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?
[Opinion disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this piece are mine and mine alone, and do not reflect the views of anyone that I am associated with - and that includes my wife, child, employers, my four cats, my rambunctious puppy or my very limited number of friends - or at least the friends who considered themselves my friends before they read this blog. My language is hyperbolic and some might consider it extreme. I intentionally did so for a purpose. I just want to make that point perfectly clear. In my next post I will return to a "quieter" and more analytical response. Today the right brain, tomorrow the left.]
There have been a flurry of “Christian” or biblical-themed movies hit the big screen in recent years, and especially in recent months. Just a few that come to mind are “The Passion of the Christ,” “Fireproof,” a somewhat lesser release called “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry,” the most recent additions “God’s Not Dead,” and “Noah” and the soon to be released “Son of God” and “Heaven Is For Real.” I know I am missing many, but these are the ones that jump to my mind.
“The Passion of the Christ” and the recent release of “Noah” have generated the most discussion, mostly because they were big budget, big name releases that were heavily advertised and were, in different ways, very controversial. “The Passion of the Christ” was controversial because of the persona of Mel Gibson, hardly a choir boy, who pushed the movie from conception to completion. It was also brutally graphic – some reviewers felt it was almost obscenely so. “Noah” is controversial because (a) the only relation it has to the biblical story is the namesake and a lot of water and (b) I believe the producers and marketers of the movie wanted it to be controversial so they could sell more tickets.
In my opinion, many, though not all, “Christian” themed movies are just bad – some wretchedly so. I believe this first because of the (un)theology involved. Others suffer from low budgets and poor acting, directing and other technical aspects. Some are just so blatantly transparent that they reek of condescension and hyper-morality. Once again, in my opinion these movies are not just bad – they are bad in epic proportions – dreadfully, wretchedly, horrifically, insultingly bad.
So why are these movies so popular? Why do otherwise sane and believable ministers and bloggers scream “You HAVE to go see this movie” in bold letters and with three exclamation marks at the end? The obvious answer is that perhaps they have seen the movie and they genuinely like it. Movies are like anything else – my tastes are not everyone else’s tastes. What is garbage to me is a diamond to someone else. So, while you may think a particular movie is the greatest thing since “Gone With the Wind” I will politely say that hitting my thumb with a hammer is a far more enjoyable experience than watching it.
But I would like to suggest that there is another reason why any movie that has a vague “Christian” message is hyped so relentlessly, regardless of whether there are any artistic or theological reasons for doing so (or for avoiding it, for that matter.) I believe that most “Christian” movies are hyped and are popular with “Christian” audiences because that demographic is so starving for anything that even resembles “secular” themed movies that the Christian audience will simply neutralize any intellectual or critical component of their thinking because they want to go watch a movie that is one of “ours.” We have bought into the concept of “group-think” to the point that we cannot criticize or reject any product that has a “Christian” message because we would be guilty of shooting ourselves in the foot. I have been more than mildly amused with the fact that the greatest amount of negativity regarding the release of “Noah” is NOT directed at the movie (contrary to what some may think), but the real vitriol has been reserved for those reviewers (Christian or secular) who happen to criticize the movie on any of its major faults. It is “biblical,” it is at least tangentially related to God and faith (how much is dependent upon the viewer) and so the movie and the ones who produced it are viewed as being simply beyond criticism. “Hey Christians, we made a movie for you so shell out your money and keep your mouth shut.”
I guess I am more disappointed in the ones who should really know better – the ministers and church leaders who should (one would hope) have a greater grasp of theology and apologetics. I have to say in all honesty that the entire premise of “God’s Not Dead” is so incredibly laughable that I honestly wonder what anyone related to the film was thinking when they put the storyline together. A professor wasting an already limited amount of class time to having a debate with a student? A student getting away with yelling at a professor in front of a class? And really, how many professors would waste their time forcing their students to sign an atheist manifesto like “God is dead”? Now – I am well aware that atheistic professors will openly belittle and ridicule Christianity. But, come on people! Sometimes our spiritual xenophobia is so extreme that it borders on psychotic illness. I have agnostic/atheistic students in my classes who (a) would never set foot in a movie theatre with such a blatantly condescending title as that movie and (b) even if they did they would laugh out loud at the ridiculous setting of the movie. And they would definitely not appreciate the characterization of the professor in the movie.
Brothers and sisters, if we want to attract an agnostic or atheistic audience and honestly engage them in a meaningful discussion, insulting their intelligence is NOT the way to go about it. If we want to show that the message of Christianity is superior to that of the atheist, we should portray the atheist as the atheists or agnostics that I know – honest, kind, logical thinking people who are open to the person of Jesus but who have been led astray or even brutalized by a false manifestation of Christianity. (Incidentally – the movie itself violates a major rule of logic. In a proper philosophy class you would never be allowed to create a “straw man” type of opponent, which is exactly what the professor in the movie becomes. We think that because the “straw man” was defeated all similar arguments are thereby defeated. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the depiction is inherently misleading and therefore unethical.)
But these movies are NOT made for atheists or agnostics, they are made for “Christians,” because “God” or some biblical character’s name is in the title and they are supposed to “prove” that God is not dead or that he did thus and such thousands of years ago. They are designed to reinforce our already solid convictions. So “Christians” are shelling out dollars by the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, and no one is asking the 8 most basic, fundamental questions a Christian should ask about movies such as these – is this movie true? Is it honorable? Is it just? Is it pure? Is it lovely? Is it gracious? Is it excellent? Is it worthy of praise? (Philippians 4:8). If it fails on a majority of these questions then we should not support it. (I would also argue that these questions should be asked of ANY movie we think about seeing!)
C.S. Lewis is reported to have said that the world does not need more Christian literature. What the world needs, he said, was more literature produced by Christians that was excellent literature – good, solid, captivating stories that were told in a brilliant manner. I agree wholeheartedly with Lewis. What we need are wonderful movies, well written, beautifully acted and produced, and marketed not as “Christian” apologetics, but simply as captivating, worthwhile movies the whole family can view and enjoy.
And, maybe, if we did that, we might actually be able to engage our agnostic or atheistic friends in some honest and open discussion.
Anyone familiar with the 1970’s British hit “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” will recognize that tag line. In the 30 minute shows that aired on our PBS station that line would occasionally pop up to signal a shift from one really weird skit to another. That was the thing about Monty Python. Nothing was ever “normal.” You went from completely different to completely different.
I am not going to state my age (because, hopefully, it will be continually changing) but I will say that in my lifetime the moral culture of the United States has changed more radically than during any equivalent time period. I am not speaking in terms of technology, as there have been other generations in which technology has advanced more than during my lifetime. (I think of my grandfathers who were born before Lindberg and who watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.) What I am talking about is in relation to what is considered right and wrong. I came from the time period in which Mary Ann had to keep her belly button covered to appease the censors. Rhett Butler was almost black-balled because he said he really did not care. Lucy and Ricky had to sleep in twin size beds separated by a night-stand.
Today, a person is considered a bigot if he or she thinks that marriage should be defined as an intimate relationship between a man and a woman. I have to take my shoes off at the airport because some crazy might try to blow the plane up with a bomb in his sneaker. I dread the month of April knowing that someone is going to shoot up a school, a movie theater, or bomb an athletic event.
I know there was a huge shift in morality centered around the major wars – the Civil, the World War to end all World Wars and the World War after that one, the Korean “Conflict” and the Vietnam “Police Action.” But, thinking in terms of the general public, the “man on the street,” has there been a more radical change in the mores and values of the American public than in the past 50-60 years?
Just think of it – we are now actually debating what the concept of “Freedom of Religious Belief” means. When I was born we were only concerned about freedom from ring-around-the-collar.
What does the future hold? Who knows – I cannot see it getting any better for persons of conservative religious or moral belief. You cannot put toothpaste back in the tube once it has been squirted out. Mary Ann’s bare mid-riff has morphed into Miley Cyrus’ bare, um, well you get the idea. Unless there is a cataclysmic change in society’s perception of “right” and “wrong” I can only picture things getting worse.
Does that mean we give up, throw in the towel, wave the white flag? No, never. But it does mean we must learn how to challenge the changing moral landscape a lot more intelligently than we have for the past half-century. It means, oddly, that we are going to have to go back to a way of thinking far more similar to the first century than the 21st century. Jesus, Peter, Paul and the early church fathers lived in a world where homosexuality was openly practiced, women were treated like chattel to be bought and sold, and infants were routinely allowed to die if the father rejected them. Yup, kind of sounds like the LGBT, pornographic sex-trafficking, and Planned Parenthood culture we live in today.
We can no longer rely on our supposed “Christian” foundation. If we ever had one it is quickly disappearing in our collective rear-view mirror. We must own up to the fact that biblical standards of morality will be viewed as “abnormal” and even bigoted and hateful. What once was normal is not normal anymore.
“And now for something completely different…”
What is going on in the United States?
- A teenage girl is declared brain dead, the hospital begs the family to be able to remove “life” support and the family refuses.
- A pregnant woman is declared brain dead, the family begs the hospital to remove “life” support and the hospital refuses.
- It seems every week some sociopath shoots up a school, mall, or place of business.
- “Transgender” children have won the right to use the bathroom facility of their choice, regardless of their birth gender, and regardless of the objections of parents of children who must share the facility with such “transgendered” but biologically dissimilar classmates.
- A groups of homosexuals who “only want to be treated equally” stage a mass marriage ceremony to the song “Same Love” during the Grammy Award presentations.
- Our Nobel Peace Prize winning President and his administration are guilty of the killing of thousands of innocent civilians in military drone strikes.
Many “conservative” Christians are asking how these things could happen in their “Christian” nation.
I can’t say I know for sure, but as one who is rarely without an opinion, I’ll give you my two-bits worth:
It is because we either allowed it to happen, or actively promoted the environment that allowed it to happen.
“Oh, but we are different” you say, “We are Christians and we honor and worship God!”
- Yea, we worship God by supporting the same educational and governmental bodies that dictate that little girls cannot safely and privately use a “Girls” restroom because it is offensive to a “transgendered” little “boy.”
- And we worship God by supporting and promoting a medical establishment that has so blurred the lines between life and death that our medical professionals and judicial elites cannot even agree as to when a body is “dead” and should be removed from “life” support. And when you throw in the ethically challenged and morally suspect issue of organ and tissue “donation” the question becomes even more murky.
- And we worship God by holding 2nd Amendment rallies and “God Bless America” parties and we pray for this God to fight the battles for the Red, White and Blue regardless of the issues that caused our government to send those troops into battle in the first place.
- In other words, we worship God, not by refusing to participate in this broken down, sin-sick and decaying process we call “culture,” but by actively promoting it, working for it, voting for it, and by making sure it continues by virtue of our monetary contributions and our devotion.
With worshippers like that, why does God need any enemies?
As I study the Scriptures, (especially the New Testament writings but even in the Old Testament) I see a much different picture. I see a people dedicated to God, challenged by that God not to accept or to participate in their decadent culture, but to transform and renew it. I see Abraham being told that by his faith he would bless “all peoples.” I see Moses being given a law that was culturally transformative – beginning with the nature of the God who gave it and ending with a “promised land” that would be a blessing to all people. I see a small but dedicated group of social outcasts, called “Christians,” who loved and cared for the sick and dying people in their towns and cities, and for the sick and dying culture that seemed to be bent on destroying God’s most precious creation – human beings.
I’ve read the “we have to be a part of culture in order to change culture” arguments until I’m cross-eyed, but I still don’t get it. How do you change the sin of drunkenness by participating and promoting the consumption of alcohol? How do you change the sin of pornography by participating and promoting the degradation of human sexuality? How can you change the warping of human sexuality by accepting and promoting the brokenness of those who refuse to acknowledge the difference between male and female? And in the name of the Holy God, how can you change the culture of violence and killing by promoting the militaristic and violence oriented culture of guns, bombs, tanks, and missiles? How can we eliminate racism, greed, and hate by being hateful, greedy racists?
I’ve read the Bible through several times, and I still cannot find that verse that says, “Be a part of culture and do what your culture tells you to do until that culture finally comes around to seeing that it is wrong.” I have, however, found many passages that reveal the world will hate God’s people, that if God’s people are faithful to him they will often find themselves in lion’s dens, prisons, and under the executioner’s blade. I read over and over that God sets the standards for human behavior, not the government of one country or the constitution of that government. I read that God tells his people to “follow me” even if, and especially when, that path leads through the valley of the shadow of death.
If this is a Christian nation, if this place is just one election away from utopia, if we can fix our problems with one more war or one more law or one more talk radio host, then you can have it. It holds no joy or interest for me.
As I read it, I am to pray thus:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9-10, ESV, emphasis mine)
I do not see anything about supporting a rabid nationalistic militarism. I do not read anything about excusing or protecting sociopathic miscreants who kill simply for the thrill of killing. I do not read anything about letting those who reject God’s plan for love and reproduction feel that they are welcome to enter into a church that wears the name of God or his Son and promote a lifestyle which has been specifically condemned by a Holy God.
But, here is the kicker – if you are a “conservative” Christian chances are you have no one to blame for the current state of affairs other than yourself.
And until we can come to grips with that truth, we will never be able to address the resulting chaos…
(Author’s and editor’s note: the young lady who was declared dead may have been a pre-teen; my apologies if I “misremembered.” Also, heartfelt condolences to both families. These are heart-wrenching stories and have no easy solutions. Such is the fog of modern ethics).
Hmm. Never had to deal with this before, but after several unpublishable comments were delivered the other day I thought maybe I would explain why some comments show up and others don’t.
First, I love conversations. I love the give and take of blogs such as this. I comment on other blogs occasionally, and really enjoy hearing from my readers.
Or, at least for the majority of comments.
Here is a list of suggestions that folks may want to follow if they want to join in a conversation with me, correct me, or just add their two cents worth:
1. Keep it classy. Make personal attacks and the blogger will more than likely delete your comment without it ever seeing the light of day. I personally do not mind disagreement, but attack me (or, especially one of my other readers) and to the trashcan your comment goes.
2. Make your point without vulgar, juvenile language. Potty mouths are banished forever.
3. If you are going to disagree with me, at least make clear to me the basis on which you disagree with me. If you disagree with me because you accept the Book of Mormon or because you do not believe that Paul’s writings were inspired, then fine, disagree with me. I certainly make no claims for inspiration. But this is a forum concerning all things pertaining to Christian theology, not mythology or 19th century fiction.
4. Like most other bloggers, I own my comments but no one else’s. So, if someone is going to get upset about something that is written on this blog I want them to get upset with what I can control, not what I cannot control. If you “flame” someone or some group, especially violating points one and/or two above, then regardless of how pertinent your comment may be, I am going to delete it.
5. Even if I accept one or more of your previous comments, if in a later comment you get a little unruly I may choose to have you stick your nose in a corner until you can learn to play nice.
One personal belief that I have is that honest, deep-felt convictions can be expressed in honorable ways, even if the passion behind those statements is clearly expressed. As I have said before, an opinion not worth defending is not worth having. I know I have written about some very controversial issues and that many people disagree with me. If I am wrong then I want to be taught, I want to be corrected, so that I can correct my own false teachings and “move on to maturity” as the author of Hebrews would say it. So, I do not fear disagreement nor an honest exchange of opinions and interpretations.
But, let’s be clear about one thing: just because you hit the “submit” button does not mean I have to hit the “approve” button.
In regard to this blog, just as one rejected commenter needs to deal with some serious issues regarding human sexuality; another really, really, really needs to hone up on his/her understanding of church/ecclesial/textual history. Ignorance of an academic topic can be excused – absolute and repeated stupidity cannot be.
Note: I wrote the piece with the above title as an expression of some very deeply held feelings.
I was direct, confrontational, and perhaps “hyperbolic.”
Believe me, it cuts both ways. I have been accused of no longer being a Christian simply because I believe God gave the role of spiritual leadership to men.
But quite frankly I am tired of having to defend my own feelings. I never should have hit the “publish” button.
I deleted the post.
A word about surrender. Surrender does not mean that you fight to the last drop of blood of the last man and then call it quits. That is called, “being defeated.” The only way surrender can actually be defined as surrender is when the person, or persons, doing the surrendering actually have the capacity to keep on fighting, and possibly of even overcoming, their enemy. Surrender is taking your entirely healthy team and walking off the field in the third quarter when you are only down by a field goal. Walking off the field when you are down by 7 touchdowns, there is only three seconds left in the game and you are down to 8 players is not surrender. Let’s be honest about our terms.
A word about apocalyptic. An apocalypse is a written account of a special vision given to a messenger of God relating to an explanation of the reality of human events as seen from heaven’s perspective. It also contains a message about future judgment – of reward for the obedient faithful and punishment for the rebellious guilty. Apocalypses were written to encourage the faithful to keep the faith, to look at things from heaven’s perspective and not from the perspective of the world. Apocalypses are ultimately about victory. God is in control, even death cannot change the eventual outcome of the game.
So, why speak of an apocalyptic surrender? Simply this – the only way to achieve victory from the point of view of heaven is to quit playing the game from the world’s point of view.
In other words, surrender whether it looks like you might still win or you are hopelessly overmatched. Because, ultimately, if you win according to the world’s rules you will lose according to God’s rules.
I think the church needs to learn this. I think the church needs to learn how to surrender. We need one huge, global act of apocalyptic surrender.
We need to quit playing the game according to the rules of the world. We need to quit trying to make the church more pleasant, more attractive, more relevant, more beneficial, more consumer friendly. The one who established the church died on a cross, for crying out loud. And we are trying to “attract” people by making that cross – more attractive??
We need to quit playing power games. The world will not be transformed by political machinations. We can legislate until we are blue in the face and all we will accomplish is a deeper shade of blue. Jesus surrendered every form of power except the power of selfless surrender. In other words, Jesus embodied apocalyptic surrender. He looked at victory from God’s point of view, and transformed the concept of power to the idea of submission.
We need to quit playing public relations games. We need to regain the moral capacity to call sin, sin. We need to realize, and confess, that we are sinners – every stinking wretched one of us. We cannot be forgiven until we are condemned, and we cannot be condemned if we have eliminated the concept of guilt. But, when we say that sin exists and that we are guilty of sins as well as every other person is guilty of sins we violate every principle of public relations. Public relations demands that we whitewash over our own sins (to create and maintain a healthy “self-esteem”) and to whitewash over the sins of others (to create and maintain healthy inter-personal relationships.)
Apocalyptic surrender demands that we have a complete reevaluation of our behavior. We, as disciples of Christ, need to change not only the way we act, but even the way we think. In apocalyptic thinking losing is winning and winning is losing. We become victorious through surrender. The Lion of the tribe of Judah is the Lamb who, though slain, stands as conqueror.
I must admit, I’m not exactly sure how to do this. I am far too much a creature of the modern world. I just know that I need to quit. I need to surrender.
And at the end of the journey
We shall bow down on bended knee,
And with the angels up in heaven
We’ll sing the song of victory.
(from the song, “We Shall Assemble”)
Occasionally I get a song stuck in my head. Sometimes it drives me batty – at others times I rather enjoy singing the song over and over again.
Today I have one of my favorite songs on endless loop. It is, “We Shall Assemble”
We shall assemble on the mountain
We shall assemble at the throne
With humble hearts into his presence
We bring an offering of song
Glory and honor and dominion
Unto the Lamb unto the King
Oh hallelujah, hallelujah
We sing the song of the redeemed
And at the end of the journey
We shall bow down on bended knee
and with the angels up in heaven
We’ll sing the song of victory
Glory and honor and dominion
Unto the Lamb unto the king
Oh hallelujah, hallelujah
We sing the song of the redeemed.
I’ve often said that we sing a much better theology than we preach, and I think this song is worthy of that praise. This is a true hymn, a song of praise and glory to God. So many modern “praise” songs are nothing but icky, narcissistic collections of lyrical drivel. It takes some forethought and some musical know-how to create a song that has both theological and musical punch. I think “We Shall Assemble” is just one of those songs, and if you are around me very much chances are you will hear me sing or hum it quite a bit.
I’m personally looking forward to singing that song of victory…
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.
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.
I think that is a gym at which we all need to buy a membership.
A funny thing happened on the way to the blogosphere recently. It seems that a large number of religious bloggers have come down with traditio-phobia. This disease is the irrational fear and rejection of anything having to do with the spiritual tradition in which they were raised. Catholics fear and hate the papacy and all the related hierarchy, along with the traditional mandates of the Catholic church. Mainline protestants are disgusted with mainline Protestantism. The disease even afflicts non-denominational and non-aligned groups, as large numbers of members of the Churches of Christ have all but disavowed any relation to the tradition of the American Restoration Movement. The disease has strange symptoms, but perhaps one of the most revealing is the manner in which those who are afflicted attempt to “out hate” those from other groups who have come down with the same disease. For example, one person might say, “You don’t agree with the pope? Wow, that is big, but guess what – I don’t agree with the New Testament!” It forces everyone in the circle to come up with a bigger and badder enemy to disagree with.
Another symptom of the disease is the unity that is demonstrated among the traditio-phobic when confronted with someone who actually loves and appreciates their tradition. “Wow, dude, that is so cool that you diss the Pope. But watch out for Paul over there – man he is so in love with his traditions that he will try to give you a guilt trip. Why don’t you come over and hang with us for a while – we don’t like any traditions either, and you will be safe with us.”
Honestly, it is getting to the point that I actually appreciate talking to a Catholic that does not hate the Catholic church. I may disagree with their theology, but at least I can appreciate their devotion.
Why are we so traditio-phobic? And why are those who are traditio-phobic about one tradition so willing to accept, and even promote, the traditions of another group? And to add another wrinkle, why are they willing to accept the traditions of a group that is losing large numbers of their own traditio-phobic members because their traditions are deemed too repressive?
In the Churches of Christ we have a significant number of ministers who are openly disavowing long-held biblical doctrines because they are too culture-bound, or are too repressive, or too exclusive, or too something-or-other else. At the very same time I read blogs of others who are just now discovering (or are re-discovering) the importance of baptism, the beauty of acapella singing, the theological wisdom of male-centered spiritual leadership. It is enough to give a person spiritual whiplash.
I don’t claim to know any of the answers. I’m just a worn-out, sawed-off little munchin of a theologian who does his best to make sense of the this world so that I can talk about the next one. And when I am confused I don’t mind expressing that confusion. And right now I am confused.
I happen to love the tradition into which I was born, and into which I made a conscious decision to join. The American Restoration Movement was founded upon some of the loftiest and most divine concepts to ever flow from the pen of a theologian onto ordinary paper. Just use the Bible as the only sure guide to knowing God. Just be Christians only, not Christians plus something else. Use the adjective Christian or noun disciple exclusively. When you disagree on a matter of opinion, have the love in your heart to accept your brother or sister in peace.
Have we always lived up to those lofty goals? Hardly. But I would rather aim for the stars and come up short than to aim for the pigsty and hit my target. I would even suggest that learning about the failures of my spiritual forefathers has made me appreciate them more, not respect them less. I know they were human, and the fact that they might not have always lived up to their words does not diminish the value of the words they held up as their standard.
I’ve said it before a hundred times and I’ll probably say it again a hundred times – but I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I just don’t understand why a person has to hate their tradition just because someone who lived and died 100 years ago, or 1,000 years ago, stubbed his toe and fell down. I don’t worship my spiritual ancestors – that activity is reserved for God alone. But I can honor and respect those who blazed the trail on which I now walk by holding up the standard by which they walked and thereby carrying the torch just a little further. (Okay, perhaps a few too many mixed metaphors there, but I hope you get my drift – arrrrrrggh.)
I will offer this advice to those who are traditio-phobic – at least have the courage of your convictions to leave the people you have decided you no longer can honestly love. Don’t preach for a group you disagree with. If you no longer can hold to the teachings of the Catholic church, don’t try to pass yourself off as a Catholic. If you can no longer abide by the traditions of the Baptist church, stand up and say so.
And if the name Church of Christ is just so abhorrent to you that you grit your teeth every time someone says it or you have to park under the sign, then by all means do us all a favor and move somewhere else. I cannot judge you for your convictions (God is your judge, not me) but I am really growing weary of hearing, or reading, you bash something that I love very much.