Monday, December 5, 2016

Between Revelations

Bedouin Camp in the Negev

“Shalom (peace) is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of righteousness.”
Daoud, Tent of Nations

Throughout the Bible God and His angelic messengers spoke to God’s people. You might recognize some of these quotes from God or his angels:  “Do not eat from this tree...Where are you?” (Adam) “Why are you angry? Do what is right.”  (Cain) “Make an ark...Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous...Come out of the ark.” (Noah) “Go from your country to the land that I will show you...Your offspring shall be as the stars...I am El Shaddai, walk before me faithfully and be blameless...Take your son, your only son, whom you love...Sacrifice him.” (Abraham) “Where have you come from and where are you going?” (Hagar) “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” (Mary) “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born...Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Shepherds)  “Peace be with you. I am sending you.” (Disciples)

So God appeared and spoke specific words to His people. I have been thinking of these words from God as revelations--facts revealed in a dramatic way, or a previously unknown truth that surprises the hearer, or even divine disclosure to humans. In some of the stories, after God reveals or speaks, we are told that he “leaves."
  • Gen. 17:22 "When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him."
  • Gen. 18:33 “When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left.”  
  • Luke 1:38 “The angel left Mary.”
  • Luke 2:15 “The angels left the shepherds and went into heaven.”
  • Luke 24:51 “While Jesus was blessing [the Eleven and those gathered with them], he left them and was taken up into heaven.”

This makes me wonder, what did God’s faithful people do between revelations, or words, from God? Although some made choices against what God revealed or directed (I am thinking of Adam and Cain, for example), let's look at those who showed themselves to have a “going forward in faith-ness” quality; narratives where someone heard what God said, and chose, in faith, to walk forward in obedience. In Genesis 7:5 “Noah did what the LORD commanded Him.” Genesis 15:6 records “Abram believed God’s words, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” In Genesis 16 Hagar GOES BACK to Abraham and Sarah, knowing the difficult place she will be in when she gets there. And in complete obedience Genesis 22:3 tells us that Abraham obeyed God whole-heartedly by leaving “early the next morning” with Isaac. In this light, the everyday ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Perhaps some of these other “between revelations activities” recorded in the Bible sound like what we anticipate for our Christmas break? After God speaks, Abraham returns home; Mary takes a trip; Noah builds; Isaac chooses not to move. Others settle disputes, work the land, live God’s way among the ungodly, help troubled family members, call on the name of the Lord, worship, travel to see family, and entertain guests.

Christians believe God speaks to us today. Consider God speaking to us. When God speaks to me, do I take time to listen? Do I accept God’s words? Do I respond in obedience between revelations? Do I walk forward in faith?

When we obey God as He reveals Himself to us, we are part of God’s kingdom here on earth. It is in the midst of walking in faith that we find shalom, right-living, peace on earth. And, as in the biblical narrative, right living happens even while difficult situations surround us--hard calls that require trust in a loving God despite setbacks, rejection, family tension, temptation, or the ungodly choices of others.

Let's take a short detour to Luke 22:39-44. "Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground."

God sends an angel to strengthen Jesus. God “SPEAKS LIFE” if you will, through a celestial being. Although we are not told what the angel said or did, we are told in that as Jesus, God Himself, prays for the Father to remove His suffering, the angel appears and then strengthens Jesus. Afterward Jesus’ prayer is so intense that the Son of God profusely sweats as the Son of Man. Jesus, God himself, the Prince of Peace, submits to God’s righteousness (right-living). John tells us in chapter 20:19-23 that three days later “the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that He breathed on them [the very breath of life from the creation of the world!] and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you are forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’” When Jesus chose to submit to God’s righteousness (remember, God’s angel strengthened Jesus for this task), Jesus brought peace to our world.

This month's theme, SPEAK SHALOM, reminds us to live righteously amid difficulty. As God, the Prince of Peace, SPEAKS LIFE to us, we have what we need to make right choices and bring shalom. Let us keep our eyes and hearts on what God has revealed to us. Let us embrace the quality we see in the Bible of “going forward in faith-ness."

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." Hebrews 12:1-3

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Spearmint Teaches Teshuvah

If you have ever grown spearmint, you know that it takes on a life of its own. Roots spread underground, only to be discovered when lovely little green leaves start sprouting up in new and surprising places. Even though the spearmint growth habit is a bit obnoxious, I let it grow as it does. I absolutely love the smell of it as I pull it, and the bees enjoy the flowers which bloom in late summer and early fall. Once a year, I pull out as much spearmint as I can find. And this past weekend was my 2016 "once a year." (If you look closely at the back of the photo, you might feel the joy of this once-an-Iowan-currently-Californian with year-round rhubarb!)

Fourteen years ago we had bender board installed to edge the grass and narrow pathway. The bender board shifted over the years and became a tripping hazard. Pulling spearmint and removing the bender board are great jobs to complete in tandem. As I replaced the bender board with edging bricks, I was reminded again how the protective line of the hard bender board seems to guide the spearmint roots in a communal direction. The board provides a hard surface beside which mint roots thrive. In just two feet of bender board I pulled out quite a pile of thick, vigorous roots.

And then my heart heard God whisper, "Teshuvah." "Yes," I thought, "teshuvah." The past few weeks I have been reading Bible passages around this act of turning, or repenting. A friend and I have wrestled with God's teachings of obedience to the Israelites in Deuteronomy, God's prophecies and promises to His people through Isaiah, and the teachings of Paul to the faithful believers in Rome and Ephesus. 

"Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live." Deuteronomy 30:4-6

"See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees, and laws, then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live, and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Deuteronomy 30:15-20

"Give ear, and come to me, listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David." Isaiah 55:3

"Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and He will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon." Isaiah 55:6-7

"Instead of your shame, you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours." Isaiah 61:7

"For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved." Romans 10:10

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will--to the praise of His glorious grace which He has freely given in the One He loves. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that He lavished on us." Ephesians 1:3-8

Over the past few weeks of study, the desire to teshuvah or "return" compels and consumes me. And then I see it.

A tiny little root of disobedience in my heart that, when I pull on it, has branched into the unsuspecting places.

Like that hard bender board, my hard heart has protected my disobedience from the light, and it has grown thick and strong, joining other vigorous roots along the way. No matter how much I try to pull all of the roots out, the truth is that there will still be proverbial spearmint growing in the garden of my heart in the not-so-distant future. To look at and consider this truth feels overwhelming, unending, exhausting.

And yet, it is in the continuing decision to return to God, teshuvah, that I find LIFE. This annual practice of pulling spearmint, although I will do it again and again, year after year, allows the other plants space to grow and become. (There is hope for that little rhubarb shoot!) On this particular morning, the need to continually confess and turn to God did not leave me feeling hopeless like I failed once again. Instead, God used spearmint to teach me the freedom and beauty in returning to God, even though I will have to choose to return over and over again. Teshuvah is not easy. Teshuvah is not tidy. Teshuvah takes courage. Teshuvah humbles me. Teshuvah fills me to joy overflowing as I am reminded again of God's mercy toward me. "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that He lavished on us."

Friday, September 30, 2016

Liturgical Audit Part 2

For me, the Jericho Road is a transformative place to consider 
my walk with God and how I am doing in loving
the people God places in my life. 

Right after the first liturgical audit work we did in 8 Bible, I reflected with my principal. He wisely commented that regular liturgical audits can be a practice, too. As I considered what I desire for my students to take with them when they graduate, I saw that practicing liturgical audits regularly together could be a powerful opportunity. So a couple of weeks later we tried a liturgical audit that Professor Jamie Smith suggested at the CSI Worldview Summit. We took a look at the practice of going to the mall. We thought about what we do at the mall, and about what being at the mall does to us. As you can see from the picture below, this topic generated a lot of discussion!

The liturgical audit of being at the mall helped frame our thoughts for the work ahead. This week we took a look at some of the spiritual disciplines we have been participating in as a class so far this year.  We took two class periods to "liturgically audit" some Christian practices. I divided students into groups of 3-4 and gave each group one of the following habits/practices: praying with others, praying Scripture over others, reading the Bible, and viewing daily pictures taken in the lands of the Bible. A fifth group of students completed a liturgical audit on attending youth group.


When we took time to make observations, the students noticed:

  • "All of these activities are some form of worship."
  • "Some of these things we do in community, and others we do alone." (This comment led to a great discussion on the importance of having solitude and time away from distraction.)
  • "These things lead to humility and thinking of others, not just ourselves."
  • "All of these have something to do with being closer or being in relationship."
  • "Each of the these affect us in good ways."
Today's lesson brought me great joy as I continue in the good work of walking with God and being His in a fallen, broken world. As Professor Jamie Smith pointed out, "Practices invite me into God's story in a repetitive motion over time." God's story is truly one of relationship. When I look at the students in this class with me, I see that our practices together are indeed inviting us into ever more beautiful relationship with God and each other.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Liturgical Audit Part 1

How often do you take time to reflect on your habits? This morning twenty Grade 8 Bible students and I took a look at some of our regular activities. Students brainstormed the many ways they spend their time from homework to baseball, sleeping to Netflix. We wanted to analyze how these activities shape and affect our lives.

Since having a clean, organized space can (at times) become more important than people for me, we started by looking at my practice of cleaning the house. We wrote down what I actually do when I clean my house such as mop floors, organize papers, put things away, and scrub toilets. Next we looked at what cleaning my house does to me. I shared that cleaning my house clears my mind and declutters my soul. (True story!) We laughed about how the smell of a house can bring peace and calm and joy (or not!). But we also considered how having a clean house can bring out my inner critic: Why can't I keep my house clean? I am too busy and this is too much work. How many times do I have to ask so and so to pick this up or clean that up? I wish I could afford a house cleaner like.... and on the negative messages spiral. And sometimes with those inner thoughts come sharp words or a harsh response to the very people God has gifted to me. We noticed that even as I engage in the regular practice of cleaning my house, cleaning my house does something to me--some of it life-giving, and some of it not so Christ-like.

Next, the students made small groups around a common activity. Each group created a white board with two columns. The left column listed the what, how, and when of the activity. The right column listed what that particular activity does to the students even as they are in the activity.  Students gathered together in five groups around the habits of sleep, watching sports, listening to music, watching Netflix, and doing homework. When the groups finished, we posted the whiteboards and looked for themes and observations. The students insightfully commented:

  • "What we do with our time affects us."
  • "There is a connection between doing and feeling--emotions are involved in what we do"
  • "We tend to choose things in our free time that calm us in some way."
  • "How we spend our time can connect us."
  • "When we talk together about how we spend our time, we discover ways that we are different."
Wow--13-year olds were making sense of some profound truths. We realized together, as we looked through the lens of this year's theme, SPEAK LIFE, that every interaction with another is an opportunity to draw us closer together or push us farther apart. How we respond to another when we find connection or discover our uniqueness matters. Will we let our differences make our life fuller, or will we respond to differences with criticism, selfishness, and superiority?

As we closed the lesson, I gave a brief introduction to Jamie Smith's CSI Worldview Summit message from his book, You Are What You Love. It sounded something like this: "As human beings, we were created with a desire toward something." (Imagine the huge hand motions at this point, making a straight arrow to the imaginary target in the back of the room.) "As Christians, and as a Christian school, we want our desires to focus toward God and relationship with God. We have regular opportunity to choose habits and activities that move us in that direction. For example, this year we will read the Bible together. Even as we choose to read God's Word, God's Word will do something to us. Another choice we have is whether or not to join a church or place to worship God. When I regularly choose to go to church or youth group--even when I don't feel like it, even when I stayed up too late and am tired--it does something to me, even as I am the one choosing to go.

"This year, I would like us to discover something that we can do regularly as a class that will orient our hearts toward God and relationship with Him as we SPEAK LIFE. Start thinking about ideas. Perhaps we can decide together that we will not talk about another person in our class unless that person is in the conversation with us. Or maybe we will begin each class with a few minutes of silence to quiet our hearts and minds for what God has to say to us. Another idea might be to have a weekly time of writing and speaking encouragement to others. Or maybe we will continue what we started this morning and regularly pray Scripture over each other."

God is at work! Oh how exciting it is to join Him.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Speak Life

"To be human is to be oriented toward a goal." (James K.A. Smith, Calvin College Philosophy Professor) What is it that I, Jennifer Baham, long for in my inner being? What do my longings, desires, and loves uncover about my idea of flourishing or "the good life"? And when I look at the habits in my life, what love-shaping practices or liturgies do I see? For, as Professor Smith shared at the CSI Worldview Summit (August 2-4, 2016), those practices or habits in my life do something to me even as I live them out.

What would a "liturgical audit" of my teaching or my Christian school reveal?  Professor Smith posed that it is not possible to THINK our way out of an undesirable cultural liturgy. But rather, by consciously and consistently choosing practices or habits aimed first at God and His Kingdom, transformation happens at the heart level. I orient what I love to God's design and will by choosing habits that do something to me even as I live them out. "Practices invite me into God's story in a repetitive motion over time." (James K.A. Smith) This recalibrating of my loves, through repetitive practices, reforms my heart and my habits of desire. Practices change what I live for, or think I want to live for. 

As a Christian school, we have a unique opportunity, indeed a unique calling, to reorient our hearts and those of our students toward the GOOD LIFE as relationship with God and obedience to His call. If a student graduates with a heart posture that sees flourishing as relationship with God and obedience to His call, I believe we are on the path to which God has called us in Christian education. Growing together in practices which move toward redemption and restoration of God's good creation brings God's kingdom here on earth.

This year our SJCS community will consider what it means to SPEAK LIFE. It is our prayer that as we uncover this theme, we will be reorienting the heart of our community toward God and His kingdom. Together we will discover what God's word has to say about the words we choose or don't choose, the heart posture from which our words flow, and the power of our words. What will it mean to SPEAK TRUTH on the playground or in a homework assignment? What will it look like to SPEAK HOPE given the history of our country and world? Can I SPEAK SHALOM in a hurting relationship? What does it mean to SPEAK RECONCILIATION as we uncover the racial tensions that continue to surface? Do I SPEAK WISDOM when I prepare students for an assessment and then unfold the results of that assessment? When I speak to a coworker, student or parent, do I SPEAK LIVING WATER that leaves the dry and thirsty souls in my school community less parched than they came? Will I SPEAK GOD'S PRAISES as an outflow of my heart, even in the hurting places? I believe that prayer, Bible study, confession, welcoming the friend and the stranger, and taming the tongue will be some of the powerful habits that will shape us and orient us.

We have an overwhelming call, yet we move forward humbly knowing that indeed it is GOD'S WORK!! He goes before us. His Spirit speaks and intercedes and teaches and guides. As my principal, Dave Intlekofer, pointed out at the conference, the more we learn the vocabulary of integrating faith into all we do, the more opportunities the Spirit reveals to us, and the more we can move forward in our own particular trust and obey.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Breath of Life in Chaos

View of the Sea of Galilee from Capernaum

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, 'Let there be light.', and there was light." Genesis 1:1-3

"The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." Genesis 2:7

"The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is majestic. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon. The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace." Psalm 29:3-5, 11

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it." John 1:1-5

"On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!' After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. And again Jesus said, 'Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.' And with that he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.'" John 20:19-23

As a music teacher of over 20 years, breath is a regular topic of conversation and training. Teaching a student to breath well and use breath effectively affects how well my students can sing or play an instrument. A few years ago I started talking with the Grade 5 students about the connection between the breath of life described in Genesis, and the power we have to use our own voices in life-giving ways. 

And then last week I read John 20:19-23 and I can't stop reading it. I had never noticed before that Jesus breathed on his disciples, his talumidim. Back up to John 20:19. A few days prior the disciples watched as their Rabbi hung on the cross, seemingly dead and defeated. They faced the heart-wrenching reality that in Jesus' time of greatest suffering, they had chosen safety over loyalty. And now they were locked up together in a room, fear-filled and confused. 

Back up even further to Genesis 1:1. In ancient history, water represented chaos. A strong-held belief taught that evil resided in bodies of water. "The Spirit of God was hovering over the [chaos]." And then God says, "Let there be light." Later in Genesis 2 the author describes God's creation of mankind in this way: "God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being."

Fast forward to Jesus' time on earth. John opens his poetic gospel connecting Jesus, God with us, to the very God who breathed life into Adam at creation. Again, there is confusion in the world. And Jesus, God Himself, comes to earth in the midst of the confusion and offers life-giving light. (John 8:12)

As the disciples sat locked in a room just days after Jesus' crucifixion, Jesus "breaks the cedars" (Psalm 29), if you will, by entering the locked room and standing among the very men who betrayed him. And, according to John, the first words to come out of the voice of God's Son, are "Peace be with you." Peace in the storm. Order in the chaos. God's grace to a group of men who loved the LORD, but were lost in fear and confusion. And after speaking peace a second time, Jesus breathes on them and gives them the Holy Spirit. The God whose breath transformed Adam into a living being, transformed Jesus' followers with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. [By the way, I also noticed for the first time that Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit to the disciples in that room BEFORE Pentecost.]

I find it striking that in the same locked room where Jesus first appears to his talmidim, he speaks not only of peace but also of forgiveness. 

I am challenged by these texts in many ways, some yet to be uncovered. My soul is encouraged at the reminder that God is bigger than my fear and confusion, and that He steps into our world to offer peace in the midst of it. My heart is humbled as I consider relationships where I have not allowed God's breath of life to guide my thoughts, actions, or words. I feel challenged to understand more of God and His presence in my life, and to live a life that reflects God's breath of life in me. As I grow in faith [relationship with God], will forgiveness be a mark of my life as God's disciple? Will I trust my Rabbi even while I still feel afraid or confused? God speaks to His beloved in the chaos of our hearts and lives, and offers peace--indeed the very breath of life--to us.

"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness." 2 Timothy 2:16