Category Archives: Journal
In my first week back working with The Daily Record I had the opportunity to interview and photograph Carsie Denning. Mr. Denning is a World War II veteran who recently published a memoir documenting the special project he worked on during the war years.
I love working with WWII veterans! It’s a stereotype, I know, but all of the veterans from that era I have had the opportunity to meet during my time at The Record and The Sanford Herald have just been incredible, multi-faceted men who have worked hard to make the most of every opportunity they’ve had. Mr. Denning is no exception. In high school, he picked up an interest in electronics and photography, setting up a full dark room in his parents’ home. He worked as a shipyard electrician before enlisting in the Army and participating in this unique project. After the war, he worked in Military Intelligence at the Pentagon, then moved to Denver to be near his wife who was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. When she was transferred to a hospital in Richmond, he returned to Washington for a short while before leaving the military to work with the North Carolina prison system. He later took a job as an electrical engineer for the Department of Public Instruction and ended up retiring as assistant controller. After that long career of public service, Mr. Denning started his own company and worked another two decades before retiring for good. In the past year, he has published two books, married Jenny (his first wife, Mary, died several years ago) and worked hard to recover full mobility and speech after suffering a stroke. I enjoyed getting to know just a little bit about his fascinating life during the hours we had together.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
This evening Kristen and I met with a few friends for a great time of Bible study and fellowship. We didn’t have a program or a lesson guide, we just took turns reading a chapter or two of scripture and then sharing whatever thoughts came to mind. In two and half hours, we moved through the first four chapters of Luke. Our discussions were broad and deep, covering questions that were both lighthearted and serious. It was a meaningful gathering that I was glad to be a part of.
Among the questions that rose out of our reading was the starkly different responses Zechariah and Mary received when they questioned the angel Gabriel. If you are not familiar with this story, I suggest you read it for yourself. The first people we meet in Luke’s gospel are Zechariah and Elizabeth — an elderly couple of priestly lineage who have lived good lives, were respected in their community and were seen to be “righteous before God.” Despite their highly exalted social and religious status, however, Zechariah and Elizabeth had no children of their own. As Elizabeth was already beyond the normal age for conception, it seemed unlikely the couple would ever have a son or daughter to carry on their name, yet they remained faithful to their God and their people. In ancient Israel, because there were many priests, but one central temple in Jerusalem, the priests were divided into orders; each order was assigned two weeks out of the year during which the priests of that order were responsible for maintaining the altar and offering prayers at the Jerusalem temple. Each day, lots were cast to determine which priest from the order would enter the holiest part of the temple to burn incense at the altar and pray for the people. This was a big honor, and on this particular day, it fell to Zechariah. The elderly priest made his way into the temple, as perhaps he had done before. A great crowd of people stood outside in the courtyard of the temple where the general population met to pray, but Zechariah was responsible for carrying those prayers into the sanctuary, where he would send them up to God wrapped in a sweet cloud of incense.
Then the story really gets interesting. While the incense offering is burning at the altar, the angel Gabriel appeared before Zechariah. Zechariah was startled, but Gabriel comforted the old priest and assured him that his prayer had been heard. Elizabeth is going to have a child. He will be a great prophet among the people, and will even be great in the sight of the Lord! Good news, right? Then Zechariah said the words that would be on anyone’s mind, though few of us would have the courage to speak in such a moment: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years (if you know what I mean).” Gabriel responds to this inquiry by silencing Zechariah’s voice and apparently rendering him partially deaf, at least temporarily; All of his senses will be restored once the boy is born and Zechariah follows the Lord’s instructions to name him John. That seems to be kind of a harsh move against a faithful old priest, but once John is born, Zechariah’s joy positively overwhelms everything else. This is good news indeed!
A few months later, Gabriel makes another visit. This time he calls on a young girl named Mary who is betrothed, but not yet married, to Joseph. Gabriel gives Mary a similar message, announcing that she, too, will have a son. While Mary doesn’t have the issue of age to worry about like Elizabeth did, she still has some questions about how she might possibly become pregnant with a son, as she has never done any of the typical things that precede pregnancy — like having sex. “How can this be,” she asks the angel, “since I am a virgin?” Instead of sealing up her tongue or rebuking her for a lack of faith, however, Gabriel simply assures Mary that while this message may not make since at first sight, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
So, to sum up the dilemma:
- Elizabeth and Mary both cannot have children; Elizabeth because she is too old, and Mary because she is a virgin.
- Both are told they will miraculously conceive sons.
- Zechariah asks “How will I know this is so?” and is punished for a lack of faith.
- Mary asks “How can this be?” and is gently reassured of God’s presence in her life.
What’s going on here? Why do these two people get such different responses in such similar situations? I have heard many explanations on this before. Some people see the subtle difference in the questions posed by Zechariah and Mary and infer that Zechariah’s question expressed a since of disbelief, while Mary’s was simply innocent curiosity. I don’t doubt that attitude is very important in weighing how we frame our questions to our friends, or to God. I can respect this view, but for me, it has never seemed quite sufficient. There simply isn’t enough information given for me to honestly interpret the attitudes and feelings of Zechariah and Mary. One major difference between the two situations I do notice in the text, however, is setting. A great deal of effort is put in to explaining the setting of Zechariah’s encounter with the angel Gabriel. Zechariah, as well as his wife, are both of priestly lineage. Zechariah’s order was on duty. A lot was cast (basically, the priests asked for God to make a choice clear) and Zechariah’s name came up. Zechariah left the praying crowd and moved into the sanctuary. Zechariah lit the incense offering. Zechariah stood by the altar and prayed. Gabriel appeared and announced that God had not only heard Zechariah’s prayer, but that was he was going to bless his family in a special way. The only word we have concerning the setting of Mary’s meeting with Gabriel is that it was in Nazareth — a small town about 65 miles away from Jerusalem. We don’t know if Mary was at home, visiting with a friend, at work in the field or walking down the street. What we do know is that she wasn’t in the temple — she wouldn’t have been allowed into the sanctuary where Zechariah had met Gabriel.
I don’t say all of this to imply that God can only speak in special places, or in certain ways. Clearly this story, and the ones that follow it, demonstrate that is simply not the case. What I do think is made clear by this story though, is that while Zechariah and Mary were both very surprised at Gabriel’s presence, only one of them should have been surprised. Zechariah had gone through a lot of effort — a lifetime of effort, one could argue — to make his case before God. Zechariah had done everything he could possibly do to demonstrate his respect for God and to show that he was sincere in his prayer. Zechariah was asking for God to intervene in his life, yet he was astonished when God actually showed up. Mary, on the other hand, probably wasn’t hoping to find herself pregnant at this point; she certainly hadn’t asked God to intervene on her behalf. Her surprise is understandable, and she is granted a little understanding.
It is not lost on me that of course, someone went into the sanctuary to offer prayers at the altar every day, yet every day an angel did not show up to deliver a special message from God. In fact, it had been sometime since God had moved among his people in a powerful way; prophets had grown silent; visions were rare; people were complacent.
But is that really any excuse? If we believe that God is alive and well, then we must not be surprised when he makes his presence known. If we pray to God expecting him to hear and honor our prayers, then why should we be surprised when we see him act? If we don’t believe our prayers matter, then why even go through the motions?
If, on the other hand, we come before God in awe and reverence, eagerly awaiting his command and longing for his blessing — just as that old priest did many years ago — then it will be our great joy to find him waiting for us, right there where he’s always been.
One of the most exciting elements of my Divinity School work this semester has been the opportunity I’ve had to study Hebrew with Dr. Barry Jones. I’ve never been very good in the foreign language skills department. In high school and college I dabbled in a couple of different languages, but simply trying to get a handle on the nuances and grammar of my own native tongue has been more than enough to push my linguistic abilities. For brevity’s sake, however, let me simply say that Hebrew is fun.
Working through scripture in its original language has been challenging and invigorating. Each little gain in understanding of these sacred texts opens up new truths and insight for me, but I still have a very long ways to go before reading a book, or even a sentence, in Hebrew is as natural and clear as it is in English. So why bother with trying to read the Bible in its original language? Aren’t there already enough English translations available? Haven’t hundreds of translators and scribes been pouring over these texts for thousands of years already? What can I possibly find in the original languages that hasn’t already been identified, dissected and translated by other, more qualified biblical scholars?
But that’s not really why we read the Bible, is it? It’s true that some people spend great amounts of time and effort scouring the letters and phrasings of scripture for secret codes, looking for hidden messages that supposedly reveal everything from the date of the apocalypse, to which candidate will win the 2012 presidential election in the United States of America. Others aren’t searching for secret codes, but they are reading the texts in hopes of finding a special verse or word that supports their own presupposed view of God and what he deems to be right behavior, as opposed to reading the lessons and stories of scripture with fresh ears, trying to understand them within the context of the overarching message of the gospel.
Whenever I move through the pages of the Bible, I know that I am walking down a path that many, many people have tread before me; I take comfort in that, and I do not for a moment hope to go one step further than anyone else has already gone. At the same time, I believe that God’s truths aren’t simply passed down from one generation to the next like genetic characteristics or inherited wealth. For scripture to have any real value for an individual, it must be read and understood by that person. If we hope to gain even a glimmer of understanding into the nature of God, we must, each one, seek him out. Knowing how God has worked among the human race in the past is a good place to start. The better informed we are as to the nature of God, of his relationship with mankind, of his movements in history and how he has revealed himself to others, the better equipped we are to identify his presence in our own lives as we seek to live within his will. This is the primary reason that I read the Bible — to know God.
One of the simple benefits of understanding the original language of scripture came through this week’s vocabulary lesson. Among our list of new words to learn for the week was the verb נשא (pronounced: nă•sá) which means to lift or to carry. This is the verb used in Exodus 20:7, the third commandment, translated in the NET (and similarly in the KJV) as “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”. In my experience, most people have understood this to be an admonition against using a name for God as a frivolous slur or in conjunction with obscene language. The verb נשא certainly does support this interpretation. The commandment makes it clear that “lifting up” the Lord’s name to invoke a curse is a sordid thing to do — unless of course, you really, really mean it. However, נשא has another meaning here that, at least in this case, seems to fit this context better than the traditional understanding of “lifting up” God’s name alongside other language that is in poor taste.
The second meaning of the verb נשא, “to carry,” seems to fit in well with the rest of the Exodus story, and even with the rest of the Biblical narrative. Beginning with the exodus and continuing on for much of history, God’s people were not associated with a particular place; they were not known for their great wealth and possessions; they were not known for military superiority or for their hold on a valuable resource. They were known by the law they had been given, and by the God, Yahweh, who gave them that law. As they roamed through the wilderness, carrying all of their few possessions with them, they always found themselves to be strangers in foreign land. What kept them together — what set them apart from the other nations that surrounded them — was their identity as a people chosen by God, called by his name. This act of “carrying” God’s name was not a small thing for the Israelites — it was the most important thing they had!
In 2 Chronicles 7, during a relatively brief period of prosperity and national wealth in the history of Israel, God reminds Solomon, the great king, of this first treasure the Hebrew people had claim to, saying:
When the prophet Jonah was sleeping onboard a ship in peril, the ship’s crew woke him up and asked him who he was. Jonah didn’t tell them his name. He didn’t tell them which town he was from, who is parents were or what he did for a living. He simply said, “I worship Yahweh.” This statement, of course, wasn’t entirely true. It was simply the latest in a string of mistakes Jonah had made. He claimed to be a worshipper of Yahweh, but in reality, he was caught in the act of fleeing from the Lord, of ignoring his responsibilities and following his own desires. Jonah was “carrying” the name of the Lord, but he was not living as one who truly belongs to God.
As Christians, we often divert our attention and make known our disapproval when we hear the name of Jesus used as a statement of anger or frustration, but are we as quick to hold ourselves accountable when our actions or words — though they may be perfectly acceptable by society’s standards — are not worthy of one who carries the name of Christ? How many Christians today pay lip service to God when it’s convenient, but don’t put forward any real effort to follow his commandments to honor the Lord in all we do, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves? Is it worse to ignore God altogether, or to acknowledge him in word but not in deed?
Let us strive to never carry the name of Christ in vain.
These past few weeks, my commute back and forth to Campbell has become a lot more pleasant. In fact, several days I’ve found myself looking for excuses to take a detour or two and just enjoy an afternoon drive to nowhere. The pleasant autumn weather — marked around here by snow-white fields blanketed with cotton blossoms and tall oak trees that drip a never-ending stream of orange and brown leaves — certainly has something to do with it, but that’s not the only reason for my surge of motoring delight. The main motivator behind my pavement pounding has been the excitement that comes along with driving a new car. Sort of. Actually, our car is over three years old and quickly approaching 80,000 miles. But it drives like new — because it just got a new set of tires.
Tires are the single most important piece of equipment on any car. It’s true that a fresh set of rubber can’t do much of anything without the help of an engine, some spark plugs, an axle and a driveshaft or two. I’m all for finding balance in things, but I believe tires are often the most under appreciated component on cars. There may not be many people out there who get excited about buying a new set of tires like I do. It is true that in my high school and early college years, I may have even had an unhealthy obsession with tire technology. Whenever a new rubber compound was introduced that claimed to hold the perfect balance of soft, sticky, pliable tread that hugged the road like a long lost love, but still remained hard enough to endure abuse from rocks, trees, nails and all sorts of other debris that comes at it, I was hooked. Whenever I came across a new off-road tread design that promised to paddle through mud and climb up rocks better than anything else out there, I wanted to see it. My wife (although she wasn’t my wife at the time; resolving this issue was a prerequisite for marriage) told me, on more than once occasion, that she was jealous of the way I eyeballed another guy’s set of Mickey Thompson Baja Claws (a very fine directional radial that happens to be way out of my league) in the parking lot at Outback, when I was supposed to be on a date with her. Even if you don’t share my appreciation of designer rubber, I hope you can understand why I think tires are, without a doubt, the key part of any automobile.
You see, everything a car does depends on the tires’ ability to grip the road. Any cool track tricks a driver tries to pull off — every message sent through the car — must be processed through and executed by the tires. High-tech engine systems, custom gear ratios, locking differentials, finely-tuned turbo chargers and other high dollar accessories designed to squeeze a few more horses out of a car are all absolutely useless if they aren’t matched with a good set of tires that can faithfully transfer that energy to the road.
See my point yet?
Similarly, I’m afraid a lot of us spend way too much time spinning our wheels in life instead of actually accomplishing things that matter; I know I do. It’s important to prepare ourselves for the future, and every now and then it’s nice to take a turn around the block just for fun, but how much of our energy in life and ministry is lost to things that end up being just for show — things that never make the transition to pavement?
I love the feeling of riding on a new set of tires, but if my wheels stay free of blemishes and wear for more than a few days, I know I’m doing something wrong.