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.

Why I Stopped Carrying My Greek NT to Church and then Started Again

Why I Stopped Carrying My Greek NT to Church and then Started Again

There’s an article on For the Church, in which Dr. Andrew King tells students: “Don’t Take Your Greek or Hebrew Bible to Corporate Worship.”

There are a number of good points in the article, such as the note that if you are not comfortable with the languages, working on them during a sermon may be distracting. It is also important not to suggest to those who do not read the Bible in its original languages that they are less than you, or somehow unable to read and understand their Bibles. Be cautioned by the issues raised here. But I have a slightly different view.

When I was studying biblical languages as majors both for my undergraduate and MA degrees, I very quickly started carrying my Greek and Hebrew Bibles to church. Since I went well beyond the couple of semesters or the couple of years that many seminary students study, I became quite capable of following the scriptures in a sermon or in a Sunday School lesson with little difficulty.

During the time that I was a student this presented little difficulty. As far as I could tell, very few people ever noticed. I never became self-conscious about it. I didn’t really care to have people notice, but it was the way in which I enjoyed studying the Bible.

For me, it became a problem when I was working and teaching in churches, though I was not a pastor. I have written before about not using Greek and Hebrew as part of your sermon. I avoid using the biblical languages as an explanation for something I’m going to say in a sermon. The reason is that I don’t want to suggest that I, an individual student, have discovered something that nobody in all the many translations into the English language, have managed to convey. I have found that a good presentation of the context of the passage, linguistic, literary, historical, and cultural, can convey pretty much anything you need to convey.

So one of my reasons for no longer carrying my Greek and Hebrew Bibles to church was to avoid the suggestion that one must know the biblical languages in order to read and benefit from the Bible.

The second was that certain preachers who knew me would try to bring me into Greek or Hebrew comments by saying things like “as Henry would know.” It was annoying, drew attention away from the point the preacher was making, and highlighted me when I had no part in presenting the message.

So I stopped taking those Bibles to church. It seemed easier and less likely to cause trouble.

One experience with a very close friend and mentor who is a pastor (though now retired) set me thinking in different ways. I was sitting in a classroom in the church reading my Greek New Testament when he walked in.

He said, “I am so awed with the way you can read and understand those languages. I just can’t imagine doing it myself.”

I thought for a minute and said (and I think this was the Holy Spirit helping me), “I’m just so awed by the way you can sit down with a couple and help them heal their marriage. I just can’t imagine doing it myself.”

Now you might think this is a good reason not to let people know I read Greek and Hebrew by carrying the Bibles with me, but I have come to see it in the opposite way.

We all have gifts. I personally believe that all gifts are spiritual when they are used as God calls us to use them. We shouldn’t privilege any gift over another. God has gifted me with the ability to read and make use of languages in my study. I’m not a specialist. I don’t work in this field, though I occasionally teach classes in church. But I’m not an academic. I stopped after my MA degree. Nonetheless, I can read substantial amounts of scripture, such as sitting down to read an entire book in a day or so.

This doesn’t make me a better person than anyone else. It doesn’t make me more spiritual. It doesn’t make me more intelligent. I have a gift that I’m called to use in service to God.

I have yet to find anyone in the church who is not gifted in some way. The pastor who was one of my mentors had quite a number of gifts that inspired a sense of awe in me. In all the years I knew him, I sometimes disagreed, but I never thought he was not using those gifts for God.

My wife has an extraordinary gift for organizing difficult tasks and getting different people to work together to accomplish them. I absolutely am unable to understand how she does it.

Reading biblical languages is not a greater gift than any other. It gives me certain options for study. It doesn’t make me better, nor does it mean I always have the right answer for a biblical question.

So what I do now is go out of my way to affirm everyone’s gifts, while going ahead and using what works best for me in study. I have had many excellent opportunities to affirm the gifts of others and how they apply to Bible study, church leadership, and ministry.

There is a danger of pride, but there is in anything we do. Our pride can come out it so many ways. There is also a danger of misleading, but you won’t have solved that by leaving your Greek or Hebrew Bible home.

But there is also a tendency of some to forget the benefits we all gain from those who engage in a scholarly study of the Bible, from those who study archaeology, to anthropology, business management, human relations, and yes, languages and linguistics.

You don’t need to hide your gift. Use it responsibly to build the body.

Oh, and yes, if it’s distracting you from the sermon leave it out. And don’t use it in preaching. Let it deepen your study and then preach in the appropriate language for your congregation.

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