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Some Thoughts On Guitars and Spirituality

Andrés Segovia

Cover of Andrés Segovia

I grew up loving guitar music. My father had several classical guitar records that I would play over and over again. I remember being enchanted watching a classical guitarist on TV, wondering how his fingers could fly so effortlessly across the fretboard. When I had a chance to take guitar lessons I jumped at the opportunity. I was going to be a concert guitarist. I even purchased several guitars – each and every one a very lovely dust collector.

Christopher Parkening

Cover of Christopher Parkening

Many years later I learned why I never quite made it to Carnegie Hall. I was watching a video on Christopher Parkening, regarded by many as one of the most accomplished classical guitarists alive today. Someone asked him how long he spent practicing. Parkening never fully answered the question as I remember, but he did point out that when he was a student he learned that Andres Segovia, certainly regarded as one of the finest to ever play the instrument, practiced for over 5 hours every day. Steve Kaufman, a legend in bluegrass music, warms up for an hour before a concert.

Roy Clark

Cover of Roy Clark

Oh, so that is why I never was asked to sign a record contract. I wanted to be a great guitarist – be right up there with Mason Williams and Roy Clark and Chet Atkins and the Romero brothers. There was only one problem (well, actually there were more, but let’s simplify things here…). I wanted all that greatness in about 15 minutes of doodling a day. To put it in perspective, I spent less time practicing than the great guitarists did in loosening their fingers to get ready to practice.

I wonder how many of us would really like to be known as a devout spiritual person. Maybe not a great spiritual person (because that would be a mark of pride, not generally considered a part of spirituality), but certainly someone who would be recognized as one who swam in the deep end of the spiritual pool. Yet, when we are told what it takes to leave the kiddie wading pool and actually launch out into deep water, we realize that maybe we did not want to be that great after all.

I have learned, much to my displeasure, that the great spiritual disciplines can be as difficult to master as the guitar. Very few of us are born spiritual giants. The spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation on Scripture, fasting, worship and others take time to develop. But more than time, they take dedication and perseverance. They take physical effort. And, mastering any skill takes a significant amount of will power.

So, I’m afraid that for many of us, our desire to be spiritual people sounds a lot like my adolescent “desire” to be a concert guitarist. I wanted all the results; but none of the gritty, day-to-day, dull boring practice. I wanted to be great, but not that bad.

So, how much time have you spent in prayer, reading Scripture, and worship this week?

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The Value of Bright Lights in Dense Fog

Mike's Approach

Mike’s Approach (Photo credit: Sarahnaut)

I’ve been trying to articulate something for some time, and for whatever reason I just cannot seem to get the words right. If you are reading this that must mean I hit the “publish” button, so maybe I’ll get it right this time.

Back when I was flying the most stressful (nay, terrifying) aspect of flight was the last few thousand feet of the flight when I was cutting through some dense fog on an instrument approach. According to the FAA rules under which I was operating, I could begin an approach as long as the visibility at the airport was one-half mile and there was a 200 foot space between terra firma and the base of any solid cloud layer. (This was the lowest minimum visibility required – at other airports the minimums went up due to less accurate navigational aids). Now, what that means is when I broke out of the cloud base there was 200 feet between me and mother earth, and I could see 3,000 feet in front of me. The only problem (well, not ONLY) is that on final approach I was flying at roughly 100 miles an hour. It does not take long to cover 3,000 feet horizontally or 200 feet vertically if you are traveling at 165 feet per second (give or take a few).

Add to that there was the issue of keeping both eyes glued to my instruments, making sure I had flaps and landing gear down (the chirp of rubber meeting concrete is much more comforting than the shriek of aluminum grinding on concrete), maintaining proper airspeed, monitoring all my approach and navigational aids, and talking on the radio whilst at the same time keeping one eye pealed out the windscreen hoping to catch a glimpse of the ground before it reached up and smacked me. And, I was doing this all single pilot – nobody named Auto sitting next to me to make sure I was not about to kill myself and spread thousands of pounds of freight all over the countryside.

So, when I saw the bright strobes and approach light system announcing the approach end of the runway I always let out a huge sigh of relief. It was always nice to breathe again when you have been holding your breath for 5 minutes.

The thing that was so comforting about seeing the approach light system was that it meant I was almost home. The lights did not have to worry about the fog, the ceiling level of the cloud base, the rain, the snow, or if everything in the plane was functioning properly and had been properly tuned, pushed and set. The lights were solid guides in a very fluid and dangerous system.

Oh, and one other thing I forgot to mention:

When flying in fog so dense I could not see my wingtips I had to turn off the strobe and landing lights on my airplane. This was true in daylight, but was especially critical at night or in snow or rain. If I did not the disorientation from the resulting strobe or the reflection from the landing lights could get me killed graveyard dead in a matter of seconds.

I had to make sure that the only lights my eyes would focus on were the lights of the approach light system on the end of the runway. Any other light was distracting, and potentially fatal. Once free of the clouds a quick flip of a couple of switches and I had my strobes and landing lights back on (if necessary).

I may be an alarmist, but I see way too many preachers and authors trying to fly in the theological fog with every light in and on their airplane turned as bright as it can, while ignoring the lights at the end of the runway. In other words, they are focusing entirely upon their constantly changing nature, their culture, their wants, their wishes, their desires, and the way they have decided God must think, act and judge; and they are totally ignoring the solid, immovable structure that tell us exactly how God in fact does think, act and judge.

Stated another way – we need to turn the lights off of ourselves and let the light of God’s Word guide us home.

I’m sick to death of preachers saying that some passage of Scripture can be ignored or rewritten because our culture is different from the culture in which the author lived. Yes, it is. And the culture of Paul was different from the culture of Abraham or David. But you never read of Paul disavowing Abraham or David just because they preceded him in terms of earthly chronology.

Our world is moving and changing at a speed far in excess of 100 miles an hour. The fog of contemporary culture is far more dense than any in which I ever flew. We cannot just sit back and “fly by the seat of our pants.” We have to end this infantile obsession with our narcissistic culture and realize that if we are going to safely lead others to a distant shore then we are going to have to trust the approach lights that God has given us – not our own fickle and changing opinions.

We have to turn the lights off of ourselves. God hasn’t moved since the days of Adam and Eve. He knows where firm ground is. He knows where our destination is. He has provided us with all the guidance we need. He has the approach lights turned up as bright as he possibly can.

Let us have a little faith in the light of God’s Word, shall we?

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The Proof is in the Verbs

The Biblical Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew Name f...

The Biblical Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew Name for God the Father. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading in the book of Exodus this morning in my daily Bible reading. The passage I was reading (more on that later) reminded me of the amazing instructors I had in college. Drs. John Willis, Everett Ferguson, Ian Fair, Neil Lightfoot, Bill Humble, Eugene Clevenger, Lemoine Lewis – an amazing cast of instructors at one given point in history. It is really quite spooky how a few verses from the Bible can bring so many faces and tones of voice and little personal mannerisms and other memories flooding back to you.

Anyway – and on to the point of this blog, the passage I was reading included the last few verses of Exodus 2 all the way through chapter 3:

God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them…Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” (Exodus 2:24-25, 3:7-8a, NRSV)

It was Dr. John Willis who taught me the ancient language of Hebrew (and a ton of other information about the Old Testament). One of the things that he stressed in dealing with any passage of Scripture (Old or New Testament) is to focus on the verbs. The verbs carry all the freight of the sentence, and theologically speaking, all the spiritual freight as well.

Notice the verbs in those few verses. God heard, God remembered, God looked upon, God took notice, God had observed, God had heard, God knew, God has come down, and God will bring them up.

And that, my friends and neighbors, will keep you busy studying and meditating and praying upon for as long as you would like. Those are some of the most powerful, most pregnant, and most eloquent expressions to be found in Holy Scripture.

Agnostics and atheists like to think they can place Christians in a difficult spot by speaking of God’s absence, of God’s forsaking the earth. They might have a point if the Bible spoke of Deism. But the God of the Bible is no deist. The God of the Bible is a living, active participant in this world. Our God did not wind the universe up only to watch it run down to some cataclysmic end. Our God hears, remembers, looks upon, takes notice, observes, comes down in order to lift up.

I am afraid that too many Christians have been deluded by Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” as the picture of God. In this they have fallen right into the trap that agnostics and atheists have laid. Aristotle does not even come close to the picture of God painted in the Hebrew Scriptures, not to mention the New Testament. I am so glad! Aristotle’s god may be worthy of fear and loathing, but never love, adoration and worship.

When you are flying by yourself in fog so thick you cannot even see your wingtips it is nice to know there is someone out there who can see everything that is going on. In the case of a pilot that is the air traffic controller who guides and sequences all the planes flying around in the muck so they can land safely.

We, as children of God, have so much more than an air traffic controller. We have a God who sees all, knows all, and, most important, loves and cares for all. He created all and died for all. He it is who is worthy of our love and adoration.

It is not difficult to discover who this God is and what He does for His children – the proof is in the verbs!

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Was the Apostle Paul a Moral Monster?

Skull and crossbones

Skull and crossbones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One more post on an issue that is really a burr under my saddle. Hopefully I can get this out of my system with this entry.

Was the apostle Paul a moral monster? Did he, in his teaching, leave a group of Christians to practice something that he knew was wrong, indeed was sinful? Did he, by writing a letter (or better, letters) exacerbate that error by the thousands, perhaps millions, of mislead disciples? These are serious questions, and in the discussions that are so prevalent in the church today these questions must at least be asked.

The argument that I object to so strenuously, and that was presented in all earnestness by a young man in Bible class yesterday, goes something like this: the apostle Paul knew certain behaviors were wrong, or at the very least were sub-Christian in nature, but because of the prevailing culture in the communities in which he was trying to preach, he faced a dilemma. He could either teach what he knew to be true (and later proved that he knew was true) and risk upsetting the mores of the people that he was trying to teach; or he could swallow his tongue, actually support the unjust and ungodly behavior in the hopes that he could teach them about Christ without raising their self-defense mechanisms. In other words, the apostle Paul actively condoned certain behaviors, even though he knew them to be against God’s will, so that he could teach the people about Jesus.

I have three huge, nay, monstrous, objections to this line of thinking.

1.  To suggest this behavior means that Paul violated his own integrity. When you teach something that you believe to be true, and later find to be false, you are guilty of an error of fact, but your integrity is not affected (assuming you correct your mistake). But, when you teach something you know is false in order to achieve another goal you have violated the very basic aspect of integrity. It does not matter the ultimate goal here – you are guilty of the theory of “the end justifies the means.” That theory treats your students as mere pawns in helping you achieve your status. It is fundamentally demeaning to those you are trying to teach. It is philosophically corrupt as well as theologically corrupt. When your students find out that you have not only lied to them, but lied to achieve an ulterior goal, they will not only lose respect for you, but also for the subject about which you are attempting to teach them. For someone to suggest that Paul knew a behavior was wrong (or conversely, that it was blessed by God) and then for him to condone it (or conversely, that he condemned that which God had blessed) makes Paul out to be the worst of deceivers.

2.  To suggest that Paul knew a behavior to be wrong, yet taught so as to condone it meant that not only did he teach his audience error, but he taught it is okay to promote that error if the situation demanded it. A student learns not only the content of lessons, but the method and the philosophy behind those lessons as well. For Paul to say, “Listen, I know full well that behavior ‘X’ is wrong, but I’m going to bless practicing it as a command of God so that I can get my point across” was to teach his audience that it is perfectly okay to lie if there is an “acceptable” ulterior motive. Conversely, if Paul knew a behavior was perfectly acceptable to God, yet taught that it was a sin, then the lesson is clear – our teaching is pure regardless of the content so long as we have a “pure” motive behind our erroneous content.

3.  If Paul knew a behavior was wrong, and yet taught in such a manner as to condone it meant that he violated a much higher standard of honesty: he falsely involved the activity of the Holy Spirit. Paul did not just say, “Behavior ‘X’ is wrong because our culture says it is wrong and so we should avoid it” he said, “Behavior ‘X’ is wrong because it is condemned in the written word of God.” Likewise, when Paul blessed a certain behavior he used God’s word to verify that claim. Thus, and make no mistake about this, if Paul knew a certain behavior was wrong, and he condoned that behavior by appealing to God’s word, then he is guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It is one thing to teach a lie under your own authority. When you knowingly and intentionally invoke God’s name in your lie you have violated the very nature of the true God.

I really know of no other way to state this. If Paul knew a behavior was wrong (or, that a behavior was acceptable to God) and yet he taught and wrote in such a way as to promote that sinful behavior (or, on the flip side, he taught and wrote that an acceptable lifestyle was sinful before God) then he (1) violated his own integrity, (2) taught and promoted that others could violate their integrity if the situation demanded it, and (3) by invoking the word of God to defend his arguments (which he knew were false) he blasphemed the Holy Spirit.

What would we think of a preacher today who taught what he knew was a lie, taught others to practice the same lie, and invoked God’s name and God’s word to support his lies? I would call him a moral monster – a reprobate in the fullest sense of the term.

Why should we think the apostle Paul to be any less of a moral monster?

(BTW – if Paul was thoroughly ignorant of the error of his way the issue is not thereby resolved. It simply makes Paul to be, in the words of C.S. Lewis, a pathetic lunatic – someone who was greatly deluded and someone whose rantings are to be steadfastly avoided.)

Brothers and sisters, fellow exegetes and preachers, before we go around spouting off that Paul only taught that such-and-such behavior was right because the culture of his day demanded it; or that such-and-such behavior was sinful because the culture of his day demanded it even though he knew the opposite to be true let us stop and ask a critical question – What does that behavior turn the apostle Paul into?

I cannot accept the moral morass into which that argument places the apostle Paul. The apostle Paul may be many things: confusing, obtuse, opaque, bewildering, hyperbolic – just to name a few. But a moral monster?

Never.

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One More Time, With Emphasis (Scripture and Culture)

English: Snack Machine

English: Snack Machine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ray Stevens recorded a song that begins, “I’m not one to get all excited, I’m seldom tense and never uptight but there is one thing that really makes me mad…” Well, the song is about vending machines, and it is hysterical, but that is not the point of this entry…

This morning I found yet another thing that really makes me mad. The list is long and filled with items I am not necessarily proud of. The new addition? A combination of telling an elder IN A BIBLE CLASS that his interpretation of a passage of Scripture was wrong, while at the same time totally misinterpreting the disputed passage of Scripture yourself.

Here’s the set-up. The class was focused on the role of women in the church (part of a continuing series of lessons on various aspects of the teacher’s growth in the faith). Towards the very end of the class a question was raised, at which time an elder responded in a very direct, but non-confrontational way. It was at this point that a young man objected and said, in so many words, that he had studied the letter to the Corinthians “carefully” and that the elders interpretation was wrong. Emphatically wrong.

What was the young man’s basis for his all-fired surety? (cue the drum roll, please…..)

The young man was so sure the elder was wrong because (and I cannot quote exactly, but I can come pretty close…) “the culture in Corinth was such that if Paul had allowed the women to speak in a public assembly it would have upset those visiting the church services from the surrounding community and it would have hurt the message of Christ. So, rather than allow the women to speak and upset the culture, Paul told them to remain silent.”

To quote Ronald Reagan, “There you go again.” The old, “Paul was too timid to upset the local culture” argument. Without one single particle, noun or verb to defend his position he was utterly convinced that the elder in question was wrong, and with all of his, maybe, what, 10 or 15 years of “careful” (whatever that means) study he was able to dispense with thousands of years of consistent biblical exegesis.

I don’t care how “careful” you study a passage, if you study wrong you are not going to come up with a correct answer. So, one more time, with emphasis, let us look and see what the apostle Paul ACTUALLY WROTE about whether he was writing to not ruffle any cultural feathers or whether he was writing across all cultures with the same message:

1 Cor. 1:2 – Paul writes to the church of God in Corinth, and to all those everywhere who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Cor. 4:17 – Paul’s life (an example to the Corinthians) is in agreement with what he teaches everywhere and in every church.
1 Cor. 7:17 – Paul lays down a rule in Corinth that he lays down in all the churches.
1 Cor. 11:16 – Paul discusses the covering of women and states that he has no other practice, nor do the churches of God.
1 Cor. 14:33 – Paul says that, as in all the congregations of the saints, the women are to maintain silence in the assembly.

So, exactly which of these passages tells us that Paul was making a concession based on culture in Corinth? On any subject??

Or Rome, or Jerusalem, or Ephesus, or Philippi, or Colossae, or Crete?? Where did Paul cave in to cultural sensitivities? And where exactly are cultural sensitivities EVER in line with Christian thought and behavior before Christ is preached?

I’ve heard the “Paul did not want to offend the local culture” argument until I’m getting sick of it – where is even the smallest bit of textual evidence that Paul backed down on ANY point of doctrine because of cultural pressure? Some would argue that he did so in relation to slavery but I would argue even there that (1) Paul did not back down in the face of cultural pressure but rather confronted it in an effort to change it in a significant manner, and (2) the reality of slavery in Paul’s day was so different from our American understanding of slavery that we cannot even begin to discuss the issue intelligently unless we do a thorough study of slavery in the Roman empire and how it differed from the American experience.

So – yeah, I found another item to add to my list of things that “really make me mad.” I do not like it when elders are confronted in public, by a young man who was both disrespectful and who was totally wrong in his interpretation of the passage of Scripture. And I really, really, really am getting sick of people using an argument that (1) they have not studied through and (2) is completely without any textual evidence to support it.

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Male Spiritual Leadership, Discussion Classes and the “Silence of Women”

P question

P question (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An excellent question has been posed to me, and I would like to give it the full consideration it deserves. I will not repost the question in its entirety, but I hope to cover all that the respondent indicated were important issues. The question is one that is asked all across the country in differing degrees and with differing outcomes. Are women allowed to speak up in modern Bible classes? Are they allowed to ask questions? Are they allowed to make comments? And, should a woman wear a hat or a scarf over her head to show her submission to men?

 

First – where I stand generally. In regard to my last post I believe that all Scripture is inspired, not just the parts we like or can button-hole into interpretations that we like. I believe it is important to listen to ALL that a particular writer has to say, and I believe that it is critical to take grammatical and rhetorical cues into mind as we seek to understand what the author intended and the Spirit directed.

 

In regard to the questions being asked, I believe that Paul wrote the Corinthian letters as a continuation of what he taught everywhere and in every place (1 Cor. 4:17, 7:17, 11:16, 14:33, see also 1:2). I do not believe that 1 Cor. 11:1-16 is written with the situation of public worship in mind (the passage that discusses a woman praying or prophesying). I believe this because in 11:18, 20, and 33, and later in 14:23 and 26 Paul clearly uses the phrase “when you come together” or “when the church comes together.” So, I separate 11:1-16 from Paul’s later injunction in 14:34. Finally, in 14:26-35 Paul exhorts first tongue speakers, then prophets, and finally women to “be silent.” The first two are clarifications or limitations – if there is no one to interpret a special tongue or if there are additional revelations. However, in regard to the “women” there are no clarifications or limitations of previous permissions. Paul does not appear to be saying, “a certain group of women need to be silent, but other women are free to speak.” Paul does use an absolute word for “silent” with all three groups, but it is clear (at least to me) from the context he is not meaning “absolutely soundless” as the command to be silent is a clarification, not an absolute prohibition. In 1 Timothy 1:11 a different word is used for the silence of women and I think it provides clarity to the 1 Corinthians teaching. The word is “hesychia” and means respectful silence – not absolute soundlessness.

 

So, what about our modern Bible classes and the participation of women? I will answer not as an absolute authority, but only as one who is offering his own opinion, based on a careful study of this issue.

 

Cropped image of a Socrates bust for use in ph...

Cropped image of a Socrates bust for use in philosophy-related templates etc. Bust carved by by Victor Wager from a model by Paul Montford, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Western Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1.  Our modern Bible classes are nothing like the ancient worship setting. There was no “Bible class” separate and apart from “Worship.” That is a modern monstrosity. Be that as it may, we must deal with it or completely change our format, and I can guess how far that suggestion would go. So, in response to the above question I would ask the following clarification questions:

 

  • Is the class recognized as one which is “open” for discussion and comments? Or are questions (from either males or females) considered to be interruptions and challenges to the teacher’s authority?
  • Is the question asked or comment made by a female considered rude and interruptive, or is she genuinely asking for information?
  • Has the teacher (assuming it is a male) objected to the questions/comments of a female, or is the person objecting herself a female who resents another “uppity” female from asking questions?

I ask these questions because I have lead classes myself in which a woman tried to interject herself as the “teacher” and it was very uncomfortable for everyone involved. I have also seen women hijack classes that were being lead by men who were very young or inexperienced teachers and did not have either the courage or the wisdom to overcome the challenge. These situations are clearly wrong in my opinion, and would be wrong if the perpetrator was a male. To challenge a teacher in order to tear him down or to usurp his teaching authority in front of a class is just wrong – it is unchristian and beneath the dignity of a student.

 

On the other hand, in our culture today the asking of a question is not automatically assumed to be a challenge and a method of usurping authority. In the Socratic method of teaching, the “instructor” lead by asking questions – by “drawing out” the correct answer from his students. Thus, for a student to “ask a question” in a Socratic sense is to challenge authority, and believe me, I have had plenty of these type questions both from males and females. (There is a manner in which you can ask a question and convey the attitude that you believe the instructor is a total and complete idiot.) There is also a perfectly innocent method of asking questions – to seek information. I personally do not object to, and often very much appreciate, these types of questions from any student.

 

In a “worship” experience I have an opposite conclusion. From 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy and incidentally from passages in Ephesians and Colossians, I believe males are to be the leaders in a worship setting. Here is where I believe 1 Cor. 14 is distinct from 1 Cor. 11. A woman may pray or prophesy (although I have a MUCH different understanding of “prophecy” than modern egalitarians!!), but not in a setting in which males are present. If a male is present, HE is to be the leader and voice of teaching and preaching authority.

 

2.  What about the head covering? In looking at 1 Corinthians 11 it seems obvious to me that Paul is discussing how a person reveals submission to his or her “head.” In that culture women did so by wearing head coverings. Today most women do not. So, how do women today demonstrate respectful submission? I believe that answer to that is cultural – “when in Rome do as the Romans.” Are you in a location where head coverings are expected? Then by all means follow that practice. Should all men wear a tie and a coat when serving on the Lord’s Table or when publicly praying or leading singing? If that is the common understanding, then yes, by all means buy a tie and wear a sport coat. Do bib-overalls suffice? Then wash your overalls and wear a nice shirt.

 

A very important note needs to be interjected here. In my graduate study I read an article that discussed 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and for the life of me I cannot remember the title of the article or the name of the author. However, the gist of the article was that Paul was NOT specifically addressing the head covering of women in this section, but he was rather condemning the practice of pagan male priests to have their heads completely covered with a heavy cowl as they “officiated” at their pagan sacrifices. Thus, what we have seen as being directed against women, was actually directed to men, and the reference to women was simply an aside – Paul commenting on his own argument with an oblique reference to women’s head coverings. That article had a profound influence on the way I interpret this passage – although obviously not enough for me to remember who wrote it.* (By the way – I have forgotten my own wedding anniversary, so that tells you how good my memory is).

 

I will say that I have had women in the congregations that I serve wear head coverings at every service. They did not demand it of other women, but quietly followed their own conscience.

 

So, to the one who asked the specific question I will advise this – speak to the teacher of the class and/or your leadership. In your setting is the class clearly demarcated from the worship assembly? Does your leadership object to a female asking questions? Is the class open for anyone to do so? Or is it understood that only males can ask questions? Are the questions considered “Socratic” in the sense that they are viewed as interruptive and authoritative? And, regarding the woman that confronted you, did she do so in a spirit of humility, seeking your best interest, or did she attempt to steamroll you and back you into a corner? I have discovered that very often it is the staunchest “defenders of the faith” that need the greatest reminder about humility, and the willingness of the leader to wash the feet of those whom he/she leads.

 

*To the best of my foggy memory the article was written by Richard Oster. However, it could have been Abraham Malherbe. It actually could turn out to be neither. The title had something to do with head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11. I have not had the chance to locate that article, although I would dearly love to get my hands on it again.

 

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Ephesians: Theology and Poetry Combined

English: page of the codex with the text of th...

English: page of the codex with the text of the Ephesians 1:12-19 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last semester I was privileged to teach a course on the book of Revelation, so readers of this blog were treated to several entries either focused on or inspired by the book of Revelation. This semester the assignments take me to the historical books of the Old Testament (Joshua – Esther) and the prison and pastoral letters of Paul. Thus, this semester will probably see quite a few entries related to the Old Testament prophets, Judges and  Kings, and also the letters of Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon, 1-2 Timothy and Titus.

Hence my thoughts today on the book of Ephesians. Few books, if any, in the New Testament can claim a poetic beauty equal to Ephesians (obviously Philippians 2 comes close, but that is another day). For three extended chapters Paul writes some of the most elevated and theologically profound material to be found anywhere.

Three things stand out to me about the opening chapters of Ephesians. First is the phrase “in Christ” or its cognates (in Him, etc.) Paul wants his readers to know that it is only through our relationship with Jesus that we have the blessings that he discusses in this book. That pretty much destroys the “all roads lead to heaven” argument that I hear so much of these days. No. There is only one “road” that leads to heaven, and that is the path that Jesus opened up for us through his blood, shed on the cross.

Two, the riches of the blessings of Jesus are to be found only in the church. The church is truly the main focus of the first three chapters of the book. All who are “in Christ” are also “in the church” and it is the church that is the final revelation of all the wisdom and goodness of God. I know that sounds so horribly exclusionary. But it is pure Pauline doctrine, and it is found all throughout the New Testament, not just in Ephesians (the other prison letters are replete with the same claim).

Three, nowhere in the New Testament is the love and plan of God more beautifully described than the book of Ephesians. This message must be preached without fear or favor or the “gospel,” the good news of Jesus Christ, is robbed of its power. Without the first three chapters of the book of Ephesians it is possible to turn Christianity into another human religion on a par with Buddhism or Hinduism. It is possible (although, I might add, extremely difficult) to turn Jesus into just another prophet, just another martyr for his beliefs. But, by reading the gospel stories in light of, and in connection with, the letter to the Ephesians the entirety of God’s divine plan becomes clear. And, when we realize that the first readers of the letter to the Ephesians may not have had one of the four gospel accounts, this letter then may be described as Paul’s shorter gospel of Jesus Christ (the “long version” would be Romans, of course).

I encourage you to feast again upon this short little letter. What poetry. What theology. What a masterpiece!

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Which Came First, the Chicken, the Egg, the Church or the Canon?

Codex Bobbiensis – The last page of the “Gospe...

Codex Bobbiensis – The last page of the “Gospel of Mark” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another (set, as they are kind of all related) of the penetrating questions that my benevolent antagonist posed to me was this:

How do you know the Protestant Bible is inspired?  How do you know the canon is closed?  …   Why aren’t the earliest scripture copies under your sect’s protection?

Let me begin by saying I am the wrong guy to be hitting with these heavyweight questions. But, as Andy Griffith once said concerning football, I have studied on it, and I think I can point my readers in a healthy direction. My answer will take the structure of several bullet points for clarity.

1.  The history of the development of the Canon of Scripture is at the same time rich, diverse, fascinating, and at times confusing. The best I can do is to direct the interested reader to the best in “recent” scholarship regarding this topic. The most erudite book on the subject is Bruce M. Metzter, The Canon of Scripture: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). A very valuable, yet probably a little more for the common man is F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988). Yet even more directed to the common man, and specifically for church classes, is Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible 3rd Ed., Revised and Expanded, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003). All of these books cover the same material, to greater or lesser degrees of academic precision, and I highly recommend obtaining all three books if you want a well rounded discussion.

2.  I do not believe that one “church” created the canon. I believe that God created the canon of Scripture, and that many scholars and theologians, over several hundred years beginning with the original audiences and continuing up through the 4th century, recognized those books that were to be considered inspired and authoritative. There is a big difference between creating something and recognizing that which has been created.

3.  I do not accept that there is a “Protestant” Bible and a “Catholic” Bible. In terms of authority and “dogma,” the same 66 books are used by both the Roman Catholic church and most “Protestant” churches. The main difference (as I understand it, and I may be wrong here) is that the Roman Catholic church also includes books that are useful for edification that many Protestant churches do not use. These books are referred to as the “Apocrypha.” There is yet a third distinction, that of “Deuterocanonical books” that are even outside this middle distinction by the Roman Catholic church. [Note: please read the comments below, as a friend accurately challenged my nomenclature here. I apologize to those who clearly know better.]

4.  I accept by faith that the Bible, or the the 66 books universally accepted by virtually every Christian group, is inspired because those books either indicate that they come from the mouth or pen of an inspired author, or another book within those 66 books makes reference to them in such a way as to indicate inspiration. The acceptance of this witness was done within a very short time of their original creation, and so, as someone who is separated by some 2,000 – 4,000 years from the original composition I must accept and trust the guidance of those who have recognized those writings as inspired and who have collected and treasured those inspired writings.

5.  I hold that the canon of Scripture is closed because, once again, the witness of the earliest writers is that after a certain point (the death of the last apostles, to be sure), no other writings were ever elevated to the status of “Scripture.” Many were treasured (the “Shepherd” of Hermas, the Didache, the writings of various early church fathers), and some of those were even accorded the status of Scripture in certain parts of the Christian world. However, for reasons both simple and complex those locally accepted writings were ultimately viewed as valuable, but not inspired Scripture, by the overwhelming majority of the church leaders. Therefore, since the end of the first century, no writing has ever been accorded the value of “Scripture” by universal acclaim.

6.  It does not bother me one bit that the earliest manuscripts of the 66 books of the Bible are not under the control of my “sect.” (I don’t own one, by the way, but I get my questioner’s drift.) The manuscripts that we have (over 5,000 of the various New Testament writings alone) are all safely housed where scholars of all different beliefs can study them. This is how it should be, and no other “religion” can even come close to this type of openness and transparency. If it was proven that my beliefs depended on one single manuscript (or even one family of manuscripts) I would seriously question that belief. Hence my largest and most insurmountable disagreement with groups such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The manuscripts which contain the documents that I consider to be Scripture are open to everyone to study – and I am secure in the belief that if any major changes must be made to that corpus of documents that such decisions will be justified by a large and diverse number of scholars from a wide variety of theological belief systems.

So, in a nut-shell, my beliefs in the collection of writings we call the “Bible” are based on a history of recognition and proclamation that dates back at least as far as Moses and Joshua, and orally even further back than that. Outside of the proclamations within those sacred writings themselves I have no immediate knowledge of the creation or transmission of those writings – but my faith does not depend upon my own ability to verify every single truth claim made in Scripture. I trust in the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit, and just as I can believe in many truths although not independently verifiable by my own intellect, I trust they are true because other individuals who DO have that knowledge can verify them, and such has been the case for the Bible for well over 3,000 years now.

This has just been the “Confession of Faith” of just one individual, and in no way to I intend my words to be universally held by every member of the Church of Christ. But, I hope they are helpful, and if so, then all glory to God. If anyone has any additional questions I would love to hear them and perhaps I can be more specific in a future post.

Once again, I thank my conversation partner, and I hope I have treated his question fairly. I trust he will respond in kind if I have not.

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Bible Reading Schedule – 2014

KJV Bible

KJV Bible (Photo credit: knowhimonline)

Every year one of the more viewed posts on this site is a recommendation for a daily Bible reading schedule. I think most people are looking for a .pdf they can download or print out, and if that is what they are looking for, they will be disappointed when they arrive here. In past years I have discussed one of my favorite schedules of daily Bible reading, and this year I want to discuss another. However, this time it will cost you just a little bit of money.

The method, or schedule, that I want to discuss this year is one that is published by the Moravian Brethren and can be ordered through their website, www.moravian.org. There are several different editions to choose from, from a plain little book with the daily texts and prayer printed out, to my favorite edition, a spiral bound journal that has the texts, the prayer, and a short space at the bottom for reflections or journaling.

I was initially introduced to the Moravian reading schedule through the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He used these readings for his daily Bible study, and frequently published the Scripture readings for his students and seminarians to read and meditate upon. I was curious, and with a little bit of research was able to find the website and ordered my first copy about four years ago. Since that time I have used them, either in part or completely, for my devotional reading and I have found I truly enjoy the Moravian schedule.

A brief word of explanation – the daily Bible readings from Monday through Saturday are divided into three sections: a Psalm, an Old Testament reading and a New Testament reading. (The Sunday readings will be discussed below).  The readings are scheduled so that the entire Bible is read through once every two years. This is quite a change for me, as previously the least that I was reading through my Bible was twice in one year (see my reading schedules for 2012 and 2013). The slower pace means that the passages being read are much smaller, and that allows for more time to meditate and absorb the content of the reading. The selection of a Psalm, an O.T. reading and N.T. reading also allows the reader to have some diversity – some familiarity along with some unfamiliarity, as well as forcing the reader to work through the entire text of the Bible, albeit more slowly.

Any and every Bible reading schedule is created by man, and as such is going to have weaknesses and foibles. There is no “perfect” Bible reading schedule – the best one is the one that works the best for you, whether it is to read a verse, a chapter, or an entire book every day. As much as I like the Moravian reading schedule I am just a little disenchanted with some of the breaks in the readings. I feel like some readings need to go another few verses, or perhaps end a few verses earlier. Particularly in the Psalms I note that some are divided in strange places, or a Psalm that could be easily read in one sitting is divided into two parts. However, this can be seen as necessary in terms of dividing the 150 Psalms into two years worth of readings. So I simply read the Psalm more than once (all the way through on successive days) or if I note a problematic division in the reading I simply read ahead a few verses, or stop a few verses short of the printed schedule and make an appropriate note on the next day’s reading schedule. Honestly – if you cannot figure this out on your own maybe you should not be reading the Bible on your own anyway.

Each Sunday the readings come from the Revised Common Lectionary, and for those of you who do not know what the lectionary is, it is a collection of readings that allow for most of the Bible to be read through (although not anywhere close to sequentially) in a three year period. Each Sunday there is a reading from the Psalms, the Old Testament, a gospel, and a reading from a New Testament letter or the books of Acts or Revelation. For most of the year there is a common theme, either obvious or somewhat more disguised, found in each of the four readings. On some occasions there is no related them or connection between the readings at all.

The Moravian reading schedule also contains readings for “high” church days, such as feast and fast days, and for days that have special meaning to the Moravian church. You can read or omit these selections according to your personal preference.

I had originally intended to write this post about a month ago so readers who wanted to could order their copy and have it available by January 1, 2014. Perhaps that is still possible even at this late date, but even if your copy does not arrive until after the new year, you can still benefit greatly from this reading schedule. 2014 begins the reading cycle again, so we will begin reading with Genesis 1, Psalm 1 and Matthew 1.

Blessings on your daily Bible reading in 2014.

Make Yourself Strong in Kindness

English: Strength & Conditioning Suite

English: Strength & Conditioning Suite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s excursion in daily Bible reading brought me to 2 Timothy 2:1. As I am reading in this cycle through the God’s Word Translation, I came across this reading:

My Child, find your source of strength in the kindness of Christ Jesus.

Not remembering ever having heard this verse phrased this way my figurative ears were pricked immediately. The God’s Word Translation is more of a dynamic translation, meaning that the translators focused on translating the thought of each portion of the text rather than slavishly following a word-for-word translation, so I asked the questions, “Are they accurate here?” “Have they taken extreme liberties with the literal text?” “Why is this reading so different from some of the more formal, or word for word translations?”

I am far from a scholar of the Greek New Testament, but a little research brought me to a rather firm conviction: this translation of this verse is very appropriate, and very powerful.

To cut to the chase, the key word here in this verse is transliterated, endunamou. Both my Analytical Lexicon and my Parsing Guide identify this word as a 2nd person singular, imperative middle verb (I don’t truly trust my own parsing skills). So, in layman’s terms, this is an imperative, a command, but it is in a middle construction – that is it is an action that a person does to or for himself or herself. The basic meaning of the verb form from which this verb is derived is to make strong. Therefore, the command Paul gives Timothy is that he (Timothy) is to make himself strong.

But here is the kicker – how is Timothy supposed to make himself strong? The older (and many of the newer) translations translate the next important word as “grace.” So, for example, the RSV translates, “You, then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That is basically how I remember this verse. There is certainly nothing wrong in that translation.

However, the force that the GWT brings out is that the verb is actually something that a person is to do, to engage in, to make oneself stronger. The RSV  simply as a form of the English verb “to be.” It is one thing to say, “be strong” and another thing to say, “make yourself strong” or even “make yourself stronger.” And, the GWT adds a flavor to the word “grace” that, in my most humble opinion, really brings out the irony, or the paradox of the command Paul is giving Timothy. Paul is telling Timothy to “make himself strong” or to “strengthen himself” in the kindness of Jesus.

A presentation edition of a GOD'S WORD bible

A presentation edition of a GOD’S WORD bible (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, one might quibble that the word kindness is borrowing too much from the concept of grace. But I would counter that “grace” has become such a loaded, and very often twisted, religious concept that sometimes a synonym is valuable, provided it is not too far afield of the word’s basic meaning. I happen to really like this phraseology – “Timothy, make yourself stronger by remembering and patterning your life on the kindness of Jesus” (Paul Smith paraphrase).

Americans have, perhaps to overgeneralize, a John Wayne theory of strength. Get the most people, arm yourself with the biggest guns, build the biggest bunker, obtain the most and the highest educational degrees, write the most books, attend the most conferences. Each of these makes you “stronger” than someone who has fewer people, smaller guns, a tar-paper shack, a high school education, who is illiterate, or who refuses to pay extortionist fees to attend conferences. How many times have you been encouraged to “make yourself stronger” by practicing kindness? Or grace, even?

This is why I love reading from different translations on a regular basis. We become comfortable with phrases that become set in our minds, and very often we skip over very important topics simply because our eyes, and our ears, become numb to the words we read or hear. A new translation causes us to hear the common in uncommon ways. Sometimes these translations are not so good, and sometimes they are very good.

I think we need to do more preaching about making ourselves stronger by lifting the weights of kindness. Not just any humanistic, “do-gooder” kindness, however. We must be limited to the “acts of kindness” or the “grace” that is in Christ Jesus. But that should give us enough to work on while we are on this earth.

“Strength does not come from physical capacity...

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” (Photo credit: katerha)

I think that is a gym at which we all need to buy a membership.

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