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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

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.

A Note on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

A Note on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

I had occasion to discuss this passage a couple of days ago, and it reminded me of many discussions I have had regarding this parable. (It’s Matthew 20:1-16, by the way.) This is a short note and not an extended discussion.

The most common response I hear to this is that it isn’t fair. My most common response to the response is that God isn’t fair. Then people want to discuss whether as employers we should reward people according to their accomplishments, or whether this is a call for a different type of society.

My simple note is this: While I stand by my statement that God isn’t fair, I need to go farther and faster. God is not fair in that he gives us more than we can possibly claim. We are often afraid to simply note that God doesn’t really have to do anything.

Go back to the garden. God creates human beings, male and female, and places them in the garden. God doesn’t have to do that. We can say that it wouldn’t be nice to just dump them somewhere, but we have no way of calling God to account about that. In Scripture, God can be called to account, but it is only because God has set the standard and invites us to do so. When we talk about fairness we appeal to an outside standard.

To some, that makes God seem worse than us. God is unfair, and God can be unfair because, well, God! But what we see is God being kind and gracious even without that outside appeal. Many of us only do nice things because we might be seen, or we want the reputation, or—face it—because we have to. God does more than God has to because, well, God!

When we read this parable, I suspect we are not called upon to examine the fairness of economic systems (though that is a good thing to discuss), or whether the owner of the vineyard was a nice guy, which is perhaps questionable.

Rather, I think we are invited to think about who we are. And that’s tough.

I’ve never heard someone respond immediately by commenting on how unfair it would be to them, as the 11th-hour worker, to get a full day’s pay for one hour of work.

We think of ourselves as early, all-day workers. We’re wrong!

I think the passage’s main point is to invite us to think of ourselves as 11th-hour workers, people whose wages would be inadequate to feed our families if we just got the standard wage for our hour of work. We’re the ones who get something without a claim on it.

This is the value of a story: Helping us adjust our thinking by placing ourselves in the story.

I think if you get what Jesus is saying, one impact will be to change the way you think about yourself. In doing so, you may change the way you think about, and interact with, other people, those we have often thought of as getting more than they deserve.

Which is another value of a story: It carries over into so many different aspects of our life.

Featured image credit – Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Faith on the Edge Podcast and Ditch the Building

Faith on the Edge Podcast and Ditch the Building

Steve Kindle and Bruce Epperly got together on the Faith on the Edge podcast (episode 33) to discuss Nick May’s book Ditch the Building. I’m publisher to all three authors, though as pointed out in the podcast, Bruce has books with a number of publishers. It should be noted that Bruce’s written output is too great for any small publisher!

Here’s the Facebook post and the link:

I am delighted to see this kind of discussion taking place. I would have published Nick’s book even if I disagreed, but I find myself very much in agreement with his suggestions. I have a personal connection to the traditional church, but I also think we spend most of our time trying to figure out why it isn’t working.

That is a suggestion that we need to do radical surgery. How radical? That is worth discussing. I am watching as multiple churches I know are working on their structure, attempting to bring it more into line with the gospel and with the command of Jesus not to be seeking to be greater than one another.

We Have Sinned

We Have Sinned

This week as the story of yet another prominent Christian who had fallen passed through my news feeds, a young man who was pleading guilty to 18 counts related to sex with minors, I was led again to Daniel 9 and Daniel’s prayer of repentance.

We argue about the impact of prayer and what God does with our prayers a great deal. Does prayer change God? But there is a much more important question, in my view: Does prayer change us? Whatever it does, I think it reflects how we are thinking.

The Bible is quite hard on its main characters, never giving them a break. Their faults are put on display for all to see. Even the heroes of the Bible are presented with flaws. Daniel is one of those that is presented at all times in a positive light. There are those who believe he is the one referenced in Ezekiel 14:14, where he’s in a list with Noah and Job, both of whom are described as righteous.

But when Daniel begins to pray, he uses the third person plural: “We”

We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have incurred guilt, and we have rebelled by turning aside from your commands and decisions.

Daniel 9:5 (my translation and emphasis)

I think Daniel had something there about a response to sin.

You see, our tendency is to blame others. Other people in other traditions, using other forms of church governance, believing other doctrines, and just generally being different from me/us (the righteous one/ones) fell into grave sin. They should correct their traditions, fix their church governance, clean up their doctrinal statements, and become more like us!

For decades, Protestants have spent their time looking down on Roman Catholics because they had pedophiles in the ranks. We Protestants, being wise enough to allow marriage in the ministry, obviously wouldn’t have such a problem.

They have sinned. We’re OK.

But the fact is that we have sinned, and the more news comes out, the more glaringly obvious it is that we are all falling short.

We have sinned:

  • By looking at the sin of others and assuming we ourselves are immune
  • By ignoring what Jesus said about not lording it over one another and making hierarchies
  • By considering some people to be above accountability because they are anointed leaders
  • By failing to be accountable to one another
  • By turning aside less important people, claiming their word should not stand against the word of the holier, the more educated, the richer, the more powerful, or the more respected
  • By shifting the blame from perpetrators to the victims
  • By thinking our witness for Jesus could be made better by covering up than by confessing
  • By seeing the least of these as least, rather than as God’s children, pearls of great price
  • By thinking that we can ever criticize and judge from the outside
  • By believing, contrary to Romans 13, that our behavior is only church business, and refusing to report crimes to the appropriate authorities
  • By feeling all holy inside when someone’s sin is exposed and we realize (or imagine) that their sin is not one that attracts us.

If the church is to be a witness we need to be an honest and genuine witness to who we are. God knows who we really are. In a self-righteous prayer, we do not deceive God. We just deceive ourselves. We help ourselves believe that we are exempt.

It is in feeling that we are exempt, better-than, holier-than, more Spirit-filled, more Christ-like, more like a real church, and less subject to temptation that we prepare for a fall. Our fall, my fall, may not come via sexual temptation. But if I become superior and arrogant, if I fail to realize who I am, my fall will surely come.

May God have mercy on us all.

Psalm 19 for Sunday School

Psalm 19 for Sunday School

I’m teaching Sunday School this coming week, and the class uses the Daily Bible Study from Cokesbury. The first scripture for the week is Pslam 19:1-6.

The lesson focuses on creation, so it’s not surprising that only the first six verses are used. Some scholars believe that Psalm 19 is two separate compositions. These first six verses talk about the glories of God’s creation, yet the purpose of the Psalm is not simply to assert God’s glory as seen through what God has made.

In fact, I would suggest that the key to the purpose of the Psalm is found in verse 13, ending with being innocent of the “great transgression” or “grave offence” (REB). Dahood (and others, see Anchor Bible on this passage) maintain that this is the sin of idolatry. At the same time, Dahood suggests the first part of the Psalm is adapted from a hymn to the sun. If so, it was adapted rather vigorously and with malice toward its intended purpose.

The heavens declare the glory of YHWH, and it is made clear that YHWH sets the course of the sun. The sun, often seen as a god of justice in the ancient near east, is placed subordinate to the Creator. Similarly, the law is shown as subordinate to the lawgiver, who can give this law because He is the one who created all and put the sun on its course.

There is some tendency amongst Christians to see the Hebrew Scriptures as presenting a legalistic approach to righteousness, which is negated and replaced with grace in the New Testament. So here, in verse seven, we have the law “converting the soul” (KJV) or “reviving the soul” (REB). One might contrast this with Paul’s view of the law in Romans 6 & 7, but I don’t think this is accurate.

In fact, worship of the law would also be idolatry as would worship of the sun. That is the parallel between the first six verses and the remainder of the Psalm. Verses 12 & 13 remind us who is the one who can keep us from wrong.

I’m reminded of Paul Tillich’s definition of idolatry as treating something that is not ultimate as our ultimate concern. The law is important and so is the sun, but neither replace the one who gave the law or created the sun. As an instrument of God’s work in us, the law has a place (thus Matthew 5:17). Yet when we replace God and God’s power with anything less, we head into failure.

Psalm 19 is a reminder that God gives (grace) before he legislates (law), i.e., grace comes before law. Law can, in fact, be good news, in that it not only shows God’s requirements (which we cannot accomplish), but shows the glory of the purpose God has for us. God intends to make each of us something that we cannot even imagine. When we try to accomplish this through a reading of the law or through our own efforts to fulfill its requirements, we choose to take something less and make it ultimate.

It is because it takes our concern away from the ultimate that idolatry is so dangerous. Good things can be idols. If I do mission work in order to earn God’s favor or in order to be seen by others as a good person, then I’m settling for less than the ultimate. It has to be God working in me or it’s leading me down the wrong path. The wrong path leaves me short of the glorious purpose God has for me.

Psalm 19 also talks about God’s revelation, which is part of God’s grace given to us. God’s grace is shown by the gift of the sun to give light. Yet if we say that this is sufficient, and grab hold of that alone, we will fall short of God’s purpose for us. Similarly if we take our conception and understanding of the law, it will always be less than what God demands, but in the same way that God’s law is demanding, so it is a sign of the glory planned for us.

We can see this in God’s creation, in studying God’s actions. This is sometimes called general revelation, God’s Word without words. But we also have God’s instruction, which is God’s Word in words.

To many, the general revelation is less important. I would suggest that it is rather important in different ways. Through science we can study God in action. We have the danger of thinking we have somehow eliminated the need for God because we understand God’s creation so well. That is considered the weakness. We can misunderstand it, and use it to replace God.

But the same problem exists for God’s Word in words; for God’s law or instruction. We can try to let us replace God, not with God’s real law, but with our limited and limiting understanding of it. It is God alone who can keep our sins from ruling over us, and it is God alone who can sanctify us, and even glorify us, but God is the one with the glory; the real glory.

The Danger of Making Things Tougher

The Danger of Making Things Tougher

I don’t spend a great deal of time talking about it, but following my MA in Biblical and cognate languages, I took one quarter in a MA in Theoretical Linguistics program. I had a full ride fellowship with a stipend, but after one quarter I resigned the fellowship and headed for more interesting places and activities.

In my introduction to linguistics course, the midterm test was made up of a short set of essay questions. I believe we had to answer three of four, though I can’t remember precisely. One of them had to do with comparative linguistics—right up my alley! So I filled it with examples from multiple languages and just plain had fun. More fun, in fact, than I’d had in the class up to then.

I hadn’t realized that the professor would choose to read what he thought were the best answers to the questions to the entire class. He chose mine. I wasn’t embarrassed by my content, but the context was totally wrong. The university had a strong TESOL program, and the vast majority of the students were in that. They were not pursuing theoretical linguistics. As a general rule, they probably had at most a minor in one foreign language.

One student responded immediately afterward with a question: “How are we supposed to write something like that when we don’t know all those languages?”

Her question was absolutely valid. My particular skill set was not that relevant to them. One can be superior at TESOL without knowing, say, Ugaritic. By presenting something not relevant, the professor had actually done something to discourage other students. If they had to do that, well, they couldn’t.

It wasn’t because I was superior to them. It was because my skill set was different.

Now let’s make a completely bogus argument. Why not? People do it all the time. Here it is. Knowing more is better. If those students learned more languages, they would have more sources of examples. Why should they not be required to learn all those languages? They’re probably just too lazy.

A parallel argument might be made about my high school education. Why not require him to take more credits in science and math? Why not require Algebra II, Trigonometry, maybe some Calculus? After all, he will know more!

Well, in response. I’ll go ahead an be lazy. In fact, I’m a high school dropout. It wasn’t for the normal reasons. I was overseas and enjoying running around the country. But the thing is that I was able to succeed without all those credits, including not having the credits normally required in English. In fact, I have just 2.5 high school credits, and one of those is in typing.

Yet we make this kind of argument all the time. For the things I find easy, it’s also easy to suggest that others should have to fulfill those requirements. Why not? It’s good knowledge and they might need it. I recall the surprise of some people trying to develop a two year ministry program when I suggested that requiring Greek was not a good idea. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that in a two year program you can’t learn enough Greek to be that useful unless you steal time from other necessary activities.

But let’s look at the church. We often operate on the same basis. Why not suggest people do it? Why not make the standard higher? We even talk this way in churches that hardly have any standards at all, because as members we want some.

Whether it’s modest dress, giving, mission work, church activities, or other moral issues in our lives, the solution is generally to suggest doing more. And yes, again, I realize that we rarely enforce those standards, but that makes it even worse. We push people to higher performance and assume they won’t make it, but we figure if we just push a bit harder—you’re giving one percent, how about two?—we’ll get a bit more out of people. When they don’t live up to the implied standard, well, we tried!

And they may have tried and failed, and added to whatever else they may have been dealing with, they now feel that they are not living up to what their pastor, Sunday School teacher, small group leader, deacon, elder, or generally picky person round the church expects of them.

It’s like telling (or rather, implying that) those people who were learning how to teach English to speakers of other languages ought to get down to it and learn a few more languages like the theoretical linguist down the row. (Or rather, the guy who had learned a number of ancient languages. I never did get a degree in linguistics!) It won’t help them do their job, but one can hope it will make them feel smarter.

Actually it won’t. Setting up higher standards doesn’t help one to fulfill those standards, whether or not they’re relevant.

But there’s another problem in church. When we require those “higher” standards, we also imply that the standards are what church is about, and we can suggest that other people, those who don’t accomplish those standards are not good enough.

I think this is a good part of what Paul is talking about in Romans 12-14, especially 14. It’s possible to read Paul’s toleration as an acceptance of just anything. I think Paul’s focus is on the message of the gospel. He’s giving up disagreements and minor points of behavior in favor of the message of the gospel.

I’m not going to do this verse by verse, but try reading those three chapters with this in mind. No, that’s not the only theme, but I think it is uppermost in Paul’s mind. How are we going to witness best to the message of the gospel? So then, “Don’t destroy God’s work over food” (Romans 14:20) the point is to put one’s focus back on the gospel. Forcing one’s detailed rules doesn’t make people better. It detracts from the gospel.

Being stricter, always trying to be better, will not necessarily make you better. It is often, instead, the road to more complete failure.

(Please check out the article FROM DOBE TO BEDO by Pat Badstibner on Energion Direct’s From Our Authors.

Signs and Guidance

Signs and Guidance

Last night in our Tuesday night group we discussed signs and guidance. How does one get and follow the right guidance from God?

We were reading the Matthew 2:1-12, and following my gospel parallels, I suggested a parallel reading of Luke 2:8-20, which we did. You have various signs, a report of scriptural interpretation, dreams, and angels between the two stories. There are some remarkable parallels of content, along with some substantial differences, fitted to the message of each gospel writer.

But being a person who likes to set off discussion I asked about our individual ability to hear from God. How would we feel about the various means of receiving a message from God? How would we discern whether a message really was from God.

Pretty much everyone had experienced the twin claims about hardships. On the one hand people will claim that you’re obviously getting close to something big, and the devil is trying to prevent you from getting there. On the other, there are those who would say that if you’re on the right path, things will be easy, so you should correct course.

The same sign seems to mean two different things.

We mentioned some responses at the time to the fire at Notre Dame cathedral. Any lover of art and architecture can hardly help but be saddened by that fire. Yet it immediately has become a “sign” for many things.

At Energion, we’re releasing a book titled Ditch the Building on May 17. It’s available for pre-order now. It’s definitely not connected. But in some people’s minds, it could be. The fire has been seen as a sign of the times, of disasters to come for our planet. It’s been seen as a sort of judgment on dead religion. My Facebook feed is littered with lessons being learned with varying degrees of actual connection. Well, really very little connection.

As I said in my book When People Speak for God, the last person who has to hear from God is you.

No matter whether you are listening to a new idea, a message someone claims to have received directly from God, or the interpretation of a passage of scripture, your individual mind, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, is the final filter to separate sense from nonsense. The last person, and the decisive person, to hear from God is you. Even the firmest believer in the detailed accuracy of the text of scripture will realize that many interpretations of that scripture are nonsense.

… This is the other end of the telephone cord. Inspiration is not just about God. It is about how God communicates with human beings. Thus it is not just about God’s perfection; it is also about humanity’s imperfection. It is not just about God’s infinite perspective; it is also about humanity’s finite capacity to understand.

The human mind is probably the most neglected part of God’s creation….

Henry Neufeld, When People Speak for God, 4.