Thursday, October 30, 2014

In Memoriam

In July of this year

Monday night my grandmother Nonni (1922-2014) departed this earth. She is and will be greatly missed. My family welcomes your prayers as we prepare for her funeral this weekend.

With her in her home, April 2013

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Buried Treasure in Matthew's Genealogy of Jesus

My parents teach citizenship classes twice a week at our church and a Sunday school class for non-native English speakers. Recently, a student from a Middle Eastern country asked them a question about the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17. This inquirer into the Christian faith wanted to know, if the Bible is true, why the genealogy is deficient by one name. If each name provided is only counted once, one of the divisions appears to have only 13 instead of 14 names. They indulged me by sending the research project my way, and below is my response (so keep in mind that it's written for someone without a churchgoer's familiarity with the structure and people of the New Testament). It's not the sort of piece usually offered here, but the richness of the study surprised me. I pray something in it blesses and encourages you, too. [This post originally published Monday, 10/27, but I unpublished and rescheduled it in light of a family bereavement Monday evening.]

            Looking at the role of the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17 in the book as a whole, the best resolution to what at first seems to be a counting error in the three groups of fourteen is that Matthew means the reader to count David twice:  as the last name in the first group of fourteen and as the first name in the second group of fourteen. “Context is king” in interpreting the Bible. To explain why we would count David twice, then, we need to consider the specific context of the Gospel of Matthew, the purpose of Matthew’s Gospel, the reason a genealogy to start the book matters in the first place, and why the structure of this genealogy matters for the book as a whole.

Context of Matthew

            The Gospel According to Matthew (or just “Matthew”) was written by a close follower of Jesus whose name was Matthew. He was also called Levi, and before Jesus called him, he worked as a tax collector for the Roman government. That story appears in Matthew 9:9. When Jesus chose twelve men to be with him as he traveled, taught, and worked miracles, Matthew was one of them. (See Matthew 10:1-4.)  He followed Jesus until His death on the cross. Later, with the other ten remaining disciples (which means “close followers”), he saw Jesus after He rose from the dead. Jesus told those eleven to go and “make disciples of all nations.” He told them to baptize and to teach everything Jesus had commanded during the years they had spent together (Matthew 28:16-20).
            From this background information we know that Matthew was good with numbers, so the mystery of the “missing name” is probably not a counting mistake. We also know that Matthew spent a lot of time with Jesus during His ministry, so Matthew is dependable as an eyewitness to the things he writes about.

Matthew’s Purpose      

            The Bible is different from other holy books, because it is 100% the Word of God but at the same time truly the words of the human authors, too, without in any way lessening the inerrancy or authority of the Book. God used the human authors’ experiences and personalities to shape the messages they wrote. (See 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:19-21.)
            For this reason, we have four Gospels telling about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and going up to heaven. The original Greek text of each is without error and trustworthy, while at the same time reflecting the unique personality and purpose of each writer.
            The emphasis in Matthew’s telling of the life of Jesus Christ is the kingdom. He wrote to a mostly Jewish audience who were looking for the King of Israel God had promised in many places in the Old Testament. Matthew presents Jesus as that promised King, who had to come from the family line of King David of old. We see this emphasis in Matthew’s word choices: he uses the royal title “Son of David ten times, more than any other Gospel, and he uses the words “king” and “kingdom” 72 times, more than any other New Testament book. Another important kingly title is “Christ” or “Messiah.” This literally means “Anointed One” and refers to the ancient Israelite practice of anointing their leaders with oil as a sign that they were set apart for holy service. Matthew uses that title 17 times, more than any Gospel except John’s.
            In other words, Matthew seeks to convince his readers that Jesus Christ of Nazareth is the King Israel had awaited for a thousand years.

Why the Genealogy?

            If Matthew is trying to prove that Jesus is the King of Israel, why would he start his argument with a list of names?
            He starts with the genealogy because all the Old Testament promises about the coming King specify that he had to be descended from Abraham, through Isaac and Jacob, and also from King David, who was from the family of Jacob’s son Judah.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the fathers of the whole nation of Israel, so any king of Israel would have to come from them. God had promised each of them that He would bless all the nations of the earth through their offspring (see Genesis 22:18 for one example, with others throughout Genesis 12-50). This explains why Matthew starts with Abraham instead of starting earlier with Adam the way Luke does.
God narrows down the possibilities by making a covenant (binding agreement) with David, the second king of Israel. 1 Chronicles 14 tells this story completely, with the specific promise we need to know here in 1 Chronicles 17:11-14, where God is speaking:
‘When your days are fulfilled to walk with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. 12 He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. 13 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from him who was before you, 14 but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.’

            David’s heir Solomon did rule the kingdom of Israel, but only for 40 years. 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles explain that story in full. The basics facts are that Solomon did not obey several specific commands of God. His heart was led astray by his foreign wives, so God told him that the kingdom would be divided in his son Rehoboam’s lifetime. That did happen, and the kingdom was never again united until after the people of Israel had returned from exile in Babylon, Assyria, and later Persia. From that time until the time of Jesus, Israel lived in their land under foreign governments and were not allowed to have a king like the one promised to David.
            When Jesus was born, the people of Israel were under Roman rule, and many were unhappy and looking in hope for the king God had promised, the king who would come from Abraham’s and David’s families. In order for Matthew to prove that Jesus was that king, he first had to prove that Jesus was from the right families to be qualified.

Why This Genealogy?

                Matthew had to prove that Jesus was from Abraham and from David. He also had to prove that He was descended from the last king before the exile, who was Jechoniah. This shapes Matthew’s section breaks: first, Abraham to David and the promise of the forever kingdom; then David to the exile and the temporary end to that kingdom; then from the exile to the time of Christ, in an unbroken family line. Section breaks in a genealogy were common as helps to memorizing them, since most people didn’t have access to the written Gospels at first.
            Why does the number fourteen matter? The people of Israel, before they had Arabic numerals for counting, used their alphabet as numbers. This practice is called gematria. In English, we would say, A=1, B=2, and so on until Z=26. In that way, even a name could be represented as a number. The name Abe would equal 1+2+5, or 8, except that Hebrew didn’t have vowels, which would mean that Abe equals 2. In the same way, using the Hebrew alphabet, the numerical value for the name David is, you guessed it, 14. Matthew groups the names in his genealogy in a way that cries out, “David! David! David!” Then he also places David as the fourteenth name on the list. From this genealogy, there should be no doubt at all that Jesus is from the perfect family line to be a possible king of Israel.
            What about the “missing generation”? If we count the names without any duplication, it looks like the last generation only has thirteen. In light of the background discussed so far, though, we know that David’s name is not just any name. (We also know that, as a tax collector, it’s unlikely that Matthew just counted wrong.) On this list and in this Gospel, David’s name is the most important except for Jesus. Also, we should note that in Matthew 1:17, God through Matthew names David twice in his summary of the sections but then uses more general language instead of names after David: “from Abraham to David. . . from David to the deportation to Babylon. . . and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ. . . .” We can also note that Matthew never says in that verse that there are a total of 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus, but rather that there are fourteen in each grouping he lists. All of this evidence leads me to conclude that Matthew intends for the reader to count David twice as one more way of emphasizing his importance in the family line of Jesus. David is the last name in the first section and the first name in the middle section.
            From Abraham to Jesus, everything about Matthew’s arrangement of the generations shouts that Jesus is the Son of David and therefore the heir to the promises God made to David and has a right to the throne of Israel.

So What?

            Jesus’ origin from Abraham through David is the first requirement for Him to rule as King of Israel, but it’s also the first requirement for Him to be the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through whom all nations of the earth would be blessed. Matthew hints at this by including some non-Israelite women in the list and develops it more throughout the Gospel until his closing statement in Matthew 28:18-20:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Through Matthew, God starts this Gospel by proving that Jesus had a claim to be King of Israel. He ends with Jesus claiming for Himself all authority in heaven and on earth and telling His disciples (including Matthew) to make disciples of all nations, not just Israel. That means Jesus claims authority over each of our nations and over each of our lives. He is King of Israel first, but ultimately King of all heaven and earth, and of you and of me. But to get to those “alls,” he has to start with a genealogy.

Matthew book introductions and chapter 1 notes:
The ESV Study Bible; The Holman Christian Study Bible; The New King James Study Bible; The New Bible Commentary: Revised

Web articles:
"Is there an error in the counting of the generations in Matthew chapter 1?"
"Problems with Basic Math?"
"The Origins of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1-25)"

Matthew commentaries:
Commentary on Matthew (Commentary on the New Testament Book #1), Robert Gundry

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hope-Full {A Poem}

"Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit"
(Romans 15:13, HCSB).

Trust digs channels for hope
To flow from holy Source--
Spurting, splashing, splattering
Down, upon, into emptiness.

Thirsty vessel drinks,
Drop by drop,
Joy and peace--
Filling, fulness, flowing over open lip
Down, upon, into emptiness.

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
   Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
   for I will yet praise him,
   my Savior and my God.

Psalm 42:5, NIV

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Autumn Hope

The trees are weeping
Great arid tears
Of scarlet, gold, and flame—
Mourning winter’s onset,
Doubting spring will come again.

Autumn sings in minor key,
Bagpipes droning slave trader's hymn.
Loss, surrender, relinquishment thrum
Beneath the glory of the turning leaves,
The crisp cool air,
The gentler light.

Even as tree limbs release
Their grip on summer's glory
And exhalations of wind carry it
Down, down, down to the earth,
Farmers gather in their harvests,
Golden glory-fruit
Of many seeds of hope
Buried in soil
By the weeping of the trees.

"I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop" (John 12:24, HCSB).

Monday, September 22, 2014

Agency D3 After-Action Report {Summer 2014}

In May, my church's children's minister agency director Special Agent T tried to recruit me to assist in a Bible story room at Vacation Bible School to train junior agents for Agency D3 in the evidence vault. I declined, since I was scheduled for shoulder surgery in the very near future and would just be beginning a long, painful rehab at the time of the mission.

Two weeks pass. My shoulder surgery proved much less extensive than the MRI had indicated. Consequently, I would have six weeks of physical therapy under my belt before D3 needed me.

Sp. Agent T tried again, sweetening the deal by inviting me to assist my dad the renowned Sp. Agent Tony in his evidence vault teaching Bible stories to 3rd and 4th graders. I said I'd pray about it and see how the first couple of weeks of rehab went and get back to her. (Amore's loving, supportive comment: "Wow, they must be really hard up for volunteers for her to be coming after you." Ahem. Thanks, honey.)

We prayed and looked at the calendar and realized that, if my therapist let me have that week off, D3 week in mid-July would be the first week since Easter with no medical appointments. So. That checked out. My therapist would indeed let me have that week off from appointments as long as I did my homework exercises. By that time I was getting excited about pretending to be a spy with my dad  teaching children the Bible for a week after a long time in retirement, both from teaching and from ministry.

(For those unfamiliar with Agency D3, it was one of Lifeway's 2014 Vacation Bible School curricula, and it was oriented around a spy theme.)

I accepted. I met with my handler to get the mission specs and my assignments. I wrote a tune to help us learn the D3 memory verse. I prattled on about the plans to my PT intern (more about her in an upcoming post).

And then, about a week before the op started, I panicked. Five half-days in a row away from home, active, engaged with people? Why, I haven't done that since... I don't even know how long. At least five years. And I haven't stood in front of a classroom since 1998, and that was high school. What was I thinking? And why didn't my husband talk me down off the crazy ledge?

"Deep breaths, soul. The Lord got you into this. It's up to Him to get you through it. His power is made perfect in weakness, remember? And besides, it's too late to back out now. Your dad has your back. If things go sideways he'll take care of you. You're focusing on the wrong things. Look at the Lord, not the waves."

I prepared for my training exercises, practiced the memory verse until I woke up in the night with it stuck in my heard, and gathered my share of the materials. Then I put on my Agency D3 t-shirt uniform and reported for duty.

And do you know what? It's been a long, long time since I've enjoyed myself so thoroughly and felt such a fit between my job and myself.

The Agency D3 Headquarters, a.k.a., the worship center
Our Person of Interest for the week was Jesus of Nazareth. Our mission objective, to investigate what the evidence file (the Bible) says about who He is. Much has been said of Him, much written. We were out to discover, decide, and defend the truth.

Each day our assignment was to ask and answer a specific question about this Jesus:
  • Day 1: Is Jesus really God's Son?
  • Day 2: Was Jesus more than just a good man?
  • Day 3: Was Jesus' death real?
  • Day 4: Is Jesus alive?
  • Day 5: What will I do with the truth about Jesus?

For the most part, Dad the lead agent led the new recruits through the Bible story evidence file. I conducted fun training exercises, e.g., a story review disguised as a hunt for a mole within the agency and a primer on anti-counterfeit features of the $20 bill (a warm-up for the discussion of whether Jesus' death was counterfeit, if you're not seeing the connection). Sp. Agent Tony had some fun, too, bringing an actual frozen sardine for the telling of the feeding of the multitude on day 2.

In addition to the substantial, well-designed, enjoyable lesson content, all of us enjoyed the dress-up days: dress-like-a-spy day on Wednesday and disguise day on Thursday. Here are my attempts:

Photo credit: Amore
The blue hair and tattoos were temporary. Photo credit: Dad

Besides the disguises (wink), my favorite day was Thursday, when I got to lead the junior agents in examining the evidence for Christ's resurrection. The mission specs prescribed having four zip-top storage evidence bags in the evidence box:
  1. an empty bag for the empty tomb
  2. a bag holding a fragment of cloth for the burial wrappings still in the tomb but empty of a body
  3. a bag holding a portion of bread, for when the disciples on the Emmaus road recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread
  4. and a bag holding a thumbprint, to represent Jesus showing the disciples the unique identification of His nail-scarred hands and feet.
Paragraph by paragraph, we read through Luke 24, Agent Tony taking out each evidence bag as we reached the relevant part of the account. This is probably my favorite way I've ever shared the evidence for the Resurrection, and I hope to remember those four bags and their contents as pegs to organize my own memory of the different proofs Jesus provided to those who followed Him. (Telling the story five times in a day, plus practice in advance, might help too.)

On the final day, each student had an opportunity to complete his or her own "Agent's Action Plan," a summary of the conclusions from each day's assignment and the agent's own decision based on those conclusions, whether to believe Jesus is who the evidence reveals Him to be and trust that He came to save His people from their sins as the evidence says He came to do, or to reject that, or to investigate further. We didn't pressure them as to how they should respond or ask them to share in front of the group at that time, although we encouraged them to tell their group's teacher and parents their decision.

During that response time, one boy raised his hand for help. When I went to him and asked how I could help, he said, "I don't need help. I'm done. I need to tell you something."

"My family is going to London on vacation in a few days. Do you know what that means?"

No, I really didn't.

"That means I'm taking this stuff international! I'm going to go tell the people in London what the evidence says about Jesus!"

I told him that was great, that there were lots of people in London (just like everywhere) who needed to hear about Jesus. I hope his parents felt the same.

In another class, we were discussing how we might respond (the "defend" part of the three Ds) to a friend who said, "I don't want to be a Christian. It doesn't sound like much fun." One girl said, "Sometimes it's not very much fun. Sometimes God lets things happen that really hurt, and we can't do things we really want to do, but He always makes something good come out of them." I helped her find Romans 8:28 as some evidence that supported that statement, and we talked about what that meant and how God's idea of good sometimes looks different from ours. Then she asked if she could close the class in prayer and picked up that theme of blessings in disguise in her prayer too. It turns out that she had broken her collarbone and was not allowed to play many of the fun active games her classmates shared, but it seems she was learning from that hard providence.

After the last class on that last day, a very quiet young lady who had been helping that group came up to me and shared her own story. During a brainstorming session with the children about how we might respond to various false statements our friends might make about Jesus and Christianity, I had mentioned my experience with Amore in V--tnam and how more than one of his students there had been imprisoned just for being a Christian pastor. This young lady, "Miriam," shared that her home country of Ir_n is the same way, that it's very dangerous there to be a Christian or minister.

She is a graduate student at a nearby university for a year. She started sharing with the campus IMI worker about her troubles, and he shared Jesus with her. She had come with him to church the week before Agency D3 started. A few volunteers were still needed, and she decided she could do that. She wasn't teaching any spiritual truths to the students, but she was a great help to the teachers in herding them from place to place, distributing supplies and snacks, and other practical tasks. At the same time, she was soaking up the truth about Jesus along with the other children. She said, "Since I've been learning about Jesus, my life just gets better and better, and my problems are fading away." She completed her own Agent's Action Plan to take home has continued to assist with children's ministry activities and learn about Jesus. We provided her with the International Sunday School information as well, but so far she prefers to learn with the children.

Sp. Agent Tony and me in front of our evidence wall
The following day Amore and I went to our youngest nephew Rocky's Minion birthday party across town, and Sunday was VBS Sunday at church. After that, though, I crashed. Amore went to change clothes and returned to the living room to find me weeping. I was exhausted, yes. Relieved, sure. But also sad, which surprised me.

It was such a hard week, so far beyond my strength. And now it was over. And I would miss it. Sure, part of the fun was the spy theme, and how many opportunities does a middle-aged chronically-ill housewife have to pretend to be a spy? But it also felt great to be in front of a classroom again, to be serving the body of Christ by communicating the truth of God's Word, and to be doing so alongside my dad (serving together in ministry for the first time). This isn't something I can do week-on-week as a regular commitment, and that's still hard to accept after all these years, but for that one week, it felt like going home.

Thanks, Special Agent T, for persisting in recruiting me. Thanks, Dad, for taking a risk on me, even though that meant possibly ending up without a helper halfway through the week. You ran a good op. Thanks, Amore, for supporting me and lowering your meal and household expectations even more for a week and a half. Thank You, Lord, for enticing me to leave my comfort zone far behind so You could prove Yourself faithful once again.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Anniversary Staycation {Summer 2014}

While the curtains close on summer, I hope to raise a few Ebenezers to remember God's mercies in the last few months. They have been jam-packed, largely with medical appointments and tasks, but the Lord has given 3 specific treasures I ought not forget.

I'll start with the third, partly because it's freshest on my mind and partly because it's the easiest post to write. As Amore often does, he took a few days of vacation the week of our anniversary. We couldn't travel, but we wanted to make the time as set-apart and refreshing as possible. I promised myself that any to-do tasks that weren't done by bedtime Tuesday night would remain undone until the following Monday. The laundry wasn't quite caught up, but we survived. We turned our computers off, and I even left the WiFi turned off on my phone unless we needed it for something vacation-specific like ordering movie tickets.

We spent the first day at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science just north of downtown Dallas. I had been twice before with some of my family, but I'd only actually seen the half most interesting to young boys. Amore had never yet visited and wanted to.

He refused to race the dinosaurs but did consent to kick a soccer ball for the high-speed camera. It didn't look much different from the FC Dallas example in the museum's database.

We both enjoyed a short 3-D film following three generations of monarch butterflies on their annual migration from their wintering grounds in Mexico to their summer home in Canada. We're not generally great fans of 3-D cinema, but this kind of documentary used the technique well.

After lunch we rode the glass escalator (on the outside of the building, above top) to the top floor and worked our way down from the birds to the Texas wildlife exhibit and dinosaurs, by way of the earthquake simulator and hall of gems. To make up for my inability to race dinosaurs or do anything the high-speed camera would have enhanced in the sports area, I pretended to be a weather girl and read a hail forecast in front of a green screen while my dear husband of fifteen years minus a day laughed at me. Actually, I cracked myself up with my incompetence at least once, so he was probably laughing with me. :)

View of downtown from the escalator

By 3:30 our brains had run out of memory so we left the Texas Instruments Engineering Center and the Being Human area for another day.

We took a much slower pace on Thursday, our actual anniversary, enjoying a movie at the theater (not a frequent occurrence for us) and a quiet dinner. Friday was also a recovery day, with Amore taking a long nature walk in the early morning and the two of us taking some reading time at locally-owned coffeehouse Fourteen Eighteen. While we were there we also received a phone call about our final time-off plans.

Bicycle built for two, on the wall at Fourteen Eighteen

We concluded our staycation fun at a Fort Worth Symphony performance at Bass Hall, our favorite area performance venue (granted, we haven't yet visited the Winspear). The call at the coffeehouse was to ask "if it would be all right" that the symphony upgrade our tickets two tiers, to one level lower and a bit nearer than purchased. Let me think about that a moment.... Yes, please!

The symphony's season hadn't started yet, but they were playing a weekend festival featuring the music of Brahms and Dvorak, the latter Amore's current favorite composer.

It was a splendid finale (complete with encores) to a lovely rest from routine work and appointments. And my dear husband even humored me by wearing a suit and asking an usher to take our picture.

Happy fifteen years, my beloved!

Did you take any time off this summer? If so, how did you spend it? Thanks for reading about ours. May the Lord bless you with spiritual rest, wherever you find yourself and however busy your outward circumstances today.

Monday, September 15, 2014

"Lovely to Love Him"

"...right down in the depths of her own heart she really had but one passionate desire,
not for the things which the Shepherd had promised, but for himself. All she wanted was to be allowed to follow him forever.

"Other desires might clamor more strongly and fiercely nearer the surface of her nature,
but she knew now that down in the core of her own being she was so shaped
that nothing could fit, fill, or satisfy her heart but he himself.
'Nothing else really matters,' she said to herself, 'only to love him and to do what he tells me.
I don't know quite why it should be so, but it is.
All the time it is suffering to love and sorrow to love,
but it is lovely to love him in spite of this,
and if I should cease to do so, I should cease to exist.'"

~Hannah Hurnard, Hinds' Feet on High Places, p. 176