The Transformation of JJ the Bully: An Addendum

So my mom fact-checked my story about JJ the bully. And rather than just editing a few places in the article for historical accuracy, I thought I’d write a separate post about the differences between my memory and my mom’s in order to explore the nature of memory and memoir a bit, as well as to include an ending to the story that I had forgotten about, but which even further emphasizes the effect that unexpected kindness had on him.

First, my mom informed me that the details of the second scene of my story weren’t quite right. This was the part where I wrote that she took us to 7-Eleven in order to buy a slurpee for JJ, and that we had chosen to buy him a blueberry one. In fact, she told me that we first drove to JJ’s house, where my mom told him that we were going to Rita’s Water Ice, and asked him if he’d like to come along. Rita’s is a warm-weather staple of the area northeast of Philadelphia, now branded Rita’s Italian Ice, but back then in the regional dialect it was known as Rita’s Wooder Ice. Italian ice is sort of like a snow cone, but with much finer ice, and it has a denser consistency than a smoothie or slurpee. However, JJ couldn’t come with us, so we asked him what flavor we could bring back for him. He chose lemon.

Rita’s, and not 7-Eleven. Lemon, and not blueberry. An initial visit to his house and return, rather than one surprising visit. Assuming that mom’s recollections are the correct ones – which is a good assumption since she was thirty seven and I was seven – it’s worth asking how and why my mind remembered things the way that it did.

I only remembered standing at JJ’s door once, and not the initial time that we had stopped by. Why might that be? Well, our brains do tend to remember situations in piecemeal fashion, “deleting” the vast majority of our memories that don’t seem significant, while holding onto the parts that had some kind of emotional significance. Fear, for example, is one of the strongest “cementers” of memory. If you have ever been unexpectedly put on the spot by a teacher, and that situation made your nervous system kick into high gear, then you will likely remember that scene for the rest of your life. Therefore, it’s likely that my mind deleted the first visit, categorizing it as not that significant, whereas it remembered the second time we were at JJ’s door. Why? Because of the emotion on JJ’s face. Human minds mirror one another’s emotions, so when I saw JJ’s expression I also felt his emotion. And this was significant enough that it was categorized under scenes to be archived for future reflection.

Why then did my mind swap 7-Eleven for Rita’s, and blueberry for lemon? Here we probably have a case of the mind naturally filling in the gaps in a memory from other similar memories of that same season (Perhaps I chose blueberry for myself at Rita’s that day). This freedom the mind feels to cut and paste certain details of stories, to mix memories together, and to remember things that didn’t really happen is what makes an individual’s memory alone less than rock-solid evidence of the actual history.

While there is always a certain kind of validity to the details of one’s memories – your mind remembers things in a certain way for a reason, meaning there is a true story being told about you even in memories that are not quite factual – human memory is not exactly a copy/paste of the historical situation. This is why having multiple witnesses is so important for a legal case. It’s also why it can be so helpful to compare our memories with others who were there. Even in situations where everyone recalls things accurately (as with the supernaturally-enabled writers of the gospels), each human brain involved is remembering only partial details of that scene, meaning that the combination of true stories leads to a fuller story overall. Alas, only the mind of God is perfectly and comprehensively aligned with the historical record for any given event.

All this means we should read or write memoir with a grain of salt, knowing that even the recollections of an honest author will come with some inevitable gaps, additions, or personal interpretations mixed in. But the fact that all natural memoir is like this means that once this is understood as a given, then we can engage in the genre with freedom, enjoyment, and humility. We try our best, and neither author nor reader need get bent out of shape when it comes out that certain details were a little off. It’s simply the nature of the genre, the nature of memory. As with biblical hermeneutics, knowing what genre we are in is key for proper interpretation and response, even for proper enjoyment. Memoir is the genre of significant true experiences that are remembered by the brain in a mostly-true, limited-perspective kind of way. And these very limitations of memoir are what make it so much fun.

No matter how good the story, the reader knows that there’s always more detail that might be unveiled, things that even the author missed. Sometimes the discovery of an omission makes the story even better. All of our favorite true stories conceal fascinating details that we have yet to learn – even the biblical ones. I would not be surprised if significant time is spent in eternity filling in these gaps. “Okay, Matthew, I invited you over for chai because I’ve simply got to know a little bit more about those dead saints who got out of their graves and wandered around Jerusalem after the crucifixion. What exactly was going on there?”

When I talked to my mom this week, she told me that I had ended the story of JJ the bully prematurely. As it went down, sometime later my mom was jogging in their neighborhood when she came across JJ again. She asked him if he had enjoyed his lemon water ice. JJ’s response?

“I didn’t drink it. I put it in my freezer because I wanted to keep it… I’ve never had anyone do something that nice for me before.”

Maybe someday I’ll meet JJ again. Because now I want to know – Did he ever drink it? How long did it stay in the freezer? Did his mom eventually throw it away? Does he still have it in his freezer? How does it end?!

At this point, only God knows, the author of all authors, storyteller of all storytellers. Good thing we’ll get to spend eternity with him. I can’t wait to hear more of his stories.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Did the Jews Really Borrow Certain Doctrines From the Zoroastrians?

“You know the Jews only got their belief in a fiery hell from the Zoroastrians in Babylon, right?”

This argument from my atheistic aunt was a new one for me. We had traveled to the Philly area to celebrate my engagement, when one morning my aunt opened up an apologetics conversation by asking me if I believed there would be free will in heaven. Somehow the conversation had veered into the territory of Zoroastrianism, which my aunt was putting forward as a point to undermine the authority of the Scriptures. After all, if central ideas like the nature of life after death had been borrowed from other religions, this would cast serious doubt on the Bible’s authority as God’s true revelation.

I chewed on her claim and considered how to respond.

“Well, I don’t know a lot about Zoroastrianism. But I don’t think you should say that there was no concept of a fiery judgment until after the exile. The ending of Isaiah (66:24) speaks of the wicked being judged by a fire that will never be quenched. And he predated the exile by a generation or so.”

That conversation may have been the first time I heard the argument that Judaism (and Christianity through it) borrowed heavily from Zoroastrianism. But it certainly wasn’t the last. This position is held as fact by many scholars, and even shows up in some pretty good Christian textbooks and resources. In addition, Zoroastrianism is enjoying a quiet revival in Central Asia and also has some good PR in the West with claims of being “The first monotheistic religion” and the first to teach a final judgment and resurrection.

So, how should Christians respond to the claim that much of our doctrine has been borrowed from the teachings of Zarathustra/Zoroaster, the ancient prophet who founded Zoroastrianism?

First, it helps to have a basic understanding of the history of this religion. Because that story alone leaves a lot to be desired in terms of statements of historical certainty. As best we can tell, Zarathustra was an influential religious teacher sometime around 1,200 BC to 500 BC who sought to reform the polytheism of ancient Persia into something approaching monotheism. But even here, we should be cautious calling calling it monotheism, since early Zoroastrianism teaches a temporary dualism, where even though there was only one God (Ahura Mazda), now there is a second, his evil enemy (Angra Mainyu), who is a god that must be battled both in creation and in the souls of humans. But later, when Zoroastrianism was codified and organized under the Sassanians in the AD 200s, its sacred text, the Avesta, presents an eternal dualism, or even an eternal tri-theism. Even Mithra, the God of war from the Persian pantheon who became so popular among the Roman legions, is thrown into the mix. The goal of the religion remains the same, to help Ahura Mazda, the god of light, overcome the darkness through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. But the nature of Ahura Mazda as the one true God is not even settled within the history and texts of Zoroastrianism itself. And even if it were, Moses predates Zarathustra by 400 years, at least. So, the claim that Jewish monotheism was borrowed from Zoroastrianism? It doesn’t hold water.

How about the claims that the concepts of a fiery hell and resurrection were borrowed? Here there a couple of big problems, as I see it. First, the later possible dates for Zarathustra’s life could place him as a contemporary of Daniel, Ezekiel, and the other writers of the exile period. A number of scholars maintain that Zarathustra was active during the lifetime of Cyrus the great. So, when the concept of resurrection shows up in Ezekiel and Daniel (Ez 37, Dan 12), why should the assumption be that they borrowed from the Zoroastrians they encountered in Babylon and Susa, when it’s just as likely that Zarathustra borrowed from them? Don’t forget what an influential figure Daniel was for decades in both the Babylonian and the Persian empires. He was not only prime minister, political second-in-command, but also head of the wise men of Babylon – essentially the priestly class. It’s not an unreasonable theory to propose that it is Daniel who is influencing the religion of the Persian empire, and not the other way around.

Further, how do you establish what Zoroastrianism was actually teaching during the time of the exile when its sacred texts were not collected and compiled until 700 years later, during the first generation of the Sassanian empire in the 200s? This is the seriousness of the problem if Zarathustra was a contemporary of Daniel. But if he lived much earlier, say around 1,200 BC, then that makes for a period of 1,400 years between the life of Zarathustra and the compilation of his book of teachings, the Avesta. That would be like the Qur’an only being compiled today, when Muhammad lived and taught in the 600s. Given these huge periods of time, it seems like quite the stretch to read things in the Avesta and to say with confidence that these were indeed the teachings of Zarathustra, therefore they predate the biblical authors, therefore they must be the source for Jewish doctrine. Given this murkiness of the history of Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism, it seems that scholars are not really holding this ancient Persian religion to the same level of skepticism and criticism which they apply to Judaism and Christianity.

Ah, but you can’t find resurrection anywhere earlier than Ezekiel and Daniel, can you? Well, Jesus did, in the Torah, in Exodus 3:6. “And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:31–33). And if we turn to Isaiah, once again we see this supposedly borrowed concept being taught a generation before the exile, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead” (Isaiah 26:19). For more evidence of resurrection in the Old Testament, check out this great article by Mitch Chase.

Over the years, I have heard these claims of borrowing from Zoroastrianism coming from my relatives, from Christian scholars, from online documentaries, and from Central Asian Zoroastrians trying to return to their roots. But when I dig around in the actual history of Zoroastrianism, of its founder and its beliefs, it doesn’t seem like these claims are coming from an examination of Zoroastrianism itself. Rather, it feels like some scholar made these claims once, everyone believed him, and now it’s just a big echo chamber where all accept these ideas as fact without knowing where they came from and if they were indeed sound in the first place.

Keep an eye out for Zoroastrianism in your evangelistic or apologetic conversations, and even in your resources. It tends to show up more than you might expect, claiming some pretty big things without the historical warrant to do so. A basic understanding of the story of Zoroastrianism – and how much really is debatable – can help provide a surprising answer, and get the conversation back on more profitable ground.

Photo by Shino on Unsplash

A Song on the Endless Summer of Heaven

“Endless Summer” by Lovkn

One of our missionary friends passed away this past week on the field after a long battle with brain cancer. Perhaps in time I will have the chance to write more of her and her family’s story, and how they returned to the field five years ago after the cancer diagnosis, knowing that it would likely be fatal. But for now we grieve and pray for her husband and kids, and for their Central Asian church family.

This song speaks beautifully of God’s welcome of his saints into life everlasting, into the endless summer of heaven. I love how the song speaks of heaven as “The Great Adventure.” Here is what the writer says of the lyrics:

Dedicated to Kimmy, this track was inspired by a life that left the Earth far too soon. The lyrics of this song are taken directly from Kimmy’s last blog post before she passed. It is a beautiful picture into the welcoming arms of the Father as we pass into eternity.

Why Americans Don’t Trust Sad People

Americans don’t trust sad people. Daniel Nayeri makes this insightful observation in his hilarious and heartbreaking memoir, Everything Sad is Untrue. As an Iranian refugee, it makes sense that Nayeri would notice this. Because in the Middle East and Central Asia, the opposite tends to be true. They don’t trust people who are overly happy or optimistic.

This tendency to trust (or not) tends to be reflected in which kind of stories end up being most popular. For a story to be truly great, most Westerners want a happy ending. The good guy almost always wins in the end. But Central Asians call for a tragic ending in order for a story to achieve true greatness. The Western movies my Central Asian friends like the most are Titanic (where Jack dies of hypothermia), Braveheart (where William Wallace from disembowelment and beheading), and Forrest Gump (Where Jenny dies of AIDS). As for movies made in Central Asia? Dark endings. Almost all of them. I think I’ve only ever seen one with a happy ending.

This orientation toward tragedy vs. comedy seems to reflect the deep-down worldview beliefs of each culture – what each feels is most true about real life. Westerners really believe deep down that life will have a happy ending, that if we just believe and try hard enough, everything’s going to be alright. Central Asians really believe that no matter how good things get, it’s all going to end in tragedy, just as it always has.

Even our histories tend to strengthen these worldview narratives. Think of the meteoric rise of the power of the Christian West over the last 500 years. Then consider the incredible decline of the power of the Islamic Middle East and Central Asia. 1,000 years ago, the centers of global wealth and culture were not cities like London and New York, but Baghdad and Samarkand. Perhaps back then the Europeans would have been the pessimists, and the citizens of the Silk Road those who believed in rosy endings.

When you meet someone whose bearing contradicts the primary narrative of your culture, you tend to distrust them. This is because they seem to be out of touch with reality. Many a Western aid worker arrives in Central Asia bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, believing that with just a little bit of money and some fresh ideas transformation can be a simple thing. Meanwhile, locals just shake their heads at this naive foreigner, knowing that for all their frenetic activity these Western plans will be about as effective as a dirt clod thrown at a passing tank. I have had countless conversations with my friends and students in Central Asia where I’ve been dumbfounded by their lack of belief in the possibility of change, while they in turn are dumbfounded that I actually believe real change is possible.

The West, for its part, and especially America, traditionally believes in the inevitability of progress. And we are deeply committed to the belief that things really will work out for those who work hard enough. Successful people function as our prophets and idols, the ones who confirm for us what we already believe – that the story of life ends in happiness. So we find ourselves uncomfortable with sad people, with those whose lives seems to be a relentless movement from one season of suffering to the next. We don’t trust them to be prophets of the way things really are. We don’t want to.

Biblically, both cultures are wrong, and both cultures are right. The ending of history will indeed be good – yes, as good even as resurrection. But resurrection is impossible unless preceded by death. It’s got to all die before it can all come back to life. Creation must groan, and painfully so, before the revealing of the sons of God. As such, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes go hand in hand. The wheat and the tares grow together. Suffering and death are inevitable. Hell is real. But eternal life is also inevitable for those who entrust themselves to the one who suffered and died – and now lives forever.

Paul speaks of us as being a people who are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” This means that Christians are those who can be fully awake to the grief and suffering of life, and those who can also be fully awake to the joy and delight of it. This means that a Christian who is shaped by the Bible’s view of reality is one who can be trusted by both kinds of cultures, the optimistic West and the pessimistic East. We know the depths of sadness. So we are not dismissed as naive. But we also know the heights of true hope and joy. So we are not dismissed as fatalists. We are, in one sense, Western and Central Asian at the same time. Or at least we should be.

And yet I find myself very lopsided. I have some idea of what it means to be always rejoicing. But what might it mean to be always sorrowful? And can it be that faithfulness in this age actually involves both at the same time? What might that look like when it boils down to things like daily spiritual disciplines, church services, and our “How’s it going?” conversations with other believers? I at least still have a ways to go in learning how to faithfully lament, not just with my mind, but also with my heart and emotions. I still have a hard time trusting sad people, in spite of spending half my life in cultures where grief and sadness are far more acceptable than here in the US.

Yet I have tasted aspects of this at funerals, when laughter comes easily during stories told of a departed loved one. Or at weddings or concerts, where joy and beauty are so strong they lead to tears. I felt it yesterday at a poetry recitation at my kids’ school. The kind of joy that makes you serious, as Lewis once put it. Joy and sadness intermingled, and something that feels so very right about this.

Americans might not trust sad people. And Central Asians might not trust happy ones. But believers from both worlds have come to trust a man of sorrows who is also the embodiment of purest joy. He holds both perfectly together at the same time, always able to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. He does this authentically, with no whiplash or disjointedness. He can show us how to laugh and cry at the same time, welcoming both with hearts that are somehow more whole for their embrace of these seemingly-opposite postures.

As we draw near to him the promise is that we will become like him. And that will make us also those that sinners come to trust, whatever their cultural bias. Not because we are so impressive, but because we are the ones who are the most real, those who walk in the truest story. One where grief and joy also walk, hand-in-hand.

Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash

A Poem Laughing at Satan and Death Arguing

Ephrem the Syrian writes this poem as a fictional argument between Satan and Death, where each bicker about who is strongest. Ephrem, like many in church history, advocates laughing at our spiritual enemies as one important piece of spiritual warfare. Martin Luther agrees, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” This poem is a call to confidently laugh today at evil, thereby echoing the victorious laughter of the coming resurrection.

Nisibene Hymns, no. 52

I heard Satan and death loudly disputing
which was the strongest of the two amongst men. 

Refrain: Praise to You, Son of the Shepherd of all, who has saved his flock
                from the hidden wolves, the Evil One and Death, who had swallowed it up. 

Death has shown his power in that he conquers all men,  
Satan has shown his guile in that he makes all men sin. 

Death: Only those who want to, O Evil One, listen to you,
             but to me they come, whether they will it or not. 

Satan: You just employ brute force, O Death,
            whereas I use traps and cunning snares. 

Death: Listen, Evil One, a cunning man can break your yoke,
             but there is none who can escape from mine.   

Satan: You, Death, exercise your strength on the sick,
            but I am the stronger with those who are well. 

Death: The Evil One has no control over the person who reviles him,
             but all who have cursed me, in the past or now, still come to me. 

Satan: You, Death, received your power from God,
            but when I make men sin I do it without any outside help. 

Death: You, Evil One, lay snares like a coward,
             but I use my power like a king. 

Satan: You are too stupid, Death, to recognize how great I am,
            seeing that I can capture free will.

Death: You, Evil One, go around like a hooligan,
             whereas I am like a lion, fearlessly crushing my prey. 

Satan: You have no one who serves or worships you, O Death, 
            but me, kings honor with sacrifices, like a god. 

Death: But many address Death as a benefactor, 
             whereas no one ever has or shall call on you as such, O Evil One. 

Satan: Do you not realize, Death, how many 
            call on me in one way or another, and offer me libations? 

Death: Your name is hated, Satan, you cannot remedy it;
             everyone curses your name. Hide your shame. 

Satan: Your ear is dull, Death, for you fail to hear
            how everyone howls out against you. Go, hide yourself. 

Death: I go open-faced among creation, and do not use deceit like you:
            you do not pass a single night without some kind of deceit. 

Satan: You have not found a better lot for all your truth:
            men hate you just as much as they do me. 

Death: Everyone fears me as a master, 
             but you they hate as the evil one. 

Satan: People hate your name and your deeds, O Death;
            my name may be hated, but my pleasures are loved. 

Death: Your sweet taste ends in setting the teeth on edge:
             remorse always accompanies those pleasures of yours. 

Satan: Sheol is hated for there is no chance of remorse there:
            it is a pit which swallows up and suppresses every impulse. 

Death: Sheol is a whirlpool, and everyone who falls in it is resurrected,
             but sin is hated because it cuts off a man's hope. 

Satan: Although it grieves me, I allow for repentance;
            You cut off a sinner's hopes if he dies in his sins. 

Death: With you his hope was cut off long ago; 
             if you had never made him sin, he would have made a good end. 

Chorus: Blessed is he who set the accursed slaves against each other
              so that we can laugh at them just as they laughed at us. 

Our laughing at them now, my brethren, is a pledge 
that we will again be able to laugh, at the resurrection. 

-Ephrem the Syrian, translated by Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, p. 104-107

Photo by Godfrey Nyangechi on Unsplash

The Unexpected Beauty of Babel

The events which took place at Babel most definitely fall into the category of judgment. Genesis eleven describes how the early peoples of the earth all shared one language. And contrary to God’s desires, they did not spread out and fill the earth, but decided they would band together, build a city in the land of Shinar, and construct a tower to challenge the heavens. In this way, they would “make a name” for themselves. You don’t have to be from an honor-shame culture to understand that making a name for yourself essentially means working to build up your own honor and reputation. It was pride, pure human pride – and that accelerated because everyone knew the same words, the same language.

God, not in the least threatened by this little rebellion, comes down to see what the residents of this city of Babel are up to. There’s some rich irony in the text here – the tower builders are not nearly as high up as they think they are. After seeing how the linguistic unity is enabling their prideful building campaign, God decides to instantly scramble their languages by means of a miraculous act of judgment. Once this has been accomplished, everything falls apart. Faced with mass communication confusion, the building of the city stops and the peoples end up spreading out over the face of the earth after all. Their dispersion is largely involuntary, a forced obedience of sorts thrust upon them by their dysfunctional language situation. Babel was judgment. Judgment for human pride. Judgment for neglecting the creation mandate to go forth, multiply, and fill the earth.

Yet Babel was not only an act of judgment. It was also an act of creation. Creation through judgment. Apparently, when God acted, dozens of languages burst into existence instantly and then began to live and move and have stories and descendants of their own. These languages would be the first ancestors of the language families in our world today, with language families meaning simply groups of related languages. For example, English, Latin, Farsi, and Hindi all come from the Indo-European family of languages. While Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic come from a different family, the Semitic. However, while languages within a given family are clearly related to one another, separate language families don’t seem to share any common descent. Historical linguists can try to reconstruct ancient languages like Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Semitic, but they can’t seem to find any links suggesting these early languages emerged from a common ancestor. Similar to the problem facing speciation in Darwinian evolution, what seems to emerge from the data is not one connected tree from which all the descendants are traced back to a single ancestor, but rather a forest of trees that seem to have been there at the beginning. Like subspecies, languages branch back toward these early independent trunks, but not further, posing a great mystery for historical linguists. Christians of course have a good answer. We believe in a humanity created in the image of a speaking God, and in Babel, the source of this world’s incredible language diversity.

It’s curious to note that the result of this judgment – a world of linguistic diversity – is never promised to disappear. The restoration of all things does not seem to include a future where we are restored to being a monolingual species. Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 instead suggest that noticeable language differences are actually preserved in eternity. John can tell that the great multitude before the throne is made up of those from every tongue. “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!'” (Revelation 7:9, 10). Our unique languages don’t seem to melt away into some heavenly tongue, like cast off vestiges of a divided past. Rather, God’s plan from the beginning seems to be the redemption of humanity’s diverse languages, a restoration where they are finally free to perfectly glorify God in a great multilingual choir of the saints.

We see hints of this plan in God’s choice to reveal the Scriptures in multiple languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. At various points in history, these multiple fallen languages are given the honor of being the vehicle by which God reveals his eternal word. Even Persian gets a bunch of loan words in the Bible. Then, when the Spirit comes at Pentecost, what does he choose to do? To empower the apostles to preach and worship in the foreign languages of pilgrims who had come to the feast from dozens of far-flung lands. Put together with the visions of Revelation, the picture we get is that both at the birth and at the final destination of the Church, the many languages of the world do not fade away to be replaced by some heavenly tongue, or some chosen earthly tongue like Hebrew. No, instead we see the languages of the nations transformed, employed in the praise of God.

It seems as if, as he so often does, God has chosen to bring beauty through judgment, a greater grace and glory than would have existed had the judgment never taken place. After all, this is the logic of the cross and salvation history. Yes, judgment falls. Yet amazingly God’s grace shines even brighter for it. Should we be surprised that God delights to also do this with the arc of language history? It reminds me of how God gave a king to Israel in 1st Samuel chapter eight. Being granted a monarch was a judgment, a consequence of Israel wanting to be like all the other nations, and their rejection of God as king. And yet we know that God’s plan was, through this rebellion, to raise up David – and eventually the eternal son of David. God’s forever king for his people was the plan from the beginning. And yet an initial hint of this mystery’s unveiling was a story of human failure, and divine judgment.

What might God be up to in his plan to redeem the languages of Babel and their many descendants? Here I’m helped to remember the limitations of a single language. Languages are good, wonderful even, but they are limited. Everyone who has learned another language has experienced the frustration of a perfectly descriptive term existing in one tongue, but not in another. In my home we have terms from Melanesia as well as from Central Asia that have made their way into our daily household English. This is because English lacks a word for those particular situations or feelings. If languages are thus limited to describe everyday realities, then how much more limited are they to describe eternal realities? To describe the Godhead?

In Greek, and my adopted Central Asian language, God can be called Lord Heart-Knower (Acts 1:24), and yet this title simply doesn’t work in my mother tongue, English. On the other hand, English has so many wonderfully-succinct terms for God’s attributes like omniscient and omnipresent and omnipotent that require multiple words – or even a whole sentence – to communicate in many other languages. Alas, as with the sons of Adam, so every language has also fallen short of the glory of God. No, when it comes to the task of glorifying the Trinity for all eternity, a single language was apparently not enough. Rather, God seems to have desired thousands of them, all working together to leverage their unique strengths and beauty for his eternal praise – and the enjoyment of his people.

For surely languages will also be redeemed and preserved for the sake of our enjoyment. While polyglots delight in the freedom that comes from being able to speak and think in a dozen different ways, even my four-year-old cracks up when a good pun is made (and scripture is full of witty puns and wordplay). Language was created for our enjoyment, and even in this broken age we get small tastes of the fun that is coming to us beyond the resurrection. Perhaps in eternity the Spirit will give us a supernatural ability to speak and understand all languages, in a sort of permanent Pentecost. Or, perhaps we will use the time provided by eternity (plus a resurrected mind) to learn all of the many tongues spoken by our brothers and sisters. We simply don’t know yet. I tend to hope we’ll get to learn them the old-fashioned way, maybe a little easier, but still getting to make funny mistakes.

What we do know is that God wanted a universe with thousands of unique languages. And so, even though Babel is a reminder of human pride and God’s just judgment, it is also the start of something which will ultimately become an amazing tapestry reflecting God’s glory. There are eternal upsides to the shattering of humanity’s united language. In Babel there is beauty, unexpected, but even more wonderful for it.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A Hymn Sung by Death Defeated

This is one of my favorites pieces so far by Ephrem the Syrian, Christian poet from the 300s. Ephrem writes this hymn largely from the perspective of death, bracketed and interspersed with some narration. Death begins its discourse in verse two, beginning confidently, then shifting to a tone of alarm as Christ enters Sheol and robs it of a “tithe” of its captives, and ending ultimately in a posture of submission, promising to deliver up all its captives in the future resurrection. It is a long poem, but well worth the read for rich biblical allusion and parallelism that Ephrem uses – as well as the enjoyment to be had as Ephrem uses his sanctified imagination to portray death panicking as he realizes just who Jesus is and what he is doing to his domain.

If any singer-songwriters ever read this post, consider this a request for an adapted version of this song by Ephrem. Such a song could be very powerful for the contemporary Church, just as it would have been for the believers in frontier Nisibis 1,700 years ago.

Nisibene Hymns, no. 36

Our Lord subjected His might, and they seized him,
so that through His living death He might give life to Adam.
He gave His hands to be pierced by nails 
to make up for the hand which plucked the fruit; He was struck on His cheek in the judgment room
to make up for the mouth that ate in Eden; and while Adam's foot was free
His feet were pierced; our Lord was stripped that we might be clothed;
with gall and vinegar He sweetened 
the poison of the serpent which had bitten man. 

Refrain: Blessed is He who has conquered me, and brought life to the dead, to His own glory! 

Death: "If you are God, show your might,
and if you are man, make trial of our might!
Or if it is Adam you are wanting, be off:
he is imprisoned here because of his debts; neither cherubim nor seraphim are able 
to secure his release: they have no mortal amongst themselves
to give himself up for him. Who can open the mouth of Sheol, 
dive down and bring him up from thence, 
seeing that Sheol has swallowed him up and holds him tight forever? 

"It was I who conquered all the sages; 
I have got them heaped up in the corners of Sheol.
Come and enter, son of Joseph, and look at the horrors:
the limbs of the giants, Samson's huge corpse,
the skeleton of the cruel Goliath; there is Og, the son of the giants, too,
who made a bed of iron, where he reclined: 
I cast him off it and threw him down,
I levelled that cedar at Sheol's gate.

"I alone have conquered many, 
and now the Only-Begotten seeks to conquer me!
I have led off prophets, priests and heroes,
I have conquered kings with their array, the giants with their hunts,
the just with their fine deeds - rivers full of corpses
I cast into Sheol, who remains thirsty forever however many I pour in! 
Whether a man is near or afar off, 
the final end brings him to Sheol's gate.

"I have spurned silver in the case of the rich
and their presents have failed to bribe me;
owners of slaves have never enticed me
to take a slave in place of his owner, or a poor man in place of a rich,
or an old in place of a child. Sages may be able to win over  
wild animals, but their winning words do not enter my ears.
Everyone may call me 'hater of requests', 
but I simply perform what I am bidden.

"Who is this? Whose son? 
And of what family is this man who has conquered me? 
The book with the genealogies is here with me - 
I have begun and taken the trouble to read all the names from Adam onwards,
and none of the dead escape me; tribe by tribe they are all written down
on my limbs. It is for your sake, Jesus, 
that I have undertaken this reckoning, 
in order to show you that no one escapes my hands.

"There are two men - I must not deceive - 
whose names are missing for me in Sheol:
Enoch and Elijah did not come to me;
I looked for them in the whole of creation, I even went down 
to the place where Jonah went, and groped around, but they were not there; and when I thought
they might have entered Paradise and escaped, there was the fearful cherub guarding it.
Jacob saw a ladder:
perhaps it was by this that they got up to heaven.

"Who has measured out the sea-sand
and only missed two grains? 
As for this harvest, with which illnesses like harvesters
are daily busied, I alone carry
the sheaves and bind them up. Sheaf-binders in their haste
leave sheaves, and grape-pickers forget whole clusters, 
but only two small bunches have escaped me
in the great harvest that I have been gathering in by myself.

"It is I", says Death, "who have made 
all kinds of catches on sea and land: 
the eagles in the sky come to me, 
so do the dragons of the deep, creeping things, birds and beasts,
old, young and babes; all these should persuade you,
Son of Mary, that my dominion reigns over all.
How can your cross conquer me,
seeing that it was through the wood that I was victorious and conquered at the beginning? 

"I should like to say much more 
- for I do not have any lack of words! - 
but there is no need for words, for deeds
cry out close by; I do not, like you, promise
hidden things to the simple, saying that there will be a resurrection;
when, I ask, when? If you are so very strong, 
then give a pledge on the spot
so that your distant promise may be believed." 

Death finished his taunting speech 
and our Lord's voice rang out thunderously in Sheol,
tearing open each grave one by one.
Terrible pangs seized hold of Death in Sheol; where light
had never been seen, rays shone out from the angels who had entered to bring out
the dead to meet the Dead One who has given life to all.
The dead went forth, and shame covered the living 
who had hoped they had conquered Him who gives life to all.

"Would I were back in Moses' time", 
says Death, "he made me a feast day:
for that lamb in Egypt gave me 
the first-fruits from every house; heaps upon heaps of first-born
were piled up for me at Sheol's gate. But this festival Lamb
has plundered Sheol, taken his tithe of the dead and led them off from me. 
That lamb filled the graves for me, 
this one empties the graves that had been full. 

"Jesus' death is a torment to me,
I wish I had chosen to let him live: it would have been better for me than his death.
Here is a dead man whose death I find hateful;
at everyone else's death I rejoice, but at his death I am anxious, 
and I expect he will return to life: during his lifetime he revived and brought back to life
three dead people. Now through his death 
the dead who have come to life again trample me at Sheol's gates
when I go to hold them in. 

"I will run and close the gates of Sheol
before that Dead One whose death has plundered me.
He who hears of it will wonder at my humiliation, 
because I have been defeated by a Dead man outside: all the dead want to go outside,
and he is pressing to enter. The medicine of life has entered Sheol
and brought its dead back to life. Who is it who has introduced for me and hidden
the living fire in which the cold and dark 
wombs of Sheol melt?" 

Death saw angels in Sheol, 
immortal beings instead of mortal,
and he said: "Trouble has entered our abode.
On two accounts I am tormented: the dead have left Sheol, 
and the angels, who do not die, have entered it - one has entered and sat at the head
of his grave, another, his companion, at his feet. 
I will ask and request him  
to take his hostage and go off to his kingdom. 

"Do not reckon against me, good Jesus, 
the words I have spoken, or my pride before you.
Who, on seeing your cross, could doubt 
that you are truly man? Who, when he sees your power, 
will fail to believe that you are also God? By these two indications 
I have learnt to confess you both Man and God. 
Since the dead cannot repent in Sheol,
rise up among the living, Lord, and proclaim repentance. 

"Jesus king, receive my request,
and with my request, take your hostage, 
carry off, as your great hostage, Adam 
in whom all the dead are hidden - 
just as, when I received him, in him all the living were concealed. 
As first hostage I give you
Adam's body. Ascend now and reign over all,
and when I hear your trumpet call, 
with my own hands will I bring forth the dead at your coming." 

Our living King has arisen and is exalted, 
like a victor, from Sheol. 
Woe is doubled for the party of the left, 
dismay for evil spirits and demons, suffering for Satan and Death, 
lamentation for Sin and Sheol, but rejoicing for the party of the right
has come today! On this great day, then, 
let us give great praise to Him
who died and came to life again, so that He might give life and resurrection to all!

-Ephrem the Syrian, translated by Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 58-65

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Even Fevers Matter to Jesus

I’ve always loved the placement of the story where Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. The account is a short one. She has a fever, so Jesus touches her hand. She is healed, rises, and like a good Middle Eastern mom immediately begins to serve her guests. In Matthew, this non-flashy miracle comes directly after Jesus has healed a leper and a paralyzed servant who was suffering terribly. And it’s followed by Jesus casting out demons and healing all the sick brought to him in Capernaum. In Luke and Mark the preceding account is of the showdown with the demonized man in the synagogue. (Matt 8:1-17, Mark 1:21-33, Luke 4:31-41).

In this context, the healing of a fever seems like a small thing. “Big deal, fevers are ho-hum, everyday stuff. Casting out demons and healing those with life-threatening diseases and excruciating pain? Now that’s what really counts.” Yet there it is, a simple healing of a simple illness, placed in all three synoptic gospels, a reminder that Jesus cares about fevers too. Apparently, he does not scoff at requests to heal the little stuff, but even there he delights to show his compassion and power.

Perhaps fevers were more life-threatening in first century Galilee. But still, a qualitative difference remains. The doctors in Capernaum would have felt like they had adequate medicine for fevers. There were treatable by normal means, as it were. Leprosy and demon-possession? Not so much. Peter’s household may have felt some temptation to not ask for healing. After all, shouldn’t Jesus’ power and attention be saved for the big stuff, especially when local remedies existed for things like fevers? Whether they felt this or not, we are not told. We are simply told that they told Jesus about her fever and he healed her.

This is the logic of faith functioning as it should. Jesus can heal bigger and badder things, so therefore let’s be quick to ask him to take care of this fever also. This is true humility, faith like a child. Yet so often we fall into a different kind of logic, where because we know Jesus can heal bigger and badder things, we think he shouldn’t be bothered with our little forms of suffering – if we even put them in the category of suffering at all. I know that I for one am often guilty of taking headache medicine without praying for God to heal. Even today my kids are home sick from school, yet it took me until I wrote this post to actually pray for them. My underlying assumption seems to be that it’s not worth bringing the little stuff to God, that either he or I really can’t be bothered.

This kind of dismissive thinking also seems widespread when it comes to healing trauma. If we are challenged to dig into the hard things we have experienced that may still be profoundly affecting us, many of us are quick to say that our wounds don’t really count. We all know or have heard of others who have suffered to a much greater extent than we have. So we draw arbitrary lines for what warrants attention and healing and what doesn’t. Sexual abuse? Yes, worthy of getting some care. Bullying? No, that’s normal growing up stuff. Genocide or torture? By all means, that qualifies for some counseling. Moving a dozen times while growing up? Well, there must be something wrong with me for needing help with processing something as small as that.

However, remembering that Jesus healed the fever of Peter’s mother-in-law can free us from the comparison-fueled dismissal of our own suffering. He really does care about suffering that we might count as small. We can and should bring all of our cares to him, not only those that we feel qualify for it. He will not scoff at our wounds, just as a good father doesn’t scoff at the tears caused by his three-year-old’s rug burn. That rug burn matters. If we feel that it doesn’t, that’s likely a sign that something is amiss in our own theology of suffering.

We need to remember that all suffering, no matter how normal or small it seems, is a profound departure from the way things were meant to be. It’s all a grievous twisting of creation, from every simple failure of a parent to respond gently to the greatest of atrocities. Every sin and every kind of suffering grieves God, who created the world as “very good” and will one day resurrect it to once again be so. Because even the smallest kinds of suffering are deeply wrong, we can feel free to bring them to him, and to freely ask for healing.

Indeed, when we don’t bring our seemingly small suffering to him, it tends to build up until collectively it has become something large and dangerous, ready to spill out, breaking our bodies’ health or our relationships with others. This death-by-a-thousand-papercuts accumulation of smaller sufferings is sometimes called complex trauma, and it is a very important category to have. No, you are not crazy for experiencing anxiety attacks even though you can’t pinpoint any singular instances of massive trauma in your past. There’s a reason certain symptoms have emerged, and it probably has something to do with all of the “fevers” you’ve never named, grieved, and brought to Jesus. Each one of them mattered, and each brought its own losses with it. Sooner or later, the grief we have submerged will find its way to the surface. When we become aware of it, will we bring it to Jesus for healing? Or will we condemn ourselves for being weak and unable to simply get over it?

No, fevers matter to Jesus. All of our physical, emotional, spiritual suffering is welcome in the practice of the great physician – even the seemingly-small stuff. He will not despise us if we come or send us away. He won’t sigh and help us reluctantly. He’ll take our hand, and sooner or later, help us to rise up, well again and able to serve.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Jesus in John 11: He Invites Focus and Faith in His Character

This post is part four in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. Here you can read part one, part two, and part three.

As we continue our trek through John 11, we have come to the point in the story where Jesus is now in person in Bethany, interacting face to face with those who are suffering. We have seen how he has said no to their good request, has hinted at his purposes of love, faith, and glory, and has boldly drawn near to the suffering. In all of this, we should continue to keep in mind that Jesus reveals the Father to us (John 1:18). His conduct toward his suffering friends in this chapter is a window for us into how God relates to his suffering people.

In this post we’ll focus on how in the midst of suffering, Jesus invites focus and faith in his character. Here is the relevant portion of John 11, where Jesus interacts with the grieving Martha:

[17] Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. [18] Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, [19] and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. [20] So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. [21] Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [22] But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” [23] Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” [24] Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” [25] Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, [26] and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” [27] She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

John 11:17-27, ESV

This conversation between Jesus and Martha is remarkable. Martha, often viewed as the busy earthly-minded one compared to her more spiritual sister, truly shines in this interaction as a genuine believer of deep faith. She begins by being brutally honest with Jesus, bringing him the question that has been tormenting her soul. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21). In other words, “Where were you? This doesn’t make sense to me given what we know, what at least we thought we knew of your love for us.” This kind of honesty might seem disrespectfully forward to some, but it shows the presence of trust even in the midst of severe trial. That desperate trust is communicated by her second statement. “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (11:22). The disorientation of Jesus not agreeing to heal her brother means Martha’s faith in Jesus is under assault. Her circumstances do not fit with the loving and powerful Jesus that she knows. But she is still holding on, confessing that she knows something truer than what her experience and feelings may be preaching to her. There is a lot present in those words, “even now…” True faith has been put into the fire, and though it is painfully tested it is glowing white hot, genuine.

Jesus responds to Martha with a statement of double meaning, or a prophecy with a double fulfillment, one near and one far. He says that Lazarus will rise again, speaking seemingly of both the miracle he is about to perform as well as the future resurrection of the just, in which Lazarus will be a participant. Martha seems to understand only the latter part about the final resurrection of God’s people. Or perhaps she is afraid to risk hoping that Jesus might be speaking of the present. Her statement about God granting whatever Jesus asks hints that she may harbor a secret hope that this is indeed what will take place. But if it’s there, she doesn’t risk asking it directly. Instead, Martha focuses on the ultimate hope of the suffering faithful – that one day resurrection is coming and suffering and death will be forever reversed. Even in the midst of crushing grief and disappointment, she reaffirms her belief that God will on that final day raise her brother from the dead, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (11:24).

But Jesus does not leave things here, satisfied that Martha has remained orthodox even in the face of death. He pivots, directing her focus to his own character, and uttering one of the most important statements in the gospel of John, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (11:25-26). In the midst of her suffering, Jesus invites Martha to focus on his identity and to reaffirm her faith in who he is. Jesus is revealing to Martha that he not only has power to give resurrection and life, he is the resurrection and the life. He is the source of all life, and he is the source of not only the created life we know now that ultimately leads to death, but also of the coming new creation life that reverses the order of things, bursting out of death and lasting forever. This fifth of Jesus’ seven “I am” statements in the book of John communicates his divinity, for only God is the source of life itself. Whoever believes in Jesus will be united with him who is life, and therefore will not only have life after death, but because of this, will in a real sense never really die.

Resurrection and the reality of eternal life really do transform the nature of death for believers. While still painful and grievous, the ultimate sign that things are not the way they’re supposed to be, death has been gutted of its deepest darkness, it has been robbed of its ultimate weapon – eternal death in separation from God. As I have shared countless times with believers in Central Asia, death for believers is now merely the door to God’s presence, a temporary state of our bodies being entrusted to the dirt, knowing that the dirt will one day give its charge back, new and shining with eternal glory.

By asking Martha to focus on who he is, Jesus is not yet explaining all of his purposes to her. There are some very big pieces that do not yet make sense. But by calling her to believe in his character, in his identity, he is helping her to have assurance that the one who is life will somehow bring life out of even this. To do otherwise would be to go against his very nature. Wherever Jesus is, ultimately, will also be life and resurrection – no matter how much suffering and death we currently see around us.

Martha responds by courageously confessing her faith in Jesus’ character and identity, “She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world’” (11:27).

The words of Jesus to Martha help us understand what God’s purposes are so often in the progression of our own suffering. He will often invite us to first remember who he is, and to fight to believe yet again in his character, before he will show us how he is working all things for good. Like Martha, this sequence is painful and yet revelatory – it reveals the presence of genuine faith in a way few other things can. Consider the logic of 1st Peter 1:6-7:

[6] In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, [7] so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

There are kinds of necessary suffering we must encounter. Why? So that our faith can be proved as genuine, just as Martha’s was. And so that when this happens, Jesus will receive more praise and honor and glory – just as he does when Martha confesses him as Christ and Son of God.

Why doesn’t God just get on with it and explain what he is doing? Why does he leave us confused in extended seasons of suffering? Well, in part so that we will wrestle with the messages preached by our circumstances and find grounding once again in a settled faith in his character and identity. True faith in God’s character does not fail based on our temporary, visible circumstances. Rather, it is fixed on what is unseen and eternal, it is based on faith in God’s word and character (2 Cor 4:16-18). Suffering is often God’s servant by which he reveals which kind of faith we have. And it is his means of helping us find the only thing solid enough to carry us through the darkness.

This past autumn it became increasingly clear that our family would have to come back to the US for an extended season of medical leave. I remember eventually feeling settled that it was necessary, but wrestling greatly to feel at all that it was good. So many things didn’t make sense given all that we had invested, and I wrestled greatly with the costs my family, my team, and our little church plant would incur if we stepped away. The uncertainty of our return also introduced a level of grieving into our departure that I wasn’t prepared for. Now, three months into our medical leave, we still don’t have very much clarity on our future. But my wrestling in the season of our departure did lead to a greater measure of peace in the midst of the fog. It came while learning about the patron-client logic baked into the book of Hebrews. So many of the arguments for perseverance made in that book could be summarized as, “Consider what a superior and trustworthy patron you have in Jesus Christ. And he graciously has even more in store for you, so how could you even think of leaving him and shamefully falling away? Keep going!” Somehow, the book of Hebrews brought me back to once again focus on the trustworthiness of my God. And my faith in his character was renewed. This has held me fast in the greatest season of uncertainty we’ve had for many years.

In John 11, Jesus invites his friends to focus and faith in his character. He is the resurrection and the life, even when we can’t yet square how this fits with the death we see around us. As we lean into his revealed character and identity we will find that our faith is proved to be genuine, and that this vision of him will be enough for us. It will help us to persevere until the coming resurrection – no matter how long that takes.

Photo by Gaia Armellin on Unsplash

A Poem on Two Lambs

In this poem, Ephrem the Syrian, poet of the ancient church, compares and contrasts the Passover lamb with Christ, the true lamb of God.

Hymns on the Unleavened Bread, no. 3

In Egypt the Passover lamb was slain,
in Sion the True Lamb slaughtered.

Refrain: Praise to the Son, the Lord of symbols
               who fulfilled every symbol at his resurrection.

My brothers, let us consider the two lambs,
let us see where they bear resemblance and where they differ. 

Let us weigh and compare their achievements
- of the lamb that was the symbol, and of the Lamb that is the Truth.

Let us look upon the symbol as a shadow,
let us look upon the Truth as the fulfillment.

Listen to the simple symbols that concern that Passover,
and to the double achievements of this our Passover.

With the Passover lamb there took place for the Jewish people
an Exodus from Egypt, and not an entry.

So with the True Lamb there took place for the Gentiles
an Exodus from error, and not an entry.

With the Living Lamb there was a further Exodus, too,
for the dead from Sheol, as from Egypt;

For in Egypt two symbols are depicted, 
since it reflects both Sheol and Error.

With the Passover lamb, Egypt's greed
learnt to give back against its wont;

With the Living Lamb, Sheol's hunger 
disgorged back the dead, against its nature.

With the True Lamb, greedy Error
rejected and cast up the Gentiles who were saved;

With that Passover lamb, Pharaoh returned the Jewish people
whom, like Death, he had held back.

With the Living Lamb, Death has returned
the just, who left their graves.

With the True Lamb, Satan gave up the Gentiles
whom, like Pharaoh, he had held back.

In Pharaoh two types were depicted;
he was a pointer to both Death and Satan.

With the Passover lamb, Egypt was breached
and a path stretched out before the Hebrews.

With the True Lamb, Satan, having fenced off all paths, 
left free the path that leads to Truth. 

The Living Lamb has trodden out, with that cry which He uttered,
the path from the grave for those who lie buried.

-Ephrem the Syrian, translated by Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 52-54

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash