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Friday, October 31, 2014


There is a clear belief in the New Testament that there is a spiritual and physical realm, and that both interpenetrate the other. There are things seen and unseen. Today it is not considered silly to believe that there are tiny little invisible entities at work in our bodies and environment to destroy us (germs, viruses). Nor is it silly to believe that there are invisible forces at work which control our thoughts and affect our feelings (peer pressure, beliefs, relationships, music). Invisible things are real, we know that. We can even measure their impact (how beliefs impact health, how peers impact values and choices).

Sometimes these invisible, unseen things work for good (digestion and kindness) sometimes they are malicious (flu and prejudices) and sometimes they are deadly (ebola and riots).

Science and social science have progressed our insights and knowledge, but their scope is limited. There is also a spiritual realm, a realm also unseen and unseeable. A realm with measurable impact but it is not measured, weighed or see with physical instruments. It is the realm which Jesus also addressed in healing and forgiving (Saving) people. He fixed them physically and conquered illness and disease, He mended relationships and reconciled people (to God and one another) and He also declared His power over the demonic. Satan is invisible and unseen, but He is real. If we over emphasize the devil we are in error. The personal (called the flesh) beliefs and choices we make account for lots of things. Our mental, emotional and spiritual character and choices are our own fault. We must change how we believe, how we think, what we eat, how we live, who we spend time with, what we read, how we pray, etc. It is our choice and we need a DISCIPLE life style (disciplined). We must also understand that the world has its own set of powers and authorities. We must work in our communities to promote human values and justice. We must fight injustice and inhumanity. Because, human beings and human institutions (which are bigger than humans) also are at odds with God and His rule. Our families, communities, nations, and all places of work and play exert influence, even control, over us. The evil at work in 'the world' is real and powerful. Jesus confronted that when He died, as well. The power of religious institutions and secular (Temple and Empire) killed Jesus just as individuals (Judas, priest, Pilate, etc.) made choices. Jesus' death revealed the evil in our hearts and in our world/institutions. He also conquered them by forgiving us from the cross we nailed Him to.

But the spiritual realm was also in play. Satan was working with cooperative sinful humans and cooperative sinful institutions. There was a spirit warfare as well. A war fought in the realm of angels and demons, darkness and light, demonic spirits and The Holy Spirit. The battle was won through Jesus (His incarnation, faithful life of obedience, His ministry of proclaiming God's rule and healing, exorcising, reconciling, teaching; through His death, resurrection and ascension, through His rule from the spiritual realm and finally, when He comes back, through His physical rule in the New Heaven and New Earth; until then, now, through the Holy Spirit, God among us today in divine breath/wind/spirit).

Most Christians tend to minimize the spiritual warfare. I know I can ignore the unseen. But does unbelief in evil spirits somehow impact our ability to receive the Holy Spirit? Does negating the spiritual lead us to beliefs which reduce us to animals (only physical) helpless and hopeless to our physical impulses and the powerful institutions which rule us? Don't beliefs impact our bodies? Don't we see that believing and not believing have impact?

Twice I have looked up a Bible verse on my phone the past week. Each time the first entry on my google was from an atheist website. Atheist!!! This is the work of persons and institutions. Yet, I think there is also more. Anyone using the search engine would be led to a commentator who does not believe in God when looking at this verse. NOT the largest church in the world (Roman Catholic) nor the oldest (Eastern Orthodox). Not the group which emphasizes the Bible alone (Evangelical). Not people who treasure what it says, who translated the texts  and make them available in our language (all Christians and churches). No, the first place you are taken is to someone who will say "there is no God." Someone who does not believe.... Let that sink in a moment and tell me that there is no war with Satan. The war with the demonic has been won, but the battles continue. Jesus continues, in and through the church, to conquer the world, the flesh, and, yes, the devil. We are His soldiers in that war (or doctors, or healers, or bringers of light, or repairmen, or whatever image you prefer to describe this process of ongoing salvation). We are his team, and we need to understand we are playing hardball. The enemy is clear about that, the enemy is going all out to bring sickness, death, violence, conflict, despair and misery. The enemy is sowing fear, doubt, unbelief. The enemy (flesh, world and, yes, the devil) is all about taking away hope and joy.

Jesus is the Victor (for those who watched the World Series, He is Madison Bumgarner times infinity). Jesus is playing hard ball. For love of the Father and love of His creation and His people. Jesus is serious, even unto death on a cross.  Will you play hardball for Him and with Him?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

If It were from here

Yesterday I mentioned that if the Bible had been written in Ireland it would have been different. In our class discussion this sort of comment leads to questions. So I was asked, "Are you saying the Bible is not inspired?" (No, it is inspired) Which leads to a question, is the Bible as written the only way God's revelation could occur? (I believe it is not)

As I have tried to explain, God is not limited, but His revelation to us is. By deciding to speak in human language He has placed constraints on what He can say. For example, many words do not exist in ancient Hebrew and Greek which exist in English today, and vice versa. Grammar rules in Hebrew are different from German or French. Rhyming words in Hebrew do not always rhyme in English. Now some people think this sort of thing is immaterial, but anyone who ever had an assignment to write a poem knows that if the line ends in the word "light" then the following lines will be impacted as you try to end the corresponding line with "sight" or "fight" or "might" (or whatever else might rhyme). There are cases where Hebrew puns operate that way in the text.

Reading the Bible, one is struck by the differences in books. Do Ruth, Judges and Ezra convey the same appreciation for foreigners? What of war? For example, many of us are receiving messages from missionaries in Iraq. Horrible stories of ISIS troops killing the children of Christians are circulating. How many Christians are offended by this? Yet, it is Biblical (in Joshua and Judges there are countless examples of putting the enemy to the ban and killing everyone), in the sense that I often hear Christians in these parts say. So why is it in the Bible if it is so evil? Well, in part because the practice was widespread in the ancient world. The beliefs were slowly changed and by Jesus day He was saying something radically different (love your enemy, turn the other cheek, etc.). Which is God's Word? Which is the way we should live?

I think Jesus is the primary authority. I think discerning proper actions is very difficult and the Bible, while the best tool for encountering God, is NOT a guide book in the simple meaning of the word. It is not a compendium of  answers to questions. There are many people reading the Bible who are coming away with different answers. Today there are Christian warriors and Christian pacifists and both claim Biblical revelation as the basis of their decision.

If we understand that revelation flows in and through existing culture, then we can hear God but understand that there is background noise. Yes He speaks, but His voice is always limited by the mode of communication (human beings and human language). Understanding the culture can help us discern the message more effectively.

If the Bible had been written in Ireland, or America or India, it would have been different. It may be helpful to reflect how that would be the case. Perhaps such reflections would help us see the cultural trappings of the Bible as we have it. Perhaps doing this would show us the assumptions which we do not share with the ancient Jew or Christian. Perhaps such reflections could help us get to the core of revelation and the encounter with God. In any case, the way the Bible is interpreted is clearly influenced by cultural factors. So in a real sense, we are already, in our preaching and teaching dong the work of transforming God's word into our words. And it seems God is involved in that process as well.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Men Who Love Children

In Ireland there was much that was familiar, including American pizza and hamburger fast food establishments. There are, however, differences in people which I also noticed. One that stands out is the way so many Irish men treat small children. With regularity men would bend over to engage my three year old son, giving him high fives. Once we jumped on a bus for a city tour (he loves buses and trains). As we settled into the seat the driver said that he was done for the day. A distraught three year old let the world know his displeasure as we dragged him out of that seat. Suddenly a young man appeared and did all he could to distract and console our inconsolable boy. On another occasion we were in the revolving door of a hotel. Needless to say, his stumbling steps are not ideal for quick travel. When I apologized to a businessman, he simply smiled and punched me on the shoulder as if to say, "He is a child, no harm!" Two taxi drivers also were very attentive to him.

Which got me to thinking about differences in cultures. Which led to a discussion today in Bible study. If Jesus had come to the Irish culture, how different would the New Testament writings be? In a sense we sort of know. Reading the Celtic Saints (Patrick, Columba, Brendan, Aiden, Briggette, etc.) we see their language is steeped in images and thought patterns different from our own. Now, because they shared the same Bible with us, they were shaped and formed by the same texts, but how those texts were translated in their lives and spirituality was radically different. Every Christian would do well to engage the Celtic writings, which are thoroughly Christian and so different from our own.

The same is true in Africa and Latin America. [One reason why the Pope seems to baffle us--he is shaped by different cares and concerns, he fights different battles.] It is easy to forget that the Almighty, Eternal, Triune God is bigger than our thoughts and culturally limited interpretations of Scripture and ways of imaging. The Irish are similar to me and mine, yet different. They spoke often of their Irish tendencies (among the things listed were excessive story telling, freedom with facts, excessive drinking, a disregard for time) and their rootedness to place (some families have lived in the same areas for five thousand years). The island is small (two hours across by bus, about five hours north to south---smaller than my state of Tennessee:42000sq miles to 32000sq miles) and much of the population is in one city, Dublin (a quarter to a third). As I shared the previous post, history, even ancient history, is ever present. Buildings constructed hundreds, even thousands of years ago are every where.The music is often steeped in history and references to past struggles.The past seemed to press into the present more incessantly there.

As I thought about God, once more I drifted into thoughts of His relationship with all manner of people. One theme of the Bible (something Fr. David preached on this weekend, go to our web page to hear it) is that God loves us, and us is every human being. That diversity of people generates a diversity of theologies and religious practices. The Irish, or Celtic, model of Christianity is worthy of consideration. It does not easily match up with an American Protestant mind set. Before we disregard it, we do well to ponder the saints and martyrs who faithfully carried the Gospel in the sixth and seventh centuries.We are their descendents. God loved them. And we have much to learn from them.

It is a better world, for example, where men love children.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

On Remains and New Life

Ireland is dotted with the 'skeletons' of buildings and church structures from centuries ago. There was not an abundance of grand cathedrals (like in England) which overwhelmed you in their beauty and majesty. There were however, churches which were very old and, in many cases, monastic in their origin. Anyone who has read Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization knows that the monastic movement produced the missionaries and evangelists who led the pagan people to Christ. More than once.

Wandering around the remains of one such monastery was especially sobering for me. As I looked at the stone walls which remained standing, I tried to imagine what the windows looked like, where floors and doors would have been. I searched for the spot where eucharist was celebrated and tried to imagine what the different spaces were dedicated to. How many souls were saved in this enclosure, how many lives healed and renewed. How many hours of prayer and praise? The place was established around 1000 years ago, but had been unused for 250 years. The reason? During the Age of Reason, the 18th Century church could not produce enough men willing to become monks. No monks, no prayers, no worship, no life...

As I pondered the 'eternal return' my mind thought of the health of the church in Europe and in the USA. It is no secret that the church is currently in decline, rather serious decline. It is the fault of churchmen and institutional sin. It is the fault of mediocre Christians satisfied with going to heaven and little else from God. It is the fault of a new age of anti-reason (called postmodern) which rejects the Big Story and prefers each man, woman, child, and any other life forms (too numerous to mention) assert their own stories and own truths. It is also, the work of "spiritual warfare." Humans are going astray and being led astray by "the world, the flesh and the devil." Always have, and will until The Day of Judgment.

What made this trek through the monastic remains (ruins) more personal was a sense of God communicating to me about what I was seeing. "This is the future of your church." Someday, St. Andrews, built in 1891, will be brick walls and nothing else. The speed with which that happens, though, I am clear on this, is our choice. As that monastery stood 750 years, it is possible to be around for a while....

My initial reaction was to try to figure out how to keep our church on life support for a couple more decades. It was not a noble thought or desire. It is a dream unworthy of the Lord we serve. Do I want to be a priest serving a church with a dozen fewer folks each year? Is God's Kingdom dream for us to be a place that waits around, slowly dying?

An additional part of the story was the "fairy fort" which stood in the road leading up to the monastery. This was ground set aside for the pagan past. It was understood to be a place of magic. A place of the old gods. A place St. Paul would say belonged to "gods which are no gods; they are demons." The belief in the invisible world is strong in Ireland.Our guide told us that when the monks put a road through that fort it sealed their fate. The monastery was no longer there because of it. He basically said the old gods defeated the people of God in the Church. People who think such an idea is nonsense will say they do not see demons so no demons exist. Of course, the logic of that is faulty. And the silliness of seeing a devil behind every tree is obviously not helpful. But the idea that there really is spiritual warfare is not silly. Documented cases are everywhere and rational, professional, balanced men and women have attested (some admitting they would not believe it themselves had they not seen and experienced it) to the reality of the spiritual realm. Christian preachers believed they were at war with the demonic when they confronted those pagans so many years ago. And the pagans thought the same. The war between God and the other powers in our world is real

There has been a dark cloud of discouragement and thanatos upon me for a long while. Darkness is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. Sin, evil, despair are powers as well. The anti-christ (at least at one level the world leaders who exert power and control over our lives in opposition to the Lord) is powerful. The headlines and problems can overwhelm. I have tried to figure out different ways to be more appealing. And too often I just tried to figure out how to hold on...I forgot that sin is strong, forgiveness stronger, death is strong, resurrection stronger, hate is strong, love is stronger; anti-christ strong, Jesus Christ stronger.

My little church was 300+ actively worshipping members at over full services ten years ago. Today that attendance is almost halved on some Sundays (down 30%). There is still a lot of generosity and love and kindness. There are still faithful and faith filled people. We are, even yet, pretty healthy by most measures. But our future trajectory is bleak: we are older and smaller every couple years. This year has been abysmal which is more sobering. Those ancient ruins have become a graveyard. Irish families bury their dead there. So graves from 1800's, 1900's, and now 2000's are everywhere. Some recent with fresh flowers. A church for the dead. A choice each church makes today. A choice, I sensed God was telling me, we were making ourselves.

I shared this experience with my people today at church. I reminded them of The Truth. You are children of God. You are children of Light. You were purchased and set free (redeemed) by the death of Jesus. The blood of Jesus washes and cleans you and renews you. You are His beloved and He wants more for you. I am praying to bind up lies and deceit and confusion with greater intensity. Instead of a proforma blessing (standard liturgical language) I called down actual blessings and did an actual prayer of release and deliverance. The sad fact is our marriages fall apart, our people get sick and our families are rife with conflict. The sad fact is mental and emotional problems exist and there is a lack of enthusiasm for the things of God. Not enough worship, not enough love and service, not enough faith, hope and love, not enough prayer and study. We need conversion. We also need satan and his minions to be sent away.  And we need real concrete blessings on our lives and loved ones and our world.

Many people were shocked by what I said today (they gasped). Most were stunned by the power of the blessing. A few are probably leery of what they heard. Most are anxious to be more and live better. I know that today we made more concrete something we have done at all times. Every church is involved in the same warfare. I am sure that God will prosper and bless what we are trying to do. We want to be the church that God desires us to be. We want His will to be done. So does He!!

Some day my parish will be a ruins. Brick piled on brick but little else to give a clue as to who we were. I do not want that on my watch. I want abundance and life, I want Jesus and the Holy Spirit for God's people in my care. I am excited about what lays ahead. I believe God's word. I believe God's promise. I know that the "fairy castles" in our rapidly paganizing nation will send out their 'armies' to do harm. I know God's angels (messengers: human and spiritual) will offer the Gospel. Good vs Evil. I know who wins. So I embrace New Life. WE are still a church today, right now. We are still alive and standing. We are going to choose the Kingdom and see great new life.

Friday, October 24, 2014


We are returned from a week in Ireland. It was a wonderful time, highlighted by family time. I plan to share some reflections on what we experienced there, and hope this is not a "what I did on my vacation" sort of blathering. I can say that if you find yourself in a position to go, take it!

In Dublin we went to Trinity University, which houses the most elaborate of the illustrated Medieval Gospel texts: The Book of Kells.I am a University type of guy and found myself fantasizing about spending a semester there studying the history of the Celtic Church or some similar pursuit. The Book of Kells is in the old library, which was stunning in beauty. There is nothing so respectful  of books as an old library.

There is a hall which prepares one to see the actual which explains the whole process of creating the wrting materials, making books, etc. You can see the book of Kellls online here:

The thing that struck me was how incredibly laborious and painstaking it must have been. They spent hour after hour slowly constructing the books and illustrating, everything by hand. I have never done anything with that level of commitment and work. It was a wonder of faith and love on display. The love of God's Word is manifest in this work. They hand wrote every Bible. Hand wrote in a long slow process of creating ink, dabbing with a pen and scratching out a letter, each letter, one by one. I pour out volumes with my computer with minimal effort. Yet without those monks and all their work we would not have Bibles today. [something I wish Bible loving Christians today would remember when they speak negatively about monasticism.] I was keenly aware of our dependence on those who have gone before us!

So things to ponder, what work of love do I perform for God each day? How am I grateful for the hard work of others? Worth thinking about....

The other thing that happened was my response to seeing the text. I had written a paper on the Book of Kells in my church history class in 1980. I was only mildly interested in it. Yet I have had a connection of sort ever since. It is funny how time spent in college does that. I was interested in seeing the book but not terribly excited until I saw it. Suddenly a wave of deep emotion hit me. I almost wept. I was surprised by the reaction. For a moment I just had a "there It is" insight. I have found that in my latter years less and less seems able to move me deeply. Perhaps the "been there done that" nature of many years? Or maybe "old, cranky, tired"? Or even "too much to do, too busy"? Whatever it is, I sometimes wonder what is wrong with me (and I find many men my age sort of ask the same thing). Anyhow, there was something sacred in the moment of seeing the book. There was a God connection, soft and quiet, but deep. And I was glad to feel it.

A reminder of sacraments; the God who comes in and through this world.
It is good to be back on the blog!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

From Him

My grandma used to make a chocolate pie and a lemon pie. It was one of the highlights of any big family meal. They were both quite good. I am a chocolate lover but I probably liked the lemon better. This did sort of confuse me as a child. One of my first forays into the paradox of life!

I do not know if that pie was the best pie in the world. I am of a mind that such a claim is probably unprovable. I have seen enough "best ever" claims to know that they seldom match up to the hype. What I know is those pies were delicious. What I also know is grandma made it. She is dead over a decade. If I could get a piece of her pie today it would be very moving emotionally. Because it is from her. I have not had contact with her in a long time.

In many ways, the Bible is like that pie. It is a wonderful work of literature. It provides great fodder for reflection. It also has a message of salvation in it.I do not know if it is the best book in the world (setting aside it is really many books). Sometimes I have found commentaries and theology books more helpful than the Biblical text. Probably because of the style of writing. Probably because I am not from the Ancient Near East so am unable to read in the actual language and context.

I do not know if the Bible is "the best literature in the world" but I do know it is precious because it is from HIM! That, in the end, is the central meaning of inspiration to me. It is from God (in and through human tools) and it is for us. It is a place where we can encounter Him (through the veil). In a sense, it lifts the veil (apocalypse=revelation=unveiling), though only a small section. We get a glimpse, an insight, into God and His mysterious plans and ways. This is why I read the Bible daily and study it for hours each week

God spoke to them long ago. Now God speaks to us, here and now. We need to listen. And listening entails the same self emptying that God's speaking entailed. It is about openness to Him.

So many Christians want to argue about "Truth" with those who do not believe what they want them to believe. They make claims about the Bible which seem to be more focused on arguing than reading and listening. They are more intent on fighting about evolution than entering into the texts of Genesis 1 & 2 and asking, "What is God telling me here?"

The Bible is inspired, it is filled with God's Spirit. God talks to us in a special way through the Bible. For that reason it is true and trustworthy. Words like inerrant and perfect confuse me. They seem to be categorically inappropriate. By that I mean, they are focused in the wrong direction. God is God. He creates. He saves. He communicates with His people.If Christians spent more time listening with humble and obedient hearts there would be less need to fight about the Bible. Unbelievers would see the power of the Word of God at work. That would be more effective evangelism than any battles about inerrancy.

The Bible is precious because it is from Him. That is enough for me.
I am taking a two week sabbatical from the blog. I intend to write again then.
God bless

Friday, October 10, 2014

Bible 10: Just Read it!

These last nine posts have attempted to draw us into the Bible from a different perspective. I have not and do not deny Divine Authorship. I call it "The Word of the Lord" and "The Word of God," and why wouldn't I;  the church has always held that it is so. That is 'the faith' of those who trust in Jesus. However, I have provided reasons for looking at Scripture as fully human as well as fully Divine. If it is God's Word, it is still human words. The ultimate Source is mediated through human authors, conveyed in human thoughts, and written in human language. Having intensely immersed myself in these words for almost forty years I have found them to be amazingly godly and frustratingly human many times. The words cannot simply be read from a contemporary, simplistic, literal stand point. The truth is, much of what is written there is symbolic, most of it has layers of depth, and while all of it can be applied to our current situation, none of it is contemporary: It is ancient. Ancient words, from a middle eastern world or Grecco-Roman, which does not share the same beliefs, values, and mindset as our own...

It is that self-centeredness, that arrogant belief that OUR way is the only way to look at the world, which makes Bible reading dangerous. We ignore or twist passages which are concerned about things about which we do not care.We assume what is "the plain meaning" to us is actually what the authors (and Author) intended. And as I have seen in myself and others a million times, we often cannot read the actual text because we already think we know what it says and what it means.Our minds made up, we just plow through grabbing the ideas which fit our preconceived beliefs.

So is this a recipe for despair? It may sound like it, but actually I find it an invitation to love. Real love conquers romantic love by actually engaging the other person. It corrects the false "projections" by real encounter.All of us project what we want (or need, or fear, or etc) upon others. No way to avoid it. But we can make progress to learning the truth.

I think the New Testament is over-read by Christians. It is taken out of context, which is the Jewish Bible. Study the Jewish Scripture first--remember this is the Bible Jesus used to explain Himself to the apostles. I suggest read some psalms every day. Every day. And read from the other books. Perhaps start with Genesis and Isaiah. Each day read a chapter of each. For the more ambitious read several chapters. After becoming familiar with The Book, then you are ready to read some on the ancient world. Who were the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians? What was Israel doing and when was it doing it? There are commentaries which have articles about such things.Read them. Now when you return to the Bible you are prepared to read it and understand. You can read a book with a good commentary and gain insight into what was going on. I assure  you, no matter how deep you dig, there is always more treasure to be mined!

Sounds like work, doesn't it? As a kid I spent hours doing baseball statistics and reading articles about players. I loved baseball so it was a labor of love. I enjoyed it... I daresay, if we love God, then the enterprise of trying to hear Him speak in Scripture (instead of twisting His word to fit our context) will not be too difficult. We will encounter His true word. His authoritative communication. His dependable revelation. His life giving gift of Himself. So start reading, today!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Bible 9: Language Limits

When I lived in Belgium, many years ago in seminary, we had a television with a few stations on it. Belgium is a bilingual nation (French and Flemish/Dutch). One of the rules there was a program was aired in the original language (there were tensions between the two groups) so American programs would appear in English, with subtitles. When an American show was airing, if you got there early, a French or Flemish show would be on. As we sat watching it, the experience was so similar and familiar, except, of course, we did not understand what they were saying. One day my buddy Ray said, "You just feel like if you listened harder you could understand." I knew what he meant. But no matter how hard we listened, it made no difference. If you do not speak Flemish, paying attention does not help.

That is the issue with communication. The "Speaker" has to speak in a way that the "Hearer" can understand. A typical 3 year old is not gong to understand Algebra. If the finest Algebra teacher on the planet said, "I am good at this, I can do it!" I think the result would be the same. A smart three year old is learning addition and subtraction. It is the nature of things.

So when the ETERNAL God decides to communicate with us, His chosen mode is to 'dumb it down' to a level we can get. He uses words. He does not directly and immediately communicate. Rather, His communication is MEDIATED through words. As we saw yesterday, words are a limited and imprecise mode of communication. Words need to be interpreted. Words can only do so much....

We do not taken God seriously enough when we talk about the Bible. We minimize Him in an effort to praise His word. We would do better, I think, to ponder the mystery. What must God "leave behind" as He squeezes His perfection into this little vehicle called "language"? And what demands of language limit that communication? One I can think of is 'tense'--we speak of past, present, future (and don't forget present perfect, pluperfect and all sorts of other delightful designations). Yet is God time-bound? NO! So language as we know it CANNOT communicate God's situation. Period.We use our language as best we can (by stringing together words designating time with "and") but that does not really do it. Which is okay.  We live in time. We think in terms of past or present. Not having a tense which means both at the same time is one of our language limits.

Now all this to say that we probably get all we can handle of God's communication in words. After all, language is part of our world. But we need a spirit of worship and a deeper sense of awe at God's greatness and sublimity. And too often we fail to recognize that language is insufficient to fully and perfectly contain God's communication (that it is in fact something which requires that  He empties Himself and through which He conveys only a small part of Himself and His message). Language is not perfect, not the way God is...

God is talking to us, after all. He uses the tools we work with in communication, like language, and our tools are limited and imperfect. Which means we need to now consider what words best describe God's Truth?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bible 8: the problem with words

Words are limited. It is the nature of a word. When we say, "words fail me" we do not mean that our vocabulary is too small, or that we are not efficient at creating sentences. What we mean is that words are limited. For example, the word "awesome" is popularly used to describe lots of things. "This cake is awesome!" we might say. However, when we talk about a rocket ship taking off to the moon and say, "it was awesome" or as we peer into the Grand Canyon and say, "it was awesome" we mean something deeper than it was on par with some tasty chocolate cake. And when we talk about the birth of our child and say, "it was awesome"---well anyone who has had the experience knows that the word awesome is true, but it cannot convey the full impact.

In a sense, words are like photographs. They do not convey the experience, they try to describe it. I have snapped countless photos from mountains or bays and when you look at the flat photo it just does not, can not, give someone the same feeling that standing there and gazing at the real thing does. It isn't because we are bad photographers, it is because a photograph (even a video) cannot fully capture the event..

"Words fail"; it is there nature. So words, which are too small to contain us and our communication, certainly are not infinite enough to hold and convey God. Period. To say that they can is to say God is less amazing then much of His creation. So God's Self communication through words (even The Word, The Bible) is always limited by the limitations of words.

One huge problem for words is that they are not self explaining. Words can be misunderstood and misinterpreted. Written words are even more prone to that as they do not have any of the non-verbal cues which are so vital in communication. "God is Love" for example, is really true, but probably the way most contemporary Christians is very different from what the word meant to Jesus and His disciples. Most Americans find Middle Easterners a bit strange and difficult to understand, right? (and they have the same experience of us)  And most contemporary folks find ancient folks a bit strange and hard to understand. Words like family, love, salvation, sin have different connotations and denotations in our society among us. In fact, defining terms is considered one of the steps in any discussion. So saying that the Word of God is infallible, without error, and perfect may be true, but it also means you have to understand what the Word of God is saying; and the "plain meaning" of Scripture today is the plain meaning for a white middle aged middle class American man, or a black teenaged inner city girl, or a college aged, second generation Asian girl, etc. etc. We just think we know what things mean and they don't.

However, the Word is from God, and that makes it special. He speaks to us in and through the Word. But we have to do hard work to figure out what He is saying. We have to be open to the Holy Spirit to hear what He is saying. We have to want to hear what He is saying. We have to repent to hear what He is saying.... Well, it is just not simple or easy.

Is the Bible trustworthy? Yes, but the reader isn't. And therein lies the rest of the story

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Bible 7: God's breath and human authors

 So far we have had a strong understanding of "inspiration." It is a fair question to ask, does the Bible clearly state that the words of the Bible have been dictated by God? To say it is authoritative can mean that, but is that the only possible way of understanding the word?

Remember, human beings are also "god-breathed" creations. [cf. Genesis] There the breath of God made them 'living souls'--the Hebrew root means hungry.  Humans are the image and likeness of God, so they certainly have divine qualities, yet, they are not inerrant nor are they infallible and perfect, in spite of participating in some way in that Divine Nature. [side note, human nature has to be inherently open to the divine in a unique way, or else God the Son could not have become human.!]
I had never thought about any of this until I started this series and began searching for place where "God-breathed" occurs in the Bible . As I looked for God breathing I immediately realized the creation story was the starting place. So my question is, theological predisposition aside, is it clear that the creation of humans and God's breath has nothing to inform us regarding God's breath and Scripture?

In the end, a high view of human authorship can also be Biblical. I do not think that the Bible portrays humans as puppets. One of the earliest Bible references to "human" (Adam) indicates that God gave 'man/adam/human dominion. Let that soak in a moment; dominion means lordship... Human freedom is the basis of human responsibility and accountability. From the first humans are independent agents with which God interacts. He may speak to them (like with Adam, Eve and Cain) but be ignored. He may also influence (harden Pharaoh’s heart). He may reveal something  (Isaiah in heaven), communicate in vision (write what you see) or say something with word (Thus says the Lord) or through events (Exodus at Sea, blatant vs. Joseph saga, subtle). [side note, the Hebrew word dabar can mean 'word' or 'thing'; in Biblical language there is a much thinner line dividing the concept than in English!] Intervention can have a controlling influence (God calls Moses) but then be negotiated (God uses Aaron at Moses insistence). The “wrestling” God (with Abraham verbally over Sodom;with Jacob literally at the river, but figuratively his whole life). The Bible does not provide one clear and obvious picture/image/model/paradigm of how God and human interact. So there are various beliefs (based on assumptions beforehand):
§  Human freedom is independent of God so He must work with it and around it. The Prince of this world is the devil, not God. Humans have dominion. God is the source of creation but He immediately ‘leaves the scene.’ God is all knowing and powerful so when He intervenes He “finds a way,” but it is in dialogue with human freedom.
§  Human Freedom exists, but the human person can be, as St. Paul says, a co-worker (synergism) with God. What is possible in all times and places is especially true of Scripture (unclear is it difference in degree or kind?). This means God works “best” with those who are open to Him. IN this view, the authors of Scripture were men (women?) who were open to God and were tools at His disposal.
§  Human freedom exists but is not a barrier to God, He can control humans through their free will. Here we have double causality which gives us a way out of the dilemma, but is difficult to imagine... It emphasizes mystery. God talk is always analogical (!) so even if we cannot understand how this works, we do know that it is how things work.
§  Free Will does not exist, God controls everything. God did it. Humans are puppets. [this view makes no sense to me]
o   As we ponder the process (and take a non-magical approach to God&humans writing the bible), perhaps all written sources must also be "controlled" by God through the oral stage and each written stage. So Holy Spirit was “breathing” for a long time (up to hundreds of years) in lots of people and events. This material could have functioned temporarily as “Authoritative” or “Sacred Writ” at various times. One example, the “Law” found in the Temple in Josiah’s day, (which some think is the basis of Deuteronomy and most think was not the whole Torah), or (theoretical) earlier versions of the writings (some think they see two sources in Genesis or Northern/Southern versions of salvation history with different emphasis), or “the preaching and teaching of the apostles” which is later written in the Gospel (so Paul says “this is from the Lord” about the Last Supper or divorce long before any written Gospel).    
We tend to forget about the early Christians who predate the Bible.  We tend to think of ourselves and our times. Yet how was God talking to those who go before us, many times martyrs, who were also His people. As I have pondered these people for the last four decades, more and more I find myself envisioning the ongoing interaction of God with His people, the process of inspiration, as being richer and fuller than 'the book in my hand.'

Friday, October 3, 2014

Bible 6: More on Authors

   So last week we looked at actual authors of individual books. We identified two ways of envisioning inspiration, in both of them, the Spirit has a very high degree of control over every word (even every letter). The sole focus, though, is on the (final) written text. Is that all there is to inspiration?

3. A third approach broadens and deepens the meaning of 'inspiration' of the individual Biblical book to include far more. Certainly, somebody sat down one day and “finished” our existing text at the end of a process. [A letter may have taken days or weeks or months to compile, other works, especially historical ones, cover centuries.] The final edition is the end of a long process “guided” by God Who is the Ultimate Source and The Author. (Guided could mean totally controlled/”dictated” by Holy Spirit through a human—or—more subtly influenced by Holy Spirit with (a) human(s);and everything in between)
o   Authorship in this case, however, includes God’s controlling presence in events, memory and oral transmission and retransmission of narratives about those events (including reshaping oral tradition in light of ongoing events), written sources (collected sayings or shorter versions). [By analogy it is like what we mean that God created us; a human being from fertilized egg to adult; actively dictating each step; each step having import and value to those who are present at the time.]
§  What happened (events) matters as it is revelatory about God’s real activity. Insight into how He works with us. “Revelation” is (sometimes) the actual event and not just the narrative. [is the written Exodus account really more important than the miracle of the exodus from Egypt?]
§  As different texts were written at different times, words had different meanings. The name of God's people changed (Hebrews, Israelites, Jews). Israel was the nation before the Civil War and the Northern Kingdom afterwards. Satan (the word means "The Adversary") developed over time; in Job he is Heaven's prosecuting attorney, by Jesus' day he is the devil. Gehenna, a valley where child sacrifice took place in Kings, is later a garbage dump, and in Jesus' day an image of Hell—abode of dead and later place of torment for evil dead. The afterlife and resurrection are central in the New Testament, but in the more ancient Old Testament do not occur (which is why conservative, Bible believing Jews like the Sadducees did not believe in it). The Bible itself makes reference to cities which change names and various places/things "which are still there to this day", reflecting different times and settings.
§  The Acts of Apostles indicate some Christians did not know about baptism in Jesus name, but only John's baptism of repentance. They did not know about the Holy Spirit. One can assume that every community had its own, limited materials and  datum of faith. They also had perspectives. Jewish priests in Judah see the Temple differently than northerners. Prophetic voices compete with pro-monarch groups. Wisdom literature, prophetic literature and apocalyptic literature overlap, but one must admit that they have different modes of communication and different agendas to emphasize (partly because of their audiences and context) 
 Historical context matters because what God said “then and there” to “them” must be understood in order to faithfully “interpret” Word of God for “here and now.” (use of analogy, metaphor, simile, etc.; for example texts on Jewish circumcision might be ‘interpreted’ in today’s church as ‘baptism.’) There is a “context” for the Word which must also be considered (as well as a timeless aspect). This is a basis for particular approaches to interpretation.
IN conclusion, something to ponder is the work of the Spirit/Breath/Wind of God (inspiration) in all events, especially the billions of moving parts which came together to produce the Bible.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Paul and Philipians

He was in chains, jailed for disturbing the peace by preaching about Jesus. In spite of the threat of execution he was single minded; focused on Jesus and the spread of the Gospel. He was happy that his case brought more attention to the Lord.
He was controversial. There were plots to kill him. Often beaten; once after being stoned he was left for dead. There were even problems within the church. Some thought he was a saintly preacher of truth; while others criticized his teaching, fearing he had gone too far. Some attacks were more personal. Being an apostle for Jesus was difficult.  
He was courageous and enthusiastic. He had experienced the Risen Lord.  God provided strength to face the challenges of his vocation. He worked with others, though he did not always know whom to trust. He feuded with many of them, sometimes bitterly. Always, however, his focus was Jesus, whatever the cost.
He loved his church folks. Just thinking about them made him bubble with joy and shout “thank you God!” He desperately wanted them to know and understand the fullness of God’s salvation in Jesus: The Good News of the Kingdom and Jesus the Messiah! Grace and Blessing!
Yet he also said this grace and blessing are a task. He exhorted them: ‘Be faithful, live the life of Christ! Live a life worthy of the grace.’ A minister knows his folks get weary of such expectations and demands, so he consoled them with this reminder, “God is among you, He will finish the work. You aren’t alone.”
“You aren’t alone…” Those words probably sustained him as he sat for long stretches with no one but his God. He may have doubted sometimes. Still, a man must practice what he preaches….
He wrestled with the challenge “do I want to go on? Live or die?” He truly believed that Jesus waited for him, so death had an appeal, but his sense of duty drove him onward. He realized that there is still work to do, work which benefits others. Yet, he knew, living or dying was not his decision to make. It was in the hands of the Roman authorities. This precarious grip on life, however, filled him with urgency. He loves these people so he challenges them to be faithful--“have one mind, one heart!”--but not unity for its own sake, oneness in Christ. He quotes from a hymn, one of the first.
Jesus was God. [In ancient language “form of God” means His essence or real identity was divine.] Yet He did not grasp tightly to His divinity, He emptied it out and became human. The great mystery and central revelation is this: The Eternal God entered time and space. He became a true human: temporal and servile. He emptied to embrace selfless, humble obedience. He suffered greatly. He died accursed on a cross! This is God revealed in Jesus to Paul. Paul says that Jesus is the model for us.
This has been a paraphrased summary of the first two chapters of Philippians, supplemented by Paul’s words and deeds recorded elsewhere. His consistent message is that Jesus the Crucified Lord has saved us; so trust Jesus and live like Him. This is why we are here today.
David and I are your priests. We understand Paul because we feel that same surging love for you and the same intense joy. We also know the powerful compulsion to tell you about God’s gift of salvation and God’s call to imitate the Son.
Church is not about us and what we want, it is about Jesus: emptied for us. Jesus: our Savior and our model. One mind, one heart, one Jesus. Repent and embrace His way.