Friday, February 19, 2010

Εγω ειμι

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. 

This story begins with what Stephen Colbert calls a "Threat Down" - a list of threats facing parties in question. And we meet our parties in question - Jesus’ disciples - right here in the midst of the unfriendliest of circumstances, right when they’re facing a threat-down that would leave even the most self-respecting of former fishermen worried and afraid.

The disciples have just left Jesus alone to pray after a long day of teaching and feeding the multitudes, and it isn’t long before the sun goes down, the winds start whooing, the waves start waving, and pretty soon, the little boat they’re waiting in starts to shift out onto the water...without their leader.

Just when it seems like it can’t get any worse, who shows up but a ghost.

Or so they thought.

During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear. 

This is a story about fear. It’s the kind of fear that gives you the shakes and ties your tongue and steals your appetite, the kind that wakes you up in the middle of the night with a knot in your stomach and a worry in your heart that maybe everything you love isn’t safe after all. And it’s at this point, at the height of a knee-knocking fear, that Jesus says something important to his disciples, to you, to me:

"Take courage! I am. Don't be afraid." 

Amidst all the hundreds and some-odd commands in the Bible, this one comes up by far the most:

Do. Not. Fear.

I think the command about fear keeps resurfacing because God knows just how much we do fear. As a people, we’re afraid of everything from public speaking to peanut butter. The whole world seems to make us afraid: the waiting room, the verdict, the answer, the diagnosis, the future, the relationship, the commitment, the wind and the waves, they all make us afraid.

So Christ reassures us. Take courage. Don’t be afraid because, he says, I Am.

So many translators have turned this into a cute reassurance: “Take heart! It is I!” or “Be of good cheer!  I am here!” And while I’m sure it would still be comforting to find out that what you thought was a fiend is actually a friend, Jesus is saying something infinitely more profound. Because what Jesus says is "I Am" - the name God revealed to Moses at the burning bush.

Take courage, friends. I am God. Ssshhh. Calm down. I Am.

"Lord, if it's you," Peter replied, "tell me to come to you on the water." 

There’s an important word in Peter’s response:


If it’s you…and that word, if, is dripping with fear and doubt.

If is used this way several other times in Matthew. The first few occur when Satan is tempting Jesus in the desert. The last, when Jesus is hanging on the cross. If you are the son of God, come down. If you are who you say you are...prove it.

And Peter joins in, as if to say, “How will I know it's really you? Never mind that earlier, you fed 5,000 people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Never mind that you’re walking on water. If you’re God, make me do it, too. Tell me to come to you. If you’re God...prove it. ”

And Jesus responds:


Because it’s him. It really is him.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!" Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt?"

It takes courage to walk toward Jesus in the midst of fear, in what seems like an impossible situation, when maybe you’re not even sure if it’s really him. But Peter steps out of the boat and onto the water.

And sinks.

But Jesus catches him.

We know Peter will fear again. He denies Jesus three times because he’s afraid of the consequences of being identified with him.

Faith doesn't always banish our fear.
Faith doesn't always banish our fear.

But it does teach us whose hand will catch us when we’re falling.

When I was a little girl, I had little girl fears. I was afraid of spiders and snakes and being kidnapped by gypsies. As I got older, my fears evolved. I started to fear rejection, disappointment, losing the people I loved or letting those people down. I started to fear change.

Fear is something so many of us experience every day. We fear big things and small things and everything in between - tornadoes and terrorism and World War III. Some of our fears come from within and some from without. We are afraid that we won’t be able to provide. We are afraid of unrequited love or of never finding love at all. Some of us fear that maybe our dreams don’t match God’s plans for us, that we’ve misunderstood God’s call...or that maybe we haven’t. Some of us fear being exposed for who we really are. Some of us are afraid of the work it will take to get healthy and whole.

Our fears are real, they’re potent, and in so many ways, they have the power to shape us, to drive us, to transform us. Our fears keep us wading in the wind and waves of insecurity.  They keep us from forgiving or from asking for forgiveness. They drive us to manipulate or to grasp at control. Fear keeps sin in the dark, relationships from being mended, wounds from being healed, gifts from being realized, truth from being told. Fear keeps us inside where it’s safe instead of out where the work is. It seams together fig leaves and keeps us in hiding and makes Jesus look like a ghost instead of like God.

This is a story about us. Because if we’re really honest with ourselves, so much of our fear comes from the if, this idea that maybe, just maybe, Jesus isn’t who he says he is. We fear that his promises won't stand on water.

But it’s in all these moments, what can feel like the worst of moments, at the height of fear, that we find Jesus walking toward us:

“Don’t be afraid. I Am.”

Even when we can't recognize him over the wind and the waves, it’s him. It really is him.

His promises stand when everything around us seems to be sinking, and when we grasp the hand that’s reaching out to us, when we finally realize that Christ is exactly who he says he is, our fear takes on a different form.

And this new fear, the fear of the Lord, it’s real. It’s potent. It has the power to shape us, to drive us, to transform us.

Everywhere in Scripture, we see this big and powerful God who reaches out his hand to the small things, the little things:

This God, huge and mysterious, numbers both the stars and the hairs on our heads.

This God Almighty, wearing glory for clothing and cloaked in unapproachable light, heals the sick by the hem of his garment.

This God, to whom belongs the heavens - even the highest ones - who can be contained by no universe or temple we can build, this God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow and loves the foreigner residing among us.

This God, the infinite creator of 108 billion people so far and counting, the God whose fingers formed the moon and milky way and the Eagle Nebula, who breathes in and exhales and out comes a star, this God cares more about your every breath, your every thought, your every hope, your every fear, than anyone else in all the universe, even more than you do.

That’s a God worthy of fear and praise.

This is a story about Christ, mighty and awesome, the Great I Am, who controls the wind and the waves - and sometimes, for reasons we don't understand, waits to quiet the storm until after we can see him better - at the same time, reaches out his hand when we’re scared and sinking, saying: “Take courage. I Am. Don’t be afraid.”

And walks with us through the storm.

Truly, this is the Son of God.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Now I’m Found: An Interview with the Lost Boys of Sudan

“For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life…” Psalm 56: 13

In 1987, extremist Islamic government forces from the north displaced nearly 17,000 boys from the southern part of Sudan. These boys, all under the age of fifteen, fled on foot to escape slavery and death, grieving for lost parents, brothers, and sisters. Many walked over 1,000 miles barefoot through desert and jungle. They finally made it to Ethiopia, only to be forced out at gunpoint when the Ethiopian government became unstable four years later. Over 2,000 boys drowned trying to cross the Gilo River out of Ethiopia and about 5,000 perished from wild animals, disease, hunger, thirst, or gunfire.

In 1992, survivors finally arrived at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where they lived for 9 years on one cup of maize and flour a day. Some of their sisters made it to refugee camps but very few. Most young girls were raped, killed, or sold into slavery in the north. In the midst of all of these hardships, survivor Jacob Puka never lost faith that “God was the only One guiding us through the wilderness. We were lost to our families but we were never lost to God.”

James Ariath, John Gak, David Mand, and Santino Wach are among the survivors who were brought to the United States by the United Nations in 2001. James reminded us that this interview records only a part of the history. If we try to write the whole thing down, he said, we will write until tomorrow.

BH: Thank you for meeting with us and sharing your stories. Will you tell us a little bit what happened to you after the war broke out?

James: The complete history is too long to tell. Some people thought that God forgot us. This is not something we planned but sometimes I think God planned it.

BH: You were all very little when the war started. Do you know how old you were?

Santino: I don’t know exactly my age. I was probably about 5 years old.

At that time, the Khartoum government attacked our village. I woke up and then I ran to go and hide because the sound of the bombing and the planes really terrified me. They were trying to get me but they did not get me.

John: We left the country. It wasn’t a choice. When we left, we felt like we would come back in the evening. Then two days down the road, we knew we had left the country.

Since we had no choice, we just walked by day until we happened to be in Ethiopia, but we didn’t know we were in that country at first. We went slowly by night until we could hear people speaking a different dialect so we knew we were in a different place. It took me a month, personally, to walk to Ethiopia.

BH: John, do you know how old you were at this point?

John: I was seven.

James: I walked 1,000 miles to Ethiopia, following the eldest boys who were in charge. The oldest boys were in charge of the younger ones.

BH: What did it feel like to walk for so long?

Santino: It was very hard. My leg was swollen and I was not able to walk. It was a very bad situation.

BH: Every day, for a month, you would just wake up and walk in a line?

Santino: Yes. Sometimes, we couldn’t lie down to sleep. We would just sleepwalk.

John: In the midst of hunger, longing, and diseases, a lot of the boys fell sick and died. We would take them out and bury them but it wasn’t a fancy burial. We didn’t have any tools to use to make a deep grave and we were all very little. So animals would come in the night and cast their bodies out.

James: In that Savannah land, the tall grass grows. We had to leave dead bodies in the grass all the way to Ethiopia. Some of the boys died in the river or by crocodiles.

Santino: Whenever you are born in the war zone, it is a tough situation. People die a lot. There are a lot of people suffering over there, disabled.

BH: Do you know how many boys were walking with you?

John: There were so many of us and we came from different villages. We couldn’t walk together – we were everywhere. Nobody knows how many we were.

BH: What did you eat?

Santino: Sometimes I couldn’t find food. Sometimes I saw people eating along the way and they shared with me. Sometimes I just ate wild fruit to stay alive.

James: God is good because our land has a lot of fruits that can’t poison you.

John: We fed on everything that we could find whether we knew what it was or not – we didn’t have a choice. We ate whatever we could find that would keep us alive.

BH: What do you think sustained you when you were running? What kept you going?

John: Well, after I left the country, I had no one to rely on, no parents. But I had God and friends. So I would say God sustained me.

BH: Who introduced you to Christ?

John: Before we left Sudan, there were people going village to village proclaiming the word of God. I was busy, taking care of my parents’ house. But I heard the songs and I would always sing them. I would sneak over to the church and listen to them sing. But I wasn’t into it until I started going to church in Ethiopia to dance. They had organized groups to dance. That’s how I came to know God.

James: There were some people who knew the will of God and started preaching under the tree. They told us what the Bible said and how to sing and pray to Jesus. And they sent some priests and baptized a lot of the boys and we were able to get our Christian names. In our culture, every name has a meaning. When you choose a name, you have to know the meaning. At this time, the priests chose Christian names for us.

BH: What else happened when you were in Ethiopia?

John: Most of us made it to Ethiopia safely and we settled in the border, close to Sudan but not in Sudan. All of the lost boys settled there and lived in groups. We didn’t have anything but once in awhile, a group of five of us would be given a cup of corn for a day. If you ate it in an hour, then you spent the rest of the day without anything to eat.

Then the United Nations brought some convoys with food. Our lives changed a little bit and we started going to school. We didn’t have classrooms. We would sit under a tree and the teacher would pick up rocks and say, “Ok, this is one rock. Here are two rocks.” Soon they gave us a book to study math and we got a blackboard.

BH: Who was teaching you?

John: Boys who knew English, those who went to school back in Sudan. If you had been in first grade, you would teach first grade.

BH: So the boys would teach each other?

John: Yes. Eventually, we had Ethiopians teaching us.

In 1991, when I was in first grade, the government of Ethiopia became unstable and so our allies were no longer in office. We were forced to run out of the country. We were never in a secure area; there was a lot of bombing during this time.

This time, the United Nations were with us. So anything we needed - food, medicines, and even refugee camps - they prepared for us. They brought us to a camp called Pachala. But we knew every day the Sudanese government would come to find us so we had to leave that camp.

Two days after we left, they captured Pachala.

From there we went to Kenya with the International Committee of the Red Cross. We walked. I don’t know how many days we walked. Down the road, they sent us some trucks to go to another town that brought us to Kenya. We stayed there awhile. Then, we went to a town in Sudan, an hour away from where we settled. Soon that town was captured. Whenever they heard that we were in a new town, they went to capture that town as soon as possible.

BH: That must have been terrifying. Why do you think they were targeting you? You were just a bunch of little boys.

John: In the United States, women can go to war. But in African countries, only men fight so they wanted to kill us before we grew up and joined the rebel army. Before we left, all of the young men left the country. The fighting started in different towns because the government wanted to find soldiers in these towns. That’s why they began burning villages down.

Now that all the men had left, the boys became the men. No one over 15 years was in the country. So even though we were young, we became men.

BH: That’s a lot of responsibility.

John: Yes, but we stepped into that responsibility. In our culture, men are in charge of the family and whatever comes, they will be the first to die. It wasn’t a plan to leave. We just left when it was time. We had to run.

In Kenya, the U.N. brought food and set up water facilities to a town called Lokichiogio. But they knew that the Sudanese government had access to where we were, so they brought us to another town called Kakuma, a refugee camp. We settled here.

We began going to school at different levels and we finished High School. James and I were in the same class. I knew him back at Kakuma. He was my school captain.

Now we were at rest. There wasn’t any running and we didn’t hear bombing. But the United Nations knew that we were still not settled. So they connected with the United States to get us to a place where we could settle. At the end of 2000, the first group went to the United States. The second wave was in 2001.

BH: Is that when you came, John?

John: Yes. I was on one of the last flights.

BH: Did you want to come to the United States?

John: Even though we were told that we were going to the United States, we didn’t believe it until we set foot in the country. We thought, “Who would take care of all these people?” So when the process started, we thought we’d go for it since it didn’t cost us anything. We didn’t apply for it. It was the United Nations that decided it so we said we’d go.

BH: Did you have any choice in where you were sent in the United States?

John: No, we didn’t have any choice. We just asked to be in groups of three to five boys so we could stay with friends. I first came to live in Ohio. I stayed there for two months but because of the weather, I moved to California.

During that process, I felt that God was working. All along the way, we had people helping us until we came to the United States where we could now be at home, work, and go to school. If it wasn’t for their hearts to help God, I don’t think we could have made it up until this point.

BH: So He was watching over you the whole time?

John: That’s what I felt.

BH: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience in this country?

John: The first group that came over sent us pictures and a video saying it was like second heaven in this country. But their pictures were taken against a brick wall and we laughed because we didn’t know there were bricks in heaven!

The lifestyle here is very different and the food is different. There are so many cars here. Where we grew up, there wasn’t so much technology. The cities weren’t that much different from here, but living in a refugee camp, you can imagine how little technology we had.

BH: Did anything else surprise you coming to the United States?

John: We had read about homosexuality but it wasn’t something we knew much about. That was a surprise. It is not part of our culture. At home in Sudan, guys would put their hands around other guys or hold hands. When we first came here, people would stare at us when we did that. Later on, we found out it wasn’t something we should do.

James: I hear my classmates in America talking about how hard life is. I always tell them that they haven’t seen the hard life. They have freedom. I say, “You can go to the movies, go to class, watch TV all day, eat and drink 24 hours a day.”

I asked my professor to compare life in America today with early America and he said that this generation is wasting time and taking everything for granted. I believe that. Most of the kids going to school in America don’t go to work. Many drop out of school. I wish I were here in 1995. I should have graduated already. I think if I were born here, I would be a professor already. But it is a different life. And we are trying very hard to get enough education to bring back to our people.

BH: In general, have you been treated pretty well by Americans?

John: Generally, yes. When we first came, volunteers would take us out shopping, show us where the markets are, take us to the movies. We didn’t have jobs so we would stay in all day. But the volunteers would come and take us out. They bought us all brand new bicycles.

BH: Do you ever want to move back to the Sudan?

John: I’m not sure right now. I wonder where it would be safe for me to stay. I don’t see any stability in the country. I won’t go to stay until I see some stability. I’m okay right now, going to school and working here. I’m not thinking of going back to stay right now but I love going back to see family and friends. I went back in 2004 and again in 2006, but just to visit.

BH: Do you know where your parents are, or your brothers and sisters?

John: My elder brother left ahead of me since he was a young man. In 1991, he was killed in the fight. He was the eldest of my mother’s children. My dad had 15 children by 5 wives. Having many kids is part of the tradition and heritage in the Sudan. In Sudan, the more kids you have, the less you have to work when you are old. They are like your retirement fund. Many of my brothers have the same name as me. I haven’t met them all.

BH: So have you seen any of your brothers and sisters since 1983?

John: I saw some of them when I went back in 2004. That was the first time I had seen my mom since 1987.

BH: Do you get to talk with your mom while you are here in the United States?

John: I used to when she was in Kenya. Now that she has gone back to Sudan, it will take a while for me to talk to her. They don’t have phones in the village. The only thing that I can do is to ask my brother in Kenya to call her and see how she is doing. Or I can call my cousins in the refugee camp because they can contact the other villages with radios.

BH: What about your dad?

John: My dad passed away in 1992 in the north.

Santino: I don’t know where my parents are right now. If possible, I would like to go back and find out where they are. The last time I saw them was 1987 and I have not seen them again. That’s a long time.

Also, when we were walking, I had my brother with me but he got shot on the way and died.

BH: Do you know who shot him?

Santino: No, I did not see the person. It was nighttime.

James: My dad was killed in 1999 and my mom passed away on February 26, 2006. I hadn’t seen them since 1987 but she said she wanted to see me before she died. I sent her a letter and a picture but she didn’t believe it was me, that I was still alive. And so she asked me the name that they used to call me before, when I was little. I told her and then she was convinced that I was alive. She thought I was dead already but God had taken care of me. And I’m happy I’m still alive to tell this story.

BH: How did you keep your faith in the midst of so many difficult things?

John: I knew it was only through God. I learned this from the Bible. In Genesis, God said, “I’m your God. I’m the first, the last, the left and the right.” So I knew that wherever I was going, God was in front of me, to my right and to my left. God was my only way. I know that we call Him the God of Israel, God of Abraham, God of Jacob. All the promises that God made to them were real. I knew God delivered Israel and He would deliver me.

BH: Do you feel like you survived for a reason?

John: God has the potential of keeping you alive for His work. So I believe God kept me alive, not for my goodness, but for His work, that I would show God to others. Now I can say, “God helped me and He will help you like He helped me.”

I didn’t do anything to be alive. It’s only God’s plan. And those who died didn’t do anything to die, but it was their time. God knows my time. I felt like I would die; I was stressed and depressed and thought I wouldn’t wake tomorrow, but God knew when I would die.

David: God brought us a lot of friends to walk with us and allowed us to go to school. We’ve learned to pray and trust God. When He says come, we come. We are hoping the kingdom of God will come and when it does, we will see what we have been living for.

James: Only God empowered people to think of us suffering over in the refugee camps and bring us to the United States. That’s why we are here.

Many ask us what we are looking for. God inspired people to bring us here and maybe He wants to change the Sudan. We are the people who can bring peace to Darfur and to the whole Sudan. But there has been a lack of education. That’s why we are here working full time and still going to school. Even if we aren’t sleeping more than two or three hours a day, that’s okay.

When I was four years old, I went to school for one year. In 1983, the war broke out, so I didn’t exactly get to see the sweetness of education. Our country doesn’t have a good system of education outside of cows and farming.

That’s why I think God brought us here, to get an education and bring His word back to the people of Sudan. Sometimes, I think that this time was punishment, but God is great. Whatever His plan, we are trying to accomplish it.

BH: If you could say anything to the people who forced you out of your home, what would you say?

John: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. And at the same time, love your enemy. I know a little bit about the Koran. We interpret God’s word differently, but we can draw from what they know. I cannot slap back. I can only tell them to love their neighbors as they love themselves.

BH: What else do you think our readers should know from your experience?

John: Life is in God’s hands. How do you know you will be alive after this time? Anytime something bad happens, I may have so many questions. I might curse, wonder if I am being punished for something my dad did or my great grandparents. But I know that God has a plan and He does what is right. Because of God’s work, I am alive.

We need to believe in the things we don’t see. That’s faith. The tsunami happened, cancer happens, people are distressed, but God has a plan. Our hearts will strengthen our bodies. It is never going to be daytime all the time but we can trust that tomorrow will not be dark.

When I look back on all the things I went through, I can’t imagine how I survived them. I had a miserable time and I thought that was the end. I didn’t think there would be a better day for me. But now I know that you can have bad days and good days but in faith, your bad days can turn into better days.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wunderbar It Is

Not long after we were expelled from Eden, everyone in the world had one common language and speech.  As people moved eastward, they gathered together and considered, "Let us work together and build a city, one with a tower that climbs to the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves."  And together they made bricks and mortar and built a tower, a great high tower so as to make a name for themselves.  

And God looked from the heavens and saw the budding steeple of their cathedral.  He saw their efforts to reach the heavens, that their common language had made them proud.  He saw that they could make a great name for themselves, yea, great and godless too.  And he saw that once they could accomplish these things they would no longer try to know him for they would believe that the earth was their own.  

So God confounded their language and separated them by tongue, tribe, and nation, and they could no longer understand each other or hope to reach heaven before eternity was theirs.  And it was called Babel in that place for there was much confusion.

Au Revoir.  Auf Wiedersehen, friends...Ailinon.

Many cultures share this story with the Jews, but as expected, everyone seems to tell it in their own way. Central Americans, for instance, believe that Xelhua, one of the world’s seven giants tried to build a pyramid in order to reach heaven, but the gods destroyed it and the builders could no longer speak to one another.  Herodotus places the story not in Babel but in Marduk, where there are known remnants of a once great ziggurat.  The Qur’an lays the scene in the Egypt of Moses.  

They are the same story, spoken through different tongues:  pride always goeth before a fall and no matter how great we think we are, we will always be leveled in favor of a greater glory. We build our tawdry towers and time and time again, we watch them tumble down while we are left alone, wide-eyed and tongue-tied, to remember that we are dust.  

Then the Lord stoops down and makes us great.

 Many years after the Tower of Babel, the followers of Jesus stood awed, side by side in Jerusalem, watching a man who had risen from the dead ascend to heaven on a cloud.  Jesus’ disciples recalled His words and believed at last, that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes…and…be witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

 Yes, they prayed; let it be so.  Help us to speak and teach us what to say.  Come, Lord Jesus, come.  

As they were praying, a great holy wind came and shook that place, and “tongues of fire" alighted upon each one of them.  And those who knew Jesus were filled with His Spirit and glorified Him in languages that they could not before.  And all were amazed for everyone there, from any tongue, tribe or nation, could hear the Gospel spoken in their own words.

In this redemptive Pentecost, the punishment of Babel is reversed; the diversity of language and culture is now a palimpsest of re-written history, a gift for the good of proclamation.  Through Jesus, the veil is torn, communication re-opened.  In Jesus, we who are many become one body, not Gentile or Jew but Gentile and Jew.  The Hebrews can tell Romans of Jesus and His mighty deeds; the Pygmies and Eskimos, the French and the Welsh, all are offered the same message in different tongues.  

 Allelujah!  Alabar!

Now we can offer the great Name to each other, yea great, and Godly, too.  

This is our blessing and our curse, the fall of the Tower of Babel, another demonstration of God’s wrath intertwined with His mercy.  Here we are to this very day, we assorted, eclectic, and sundry citizens of earth, scattered and curious at the base of our tower.  It is true that we have been exiled from our great high city, from the gods we try to build with bricks.  It is true that our skyscrapers are no match for Mount Chimborazo, that our submarines fold in the depths of the seas.  And once again we’ve nothing to do but blink at the Milky Way and exclaim at our limits: 

“Wonderful!” “Vidunderlig!” “Wunderbar!”

And wunderbar it is.  We are born wearing fig leaves; we are swaddled in darkness.  Yet we are offered understanding and light in abundance.  We who tried to reach heaven by the work of our hands are promised that in the last days, the God who topples our towers will replace our dumbness with a “spirit of that with one heart and one mouth” we will glorify Him.  

And the great holy city we longed for will be here.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On Why the Genealogy is More Interesting than NASCAR

I was in a meeting today with my boss, Joe, and my colleague, Zack, discussing important church beeswax, when all of a sudden, something snapped and everyone but me wanted to show off his knowledge of NASCAR.

We live in the south where stock cars are king, and Joe and Zack have made it a spiritual discipline to know the name, car, sponsor, and number of every driver. So, seeing as the Daytona 500 is rapidly approaching, our meeting turned into a riveting round of the "Name a Number and I'll tell you the NASCAR Driver, Car, and Sponsor" game. 

Joe answered a lot of trivia correctly after only a few squabbles with Zack (who has an iPhone and therefore knows everything), so to speed things along, I finally just asked him how many drivers he knew altogether.

A lot, he said.

And how many people listed in the genealogy of Matthew did he know? I asked. Not as many. Why not? It's not as interesting, Zack said.

I couldn't agree less. 

But I'm an anomaly. Why would anyone actually want to read the genealogy? It's boring, isn't it?  On and on and on it goes. There aren't any red letters or commandments to attract us to it. No miracles in the genealogy, no parables, no "you've heard of the old way but I tell you a new way."

Not at first glance anyway.

So we stumble through the list if we have to and pay no attention really until we get to names we know. Even then, though our ears might perk up, those names, the ones we know, hold no significance because they are bookmarked in between Jehoshaphat and Zerubablahblahblah, names that no respectable preggo actually considers anymore (like Agnes and Enid) and by the time we get to Jacob or Joseph, we're just dying to get to the next of Matthew – the Christmas story – everyone's favorite. Who doesn't love the old yarn about the starry starry silent night, the friendly ox, the twinkly-eyed magi, the baby who would rock the world?

When you think about what's coming next in the story, well, it's hard to think of the genealogy as anything of vital importance or intrigue. Sure it's in there; it has to be in there. Always has been. But it seems a little archaic, don't you think? Let's skip to the next bit, okay? The bit about stockings and snowflakes and silver bells, silver bells.

But there's a catch, you see, when we skip to the next bit. The catch is that the end doesn't make much sense without the beginning. It's kind of like Led Zeppelin’s "Stairway to Heaven," the genealogy is. At first it might be tedious. It sounds like the same thing over and over again.  It goes on and on and on for four and six and then eight minutes and you wish they would just get to the good part already. But if you fast-forward to the last minute and eighteen seconds of "Stairway to Heaven," which is when Robert Plant goes nuts, or read verse 1:16 only, when Matthew announces the whole reason for the long list of branches on Jesus' family tree, if you skip past it all and just listen to the climactic part, you don't ever really understand the good part, do you? You have to climb up Robert Plant's long, twisty story to dance around at the top for the best minute and eighteen seconds ever. You have to walk through Matthew's Hall of Records and Vital Documents to hear Jacob's name called, and then Joseph's, and then Mary's, and finally, that clincher, that reason for all of their being, to hear the name Jesus.

And here we learn it's not just why we read the genealogy that's important, but who we read in the genealogy that's important. Every name in the genealogy was chosen to be part of that genealogy, chosen by one who knows every name ever, the one who could have excluded the poor and impoverished for the sake of the rich and royal. But didn't.

The names in the genealogy, like all Jewish names, are packed with meaning, stories of their own. And we have to read through the whole bloody mess of it, the parts where Abraham almost kills his only son and Jacob steals his brother's blessing, where Rahab the prostitute saves the men of God, where David sleeps with Uriah's wife and kills him to cover it, the part where I do all these things in my heart every day, it all has to happen first, before the part where the virgin teenager gives birth to the son of God makes any sense at all. Truly, we have to wander through a little desert to find the burning bush or the Promised Land. But it's so worth it.

There's a twist. The story we expect is not the story we get.

In the genealogy, we see a scurvy crew made into kings. We see Rahab adorned in royal ribbons. We see David, Uriah, Bathsheba, and Solomon sharing an umbrella on a rainy day.  The genealogy is the Gospel in a nutshell, our story at its best and worst, sin and redemption at the height of their power. Here all the unlikelies, Jews and Gentiles, saints and sinners, shepherds and kings are adopted into the family of God.

And we too are invited, no matter how unlikely, unruly, unholy, unclean, to dine with him at the table of tables. At this table, all name tags are welcome and ready or not, here they come: the cowboys and Indians, the princes and paupers, the Capulets and Montegues. And we too are offered water turned wine at the great round table.

 We are Cornelius.  We are ten lepers. The old way drove us to the edge of camp with the other untouchables. The new way invites us in on the arm of the guest of honor, himself an unlikely, God and man.

And we're not just on His arm. We are his arm, his foot, his finger, his very eyelashes. This family tree is not just a list of branches but a list of body parts. To forget about it is to forget our medical records on a trip to the doctor.  When we look at this list, these stories, each other, we see nothing less than Emmanuel, God with us.

 The genealogy is, every verse, red letter. It's a commandment, parable, and miracle, the curtain torn in two. It fulfills all the prophecies before we even get to the salad course, the first testament in a bread bowl. It's the genealogy that leads us from the old way to the new, the thesis statement that opens the Gospels, the character guide, the index, a family history for the God of the universe. The genealogy is, in so many words, so many unpronounceable Hebrew words, the "once upon a time" in the greatest story ever told.

 Welcome, friends, to the Holiest of Holies.  Christ, the Savior is born.    

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Summertime and the Livin's Easy, Part Deux

We hope y'all like your tea sweet and your chicken fried. Cuz you're about to get a fresh glass of iced Georgia goodness from our wraparound porch to yours.

To catch you up on our summer so far, I'll make like a true Southern Belle and talk about the weather. And my, oh my, the weather. Over the past two months, we've all but melted in the heat of the noonday sun and also the heat of the midnight moon. We've celebrated rainy days with indoor picnics, walked in the park (twice), and danced under the starlit sky.

We watched the new Batman thriller on a dark (k)night and finally lost interest in Lost (ok, just Brynn did that. Aaron has yet to find interest in it). We watched "High School Musical" One and Two (Extended Versions) over kettle corn and sour patch kids and other healthy snacks. Oh, and in case you wanted to know, I learned from my high school girls why "High School Musical" is so good. Cuz Zac Efron. Just in case you had wanted to know. That's why.

Our athleticism has been thriving: we got a TV and a couch just in time for the Olympics. Last week, we met the CEO of the Braves, either because we are so important to the world of baseball or because we were eating lunch at the same cafe as him one time. You decide.* More than once, Aaron has been called a "Yankee" by southerners and we have always responded with perfect clarity that though Aaron is from the North, he is NOT and will never be a Yankee. He is a Red Sox, if anything.

I spent a glorious week dodging chiggers and ticks at Hard Labor Creek State Park with our high school students, learning to line dance and talk country and jump into a boiling hot lake that gives you a nice coat of dirt just in case you were cold. Which you weren't. My favorite night of the week was game night. For goodness' sake, I have never seen so much chaos in all my years. Our kids were swinging from the rafters. Literally - we played a game called "Swing from the Rafters." To put it into perspective for you, the night was way more turbulent than my old youth group's bouts of "Guess the Font" ("American Typewriter Condensed!") and a little less turbulent than say, the perfect storm. But just a little.

We went white water rafting, visited White Water water park (don't go; it's dirty), did the laundry (one time), made new friends out of old ones, joined a book study and a Bible study, visited Six Flags (again), chose our life's verse (the Seven Woes), and traveled to the aquarium and back.

We invented the word Moolalah, which means (noun) "an impressive sum of money." Try and use it in a sentence today.

We took a group of ten-year-olds on a mission trip to downtown Atlanta. Aaron was invited to a "shromp bile" in N'awlins while I, I played Advanced Freeze Tag with 7-year-olds on Skid Row in Los Angeles. You might have played it**. It's the kind of Freeze Tag where 7-year-olds make up and change all the rules at any time, especially after they've just been tagged. LOVE that game…

We've eaten delicious hamburgers shaped like Texas, Texasburgers shaped like ham (I made that second one up), shrimp and grits, and all the Varsity onion rings we could carry (which was six). I've baked dainties for tea parties, gobbled several Krispy Kremes, and enjoyed the hottest hot wings this side of Ol' Mis. Or just pretended to. Either way. Fiery little suckers, those.

We've learned the Jonas brothers' favorite bubble gum flavors and promptly forgotten them. We've discovered that the oldest Jonas brother is twenty - which means, according to my gaggle of high school girls, that he's way too old to date. Way. And too famous and rich. I added those last two. Now here's the curiosity: Zac Efron - also twenty. BUT, according to the gaggle, not too old to date. It just doesn't make any sense. I guess the ancient Chinese proverb rings true:

可憐设法有道理在高中心臟的迷宮房間外面的傻瓜,特别是關於Zac Efron的那些事态的


"Pity the fool who tries to make sense out of the labyrinthine chambers of the high school heart, especially in those matters concerning Zac Efron."

If translated into English, then back into Chinese, then back into English again, the proverb reads: "Tries to make sense pitifully in outside the high school heart's labyrinth room fool, specially about Zac Efron these situations." I like the bit about "tries to make sense pitifully." It reminds me of something.

We saw Independence Day fireworks with millionaires and billionaires at Buckhead's ritzy Lenox Mall. We learned that the 6th best firework show in the country takes place in Atlanta. Buckhead is ranked #6A. We're guessing it's because of all that Buckhead Moolalah.

We've floated down the Chattahoochee in inner tubes – traveling at one mph for five blessed hours if it was one. We stopped saying the "T"s in Atlanta (now we just say "Alana"), got new cell phones and lost them (again, just Brynn), and became responsible adults by foregoing the adorable vintage heels I really really wanted in favor of toilet paper and light bulbs - SO excited about that. We were given a slab of raw venison as a gift, which is kind of like a gift a cat might give you and definitely the #6A best gift we have ever received.

Last week, we befriended our neighbors, which was easy because some of our friends just moved into the neighborhood. So I guess we actually beneighbored our friends.

We still have not eaten a peach.

Dinah, our flopsy topsky kittentail, has been busy too. She has tirelessly tried to establish contact with the fireflies through the window, all of whom seem rather indifferent to her efforts. Though unsuccessful with the fireflies, she was able to befriend the basil plant (who died soon thereafter), and made her peace with the new couches (which were TERRIFYING before she discovered that they are very soft to sleep on). Even so, she has tired of the old nap-eat-nap routine and has become a small-time pirate, single-handedly stealing all of our milk caps one by one. We don't know where she hides them and she'll never tell. Perhaps she's fashioning them into rudimentary eye patches.

Oh, Dinah. Indeed we will miss her when she finally departs for the high seas with her swashbuckling barge, a few choice fireflies, and all the milk caps.

And you. We miss you, too. As Zac Efron sings in "High School Musical" Two, you are the music in us. Na Na Na Na. We'd love to host you sometime here in Alana. Just hop over on a midnight train to Georgia. Or a noonday one – doesn't matter. It'll be hot either way.

Thank you, friends, for continuing to support and encourage us as we begin this exciting new chapter! And until we hear from you, we'll just keep singin' that old sweet song. We've got Georgia on our minds.

*It's the second one.
**With Aaron's cousin, Nikolai

Monday, June 9, 2008

Summertime and the Livin's Easy, Part One

Welp, we've been in Atlanta for about a week and a half now. Oh, didn't you hear? We moved to Atlanta to work at Peachtree Presbyterian Church and let me tell you, it's been a whirlwind - almost like a tornado, you might say.

Since we southerners like to impress each other, we will now impress you with a list of everything we did during our first week in Georgia. So grab a rocking chair and a mint julep, y'all, and prepare to be blown away. I apologize that this will be a little long-winded but hey, life is slower (and stickier) down here. What's your rush?

We moved into our condo fresh off the plane last Thursday. Almost immediately, we unpacked a hundred and fifty boxes and painted a huge shelf country red. We still have quite a few boxes left and a lot more furniture to buy. We're using Craig's List like a treasure map but with or without it, we've already gotten lost in midtown.

In our first week, we sat at our shared desk for a total of thirty minutes. Between the two of us, we went to Six Flags, the zoo, and a Braves game (Atlanta lost). We learned to drive a minibus. We got in a water balloon fight, bounced in a bounce house, served sandwiches at a homeless shelter, and enjoyed a delicious pancake breakfast. We followed a Rod Stewart look-alike in worship, helped with Vacation Bible School, memorized the names of 300 kids (ok, I made that one up - but we've met almost as many), and brushed our teeth every morning and night. We drank lots of Caribou coffee, sweat off half our body weight while reading by the pool, joined the gym, and licked our chops at the local Pig n' Chik. We unintentionally used the word "y'all" in a sentence. We went to the movies with fifty students and were yelled at by an ornery bus driver with eight cats at home. We watched twelve episodes of Lost (ok, just Brynn did that. Don't judge me - we have to wait a whole 7 months for the next season of 24). And we finally found our coffee pot right when we were starting to form a search party.

We went out running on the street where Elton John, Ludacris, and the governor of Georgia live. Or driving. Or whatever. It's just a block up. We lost count of all the BMW's we've seen cruise past our place, the teenagers with i-Phones, and the beautiful moms who while away the hours under big magnolia blossoms, gossiping over sweet tea and sugar cookies.

We shared meals with new friends. We've made more than we can count with all ten fingers - which means we've already made at least nine more than last year.

Since we've been here, we've heard the word "milestone" rhyme with "gallstone" and "men" pronounced with two syllables. The "rebel flag" was mentioned to me casually last night. We saw a guy riding on the highway in the back of a pick-up and a few days ago, Aaron actually heard someone exclaim, "Why Thomas, you look hot as coffee!" We think Atlanta is a little like Moscow, a little like Oxford, and a lot more southern then we remembered.

We have not eaten a peach.

Dinah's been busy, too. If you haven't met our kitten yet, she is a firecracker, even if she is sometimes a sleepy, cuddly firecracker. Dinah's smattering of accomplishments includes attacking and building forts out of at least thirty moving boxes and rearranging all of the packing tissues around the floor. She has also eaten and uneaten one rubber band. Thankfully, she has finally learned to sleep with us without soiling herself (and our bed). We think she just doesn't want to be alone - in the dark - with the boxes. Dinah's all talk.

Next week, I'll be gone with the wind up to Camp Rutledge (held in nowheresville at Hard Labor Creek State Camp) with the High Schoolers, a camp I've been told by many a church-goer (always with a raised brow and a smile) is like no other. Apparently, it is Peachtree at its best and worst and I will be the hottest and happiest I've ever been. And afterwards, the tiredest.

Yesterday, Aaron drove up to Camp Ducktown in Tennessee with the Middle Schoolers - a much cooler camp with white water rafting and cell phone reception. And I'm staying here in our condo this week, unpacking books and goblets and pot holders, glad for Dinah's company because I'm kind of scared after watching all that Lost.

Next month, we're going on domestic mission trips to Los Angeles (go figure), N'awlins, and inner city Atlanta. Aaron will be helping to launch an adventure ministry in the next few months and I will be doing everything I can to write and play music and other things good for my soul.

See? I ain't just whistlin' Dixie when I say we've already experienced one of them famous Georgia tornadoes. But seriously - we get paid for all this!?

We were told that this is the "crunchest" (busiest) time of year for our ministry and life will get slower very quickly. However, if you contact us in the next month and a half and we're a little slow on the response, we're sorry. We might be on a mission trip, getting to know a student, unpacking, or taking a nap (probably that last one). But until we hear from you, we'll just be singin' that old sweet song. We've got Georgia on our minds.