About Me

My photo
Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Being a "Joyful Idiot" through the Transitions of Life

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, ESV)

In a sermon I once heard, J. I. Packer described the writer of Ecclesiastes as a “joyful idiot.” That is, he could experience joy even though, and perhaps in part because, he lacked knowledge of all things (hence the idiot part). For him, it was enough that he could see God and he could see the present joys God brought him each day. Recollecting that sermon, I turned to Ecclesiastes this past week as I contemplated the changes that I recently experienced and will soon experience in my life...

This past Sunday I said, “Goodbye” to a good friend and fellow-laborer when our Youth Minister Tyler Downing left his position here in Texas to take another position up in Indiana. I had known about his departure for about a month and spent much of that time thinking about our time together – what he taught me, how I had changed through our relationship, and how I was going to miss him in the years ahead. I also spent some time contemplating how his departure was going to change me and how life transitions overall change us in some significant ways.

In my church, as in all churches, there are a lot of people struggling with the idea of transition. Some are looking for work. Some are dealing with failing health. Some are starting new romantic relationships or taking their relationship to the next level by getting engaged and married. Some, like me, are preparing to see their oldest child leave home for college in just a few months, others are welcoming their children back into their home because finances and life situations have forced them back in. Life is about change and with change comes transition.

Transition is that period between realities that is all at once awkward and exciting and scary. It’s the everyday adolescence of life where you are not who you were but you are also not really who you are going to be either. And it’s hard! But why is it hard? Why do we struggle with something that is so much a part of lives? As often as we go through transition (indeed do we ever leave it?), shouldn't we be used to it by now?

In Ecclesiastes 3, the writer lists many of the various seasons of life, expressing the truism that every part of life has its opposite corollary and that just as certain as we will experience the bad, we will experience the good (and vice-versa). But after this long list of life’s events, he then moves on to reflect upon what all of it means and I think he touches on what makes the journey of transition and change so difficult. He writes, “Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11b, ESV). These words, I believe, encapsulate the heart of why we struggle with transition…we are given glimpses of God’s work and general patterns to life, but we cannot really grasp the totality of the course of our lives. The result of this condition is awkwardness, excitement, and fear. So how do we navigate through these times? I think the writer of Ecclesiastes gives us some clues in the passage that follows.

Accept that change is going to occur – the whole nature of the first part of Ecclesiastes 3 relates the self-evident reality of change. Yet, we resist this truth, even deny this truth throughout life. It’s as if we think if we resist hard enough or refuse to budge ourselves, change won’t occur. But if we refuse to grow and adjust, we don’t stop change we just begin to rot. C. S. Lewis wrote, “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. (Mere Christianity)” Change is going to happen, we can accept it as part of life and grow or we can resist and go bad.

Look for the beauty in the moment – a lot of times in periods of transition all we see is what is being lost or what we don’t know about the future. We read in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God “has made everything beautiful in its time.” The idea here is not that everything is to be viewed through the eyes of the optimist as “good,” but instead that every aspect of life is intended to provide “aesthetic balance.” Though we might not see all that means in our limited capacities, we can find a balance in every experience that helps alleviate the awkwardness.

Accept the pleasure of pleasure – the beautiful moments of the present gives us pictures or glimpses of eternity. Christianity has a long standing tradition of valuing pain over pleasure. The call to count the cost, take up our cross, and to sacrifice have for some reason eclipsed the equally important promises of Christ toward abundant life, an easy yoke, and a rest from weariness. Both sides of discipleship – the cost and the blessing – are part of our journey and experience of Christ. To seek the blessing without the cost leads to licentiousness. To seek the cost without the blessing leads to legalism. Either one without the other leads to an us-centered paradigm that removes God from the throne of our lives. Modern evangelicals do well pointing out the need for cost, but forget to highlight the blessing. Surely we can do a better job of this instead of ceding that part of the conversation to heretical “health and wealth” preachers. We need to learn to take pleasure in the pleasures God has given us.

Trust God – if we can’t see the total course of our lives, doesn't it make sense to trust the One who can? The writer of Ecclesiastes encapsulates the centerpiece of His approach when He wrote, “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. (Ecclesiastes 3:14, ESV)” The fear of God mentioned here, which is the beginning of all wisdom, is key to seeing balance, understanding the place of pleasure, and being comfortable with change. It is the salve to burns created by past hurts and the road-map through unexplored paths that life takes us down. Trusting God doesn't come naturally, it is choice we make based upon His position as our Savior, Creator, and Provider.

I am going to miss Tyler and looking into the next few months when I will say, “Goodbye” to my oldest, I know I am going to miss her too. Hopefully, however, I can navigate these transitions with a real sense of stability and trust, focusing more on what I do know (or rather who I know) than on what I don’t. Hopefully, I can come to know what it means to be a “joyful idiot.”

Me and Tyler at his Ordination

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Fringes of His Ways

Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (Job 26:14, ESV)

This morning I was given the task of putting medicine in the ear of my dog. When I called her she submissively came, laid down, and let me put the medication in. She whimpered because her ear hurt as I did it, but she didn’t give me a hard time. As I was doing it, I felt bad about the pain I was causing her and I also felt bad because I knew she had no idea why her master was causing her pain when she had done nothing wrong. I knew it was for her good, but I also knew she had no idea that was the case. It reminded of one of my favorite Bible verses and the journey of discovery God took me on when I first came across it.

The Job 26 passage above is one of my favorite meditations on the greatness of God. It was first shared with me by a friend while we were in Nashville considering in-utero surgery on Jonathan to repair his Spina Bifida lesion on his back, shortly after we received the diagnosis in 2002.

There are two things I really love about the verse. One is the simplicity, yet depth of the idea that all the wonders of creation are but the outskirts (or fringes) of God’s ways. It takes the reflection of Psalm 8, where the writer examines the cosmos and wonders about man’s place in it, and expands it exponentially by relaying the truth that the stuff we see is not even a recognizable portion of the power He maintains. What we see is indeed enough to know He is present, powerful, creative, and magnificent, but not enough that we can assume that we can understand even a portion of what He is capable of or how He might work. Except, of course, in the ways that He Himself has revealed to us truths about who He is and how He works.

The second thing about the passage that makes it so significant to me (and probably why it has stayed with me) is that Job utters the observation when he is at his lowest. Not only has he suffered immensely by the loss of everything, but by this point in the story he has already had to endure the unhelpful theologizing and the damaging accusations of his friends. Job is spent - physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Yet, it is the knowledge of who his God is that spurs him forward, away from the fatalism of his friends and the surrender that so often sets in when life overwhelms. He will seek an answer; he will try to find understanding; he will experience deliverance – not because he is stubborn and willful, but because his God is big.

By the end of the story Job does submit to the situation. Not because he was proven wrong or sinful. Not because he was beaten down and proven to be worthless – in fact, just the opposite has taken place. No, he submits because he is allowed to catch another glimpse of God’s greatness and majesty and that, coupled with an already vibrant and passionate theology of God, was enough to answer his questions and deal with his biggest fear – was God in fact with him all the while?

Like my dog with me this morning, I don’t always understand what God is doing in my life and why His actions toward me hurt. After all, all I can see are the fringes of His ways. But I do know that He is loving in all His ways and He is with me through it all. How do I know that? Because I have experienced His deliverance through some tough times of my own and more importantly, because that is the God He has revealed Himself to be in His word.

Be encouraged!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Tale of Two Churches

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16, ESV)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insist on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859)

The opening paragraph of the classic, A Tale of Two Cities highlights the contrasts of life present in both Dickens’ day and in the years captured in his story about the French Revolution, some hundred years prior to his composition. Although there are many nuanced interpretations and applications that could be taken from the paragraph, perhaps the easiest summation might be “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

When I look at the current level of debate and correction about social issues and even biblical interpretation in Christianity today, it seems at first glance that the discussions have become nastier than I ever remember them being. Maybe it is just a renewed sensitivity to it in my own Christian walk, but it seems that the level of vitriol between certain groups of Christians has increased lately. In particular, I have in mind exchanges between those who battle for Truth and those who battle for Love as the primary Christian virtue in our interactions with the world and each other.

Now, no doubt both groups would argue that they value the other virtue and, though I don’t know the heart, I would imagine this is true. I have noticed, however, that when questions dealing with the social issues of the day rear their head, people tend to gravitate to one side and then accuse the other of either lacking compassion or conviction. I believe this tendency can be healthy for the Church in the long run if humility and a willingness to listen and learn are present. But too often we become so defensive of our own tendency that we settle in to protect it rather than to become all that Christ would have us be.

Which brings me to my own comparison of a past that seems to model much of what we are experiencing today. Only this time it is not a Two Cities that serve for the comparison, but Two Churches. In the book of Revelation seven letters are sent to seven churches, each representing a specific problem that any church at any time can struggle with. In relationship to the present discussion, Ephesus and Thyatira stand out as representatives of the two groups of Conviction and Compassion, respectively.

We know a lot about the church at Ephesus. It is mentioned several times in Paul’s letters and was even the primary recipient of a letter from Paul that currently bears its name. The church was in a city well-known for its worship of Artemis and the Emperor – it was surrounded by false systems of belief. It was also a church that had struggled with unity and reconciliation – in short, love (Eph 2.11-22; 5.1-2), but which could be generous towards fellow believers when the need became known. This strikes me as representative of so many of my friends who are on the Conviction side of issues. They are quite generous in many ways and they stand strong against the prevalent heresies of the day, but they are more given to separate than to seek unity. And if they are not careful, they become as Ephesus is described in Revelation - “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first." (Revelation 2:2-4, ESV). They can spot unsound doctrine from miles away, but they really struggle with love, joy, and peace.

The church at Thyatira is less known. Unlike the other six churches listed in Revelation, it was not a district center. From its description in Revelation 2:18-29 we learn that it was church going about the business of the Lord in love and faith, service and endurance, and it grew in its commitment to cultural engagement. But despite being very outward focused and driven, Jesus had these words for Thyatira “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.” (Revelation 2:20-21, ESV)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

As believers we have to find the balance. Many of us believe we have it when we don’t (myself included). I tend towards Conviction myself and although I would say, “I love the sinner and hate the sin,” I know that too often those words are more a cliché than a reality. When I look at the ministry of Jesus’ interactions with the prostitutes, tax-collectors, adulterers, and others I don’t see him correcting their theology or even telling them they are sinners first – He always started with compassion. And for me, that is what I am learning to do – instead of correction, I want to start with compassion. They won’t care about the Truth of our words if they haven’t seen the Love in our actions.

I am reminded of a story Andy Stanley tells of a gay pride event that took place outside his father’s church a number of years ago. He said that as the event transpired two church groups formed in response. One group picketed in protest and argued with the participants. The other church group (from a different church than his own) handed out water and sought to express love. The mere fact that the gay activists were there protesting said that they knew of both church’s stance on homosexuality - there wasn't really a need at that point to reiterate it, but instead of expressing the love of Christ, one church decided to express only condemnation. Certainly, in our ever changing society and the lack of clarity on what churches now believe about that same issue, an expression of Truth might be more needed if a similar situation were to happen today. But the question we need to ask ourselves is are we being true to our calling if truth is spoken without an expression of tangible love being brought along with it?

But compassion without conviction becomes sentimentality that is unhelpful and unhealthy. In all of Jesus’ interactions He left the person with a clear sense of Truth. Whether it is the woman caught in adultery – “Go and Sin no more” (John 8:11) or the woman at the well “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:22-24, ESV) ­– Jesus never compromised on the Truth. Indeed, in Revelation, He called Thyatira and us to be more than just culturally engaging, He called them to deal with falsehood decisively.

No doubt the Truth people will tell me I misinterpreted or misapplied the text and the Love people will tell me I haven’t contextualized my observation into present world concerns and perspectives enough, but in the end I hope we learn to strive toward the goal of maintaining both correctly – it doesn’t have to be one or the other and, in fact, in Jesus’ words it CAN’T be just one or the other.  We need to speak the Truth with tangible Love.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bah Humbug…One of a Christian’s Most Dangerous Attitudes – Cynicism

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9, ESV)

As a child, Ebenezer Scrooge always puzzled me. Why was he so angry? How could he not see the opportunities for joy and fun around him? What does Bah Humbug even mean and where on earth did the expression come from?

As I have grown older I have come to see the answers to many of these questions. Life experience and personal interactions have a tendency to harden the heart. People aren’t true to their word; a giving spirit is more often taken advantage of than appreciated; every man seems to be out for themselves. In short, experience has a tendency to rob one of a sense of wonder and trust. Given enough time, most people will become a cynic.

Such an outcome is understandable on many levels and in many circumstances, but for the believer, it is the very antithesis of who we are called to be. Instead of giving to the poor and needy , we cynically proclaim that “they wouldn’t be in this circumstance if they just worked harder;” or that they are “just takers.” Instead of showing forgiveness or asking for forgiveness, we distance ourselves, lest we get burned again or people sue us (either literally or emotionally) for our wrong actions. Instead of sharing our faith with the lost, we keep it to ourselves because deep down we don’t believe people really change. Cynicism robs us of our capacity to truly give and to be the salt and light God called us to be.

How do we battle letting cynicism take root?

- Develop a Proper view of God – The root of our cynicism is not found in a lack of faith in humanity, but a lack of faith in God. Instead of claiming we are being good stewards with God’s money, we need to recognize that it indeed is God’s money and that He who provided it in the first place is fully capable of taking care of it in the future. Instead of fearing being taken advantage of or sued, we need to trust God to take care of us. Instead of doubting the sincerity of people’s decisions, we need to trust God’s ability to change them.

- Nurture a proper view of what God has done for us – The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:23-35) demonstrates the true nature of the balance of debt we owe God in comparison to the amount of debt any individual could ever incur toward us. Knowing of such an imbalance is not enough however, we need to nurture and feed that knowledge through developing a healthy theology of sin and Grace.

- Renew our view of the Now and Not Yet – Paul’s encouragement in Galatians 6:9 is built upon an expectation of blessing. The Psalmist’s resolution of his concerns over the apparent injustice of evil being awarded came when he entered into worship and caught a glimpse of God’s justice (Psalm 73, esp verse 17). Jesus’ call to die to ourselves includes the hope of what happens ultimately to those who value eternity over the temporal (Matthew 16.24- 27). It seems to me, then, that part of what we are missing in our thought-life that lends itself to remaining tenderhearted in the now, is a fervent belief in what will happen in the future!

I struggle with cynicism. But when I reflect upon the gift of the Father during this Christmas season and the complete expression of Hope that is found in the Savior lying in a manger, I can’t help but be convicted that I am called to move beyond such a perspective. Paul’s words in Galatians 6:9 suggest that doing the right thing can be wearying, but they also proclaim that God has given us multiple resources to draw on to find refreshment – not the least of which being Himself.

Hopefully as I grow even older I will move beyond my knowledge of the reasons for cynicism into an expressive understanding of how to overcome it. Living it out will take work, but knowing I serve a God who gave His all to me, even while I was in rebellion against Him, is a start.

Now if I could just figure out where Scrooge got, “Bah Humbug” from!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Big Question...even Bigger Answer!

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denari and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37, ESV)

Who is my neighbor? It is a question full of import and weight. And if most of us are honest with ourselves , we probably ask it with much the same mindset as the Pharisee in Luke 10. After all, if there is someone who can be excluded from the list, then our disrespect, our low opinions, or even our relative apathy toward others has a loophole. Love is big call – it is an act of the will, a commitment, not simply to tolerate someone, but to seek the best for them; to give our best to them; and to relate to them with forgiveness, compassion, and benevolence. Indeed, “who is my neighbor” is one of the biggest questions we will ever ask.

It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that the answer should be just as big. And the answer comes in the form of a story. The story Jesus tells in response to the Pharisee's question is probably the story Christianity has done the most damage to in terms of where we have taken it versus what Christ intended by it. Commonly known as the story of the Good Samaritan, the early Church Fathers typically allegorized the parable of the Good Samaritan – ingeniously piecing the elements together to make it the story of man’s fall and redemption, but in doing so, ripping it out of its context and causing it to offer no real answer to the question. Modern interpreters have too often made the story into an almost vacuous reflection on the importance of helping people – suggesting that the point of the story is that we should be like the Samaritan in the story and help those who are different then us. While this approach does generally offer a response to the question and is instructive in the example given, I believe it fails to hit us as directly and completely as Jesus intended and, in fact, works more to confirm our prideful heart than to correct it.

As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart point out, the most important aspect of interpreting a parable of Jesus is asking who is the audience He is telling the story to* – what are their prejudices, what is their theological baggage, and what is the response Jesus is trying to elicit from them because of their perceptions? In other words, their response to the story is as important to understanding its meaning as the content itself. In this particular case, as the Pharisee is hearing the story, he would have assumed that the neighbor was the wounded man. Hearing of the priest and Levite’s failure to love their neighbor, he would have thought to himself, “I would expect as much from them,” since although they were fellow Jews, they would have been from rival parties within Judaism. Certainly, he thought, as the climax of the story approached, Jesus would use a Pharisee (since Jesus’ himself would have been categorized as someone of the pharisaic tradition) to help the man out and he could walk away having been given a good example to live by and having a renewed commitment to try harder to help those around him. But Jesus is not interested in confirming the Pharisees prejudices and making him feel good about his commitment – Jesus is trying to break through a prideful and calloused heart. So, the hero is a Samaritan! In the eyes of the Pharisee, a sinner in every possible description of the word – he didn’t worship correctly, he questioned the truthfulness of the Torah, and he lived in state of thorough uncleanness! God couldn’t love him and so therefore I certainly don’t have to! And therein is the meaning of the parable – those feelings of anger, hatred, disbelief that such a person would be used as a positive example experienced at that moment laid bare the fact that this Pharisee did not love his neighbor, because in the eyes of the Pharisee, his neighbor wasn’t worthy of love. And so Jesus asked him, “Which of these three proved to be a neighbor?” Forcing the Pharisee to consider the possibility that someone so unclean could be his neighbor too. The Pharisees response is telling…he can’t even name him! All he can say is, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus’ point had been made and so all that was left was the challenge – you go love that Samaritan!

When we read this story some of the power of it has been lost because most of us relate more closely to the Samaritan than we do to the Jew. We hear the story much as the Pharisee first thought he was going to hear it – someone like me (a Gentile) is going to be the hero, so we can walk away having been given a good example to live by and with a renewed commitment to try harder to help those around us. But, rephrase the hero into someone we consider unclean and unworthy and we will hear it as it was intended. As verse 33 begins, input “But an activist homosexual, as he journeyed to where he was…” or “a radical Muslim” or “a leftist democrat,” or for my left leaning friends “a Tea Party activist” and you begin to feel the weight of the call to love our neighbors. If they bleed, they are not our enemy – they are our neighbor!

I’ll admit, I struggle with this mandate. It’s hard to see the value in others who voice opposition to my core beliefs and priorities, sometimes in expressing that opposition in a desire to kill me or those who believe as I do. But that is what I have been called to. That is what it means to take up my cross and to die to myself! That is what it means to be a disciple of the One who prayed on the cross for those who were crucifying Him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”

One final note, because I feel it is necessary and because I know someone may assume certain things because of their omission. I am not saying we cannot challenge people with their false beliefs or call them to repentance for their sin. Disagreeing with someone is not the same as not loving them. To know someone is on the path of destruction and to say nothing about it is not love. But my goal and challenge is to model my approach after my Saviors when He met a Samaritan who was by every definition of the word “unclean.” He pointed her to the truth, He identified her sin, He corrected her misconceptions, He challenged her to holiness, and He offered her hope – simply by listening; recognizing her as a person, not a sin; and by revealing that He is the answer to every need she had. May I learn to do the same!

*Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Most of the interpretative directions of the comments that follow grow out of their observations and exegetical methodology…in fact, they themselves use this parable for their methodological example.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Part 2 – The Sacred Task of Interpretation… is for Everyone

Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2 Peter 3:14-18, ESV)

A question (or challenge) that often comes up when I raise the issue of proper biblical interpretation is, “What about those who don’t have knowledge about the historical background, knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and knowledge of the genres and idioms present in Scripture?” Such a question usually comes from those who desire to know God’s word, but are worried that somehow they fall short; whereas, the challenge usually comes from those who want to undermine the premise that there is a correct interpretation of the text or that their approach is somehow inadequate.

To the first group I would simply say that God’s word is a powerful tool that even in simply reading it, we experience things He wants us to – it will not return empty. The reality that we should all grow in our faith and understanding in no way undermines where we are at the moment and how God can use us, even in our limitations, to His greater purpose. To the second group I would simply say that, “Yes, the Bible is something all can understand.” But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be using the best means available to us and it also doesn’t mean that everyone understands all of it. Some of Scripture is easy to understand because it is a living word and God is a God of understanding, not confusion. But the gaps in time and experience between our world and theirs do render other parts difficult. Even in their day, some of it involves depth that strained even the trained in understanding. Didn’t Peter himself observe that some of the things Paul wrote were difficult to understand even as he challenged his readers to grow in wisdom and understanding (2 Peter 3:16)?

I stand by my assertion that not all interpretations are equal and those who are able to use such skills, in many cases, have a leg up on those who can’t. But I also do believe the Bible is accessible and capable of being interpreted by anyone who has a solid translation in their language. I believe previous generations, faithful servants all over the globe, and “average” Christians who simply want to study God’s word and glean truth from it can do so, even without the knowledge into historical backgrounds and the ancient languages? But this still comes through proper methodology.  All one need do is look at where the church sometimes went during the Middle Ages and where cults and sects still go today to see that my argument is valid.

I would suggest the following steps belong to every believer as they pursue understanding the Bible better and that all of them can happen, wherever a person is in their knowledge or physical location:

- Dependence on the Holy Spirit – For me, the issue is two-fold. First, bathing any reading in prayer for understanding and clarity and listening to the prodding of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to interpretation. Second, the Spiritual Gifts of knowledge and teaching play a fundamental role in whom we listen to. We do damage to the body of Christ if we fail to take note of the place of such gifts in the well ordered church and in our own learning experience (1 Corinthians 12, esp. 4-10).  I would trust an "untrained" believer who begins with the conviction that the Holy Spirit is necessary for interpretation over any brilliant scholar who didn't!

- Logical consistency – Understanding that the Bible will be consistent in what it communicates about God and our life before Him helps us avoid all sorts of interpretative mistakes. If there is an apparent inconsistency, the problem is in the interpretation of one, or both, of the texts involved. What is more, make this easy on yourself - let clear, repeated truths interpret hard to understand passages. I might not be able to tell you exactly what a particular difficult passage definitely means, but I can often tell you what it cannot mean based upon a multitude of texts elsewhere that say something else.

- Literary Context – Even if you cannot pinpoint all the rules connected to a specific genre, or even identify what genre every passage is connected to, common sense and general reading knowledge helps with conclusions. Proverbs are not the same as narratives, psalms/poems are not the same as letters. The biblical books, more often than not, will communicate what type of literature they are. Use your own general knowledge of that type of writing to help you know what you are looking for. Also, NEVER, EVER pick one verse out and run with it in interpretation without reading what precedes and follows it to understand where the entire argument is going.

- Multiple Translations – For someone who doesn’t know Greek or Hebrew, take the time to read the passage in multiple translations in your native language. If possible, find translations with different philosophies or ways of dealing with the original text. Use a translation that is a formal equivalent (word for word) and one that is a dynamic equivalent (thought for thought) in order to see both the specific words being used and how those words work together. I would strongly recommend not using Greek or Hebrew helps unless you have had training in Greek and Hebrew. More often than not, these helps and the observations they make can lead to faulty conclusions because languages are more nuanced than any help of this nature can provide.

Whatever we do, we need to remember that the text we are dealing with is Sacred. It is God’s revealed word, not a tool to be manipulated (even on a personal level) to our own ends. Take time with it, pray over it, and maintain a teachable spirit. God did not give us all the Spiritual Gift of knowledge and/or teaching, but He has given us all the Spirit that brings knowledge through His word. Submission to the teachings of the word and taking that responsibility seriously is an expectation for every believer – especially if we are sincerely pursuing our role as disciple makers.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Sacred Task of Interpretation

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:14-15, ESV)

Right now on facebook there is a game going around in which you are given a riddle and challenged to answer it via private message to the person giving it. If you answer correctly, nothing happens. If you answer incorrectly you are asked to place a giraffe in your profile picture. (Spoiler Warning: the answer is below). The riddle is:

3:00 am, the doorbell rings and you wake up. Unexpected visitors. It's your parents and they are there for breakfast. You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese. What is the first thing you open?
Now, assuming you understand that the jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese are elements meant to misdirect you, you realize that there are two possible answers, and which one you arrive at is determined on how you interpret the sentence, “What is the first thing you open?”

If you read the paragraph in a linear fashion assuming that the question finds you at the moment of decision upon discovering unexpected visitors (where the question actually falls in the paragraph - The doorbell rings and you wake up…It’s your parents and they are there for breakfast, What is the first thing you open?), the answer is “the door.” If, on the other hand, you read the sentence as a summary observation of the whole and the “first” refers to what you open first at 3:00 am when the process begins (“The doorbell rings and you wake up, What is the first thing you open?), the answer is “your eyes.” Both are a correct interpretation of the sentence, though they are very different conclusions.

And herein resides the problem of interpretation. Words mean something, but when put in relationship to other words, those possible meanings expand. In our example above, the issue is an innocuous bit of fun mind-gamesmanship. But when we are dealing the Bible; something that is at the heart of what we as believers base our whole life on, the decisions we make can have a big impact.

In writing to Timothy in 2nd Timothy, Paul challenges him to confront his people about the message they are proclaiming in their words and actions. He instructs them to be careful not to “quarrel about words;” a problem that had a long history in the church in Ephesus apparently (1 Tim 6:4). The people were committed to getting it right, but had trouble maintaining perspective in what they were debating because they forgot the centrality of love for God and love for each other that should guide all of our discussions (this would apparently continue for several decades in Ephesus…Revelation 2:1-7, esp 2:4). Paul says in order for Timothy to combat this he needs to model three things: (1) A desire to please God above all others. (2) A work ethic that was so expressive of integrity on every level that Timothy didn’t have to worry about it being a distraction. (3) An ability to interpret the Word of God without distorting or abusing it. Paul’s words, however, are not just for the pastor, they express wisdom for all believers.

We need to avoid quarreling over words – fighting over things that really don’t advance the aims of Christianity. We need to be driven more by a desire to honor and please God than by man’s approval, or by winning an argument – this manifests itself in humility, not one-upmanship. We need to be living our lives in such a way that when we draw conclusions from Scripture, our own lives don’t become an avenue of undercutting the point we are making. And we need to be interpreting the Word of God without distorting or abusing it.

I won’t go into the steps of interpretation here; they are appropriately outlined in a number of places – Holy Spirit, usage, context (both literary and historical), genre identification, and logical consistency. But I do want to emphasize the importance of the work behind it and the need for compassion in disagreement.

Not all interpretations are equal. Just because a person, even a believer, interprets a text that does not mean their interpretation is valid. There are boundaries to proper interpretation found in the steps listed above and the person who refuses to follow those steps, should not be granted the same hearing as someone who does. In 2 Peter, Peter warns, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. (2 Peter 1:20, ESV)” Now, there is a lot in this passage, but first and foremost is the idea that we cannot simply do with a text whatever we want or feel led to – we are constrained by other Scripture and by the authoritative interpretation of the Apostles (which is expressed in Scripture). I don’t believe this text means that we have to wait for the Church to interpret a passage for us, but I do believe that Peter is outlining the high standard by which we must interpret Scripture. Spirituality is NEVER expressed through laziness!

No one has the sole corner on interpretation. The Bible is an ancient book; and although it is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), that antiquity creates gaps that must be overcome in order to interpret a passage correctly. The open riddle example I started with illustrated how sentences might be properly put together to come to two very different conclusions. When you add in centuries old idioms, written in a different language, to a very different culture, the barriers to proper interpretation grow exponentially. It is on our shoulders therefore to work through those barriers, but also to be understanding if that journey takes us to a different location than someone else. This is not to say there are no correct or authoritative interpretations – consistency and a preponderance of biblical revelation on any subject builds (or takes away from) any conclusion one draws from the text.  But it is a call to humility in our conclusions and compassion in our differences.

In the end, as Paul tells Timothy, it is about diligence in what we are responsible for and wisdom in what we do or do not argue about…because ultimately it is truth of the Word that we want front and center, not ourselves.