Monday, February 28, 2011

The Melting Pot (I)

Question About Job

As I laid out earlier in my post titled ‘On Formats,’ I will be using this section of my blog to address questions posed to me by readers, or writing about other miscellaneous subjects. It so happens that I received a question from an anonymous reader regarding the book of Job. I was debating whether or not to address the question, since it comes anonymously and I’m not sure of the spirit the question was asked with. I decided to address the question in this post, because it allows to write on a very important subject.

The question is as follows:

Since you mention Job. I have always found that this passage.. Job 3:16-19...refers to abortion...leaning toward the pro-choice side. Basically meaning that it is better to be aborted than to live a life that is unhappy or filled with negative actions. 

What are your thoughts?

"Or why was I not as a hidden untimely birth, as infants that never see the light? There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest. There the prisoners are at ease together; they hear not the voice of the taskmaster. The small and the great are there, and the slave is free from his master. Job 3:16-19"
When we approach the Word of God, it’s very important that we remain sensitive to what the Lord is trying to teach us, and to refrain from imposing our views onto the His holy book. The Bible has been used as a text to support all kinds of wrong thinking. Take, for example, the KKK. This hate-filled, racist group claim that the Bible is their authoritative source for truth. They claim that the curse of Ham is definitive proof that black people are inferior to white. My grandfather uses an obscure passage in the book of Isaiah to claim that people who smoke go to hell. There is a cult group here in Korea that claims God is a woman. They make this claim due to the fact that the Hebrew word used for God in the book of Genesis is feminine in form.

The Bible teaches none of these things. The curse of Ham doesn’t result in the superiority of the white man. The verse in Isaiah doesn’t even speak about smoking tobacco. God is clearly revealed as a Father in the Word of God, but not only that He is also revealed as husband, master and other male roles. Jesus Christ was clearly a man. When we read the Bible, we need to remember that it is a book. As such, it is meant to be read as a book. We are not to infuse every word with some kind of special, hidden meaning. We don’t take things that are stated and hold them up as proofs to views that we want to hold. We are called to bend our will and our understanding to God’s; not vice-versa. The reason that all of those examples are wrong extrapolations of what the Word of God actually says is really for two reasons.

First of all we need to take into account what the Bible says as a whole. This is summed up by the phrase ‘let Scripture interpret Scripture.’ If we think a particular verse of Scripture is making a statement that doesn’t agree with the rest of what Scripture says, our understanding of the passage is probably flawed. We need to dig a little deeper and discover what the text means. Take for example, the book of Ecclesiastes. In the book of Ecclesiastes we read Solomon’s reflections on life. Multiple times in this book he says ‘all is vanity.’ The Bible clearly teaches that their is a purpose and meaning to life, and so we wouldn’t take these verses and make the assertion that the Bible teaches life is meaningless. The purpose of the book of Ecclesiastes is to show that life without God is meaningless. At the end of the book, Solomon states this explicitly, and the rest of the book suddenly makes sense. We need to take into account what the Bible as a whole teaches and not just rip out one verse to argue for a viewpoint.

Secondly we need to, as I mentioned earlier, read the Bible as a book. We need to take into account the type of literature each book is and we need to allow the parts of each individual book to be interpreted from the context of that particular book. Taking the example we gave of the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon gave his answer to the meaning of life at the end of his book. The earlier parts of the book are very bleak and without hope; the kinds of things you may read about in a book written by an atheist. The ending of the book serves to put the whole book into context. The earlier parts are the foundation for what Solomon is claiming. I use the book of Ecclesiastes because it is similar to the book of Job. The book of Job contains many statements about reality. At the end of the book, however, we see God’s response to all that has been said earlier. God effectively quiets Job and Job ends up repenting from his earlier statements in dust and ashes.

Taking into account the type of literature that the book of Job is, then, will help us to accurately interpret the book. The book itself is not a didactic book. That is to say, it is not a book meant to teach doctrine. Each statement in Job is not a direct teaching. Instead, the book falls into the category of poetry, and as such contains quite a bit of narrative. That is to say that the book contains a lot of historical record of what people said. A lot of the Bible is actually written in the narrative without commentary about what is right or wrong. Take Genesis 34 for example. This chapter relates the story of how Jacob’s sons brutally slaughtered an entire city of people. There’s no commentary about whether or not what they did is right or wrong. Jacob complains about the anticipated consequences to himself, but there is no statement as to whether they were in the right or in the wrong.

This is what we have in Job. The verses that are cited are a prime example of misinterpretation. In the context of the book itself, this passage is simply relating the sorrow of Job. He was so sorrowful that he wished he were never born, that his mother had miscarried. There is no commentary here as to whether his feelings are right or wrong. The fact that God silenced him later in the book and Job then repented of his earlier statements could be used to say that these statements by Job were sinful. That’s more than I'd like to to say about the passage, though, at least for the purposes of this article. The important thing to remember is that in its context, this passage has no bearing on the abortion issue. The purpose and tenor of the passage is to relate the deep suffering that Job was undergoing. To add anything more to it would be committing a gross error of misinterpretation.

Thank you for your question, and I hope you found my answer helpful (although poorly written). If anyone has any questions they'd like me to address in a blog, feel free to leave a comment for me. Please tell me who you are though!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Real Stories (I)


I’ve lived in Korea for over six years now. Time has just flown right by. I never expected I would live here for so long. Yet here I am. I’m practically a citizen! With time spent living in a foreign land, cultural differences often disappear from the memory. What once stood out in my mind as strange practices by the Korean people are often now taken for granted as cultural norms everywhere. When I visit Canada, the place of my birth, I often have what I can only describe as ‘reverse culture shock.’ I’m surprised by some of the practices of my fellow Canadians, and I’m reminded with a faint memory of a time when I used to do those same things. I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve been somewhat Koreanized.

Thankfully there is a season for recollection. Every March and September here in Korealand, there is an influx of new teachers; new bodies to give me a reminder of a life, a system of manners and social expectations I once knew. I had one such recollection this last week.

At the school I’m presently working at, we’ve had a new ‘foreign’ teacher come to work for us. He’s part of a new program that teaches after-school classes. His contract is a little staggered from the norm and begins a month earlier than usual. Since he’s here early, I’m able to spend time in the workplace with a newbie. I get to see firsthand the reactions of someone in the actual workplace. Usually when I meet people who are new to Korea, I only see them in a context outside of the workplace. This time, I get to see him at the workplace, and I’m reminded of some of the questions and pressures that come with starting a new job in a new country.

This last week we were treated to a dinner by our school. It was officially a farewell dinner for myself and another teacher, but included a welcome to Andrew (the new after-school teacher) and another new worker (I’m not sure his role at the school). This dinner contained the usual fare of the men drinking it up and eating like horses. Literally eating like horses. Mouths open, making a kind of slopping sound, little bits of food falling from their mouths to the table. Completely disgusting. This is a recurring bit of culture that I’ve still not completely used to. My wife (a Korean native) and I often laugh at this aspect of Korean culture. She says that she never noticed it until she met me, since I was so adamant about keeping my mouth closed when I chew. Now she can’t stop noticing it.

The metamorphosis into horses during mealtime is not what I want to write about, though. I’d like to call to attention a fascinating piece of Korean culture that reveals a lot about the difference between the Korean and Canadian psyche. This piece of culture is the term ‘service (서비스, suh-bee-seu).’ The difference in thinking about customer service and what ought to transpire to make a fair business transaction is a pointed mark of difference between cultures. Let me demonstrate this from the story of our dinner.

During the dinner, the oldest teacher and the vice-principal began talking about what free dishes ought to be included with our meal. Nowhere was it advertised that if you buy a certain amount of food you could choose other menu items gratis. It was just assumed. There is a feeling that runs deep in the Korean mind that when you buy something from a business, they ought to include other peripheral things in the sale. This is visibly seen at restaurants, where a restaurant is often judged by how many side-dishes are included in any given meal. My wife often comments about how she likes or dislikes a restaurant based on the quality/quantity of their 반찬 (bahn-chahn), side-dishes. This is a marked point of difference with Canada, where we have a whole section of our menus marked ‘appetizers.’ I remember buying a plate of onion rings from TGIF’s in Michigan last time I visited, and complaining to the manager because they gave me 5 onion rings in total. He explained to me that they were given by weight, not quantity, and in the end he gave me another plate. My mind couldn’t process the fact that this restaurant was charging me somewhere around the area of $6 for 5 onion rings. It was an absurdity that couldn’t be reconciled in my brain.

One night last week, however, my mind was transported back to a time when I believed you ought to pay for everything you get. Andrew served as a sort of time machine for me, as I saw how perplexed he was at the situation (his parents are Korean, so he can understand the Korean language). Eventually they decided they wanted some plates of 만두 (mahn-du), which is a fried dumpling with meat inside. The staff brought out 3 heaping plates. Later on in the meal, my colleagues decided they wanted more, so they asked for some bottles of alcohol on the house. They were told that the restaurant couldn’t provide this, but that they could provide some specialty desserts. After a bit of grumbling and back and forth banter between the vice-principal and the manager of the restaurant, an agreement was reached and we received a few plates of a specialty dessert and a bowl of duck eggs. Just another dinner in Korea.

This is not a rarity here. My mother-in-law is always able to get extras thrown in when she buys something. My wife is always asking for samples from cosmetic companies, even when she makes a small-ish (around $20) purchase. I bought a 6-pack of beer once because it came with a badminton racket. The racket was just taped onto the side of the pack. I’ve gotten mugs from boxes of cereal, ear-muffs from bottles of juice, and boxes of Kleenex for spending $50 at a grocery store. The idea of service here is that money is hard-earned and isn’t to be thrown away. A good purveyor of goods or services is concerned with more than just a profit. They are concerned with the welfare of the consumer. They are concerned with creating a relationship with customers that creates long-term customers. The idea of customer service back home as I can remember it, is that you do whatever you can to make the sale with as little effort and cost to you. If you provide a service related to your product, you charge for it. If you are a serviceman/woman, you expect a tip no matter what kind of service you give, and no matter what kind of attitude you have while serving. Service people here bow to you, try to be as helpful as possible without the expectation of a tip. I’ve tried tipping people on numerous occasions because I was truly moved by the quality of service they provided. It was not accepted. The people couldn’t even understand why I would offer it to them. My wife has taught me that to offer a bottle of juice or a candy bar is a much better way to show my appreciation. What a wonderful concept!

One night at dinner, I was given a glimpse into the vast gap that lies between my native culture and the culture I currently live in. I have to say that this is one area where Korea puts my culture to shame.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Perspectives (I)

The Calling of God / Ambition

When I was younger, I had all kinds of aspirations for my life. My ambitions seemed to be limited to whatever had my attention at the moment. Now I was a hockey player, leading the Toronto Maple Leafs to its first Stanley Cup since 1967 (I still sometimes fantasize about this, sadly). Now I was a fireman saving people from blazing buildings of death. The things that really seemed to capture my imagination, however, and implant themselves in my brain, were stories. From the earliest age that I can remember, stories had a way of moulding my aspirations. I felt the burden of master Frodo on his journey to destroy the ring of Sauron. The supernatural presence that was present in Frank Peretti’s novels were present with me. The ambitious qualities of courage and fidelity were not those of Reepicheep, but they were my own. Through reading stories, I came to understand and desire certain qualities of character, while leaning to despise others.

No stories seemed so real or had such an impact on me than those of the Bible. There weren’t three men thrown in the furnace, there were four including me. I was a soldier creeping through the dark of the night with a torch inside a clay pot, waiting for the command of my commander Gideon. I was the 13th disciple. The stories of the Bible have a character about them that cause me to feel the experience to a greater depth than most of my favourite novels. Perhaps it was because of this that I was able to say with certainty that if God had chosen me instead of Samson, there wouldn’t be a sordid tale of lust and immorality. That if I had been king instead of Rehoboam, the kingdom of Israel would never have split. When reading the stories I would often do so with a certain judiciary sense. I was offended at the sins of God’s chosen people and believed that I was incapable of disobeying God in such ways. I was correct in this sentiment, for if the exact same scenario were to play out in my life, surely I would recognize the script and be careful to avoid the mistake. (What I never realized as a lad in all my justice, was that I would be guilty of the same categories of sins as many of these characters.)

One recognizable effect of being so completely absorbed in the stories I read was the incredible amount of ambition I had for my own life, as I stated in the beginning. I fully expected that God would make me into some kind of biblical hero; working miracles, healing the sick, raising the dead and predicting the future through me. I looked to the future with such expectation and excitement for the great man that God would make me.

As I’ve matured in my thinking and developed in years, I’ve come to understand the folly of that sort of ambition. Ambition in itself is not a bad thing, but like most things, there is a good form and a bad form. The ambition I had as a younger man was concerned with what God would make me into. I was eager to be a recognized man. I was eager to do great things for God, not for the glory of God, but for the stories that would be told of me. The ambition I had was misplaced. A proper form of ambition is one which seeks to glorify God and fulfill His purpose for my life, whatever that may be. The important part of that statement is the fulfillment of God’s purpose.

How can we know what God’s purpose is? We know that He’s given us His Word to reveal Himself to us, but what is His specific purpose for my life? The answer to this question is something that I believe holds a lot of power over what God can do in our lives. One common characteristic of a hero, no matter where that hero is written about, is that they did not know their destiny (with the exception of the greatest hero). The feat(s) about which are written were generally unknown to them before they happened. This applies with fictional as well as real heroes. It seems to me that the most important thing that God has revealed to us the specific purpose for each of our lives is by His revelation of His desire for specific roles. That statement needs a little bit of unpacking.

God has generalized for us a few of His purposes by telling us about roles. He’s revealed, for example, that a husband’s role is to love his wife and that a wife’s role is to submit to her husband. He’s revealed that parents are not to provoke their children and children are to honour their parents. It would follow, then, that to glorify God best, I ought to determine what specific roles have been assigned to me, learn what God expects of those roles, and seek how to fulfill them in my life. Ambition ought to be directed towards matching the requirements of particular roles, and success can be measured by how closely we match God’s description of those particular roles.

This understanding has the potential to change my entire approach to my life. If I understand the roles God has given me, then I know what He wants me to do. I know I’m a worker so I know that God wants me to approach my work as if I’m doing it for Him. I know I’m a husband so I know God wants me to love my wife sacrificially and lead her spiritually, as well as honour her as a fellow heir of grace. I know I’m a son so I know God wants me to respect my parents and speak to them with dignity. This new view of life ought to change my entire approach to my life. I wasn’t wrong to have aspirations when I was younger, my aspirations were just misplaced. The question is now, am I willing to change my aspirations to fulfill my God-ordained purpose? The answer to that question is on the horizon.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Lessons of the Sword (I)

The Suffering Man

In 2011, I’ve decided along with my wife to read through the Bible in a year. We’ve implemented a plan that takes us through the Bible chronologically. We’ll see how it goes and if it’s easier to see the plan of God in the world by doing it this way. I’ve never attempted to read the Bible this way before, and I’m hoping that God blesses us in this.

The first book we read was not Genesis, but rather Job. The book of Job is a timeless story of a man going through suffering. Most commentators believe the book of Job to be the first book written by Moses, therefore it is the earliest recorded Scripture. Job himself lived sometime between Noah and before Abraham, roughly between Genesis 6 and 12. I’m assuming the compilers of our reading plan decided Job to be a better starting point than Genesis because the events of Genesis find their completion much later than the life of Job.

Job is an interesting book and by reading it first, the tone is really set for us to understand the rest of Scripture. The book is about a righteous man who endures incredible hardships by the hand of Satan with the permission of God Himself. The question that emerges from the book is a question that we read often in Scripture, and hear often today; ‘Why are the wicked left unpunished?’ Job 21:7-26 really capture the heart of the question for Job. He says:

‘Why do the wicked still live, continue on, also become very powerful?’
- 21:7

‘His (the wicked man) sides are filled out with fat, and the marrow of his bones is moist, while another dies with a bitter soul, never even tasting anything good. Together they lie down in the dust, and worms cover them.’
- 21:24-26

Job’s friends have been telling him that God judges the wicked and that bad things happen to those who sin. Good things, they said, happen to those who follow God. It’s interesting to me that at a very early time in history, men seem to have felt the same things we feel today. Job states matter-of-factly that it does not seem that bad people and good people receive their due respectively. Like us today, he asks ‘where is the justice?’ I find it amazing that God dealt with this question right from the beginning. He spared no time in addressing this question, and indeed uses this question to set the mood for the rest of the Bible.

In the midst of Job’s sufferings, and in the midst of his questioning of God’s justice, he makes an important acknowledgement. In 19:25 he confesses ‘I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth.’ Again in 21:30 he recognizes ‘the wicked is reserved for the day of calamity; they will be led forth at the day of fury.’ He looks to the future for justice to be executed. There is no due date for justice. It is in God’s nature to judge rightly and He has promised us that all wrongs will be made right. It’s fascinating to me that before any written Word of God, Job knew this. Job also knew what would be revealed later, that ‘the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’ (28:28)

When God answers Job, he alludes to more than 70 things which demonstrate the power and knowledge of the LORD. He establishes quite concretely the fact of His sovereignty over all things. The book provides us with a confident knowledge of two things: God’s sovereignty over all things, and the righteous judgement of the wicked by the LORD. When we read the Bible then, we ought to keep these two things in mind. God is sovereign over His creation, and He will make all things right one day.

If anyone says that suffering is evil, or a mark of sin in a person’s life, that person is clearly wrong. The book of Job confirms to us that God uses suffering in our lives to try our character. Jesus confirms that ailments may not be the result of sin, but for the purpose of glorifying God. It also lets us know, subtly, that we can approach God with our heartfelt questions and doubts. We can address the LORD with our serious concerns. We follow Him because of who He is, but we can also question Him, and He will not deny us an answer.

Suffering happens. Those who willingly disobey the LORD may live seemingly happy and prosperous lives; but judgement is coming. Judgement is a blessing for those of us who choose to obey and trust in the LORD.

On Formats

Another year of living, another year of learning. 2011 is here, and with it comes a new format for my blog. Instead of just giving a hodge-podge of random musings and ponderings, I’ve decided to try and focus it a little more. To do this, I’m going to create four sections of writings. Since there are roughly 4 weeks in every month, I’ll write for one section each week. The sections will be divided into categories. These categories are studies from the Bible, random philosophical musings, anecdotes from my life here in Korea and a miscellaneous section. The Bible study sections will be titled ‘Lessons of the Sword.’ The philosophical musings, ‘Perspectives.’ Life in Korea will be ‘Real Stories.’ Finally, the miscellaneous category will be titled ‘The Melting Pot.’ If you have any questions you’d like me to consider, please e-mail me and I will try to work it into The Melting Pot. Thanks again everyone for reading, and I hope this year will bring many blessings to you, and that we all grow in love and obedience to our great Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.