On Being a Seminarian: “Come a Little Closer”…

This is part of a weekend series I’m writing for Near Emmaus. Be sure to check out other posts by other blogs, especially if you’re interested in biblical studies.

I have never been much of a traveler. Many of my friends from college and even high school have been to more countries than I have cities. My biggest trip was to Marietta, Georgia the summer after sixth grade. My second biggest trip was later that year when my grandpa took my brother and I to Disneyland for Christmas. In fact that was actually the last time I’ve ever flown on a plane. And no, I have never left the country before.

If there ever were one country I would want to go to – even if only for a day or two – it’d be England. Many of my favorite authors either lived there or still live there and I’m a recent Whovian and Sherlock convert (I have yet to meet anyone who was a fan of one, but not the other; hardly think it’s even possible). And of course, James Bond is among my favorite movie series. All of this, mind you, has been true for a while – yes, before Sherlock and Doctor Who.

If you had told me three weeks ago that I’d be accepted for an all-expenses-paid two-week trip to the Logos Conference in Oxford this summer, I would not have believed you. And yet, after only a week and a half of waiting, I have been invited to attend. For two weeks we’ll be listening to lectures on Oxford, scholarship, current issues in textual studies, as well as touring the University and even a few bits of London (small things like the British Museum and the British Library). It’s an opportunity that I could never have dreamed up.

What has come to mind in the wake of receiving such an invitation, though, is where I was a year ago. I was still living in Eugene, working a part-time job, and finishing up seminary applications. As I was writing those applications, though, I was nervous about the changes to come. I was nervous because I had a lot of wonderful things going for me in Eugene: my job (despite part-time hours), my roommate, my church – all were going really well and I was enjoying every bit of it. I hesitated in submitting those seminary applications – although briefly – because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give all those things up.

And yet if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be going to Oxford.

At George Fox University this weekend is the 2014 Faith and Culture Writers Conference. And although I could write about each of the five speakers from last night, Deidra Riggs’ words ring most relevant to me this week. She talked about a day when she was prompted by God to “come a little closer” – a process that led her from her couch to a frozen stream where she witnessed a sign of Spring’s arrival. If she had never left her couch to “come a little closer,” she would never have had that unique opportunity to experience God’s creation.

In a similar way, if I hadn’t “come a little closer” by leaving familiarity and comfort in Eugene, I would never had this opportunity to experience another country – one of my favorites, nonetheless!

My take away from it all is that God seems to surprise us with opportunities we didn’t know we even wanted. Yet this only seems to happen after we’ve moved in faith. It doesn’t need to be a literal move from one city or school to another; but after we’ve decided to act in faith.

Where, in your own setting, do you feel God is drawing you to “come a little closer”? A new school? City? Or simply walk to a frozen stream?


On Being a Seminarian: Balance Between Faith and Scholarship…

This is my second post as a part of a series for Near Emmaus. Feel free to view it there or view other posts by the other bloggers.

I mentioned in another post it was possible, but ever since I’ve been wondering exactly how? How are we to dive into texts written by scholars who may not share the same faith that we do and would therefore feel no reluctance to unravel the biblical text? And in that process of unraveling things, how do we press on in believing in Jesus when the very things we believe about Him are brought under critical light?

This process of finding a balance between faith and scholarship has become much more important in recent weeks. At George Fox Seminary, one professor is set to retire at the end of the year and we’ve been hearing from potential replacements every now and then. I can share no further details beyond that, but I can say that one thing I’ve come to realize is that in order for a seminary professor to have an impact on the students they teach – students, mind you, who are being trained for church leadership, ministry, and academia – they must have a strong balance between walking with Jesus and teaching leaders how to critically engage the biblical text and their surrounding cultures.

It means for me, the seminarian, I’m in the process of developing said balance. It’s one I began a long time ago at the U of O, but one I know is not quite finished, yet. Nearly every class I encounter a new perspective, a new challenge that stirs my thoughts and rattles the cages of my neatly-formed beliefs. If I was just now beginning that process of developing a balance, I am not sure how I would react. I might start doubting everything I was ever taught about Jesus and maybe even walk away from seminary. I am not saying that this is what you will go through if you are now beginning that process as you enter seminary; I’m saying this is what I might have done had I not begun that process long ago. So why am I not walking away?

Finding the balance I think is different in exact details for everyone, but ultimately boils down to being comfortable in engaging new ideas. Allowing those ideas to rattle the cages and shake up one’s beliefs will not only test the durability of those beliefs, but perhaps replace the beliefs that don’t hold up. Such a process is sometimes exhausting, but sometimes instant. Sometimes someone in class says that one thing and all of a sudden the light bulb goes on and a theological alteration (perhaps only a subtle one) takes place.

Long ago, I read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. At the time, I was wrestling with a supposed controversial doctrine and felt a lot of pressure to simply believe in it. Yet, I wasn’t convinced. The new idea was rattling the cages and the old idea, the one I was pressured to hold onto, wasn’t holding up. When I read this passage, I felt at home in allowing the new idea to replace the old:

“God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all. But, fortunately, it works the other way round. Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened: one of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself.”[1]

In your journey with God, where have you found comfort and solace in processing new ideas? Where is your balance point between faith and academics? Or are you like me, still developing one?

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, 2003), 78

Sundays With St. Paul: Nuances of “Law”…

For our discussion groups this week, we were asked to interact with the 16th chapter of Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul.[1] In this chapter, Westerholm discusses five key aspects of Paul’s usage of “law” (“nomos” in Greek[2]): its meaning, and its relation to “works,” faith, legalism, and Torah. Our goal was to utilize these nuances to find what Paul really meant when he used “law” – whether it be something ambiguous or something precise.

Another part of the assignment was to categorize all of Paul’s references to “law” as to what he might have meant by the term (i.e. Pentateuch, Sinaitic Law, OT in general, etc.). Although time-consuming, I found the exercise helpful in seeing how fluid “law” actually is, as Paul uses it. For instance, when Paul says, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good,” in Romans 7:12, he means something else by “law” when he says, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good…” in 7:21.[3]

Westerholm’s discussion of “The Law and Legalism” was the particular part of the chapter I interacted with. Reacting to Cranfield’s claim that “what [Paul] really has in mind may be not the law itself but the misunderstanding and misuse of it for which we have a convenient term,”[4] Westerholm argues “the Greek language… provided, Paul’s vocabulary included, sufficient resources for indicating whether he was speaking of the law as intended by God or in the (allegedly) perverted form in which it was understood by Jews.”[5] Westerholm takes this into his next point: “that no such distinction is intended.”[6]

Overall, this is the part I interacted with the most. Paul’s lack of distinction doesn’t seem to indicate the words didn’t exist; it indicates he didn’t feel the need to separate them. Instead, he treats “law” as a single entity (almost always), but with various aspects that he highlights in order to make different points. It’s as though Paul had a box of crayons: sometimes he refers to the entire box; sometimes he refers to specific colors. We create problems for ourselves when we say that Paul was only talking about one color (i.e. legalism).

Now I know this might oversimplify the issue, but I think it points out how Paul did not seem to care which part of the law he was discussing; what mattered to him was how, in comparison to Christ, it was insufficient. Or as Westerholm puts it, “But – it must be emphasized – in Paul’s argument it is human deeds of any kind that cannot justify.”[7] It didn’t matter if it was the legalism crayon or the “Abraham is our father” crayon; the entire box is insufficient in comparison to Christ.

With that analogy exhausted, I think there might be one counterpoint to Westerholm’s statement about human deeds. In Romans 13:8, Paul says, “Own no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” I might be misunderstanding Paul here, but if what Westerholm says is true, that deeds cannot justify, then what do we make of loving one’s neighbor? And how does Christ play into all of this?

I’m not asking rhetorically; I’m asking because this was the one hang up I had in understanding Paul’s nuanced usage of “law.” If he treats the law as insufficient, which I think is a correct assessment of Romans, then how should we interpret Romans 13:8-10?

What do you think? Does Paul have one cohesive meaning of “law” or is it more ambiguous as I’ve suggested? And how might this alter our understanding of Paul’s Judaism – or the Judaism in Paul’s day?

[1] Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New On Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Eerdmans, 2004), 297-340

[2] I have not studied Greek; this is second-hand information from my professor

[3] Emphasis mine

[4] C. E. B. Cranfield, “St. Paul and the Law,” Scottish Journal of Theology 17 (1964), 55, referring to the terms “legalism,” “legalist,” or “legalistic.”

[5] Westerholm, Perspectives, 331

[6] Westerholm, Perspectives, 331

[7] Westerholm, Perspectives, 333

New Blogging Adventure!

Although this is a couple days late, I’m excited to announce I’ve been added to the Near Emmaus bloggers!

Beginning this weekend I’ll be contributing posts on Saturdays reflecting over life as a seminarian and on Sundays I’ll post my “Sundays With Paul” series. All of these posts will also be seen here, but I would encourage all my readers (all seven of you) to check out the other posts at Near Emmaus as well. I’m really excited for this experience because it draws in a much different blogging community than I’m used to – one full of dialogue and discussion regarding faith, theology, and biblical studies (among other things).

As for this blog, I’ll attempt to post more frequently than I have been. Homework has definitely been more demanding this semester than last fall, but once I find a rhythm, I’ll make room for more posts.

God bless.

Embracing Mystery…

Having been in seminary for a little more than two months, I keep coming up against one realization: I don’t know very much. Compared to the average church congregant, I might know more about church history or theology or even about Scripture. But that doesn’t mean that what I think I know can’t be refuted or debated. It doesn’t mean I have all the answers – regardless of how I might feel from time to time.

After every new book I read, I’m led to two or three more books I feel I need to read in order to address the questions that came to mind in that first book. It’s like as soon as I think I’ve figured something out about God, someone asks a question or points something out that wrecks my previous view and I have to start over again. After a while, it becomes rather exhausting.

Although, there’s a difference between my studies now and my studies when I first became a believer. Not sure if it was the culture, the church, or just some belief I developed in my own head, but I had this idea that I had to find all the answers and be able to answer anyone who may question my beliefs. I felt I needed to be well versed in theological self-defense, giving a verbal round-house kick to every question that tried to shake my faith. Heretics near and far would fear my apologetics.

As ridiculous as this sounds, this was my approach. I came to Scripture not looking to be fed something that improved the way I treated my neighbor, but to find a verse proving my point in every argument. The problem with this mentality is that it treats Scripture like an answer book and God as though He could be caged in to our little theology boxes. And once we’re able to quantify and document Him, we’ll place Him on a shelf like a paperback novel that intrigued us for a moment, but that we eventually figured out.

What this leaves out is any capacity for mystery. We don’t allow ourselves to wonder, to allow a question to sit and season awhile. And we don’t allow ourselves to doubt.

“Such doubt is not the enemy of faith but an essential element within it. For faith in God does not bring the false peace of answered questions and resolved paradoxes. Rather, it can be seen as a process of ‘unceasing interrogation.’… The spirit enters into our lives and puts disturbing questions. Without such creative doubt, religion becomes hard and cruel, degenerating into the spurious security which breeds intolerance and persecution. Without doubt, there is loss of inner reality and of inspirational power to religious language. The whole spiritual life must suffer from, and be seriously harmed by, the repression of doubt. – Kenneth Leech, as quoted in M. Robert Mulholland Jr.’s Invitation to a Journey, pg. 148 (Emphasis mine)

Frantically searching the Scriptures for the answer to that disturbing question could mean we are running from, as Leech puts it, “a process of ‘unceasing interrogation’” – a process we may very well need to undergo. What does this process look like, though?

I think it varies from person to person, but I know that it isn’t intellectual laziness. Allowing room for mystery isn’t the same as thinking to oneself, “Well, I asked the question, but I didn’t get an answer, so I suppose it will forever remain a mystery.” Instead it is the unending search – even if no answer is found.

God wants us to develop the capacity for mystery and wonder; not to develop a perfect systematic theology that refutes all the “liberal” questions attempting to undermine our faith. “And if there is no room for mystery there is no room for God, because God is the ultimate mystery,” (Mulholland, 149, emphasis mine).

A capacity for mystery is more about resolve than anything else; never ending in one’s search for whatever God has covered up. “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out,” Proverbs 25:2.

Embrace mystery and make room for God. Paradoxically, you might find your faith being strengthened.

God bless.

Four Years Old Today…

In the spring of ’07, I started an electronic journal in my dorm room at the University of Oregon. Right around the same time (perhaps a few months later), I started writing Facebook notes. Much of what I write in my electronic journal (it’s a Word document) is what I’ve been emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually processing and when I started posting some those entries on Facebook, I soon found out that there was always somebody else processing the same stuff. On October 4th, 2009, I launched this blog.

I turned it into a blog to help open up various ways of connecting with people. After writing a few posts, I quickly discovered other bloggers writing about similar stuff or stuff that I hadn’t thought about. Seeing many other people processing the same stuff that I was went a long way in telling me that I’m not alone. This, of course, led me to recognize that none of us is alone.

Online communities will never replace the authenticity of in-person communities – like your local church, Bible study, book club, or even your workplace. Yet what online communities enable – via blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and plenty of other social media sites – is a space for people to share their thoughts, beliefs, and questions (in no particular order) in their own time. You don’t have to wait until your next Bible study to ask a question about Jesus or share whatever it is that God has brought you through. I’m not saying the internet is going to have all the answers, but I can say that it opens up the possibility of discussion. And more than likely, you’ll find someone who’s been where you are before.

Above all else, what I have found to be most beneficial from blogging is the depth of therapy in the act of writing. You see, journaling goes a long way to allow the individual to process the things around him or her. But until those thoughts are shared in community, the individual will remain as such: an individual. They will never hear what we all need to hear at some point in our lives: “Me, too.”

As I said above, blogging (and online communities in general) will never take the place of face-to-face meetings (Skype and Face Time kind of help, but being physically present is most essential). Yet in the last four years, I’ve seen how blogging has helped enhance those face-to-face meetings. It has helped formalize my thoughts and feelings so that I can more clearly and succinctly talk things out with my various in-person communities. And it has taught me that there are plenty of other people who’ve had similar experiences in life (growing up without a father, having suicidal thoughts, seeing your church community evaporate, etc.), but processed them differently.

All I can really say on my blog’s fourth birthday is that I would not be where I am without it. It makes me excited for what’s to come (especially being at George Fox Evangelical Seminary). I’m excited for the things I’ll learn and the people I’ll meet. I’m excited for the communities I’ll grow with. And I’m especially excited to see what God is going to do through it all.

Writing goes a long way to help the introvert and extrovert in their walk with Jesus.

Thanks for reading and God bless!

Wait… Where am I?

After being in Tigard for a little over two weeks, I think I have finally been able to settle down. My roommate has moved in, my room is entirely organized, and I’m keeping up relatively well with each of my classes. What I think I am now able to do since things have become less chaotic is figure out exactly where I am.

No, my geographical location is not what I’m talking about. What I really mean is, throughout the last two-ish weeks, I’ve been focusing on things like where to put my reading chair, how to organize my mini-library, and which frozen pizzas to get. With all those things out of the way, I can finally address the city and the community in which I now live. Every time I go to work at the Duck Store at the Washington Square Mall, I find myself saying, “Back in Eugene, we…” Yet I’m no longer in Eugene. Where I identify myself with has changed. Quite naturally, I feel disoriented.

In Eugene, I knew a ton of different people in different parts of town and almost at any given point I could send them a text or call them (let’s be honest, I sent them a text) and in minutes we could be hanging out. It isn’t as easy here – at least, not at this stage of the game. And quite like my physical community changing, my spiritual community has as well.

I haven’t yet gone to a church here in Tigard, despite one being right across from my apartment complex. And no, it isn’t because I had some falling out with God; the next three years at seminary would be pretty long years if that were the case. It’s been because I wanted to do exactly what I’ve done: get settled.

Proverbs 24:27 says, “Finish your outdoor work and get your fields ready; after that, build your house.” In context, I have absolutely no idea what this might mean. But how I see it with where I am in my own context, it means to get settled with being in a completely different city than what I’m used to, and then get involved.

On Monday I got to sit down with A.J. Swoboda to talk about where I’ve come from and why I’m here. At the end of our discussion, he asked me what I needed prayer for and in that moment I realized I really miss the faith community in Eugene. Not to say that it was better than what it is here – I couldn’t even begin to suggest that since I haven’t gone to a church yet. But to say that I grew really close to plenty of really good people in Eugene and they aren’t physically as close as they once were.

What I can’t overlook, though, is the plethora of friends I already have here in the Portland area. They’re friends I made while in Eugene (or Lincoln City) and will most likely be the people I start to branch out with in regards to a faith community. Until all that begins, though, I think I’m supposed to embrace the disorientation. I think I’m supposed to spend some more time in solitude with God in order to get my bearings straight. I think I’m supposed to wrestle with who I am and how I associate and identify with my new surroundings. I think supposed to find out firsthand what Abraham went through.

What can often happen in a time of transition is intense moments of nostalgia – constantly longing for a time that was easier. But it wasn’t easier. It only seems easier because it was familiar. Knowing that is crucial to growing in a new place with new people.

Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, and whatever you’re doing, soak it in.

God bless.