Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Some reflections on evil

So far our blog has been more of a tool for updating family and friends about the details of our lives here in Scotland. In my view this is its primary purpose and it has served us well to that end. However, occasionally on the blog I intend to do more theological reflection and this post is one of those times.

The weight of evil has been on my mind a good bit lately. It must be said that there are good and successful answers to the question "If God is morally perfect and all-powerful, why is there evil in the world?" Surely God is both omnibenevolent and omnipotent—there is evil in the world, but only because He has a morally sufficient reason for its existence. There are certain things that, logically speaking, could only be accomplished if our world has evil in it; these certain things are of such a high value that God has no "blood on his hands" for the evil that so dominates our world. There is some debate as to what exactly these "certain things" may or may not be (free will, humans as they are, "built" souls that overcome evil, etc), but such discussions are not really my point right now. Intellectually, this problem can be answered satisfactorily.

Yet evil hurts no less. People do horrible, awful things all the time, and the wake of destruction left behind is sometimes unfathomable. Even when armed with good theological answers the weight of evil can be crushing. What can be said to the victim of sexual abuse? Someone who's been financially ruined by a crooked CEO with a golden parachute? What can you say to parents on the day they bury their toddler? Probably nothing; we should weep and mourn with them.

So what prevents us from despair in the face of such seemingly senseless evil? Some days, very little. Yet Christians have comfort in knowing that evil will not have the last word. In good time God will truly make everything right. The heart of this victory over evil was accomplished on the cross, but the fulfillment and full realization is still future, so that today we Christians live in an "already/not yet" tension. God is already conquering evil in the hearts and lives of believers, in the church as a whole and in her influence on the world, but that reality has not yet fully been realized on the earth.

    

Drawing from Revelation 20 and 21, I'd like to offer up some thoughts on the weight of evil we experience today and the "setting everything right" that is future.

Judgment: Revelation 20

    Revelation 20 speaks of the final, comprehensive and ultimate judgment of all evil and all things associated with or tainted by evil. This is the big one. What God does in this judgment is final and forever: God gets the last word in against evil, and what he has to say completely settles the matter. In God's final judgment He will judge the entire universe including all humankind, doing away with all evil and any taint of sin. What can be said about this judgment?

This judgment is comprehensive. Everything and everyone will have to stand before God, who is seated on the Great White Throne. Often times we focus on the judgment of humanity and fail to notice that "earth and heaven" flee away. God must go to such drastic measures because the whole universe has been tainted with the stain of sin. The creation groans with the weight of sin and longs for its removal. In a judgment that includes all of the universe, no one escapes this final reckoning—the dead, great and small, stand before the throne. Whether a person is a powerful and wealthy politician or a poor street bum, no one is too important or unimportant to escape accountability with God. No one is immune. In this judgment the opening of the Pandora's Box of evil that was unleashed by sin is undone; the seemingly impossible has been done—Adam's box is closed back up. All the evil and sin and suffering released into the world will be completely and entirely cleaned up.

This judgment is final and forever. What God does in this judgment is the last word and those who are condemned are condemned eternally. There is no escape clause, no bargaining, no time left to change. The penalty is permanent because sin is such a severe offense against a severely holy God—anyone who has experienced the evil in this world knows that the sin that brought it about is of the highest offense. Evil hurts, and that pain reminds us how bad evil really is and how costly is the penalty for sin.

A universal day of accountability is coming. All wrongdoers will have to answer to God for what they have done, because God is holy. The throne that the holy God sits on is white to signify the purity and holiness of the one who sits on it. The judgment of God on the Great White throne reflects the severity of His holiness and goodness. In his presence no evil can be tolerated and now he only tolerates evil in our world on account of his great mercy towards us.

    Who can escape this judgment and punishment? It is not arbitrary; no one can be "lucky" and squeak by. God will render to a man according to his deeds; however, this judgment is not based on a "morality scale." It is not as if God takes everything good that a person did and put it on one side of a scale, then puts everything wicked on the other side. If he did this there would be nothing to put on the good side because even the positive acts of the wicked are tainted by sinful motives and an implicit rejection of God. No one apart from God's power can do any genuine spiritual good. Also, we must understand that just one sin against a holy God is enough to condemn a person to the worst of all final destinations.

    The only escape from this horrible fate is to have your name written in the Book of Life, the Lamb's Book of Life. Jesus Christ is the author of this book and he writes the names of his own in it. It is not good deeds that can get a person's name in the Book of Life but it is belonging to the one who wrote it. It's not what you do, it's who you know.


 

    I find it deeply satisfying that all evil and all evildoers will get theirs. Can you imagine a God who does not hold Nero or Hitler accountable? Can you imagine a God who gives a pass to the 9/11 hijackers, or to child molesters? Certainly that God is not holy and good. In fact, it is the great holiness of God that makes eternal punishment what it is. God is infinitely holy and as such any sin against Him is infinitely offensive. A sentence of eternal and conscious punishment is the only suitable response to sin against such a great and holy God. Those who sin against God will spend forever paying for it.

I cannot move on without stressing that everyone deserves this fate, myself included. There is no "holier-than-thou" to be had here. Those who escape this fate do so not on their own merit but rather because the price of eternal punishment has been paid for those who trust in the Lord. We need not face such severe punishment because Christ went through hell for us on the cross.


 

Home: Revelation 21

Yet judgment is not the whole story of God's making right the world. In doing so He does not simply stop at eradicating all evil and wickedness but goes on to recreate reality, creating our eternal home. Revelation 21 speaks of the eternal home of those who belong to the Lord. In our eternal home we enjoy a reality without evil, one that is centered on our great God.

This is the grand climax of all history, the climax of the mighty workings of God, the climax of everything! When God makes all things new His presence will bring everything to perfection. I have 4 points to make about this true home of ours.

1.) The heaven and earth are "new" in the sense that the former, sin-sick world has passed away. Things are not merely "new" temporally but also with a qualitative newness. There is a different kind of reality and a different kind of existence, a much better one, where all discoloration of evil is gone.

2.) There is also a new unity between heaven and earth; there will no longer be the divide between heaven and earth that we have today. This dichotomy has been removed because of God's presence. Heaven and earth will be united into a larger reality, a new and perfect place where God dwells with his people. The new heaven and the new earth are not two distinct items but are united into one new reality.

3.) There is a new Garden of Eden. It is described as having a river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. The tree of life is described in our new home as bearing fruit for us for eternity as we live forever. The imagery conveys that nothing touched or tainted by sin and evil will be there. In this new Eden we will worship God with our whole existence, and we will have the sort of close intimacy with Him that Adam had in the garden.

4.) There is a new city, Jerusalem. The new city is marked by holiness, glory and joy. To understand this new Jerusalem it is helpful to note some things that are NOT in this new holy city. First, in the city there is no temple. The temple is where God is and here God is completely and eternally dwelling among his people. The city itself is a temple of sorts because the glory of the presence of the Lord permeates it. With God and the Lamb physically present there is no need for a temple. Second, there is no need for the sun or the moon. The light source in this city is the radiant glory of the presence of God. Third, there is no need for closed gates. This is because all evil has been destroyed, so there is no need to protect the city by closing the gate. Fourth, there is nothing unclean or shameful. No unclean thing and no unclean person will enter the city. The language used here is the strongest negation possible. To paraphrase in English, "absolutely nothing bad or evil will enter the city, never ever."


 

The new heaven and new earth is our true home. This world is but a shadow of the one to come. Do not be discouraged by the brokenness of this world—the sin and the suffering we face day in and day out—because it is not our home, it's just where we are living for a while. Our true home is much, much better than this.


 

Revelation 21:3 reads, "the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God." God will dwell with us, and we will be his people. There are no more tears of suffering. God has removed death, evil and sin: He has removed the sources of sorrow. God's glory will be our light and He will be our comfort.

    

Lately, I've been more than a little homesick.


 


 

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Good news!

We have some good news- Sara has found work at the University of St Andrews! This is especially encouraging since we have been told that it is not uncommon to wait 6 months or more before finding work in this town. Currently the job is a full time, 3-month temporary position, but there is good reason to think that she will be able to move into something permanent before that time is up. It is very difficult to get a university job of any sort and starting as a temporary worker often enables one to "get a foot in the door" towards landing a regular job. The university prefers to hire from within and opportunities for advancement do not seem to be in short supply, especially for someone as talented and experienced as Sara.



Right now she is working in the admissions office in the department that handles extension studies and continuing education, generally for non-degree seeking students. If you're like me, when you heard that you thought, "oh, so these are the type of classes often taught at the local community college- you know: scrapbooking, pottery, intro to computers, auto repair for dummies, etc." Well, yes, these are classes open to the public and generally the student is not college aged. But the class topics taught are varied and many of them are way beyond what I would think the public appetite could handle. Some examples:

-Megalithic Mathematics and the Earliest Geometers in Scotland
-Geology
-Existentialism
-The Evolution of Joint Replacement Surgery
-A History Of Italian Culture And Society Through The Representation Of Food In Cinema And Literature
-Water Music - the Influence of Spas on Music
-The Use, Misuse and Abuse of Science in Advertising
-Birds for Beginners
-Scotland And America In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries
-Enjoying Jazz
-The Art Of Decorative Painting Techniques And Interior Design
-Enjoying The Countryside
-Monastic Life in the Middle Ages
-Artmaking


Who takes Geology for fun? Apparently some Scots do. This actually points to something about the UK that I love: generally, academics are strongly emphasized. It’s not surprising at all for the bus driver to have a PhD in the philosophy of Spinoza. What a country.

In other news...


My friend Ian, the dog and I have been jogging in the morning several days a week and when its not raining the sunrises are spectacular. I brought my camera along recently and took some shots, but they don't really do justice to how amazing it is to be on this beach in the morning. Interestingly, the area of exposed sand on the beach is extremely large during low tide and very small at high tide. The distance from water to solid land ranges from several football fields at low tide to about 30 ft or so at high tide. This vast difference between the tides is created by a very gradually sloping beach and because we are so far north, where the moon affects tides more dramatically. Here the vertical water level changes approx. 14 ft between tides; compare this with the 2 ft vertical difference in North Carolina. All this makes for a fantastic morning jog!





Finally, in the nearby metro area of Dundee there is an "America" resturant. Fast Eddies claims to be the home of the hamburger, but I'm skeptical. We found the American stereotypes amusing but not enough to actually eat there- you see, Fast Eddies isn't purely authentic American food. They didn't have cheap prices or large portion sizes, and if there's anything distinctively American about our cuisine it’s that it is cheap, low quality and you get way more of it than you should eat in one sitting. U-S-A! U-S-A!


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Like and annoyance...

So it’s been a while since my last post, largely because I’m being indecisive about a topic.  Today I’ve decided: what we like about our life here in Scotland and what is a bit annoying. 

Like: the efficiency.  Generally, things here are more efficient than in the States.  The cars are smaller and get better gas mileage.  The food portions are not excessive.  The homes are smaller and cozier but not cramped.  The public transportation system is accessible and can get you most anywhere you want to go.  Since being here it has struck me how highly “big for the sake of big” is valued in the US, and in this regard I have found life here very refreshing.

Like: the history.  Charmingly, things here are saturated with rich history.  For example, my flat is older than my country.  Buildings made 100 years ago they call “new”, which is reasonable considering many buildings are several centuries old.  The Roundel, where my office is, was made in the 16th century.  Centuries ago the city of St Andrews was the center of religious life in Scotland and pilgrimages were frequently made to the Cathedral.  As such, the main roads in town all lead to what are now the cathedral ruins, which was the destination of many a European pilgrim.  Everything here seems to have a long and interesting back-story.

Like: the St Mary’s community.  There are 50 or so students in the postgraduate divinity program here at St Andrews.  By all accounts a unique feature of studying at St Andrews as opposed to other options in the UK is the closely knit community of students and their families.  Everyone has been warm, welcoming and helpful. 

Like: the academic climate.  I have found academic life, at St Andrews and in the UK broadly, to be extremely stimulating.  Students and professors alike are happy to chat with you about any and every theological topic, and do so frequently (the spouses of students call this “talking shop”, which happens so commonly it even spills over into social settings!  “Can’t you guys talk about something everyone thinks is interesting?”)   It is extremely rewarding to be in regular dialogue with some of the best minds working in theology and biblical studies.

Like: drinking tea all the time.  I didn’t think tea would grow on me so much, but I must confess that it has.  Thankfully tea has substantially less caffeine than coffee and doesn’t upset my system the way coffee does, especially since it has become quite the habit for me.  That said I still take my tea with 2-3 lumps of sugar, which means I’m not yet a refined Brit.  

Like: the highlands.  Scotland has much of its population concentrated on the east coast of the country, leaving the highlands to the west full of scenic natural beauty.  Amazing mountains and hiking opportunities are just a short distance from St Andrews.  Recently we went with the Egans to hike a mountain.  (If you’d like to see more pictures of this trip, visit http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2013442&l=049fe&id=119401026 )




Like: Not owning a car / walking everywhere.  Most everything we want and need is within a 10 minute walk.  I also use my bike most every day.  After suburban life that often required more than 2 hours daily in the car, this has been extremely refreshing.  I also am happy not to be concerned with automotive repair and maintenance. 

Like: My supervisor.  One’s experience in a PhD program is generally made or broken by one’s relationship with one’s advisor.  This is especially true in the UK system, where there is no coursework.  Horror stories abound of poor relationships with supervisors that were fatal to the student’s success.  Thankfully I have a supervisor who is supportive of my work, accessible, insightful, and committed to my success in the program (and beyond). 

Like: How everything grows here.  Conditions in St Andrews seem perfect for plants to thrive- it doesn’t get below freezing much here in winter and there is always enough rain.  I planted grass and now it is growing so fast you can notice the difference between one day and the next!  We’re looking forwarding to doing some serious gardening this spring, but we did some a few days ago- there was this strange plant that had giant roots that smelled like black licorice. 


Like: the beach.  I have been regularly jogging on the West Sands, which is an enormous beach on the northwest side of St Andrews (it’s actually the beach from the film Chariots of Fire).  The dog jogs with me and absolutely loves it- just last week he was so happy to be running on the beach he howled for joy!  


Like: our friendships here.  While of course we miss our stateside family and friends, our new friends here are great.  Not to overlook others, but our relationship with Ian and Corrie has been invaluable (see their blog at http://ianandcorrie.blogspot.com ).  I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about them in future posts.

 

Annoyance: slowness and bad customer service.  Ineptitude, slowness, and poor customer service seems to be tolerated much more here than in the States.  Perhaps it’s the regulatory interferences that stifle the competition that comes from a free market- I don’t know.  I just know that the customer service here is awful.  Some examples: 1. when calling the internet provider to see when our internet connection will be active (it’s been almost a month now!), they say things like, “I can’t really get at the information I need to answer your question… can you call back in 3-5 days?”  What? I have to call you back in several days to get a simple answer?  I have half a mind to take my business to another company, but ALL the phone/internet companies here are like that!  2. Store clerks / shopkeeps are often annoyed if you ask for help.  I’m trying to give you money, why wouldn’t you be a bit nicer to me? 3.  In applying for jobs at the University, after putting in your application they can take 5-6 weeks before even contacting you about interviews.  Poor Sara has been waiting seemingly forever, which has been difficult.  Why would it possibly take 5-6 weeks?  They are so slow here…  4. We were without water for almost 3 days as the local gov’t water dept displayed baffling incompetence.  I won’t give the full story right now, but suffice to say that trained monkeys could have done a better job.

Annoyance: darkness. Being as far north as we are, the winter days are very short on daylight.  In December it will get to the point where there is less than 4 hours of very dim daylight.  It’s already starting now and I think we’re going to need to get a sunlamp to make it through the winter with our sanity intact (that said, remember the payoff- in summer there is less than 4 hours of darkness!).

Annoyance: the exchange rate.  While the exchange rate has shifted dramatically in favor of the dollar in the past month, the exchange rate is still painful for those of us living off the dollar.  The hope is that Sara will begin earning British Pounds soon, but that goes back to the earlier annoyance about slowness…

 

Despite these complaints, life here is enjoyable and fulfilling.  We are thankful to the Lord for providing us this opportunity.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Settling in quite nicely

It’s now been over three weeks that we’ve been living in St Andrews and it’s starting to feel like home. We’re settling in quite nicely to life in this small but interesting Scottish burgh. Here are some pictures I’ve taken from around town.


I’ve moved in to my desk in the Roundel- the building that has the study spaces for postgraduate Divinity students- and I am pleased with it. It’s where I’ll be spending a good bit of my waking life for the next few years and it is a blessing to be working in such nice facilities- truly the envy of all other postgrad departments at St Andrews.
Here’s my desk.

And here is just one of the lounges in the Roundel; as you can see it’s quite nice.
We even have a courtyard garden.
Walking right out the back door of the Roundel, you see the ruins of St Andrews cathedral across the street.

We’ve found the postgraduate divinity community to be absolutely great here and there is ample opportunity to build friendships with other students and their families. Most everyone has been extremely warm, welcoming and helpful. Also, I have met a few times with my supervisor and I'm very pleased with his attentiveness, availability and commitment to his advisee's success. I've found that he and I are on the same page in most theological issues and hence he is fully supportive of my project, which has been very reassuring.

As one might expect, most all the buildings here are very old (at least by US standards). Our flat is actually older than the USA- quite a strange thought! Even in our short time here we’ve enjoyed the rich history that permeates most everything in St Andrews. Just today we made it over to see the St Andrews castle.



The view of the coast from the castle was quite stunning. Also, if you look closely you can see the walls of the king’s pool- it was high tide, but you can see a rectangular wall underwater that retains a swimming pool during low tide for the castle residents.


I couldn’t resist posting pictures of this: the castle even had a toilet (of sorts!).



Finally, in an attempt to do some gardening I’ve planted some grass that covers the path from my flat to the shed in my garden. I was becoming increasingly annoyed by the mud that I would inevitably drag into the house after making a trip to the shed. Come spring we will be planting some berries and vegetables, but for now I want to keep a photo journal of my attempt at growing grass. Here’s the day after I planted.

At least I don’t have to water it since it seems to rain more days than not here in Scotland.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Where we live

So I've taken some pictures of our flat:


This is our front door.



Here is the view looking south down Fleming place. Here is the view looking north from Fleming place. This bridge leads to a pathway (called a close) that leads to the downtown area.
Here is our garden and our shed. We hope to eventually do some planting and gardening...
Here is our bedroom, which by Scottish standards is quite large.
The other side of the bedroom.

Here is our living room.




This area leads into our kitchen...Its a bit of a hallway, but it works.

Here's the bathroom.

And here is the close that leads to town. (pronounced "close" as in "don't stand so close", not as in "close the door").


So that's where we live!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Our moving day...

The day we left was a bit surreal, with a palpable “is-this-really-happening?” feeling.

We put the last few things into our bags, weighed them (because each was filled right up to the 50lbs max!), and loaded everything into the van. The first stop was to drop the dog off at the pet carrier company…

Leaving him with the transport company was traumatic- probably more so for us than for the dog. He was actually relatively calm and quiet. We had to drop him off by 2:00, so we ran some errands, got some food, then headed to the airport.

The benefit of using duffle bags for the checked luggage is that they are very light, leaving more weight for our possessions. The down side is that unlike most luggage bags nowadays, they do not have wheels. This made moving them somewhat comical…

I had called our airline multiple times to ask about bringing my guitar as an additional piece of luggage. Every time I called I was told that it would cost about $30 (to be paid at check-in) and that the instrument would be brought to and from the plane by hand. At check-in at the airport I was told that “the phone support people in India had no idea what they were talking about” (their words, not mine) and it would cost $128 to check my guitar. Outsourcing is a wonderful idea, really. I asked what the fee was for an overweight bag- $50. So I tried to cram the guitar (case and all) into one of my gigantic duffle bags. The manager, who had been summoned over to help with my situation, saw me struggling and took pity on me, offering to check the guitar as a carried-by-hand item for free! The only condition was that the airline would have no liability if the guitar was damaged, which to me was quite reasonable. The guitar arrived undamaged and it cost me nothing!

The flight was smooth and uneventful, although not as conducive to sleep as one might have hoped. I’ve never really been able to get comfortable enough to sleep in airline chairs. However they did have a free onboard entertainment system that was quite nice- loaded with TV shows, movies, and even video games!

Once we got to Manchester, customs took a while but was problem free. We gathered our bags and clumsily made our way to the car rental station. After getting our car we nervously drove the short distance to the carrier company- this is when we would find out if we successfully avoided quarantine for the dog.

After finally finding the right place we went in and found no one there. So we rang the bell- no one came for several minutes. After a while of nervous waiting we noticed Piper’s paperwork sitting on the counter, all prepared. Too anxious to wait we couldn’t help but look- and “FAIL” was marked! Our stomachs sank as panic set in… but after a few seconds of further inspection we realized that in the UK they cross off what they don’t mean and leave unmarked what they do mean! So went a form says “PASS / FAIL”, instead of circling or marking “PASS”, they put a line through “FAIL”! What a country! Shortly after this rollercoaster ride someone came to help us and soon Piper was extremely happy to be reunited with us, none the worse for wear.



Driving on the left side of the road was a bit odd, and I found that it required some concentration not to drift too far to the left side of the lane. Here are some shots from our drive...





When arriving in St Andrews we first went to the house of our friends, the Egans. It was wonderful to see them again! They offered to make dinner for us, so we all went over to our flat to drop off our things and eat.



Here we are, the first night in our new home!


Thank you all for your labors in prayer- our trip here could not have gone any better.