Address at Graduation Dinner, Colombo Theological Seminary

I forgot that I had a blog.  Truly.  Slipped my mind completely for like a year.  I was cleaning out some old files on my computer and came across this address I gave back in July 2013.  As I love CTS and its faculty/administration, and as other graduation events are coming up such that this might serve someone’s reflections on that milestone, I post it here.


Your graduation from Colombo Theological Seminary is a milestone. We certainly deserve, and need, to celebrate this milestone.  It has been reached only with great effort, investment, and commitment.

And this graduation is not just about you. I think of the extraordinary commitment shown to your formation, and investment made in your lives, by the faculty, administration, and staff of CTS. In so many ways they have poured themselves into you, and poured themselves out for you. And I know their ministry on your behalf is an acceptable libation poured over your own offering of yourselves to God during your time here. They have such love for you, such passion for equipping you, such responsiveness to God in doing what they do here to fulfill the mission of CTS.

But, of course, the seed they have sown would have come to nothing if you yourselves were not such fruitful soil, if you were not ready to embrace what your instructors have taught, to wrestle with them about its implications for your lives and ministries, and to wrestle with God in prayer as he used your time here to shape and equip you for his kingdom work. So tonight and, even more so this coming Saturday, you justifiably celebrate the foundation that the work you and your instructors have undertaken here together have given you for the remainder of the journey.

This is an important milestone, certainly, but not a finish line – and the Christian life is one of always looking ahead, and not looking behind. It is always about what God is doing in us and through us, not about what God has done, or what we have achieved that has brought us to this point. So I thought it would be good for us to think tonight about your successful completion of your program at CTS in light of Paul’s comments about his own orientation to the Christian journey: “I count everything a ‘loss’ in order that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings by conforming myself to the likeness of his death, if somehow I might attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not as if I had already taken hold of this or arrived at the goal, but I press on, if only I might grasp that for which Christ Jesus grasped me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have grasped this yet.  One thing, though – forgetting the things that lie behind me and reaching forward to what lies in front of me, I press on unto the prize of the upward invitation that God extended in Christ Jesus.  Let as many of us as have come to a mature mindset think in this way – and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal this to him or her as well.  Only let us walk in line with whatever we have attained” (Philippians 3:8, 10-16).

Even while we celebrate the milestone, Paul would have us turn our minds to pressing on to the finish line. I do hope that the phrase “forgetting what lies behind” will not actually apply in this particular case. You and your instructors have put far too much into your experience at CTS for you to allow that to happen. But Paul’s approach reminds us that we are not done learning as of tonight, or as of Saturday. Paul himself continued to learn more and more of the height, depth, and breadth of God’s love shown in Christ; he continued to learn more and more of the connections between the revelation of God in Christ and the witness of the Scriptures; he continued to learn new missionary and pastoral strategies as he encountered new opportunities and new challenges in his ministry. So he would urge you to press on, learning throughout a lifetime.

As you have carved out significant time for your studies at CTS up to this point, continue to carve out time in the future for refreshment in learning, for going beyond even what you have attained to this point. As your equipping expands, so will your effectiveness in ministry. Your experience at CTS has also shaped you as a disciple, touching not just your mind but also your heart and your spirit.

Whatever intentionality your time at CTS has brought to your formation as a disciple, Paul would urge you to continue to show the same and even greater intentionality in your ongoing formational journey. Christ is taking shape in you; it is vitally important that this process not stop short of the goal – that we should indeed be transformed fully such that we can say, with Paul, “it is no longer me living, but Christ is living in me.”

The words that we heard from Paul were spoken in the midst of a fruitful ministry as well. If anyone had reason to sit on his laurels, it was Paul – first as an advanced disciple of the Torah before his conversion, then as one of the most successful missionaries the world has ever seen after his conversion. But even after he had planted churches from Syria to Asia Minor to Macedonia to Greece, he kept his eyes fixed on what God called him to do next, so that he might fully run his course. So Paul would urge you also to keep your eyes looking forward to the “good works” that God has yet prepared for each of you to walk in – running the course of your ministry, your service for the kingdom.

It seems appropriate to say a word about “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings” and “the power of Christ’s resurrection.” First, notice how Paul actually lists the power of Christ’s resurrection first, setting the sufferings in the context of Christ’s triumph over the power of death and all that opposes God’s good purposes for God’s creation. Here in Sri Lanka, walking in line with God’s call may lead to the experience of hardship and hostility. It may take you into places of disappointment and discouragement. When this happens, remember whom you serve. Remember how he has triumphed and promises triumph to those who also know the fellowship of his sufferings. Let this embolden you just as it emboldened Paul to move forward in obedience to God, whether you enjoy favor with your neighbors and see your work bearing fruit, or whether the opposite is the case.

When writing to the Corinthian Christians, Paul compared his own discipline in making progress in Christian formation to the discipline of athletes training for sporting competitions:  “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath” – a wreath woven from the branches of certain trees – “but we an imperishable one” – the crown of eternal life.

We could easily adapt his analogy to our own training in preparation for ministry. You have put forth as much effort here as anyone in any academic program across the country.  They do it to receive a paper diploma and worldly credentials. But we do it to be better equipped to serve our Lord, to be formed more fully after his likeness, to enjoy a far greater graduation dinner – the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, and to walk in a far greater “graduation” ceremony.

It is my prayer for every one of us gathered here that we will be able to say, at the end of our course, what Paul said: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” You have not invested yourself here only to be greeted by our principal with a warm smile and the right hand of fellowship and to receive a diploma. Rather, your work here is part of your training for the whole course you will run for the sake of being greeted by Christ’s smile of approval and warm embrace, and for the sake of hearing the words “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into your Master’s joy.”

But we are not here only to look forward. We do need to return to celebrate what we have attained, which brings me to the final point in Paul’s words to us: “Only let us walk in line with what we have attained.” You’ve learned so much while you were here. What a shame to let any of it fail to take root in your lives! What a shame to let any of it be as seed that falls on the dry pathway or among the thorns and thistles! What you have learned, put into action; make it a part of yourselves. James warns against looking into the Law of God, as into a mirror, and failing to do it, becoming thus like a person who walks away forgetting what he or she looks like. Our Lord urges us to build our lives around the teachings we have received from him, since only that means building on a rock-solid foundation. What God has given you and shown you during your time at CTS, safeguard in your memory and put into action in your lives and ministries.

Your graduation is a time for thinking about how the program at CTS has been working its way into and through your own formation in Christ and the service you have been offering in his name. It has changed the way you encountered Scripture and thought about how to listen for God’s word to you through Scripture. It has broadened your vision for God’s work in the Church Universal and for ministry on this fair island. It has brought you into contact with Christians of other theological traditions whose positions have expanded your own sense of how God is at work in the world, and how rich and varied are the ways in which his Church has perceived him. It has deepened your own prayer life, your vision for the transformation God is working in us individually and as communities of faith. Only that it might do so more and more till the whole lump has been leavened!

Allow your education and experiences at CTS to act like leaven, spreading into and giving growth to every facet of your discipleship. Take time to reflect in the days, weeks, and months ahead on what you have attained through your program here, on what you have learned and in what directions it could continue to goad you and guide you. Your work and achievements here position you to enjoy such affirmation there, to the extent that you live in line with what you have attained and to the extent that you continue to press on from here in your formational and ministry-forming journey toward the prize.


Desire, the Dhamma, and the Gospel

An excerpt from my 2011 book, Global Readings: A Sri Lankan Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock).

Paul’s diagnosis of the human problem has an important point of contact with the Buddha’s assessment of the same. Both locate the essential source of suffering and distress in the “passions of the flesh,” to use Paul’s language, or the “desires” or “cravings,” to use the Buddha’s. According to the Buddha, “the entangling and embroiling craving” is the thing most to be eliminated (Dhammapada 180) and “desire is the bane of humankind” (Dhammapada 359). Paul is more specific about the class of “desires” or “cravings” that lead to suffering among humankind in the present and in the future, speaking more narrowly about “the desires that spring from the ‘flesh’,” which, when acted upon, produce the vices listed as “works of the flesh” in Gal 5:19-21. The Buddha would have read Paul’s list with approval, identifying as “fetters” to be renounced or uprooted many of the same inner-personal and inter-personal manifestations of self-centered desire, including anger, pride, jealousy, selfishness, deceit, hatred, lust, and hypocrisy (Dhammapada 221, 262-263, 407): “Just as a storm throws down a weak tree, so does Mara overpower those who live for the pursuit of pleasures, who are uncontrolled in their senses, immoderate in eating, indolent, and dissipated” (Dhammapada 7).

The Buddha nourished both the commitment and the discipline required to destroy the “cankers,” so that the individual “whose senses are subdued like horses well trained by a charioteer” might become “pure as a deep pool free from mud” (Dhammapada 93-95), a person characterized by patience, freedom from anger, and self-control, which are the marks of the true “holy person” (Dhammapada 399-400). Paul also identifies “cankers,” calling for ethical purification by cultivating the fruit of the Spirit while checking the works of the flesh (Gal 5:13-25). The person who is fully formed in the Spirit would manifest many of the characteristics prized in the Buddha’s vision of the arahat.

One of the most significant differences between Paul’s vision and the Buddha’s, and hence between Christianity and other religions, is that Paul proclaims that God provides us with the Holy Spirit to enable us to perform God’s will. Christianity presents the Holy Spirit as a means by which to be free from cycle of sin and from the power of desire (as well as anger and delusion) so as to love fully and in a truly other-centered way. Other religions leave us at the mercy of our own effort and power, teaching that God will accept us in proportion to how we overcome sin or evil. The cross of Jesus Christ presents a “stumbling block” to Buddhism in regard to its rejection of self-reliance and relying on the power and guidance of God’s Spirit instead. In this, however, Paul’s doctrine of crucifying one’s self along with its desires in union with Christ’s crucifixion is in a way more faithful to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta. Buddhists rely on their own efforts for deliverance from the wheel of samsara while, ostensibly, there is no “self” on which to rely. Christians understand a “self” to exist, but deny that it is sufficiently stable or powerful to effect deliverance from the power of desire, anger, and delusion.

While compassionate love for others is a central focus of both Christian and Buddhist ethics, as it is, indeed, an essential teaching of most every religion, there are some noticeable differences in the conceptualization of the ideals of agapē and metta. Both are other-centered ideals, but the Buddha cautioned against allowing compassion to turn into endearment and connection: “From endearment springs grief, from endearment springs fear. For him who is wholly free from endearment, there is no grief, whence then fear?” (Dhammapada 212). Metta is quite different from Christian love in that Christians can risk love and endearment because hope in the resurrection answers grief and fear, and takes away the sting (the dukkha) inherent in and brought by death. Metta remains detached, “universal” compassion expressed now towards this individual, now towards that. Agapē is very much an “attached” compassion and love felt toward the “particular” human being toward whom one shows compassion.

Agapē is the focal point of the Spirit-led ethic, and Paul depends upon the power of the Spirit to nurture this love. Following the Spirit, the Christians will be transformed into a community of mutual investment, care, and support, rather than one characterized by mutual hostility and detraction (Gal 5:15), where members are poised against one another in pride, envy, and provocation (Gal 5:26). It leads to the quality of relationships between people that leads outsiders – even those who are hostile to the presence of Christianity in their midst – “Look how they love each other, … and how they are prepared to die one for the other” (Tertullian, Apology 39.7).

Formation articles available online

Ashland Theological Seminary (where I’ve been privileged to serve these past 20.5 years) now has all the back issues of The Table, the seminary’s magazine, available to read online.   I have been invited to contribute two articles over the years, one on “Praying With Another’s Words” (how using liturgical prayers can be spiritually formative) and “A Sevenfold Prayer of Transformation” (a reflection specifically on a prayer used in the Baptismal liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer).  Both stem from my book, Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation Through the Book of Common Prayer (InterVarsity, 2008).  They can be found here, alongside many other similar articles in the 19 issues of the magazine.


“Merry Christmas” at the Mall

A friend from church just sent me a link to this song, which has apparently struck a positive chord with a lot of people fed up with the political correctness of the “holiday season.”  I hear that, but I just had to comment on the larger issue of using the acknowledgment of “Christmas” as a factor in determining, of all things, where to shop.

My potentially Grinchy comment on this song at YouTube:

I’m troubled that the whole setting for the song (at least it’s refrain) is a mall or “Christmas shopping” in general. “If you don’t see ‘Merry Christmas’ in the window, then you don’t go in that store?” I wish to God that we could separate Christmas and shopping/stores altogether, and live like people for whom Christmas has made the difference of a complete change of life — if we would celebrate not by buying for our families and friends who don’t need another thing, but by lavishing help on the family in serious need, the homeless veteran, the Christian refugees from ISIS, and so forth. Saying “Merry Christmas” in the way that puts Jesus at the heart of the holiday would mean taking the focus off from the store altogether and from what we will find under our Christmas tree and using the season to stay away from the malls and gather more with family, with friends, with church, and discover ways to reach out in loving and even saving ways.

Now I’m part of the problem: I’ve spent about a week’s salary on Christmas shopping (though I did refuse to do “Black Friday” because it irks the heck out of me that the commercial gods try to stoke our covetousness and acquisitiveness on the very day, or the dawn after, we’ve supposedly been thinking about the full and rich ways in which the one God has gifted us and supplied our needs).  Nevertheless, this song really drives home for me how wrong our observance of Christmas has become if our main concern is shopping where people will acknowledge Christmas. So here’s an alternative refrain:

“If you don’t put Jesus first this Christmas season,

but worship at the mall,

you won’t be living like you know the reason

that he came to save us all.”

I’ll leave it to someone else to finish those lyrics and make an alternative video. 🙂


deSilva’s Day of Atonement Novel – A Must-Read Book of 2015 (Gupta)

What a generous review from scholar Nijay Gupta!

Crux Sola

DAMany books I read are just fine. Some are good. A few are outstanding. David deSilva’s latest offering, Day of Atonement, is in a league of its own. The subtitle is: A Novel of the Maccabean Revolt (Kregel, 2015). This is a work of historical fiction that places the reader in the world of early Judaism with a specialist interest in Hellenization and the negotiation of Jews in the Greek and Roman world.

I read fiction from time to time and I think that I have relatively high standards for good fiction. I know that sometimes biblical scholars try their hands at fiction (for pedagogical reasons) and most of the time I can tolerate the amateur fiction-writing because it is in service of better learning through narrative. But Day of Atonement is really good fiction. David deSilva completely blew me away with his gripping writing style. I have…

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The Story of Ruth in the Context of the Lebanese Church Today

Please visit this link for a brief reflection on the story of Ruth from Walid Zailaa, a friend and colleague at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.  I spent only a week or so among them last February and am in awe of their ministry and their spirits.

Love Is Always An Option

A sermon preached on Sunday, October 4, 2015, at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church.  Gospel Lesson: Mark 10:2-16.

I can still remember how my former pastor and boss, the Rev. Jeff Halenza of Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church in Riverdale, Georgia, began a sermon on this text in the early 90’s: “I wouldn’t touch that one with a ten-foot pole.”  Unfortunately for you all today, I don’t remember the rest of that sermon, because I’m sure it was really good.  But what made a lasting impression was the challenge of preaching on this text beyond all other passages in the Gospels.  We follow the Revised Common Lectionary at this church, so the texts are essentially chosen for us Sunday after Sunday.  If the Lectionary can be conceived of as a kind of Liturgical Russian Roulette, this text would be the bullet.

Why is it so difficult to talk about Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and to his disciples in this text?  Well, we’ve all been touched by divorce in one way or another.  A good number among our congregation here have suffered through a divorce and through the death of the marriage that they thought would carry them through their whole lives.  A higher number of us have seen parents, a sibling, or a child suffer through the same.  I dare say that there is no one here whose life and relationships have not been personally and significantly affected by divorce.  It’s all very close to home.  It was even more dangerous to preach about divorce in Jesus’ setting than in the modern one.  Just ask John the Baptist.

And the last thing that divorced persons need is condemnation.  They’ve already been through hell; they don’t need more from the pulpit.  This text alongside a few others have been used by Christians, especially the more conservative Christians, to bully people into staying in bad marriages or to ostracize and shame people who dared to get out of bad marriages.  In other words, Jesus’ pronouncements about divorce and remarriage have been used like law in some churches.  That’s what I would call selective emphasis, the bane of the church’s moral witness for generations.  We elevate failures in sexual and marital morals to an absolute degree, thereby allowing all of our greed, our commitment to our own interests, our competitions, our lack of compassion, our unforgiveness, and our malice to fly under the radar.  That’s not where Jesus would have us go with this text.

But Jesus does clearly seek to challenge us and shake us up – healthfully and salvifically – with his stark pronouncements in this text.  He seeks to help us to shake off the way of thinking that has been carved into our minds and souls from the day we were born and start living in line with God’s holiness, God’s righteousness, God’s love and its limitless possibilities.  Indeed, Jesus’ hardline position here shouldn’t surprise us by this point in Mark’s Gospel.  We have been prepared for this by the episodes that lead up to this one. Let’s just review the last two weeks’ Gospel lessons.

When his disciples start arguing about their relative rank in the group, Jesus insists that getting to the top in his organization means getting down to the bottom and putting oneself most at the disposal of others.  When his disciples want to corral in someone who’s freelancing in their territory, Jesus tells them that there’s no place in the kingdom for being competitive and territorial.  When he thinks his audience is getting soft on obeying God, he tells them that self-mutilation is less severe and more advantageous than sin.  And now he tells people whose business it is to determine when a man can grab the parachute on his marriage that love is always an option instead, and a better one at that.

And he’s going to keep on doing this in the episodes that follow.  An earnest young man wants Jesus’ reassurance that he’s going to inherit eternal life, and Jesus essentially asks: If you really think you’re keeping God’s commandments, why have you kept so much money for your own needs instead of loving your neighbor the way you love yourself?  And once again, for good measure, he will tell his disciples, always trying to figure out which is the alpha male in the group, that it’s the person who puts himself or herself most at the disposal of serving the good of others, not who is most able to impose his or her own agenda, that has the highest standing in God’s sight.

Jesus is not pronouncing case law at any point in these chapters, but he is challenging his hearers’ assumptions and priorities at every turn so that maybe, just maybe, they will discover the “something more” than God has for them and their lives together.  Let’s look a little more closely once again at last week’s Gospel reading as a prelude to today’s passage.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.” (Mark 9:43-47)

If we read today’s passage as “law” and force it upon one another’s marriages, we must be prepared to read last week’s text as “law” as well, with Jesus instituting a kind of self-imposed shariah law upon the church.  I don’t see a lot of Christians abiding by these statements as if they were actual commandments, however, which tells me that we can discern hyperbole.  Jesus’ point in last week’s reading?  Think about how loath you would be to cut off your own hand; think about how difficult that would be even in the most dire of circumstances (Remember the movie 127 Hours?  It took the protagonist that long to screw up the courage to do what he had to do to save his life). That’s how loath you should be to sin.  Reaching out for what God does not have for you, taking a step in the direction that God does not want you to go – these should become even more difficult for you, even less natural for you, than chopping off your own limb would be.

The whole of Mark 9-10, by the way, should really give each of us a “reality check” on our image of Jesus.  This is important, I think, because we want to be sure that we’re following Jesus as he is, not as we have made him in our minds.  Jesus is the friend through whom we can carry everything to God in prayer, but he doesn’t exist just to make our troubles go away.  Jesus, what a friend of sinners – but he also refuses to leave us sinners.  Jesus loves me, this I know; but he also insists that I learn to love as he loves.  And this last point is, I believe, particularly his challenge in today’s Gospel reading.

Now, please, don’t immediately think of the most extreme cases of marriage-gone-bad and use this as a reason not to take Jesus seriously.  Are there marriages that should end?  Of course there are, when one or both parties are committed to causing the other harm.  In such instances, there is a deeper problem in the person or the persons than in the marriage, and the latter cannot be redeemed until the former is.  For them, divorce is not the sin that ends a marriage; divorce ends the sin that their marriage has become.

Many of the marriages that end in divorce, however, do not do so because of abusive personalities or commitment to malice; they end because two people stop liking each other.  They end because two people stop putting each other first.

So we must also allow Jesus also to have his say.  There are a lot of marriages in trouble right now that could be redeemed if the goal of both partners was to learn how to love the other rather than have his or her own needs and wants met. Marriage is the hottest crucible of character formation and spiritual formation.  Sometimes it gets too hot and the crucible has to crack; sometimes the heat does its work of refining, making different people, better people, out of the husband and wife.

The latter’s not going to happen, however, if the guiding questions are: “Am I getting what I want out of this marriage?” “Are my needs being met?” “Is this person still the best option for me?”

These are not only modern questions.  Marital troubles and marital dissatisfaction have been around just about as long as marriage.  Around 200 BC, the Jewish sage and teacher Ben Sira writes:

“I would rather live with a lion or a dragon than live with a bad wife. A woman’s wickedness changes her appearance, and darkens her face like that of a bear. Her husband sits among his neighbors, and he cannot help sighing bitterly….  An ascent up a sandy dune for the feet of the aged – such is a nagging wife to a quiet husband…. A dejected mind, a gloomy face, and a wounded heart come from having a bad wife. Drooping hands and weak knees come from the wife who does not make her husband happy.” (Sir 25:16-23)

Ben Sira’s way out? “If your wife does not go as you direct her, cut her off from your flesh” (Sir 25:26), echoing the same creation text that Jesus recites in our passage.

Conversations among Jewish teachers in the centuries around the turn of the era also revolved around the question, “When is enough, enough?” “When am I justified in divorcing my wife?”  It is true that the Torah acknowledges a provision for ending a marriage: “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house….”  (Notice, technically, that the law of Moses does not make this provision; it merely acknowledges it as a practice that it does not affirm, correct, or revoke.)  The conversation in the centuries before and after the turn of the era focus on what the lawgiver meant when he said “because he finds something objectionable about her” (Deut 24:1).  What is this “something objectionable” that makes divorce legally acceptable?  Two rabbis from a few decades before Jesus’ birth reflect the wide range of answers. Shammai, the stricter rabbi, limited the provision to adultery or pre-marital intercourse.  Hillel, the more liberal rabbi, extended the provision to her burning dinner.

Jesus poses an alternative question: Not “When am I justified in divorcing my spouse?” but “What was God’s purpose for this marriage? What are God’s purposes for this marriage today, in the midst of both its challenges and its benefits? What do I need to do, how do I need to change, so that God’s purposes for this marriage come to fruition?”  Remember, I’m not talking about the extreme cases such as show up on Dr. Phil.  But I believe that I am talking about most of the marriages that are not where God would want them to be.  God had a vision for this marriage.  What am I doing that is getting in the way of that vision taking hold for the long haul?  Where do I need to die to self so that something beautiful can come to life?  These are the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves as Christians in every relationship, in every setting, but darn it all if the last place we think to ask ourselves such questions is in our own marriages!  But it’s probably there that discipleship gets most real – or fails to get real.

Some marriages are not going to be redeemed; there is less pain in the world if they are in fact ended.  But a lot of marriages can be redeemed, can be transformed.  Even those that are just coasting by need to be challenged by Jesus’ affirmation of God’s best vision for marriage.  A way forward is, again, to apply to our marriages in particular what the teachers of the Church apply to relationships between disciples in general:

“In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:3-4)

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” (Col 3:12-15)

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you…. Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 4:31–5:2)

Now, today’s Gospel lesson gives us another episode as well.  A smarter preacher would simply have focused on this second paragraph and acted as if the first half of the lesson hadn’t been there at all.  In this episode we see Jesus’ disciples once again missing the point of their role as they try to assume an authority that isn’t theirs: “People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them” (Mark 10:13).  The disciples were trying to regulate access to Jesus, in this instance actually trying to discourage people from bringing other people – here, little children – to Jesus.  Jesus’ response to them is as stern as his response to the Pharisees in the preceding episode: you don’t get to decide who gets to come to me!  If you’re not going to bring people of all ages and every status to me yourselves, then at least get out of the way of the people who are bringing others to me.  It’s a good, brief, straightforward reminder to us as well that our role is not to police who gets to come to Jesus; our task is to bring all, regardless of our assessment of them, to Jesus.  If we find ourselves thinking “we don’t to use up our church’s time or resources or attention on people like that,” that’s a little warning light on our own spiritual dashboard that we’ll want to attend to.  For Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.


Faith alone, grace alone, Scripture alone

My forays into Pauline theology (particularly the little book Transformation: The Heart of Paul’s Gospel [Lexham Press, 2014]) have been criticized by a few adamant Reformed theologians as an attack on the doctrines of salvation by “faith alone” and “grace alone.”

I just did a quick search on Paul’s use of forms of the word “alone” and, genuinely to my surprise, he NEVER uses it in his “by grace” or “by faith” formulations (indeed, never to qualify those two words in any way whatsoever).  The only occurrence of the phrase “by faith alone” actually occurs in James 2:24, there to be negated as the exclusive basis of approval before God.  This leaves me just a little bit more convinced that “by faith alone” and “by grace alone” are hyperbolic formulations nurtured by the particular environment of the Reformation era, and not undistorted representations of, say, Paul’s view of what God is looking for in those whom God will justify.

This leaves me wondering if the claim to listen to “Scripture alone” (i.e., over against Reformation formulations of “Pauline” theology or the Gospel in general) is of equal importance to these critics.

BibleWorks 10!

BibleWorks 10

Jim Barr at BibleWorks was kind enough to send me a copy of BW10 to review.  I’ve been a devoted user of this program since working on my Hebrews commentary in 1998.  I have always found BW to be elegant and straightforward for working with the Greek and Hebrew text.  Perhaps it’s because I’m nearing fifty, but the most important thing to me in a new version of a familiar and much-used program is what has not changed.  (Windows 8, anyone?)

The interface has remained pretty much the same as BW8 and 9, with added possibilities for customizing.  The basic functions have all remained the same.  It remains, for my purposes, perfect for lexical analysis, concordance work, grammatical searching, analysis of English translations, and increasingly for textual criticism.  It has special tools for Synoptic comparison/redaction criticism; its parallel windows tool allows for ready comparison of any Bible texts or parabiblical texts one might wish (I use it for Septuagint/Hebrew Bible comparison more than anything else, but I’ve been delighted to find that I could also have the Apostolic Fathers open in Greek and English with this tool).  The move some versions ago to allow one to have four columns was extremely helpful one (I personally need to have two “browse” windows open frequently when teaching or researching, for example), and that has been retained.

Several additional tabs have been added to the BW10 interface.  There is now a “Forms Tab” that allows the user to see quickly the statistics on lemma usage as well as a “User Lexicon” that allows the user to compile his or her notes on the meanings and usage of particular words.  BW10 has lost the Moody Bible Atlas, but has replaced this resource with the ESV Concise Bible Atlas.

There is now an “ePub” reader window available in columns 3 and 4, so that users can import book files into BW, as well as a new photographic resource containing over twelve hundred images of sites connected with biblical history.  (No, I didn’t count them – you can access a surprising amount of BW’s content in Windows Explorer J ).  The available resources have been expanded to include the New English Translation of the Septuagint (please stop buying copies of Brenton, people), the Gospel of Thomas, a shorter lexicon by Frederick Danker, and the usual slew of new or updated Bible translations.

While an upgrade to the NA28 Greek text was available after BW9 came out, NA28 is now the base text for BW10 and many Greek-text resources (like the surprisingly helpful diagramming resource) have been updated to reflect the new edition.  The manuscripts project proceeds apace as well, with completed morphological tagging for Sinaiticus and Vaticanus and completed transcriptions of Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus and Codex Claromontanus.  With the (admittedly sideline) interest in the NT as it was actually read in particular communities of faith alongside the recovery of the theoretically original readings, this growing feature is quite helpful.  The manuscript image database is also a wonderful resource for introducing textual criticism in the seminary classroom. The image database now includes Codex Lenigradensis for students of the Hebrew Bible.

For the purist who really just wants good software to work with the text in the original languages – and who has some original-language competency – BW is easy to navigate and foregrounds the tools and resources that I personally find to be most essential.

Growing in Passionate Worship

A short presentation I’ve prepared for a mini-retreat at my church, Port Charlotte United Methodist, happening tomorrow morning:

If we were to make it a priority to grow in “passionate worship” during 2015, we should first be clear among ourselves what such growth is not.  It is not about manufactured feelings and excitement, as if the emphasis in the phrase lay on “passionate” rather than “worship,” as if growth were to be measured in terms of what would be observable to the human eye and ear or in terms of imitating self-expression at rock concerts or sporting events.

It is about growing in our awareness of God as the Other who inhabits this space with us, in our desire to encounter and engage this God directly and personally, and in our openness to – and our transparency before – this God.  Growing in passionate worship will be the result of growing in this relationship with God through more frequent and more open encounters.  It will be the result of heightened attentiveness to God in at least two arenas – our worship together as a congregation not least on Sunday mornings, and our worship individually in between our times of corporate worship.  And I will say again for emphasis: growth in passionate worship will be the outcome of our increased intentionality in terms of our personal openness to God, focused desire for God, and frequency of interaction with God.

Currently some of us may have the quality of relationship and interaction with God that the stereotypical teen has with his or her parent.  We come to sit with our divine parent once or twice a week; our divine parent seeks to open the lines of communication between us and nurture a relationship; we reply to God’s earnest “how is it going with you?” with the equivalent of a sullen “fine” and go back immediately to whatever else preoccupies us.  Those who have sought and found God, and who have come to delight in God in the midst of prosperity and adversity, model a very different approach to their divine Parent – one that we must make more and more our own if we seek to have the experience and the practice of passionate worship:

“O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you: my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and barren land where there is no water.” (Ps 63:1)

“One thing I asked of the Lord, after this I will seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to seek him in his temple… Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” (Ps 27:4, 8-9)

“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Ps 42:1-2)

Passionate worship grows out of a passionate desire to meet God – not to sing about God, not to hear about God, but to meet God again and again.  And this desire grows, in turn, as we experience what it is like to meet God and to find ourselves open to and aware of the presence of the Almighty surrounding us.  Being in God’s presence – not in the presence of holy trappings, but in the presence of God’s very Self – is described as that which brings joy when everyone else is complaining or that which satisfies the soul’s hunger like a rich banquet satisfies the body’s hunger not only for plentiful, but for delightful food:

“There are many who say, ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!’ You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound. I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.” (Ps 4:6-8)

“I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night.” (Ps 63:4-6)

This last passage clues us in to another important practice that leads us into more passionate worship: frequency and regularity.  This psalmist makes it a practice to think of God on his bed and meditate on God into the watches of the night; another declares, “seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances” (Ps 119:164). If we are to grow into passionate worshipers, we need to exercise ourselves more regularly in worship.  A relationship feeds upon and grows with regularity of encounter – and intentionality within those encounters.  What we bring to the act of worship, to the encounter with God, on Sunday is the fruit of our worship Monday through Saturday.  If there has not been worship Monday through Saturday, we come week after week just to get reacquainted with God, but not to grow into a more passionate relationship with him.

Another lesson of the psalmists, those passionate worshipers of God, is that God becomes more present to us as we become more present to him, more real and transparent before him.  The psalmists are shockingly honest in what they say and what they feel before God – thanksgiving and overflowing gratitude, joy and appreciation, fear and anxiety, disappointment and despair, even raw anger and resentment.  No human emotion is off limits here.  And as these psalmists expose their innermost selves to God they also strip away the layers that separate them from experiencing God’s presence and all that God would bring into their souls and situations in that encounter.

For many of us, the way forward toward more passionate worship may simply be to take up the discipline of daily worship, giving some time each day to be apart with God, acknowledging God’s presence and goodness, practicing opening up before God and becoming more and more open to God.  It requires discipline until it becomes desire in response to richer and richer encounters with the divine Other.  There are many strategies for facilitating this (I’ve prepared a sheet with some starting points); the main question to decide will be whether to invest in this, and the main task to find which strategies fit who you are and how you live.

For many of us, another way forward is to take the time to prepare ourselves prior to our worship together for that time of worship together – to prepare ourselves to come expecting to encounter God and to give ourselves permission to encounter God with our whole being, mind, heart, speech, and body in the presence of our fellow-seekers here.  Many of us give a lot of attention to getting ready for church without giving any attention to getting ready for worship.  If we arrived in the parking lot expecting to encounter God and to hear from God, eager for that encounter to begin, our experience of our time together here would be transformed in the direction of passionate worship. If a critical mass of us committed to the disciplines that nurtured this expectation, then our worship experiences together would indeed be of the sort to make the visitor who comes among “will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Cor 14:25).