Friday, December 14, 2018

Does Wait Mean Never?



From a talk given to a group of women in Leipzig in 2012 

Advent
Image result for free photos for advent


I don't know about you, but sometimes I get this panicky feeling when I realize that Advent is just around the corner. There is so much to do: shopping for gifts, innumerable Christmas parties to attend at school, sport clubs, church. Getting organized for out-of-town guests, etc. What comes to your mind when you think of Advent? Christmas markets and Glühwein? (A German hot mulled wine) Advent calendars and wreaths?  Candles, cookies, shopping, gifts? Food, music, church, gatherings? Waiting is the topic I want to speak on this evening. Advent is the time during which we eagerly (or maybe not so eagerly) wait for Christmas! If you google the word, you might find this definition on Wikipedia: Advent, anglicized from the Latin word adventus meaning "coming", is a season observed in many Western Christian churches, a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas.

Waiting is a universal phenomenon

But waiting is not restricted to Advent and the Christmas season. Waiting is a universal phenomenon. My six year-old son, was standing at my side while I was typing at the computer. He questioned me again about something he wanted. Honestly, I cannot even remember what it was about. "Wait a minute," was my answer to him. Upon hearing this he retorted: "Does 'wait a minute' always mean never, Mom?" Ouch.  Waiting is a common, universal human experience. It does not matter how old you are, what race you are, what gender you are, what country you are from. Waiting is and will always be part of your human experience. Waiting is also something we do not find easy because it reveals to us that we are not in ultimate control. Try to convince a newborn baby to "wait" on the next feeding, or a toddler to wait while food is on his highchair tray in front of him. Waiting on the delayed arrival of a baby still in the womb can be unbearable. Waiting for that perfect man to appear, or for a job offer or on exam results can be torture to us because we are neither in control of the passage of time nor of the certainty of the results. 


Another difficulty we have with waiting, is that it never really comes to an end until we die. No sooner than we have received that for which we were waiting, we start waiting for the next thing. We always tend to believe that what comes next will be bigger and better than our current situation. As a child, I felt like I could hardly wait to be grown up because then, life would really start. When I was a student, I could hardly wait to graduate so I could be a part of the adult world, the real world. Once I graduated, I could hardly wait to find a husband because then I would be truly happy. Once I got married, I started thinking that having children would make me even happier. Once I had children and was in the baby stage, I started waiting with great expectation for the time when my child would finally sleep though the night. Once my children were toddlers, I could hardly wait for them to be old enough to speak, to be toilet-trained, to go to preschool in the morning so I could finally have a little time to myself. And so, it keeps going on and on....


Waiting involves longing


The truth is that waiting is such an existential part of our life, because waiting, at its core is about longing. There is an emptiness in us that makes us long for more, for something bigger and better that what we are or have now. We long for meaning and security. We long to be known and loved and appreciated. We long for beauty and justice. We long for things to be just right, or even perfect. That sense of longing can appear in all areas of our lives, be it relational, professional, emotional, physical, spiritual, intellectual, you name it. Have you ever thought about why this is? Why do we long for things to be better? Is our human experience just about the survival of the fittest, as Darwinian, evolutionistic thought would tell us? One might agree that the desire to survive, to reproduce and protect oneself is part of the survival of the fittest...but what about the longing for love, and beauty and justice, dignity and self-sacrifice? These concepts cannot be explained from an atheistic, evolutionary vantage point because these things are completely irrelevant to the concept of survival of the fittest, in fact they even hinder it. My father recently wrote a birthday email to my son on his 14th birthday. I want to share a portion of it with you:


"I preached this morning from Psalm 8 (he is a minister) which teaches about the person of God and human dignity. I mentioned Eric Liddell, a Scotsman, winner of the men's 400 metres at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. He had the world record for the 100 metres but would not run in the finals because they were staged on a Sunday (you may recall this was the theme of the movie Chariots of Fire.) The Japanese polytheists and the Chinese Marxist,  63 years later, recognized true human dignity in this man. After his Olympic success he went as a missionary to China, and was imprisoned in a concentration camp in 1943 where he served the sick and the dying, until, on February 21, 1945, five months before liberation, he died of overwork and malnourishment. In 2008 near the time of the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese authorities revealed information from 1945 that had somehow been preserved by the Japanese that Liddell had refused an opportunity to leave the camp and instead gave his place to a pregnant woman. He gave his life to save this woman, and it only became known 63 years later. The Japanese were amazed and shared their amazement with the Chinese who made it known in 2008. That is the way Jesus lived. That is true maturity, and eventually people recognize it. You are in my prayers that you will have this goal, Christ-like maturity, always before you."
Darwinian survivalism leaves no room for this sort of behavior, nor can it explain it. Liddel surely had waited and longed for his own release, he probably fantasized about it in his daydreams. But when the time came, he was able to relinquish it and give his place to a pregnant woman. What enabled him to do that?

Waiting shows us we are made for something more


I would love to propose to you that the waiting we experience and the longing we feel when we have to wait is a sign to us that we were made for something more than just this world. Have you ever thought of that? If this world is all there is, why is it that we long for things this world can never really offer? C.S Lewis, a writer and Oxford professor wrote "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world" (Mere Christianity). Another author, Saint Augustine, an early church father wrote in a well-known prayer to God: "You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." This is an amazing proposition! God made us for himself! For relationship with him. The restlessness we experience comes from expecting other things to truly satisfy us and fill that God-shaped void.

The incident at the computer with my son got me thinking about God as our heavenly Father. He sometimes says "wait a minute" to us too. He is not a heavenly vending machine built to give us what we want, when we want at the push of a button. Sometimes those minutes turn into weeks, months, or years. But the delay in his answer is not because he is too busy to deal with us, too wrapped up in himself to notice us or that our requests are unimportant to him. God certainly doesn't mean "never" when He says "wait." In fact, 99% of the Bible could be wrapped up in one word: "wait." Humans alienate themselves from God when they decide they know best...In fact, the very first woman described in the Bible, Eve, made God her enemy when she failed to wait on God. She, being proud and impatient, took her life into her own hands. Yet, even after her great failure, God promised Eve that a descendant of hers would reconcile humanity with God. Thousands of years later (now that's a long wait!), God sent his son Jesus to this earth to do this very thing: to open up the way for us to have a relationship with God again. Through Jesus, who made a way for us by dying on the cross, the God-sized void in our hearts can be filled again. 


Is there a longing in your heart that you recognize tonight as a deep longing for God? If you do, the good news is that Jesus can satisfy that longing. All it takes is to recognize your emptiness, your need of him, believe that he paid for your sins on the cross and receive his forgiveness. When we do this, we receive a new identity as children of God. And when we have God's approval, we don't need to strive for the approval of men. When we have God's love, we can live without the love of a man. When we have God's forgiveness, we can afford to not take revenge on those who have harmed us. It is this new sense of fulfilled identity that gave Eric Liddell the ability to forfeit his freedom and give it to another. Jesus gives us everything we need for life and happiness. All of our longings can be satisfied in him because He promises us life in full. He also said that he would come again and set all things aright and that we would live with him forever. So even our desire for a perfect, peaceful and unending world filled with joy will be satisfied through Him someday. But for that, we have to wait. I can hear your skeptical question, because I have it too: So why do we still struggle with waiting even though Jesus has already come? This answer may not satisfy you completely, but it does helps me in my doubts. The answer is really more of a question. Could it be that the waiting contains a message and a meaning almost just as significant as the answer itself? Waiting entails longing. Maybe not getting what we want right away forces us to long for God's presence instead of his presents. The Advent season and waiting for Christmas is not really a good analogy for me. Not that it is bad to "wait for Christmas" but, really, that's looking back to an event that already took place. Waiting for Jesus' return is a much more fitting, up-to-date biblical paradigm that challenges me to truly wait, walking by faith, not by sight. Jesus told us in the Bible that he would return "in a minute."

C.S Lewis describes that moment when our earthly waiting will come to an end in his children's book, The Last Battle which is a part of the Narnia Series. In this series, 4 children travel to a magical land called Narnia and encounter a Lion named Aslan, who is a picture of Jesus. In the last book, at the very end Aslan ushers the children into his country. This is what Lewis writes:

 “And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read, which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before.” 

Waiting on chapter one of the great story challenges us to trust him. To believe Him. To wait on Him. Can you and I live in the gap, between what we know to be true and what we believe will be true? Can we wait in this season of Second Advent, not with passivity but with action, like Eric Liddell, that shows we believe God doesn't mean "never" when he says "wait"?






Friday, July 27, 2018

Womanhood and the Story of the Gospel



“What does it mean to be girl?”

Image result for free image of little girl asking father
My daughter’s question was straightforward enough, but it caught me off guard and I fumbled around in my thoughts and my words. If you are anything like me, I imagine you too would struggle to give a simple answer that would satisfy the curiosity of a child. Would your definition span history and cultures? Would you tell her that the differences between boys and girls are merely biological? The more one tries to narrow the definition, the harder it gets. And yet the answer to this question is of paramount importance in light of the current state of confusion surrounding the topic of gender. Some would answer that despite anatomical differences, girls and boys are basically the same. Others would want to focus on the differences, assigning certain qualities to one gender or the other. Others still might question the concept of gender altogether, dismissing the universal binary for a sliding scale. 
Defining womanhood is a great challenge in our day. Our children are exposed to differing concepts of gender early, shaping how they are growing up and thinking about their own sexuality. They are hearing conflicting messages about males and females being interchangeable and gender being maleable. Beyond the rejection of God and his created order, I would argue that strong stereotyping has done us huge disservice and is, at least superficially, one of the main culprits for our gender insecurities. If a young girl prefers stereotypical male activities, such as mechanics or building, and parents and peers try to steer her away from those interests, or worse, belittle her for having them, it is natural for the child to assume one or both of two propositions. One, it is wrong for me as a girl to be interested in boy activities. Two, if I am drawn to so-called boy activities and feel more comfortable with the boys, maybe I’m not truly a girl. The feminist movement, on the one hand, has focused its efforts on debunking the lie of the former. There is nothing a girl cannot do! The transgender movement on the other hand is rooted in the subjective truth of the latter. A girl is not necessarily a girl. Since the perception of gender is shifting from objective to subjective, the transgender movement capitalizes on that fluidity to promise that such a self-transformation is not only possible, it is in fact desirable. But neither the “you can do it all” slogan nor the “you can challenge your biology” mantra is helping young adults wrestle with their gendered identity in a constructive way. Both lead to much disappointment, frustration and pain.

As you can probably deduce for yourself, another layer of confusion is introduced as the transgender movement collides head-on with feminism. Classical feminism is the championing of women based on the notions of objective equality and self-determination. But this kind of feminism is being stretched to include as a part of self-determination anyone who feels she or he is a woman. In the last few years, an intense debate raged at my Alma Mater, a women’s college, as to whom would be granted admission. Is a male applicant who claims to be a woman considered a woman just because he says so? The college ended up changing their admission policy in spite of much opposition. "I think it's a step forward, one that's long overdue," said Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a resource group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. "If they say they're women, then saying that they can't attend is denying their identities and marginalizing them."[1] Transgenderism and feminism have also come to loggerheads in the world of sports in which biological women are crying foul.[2]The only place the feminist and the transgender thought intersect is in the notion of an inalienable subjective man- or woman-made identity. Take it away, and their common ground crumbles. The question of “what is a woman?” is therefore first and foremost a question of human identity before it is one of sexuality. Before we can answer the question about womanhood, we need to ask the question about human identity and who gets to define it. Is it determined by each individual’s authoritative self-perception or by something greater and outside of the self? C.S. Lewis once said: “The question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when He made us.”

Human Identity

The definition of what it means to be human has fascinated philosophers and theologians throughout the ages. Where we come from defines us. This is true not merely culturally and historically, but spiritually as well. Jonathan Edwards, in his treaty on why God created the world, writes: “Creation must have resulted from the way God saw the value of expanding himself: his goodness, truth, beauty, and all the things that are a part of him”. If we can accept the concept of God as creator, we must admit that God is expressing something of who he is and his glory is in his creation, most clearly in the creation of people made in his image. In Genesis 1:27 we read that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This is a summary statement of both God’s creative intent (Let us make man…) and his success in making man and woman to be images reflecting his being.  At a minimum, it means that humans image certain of God’s glorious attributes, albeit in a lesser, more limited fashion. Human maleness and femaleness both originate in God and are included as elements reflecting something of his being, even though God is neither male nor female. How we act and live out our maleness and femaleness flows out of who we understand ourselves to be. There is a movement of men who believe they are dogs. Yes, you read this right! They dress up as dogs and find a partner that will treat them as a pet. They climb up on couches, bark and beg to be fed. What they believe about themselves defines how they act. In a world where self-definition is unimpeachable, no one can challenge their actions without attacking the core of their perceived personal (or doggie!) identity. However, when we believe God the Creator has a perfect plan, our perspective shifts 180 degrees. We understand that his definition of who we are is ultimate and takes precedence over our own self-understanding, feelings and orientations. Rosaria Butterfield left a life of lesbianism behind when she came to terms with this truth. “If God is the creator of all things, and if the Bible has his seal of truth and power, then the Bible has the right to interrogate my life and culture, and not the other way around.”[3] She became painfully aware that God has a much more glorious plan for her than she had for herself. Admittedly, it is neither natural nor easy for us to look to the Bible to discern matters of personal identity, but in the end, we will find great joy and peace when our hearts and lives are aligned with the will of the One who made us. 


Shared Identity

“And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘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). Though the mandate given to Adam and Eve overlaps in part with the reproductive command given to the animals: “Be fruitful and multiply,” God adds the special shared task of subduing and having dominion over the earth and the other creatures. This task mirrors God’s own rule over creation. They are to be responsible, good, innovative vice-regents over God’s world. Adam and Eve need each other’s help for both the exercise of dominion and for the reproduction and filling of the earth with image-bearers who will go to the ends of it doing the same. Adam and Eve share in the three general aspects of the image of God: functional rule over creation, physical form, though man and woman are modally different, and ethical jurisdiction.[4] The image of God is not shared in the sense of splitting a piece of pie between the two of them, rather, each is fully in God’s image. In Genesis 2, we find a second creation account. This one is like the zoom lens of a camera, focusing in on the details of the creation of man and woman as different gendered beings. The question of why woman was made emerges from a presenting problem addressed there. 


Interdependent Identities

Adam is alone.  God calls this state “not good.” (Genesis 2:18) This dissonant statement is an attention-getter. Up until this point in the account, Moses, the author, has presented realms of creation, each with their respective rulers and each has been labeled “good.” All the other animals have their matching counterpart, yet there is no one suitable for Adam. Though the Bible certainly is not gender-specific when it comes to the way people are saved and their value to God (Galatians 3:26-28), showing that the human condition is a shared one, it is descriptive of how the mysterious design of the sexes is integral to both the identity and task assigned to them. They were never intended to be independent creatures. They were made to depend on God and each other. Their interdependent identity and task should not come as a surprise. Why? Adam and Eve are made in the image of a triune God. God the Father, God the Son as the Word and God the Spirit are separate, yet willingly interdependent persons of the Godhead, who work together to create. The Father creates through the Word, in the power of the Spirit. This perfect unity in diversity is a great mystery. Both their being and their work are interdependent, even though they also possess unique character traits and functions. This relational and functional connection makes the triune God’s being more glorious, not less, and his will more potent, not less. [5] Man and woman must work together to create new humans. It is also their privilege and joy. Their separate beings and functions are mutually interconnected and utilized by God for the sake of the task of creation, reflecting the Three in One they image. 


Distinct Identities

Adam and Eve’s interdependence doesn’t undermine their unique, separate identities. In fact, it is because they are very distinct persons that they can be complementary to each other. They are not interchangeable. “Women aren’t just small men with different plumbing…there are differences in all the physiological systems of the body” states Sherry Marts, vice president of the society for Women’s Health Research.[6] Beyond obvious anatomical differences, God has a creative, purposeful and all-wise plan for these differences. If we can believe that nothing God does is haphazard, then we can be sure he is revealing something about who he is through these very differences. If the interdependence of the sexes speaks of the unity found between the three persons of the Trinity, their gender distinctions speak, on a small scale, of the diversity of the Godhead. With this in mind, it might be more helpful to rephrase the question “what is a woman?” to “What are the unique characteristics that God has placed in women in order that we might better understand him and the mystery of his redemptive plan for this world and his people?” Woman is an expression of the wisdom of God. As such, she tells a very special story and it is this story that we want to delve into.

To be continued…





[1] http://www.wbur.org/edify/2017/09/05/ninotska-love-transgender-woman-wellesley

[2] After her eye socket was broken and repaired in seven places and she was given a concussion by a transgender woman, boxer Tamikka Brents expressed her frustration: “I’ve fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night. I can’t answer whether it’s because [he] was born a man or not, because I’m not a doctor,” she stated. “I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life, and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right.” (https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/transgender-female-boxer-gives-female-opponent-concussion-breaks-her-eye-so)



[4] Meredith Kline boils the image down to three non-negotiable areas: “Under the concept of man as the glory-image of God, the Bible includes functional (or official), formal (or physical), and ethical components, corresponding to the composition of the archetypal Glory. Functional glory-likeness is man’s likeness to God in the possession of official authority and the exercise of dominion. Ethical glory is a reflection of the holiness, righteousness, and truth of the divine Judge (...). And formal-physical glory-likeness is man’s bodily reflection of the theophanic and incarnate Glory.” Images of the Spirit


[5] The Apostle Paul also notes man and woman’s dependence on God and their interdependence on each other: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. “(1 Cor. 11:11-12 ESV)


[6] Marianne Szededy-Maszak, “A Distinct Science,” Los Angeles Times, 9 May 2005, special women’s health section.