Thursday, February 18, 2010

Accepting "the Mark"

Among many fundamentalist Christians, frenzy over end times prophecy reached a fever pitch in the 80's and 90's. Paranoia concerning world events grew as the various political spheres appeared increasingly destabilized. The instinct to align current news with certain passages of the Bible led many conference speakers to peer into their crystal ball (i.e. ambiguous sections of biblical prophecy) and speculate on what world events could be expected soon.

One of the greatest concerns raised by fundamentalists was the nature of "the mark of the Beast." Supposedly, a future Anti-Christ would polarize the world into two groups: those that would swear allegiance to him and those that would not. According to this theory, loyalty to this Anti-Christ would be made evident by a "mark" on their body - either on the hand or the forehead. This mark would be necessary for conducting any commerce, be it buying or selling. The paranoia was palpable. Normally quite reasonable people became concerned about using this new thing called an "ATM card" because of how it could become "the mark of the Beast" at some future date. Fanciful speculations abounded regarding what form "the mark" might take (most of which would now be considered antiquated technology). Many who claimed to follow Christ spent most of their energy seemingly concerned about how NOT to advance the agenda of "the Anti-Christ."

Grotesquely missing from such hysteria is the concern for what mark I WANT, instead of the "mark" I don't want.

Ash Wednesday services were held in liturgical, Christian churches throughout the world yesterday. From those services, followers of Jesus Christ emerged with the "ashes of contrition" forming the sign of the Cross on their head. The symbolism of ashes as an element of lamentation has precedent dating back to such obvious biblical examples of David, Daniel and even the Gentiles of Nineveh in response to the preaching of Jonah. The ashes convey the sentiments of lowliness, of shame and of grief over the effects of personal, familial, national and even global sin. Rightly does Ash Wednesday inaugurate the season of Lent, in which contemplative reflection is focused on one's need for a Savior, and what is it about my sin that required his violent death in my place to achieve my redemption?

Christians devoted to the God who is, that sought to worship in this manner conducted since ancient times, left with a "mark." How irrelevant is "the mark of the Beast" made by receiving "the mark of the Christ?" What concern must we allot to a supposed "Beast" when the One who can extinguish said "Beast" leaves his very own mark on us?

Having received the "mark" of the Savior, I was pleased that the priest recognized this as my first time participating in this catholic practice. "I hope you don't mind," he later shared, "but when it's someone's first time I like to give them a really good one" (referring to the cross now smeared on my forehead). Mind?! It was incredibly endearing to me to accept "the mark" vigorously applied. I regret that such an event occurs merely once a year (but such is true of many events in the liturgical calendar). One might think of waiting a year for the next such moment, but then would be quickly distracted by the next meaningful event in the Christian calendar to follow.

Accepting "the Mark" of Christ is a joy and a privilege. One does not mark themselves, but are marked by the priest. This provides a living picture of God's sovereign prerogative to "mark" whom he chooses for his own glory. Nevertheless, leaving the church, I did not want to stop anywhere, but instead to go straight home. Since "the mark" is given (NOT earned), it cannot represent anything to boast about. It is not something to go out and show everyone. Close relatives and friends see "the mark" on you, but it's greatest power is seen in the mirror. Peering at my reflection, it sinks in that due to no merit of my own I've been "marked" by Christ. "From dust you came, and to dust you shall return," says the priest when smearing the ash on my head... and because of "the Mark" I am Christ's until then and beyond.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Temple Archives

Life in "the temple" is full of study and rigorous training. The ever present learning philosophy of "go and find out!" never abates. Years ago the parallels between training martial arts and the normal Christian life were discovered to be glaringly self-evident. Ever since then, living as a Christian can best be approached through the "lens" of training in an ancient temple. Be it the Shaolin temple of China centuries ago, or the "prophet schools" of Old Testament Israel, these training arenas serve as the paradigmatic analogy for developing as a man in all facets of life (i.e. faith, family, etc.). As a result, it is often enjoyable to reflect on how current activities or events point at "life in the temple" (hence the blog title). In essence, one is always training. There is no rest. One simply must decide to what end and for what abilities they are training, but the training goes on nonetheless.

For this reason, it is a pleasure to presently work at developing the library for a educational institution. To search out and select the finest resources needed for the development of students conjures elating thrills of hunting for "big game." Acquiring the right tools for the education system is very satisfying. Images of equipping the "training arena" with adequate instruments spring forth from sentiments developed during days spent teaching kung fu. I'm often asked if a unifying theme runs through the seemingly divergent pursuits of library acquisitions and, oh say, martial arts. There is indeed a common thread of "training" that binds together all of these pursuits. The one who exercises the body at the gym has a great deal in common with the one that exercises the mind at the library. Being charged with purchasing selected volumes for the library's collections would parallel a corresponding responsibility to purchase quality weight machines for 24 Hour Fitness. In each case, careful attention is paid to finding those tools that the trainee will benefit from the most.

In addition to the above explanation, there remains the mysterious love of the "training arena." Simply to be involved in the workings of "the temple" brings inexplicable satisfaction. Tangentially, it carries rumblings of the ultimate goal of the professor's career. The education environment is magical for the learning that is facilitated there. The local university campus invokes the tinglings of "sacred space." Laboring to see "the temple" well resourced is part and parcel to the education "calling." The temple archives are an integral part of the temple's function to train up those who will leave it and serve the world. Walking between the stacks, I reach out and brush my hands over the volumes. The electricity sparks off of the spine labels into my fingertips. I feel the connection to the rest of the training arena. The "temple" is alive with its pulsating mission to develop people. "I love it. God help me, I do love it so."

Monday, February 1, 2010

True Fun is Hard Work

"If you never fall down, that means you're not trying anything new."

That's the pearl of wisdom I tried to impart to my boys as we skated away from the scene of my downfall (literally). With the back of my jeans and sweater covered in ice, I had the pride that uniquely belongs to those who attempt things that involve the risk of embarrassment or injury. What's more? This inglorious display was within the context of having fun with my two sons. I was particularly proud of my youngest son in how, as we skated together, he was at the ready to help his "old man" up after each spill.

The principle demonstrated in this episode is that all true fun is hard work. It takes effort, struggle, and pleasure in one's exertion. There's a connection between elation and the body's involvement in activity that is summarized in the category of "fun." This cannot be achieved as a stationary observer. Whether enjoying a movie or a performing artist, the entertainment value really needs another term other than "fun;" that should be reserved for those activities that require movement, adrenaline and even potential exhaustion. This understanding of "fun" cannot be restricted merely to team sports, although they would make good examples. This includes such other recreation activities as hiking, biking, kayaking, skiing, swimming, etc. The list could be surprisingly long with practices that move the body, spend energy and conjure the euphoric elation of holistic pleasure, albeit without the pressures of competition.

For this reason, I prefer to reserve the "fullest" meaning of "fun" for those activities that are also hard work. When asked at work this week about the sling on my right arm, I replied, "It was for a worthy cause... having fun with my kids."