Thursday, February 9, 2017

fun with hermeneutics

I am a reader. The stacks of books in my bedroom, living room, and office, many of them still waiting to be cracked open, testify to this fact. I love to read, but I also know that not all reading is the same. Some is more work and some is more pleasure. A light work of fiction requires little of me but to engage my imagination and be carried away by the story. Online reading requires a bit (or a lot) of discernment to make sure the sources are reliable and the facts check out. Academic reading requires me to reason through the arguments being made and connect them to what I already know or have read in the field. Reading an ancient text requires that I suspend my 21st century perspective as best I can and learn a bit about the worldview and language of the time. Acknowledging a text's context, intent, and genre enables me to hear the words and ideas in such a way that my view of history and the world are enlarged.

Reading, interpreting, and understanding the Bible are important to those who profess faith in Jesus, but they have their challenges. When done poorly, with little thought to the context or genre, it is easy to twist the meaning of a text to suit our purpose. And this has been done by well-meaning and not so well-meaning people over the centuries. Take any high school literature class and you will know that it takes some effort to understand poetry, allegories, fables, and theatrical plays by the likes of Shaw and Shakespeare. Even the simplest work of fiction has multiple layers, and any historian will tell you that a historical document is never as straightforward as it seems. Likewise, the collection of books known as the Bible is not all that easy to read or understand. There are multiple genres (poetry, history, prophecy, wisdom, narratives), the collection covers a rather large swath of history and includes various accounts of the same time period, and some of the language is so obscure and/or filled with unfamiliar metaphors that the meaning is confusing. Nevertheless, there are many passages which are inspiring and beautiful in their simplicity, easily transcending the differences in time and culture to speak to us today.

If you are a student of the Bible, it is in your best interest to learn some basic principles of interpretation for this unique collection of books inspired by God. The science of interpretation is called hermeneutics. Below is a quote from Biblical scholar, Milton Terry. It is over a century old. I chose to include it because not only will it give you the chance to learn a bit about the topic, it will also give you the chance to practice adjusting your thinking to a slightly older way of writing. Here it is.

“Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. The word is usually applied to the explanation of written documents, and may therefore be more specifically defined as the science of interpreting an author's language. This science assumes that there are divers modes of thought and ambiguities of expression among men, and, accordingly, it aims to remove the supposable differences between a writer and his readers, so that the meaning of the one may be truly and accurately apprehended by the others.”

Thanks, Milton. I have hobbled together a few principles of Biblical interpretation and I share them with you here. Some I have gleaned from different sources, some I have learned in my studies, and some I have found in thoughtful readings of the text itself. The list is by no means complete, but should give you a good start in reading the ancient texts with a bit more understanding and a bit less confusion. Hopefully, it will also cut down on misinterpretations of the text (don't worry, we all do it at one point or another).

A few principles for interpreting the Bible:

1. The Hebrew Bible (OT) and the New Testament should not be separated. The mystery of Christ sheds light on the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament cannot be properly appreciated without knowing the history, style, and spirit of the Hebrew writers. The whole Bible is a divinely constructed unity, and in studying one part to the neglect of the other, we may fall into “one-sided and erroneous methods of exposition.” (Milton S. Terry)
2. The Bible is both a divine and a human text. This means that it speaks of divine mysteries through the lens of human experience. If we emphasize one aspect over the other, we miss the generous encounter in which it is grounded.
3. Take into account the author’s intention. We are over 2000 years removed from the biblical authors and in order to understand what they are saying, we must know a bit about their context, history, culture, literary forms, and audience. The scriptures were not written to us as contemporary readers, but they have implications for us. Commands and directives given to the nation of Israel are not necessarily commands to us, and promises made to biblical characters are not automatically transferable to us.
4. The context of a passage should always be considered. Context determines meaning, and isolating any phrase or story can lead to a misguided interpretation.
5. Identify the genre of the biblical passage. Is it historical narrative, laws, wisdom literature, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, gospel, parables, or correspondence? Each type of literature requires a slightly different hermeneutic method. Histories recount journeys we can relate to. Wisdom contains principles to live by. Parables make a certain point to the hearers. Poetry uses imagery and metaphor to paint pictures of ideas and express feelings.
6. Do not confuse interpretation with application. Jesus calls his followers to leave their jobs in order to follow him. This is part of a larger story in which Jesus gathers disciples. It is not a command for all people everywhere to forsake their family businesses. Just because Paul wrote that slaves should obey their masters (Ephesians 6) does not mean that he is condoning slavery.
7. We all bring our own worldview and context to any interpretation, which is okay, but we must be mindful of imposing our own presuppositions or unrealistic expectations on the biblical text. Peter Enns says, “If we come to the Bible expecting something like a spiritual owner’s manual complete with handy index, a step-by-step field guide to the life of faith, an absolutely sure answer-book to unlock the mystery of God and the meaning of life, then conflict and stress follow right behind… what if God is actually fine with the Bible just as it is without needing anyone to stand guard over it? Not the well-behaved-everything-is-in-order version we create, but the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible that we actually have? Maybe this Bible has something to show us about our own sacred journey of faith.” That being said, it is perfectly normal to have questions about what you read in the Bible, to be puzzled about certain things and bothered by others, and to change your mind on what it means as you delve deeper into these sacred texts. It is the joy of engaging with the divine mystery. (The Bible Tells Me So, pages 7-9)
8. God reveals himself to us through Jesus, the Word of God. The Holy Spirit is our teacher. Our own efforts at understanding accomplish little without the life and breath of the Spirit. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you when you read and study the Bible. “The Bible … isn’t a problem to be fixed. It’s an invitation.” (Peter Enns)

And if you want to practice a little hermeneutics right now, try reading these scriptures, keeping the above principles in mind (questions below based on material by Craig Keener).

Read Psalm 50. Is God’s announcement that He owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” an assurance that He can supply all our needs? (v. 10) Or does it mean something else in this context?

Read Psalm 118. Which day is the “day that the Lord has made” (v. 24) Does the text refer to every day or to a specific day?

Read Romans 10. What is the “word of God” (or, “word of Christ” in most translations) in verse 17? Does it refer to the Bible or to something else?

Happy hermeneuting....Matte

Thursday, January 5, 2017

shiny and new

Image result for azur metro cars
New AZUR metro car. Image from STM. 
It is a new year. Time for new beginnings and all that jazz. I didn't get the sentimentality gene, so I don't experience much sadness when things come to an end. I love a fresh start, a new challenge, and get buzzed by the changing out of old things for new ones. In Montreal, they are slowly switching our old subway cars to brand new, spiffy, updated trains. The original ones are from 1966 when the subway was first built, just in time for Expo 67. The flashy new trains started appearing early last year when they put a few into circulation for some test runs. The sleek silver and blue trains were a rare sight at first, and every time I was privileged to catch one, I sat on the edge of my commuter seat like a kid on a Disney ride.

Over the last few months they have added more new trains, and for awhile there, I seemed to have incredible luck, catching a new train at least 50% of the time I traveled on the subway. It was uncanny. I admit, it made me feel special. I watched the poor people getting on the old trains across the station and I felt sorry for them. I like being on the shiny new trains: they are clean, spacious, have bright lights, sleek lines and swooshy doors, and you can move from one car to the next while in motion. Very fancy. But it appears that my luck has run out. Even though there are more new trains on the tracks than ever, I always seem to be missing them. A few days ago one pulled into the station just as I was leaving. Yesterday one closed its doors just as I was running to catch it. It felt a bit personal. I waited and got on the next train, an old one, and plopped down on a well-worn seat, deflated. Some minutes later we squeaked and rattled into a station and while we were stopped, a new train pulled up right beside us, going the other way. I looked at the people on the shiny train, a bit envious. They seemed happier than the people on my old train. Why wasn't I on that shiny new train? Why did they get to be there while I was stuck here on a tired, dirty train? My bottom lip might actually have protruded a bit.

But then wisdom paid me a visit and gave me a little talk. It went something like this. Do you really want to be on that shiny new train right beside you? Sure, it's lovely to look at and rides smoothly and goes fast and has all the bells and whistles, but where is it going? It is going downtown and you want to go home. The train that you are on, old as it is, is going where you want to go. You don't get on a train because it is new and shiny. You get on a train because it is going where you want to go.

Yep. That's the truth. So I took a moment to think about my fascination with certain shiny new things. Go ahead, do it with me. That shiny new church building or congregation down the road from (y)our old, tired one. That shiny new theology book with a flashy picture of the up and coming author. That shiny new conference which has the internet abuzz. That fabulous new job in a shiny new city at a shiny new university. I soon realized that some of the shiny new things that I gaze at with longing, that leave me feeling left out and left behind, are not going where I want to go. If I did get on that shiny new bandwagon, I would soon find myself at odds with where things were heading.

Now, there is nothing wrong with updating old modes of transportation, or freshening up old church settings, or re-framing and rethinking our liturgies and theologies, or attending popular conferences, or taking new jobs and moving to new places, but the first question must always be, is this going where I want to go? Whether it is an old and sturdy vehicle or a shiny new one, it matters not as long as it is heading toward home.

"And so the end of our way of life is indeed the kingdom of God. But what is the (immediate) goal you must earnestly ask, for if it is not in the same way discovered by us, we shall exhaust ourselves, we shall strive to no purpose, because a man who is traveling in a wrong direction, has all the trouble and none of the good of his journey. ... The end of our profession indeed, as I said, is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven: but the immediate aim or goal, is purity of heart, without which no one can gain that end." - St. John Cassian

Monday, December 5, 2016


Christmas is a time of year when we see traditions being enacted all around us. Traditions, at their best, tell a story. They are meant to be reminders of identity, history, and hard-won values. Unfortunately, traditions can easily become unmoored from their stories. When this happens, the tradition morphs into something else: it may become a hollow act practically devoid of meaning, or it may become associated with a different story, or the story may be revised to reflect a more convenient story. About a month ago, I heard aboriginal women telling the heart-wrenching story of the slaughter and conquest which accompanied the original celebrations of Thanksgiving in America. This inconvenient story has been removed from the tradition in favour of a more sentimental, Euro-centric tale. The tradition changes when the story changes, and we must resist whitewashing the stories associated with our traditions, for doing so causes us to lose our way.

Jesus encountered some very devout traditionalists in his time. The religious leaders dedicated to upholding the Jewish laws and traditions also turned out to be the most resistant to the good news Jesus embodied. For them, the traditions had become separated from the story of a merciful, redeeming, patient, generous God. Instead, the traditions became rigid rules and practices meant to protect and preserve Jewish identity and purity, and as a result, they were blinded to the story of God's loving compassion unfolding right before their eyes.

I did not grow up with a lot of Christmas traditions so I am discovering some of them for the first time, and the stories which they tell are rich and powerful. One example is the Advent wreath. It originated with the Lutherans sometime in the 16th century and was associated with fasting and mindfulness of the second coming of Christ. In the early 1900s it became associated with looking forward to the celebration of Christmas and, over time, symbols and meanings became attached to the tradition. The tradition varies somewhat in the church, but the Advent wreath tells a wonderful, accessible, memorable story of Jesus. Let me show you.

The wreath is a circle, reminding us that God's love has no beginning or end.
The use of evergreen branches is a sign of life in a lifeless winter, pointing to new life and hope of eternal life in Christ (hints of the original meaning behind the wreath).
The candles represent the light of God coming into the world through Jesus, his son. They contrast to the darkness in the world.
The red ribbon on the wreath represents Christ the Redeemer and the blood he shed for us on the cross.
The four candles (one lit each Sunday in Advent) represent a period of waiting. They symbolize four centuries of waiting between the prophet Malachi (Old Testament) and the birth of Christ (New Testament).
The colour of Advent in the liturgical church is purple, meaning that it is a time of waiting and preparation. The colour of Lent, a penitential season, is also purple, but Advent is considered a time of expectation, not repentance. Purple is also traditionally the colour of royalty, because the dye used to produce this colour was originally very rare and expensive and only the elite could afford to wear purple.

The First Candle is purple and is known as the Prophecy Candle, reminding us that God is faithful to keep his promises. The theme for the first Sunday of Advent is HOPE. In Isaiah 9 we read: "A child has been born for us. We have been given a son who will be our ruler. His names will be Wonderful Advisor and Mighty God, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace. His power will never end; peace will last forever. He will rule David’s kingdom and make it grow strong. He will always rule with honesty and justice. The Lord All-Powerful will make certain that all of this is done” (Isaiah 9:6-7, Contemporary English Version). This was written roughly 800 years before Christ was born. The prophecy concerned Jerusalem and Judah who were suffering under an Assyrian attack at the time. This was a message of hope given to a nation who longed for peace and for a righteous ruler. Most likely the people at the time did not fully recognise the messianic overtones in Isaiah's words, but when the writer of Matthew applied it directly to Jesus some 800 years later, Isaiah's message of hope came to life in the person of Christ.

The Second Candle is also purple and is known as the Bethlehem Candle, again reminding us of God's faithfulness and inviting us to be prepared to welcome God into our midst. The theme of the Second Sunday is PEACE. "But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past. The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies until the woman in labor gives birth... And he will stand to lead his flock with the LORD’s strength, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. Then his people will live there undisturbed, for he will be highly honored around the world. And he will be the source of peace…” (Micah 2:2-5, New Living Translation). Here we find a prophecy about a small, humble village being the birthplace of a world-renowned ruler who will bring peace. Again, the original hearers might not have understood the messianic implications, but when we read them today, in hindsight, the many references to the details in the amazing story of Jesus are quite obvious.

The Third Candle is pink and known as the Shepherd Candle. The theme of the third Sunday is JOY and it refers to the joyous good news the shepherds received from the angels. We find the story in Luke 2: "Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, 'Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.' Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 'Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors'" (Luke 2:8-14, Common English Bible). Though the Jews were looking for a messiah who would make things right for them, the story of Jesus is filled with indications that God's mercy and favour extended beyond the nation of Israel. In the angel message here we find mention of "all people" which seems distinctly inclusive to us now, but might not have been taken that way by the original hearers.

The Fourth Candle is purple and is known as the Angel Candle because the angels brought news that God's love had come to the world through the person of Jesus. The theme of the fourth week is LOVE. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won't perish but will have everlasting life" (John 3:16, Common English Bible). These are words spoken by Jesus himself and once again we see expansive words such as "world" and "everyone." This is the very nature of love: to grow, to expand, to overflow, uncontainable and unmeasurable. And this kind of expansive love which reaches even to the lowest of the low is what we see present over and over again in the story of Jesus.

The Centre Candle is white and is called the Christ Candle. It is usually lit on Christmas Eve to indicate that Christ has come, the time of waiting is over. The shift from expectation to excitement is evident in the story of Simeon found in Luke 2: “A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law [dedicate their first child to God]. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said, 'Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.'” (Luke 2:25-32, Common English Bible). Simeon, led by the Spirit, recognised in Jesus the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love which Israel had been longing for. He also saw the expansiveness of God's love and compassion (a light for the Gentiles).

The story of Jesus teaches us that God's salvific work is so much more magnanimous than we had hoped and also so much more humbling than we had anticipated. And that is why it is important to keep telling the story of Jesus, not only in words, but in traditions. Traditions serve as reminders, metaphors, symbols, and spiritual practices which keep us connected to the story of God and reveal to us again and again the divine desire to live in communion with humanity. In telling and re-telling the story of Jesus, the story told in the Advent wreath, we remember that we, too, need a Saviour to restore us to God. We, too, long for someone to come and rescue us. We are reminded to prepare ourselves, because in order to welcome Christ into our lives (our families, our work, our play, our relationships) we need to make space and remove the clutter. This is the message which John the Baptist preached: "Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight" (Mark 1:3). In Advent, we are reminded to minimize the distractions, avoid the detours, remove the obstacles, and make a clear path of welcome for God.

One of the ways we can do this is by making our everyday waiting (in lines, in traffic, in meetings, etc.) a spiritual discipline, an act of worship and devotion. Waiting can be an Advent practice which transforms our self-centred impatience into an act which reminds us of the hundreds of years that Israel waited for someone to come and restore them, to rescue them from their suffering and sin. Another way to practice Advent is to be attentive to stories of waiting and preparation which point use in the direction of hope, peace, joy, and love.[1] Whatever the tradition(s) you participate in this season, may you take the time to remember the story which is connected to the tradition, and find your place in a re-telling and re-living of it.


[1] One such story which has just been made into a movie (Lion) is that of Saloo Brierley. You can read an article of this amazing story of hope, remembering, and perseverance here.

Monday, November 7, 2016

wanted: patience

Image result for patience
Image from
Finish the following phrase: I need patience when....

Your answers might include things like parenting, standing in line, performing some detailed task, losing weight, or going through a hard time. Patience is the ability to wait, to continue doing something despite difficulties, to suffer without complaining or becoming annoyed, to tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.

To illustrate the concept of patience, let me tell you two stories. Here is the first, a mom's story:

"Getting ready and out the door is a chore, as any mom of littles will tell you. No matter how much extra time you allot yourself, it's never enough. It seems those last 10 minutes before leaving are pure and utter chaos. It never fails. Somebody poops right as I step out the door. ... Oops, I forgot to water the dog. It's enough to drive someone mad—at least if that someone is me.

"I like to think I am a good mother. But I know for a fact I have one motherly flaw that protrudes like a plank from my eye: I lack patience. At no time is this flaw more evident than when my girls and I are trying to get out the door to go somewhere. The problem is, I'm an 'arrive on time' kind of girl. Or at least I used to be. Now, with two kids, I rarely reach my destination on time. But the drive to do so still pushes me to run over any obstacles in my path. Even if those obstacles are often my children. Today my 4-year-old, finally strapped down behind her five-point-harness, crying in the back seat, asked me, 'Why are you being so mean to us?' I was buzzing down the road, my eye on the prize of my destination, but in that moment my heart stopped, and I knew I was in the wrong. ... I decided right then and there that enough was enough. I don't want my children to remember their mother always in a hurry or always about to burst from frustration. I want them to remember examples of patience and love." [1]

I must admit that I, too, like to be on time and stick to a schedule. I have been unkind and impatient in the interest of timeliness, and I confess that it is never a pleasant sight. Patience appears in short supply in our fast-paced lives. We are always looking for ways to manage our schedules better, to make things more efficient, to cram more tasks into our already full days. But I believe time management is an elusive and sadly inadequate goal to be pursuing, mostly because it is based on pressure we feel from the culture around us and not on a desire to emulate the character of God.

Let's look at another story, this time in Nehemiah 9. Here the priests are giving instructions to people who are in the process of rebuilding their lives and their city. They have faced a lot of opposition and hardship, and though they have managed to erect an exterior wall, they have a long way to go to complete the project. The leaders call the people together to worship God and confess their sins, and then they tell them a story to put things in perspective. It is the history of God and his people. 

The story begins with God making the earth and everything in it. God is not only the creator but the one who sustains all of creation. Things go a bit sideways when humanity decides to choose their own way instead of God's, but God responds with a way of salvation. God then makes a covenant with Abraham to make him a great nation through which all nations of the world will be blessed. The family of Abraham multiples over generations and rivalries and betrayal enter the story. The growing nation ends up in slavery in Egypt, but God sees their misery and rescues them. God leads the homeless nation through the wilderness, assuring them of his constant presence and care with a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, and miraculous provision of food and water. And how do the people respond?

"But our ancestors resisted following You. They were arrogant. They were proud.
They refused to obey Your commands, plugging their ears. Knowing what You had done for them in the past, they willfully forgot it in the present. Stubborn. Rebellious.
Instead of following You, they appointed their own leader to take them back to the land of their oppression—to Egypt!
But You are not like us, God.
You are filled with love, compassion, and forgiveness.
You endure much with your anger [are slow to anger] and display Your loyal love;" (Nehemiah 9:16-18, The Voice)

To add insult to injury, the rescued nation attributes their miraculous escape from slavery to a golden calf instead of to God. And then they decide that freedom isn't all they had envisioned and they want to go back to their captors. The story goes on to mention the people's horrible atrocities, actions in stark contrast to God's incomprehensible compassion. Despite their terrible behavior, God never abandons them, he never removes the cloud or the pillar of fire, he never stops giving them food or water, and he makes sure their clothes and shoes do not wear out. After forty years, God leads the people into a new land, fertile and productive. And the people react like ungrateful children, refusing to listen, killing the messengers God sends to warn them. So God lets them experience the consequences of their actions and they encounter suffering. In their pain, they cry out to God for help. God listens, and God rescues them. Again.

"Somehow your mercy is inexhaustible...
Over and over and over You intervened and saved Your people...
Year after year, Your patience endured...
It was because of Your great mercy that they were not completely annihilated or forsaken.
You are a grace-filled and mercy-laden God;
Our True God - You who are great, majestic, and awesome, You who always keep your covenant of loyal love... (Nehemiah 9:28-32, The Voice)

The story that the priests tell the people rebuilding the city of Jerusalem highlights the patience and faithfulness of God. No matter how much trouble their ancestors caused, God never abandoned them. He demonstrated his patience and compassion over and over again. This story was meant to encourage the people in the long and difficult task of rebuilding their lives. God's patience was to become the backbone of their patience. 

Our modern world seems to value efficiency over patience and longsuffering, but efficiency is not a fruit of the spirit of God. If there is anything that the history of God and his people demonstrates, it is his indefatigable patience. Might I suggest that we are often impatient with others because we don't realize how patient God is with us. We can be so focused on the chaos in front of us that we don't realize that we are the chaos God has to deal with. And in our arrogance, we dare to accuse God of being slow, of not acting, of not caring, of not listening. God is not ignoring us, he is being patient, but this is a difficult concept for impatient people to grasp. We must resist projecting our experience onto God, and instead, allow God's spirit to inform and transform our experience. 

"Don’t imagine, dear friends, that God’s timetable is the same as ours; as the psalm says, for with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like one day. Now the Lord is not slow about enacting His promise—slow is how some people want to characterize it—no, He is not slow but patient and merciful to you, not wanting anyone to be destroyed, but wanting everyone to turn away from following his own path and to turn toward God’s." (2 Peter 3:8-9, The Voice)
"Do you take the kindness of God for granted? Do you see His patience and tolerance as signs that He is a pushover when it comes to sin? How could you not know that His kindness is guiding our hearts to turn away from distractions and habitual sin to walk a new path?" (Romans 2:4, The Voice)

Let's take a brief look at the words for patience in the scriptures. There is no one word in Hebrew to describe patience. Qavah means to wait, to expect, to bind together (hints of covenant). Khool means to hope for and comes from a root which means "to calve" (hints of the patience and suffering required in giving birth). Erekh ruach means long of spirit and is translated "patience" in the story of Job. In Greek, hupomeno means to remain, to abide, to persevere under misfortunes, to endure, to bear bravely, to hold fast to one's faith. Another Greek work, makrothymia, combines the word long with the word anger, and here we get the idea of being slow to anger, or longsuffering, having forbearance, steadfastness, and staying power.

The idea of "fullness of time"[2] can be explained by thinking about pregnancy (remember khool coming from the root "to calve"). One mother told me that her pregnancy seemed to last forever. But ask that same mother if she would have preferred delivering a premature baby and she would say absolutely not. We want a baby to be fully developed and strong before it enters a harsh world. And that means we don't rush things. We have patience, because a life is at stake.

Let me offer a few final thoughts on patience:
1. Patience is demonstrated to us by a loving, loyal, longsuffering God; we are the benefactors of God's patience every day. Let us never forget this when we are tempted to be impatient with others.
2. God's patient character is meant to be reflected in us, his children. 
3. Patience is a fruit of the Spirit (it takes time to grow).
4. Patience is also something we practice. We have to nurture the seed that God has planted in us.
5. Patience places love and mercy front and centre, not efficiency, not performance, not perfection.
6. Patience is not the same as slowness; patience is discerning God's way and timing and working in sync with them.
7. Patience means embracing God's concept of fullness of time. This means we avoid doing things prematurely, we try not to put things together hastily, but give adequate time for the necessary growth, strengthening, stabilizing, and bonding (remember qavah and its hints of covenant). Fullness of time is the time it takes for fullness to develop. For you coffee drinkers, perhaps it helps to think of instant coffee versus freshly roasted coffee beans, ground and brewed as you wait. For those with a sweet tooth, compare eating a cake pulled out of the oven before it is quite done to waiting till it attains the perfect spongy lightness. 

Next time you find yourself being impatient, you might want to think about fine coffee and yummy cake. And the inexhaustible mercy and longsuffering of our loving God.  


[1] From a blog by Kelcie Huffstickler. You can read the whole story here.
[2] "With immense pleasure, He laid out His intentions through Jesus, a plan that will climax when the time is right (fullness of time) as He returns to create order and unity—both in heaven and on earth—when all things are brought together under the Anointed’s royal rule." (Ephesians 1:9-10, The Voice)

Monday, October 3, 2016

time for catechesis

Catechesis (noun): educating and instructing people in life as followers of Jesus and members of the body of Christ. Stated another way, catechesis is spiritual formation, and it doesn't happen just once in a few classes which prepare us for baptism or official church membership. No, catechesis happens all the time. [1] We are being formed and shaped every day of our lives by the culture and society in which we are immersed, by our family and friends, by what we look at, listen to, read, pay attention to, participate in (say Yes to), and indirectly by what we ignore, refuse, unplug from, and say No to.

The question is not if we are involved in spiritual formation, but by what we are being formed and shaped. Leonardo Boff, a theologian from Brazil, observes that, "Each type of society tends to produce a religious representation suited to it. ... Thus, in a capitalist society - which is based on individual performance, private accumulation of goods, and the predominance of the individual over the social - the representation of God usually accentuates the fact that God is one alone, Lord of all, all-powerful, the source of all power." [2] As a result of our emphasis on the potential of the individual, our Western ideas of God are often reduced to a divine being who aids us in personal success and well-being.

Take a look at the Hebrew Bible. Much of it is set in a tribal context where factions are warring against each other; it is a world of "conquer or be conquered." It is no surprise, then, that Israel's stories are filled with imagery of a warring God, of a God who defeats all other gods, who is superior in battle, who crushes the enemy. However, adopting a view of God based in large part on our social context is problematic, because it makes culture our source of revelation and knowledge instead of God himself. In other words, we are shaping God according to our context instead of allowing God to shape or catechize us. This must change. The God who reveals himself as the trinitarian God should be catechizing our ideas of society, of church, of life as disciples of Jesus. Our ideas of community must come from a communal, unified God. Our ideas of leadership must come from a participatory, serving God. Our ideas about mission must come from an outward-facing, welcoming God.

In the Hebrew Bible, one of the names of God is Elohim. This is a plural noun which is, for the most part, used with a singular verb. Here we have a Person who is communal yet unified in purpose. And this should catechize us. Boff states: "If God means three divine Persons in eternal communion among themselves, then we must conclude that we also, sons and daughters are called to communion. We are image and likeness of the Trinity. Hence we are community beings." [3] There is a multiplicity inherent in the Godhead, but the three Persons are so comingled, so united in love, that they are a single God. Wherever you see the Father, you see the Son. Wherever you see the Son, you see the Creator. Wherever you see the Creator, you see the Spirit at work. The Greek word perichoresis is an attempt to explain the interaction between the Persons of the Godhead. In its simplest form, it means circle dance, a movement of persons where each one dwells in the other. It is a mystery of inclusion which "prevents us from understanding one Person without the others." [4]

The Trinity is often spoken about in terms of the Immanent Trinity (God related to Godself, the interior life of God) and the Economic Trinity (God related to creation, to the world). This is a way of distinguishing who God is from what God does, but in truth, the two are inseparable. Take a look at the picture of Scottish circle dancers below. Pick out one of the dancers and, in your imagination, erase everyone else from the picture. What that solitary dancer is doing makes no sense apart from all the others. They must be viewed as a whole.

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We cannot separate who God is from what God does. Neither can we separate the Creator or the Father from the other Persons in the circle dance. In the creation accounts in Genesis 1:1-3, we find the Creator God, we find the Word of God, and we find the breath or spirit of God. One does not make sense without the others because they are in perfect unity. Likewise, the Creator does not make sense without creation (who God is and what God does are inseparable). In the account of Jesus's baptism, we find the Son submitting himself to a ritual of cleansing, the Father speaking words of love, and the Spirit alighting on the Son. The Father is not a Father without the Son, and the birth of Jesus in human form is made possible through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1). Where you see one, you see the others. Jesus said if you saw him, you saw the Father (John 14:9). The Spirit does not speak on his/her own initiative, but only what the Spirit hears from Jesus (John 16:13-14; 1 John 5:6).

Leonardo Boff explains the implications of a trinitarian God: "Believing in the Trinity means that at the root of everything that exists and subsists there is movement; there is an eternal process of life, of outward movement, of love. Believing in the Trinity means that truth is on the side of communion rather than exclusion; consensus translates truth better than imposition; the participation of many is better than the dictate of a single one. Believing in the Trinity means accepting that everything is related to everything and so makes up one great whole, and that unity comes from a thousand convergences rather than from one factor alone.” [6]

So what does this mean for us practically? I have a few suggestions.

1. Read the Bible with an eye for community and unity. Look for the Trinity to appear in the stories, in the poetry, in the prophecies, in the letters. It is amazing how you will see the Persons of the Godhead popping up everywhere in the scriptures once your focus is on communion instead of looking for personal blessings, or rules to follow, or reassurance that God is on your side.
2. Make an intentional effort to be formed by trinitarian thinking and acting. Observe how often your thoughts or actions veer toward separation instead of unity, to "us and them" instead of "we," to binary thinking instead of creative collaboration, to self-determination instead of "better together," to reinforcing isolation instead of fostering communion. Then pray and ask God to transform this fractured way of being.
3. Engage in something communal right now. Talk to someone. Say hi to a neighour. Pick up the phone and call a person who has been on your mind. Plan an outing together with friends or, better yet, those whom you don't usually hang out with. Get outside of your own head, your own agenda, your own ingrained, comfortable habits, and engage with the world. Not to critique (which is separation) but to foster community (unity). Get out there and give your best self to the world.“For there to be true communion there must be direct and immediate relationships: eye to eye, face to face, heart-to-heart. The results of mutual surrender and reciprocal communion is community. Community results from personal relationships in which each is accepted as he or she is, each opens to the other and gives the best of himself or herself.” [5]

Being shaped by the Trinity means that we allow the communal God to change our way of seeing the world, the church, and ourselves. It means that we become part of a movement toward unity instead of separation. It means that we surrender any ideas and ideals we have adopted from our society and culture and adopt the larger purposes of the trinitarian God. It means that we leave competition, domination, and self-realization behind in order to pursue communion and life together. "We come from the Trinity, from the heart of the Father, the intelligence of the Son, and the love of the Holy Spirit. We are journeying in pilgrimage toward the reign of the Trinity, which is total communion and eternal life.” [6]

Amen. May it be so.

[1] Robin Parry talks about this idea in a short, 2-1/2 minute video. You can watch it here.
[2] Leonardo Boff, Holy Trinity, Perfect Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), xi.
[3] Ibid., 2.
[4] Ibid., 14.
[5] Ibid., 3.
[6] Ibid., 7.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

the great and radical co-mission of Jesus

Image result for mission
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Mission. The word conjures up all types of image in my mind. I went to a Bible college which emphasized missions. We had missions prayer groups, missions conferences, ex-missionaries who taught us, and traveling missionaries who spoke in chapel. Many of my fellow classmates went on to what was called the mission field, to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in another culture in a far away land.

The word mission is also used in the corporate world to refer to the overall purpose of a company. A well-written mission statement accurately reflects what the company spends its energies on. Can you guess whose mission statement this is? "To be the Earth's most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online." That's Amazon. How about this one? "To make the world more open and connected." Yes, that's Faceboook. One more: "Saving people money so they can live better." If you guessed Walmart, you got it right.

A mission is like an arrow. Because it has a specific focus, it points us in a certain direction and sets us on a certain trajectory. Its specificity makes it easier to make decisions as we go along (is this in line with our mission or not?) and helps us evaluate if we have gone off-track.

When Christians speak about mission, Matthew 28:18-20 is often cited. Here, the resurrected Jesus is talking to his disciples. "I am here speaking with all the authority of God, [who has commanded Me to give you this commission]: Go out and make disciples in all the nations. Ceremonially wash them through baptism in the name of the [triune] God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then disciple them. [Form them in the practices and postures that] I have taught you and show them how to follow the commands I have laid down for you. And I will be with you, day after day, to the end of the age." (The Voice, bracketed words added by translators).

There are two things I would like to mention concerning this passage. The first has to do with the radical, upside-down nature of Jesus's words, and to see this we have to look at the beginning of the book. The first chapter of Matthew contains the genealogy of Jesus, no surprise there. What is of particular interest is the mention of exile as an important marker: "So all generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations. Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way..." (Matthew 1:17-18, NRSV). The writer is setting up a particular way of introducing Jesus, and it has to do with God's promise to Abraham (a chosen nation with their own land) and God's promise to David (the establishment of a kingdom and a godly king), and the end of living in exile. [1]

When Jesus comes on the scene, Israel is in a type of exile (under foreign rule), and they expect a Davidic messiah to correct the problem, to restore Israel by reclaiming their land and liberating them from their oppressors. Peter Enns notes: "Matthew's genealogy is creatively and carefully crafted to present Jesus as Israel's long-awaited deliverer - descended from David, who will bring an end to the exile and restore the land promised long ago to Abraham." [2] However, as the story unfolds, Jesus makes it clear that he is not here for a political revolution, not here to reclaim land and overthrow evil despots. This is jarring to Jewish ears. For generations the people of Israel have envisioned messiah as a political liberator. Surprisingly, the kingdom of which Jesus speaks is not the Davidic empire, but one where the poor, the meek, and the persecuted are star citizens.

The closest ones to Jesus, his disciples (who were supposed to be learning his ways), found this shift almost impossible to grasp. In Matthew 20, Jesus tells them he is going to die, and their response is to fight about who will sit next to him when he sets up his rule (or rather, to get their mother to broach the sensitive topic). Peter Enns observes that the disciples are not talking loftily about heaven here, but showing that they are still stuck on a political messiah, a here and now kingdom set up in Jerusalem. Jesus responds to the request by correcting the disciples' presuppositions, re-framing what it means to rule by stating that the messiah did not come to be served but to serve.

And then comes the book's surprise ending: instead of restoring Israel's land and kingdom, instead of ending the exile once and for all, Jesus turns exile into mission. "This is how Israel's exile comes to an end for Matthew - not by restoring Israel's kingdom as in the days of David. Rather, Jerusalem and the land of Israel are no longer God's focal point. The disciples are to leave their land and make disciples from all nations, teaching them to follow Jesus and what he ... commanded, spreading the word of a different kind of kingdom and a different kind of king." [3] This calls for a radical change of mindset. Instead of focusing on a cozy, comfortable, homogeneous nation state, Jesus tells his disciples to turn their focus outward, to the world beyond their own borders. Jesus redefines pretty much everything the Jews thought they knew about kingdom, messiah, salvation, and mission.

Second, I want to draw attention to the verbs in Matthew 28:18-20. Though many like to emphasize the word, "Go," in this passage, it is actually a participle (poreuthentes), and the main verb is "make disciples." In the New Testament, poreuthentes is often used together with other verbs: go and report, go and show, go and search, go and learn, go and do, go and buy. Go implies movement in order to accomplish a certain task. I like the phrase which the translators of The Voice have added in order to expound on the idea of making disciples: "Form them in the practices and postures that I have taught you." To pinpoint the practices that Jesus exemplified, I turn to another familiar passage. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." (John 3:16-17, NRSV) Again, notice the verbs here. What does God do? He loves. He gives. He does not condemn but saves and helps. And these are the practices and postures we teach when we make disciples of Jesus: we love, we give, we do not condemn, but help.

In short, a mission can be thought of as the words which come after the phrase "so that..." In God's covenant with Abram, God promises to bless him and make him a great nation SO THAT all the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12). In John 3, Jesus tell us that God loves and gives SO THAT everyone may be rescued and participate in the life of God. This is where the arrow of God's mission points: to the loving, generous redemption of the whole of creation.

May we set aside our self-centred presuppositions and expectations of what it means for God to bless us and save us, and let us be true disciples of Jesus by joining him in loving, giving, and helping the world instead of condemning it. That is our mission, should we choose to accept it.

[1] Credit to Peter Enns for this observation.
[2] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So...: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 208.
[3] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 209.

Monday, August 8, 2016

podcasts, pond water, and an orange cat (kingdom sightings)

Green leaf under microscope
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The significance of the small things is a theme I keep bumping into these days. Here are a few vignettes from the past week.

Vignette one: I have started listening to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell called Revisionist History in which he reinterprets something from the past, be it an event, a person, or an idea, something which he believes has been overlooked or misunderstood. This morning at the gym I listened to Gladwell's take on educational philanthropy. Referencing a book by economists Chris Anderson and David Sally called The Numbers Game, Gladwell differentiates between a mentality which focuses on cultivating superstars and a mentality which seeks to strengthen the weakest team members. Using the game of soccer as an example, Anderson and Sally show that a team which spends money on upgrading its weakest players will score a lot more goals than a team who acquires a star player.

In 1992, businessman Henry Rowan gave a record $100 million gift to Glassboro State College, a small, publicly funded institution in New Jersey which was almost broke. It was the first donation of its kind. It inspired other philanthropists to give large donations to institutions of higher learning, but there was one difference. Almost without fail, the large sums of money ($100 million or more) given after Rowan's landmark donation went to prestigious, well-endowed universities, institutions who had no shortage of cash or resources. Gladwell was particularly critical of Philip Knight's (co-founder of Nike) $400 million donation to Stanford in 2015, earmarked for a new program meant to recruit the best and brightest graduate students. Gladwell says, "I understand the people who give money to those who need money. The people who give money to those who already have all the money they need, I don't understand that. What are they thinking?" And yet, the president of Stanford would never consider turning away a donation in order to benefit another school who really needed the money.

Vignette two: For the past few weeks, I have been reading Annie Dillard's feast of a book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard spent a year observing and documenting life on a small parcel of land next to a creek. She watched birds fly, bugs crawl, frogs leap, and studied the small specks of life in pond water. She collected chrysalis and looked at leaves under microscopes. She noted the extravagance of minutiae present in nature: "The creator ... churns out the intricate texture of least works that is the world with a spendthrift genius and an extravagance of care. That is the point." [1] Indeed. And it is a point we often miss in a culture of capitalism and consumerism. We tend to equate smallness with insignificance, but creation itself defies this simplistic reduction. Bigger is not better, not by a long shot.

Vignette three: Professor Jay McDaniel of Hendrix College in Arkansas tells the following story: "Two years ago I was looking out my window and saw the second coming of Christ. It only lasted fifteen seconds, but was impressive. It came in the form of an action undertaken by my next door neighbor, a fifteen year old teenager named Matthew. Matthew has no readily identifiable religious affiliation. He does not attend church, pray before meals, or read the Bible. If Matthew has a religion it is rock and roll. He once told me music is the closest thing he knows to God; I understood him perfectly. It is one of the closest things I know to God, too.

"Something I admire about Matthew is his belief in kindness. Looking outside I saw a very old orange cat crossing the street in front of Matthew's house. The cat was limping slowly as a car full of teenagers was coming very fast. They would have hit the cat if Matthew hadn't stepped in front of them, put out his hand signaling stop, and picked up the cat, taking her across the street petting her along the way. I know this cat very well because she belongs to my family. Matthew was my cat's savior. ... Matthew's act of kindness missed the evening news. The news that day concerned violent deaths in Pakistan. That night when I laid down I had two images in my imagination: one of blood and tears coming from the fact of a Pakistani woman and one of Matthew saving the cat." [3]

The question McDaniel asks is this: which of the two events he witnessed that day is more significant? The fact that he associates Matthew's small act of kindness with the second coming of Christ tells you which way he leans. In the small act of saving of an old orange cat, McDaniel saw the kingdom of God come to earth. Jesus often pointed out the small things to his disciples, urging them to take note of their significance in the kingdom: seeds, flowers, grass, little children, and sparrows. One day when Jesus was in the temple with his disciples, he observed the wealthy giving large sums of money and a poor widow giving two small coins. [4] He drew special attention to the widow because in her deed, he identified the kingdom of God. The disciples found it difficult to wrap their minds around the nature of the kingdom of God. We with our modern, progressive, "be all you can be" mindsets are no different. We are slow to detect the coming of Christ and his kingdom because we find it hard to believe that the first will be last and the last will be first.

If you look at the context of the widow's story, you see that Jesus is critiquing the religious leaders for increasing their own standing at the expense of the underprivileged, especially the widows. "Watch out for the scribes who act so religious—who like to be seen in pious clothes and to be spoken to respectfully in the marketplace, who take the best seats in the synagogues and the place of honor at every dinner, who spend widows’ inheritances and pray long prayers to impress others. These are the kind of people who will be condemned above all others." (Mark 12, 38-40, The Voice) This brings me back to Gladwell's critique of philanthropists who give to those who already have more than enough, an act which makes little sense when you think about it. So why do they do it? In large part because they want to be associated with the most prestigious universities, with the superstars, and not with the weak and needy.

I am challenged by this call to strengthen the weak, to glory in the small and seemingly insignificant, to resist the lure of being associated with the best and the brightest. Who wouldn't want a postdoctoral position at Princeton? Who wouldn't want a job at University of Notre Dame or Columbia? And yet, there are small colleges and universities that I have never heard of where I would undoubtedly make a bigger difference, because there I would have the opportunity to strengthen the weak (instead of hanging out with superstars).

Spirit of the Most High God, forgive me for my attachment to bigness, superstars, prestige, winning, and fame. Let me learn to see the kingdom of God in its hidden, mysterious, humble appearances. Let me delight in pond water more than in gold, and may a single green leaf captivate me more than fancy clothes and slick performances. Amen.


[1] Malcom Gladwell, "My Little Hundred Million," Revisionist History, episode 6. Podcast.
[2] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: HarperPerennial, 1974), 128.
[4] I wrote more on the widow and her offering at my personal blog: The Sound of Two Small Coins