Sacred & Ordinary: Reflections from the Holy Land

I think I’ve always been a dreamer and yet the dreams I dreamed have never been completely out of reach or elusive. Somehow, I’ve never doubted their possibility. Maybe it’s a millennial thing; I’ve always been told I can do anything.

On the top of my list of dreams was to visit the Holy Land but to make it more difficult for myself, I dreamed of not only visiting the Holy Land but also traveling with experts and scholars from whom I could learn. When I happened to stumble across the Fuller trip to Israel/Palestine the summer after my graduation, my top-of-the-list dream became accessible. When my aunt offered to pay for the entire trip cost, I believed that God had a specific purpose in store for me and that this trip was not by chance.

Leading up to the trip, I surprisingly experienced moments of doubt and even disinterest in the Holy Land. It seemed ungrateful and out of character for me to not be excited about this incredible opportunity. I’d have thoughts wondering why I needed to go to the Holy Land when I have the presence of God with me at all times. I’d wonder if there was anything there that was relevant to my life in God presently. Even as I was on my flight to Israel, I began having doubts about the election of such a small people group in such a small piece of land. Why was this land so significant? Since reflecting about my experience in the Holy Land, I wonder if these feelings were foreshadowing to the struggles I would face on this trip; the struggles of the ordinary and the sacred and holding in tension the humanity and divinity of God and Holy Scripture.

On the second day of the trip, we were offered an invitation to a lecture by Stephanie Saldaña titled, “What refugees can teach us about hope, compassion, and our common humanity.” Saldaña had spent time with refugees all over the Middle East and she spoke with passion about a justice that looks like sharing stories, valuing heritage, and taking action.

By the end of that second day we had already visited some of the most significant and sacred sites for Christians: Golgotha and the tomb inside of the Church of the Holy Seplucar and the church at the Garden of Gethsemane. I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s what Jesus would have wanted. I couldn’t help but think that Jesus would be more honored and venerated by the acts of kindness by Stephanie Saldaña than by church buildings and tourist attractions. I think this was the beginning of my disenchantment with the Holy Land.

The remaining ten days of the trip ignited my curiosity and exposed my ignorance. There were moments of inspiring wonder and moments of frustrating confusion. Each and every day was full of fascinating history lessons that left an impression on me and contributed to my own spiritual journey. I could talk about the uncontrollable tears that fumbled out of me at St. Anne’s Basilica or the hospitality of the Bedouin tribe that fed us the best meal on the whole trip. I could talk about the enlightenment and perspective that I gained about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict or the strange power I felt at the Western Wall on Shabbat. However, the most impactful experiences came from the most ordinary and human things.

Things like political biases throughout ancient Israel and small village life in the first century.

In regards to politics, I like to stay away. Especially in the kind of drama we witness today. And somewhere in my brain, I came up with this idea that God was not political. God doesn’t pick sides – not Republican or Democrat!

But after two weeks of listening intently, scrambling to take detailed notes and asking a lot of questions, I realized that throughout history not only was God political but Jesus was really political too. It kind of upset me…actually it really upset me.

In the midst of this, I was receiving more information than my brain could process in a short amount of time. I could feel my emotional capacity getting full but I had to push forward because there was more to see and more to learn. But more and more I struggled to accept the strong political influence in the Bible. I wanted the Bible to be above the corruption and deceit of politics. And yet, I was learning that it wasn’t…it was smack dab in the middle of all of it. The stories in the Bible don’t sugarcoat the ugliness of humanity’s greed for power. And the stories of the Bible don’t portray God as detached, uninvolved or untouched by the political systems.

As I processed all of this with the professor who specialized in the Old Testament and Ancient Near East life, he said something that struck me: “What if God’s perspective, then and now, is biased and political? What if the challenge, then and now, is not to be impartial but to be on God’s side?”

Oh. Boy.

If that is my challenge, then I need to know where God stands. And how do I know when human opinions and thoughts have gotten in the way and muddied the waters?

Ultimately, what I have accepted is that the story of God throughout history is complex and dynamic. The words of God are not static and once I think I understand God, I realize that I only understand through a human lens. The God of the universe who is expressed in Holy Scripture is much more mysterious and different than the constructs I can create.

I think this makes spirituality and faith hard.

The religious history of Israel cannot be reduced to a simplistic, flat explanation that is steeped in modern evangelical frameworks. The Bible was written by human beings within a human context, but has been divinely inspired to strengthen our faith in God. It is equally divinely inspired and humanly composed. By faith, I have chosen to align with a long tradition of biblical infallibility that seeks the heart of God in the scriptures.

The full humanity and divinity of Christ helps bridge this theological struggle. And it is the humanity of Jesus that I found to be refreshing and soul quenching.

In the small towns of Nazareth and Capernaum and on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus was so human. He grew up in a small village, doing manual labor and enjoying family and friendships. There wasn’t any extravagance to most of his life. It was a simple, humble, hardworking, local, homegrown kind of life. That fascinated me.

I read an article that said, “Jesus is most divine when he is most man.”

The theological discussions regarding the full divinity and full humanity of Christ are difficult to understand and digest. There is an element of mystery and unknowing that must be accepted with faith. We believe that Jesus is fully God, yet we read the history and learn the archeology of the fully human Jesus in his earthly context. The acceptance of divinity has been natural for me. It is the humanity, the ordinary and the plainness that has been difficult to compute and receive.

While my expectation of the Holy Land was to experience the divine and sacred, it seems that God desired for me to experience the ordinary. The doubts that I experienced before the trip prepared me for this tension and struggle. However, as I reflect on this trip, I believe that God has invited me into a deeper and more full understanding of the divine through such ordinary things. I wasn’t necessarily disenchanted with the Holy Land…I just realized how divinely ordinary it is.

My time in the Holy Land impacted me in more ways than I could have ever expected. I will never forget being able to see geographical places with my own eyes that I have read about in the Bible, like standing on top of the city of David looking across the Kidron Valley toward the Mount of Olives or walking from Bethlehem to Jerusalem or sailing across the Sea of Galilee. As I read the scriptures, I can visually imagine the words on the page and the story comes alive.

I am grateful for the blessing and opportunity to visit and explore the Holy Land. God met me in ordinary ways by challenging my traditional understanding of scripture and disrupting my understanding of sacred. How I relate to the God of Israel is more mysterious and how I relate to Jesus is more personal. I am humbled and honored to have learned from brilliant scholars and witnesses of the glory of Christ. The experience was a beautiful display of God’s sovereignty and God’s imminence to the created world.

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You can’t have a rainbow without a little rain

Maybe it’s a cheesy title…but I’ve been reflecting on my last post and the many responses I got from people who could relate to my difficult season in seminary. And after releasing those thoughts and emotions into the atmosphere with a deep exhale, my next inhale brought relief and gratitude.

Yes, I wasn’t lying when I said the last three years have been treacherous. But there have been some pretty darn good things about the last three years as well.

Most obviously, one of the deepest longings of my heart was fulfilled when I met and married my husband, Charles. I prayed and waited and clung to promises for a long time and then God finally said it’s time. Again, might be cheesy…but I can’t find adequate words to describe the love I feel for Charles. It is nothing like I could have even imagined or dreamed. My soul has been interlocked and fused to another soul and everyday I thank God for the gift of marriage to my best friend.

Another thing, God gave me community. It was risky to move to a new city only knowing a handful of people. The first six months were really really hard but then my seminary advisor introduced me to a pastor of a small church plant, saying she thought it’d be a good fit for me. (I think she’s kinda prophetic). After almost a year of living in Phoenix without much community and a lot of loneliness, I walked into a small community that instantly felt like family. Even though the church stopped meeting over a year ago, lots of babies have been born, and some people have moved away or gone to different churches, our community has fought to remain close and intentional.

I’ve made so many amazing new friendships and deepened family relationships. I’m incredibly grateful for that. Yes, the last three years have been different than any other season of my life but God has been ever faithful.

I didn’t lose my faith in seminary. I found how to hold onto God when everything around me and inside of me was shaking. I found a way to be grateful, present and aware of goodness even when God’s voice seemed faint and God’s presence seemed distant.

I’m not the same person I was when I started seminary over three years ago. I’d actually be a little worried if I hadn’t changed through this process. But I can let go of who I used to be and embrace who I am now. I can be kind to myself and accept the place I am at today. I can be grateful for the journey and look forward to the future.

I said it before and I’ll say it again, this is not the end.

 

Seminary or Cemetery: I get it now

When I decided to pack up my car and move away from my vibrant community at a gracious organization that let me try and fail in order to live out my passions…I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing. “It’s exciting and unknown,” I thought.

When I applied for seminary so I could be better equipped to teach the Bible and found out that I was accepted while sweating my face off in India…I didn’t realize exactly how much I’d miss that life I was living.

After three years and five months, I will be officially finished with seminary and walking away with an Mdiv in one hand and a lot of obscurity and disappointment in the other hand. To be clear, I don’t regret anything. I wouldn’t go back and change any of it. But what I didn’t realize four years ago was that I was about to follow God into one of the most difficult journeys of my life so far and I was not prepared for it.

This journey hasn’t been difficult because of all the reading or the papers or the tests or the grades. It’s been difficult because as I look back at the woman who embarked on a new path with high hopes, wild passion, and fierce ambition…I can’t recognize her anymore and I don’t even know where to find her. So much feels lost, shredded, demolished and what is left is an empty shell. Something inside of me died while I was in seminary and the loss is grievous. The emotions pile high when I realize that I can’t go back to who I was before and I can’t become ignorant again.

But my hope is this: my God is a God of resurrection. my God is a God that makes all things new and breathes life into a valley of death filled with cracked and dry bones. I am assured and confident that this is not the end and that God is not finished. I even find hope in the fact that God is not surprised or worried by my condition. I find peace in knowing that God is not a passive observer watching me drown but is actively tilling, watering, pruning and caring for the garden of my soul.

Again, I want to emphasize that I do not regret the last 3.5 years. I just didn’t know what I was getting into. It’s like watching a movie and knowing about the coming struggle before the characters, screaming at the screen pleading with them to turn around or make a different choice. We all want to avoid the struggle if possible. We all imagine and hope for an idyllic pain-free life, even though we know the chances of going through life unscathed are slim.

Whether you follow God or not, life will be hard at times. Whether you live for yourself or live for God, the chances for pain and struggle are still high. The difference is that with God, nothing stays dead and nothing is wasted. There is hope for resurrection and new creation. The power of life and making something out of nothing is not found in myself or my achievements – but in God.

So I continue to put one foot in front of the other and take one step at a time. Where is God calling me? I don’t know. What am I passionate about? I’m not so sure right now. But in all things, God is faithful to me and I know that I can trust the daily guidance of the Holy Spirit. One day at a time, the joy of my salvation will be restored to me and passion will begin to bubble up again. Living water will gush forth and I will be satisfied.

Thoughts on my first year of marriage

Last week my husband and I celebrated our first anniversary. It felt like it went by really fast and I wanted to make sure I intentionally reflected upon the last twelve months.

Everyone says that the first year is the hardest. If that’s true, then we are in really good shape! We have had fights and we’ve hurt each other’s feelings…but our first year was not as painful as many people project it to be.

While I was engaged, I remember seeking advice from those who had decades of marriage under their belt. What works and what doesn’t work? What should I know? How can I prepare myself?

The best advice came from a pastor who told us to pray together every day. Upon first hearing this advice, I was a little skeptical and even dismissive. Really, every day? I thought that was too unrealistic and burdensome for a couple. But I have been surprised by how simple and powerful it is. Each night before we go to bed, we pray together. I’ll pray one night, Charles will pray the next night. Sometimes the person not praying falls asleep. Sometimes we both pray. Our prayers have been short, long, generic and specific. Either way, we have made it a routine and a discipline to come together and thank God for another day.

It’s amazing how hard it is to pray with someone when you’re mad at them or hurt by them. My stubborn will resists and hardens but the moment I come before God in prayer, I can’t help but become vulnerable and weak. We have witnessed the power of God bring about connection, forgiveness, humility, and love in our marriage this last year.

Moving into our second year of marriage, we have some potential challenges ahead of us. We will be apart for two weeks while I’m in Israel. I will graduate from seminary and it will be the first time Charles will get to know the not-in-school/not-stressed-out Bethany. There are options for the “Dual Income No Kids” life…which sounds really nice. But there may also be the option for babies…which also sounds nice.

So the next year could be challenging or it could be adventurous. We remain thankful to God and all the support we have received from family, friends, and community.

Here’s to year two!

Liar, Insane, or True?

Who do you say that I am?

Jesus asked his disciples this question and I think he asks me this question quite often as well. Usually I spit out my quick, church answer but every so often I reflect a little deeper. What I confess with my lips is sometimes far from my heart.

In the last few months, I’ve heard CS Lewis quoted several times about this very topic.

“You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God”

His point is that we cannot just call Jesus a great moral teacher and refuse to accept his claim to be God. It’s foolish and patronizing to do so.

Each day, I have to recognize my need to make a choice. Do I believe that Jesus is who he said he is? Or do I believe that he is a liar or insane? When I realize that I do believe Jesus to be God, his teaching and his instructions become weighty and imperative. I can no longer waiver on whether or not I should forgive someone. I can no longer look away or deny the struggles of the poor. I can no longer live just for myself, feeding the insatiable appetite of my own ego.

This I know: I once was blind, but Jesus made me see. I once was bound, but Jesus set me free. I once was despairing, but when I called on the name of Jesus, hope filled my lungs.

know he is God. And for some mysterious reason, this God has loved me enough to forgive all my junk and have mercy on me. I can never fully understand but I’m so thankful. Not only is Jesus GOD but he sees me, knows me and loves me.

This song has been on repeat in my head today. Enjoy some worship for the next seven minutes and thank Jesus that he is a God who forgives and delivers:

To work in church or To not work in church

It happened again last night.

I came face to face with the reality of hard work that comes with a life of ministry. And I have to ask myself again and again, do I really want to work with the church? I quickly reworded my question to myself…is God really asking me to work with the church? Because if it were up to me and what I want to do, I’m not so sure I’d go down that road. But if God is asking me to…how can I say no? Instead, I squirm and wiggle and complain a little until I finally give in.

I’ve always had this love/hate relationship with church. When I was a working for a missions organization in Georgia, I didn’t go to church. I wrote a blog about it and it ended being my most viewed blog on this site. I still struggle with a lot of the same issues. And often I want to dust my hands off and be done with institutional church. But I still want to share life with people; I still want to break bread and give thanks and worship God together; I still want to study the Bible and learn from one another.

I’m realizing that ministry isn’t only hard because people’s lives are messy and we all have to navigate through this life of brokenness. It’s hard because we also have to come up against materialism, consumerism, biblical illiteracy, self-gratification, sexism, racism, greed, nationalism, and so on. These things don’t only exist in the people attending church, they exist in people leading the church as well.

This is when I start to think a 9 to 5 job sounds really nice. Let me punch in my time and stay away from all this drama.

But if my life is an offering to God, should I not make every effort to bring him the most glory? And what I’ve realized this week is that it doesn’t bring God glory for me to avoid the hard stuff and bypass what he’s asking me to do. It doesn’t bring God glory for me to short-change myself and sit back in passivity. I want to be faithful with what I’ve been given and not bury it in the ground.

This is my journey. I’m graduating from seminary in June and I’m not entirely sure where I’ll go or what I’ll do. Whatever it is, in the church or outside of it, may it reflect the beauty and glory of the one who rescued me from death and gave me this beautiful life.

What’s the bigger story?

I want to be better about writing.

Honestly, how much or how little I write reveals how well I am taking care of myself. Because when I’m rested and fulfilled, I can’t help but write. But when I’m overwhelmed, exhausted, and depleted, writing is just another chore. It’s interesting how I sometimes avoid what I need most.

This week, two things in particular caught my attention.

1) The war is not over. 

It’s true that when Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead, he gave us the right to become children of God and as his children we get to share in his victory over death. That is amazing! But people still die. People still endure insurmountable suffering. What the heck? How can this be good news? Because with Christ, death and suffering is not the end of the story. And there is a bigger story at play that has yet to be completed. We do not become immortal when we become Christians, but we do inaugurate the coming kingdom of God with transformation and renewal.

Does anyone really understand the concept of the Kingdom being now but not yet? How can it be finished and not complete at the same time? How does death and resurrection coexist? Is it linear? Is it outside of time?

I’ve swung on a lot of pendulums in my life and this is no exception. As a child, the Kingdom was Heaven…a place you go after you die, but not much more. As a young adult, the Kingdom was all here and now…today is the day for victory because heaven is here inside of me. Both seem to forsake either the now or the not yet of the God’s kingdom. And neither promote faithfulness to a covenant relationship with Christ.

This week, I’ve been pondering this tension and the significance of the war that rages on around us. If we as Christians deny that there is a war going on, we are burying our heads in the sand and offering no help or hope to the world. I was blown away by an analogy by a scholar named Oscar Cullman.

“He compared Christ’s first coming to a decisive battle in a war (like D-Day in WWII, which determined the course of the war), and Christ’s second coming to the victory of that war (like VE-Day when the Allies finally triumphed in Europe). Whereas the decisive battle for the kingdom of God has been won by Christ’s death and resurrection, we still live in a time of struggle – the war continues. Nevertheless the outcome is assured and will be effectuated at the second coming.” (Plantinga, An Introduction to Christian Theology)

So don’t put down your weapons. Don’t throw away your shield. Stand firm and be courageous, ready to fight. And along those same lines…

2) It’s not about me.

This came up twice this week. After the second time hearing it while listening to a podcast from a church in Atlanta, I jotted some things down in my journal.

Pray. Stay close to God. DAY by DAY. It’s not about you. It’s bigger. Find your place in the larger story that is ultimately not about you. Be faithful…faithful with what you have and where you are. It’s not about you.

Basically…get perspective. There is a lot more to this world, to the cosmos, to eternity…than me and my little life. God holds me closely and intimately cares for me, but it’s not about me.

I’m reminding of one of my favorite lines in the musical Les Miserables:

“Marius, you’re no longer a child
I do not doubt you mean it well
But now there is a higher call.
Who cares about your lonely soul?
We strive towards a larger goal
Our little lives don’t count at all!”

What is the higher call for us today? What is the larger goal we strive toward? The sooner we realize what it is, the sooner we realize that our little lives don’t count at all.