pray on

pray without ceasing…for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:17, 18b

To be told to pray without ceasing seems pretty unrealistic. To be sure, we can’t be praying every moment of the day. Maybe the idea is that along with actual praying, we’re in an attitude of prayer all of our waking hours. Or that it is to be a habit of life that fills our days. For me, I take it to mean that I’m to be much in prayer which includes not only talking to God, but listening and seeking to hear God’s voice, and discern God’s will in it all.

This is addressed to Christians together, so there needs to be an emphasis on corporate prayer, that we’re all in this together. But that includes individual practice, that each of us are involved in playing our part.

I find that two practices are vital for me: being in Scripture with an emphasis on application and personal growth and being in prayer. I honestly think a missing link, all too true in my own life is that insofar as this is possible, we need to be joined together in this.

In my own experience I find that the attitude and practice of ongoing, persevering prayer is so important to keep my head afloat, out of the deep waters in which I lack the breath, light, the perspective and life of God. It is almost like the necessity of applying a magnet so that another piece of metal doesn’t fall to the ground.

The only way I seem to be able to really stay grounded and centered on God and on God’s will is to remain in Scripture, but with persistent, ongoing prayer. When I let up on that, it’s not long before I’ve lost focus and perspective. And what comes out of that is not good. We’re not in a Sunday School picnic. At the same time what also needs to be remembered is that much good comes out of this practice. Not only to help center us, but in actual benefit for others.

As we’re told in the Scripture passage quoted above, part of God’s will for us. In and through Jesus.

taking Scripture seriously

That very night the brothers and sisters sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea, and when they arrived they went to the Jewish synagogue. These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing. But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Beroea as well, they came there, too, to stir up and incite the crowds. 

Acts 17:10-13

There is a tradition within Christianity among us that among other things is supposed to be Bible-centered. And really when you think about it, that idea in some form has especially been prominent since the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther reacted to the legalism he perceived in his experience in the Roman Catholic Church and understandably read back that experience into Romans where Paul writes that the just shall live by faith. Today we have what is no less than a culture war in which this view of the role of the Bible is supposedly central.

What Scripture is supposed to do, what it’s about is the light of the good news of God in and through Jesus. Details have to be seen in context, an important part of that in the covenants God made with humankind, what Christians call the old covenant and the new covenant. And the main point is the one which can’t be lost. It’s about God’s promise to creation of a new creation in which all the brokenness of creation is repaired along with the reconciliation of all things to God through Christ. Really, when you start to think about it, quite staggering.

Probably to a significant extent because of an engrained modernist enlightenment way of approaching the biblical text, details that may be relevant or not are parsed out and made to be more or less essentials, or at least litmus tests on whether or not one accepts Scripture as something more than just a human book, “the authority of Scripture.” I won’t name any of those issues here. They’re pretty obvious. But I will say that not only is the reading and interpretation sometimes stretched and at least questionable, but I wonder if the main point is being missed or at least pushed to the side.

No one took Scripture more seriously than the Jews in Thessalonica who opposed Paul and Paul’s message of the gospel. At least that is what they all thought, what Paul himself once thought along with them. They were dead set in defending to the letter and even if necessary to the death their interpretation of Scripture. And it turns out that they were after all was said and done, wrong.

The Jews in Beroea got it right because they listened to the gospel presentation from Paul, then sought to discern together from Scripture whether or not it was true. As a result, many of them came to faith. They weren’t hung up on what turned out to be side issues like circumcision in which Paul would at least ultimately contradict what Scripture, the Torah actually said. They were attentive to what turned out to be the main point, the gospel, the good news of God in Jesus.

I would argue that this is what we must be about today. If we work on that, then details will be more apt to fall into their proper place in our interpretation and understanding. And we must try to judge our understanding of side issues in that light. When we do, we’ll find that Christ is central, God’s work in Christ. This will lead us to God, and to God’s good will. And it will help us to discern together where that good news is taking root and bearing fruit.

That in essence is what Scripture is all about. If we’re really to take Scripture seriously, that is the point we will be concerned about. And all else will be seen in that light. Yes, with the work of interpretation of the texts with all the relevant disciplines in play like biblical background studies in culture, etc.

We must take the Bible completely seriously for what it is. Scripture inspired by God to give us the word of truth, yes the saving good news of God in and through Jesus.

the problem of patriarchalism, gender and the Bible

“Pray, then, in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
    may your name be revered as holy.”

Matthew 6:9; NRSVue

I recently read that the Bible is a sexist book, or something to that effect. That perhaps come across harshly. It was written into a patriarchal society in which men generally always ruled in government and were the head of their households. And often women were denigrated as second-class citizens, certainly below men in status. Scripture speaks into that world, but with the vision toward the kingdom (rule) of God promised in Jesus in which there’s no longer male nor female, master or slave, etc., but all are one in Christ (Galatians).

The best translations of Scripture in my view don’t obscure this reality, in fact you really can’t. What we need to do is read each part in its context, carry it forward to ours, and with the promise of God’s future rule in view. I think it’s important to see how Scripture deals with each cultural context. I tend to think that God accommodates God’s self to people and life as it is, to culture in general, but at the same time gradually pushes it toward what we see when Jesus comes and what follows with Pentecost and the church. And we also need to remember that Jesus needs to be the interpreter of Scripture, in other words we interpret it all through a Christological lens, and particularly in light of the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

That brings us to the subject of God. I’m part of a church which really tries to be inclusive in language, even with reference to God. We know that strictly speaking God is spirit, neither male nor female, but that humankind both female and male are made in God’s image. Most of Scripture again and again and again ascribes masculinity to God. Though we can see the spirit of God as neuter since that’s the vocabulary, though we also certainly know from Scripture that the spirit is not only wind or breath but is also personal. And God as wisdom actually is feminine tense. God is also likened to a mother in different ways in Scripture.

It’s fine to have a secondary use of a translation, perhaps like the Inclusive Bible which while not without problem, actually ended up much better than what was probably generally anticipated. But I think it’s best to use as one’s main translation a Bible which translates all gender as it was in the original while at the same time not translating male when it doesn’t mean that at all. The NRSV and now NRSVue is considered the most accurate by scholars. The CEB and the NIV are also good and some others with them. But some are more or less good with some problems, seemingly wanting to highlight patriarchalism as if it’s God’s will in creation (and new creation).

By all means if you want to, read Scripture in ways that get around it. The newish hymnbook in my tradition, Voices Together does precisely that. And it’s okay to pray the prayer the Lord taught us (see above) with something other than Father. But forever the original will say father. And there will be some debate and disagreement for sure.

In the end we don’t do well to dwell on such things. We just go on, together humbly trying to understand Scripture in its original context, how to see it in and through Christ, and what that means for us today. That’s where we should dwell. Let the other go. God will help us and in spite of our differences in all of this.

you will always have the poor with you to help

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

John 12:1-8; NRSVue

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

Deuteronomy 15:7-11; NRSVue

It is common to use Jesus’s words, “You will always have the poor with you,” as to somehow wave off and dismiss the poor. They’re poor for a reason, someone will say, and they have to suffer the consequences. We can’t bail them out, because it will do no good. But is that what Jesus really meant?

Contrary to that, Judas Iscariot was paying lip service to the tradition ingrained in Jewish religious practice from Scripture, even if not highly valued or valued in the same way in rabbinic tradition, that the poor should be helped. That we should give regularly give alms which means helping the poor is taken for granted in Jesus’s teaching (Matthew 6). And the Deuteronomy passage above is explicit about it, the text which Jesus was probably alluding to in his response to Judas. There will always be some in need which we’re to help. But Jesus’s death and burial was indeed a special occasion, so that money that would have ordinarily been set apart to help the poor, could instead be used in honor of Jesus.

There seems to be a penchant not just in American society, but when you study the history of western society as well, but a penchant to cast the poor into a bad light. And with a tendency to push them aside, more or less put up with them, and definitely not give them the help they need. And since the industrial revolution, those making money for the rich few are more or less grounded in the dust, required to work long hours for unfair wages in often quite poor, unhealthy conditions, doing most difficult work. Societies which don’t have good safety net programs to help those in need do not deserve to be considered humane, much less Christian. The church should make helping the poor a high and first priority. But all societies, as well. Christians and Christianity should be known for lovingly helping the poor, leading the way in it. Never prey to false ideologies which unlike Jesus, disparage the poor. In and through Jesus.

sometimes you can only endure (and that’s it)

You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

James 5:11b; NRSVue

If you read the book of Job, you’re not going to find a patient Job. Job was arguably and I think accurately impatient with both God and Job’s friends. And one possible reading of Job is that he holds out to the very end, not necessarily impressed with God’s answer (Pete Enns on Job). There is more than one way to read Job, and in Jewish tradition, that is normal. And we might even say there’s an openness to it in the Christian tradition through Lectio Divina and perhaps in other ways.

When it gets right down to it, there may be days and times that one has to endure, trudge and even grind their way through. You endure in the sense that you keep doing what you have to do, trying to always be loving and right in what you do. And just keep doing that. Or maybe like in the case of Job, the pain is so excruciating and the loss so hurtful, that you can only cry out in painful lament, while not letting go of faith, enduring as far as faith is concerned.

Job was declared right in the end, and his orthodox correct friends wrong, which is interesting (note link to Enns above). God is revealed in Christ, unbroken by the way in that God is fully present in Christ, and not somehow absent at the cross as if the Trinity could be divided. God takes on God’s Self all of our wrong, every bit of it, and turns that into forgiveness through death and the new life which follows. God endured in Christ too, out of love. And in that love, we too are often called to simply endure. Endure, endure and endure again. Especially during most difficult seasons, but day after day as well. In and through Jesus.

back to “ordinary time”

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

“Ordinary Time” is a liturgical term used for the western church calendar that is other than the special seasons such as Advent and Lent. Although there’s at least a bit more to it as to why this term was adopted for the church calendar, I like the concept of ordinary. So often we’re tied up in knots over this and that, then something else. And we just need to get back to what might seem irrelevant, even too often mundane. What’s next in Scripture? And go slowly from one thing to the next.

I know that has nothing to do with the exact reason for the use of this term, as it has to do with times not marked by special occasion. Yes, it’s wonderful to have the special seasons of Advent then Christmas and Christmas season as well as Lent and Easter along with Eastertide. We can and should benefit from such wonderful occasions which help us to focus on Christ and the good news in him. Similarly there are those special seasons in our lives in which we’re working on this and that, oftentimes for me in regard to anxiety and spiritual warfare. But by and by we have to just lay those things aside, and keep plodding along from what might seem ordinary in that we may find it rather unremarkable, and not that related to us. But that’s when we need to slow down all the more, because God will help us to see and receive what we truly need from every part of Scripture. Admittedly, some specific parts are challenging that way, such as in Leviticus, though if we step back and look at each part from the perspective of the whole, we might gain some better appreciation for it, as well as some connection to life in the present.

Crisis and trials and troubles do hit us, and we can call those extraordinary times in which God wants to do a most significant work. But even in ordinary time we can’t avoid trouble, and we do well to settle in for something more low key, realizing that while we do seek to tackle issues head on at times, by and large we again do well to settle into the mode of taking one thing after the other. Realizing that we need it all, everything God has to give us in Scripture which is actually related to and through the gospel. Such will help us even with reference to the problems we work at better negotiating. We need the entire picture, the whole context, to better understand each part. God is present to help us in this as we keep moving forward day after day, yes in ordinary time, in ordinary life. In and through Jesus.

stop!

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy…

James 1:2

Sometimes, in fact I think oftentimes when we’re reading Scripture we need to slow down and even stop. Yes, I know it’s important to read Scripture in context, and really, all of it. And we need to keep doing so. But there are probably too many times when we don’t let something sink in well enough, so that it never takes root and makes the needed difference in our lives. I’m speaking of God’s truth, of God’s word and nothing less.

Just yesterday I was still submerged in something which had taken away what peace and joy I had, for days. I thought I needed to get back to the basics in the book the Lord seemed to tell me I need to be in: James. So I went back to this passage. And instead of proceeding like I normally do, through the entire passage and context, I dwelled for hours, really the rest of the day just on the words quoted above. And not long after I began to do this, it really began to sink into my heart. Yes, I’m to consider whatever trials I’m facing nothing but joy. Consider, yes, as it likely is not at all the experience. But a peace and joy began to settle in again.

I was well aware of the rest of the passage (click link above) and that’s good. But I needed for the health of my soul to settle into this one part. And hopefully that will make a difference the rest of my life. Whatever the trial, to seek to grow through it, perhaps do better, and certainly trust the Lord more.

So again let’s slow down as we read Scripture. Stopping more often in prayerful meditation. So that God and God’s word might get through to us much more. In and through Jesus.

what is God like?

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

John 14:8-9

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…

Hebrews 1:1-3a

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

1 Corinthians 2:2

When we think of God, what comes to mind? Do we think of a God of judgment, ready to catch us in our latest misstep or sin? Do we think of God as an angry wrath-full God, with whom sinners should be on more than edge, even shuddering? Or maybe we think of God as something like a complacent Teddy Bear who doesn’t care and with whom everything is fine. Or maybe God is just something we haven’t given that much thought to. Perhaps we chalk it down to mystery, and just don’t know.

We find out that Jesus is not only the promised Messiah, but that he fulfills time and time again prophecies which are attributed to God as if he were God or God was in him. And we find out that indeed it’s all of the above.

Jesus spoke about the Father again and again, particularly so in John’s gospel account. So for Thomas to inquire about just who this Father really is in a way is not surprising. I can picture myself doing the same, and in my imagination see myself in Thomas at least to some extent. But Jesus seems surprised and makes it clear that when Thomas and the others, and all of us see him, they see the Father.

We might well say that Jesus is God’s final word. He is after all “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14).

That doesn’t mean we don’t take into account all of what Scripture says about God. But it also means that we interpret all of that in light of Christ, who comes both to fulfill it, and as its fulfillment. And how he did that was more than a surprise, not anticipated at all. They expected God to send the Deliverer to a faithful Israel who would overthrow the Romans, the pagans, the godless, and set up a kingdom which would rule with an iron rod over all the nations, all of this according to the Pharisees, and one of their own, Saul of Tarsus (later to become Paul) with resurrection power.* So it should be no surprise at all when Christ comes and does completely different than that, that people wondered. Yes, there was no way to ignore him and what followed, but it just didn’t add up with their understanding, their interpretation of Scripture.

And then at the end, Jesus is hung on a Roman cross, thus under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). So there was no doubt that something was amiss here.

Oddly enough though, I believe that’s where we understand at least the heart of God and I believe who God is by looking at the cross and Jesus hanging there. God shows God’s self by becoming one of us in the Incarnation, faithfully lives and teaches and acts to help us, and then suffers the worst death of that time, the death of the cross. Suffering physically in an excruciating way, emotionally and spiritually over the feeling of being rejected by humans and abandoned by God. And all out of love. And all who put their faith in him are forgiven and receive new life, because in Christ’s death and resurrection, we are taken into a new existence by the Spirit, into the new creation beginning even here and now in and among us in Christ. A life for us now which paradoxically in resurrection power means taking the way of the cross, becoming more and more like Jesus in his death, and therefore more like God was and is and forever will be (Philippians 3:10; Hebrews 13:8).

And the last book of the Bible, Revelation, is the climax of all of this. Jesus is called the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, thus “lion” once in that book, and how? By being a lamb (28 or 29 times) right up to the end, on the throne with God. Coming with his robe dipped in his own blood with his faithful, the victory through his own death and the sword coming out of his mouth, in other words the word of his mouth, what he says. That’s how he unexpectedly fulfills God’s promises (Revelation 19:11-16).**

How do we understand God? Who is God? I believe we see it in a man hanging on a Roman cross some 2,000 years ago. And all else must be interpreted and seen in that light. Otherwise just like the Jews of old, we’ll indeed miss it, as I believe many are today.

In and through Jesus.

*See Tim Gombis’s most helpful book, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry.     

**See Michael J. Gorman’s most helpful book, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation.

when do we really “get it”?

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

James 1:22-25

It’s interesting, the wonderful experience we can have when some light of truth among the many truths found in Scripture, dawns on us. It’s just as interesting how short-lived most experiences are. That doesn’t mean they don’t have value, but that in and of themselves they are only a good means to the good end.

We must act on what we see from Scripture, from God’s word to us. We have to put it into practice to really “get it” in having the understanding God wants to give us. That is where the rubber meets the road, when we not only understand an insight given, whether as in like a light shining in our hearts or just rationally in our heads, but when we also prayerfully determine to act on it, so that our lives can begin to be changed.

In and through Jesus.

reading Scripture differently

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

Luke 24:25-27

They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Luke 24:32

There is no doubt that we need the Spirit of God, Christ himself to give us clarity and understanding when we’re reading Scripture. Otherwise we won’t get it the way God wants us to get it. Something of that was going on here, no doubt. But also Jesus was surely teaching his disciples what the church has learned at least in the best of its tradition to do: Read Scripture, specifically the Old Testament, but all of Scripture in light of Christ and the fulfillment he brings. Otherwise we’ll tend to see it primarily through our own cultural lens. First and foremost we must see all of Scripture through the revelation which Christ brings.

But add to this, we as Christians can differ in how we read Scripture in another basic way. We can fall into what I think is the error of practically seeing Scripture as an end in itself, and miss out to a significant extent on its main point: the gospel, the good news fulfilled in Christ. Some make such an important matter out of an inerrant view of Scripture that they think Scripture depends on that being the case. But what Scripture actually depends on is the truth and reality centered in Jesus, in the gospel, in the truth of the resurrection. All hinges on that. Of course there’s much we can and should glean from the parts of Scripture, without losing sight of the whole, and the point of it.

We also need to read Scripture in the light God gives us elsewhere: in science, culture, from wherever that light may come. That doesn’t nullify a word in Scripture one iota. But it does help us understand its own historical context. And to see how Scripture points us to something which is above and beyond such contexts, yet can still be played out within any setting.

What is most important for us is that we seek to remain in Scripture, intent in believing and obeying God, intent in following Christ with others through the gospel.