Greater Good than Before

Greater Good than Before

I will multiply on you people and animals, and they will increase and bear fruit. People will live on you as in the former times and I will do greater good to you than I did before. Then you will know that I am YHWH. (Ezekiel 36:11)

Ezekiel here address the message to the mountains of Israel, which paints a nice word picture. This is part of my preparation to teach the Sunday School lesson this coming Sunday.

I want to call attention to the phrase I have translated “do greater good to you than I did before.” I think that Israel is here learning the lesson that often to get greater good what we have now has to go away. We fear something new because we lose the old. But an earthquake, a fire, or even a hurricane can get us started on something new because we have to.

I don’t mean that the destruction itself is good. What I’m suggesting is that sometimes we, like nature itself, become renewed after the things we cling to have been destroyed.

Following the Path of Jesus

Following the Path of Jesus

On January 1 God called two texts to my attention as themes for the year. They are Philippians 1:27-30 and Ephesians 5:1-2. I haven’t said a great deal about this, though the theme of those texts has shown up in a number of posts. Then yesterday I saw Dave Black’s latest translation of Philippians 1:27-30, which I like a great deal, and I wanted to mention it. Reading a text in a modern, clear, might I say dynamic, rendering brings it home. Here’s the translation:

Now the only thing that really matters is that you make it your habit to live as good citizens of heaven in a manner required by the Good News about Christ, so that, whether or not I’m able to go and see you in person or remain absent, I will be hearing that all of you, like soldiers on a battlefield, are standing shoulder to shoulder and working as one team to help people put their trust in the Good News. Don’t allow your enemies to terrify you in any way. Your boldness in the midst of opposition will be a clear sign to them that they will be destroyed and that you will be saved, because it’s God who gives you salvation. For God has granted you the privilege on behalf of Christ of not only believing in Him but also suffering for Him. Now it’s your turn to take part with me in the life-or-death battle I’m fighting — the same battle you saw me fighting in Philippi and, as you hear, the one I’m fighting now. (emphasis mine)

This emphasized line led me to a quote from Bruce Epperly’s book Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide:

Even now in our time, we can take confidence in Paul’s assertion that God is with us and that, in life and death, and celebration and persecution, Christ sustains us. We are resurrection people. But, our lives are also cruciform or cross-shaped. The Risen Jesus is known initially by his wounds, and we too may experience suffering and loss as a result of our relationship with Christ. Still, at the end of the day, integrity, fidelity, and the promise of resurrection life far outweigh any trials of this lifetime. – p. 19

Bruce also quotes the song “I have decided to follow Jesus.” It’s a good song, but it’s one that should be very hard to sing. No, not musically, but due to meaning.

(I must note here in passing that I love to use materials that come from very different theological streams. It is especially important, I think, when people from opposite sides of the spectrum agree fully on the meaning of a text, even more so when that text says something people would often rather not hear.)

On the night when Jesus was betrayed, there were twelve people (at least) who had decided to follow Jesus. One betrayed him. One denied him publicly. The rest “advanced in the opposite direction.” We can take hope from the fact that so many found their way back!

Ephesians 5:2 similarly gives us a hard call “walk in love.” Now we like that, because we often call very unloving things “love.” But the verse goes on “just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us. We have a very clear pattern for what love actually means. I’m a love proclaimer. I believe in the power of love. The reason love so often seems wishy-washy, that it so often fails, is that what we call love is often partial. It is not commitment, but rather a sort of generic liking. That’s why the key to following Jesus is not the experience of miraculous physical acts, or wealth, or healing for everyone in sight, or healing of all our emotional ills. The key to following Jesus is the willingness to take up the “privilege” of suffering for him.

This, I must confess, is not the true story of my life. Nonetheless, just as I can travel northward by using the pole star as a guide even though I’ll never reach it, so I will keep facing this way, and trust in the grace of the One who gave himself first.

(Allow me to call attention to two previous posts: God Perfected through Suffering and Thankful for the Gift of Suffering for Jesus?)

Why I Believe the Laws of Physics Will Continue Unabated

Why I Believe the Laws of Physics Will Continue Unabated

It’s hurricane time, as Irma approaches Florida. Note here that I make again the error of many Americans, which is that the hurricane tends to become of interest when it’s arriving at our shores. It has already been quite destructive in a number of places and right now in Cuba.

Yet the discussion intensifies, and we are, inevitably, confronted with loads of hurricane theology. I think it’s because we get to watch hurricanes approach for such a long period of time. Earthquakes and tornadoes happen quickly more quickly. But we track the hurricane, we pray, and we do theology, generally bad theology.

I do not here claim to have a corner on good theology. I am quite unabashedly regarding as bad theology any theology that seems particularly bad to me. So there.

I am not, however, alone. Behold this tweet from author Carol Howard Merritt:

Now before everyone gets the wrong idea, I do pray, and I do believe in prayer. It’s just that what people believe prayer will accomplish starts to get particularly silly when there’s a hurricane trundling along nearby.

I’ve even prayed that God would mitigate the storm, or perhaps send it out to the open Atlantic, with due warning to all sailors who might get caught in its path. I have not, however, claimed that this prayer was likely to do a great deal to change the path of the storm.

So why on earth did I pray it?

This reminds me of talking with my Dad. My father was an MD, and a missionary. When he was not overseas, he was trying to serve those in need in the U. S. and Canada. He never made any money, and came as close as anyone I know to accomplishing John Wesley’s goal: Dying with only the change in his pocket.

I occasionally had conversations with my dad about the possibility of going into practice in an area where he would make money. The nice thing about that, from my viewpoint, would be that I could afford more stuff. In my case that would have been books, parts for my radios, chemicals for a photo-lab, etc. (In relation to nothing in particular, I would note that I often feel sympathy for parents of children such as myself.)

With my dad I would express my interest in such possibilities and how nice it would be to have more money. What I didn’t expect was that he would actually abandon his lifelong calling of service to others and go find a way to make money. I was honest about my desires, but I did not hold the discussion with some kind of expectation of results.

Why? Because I knew my father. I knew who he was. I knew what he believed. There was as much likelihood that my father would abandon his calling as there is that God will discard the laws by which he has chosen to run the universe.

Theologians may look upon general revelation, the revelation of God in God’s creation, with a bit of a jaundiced eye. Observation of nature does not easily result in the sort of ethical rules that a “Thou shalt not kill” does. Yet some of the most stable and definite indications of the way God works are displayed in the form of natural laws.

Air over heated water. The rotation of the earth, the way in which a heated gas (like the stuff in air) will rise. High pressure ridges. Troughs. These are some of the many things that result in the formation of hurricanes and in directing their courses. “He makes his sun to rise on the just and the unjust” and “summer and winter will not cease” are reflections of this nature of God’s action. Of course, we already knew that from observation. Unless, of course, we have not been observing.

So when I told God it would be nice for the hurricane to head out over the Atlantic, that was fine. But knowing just a bit about God, I wasn’t expecting that God would drop all the laws of physics just to suit me. God has been running the universe according to those laws by an estimated nearly 14 billion years.

But I tell God in prayer anyhow, because that’s what I do. Then I more seriously pray for the people who are in the way of the storm and that those who can will provide the needed help, that we’ll all give as we are able. There’s the common saying that prayer changes things. Personally I think that’s fairly rare. What it does is actually much harder: It changes me. It changes you.

And if it does that, it has done well.

(I wrote a series of articles on this back in 2003, which are also included in my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic. They are The Hand of God, The Hand of God: Miracles, and The Hand of God: Prayer. I recently published a book by Dr. Bruce Epperly, Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles, which also deals with this subject.)

 

Acts 12: Reacting to Miracles (and Their Absence)

Acts 12: Reacting to Miracles (and Their Absence)

Acts 12 is an interesting chapter, both because of what happens and what doesn’t.

James, the brother of John, is seized by Herod and killed. No comment, backstory, or reaction provided. One short verse and gone. I’ve just said more!

Then Peter is seized, and they expect him to be killed as well. The whole church prays for Peter. We’ll suppose that the church prayed for James as well, though it’s possible he was seized and killed so quickly the word didn’t get around until he was dead.

I think the stark presentation of James’s death, followed by the prayer of the church and then the rescue of Peter starkly emphasizes that prayer doesn’t always make things work the way we want it to, provided we haven’t figured that out by reading about Stephen’s death in Chapter 7. Yet the church prays.

As we watch calls for prayer regarding the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and recognize the prayer that went before, we should perhaps note that prayer isn’t a means of steering hurricanes according to our desires, nor of doing the cleanup afterwards. As I once heard preached, prayer isn’t a substitute for anything else, and nothing else is a substitute for prayer. Prayer has its own functions.

In any case, this time while the church is praying, an angel is off to rescue Peter. It may be just my imagination, but it feels like Peter is kind of an automaton through the first part. In verse 9, we’re told he thinks it’s a vision. He is certainly not thinking, “Oh, yes, here’s the angel I expected come to rescue me.” Once he’s in the street and the angel poofs, he realizes it’s really happening.

He heads off to where the church people are praying, and here we get a cameo by young Rhoda, who appears in scripture this once to be so happy at hearing Peter’s voice that she doesn’t open the door for him, but rather heads off to tell the other people he’s alive.

There are a few people like her around today. They want to see a miracle happen, or even something they can imagine to be a miracle, and their purpose is to talk about it. They too can forget to open the door to whatever is happening next.

The people in the house are also quite normal people. They don’t believe Rhoda. After all, if you knew the security arrangements around Peter, you likely wouldn’t believe he was there either. I’d probably think someone got the guards drunk, stole the key, and then led Peter out of prison. If it was today, I’d think some kind of sleeping substance added to their food. At least they let Peter in off the street.

Sometimes Bible stories are really sparse. I keep wondering about Peter’s thoughts. He keeps knocking, but I imagine he was a bit put out when they didn’t open the door. Peter’s angel, indeed! (12:15).

Finally, we have Herod’s reaction. Imagine being one of those guards. I know I go off track, but I kind of feel sorry for the guards. They’re just ordinary guys off serving their country/ruler, and Herod isn’t for a moment going to believe that they were miraculously put to sleep while their prisoner was taken. Honestly, Herod’s reaction is quite rational. The best explanation for the facts he has before him is that the guards either shirked their duty or perhaps even took bribes to let Peter go.

Peter, who seems a relatively sensible guy in this story goes somewhere else.

I think if we read this story and let some of the turns sink in, we might away from a mechanical view of prayer and providence. It’s worth a try in any case.

(Some books I publish that relate: Pathways to Prayer (David Moffett-Moore), Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles (Bruce Epperly), and Directed Paths (my mother Myrtle Blabey Neufeld. Featured image credit, Openclipart.org.)

 

Alden Thompson Speaking at Adventist Forum Conference

Alden Thompson Speaking at Adventist Forum Conference

Alden was my undergraduate advisor at Walla Walla University (then college), I publish two of his books (Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers and Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?), and he is a friend. Many of my friends have heard him speak in person. Here he is presenting a paper at a conference, so is somewhat less free-wheeling than he is normally, but he’s making some important points.

 

In Controversy, Build Community

In Controversy, Build Community

So the disciples decided to send help to the brothers and sisters living in Judea, as each one was able. They carried out their plan, and had Barnabas and Paul deliver their gift. (Acts 11:29-30)

This is a short verse, but I think it’s very sweet. As the story of Acts progresses, we’re entering the phase of controversy between those who are welcoming gentiles to the church (without their first becoming Jews) and those who don’t wish to do so. It will get quite heated as Paul’s ministry gets going.

But here there’s a simple pause. The believers in Antioch send what they can to the believers in Jerusalem. Nobody is asking which side of the controversy they’re on.

Here’s the principle: In controversy, build community.

Responding to Church Criticism

Responding to Church Criticism

Steven Cuss took to The Jesus Creed (Scot McKnight’s blog) to respond to Francis Chan about the church. This is all about a very valid and, I think, much needed conversation about the church.

When we criticize the church in America there can be many responses.

  1. Defensive – we are really, truly doing good things
  2. Could be worse – we have our problems, but we’re doing some good stuff
  3. Look at you – you’re making more mistakes than we are (or you have in the past)
  4. You’re too critical – you shouldn’t point out our problems because that’s negative

There are a few more, I suppose, but those will do.

The problem is that as long as we use these various responses, reform or correction will definitely not happen. Once we have responded, we have generally also minimized our need to act. We function a bit like a vehicle stuck in mud or sand. You can stomp the accelerator because you need to get moving, but all you do is rock a bit forward and then a bit back.

I think that often describes our churches. We don’t take the serious steps that are needed to really have an impact on our culture. We want to be a little bit different, mostly in the sense that we attend church, but not be real salt, scattered through and changing everything.

Now not all criticism is useful. Not all criticism is valid. But a great deal is. The person who aims to change cannot pre-moderate his or her comments. If you are making a call for reform, and nobody is getting upset, you probably aren’t doing it right.

My blog header proclaims me a “passionate moderate” amongst other things. I think moderation is a good thing if you’ve found the right range of options and the right position. But sometimes the right thing is what everyone else regards as an extreme. I’d really like to find that “moderate” position at the center of God’s will.

How about you?

Measuring Success

Measuring Success

It seems to me that one of the most serious difficulties we have in the church today is the way we measure success. We are driven by numbers and money. It’s easy, of course, to justify this. After all, if you don’t have money, you generally can’t help people. I am reminded of Chapter 3 of Acts, in which Peter (with John) says, “Silver and gold I have none,” yet look what they did.

Still, the temptation is great to judge the success of a meeting by the attendance, and the success of a church by its budget. I’d add that I don’t suggest we think the other way either. Just because a church is prosperous does not mean its ministry and mission is in trouble. It’s just that I don’t see the numbers and the money as God’s measure.

With that in mind I was struck by two verses in Chapter 8. Stephen has just been killed, and Luke tells us that Saul continues to persecute the church. Everyone except the apostles is scattered across the countryside of Judea and Samaria (v. 1).

By our standards, this is a bad thing. All this talent is leaving the big church, the one with the resources to carry out the mission! Stephen is dead, and Philip is about to head out. “Everyone” doubtless includes many more. The church is being drained.

If this was an American church, the next question would be how we would pay the bills for the facility. I recall one church that had a serious scattering of membership, and that became a serious problem. You have to sell some buildings or some land, and that can be difficult. Members don’t like the feel of selling off the property and there’s always a question of whether you’ll get enough for it. Besides, selling stuff and downsizing is a sign of defeat!

We’d doubtless feel the same way about persecution. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of persecution. I really don’t want to be persecuted. But if I can put it bluntly, I doubt God really cares what I want.

In this case, something great happens. “As they were scattered, they went about proclaiming the Word …” (8:4). In the movement of the story of the early church as told in Acts we’re in that transition as we move from Judea to Samaria and from there to the whole world. The failure of the church as the members scatter is the success of God’s plan.

I’m thinking we need to spend our time finding God’s plan and measuring our success by how much we’re on that. As I read scripture, I’m suspecting that plan may be different from ours. Let God speak and move in our generation.

 

Literal Problems, Literally

Literal Problems, Literally

I found Should we read the Bible literally via Facebook, and want to commend it to my readers. I can’t tell for sure, but I suspect the writer is perhaps more conservative than I am, yet he makes many points I frequently try to make. I think he may be a bit too optimistic on the hope of recovering the word “literal” from popular abuse.

I’ve often said that if I could take one saying away from Christian conservatives it would be, “The Bible plainly teaches …” Our frequent disagreements as Christians seem to challenge that idea. It’s always possible that the teaching is plain and we just want to work around it, but who has the right view and who’s working around? It would be better to just bring forth the arguments in favor and let someone else decide how plain it is.

On the other hand, the phrase (regarding the Bible) that I’d most like to take from liberals is “We don’t take that literally.” The problem is, how do you take it? The meaning of the word “literally” is “literally” not that settled. Biblical scholars and theologians use it differently than the general population. So whether you’re telling someone to take it literally or not, the odds are they’re going to understand it differently.

For example, I regard Genesis 1 as never having been written with the intention of developing a sequential, historical, scientific view of origins. Rather, it speaks in the context of its current cosmology and gives God’s role in creation. Contemporary readers would likely have perceived it in those senses, but there’s no necessity that one do so, and the elements the stories are trying to convey are not harmed by changing chronology or method of creation. (In my view, at least!) I do not doubt the reality of God’s action. Is that literal or not? It’s a bit more difficult to answer that question than the example of calming the sea in the referenced article. But that’s why I suggest that “not literal” is also not helpful.

What we have to do is specify how we do read the text. For example, I read Genesis 1:1-2:4a as liturgy and the rest of Genesis 2-3 as myth, in the best sense of that word. “Myth” frequently becomes a synonym for “not true” when, in terms of literature, it speaks to the foundational function of a story in a society. A myth might not be a true story, in the sense of narrative history (we often use “literal” here), but it also might be. Historical events do become myths in functional terms.

Ian Paul makes that point in the referenced article with regard to the story of calming the sea. There is extended meaning. One can take the sea and the boat allegorically, but the allegorical meaning is built, for many at least, on the idea that the underlying story really happened. I would disagree that one can’t get allegorical meaning if one doesn’t take the story as historically real, but there would be a difference in that meaning.

All of which simply leads back to the first point. We need to be careful with our use of language. I think that too many Bible students use their own definition of literal, by which I mean the one understood by most Bible scholars, and tell people they should interpret the Bible literally. People in turn believe they are being told to make the Bible concretely applicable no matter what. Which problem is not helped when someone like Tim LaHaye says to take the Bible literally if at all possible, and then applies it by making all the symbols of Revelation apply in a concrete sense to future physical events. Some of the words in Revelation do refer to such things. Others refer to spiritual things. There is a variety of usage. It’s a vision; expect some variety in the author’s (and Vision-givers) intent.

Most importantly, try to be aware of how you are taking a passage. Literal/figurative is not adequate. What type of figure is it? What time of reality does it reference?

In answering those questions, you may well discover why I so dislike hearing that “the Bible plainly teaches.”