24 February 2013

Poop in the Bible

Years of studying the Bible have left me with some fascinating skills. Being the first in a group to be able to name all the references to poop in the Bible, however, is not exactly one of the most important skill I've learned, even if it does illustrate how well I know the Bible. I come from a family that is not above talking about bodily functions at the dinner table, but there's still something mildly disconcerting about poop being mentioned in the Bible. I think my feeling is that even though we know everyone poops, even Jesus and the prophets, we still don't have to read about it.

I think that might be part of the reason why I like the poop story in Ezekiel (Ezek 4). God tells Ezekiel that he'll be cooking his bread dough on his own poop for the next year. Ezekiel pretty much freaked out, and God allowed him to make the bread on animal dung instead.

On the other hand, some poop stories do make me smile. Daniel 5 is one of those - on account of a rather tongue-in-cheek article that a former professor of mine wrote (Al Wolters, "Untying the King's Knots," JBL 110.1). When King Balshazzar sees the writing on the wall, he panics: "his limbs give away, and his knees knock together." Wolters proves that this actually means he pooped his pants, which is known to happen when people are terrified.

But today, I discovered another poop story: that of Saul. 1 Sam 24 mentions that Saul went into a cave to relieve himself (literally it's cover his feet). In English, one does not immediately thinking of pooping when relieving oneself. So it's only now that I finally understand how David could have had enough time and gotten so close to cut off some of Saul's robe without him ever noticing. Yet, it also makes the story more vivid: this king, the chosen one of Israel, squats down, takes his time, produces a nasty smell, and leaves a small heap behind, all in the presence of his enemies. Talking about pooping makes the story more potent. We can better understand why David was so ashamed of what he did but also why Saul so quickly recognized his own vulnerability and thanked David for choosing to save his life.

17 February 2013

Praying for Cats

The other day, the neighbour cat was missing. If I don't see him, I think he's home. And if he's not home, my neighbour assumes he's at my house. This means that it can be quite awhile before anyone realizes he's missing. It was bedtime before we started searching for him. We looked all over the house, even outside, and called for him. But no cat, so we gave up and went back to our apartments.

Although I find the neighbour cat mildly annoying at times, I've grown somewhat attached to him - and, more importantly, I know his family is rather fond of him. So it made me kind of sad to know that he was missing. Thus I did what I often do when I lose something, I prayed for it. Less than a minute later, that silly cat walked through the door, as if he'd never been missing. I brought him home, laughingly announcing that I'd prayed and he'd returned. 

Later that night, Matthijs mentioned that he wasn't so sure about praying for cats. At that moment, my own cat came and sat by Matthijs. And he stared at Matthijs. And stared and stared and stared. I couldn't help but laugh. It seemed obvious that the cat did not agree with Matthijs's feelings about praying for cats. So I reminded Matthijs that God is capable of speaking through animals, as the story of Balaam's donkey (Num 22) has shown us. However, and here Matthijs had a good point, my cat would have to learn to speak a lot more clearly before Matthijs would be willing to listen to what he had to say :)

15 February 2013

Strange stories in Exodus

I've now come to the book of Exodus, and I've bumped into some strange stories.

The first was the end of Exodus 4. Moses is finally underway to Egypt. And then the LORD comes to him and is about to kill him (verse 24). And this simply doesn't make sense to me. I'm not saying that Moses' irritating excuses not to go to Egypt (culminating with his claim not to be able to speak well) would not have been displeasing to God, but God answered all of his excuses, even providing his brother Aaron to help him. After all this effort, Moses was finally doing what God asked, so it seems strange to me that God would then come to kill him. The story only gets more strange. Zipporah, Moses' wife (and thus not Moses himself), circumcises their son to appease God. And she throws the foreskin on Moses' feet. (as an aside: feet are not the part of the body I immediately think of when I hear about circumciscion, and the NIV Study Bible even notes that feet is most likely an euphemism). Zipporah seems not too pleased about the whole event, but Moses is not killed. And Zipporah disappears from the story without a further word, only being mentioned again in chapter 18 when her father brings her back to Moses in the desert.
When I read this story, I feel like I'm so far removed from the cultural context that I simply can't fully understand it. And perhaps that is enough - to acknowledge that this story reminds me of how the Bible and its culture isn't entirely understandable.

And yet, at the same time, there's also some great stories where I have to smile at how obvious they are.
At the beginning of Exodus 5, Moses and Aaron let Pharoah know that the LORD wanted him to let His people go to worship Him. Pharoah responds by saying that he knew nothing of this Lord. And Moses and Aaron pretty much repeat their request, as if they hadn't really heard what Pharoah had said. It seems that the Bible clearly is pointing out that Pharoah's knowing God was irrelevant. The LORD still wanted them to go. As the story continues, we see both that the LORD will make sure his people go, and Pharoah will also come to know Him.

But my favourite story is still that of Aaron's staff (Exodus 7:8-13). To show God's power, Aaron's staff becomes a snake. But the magicians of Pharoah also make their staffs into snakes. As reader, I can't help but thinking, "oh, I guess that miracle wasn't all that special and doesn't really prove that much." And then Aaron's snake eats up all of their snakes. And I can't help but laugh. Translated into language of today, it's like God said to the magicians: "You think you're so good, but yeah, whatever."

13 February 2013

Fasting and Lent

Lent is often seen as a time of giving something up as a way of focusing more on Christ (and his suffering), of practicing denial and longing, and/or being able to celebrate Easter more fully.

The community at Oudezijds 100 fasts by giving up desserts and meat (except fish) for the forty days leading up to Easter. The mealtimes are also held in silence, with music playing in the background. To be honest, except for the lack of dessert, lent is actually my favourite time of the year to eat with the community. There are a couple of reasons for that:
1. I don't have to worry about whether I'll know what to say to my neighbour during the meal.
2. I don't have to do anything extra to ensure that there'll be a vegetarian option available.
3. on Sundays, we do actually talk, as well as eat meat and dessert. And then it's a feast and extra special :)
So for lent, we'll hopefully eat with the community more often. At home, we'll join in somewhat, as we'll continue to go without meat, not have ice cream (but still have dessert), and go without alcohol.

Although joining in with what the community is doing is more than enough to help us look forward to Easter (Matthijs and I have weekend duties on Easter weekend, so that will definitely further help us live up fully to Easter), I still wanted to figure out if there was something that I personally could or should do (either more of or less of) during Lent. And going to chapel in the community more often was what came to me when I thought/prayed more about it. Closely connected to that is Matthijs's desire to do daily prayers more often.

The strange part of choosing to go more often to chapel during Lent is that it's not something I want to give up after Easter, as if when Easter comes, I am set free from doing this. So I had to wonder more about how going to chapel actually fits with Lent and fasting. I realized that while I now feel that going to chapel is a bit of a chore, I'm hoping that going more often during Lent will help me appreciate chapel more. Hopefully, by Easter time, going to chapel will become more something I delight in getting to do as often as possible.

12 February 2013

Ecumenicalism in practice

Matthijs has been thinking a lot about ecumnicalism in the last months, and thus so have I, by virtue of living in the same house (and the fact that we talk fairly regularly :)) Thus after a number of conversations both about our appreciation of ecumenicalism at Oudezijds 100 and about how we could be more ecumenical, it was a delight to be reminded about how the Christian Reformed Church has been participating in ecumenicalism.

The CRC was recently one of several churches that signed an agreement to formally recognize baptisms completed in other denominations. Those involved in signing, besides the CRC, were the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Chruch (USA), the United Church, and the Catholic Church.

Recognizing baptisms from other churches is something that has been happening informally between denominations [albeit officially within the CRC for years (cf. Article 58 of the Church Order)], but this agreement makes it more largely official. As I see it, the recognition is an acknowledgement of how God works in baptism, despite of but also through other denominations. So once someone is baptized by an ordained person in the name of the Trinity, they don't need to be rebaptized even if we disagree with some (many?) of the doctrines of the baptizing church. I even learned in my class on the Church Order that the Christian Reformed Church has actually banned people who have been rebaptized from becoming ordained (decision of Synod 1973-74). Rebaptism is in some ways a snub against God's sovereignty (see the report to Synod 2011 on baptism, especially page 558) .   

Knowing all this, it is not surprising that a quote given from a Catholic in the article (in the secular press) made me smile: "Weinandy, who participated in the discussions that led to the agreement, said Catholics questioned the validity of baptisms if they did not invoke the names of the Trinity." When I first read this, my immediate reaction was: "It's not just Catholics who would question it - I would also question the validity of baptisms not done in the name of the Trinity!" I guess that's another way of seeing ecumenicalism in practice.

10 February 2013

On Sunday, I remember and believe

I think my favourite part of Sunday is that it is a day to remember and believe.

On Sunday, I don't remember or focus on my to-do list. Instead I put it aside for a day. In this, I am reminded that I am not capable of doing everything I want to (or feel I should do), I have a day to rest and recuperate without feeling guilty for not being productive, and, at the same time, I can rest in the assurance that I am not in charge of everything (this can be hard for overachievers and/or those of us who mismanage our time during the week).

And I believe. I confess that God is working in this world around me, and that I am not good enough (or wise enough) on my own. I go to church to remember that I am not alone (and not crazy) in believing this whole Christianity thing (cf. Stanley Hauerwas in the video "The System vs The Kingdom). Hauerwas also mentions that the act of worshipping God is so great that we cannot do it alone - we need others with us. I appreciate these thoughts: the complete otherness of God and his greatness, as well as how we ought to be joined by a community of believers to encourage each other. Through each other we can do/be more than what we individually can do/be.

Dorothy Bass in her book, Receiving the Day, argues that Christians today shouldn't shop on Sunday. It's not necessarily because we don't want others to work (a valid concern that I hear from more conservative folks) but, more so, because we need a day free from all the consumerism and coveting that's so much part of society today. We need a day to remember that God will provide for us - and even abundantly. I see Sunday thus as a day of giving and receiving, instead of consuming: a good day to participate in giving so that others might know God's provision better, but also a good day to celebrate the gifts we have, whether food, fellowship, friends, or family.

In remembering, my perspective on life shifts. Surrounded by other believers, worshipping comes naturally, and it becomes easier both to believe and to hope.

08 February 2013

He did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate

After it became obvious that everything Joseph took care of prospered, the Bible (Gen 39) notes that Potiphar put Joseph in charge of everything in his house. Potiphar needed only to concern himself with the food that he ate.

Today if I hear that someone only concerns himself with the food that he eats, the following picture of the person enters into my head. He/she is most likelye obsessed with food, selfish and self-absorbed, and lazy. And the combination of food obsession and laziness probably means that he's fat. Combine that with the self-absorbed laziness, and it's definitely not ideal husband material.

Perhaps in biblical times things were slightly different, but that doesn't change that the Bible sharply contrasts Potiphar with Joseph. Within the same verse (39:6), Potiphar hands over his responsibilities to Joseph, Potiphar is said to be only concerned with food, and it is noted that Joseph was handsome and well-built. Who wouldn't choose Joseph above Potiphar?!?

The fact that Potiphar imprisons Joseph instead of killing him, which was the more obvious response to someone taking advantage of one's wife, raises questions about how much Potiphar was aware of how much his wife would have been attracted to Joseph. It also raises questions of how much Potiphar might have wondered about whether his wife would choose faithfulness to him when Joseph was obviously a better choice.