May The Source Be With You

In January 2011, I met my arch nemesis. And she had already been dead for 287 years.

Okay, so I might be exaggerating just a tad. Or quite a lot. She wasn’t exactly my arch nemesis (even though she had been dead for almost three centuries), but my history thesis about her would become the bane of my senior year existence.

Johanna Eleonora Petersen wasn’t a terrible person. In fact, based on everything I read about her, she seemed like a pretty nice gal. It’s not her fault that she caused me mental anguish and maximum stress, so I really shouldn’t blame her. No, I’m the source of the problem because I’m the one who decided to do my senior history thesis about her. I should have known when I chose an obscure 17th-century female German Pietist that I was digging my own grave. No pun intended.

Back in January, Petersen (or “JEP”, as I called her. Yes, we were on a nickname basis) seemed like a super choice for a variety of reasons: She was a woman; she was a devout Pietist (Pietism was basically a resurgence of Luther’s Reformation of the church and call to personal faith in Christ); she lived a really long time ago, and she spoke German. Of course, everything that made Petersen the best choice also made her the worst. Ironic? Welcome to my life.

You see, I had unwittingly set myself up for a challenge. A really big challenge. First of all, I had to find sources about Petersen. That was easy enough. A few skillful online searches and a dozen interlibrary loans later, I had my secondary sources. But then—ooooohhhh, but then—my quest for primary sources began.  Therein lay the rub.

Although Petersen was a prolific writer with dozens of published works (a HUGE accomplishment for a woman at that time), the majority had either ceased to exist or were locked away in “special collections” at research libraries in Germany. In historian-speak, “special collections” means “no-touchy” or better yet  “sorry boutcha.” Barring an order from the UN or an act of God Himself, I wasn’t going to see these books. But fortunately, modern—or, er, semi-modern—technology saved the day. And that’s how I found myself in the Oklahoma State library’s microfiche-reading room.

In case you were born after 1985, let me explain to you microfiche or microfilm. Basically, it’s a long roll of film that contains itty-bitty photos of pages from books. Newspapers use microfiche to archive their copy. And apparently libraries do the same with German Pietist writings. In order to conduct my study of Petersen, I had to use the microfiche to print pages from her book. And then once I had the text, I had to figure out how to read 17th-century font … in German…. and figure out what it said. Suffice it to say, I had my work cut out for me. Luckily, however, even though I had bit off more than I could chew, I somehow managed to swallow it without choking. In the end, I had a 27-page original research paper I could be “stolz auf” or proud of.

Now, I know what you’re wondering: First, why in the wide world would I willingly subject myself to such torture? And secondly, why in the even wider world am I telling you this? Unfortunately, the first question will require deeper psychoanalysis than I can currently afford. But the second question? Well, I’m so glad you asked! 🙂

History, you see, is more than just a blow-off class from your freshman year of college. History is like a buried treasure waiting to be discovered. But in order to find it, in order to truly understand history, you have to get back to the original source. With Petersen, I could have simply read commentaries about what she had written. I could have extensively studied biographies written about her (all two of them). I might have even found expert opinions from top scholars about what she believed and why she acted as she did. I could have worked really hard to find out from other people about Petersen, and I could have written a phenomenal paper based on their work. But no matter how Pulitzer-prize worthy it might have been, I would have wound up with a big, fat F. Why? Because I didn’t use primary sources. And every historian knows that primary sources are the primary source of history (Pun very much intended.)

Historians know that the only legitimate way to learn about a historical figure or past event is to study sources from the time. Photographs, journal entries, letters, eyewitness accounts—all of these are windows to the past. Yes, secondary sources written by experts can be helpful; yes, they can provide insight and direction, but they are no substitute for primary sources. This is the most basic concept of historical study, the historian’s version of 1 + 1 = 2. No legitimate student of history would ignore this rule.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “Steffi, I don’t need a lecture on proper historical research techniques. Thanks for the info, but this really doesn’t matter to me.”

Or so you think.

Although you will likely never have to write an academic paper using original historical research, this lesson on primary sources applies directly to you. Because if you’re a Christian, you spend at least some fraction of time reading the most important primary source ever written: The Bible.

So often, though, we turn to books and commentaries about the Bible rather than the text itself. Yes, these other sources can be helpful to understand and apply Scripture, but they are no substitute for the Bible itself. Just like I had to read JEP’s work to grasp her beliefs, so we must read what God says if we want to know Him and, moreover, live like Him. God is the most important Being in the entire universe, so we should devote as much time, effort, and care as humanly possible to studying Him. And that begins with digging inductively into His Word. To do otherwise would be beyond foolish, and our faith—which is far more consequential than a grade—depends on it.

But how are we supposed to study the Bible? It can be so confusing that we don’t know where to start, or we are too intimidated to try. And that’s where Inductive Bible Study saves the day!

First, you must Observe the text. Read it through several times and look for the basics, asking Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? For instance, who is writing to whom? What are they saying? What words are repeated? Jot down notes as you go. Once you have a general idea of what is happening, you can move to the next stage: Interpretation. What is the author saying and what does that mean? Use the notes from step one as clues. And then finally, once you have determined the meaning, you are ready to Apply it. How does this passage affect or change the way I live? And how can I act on it? And the bonus step: Give yourself a pat on the back. Congratulations! You have successfully studied God’s Word! Now you’re ready to move on to the next passage… and the next one after that… and after that… etc, etc.

And who knows? If you keep applying the Bible to your life, if you keep seeking after and living for Him, someone may write about you in 287 years. 😉

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Small Envelope, Big Lesson

I knew the answer before I even opened the envelope. It was supposed to be 8.5×11 inches. It was supposed to be several pages thick. It was supposed to contain my contract for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant job in Germany.

It didn’t.

No, instead it held a single-page, typed letter with these fateful words, “You have been designated as an alternate for the U.S. Student Fulbright Program. Thus you would receive an award only in the event someone withdraws.” And with those words, my future dramatically shifted, and a metaphorical door swung emphatically, suddenly—and likely permanently—shut.

Since returning last July from my exchange semester in Graz, Austria, I had planned on applying for the Fulbright. I researched my different options, talked to friends who had received the grant in previous years, and decided that an English Teaching Assistantship would be the best fit for me. Throughout the fall, I spent countless hours laboring over my application, writing, editing, and revising draft after draft of my essays. Then in January and February, I painstakingly rewrote those same essays in German, working hours on end (and likely driving my German professor crazy with all my emails). I’d never worked so hard for something in my entire life, and I had never wanted something so badly. Although I wouldn’t say that the Fulbright became an “obsession,” it did consume a significant portion of my time, energy, and thoughts. I poured my heart and soul into that application, and I wanted the Fulbright more than anything. (Pause. But hold that thought).

This last weekend, I attended an event called “Passion” in Fort Worth, Texas. Founded in 1997, Passion is a global movement to unite college students with the desire to live for Jesus and make Him known. (For more information and a much better description, check out 268generation.com). I had registered for it almost a year before, and although I was looking forward to it, I had no idea what God had in store.

The first breakthrough came on Friday night.

“How much do you love Me, Steffi?” God seemed to ask (Note: God didn’t speak to me audibly. But I knew He was talking to me. I know it probably sounds crazy, but it’s true. I promise. Even if you think I am whacky, please humor me and keep reading). “Do you love me more than your own desires, your family, your health, your dreams, your life?”

I wanted the answer to be yes. I wanted to be able to say that I loved Him more than anything. But when I looked at my life, I knew that I didn’t. (Lying to God is a bad idea, generally speaking. Just fyi.). You see, I wanted my desires to be fulfilled, I wanted my family to stay safe, I wanted to be healthy, and most of all I wanted my life to turn out according to my plan. I loved myself too much. I didn’t want to lose anything.

“How much do you love Me?” I heard Him whisper again. “Whoever wants to save His life with lose it, but whoever loses His life for My sake will find it.”

“But, Lord,” I protested, “I love my life. I like how things are going; I don’t want anything to change. I don’t want to lose things.”

“Whoever wants to save His life will lose it. How much do you love Me?”

And that’s when it hit me like a bucket of cold water on a hot summer afternoon, or better yet, like the time I accidentally touched an electric fence at my friend’s farm. (Luckily, no one dumped cold water on me at the same time; that would have been very bad). If I tried to hold onto my life with white-knuckled grip, I would definitely lose it. I wouldn’t necessarily die sooner, per se, but I wouldn’t truly enjoy my life because I would be constantly worrying about how to best preserve it. Furthermore, that meant that I loved my own life more than I loved Jesus. He wanted all of me, not just the few odds and ends I was willing to loan him. He wanted my whole heart. Nothing short of everything.

Having finally understood that truth, I bowed my head and prayed. I asked Jesus to help me to love Him more than anything else. I told Him to do whatever He needed to do to change my heart. Even if that meant losing the things that I loved or wanted the most. Including the Fulbright. “Be my one desire, Lord,” I prayed. “Do whatever it takes to make that happen.”

This afternoon at 5:03 p.m. He answered that prayer.

Yes, my heart hurts. Yes, I am extremely disappointed. I’ve broken down crying several times (and my eyelids are now puffy). I don’t think that that the reality of it has entirely sunk in yet, and I know that I’ll be sorting through many difficult emotions in the weeks and months to come. But at the same time and in the midst of all that, I have a deep sense of peace. I know beyond all shadow of doubt that my God is good, He is bigger, and that He is working out everything—including this—as He sees best. And most importantly, He is helping me love Him more than anything. That alone makes this heartache worthwhile.

After reading the letter, a Bible verse immediately came into my head. “As for me, I will always have hope. I will praise You more and more” (Psalm 71:14). It was quickly followed by lyrics of a song from Passion, “Oh, I’m running to Your arms. The riches of Your love will always be enough.” (“Forever Reign” by Kristian Stanfill). I write those words from the bottom of my heart, and I’m praying that God will help me mean them even more sincerely with every passing day. No matter what happens, I will always have hope in Jesus. Even when I am hurting, I will praise Him. Nothing on this earth can compare to Him, and His love will always be enough for me, no matter what happens. Even when the envelope is too small.