Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Listening for the Spirit

July 24, 2020

I take the Holy Spirit seriously. At least to the best of my ability. I know He’s at work, and that his methods and timings are not always ones I might expect. I don’t expect miracles in the Biblical sense, necessarily, but I do hold out the reality they could happen.

The first impression is important. As much as our culture attempts to convince us that first impressions are judgmental and flawed they remain necessary. In a sinful and broken world where trust is elusive and things and people are not always what we might want them to be, we look for clues to help guide us in how to respond.

His clothes appear clean, though he’s traveling with nothing more than a mostly-consumed bottle of Diet Coke and a jacket. He’s in his mid-to-late 30’s, I estimate. There’s a faint odor of unwashed clothes but it’s the stale odor, not the foul one. Not yet. I’ve learned in ministry that smells can tell you a lot the eyes might miss.

Yes, I have 15 minutes and I invite him in. He clearly has things on his mind though it’s impossible to tell yet what they might be. We sit in the front office and he begins to talk. Not disjointed, but the connections are sometimes complicated and slippery. He has ideas, ideas he’s trying to understand and more importantly trying to apply. He quotes passages from Scripture, demonstrates a familiarity with the Word of God and Christian concepts. But it’s also clear he’s spent time exploring many different sources and ideas, something he confirms later.

The intellect at work is not small. A good vocabulary, a line of reasoning that, while slightly flawed in terms of philosophical categories is still grappling with aspects of reality most people don’t spend much time contemplating – the interconnectedness of everything. How to make sense of the reality we are bound together in more fundamental ways than Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter might have us think. That these ties that bind us grounded in our shared creatureliness entail obligations to one another we are too quick to gloss over in our bid for Facebook and Instagram popularity or notoriety.

He asks for a pad of paper and a pen, quickly sketching and writing out things as he talks, helping him track his line of thought. It’s difficult to tell if he’s under the influence. If it is, it’s chemical as I don’t smell alcohol on his breath, no slurring of speech. Is there mental illness as well? Odds are good of that as well. He wants validation but grows fidgety when I’m talking instead of him. He’s trying to listen but clearly also figuring out what he wants to say next more than listening to what I have to say. Certainly no shortage of that these days in people who consider themselves sane and rational!

He continues trying to drive towards his point, what he really wants to apply in his life but it’s difficult for him. Minutes click by. Not unpleasantly. As I listen I also watch. Body language says a lot, like odors and clothing. Is he violent? His obvious agitation when I speak, when I try to validate aspects of his line of thought while offering tweaks and adjustments, identifying limitations to how far some of his ideas can be blended together, they convey that he’s really here to talk, not to listen, and perhaps it would be better to do that. Perhaps dialogue is too much to hope for in this setting.

Of course I wonder as well if he’s violent. Alone in the office, I try to size him up. Not a large man but size isn’t everything, depending on what substances he might be under the influence of. I know that letting him in and sitting with him like this entails a risk I’d prefer not to think about but have to. I try to stay loose physically and concentrated on him, watching for tell-tale signs that might give me a second’s warning if he becomes agitated. I don’t think he will. But my gut instincts, while right far more often than wrong are not perfect.

This is a child of God. I ache for him as he runs circles in his mind, looking for how to connect the loose ends, perhaps looking for the break in the circle that will allow him peace from these dog-eared ideas. I ache for whatever has diverted him from the channel of what we call normal and into whatever dry riverbed he’s ambling down.

I have another appointment that I’m now missing. Quick text messages to apologize. Yet this seems where I’m supposed to be at the moment, even though I look forward to my standing Friday engagement. Still, I’m apparently needed here and now with this man and his grasping for understanding and application. After an hour I beg off. I stand, move us towards the door. We’ll meet again next Tuesday, a day and time he writes in ink on the back of his hand. Hopefully it will be washed off before then. Less because I don’t want to see him again and more because I hope he’s washing himself well enough. What will kill a person quicker, unresolved mental ramblings or poor hygiene? Perhaps it’s a toss-up. A matter of how you define death.

I don’t think I’ll see him Tuesday. But it’s on my calendar just in case. Because we are bound together, he and I, this unlikely wanderer and this unlikely pastor. Bound together by a God who created both of us, redeemed us both, and offers to abide with both of us. Offers more to create a new and eternal relationship to one another. So I’ll put it on my calendar and be here just in case. Listening for the voice of God the Holy Spirit, knowing I may not realize I’ve heard it until long after it’s wandered down the railroad tracks and disappeared into the underpasses.

Covering the Bases

July 2, 2020

As I continue to work slowly through a book on improving my preaching, the next chapter deals with different ways a speaker/preacher connects with the people they are speaking to.

Ethos listeners prioritize the relationship between the speaker and the hearer. If there is a strong connection with the speaker the message will be heard better. Likewise (though not explicitly stated in the book) if the relationship is strained or not good between the speaker and the listener, the listener is going to have a harder time connecting with what is being said. Sometimes this is referred to as an issue of integrity or character on the part of the speaker or the hearer’s perception of their integrity or character. Reaching people who react well based on ethos involves reminding them of this shared relationship. Speaking about we and us as opposed to them or you. Referencing personal stories or the impact of the sermon topic or verses on you personally.

Logos listeners focus on the cerebral or intellectual content of a sermon. They want to be presented with ideas to chew on and mull over or be challenged by. They’re most engaged when learning something new, and sermons that include a focus on information sit well with this group.

Pathos listeners react on the emotional level. They love real-life stories or anecdotes, but they also are most attentive when they are part of the sermon, and can connect what is being preached to their lives.

Ideally every sermon should have some of each aspect in it to best reach as many of your hearers as possible. And that seems reasonable. I can certainly confirm that people who are not in a good relationship with me have a harder time hearing what I say in the sermon, and are more apt to take things the wrong way (or at least in a way I wasn’t intending). Likewise I believe a good preacher should be teaching in a sermon. Not like I would teach a Bible study class, but there should be elements where I’m sharing what I’ve learned rather than just rehashing what I’ve heard all my life from others. The familiar can be comforting but if that’s all I give, people get bored. Or at least I get bored! And I’ve seen firsthand how a good story can really draw people into the sermon.

I like to think my sermons involve all three of these ways of preaching, though certainly the balance will vary from week to week. I also find myself hearing St. Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth emphasizing how we should also be careful not to be too calculated in how we speak the Word of God. Ultimately the power in a sermon is God’s Word and the Holy Spirit at work in that Word. While I want to be a good and effective preacher I also realize I can only control this to a certain extent, and there are limitations to my abilities so that I shouldn’t rely on them.

At the end of the day (Sunday?) I hope people have heard the Word of God applied to their lives in a concrete way. I’m experienced enough to know this can happen when I personally think my sermon stunk. And it can not happen when I think my sermon was a home run. I resonate well with those masters of the preaching craft who insist that if the sermon stinks, it’s my fault. But if the sermon is really good, then God gets the praise and glory. That’s how it should be, not as an excuse for me to neglect my duties or be shoddy in my preparation, but as a means of keeping my humbled and my community focused on what is important – Christ crucified.

Preaching Progress

June 30, 2020

About ten years ago – oh wait, it was really just this past February! – I began a book on improving my preaching.

Then the world fell apart.

But the book remains on my desk open to the chapter I have been working on sporadically for several months. Chapter 2. I did say sporadically, didn’t I? Intermittently? More not than often? Anyways.

Chapter 2 has me go through past sermons over the last several years to determine when parts of the Bible I primarily preach out of. He divides Scripture into different sections –

  • Genesis-Deuteronomy (Pentateuch)
  • Joshua – Esther (History)
  • Job – Song of Solomon (Wisdom Literature)
  • Isaiah – Malachi (Prophets)
  • Matthew – Acts (Gospels/Acts)
  • Romans – Philippians (Pauline Epistles)
  • Hebrews – Revelation (General Epistles & Revelation)

What I learned in this is my system of saving my sermons does not lend itself to an easy examination of what texts I primarily preached from. So I had to open every single individual sermon to determine what I preached from. Which is incredibly time-consuming, and so I didn’t go through five years of back sermons. I made it through about a year and a half and I’m going to call that good.

I preach primarily on the Gospel texts. This makes good sense as I believe the Gospel should predominate in worship. However I often incorporate the Old Testament lesson or the Epistle reading or even the psalm into the sermon as well, so that even while I’m preaching mostly on the Gospel readings it isn’t exclusive to the other readings. I guess this is good. The author’s idea is that you should have a balanced use of Scripture in your sermons over time, an idea I agree with in principle so long as the Gospel predominates.

Ready for Chapter 3, I guess!

Filtering

June 22, 2020

Thanks to Ken for sharing an article with me from the Wall Street Journal about Amazon’s discriminatory advertising practices. The article highlights something everyone should know but is easily forgotten – Internet companies like Amazon and Facebook and Google are just that, companies. They are not required to provide equal access to everyone. They are not required to sell every possible product that is available. And each one answers to shareholders and is very responsive to market forces.

Which means if you publish something that might be considered politically incorrect, you may not find your product listed or highlighted or advertised on these sites. Which means of course you’ll have a harder time making people aware of your work.

This brief reminder also highlights another level of censorship from some of these same companies – which materials are made available in electronic format for e-readers, and whether titles available today will be available in the future.

Both of which are reasons I love me a good used bookstore, and I’m fortunate to have several not too far away that can help me get my hands on all sorts of things that may increasingly become difficult to find through Amazon. And it’s why I prefer actual books to e-readers (I’ve never owned an e-reader, even though I love the convenience factor they provide). You never know when your copy of something may end up being one of the last copies in existence because of censorship.

Poetry and Pentecost

May 30, 2020

My favorite poem for Pentecost, by T.S. Eliot:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”

ANF: Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus

May 20, 2020

The ongoing saga of my life-long effort to read through all the Ante-Nicene Fathers’ writings….

The first volume of the ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) set concludes with a collections of quotes and paraphrases of Irenaeus from fragmentary documents as well as other authors.  These 55 snippets are various in nature, some conveying complete thoughts and others without much meaning in and of themselves but clearly part of larger works which have either been lost to history or remain to be discovered or translated.

Some notable inclusions:

Section III – contains a remembrance of Polycarp’s visit to Rome during the papacy of Anicetus.  They disagreed on the proper day to observe Easter, yet refused to let their different traditions cause a rift between them.  So firm was their commitment to unity rather than division that St. Anicetus allowed St. Polycarp to preside over the Eucharist celebration in the Church in Rome.  The translator references the Council of Arles in 314 AD as commemorating this by decreeing formally that the holy Eucharist should be consecrated by any foreign bishop present at its celebration, but I can’t find corroboration for this assertion.

Section XIThe business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death.  (as quoted by John of Damascus, likely from a work of Irenaeus entitled Miscellaneous Dissertations, which is referred to by Eusebius).

Section XVI – There may be some uncertainty as to  whether this is really from Irenaeus or not, but in treating the topic of the Fall in Genesis 3, Irenaeus lauds Eve not as the weaker of the the humans but the stronger.  She resisted Satan’s temptations for some period of time, even arguing with him, while Adam ate immediately when she offered him the forbidden fruit without any objection or apparent misgivings.

Section XXIV – He asserts that Matthew’s Gospel was intended for Jewish readers.

Section XXXII – Quotes a tradition from Josephus, that Moses was not just brought up on the Egyptian Pharaoh’s palace, he served as a general in a military effort against the Ethiopians.  Because of his victory he married the daughter of the Ethiopian king.  The translator offers this tradition as perhaps an explanation of St. Stephen’s words  in Acts 7:22, emphasizing Moses’ esteem and wisdom before being selected by God to confront the Pharaoh.

Section LV – A fascinating commentary on the mother of James and John asking Jesus to grant her sons special favor  in glory (Matthew 20:17-28).  Usually, commentators look poorly upon her request, coming as it does so immediately upon Jesus’ prediction of his upcoming suffering and death.  It seems to be the height of not  just pride or grasping for  honor or glory, but terribly poor  timing!  But Irenaeus looks at it differently.  He instead praises their mother.  While we often focus on the first part of Jesus’ prophesy, that he will be tried and condemned to death and be flogged and crucified, the mother hears only the last words.  So firm is her faith – according to Irenaeus – that she considers the tribulations and sufferings of Jesus truly as inconsequential compared to the glory they will bring to him and his followers.  Precisely because she makes the request at this particular point, rather than after the resurrection is a praiseworthy demonstration of faith on her part!  The Saviour was speaking of the cross, while she had in view the glory which admits no suffering.  This woman, therefore, as I have already said, is worthy of our admiration, not merely for what she sought, but also for the occasion of her making the request.  

With this, I’ve completed the first volume of the  Ante-Nicene Fathers.  Thank you again too Lois for her generous gift.  At this rate, I may indeed finish them before I die – just barely!

 

Good News?

May 4, 2020

Readership of this blog has increased since March, and is higher than it has been on a sustained level for the last year.  I blame that mostly on people with a lot more spare time on their hands and an  apparent scarcity of quality reading material.  This site included!

On Considering Death

March 25, 2020

Thanks to Jo Anne for sharing the following C.S. Lewis quote:

“How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

As I began verifying the quote it was quickly apparent it has received a lot of Internet attention in the past several weeks.  Many people are rushing to caution against interpreting C.S. Lewis incorrectly and thinking he would encourage us to not take precautions against COVID-19.  How quickly we want to interpret things to support our point of view or discourage competing views!

Rather than go this direction, I’ll offer this observation.  Lewis lived in a time when mortality was a much more real thing.  Not that people have ceased dying since the mind-20th century, but certainly our familiarity with death has continued that drastic decrease already underway in Lewis’ day.  As he points out aptly from history, death has long been an all-too-familiar companion to vast majorities of people.  Glancing through history books where the sweep of empires roils back and forth through the pages should give ample evidence death was more common and more brutal than we are accustomed to thinking of it these days.  Lewis himself served in World War I and lived through World War II.  He understood firsthand what it looks like when millions of people suddenly encounter death.

Now, death is an anomaly in the West.  At least death before a certain age.  Now we presume death is something primarily for the unfortunate few with pre-existing conditions or for the elderly.  We hide death away in sanitized rooms with strict visiting hours and palliative care to mask the reality of death for those who would prefer not to face it head on.  The ever-increasing average life span in the last century has lulled many people into a false confidence that death may – for now – be an unfortunate eventuality, but  we need pay it little mind until we are of a certain age.

Frankly our secular culture demands this.  If there is nothing more to life and existence than a random assemblage of atoms for an infinitesimally small period of time and then nothing but a rather swift dissipation, then this life becomes extraordinarily important.  Ironic, as we insist life is random and without meaning that we should cling to it all the more tightly!  Yet this is who we are.  Enlightened materialists unable to cope with the cold reality of the meaninglessness we have clothed our lives in, yet scoffing at the foolish theists who insist on the nobility and meaning and purpose of our bare, unadorned nakedness.  It is not what we accomplish that gives our lives meaning, they dare to say, but simply that we are.  Silliness, of course.  And our culture returns to ignoring death as long as possible, studiously occupying ourselves with any number of equally unimportant and random details.

Lewis holds a far more realistic point of view, which is that life is desperately unpredictable despite our attempts to make it predictable.  None of our advances have changed this reality but, given a broader range of alleged understanding we pretend our information is somehow power.  And it isn’t that we don’t have some power.  Anti-biotics and better understandings of hygiene have greatly improved both quality and length of life, as have advances in dentistry, surgery, and a host of other -ies.  But it only takes another global conflict of the micro-biological (COVID-19) or macro-biological sort (warfare) to remind us how easily our routines and control is upended.

Another important thing to bear in mind when reading Lewis’ quote is that he is speaking to Christians.  His words make no sense (or have no basis for making sense) to a non-theist.  Only the Christian can truly live this life in confidence and hope and joy, knowing that death is an unpleasant passage to something much grander and larger and better.  The Christian should not despise this life, but they should hold it in the proper relationship to the scope of eternity – if that is possible.  So we exhort the living continually and mourn the dead in Christ for a time.  We acknowledge our mortality with an even eye and a steady hand, neither rushing towards it prematurely nor fleeing from it inordinately.

This allows the Christian to be brave and courageous, and to take risks for the sake of loving our neighbor that may be admirable to non-theists but must ultimately  be (in their eyes) the height of folly.  So it is that Christians have always laid their lives down in service to those in need when nobody else was willing to take the risk.  Christians have died with the victims of plague and casualties of war they tended to, just as their patients died.  Their courage and love has been often noted, and hopefully will be emulated today and for as long as we wait for our Lord’s return.

So don’t be too quick to co-opt Lewis’ words to either disparage precautions against contagion or to summon Christians to adherence to social distancing.  Rather, in Christ may his followers live this day in joy, loving God and neighbor as we are given opportunity to do so and without too much over-calculating of the possible costs.  All of the costs have ultimately already been paid for us by Christ.  Let us love our neighbors who insist on safe distances between us and them, but let us be the first to show love and care for those who do not have that luxury.  We are all of us in the Father’s hands.  What more could we ask for?

 

 

Apocrypha – 4 Maccabees

March 25, 2020

This is the last of the apocryphal writings, at least so far as they are put together in The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition with Notes.

This final entry seems one of the most easiest to dismiss as non-canonical.  The primary theme in this writing is the supremacy of reason over emotions, a thought prevalent in Greek philosophy.  It may have been authored as late as the first century AD but it is difficult to determine.  The author utilizes both Biblical stories as well as extra-biblical historical events to demonstrate how reason rules over the emotions rather than the reverse.

He draws on King David as well as inter-testamental events, most particularly the martyrdom of Eleazar and seven brothers who were martyred under Antiochus Epiphanes as part of his effort to force the Jews first into apostasy and eventually into full Hellenization.  4 Maccabees expands upon the account in 2 Maccabees 7 about these seven brothers, providing quite gory details about each one of the seven, and providing them with lengthy admonitions as they were brought forward for torture and execution, proclaiming eloquently how it was better to die faithfully than to live a lie.  4 Maccabees ends with the final words of the mother to her children.  The author seems to lose his original focus, so caught up is he in the graphic depictions of torture and death he has provided.

Reason as an attribute or quality in and of itself is not a dominant theme in Scripture, unlike wisdom.   I see reason as such subsumed into the larger and far more Biblical category of Wisdom.  For wisdom recognizes and sets the boundaries on what we can reasonably deduce or ascertain, recognizing first and foremost that even our reason is no longer trustworthy since the Fall.

I’m glad I took the time to finally read these works.  They aren’t writings I’m going to spend further time and effort except as necessary for clarification or to answer specific questions.  But it’s good to have a general idea of what they say and to recognize how they differ rather markedly, usually, from canonical Biblical writings.

 

Apocrypha – 2 Esdras

March 24, 2020

Another apocryphal writing claiming authorship by the Old Testament figure Ezra.  This, like 1 Esdras, contains historical errors which make this almost impossible, such as claiming (in 1:40) the advent of the Biblical prophet Malachi (who dates to roughly 430 BC) even though the book claims to be written by Ezra in the neighborhood of 574 BC.  The Jewish people did not view this book as canonical, and I think we are right to treat it similarly.  Many scholars argue this book was likely written in the late first century AD, after the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans.  If this is the case, the author is projecting back to the first destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in light of the second destruction by the Romans.

The book itself is primarily a recounting of a series of visions and angelic visitations attributed to Ezra.  As such, the genre of the book is most accurately apocalyptic, having to do with end times and seeking in large measure to answer the question of why so many people apparently will not be saved.  It affirms the bodily resurrection of the dead (1:23, 31) and also seems to refer to the Messiah (2:41).

An angel by the name of Uriel is the primary messenger to Ezra, providing him with a series of seven visions designed to grant Ezra comfort and a modicum of understanding as to how and why God does things they way he does.  Those who reject God are condemned and those who suffer as God’s people are encouraged to maintain strength and hope as their trust will be vindicated.