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According to John: United by Love

This is a late announcement, but I will be doing my According to John study tonight. The Google+ Event page has details. The YouTube viewer is embedded below. I’ll be working from Chapter 20 of Herold Weiss’s book Meditations on According to John.

Scheduled Interview with Dr. C. Drew Smith

9781631991219Drew has agreed to a retake of his interview. We had significant audio problems. The content was so good, however, that I was hoping to ask him some of those questions and get a clearer result.

The interview will be on July 16, 2015, and will be via Google Hangout on Air. To get the announcement, follow me on Google+ or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Drew Smith is the author of Energion title Reframing a Relevant Faith.

You can find the full schedule here.

Preaching from the Old Testament

violence and scripture booksNo, I’m not going to do it, but I’m going to ask Dr. Bob Cornwall some questions about it. He’s currently preaching a series in his church from 1st & 2nd Samuel. Bob is one of my Energion authors (see his book list here), and is editor of the two book series we publish in cooperation with the Academy of Parish Clergy, Conversations in Ministry and Guides to Practical Ministry. You can find more information about this event on its Google+ event page.

I’m going to ask Bob how he handles the authority of the text he is preaching from, and especially whether he will deal with some of the more violent passages and how he will preach from them. There are quite a number of passages in the books of Samuel that could be very troubling to a 21st century conversation.

This morning, I was reading one of those: 1 Samuel 15. You can read the whole thing if you want to get a general picture, but let me just summarize here. God tells Samuel to pass the order to Saul, King of Israel, that he should go and wipe out the Amalekites. He is supposed to designate them as herem, meaning that they are devoted to destruction, every person, every creature, every thing is to be destroyed. And lest we be tempted to soften the story, we are told that this included men, women, and even nursing babies.

Saul disobeys God and doesn’t kill everyone. The best of the animals are preserved, and the king is taken captive. Saul blames this on the people. God blames Saul and says he has cut Saul off (or at least Samuel says God says this) from being king over Israel. This story opens the cycle of stories about the conflict between David and Saul, which ends with Saul’s death in battle and David’s accession to the kingdom.

I have heard this story handled in a number of ways:

  1. Get a modern lesson from it, ignore the gory details, and hope nobody notices. I remember hearing it in my early years taught as a story about obedience. When God tells you to do something, you better do it. When I did ask about the killing, I was told that it was God, so it was OK.
  2. Emphasize the gory details. We’ve all become too cowardly to truly uphold God’s will in the world. (Yes, I’ve actually heard this.) We can just hope folks like this aren’t too serious.
  3. Some things in the Bible are less inspired than others, and this is one of the less inspired. Bloodthirsty people did bloodthirsty things and blamed God.
  4. When people lived in a violent world God worked within their context. So things that might be commanded then could be forbidden now, not because God has changed but because he is staying the same, and working with us where we are.
  5. The Old Testament God was violent. That’s why we stick with the New Testament. (If you take this approach, you should likely avoid texts like most of Revelation and Acts 5:1-11.)
  6. Let’s never read this in church and hope nobody notices.

I could probably come up with some more given time. I’ll be interested to see how Bob Cornwall handles the text. He’s both a good preacher and accomplished scholar, so I expect his comments to be helpful.

In the meantime, two things. Following a challenge on a similar text, I wrote two blog posts. The first was a story/dialogue discussing the text, titled The God-Talk Club and the She Bears, on my Jevlir Caravansary fiction blog. (In the God-Talk Club series I write dialogue without any intention of expressing my own point of view. It’s sort of an exercise for me in trying to express several views on a topic.) The second was a homily on the same passage, titled Real Guy Interpretation.

Finally, I recently interviewed two authors, Allan Bevere, author of a book based on a series of Old Testament sermons he preached titled The Character of Our Discontent, and Alden Thompson, author of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. I’m embedding that video below.

Getting Literal, Eschatological, Apocalyptic, Even!

Well, last night my discussion of According to John covered a lot of other ground. In particular, I was looking at the eschatological use of “hour” and “now,” and I suggested that John has a fairly simple eschatology to go with his fairly simple soteriology. I’m not going to rehash all of this. The foundation is found in Chapter 19 of Herold Weiss’s book Mediations on According to John: Exercises in Biblical Theology. For those who might wish to review the video, here it is.

In the middle of this discussion I got into talking about the ‘L’ word. No, not liberal. Literal. I tell people that we should avoid simply saying that we’re not taking something literal, and get specific about just how we are taking whatever it is. “We don’t take that literally,” has become commonplace in discussions of the Bible in mainline and progressive circles, but often we don’t tell people just what we do with the thing we aren’t taking literally.

Last night I was talking about something that is fairly simple to pinpoint, symbolic language in a vision report. (Note that you don’t necessarily have to believe that a person has received a divine vision in order to accept a literary category of “vision report.” I do believe people have visions, but the form remains no matter the source.) If we take a vision such as Daniel 7, for example, we have beasts (which represent something), coming up out of the sea (which represents something), onto the land (which represents something), and so forth. “Not taking Daniel 7 literally” means that I don’t believe that Daniel’s vision was about actual creatures coming from an actual sea onto the land. Rather, these beasts represent something else. Rather than taking them literally, one should take them as symbols of something else.

One of the problems with the way visions are often interpreted is that people drop from the symbolic to the literal. The beasts, the sea, and the land are symbols, sure enough, but when the Son of Man appears in the clouds, that’s literal. But there isn’t any justification in the text for taking one part of the vision literally. One interpreter of Revelation has maintained (actually more than one, but I won’t list) that we should take everything literally that we can in the book, and only treat it as symbolic where that is essential. It’s a vision! It is filled with symbols! The default has to be that anything in the vision is symbolic unless you have good reason to believe that the writer is seeing actual events. And quite bluntly, in Revelation (or the latter chapters of Daniel), you don’t.

I think a couple of extensions of how symbols might function would be in order, and Revelation provides examples. First, something literal can be used as a symbol. There is no doubt that the seven churches were real places. Under the rule of taking what can be taken literally, we would see the messages as tailored messages to those particular seven churches. But I would argue here that the actual churches are being used symbolically, with the number seven indicating that the messages to the seven churches constitute as a whole a message to the whole church. Various schemes, such as applying the churches to periods of history and their messages as specifically applicable to such times, while interesting, have the potential to lose us part of the message to the whole church. Second, I would use Revelation 12 as an example of where a visionary symbol points not to something physical, but to something spiritual. We might call it a symbol of a symbol.

It’s a bit more complex to specify how this works in other passages. For example, I would call Genesis 1 liturgy. That is, by most people’s understanding, non-literal. In addition, there are symbols within the liturgical text. This is why I think it’s important to talk about how we understand a passage and why we understand it that way and avoid simply saying that we don’t take it literally. There are many non-literal ways of taking things.

I will go into these issues in greater detail when I begin my YouTube study on eschatology starting August 17. On August 10 I plan an interview with Dr. Herold Weiss, winding up my study of According to John. I will begin the eschatology study by looking at the landscape of eschatology using Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide by Edward W. H. Vick, and then proceed to eschatological and apocalyptic passages. I talked about this in more detail yesterday.

According to John: We Must Work while It Is Day

john bannerWell, that and some additional news …

Tonight (Thursday, June 25, 2015) via Google Hangout on Air I’ll be talking about chapter 19 of Dr. Herold Weiss’s book Meditations on According to John, title “We Must Work while It Is Day.” There’s a great deal of interesting material in this chapter, and I keep adding to it as I read and re-read the passages. I’ll be talking about what the Sabbath means to Christians and also about some basic concepts in eschatology, not to mention eschatology itself.

I also want to give everyone a tentative schedule for the next few weeks and let you know what I’m planning after this series is done.

Here’s the schedule (edited June 30 to add the interview with Drew Smith):

 

July 2 – Chapter 20 – United by Love

July 9 – Chapter 21 – Jesus Wept

July 16 – Interview with Dr. Drew Smith, author of Reframing a Relevant Faith.

July 23 – Chapter 22 – Rivers of Living Water (since I’m preparing for a Sunday School series in August on the time of the exile, I will doubtless reference Ezekiel’s temple!)

July 30 – Chapter 23 – Where Are You From?

August 3 – Chapter 24 – Abide in My Love

August 10 – Closing interview with Dr. Herold Weiss

I am also planning to schedule a re-do of my interview with Dr. C. Drew Smith, which may move some of these sessions, or it may simply fill the open slot on August 3. This interview is now on the schedule for July 16, with the later chapters moved down to fill in.

9781938434105sI think I’ve mentioned a few times how far out of the box this whole series has taken me. I diligently pursued nuts and bolts of biblical studies, avoiding theology and liturgy as I would abominations (whatever those may be!). So to spend this much time thinking about theology from a biblical book was somewhat of a challenge. I’m going to move somewhat closer to my roots as we move forward, both in the sense of my approach, which will involved more nuts and bolts, and in terms of the topic, which will be eschatology, something rooted in my upbringing and education in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

I’m going to start by using the book Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide by Edward W. H. Vick as a guide to learning the general terminology and getting a view of the map of ideas on this topic. That will be quite theological, of course. Then I plan to look at a number of apocalyptic and/or otherwise eschatological passages in scripture, looking for the author’s intentions in the text and then also at how those words have become part of the various views about eschatology in the Christian community today. The idea will be to understand how people come to their conclusions, why there is so much variety, and how one can find one’s own way through the material. This series will likely continue for some time, as I have the complete books of Daniel and Revelation, not to mention a large number of shorter passages elsewhere. And yes, I would treat the first six chapters of Daniel as material that is just as eschatological (or not) as chapters 7-12.

If nothing else, I’ll have plenty of opportunity to learn new things myself! I have been gratified, however, to see that a few of these sessions have YouTube views in the teens, though most stay single digit. I really expected three or four to follow along the way. Over time, who knows! I am grateful to those who have listened and who have commented, either via the Q&A app or by e-mail. It has been a great experience already, and we still have several weeks to go.

A Note on Sacraments and Sacramental Acts

Meditations on According to JohnI’ve generated a bit of surprise by my agreement with Dr. Herold Weiss (Meditations on According to John, chapter 18) in last Thursday’s video study from the gospel according to John (not to mention my Sunday School class), that the gospel is not attempting to institute or to teach sacraments.

As a foundation to this brief note, you might want to either read Weiss’s chapter (pp. 151-158), watch my video (about 1 hr, embedded below), or both. I’m just going to follow up on a couple of items here. I suspect not that many people will watch an hour of me talking, so I will try to make these notes self-contained.

First, the video:

My view of the sacraments is simple: I think that there are public actions and rituals that we take that reflect what is happening spiritually. I do not believe that the presence of Jesus in these activities is dependent on having ordained clergy to preside. I don’t believe that the rituals in themselves are valuable.

The value of sacramental acts is that they help us recognize and participate in the spiritual reality that is behind, in, and through them. Thus if I partake of communion, a shared meal, and then spend the following week withholding food from those in need, or cutting off fellowship from people I don’t like for various reasons, my act of communion has become a dead ritual.

Weiss discusses the difference between footwashing and communion in his chapter. One has become a sacrament and one a sacramental act, the latter rarely performed. I could perform the ritual act of footwashing, which rarely has the same impact or feeling that it would have had in Jesus’ time, and then go out and refuse to place myself in the service of others. In that case, the act of footwashing would be a dead and empty ritual as well.

In the video I relate the experience of my own baptism, at which time we celebrated, as Seventh-day Adventists do frequently, by washing one another’s feet. I was partnered with a Chamula gentleman (this occurred in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico when I was nine years old) who had walked for days to be at this event. We were both newly baptized. He laughed when it came time to wash my feet because I had shoes, while he had but sandals, and I had walked a half mile or so as opposed to days. Washing his feet was meaningful to me and has stuck with me.

Despite my views, however, I don’t go out offering formal services of the Eucharist as an unordained person. Despite the fact that I don’t think the presence of an ordained pastor should be required, this is an act that is, by nature, done in community. As a member of a United Methodist congregation, part of my duty is to act in community.

At the same time, I believe that I can and should make every meal a sacramental act. The greater joy I get from the celebration of communion in the church congregation is not that I believe God is more present there, but rather that it is an act I perform in community and covenant. Sometimes in order to be in community, we have to do things the way the community does them, whether we think these things are special or not.

At the same time I have become fully convinced of the concept of open communion, and by this I mean fully open. I have long accepted the notion that when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11, talks about taking this “unworthily” he is talking about the way in which the celebration is done, not about the character of the person receiving it.

By nature of its source, in the shared meal, and its institution, which included offering it to Judas as he prepared to betray Jesus, I think this sacramental meal is intended to invite and not to exclude. It is reaching out, not commemorating our special status as members of some inner circle. Thus communion should be offered to all both in church and when we share our meals with others. I question the idea of a Christian sacrament that celebrates membership in the club.

But, you might say, what about baptism? Surely baptism can’t be for everyone!

Yes, baptism is different, yet it is different by its very nature. It is the testimony, the ritual representation of our dying with Christ and being raised with him to new life. It is a singular (generally) event. It does not celebrate how we have become special, but rather how we have chosen to give ourselves up and become part of a community, a community that, in turn, reaches out to draw others in.

And even here we invite anyone who wishes to testify to that, anyone who wishes to become a servant.

I think this becomes a problem when we see these events as a sort of initiation, bringing us into the club of the special, in which there are other special rituals in which only other special people can take part. The “in group” view of the people of God that many of us have, consciously or not, leads us to misread scripture. The Jews weren’t chosen by God to sit around and be special. They were chosen to be a blessing. Sometimes being chosen isn’t much fun. There’s the great line in “Fiddler on the Roof” when Tevye wonders if God couldn’t choose someone else for a while.

Christians, who are often anxious to appropriate the promises made to the Jewish people, are not nearly as often anxious to appropriate the calling, the tasks, and the negative responses of others. Being chosen, being “in” with God isn’t necessarily a picnic.

In conclusion, I suppose I could say that I have a high view of sacramental acts, and that I consider sacraments to be no more and no less. My high view says God is present and active in sacramental acts. The Holy Spirit works in and through them. But just as the rituals of tabernacle and temple didn’t magically accomplish forgiveness and reconciliation, but rather accompanied God’s actions, so these sacramental acts are filled with God’s presence when done “worthily.” (Note: I’m indebted to Jacob Milgrom, author of the Anchor Bible volumes on Leviticus among many other works, for my view of the relationship between ritual and divine action. Milgrom sees this presented, in contrast to some of the surrounding religions, in the way rituals are presented in Torah.)

How My Business – and My Marriage – Work

When Jody and I began our courtship we were treated to quite a lot of advice. One of the things we heard quite frequently was that we were too different to make a good couple. Just what those differences were, well, differed according to the observer. Underlying this type of advice was the assumption that we needed a certain sameness in order to be compatible.

Jody and I are not the same. Not even close. She loves change and adventure. She wants excitement. I like things to stay the same. I’m pretty good about discussing exciting ideas. I’m less likely to be there when the creative ideas make me change my routine. She makes decisions quickly and intuitively. I tend to spend days tearing apart every little detail. So, yes, we’re different.

Differences do cause conflict. Thus there are many people who think that if we just clear up the differences we will have peace, tranquility, and comfort. And perhaps this is so.

But with the peace, tranquility, and comfort come stagnation and even a bit of boredom. Jody hates boredom. I’m OK with it, but only within limits.

There are several ways you might imagine a marriage such as ours to work. We could compromise on everything. She makes a decision in 30 seconds, I take four days. Easy! Give it two days to simmer, and then make the decision. I like Bach and Haydn. She likes contemporary praise music. Again, easy! Find a compromise service that uses elements of both. I like a lengthy, topical sermon that deals with the details. She likes a vigorous call to action. Surely we can find a preacher who mixes those elements!

Alternatively, we could go the conversion route. Either I convince her that decisions require more time and cogitation, or she convinces me that fast action is essential. She persuades me that in order to worship properly one must have active, exciting, “now” music, or I convince her that worship truly occurs only with the traditional and time-tested. We file down one another’s rough edges and try to become mirror images of each other.

Or …

We could consider the fact that we have different approaches to just about everything to be a strength, and embrace it. Or perhaps not merely embrace it, but celebrate it and nourish it. Are there moments when Jody’s fast, intuitive decision making is just what we need? At those moments, I need to listen to her. This decision needs to be made quickly. On the other hand are there times when an idea needs thorough consideration? Indeed there are.

It’s not easy to recognize which is the best approach at any given moment. The starting point is for me to recognize that quick decision making is a gift, a positive point, and for her to recognize that serious deliberation is also a gift. Notice that we do not give up our gifts in favor of the other’s, nor do we compromise and become something between. Rather, as a couple, we become capable of responding to a greater range of situations with a greater range of responses.

Tonight I’m going to interview author Bob LaRochelle about his forthcoming book A Home United, which is designed to help couples who come from different faith communities work through and benefit from their differences. Even those who come from very different faith communities can benefit from his advice, questions, and exercises.

For us, for example, the perception was that we would have difficulties just because we attended different worship services at the same church. There were definitely differences, but they were not problems. Rather, they were opportunities. And we continue to face these opportunities as we move along. It’s easy to see problems, and to hope the problems go away. If, instead, you are patient enough to discover how the differences can benefit you, you’ll reap great rewards.

Join me tonight at 7:00 pm central time (June 23, 2015) for this interview using the viewer below.

After we had been married for some years, we became partners in business as well. I remember friends asking me to make sure who is in charge so that we don’t have problems making decisions. This suggests that in the business relationship, one of us works for the other.

There are areas in which one of us rules. In terms of organizing events, scheduling, how much we can take on, and things that are related to that, Jody takes the lead. In terms of editorial practice (what format, punctuation, and grammar rules we enforce, for example), I take the lead. On any particular project, one or the other of us will be the lead editor. These areas are divided between us.

But on the big decisions we use a simple approach that has also worked in our marriage: Two yesses, one no. It’s consensus or we don’t take a move. If we’ve published your book, you should know that neither of us said, “No.” We don’t take on one of these major projects without agreeing. That doesn’t mean that we both like each book equally. Absolutely not! But we choose not to say that “no” unless we think it is really necessary. So there are “Henry” books and “Jody” books to go along with “both of us” books.

That’s three sets of strengths: Mine, hers, and the ones that result from the combination.

One little book that helped me understand how this works is PERFECTLY SQUARE™. I encountered this book before we were married, and just recently we’ve begun to distribute it. In the following video, you can hear author Dr. Dolly Berthelot do some readings from it and explain the basic concept. I think the “shapes” idea, especially when you think about combining shapes, helps understand how all this works.

And if you’re wondering how it is that so many of our books tend to fit what I want to talk about in blogs, I’ll admit that I’m often thinking about the subject of books I’m editing, so it’s not entirely unnatural that I want to write a few notes about it. That’s one of the benefits of my business! At the same time, one of the things that determines whether we’ll publish a book is the importance of its subject matter to people who are trying to live their lives and make things work.

From My Editing Work: The Cross and Resurrection

From Galations: A Participatory Study Guide, p. 9:

Paul’s words gave the Galatians hope for transformation and they are hopeful to us, too.  Jesus Christ frees us from bondage.  The external world may not immediately change, but the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ frees us from guilt, fear, anxiety, and hopelessness.  God acts in Christ to set us free to live joyfully and creatively.  The cross and resurrection are a matter of life and death – they must be proclaimed – spiritually, ethically, and communally.  Anything that challenges God’s liberating message must be confronted boldly.

Besides the excellent message, there’s a good “editorial” moment in there. Do you see “the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ frees us.” Grammatically, I should correct that to free us, except that I know from the context that these are being seen as a single event. I’m sure some folks will say this is an error. Perhaps it is, but it is intentionally so.

From My Editing Work: The Bible Comes Alive

From page xvii of Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide by Bruce Epperly —

When we encounter scripture with heart, mind, and hands, the Bible comes alive and changes our lives and communities.  We become the Galatians of our time, reveling in Christian freedom and living in the Spirit.  We discover that God’s liberating Word, incarnate in the crucified and risen Christ, challenges everything that gets in the way of spiritual freedom and faithful discipleship.

Sounds like fun!

Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide

Doing Something

I’ve been trying to think of something useful to say about the  nine people killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and failing miserably. My wife beat me to it.

What she said.