A Note to Headline Readers

A Note to Headline Readers

Don’t!

Before you share anything, read the whole article. Check your facts.

But even before that … before you believe anything, read carefully, check your facts.

Headlines are often misleading. Their purpose is to get you to read, and in social media, they are aimed to get you to share.

In an emergency, misinformation can kill. Be the place where it stops!

Featured image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Fear, Prayer, Trust, and Action

Fear, Prayer, Trust, and Action

As I write posts and various notes that speak against fear, I want to make sure some things are clear.

There are two quotes that have been going through my mind. The first is: “Prayer is not a substitute for anything, and there is no substitute for prayer.” I know I first heard this from a friend and author who was once my pastor, Bob McKibben, but he attributed it to someone else and I can’t locate it.

The other is from C. S. Lewis:

Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear. But so do several other things – ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity. It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out our fear.

C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night

I first heard that one from my teacher and undergraduate advisor Alden Thompson, who has it memorized and can trot it out at a moment’s notice.

I’ve gone into detail elsewhere, but I want to restate a few things.

Fear shouldn’t control us, but it should get us moving. The fear one feels at the edge of a cliff, for example, needs to be sufficient to keep you from jumping or coming closer than your manual dexterity permits, but not so great as to paralyze you or make you take unwise, uncertain steps.

Trust is a great thing. It is something that lets us walk with confidence in dangerous times. When our trust is in God, we can have peace, even in very frightening circumstances. But trust, even in God, can be dangerous. In politics I tell people to calm down and trust God. I also ask, even beg them to go vote.

Prayer is great. One of the greatest things prayer does is change our hearts so that we will take more action, and more effective action to help others. Praying for your enemies is also a means of softening your heart. Be prepared for God to use you in response to your prayers.

Right now, the question is carrying out actions in response to the pandemic, such as social distancing. This is a decision to be made rationally. You can make it without fear. I’ll simply note that the numbers are convincing to me, but that isn’t a real argument. I’m not an expert. The experts are nearly unanimous that this is a good thing. Your decision should be based on this information.

Fear of sickness and dying and fear of harming others by carrying infection can get you to the point of taking that action. Prayer and trust in God can help you with your peace as you carry out those actions. Calmness as you trust will make it easier to make each decision. Is this a necessary trip? Is this contact safe and important?

We’re human, and each of these elements plays a role. Live wisely!

Ezekiel and the Bones

Ezekiel and the Bones

The lectionary readings called my attention to Ezekiel 37:1-14. I love the story, not to mention the song.

So how about the song?

Note: Here’s a comment from T. Henderson on this video on YouTube: ” That’s my Dad the second from the left. They couldn’t express more emotion because in that day they were under strict direction on what a black group could and could not do. Love the song though!” I like to get the historical context. You can read more of the discussion on YouTube.

There’s a specific point I want to call attention to. Notice how God provides Ezekiel with very specific instructions as to what to prophecy, first in verses 4-6, and then following up specifically to the wind/breath in verse 9.

Now God certainly could have said these things directly to the bones or to the wind. Could have, but didn’t.

What God actually did is act through Ezekiel. The event takes place not when God gives the instructions, but when Ezekiel carries them out and makes a proclamation.

There are so many things one can get from this passage, but for today, let me say just this. God likes to work through people, through human and other natural agencies. (Remember Balaam? Why didn’t God just send an angel and allow Balaam to see? God used a donkey.)

We depend on everything from God, but sometimes what God is doing is providing you with the opportunity to be the agent of what you hope for.

Featured image by Wolfgang Eckert from Pixabay

On Milk and Milk

On Milk and Milk

A couple of days ago I was reading 1 Peter during my devotional time and was struck by 1 Peter 2:1-3:

Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

1 Peter 2:1-3 (NRSV)

My mind jumped to Hebrews 5:

With the time that’s passed you should be teachers, but you again need someone to teach you the basics of the foundation of God’s message, and you now need milk and not solid food. Everyone who subsists on milk is still an infant, untested in the message of righteousness.

Hebrews 5:12-13 (my translation)

There are several reasons not to connect these two verses. The interpretation of “milk” and the viewpoint about it are very different. I think, nonetheless, that there is something to be learned from the connection.

I talk a great deal about context in Bible study, various types of context. But there is also the context of your hearing. Your spiritual experience and situation is important. There is a saying that you read or hear the text as you are, not as it is. I think this can be overstated, but it does provide us with an important perspective. We do contribute something to our own interpretation from our own experience.

Another sort of context is your own perception of your relationship to the text. And this is what struck me about these two passages.

I can easily see the message (that is, the message that I see!) in these two passages. One is urging believers to move forward. The other is urging the readers to focus on those basic elements of the gospel, things that are essential to growing in the future.

The question is how I, as a reader, see myself.

We tend to read the text from a superior position. The author of Hebrews is castigating the readers because they have failed to move forward. Their discernment is not developed. They can’t understand what he wants to teach them because of this failure.

We join ourselves with the author, looking down on the original readers, who are so undeveloped spiritually as to need milk. I think most of us, at least, do this unconsciously. We are the spiritually developed, discerning, intelligent folks who are ready for the solid food. Let’s move through this passage quickly to get to the real stuff.

But if we haven’t done enough milk drinking, as in 1 Peter 2:1-3, we are not going to correctly understand that more difficult material.

What I suspect is that all of us—myself most definitely—have a need of some of that pure milk, reminding us of whose we are, and who is the one who is perfect. It is only because of Jesus that we grow into anything. We want to discuss deep, serious, complex theories when we really need a reminder that we’re only here because of grace.

The solid-food-eater who comes to despise that milk is likely to fall short in understanding the harder, deeper material.

I feel the need to confess my need of milk before I try to tackle the harder stuff.

Recently, after having taught my way through Romans and Hebrews, my Wednesday night class at church asked me to tackle Leviticus. I claim that my theology is primarily founded on Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus in that order. They wanted to know why I found so much spiritual food in Leviticus.

I, on the other hand, felt that I was not up to teaching them what I had learned in Leviticus. Do you hear the arrogance coming through there? I, the experienced solid-food-eater type was unable to get across to milk-drinkers the wonderful things I had learned.

Several people in the class reminded me that if it was God’s time for me to teach that material, God would help me do it.

It was such a critical point, one that I know, but don’t know. The teaching itself is an act of God’s grace. Everything is. That’s the milk right there. The better you get at technical things, the easier it is to forget that no matter how brilliant your deductions are in your own eyes, you depend on God.

The milk-drinkers, who were and are, in fact, solid-food-eaters, were there to remind me of the simple milk of the Word. It is not about me, but about God reaching out to every person.

That was a time for repentance for me, and 1 Peter 2:1-3 reminded me that I need to regularly check in with the pure milk and remember the source of it all.

We need to say, with Paul:

By God’s grace I am what I am.

1 Corinthians 15:10 (my translation)

Featured image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

When Experts Make Mistakes

When Experts Make Mistakes

Anyone can make a mistake. That includes the experts we need to depend on in order to make decisions in difficult situations. So what do we do about this possibility of error?

This problem becomes particularly acute in our minds in a time of fear. When we are afraid, we often seek something certain to hold onto. We don’t like solutions that are possible, partial, or even probable. We want certainty.

Then we find out that experts have made mistakes, most likely because two experts disagree.

I have a favorite saying, which I suspect was popularized by Voltaire, who adapted it from an Italian proverb.

The perfect (or the better) is the enemy of the good.

Most of us are simply too uninformed to have a valid opinion (on our own) about a pandemic. I certainly am. And let me note that if you come forward claiming that you do known enough, and lack serious professional education and experience in relevant fields, I will believe your opinion is of no value either.

You see, my point here is not that experts are not to be trusted because they make mistakes. What we do is disregard the experts because they are not perfect, but merely good, and thus end up depending on someone who is certain, but has only a random (or worse) chance of being right. Some people are positively fact-averse!

Let’s take an extreme example. Last year two Boeing aircraft crashed, and this was eventually traced to a flaw in the design of the software that controlled the aircraft.

Face it. The experts failed in this case.

So what do we do?

Well, if we acted like we do in many medical matters, for example the management of a pandemic, many of us would discard the experts and go with common sense. We’d find people who claimed they could design a better aircraft, but had no actual training or experience. We’d talk about how aircraft designers were in some sort of conspiracy to deny us better aircraft.

Fortunately, we would likely be prevented from carrying this stupidity to its rightful conclusion by the fact that such self-proclaimed superior aircraft designers would be unlikely to create an aircraft that would get off the ground. You gotta fly before you can crash!

It has been said that the problem with common sense is that it isn’t very common.

I disagree. The problem with common sense is that it is so frequently not sense.

What we need in many situations is not a retreat from experts, but rather to find better experts. In some cases, we need to find better communicators to communicate the message of the experts. More likely, we need to realize the current experts are the good, and the perfect isn’t attainable.

But at no time do we need to replace people who have actually studied the relevant sciences, who know the necessary math, and who have spent years developing models for this sort of thing with your next door neighbor who has an opinion.

I’ve had a few opinions along the way. Too bad for me. It’s time to surrender those opinions to people who know, however imperfect they may be. Don’t let perceived, or even real imperfections keep you from benefiting from the good that they can do.

I’m going for the good. Perfect is never getting here.

Featured image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

The Limitations of Word Studies

The Limitations of Word Studies

It’s a common question, but it’s one I don’t like: What does that Greek word really mean? (You can substitute Hebrew or Aramaic for Greek.)

The basic problem is the assumption that a word “really” means anything specific. Underlying this is a tendency to think that one discovers the meaning of a communication by mentally finding the meaning of the individual words and then adding them together. Language isn’t that simple.

In English, we see this in appeals to the dictionary when word meanings are concerned. “The dictionary says that word means ____, so that’s it.” I have encountered great frustration when I don’t find that the final answer. But the way we use dictionary definitions can help us with understanding definitions in biblical languages.

A look in the dictionary will help at this point. You’ll notice that the definitions of words come in groups, and that there are multiple possibilities. If you have definitions 1, 2, and 3, which one applies to your particular case? I’ve seen angry debates occur because the participants were using a different, valid definition for a particular word. Valid, that is, apart from the particular context.

How do you know which one to use? The answer is context. Your dictionary is not written as a form of sacred writ, derived from some mountaintop revelation and delivered on unalterable tablets. Lexicographers study the ways in which words and used and then develop definitions that reflect those uses. The meaning is determined by the way words are used. Even what words get the official status of being in the dictionary is determined by usage. Who uses them? Where? Are they slang, or have they become part of mainstream languages. Lexicographers debate this sort of things, sometimes quite vigorously.

Now you need to avoid the reverse problem. This doesn’t mean that words can mean whatever you want them to. Well, they can, but not if you want to be able to communicate with someone else. Language is social, which is why lexicographers look at the way people use the words.

Words in the Bible behave as words do anywhere else. While we may debate the working of inspiration in the choosing of the words, it is clear that they are there to communicate with humans. These words function as human language.

So when I’m asked what a Hebrew or Greek word “really” means, I need to know where it is in the text so I can ask who is using it, when it is used, and what the various elements of context are. The Bible was written and transmitted over many centuries. If we take the oldest suggested dates for elements of the text, this history covers more than a millenium and a half. Many of those dates are debatable, but the time period is fairly long. Try reading something written in English in the 15th century CE (make sure it hasn’t had its language updated) and see how hard it can be to understand. Then be aware that the biblical languages underwent similar changes over time.

One way we learn how to guess and then remember words is etymology. A word is derived from one or more other words, and we combine the meanings to determine what the word means in its current form.

This procedure is helpful in guessing the meaning of a new word and in remembering meaning, but it doesn’t determine the meaning. That is because words develop in meaning as they are used. A favorite of New Testament teachers is the Greek ekklesia, which is derived from the words for “out” and “called.” I don’t intend to run through the history here, but that meaning is at best very doubtful for uses in the New Testament. The word has developed in meaning, and now refers to the gathering of believers.

Another technique that has been applied to that particular word is a search for historical meanings. An ekklesia could, historically, be a legislative assembly, but there is no evidence of this usage in the New Testament. My point here is not to develop a “correct” interpretation of this word, but rather to point out that such a result must ultimately result from reading the texts of the church that use the term.

What can a word study do for understanding the text in that case? Is it a waste of time?

Hardly! It is no more a waste of time than lexicography is. What word studies can do is discover the range of meanings a word may have. A good word study would find different contexts, different categories of use, and appropriate examples. That’s one of the differences between a good dictionary or lexicon and a vocabulary guide.

Strong’s concordance, for example, is a vocabulary guide. (With questionable content in many cases.) It provides a general survey of the English words used to translate a particular term in a particular Bible version, not a good range of definitions. It’s a challenging tool to use for word studies. A good Bible app with search, or a good concordance of a text will make it much easier.

Similarly etymology doesn’t tell you what a word really means. Rather, it provides some options for what a word may mean. That’s why we have a named fallacy, the etymological fallacy, which refers to the improper use of cognate words as determining meaning.

Debates about linguistics and biblical languages were in a much earlier stage when I was studying, but I was able to observe this in connection with using Ugaritic. Ugaritic is a Semitic language that is closely related to Hebrew, but definitely not identical. After five years of Hebrew it was easy for me to learn.

At the same time there was a temptation to use Ugaritic to determine the meaning of obscure Hebrew words, as well as to determine the meaning of unknown or obscure Ugaritic words from Hebrew. The latter was necessary. The language was an unknown, and we had to start from what was known.

In both cases, however, we had to watch for the problem of letting something other than the context determine the meaning. Words in Hebrew, Akkadian, Aramaic, and Arabic (among others) could give us a range of possibilities, but we had to work to interpret the text in order to get a good definition of a word in a particular context. (No, I was not one of the folks who interpreted these texts initially. My professor encouraged us to walk in those steps to develop our own skills.)

Thus the etymology, parallel languages, and summaries of word uses (word studies) all contributed to understanding, but none of them determined the meaning. That involved understanding the context.

Now suppose we’re looking at a New Testament word. What goes into determining the meaning of a word in a particular text? You need the known options. You also have to consider that a creative author can re-purpose an existing word. You need to understand the passage not just as a matter of the definitions of the words in the local context, but in terms of the author’s overall message. You could add to all these contexts a theological context.

Then you have to ask whether the author always uses the same word in the same sense. As an example, I suggest reading Romans 1-9 (if not further) carefully, looking at how Paul nuances the use of the word “law.” If you don’t watch his dance with that word, you will have a hard time coming up with a definition that will work. If you try to force something on the text from the outside, then you will miss what Paul is actually saying.

One of the negative results of studying biblical languages is that one can develop a tendency to study only the nuts and bolts. You spend so much time on specific words and even phrases or idioms that you lose site of the passage and its message.

That sort of careful study is essential. It provides the foundation for understanding. All comments about words not having singular, specific meanings should not give us the idea that we can do anything we want.

But once that sort of work is done, we have step back and read more rapidly, hearing the message in its broader sense.

In turn, we go back to the nuts and bolts and see if we understand them differently now that we’ve seen the overview.

Difficult? Time consuming? It can be. Yet each step you take builds your understanding of the text.

For more on word studies, see my post on Word Study Dangers, starting with Word Study Reprise, which links to the rest.

Fear Shouldn’t Decide

Fear Shouldn’t Decide

Since this is a time of posts about COVID-19, I want to make it very clear that I am not providing any information or advice specifically related to the virus. I am not an expert in infectious diseases, epidemiology, or any of a bunch of related fields of study. I choose to get my information from medical scientists with traceable institutional connections, excluding “my good friend who is a doctor,” but that’s just me.

I’ve been reminded recently of encountering cats in my driveway. There are a number of feral cats in the neighborhood, along with a fair number of human-associated cats who spend a lot of time outside. When one of them happens to be in the driveway, they will run. They are generally a small hop away from the car to the side, but they will choose to run forward in front of the car.

Fear has given the cats an impetus to run, but their fear tends to make them run in a straight line. In discussing decisions, especially in emergency situations, there’s a saying that a bad decision is often better than no decision.

That’s pretty much bred into us. Around the stone-age campfire, the lion or tiger fundamentalist was likely to win the day, because he killed the beast without wondering whether it might be tamed and put to better uses.

Once fear gets you moving, however, this in-bred trait can mislead and even destroy. If I was not a person who diligently avoids hurting passing animals, the cats in my driveway might be in trouble. But once fear sets in, you can miss the obvious options for escape, or you can rank your threats incorrectly.

On the other hand, a lack of fear can lead to inaction when action is called for. I’d suggest not railing against fear, in its place. There is a time to be afraid. But just as the engine doesn’t guide your car, so your fear should not guide your actions.

Obvious, isn’t it?

But being me, I couldn’t resist writing it down anyhow!

Featured image by Holger Schué from Pixabay

Link: On Spiritual Disciplines

Link: On Spiritual Disciplines

With a hat tip to UM-Insight, I saw a great cartoon and some excellent commentary on the Wesley Brothers blog. Maybe you think you, too, need a Disciplan.

Here’s a quote:

We don’t engage in these practices to prove anything. Selfless practices do not make me more worthy of God’s love. Rather, they prepare my heart to believe that God’s love is real.  And it’s really for me.  God doesn’t love me more just because I kept all my spiritual disciplines and turned into the best version of myself.  No, God’s love for me is just as steadfast during my most selfish and greedy moments, I am just closed to accepting that truth.  I can do all these spiritual practices for selfish reasons: trying to prove my love or my worth, to prove that I’m on the “right side of history.” But if it doesn’t till the soil of my heart towards knowing the humble heart of God, what am I doing?

Go read the whole thing! God will love you more!

Well, no, not true, but go read it anyhow.