Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Surprised by unrefinement

“I can’t remember his name,” my 90-year-old grandmother grumbled at some point in our conversation. “I tell you, when you get to be my age, your brain just starts slipping away.”

The woman is of course the sharpest 90-year-old I know, so I didn’t take her momentary memory lapse very seriously. “Well Gramma,” I absolved her stupidly, “at your age, you’ve earned the right to forget a few things.”

The 4-foot-10, one-armed Polish woman looked at me with her silent eyes where the struggles of the Great Depression and World War II were long buried, and she raised an eyebrow that indicated her wit had spotted a opening. “Well,” she retorted gruffly, “I wish I coulda earned something I’d enjoy having a little more.”

No Gramma, I wanted to counter, your brain is clearly intact.

But she was right: we don’t always earn a particularly enjoyable trophy for all the hardships we endure to arrive at the other side. I always want to punch the people who say “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (except that it would probably make them stronger). Sometimes whatever doesn’t kill you makes you crippled or makes you bitter. I always hope to come out of adversity with confidence; instead I tend to come out of it with a limp. Yes, Gramma, I wish I coulda earned something I’d enjoy having a little more too.

Here on this process of sanctification, we don’t always get to choose our curriculum, and we certainly don’t get to choose our lessons (after all, they wouldn’t be lessons then, would they?). I would rather have the curriculum that involves turning me into someone a bit more stable; instead I get the one that turns me into a twitchy dog. I often want to question God’s pedagogy.

And when we limp our way to the finish line on aching joints and reach for the railing with our shriveled hands, surprised by our own unrefinement, I hope we will learn whatever it is that takes us 90 or more years to realize. Reaching sainthood is not about becoming superheroes. I rather wonder what it is instead.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Kids these days

In on one of my last weekends before setting out for my PhD, my siblings and I found ourselves visiting the city where my little brother was finishing an internship. It was our last "sibling weekend" before we scatter: my older brother and his family-of-five to east Asia as missionaries, my little sister to nanny their boys for a year before she begins her freshman year of college, my little brother to his first job after he finishes business school, and me to my new home in the Midwest after the dust has settled from my academic adventures in Ireland and Italy.

On Saturday night we baked some cookies, which drew a crowd of young, undergraduate business interns, most of them loud and self-absorbed enough to make me think kids-these-days thoughts as if I were five decades their senior rather than five years. One young woman who tended to dominate the conversation and take it to places no one over the age of 22 could follow asked us if we had seen Arrested Development. We all answered in the negative.

"Ohmygod!" she gasped. "You have never lived!"

By "lived," I suppose, she meant "lived vicariously through those particular characters."

I was too flustered to respond.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Feast of the Transfiguration

The Pentateuch ends rather anticlimactically. As a cohesive narrative, the five books of the law could be read as the life of Moses rather than the history of Israel: after Genesis sets the background for the nation and how they got into Egypt, Exodus begins with the birth of Moses and Deuteronomy ends with his death.

Moses reluctantly accepts his calling to lead the people out of slavery, brings them out of Egypt with many wonders, enters the cloud of smoke on Sinai to receive the books of the law, leads the people to the Promised Land only to have them rebel, intercedes for them when God wants to wipe them out, and wanders through the wilderness with them for forty years. Then in Deuteronomy he delivers his farewell speech as they prepare to enter, walks Mt Nebo to look on the land, dies there, and is buried by the Lord in an unknown grave.

Though we know that the people do enter the land in the book of Joshua, as far as Moses is concerned (and as far as the Pentateuch is concerned), it ends there. The great work is left unfinished, unaccomplished, and the people are never at rest—not after Joshua conquers the land, not under the judges, certainly not under Saul, not even under David himself. The land is never at peace, though prophets continue to call out:
Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness,
where your fathers put me to the test
and saw my works for forty years.
Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, “They always go astray in their heart;
they have not known my ways.”
As I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.” (Psalm 95)
Today, however, is the Feast of the Transfiguration. Christ takes his disciples up a mountain like the one on which Moses died with his work unaccomplished, on which Elijah hid ingloriously as he was hunted like a criminal after his victory over the prophets of Baal. Mountains are a place where God appears to prophets, but they are also a place of refuge in defeat.

And there on that mountain in the presence of Christ, Moses enters the Promised Land. The long awaited time of rest has come in the arrival of the Messiah who would proclaim from the height of his apparent defeat, “It is finished,” before he himself rested in the tomb on the Sabbath day. Christ reveals today what remained unfinished after 40 years in the wilderness, the elusive kingdom that brings rest for the people of God.
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. (Hebrews 4:8-10
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest...