Middling

The fancies and reflections of a loquacious ninja

Category Archives: Special Seasons

A word from Remarque/The sting, the indifference, and the triumph

Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine guns, hand-grenades – words, words, but they hold the horror of the world.

~ Erich Maria Marque, All Quiet on the Western Front

I finished my first war novel yesterday, All Quiet on the Western Front, for one of my history classes… Had I read it, I might have been tempted to breeze through the story too quickly, or gotten distracted by the number of commas and somewhat run-on sentences (which I suspect partly results from it being a translation from German; then again, that’s how I write sometimes too). But with a good audiobook recording, there is no such option… Mere marks of punctuation become gasps, human pauses and tones rife with expression; the human reality becomes manifest in a way that can’t be escaped by skimming ink on a page.

I’m not advertising for audiobooks or discrediting reading out of a physical book in any way. All I mean to say is I had no way out. The grey world Remarque fashioned enveloped me, engulfed my soul as I listened. The battlefields of the Great War (aka World War I) in all their awfulness, desperation and numbing deadness, became real to me; as real as they could have been, short of my being there in person. I heard nothing but words, words; but I felt the horror of the world in them.

One of the greatest points of emphasis in our class has been how prior to WWI, the West was at the height of optimism. Progress was inevitable, Western superiority unassailable, confidence unshakable. Then came the war.

It was more terrible than anything anyone had ever known. It shattered the tower of optimism the West had been erecting for at least a century. The delusion strained and broke under the weight of millions upon millions of corpses, strewing the battlefields of Europe. The wonderful technological advances of mankind became deadly: artillery that decimated entire regiments, gas that dissolved one’s lungs from the inside, machine guns that could mow down dozens or even hundreds in a single battle. And this was progress?

No longer did the world seem orderly, rational, and always improving. Now, it seemed senseless, violent, chaotic and void of meaning. And so, the castle of modernity crumbled, and the ghostly form of post-modernity began to rise from the ashes. Nihilism and hedonism became respectable – what else was left? When the order of the universe seems to go to pieces at your feet, what else can you do but numbingly conclude that nothing truly matters? That the opiate of pleasure is all that remains?

The cry of Ecclesiastes became widespread: “Meaningless! All is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Therefore, eat, drink and squeeze what little pleasure out of this rotten life you can, before it all comes to an abysmal end…

Yesterday we were under fire, to-day we act the fool and go foraging through the countryside, to-morrow we go up to the trenches again. We forget nothing really. But so long as we have to stay here in the field, the front-line days, when they are past, sink down like a stone; they are too grievous for us to be able to reflect on them at once. If we did that, we should have been destroyed long ago…

“Just as we turn into animals when we go up to the line, because that is the only thing which brings us though safely, so we turn into wags and loafers when we are resting. We can do nothing else, it is a sheer necessity. We want to live at any price; so we cannot burden ourselves with feelings which, though they might be ornamental enough in peacetime, would be out of place here. Kemmerich is dead, Haie Westhus is dying… Martens has no legs anymore. Meyer is dead, Max is dead, Beyer is dead, Hämmerling is dead, there are a hundred and twenty wounded men lying somewhere or other; it is a damnable business, but what has it to do with us now – we live… We will make ourselves comfortable and sleep, and eat as much as we can stuff into our bellies, and drink and smoke so that the hours are not wasted. Life is short.

Remarque could have merely described the numbing effect of the war on the main character and the other young soldiers in his novel. But he did more than that… he made you live it with them. He made you experience the sheer weight of the agonizing horror, the desperate purposelessness, and (eventually) the stoic indifference that these soldiers felt – that they had to make themselves feel to stay alive enough to function one more day. I felt nihilism creeping into my own soul as I listened; how can one believe in purpose, in meaning, in any sort of goodness in life apart from carnal pleasure, after experiencing what these men experienced on a daily basis for nearly four years? Each man was like a card in a deck, randomly shuffled and left open for the wind to whip about in any direction it pleased;  some straight into the fire, some only to be singed, some to be seared so badly that it would have been better if the whole card had been burnt, damned at once to the flames rather than this agonizing half-existence of torment. All at the whim of the breezes.

Little wonder that they became indifferent. How can life have meaning after a living Hell like this? What purpose or ultimate value is there in an empty, heartless existence of Russian roulette? A game without thrill, without order, without plan or purpose… only death for the randomly selected and emptiness for the survivor. A game so vicious that the only way to survive is to let it all sink down, down like a stone, into the recesses of one’s being… The sting is too much. Indifference becomes the only way to cope. It all must be… must be meaningless.

But that’s just it though… If there was no meaning in it all, if life had no purpose, if all of existence truly was nothing but chasing after the wind, a random game where it doesn’t matter who dies and who survives to emptiness… why would death matter? Why should we fear it so? Indeed, if life had no meaning, death wouldn’t either; it would have no sting. If there were no meaning or purpose in life, there would be no terror in dying, no horror at the atrocities of this world, no agony in war. Remove absolute goodness and you have an amoral world; and no longer can you be touched by the grasp of evil and suffering, because all is meaningless. The young men of Remarque’s novel let their feeling sink down into them, make their hearts stony, because they realize this. If they continue believing in purpose and meaning, they shall be torn to pieces by the horror before them. But if they are indifferent… if all becomes meaningless, then the terror of seeing death and unspeakable pain all around them is numbed. “Fear we do not know much about — terror of death, yes; but that is a different matter, that is physical.” The real suffering, the heart-pain one finds in seeing one’s comrades fall and writhe in agony… that can be muffled away if all is devoid of meaning. They cut themselves off from the feeling of death by cutting themselves off from life.

They are unable to handle the reality of death; not because it doesn’t matter but because it matters too much. And the only way they can bear the piercing, terrifying gaze of death is to make nothing matter. Only keep yourself busy doing nothing; pursuing empty pleasures that have no substance but distract for a time so that you don’t have to remember the emptiness within you. It can’t be filled, but it can be ignored. So let it sink down… it’s the only way to keep living.

Thus far, I have lead a stain-free existence. Even for a fairly well-off, middle-class citizen of a ridiculously privileged nation, my life has been remarkably free from pain. And when compared to the daily, crushing suffering of millions across the globe, it almost makes me sick. Certainly it makes we wonder… why should I be spared? I’m no better, I know that for a fact. And whenever I catch the smallest glimpse of the suffering others have experienced in this world, down through the years and to this day, my words fail me… but still, I must ask: Why so much pain, so much agony? Why the seemingly pointless suffering, the endless groaning, the futile pleas for relief? Why does death reign so strong?

I know nothing of the suffering of those soldiers in that Great War; I might imagine it pretty well on the receiving end of an audiobook through the mastery of a writer like Remarque and an actor like the one I opened my ears to. But even when I do suffer truly one day, I know that I will never know a fraction of the pain that they or other millions of inhabitants of this world and its history knew daily in their bones and hearts. I don’t have all or even most of the answers, and I don’t even have the true experience of pain to back up the little I do know. But what I do know is this:

There is another way. There is a solution, and it is not to turn one’s heart to stone, appealing as that is. It is not indifference, it is not meaninglessness or vainly chasing pleasure to make the pain go away. And it is not embracing the death.

It is life itself swallowing death up.

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

In our human frailty, we could not dream of speaking such bold words. Death is too mighty, immeasurably too awful for us to taunt… Yet when we serve a Lord who triumphed over the grave, who became the victim of death – and won anyway – only then can the victory be sounded. Only then is the sting of death removed – not by removing life as well, but by Life overcoming all the force that Death can boast. It is only by the triumph of Life over Death.

Today, I celebrate that triumph. I have no victory to boast of in myself; but I boast in my Lord who overcame all, who is Life Himself, who died and now lives forevermore. And because I am in Him, I do not fear the power of death.

One day – perhaps through war, perhaps through another medium of evil – one day, I will suffer, and this time not merely through my vicarious imagination. It will be real to me as it never has been before. Will my neat ideological categories hold then? Will I be able to keep myself from allowing a heart of stone to sink deep into me, to harden with indifference, as my only means of survival? If all my words were merely a theory, I doubt it. Better men than I have cracked under far less.

But because I stand in a reality, because my confidence comes not in an optimism in mankind or a philosophy in myself, I can say with full confidence that, by the grace of God, it will be possible to stand fast, with a heart of flesh that is willing to be broken again and again, and made new each morning by new life. It can be done; it has been before. I know not if I will be adequate for the trail – I probably won’t be – but I serve a God who is faithful. And no matter how weak I am, no matter how powerfully Death rears its head and crushes me beneath its load, the One who is called Life is greater yet.

I learned the sting of death from Remarque in a way I have never known before. I felt a fearful indifference bent on survival rise up in me as never before. But just maybe, I understand my Lord’s triumph over Death in His everlasting Life a little bit better this day because of it.

Wishing you a Resurrection Sunday filled with the true knowledge of His power,

~ Timothy

Where is the sting, tell me where is the bite?

When the grave robber comes like a thief in the night

Where is the victory, where is the prize?

When the grave robber comes, and death finally dies

~ Petra, “Grave Robber”

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A word from MLK

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring…”

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

The work he helped begin all those years ago is still not entirely finished today. May we strive now as Martin Luther King did in his time; filled with the same joy, laboring with the same fervor, tempered with the same prudence and inspired by the same hope.

Happy MLK Day,

~ Timothy

Looking at a tapestry/50 awesome things

I said a little while ago that I quite literally had almost nothing to do before heading back to school, and thus could devote plenty of time to writing here. Boy do I need to put my foot in my mouth…

Anyway, I’m about to head to a New Year’s Party at a friend’s, so I have to make this quick:

I spent part of yesterday and today reviewing the year, partly through even little acts like cleaning out my wallet of old receipts, but mainly through this blog. I went back and skimmed or read through everything I posted this year, starting in January all the way until now.

All I can say is… man, what a journey.

I couldn’t possibly condense everything that happened this year into a list of even the most important things (and there are so many other things, great and small, that I failed to record here), but suffice to say that it has been one incredible tapestry of grace. God is good, and I learned a lot about that this year. Sometimes I’m tempted to wonder if I ever lived before this year.

I apologize for being so informal, but I have to get going.

Wishing you all a 2013 full of blessing, joy, growth, and drawing closer to Him,

~ Timothy

*   *   *   *   *

*update

Once again, I must make a meal of my words. After declaring with such certainty that this past year had been so full of adventure, joy, challenge, growth and a plethora of other things that I couldn’t possibly boil it down to a mere list, I saw a friend do this on Facebook and caved in was inspired to do the same.

Here it is:

50 Awesome Things I(?) Did in 2012

1. Created a Facebook and kept it.

2. Became shorter than both my brothers, older and younger. (Maybe I should reconsider having this one here…)

3. Graduated from high school. Twice. (Sort of.)

4. Finished Chinese school forever — a beautiful thing, I assure you.

5. Almost got my black belt (still one requirement to go).

6. Took Marine Bio with Mrs. Ellis, where Finding Nemo was quoted at least twice every class.

7. Did mock trial for the first time.

8. Partook of my first Shakespearean play! Discovered I evidently have a knack for acting drunk…

9. Took part in my 5th and final HST troupe show; even got to choreograph my own number!

10. Crafted, completed and performed a martial arts demonstration that drew from 7 different styles of martial arts, learned a ton.

11. Caused my first car accident – and experienced God’s grace in a way unlike anything I’ve ever known before.

12. Pulled an excessively elaborate but immensely entertaining senior prank with my graduating class, mostly involving caution tape, bubble wrap, glow sticks, army men, and a LOT of streamers.

13. Spent a week in Paris with six females who are very capable at shopping.

14. Attended Momentum 2012; came back a different person.

15. Enjoyed a surprise 18th birthday party, complete with a violent but thoroughly enjoyable water battle to the death.

16. Played the most ridiculously fun game of gravel conceivable, on the most awe-inspiring playground ever constructed by man.

17. Learned how to juggle (now I REALLY need to practice).

18. Got a laptop.

19. Completed my first semester at a college that now lies very close to my heart.

20. Developed an obsession with historical primary sources and everyday quotes of hilarity.

21. Learned how to swing dance!

22. Developed a laugh reflex to the words “vocation” and “studly.”

23. Learned U.S. History from a professor who made me enjoy, understand, and appreciate it for the first time.

24. Dressed like a Bolshevik and danced like a cossack. Got shot for my pains.

25. Kidnapped a professor and held him for ransom (in tandem with the rest of my class), ending in an incredibly epic battle fought within a gazebo.

26. Forged many new friendships with like-minded yet wonderfully different people from all over the country (or beyond) – some of which have reached a depth I’d never known before, and that I hope and believe will last a lifetime.

27. Developed a new appreciation and love for the friends I’ve known for many years, and discovered how rewarding staying in touch can be.

28. Learned it’s okay to ask people for prayer requests; in fact, it’s an incredible privilege.

29. Played a newspaper boy, a cat-calling baseball player, and a dead man in my first Eden Troupe show. Learned that life is beautiful, in ways you often don’t expect…

30. Had a blast on my first political campaigning trip in St. Louis, MO, with my very Southern, music-loving team.

31. Visited several amazing churches. Got left at one of them… Learned that Baptist churches always have food. Always.

32. Dove deeper into the Word than ever before… and felt more distant from the Word than ever before (which seems also to be a blessing in an odd way).

33. Experienced more challenges to my faith than ever before.

34. Grew in my faith more than ever before.

35. Shared in some of the most profound, enlightening, engaging and entertaining conversations of my life (mostly taking place over an ordinary dining commons meal).

36. Rekindled my love for jamming with my myachi – and got a friend infected with it too.

37. Learned and cultivated the ability to talk to perfect strangers about spiritual matters.

38. Became more aware of the issue of human trafficking and involved in the fight against it.

39. Spent more time than ever before on my knees in prayer.

40. Choreographed a routine with a kindred spirit in dance, wrote/directed a skit on Western Civ, helped write a song parody, and sang in another duet – in other words, took on way too much but had loads of fun – taking part in my first Harmonicomedy.

41. Attended a number of dances – including but not limited to a prom, a Christmas Ball and a masquerade – all proving that homeschooled folks are quite capable of having fun.

42. Found a new appreciation for a cappella music, and found no small amount of pleasure in singing it.

43. Enriched my understanding and skill as a musician at least tenfold in my first semester of Chorale. Sang in my first Lessons and Carols.

44. Participated in two White Elephant parties, one being the most fun I’ve ever seen (I don’t remember how or why, except that crayons were involved), the other by far the most unusual… (A plunger and a live lobster. Need I say more?)

45. Went caroling with glow sticks, sign language accompaniment, a full band, a hay ride, and a pickup truck decked out in Christmas lights.

46. Experienced Handel’s Messiah for the first time, in the form of a sing-along concert.

47. Danced more frequently, consciously, subconsciously, publicly, privately and unashamedly than ever before in my life.

48. Kept my blog alive for another year (though admittedly and unintentionally dormant for parts of it…).

49. Made good my graduating class’s long-time motto, “Strong enough to survive the end of the world.” Three times, I believe.

50. Lived more deliberately than I ever have before.

Quite a few of these have some kind of connection, large or small, with another member or two on the list. I apologize for the number of times I had to resort to the phrase “in a new way” or “more than ever before,” but this really was a year unlike, in many ways, all the previous years I’ve lived on this earth.

We use the word “awesome” to describe pretty much everything nowadays. Usually it denotes some kind of exceptionally fun, uniquely enjoyable, or wonderfully memorable experience, which is generally how I used it here. But for a number of the items on my list, the older, original meaning applies too — something inspiring awe, something wonderful and even unbelievable. So much of this past year has put me in awe — once again, in a new way, more than ever before — of the love of God, the creativity of God, the complexity of God, and especially the grace of God.

I received so many good things at His hand this year; far more than I’m even aware of, or could even begin to adequately thank and praise Him for. And I did absolutely nothing to merit receiving most, if not all of these blessings. Even the hardships, which have assuredly been there, are a form of blessing themselves. Through them I’ve grown stronger, learning to rely on Him to sustain me in my weakness. That too, is grace.

Which is why I have a question mark next to “I” in my title. I’m the one who experienced the blessings, and I have no doubt that I had a hand in making at least some of them happen, to the degree that they did. But looking back on all the things that I had no control over that made these things so rich in my life, I can’t conclude it was entirely I who did them either.

There is absolutely no conceivable way that I could have looked ahead at the end of 2011 or the very beginning of 2012, and seen even half of these things happening or the transformations that I would go through. Sure, I’m still me. But I know that because of what God has been doing in me over the past 12 months (and before), I am not the same anymore. So much has changed, and as far as I can tell, it’s for the better. It has been one grace-laden year.

I’m not even going to try to guess what 2013 will bring. But Lord willing, I’ll be able to look back at the end of it and say once again: It’s been an awesome year, full of grace and transforming growth. And I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.

Here’s to grace,

~ Timothy

Christmas carol exegesis

Christmas-Carols-Origin-and-History

I wasn’t able to craft a fully coherent Christmas message this year, but since I’ve mentioned my difficulty with finding meaning in Christmas music before (my post on the season from last year), I thought I’d indulge in a bit of exegesis in some of the carols I’ve heard most often and loved singing most this season. If nothing else, I hope that my scattered thoughts give you encouragement you to ponder more deeply the music you sing and hear this Christmas.

*     *     *

O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining.

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

‘Til He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.

To be holy means to be set-apart. It doesn’t refer to the intrinsic worth of an object, but the value placed on it by another; the rocks in an altar holy to the Lord are rocks like any other but set apart for a special purpose, as are the living stones set apart by God to be a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5).

That night so many years ago was, in many ways, like any ordinary night. Yet it stands apart from every other night in history. All else melts away like morning frost in comparison to this: the Lord of all the Universe stooped low enough to enter His creation, wrapped in flesh and nestled in a food-trough.

Were the stars, excepting the one that lead the Wise Men, brightly shining that night? Did they array themselves in all the splendor they could muster at the joy of welcoming their Maker into the universe? Or did they look like they do every night? I could see it being either way; God does seem inclined to be incredibly poetic at times, and starkly undramatic and unglamorous at others (sending His Son to be born in a stable is a good example of that).

However the stars looked that night, the dear Savior came. Why? Why come to this fallen world, a figment still of what God had intended it to be, yet bound by its corruption and rebellion since Eden? Why come to a planet that to this day, two thousand years after the Holy birth, still lies pining in its sin, groaning for its redemption?

Simply this: to testify to the truth that would set men free (John 8:32, 18:37). To bring light to darkness, to make a way of redemption for all who are willing to follow it and eventually, for all of Creation. The Hope of the nations appeared in Bethlehem that night, and the hope of His returning fills the universe still to this day. When the Lord of the heavens appears on the earth to bring salvation to man, there is hope indeed. And faced with such humility and sacrifice — God Almighty stepping down from His celestial throne to become a part of a messy, fallen world, that He might redeem it — how can the soul not exult in feeling its true worth? God doesn’t need us. But if He wants us, if He loved our race enough to take on our weakness and enter our lowly existence, how He values us can hardly be made any clearer. And that is where our ultimate worth lies.

When we sing of a Holy Night, we truly do sing of a night unlike any that has ever been or ever will be.

*     *     *

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh

Come peasant, king, to own Him.

The King of Kings salvation brings

Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

I never realized before how much this verse is saturated with the Kingship of Christ. Even the first line speaks of bringing gifts befitting a king. He is worthy of that honor, and far more.

Yet the Savior’s birth belongs to the rich and poor alike. Peasant and king, lowly shepherd and Magi, the lowest and the highest and everything in between, all may lay claim to Him; good thing too, because all need Him and none deserve Him. Yet any heart that is willing to grant Him its scepter, a heart that truly loves Him, is one He will deem worthy to enter and reign in.

Why He would deign to sit enthroned in our lowly hearts when He has a throne in heaven is beyond me, but I am grateful. Thank the Lord that He, the King of Kings, bore a salvation for us all.

*     *     *

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The long-awaited, long-expected Messiah’s arrival is truly an event for every son of Israel and daughter of Zion to rejoice greatly over. Foretold in ages past, He had finally come. God with us, a promise made reality.

Yet, it is a promise that the adopted children of Abraham have cause to rejoice in as well. As the angel proclaimed to the shepherds, it is a news of great joy “for all people.” As old Simeon exulted in the temple courts, this salvation was to be “a light unto the Gentiles,” as well as the glory of Israel.

I rejoice for the children of Israel who have received their long-awaited Messiah. But I am also exceedingly glad that I, a Gentile and stranger to the old covenant, may enter in and share the Light of Salvation with them as a child of the New Israel. Thanks be to the Lord for that!

*     *     *

Sing, choirs of angels! Sing in exultation!

Sing all ye citizens of heaven above.

Glory to God in the highest!

O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him,

O come let us adore Him, Christ the L0rd.

Translated literally, the Hebrew hallelujah simply means “praise the Lord!” But more than merely a vague expression of praise, the term is a plural imperative, i.e. an instruction or even command to many. A more apt translation would be, “Everyone! Let us praise the Lord together!”

To me, this verse seems to be the same way. I’ve always sung this verse concerning the angels in a nebulous, praise-the-Lord kind of fashion. Perhaps you have as well.

But that’s not what the text says. It’s an imperative, a request or even command to the hosts of heaven themselves! Then it turns to address the whole Body of Christ, all whose citizenship lies in heaven above.

When we tell angels to sing in exultation, “Glory to God in the highest!”, I have little doubt that they can hear us. Perhaps they join in every time we invite them to as well. At any rate, whether we invite the angels or our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to sing to God’s glory with us, let our invitation be a sincere one.

He is worth singing about. Truly, let us come before Him and adore Him for who He is: our Savior, Messiah, Redeemer, Friend, the Light of all men, the Firstborn of creation, the perfect Son of God.

Wishing you a merry and most blessed Christmas,

  ~ Timothy

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I first heard this song last Christmas, but it seemed especially appropriate this year, in light of all that happened in Connecticut so terribly recently…

Based off of a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (the full poem can be found here), this song has been running through my head quite often of late. Whether or not you’re already familiar with the poem or song, please take a moment to listen. Whatever is filling your heart and mind this Christmastime, I pray that this song encourages and strengthens you.

“May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

~ Hebrews 13:20-21

Duty, results, and thankfulness

Over election week, I went on a campaigning trip where for several days, I and many others engaged in various endeavors aimed to affect the outcome of the election. We had a short devotional each morning before shipping out; on Tuesday morning, our devotion centered on this simple verse: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)

The first part of the verse reminded us that though our campaigning was largely done in the names of the various officials we hoped to elect into office or organizations we happened to be collaborating with, our efforts would ultimately be in vain, regardless of the results, if not done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Striving to serve those other names that week was entirely appropriate, but only if kept in perspective with our primary focus, the name above all names.

To do all things in this name has ramifications: How can you do anything in the name of the King of the Universe, and do it in a half-hearted, timid spirit? How can you act in the name of the One who is lowly and meek in heart, in a manner that is ungracious or ungentle? And how can you live in the name of the Prince of Peace in a spirit of constant frustration and anxiety? It’s a question worth pondering: what does it look like practically for me to carry out the task before me, and my whole life, in the name of Jesus?

This brought us to the second part of the verse. Having done all things in the name of Jesus, both word and deed, the proper course is not to take ownership of or to agonize over the results. It is to thank the Father. In the context of our work there as campaigners, I was reminded of the sermon I had attended that Sunday, in which the pastor exhorted his congregation to approach the impending election with humility and graciousness, neither returning the next Sunday with knowing “I told you so” smiles or “This is it; the apocalypse is upon us!” broadcasts of despair.

I find it interesting that at its root, both of these responses display a denial of the Lordship of Christ mentioned in the verse. One remarks “now all things will be put to rights; we have the right people in office,” the other laments “clearly, with these folks in office, the end is nigh,” but both fundamentally place their trust in the political leaders to make things right, rather than the sovereign God. Towards the neighbor who voted differently, both display a sort of ungracious arrogance, a turning away from the character of God, which in essence is a denial of His Lordship over one’s life. And both fail to thank God for what He has already done; one because he’s too busy celebrating the victory won by human effort, the other because he sees nothing to be thankful for. Both are greatly mistaken.

Instead, as we are commanded to do all things in Jesus’ name, we are called to be thankful in all things through our Lord Jesus to God our Father. And such an attitude of thankfulness, acknowledging both God’s sovereignty over all circumstances and over one’s own life, does not easily degenerate into either of these extremes of arrogance or despair.

The motto for the campaigning organization we worked through was “the duty is ours, the results are God’s.” This obviously applies and was intended to apply to political elections and offices, but it seems every bit as applicable to the rest of our lives also: our jobs, families, schoolwork, hobbies, friendships, and so on. A very real duty is set before us; to do all things as unto the Lord, in the name of Christ. Yet once this is done, the results belong in the hands of the very same Lord. We can and should hoe, plant, water, and weed with the best that we have to offer in our abilities and attitudes, but it is He who makes the crops grow or wither, not us. And however the harvest appears for the future, still we put our trust in Him and remain faithful to His character, through our Lord giving thanks.

How I just took an event from election week and turned it into a Thanksgiving message is beyond me, but I hope that you spent and enjoyed this day in a time of gratitude to the Lord and fellowship with others. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

  ~ Timothy

Graduation: A Study in Cliché

Originally, this long overdue message was intended to be given as a charge to my classmates at graduation, before I realized that it was far too long and that a slightly different message was more appropriate for that occasion. Now, I present it here to you in unabridged glory (and as is to be expected, it is now about three times longer than when I first started writing it).

If you are also a recent graduate, I especially dedicate this message to you — though frankly, these ideas are applicable to just about anyone. As always, I apologize for the excessive length, and also for the fact that it reads more like a speech (that should have been given during the graduation season) than a blog post. Enjoy!

The Problem with Our Graduation Clichés

PART I: THE COMPROMISE

“As we go forth…” “Looking forward, let us also look back…” “Life/success/education is not a destination, but a journey…”

More than any other time of year, graduation seems to be a special season for clichés; a time for them to grow hard and ripe that we may gather, bring in a full harvest, and bounteously distribute the spoils to all our friends, our families, and especially our graduates.

Every year, in commencement speech after commencement speech, we as graduating seniors are spoon-fed an endless plethora of quotes and platitudes (most of which have been canned for decades) from the podium. We’re congratulated for “all the hard work we’ve put in to get to this point” and for having “made it!” We’re asked “hasn’t time just flown by,” because “why it seems like just yesterday…” but “look at where we are now.” We’re told that “this is the time of our lives” and that we’ll “look back on these days as among the best of our lives” (giving us much to look forward to), but we’re also reminded that “it’s not the end, it’s only the beginning,” that “this is the first day of the rest of your life,” because after all, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and “as one door closes, another opens”; “We’ve only just begun!”

If you’ve attended multiple graduation ceremonies already or will be in the coming weeks and that was painful to you, I apologize. Isn’t it interesting though, how much we resort to these same sayings and proverbs year after copycat year? It’s certainly something I didn’t fully realize until I had to write a graduation speech of my own. Why we play this game of perpetual recycling is something worth discussing later, but first, it leaves those of us who must write graduation speeches with an interesting dilemma: Do we buy into the it’s-not-graduation-without-graduation-clichés trend, follow the unnamed tradition and freely sow our speech with platitude? Or, do we mercilessly purge our work of these writing impurities, as Strunk, White, and Zinsser might have us do, and be as absolutely original as possible in everything we say?

Obviously, that’s a false either-or situation. At any rate, I’ve already saturated my opening with cliché galore, and I doubt my originality would take me quite so far as to never quote another one. But to blindly and thoughtlessly litter a speech with overworn, overrated, and overused phrases and sayings would result in a monster not worthy of daylight.

So I struck a compromise: I would incorporate as many graduation clichés into my speech as possible, but only as an opportunity to explain what I dislike about each one of them. I’ve already used quite a few as examples, but rest assured that there remains a well plenty deep enough for our supply.

Let’s begin:

PART II: THE CLICHÉS

Cliché: We are, “the brave, the bold, the beautiful,” each with “incredible talents” and “a capacity to greatness.”

For the most part, perfectly good sayings that have simply been parroted far too often, so much so that they’ve lost their color. Now they sound pretty trite.

This past year (and in years previously), I have walked among my fellow seniors in all sorts of situations; and yes, I have seen bravery, boldness, and especially beauty, in ways I never expected to. “Incredible” really doesn’t go far enough to describe the breathtaking, God-given abilities and time-honed skills I’ve caught glimpses of over the years.

As for “capacity to greatness,” to my ears that ignores two things: 1) Though still imperfect and growing, we can and perhaps already have achieved greatness, and 2) The root of that present greatness and the greatness to come.

We are not great because of what we have made ourselves to be; we are great only because of who we are as God’s new creations in Christ. In fact, it is only by His grace that we can learn from the essence of Bravery, Boldness, and Beauty, what those things really are. It is only by His mercy that we can learn to apply those incredible talents He has given us to proper use. It is only by His will that we have our “capacity to greatness” in the first place. And it is only by His power that our “capacity” can be, is, and shall be made a reality.

Our greatness is both a finished reality sealed by Christ’s work on the cross, and a coming reality that will be completed in full when we are with Him in glory. It is the righteousness we can live now by faith (Gal 3:11/Hab 2:4), and the coming righteousness for which we eagerly wait, also by faith (Gal 5:5). And our faith is properly placed not in ourselves and our wonderful talents, our bravery-boldness-beauty, and our awesome capacities, but in our Maker alone; the One who gave us these things.

Cliché: “As you go out into the world,” strive to “make a difference,” to “make the world a better place,” to “turn the world upside-down.”

Whenever politicians state that they will bring about change if elected into office, I know what they mean; but I can’t help wishing that they would be more specific. Because simply put, not all change is good (more corruption, for example, is a change that we could all do without). The same goes for the “difference ” we make in this world. Of course we’re all going to have some effect, however small; there’s no guarantee, however, that it will be a positive one.

Making the world “a better place” isn’t much of an improvement because the meaning of “better” is rarely defined. What do you mean by “better”? Contributing to world peace? World happiness? World equality? (Which would inevitably make some people very unhappy, and probably require disturbing the peace of many others.)

To my fellow, graduating seniors: As you go out into the world, please don’t try to turn it upside-down; it’s lost enough. Our job as believers, as ambassadors for Christ, isn’t to just shake up the world more by flipping it upside down, but to turn it right side up again. By pointing it, in all of its darkness and unbelief, to our God.

That is the way to change the world for the better. That is what will make not just any old difference, however positive; it will make an eternal one.

Cliché: “Follow your dreams. Pursue your passions. Be true to yourself. Trust your instincts.”

Use the force, Luke. Let your intuition guide you. Or as the song by 98 Degrees says, “True to your heart, you must be true to your heart.”

Have you ever noticed how self-centered that sounds? Your dreams, your passion, your instincts, your heart. Where is the focus of these sayings? On the creature or the Creator?

But don’t get me wrong. These things — dreams, passions, heart’s desires, intuition and so on — are not evils in and of themselves. God gave them to us for a reason, and He made us individuals for a purpose. I just referenced how uniquely gifted I’ve seen my fellow seniors to be. Well, they are no less unique in their personalities, interests, abilities, flaws, what makes them laugh, how they relate to others, how they respond to certain situations, and what their passions and dreams are.

God hand-crafted each one of us to be weird; to be different from the other faces in a crowd of millions and billions of others. Heaven knows we each have gifts and dreams and strengths and weaknesses that are very similar to someone we might know (especially relatives…), or someone a friend of a friend knows, and to possibly thousands others across the planet. He didn’t make us that unique; otherwise, we might never have anything in common (and we might never experience, as Dr. Seuss called it, that “mutual weirdness” we call love). And yet, God did make us unique; certainly by the way He formed us but also by the way He placed each of us in our own spot in history and the world; so much so, that I can state with no hesitation whatsoever, that you are different, you are set apart from every other person who has ever walked on this earth… or ever will.

Perhaps I’m dipping a bit into the cliché well myself, but your dreams, passions, gifts, and so on are part of what makes you unique. They are a part of the purpose for which you were created. So by all means, follow your dreams, pursue your passions; but only as a means of following, pursuing, and glorifying the One who put them in you. Be true to yourself; but don’t be true to the old self that was crucified with Christ, that used to lie dead in transgression. Be true to the self that was raised with Him in new life, dedicated to His Kingdom and His righteousness.

And be careful about following those instincts willy-nilly. God gave us an intuition, but He never said it would tell us no lies. I like how the movie Fireproof put it: “Don’t follow your heart, because your heart can be deceived. You have to lead your heart.” Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, so be careful what you make your treasure. Don’t ever make the mistake of making your imperfect, broken self the treasure, instead of Christ. In fact, perhaps the easiest way to make this clear is to take yourself out of the picture entirely and put the proper owner in His place:

Follow His dreams. Pursue His passions. Be true to your Lord, and trust in Him with all of your heart, leaning on His understanding over your own instincts and wisdom. Acknowledge and glorify Him in all you do, and He will take care of the rest.

Focus not on your dreams, passions, wisdom, and so on, but His. After all, if you’re walking in Him, they should be pretty similar anyway.

Cliché: “You are the future. The future is in your hands.” (So is the national debt…)

The problem I see with this one is the same as with the whole “capacity to greatness” thing. It makes it sound as if us young fry will one day mature, join the ranks and then, we can go out and “make our mark upon the world” (another well-worn cliché).

Are we the future only? Are we not also a part of the present? Can we not begin to live lives worthy of remembrance and honor right now? As is often quoted from Paul (or in this case, grossly paraphrased by me), don’t let anyone despise you because you haven’t hit your growth spurt yet. Because you’re still in school. Because you still can’t legally drive a car, own a home or buy alcohol (why that’s a standard of adulthood in our society I’ll never know… but that’s a whole other issue).

Instead, you set the example. You show people who think they’re mature and wise just because they’ve lived longer (which is to be hoped, but certainly not assumed) what it means to live a life of integrity, in how and what you speak, in how you go about your daily life, in the way that you love your Lord and your neighbor, in what you put your faith in and how that faith lives through your deeds, and in the way you keep yourself undefiled by this world, pure in the sight of God. I guarantee, no matter the age of whoever happens to be watching, that will get people’s attention in today’s culture and society. That will lead people to the questions that can eventually lead them to the Lord. That will do something real for the present; and by extension, for the future.

Cliché: “Today is a bright day, full of hope and promise…”

Or how about this one? I actually saw this at the graduation ceremony of a friend I attended last year. The girl giving the charge is talking, almost finishes her sentence, pulls out a pair of shades, puts them on and declares, “Our future is oh so bright!”

As I’ve already made pretty clear, I do have hopes for the members of my graduating class, and they are high ones. Yes, we certainly have potential, both for the present and the future, and there’s nothing wrong with being excited and optimistic about what is to come. But calling the future a bright one so confidently seems a bit presumptuous to me. Because as we’re reminded in the book of James, none of us knows what’s coming. None of us knows what the next year, the next day, the next hour will bring. We don’t know, and frankly, there isn’t much we could do about it even if we did. Captains of our souls though we may be, we are far from the masters of our fate. We can adjust our sails all we want, but we can’t control the seas, we can’t redirect the wind; we can’t keep the storms from coming. And let’s face the truth for what it is: many a better captain than you and I has been sunk before by the tempest. I hate to put a raincloud over the celebration and festivities that always surrounds the graduation season, but let’s be honest: this very moment, we may be headed towards the darkest days of our lives.

Thank the Lord we do not sail alone. We might be poor, lost, inexperienced, battered captains, but we have a light to sail by even in the darkest of nights, the fiercest of gales; and if we but learn to sail by that Light, we will come to harbor. Our Master has the power to command the winds and waves — “Peace, be still” — and they obey. And when, for reasons beyond our knowing, He allows the tempest to rage on, He has promised to be our refuge and our guiding light still if we but turn to Him. Sometimes He calms the storm, and other times, He calms His child. He is good, and it is He who shepherds us. He is all we need.

Our hope is not founded in how bright the future may look for us, but in our King and the promises He has made. So whether the days ahead are as lit as the brightness of God’s own countenance, or as dark as the Valley of the Shadow, my charge to and my prayer for each of you is that you would not forget the promises of God. That you would remember His faithfulness and run to Him, regardless of where you are walking; through mountaintops of abundance, through valleys of suffering, even through plateaus of mediocrity.

We say all the time in our graduation speeches, that our parents, teachers, class, cat, whatever, has been such an inspiration to us and that we couldn’t have done it without them; yet another cliché. But without God, we have nothing. By His grace alone do we wake each morning, take each breath, walk each step.

Let our focus then be not on ourselves, but in Him alone.

PART III: THE QUESTION, THE REASON, THE DANGER, & THE CALL

I could go on, but the general point has been made. Clichéd sayings concerning graduation abound. Some are groan-worthy or worn out with use at best, others are misleading or simply untrue at the worst.

So the question remains: Why do we do this? Why do we continue to quote and recite these sayings, regardless of how awful some of them have become, to our graduates year after year? And perhaps more importantly, is it really that much of a bad thing? Should we avoid these overused proverbs and platitudes at all costs? Or is there value in these sayings that can be redeemed?

To answer the question in part:

Several weeks ago, as my class prepared to hand down the senior class journal and Bible to our successors, the Class of 2013, we read through many of the bits of advice given by seniors in years past, and wrote encouragements, notes, and bits of advice ourselves. And do you know what the most overused, oft-repeated, clichéd word used there was?

Cliché.

Everyone had to acknowledge that what they had to say – don’t procrastinate, start early on your thesis, respect your teachers, cherish the memories you have here, and so on – had been said countless times before. And yet, we still shared these worn-out, well-repeated pieces of advice, being as original or personal as possible, and yet still knowing that there was nothing new under the sun in what we had to say.

Being cliché is not necessarily an indicator of poor substance (you may have noticed that I’ve already admitted to being somewhat cliché several times now). Is it cliché to thank teachers and parents at graduation ceremonies? Yes, every school in the country does that. Does that mean we shouldn’t, just to be original? (Please don’t bother answering that question. It’s rhetorical.)

One of the phrases I abhor the most during graduation season refers to “the next phase in your life” or “a new season for you,” or (worse yet) any cutesy reference to “a new chapter in your life” (and about turning the page, writing the next part of your story, etc.). The reason that I didn’t include it in my list was because, besides the fact that I think it’s terribly overused, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. It’s true. Going from high school to college is leaving something old and entering something new. I may hate hearing those phrases, but believe me, I’ve used them plenty of times myself because I can’t escape it. Call them what you will, they’re still true. Or, as the cliché goes, “that’s why they become cliches.”

In every worldview and (almost) every belief, a grain of truth may be seen. And sometimes, these overrepeated sayings capture that bit of truth so perfectly or so naturally that we simply don’t have the desire or ability to come up with another way to say it.

And yet… there is a very real danger in using these slogans and truisms, simply because we are human. In fact, I see two dangers we face, each of which can be amply illustrated by a quote from author Anais Nin:

1) “What we are familiar with we cease to see. ”
When we resort to phrases that are not newly conceived, but merely recycled from yesterday’s originality, our familiarity grows, and so does our contempt and our apathy. We cease to see these truths for what they are because we have allowed a trite saying to rob it of its meaning and power. Several of the sayings I dealt with had no fault but this.

2) “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
We are fallen. And when, as fallen creatures, we see the world through our imperfect, soiled eyes, we give ourselves the impression that life really is all about us. And too often, our idols appear through our proverbs, and soon they all start pointing inward instead of up. We go from being God-centered to being self-centered. Remember: your dreams, your passion, your heart, your future.

The temptation is always before us to conform to the well-beaten trail, to ride along in the current the way a corpse or a creature too weak to swim would. Ultimately, to the world this means buying into the idea that the self is all that really matters; and to those who wish to think differently, the world cries in a vehement roar, or whispers in a soothing reassurance, “Conform.”

Yet that is not what we were made for. As esteemed author and poet Dr. Seuss once so aptly stated, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” When you were called to stand out, to live counter-culturally and swim against the pull of the river, lest you be dashed on the rocks like the rest. The words of Paul on this matter may have become cliché themselves within Christian circles, but they are worth repeating; regardless of how dull a heart may become to their potency, their truth will never die: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

We know what the will of God is. That we not fall into the self-seeking, self-centered, self-destructive pattern of this world. That we stand firmly in and for the faith, whether we stand in a crowd or on our own. That we use the gifts He has blessed us with, applying them and using our imaginations to help make known the truth, goodness, and beauty of our Maker to a world that has grown too familiar with hearing about it and seeing it daily. That we let go of the fact that we don’t know what the future holds and rest in Him who holds the future. That we take up our cross daily, dying to everything in us that is darkness and striving to live as children of the day. That we walk as our Savior Christ did, following His teaching and living by His example, and making ripples in eternity by being His ambassadors.

To my dearest classmates (and by this, I mean anyone who has graduated alongside me): I will be praying for each of you in the days to come, and I sincerely wish you all the best. No… no that’s not right either. Rather, I hope and pray that you will never forget that you already have the best.

You have Christ.

Now go share Him with the world.

Hungry

I attended the graduation ceremony of a friend last week, and heard this song for the first time as part of the short worship set at the beginning. It was a rare opportunity; I usually like to sing to everything, especially worship music (and if I can find a working harmony, even better). But here, I found myself not knowing this song that everyone else clearly was familiar with and loved, a song that they were now singing out with all of their being. So I just listened.

Generic? I suppose you could call it that. But drinking in the words (especially the first two lines) makes me aware of how heartfelt they are. Sometimes the simple, even slightly generic words say it best.

(Speaking of heartfelt words, I found a short interview excerpt from the writer, Kathryn Scott, about what she was living through when she wrote this song; check it out if you enjoy Scottish accents.)

Maybe you’re familiar with this song. Maybe, like me until last week, you’ve never heard it before. Regardless, reflect on the words for a spell. Consider the worth of our Lord, and how we can do nothing but fall to our knees at His feet and give Him all that we have and are in response.

Consider how He alone ultimately satisfies our hunger.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst
for righteousness, for they will be filled.

~ Matthew 5:3-6

Good Friday, Happy Easter

I wasn’t sure what to say for an Easter post. Then I went over to the blog of one of my former teachers and saw this post (I wasn’t sure how to reblog it directly, so I just copy-and-pasted the whole thing here):

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Good Friday: Reflecting on my sin and Savior who paid the penalty.

Resurrection Day: Celebrating. He lives. Hallelujah!

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20 (ESV)

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Made my day.

What more is there to say? He took our punishment, and He has risen!

Happy Resurrection Day!

~ Timothy

Awesome gift

Some gifts just have to be shared.

Please indulge me for a moment, and check this out:

Yes, this was all hand-drawn!!!

Rachel, I can’t thank you enough. It’s awesome. =)

Hope you all had a Merry Christmas!

Cheers,

~ Timothy