28 December 2007

angels watching over us

last week i forgot to blow out the candles in the advent wreath after evening chapel. at 2 a.m. the fire alarm went off. the people rushing to check out the alarm found the smoke and the smell and quickly put out the remains of the wreath.

we are all deeply thankful that God protected us via the fire alarm. and i am thankful that we could joke about how it was about time to have a fire drill - and now we've seen that people know what to do in case of a fire - get up, turn out the alarm, have people check for fire, and be ready to leave the house and help others (especially children) also leave. and i am also thankful that people can tease each other (especially me) about remembering to blow out the candles. and we have been talking about a safer way for next year, for i am not the only foolish one living in the house.

zr. Seraphim commented that the black circle on the chapel floor left from the wreath will help us remember advent for awhile. and it will also remind us of God's continued protection over our house.

13 December 2007

transitioning from master student to official ph.d. student at the Vrije

later today i will (hopefully) make the transition from my being a master's student to being an official ph.d. student (in the "all but dissertation" stage) at the Vrije Universiteit. my thesis has been read by my professor and a second professor - and received the approval of "good" and "good enough" for my master's diploma. since it's going to be built on and revised in the years to come, i'm more than happy with that level of approval.

in honour of this hopeful transition (which might still take some paperwork but hopefully limited revisions, if any at all), i thought i'd clarify what i actually wrote my thesis on ...

The question I wanted to answer was what the purpose of the Confession (vv. 10-21) in Jeremiah 15 was. (This was done in order to find what the meaning of the passage was for the average person reading it). In order to answer that question, I studied all of Jeremiah 15; translating it, breaking it into parts and discovering it's structure, looking closely at the grammar (especially verbs - vv. 6-9 are pretty difficult since it switches from YQTL (more present/future not yet verbs) to QTL (more past, completed verbs) in what seems to be a haphazard way - although with further study, you can see that this haphazardness has a way of communicating certainty of an event (the exile) that has not fully happened at the time the words are originally to have been said), and looking at who was named and involved in the text.

I looked specifically at a couple of studies on the Confessions done in the context of the whole book (studies done by Smith, O'Connor, and Diamond about 20 years ago) and used them as a standard of evaluation for finding the meaning of the text. The different purposes they gave (along with a couple of commentaries) for the Confession in Jer 15 were: that it was a text that spoke about judgment, that it was a text that gave questions about God's goodness (i.e. theodicy), and that the text validated Jeremiah as a prophet (along with the exile and judgment). Almost all of them were very clear that the text was not to be taken as an example to follow. But, none of these purposes have an obvious meaning to the average person reading the text. And since I believe that the text ought to be able to speak to (all) people hearing/reading it (that's what I believe when I say the whole Bible is the Word of God), I wanted to understand whether these purposes could be shown to have meaning or whether something was missing in these understandings of the passage.

And so I looked as close as I could at Jeremiah 15, then I asked if the meaning changed when I looked at in terms of the first half of the book and when I looked at it in terms of the whole book. The verdict was that the purposes given by these major sources did not fully do justice to the meaning of Jer 15:10-21 both by itself (in light of the whole chapter), and in light of the whole book.

Although Jer 15:10-21 might seem to be a validation of Jeremiah's prophetic task - and of the judgement that comes/came with the exile, this makes sense only in light of the first half of the book where there is limited details about Jeremiah's suffering and the actual judgment. However, if you look at the whole book, there are a lot of places where Jeremiah is shown to be doing a better job of being a prophet (in this passage, Jeremiah calls down vengeance on his enemies, calls the LORD a deceitful brook, and is told to turn to the LORD (e.g. repent) - all details which call into question what kind of prophet he was). Also, a validation of Jeremiah, although has much to say to Jews after the exile who would be helped by seeing how Jeremiah fulfilled his prophetic role effectively and that their judgment was deserved, does not have much to say to people who are not in that specific historical situation - and I believe the text was written for more than just the Jews in exile.

That Jer 15:10-21 includes judgment does not mean that it has a lot to say about judgment. In light of the whole book, this passage has actually a limited amount to say about judgment (vv. 13-14, which mention judgment the most, are fairly obscure - if you read different translations, you can see a significant difference in the translations - and quite a number of people would argue that these verses are not part of the original text. Although I would argue that these verses do fit into the text here (and thus are not only a later redaction), all the questions surrounding them makes me loathe to make too many conclusions based on them!) In fact, what is unique about this passage in terms of judgment, is that the judgment is mixed with hope and a promise of the LORD turning to Jeremiah (in spite of Jeremiah's desire to give up being a prophet and his harsh words to the LORD). This paradox of judgment and hope/mercy is one of the main themes of the passage.

Jer 15:10-21, I would argue, does raise a lot of questions about God's faithfulness and goodness (which is unique to this place in the book). But if you look at the story of Jeremiah in the whole book, you'll see that the LORD was with Jeremiah most of the time - and does help him, so his questions/accusations are not necessarily valid. Yet, irrelevant of the validity of Jeremiah's questions to God, the passage does not focus on these questions. The LORD's answer to Jeremiah in v. 19 pretty much ignores his concerns. The focus of the passage is less then on the questions of Jeremiah (e.g. theodicy) and more on the prophetic task - and the relationship of Jeremiah to the LORD.

So, why did these major studies come up with answers that are so different than mine? Part of the answer to the differences was that I expanded the study to include the whole book, which gave a different perspective. But besides that, I would also argue that a lot of it had to do with how one reads the text, which is a major focus of my thesis. I would argue that everyone comes to the Bible with certain assumptions. As a confessing Christian, I come to the Bible with certain assumptions about it being the inspired Word of God that has meaning for everybody - and I ought to read it that way. Others come to the text using primarily the methodologies of the day that are often reacting against bad ways of reading the Bible. The assumptions that you make affect whether you ignore certain parts of the passage (because they don't fit for whatever reason), what you're looking for when you read it, who you assume the text is written to (and who wrote it), and why the text matters. I explored these assumptions quite a bit - but I recognize that this is a place that I want to learn more about - especially since this an area where the academic study of the Bible can interact with the study done by an average person trying to live the Christian life!

So, after all of this, what is the meaning of the passage for the average person? Well, the point is not to be "just like Jeremiah." Although this might seem to be an obvious (and somewhat simple) way to give meaning to the passage, there are way too many ways in which this can be taken the wrong way (e.g. cursing your enemies, being self-righteous in the midst of suffering, etc.) - and so in this, the major studies had a good point. But, nonetheless, the average person can find meaning in the passage from looking at Jeremiah and the words in this book. The questions raised by Jeremiah are shown to be permissible, even as the focus is on faithfulness and a relationship, instead of on the questions - and this pattern/focus is something that people can take as an example to follow. And the mixture of judgment/suffering with hope/mercy is also something that people today can relate to - because it seems like life is a lot like this.

There's more still - at the end, I asked whether finding the purpose of the passage was even the best way to find meaning in the passage. The passage raises questions about intercession and the role of the prophet - and since these are tasks that Christians today are called to in some way, the questions here matter. But these are questions I've only begun to look at - and I don't have an answer that I'm happy with yet (hopefully today after talking with my prof(s), I'll get a bit more direction on the answer to this).

And there's more I want to study. There are a couple of people (Polk in The Prophetic Person and Brueggemann in Like Fire in the Bones) who I want to study more because they've shown how to connect the academic work on Jeremiah with why it would matter to real people. And I'll be expanding the study to include more of the Confessions, so I have a broader base for my conclusions. I'm far from done, but I'm excited about what's next. After all, I get to study the Bible and ask how it matters to real life (and how can I help people see that?)!

11 December 2007

still surprised that God is good

i have many, many good memories of the last year and a half (and from before that, too). and i am convinced that God's hand was involved in this. i know in my head that God has been good to me in the past; yet, despite knowing deep inside that God is good, i continue to be surprised when i recognize how God has been good to me.

perhaps it is the fact that i am surrounded by a world where sin and brokenness can not be easily hidden or ignored. perhaps it is the fact that there's a lot of pain and frustration involved in growing and being who God has created me/us to be. perhaps it is simply the dull-ness that comes from the ordinary - the kazillions of chores and details necessary just to participate in life.

but despite (and maybe even because of) all these things, there are moments when i am filled with intense joy and thankfulness. and i wonder how i could not recognize the goodness of God in my life?!? after all, i get to delight in biking through a park in Amsterdam on a Sunday afternoon. i've been accepted by so many people, even and especially when i mess up. i continue to bump into new friendships and am given more and more people who love me (and who i love). and none of these things are really new to here and now, so it's not logical that i'm surprised. but the surprise reminds me that i do not deserve God's grace; yet, nonetheless, i receive his grace and goodness. and his grace and goodness are so great that it is good that i be struck with a sense of wonder and astonishment :)

07 December 2007

"the usual"

the other morning i was asked my plans for the day, and i responded with "the usual." my plans included reading for my classes, writing some e-mails, organizing and planning things for teaching, working on re-writing my thesis for Calvin Seminary, and we'd see what else came up during the day. as i've learned from living here, i can't exactly plan for all of the unexpected things of the day. and "the usual" usually includes a couple of surprises....

"the usual" this week has included some work on re-writing the thesis (yay!), reading some books in Dutch (a children's book called Jip en Janneke and half of the third Harry Potter), reading and making notes on the textbook for my class on community (The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne), talking to a lot of people (some related to the organization of daily life in a community and some personal and pastoral), having a party thrown in my room by a 7-year-old, a lot of shared meals, going for a walk (that included a run over an obstacle course) in the WesterPark, writing a lot of e-mails, drinking a lot of tea, organizing details for teaching and travelling in the spring, cooking this evening, crying and being cried on, some meetings, morning and evening prayers, strengthening relationships, helping take out the garbage this morning (which we needed to bring across the street (i.e. over the canal) because the garbage truck came way earlier than normal on our own side), and so on.

i'm expecting that life in Grand Rapids will have a much quieter version of "the usual." i think i'll miss the unexpected-ness of life here (a lot) but i think i'm also looking forward to a bit of quiet-ness and the hope that i can get some more academic stuff done (which i'm growing to long for more and more). i realize that i could probably do more academic stuff here (and that i want that to be more part of my "usual"), but then i'd miss some of the adventure of life here - and since i'm not going to be here for most of the spring, i want to store up on extra community-related time and memories.