Monday, May 31, 2010

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Wine He Drank

by David Mathis

Twice He was offered wine while on the cross. He refused the first, but took the second. Why so?

The first time came in verse 23, “they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.” William Lane explains,

According to an old tradition, respected women of Jerusalem provided a narcotic drink to those condemned to death in order to decrease their sensitivity to the excruciating pain . . . . When Jesus arrived at Golgotha he was offered . . . wine mixed with myrrh, but he refused it, choosing to endure with full consciousness the sufferings appointed for him. (The Gospel of Mark, p. 564)

This first wine represented an offer to ease the pain, to opt for a small shortcut—albeit, not a major one in view of the terrible pain of the cross, but a little one nonetheless. But this offer He refused, and in doing so, chose “to endure with full consciousness the sufferings appointed for him.”

The second time came in verse 35. After some bystanders thought he was calling for Elijah, “someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’” Lane comments,

A sour wine vinegar is mentioned in the OT as a refreshing drink (Numbers 6:13; Ruth 2:14), and in Greek and Roman literature as well it is a common beverage appreciated by laborers and soldiers because it relieved thirst more effectively than water and was inexpensive . . . . There are no examples of its use as a hostile gesture. The thought, then, is not of a corrosive vinegar offered as a cruel jest, but of a sour wine of the people. While the words “let us see if Elijah will come” express a doubtful expectation, the offer of the sip of wine was intended to keep Jesus conscious for as long as possible” (Ibid., 573-574).

So the first wine (mixed with myrrh) was designed to dull [the] pain, to keep him from having to endure the cross with full consciousness. This wine he refused.

And the second (sour) wine was given to keep him “conscious for as long as possible,” and thus have the effect of prolonging his pain. This is the wine He drank.

Other condemned criminals would have taken the first (to ease their torment) and passed on the second (so as not to prolong their horrific pain). But He would take no shortcuts on the way to our redemption.

At the cross, he drank the wine of his Father’s wrath down to its very dregs, and he did so for us—that we might enjoy the wine of his Father’s love, join him at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, and live redeemed forever in the glorious presence of the one who took no shortcuts in saving us.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

May Day 2010

Last year, the Canuck and I hosted an afternoon of games and races for our freshmen students. It was so successful that we decided to offer it this year. We do it simply because it's fun. It's outside. It's free. It's a chance to celebrate the long-awaited warm weather.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

Half full or half empty...

Imagine this being broadcast to the citizens of Atlanta:
Due to water pipes being replaced and relocated, there will be no water throughout the entire city from 6 a.m. - 10 p.m. on Thursday, May 20.

There would be a sizable backlash. It would make the news. Michael Moore would probably roll into town and do a documentary. Maybe Al Gore, too.

But here in Harbin, it's accepted as part of life. Millions of people don't stop what they're doing; they just move forward with a handicap while acknowledging that the city smells worse than usual.

For this, I am grateful: Grateful that water was restored sometime during the night, grateful that the fine weather distracted us, grateful for the experiences in which I am deprived of things that keep me sensitive to my own culture's indulgences and to the rest of the world's reality.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

There must be peace...

...when you're on the other side of the globe from family.

...when you get an email saying that your beloved grandmother has had a stroke.

...when you hear your dad say over the phone that she doesn't look good.

...when you think of her not being able to swallow, not knowing where she is, not able to move her left side.

...when you think of your grandfather who is facing the possibility of being alone for the first time in over 70 years.

...when you give thanks for her children being able get to get to the hospital quickly, work together, and make rational decisions.

...when you know that you are among generations of a believing family.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


“Stonecold” is not only his email address, but also the lingering impression that I got from him during our first class. He was among the students assigned to Sophomore Oral English during my inaugural semester at Harbin Institute of Technology. I remember that he sat on the right side of the room, distanced from the huddle of smiling eager students and not inclined to the slightest hint of enjoyment or relaxation. His dark brown eyes never broke their intensity. He sat in rigid angles that would've made any officer proud; 180 from the top of his head to his waist, and then legs bent at perfect 90 degrees. I later learned that his grandfather had been a soldier and that StoneCold came to HIT only after being denied by a military university.

He approached me after class that first day and told me that he wouldn't take an English name – something I require for the sake of avoiding mass Chinese students introducing themselves as “Lemon,” “Satan,” or “Machine.” (These are all names nominated by some students. Permission denied.) With a firm stare, he refused to be called anything but his real Chinese name, given to him by his grandfather. If I forced an English name on him, he warned me that he wouldn't answer to it. I was surprised at his defiance; teachers in China have managed to remain largely unchallenged. My response had to be quick, and I decided not to go into battle with him so early. He intrigued me, and I was willing to concede to buy some time. I acquiesced. He thanked me, bowed, and then walked out the door, tall and straight. We had no individual interaction for the next several classes. He was there on time and had the completed assignments but was aloof even with his classmates. By week four, I knew that teachers with less hours would inherit some of my classes. One of those was his. I wondered what would become of him. I prayed that his heart might be softened and that, somehow, I could get to know him.

The answer was yes.

The following semester, he appeared at one of my office hours (informal conversation times outside of class). Echoing his earlier protocol, he distantly observed me and the other students, quietly leaving before the session was finished. Several months passed. One day, he sent me a text message asking if he could stop by for a visit. So unexpected was his request that I wondered if I had done something wrong. I was perhaps as suspicious of him as I assumed he was of me. Still, I knew that face time was something I had asked for, and I wasn't about to excuse myself from it. His visit that day turned out to be innocuous. In fact, he seemed to have no real reason at all for coming over. If he had come with defenses, they were neglected once he saw my bookshelf decorated with photos and mementos from home. He studied everything and asked about the people smiling back at him from the various frames. Before he left, he presented me with a miniature catapult that he had made in one of his welding classes. I had no idea why he chose to bestow me with a medieval projectile device, but I noted it as a gesture of goodwill and was honored to be its recipient. That form of twisted metal sits on the top shelf of a curio cabinet in my living room. I'll never part with it.

By the end of the first year, I was able to recount several visits with him. He even brought a friend of his into our little circle, and the three of us had dinner together on a few occasions. One of the most outstanding features of our growing relationship, though, was the day that StoneCold and I spent together traipsing around Harbin. He had invited me on a walking tour of the city, and I immediately accepted. His initiations are more divinely promoted than he knows; if enough time passes between communications, I pray for our paths to cross again. Without fail, he always finds me within a day or two and proposes some sort of meeting. What a wonderful reassurance that asking for the right things pleases the Provider in granting them.

Our relationship is closing out its second year. For the first year, I assumed – and rightfully so – that I was being evaluated. I was under no initial pretext of friendship. I am aware of his disdain for many foreigners, especially those who – in his understanding - compromise the identity of the Chinese people with their imported theology and cultural-centrism. He knows what name and faith I represent, and one mis-step would relegate me to the ranks of “ignorant crusader.” For me, the admonition of being “wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove” is all too clear when I'm with StoneCold. I can't afford a foul.

But somewhere along the way, he softened. Maybe it's because I never decline an offer from him to do whatever it is he has nominated to do, even if it means covering the city by foot and nursing blisters for the next few days. Maybe it's because I brought him a camping hat that I purchased while Stateside for the summer. (It had LED lights in the bill. He was stoked.) Maybe it's because I don't keep my life compartmentalized; I talk about my own shortcomings as easily as I talk about what I had for breakfast. Maybe it's because I don't flinch if he wants to take me to a Buddhist temple or some other venue that might appear a challenge to my piety. Maybe it's because I spend time I don't have helping him and his friend with a project. Or maybe it's because I don't plug my American rhetoric into our conversations, especially when there's silence. Or maybe it's because I'm not afraid to laugh despite his austerity. Maybe it's because of all of those things. But all of those things go back to the One who ordained them long before they ever came to pass.

Our last outing together was a commemoration of our City Tour '09. Again, we covered Harbin with our footsteps. But something was different. I felt an ease with him that wasn't there the previous spring. We laughed more. He spoke about his family. He told me how his grandfather met his grandmother, and he laughed abundantly when I told him about mine. He ate my half of the pork leg because I couldn't bring myself to swallow pure fat. He entertained a detour to help me find food coloring. When a car came dangerously close to us as we crossed the street, he quickly outstretched his hand in a protective maneuver. Over a delicious lunch of fried lentils, chicken soup, and stir-fried wood ear (a type of mushroom), he confessed that he was glad to have someone along for an adventure or two. A year ago, none of those things would've taken place.

While I was typing and deleting and retyping the first paragraph, I started thinking about the possibility of one day showing this essay to him and watching him read about his old self and how one appointment to an English class may have changed his entire life. I would give everything for that to be so. For now, though, what is required of me is to appeal to him through unwavering friendship and determination to look beyond how ill-fitted we should be with each other. Indeed, he may be StoneCold, but water – Living Water – can gracefully carve its way straight through.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Han Han

Already exceeding 400 million, the number of internet users in China is the highest in the world, so it's no surprise that a few have risen to celebritydom through their blogs and interviews. Perhaps the most famous of the current generation is guy named Han Han. Though he was a college dropout, he is now a race car driver, writer, musician and blogger. His cultural and political opinions are often a slurry of humor, cynicism, and sarcasm. In one of his more recent interviews, he addressed the current craze about the Shanghai Expo:

Q: The government has said there’s nothing wrong with eating genetically altered food, and also said that we must avoid having it in the area of the Expo lest foreigners eat it by accident, is this a kind of prejudice against ourselves?

Answer: Nonsense, it’s obviously self-confidence, confidence in the strength of our Chinese bodies. We breath this kind of air every day, drink this kind of water every day, we’ve come up struggling [and become accustomed to it]. Foreigners drink one mouthful of pesticide and fall over dead, but we can drink three before dying. So your question is wrong.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Becoming all things to all men by all possible means (1 Cor 9:22)

This week, I was a(n)...

to students in my Study Skills classes. I don't like teaching the course, and I dislike the textbook even more. Sadly, some of those students don't know how dedicated and excited I am about teaching because I've allowed my own pathetic indifference to get in the way. I apologized to them and explained why. They were shocked. I specifically apologized to two young men who have been late and absent on a few occasions. They were even more shocked that I would absorb some of the blame. That is VERY un-Chinese.

BEGGAR to a young man who desperately needs glasses but refuses to get them. I spoke with him after class (again) and implored him to re-consider.

CARETAKER to a team-mate who slipped, fell, and fractured her arm. She somehow made it through two classes before she went to the hospital for an official CT scan. The scan, itself, was as painful as the fall. The technology isn't yet consumer-friendly, meaning that instead of the x-ray machine orbiting her (as we Vikings would expect), she had to straighten her arm to accommodate the machine. As an added challenge, pain management/prevention is unheard of, at least in this corner. No wonder the Harbiners are considered so hardy a people. Their pain threshold must be off the charts.

COUNSELOR to a heartbroken freshman whose girlfriend has broken up with him because of his bad temper. He found me between classes one morning, and our conversation led to a moment when I knew that I had to be bold enough to remind him of his Creator's love. With our backs to the hallway and our faces looking out the fifth-story windows, I put my hand on his shoulder and began to intercede. His head dropped and his shoulders began to shake. He says he'll be ok, but I can't help but wonder if there will be a future girl and a future break-up that will compel him to find a window ledge instead of a friend.

with a former student whose cold stare and abrupt words from last year somehow pricked a vein of friendship. It is only through Love that such a treaty could unfold between two unlikely companions. One smile, one echo of laughter from him is like ten from anyone else. I take notice of everything he does that seems contrary to his hardened heart. This past holiday weekend, he invited me on a pedestrian journey through the city – something that we did last spring. We spent all day together. I was delighted that he found amusement in so many things: my contorted body trying to get just the right angle for photos, my choice of where to do business based on store size (Go underdogs!) and employee friendliness, and my re-enactment of how my great-grandfather used to prompt a social exit by looking at his adoring wife (my great-grandmother) and drawling, “Gal, let's go!” Her response of “Ok, sugar,” actually made my company laugh as he repeated her line. I've never seen him so lighthearted. Oh, that I may see that face oneday light up for glorious reasons.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Working on Rikers Island (A Librarian's Perspective)

Controlled Chaos: A Day Working the Rikers Island Book Cart

by Jamie Niehof, Intern, Correctional Services Program
April 19, 2010

Another day of volunteering at Rikers Island with the NYPL has come to a close. Thursday I went to one of the male detention houses along with my mentor and two other staff members from NYPL. We were there for "book cart service," which is a little different than what I remember from Shawshank Redemption.

We delivered books to both solitary confinement and two different "houses," which are the names of blocks within the building. The inmates in solitary confinement are allowed to request books off a list, so we filled these requests from the "library" within this particular building, which was really just two tall shelves of paperback books in the back of the Chaplain's office.

We felt like Indiana Jones capturing the golden statue when we found a book one of the prisoners had requested. Usually the titles were listed on their slips of paper as Cold Moon. That's it. No author, just words. If we couldn't find one of the prisoner's specific books (they can request three and we try to find one of them) we will substitute something simliar, same author, plot, etc. Two prisoners had requested Che Guevara's Guerilla Warfare, so as a substitue I found The Motorcycle Diaries, complete with a picture of Gael Garcia Bernal on the cover.

Gael Garcia Bernal as Che Guevara (great movie!) All the books were piled up on a rolling cart that we first took to solitary confinement. Solitary is also known as the "Bing," although no one we talked to knew exactly how it got that name. Along with an armed guard we delivered the requested books, one magazine, and some free newspapers from the city to each of the solitary cells. Most of the men were sleeping, a few said thank you, and it was altogether less dramatic than I thought it was going to be. The prisoner who requested Guerilla Warfare though, was less than happy with his substitution, and refused to take it. Perhaps Gael Garcia Bernal's teen idol good looks were not the image of rugged rebel resistance he'd had in mind. After our insistence that it was the same person and a reminder that we wouldn't be back for two weeks he decided to take the book, although I'm not entirely sure he's going to read it.

After the Bing, we took our cart to Houses 4 and 6. One thing that was very evident as we walked down the hallway was that the library service was well-liked, well-used, and in-demand. Most of the prisoners who walked by us (in between a red line painted on the floor and the wall) asked if they could have a book, or if we were coming to their house or not. Sometimes the decision to provide book service to a house is dependent on whether or not they have the desire to return books, but more often it is because there are tens of thousands of prisoners on Rikers Island and one single Correctional Services Librarian. That's a pretty large patron base.

Getting books back from the prisoners and letting them pick out new ones is a bit of controlled chaos. We stood outside the iron door to the house with our cart and had two prisoners come out at one time, check off their returned book, and pick out a new one. Each prisoner is allowed one book and one magazine. The most popular books are by far James Patterson's novels, so popular in fact that we have to lock them up after book service because they tend to disappear. I wonder if James Patterson has any idea. National Geographic is the magazine of choice, and there is an entire box of them to choose from, some as far back as the early 80's. Urban magazines and books were in high demand, with almost no supply.

Everything is done by hand. The prisoners hand me their picture ID and I copy down their number along with the title of book they chose. Later this will be printed up by one of the NYPL staff members and checked off as books are returned. With zero Pattersons left on our cart and four houses served, we brought the book cart back to the Chaplain's office, unloaded, locked the books up, and checked out of the facility before roll call.

One more day on Rikers Island left.