The first thing I acknowledge is that I grieve just like everyone else; I do not grieve as a minister. I have the very same emotions, the very same needs as all persons who experience loss. (p. 20)
This is from the forthcoming book Surviving a Son’s Suicide by Ron Higdon. It’s interesting that I’m editing a book regarding grief on today of all days. But so it goes.
This line is so incredibly important, both for ministers and for lay people (who should all be ministers!) to remember. Pastors expect certain things of themselves that are not realistic. Congregations expect unrealistic things of pastors. To a lesser extent, I saw this in our own experience both while James was fighting cancer and while we were dealing with grief. I’m not an ordained minister. I am a publisher, and by inclination a teacher. Yet people wondered why those who taught could not always face life according to their own teaching.
Of course we never taught that we, or anyone else, would deal with such things perfectly. Positions of leadership or other activities that put one in the public eye do add a dimension to dealing with difficulties or with grief. But the person still grieves as a person. That path is individual.
John and James – My favorite picture that I keep on my desk.
September 22 is a difficult day for me and my family. Ten years ago, on September 22, our son/brother James went home. I cannot describe it as anything else. While it left us with a deep sense of loss, there was a certain triumph, and a definite peace about the way James left.
I’ve been pleased to watch the notes on Facebook this year. As always, they remind me of his absence and make me miss them more, but they are also so real. There’s a tendency to make a saint (apart from being “one of the saints”) out of the person who has died. James was wonderful. I really liked him as well as loved him. But his sense of humor and his mischief are such a strong part of what I miss. When people describe him as an extraordinarily spiritual sort of young man who lived in conformity with what the world and the church demanded, I have to laugh. At first I got a little annoyed. But then the humor came to me.
I think James was very spiritual. He was a delightful young man. He could, however, stress me out. Not really that often, but he was an individual. He did things his way, and others went along with it. His most spiritual moments were when he was at the drums. In fact, he could make “drums” just about anywhere!
I’m sitting in my office at the computer where I have worked for years. I’m a creature of habit. I can look over at where he would stand when he came into my office. He insisted on knocking. I told him that I never did anything in this office that he couldn’t interrupt. He told me it just seemed right to knock. So he did. He’d come in and just stand there with his trademark little grin. In a few moments I’d give up and ask him how much he needed. That was how he told me he needed (or wanted) money.
He also had his own logic. He explained to me once that it would be better for me to give him some money he needed rather than do it in exchange for some work or other. He said he would just fail to get the work done and then I would be mad, and it would be worse all around. I asked him how often I got mad. His reply? “It could happen.” As others have pointed out to me repeatedly, James usually got what he wanted from me.
I don’t usually write anything here or on Facebook on September 22. My hard month each year is June. That’s when I found out the cancer was back. Jody was in Hungary leading a mission team. I was here with James. He had a point of pain in his back. I said (and tried to convince myself) that it might be a pulled muscle. He was, after all, in band camp. He gave me what I can only describe as a pitying look. We discussed it and decided not to wait the week or so it would take for his mother to get back from Hungary.
I ended up having to call the doctor. The paperwork went astray. One doctor had expected the other had called, but nobody had. I got to tell James the news. Then I got to figure out how to tell Jody via e-mail. Phone was not an option. All of that happened in June and that’s when I tend to remember things most.
This September, however, I was working on writing some things about our company, Energion Publications, and the two overlapped. I didn’t even realize it until early in the morning. I woke up and found Jody awake as well. I had been thinking both that our company was ten years old and that we’d released our first new book (we bought out some others when we started) a year later. That would be 2005. But suddenly I remembered that our first release was also in 2004.
That book was Daily Devotions of Ordinary People – Extraordinary God, which was a collection of Jody’s devotionals. The amazing thing is that we released that book in November. I don’t know how Jody did it. Yes, the material had been written, but she had to go over it many times as we put together that book. Her book remained our largest book for some years, though we now have a couple that match it or are slightly longer. I will get around to writing something about the last ten years as a publisher, but for now I just want to note the overlap, and the odd things time can do to our memories.
The thing I’d want to say to everyone is that there is life after loss. I can tell you today, 10 years later, that you don’t forget, that there doesn’t come a time when there is no pain. But you do learn to live and go on, and you can still accomplish what you need to accomplish. Not only that, we’re each different. One of the blessings Jody and I have experienced is not being down at the same time. The fact that I tend to remember dates less precisely, such as being a year off on when she completed her first book, also means that my moments of memory are more scattered. You can’t tell when I’m going to be thinking of James. I know Jody will be thinking of him especially as his birthday and the anniversary of his death are approaching. It’s not a time for me to be up, as in pasting on fake smiles and acting like everything is wonderful. But it does allow me to think of her and be there for her.
I’d add one more thing. Many others are remembering this September as it’s the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Ivan. We couldn’t evacuate with James, because he would not have been able to make the trip. But good friends (Tom and Sharolyn Hunt) took us in, as our double-wide under the trees was not a good place to ride out a storm. James wanted to be here, at his home, when the time came. I remember driving back up here with Tom the day after the storm. I saw so many buildings damaged or destroyed, and a couple of fine, old double-wides that looked like giants had stepped on them. When we got here, not only was our home and this office standing, the power was on. It turned out that the power was only partially on. One half of the system was out, so we had good power through about half the house, and were unable to use 220 volt appliances. But James could be where he wanted to be.
I was very thankful for that, and I’m thankful for the time we had with him. But I still miss him almost like it was yesterday.
One of my goals as a publisher is to see people from various streams of Christianity talk to one another and learn from one another. I used the labels “liberal,” “charismatic,” and “evangelical” in the home video I made early in the history of my publishing company, Energion Publications. I’m embedding it here for those who haven’t seen it.
That video should answer the most common question I’m asked: Why do you publish books you don’t agree with? It’s not a question that comes up with the big boys, companies like HarperCollins, Zondervan, and so forth. (Oops! Come to think of it, Zondervan is now part of HarperCollins!) With those big companies, one expects that the editorial policy will be cover a bit of ground.
But Energion Publications is owned by one person, and that person (yours truly) is also the chief editor. So what is my goal? Why wouldn’t I look for and try to publish the TRUTH?!
I suppose I could get into epistemology and tell you that while I believe in truth, I do not believe that we, as humans (finite), ever get to know that. Rather, we make our best, and I think often quite workable, attempt at the truth. But my real reason is that I believe we need dialogue. We need sharpening by others. We need that to go on continually, not just in some starting point.
Early in my time online I was in conversation with someone on the Compuserve Religion Forum. I’m pretty sure at the time I was still accessing this by dial-up, but my memory isn’t clear on the timing. Another Christian asked me if, when engaging in dialogue with non-Christians, I were to discover I was wrong, would I change my mind. Let’s ignore the fact that “discovering I was wrong” implies that I already changed my mind. My answer was, of course, “yes.”
“Then you aren’t a real Christian,” he told me. If I was a real Christian, he explained, I would be unable to contemplate the possibility of being wrong. Now I’m a quite convinced Christian. My experience of God suggests to me that while the details may vary, my ultimate faith in God is not in question. It’s not unstable. I’ve seen it challenged. I’ve lived through times that made me question, and that faith is still there. I’m not that strong of an individual. If my faith has held up this long, it becomes evidence to me that there’s something behind it.
But dialogue means listening, and if I listen, I must consider. If I hear something that is better than what I know already, I must accept that. To do anything else would be dishonest with myself and even with the God who is the Object of my faith. Or, well, beyond object, ultimate concern, and so forth.
So I’m an advocate of dialogue because I think it’s both a critical part of how we discover truth and also of how we keep on trying to discover truth. Sharing and listening are important.
So when I decide whether to publish a book, and later when I edit that book, my question is never whether I agree or disagree with the author, but rather it is how well the author has expressed his or her position and how well supported it is. I may disagree profoundly. But is this something that should be considered and discussed? I do place boundaries on what I publish, but that is because a small publisher has to have some definition of what is and is not within its publishing scope. I have rejected manuscripts that I have then, in turn, urged others to read when another publisher released them.
Most of these books advocate one position or another. But my company has just released a new book that is advocating dialogue, precisely the kind of dialogue I established this company to promote. That book is titled: The River of Life: Where Liberal and Conservative Christianity Meet. I’m not trying to say that I like this book better than any other book I publish. To be fair to my authors I must be as strong an advocate for each of them as I can. But I’m highlighting this one on my blog because it speaks to the core of my goals.
Do I agree with every word in this book? I’d like to think nobody would ask me that. My normal answer is that I can’t even say that with confidence about the books I have written myself. In fact, Lee Harmon’s liberal Christianity is more liberal and less charismatic than mine. You can see my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic to catch the differences.
Here is a sample from the introduction:
I am also a liberal Christian, living in a conservative world. Most of my family and friends are conservative Christians. Conservatives consider apostolic tradition of utmost importance, meaning they seek to emulate the first-century church as best they know how. This is a noble goal, but it can lead to stringent intolerance for diluted beliefs. It’s the right way or the highway. Liberal Christians, on the other hand, find the creedal requirements which develop from such strictness stifling and contrary to observation and experience. We see God in many people and places, not just in Christian circles. This can lead liberals to a violent condemnation of narrow doctrine. Intolerance is intolerable.
And round and round we go. As a liberal Christian, I have both stooped to verbal aggression and felt the sting of attack. Both sides care so dang much that we can’t help squabbling, but this hardly puts a good face on Christianity. If the two sides could merely take one step backward, digging back to the Jesus we both adore, perhaps there could be a unity of purpose. Even though there can never be agreement about religious belief, the Kingdom could nevertheless advance. That is my hope in writing this book. (pp. 1-2)
I know, of course, that not everyone will agree with Lee on what the key points are. Not even all liberals are likely to agree on that. But that’s a good opening point for discussion. In that discussion we can all hope that we’ll hear our Master’s voice and learn to love a little bit more and show a grace that’s just a bit wider and deeper.
I’ve had some interesting conversations about God’s grace recently, and especially about its limits.
Most people these days seem to firmly resist the idea that we need works in order to earn God’s favor, but many seem to think that we need to have correct beliefs. If we don’t believe the right things about the way grace is sufficient for all our sin, then, well, it won’t really be sufficient. Because, while grace can apparently handle murder, lying, cheating, stealing, and adultery, it is not up to dealing with a failure to discover the correct doctrine about grace. Amazing, isn’t it, that God could be so easily stopped? We seem to have replaced justification by works with justification by correct belief.
I think it’s hard for us to believe that grace is actually sufficient. We want to insert ourselves in there somewhere. Having been told that we can’t work our way in, we still find a distinction, this time about whether we have come to a correct doctrinal understanding.
Now two points:
1) I’m not saying that beliefs are not important. In fact, while I have no difficulty thinking that God can accept a person who is completely wrong in their understanding of grace and how it works, I do think that many people suffer a great deal by not understanding just how gracious God is. Misunderstanding can hurt. It doesn’t make God hate you, but it’s uncomfortable nonetheless. I know many people who live their lives worried that an angry God is going to send them into eternal torment because they forgot to confess one deed or failed to understand some command. That’s sad. Personally, I think grace is sufficient not just for my sin, but also for my stupidity.
2) I’m not a universalist. I think there is real evil in the world and that people sometimes take a turn that way. I know there are those who think there is good in the worst of us, but I think there are those who are just evil. The problem is, with our ability to mask evil with a pretense of goodness, and our ability to obscure goodness through just plain bad judgment, I suspect we aren’t up to figuring out who actually is truly evil.
I could be wrong about any of that. I think it’s important to recognize my potential to be wrong. I think it’s also important for me to try to be as right as I can. But no amount of my wrongness can actually limit God.
In a few minutes I’m leaving to teach Sunday School and we’re talking about the inspiration and authority of scriptures and/or of people who claim to speak for God.
But first, I thought I’d write a quick note on the recent discussion of violence in the Old Testament hosted by Allan Bevere. (To follow this discussion from the start, follow the links here.) This may sound terribly disrespectful, but first let me note that I largely agree with what Dr. L. Daniel Hawk said in his three part series. I like the canonical approach. I agree that we need to struggle with all the difficult passages. I would find some time to quibble about the criticism of the biblical theology school and it’s demise. I find that announcements of the death of schools of thought are often a mite exaggerated and tend to dismiss more than they should. So while I teach using a canonical approach to scripture, I think I should be subject a question analogous to the one I asked when reading material from earlier biblical criticism and the biblical theology school: Why? Why is it that you somehow think that when you get back to the earliest stream you are somehow dealing with something better? For me, there are two questions that arise from the same idea: 1) Why is the canonical form of scripture normative (and for what purpose)? and 2) What is the canonical form? (Canonical form is a bit easier to determine in the New Testament, I think.) I, for example, make use of the OT Apocrypha (a personal choice, since my denomination doesn’t recognize it as authoritative [why?]) and also consider the LXX versions of OT books to have similar authority to Hebrew texts in Christian contexts.
Having thus raised more questions than I answer (a normal situation for me), let me get to my title.
I’m a fan of the BBC shows Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. In those Bernard Wooley, private secretary to the minister and then Prime Minister Hacker, produces on occasion what he calls “irregular verbs.” I couldn’t find a good clip on YouTube, but I’m going to provide one for this discussion:
I discern the message, you pick and choose, he discards Scripture wholesale.
Please don’t hear this as an accusation of either Adam Hamilton or L. Daniel Hawk. While I tend to agree much more with Dr. Hawk, my intention is not to throw accusations around. This irregular verb points at me as well. I think, perhaps, that we need to spend more time discerning and discussing the ways in which we pick and choose.
Hopefully I’ll find the time over the next week or so to discuss a few chapters. In the meantime might I direct you at some earlier efforts: The God-Talk Club and the She Bears (a short story/dialog) and Real Guy Interpretation – A Homily.
His second post is here. I’m waiting for the third which he has now promised. I’m somewhat dissatisfied at this point, but the topic of his third post is promising.
It’s fairly fashionable to call the thinking of our time “post-modern” and to talk about how people believe we really can’t know anything for sure, or perhaps just can’t know anything. In many discussions that is the conversation ender. You really can’t know that you’re right, so I could be right as well. Alternatively we hear “My opinion is as good as your opinion.”
(Boring meditation alert!)
There’s a certain value in humility, in realizing the possibility that we may, in fact, be wrong. But I still tell people not to make use of any epistemology (theory of how we know stuff) that you wouldn’t want used by the designer of an airplane you were about to fly on. In a discussion about aerodynamics, my opinion is not of the same value as that of an aeronautical engineer. It’s possible that either of us could be wrong. Aeronautical engineers have been in error. But it’s more likely that I will be wrong on the subject than the engineer. Similarly if the issue is the translation of a New Testament Greek verse is at issue, I am more likely to be right than the average person who has not studied Greek, or the seminary graduate who has allowed his or her Greek to slip away. I not only have continued to read Greek, but continue to read whole Greek grammars. On the other hand, my opinion on the passage is of less value than that of someone who works with the language on a daily basis, such as a translator or a Greek professor.
That doesn’t mean I’ll automatically surrender my position. As I have frequently pointed out when someone has tried to trump me with the “I’m more educated” card, I can generally provide a reference to someone more educated than either of us. Following which it’s time to discuss our views on the merits. But that assumes that there are merits and that our opinions are not of equal value. One or both may be wrong. One may be more plausible than another.
I recall a debate between two of my undergraduate professors. I worked for one of them, so was able to discuss it with him afterwards. I took one philosophy class from each of them. In this debate the first one picked up a book from the table in front of them, fanned the pages, and said, “This is a book. I know it’s a book. It’s not just likely it’s a book. It is a book!” The other responded, “It’s always possible that I put something there very cleverly disguised as a book.”
Yes, it would be possible. Difficult, but possible. The probability was high that it was a book; low that his opponent had tricked out a fake book facsimile to catch him on precisely that point. But he was very likely right.
Similarly, in a recent discussion I had, an individual strongly derided those who were intolerant. How could they be so sure they were right? Nobody could be that certain. Nothing was that certain. Moments later this individual described another group of people as just plain wrong and said they should not be tolerated.
I was challenged on a similar point. I value tolerance, but I have low tolerance for the intolerant. I’ve been told that this is inconsistent. If I truly value tolerance, I must also be tolerant of intolerance.
I think all of these stories illustrate one problem in different ways. Our knowledge is not absolutely certain. Even the most certain things have some potential, however small, for error. On the other hand, we do have sufficient knowledge of many things for practical purposes. While aeronautical engineers are not perfect, they manage to design aircraft that tend to fly the vast majority of the time. Things may go wrong, but only rarely do they go wrong in a catastrophic fashion. Language is often a target of skepticism. How can we know the meaning of what someone has said or written? The further in time and space we are from the origin, the harder it is to comprehend. Yet communication does take place for practical purposes.
My wife writes a grocery list. I take it to the store and buy groceries. Most of the time I come back with what she wanted. Sometimes I don’t. The communication is not perfect, but it works for our practical purposes. She continues to make lists. I continue to follow the lists. We continue to eat.
We live with the potential for error all the time, and it tends to work.
The problem we have in discussions is that we (inclusively!) tend to think in binary fashion. People must either be able to communicate, or not. I must be able to understand a scripture passage, or not. But in fact I partially communicate, and I partially understand. (Methinks the apostle Paul said something of the sort!) I don’t get it perfectly, but I don’t (always) completely miss. I’m certain I’ve missed the interpretation of a passage pretty near totally a few times in my life. At least I’ve reversed my position on them, so I was either wrong before or now, or perhaps even both! But still I move forward.
There are two things I’m suggesting here:
1) The uncertainty of your position doesn’t mean mine is right. I’ve encountered this in various historical studies. Your position is weak, so the traditional position must be right. Not necessarily! Let’s discuss its merits.
2) Everything is uncertain so let’s be paralyzed and not act.
I can manage uncertainty in my perceptions of the grocery list. I can manage my uncertainties elsewhere. I don’t have to claim greater knowledge than I possess in order to move forward.
I voted yesterday in the Florida primary. Despite being registered as independent (I oppose recognition of specific political parties by the government) I had one local election in which I was eligible to vote. So I did. I always do. I also like to actually go to a polling place on election day in order to cast my ballot.
It was kind of humorous. I encountered seven poll workers and no other voters, even though it was approaching lunch time. The counter on the ballot reader said 51 people had voted in the precinct, and that they projected 94. I don’t know how accurate that projection is.
This is an unfortunate situation in our democratic political system. (Yes, I know the difference between a “republic” and a “democracy,” a distinction that is overdrawn by many. This is a representative democracy.) The major focus we have is on federal elections and especially on presidential elections. Then we complain about congress, or about local issues, without realizing that we are enabling incompetent government at the local level. So few people take part in the local elections and, unfortunately, even less seem to know much about them. In fact, information is hard to come by. The one election in which I was eligible to vote this time was for a circuit court judge, and it was, as usual, difficult to get reliable and useful information about the candidates.
American who care about the things that are happening in this country need to get involved in local politics. Learn what’s going on. Vote intelligently for school board, city council, and county level offices. You have only influenced the future course of the country in a very limited way if you vote in the presidential election.
I’m continuing to read from the commentary on Hebrews by David L. Allen (Hebrews in the New American Commentary). I’m bound to get way ahead in my reading but I want to make a few remarks about the prologue, which both Dr. Allen and I would say goes through verse 4.
I have written on this before (comments and translation notes), and I haven’t found any reason to alter what I said in those posts on the subject. What I want to discuss here is how the prologue relates to the theme.
I think the prologue states the theme. We will find at later points in the book that we can refine the particular nature of the situation addressed and the causes of problems that are addressed, but we already have the basic story right here. The author is interested in two major points, I think: continuity and reliability. He states these in terms of God’s relationship to his people.
Often people get the idea that Hebrews is about discarding the Old Testament. I recall some participants in discussions I have led telling me that it is obvious that he is making the New Testament supersede the Old, or Jesus to supersede all that came before. People can become quite distressed that I do not see such an obvious conclusion. But if you are looking at the structure of the book, you realize that the entire thing falls apart if the author thinks the Old Testament is somehow wiped away. That isn’t the argument at all.
Rather, a certain view of the Old Testament is wiped away, most particularly the view that it is the scriptures and is the end, or that in the Torah one would find the ultimate revelation of God. Rather than saying that the Torah is flawed, he is saying that God didn’t finish by presenting the Torah. There is a new center point, and that center point is the revelation of God through Jesus. I would also suggest that our author is not here saying that this is a change from what the Old Testament writers themselves would have said. I think he would maintain that he is correcting course, that the idea that the Torah was everything was never correct, but rather than it was always God who was the focus, and that until God became manifest in Jesus, we didn’t have the opportunity to see that particular radiance.
So now he is putting the focus of all revelation on God, and letting us know that we can receive God’s message, and that we can enter into a relationship with God because that has been made possible through Jesus Christ, the exact representation of who God is. There is no suggestion here that this eliminates all that other revelation; instead it illuminates it.
So why do I say the structure would fall apart if the author was simply discarding the Old Testament revelation? Surely he can be arguing that the Old Testament was good enough for its time, but now we have something better, and even the Old Testament writers realized they would be superseded. But I disagree. He is not simply aiming at continuity. He is aiming at reliability. Those Old Testament writers were not some kind of failure on God’s part. Rather, they were leading up to the present time (the author’s and ours!) and that chain of connections shows that not only does the revelation continue, but it can be relied upon by us, just as it was relied upon by the patriarchs (and matriarchs, for that matter). But we now have this additional communication and evidence of reliability. God did come through, did send Jesus, did and does still lead us, and will continue to do so until we reach that (to us) coming Mt. Zion.
One of the refinements of this theme comes in chapter 11 in which we have the patriarchs represented as more faithful than they actually were in the Old Testament text. But in God’s faithfulness they are even more faithful than they would appear to us to be in their story. Well before the time of Jesus, when they were weak, he was strong.
I’d suggest spending quite some time with this passage. I’ve read it more times than I can recall. I have the entire book of Hebrews recorded on my phone in Greek so I can listen to it in my car. But I always feel tremendously inadequate as these words roll over me and I realize the freight that has been loaded into these few sentences.
Allan R. Bevere is hosting a response from L. Daniel Hawk to Adam Hamilton’s three part series on the violence of God in the Old Testament. It’s a topic I find fascinating. I’m going to wait for detailed comment until I’ve read all of Dr. Hawk’s response. But I can tell you what I’m looking for in two quotes.
In Adam Hamilton’s second part he states:
… If we understand the Bible as having been essentially dictated by God, then yes, we have no choice but to accept what is written as accurately describing God’s actions and God’s will. But if we recognize the Bible’s humanity—that it was written by human beings whose understanding and experience of God was shaped by their culture, their theological assumptions, and the time in which they lived—then we might be able to say, “In this case, the biblical authors were representing what they believed about God rather than what God actually inspired them to say.” …
Note that this is extracted from the middle of a paragraph which may contain pointers to how Hamilton would answer the question. I have not read his book. But the issue that this statement raises with me is this: Do we have an adequate hermeneutic that will allow us to discern God’s will and purpose from the human-divine mix? In my experience, very frequently those who say this do not. Note that I’m very definitely one who says that the Bible is a divine-human combination, using an incarnational model. But that combination (not mix), is all present by divine will. Why are those violent passages present? How do I learn from this?
Dr. Hawk, on the other hand says this:
Here’s the main flaw in this line of reasoning. Who decides which texts are humanly-contrived and which are inspired? And on what basis? This is a slippery business to say the least, and especially so when historically-oriented interpreters attempt to ground their decisions by discerning the intent of ancient authors and redactors. While we have learned a great deal about the historical and cultural environments of the ancient world, we cannot even today confidently locate the composition of most texts in a particular historical and social context. Furthermore, our ideas of what was in an ancient author’s head will inevitably be infused with the projections of our own ideas and perspectives.
This time I at least quoted a full paragraph. And what’s my problem with this? Well, in my experience both sides pick and choose and then accuse the other of doing so. There is not only choosing what we accept as relevant, but we need to choose just how some particular passage is relevant. I’m going to wait for the rest, but I doubt Dr. Hawk is suggesting otherwise. Nonetheless statements like ” … our ideas of what was in an ancient author’s head will inevitably be infused with the projections of our own ideas and perspectives” tend to get me on edge, because I am so frequently then told that either we must then accept the orthodox interpretation (also selected by the speaker), or that we must essentially give up on discerning the meaning. I have some confidence that Dr. Hawk isn’t headed that direction, yet paragraphs such as this raise an attention flag for me. I ask here again just how we will discern the message God intended, and discussing the obscurity of it can drive people away just as much as the attempt to discard the humanity.
I’ll say more when I’ve read the final post. I may have to read a couple of books as well, considering that what both of these men are saying comes from much more extended works on the topic.