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Author: Henry Neufeld

Will Antisemitism Ever End

Will Antisemitism Ever End

I get a daily (most days!) e-newsletter from Rabbi Evan Moffic. I find his thoughts inspiring and helpful. I want to quote his letter today in full. You can learn about some of his books through his Amazon.com author page or my Aer.io page for him.

Henry, My grandfather passed away in 2007 at age 95, but in college I recorded several conversations with him. He talked about the Depression and the desperation he and many Americans felt.

He talked about learning to box so he could defend himself against the neighborhood bullies  who called him a Polish Jew. He talked about sneaking into gatherings in 1930s Milwaukee of a group called the The Bund, which were American Nazi sympathizers.

What happened in Charlottesville last week would not have surprised him. He lived through it once before.

But it did surprise me. I grew up with little antisemitism. My application to seminary said the age of persecution was over, and Jewish life needed to focus on more positive engagement and inspiration.

I was naive. Antisemitism has reared its ugly head again. The Nazi symbols and signs proclaiming in Charlottesville “Jews will not replace us” scared me and my children.

I thank God for you—my readers and friends—who are committed to a different world. A world we can worship and live in freedom and respect. Our task is to help preserve that world our children and grandchildren.

Do we have grounds for hope? Well, our ultimate hope rests in God.

But I also take comfort from the Book of Genesis. It begins with an angry murder. Cain kills Abel. Later Jacob steals the birthright from his older brother Esau. Then Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery.

Yet, at the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph and his brothers  reconcile with one another. They forgive. They live in peace.

My hope is our country follows our similar path. What can you do now? Join this Facebook group to keep up with ways of fighting antisemitism. It is called, fittingly, Christians and Jewish Fighting Antisemitism and is the first of its kind.

I believe this link https://emoffic.clickfunnels.com/squeeze-page will allow you to sign up for the newsletter, as well as get you the Jewish holidays cheat sheet.

Acts: God Moves in Unexpected Ways

Acts: God Moves in Unexpected Ways

I’m currently reading the book of Acts for my morning devotions and today I read chapter 6. That’s a nice, short chapter!

The disciples find that there are complaints about distribution of charitable works and they decide they shouldn’t be distracted from the Word in order to wait at tables (and other such things). The result is the choice of seven deacons. Again, they pray, and then lay hands on them and commission them to this work. Other than the continuing spread of the message, we’re not told how this organizational structure worked.

As Acts proceeds (since I’ve read it before, I know how the story ends!), we’ll hear quite a bit about Stephen and Philip. It’s interesting to note, however, that we don’t hear about them serving at tables, which, ostensibly, they were chosen to do. In fact, we hear them proclaiming the Word themselves. In chapter 6, it starts with Stephen, and it promptly leads to his arrest.

Let me note a couple of things here:

  1. They don’t record any time of prayer before going out to choose these seven men. It appears they jump straight to the strategy.
  2. They don’t record any time of prayer or deliberation before choosing the seven.
  3. They do pray before commissioning the men by laying hands on them.
  4. We see no record of results of this activity that match the intent. Yes, results. Stephen and Philip are significant players in the story and they are introduced to us here, but there is no record that the issue with distribution of service (apparently particularly food) was resolved.

Now it may be that I’m reading too much into the white spaces here, but this is the second time I’ve noticed this during this pass through Acts. I’d noticed before that Matthias (chapter 1) is appointed as a new apostle and then disappears from history. Considering how much of this portion of early Christian history is recorded just in Acts, one wonders if this is accidental. (My sister Betty Rae pointed this out to me some years ago.) In my reading this time I noticed how the choice to replace the missing apostle is made based on Peter’s interpretation of scripture. There’s no effort made to seek God’s will for this particular instance. Then two people are chose according to criteria they select.

Let’s parallel the numbers:

  1. There is no prayer time as they choose the basic strategy. Unlike Acts 6, this strategy is apparently based on Peter’s reading of scripture.
  2. They choose two people again without any time of prayer.
  3. They now pray and ask God to choose between the two. The situation differs from Acts 6 in that the seven were chosen and then the prayer is offered as they commission them. “Please bless the ones we have chosen,” is the petition. Here it’s “choose one of the two options we’ve given you, Lord.”
  4. No results are recorded.

Now comes the fifth step, which is what’s hitting me on this pass through Acts. God immediately takes action to advance the kingdom, and it doesn’t fit with the human plans, even the plans by the apostles. In Acts 6, Stephen heads right out to proclaim the gospel and defend it. In the case of Acts 1 we have to wait until chapter 9 before we see God choosing someone as an apostle, one who doesn’t fit the list of criteria, but who certainly carries out the mission.

I wonder if Luke is telling us something here? I’m really not that acquainted with scholarship on Acts, so this may have been thoroughly ground to dust somewhere in the commentaries. Still, it’s something to think about.

There Are Plenty of Opportunities to Pray

There Are Plenty of Opportunities to Pray

School is starting, and so we have the regular drumbeat of comments about prayer in school. One of the most common, used at my church today, is the comment that as long as there are exams, there will always be prayer in public schools. Which is, of course, quite true. Also, largely irrelevant.

Opponents of public school prayer aren’t trying to prevent students from saying, “Jesus help me!” as they start a test. (Well, I should make the “nut” proviso — I’ve discovered that there is really no idea so stupid that there isn’t a nut somewhere who will support it.) No serious opponent of school prayer is concerned with prayer before tests. What they’re concerned with is publicly sponsored prayer. The child is required to be there. The teacher operates with the power of the government. The prayer is sponsored by political authority.

It’s not my intention, however, to discuss the politics, or to examine from the state’s side whether it’s a good idea for prayer to be prescribed or permitted when led by someone with official authority.

My concern is with prayer by Christians, or even more with talking about prayer and promotion of prayer by Christians. What we say about prayer and what we do about prayer is important. My observation is that there are a lot more people talking about prayer and advocating prayer than are actually praying. This makes me wonder about the issues we choose to make central.

During the course of a day I find that I can pray in my bedroom, my living room, my office, my car, walking on the sidewalk, sitting in a restaurant, meeting with a client … Hmmm! Come to think of it, there really are no places or times when I can’t pray in one way or another. The way in which I pray may be constrained. It might not be best to suggest a time of prayer with every client, though honestly most of them would say “yes” if I asked. Each circumstance may require a different approach to prayer, silent, aloud, head bowed, or not, brief, or longer, kneeling (rare for me), or lying down in my bed.

If I complain that I can’t pray in a public place, I’m really complaining that I cannot make it clear and public that I am praying in that public place. If I’m willing for my prayer to be between me and God, the only ones who can block it are God and me.

I’m leaving out of this discussion the question of whether it is good as public policy to allow some sort of officially sponsored prayer at public events. Personally, I prefer prayer to be individual or part of a voluntary community. But regardless of this issue, the opportunity exists.

If your child or grandchild is going to public school, let me ask a few questions:

  1. Will you be praying with that child (if they are in your house) before they leave for school?
  2. Will you be praying for that child irrespective of what anyone at school is doing?
  3. Will you and your church be praying for your children and those of the community?
  4. Will you be modeling a life of prayer for your child or grandchild that makes spirituality inviting?

I’m sure you can find many other opportunities and ways to proceed with prayer. Too often our underlying concern, as evidenced by our actions, is more with the public display of our spirituality than with the spirituality itself. This doesn’t mean that I believe that if you advocate for teacher led prayer in public schools you are somehow less spiritual. But if you do so without taking the opportunities that are available, it may be time for some self-examination.

Come to think of it, even if you, like me, advocated for only voluntary prayer, your (our!) primary concern should be what we’re doing with the opportunities we have to pray every moment of every day.

(Energion books on prayer.)

Acts of the Apostles and 21st Century Action

Acts of the Apostles and 21st Century Action

I publish a couple of books that use Acts of the Apostles as a source for principles to guide the 21st century church. I publish such books with a certain amount of trepidation, as it’s very easy to apply material piecemeal, which results in discovering that the biblical book in question tells us to do what we wanted to do in any case.

Two books that deal with this issue in the Energion catalog are Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel by Bruce Epperly and Seven Marks of a New Testament Church by David Alan Black. Now considering that the authors of these two books are some distance apart on the theological spectrum—Bruce is United Church of Christ and Dave is Southern Baptist—one might suspect that there is a wide gulf between what they see as most important or applicable in the New Testament church. In actuality, I found myself more surprised by the level of agreement involved. There are certainly differences, and yet there are themes that are clear to both authors.

I suspect the level of agreement results from greater care in studying the text. No, I don’t believe careful study will make us agree on everything. Careful study tends to do two things: 1) It discovers clear themes, and 2) it clarifies and outlines differences and the reasons for them. I will repeat what I have said before: Most of the heat in arguments between Christians results from not understanding the way in which we’re using our sources. If we did understand the source of an opponent’s beliefs, that wouldn’t mean we’d agree, but it would reduce frustration. There’s nothing like having two people look at a text and clearly see different things. There is a strong temptation to assume the other person is stupid, obtuse, ignorant, or perhaps demonically deceived.

Yet Christianity is a faith that is built on studying sources. We may differ on what those sources are, whether it’s the biblical canon, writers in the theological tradition, or authoritative institutions. The point is not to eliminate the inputs because they might be misunderstood or misapplied. Rather, I would suggest it is to study these sources with an awareness of the differences.

One of the ways to do this is to actually study pieces of biblical literature as they were written. If I get to make a selection of texts, I can definitely bias the results. That doesn’t mean that I will find that everything there applies to my everyday life now, but I do need to be aware of the things I’m not applying and why I’m not applying them.

I started re-reading Acts of the Apostles the other day, and was immediately struck by some of these kinds of issues. Let me note just a few.

  1. Acts 1:2-3 – Jesus teaches the disciples for some time following the resurrection. We don’t have a formal record of this teaching. Is this a plug for apostolic tradition? If it is, note that Paul wasn’t in on this, yet has provided us with much of New Testament theology.
  2. Acts 1:4-5 – Awaiting the promise of the Spirit. Acts was most likely written before John, but here we have that continuing teaching of the Holy Spirit, and when the Spirit does come upon the disciples, it seems to come upon the whole group. Is this a foundation for the belief that revelation continues and can come to each one of us?
  3. Acts 1:21-26 – Choosing a successor to Judas by lot. This one presents some interesting issues. I enjoyed teaching this to a class in a church that had just completed a search for a new pastor. I asked them if their procedure, much different from the one here, was biblical, which resulted in an energetic discussion. It’s interesting to me that we have no evidence here of prayerful discussion. Peter presents his interpretation of scripture, then two people are chosen that fill the requirements (we don’t hear the source of those requirements), and then one of the two is chosen by lot. God is invoked, but God is invited to choose between the two candidates selected by the apostles. At which point the chosen person disappears into history. Most of the book is about Paul, a person who does not fulfill the requirements and is chosen by a completely different method. So is God’s way casting lots or should we wait for the lightning bolt?
  4. Skipping Acts 2 and going to 3:1-10 – Is this the sort of thing that should characterize a modern church? If so, we’re largely too tame. And we should, of course, consider chapter 5 with Ananias and Sapphira. Church discipline, anyone?

My purpose in making this truncated list is to show that there are things here we do (baptism, preaching, even healing [in some sense]), and others that we don’t (casting lots), and it’s worthwhile to realize that something more than just grabbing sentences or paragraphs and applying what they “clearly teach” is going on. I’m not complaining about that extra stuff going on. That’s part of life and yes, part of faith. The problem comes in when we try to pretend that we’ve dumped everything extra. (Note that there are churches who use a form of lots in selecting leadership, so that is a valid item to list.)

The next question to ask yourself is just why you do certain things and not others. Why would you preach, baptize, accept into membership, but not heal? Why do you find it appropriate to await the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but not to choose all church leadership by casting lots? (Notice how I slipped “all” in there when it’s not in the text?) Understanding how we get wherever we are can help us understand one another. It might even help us with course corrections.

Mounce on Translating Every Word

Mounce on Translating Every Word

I used to use Bill Mounce’s introductory grammar in teaching Greek, and I appreciated his attention to linguistics, though I generally wanted more. (I’ve switched to Dave Black’s Learn to Read New Testament Greek for those rare occasions when I have the opportunity to teach Greek. I’m probably prejudiced as Dave is a friend and I publish the Spanish translation of that book, Aprenda a leer el Griego del Nuevo Testamento.)

In a blog post, Mounce discusses the question of whether one needs to translate every word of the Greek text into English to be faithful to get inspiration and inerrancy of scripture. As one who doesn’t believe “inerrancy” is a good word to describe scripture, I find the question especially interesting. It illustrates the reason why I don’t like the inerrancy debate. So often, despite any efforts by scholars who use the word carefully, inerrancy leads to this sort of distorted question. Mounce correctly points out that the word is not necessarily the correct bearer of meaning to try to translate. Mounce suggests the meaning is found “more at the phrase level,” though I would say that meaning is found at a variety of levels, and that the ideal translator would convey the meaning expressed.

In this case, however, the “ideal” translator is more “ideal” in the sense of being “not real.” No translator can convey everything. If a truly master translator, for example, conveys the precise emotional feel of a Psalm, he or she is very likely to obscure the history. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, does an outstanding job of getting the punch of a parable’s message, and the result is beautiful, almost ideal. Well, until you realize that you’re losing both the historical connection, and also in some ways the possibilities inherent in the story form itself. This is not a criticism of The Message. I love it. I like to read it. But by accomplishing some things, the translator of necessity fails to accomplish some others. Therein lies the value of multiple translations.

Therein also lies the value of sharing one’s thoughts. It is imagined that someone like me, who reads the text in the original language, has somehow truly attained and truly understands. But over and over, I read and translate a passage for myself, and then I read it in other translations and find enrichment because those translators chose different options than I did. Sometimes I’ll say, “No, I think my way is better,” while at others I might correct what I did. Sometimes I just find that the other ways of expressing the meaning round out my understanding, while I can’t really find a translation that conveys the whole.

You can check out some books from Energion Publications on inspiration here.

 

The Chicken Dance Banned from Many Wedding Receptions

The Chicken Dance Banned from Many Wedding Receptions

In a sign either that the human species is less doomed than I had thought, or that the heat death of the universe is more imminent, FiveThirtyEight.com reports that The Chicken Dance was banned at 23.1% of wedding receptions last year.

The value of this datum is somewhat diminished by the fact that they found that many songs appear both on their most requested and their most banned list.

I read FiveThirtyEight‘s Significant Digits column every day precisely because it provides this sort of critical information.

You can return to your day now.

PS: Six percent of wedding receptions banned anything by Justin Bieber. I regard that latter figure as much too low.

Praying for Our Leaders

Praying for Our Leaders

There has been some fuss recently about praying for political leaders, in particularly, regarding an image of folks praying for President Trump. I think that many prayers for and against leaders mistake the value that prayer has. Further, complaining about what other people pray is largely a waste of time, and again reflects a misunderstanding of the value of prayer.

I recall the quote that “most people want to serve God, but only in an advisory capacity.” (I looked it up and found this attribution to former SBC president Adrian Rogers.) When the majority of our prayers involve telling God what to do, what does that say about our believe in the omniscience, omnipotence, and indeed, the wisdom of God? Many of those who pray positively for President Trump, advising God to destroy his enemies and to prosper the president, also prayed quite negatively regarding President Obama. Just as happens in the broader American society, in Christianity we tend to exchange scripts when the party in power changes. About the same number of prayers get said, and the same number of complaints made. They are just made by different people.

My prayers for our leaders have not changed with the change of presidents. No, I do not deny having opinions, even strong ones, regarding various political issues. I have just chosen to spend my time on other things. But I prayed regularly that God would bless President Obama, and I continue to pray that God bless President Trump, according to his will.

How can I do this since I must disagree with substantial policy choices of one or the other? Very simply. I believe that God’s blessing is always a positive thing. Some people worry about prayers that they don’t like. I do not. I believe God can and does work, but I both believe that he doesn’t need advisors, and that he’s not going to let self-appointed advisors get in the way of his divine plan. Some are concerned about “prayers amiss,” but I think that idea is the result of a misapplication of James 4:3, which actually supports the idea that God is not going to respond to a prayer for evil.

So I welcome prayer, even ones I don’t like. I suspect that if I seek God, I may somehow get closer to him than I was before. The same thing applies even to those who advise God to do things I would disapprove. Opening yourself to God is both dangerous and wonderful.

When God Ordains a Change

When God Ordains a Change

We’ve had some discussion of Romans 13 over on the Energion Discussion Network, with contributions from David Alan Black, Elgin Hushbeck, Jr., and Steve Kindle (via comments). The question is just what it means to be subject to the “higher powers,” and when or whether a Christian can ever be involved in a revolutionary movement. I commented on some of my own view on this in a post some time ago, but today I want to look at another passage. I think it’s an excellent illustration of why we should refrain from the phrase “the Bible clearly teaches” as much as possible.

So what about when God ordains a change? A fun example of this occurs in 2 Kings 9. Actually, this starts with 1 Kings 19:26 when Elijah is told to anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi as king of Israel. This doesn’t happen until 2 Kings 9:

Elisha the prophet called one of the sons of the prophet and told him, “Get yourself ready and take this vial of oil in your hand and go to Ramoth Gilead. You’ll go there and you’ll see Jehu, son of Jehoshaphat, son of Nimshi, and you’ll take him from among his brethren and take him to another room. You’ll take the vial of oil and pour it out on his head, and you’ll say, “This is what YHWH says, ‘I have anointed you king over Israel.’ Then you’ll open the door, flee, and you won’t hesitate.”

You can read the rest of the story that follows in 2 Kings 9. It makes for some very interesting reading. It was probably a rather good idea for the prophet to flee!

There are a number of very obvious differences between the situation faced by Elijah, Elisha, and the sons of the prophets and that faced by Paul when writing the letter to the Romans. Israel was being treated as at least a sort of theocracy. In this case, God’s people were a nation, not people living within a nation. Further, in this case we have a direct order recorded from God via a prophet to be the catalyst for this change of government. The situation is complicated by the fact that God’s people are divided into two nations, Israel and Judah (the result of another case of God ordaining a change, 1 Kings 11:26-40), and that all of the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel are rated as evil.

It points to the complexity that arises when one views all government as ordained by God. Almost definition, all government is permitted by God. The difference between “permitted” and “ordained” when one speaks in consideration of divine power are fairly close in meaning.

Many modern readers would assume that the key difference is that God was able to order this via the prophets. That is not an explanation that I find useful. God directs in many ways. In fact, I believe God can direct through simple moral choice, i.e., if the government forces one to do something that is immoral, one ought to obey God rather than human authority. In the case of Elisha, God was willing, according to the story, to order revolution against a government that had become intolerable. Interestingly enough, Jehu’s dynasty was not that much better, though it does get a slightly better report than the dynasty of Omri.

It strikes me that it’s dangerous to make too much theology out of one passage.

James and a Living Gospel

James and a Living Gospel

Our pastor at Chumuckla Community Church started a sermon series on the book of James. This provoked me to look again at Bruce Epperly’s little book Holistic Spirituality: Life Transforming Wisdom from the Letter of James. Here’s a sample:

Despite Martin Luther’s misguided dismissal of James as “an epistle of straw,” due to James’ emphasis on agency and lifestyle rather than receptive grace as central to Christian experience, James is good news for congregants and seekers. It is the gospel lived out in everyday life, not by words alone or doctrinal requirements, but by actions that transform the world. This is the good news of Jesus Christ who shows us the pathway to abundant life, and not a dead letter or a soul-deadening creed or abstract doctrines about the divinity of Jesus unrelated to daily life. James invites us to be companions on the pathway of the living Christ. (p. 4)

Dave Black quoted today from Gordon Fee’s commentary on the epistles to the Thessalonians, discussing the connection between believing and living. I’m going to link to Dave’s post again tomorrow, when I briefly discuss Bible commentaries, but Dave’s post is worth reading in this connection as well.

Bruce Epperly comments again on the supposed contrast between James and Paul:

While Paul’s theology is often contrasted with the Letter of James, both Christian leaders believed that faith without works is dead (James 5:17).8 Paul affirms “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6). (Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide, p. xxvii)

I think we frequently see contrasts when we should see differences in emphasis and even in circumstances.

 

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