Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Photo of the Week

The Lord split the rocks in the wilderness
And gave them water as abundant as the seas;
He brought streams out of a rocky crag 
And made water flow down like rivers.

- Psalm 78:15-16

Monday, February 26, 2018

Quote of the Week

“The more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”

- G. K. Chesterton

(Painting: "In You, Lord, I Have Hoped," by Maerten de Vos, 16th cent.)

Monday, February 19, 2018

A One-Week Break from Blogging

(Painting: "The Tired Priest," by Konstantin Savitskiy, 19th century)

I had originally intended to keep my regular schedule of posting this week. But it's February break from school for my kids and my wife is out of the country on a mission trip, so I've got a lot of home responsibilities on my plate this week. Posts will resume again on Monday, February 26.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus Christ: in all my trials and sufferings you have granted me the strength to stand firm; in your mercy you have granted me a share of eternal glory.

 - Irenaeus of Sirmium

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Petulant Screed (on English Grammar)

Note: I'll try to get back to my "Glimpses of Grace" series shortly; they just take a little more time to compose, and I've been rather short on time the past few weeks.

I have two pet peeves when it comes to grammar--first, people who intentionally flout the actual rules by which our beautiful language operates; and second, people who flaunt arbitrary, made-up rules, and then try to force everyone else to follow them. Unfortunately, most English speakers fall into one or both of these categories.

Here's a quick background to anyone who might be wondering, "Who is this guy to tell us how to use our own language?" I'm an author who has been published multiple times, a professional whose main weekly work revolves around verbal compositions, and I hold a degree in linguistics. I've also been inventing lots of my own stylistic quirks for years and years, and I resent anyone telling me that I'm wrong to use them. So with that in place, now I'm going to tell you why the grammar you've been using is wrong.

You see, grammar is a discipline that describes how a language operates--the internal logic of its pieces, one might say. And all languages have very specific rules by which they operate. The only trouble is that, a few generations back, some enterprising grammarians decided that they were going to invent their own rules for English, not based on what the language actually does, but based rather on what they thought the language ought to do. And this system of prescriptive rules (rather than descriptive rules) is what most of us came to learn as "grammar" from the hands of our instructors.

Now, there really are rules that can't be broken in English. I'm not saying that anything and everything is OK as far as grammar goes, not even given the distinctions between formal and informal speech, dialects and idiolects, and so on. No, there are rules you really shouldn't be breaking. For instance, there's one very popular Christian song on the radio these days that makes an obvious and egregious error in grammar. Its central line declares (in a poor quotation of Eph. 1:19-20): "The same power that rose Jesus from the grave is in us!" It's a powerful song, and I would love it...if only it didn't make a glaringly basic grammatical mistake. It takes a situation where a transitive verb is called for, and uses an intransitive verb instead. Here's what I mean: the line should read, "The same power that raised Jesus from the grave is in us." But instead, it says rose. The only trouble is that that word doesn't do what it's being asked to do here. The verb to rise (of which rose is the past tense) cannot take a direct object; it is intransitive. That is, you can't say, "I'm going to rise this book onto the shelf." You must say, "I'm going to raise this book onto the shelf." To raise is a transitive verb, taking a direct object. God's mighty power raised Jesus from the grave. You may say, "Jesus rose from the dead," but you may not say, "God rose Jesus from the dead." It's simply the wrong word, and it doesn't function in the way it's being asked to. So there are rules that simply can't be broken. But there are other "rules" (like one I broke just two sentences ago) which are totally fine to break.

The one I just broke was the rule that says, "You may not end a sentence with a preposition, lest I rap you across the knuckles with my ruler!" Now, this is a "rule" that is sometimes still advisable to follow, depending on where you are: if you're speaking or writing in a very formal setting, to snobbish, elitist sorts, it's probably best not to end a sentence with a preposition. Or, if you just want to sound wicked smart and elitist yourself, you can follow this made-up rule, and say, "It doesn't function in the way in which it's being asked," or, to be even more abstruse and redundant, "It doesn't function in the way it's being asked to function."

This is an example of a made-up rule. English usually works perfectly well when you end sentences with prepositions, and the resulting sentences come across with an easy, colloquial charm, and no loss of clarity or understanding. Sometimes the people who like these arbitrary rules trip themselves up because they don't even realize that in English, the words we call "prepositions" are sometimes used as parts of independent syntactic phrases, and not as prepositions at all. For instance, in the example I cited above, the "to" at the end of my sentence was, properly speaking, not even functioning as a preposition: rather, it was part of the infinitive verbal phrase "to function," and the "function" had been dropped because it was contextually understood from the first part of the sentence. Similarly, I was recently flagged in a paper for ending a clause with this phrase, "the construction went on," because my professor thought I was ending the sentence with a preposition. But that's not correct. In this instance, "on" is not a preposition; it is part of the verbal phrase "to go on," which is a very useful verb, in that it presents an active aspect to the idea of "happening." For instance, no one would object to ending the sentence "What's going on?" with the word "on," because it's clear that it's not a preposition, but actually a part of the verbal phrase. Even without this often misconstrued exception, it's still usually fine to use prepositions. So go out there and ask your friends, "Who were you hanging out with?" (unless, of course, you want to sound elitist, in which case it's also fine to say, in a snobbishly affected tone, "Out with whom were you hanging?")

Here's a few other rules that it's fine to break unless you're being forced to unnecessary formality:

- Don't begin a sentence with a conjunction like "and" or "but."  Observe this rule in formal writing, because it was made up by the people who hold the power in formal settings, but otherwise don't bother with it. It's unnecessarily stuffy, and colloquial English makes broad and powerful use of opening conjunctions.

- Don't use a split verbal phrase, and especially not a split infinitive. This rule has an odd history: like a few of our arbitrary rules, it's actually a rule derived from another language (Latin, where verbs always stay together, mostly because they're one word) that some self-appointed genius once thought it would be fitting to introduce into a totally different language (English, in which verbal phrases are often constituted of multiple words). But in English, you can, unless you overdo it, throw an adverbial modifier here or there in the middle of a verbal phrase (as I just did in the previous parenthetical clause). The truth is, it just sounds better to say "I was duly appointed to carry out this task" than to say "I was appointed duly to carry out this task." Also, don't pay any attention to people who tell you not to split infinitives (unless they're your poor, benighted professor, and you're trying to get an A), because this is another Latin-esque rule. As Star Trek in its radiant wisdom long ago realized, it sounds way cooler when you say "To boldly go where no man has gone before!" than to say "boldly to go" or "to go boldly." The cadence and flow of the Star Trek line is better than the ostensibly proper alternatives, and no clarity is lost. So go ahead and split those infinitives. (With one exception: I'm not wild about throwing negative particles into the middle of infinitives: that is, I've found that it does sound better to say, "I would prefer not to go," than to say, "I would prefer to not go.")

- Avoid the passive voice. This is a rule which, thankfully, is swiftly falling out of fashion, though you'll still find a few particularly fastidious professors who will insist upon it. Now, clearly the passive voice can be overused or used in a clumsy and inelegant way; but that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be used at all. As my immediately preceding sentence (which was all in the passive voice) demonstrates, passive constructions can be used easily and well. There's a reason why pretty much every language in the world has a passive voice: it's tremendously useful. It's a great way to highlight the object of an action, especially in cases where the subject of that action is understood by context, or is unimportant to the point of the sentence. For instance, you simply can't take the famous aphorism "Rome wasn't built in a day" and improve it by putting it in the active voice. You'd have to go for some clunky arrangement like "The Romans didn't build Rome in a day," which sounds redundant and stupid, and which would never have caught on as an aphorism. As Kate Turabian (one of the leading teachers of proper academic style) advises, passive voice can be preferable to active voice in situations where it keeps the subject of the sentence simple and clear.

Those are just a few examples, but there are many more. Grammarians have a long history of taking rules from Latin or from arbitrary methods of personal style, and then turning them into the inscrutable edicts of the next generation's classrooms. Their power is crumbling now. And while the evaporation of their fantasy will likely result in a lot of atrocious writing from people who don't follow any grammatical rules at all (even the real rules), at least we'll get a little breath of fresh air from the pretentious nonsense of prescriptive grammar.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Reading the Bible through a Political Filter

(Please note: the following is not entirely serious--it is written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, that offers insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.)

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

Chapter Two: How to Deal with the Bible
(Section Three: Reading the Bible through a Political Filter)

Now a quick look at political filters. Like most steps to Christian misery, this is pretty easy. In our hyper-politicized world, most of us already think in political terms about any issue that might arise. We can classify anything that confronts us as “liberal” or “conservative,” “left” or “right.” This easy categorization is a great and helpful trait, because it enables us to see everything in the harsh light of black-and-white terms. And the wonderful thing about seeing things in black and white is that you can be absolutely certain that you are right, and that everyone else is wrong. And there’s something comforting to that.
This politicization can even extend to Christian theology. In some circles, even the slightest hint of doubt about the most debated and peripheral of doctrines can immediately (and helpfully!) label someone as “too liberal.” Meanwhile, in other circles, even toeing the line of suggesting that a person’s identity might not be entirely definable by their own whims is enough to handily classify someone as being “too conservative.”
            It’s pretty easy to do this to the Bible, too. Let me throw out a random list of doctrines, any one of which might claim some kind of biblical support (to a greater or lesser degree), and let’s see if you can correctly identify them as liberal or conservative. Just try to imagine which one of the major parties you might hear plugging each of the following principles. (Please note: the author makes no claim to believe or disbelieve any of the following; I simply use them here to illustrate how easy it is for someone to liberalize or conservativize the Bible, according to their taste. Obviously, I only believe the doctrines below that are truly biblical and sensible, just like you.)
(1)   One of our main jobs as human beings is to tend to the environment and care for God’s created order, so environmentalism should be a major concern of Christian political activity (Gen. 2:15).
(2)   The unborn are living human beings, each one intentionally created by a loving God, so abortion should not be legal (Psalm 139:13-16).
(3)   You should love all immigrants, treat them like native-born citizens, and actively offer all the help and resources they might require (Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 10:18-19; 14:28-29).
(4)   Marriage is a sacred institution originally intended for the union of a man and a woman, and so it is not within the purview of human governments to rewrite the meaning of marriage (Gen. 2:22-24).
(5)   Redistributive socialism is an acceptable method of organizing a Christian society (Acts 2:44-45).
(6)   Government’s rightful place is in securing order and justice, but it has overstepped its bounds if its legislation impinges on an individual’s freedom to obey God (Rom. 13:1-7, Acts 4:18-20).
(7)   God cares deeply about the plight of the poor, so the alleviation of poverty ought to be one of the leading concerns of Christians’ engagement in political life (Psalm 12:5, James 2:5).
(8)   Homosexuality is a symptom of the deep way that human society has been affected by our common sinfulness, and is not something to be celebrated (Rom. 1:21-2:1).
(9)   Christians should love their enemies, and are commanded not even to resist an evil person through the use of force, so they should not make the right to possess weapons a part of their political platform (Matt. 5:39).
(10)   Appropriate sexual behavior is a matter of divine law, not personal taste, social convention, or human legal traditions (1 Cor. 6:12-20).
Pretty easy, right? In our current American political climate, all the odd numbered teachings are usually trumpeted by one political camp, and all the evens by another. You’ll find some crossover here and there, but the main talking-points of the parties generally fall squarely along those odd/even lines. As I’m sure you must have realized as you worked through the list, the set of numbers that you already agree with are clearly the correct interpretations of Scripture, which means that the other set of numbers must be spurious readings of the holy text. After all, who would be wild enough to suggest that all of these biblical-political assertions might have some claim to validity? That would render our black-and-white political platforms ridiculous. And one thing we can be sure of is that our American political life is never shortsighted, narrow, or ridiculous.
Since we’re already so good at sorting everything we see into political categories and ignoring the parts we don’t agree with, this kind of political filter is one of the most helpful ways of reading the Bible. It prevents Scripture from challenging our preconceived ideas and settled positions, ensuring that we can remain safely ensconced in our cocoon of happy moral certainty.
Ironically, this will actually maximize your Christian misery. This is because, by using this method, you are essentially muting the possibility of the Holy Spirit speaking to you about areas where you could grow, where you could deepen your faith, understanding, and love for those with differing opinions. Such growth in compassion and depth of perception has, in my humble experience, led to a diminishment in the experience of the miserable life.
However, if you end up going down the dark road toward letting Scripture shape your politics (rather than the reverse), you can sometimes still save your misery by giving up in the name of relativism. This helpful tactic, unlike the black-and-white perspective we talked about earlier, is unwilling to see any gradations or context at all, and insists on seeing all issues in a uniform shade of gray.
Perhaps, as you looked over the list of possible biblical doctrines above, you wanted to throw up your hands and say, “Well, then if all of this is in the Bible, then we can’t know anything for sure! Let’s just throw in the towel on politics and biblical certainty!” If that was your impulse, then run with it. If you can convince yourself that everything is relative, and that nothing is certain, then you have once again found an easy way to slip into that sweet spot of not having to stretch your spiritual and intellectual imagination in ways that might tend towards personal growth.
Whatever you do, absolutely do not enter into dialogue with Christians who may have differing perspectives from you. It’s just a bad idea. You already know that you have everything right; so you don’t need to listen to them. The more you can keep yourself in the comfort zone of absolute moral certainty (or, if you’re so inclined, absolute moral relativism), the more you’ll be able to gloss over things in Scripture that you might not want to think about, and the more you’ll be able to tune out the nagging voice of the Holy Spirit. On the road of Christian misery, that’s the fast lane to success.
A Final (but Dangerous) Method
            If all of the above strategies for limiting the Bible’s capacity to affect your misery end up not working for you, there’s one last recourse. It’s simple, but not many people can do it successfully: you could study the Bible in all of its depth, and then just not do what it asks you to do. It takes some perseverance, but that road will definitely maximize your Christian misery. Knowing the will of God, and then willfully ignoring it—it takes a good deal of guts and a fundamental absence of wisdom—but if you can do it, you’ll be miserable for sure. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentine's Day Poem

* These are the lyrics for a song I wrote for this Valentine's Day. Obviously, it has a main audience of one person alone--my beloved wife--but I hope you enjoy it too, if you give it a read. It can be sung to the tune of Ellis Paul's song "Abiola."

Valentine’s Day 2018

Today is Valentine’s Day, but I don’t need a special day
To say the things I always mean whenever I look your way.

I delight in all you are, my love—my lady and my bride;
You’re the one that I rejoice to have standing by my side.

I love the way your smile speaks more to me than words,
And your laughter at the joys we share is the best thing that I’ve heard.

I love to see my lady reflected in our girl and boys,
And I see you clear when I see in them their brightness, kindness, joy.

You know your feelings in a flash, and you wear them on your sleeve;
In highs and lows, where e’er we go, you share your heart with me.

Now I, by contrast, don’t know how to express what’s inside of me,
But still you love this muddled mass of unspoken mysteries.

But there’s one thing that I know I feel, and I feel it in a flash,
When I ask my heart how it feels of you—oh, a feeling unsurpassed!

You’re the comfort that I run to at the end of a weary day;
You’re the solace that I lean on when the world’s not going my way.

You’re the best thing in my life, love—you and our kiddos three;
And it’s your love that shines right through the beauty of our family.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Photo of the Week

Show me your ways, Lord;
Teach me your paths.

- Psalm 25:4

Monday, February 12, 2018

Quote of the Week

"Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell."

- C. T. Studd, missionary to Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

I thank you, O God, for the relief and satisfaction of mind that comes with the firm assurance that you govern the world; for the patience and resignation to your providence that are afforded as I reflect that even the tumultuous and irregular actions of the sinful are, nevertheless, under your direction, who are wise, good, and omnipotent, and have promised to make all things work together for good to those who love you.

- Susanna Wesley

Friday, February 09, 2018

Repost: A Mountaintop Experience (originally posted June 18, 2015)

This story took place on Haystack Mountain, which rises from the far side of Mapleton in Aroostook County, Maine. It’s not a difficult climb, but the rocky top affords one a beautiful, open view for miles around. While I was home for the summer following my sophomore semester at college, I had made it a habit to climb up there and pray every few weeks. I had recently felt some stirrings in my conscience, prodding me to share my faith in conversations with acquaintances or even strangers, the thought of which makes the introvert in me want to curl up and hide. But as I prayed there on top of Haystack, I made a deal with God. Knowing that even though Haystack had a climbing-trail that was well-known in the area, it wasn’t a frequent occurrence to find others on the mountain at the same time as oneself, I prayed, “OK, God, if you really want me to witness to someone, send them up here to the mountaintop, and I’ll talk to them.” It was only about ten minutes later that I caught sight of a group ascending the mountain, led by a young, tattooed man with gold rings through his nipples. They made it to the top, a family group of four, who had apparently climbed the mountain to drink beer, swear, and chop away at an old stump with their jackknives while diligently ignoring my presence. I knew what I should do, but I certainly didn't want to. Both my own personality and the solitary culture of northern Maine held me back. I was so uncomfortable that I was writhing inside, and for a full half-hour I couldn’t make myself go over to them. Then I prayed, still hoping to get out of it: “OK, God, if you really want me to go over and talk to them, you’re going to have to give me a kick in the butt to get moving. Send me a sign!” Now, one should not pray for signs for things that you don’t want to do, because when they come, it leaves you in a very awkward place unless you buckle down and obey. Immediately after I prayed that prayer, quite literally as I was opening my eyes, I saw a small, brightly-colored falcon drop out of the sky and make one full circle around the mountaintop. This was my sign, and I knew it the moment I saw it. It was absolutely clear. Let me back up a bit to explain: when I was younger, I loved birds. I practically memorized my field guide. But the bird I loved most of all was a small, brightly-colored falcon called the American Kestrel. I had never actually seen one, not even in Aroostook County, where they’re not uncommon, but I loved that falcon nonetheless. As a boy, whenever my brother and I would make up superhero identities for ourselves, I would be “The Kestrel.” That bird came to symbolize life, joy, and, most of all, adventure. And now, in the split second after I prayed for a sign to embark on a heart-pounding adventure of my own, I see my very first kestrel drop out of the heavens above me. Well, that was enough for me. I got the message, swallowed my fear, and walked over to the family. I talked with them for about half an hour, mostly with the middle-aged mother, who seemed most receptive, while the three men kept whittling away at their stump-project. There was no mountaintop conversion that day, but I think I was able to bring some encouragement into her day, and it left me riding high at the wonderful, daring reality of a life lived in obedience to God.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Reading the Bible through a Cultural Filter

(Please note: the following is not entirely serious--it is written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, that offers insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.)

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

Chapter Two: How to Deal with the Bible
(Section Two: Reading the Bible through a Cultural Filter)

          Another strategy for limiting the Bible’s potential to destroy our misery is to read the Bible through a series of filters. Most of us already do this anyway. We have cultural filters, political filters, and even our own customized filters based on individual preferences. All of these filters help us to focus on the things we like, to ignore the things we don’t, or to convince ourselves that the Bible is saying things that we already agree with.
            First up: cultural filters. The truth is, you’re already reading the Bible through a cultural filter. You really don’t need my advice. In fact, you might be better off skipping this section entirely, because it likely has things in it that you may not have thought about before, and thinking about them might prove to be a dangerously broadening experience. But, for the sake of being thorough, here we go.
            If you’re an American Christian reading this book, you might be surprised to know that the vast majority of the world doesn’t think like you do. (But who really cares about the rest of the world, right?) The United States, along with other Western nations, are a wide mix of diverse cultures, but there are some overarching themes that bind us together. We’ll just touch on one here today: American culture is individualistic.
When I say that, I don’t just mean that all Americans are selfish materialists, but that our mental life is framed in individualistic terms. We view our lives from the vantage-point of a personal worldview in which I, myself, am the absolute center of my own identity. My decisions are my own, and my life is my own. We live by Shakespeare’s marvelously unbiblical maxim: “To thine own self be true.”
            Sounds pretty ordinary, right? Of course everybody sees everything from the vantage-point of their own personal identity. What other possible vantage-point could there be?
            Well, here’s the wacky thing: the majority of cultures throughout the world’s history have favored a communal perspective on identity, decision-making, and life in general—not an individualistic one. That is, most cultures in the world are not seeking to follow the advice of being true to yourself; rather, they are seeking to be true to their group identity. Their understanding of their identity begins with the group of which they’re a part, and not with their own name, occupation, and set of interests: they see themselves as part of their family, clan, tribe, or nation. And that’s their primary lens for viewing the world.
            Okay, so why does this dry bit of anthropology matter? Because the cultures of the biblical world were largely driven by a communal perspective, not an individualistic perspective. This underlying difference between our culture and the culture of the Bible is a tremendous asset to your Christian misery, because it means that you will be perpetually misunderstanding and misapplying the Scriptures.
            Take one particular example: in Ephesians 3:17b-19, the Apostle Paul says, “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
            Great verses! It’s pretty easy to read these and get all the warm and fuzzy feelings of knowing that I, in my personal relationship with God, can be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Wow!
The only problem is, that’s not exactly what these verses are saying. Paul might not disagree with an individualized application, but that’s not his main point here. His point (as it is throughout Ephesians) is that the grace, power, and plan of God are made manifest in the community of the church, and that it is in our communal relationship with God that we can grasp how wide and long and high and deep his love is. Our primary identity, here as in most places in Scripture, is not “me-and God,” it’s “us and God.” It’s not “I am a Christian,” it’s “We are the Body of Christ.”
The verses immediately around the passage I quoted (and really, the entirety of Ephesians) make it absolutely clear that Paul has in mind not individual Christians and their private devotional experiences, but the whole towering and triumphant life of the church considered in its unified, communal splendor. Even within the verses above, there was a hint of this meaning, which, if you’re a good American individualist, you probably just glossed over: “together with all the Lord’s holy people.” That doesn’t just mean that you personally get to know God’s love, and, oh, as an afterthought, all the other Christians get to know it too, each in their own private devotional lives. It means that it is within the context of our togetherness that we may deeply know the full depth of God’s love for us.
            Do you see why this matters now? Our individualistic culture helps to blind us to the absolute necessity of Christian community in our spiritual lives. (The English language helps out, too, by not indicating a difference between plural and singular “you” in some places where that distinction is important.) Thanks to our individualism, we can remain blissfully ignorant of the call to connect deeply with other Christians. We can imagine that we’re free to go it on our own, to develop a personal relationship with God that is unconnected to our commitment to a local church. That’s an idea that would have made the Apostle Paul start shooting off angry letters in ALL CAPS (Gal. 6:11).
We’re really off-base from New Testament Christianity in thinking that Christianity is about “me and God” and that deep connections with a church are a peripheral concern. Almost nothing could be further from the actual message of the Bible. The church is absolutely central to God’s work here and now, including God’s work in my own heart, and there’s no getting away from that. Unless, that is, you can read the Bible without coming to that realization at all.
            So it’s a marvelous thing that our culture fits us with such a nice set of blinders, so that we don’t even have to think about such things. (And, along those lines, I’d recommend that you forget these last few pages.) Then you can just go about your Christian life of individualistic “me and God” spirituality, and that will effectively cut you off from the powerful experience of knowing his love in the context of his church. The result, of course, is what we’ve wanted all along: the fashionable misery that’s all the rage these days.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Photo of the Week

What remaineth for my foes?
Blames and shames and overthrows.
For God himself I know will fight for me.

- from Psalm 56 of The Sidney Psalter, by Mary Sidney

Monday, February 05, 2018

Quote of the Week

"If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you...if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word which you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this."

- Marcus Aurelius, 2nd-century Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, from his Meditations

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

See, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled. My Lord, fill it. I am weak in the faith; strengthen me. I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent so that my love may go out to my neighbor. I do not have a strong and firm faith; at times I doubt and am unable to trust you altogether. O Lord, help me. Strengthen my faith and trust in you. In you I have sealed all the treasures I have. I am poor; you are rich and came to be merciful to the poor. I am a sinner; you are upright. With me there is an abundance of sin; in you is the fullness of righteousness. Therefore, I will remain with you. Amen.

- Martin Luther

Friday, February 02, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: The Gospel of Abraham

When we reach Genesis 12, we step into a new stage of God's salvation-history in Scripture. Here we have the beginning of God's plan to choose and fashion a people of his own, through which to bless the whole world. Gen. 12:1-3 gives us God's call to Abram (later to be called Abraham): "I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you... And all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." These verses, and particularly the final sentence, struck the early Christian church as being so clearly about Jesus, that the apostle Paul himself called Genesis 12:3 "the Gospel"! He wrote, "Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the Gospel in advance to Abraham: 'All nations will be blessed through you.'" (Gal. 3:8)

And, as we consider the history of God's plan, as revealed in the Bible, it becomes very clear that this verse, proclaimed to Abraham somewhere around 2000 BC, was indeed about Christ. What other event in all of Scripture could possibly be construed as the fulfillment of this promise, of Abraham's offspring blessing all the nations of the world? Not the exodus, not the giving of the OT Law, not the Davidic kingship, not the ministry of the prophets--nothing, in short, is so clear a fulfillment of this promise as the opening of God's covenant-family to the Gentile nations of the world, something that only happened through Jesus Christ. And right here, two thousand years before Jesus came, it was already being proclaimed to Abraham.

In a parallel passage in Gen. 13:14-17, God makes a further promise to Abram and his "seed" (some modern translations render this as "offspring"). This seed is both singular (which Paul notes as a direct indication that it is pointing to Christ, a use of "seed" that parallels with the Messianic prophecy in Gen. 3), and, at the same time, plural--"like the dust of the earth." Here we have the promise of Christ (the Seed) and of the church (the dust of the earth--the children of God who enter the covenant-family because of Jesus).

Two other minor points in chapter 12 are also worth reflecting on. The first point, which arises in v.7, will become a regular theme of our reflections on "Jesus in the Old Testament"--it says here that "the Lord appeared to Abram." As we'll see at multiple points in Abraham's story, these divine appearances are not metaphorical; they refer to an event in which God actually, visibly appears to Abraham and then interacts with him. Likewise, similar divine appearances of "the Lord" or "the angel of the Lord" (the latter of which is, as we'll see, almost always identified as "the Lord" himself) appear all throughout the first seven books of the Bible. The church has consistently interpreted these divine appearances as pre-incarnation manifestations of Jesus himself--that is, of God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Why would these appearances need to be read as manifestations of Christ, rather than simply as God the Father (or as God considered in the abstract, apart from any Trinitarian identification)? Because they present an otherwise insoluble problem in Old Testament theology. You see, the Bible is remarkably clear, in multiple places, that God cannot be seen, both as a matter of fact (as spirit, he is invisible) and as a warning: that if God were to be seen, the human observer would be destroyed by the unbearable weight of an encounter with the divine (see Exodus 19:21, 33:20; Judges 13:22; Job 9:11; John 1:18; 1 Tim. 6:16). And yet, despite this clear teaching of Scripture, God visibly appears, over and over again--sometimes, within the same chapter that declares that God cannot be seen. 

So what do we make of this conundrum? The solution is given in John 1:18--although God the Father cannot be seen, the Son has made Him known to us. Christ is, in the words of the Apostle Paul, "the image of the invisible God." John describes him as the Logos, "the Word," the eternal self-expression of the Father. So when we see God appearing in a way that human beings can interact with in the Old Testament, the only biblical answer to that mystery is that this is an appearance of the Logos, of God's visible self-expression as mankind, whom we later know in the person of Jesus Christ. So, yes, this means that Christians have, for a very long time, believed that the Son of God was chatting with Abraham two thousand years before his incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth.

The final point of interest to note here is that in Abraham's story--the initial, prototypical story of God's chosen people--we already have a foreshadowing of the journeys of both Israel and Christ. Just as Israel went down to Egypt and then came back, and just as the Christ-child went down to Egypt and then came back, so also we see Abraham here, immediately after God's act of choosing him, make that familiar journey to Egypt and back again. Though no doubt he did not know it, he was already tracing out the pattern of the story of God's great redemption.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Popular Methods of Avoiding the Bible

(Please note: the following is not entirely serious--it is written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, that offers insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.)

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

Chapter Two: How to Deal with the Bible
(Section One: Popular Methods for Avoiding It)

In the previous chapter, I mentioned that Bible reading is one of the forms of spiritual reading that you should avoid. In this chapter, I’ll explain a little about why that’s the case, and give a few helpful tips for how to navigate your way through the dangers of the Bible. Of course, as a Christian, you can’t really get away from the Bible completely, but there are a few classic tricks you can use to be able to ignore certain aspects of Scripture, even while convincing everybody around you that you’re a devoted Bible student.

Fundamentally, the problem with the Bible is that it doesn’t recognize my right to live the way I want to live. This was clearly an oversight, since we know from our modern culture that my personal right to choose my own lifestyle is the most important thing of all. Strangely, not only does the Bible not recognize this most basic of enlightened principles; it sometimes appears to disagree entirely. Instead of insisting on my right to choose my own lifestyle, it instead insists that my highest dignity is in conforming myself to the glory of God’s image, my created heritage. That may sound nice and all, until you realize that putting our image-of-God identity into practice actually requires letting God change the way we are right now, and replacing it with the way He thinks we’re supposed to be. Doesn’t sound quite so nice anymore, does it?

The Easiest (and Most Popular) Method 
The best way to navigate the dangers of the Bible is not to put much effort into reading it. Most Christians are told that they should read the Bible regularly, and many do. But another very popular option is just to have a whole bunch of Bibles around your home, and then forget to spend any time reading them. Just make sure that you treat it like a chore, like one more thing to get done on your daily checklist of annoying little tasks, and I can almost guarantee that you won’t end up putting much time into it.

You’ll still be exposed to some Bible reading and teaching in your church life. But it’s not too hard to let your mind drift off to lots of other things in the middle of a sermon, so you don’t have to worry too much about that. Sermons are marvelous times to think about what you’ll have for lunch, or about a football game, or about what the weird people in the other pew are wearing. You don’t actually have to pay attention to the Bible during that time; and if you don’t, you’ll be well on your way to our common goal.

The side benefit of this method is that it also gives you a healthy dose of guilty feelings. If you believe that you should be reading your Bible, but never actually do, then you’ll probably be pretty good at recognizing what a miserable failure you are at the Christian life. But remember, that’s what we’re going for! Misery is the way Christians are choosing to live their lives right now, and if you want to be a part of it, there’s almost no better way than to avoid the Bible while beating yourself up for it.

Cherrypick the Promises 
But what if, despite all your good intentions for letting your Bible reading slip through the cracks of your daily life, you still find yourself reading it from time to time? The good news is that many Christians have, over the years, developed methods for “cherrypicking” from the Bible—that is, a handy way to pay attention to the parts that you like, while ignoring the parts that you don’t. The truth is, most Christians do this already, even if they don’t realize it. We humans just have a natural tendency to gravitate to the things that make us feel good, and to gloss over the hard bits and the pieces we don’t understand.

One of the most popular ways to do this is to focus on God’s “promises,” usually by taking those promises completely out of context. If you’re willing to ignore context (as I think you probably should), then you can just pull out all the nice things that God says he will do for Abraham, or King David, or ancient Israel, or the church as a community, and then apply them directly to yourself as an individual. And a lot of these promises are really sweet! They offer hope and joy and peace and love, promises of future blessings by the truckload. There’s almost nothing better for creating a positive, warm-and-fuzzy feeling in your heart. This is especially true if, as we mentioned before, you diligently ignore the context, especially if the context makes those promises dependent on your behavior.

It’s wonderful that we live in a culture where Bible resources like these are readily available to you, so that you don’t even have to do the work of cherrypicking. We have cards and handbooks and whole versions of the Bible that are devoted to drawing attention to these great and wonderful promises of God. Such things have actually done a great deal of good in many people’s lives, and even brought them closer to God, but if you’re able to use them with an eye for blindly ignoring a promise’s context, then it can keep the Bible from ever challenging the way you live. And that’s a tremendous asset.

It hasn’t always been this way, though. Once upon a time, people actually cherrypicked the challenging parts of the Bible instead of the easy ones. Your author once came across a dusty old book from more than a century ago: The Shining Way, written by a Baptist minister named Henry V. Dexter. It was a lovely compendium of Scripture passages. But here’s the truly appalling thing—instead of a collection of promises about what God was going to do for me, this book was a whole collection of verses about “duties” that Christians were supposed to do toward God, toward our neighbors, toward our families, etc. Talk about a downer! It took the hardest parts of the Bible, the parts that would actually require me to change the way I was living, and obscenely tried to slam all of those things together between two covers. Reading it was rather like entering a boxing ring and facing an opponent while your hands are tied behind your back. I’m glad we’ve moved on from obedience-centered views of the Bible, and have come to something more appealing to our modern sensibilities.