversary at a mostly Black church in South Bend. One of the men who led the group stood up and talked about how miming had affected his life. He announced with pride that of the young men who started the mime group with him years before, all of them were still alive, except for one who had died of a disease. There was a murmur of surprise and a few shouts of “Amen!” It took me a minute to realize what he was talking about. This man was amazed that none of the teenage boys who started the group had been shot! I’ve never had to worry about one of my friends being killed. He was living in a whole different world than I was. 

Of course, that's not to say that all African-Americans have the same experiences either. It just means that we should be cautious  in thinking we know what life in America is like. Life for us can be very  different from what life is like for others.

I’m really not qualified to write about anyone’s experiences other than my own. I did get a taste of what being a racial minority was like when I lived in Taiwan. But that doesn’t tell me much about what it’s like to be an African American, for example. The only way to understand others’ experiences is to listen to them. Ask questions. Resist the urge to interrupt and change the subject to your own experiences. Recent events have shown just how much racial tension is present in America. There’s a lot that needs to be done to fix it. But the first, most basic step is to listen and empathize.