29 February 2008

Imagine an All-Out Revelation

I don't usually watch American Idol until the last six weeks. I'm a lame-O. I watch Biggest Loser instead.

Have I mentioned that I'm down to 200 pounds, a loss of 20 pounds since January 2?

Checking in on Randal Goodgame's blog over at the Rabbit Room (the site of my favorite Christian singer, Andrew Peterson), though, made me want to take another look at one performance from last week: David Archuleta's rendition of "Imagine."

Considering the kid is only 17, it's pretty amazing. I really feel that his presentation is sublime, and some of his twists really bring out these lyrics that are so familiar. It's a revelation. Enjoy.

World Turned Upside Down

It's been a crazy week--a simply crazy week, and I fear this school year is about to spin out of control. I hope not.

We had a snow day this week (yes there was snow, too, which made it doubly good). We have had one snow day, tornado day or holiday for each of the past six weeks now! That means that I am fully engaged with the four-day-workweek trend at my high school.

Even more bizarre, my principal has really been going through it. The school came down hard on a boy earlier this week who tried to steal a meal from the cafeteria--a meal that would have cost an honest man 40 cents.

The kid's mom went to the media, claiming poverty, claiming injustice, claiming that her son had "never been in trouble before." (He's not in my class, so I can't assess how seriously he takes his education.)

Somehow the blogs get involved with the boy's defense. People from all around the country are calling to criticize the principal (who cannot publicly talk about the boy's discipline record). People are even mailing in 40 cents to give the kid--and others. I guess these kind people will stop every kid who steals a Twinkie and tell them, "It's OK," I'll cover it for you.

When I checked, almost $300 had been donated, and the kid had walked away yesterday with over $200 in gifts--given by my principal himself.

Public schools have a hard job, and it's never right. Too strict. Not strict enough. Teachers are too close to students (and sexually abuse them); they are too distant and remote and out of touch. If this kind of thing happened in a private school, no one would blink an eye (or it would be hushed up).

Oh well.

23 February 2008

Who Wrote the Book of John?

The theme for Lent this year has been sanctuary. I have found it just about everywhere I look in my Bible study, and I have found my Lenten readings of the Book of John to be infused with temple imagery.

In a previous post, I noted how God "tabernacled among us." As I moved into John 2, the tabernacle/temple was there again, where Jesus cleanses the temple of money lenders.

Why does the author John place this story at the beginning of Christ's ministry when the other three gospels place it in the middle of Passion Week? Is he more concerned with poetry than with accuracy--as one might be led to believe from chapter 1? What is this author really trying to say?

The Book of John was written well after the synoptic gospels were written--as many as 30 years by some estimates. The 4th-century church historian, Eusebius, states that the author had read the other three by then, and he offered his gospel to enhance and elaborate upon the themes of the synoptics.

If Eusebius is right--and I think most readers would agree that John has a more carefully developed theology and more rational development to its insights--then the author placed this story here for a purpose, not necessarily for a straight retelling of the Jesus story. Figuring out the reason the story is here, then, will help us to understand more about what the author of John really got from his time with Jesus.

The incident retold in John takes place just before the passover. Jerusalem's tourist industry is working all out, and the most lucrative place to sell to pilgrims has to be the vast temple courts. No doubt priests have been bribed for these prime spots, and now pilgrims must cope with the din of trading to make their prayers.

Into this fray, Jesus charges with righteous indignation, turning over tables, opening pigeon coops, and shouting, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!" (v 16, NIV). The author approves of this, tying it to a text beloved by Jewish nationalists, "Zeal for your house will consume me" (Psalm 69.9).

It's almost as if he is saying, "You see? This is the one. This Jesus knows what it's all about." But it is important to note that this isn't the political blindness of disciples related by Mark and Matthew. The author has had time to think about this. That's why he adds verses 17-22.

The Jews want a sign (so far Jesus is known for a miracle that brought wine to a wedding). Jesus says he can "destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."

In this chapter he has cleansed the temple; now he says he can destroy it and raise it up. The Jews react with typical blindness. They are literalists--like Nicodemus in the following chapter, they cannot imagine things they cannot see, and they are woefully unprepared to discern when the Spirit will be unleashed by Jesus following his Ascension.

The temple is Jesus' spirit, which will rest for three days before being resurrected. The temple becomes our spirit, too, as Paul relates later in the New Testament. In many ways, the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple is repeated in John 3 (in a far more memorable and understandable way) through the image of death and rebirth.

I think that's what the author of John wants us to gain from Chapter 2. It's about the Temple, but it's more than that. It's really about us--about me. Jesus cleansed the temple of a rabble of sellers and possessions--he offers cleansing to the desires and trivialities that distract my spirit when it seeks communion. He promises to tear down the temple and rebuild it--just as he offers to tear apart the house of cards in which I take pride and replace it with a life of worship, built on a solid foundation.

From the beginning of John, God is looking for a place to tabernacle. It is clear, beginning with chapters 2 and 3, that believers are the very buildings in which He hopes to dwell. The Temple in Jerusalem was a beautiful place, no doubt loved by the Jews and protected by them against a radical like Jesus, whom they mistakenly feared would tear the place down.

Jesus had different temples in mind--as different methods of destruction. His Spirit was waiting--like the pillar of fire in the Exodus--to tabernacle with the Kingdom of Heaven he had come to create.

Now to the question I pose in my title. Who wrote the Book of John? As most know, he only identifies himself as "the one Jesus loved."

The author is based in Jerusalem. Most of the book chronicles interactions Jesus had over a series of visits to the Jewish capital (the synoptics imply that Jesus only visited Jerusalem in the week prior to his death). Bethany also features in this book, with Jesus' visits to Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

The author is immersed in temple. He uses temple connections to get a front-row view of Christ's trial for himself and Peter. He fills his gospel with hidden allusions to temple, as I have demonstrated above.

Could this be a fisherman from Galilee as the son of Zebedee was? I think it is unlikely. One theologian I read, Ben Witherington III, speculated that the author was Lazarus, who may have later went to Ephesus, where he shared his story with an editor, John the Revelator.

Personally, I would vote for Barnabas, who was Jesus' disciple, a Cypriot Jew, and traditionally held to be the owner of the Upper Room, from which so much detail can be found in chapters 13-17. Furthermore, his role in Christianity's incorporation of gentiles, shows that he must have been effective at explaining Christ's mission to infant Christians.

Let me know what you think!

21 February 2008

Cuba's Future--as bad as America's

David Letterman had the funniest line a comedian has delivered in the last six years, commenting on possible successors to Fidel Castro, now that he has stepped down as leader there.

12 February 2008

Juniors and Jefferson

Every Friday, I assemble my students in Socratic Circles, where they discuss a given work of art amongst themselves while I observe and credit kids for talking.

My 4th-block class just loves this part of the week. They're very opinionated 11th-graders, and I'm happy to say that they even back up their opinions from time to time.

Last week I gave them a selection of quotes by Thomas Jefferson, America's founding father. We watched a video ahead of the discussion. The video discussed the many contradictions of Jefferson's life: how he initially supported royalists in France, despite the atrocious conditions of the poor; how he owned slaves at the same time that he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator to the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Justin V. had a strong opinion. "This guy owned slaves and wrote the Declaration of Independence?" he asked, before stating, "Jefferson is the second-biggest hypocrite in history, next to Adolf Hilter, who killed 6 million Jews even though he, himself, was Jewish."

Another boy pointed out that Hitler had killed himself last of all. "Then Jefferson is Number One," Justin huffed.

Justin S. had problems with another famous Jefferson quote. "'I cannot live without books.' What does that even mean?" he asked disgustedly. (Needless to say, this is a group of talkers, not readers.

"He's a nerd," answered Dorae, rattling her manicured nails on the floor of my room.

Am I a great teacher or what? My students now think that Thomas Jefferson was a "nerd" and a "hypocrite." That's not necessarily where I would have steered the discussion, but I'm proud to see them thinking, nonetheless.

10 February 2008

Prepared to be a Sanctuary

In my studies during this special season, it has been amazing the number of times the Tabernacle has come up.

During the Exodus through Sinai—and for a few hundred years afterwards in Shiloh—the Tabernacle was God’s dwelling place among Israel.

It held the most sacred objects of the Exodus: the Ten Commandments and, for a time, a bowl of manna and Aaron’s flower-bedecked rod. Rising above its most holy place—at least during the Exodus—was a pillar of fire, demonstrating God’s mercy over His chosen people.

But my studies center on the New Testament these days. Aside from references to the Sanctuary in Hebrews, I hadn’t found the other 26 books to be full of the Holy of Holies…until these last few weeks.

One of the greatest resources I have found for my spiritual development has been the podcasts of Asbury Theological Seminary. For about 12 year now, I’ve been working on my “working man’s MA in theology,” reading a vast array of books on history and doing everything but learn Greek & Hebrew. Podcasts keep me up to date on the latest theological ideas, and I highly recommend these if you use iTunes.

The first place I found the sanctuary was in the beginning of the Book of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…. The Word became Flesh and made his dwelling among us” (verses 1 & 14).

This chapter is full of the language of the Old Testament. If you really think about it, it could be a condensed version of the Old Testament, beginning with Genesis “In the beginning” and ending with Daniel, “You shall see the heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

To top it off, Asbury OT professor, Sandi Richter, proposed a better translation for verse 14. “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us,” she said.

Wow. I have never heard of the verb, tabernacled, but it has quickly become one of my favorite words. I have never imagined Christ’s incarnate ministry as an act of tabernacling, but now I can’t stop praising him for it.

If “the Word tabernacles among us,” it brings to mind so many images from the Old Testament. A pillar of cloud protects and cools us by day—even as a pillar of fire lights our darkest nights. His law dwells within our hearts—just as Jeremiah had foreseen. The air smells of incense, and evidence of miracles—God’s feeding, His anointing—is all around.

Look at that last paragraph. I used the present tense, “tabernacles,” instead of the past tense “dwelt.” I guess that’s because I have read to the end of the book of John—and on into the next book, Acts, where Christ’s Spirit is unleashed so that He tabernacles among us to this very day.

The Tabernacle permeates the New Testament. That isn’t the only place it can be found. There is an even greater revelation that I don’t have space to describe here. I’m still studying, and I hope to have this most wonderful new truth ready for you to read later in the Lenten season.

07 February 2008

Ash Wednesday: How Long Until Easter?

This year will be the tenth that I celebrate Lent.

I remember my first Lenten season. I was still living in Arizona, and I was drawn to this ancient Christian tradition (dating back to 731) not only as a way to make Easter more meaningful, but also in order to get myself under control.

Ellie was a baby. And while I enjoyed taking her for walks around my Richard Avenue neighborhood, I wasn’t a very attentive daddy—especially when I was immersed in a computer game. For my first Lent, I gave up computer games. It was forty days. By the time Easter rolled around, I had a measure of control.

By the end of Lent the following year, I had kicked the habit, and computer games haven’t held sway over my life (or my attention to my kids) since. To be honest, I feel tempted to buy them, but never inclined to play them—that’s why Stronghold 2 sits in my software box, two years old, unplayed even as I write this.

This year, as I celebrated Ash Wednesday and contemplated my mortality (just 20 hours after deadly tornadoes had swept through the community where I worship), I thought about the changes that I still need in my life. The pastor had us write down our sins on a paper, then he burned them before our eyes.

It gave me pause, and a chance to implement the fasting that I had carefully considered for weeks.

I think the main thing I need to cut down on is information. I’m an omnivore—devouring everything I can get my hands on: news, science, sports, entertainment, international, local, everything.

A couple weeks ago, I read a blog that had a picture of a 700-pound man on it. The caption read, “If information were calories, what would you look like?” That really made sense to me. Information is only useful when it’s, well, useful. Therefore, I’ll spend Lent limiting myself to 30 minutes a night on the Internet. I will cut out all sports and entertainment sites/blogs, and I’ll see where that gets me.

Sports is a really strange influence. I read about three sports sites every day. Even though I rarely spend money on sports or sports merchandise, I spend about an hour a day following sports like a soap opera. Entertainment news is similar. I know more about people like Tom Cruise, Britney Spears and Heath Ledger than I could ever need to know.

More importantly, a lot of these sites are gateway sites that leave the me two clicks away from stuff I really, really don’t need to see: porn, gambling information, lurid videos, etc. Staying away from sports will hopefully keep me that much further away from other bad stuff.

A final resolution is to give up using the perjorative, “Two-time Bush Voter.” I have really been hammering my Right-wing friends with that one recently. I’m just really fed up with the direction my country is headed—more than ever—and I guess that’s my way of taking it out on them.

For example, when a friend wrote a group e-mail recently, stating that Barack Obama’s “nice words” didn’t necessarily mean that he could pull the job off, I wrote back:

“I don’t need a two-time Bush voter to tell me how disappointing politicians can be.”

See what I mean? It’s rude. It’s almost as bad as when I was referring to the Right as “The Befuddled Masses” and then calling them “BMs” for short. It’s wrong.

That’s what Lent is for, I guess: refocusing on what I can do for Christ and ridding myself of extraneous stuff. I’ll keep you posted—as always.

01 February 2008

U2: 3D 2B Again

I wanted to write further on U2, having provided a cursory review of the movie U23D in my last post.

I just can't emphasize the effect this group has had on me over the past 20 years. I was a sophomore in high school when The Joshua Tree came out. "With or Without You" had been their big hit from that album, but I was drawn to the two follow-up songs: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "Where the Streets Have No Name," particularly the latter's incredible music video which featured a spontaneous concert on a Los Angeles rooftop.

Prior to The Joshua Tree the other great album of 1986-87 had been Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet. My friends and I spent hours listening to that one, and it set off a four year indulgence of hair-metal fandom. U2 gave me a chance to break away.

Here's why. In the way that every Bon Jovi or Def Leppard song was designed to stimulate my teenage hormones (granted, a relatively easy goal to achieve in 1987), U2's songs reached to the heart. In frequent moments of teen angst, I often retired to my living room, put The Joshua Tree in the stereo, turned out the lights, and felt my soul restored.

What was it about this music? Frankly Bono's voice wasn't the strongest in rock 'n roll (and his mullet hairdo was pathetic by 80s standards). U2 were a basic, four-piece band--without the regular keyboardist or two-necked, tricked-out guitars of other 80s rock groups. The Edge had a gift for soaring guitar solos and clever riffs--but he wasn't in a league with Eddie Van Halen or the guy from AC/DC.

I think that part of this was the songs--particularly those on The Joshua Tree where the production created layers of sound (including synthesizers) through which The Edge's riffs could dance and on which Bono's lyrics sailed. For some reason, this small group of Irishmen had crafted the greatest song ever written about Martin Luther King, Jr. (Pride) and the definitive post-modern spiritual, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.

But an even more crucial element to the band's success was their prowess as a live group. They brought much more to a concert than any band of their era--this must have been what grabbed me about the "Streets" video, something I didn't recognize at the time.

That is why U23D is such a revelation. It is The World's Greatest Rock Band meets The World's Greatest 3D Spectacle. It is a union that pulled a lot of things together for me--about U2 and their music; about myself and my own deepest fears and desires.

Most of the reviews I read focued on the 3D tricks the movie used. Words fly off the stage and hypnotize the audience. The neck of Adam Clayton's base shakes in front of your nose like a wagging finger. Bono reaches out of the screen to draw you into the song.

I was more fascinated by the performance aspect. This was my second U2 concert film (I saw Rattle and Hum in theaters back in 1989), but the first full-length performance by the band I had witnessed. I remembered leaving Rattle and Hum and thinking, "I feel like I've been at church."

What a church it had been. Bono has that ability--all too rare among preachers but more common among rock stars--to deliver every word he says without the slightest hint of doubt or self-awareness.

The songs themselves focus unwaveringly on humanity. One reason reason U2 have stayed together for so long is because the message has always remained larger than the band. Whether they were protesting British police brutality in Northern Ireland in "Sunday Bloody Sunday," through the military excesses of Reagan's America in "Bullet the Blue Sky" to promoting alternatives to the madness of "pre-emptive war" in the present day.

The most significant set in U23D focused on the war/humanity theme. "New Year's Day" kicked off the set. I found myself thinking during this song about my New Year's tradition as a blogger: posting a video of "40." Yet here was another song, "New Year's Day," that seemed equally important. "I will be with you again," merges into "I, I will begin again" in the performances (I haven't found this switch in the recordings.

It's a great New Year's song. It's about renewal. It's post-modern spirituality at its most eloquent.

At the close of the song, Bono got a headband from the audience and put it on. "Coexist," it read, featuring the symbols of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity (see graphic). That moved the group into "Sunday Bloody Sunday." One thing I like about U2 is that they move around the stage well. (This stage features two arms that reach out into the audience.) At the end of "SBS," the drummer, Larry Mullen moved to the end of one of the arms where he played "Love and Peace" on a small drumset that had just one big drum and a cymbal. It was an awesome way to get some attention to the band's founder and key player instead of keeping him hid behind the drum set.

The most meaningful song of the movie for me was the Grammy-winning "Sometimes You Can't Make it One Your Own." Bono dedicated this song to his dad, and he delivered it without his trademark, wrap-around shades--virtually naked, if you will.

I had always interpreted this song in the context of a male-female relationship, but in this new context it became three-dimensional for me. "We fight all the time, you and I, we're the same soul," it says. As Bono sang, an image of a faceless company man appeared, walking in place on the five-story-tall board behind the stage. Bono's image was projected next to it--a lost son, singing to a father who died four years ago.

This was the most moving part of the concert for me. It made me think of my own complicated relationship with my daughter--of the distances that grow between people who should be close in spirit. Later it led to a fun conversation with Jenny about what it might have been like to raise a Bono back in the day!

The movie closed with a moving rendition of "Yahweh," accompanied by a cool cartoon that played in front of the screen, bringing together the themes of the show: humanity, coexistence, love. It was a powerful coda. As the screen went dark, we could hear Bono closing the concert in his traditional way: "Thank you. We will never forget this...ever. Thank you so very much."

It was I who was thankful, believe me.

I'll close with a link to a video of "Yahweh."