Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Covenant

I am five hundred pages into The Covenant, James Michener's historical epic novel about South Africa. Strangely enough his book has got me thinking a lot about biblical hermeneutics. Maybe it's not so very strange because in Michener's portrayal, among the Dutch settlers in what would become South Africa there is the almost universal belief that they are the new Israel in the new promised land. The Dutch loved the Old Testament and believed that like Israel was given the land of Canaan to be her possession, so were the Dutch given land in the African continent. The Dutch consulted the Old Testament earnestly to decipher how they must behave in this new land. On one occasion in the novel they are perplexed whether to baptize a child born of a Malayan slave mother and Dutch father and the cleric at first flatly refuses, but upon finding the passage that Abraham circumcised all in his household including slaves, they see what must be done and further see that the baptism must be performed the selfsame-day since Abraham circumcised his household the same day he was commanded. On another occasion, a devout Dutch woman argues that the old Hottentot servant who has always been around the kitchen while her mother-in-law is cooking meals, must no longer be in the house because he is one of the children of Ham, who are cursed by God, and no Canaanite should be in the house of the Lord. Intermarriage and intermingling of the races, though it is done especially in the early days when white women are scarce, is viewed as sinful like the Israelite intermarriage with the pagan peoples which was explicitly forbidden by God. The enemies of the Dutch, the cattle-stealing Bushmen and the Xhosa, the black tribe who are moving west as the Dutch are moving east and so competing for the same land, are like the enemies of Israel and it is argued at one point by a character in the novel that just as in biblical times five of God's people will put a hundred enemies to flight. With the superior weapons of the Dutch, this estimate turns out to be sadly true in their skirmishes and battles.

With an almost exclusive focus on the Old Testament, the Dutch pursue parallels between the nation of Israel in the promised land and the Dutch in Africa and Jesus' words in the Great Commission are heeded less than God's commands to Israel to be a separate holy people. I suppose their firm belief in the doctrine of predestination, the same belief that lead some of them to be certain that they personally were of the elect and most of them being sure that most of the Dutch nation were of the elect, rendered evangelism rather superfluous. Some may have assumed very few of the African tribes were of the elect, working on the demented theory of the children of Ham, and if people are predestined to be elect or reprobate, then they will be saved or damned somehow without the necessity of strenuous effort on anyone's part. At least, if you are a firm believer in predestination, you can never preach to any individual that Jesus died for them, because you don't know if they are elect or reprobate. In Michener's novel, although the strengths of the Dutch people are evident and as a whole they seem to be courageous and God-fearing salt-of-the-earth type people, many times I felt ashamed of my ancestry as I read of their dealings with the Bushmen or Xhosa or when I read of their questionable biblical interpretation. These stubborn Calvinists are of the same stock that I was descended from. While the Dutch seem to ignore the Great Commission, Hilary Saltwood, an English missionary, desires to fulfill it, working with the slaves and servants of the Dutch and the Xhosa. In his training at the London Missionary Society, the New Testament was emphasized with very little mention of the Old Testament. The Dutch settlers point him to Joshua and Deuteronomy, solemnly reading him passages out of their big family Bibles, and he studies more of the Old Testament, but remains steadily New Testament in his theology and ethics.

I think if you had to pick either the Old or New Testament to focus on exclusively, the New Testament is a better choice. However it is best to take the whole of the Bible. Without the Old Testament Scripture loses much of its richness. To see how Christ is the fulfillment of the law and how everything the Old Testament points to Christ, as the resurrected Lord showed to two men on the road to Emmanous, is an extraordinary thing. To track the progression of revelation, to read of creation and the Fall and God's promises, to read the stories God's dealings with the patriarchs, of God's deliverance in the Exodus, to hear the honest prayers of God's people in the psalms, to read the calls to repentance and words of hope in the prophets--these all are things I would not want to miss. The stories of Israel's sin and failure to follow the stipulations of their covenant with God, the cycle of sin during the times of the judges and the many evil kings in Israel's history, show clearly why a Saviour was needed, God's Son, the Word made flesh who would be the Passover lamb. God's faithfulness to his covenant is shown against a background of Israel's faithlessness and the need for a new better covenant is made obvious.

I guess those who focus solely on the New Testament still have a general knowledge of the stories of the Old Testament, but I still think they miss out on a lot. However to ignore the New Testament is to miss out on a lot more. If I lived in that time, I don't know if I would have done better than the Dutch in South Africa. Would I have gone against the flow of the general consensus? I don't know, but I suspect not. Now it seems so obviously wrong to view your people as the new Israel, when that time in salvation history is past and the Saviour has come, the descendent of Abraham and Jacob and David. Ofcourse it is true that the church is the new Israel, but its inheritance is not a physical piece of land. The real enemy is no longer flesh and blood and the word of God must be preached to all nations in fulfillment of the Great Commission. In the end, I suspect the Dutch record in South Africa was as flawed as that of Israel in the land of Canaan, though for different reasons. Nevertheless, like in the biblical story, redemption and reconciliation always is possible, or, at least, is possible until the return of the Redeemer.

Friday, June 23, 2006

And ten years later...

Today I passed my G2 exit test on my first try! Yes, I am twenty-five years old and I just got my full license. It has been almost a decade since I got my beginners driving permit. I went through a couple of quite lengthy periods when I wasn't driving at all, and I waited until my time was almost up to take my G1 exit test. That was about five years ago. My parents were in Korea and my brother drove me to my test, but we couldn't find the examination center and almost didn't make it on time. He couldn't understand how I could go in the wrong door, then get in the wrong line, then not remember the licence number or even the correct colour of the car. I got emotional and was crying before my test and told my driver examinator that my parents were away and my brother was being mean and that I would lose my license if I didn't pass the test. I passed, but I think the crying helped because my brother said I didn't come to a complete stop at the first stop sign and the driver examinator never marked that down. I had paid to renew my license and was given another five years to do my G2 exit test, and I always knew I should do it, but I didn't schedule it until about three months ago. This time was a lot less emotional and I drove myself there in my own car. I don't know why I waited so long to do it. It really wasn't that difficult. But I have become a more confident driver since I have been driving to work every day on the highway. I made a couple of mistakes, but I didn't even have to parallel park or do a three point turn. That is what I have been practicing this week. I got so I could do the parallel park most of the time, but not all of the time. Three-point turns I have no trouble with. Last night a neighbour decided to give me a few pointers for my parallel park, having seen some of my attempts this week, and he made me practice a couple of times with him giving directions. The first time worked okay, although he had me awful close to the one car, but the second time he was saying left when he meant right and it was a spectacular failure. Then I could finally go in the house after I tried it on my own (successfully) another time. When I took my test there was no one behind me on the highway, so merging and changing lanes was very easy. I don't think it was just chance.

Monday, June 19, 2006

On Being a Blonde (Naturally)

Sometimes I can't decide if I act more ditzy because I am subconsciously living up to the stereotype of the dumb blonde, or if my light-coloured tresses just gives me a good excuse for anything stupid I do that I would do anyways whatever my hair colour. I am an intelligent person, but sometimes ditziness will overtake me when I am standing in the check-out line at the mall or ordering Chinese take-out at a restaurant and I will do or say something embarrassing. I used to hate dumb blonde jokes in grade school, although secretly I thought some of them rather funny. It annoyed me that a boy in my class who was blonder than I was was always telling them. Why should blondes be any less intelligent than anyone else and if blonde hair makes you stupider why would only blonde girls be affected?
When I was born my parents discarded the name Jennifer, which means fair-haired because my hair was actually rather dark. So they called me Suzanne (Lily), an allusion to their wedding text. But my hair soon grew in lighter and for most of my childhood I had light white blonde hair. Even into my teens my hair was still very light, but it began to grow in darker. I liked my hair in the summer when it was bleached by the sun, but in the winter my hair was quite a bit darker. I began to say that I wasn't blonde anymore, I was really a brunette. I talked about dyeing my hair blonde, which only convinced my family that I must be a blonde, since my hair still was quite light. I have never dyed or highlighted my hair or even permed it, though I did crimp it in the eighties and early nineties.
Having blonde hair is nothing special in Dutch circles. More than half of the children in my grade school had blonde hair and even at Redeemer where I went to school there were tonnes of blondes so I blended right in. So I was shocked when a couple of weeks ago during an ice-breaker treasure hunt at a woman's breakfast the team that had to find someone with natural blonde hair got stuck on that part and ran out of time before they located one. At my table there were at least two with natural blonde hair (both of Dutch descent), but I didn't realize that so many blondes are made that way by hair dye. I guess though that highlighted blondes may not have been considered natural either. Recently I heard a shocking statistic that 80% of women dye or highlight their hair. The breakfast I was at wasn't a Christian Reformed, or any kind of Reformed function, or they wouldn't have had any trouble locating a natural blonde.
Sometimes I envy my sister Rachel her glossy dark hair. My hair does not have much gloss or shine and it is extremely thick. It also is prone to turning green in the swimming pool so now I never get it wet in our pool. During my sister's wedding part of my hair was green. I can't even use coloured shampoos on it, at least according to the hairdresser who cut off my green hair and said "good riddance". She said since my hair had so little pigment it was weaker and more easily damaged and can take on other colours easily.
When I was little my Mom kept my hair short, because she didn't want to have to fuss over it. Once I was mistaken for a boy with my pixie cut. For much of my life it has been cut just below my chin. My worst hair-style was in the eighties when I had something very close to a mullet. That's a picture I will not post, for obvious reasons. My Mom still thinks my hair looks best short, but I like it longer because then the overall effect is blonder. The roots are quite dark, but the sun lightens my hair over time. Probably eventually I will have dirty blonde hair, unless I resort to hair dye or highlights.
I guess in the end I am rather attached to my hair colour, dumb blonde stereotypes notwithstanding. I wouldn't look right as a brunette, my skin is so pale. And green hair really doesn't work for me either. So I will continue as a blonde as long as I can, and I will tell myself I am a bright person whose hair colour has no effect on her level of intelligence. I mean everybody does stupid things, right?

Saturday, June 03, 2006

An Abundant Life

"Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we're a free people---free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free! He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out for us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.
It's in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone."
Ephesians 1:7-12 The Message

A couple of days ago this passage really struck me. Sometimes when I am reading the epistles and I know what the next line will be, it doesn't really sink in. But this year I've been reading familiar passages in the Message and it often strikes me in a new way. I don't think it is just that I am hearing new words in an unfamiliar paraphrase ofcourse. No matter what translation you are reading, God can speak to you in a new way even if you have heard the passage many times before. I guess that is the richness of God's Word and the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. I've been thinking about my life alot lately, and I wonder if it is passing me by while I follow a dull routine and go through the motions of living. I fritter away time, and somehow I don't make time for what's really important. My job, which really is a rich field for blogging material that I can't exploit for rather obvious reasons, is far from fulfilling. We'll leave it at that. I live at home, but I know I should be moving out soon and spreading my wings. Yet I fear doing so. I don't have a plan about what I should do with my life. I am trying to form one but it is still in the gestation stage and may miscarry.
For a long time I didn't dream, I didn't allow myself to think beyond graduating from university. I hoped I would meet some-one, imagining that then my life would come together. I wanted marriage and a family. A career would be nice too, but I didn't allow myself to imagine what it would be. Looking back, I don't think at twenty-one or even at twenty-three, the ages that my two married siblings were married, I was ready for a serious relationship leading to matrimony. I had enough things to work through. Another thing that I did think about and dream about was getting off my medication that I've been on since I was seventeen and going through a severe depression and lengthy hospitalization. I am always ready to listen to any one who has anti-medication arguments, because, even though it helped me come out from a catatonic state, I hate taking it and always have. I had the idea that my life medication free, like my life with a boyfriend or husband, or my life with me twenty to thirty pounds lighter, would be so much improved somehow.
It's only been in the last year or so that I've been starting to believe in God's purposes for my life, that it will be worth-while and meaningful. Of course I still have the tendency to throw pity-parties, at least on a monthly basis if not more often. And there is a big gap between what I know and what I actually do in my life. I am quick to understand the theories and concepts but slow to put them into practice. Sometimes I would rather not live and try and face the future. Instead of enjoying the little things and living in the present and thanking God for the blessings, or even, as my Mom suggested today, thanking God for the messes and problems, I focus on complaining about what I don't have and stewing about the negatives which you never have to look very far to find. Instead of focusing on being happy for friends and relatives who have joys and successes, I feel a sense of envy. "Why can't I be getting married by now?" or "why can't I find a fulfilling job and career?" My focus is too often on what I think God should do for me and not on how I should serve and love. Many people have to go through hard times and hard things---I mean the examples are every-where in the Scriptures and in life, but it is how you respond and how you trust God and how you rejoice and are thankful even in difficulty that matters. God doesn't promise a difficulty-free life, but he does promise a rich and glorious life, an abundant life. That's what this passage says to me. That God has given me every-thing I need for a life well lived. That in Christ I am set free from worries and fears and sins, that I don't have to live in them, and though I will have problems and difficulties and struggles, I don't have to despair or give up and I can be victorious in them and joyful in the midst of them. That long before I was born, God planned for me a glorious life. When I think of what Christ went through to free and deliver me, to redeem me--how can I live in a self-imposed gloomy dungeon imagining I am a prisoner? This passage says I have everything I need. Can I tell God that it is not enough? That somehow it doesn't work for me because I am a special problem that Christ's blood just can't quite cover? Of course not! And I can be a part of something big that God is working in the world, his purposes and his redemption of his good creation. I especially love how the Message puts it that in Christ God set before us "a long range plan in which everything would be brought together and and summed up in him (Christ), everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth." I know I don't understand the full significance, but it is so much bigger than me and my petty concerns and preoccupations.