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From My Editing Work: The Cross and Resurrection

From My Editing Work: The Cross and Resurrection

From Galations: A Participatory Study Guide, p. 9:

Paul’s words gave the Galatians hope for transformation and they are hopeful to us, too.  Jesus Christ frees us from bondage.  The external world may not immediately change, but the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ frees us from guilt, fear, anxiety, and hopelessness.  God acts in Christ to set us free to live joyfully and creatively.  The cross and resurrection are a matter of life and death – they must be proclaimed – spiritually, ethically, and communally.  Anything that challenges God’s liberating message must be confronted boldly.

Besides the excellent message, there’s a good “editorial” moment in there. Do you see “the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ frees us.” Grammatically, I should correct that to free us, except that I know from the context that these are being seen as a single event. I’m sure some folks will say this is an error. Perhaps it is, but it is intentionally so.

From My Editing Work: The Bible Comes Alive

From My Editing Work: The Bible Comes Alive

From page xvii of Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide by Bruce Epperly —

When we encounter scripture with heart, mind, and hands, the Bible comes alive and changes our lives and communities.  We become the Galatians of our time, reveling in Christian freedom and living in the Spirit.  We discover that God’s liberating Word, incarnate in the crucified and risen Christ, challenges everything that gets in the way of spiritual freedom and faithful discipleship.

Sounds like fun!

Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide

Starting Ecclesiastes in Sunday School

Starting Ecclesiastes in Sunday School

9781938434662mWhile I was off teaching Revelation elsewhere, my Sunday School class at First United Methodist Church of Pensacola studied from Harvey Brown’s new book Forgiveness: Finding Freedom from Your Past. Harvey’s book is just 40 pages (it’s in our Topical Line Drives series, and that’s the limit), and we discovered just how many questions can be raised in 40 pages!

Today we’re starting a study of Ecclesiastes, using the participatory study guide just published in November. This guide is written by Russell Meek of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and though I may be biased as editor and publisher, I think it’s one of the best studies you could do on the book of Ecclesiastes. Still, I’m going to have to tell the class that I disagree with a number of the conclusions in the book.

But that, you see, is the great thing. Russ presents those conclusions so well, that I’ll have a run for my money making a case against things that he says, even with him absent. And in that discussion, I hope, the members of our small Sunday School class we’ll learn how these things are done.

We’ll be talking about date and authorship today. This is an area of biblical studies that I think lay people in the church need to understand better. They take dates given in their study Bibles and assume they are either absolute, or at least they are a scholarly consensus. But how is it that serious biblical scholars make determinations about these things. Russ’s lengthy and very readable discussion of authorship is an excellent place to start.

As I’ve been reading Ecclesiastes in preparation for this class, I’ve been struck by the interesting question of what the inclusion of such a book in scripture means about inspiration. No, I don’t mean about inerrancy, but rather about the way in which God chooses to communicate with us. I think we are often misguided in our discussions of inspiration because we are asking the wrong questions. Then we adjust our views of inspiration according to how effective scripture is at answering our questions. But what if God never intended to answer those questions through scripture in the first place? We might be doing something like querying our physics text to learn how to deal with our emotions.

So I will also ask the class to think about just what questions might be answered by the inclusion of Ecclesiastes in the canon as well as by the text of the book.

Revising my Hebrews Study Guide

Revising my Hebrews Study Guide

I keep thinking I’ll get more regular about updating this blog (or my other two), but things remain hectic around here. If you’ve been watching the announcements from my company, Energion Publications, you have seen some of what my wife and I, along with our team of authors and contractors are working on at the moment. (Note that this is more about my work than directly about Bible study. You can consider it a commercial break with a personal touch.)

But just in case I might run out of things to do, I’m adding another task: revising my study guide for the book of Hebrews. I’ve been wanting to do this for some time, and the motivation came at the beginning of this year.

My Sunday School class completed our study of the book of Ephesians and decided they’d like to do the book of Hebrews next. I had the choice between using the current guide again, or going ahead and doing the revisions I’ve felt were needed for a few years now. So I’ve been working on the revisions and trying some of them out on the class.

I started the Participatory Study Series with this guide, working from my notes from previous times I had taught through this important book. Hebrews has a special place in the development of my personal theology. I actually started with Ezekiel, moved to Hebrews, and finished with Leviticus. But I keep coming back to all three. I’ve made the rounds several times since I published the guide. There’s a lot of meat involved in studying ideas like priesthood, sacrifice, faithfulness, grace, and many more that come from those. So I have a few thoughts to add.

I also found myself dissatisfied with my outline and even more dissatisfied with my translation. The new guide will not include a translation. Considering other additions, it will simply make the book too big. I might publish it separately along with notes that are cut from the guide itself. As I write about these passages, I find myself using way more words than are likely to be useful in a study guide.

The other factor that is leading me to revise this guide is the changes I have made in the nature of the series itself, based on suggestions and input from the authors of the continuing volumes. When I initially published it, To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide was only the fourth book Energion had in print. I made it a series because I planned to publish a guide on Revelation, and possibly my general notes on Bible study.

Then Geoffrey Lentz suggested that he write a study guide to the Gospel According to Luke. Geoffrey is a former student (from his youth group days), and is now Dr. Geoffrey Lentz and pastor of First United Methodist Church of Port Saint Jo, Florida. But Geoffrey had some ideas to improve the method I was teaching. That resulted in our co-authored book Learning and Living Scripture.

From there Dr. Bob Cornwall (Ephesians) and Dr. Bruce Epperly (Philippians) each wrote a study guide and each contributed to the shape that the series is now taking.

As a result, I feel the need to improve the original guide so it can catch up with its successors. Besides removing the translation and updating the outline this will include:

  1. Improving the reading lists. Unlike the other guides, I will still have my three reading lists: Reading, Extra Reading, Advanced.
  2. Adding a discussion of each lesson, rather than just having exercises and pointing to sources.
  3. Making the exercises more generic, so that people can use different sources more easily.
  4. Including opening and closing prayers for those who like to have a printed group prayer for study. I will be using a Psalm as the prayer to open and close each session.

I will be writing a few notes as I have time, but this is keeping me fairly busy. I am certainly enjoying my time spent with this important book.

 

 

On Publishing Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide

On Publishing Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide

Philippians: A Participatory Study GuideThis post will contain reflections both on the recently released Philippians study guide and the series of which it is a part. I generally write such reflections after each book my company releases. So be warned—there are products discussed here!

When I first created this blog I was the only author in the participatory study series. Making a book series grow and sell usually requires a great vision pursued relentlessly. This series, on the other hand, has grown and substantially improved its original vision.

When I first wrote To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide and Revelation: A Participatory Study Guide, I didn’t feel any great optimism that I could break into a very competitive market. People write Bible study guides all the time. Quality varies dramatically, and often the best sellers are those written by people with famous names.

What I wanted was a system that brought together biblical scholarship, spiritual disciplines, accessibility to lay people, and a somewhat ecumenical approach. I must specify that my view of ecumenism is not homogenization, but rather a willingness to engage in respectful give and take and especially to look at multiple traditions when choosing sources and study materials.

I wrote those two books myself, and I had an upcoming class in mind with each one. You can see by the design of the books that this was early in my own publishing experience. From the point of view of developing the company, I needed titles. With the process we use, I can produce study guides for my own use quite economically. My thought was that if these guides sold successfully it would be great, but I wouldn’t count on it, and I would put my efforts into finding authors with manuscripts of their own, not ones following a plan I had designed.

In the event, not only have I taught from them myself more times than expected, but I’ve seen them sell quite a few more copies than I had thought possible. No, they aren’t threatening to be on anyone’s best seller lists, but they have definitely exceeded my initial expectations.

A few years after I had released those first two guides Geoffrey Lentz approached me with  a study outline from the book of Luke. Geoffrey had invited me to teach one of his classes from my guide to Hebrews, and he liked the outline of the method, but also the proposed freedom for working within the framework. I liked his outline and his idea, and the result was The Gospel According to Saint Luke: A Participatory Study Guide.

Geoffrey really rounded out the idea of the series by improving the presentation and tying the method more closely with lectio divina. He at first proposed including both a discussion of lectio divina and the introduction to the method that I had produced, but once I looked at his connections, I suggested we work together to combine the two. Participatory study and lectio divina are not identical; participatory study provides more of an emphasis on resources and critical questions, yet the two work together very well.

Once I saw the completed study guide to Luke, I knew immediately that if I could find any more authors for the series, I would present that volume as the guide to how we would structure study guides.

After Luke, Geoffrey and I got together and wrote Learning and Living Scripture: An Introduction to the Participatory Study Method. In that book, Geoffrey’s more pastoral concern and my more technical emphasis combine and lay out the method along with exercises.

Since then we’ve introduced Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, by Bob Cornwall and most recently Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide by Bruce Epperly. Each new author has brought something unexpected to the method and to the particular book they present. I don’t want to describe one book or another as “best.” (I do plan to revise my two volumes to incorporate some features in layout and presentation learned from later volumes.)

I had wondered just how well someone could take the basic framework and yet use their own gifts and emphases in producing an effective guide. I couldn’t have been more pleased when I read the following sentence in Bruce Epperly’s preface to Philippians: “Henry provided a vision for this study and gave me permission to work out the details in a way congruent with my gifts as a pastor, teacher, and spiritual guide.”

This was not so much pleasing as a pat on the back, though I admit to being delighted when my work is appreciated. More than that, it indicates that someone whose gifts differ dramatically from my own was able to exercise those gifts within this framework and produce what is truly an exceptional study guide. I’ve gotten some comments from people who wonder about one statement or another. Bruce is a progressive theologian and an adventurous theological writer. But nobody has said it doesn’t challenge them to press boldly on toward the mark.

I look at the way the series is developing—and there are several more volumes either in progress or in preliminary negotiations—and I’m truly amazed. I wish I could say I envisioned the quality of the people who would submit proposals for inclusion in the series, almost all of them with doctoral degrees and considerable experience teaching. I wish I could say I’d envisioned what’s happening to the series—but I’m delighted that the result is better than I ever imagined.

I encourage you to take a look at this latest study guide. Not only will it challenge you to take a more serious look at the content of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, it will challenge you to take what you learn seriously and apply it in your own spiritual life. Each lesson starts by asking you to open yourself to the Spirit in some way and concludes by challenging you to carry what the Spirit has done out of the church or classroom and out into the world.

I have been very pleased to publish every book I have published since I started Energion Publications, and I don’t want to take anything away from those books. Yet my heart is in getting the people in our church pews, not to mention those who rarely show up there, to learn the joy of exploring the scriptures while listening to the Spirit. Thus Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide will always have a special place in my heart. It does an extraordinary job of accomplishing that mission.

There are review and evaluation copies of all the participatory study guides available, If you’re interested, e-mail me with the reason you want one, and I’ll take care of it.

Philippians: On Grace, Faith, and Works

Philippians: On Grace, Faith, and Works

The following is another extract from the forthcoming study guide on Philippians in the Participatory Study Series, by Dr. Bruce Epperly:

For Paul the issue is two-fold: 1) the status of Gentiles as members of the Christian community and 2) the relationship of grace, faith, and works. As apostle to the Gentiles, Paul affirms that God’s grace is universal and freely-given. God’s grace includes all persons, regardless of ethnicity and race. Just as all have sinned and fallen short, Jew and Greek alike, all are equally welcomed into God’s realm. To place certain requirements on Gentiles would fracture our unity in Christ and place them in the category of second class Christians, who must do something extra to receive God’s freely given grace. If we must do something extra to receive God’s grace and our place in the community of faith, then the grace of God is nullified and is dependent on our achievements. In practice, then a person will never know if he or she has done “enough” to receive God’s grace and promise of salvation in this life and the next. While Paul recognizes that grace leads to action, our ethical actions and religious practices do not earn God’s love. God loves us because we are God’s beloved children, regardless of our sin and brokenness (53).

Philippians: Two Groups That Threaten Community

Philippians: Two Groups That Threaten Community

I haven’t blogged much, recently and I may go back and look at some earlier, lessons, but I wanted to quote something we’ll be looking at in class this morning. This comes from the forthcoming study guide to Philippians by Bruce Epperly. He has just described two groups, the first those identified in 1 Corinthians who believe their spirituality means they are freed of all constraints, can “eat and drink whatever they choose,” “sleep with whomever they choose,” and that they are “freed from all moral and social norms.” The second group believe that they must observe “strict rituals and diet.”

Here’s the payoff quote:

Paul believes that both groups share a common characteristic. Their focus on the body as the primary reality puts both Christian freedom and the well-being and unity of the community in jeopardy. While Paul is not a legalist, who demands strict obedience to rules, or an ascetic, who scorns the flesh, he subordinates our desires, values, and lifestyle to the well-being of less mature Christians and the harmony of the church.

 

Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide

Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide

I try to publish some reflections on each book that my company, Energion Publications, releases. Sometimes it takes me  few months after release, but I try to get to it sooner. Please be aware that while I will say some things I might say in a review, this is not a review, and is intended to be subjective. It’s my reflections on publishing this book, why I did it, and what I hope for it.

This week, we’re releasing Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, by Robert D. Cornwall. Bob Cornwall is actually author of two releases in close succession, the other being Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord’s Prayer. Note that while you will not see it in stock at Amazon.com on Monday, January 3, you should see it at some point during the first week of January.

Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide

This book is a milestone both for Energion and for the Participatory Study Series, and it’s especially gratifying to me. When I first started the participatory series (for which this blog was named), it was a way for me to publish notes and handouts. I looked at what I was doing to provide materials for my classes, then at the costs involved in printing, and gathered the material together. I thought I could sell enough just for classes I taught to pay the expenses, and indeed I did. But I also sold quite a number more. (My study guides are to Revelation and Hebrews.)

Then my former student, Geoffrey Lentz, now a minister at First United Methodist Church in Pensacola suggested adding a study guide to the book of Luke. As a publisher, this meant some considerable changes. I’d put the whole series on the back burner. I was much more interested in publishing things written by others than my own work. But after some thought Geoffrey signed a contract and duly produced the study guide to Luke.

While Geoffrey followed the outlines of the method I had created and written about on the web, he also added some nuances, especially in terms of making the study guides reflect the emphasis on prayer. If anyone compares one of my guides to his, they will note that while I emphasize prayer while talking about the method, I don’t do as much to make it part of the structure of each lesson. Geoffrey also added a certain amount of art and iconography, amongst other things.

To summarize, I was much happier with his study guide than I was with my own, and I invited Geoffrey to join me in writing a basic guide to the method used in the series. I’d had a manuscript gathering the cyber equivalent of dust for a couple of years, so I dusted it off, and sent it to Geoffrey. We passed it back and forth several times, added many pages of his work, deleted some of mine, and I think the results were good. The book is Learning and Living Scripture: An Introduction to the Participatory Study Method.

The foundation was laid to make this a real series, with the vision of making guides that will help individuals, but especially small study groups dig into the Bible and study it for themselves, while at the same time not studying it in isolation.

Besides Ephesians, there are currently two other study guides in progress, and we’re looking for more authors who would like to write one of these guides. The method gives considerable leeway for individual approaches, while setting broad boundaries in terms of the level and the overall approach. (If you’re interested in writing a guide contact me, pubs@energion.com.)

Bob Cornwall has taken hold of the vision of the series and produced a study guide that is thoughtful and challenging. He’s set a new high standard for what this series should produce. I hope some time to revise my two guides, and I’m planning on borrowing ideas from him (as well as from Geoffrey) when I do so.

Bob’s study guide plows head-on into the major issues raised by Ephesians, not in a destructive way, but in an open and honest approach that will allow groups to discuss and come to their own conclusions about many of the issues in the book. What about submission, gender roles, spiritual warfare, the demonic realm, and authorities in the heavens? They’re all here, and you’ll have a chance to think seriously about them and share.

One of the great distinctive features Bob has added is a historical reflection with each lesson. I wanted this series to emphasize looking at the history of interpretation, i.e. not seeing the community in which one studies as just contemporary Christians, but rather as those who have read, interpreted, and applied the book since it was written. These historical reflections are an extraordinarily effective approach to accomplishing this goal.

There is always a struggle in a study guide to decide what is included. Huge amounts of material ends up cut, either due to space, or because you don’t want to overburden or distract students who may be studying a book for the first time. In his introductions, Bob has chosen carefully and introduced issues that are profitable and more importantly that will tend to help build dialog.

One of the elements of the participatory study method is sharing, by which we mean not just (or even primarily) telling other people what you learn, but also listening to the community of faith and to others throughout history. If you are going to conduct dialog across various denominational and theological lines, you have to know what the issues are. A good example of this is the issue of pseudonymity. Was Paul the author, and if he was not, does it matter? Many church members are not aware of the alternatives on this issue. Bob gives them a good introduction. Whatever you believe regarding this issue, it’s a good idea to be aware of the possibilities.

This guide shares with the other guides good exercises and challenging thought questions. I think it’s “further reading” section is again exceptionally good.

I hope many church education coordinators and other leaders and teachers in the church will give strong consideration to using this guide in their teaching. I’m gratified and blessed that Bob Cornwall has been willing to offer his expertise to this series, and I am excited about seeing new volumes as they develop.

I should write one final general note about the series. This isn’t your “Bible in five minutes a day” series. Members of the class need to commit to reading the material in the guide and the scriptures for each lesson. It is also useful if they study the questions and are prepared to discuss. These questions are not designed for a quick sharing of existing opinions; they’re designed to challenge your existing opinions. I hope that you’ll come away from sharing with a group using these questions and reflections better informed, and better able to express and support your understanding.

The Difficult Message of Hebrews

The Difficult Message of Hebrews

Hebrews 5:11-14 describes the message of the book as difficult, chides the readers/listeners for not being ready for a meaty message, and then goes on to the more difficult message nonetheless. So what is basic, what is difficult, and what is it that makes the difficult message difficult? (OK, I take the 1,000 point deduction for using the word “difficult” too many times in one sentence.)

Since I believe that the first 14 verses of Hebrews 6 are the heart of the message of the book. Once a person has been enlightened and set off on the Christian journey, can they turn back? Once they have turned back, can they repent yet again? This is a complex way of stating the more basic point: Endurance is required for the walk of faith. (For some previous thoughts on this topic, see Hebrews 6:4-6: Can Those who Fall Return?.)

The author outlines these basic foundation items in 6:1–repentance, faith, baptism, laying on hands, resurrection, and eternal judgment. All of these elements are, of course, in the early stages of the proclamation of the good news. I’ve been reviewing material in the gospel of Mark, and one can find all of these elements, though the very specific “laying on of hands” is only fully developed in the early church. Nonetheless Jesus identifies people, empowers them and sends them out (Mark 6:6-13). These basic elements identify the key points of coming to repentance believing in Jesus and in turn going out to make disciples.

To many of us in the church today, I’m sure this sounds like it’s not so basic. One of the biggest struggles I encounter in churches is getting members past the point of just being there and on to the point of making disciples. I wonder if the audience didn’t have a similar reaction to this letter when they first heard it.

I can hear the chatter out in the congregation now. “What does he mean, ‘basic.’ That’s a serious message he’s preaching there. What more do you need if you’ve gone from repentance to being sent out again.”

But again my study of Mark reminded me of the parable of the sower (Mark 4:3-9). It’s interesting that the author of Hebrews brings in plants as well (verses 7-8), though in a somewhat different context. I don’t want to suggest interpreting Hebrews 6 according to the parable of the sower, but there are some similar points. I do, however, think that the seed metaphor can be used to help understand the point in the Christian experience described by Hebrews 6. It’s not just the seeds that never sprout at all that fail in the parable. Out of the four categories of seed, three sprout. Only one fails completely (the birds eat the seed), while one succeeds completely (grows and produces fruit). The other two raise some of the same questions we have here. Can you fail after you receive the word? If you do fail, can you return? The parable of the sower makes no attempt to answer the second one.

Two categories of seed start to grow but don’t finish, and both fail because of the hardships of the journey. It seems to me that this illustrates that the advanced material has to do with advancing on the Christian walk. The entire book of Hebrews bristles with the challenge not to give up, turn back, go off track, or fail to enter God’s rest. Most of us have experienced this sort of thing. We hear the gospel message and are excited, but we then encounter the actual church, warts and all and we become a little less enthusiastic. All too often, the cares of this world, or even the cares of Christian ministry choke us off, and there is no fruit.

This is a hard saying. We can get into some terrible debates over the perseverance of the saints, or the perseverance of Christ on behalf of the saints. I discussed this once with a Calvinist student. We were discussing a person who had left the church after having been an enthusiastic Christian. I was interested in our vocabulary. We both agreed that this person had once publicly confessed Jesus Christ as savior. We both agreed he had set out on the path of discipleship. We both agreed that his love had grown cold and that he had forcefully rejected the life that he once knew. Where we differed was on vocabulary. I used the vocabulary of accepting Christ (being saved) and falling away. He stated that the man had apparently accepted Christ, but as it turned out it must not have been for real, as demonstrated by his falling away.

It seems to me that those two positions are separated by vocabulary and not by practical reality. What apparently happens is the same. How we describe it is different. The author of Hebrews seems to me to describe this much more as a present danger to every believer. “Keep on going toward maturity (or perfection),” he says. “Don’t fall back!”

Good advice, but advanced advice. It’s much easier to start a race than to finish it. The author of Hebrews knew that, and thus challenged Christians to run the race to completion (Hebrews 12:1-3).

[This post deals with the answer to question #6, Lesson 7, Page 41 of my study guide to Hebrews]

Making Prayer Happen

Making Prayer Happen

Laura at Pursuing Holiness is blogging about prayer and what keeps us from praying as much as we should. She has some excellent thoughts, and in particular she mentions what I think is the most important point:

Another problem with prayer is that we so often, after a discussion where someone has shared a need and we respond, “I’ll be praying for you,” then leave with the best intentions and then forget to pray. It is far better to pray with that person on the spot.

Go read it all.

I want to take the opportunity to mention the most recent addition to our participatory study series tracts, titled Seven Barriers to Prayer in Your Church. You’ll note that this very point is barrier #2, right after “the pastor has to do it.”

As with anything, our real priorities are demonstrated by what we do, not what we say. A praying church prays. Lots of churchs talk about prayer, but that doesn’t make you a praying church, or family, or individual. Only prayer does that!