Friday, May 08, 2009

Exodus of the first year of Seminary

One more week to go for my first year of Seminary! It's been so exciting, full of inspiration, confusion, joy, disappointment, but most of all exegesis, the study of scripture. I spent a lot of time wrestling with scripture for each class and out-side of class,writing sermons and doing research. Each class has called us to look at te Bible in a new way, whether it means to look at the effect of literary form or the theology expressed by the scribe/author. One of our final assignments for my class on the book of Exodus seemed to sum up a bit of this experience for me. We were reflecting over how the content of the book changed for us over the course of the class. So, I'll leave you with the reflection followed by a summary of what the book is about. Have a great day!(Pictures are from a trip up Stone Mountain just outside of Atlanta.)

When I first approached this text in English, the story of Exodus seemed like a fairytale-like story telling of the mysterious God who wants to be in relationship with the people of Israel. After digging into the scriptures with the help of the Hebrew text and getting to fully know the record of the events that took place, the acts of the LORD became more real for me. As I now witnessed the striking visual images, I also felt and imagined how the Israelites experienced this interaction with the LORD not just through prayer and sermons, but through fire, water, and blood. The people act like children in their eagerness to be in relationship with God and their stubborn complaints when everything go their way. When I read about the Israelites complaining that they had no food or water in the desert at the same time they complain about the food they do have, I saw myself, complaining about what I did not have amidst the many blessings that God has given me, despite my circumstances. Often his people ignore the miracles that the LORD does for them, just in the way that we continually forget how impossible the many blessings in our lives would be without God. After thoroughly going through the text, I began to see how valuable this book could be for a people who had lost all hope and could not see the LORD in the world around them. The book of Exodus calls to us as well as the many generations that came before us and will come after us, to read and hear of the mighty acts of the LORD so that we will know the real existing and present LORD, obey the LORD’s commands, and come into relationship with the redeeming LORD our God.

The book of Exodus serves as a physical transport through time into the history and lives of the Israelites who were delivered out of slavery in Egypt. The narrative accounts of the events that took place between the land of Egypt and the community’s approach to the Promised Land pass down through the tradition of Israel and remind the people of the relationship that exists between their nation and the one true God, YHWH. Throughout the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures, prophets, psalmist and scribes describe YHWH as the one who brought the Israelites out of Egypt. Since the LORD forbids the people to create and worship graven images, the book of Exodus was forged so that the Israelites might have sensory images of the LORD and know Him through His acts of creation and blessing.
The LORD displays His physical power in the instantaneous creation of the plagues, clouds and fire, and judgment. When the LORD first appears to Moses, He provides not just a visual distraction to get Moses’ attention, but a bush that burns with fire, expelling heat and surely sounds of cracking (Exod 3: 2). This tactile and aural visual of fire appears even so much in a huge pillar of fire and cloud which protect the Israelites from the Egyptians (Exod. 14:20) and leads them through the desert by day and night (Exod: 13:21). From the stench of a bloody Nile (Exod 7:18) to the deathly hail falling from the sky and striking the land, people and livestock (Exod 9:19), the plagues against Egypt demonstrate God’s wrath with all five senses. Finally, when the people claim that they want to see God present in an image and they create a golden calf, their judgment comes not only in harsh words from Moses, but it also comes in the blow of a sword from their fellow Hebrews(Exod 32:27) and a plague of illness from the LORD their God(Exod 32:35). The people cannot say that they have never seen the works of God.
Nevertheless the Israelites doubt the power of the Lord throughout the story, amidst the ever present signs that the LORD continually plans for the blessing of His people. When their cry rose up to God as they were slaves (Exod 2:23), the LORD provided a living soul, Moses, to come and lead them out of Egypt. When the LORD provides water in the desert, he does not just provide water out of the blue, but instead He orders Moses to strike a rock creating a visual, aural and tactile experience of God’s providence(Exod: 17:6). When they officially commit to a relationship with the LORD, Moses dashed the blood of the covenant over the people, so that they heard and felt it hit themselves and their neighbors, seeing and smelling the evidences of their agreement(Exod 24:8). Moses brings the laws to the people not just in speech but also carved onto tablets by the very finger of the LORD (Exod 31:18). Almost in response to the people’s ever present need for a physical presence of God that they can see and take with them, the LORD gives Moses the plans for the construction of the Tabernacle, which provides a mobile place for the LORD to dwell and be ever present with the people. The Lord provides for the people to construct the Tabernacle with their own bare hands and gifted talents (Exod 36:13).
Although these people never make it to the Promised Land, they fully experienced the acts and the presence of God. God was not just something they heard about from their leaders, but someone who took vivid action in the presence of their enemies and in their needs for physical nourishment. God was not just some mysterious god who controlled the weather and their luck, but someone who provided sudden destruction, sudden gifts, and drastic miracles for redemption. The generations that followed may have felt like God abandoned them, but the book of Exodus reminds them that the LORD exists and plans for the blessing of His people and not their destruction.
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Friday, March 13, 2009

Mid-term and mid-winter dreams

 Whew! I've made it half way through the semester, and I'm still alive(unlike these snowmen, who have now disappeared after our snow storm two weeks ago). I've been so busy in the last few weeks, but God has placed so many opportunities in my path, and I gratefully took advantage of them.

After visiting several churches in Atlanta, I've finally found a congregation where I feel at home, North Avenue Presbyterian Church. They have mission at the front of their ministry, with members and regular attendees from over 25 different countries, plus all different economic backgrounds, as well as a balance of all generations. Not only does the church have a fantastic Music Ministry, but they also have several worship services each Sunday, something for everyone. After being involved with the Hand Bell and Chancel Choirs, I was invited to sing with the Worship Team for the contemporary service. Their worship leader is on maternity leave and so while she's gone I'll be leading part of this service. It's great to be doing this again, and reaffirming of why I came to seminary in the first place. As I learn more about theology and wrestle with scriptures, I have the opportunity to participate in worship of the mysterious and wonderful God I'm learning more about each day. If you would like to find out more about the church you can click on the link below.
As for school work, I had a few mile markers in the last two weeks: my first "official" sermon up for criticism and my first exegesis paper. At this stage, my preparation still takes quite a while, as I study the scripture and figure out what I want to say, or more appropriately, what the scripture is saying to me. I found myself putting in so many hours of study and writing, but I valued every moment and I think I learned so much, just with the process. I'm learning to discover scripture in new ways, as I put together different methods that I've been learning in each class to engage with the Word. I may be overworking a bit, sometimes overeating spiritual food and under-eating physical food, but I'm finding a balance and, with my involvement at NAPC and other worship services on campus, I remember the reason why we sing, and the reason why I'm here.

 In fact I feel like this whole year has been about remembering and rediscovering. Remembering American culture and lifestyle. Remembering the great time I had in Policka, and how those experiences formed me. Remembering what God has done throughout my life, where God has lead me and the paths that brought me to this place. Rediscovering God's calling and who I was before I went to CZ and even before I went to WI. Rediscovering the scriptures in Hebrew and English, finding that most of the scriptures are directed to remind people of the many wonders God has done for us and the covenants that God has made with his people. Remembering the dreams God has shown me in my past and rediscovering the dreams set before me.
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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Honey, you're in the south now


Life sure does keep you busy, when you let it. Translating Hebrew, diving into scripture for exegesis(the big seminary word for research like bible study/devotionals), and writing papers and sermons, these activities crowd my mind when I'm not sitting in worship, in class or at meals. I'm so lucky to have friends good enough to make me stop and enjoy life and put down my books. Today my friend Arlo opened my eyes and showed me the duck pond just five minutes from our dorm(that's her running through the snow).
Oh, how I've missed the lakes of Madison and our little pond across from the church in Policka. My life almost doesn't seem complete without a body of water. Not only have I been living oblivious to this little pond hidden behind the children's home across the street, but I almost didn't let myself enjoy a snowy day, something that's almost all too familiar from my previous lives, and, honestly, I think it makes me a bit homesick. But the snow here is different. It's really wet and the ground is all muddy underneath and it doesn't really crunch when you walk. I kind of expected to take today as it was and go about my schedule as planned, but snow slows you down in the south. No one's shoveling or salting or going about their normal routines. So, as they say, when in Rome... Needless to say, we're taking it easy today. As those here on campus who work on Sundays and try to find special time of rest with God and glorifying God say, "We're taking a Sabbath."

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Friday, February 13, 2009


Well, I'm finished with my second week of classes for the semester, and as the load begins to pick up, so do my spirits. January was an intense month. Tim and I went for a wonderful weekend on the Outer Banks of North Carolina before I brought him back to seminary. This picture was from Ocracoke, the most peaceful and beautiful (and full of mysteries) island of them all. I bought a nice book of Ghost Stories or Mysteries of the islands rather. It was a great start to the year, full of peace and recognizing God's glory of creation.

For the last month I've felt very overwhelmed with new ideas and information from my January Term class in theology and two seminars on spirituality. I was not so much questioning my faith, but questioning why I believe what I believe and if it's tied to scripture, experience or christian doctrine in the PC(USA). Throughout the month I've met many wonderful people in the community, joining in activities at North Avenue Pres downtown and a Christian Yoga Class at the Methodist Church. They let me talk through some of these wonderings and shared their stories with me. I don't have all of the answers I want yet, but I have a whole semester in front of me and two more years after that and then even more time throughout my life to dive deeper into the mysteries of faith. In the mean time, I'm loving my classes, digging into scripture, and listening...

Yesterday we gave our first mini-sermon in my class on Preaching and Worship. We were supposed to pick a scripture that said something to us about God. Well, could it be any more vague? The whole Bible is about God! What amazing sermons I heard yesterday from my friends, sharing the gospel in new ways and new voices in only 5 minutes! I thought I would share my sermon with you here. I think you might find it interesting no matter whether or not you're a Christian. It mostly addresses how we treat other people and how Jesus was teaching us to act towards others and in community. Plus, it's a little funny. My class laughed, I was so proud. You know me, always trying to poke a little fun:) We were only giving complements yesterday, so nothing was said about what I should change, so I feel perfectly fine sharing it with you in just the same way I shared it with them--unashamed and open to what the Spirit would say through me. I didn't go into my study with an agenda, but it seems God pulled me in for one--funny how the Spirit moves.

Welcome in the Kingdom

As we come to today’s lesson, Mark tells us that Jesus had just come to a place in the region of Judea, and crowds of people had come to Him, fervently waiting to hear His teachings. The Gospel of Mark 10:13-16 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
In today’s world, we might say that Jesus was just fulfilling the duties of His campaign, shaking hands, giving speeches, and kissing babies. But Jesus does more here than just bless the children. Like any good teacher, he uses the situation for teaching His students a lesson, honing in on something he’s been trying to say about humbleness and servant hood, something he will keep saying until he takes the place of the ultimate servant of all, on the cross.

The disciples expect the children to be a burden; for goodness sakes, Jesus was tired and there were much more worthy people who wanted to learn from Jesus. But Jesus says, oh, quite the contrary. These are the ones that are the most worthy, They don’t come questioning how they can be greater, how they can live more faithful lives; The children come with empty hands and a strong faith in the power of Jesus. They come just wanting to be in His presence, believing that His touch, his blessing, can make a difference in their future. And Jesus doesn’t just bless them, but He declares that all must come like them, like a child, to enter the kingdom of God.

The disciples just didn’t get it. It wasn’t too long ago that they were arguing amongst themselves about who was better, and Jesus told them Mark 9:35 "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." 36 (Even at that moment) Jesus took a little child in his arms, he said to them, 37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." Still after they heard this, they were shew-ing the children away, keeping them from seeing Jesus. But Jesus, he is tired of his disciples insistence on knowing who is good enough. Mark says that Jesus was indignant, a word we don’t use very much, defined as annoyed at the unfairness of something, irritated with an injustice.

Amidst all of this Jesus is teaching them about a strange God that would entrust a kingdom to children. Children can’t inherit a kingdom, they have no conception of responsibility, No experience, No knowledge, no understanding of what has happened or what will happen. Like we talked about in intersections yesterday, children are really just taking it all in, observing the world around them, trying to work things out, not making judgments, and just seeing. And yet, this is what God requires of us, to come, see and receive.

In today’s church we tend to be just like those disciples, we just don’t get it. We try to say who can come to Jesus, who is welcome in our churches, who is worthy of preaching, but Jesus says let them come to me. This is a message we need so desperately to here in the church, especially as more and more people loose their jobs and their savings, feeling hopeless and unworthy. When you come as a child, your education, your experience, none of it qualifies you for work in the kingdom. Only God can qualify you, only God can bless you. Your identity cannot be found in your job or you ministry or your family but rather in god as a child belonging in the kingdom.

As leaders of the church, Jesus calls us to be indignant, to be irritated that people are being denied their rights to the kingdom of God. We must welcome the child, welcome the homeless, welcome those who look different and act different, and allow ourselves to be welcomed, despite our shortcomings, despite our sins. Welcome in the children of the kingdom, Jesus is calling. Amen.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Christmas; Different is Good

At the end of a long break, I’ve finally found the time to reflect on my first semester in Seminary, my first six months of re-acclimating myself to the American Lifestyle, and my first Christmas in Ponca in three years (plus my first Christmas Break in 6). So here goes, I’ll work backwards, starting with Christmas.

 (Me sharing the Czech tradition of lighting Sparklers with the kids at FPC Ponca City during the Children’s Sermon on Christmas Eve—“When we see the light we can understand what light is, just as through knowing Jesus we can understand love and our loving God.”)

Just as my first Christmas in Policka didn’t quite feel like Christmas, the Advent season in Atlanta and Ponca didn’t quite feel right either. Christmas seemed to come a little too soon for me, as we were giving Christmas concerts and having Christmas diners at the beginning of December, as if Advent was almost non-existent. I loved studying the Apocolyptic texts of Daniel, speaking of the coming of the kingdom of God, in my last Old Testament Class and translating “Advent texts” from Isaiah for our Hebrew Final Exam, but before I knew it, I was already back in Ponca singing for FPC’s annual Christmas Music Spectacular(Which was amazing, I might add) and caroling with old friends. I kept longing for Advent (Ironic isn’t it?).

I feel like I’ve spent a lot of my spiritual life “in waiting” so I feel very connected to the season of expectation and hope. This was one aspect of the Czech holiday season that I cherished. Everyone cleans house and bakes cookies and buys gifts and there is this sense of preparation in the air. Sure we had Christmas Plays and Parties and other celebrations, but certain things aren’t enjoyed until Christmas. Many mothers, for example, won’t allow their children to eat any of the thousands of cookies waiting on the back porch until Christmas Eve (Well, you can always sneak a cookie, but waiting is part of the fun). Plus the Christmas tree doesn’t go up until Christmas Eve. I think this makes the tree much more special when there are all the other decorations around the house, but all month you’re still waiting for the unveiling of the tree.

 So since something didn’t feel right, I tried to make it feel like Christmas. Like a good little Czech Lady, I made some ginger bread cookies, a bunch of them, and iced them and gave them to several friends and teachers. I didn’t catch everyone, because they had already left school, but those people who I did share them with enjoyed the sugary treats (mine had quite a bit more sugar and icing than the Czech versions:) I did get some strange glances at my interesting cookies, but I didn’t let it bug me, because the awkward replies always ended with a smile.

 Another Czech tradition I tried to replicate came on Christmas Eve with the Fish Soup. I didn’t know what I would do, since they usually use the head of the carp which ends up left over from the fried fish fillets they serve for dinner. You can’t just walk into Walmart and pick up a fish head. Well, maybe you can, but I didn’t quite have the guts to walk in and ask for one. Anyway, before I had to face that decision one of our pastors at FPC mentioned that he had some whole trout frozen in his fridge if I wanted them. Okay, so now I have the fish, no problem right? Well, every Czech soup has the same base, so I thought it would be a piece of cake, and I started off and the base was looking great, and I was quite hopeful for my success. I somehow braced myself to cut the heads off of the fish bodies(thank goodness he had already gutted the fish), and I tossed them into the soup. My Dad was like, “Shouldn’t you add a bit of the fillet to give it more flavor?” And I replied, “I don’t think so. I think they just use the head.” Well, I should have listened to my Dad, because it turned out to be the blandest soup I’ve ever made. Then when I talked to Anna Dus after Christmas, she said that she always adds a bit of extra meat to the soup to give it more flavor. Well, I guess it wasn’t all disaster though, because I still remember my sister’s surprise at seeing the dead fish heads sitting in a bowl staring up at her in the kitchen! Now that made it all worth it!

 When I wasn’t trying to relive my Czech memories, I was trying to practice the traditions I remembered from Ponca. I already mentioned going caroling with friends from church, and although we were doing the same things we always did, the people were new and the homes we visited were all different. Oddly enough, I feel like I knew every one of the “Shut-ins” we visited this year, even though none of them had been on our list when I last caroled 6 or 8 years ago. Knowing the people made each visit special and meaningful. Plus, the time in the van from house to house allowed for me to get to know some people from our church like our new Pastor and his wife and rekindle longtime friendships with people I hadn’t really spent time with in years.

But this too became a theme as everything turned out differently than I remember, and as I was standing next to my Dad and Sister, singing Silent Night and holding our candles in the dark church at the close of the Christmas Eve Service, I realized something. Christmas is always changing. We are always changing. And amidst all of this, God continually sends us the gift of love, peace, and hope, time and time again.

As I was pondering this, our studies in my Old Testament class of the Prophesies of Isaiah came back to me.

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6

Our professor was telling us how these scriptures that Handel has attached to our memories as speaking ONLY of Jesus Christ could also have been speaking about the nation of Israel or even King Cyrus of Persia or even all who become servants of God, with the individual seen as a microcosm for the community’s experience. I asked her, “So what does this mean for us as Christians? Do we say that Jesus is the messiah in these scriptures?” Wow, what a question. I have to say this is one of those hard blows seminary throws at you, where it makes you rethink everything you’ve built your faith on. But it’s moments like this that you can take the opportunity to build that foundation on solid ground, better understanding through questioning. She didn’t deny that these scriptures match up with the experiences and the sufferings of Jesus, but she explained that the coming of the servant or messiah from these scriptures is something that is not “done or complete”, but rather something that is recurring and happening again and again throughout the history of the Jewish people, pointing out the Holocaust as a possible recent persecution and deliverance occurrence.

Happening again...and again...throughout history...As we experience disappointment and suffering, God is saving us and delivering his people, again...and again. These words kept going through my mind that Christmas night and it all became clear. The message for the Advent and Christmas season this year spoke to me of the faithfulness of our Amazing God:
As we change and the world changes and our traditions and surroundings change, God finds new ways to provide for us and new messages all to remind us of the same thing—He loves us. In this case, at Christmas, he reminds us that He loves us so much that he would send His Servant to bear our pain, and Deliver us, again, and again.

As we go into this new year, with many blessing and disappointments mixed with joy and suffering, May God continue to provide for you and deliver you in new and surprising ways:) Happy New Year and Merry Christmas!
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