Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Dictation & Inspiration In The Letters Of Paul

When we think of Paul authoring his New Testament epistles -- whether it's the theological tour de force of Romans or the personal plea of Philemon -- we typically envision him in this posture:

Alone with his thoughts and his God, pen in hand, parchments on desk, and, of course, Spirit hovering somewhere over the entire process.

Except that's not what it looked like.  At all.  Instead, it likely resembled this:

In chains.  Or a dungeon.  Or both.  But even more importantly: with a scribe.  The evidence strongly suggests that Paul dictated his letters and faithful scribes wrote them down and prepared them for delivery.

Most NT scholars use a more elegant term for scribe:  amanuensis.  That sounds so much more official, doesn't it?  So from here on, amanuensis it is!

For example, Paul's amanuensis in the letter to the Romans actually identifies himself in 16:22:

 I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to listen to those sixteen chapters and capture both the flow and the intensity of Paul's argument?

In other correspondence, Paul goes to some lengths to identify literally when he takes the pen from his amanuensis to sign his own name.  For example, see Colossians 4:18:  I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

Similarly, 2 Thessalonians 3:17:  I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write.

Or even Galatians 6:11, where Paul's long-assumed vision problems come to the surface of his writing:
See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!

The most interesting place to see the dictation process at work is in the opening chapter of I Corinthians.  Paul is angry and frustrated as the letter begins -- the Corinthians have divided into factions, based primarily on the personality of preachers they admire (wow, not much has changed, has it?), and both bitterness and licentiousness are the result.

So in the middle of his rebuke -- and I can see him pacing around the room while his amanuensis struggles to keep up -- Paul expresses relief in 1:14-15 that his baptismal work in Corinth was minimal:
14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name.

Then, as he paces and pontificates, he stops short with a memory: by jove, I DID baptize some other folks!  So he pauses mid-sentence and dictates the following:

 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.)

It's an aside, an oh-by-the-way, a parenthetical statement -- which is why English translations use parentheses! -- that shows us the beautifully human way that biblical texts were divinely inspired.  Paul, in the throes of his rhetoric confesses to a faulty memory (Oh yeah! Those Stephanas people!  And maybe some others but I don't remember!), and the faithful amanuensis gets it all down.

Does this window into the process make the bible somehow less inspired?  May it never be.

In my way of thinking, imagining the process elevates the inspiration by making it more human, and therefore more accessible.

Muslims contend that the Koran is straight dictation -- all God, no Mohammed as a filter at all.

The Christian conception of the bible is quite different.  We believe the God-breathed message of the Word gets delivered most compellingly through the passions and personalities of  the various authors.  

Because if God can take a curmudgeon like Paul and turn him into a composer of inspired texts, imagine what he can do with you and me.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Top Five Tuesday -- Top Five Benefits To Reading The Bible As Library, Not As Book

As one of my friends reminded me, I preached a lot last week.

Three times on one Sunday, followed by four night-time sermons at the Pleasant Grove Camp Meeting, followed by three times again the next Sunday.  That is actually more times than anyone should ever be allowed to hear the sound of their own voice in a given week.

But I did it.  And before each of those ten sermons, I gave some version of our Good Shepherd mantra:  The bible is not a book; it's a library, a collection of books. We believe it's a library unlike any other library on earth in that its words are God-breathed and therefore filled with eternity & truth.

So: I heard myself say that a lot.  But in the aftermath of my preach-a-palooza, I caught my breath and began thinking of some of the benefits of reading the bible as a library and not as a book.

There are many . . . but here are my top five:

1.  You don't read it CONSECUTIVELY.   No one would ever go to the public library, find the first book in the Dewey Decimal system and read through every book there from the 000s to the 900s.  That's absurd even to contemplate.  Yet that's exactly what we do with the bible:  open it to Genesis and figure we're going to read all the way through Revelation. Most folks are done by Leviticus.  Such usage is completely alien to the bible's composition and arrangement.  Remember: the books in Scripture were written at least 1500 years before the printing press was even invented, so the idea that they would be collected between two leather covers was inconceivable to the authors.

2.  You don't have to read it literally OR symbolically.  You read it LITERARILY.  In the public library, you read the books in the Auto Mechanic section differently than you do books in the poetry section.  You read biographies differently than you read novels.  You adjust your interpretation and understanding of those books according to the type of writing they represent.  The books in the bible are no different.  When you understand types of literature, for example, you realize that Genesis 1 is making no claims at measurable science; it is instead making glorious claims about immeasurable theology -- and doing so in the form of a hymn.  Turn to I Kings, however, and you're getting something else: Israel's sordid, scandalous history, with all the warts exposed.  And who knows?  In the elusive books of Job and Jonah, do we have the bible's section of novellas?

3.  Figuring out literary types within Scripture is why it helps to read in COMMUNITY.  And by "in community," I don't mean solely within LifeGroups, though that is definitely the place to start.  I don't even mean a class taught by our own James-Michael Smith, though that's another great place to start.  By "community" I also mean the collected wisdom of the centuries as men and women have first studied the texts and then written commentaries on them.  If you feel like you have an insight into a passage that no one else has ever had before . . . it's probably because your interpretation has been considered previously and regarded as off the mark.  Our biblical community has both continuity and congruency.

4. Each book has its own AUTHORITY.  When you understand that Scripture is a library, you are freed from the burden of harmonizing books that don't have much harmony.  You can allow each text to breath its own truth.  The book of Proverbs, for example, contains some very different messages than the book of Ecclesiastes.  Don't force agreement into a place where debate was likely intended.  In the same way, the Gospel of John is dramatically different in style and chronology than Matthew, Mark, and Luke; you rob John of his purpose and power when you try to make it fit neatly within the framework of the other three.  Let John be John . . . and give him the authority to tell Jesus' story in his unique manner.

5.  Speaking of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the bible's BIOGRAPHY section only has one subject: Jesus.  In this case, Scripture is the opposite of a public library.  In the library's biography section, there are volumes on all kinds of people, from the famous to the infamous.  The bible has four books in its biography section, but only one subject: the One we know, appropriately enough, as the Word.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Elijah's Jim Valvano Moment: The "Lost Hope" Sermon Recap

I have been more than grateful for the impact that the Lost And Found series has had on people's lives at Good Shepherd.

People are finding themselves deep inside Elijah's story, and as a result they are also discovering the kind of practical healing that the prophet himself received.

Nowhere was that more true than yesterday's message, "Lost Hope."   It's a message, as you will see, in which Elijah longs for the same kind of celebration that Jim Valvano ran around the court looking for in 1983.  Yet instead of laudatory hugs, Elijah gets his second fatwa in only three chapters.

How he loses his hope -- and finds it again -- is the subject of the rest of the message.  It lands at one of my favorite bottom lines ever:  God won't do FOR you what he needs to do WITH you.


Isn’t it true that there are times when we’ve had enough?  Our parents said that to us, didn’t they?  We’d push all their buttons, we were persistently disobedient and out it came:  “I’ve HAD ENOUGH of you young man!”  Or “I’ve HAD ENOUGH of your lip, young lady!”  And that phrase sunk into us so deeply – whether or not it was the prelude to some kind of , um, corporal punishment – that to our horror we have heard ourselves saying the same thing to our kids when they push our buttons.  The very thing we promised we’d never be, we’ve become.  I’ve HAD ENOUGH!  We get frustrated with, angry at, people & situations & politicians & preachers and we collectively have HAD ENOUGH.

            But you know not all of that energy is directed externally.  Sometimes the thing we’ve had enough of is us.  Issues and struggles.  Some of you reach that place where you’ve had enough of your marriage.  Or you’ve had enough of that chronic pain in your back.  You’ve had enough of losing your temper.  You’ve had enough of being single.  You’ve had enough of compulsive, self-destructive behavior.  Yeah, there’s a whole lot of people I know who’ve HAD ENOUGH and the target is us.

            And saddest of all are the people who have had enough of life itself.  The obstacles are so steep and the burdens are so heavey that you’ve had enough of living.  You lose any hope that I could possibly get any better.  The marriage won’t heal, the kids won’t be functional, the body won’t respond, the eviction notice arrived, and you just see no way out.  Where today is so dark that there is no way tomorrow can have any light at all.  Some of you have been there, some of you are headed there, and others are there right now.  Why you came to church.            Did you know that kind of hopelessness moves about 765K ppl a year to attempt suicide and 30K to succeed?  So sad.

            Which is really nothing new.  That place of hopelessness and even that death wish is exactly where we find Elijah in I K 19: He’s had enough – enough of life, enough of opposition, he’s lost hope and he wants to die.  Here’s the deal: it’s about 750 BC, the children of Israel are divided into two, Elijah is a prophet to the Northern half, called Israel, and Israel has been over-run with worship of a certain idol called Baal.  When Elijah came on the scene, he predicted  a drought, it happened, he survived a fatwa by fleeing, then he returns home and stages a contest between the idol Baal and the living God on Mt. Carmel, which is Baal’s home court.  And Elijah wins a victory for the Lord! Dramatic, decisive, definitive.  So in the aftermath of that great moment, he’s like Jim Valvano running around looking for someone to hug (check the first 15 seconds of this clip)

expecting to be carried down the mountain on the shoulders of his adoring fans.  Total euphoria that demands a hero’s welcome.

            Except that’s not what happens.  Look at 19:1: 

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.

Can you imagine that conversation?  Ahab has his tail between his legs, he is Jay Pritchett to Jezebel’s Gloria (AV w/ knife?) and it really is no contest.  Jezebel, whose name means “Where is Baal”; SAY IT WITH A DEEP SOUTHERN ACCENT AND YOU'LL SEE WHAT I MEAN; comes up with her own way of “celebrating” Elijah’s win: 

 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”

Ugh.  He expects praise, anticipates a parade, and he receives a death threat.  His second fatwa in 3 chapters!  So look at 19:3a: 

 Elijah was afraid[a] and ran for his life.

 I love the irony: he runs for his life . . . the same life he is shortly going to ask to be taken from him.

            So look next at 19:3b-4: 

When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said.

And there it is.  I’VE HAD ENOUGH, LORD!!  I’m not gonna take it anymore!   Isn’t it true that many of us are more vulnerable after prosperity than we are in the middle of adversity?  When we fly high we fall hard.  I know it’s that way for me.  I remember that time after Easter – record attendance, big head, euphoric celebration – I checked my mail and there was every preacher’s worst nightmare: AN ANONYMOUS LETTER.  It wasn’t kicking me when I was down; it was sabotaging me when I was up!  Yeah all around, be the most watchful and attentive after success because that’s when you become complacent, self-reliant, and even cocky.  Elijah’s expectations were so high and the disappointment so great that he saw no way tomorrow could have any light in it at all. So he’d HAD ENOUGH.

            Which leads to the worst prayer in the bible: 

“Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

 Wow.  The “had enough” pile on top of each other, the weight becomes unbearable, and Elijah wants to end it all.  And although it is the worst prayer in the bible, I’m really glad it’s here.  Because I know some of you have prayed it.  Or you are praying it.  Hope is gone because the marriage is over, the job market is closed, the voices are still in your head, the pain is relentless, so it seems there is no way out except to get out.  Take my life. Do it now.  Instantly.  Painlessly.  Fix it, take it, do it.  I’m tired of being responsible for it.

            That’s you.  And that was Elijah.  Except look what happens in 19:5b-6: 

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

Hey: MAJOR UPGRADE from having ravens deliver your food!  I’ll take an messenger of God over a scavenger of carrion anyday!  And in case you missed it the first time, the same thing happens in 19:7-8a: 

 The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank.

And the repetition is the key. The answer to this painfully large prayer is massively small:  bread, water, and a bed.  Elijah wants a snap answer, a quick fix, and God grants the start of a slow process – bread, water, bed.  As if recovering hope can never be a matter of great leaps, but always involve small steps. 

            But it’s the double command:  Get up and eat (19:5, 7) that I love the most. You notice what God’s representative does?  Puts the burden back on  Elijah  God sent the provision but Elijah has to act on it to receive it.  It’s not like the messenger put an IV line in and E will receive nourishment whether he wants it or not.  He had to act.  He had to own.  He wanted to be totally passive – wanted God to do something instantaneous for him. Either kill him or make him all better in a snap.  But instead God gives a task, a massively small task:  Get up & eat.  I’m sending bread, water, and a bed but you gotta get up and take advantage of what I’m providing.  And so you know what the repeated command tells me, all of you who’ve lost hope and want God to send a quick, thorough fix?  God won’t do FOR you what he needs to do WITH you.  

            He’ll only give you what you are willing to “own.”  If he had delivered (or killed!) a thoroughly passive Elijah from the season of hopelessness, the same situation would have recurred again.  Elijah had to assume some responsibility for his own healing, even if it was as small as getting up, eating, and then doing it again! for the healing to endure.  The recovery of hope is not one great leap, it’s many small steps, but you have to take them.  God won’t do FOR you what he needs to do WITH you.  

            Elijah prays for this instantaneous deliverance and God in reply starts a process.  Do the next right, healthy thing, Elijah.  I’ll provide the tools, you take the steps.  I could do it all for you but that would not grow you.  I want to do it with you.  It’s the concept of Toxic Charity applied to how God relates to us!  God is not going to restore hope for Elijah; he will restore it with him.  God won’t do FOR you what he needs to do WITH you.  

            You know why I really believe this?  Because some people here have lost all hope . . . and you like it that way.  Some folks don’t WANT to get well.  They like the notoriety, the attention, the helplessness.  It’s a learned state and they’ve learned it well.  They nurse their own helplessness; it’s like their security blanket.  Some people are not happy unless they are unhappy – and if they find themselves temporarily happy – or hopeful – they will conjure up a way to revert to unhappiness & hopelessness.  You know people like this.  You might have been raised by someone like this. But you just realized in a flash that, “that’s me!”  You’re not happy unless you’re unhappy; you’re not well unless you’re sick.  And that’s why God’s not delivering you from it.  Because you aren’t partnering with him! You’re whimpering before him!  God won’t do FOR you what he needs to do WITH you.  

            Our recovery friends talk about “spiritual bypass.”  Where people walk into AA or a pastor’s office and want a ZAP and all of a sudden no more alcohol cravings.  Alcoholism healed and hope restored.  Now I have seen that happen. Like once.  Compared to a million people I know who need to walk all the steps.  God needs to invite you to ownership, into a process, one in which you take massively small steps, each one full of meaning while appearing insignificant.  It’s a bit like what we say around here when it comes to pastoral counseling of people:  it can’t mean more to you (counselor) than it does to them.  I love what Thomas Edison said about the light bulb:  I never failed once.  I invented the light bulb.  It just happened to be a 2,000 step process.   Finding the hope you’ve lost will likely be the same.  Not 1 step.  Maybe not even 12.  Maybe as many as 2000. Partnering with God, not passive before him. God won’t do FOR you what he needs to do WITH you.  

            I’ve told many of you before of how I went through a season where I wanted either a) leave ministry and work in landscaping (genius at an edger!) or b) get a job at a small church w/ less responsibility.  Pretty heavily settled despair.  You know how I was delivered from it?  When I kept getting up in the morning, coming to work, preparing sermons, and visiting people. No quick fix.  Just a thousand small, not very glamorous steps.  And a couple of years later I was like “Oh!  I don’t feel like crap anymore!”  What will that look like for you?  How will you move to a with God instead of for you?  Is it the appointment with that therapist?  Is it following through on your intention to go to a fitness center?  Because you know the health of your body is completely connected to the health of your spirit.  Is it quitting smoking?  And how much of a blessing will that be to your finances?!  Is it simply getting up, going to work, and realizing that in the middle of all these little things that a right, God brings healing and hope?  I know one thing it can be, easily, this week: use the Daily Readings.  They are about hope this week. Follow them.  It’s not glamorous.  It is beautiful.  God is giving you bread, water, and bed.  Get up & eat.  God won’t do FOR you what he needs to do WITH you. 

            Because look at where Elijah ends up in 19:8: 

 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.

He ends up at Horeb, also known to most as Sinai, the mountain of God.  Look where his journey has taken him: from Carmel the home of Baal to Horeb the mountain of the Lord.  Home of the Ten Commandments, home of Moses, summer home of Charlton Heston.  But that’s what happens, isn’t it?  When you’re not passively demanding God do things for you, but taking ownership of your own journey, he works with you and brings you not only into hope but back to home.  And you just can’t get enough of that.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Lost And Found, Week 3 -- Lost Hope

Back against the wall.

Feel like giving up.

No good options.

Had enough.

Whatever the cliche, you feel like the guy in the picture when you stop believing that tomorrow will be any better than today.

It's where some of you are.

It's also where Elijah found himself -- ironically, not long after his great triumph at Mt. Carmel.

So what happened next?

That's for Sunday.

8:30.  10.  11:30.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

How The #UMC Is Like Donny & Marie Osmond


You're thinking that the Osmonds are Mormons for goodness sake, and no matter how much theological latitude we allow in the United Methodist Church, we're not that.

Except that's not what the post is about.

Instead, many local United Methodist congregations pattern their church lives after this D & M classic:

Ah, a little bit country and a little bit rock & roll.

Or, in our case, a little bit contemporary and a little bit traditional.

A little bit modern and a little bit Methodist.

A little bit current and a little bit classic.

And the result of local UMCs who try to be all things to all people?  Who may add a guitar but complement it with just the right color of liturgical parament?  Who might stray from the lectionary but will never NOT do communion on the first Sunday of a month?

When you are a little bit of everything there is a danger of becoming a whole lot of nothing.  Which is another way of saying a church with a split identity.

Now: there are a handful of congregations who navigate these waters well.  They usually have long-tenured leaders who have both wisdom and imagination.

It's much more common, however, for local congregations who attempt to be both Donnie AND Marie to have an ongoing identity crisis:  Who are we?  What is our focus?  What is our strategy?  Is it more about preserving Methodism or reaching people with the Gospel?  The identity crises are apparent in architecture, interior design, church programming, and even leadership styles.

The majority of healthy UMCs I know have real clarity around their character and style.  Some are thoroughly traditional in worship and unapologetically Methodist in emphasis.  Others are modern in style and tend to downplay denomination so that it won't get in the way of Jesus.

Neither of those approaches is right

Both, however, are clear.

And in a world full of competing voices -- in a world with both country and rock & roll! -- clarity is vital for impact.

So -- what is it, #UMC?  Country?  Or rock & roll?  Please choose ONE.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Family Snapshot

Here is our family in a snapshot taken on a recent beach vacation:

There I am on the far left.

To my left is our 24-year-old daughter Taylor who graduated from Vanderbilt in 2011 and now lives in Atlanta where she works as an Account Manager in a public relations firm.

Next is our 21-year-old son Riley who this fall will begin his senior year at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  This summer he is interning at a church near that campus called Love Chapel Hill.

And then Julie.  The trip in which we are pictured was actually to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary.  In other words, when we got married, Ronald Reagan was president, Thriller was at the top of the charts, and mullets were in style.  Thirty years later, well, Julie is a Vice-President of Sales for a medical device firm with a worldwide reach.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Top Five Tuesday -- Top Five REM Songs

If you were at Good Shepherd this past Sunday, you know what we launched our worship gathering with a terrific rendition of REM's Losing My Religion.

How else could we possibly begin a service with the overall title of "Lost Religion"?

You can watch those opening moments -- and the hour or so that followed it as well -- by clicking here.

Anyway, that experience has put me in sort of an REM mood, which means of course that I have to "Top Five Tuesday" them. So here they are: my Top Five REM songs:

5. Supernatural superserious.  This tune is off 2008's Accelerate, an album that was largely ignored yet much under-rated.  I can't resist a song that talks about volunteering at a summer camp.

4.  What's The Frequency, Kenneth?  Talk about irresistible -- a song with its origins in the most inexplicable Dan Rather moment ever.

3.  Everybody Hurts.  This walks that fine line between naming the truth of pain and wallowing in our status as victims . . . and does so in a way that is hauntingly beautiful.

2.  Losing My Religion.  Of course.

1.  Man On The Moon.  Not just my favorite REM song of them, but one of my favorites of all time, like ever.  The wistful guitar work makes it so the song never gets old.