Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

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.

Apocrypha – 1 Esdras

March 23, 2020

With this entry in my Apocrypha posting series, we move from those books associated with Western Christianity to apocryphal writings more prevalent in other Christian  traditions and Judaism.  Again, these are generally not accepted as canonical – on the same level as the books of the Old and New Testaments, but various groups at various times have either included them alongside the canonical Scriptures or even included them with them.

1 Esdras purports to be written either by the Old Testament prophet Ezra or a near-contemporary of his, providing specific details about Ezra’s work in rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple in the late 6th and early 5th centuries.  It draws heavily on Old Testament passages from 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah.  However it also has several direct contradictions of Biblical passages in Haggai and Esther.  The author undoubtedly did not intend harm in their retelling and reworking of the Biblical accounts, but we should treat it as such, rather than a work inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The book details the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple.  It begins briefly with the timeframe directly before the fall of Jerusalem and then leaps to the time of Cyrus the Persian and the decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild.  As with other apocryphal writings it expands greatly on the Biblical material, purporting to record specific prayers and exchanges between Biblical and extra-biblical figures.  One such example is an extended section detailing a competition between three bodyguards of King Darius of the Persians, with each describing what they think the strongest thing in the world is.  One claims wine, another the king, and the third women.  The latter position, voiced by Zerubbabel (who cheats and also includes truth as the alternate, strongest thing) is judged the winner.

The work concludes with Ezra’s reading of the Law to God’s people.  Again, an interesting book to some degree but certainly not as reliable as the Old Testament canon.

ANF – Justin’s Hortatory Address to the Greeks

March 18, 2020

This brief apologetic was authored by Justin Martyr in the second century.  It is – along with The Discourse to the Greeks – disputed by some scholars as to whether Justin actually is the author or not.  But barring any conclusive evidence I’ll treat it as likely his.

This is a much more thorough treatment of whether or not the Greeks should continue to believe in their deities or the Christian God.  He does this by dealing directly with not just the Greek myths in general but their particular proponents and adherents – well respected poets and philosophers.  Homer and Hesiod are dealt with as Greek poets claiming to describe divine truths.  The picture they paint of the Greek gods is one less of divine power and authority and more of very human frailties and divisions.

Thales of Miletus is referenced as the start of the great Greek philosophical traditions.  Justin demonstrates the disagreements between great Greek philosophers over the fundamentals of existence and nature, proceeding eventually to Plato and Aristotle whom Justin deals with at more length, demonstrating the lack of agreement between them over the most elemental of issues.  Justin’s major point is there is no unanimity and therefore no authority in the Greek traditions to which the Greeks can reliably adhere.  The Greek deities are hardly gods of any proper or helpful sort, and natural philosophers can’t agree on the nature of reality either in the realm of ideals or the realm of matter.

Justin then goes on to elaborate on the antiquity of the Bible compared to the relatively new ideas of Greek poets and philosophers.  He refers to various Greek ancient Greek writers already familiar to some degree with the writings of the Old Testament and specifically Moses.

One of the most fascinating sections of this writing is in Chapter XIII, where Justin relates the history of the Septuagint – the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.

Justin moves on to quote Greek oracles and prophets and eventually philosophers (including Plato and Aristotle) that side with the monotheistic principles of Scripture as opposed to the polytheistic stage of Greek deities.

It’s an impressive treatise, utilizing the respected writers of the Greeks themselves to show the religious ideas and assumptions of the Greeks are fundamentally flawed and baseless, and then offering the much older testimony of Scripture, many of the concepts of which were later reinforced by the Greeks’ own writers.

ANF – Justin on the Sole Government of God

March 17, 2020

Another disputed writing of Justin Martyr in the second century, but one certainly in keeping with the other disputed works I’ve already reviewed.

This treatise is aimed at directing his Greek readers and hearers to monotheism utilizing the sayings and teachings of Greek writers.  He calls on Aeschylus, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Sophocles, Euripides, Menander and others, citing them directly as they make statements pertaining to the singular nature of God.

Justin’s point is that Greek polytheism is antithetical to Greek writers themselves.  He is not dealing with Trinitarian issues nor should this treatise be intepreted somehow as an argument against Trinitarianism.  There is a fundamental difference between worshiping multiple, separate and unique deities (polytheism) and worshiping one single God (Deuteronomy 6:4) who is comprised of three distinct aspects or persons bound together in divine unity (John 10:30).

Once again Justin does and admirable job of apologetics by marshaling the respected voices of Greek culture in defense of Biblical monotheism.  He does not spend much time pushing for the Biblical identity of this singular god, content more with pointing out that Christian monotheism should in no way be rejected as baseless when the Greeks themselves revere writers of their own who reached the same conclusions.

Thy Strong Word

March 11, 2020

She’s alone when I knock on the door.  The first time I met her, several years ago, it was she and her husband.  Recently relocated from further south where they had lived their lives as, among other things, active members of a Lutheran church.  But now they were older and beginning to falter a bit and to be closer to family they moved to a care facility here.  I took them Communion a few times before their daughter intervened, worrying it was more confusing for them than helpful.  A year or more passes, the daughter calls back.  Could I bring Communion to her mother now?  The confusion isn’t any better, so whatever stress entailed in me visiting seems no worse than the stress her mother normally lives with.

I’ve been making visits again for a few months now.  Her door is usually ajar and I knock.   I always tell her who I am and why I’m there.  It’s clear she’s confused, but she’s willing to receive Communion from a stranger-who-really-isn’t-a-stranger.  She often comments that she’s confused and doesn’t know what’s going on.  Today she sits on her couch with a blanket over her legs and her walker in front of her.  The television is on loud playing some black and white movie.

Since I just communed four other people in the same facility, I go to wash out one of the Communion cups.  As I finish I see a photo – clearly of she and her husband.  Many years ago.  The sun is shining on them and they look to be in their early 20’s at the oldest.  A beautiful reminder that the frail woman who looks at me hopefully but also with great trepidation was not always so.

I’ve learned that trying to make conversation with her is both uncomfortable and difficult, so I move to the brief order of service I use on Communion calls.  For the Bible reading I opt for the 23rd Psalm.  It’s the same reading I used with her last week and I know she enjoyed it and recited it from memory with me.  Since she likely doesn’t remember we used it last time, I use it again, changing the version on my app to the King James Version.  Sure enough, she joins right in for 70% of it.  She’s visibly calmer after we finish.

Now the Words of Institution, and it’s clear she remembers these as well, mouthing along in parts of it.  She recites the Lord’s Prayer with me and receives the bread and the wine.  She’s from the older tradition, and as well doesn’t trust her hands as much, so I place the wafer on her tongue and hold the small cup of wine to her lips.  I pack my things to go.

Sometimes, I open the Bible up.  And no matter where I open it to, it speaks to me.  This is the first time she’s offered much of anything conversationally since I’ve known her.  I smile and agree that God speaks to us when we’re reading his Word.  My Bible is in the other room.  Would you like me to get it?  She nods.  I find it easily on her nightstand and bring it to her.  Her whole face lights up when she takes it in her hands.  She flips through it, at a loss, looking for something but either not knowing what or where.  I notice a bookmarked page with highlighting on it.  I help her flip back to that.

Luke 12Just reading the title makes me feel better already, she says with a smile and I’m amazed at how present she is and how at peace she is.  Do Not Be Anxious.  I wonder if she highlighted that or her daughter did?  Would you read it to me, I ask her.  She hesitates a bit.  You don’t have to read all of it, just some of it I say.   She begins reading.  She loses her place a few times but corrects herself.  Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life….

The words of a man who claimed to be the very Son of God ring out in that small room with the  TV turned off.  Words she has heard over and over again across the span of a life from the young, confident girl in the photo to the frail,  confused woman on the couch.  Doing the best she can to keep from panicking.  Alone after so many years of being with a partner and a family.  His Word every bit as applicable and comforting and true as it was for the thousands who first heard him speak it 2000 years or so ago on a sunny hillside on the other side of the world.

As I take my leave and look back through the closing door, she’s still sitting with the Bible in her lap.  So much better than the blare of the television earlier.  A word not simply for waking up or going to sleep but for the uncertainties of a quiet afternoon by herself in a world  that has changed around her until she’s no longer certain who she is or where she is.  But those words are anchors, holding her fast to a truth she has clung to through all the changes of life, words that will lead her out of the confusion temporarily for now, but completely and permanently at last.

 

 

Dreadfully Disappointed

February 8, 2020

My post the other day generated more than a few comments from people who know me personally.  Worry.  Potential offense.  I’m reminded that it’s impossible to control how someone else hears what you say, a lesson learned in homiletics and years in front of classrooms and now years in the pulpit.  Sometimes it works in your favor and sometimes it doesn’t.  Words are tricky things, as are ears and hearts.  I’m grateful for the concerned feedback, a reminder that as often as it feels as though I’m shouting into a void, these words are being heard in different places and different ears, some of them close at hand.

Dreadfully disappointed is a powerful phrase.  In a culture that demands a facile self-confidence, to express disappointment in oneself is less and less commonplace.  In our drive to replace genuine hope with vague, unmerited self-congratulatory honors, where everyone wins a prize even though every player knows darn well who actually won, our psychological radars go off when someone says something negative about themselves.

So while I have clarified my original post somewhat, the statement remains.  There are moments – not a continuity of existence but certainly moments – when I am dreadfully disappointed.  Dreadfully aware of how much more I could and should be.  Better son, better husband, better father, better pastor, better neighbor.  When I’m aware that such sentiments are probably what Martin Luther struggled with in some sense but I know I’m not a good enough linguist or theologian to employ the German word he used to describe it.

More shortcomings.

If only I had studied Latin.  And German.  And more Greek and Hebrew.  If only I read more non-stop, except for those non-stop moments of fulfilling all my other vocational hats.  To  be smarter, more eloquent, a better example…there are moments when the weight of those cumulative shortcomings hangs heavy and then passes.  I see that heaviness in others sometimes.  Something dull behind the eyes and in the tone of voice.  Sometimes we just need to acknowledge where we are and who we are.   Not necessarily so that others can talk us out of it, but so that others can stand with us.

There are moments when everything is just right – including myself.  When there is harmony and unity and things are easy.  There are moments of confidence.  But there are also moments of dreadful disappointment.  Of a desire to be more, and a wondering when such longings and disappointments will pass.

I know when they will.  A day of trumpets and clouds, a day of shouts and songs and cries.  A day when body and soul are reunited and when they are finally whole and one and perfect.  A day of deliverance, the final judgment and the final verdict before an eternity – finally – of peace I can’t even know how to desire properly now.  That’s what the Body of Christ encourages one another towards and with.  More than just slapping a smiley face sticker on someone, but simply acknowledging that this too shall one day pass.  By the grace of God and the Word that became flesh to understand my dreadful disappointment and bury it forever.

Praying for Your Pastor

February 6, 2020

Self-improvement is hard.  Mostly because it is rarely something imposed on us.  Perhaps pastors are unique in this to some degree.  Once they’ve run the gauntlet of seminary (assuming such a gauntlet is necessary to their ordination), they graduate, are examined, ordained, installed, and then pretty much left with the assumption they are doing the right thing.  Continuing education is something encouraged and exhorted to in seminary and by ecclesiastical supervisors and leaders, but at least in my denominational circles, it’s not something that is enforced.  It could be, but it isn’t.

For those of us with an acute awareness of our faults and shortcomings, self-improvement and continuing education are necessary.  I can’t avoid it for very long because I’m so dreadfully disappointed with who I am.  Perhaps this is a unique function of making the Word my vocation.  That I can never get away from the reminder that regardless of how the world perceives me and even how I’d like to think of myself, God knows better, and when I am honest with myself, so do I.  Perhaps another seminary will help.  Another book.  Another degree.  Another experiential sort of thing.  There is always so much more to learn.  So much more to master.  So much more to become, that who I already am pales in comparison.

So it is that I ordered a couple of books on preaching this week and have begun reading both of them.  The first is Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy-Tale.  While there are places we differ significantly theologically (particularly in regards to what Scripture is), he has already breathtakingly demonstrated what a woeful story-teller I am through a breathtaking character development of Pontius Pilate just prior to asking Jesus What is truth?  (John 18:38).

The second book is One Year to Better Preaching: 52 Exercises to Hone Your Skills.  I’m not sure how helpful it will be (I’m only on the second exercise).  The first exercise was to create a group to pray for me as I’m working on  the sermon through the week.

At first, I wanted to skip over this.  I know my people pray for me.  I’m grateful for this.  But it’s hardly an exercise for me to hone my skills.  The author suggests a small group who covenant to pray for me through the week, and each week I send out reminders to them on a daily basis of how they can specifically pray that week.  It’s a good reminder that pastors need prayer and sermons need prayer and even though I balked at first, I’m going to ask my prayer group for some volunteers to take this on.

But he referred to a great little essay on the topic of How to Pray for Your Pastor on Saturday.  And while I don’t know much about the author of this article, at  the very least he does an admirable job of describing the issues a pastor faces on Saturday and also on Sunday morning leading up to worship and delivering a sermon.  In particular, his description of what it is like to step up into the pulpit and survey the congregation and how that can impact the pastor powerfully in those final seconds before opening his mouth and starting to preach is noteworthy.

I do need prayer.  So do pastors everywhere.  Speaking the Word of God to the people of God is risky business.  It’s risky when they all love you and risky when they don’t.  So if you don’t already, pray for your pastor, that he do his job well and faithfully whether you like what he will say or not.