About 1,956 years ago: a possibly intentional difference

In studying Ephesians last week, I found that 1:15 has some “stock” wording:

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints (NRSV)

To my ear, that sounds like “typical Paul.”  I quickly recalled, though, that Philemon, which is easily among my three favorite¹ letters in the NT, includes similar wording:

I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus (NRSV)

We could slice and dice and parse the English translation in this version or any number of others.  We could discuss the chronology and Christology of both letters, but I doubt there would be any major discoveries in those respects.  The thing is, the Philemon wording is not the same as the wording in Ephesians, and that fact just might be significant.  The difference might be attributable only to style or preference . . . or it could give us a clue into one or more emphases in each letter.  Let’s break it down a little.

In Ephesians, the hearing is in the aorist tense—a basic past tense—but it is a participle, and participles come in different flavors, and my palate isn’t refined in this area, ll just leave that alone before I get myself in grammar trouble.  In Philemon, the hearing is in the present tense but is again a participle in “mood.”

Note the next difference, carefully.  The succeeding phrases are quite different.  In Greek, word order is not nearly the same thing as it is in English, but these are two different bunches of coconuts.  “Your love and faith that you have toward Jesus and all the saints.”

Ephesians:  I have heard of your . . .

faith in the Lord Jesus (pistin en to kurio iesou)

the conjunction and (kai)

the love for/to all the saints (ten agapen ten eis pantas tous hagious)

Philemon:  I hear of your . . .

love and faith that you have (agapen kai ten pistin en exeis)

toward Jesus and all the saints (pros ton kurion iesoun kai eis pantas tous hagious)

Isn’t the difference curious?  I observe first the inclusion of the verb “to have” (exeis) which is not present in Ephesians.  This verb is used again later in Philemon, so its (ostensibly unnecessary) inclusion here may be notable.

Next—and I think quite significant textually—are the phrases that involve faith, love, Jesus, and the saints.  Philemon has things sort of mashed together on both sides of the verb.  Whereas the wording in Ephesians is more “stock,” Paul’s wording in Philemon reveals, or at least hints at, a purposeful mixing of things:  love and faith can both be directed toward Jesus and other Christians.  (1) Love of others and (2) faith toward Jesus are obviously norms, but we can also love Jesus.  Moreover, we learn in Philemon that Paul is attempting to elicit faithful behaviors from Philemon (and his house church) toward Onesimus, who is newly a Christian brother.  This possibility becomes especially pregnant when pistis (faith) is translated as “faithfulness” a la Matthew Bates.²  Bates continues to influence my thinking, now particularly as I study Ephesians 6:10-20 and the shield of faithfulness.


¹ Not only is Philemon a favorite; it is among my three most ardently studied—and not because it’s brief.  This is no “‘Jesus wept’-is-my-verse-to-memorize” thing.  It’s simply a great letter!

² See this blogpost and this one for an introduction to Bates on this topic.

 

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Many years ago: sermons

This is from a church bulletin quite some time ago:

While I hope my friends through the years of my church history would be glad to know I had presented on that topic, the same ones might be mildly amused to find that I’d requested a change in the format/sequence at this early point.  I would do that kind of thing steadily for the next couple of decades.  Not falling prey to assembly patterns became sort of a theme in my earlier, public-leadership life; I espoused the notion that habits get in the way of meaning, so it is better to do things purposefully than ritually.  I myself am amused that, after the mention that I had requested a change in the order, the congregation was encouraged to pray for the return of the regular preacher.  Of course the folks at St. Elmo, Tennessee didn’t mean anything by that, but I suppose I was a thorn in the side of some preachers, elders, and church administrations in later years.  I have a tough time leaving things alone when they are broken or just need shaking up a little!

Now to the content . . . I have delivered fewer than ten sermons per se in my life.  (I am better at, and more interested in, “class” types of settings and general assembly planning and leadership.)  The topics of the sermons for which I have records are as follows:

  1. So What? (about human response to God’s grace)
  2. What For? (about the Christian assembly’s purposes)
  3. Remembering the Lord
  4. Hearing and Doing
  5. The Sectarianism Within Us
  6. What Are We Waiting For?
  7. John 9:  the Blind Man, the Jewish Establishment, and Jesus
  8. Philemon

Looking back, I’d say that at least five of the eight (#2, #3, #4, #6, and #7) have a distinct focus on the Father and/or the Son.  I’m proud of that.  A couple of them (#2, #5) challenge rutted, traditional thinking.  I got in a mess of hot water over #5, but I would preach it again today, more than 20 years later, with only a couple of sentences toned down (if I thought anyone who needed to hear it would hear it).

The last two sermons reflect my still-growing interest in textual basis (as opposed to topical or traditional, etc.). Not that I didn’t say reasonable, or reasonably provocative, things in #s 1-6, but I’d now prefer #s 7 and 8, for the most part.  Generally speaking, we will all be more solid and grounded if we stay with the text—and not mere prooftexts, either!  We must pay attention to the original documents, attempting as best we can to honor the original literary and historical settings.  That is what I tried to do with #s 7 and 8.

Three years ago: Dad’s communion meditation

On Sunday, October 4, 2015, my dad shared the following communion meditation in the College Church assembly (Searcy, AR).  The words come from various songs and hymns that Dad strung together, and he read this aloud prior to “the Supper.”  I post this now, first, to honor the Christ; and second, to remember my dad’s ways and means.


Jesus is all world to me—My life, my joy, my all.

Tell me the story of Jesus.

“Abba Father, Father, If indeed it may,
Let this cup of anguish Pass from Me, I pray;
Yet, if it must be suffered, By Me, Thine only Son,
Abba, Father, Father, Let thy will be done.”

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;

Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble.
Were YOU there when they crucified my Lord?

Upon that cross of Jesus, Mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One Who suffered there for me.
There behold His agony, Suffered on the bitter tree;

See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
We place You on the highest place.

O sacred head, now wounded, With grief and shame weighed down;
Now scornfully surrounded With thorns Thine only crown;
O make me Thine forever; And, should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never Outlive my love to Thee.

Your only Son no sin to hide, But You have sent Him from your side
To walk upon this guilty sod And to become the Lamb of God.

My sin—O the bliss of this glorious thought—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more;

Amazing love!  How can it be That You, my God, would die for me?

He could have called 10,000 angels, but He died alone, for you and me.

Soon Thou wilt come again:  I shall be happy then, Jesus, my Lord!
Then Thine own face I’ll see; Then I shall like Thee be,
Then evermore with Thee, Jesus, my Lord!

I behold You, my Lord and my King—in You, Jesus, I find ev’ry thing.
And now truly my worship I bring To You and unto You sing.
In beholding the glorious Son, my eyes see the Magnificent One,
And His splendor, as bright as the sun, reveals me: I am undone.

The Supper


Dad passed from this life on November 28, 2017, and I am of the distinct impression that he is experiencing a richer “communion” now.

Clouds

Blessed are the broken, for they let the light shine through.

So goes the saying on a framed piece on a wall in my house.

These days, I don’t comprehend or experience “blessed” much.

I know a tiny bit about clouds and atmosphere.  They seem to refract, or scatter, or at least obscure, light.  Do those phenomena “break” the light itself, or just the view of the light?

I know the significance of light—and of Light.  Or do I?

I wonder how (and sometimes, I question whether) that light “shines through.”  I wonder. . . .

Seems to me that there really isn’t any light if the clouds hide it from sight for too long.  Or is there?

And I do know a good deal about “broken.”

But I don’t know how brokenness should be experienced or understood.

Here is a saying I have engraved inside my soul:

Marana tha.  

On summer’s end

Summer is over.  Or is it?

This will be a meandering piece about summer, with connections to reading, baseball, the calendar, kids, and the rhythms of life.

Books and baseball
People still have summer reading lists, right?  Maybe not so much anymore.  I spied the quip below on a ne’er-do-well’s Facebook page recently, in the spot where one’s favorite book title is supposed to be:

who reads

I thought, Well, I’m guessing you don’t read much, because you didn’t capitalize that or put a question mark after the question.  (This same person had proudly posted a video of herself drunk while playing video games, so I guess I wasn’t all that surprised.)

My summer reading list, if it really existed at all, was phantom-like.  Recent book grabs include one that presents three views on God’s will and decision making, a Duck Dynasty biography (couldn’t stand much!), and a Stephen Colbert book (I wish he weren’t so caustically one-sided, because he’s genuinely funny).  On my active shelf are a book on the history of words in religion, a history of the Silk Road, and two volumes on the kingship of God.  This summer, I have read some poetry, a little on baseball, and a few pages each from Richard Hughes and Frederick Buechner, plus a few other things.  Oh, and I’ve spent some time reading and studying an ancient, mid-length letter from Paul, including reading two paragraphs in Greek.  Sounds like a lot of reading time, you say?  Nah.  I’m talking about a total of less than 10 hours there.  Pitiful, I know.  And the progress in writing my own next book has been precisely nil this summer.

Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, a book about the Brooklyn Dodgers, is legendary.  My dad’s copy of that one remains where he would have seen it, high on a shelf in his/Mom’s study.  On a lower bookshelf in our home sits Dad’s coffee-table-sized book that chronicles baseball’s summers of ’47-’57 in the lives of the three New York teams—the Dodgers, the Giants, and those dratted Yankees.  The Dodgers and Giants moved to the West Coast in 1957, rendering summer fun permanently shut down for many.

Our family enjoyed seeing the KC Royals with a friend in Kauffman Stadium last Saturday.  It was a sticky, muggy, summer night, but it was not overly hot, especially after the sun was hidden behind the stadium on the third-base side.  This summer is not a good one for the Royals, to say the least.  It was a great game, though:  the last-place Royals, the 2nd-worst team in baseball, beat the even worse Orioles in the 9th.

Usually two or three times a summer, when I was a boy, my dad and I would go to the Vet to see Phillies games.  There was one memorable, July 4th double header, at which a friend sat with Dad and me in the lowest seats, in straightaway center field, just above the outfield wall with the “408” painted on it in yellow.  I’m not sure I’m creating memories like that for our son, but he has been to three Royals games, a Pirates game with cousins, and a Reds game before he could remember.  He has also played baseball three summers in a row.  According to his 2018 baseball season, summer lasted only about 6 weeks (May-June).

For me, despite one serendipitous baseball game I saw on a nice Minnesota afternoon while traveling, this summer has been the worst on record.  It is not over yet?

Summer, school, and children
For children, summer is almost always something to which to look forward.  They often have summer camp experiences.  Manatawny, a Christian camp in Southeastern PA, was the thing that we kids looked forward to most.  My sisters’ kids all go to similar camps now, too, and they seem to feel the same heart-tugs, while experiencing similar growth of all kinds.  Then there is marching band camp, and several of my sisters’ kids are now doing that annually, too.  Summer is certainly not all bad for kids.

For many, summer is over in the middle of August when school starts way too early.  Two private colleges at which I’ve taught hold classes on Labor Day, having started a week or two previously.  School always started the day after Labor Day when I grew up.  According to just about every U.S. school calendar, summer is by now over for everyone.

Jedd has had some great times this summer (for example, a children’s play, baseball, some travel, a lake, cousins, and swimming).  Speaking of swimming … they drained the town pool weeks ago here, which seems pretty ridiculous since summer persists.  The heat and humidity (or just heat, or just humidity, but rarely any relief) have been oppressive and unrelenting for so long, it seems.  We had a cold winter with little snow for playing, an almost nonexistent spring, and then this beastly summer.  We’ve had, what, six or seven nice days since June?

Summer’s entertainment
Remember the TV show “In the Heat of the Night?”  I never watched it, but I think it was based somewhat on the premise that crime heats up when the weather does the same.  (When is it not hot in a Mississippi town?)  I also recall an episode of M*A*S*H in which everyone’s nerves were frayed because of heat.

Last Sunday night, in the summertime cool of a Lutheran church building, I heard the Midwest Chamber Ensemble, and their opening selection was a rare performance of a work by Arthur Honegger titled Pastoral d’Ete (Summer Pastorale).  This piece shimmered and sang, and it led me to think of other summer-oriented art music. . . .

  • I have a CD of summer wind quintet music that includes Barber’s Summer Music, Op. 31, a provocative piece written well for the medium.  I return to this disc often, including a couple times this summer.
  • Barber’s Knoxville:  Summer of 1915 is not a favorite of mine.  (Few and far between are the sopranos I would listen to on purpose.)  Berlioz’s Nuits d’Ete (Summer Nights) is more pleasing, but still, it’s a soprano.  So, no thanks.
  • As Summer Was Just Beginning, a simple, tuneful, elegiac tribute to the late James Dean, enjoyed at least a decade’s worth of appreciation in the wind band world, but the piece’s fame is now approaching its winter.
  • Vivaldi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons is well-known, but “Summer,” the second in the set, strikes me as more interesting.  Actually, this Vivaldi string concerto hints more at fall for me, but maybe that’s because I like the still, sometimes melancholy beauty of fall.  Then there is the tempest of the presto 3rd movement.  (May there be no tempests in life this fall.)
  • Frank Bridge’s tone poem Summer is simply wonderful.  What glorious sounds!  If I could rig some great speakers in a park, and if I could order a 70-degree, mosquito-less, summer night, I would sit out under a tree and listen to it again.

I remember a few summer evenings on the grounds of the Mann Music Center, north of Philadelphia, hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra free or at greatly reduced cost, with good friends.  And all these thoughts of music evoke pleasant, breezy, relaxed feelings.  Was this what Jim Seals & Dash Crofts were singing about?  “Summer Breeze makes me feel fine….”?  My summer of ’18 has not been blessed by many of those feelings.

So goodbye, summer of ’18.  I’m done wid’ ya.  I wish I could be assured that I’ll forget you, but I won’t be surprised if you haunt me.  I wish I had seen and hiked in the Rockies this summer, but, failing that, come on, cooler weather and breezier, more chilled thoughts.  Come on, fall concerts and crisp mornings with coffee on the deck.  Maybe I’ll soon be able to walk 20 yards sans sweat or anxiety.  Come on, Major League Baseball’s “Fall Classic.”  Just come on, fall.

Moffatt translation

I haven’t experienced all that much of James Moffatt’s translation (1922), but I have an heirloom printed copy and refer to it once in a while.  I suppose half of this volume’s value is that it was my granddaddy’s, but it seems that every time I come to Moffatt for comparison, he offers something uniquely helpful and communicative—almost like Phillips’s The New Testament in Modern English (1958), albeit a few decades before, and without as much picturesque expansion as Phillips.

Moffatt does a fine job with Philemon 6, for instance–where “participation” and “loyal faith” add apt elements before their time:

I pray that by their participation in your loyal faith they may have a vivid sense of how much good we Christians can attain.

Moffatt misses a verbal tie with the singular word “good,” as do most later translations, but I note that he stands out by capturing the delay in the dropping of the name Onesimus in v13 — just like the original.

There is a nicely provocative rendering of Romans 12:1-2, as well:

Well then, my brothers, I appeal to you by all the mercy of God to dedicate your bodies as a living sacrifice, consecrated and acceptable to God; that is your cult, a spiritual rite.  Instead of being moulded to this world, have your mind renewed, and so be transformed in nature, able to make out what the will of God is, namely, what is good and acceptable to him and perfect.

There can be benefits to a one-man (non-committee) translation.  I’m also drawn to Schonfield’s Authentic New Testament (also 1958, and my copy of this one is also from Granddaddy Ritchie’s library), but Schonfield’s seems more iconoclastic.  Apparently, some copyright issues keep Logos/Faithlife from getting the rights to publish a Moffatt digital edition, but it would be nice to have it in my e-collection, so I hope they’ll pursue it.  In the meantime, it can be accessed here.


The above is an edited, expanded version of a comment I made in a Logos community forum I happened to find.  My actual comment is here.

A letter about Bible reading (2)

The first part of this unsent, hypothetical letter is found in the last post here.

In my last letter, we were talking about reading ancient scripture texts without much sense of what’s around them (“out of context”), and about the pitfalls of programs that don’t allow for deep, contextually aware reading.  Let me point to a spot in the Matthew-gospel as a detailed example of a more granular focus on a single book.

When Matthew has the word “coming” in 24:3, do we consider Matthew’s unique use of the Greek term “parousia,” and do we linger at the portrait he painted?  Many English Bibles render the word that way, but its meaning can go in more than one direction.  Some will rush off to 1Thess 4 and 1Cor 15 . . . but is Jesus really talking about the same thing Paul is in those other texts?  And/or is Paul always (or ever) referring to the “second coming” that a 20th- or 21st-century Christian seems to have in mind?  The word formula “second coming” has taken on a theological life of its own and is absent, per se, from the NT.  Perhaps Matthew’s concerns overlap some of that, or perhaps not.

We could then consider the prologue to John’s gospel, which is thought by some to have been composed after the rest of the book.  1:1-18 is in one analysis an intense section of standalone Christological poetry (and I’d say there are lots worse sections to read as standalone passages).  It does clearly connect, though, to the rest of that gospel.  Presumably you recall some of the other content of this gospel . . . there was the “water to wine” events and other signs, the blind man, the woman at the well, Nicodemus, the foot-washing, and the rest.  How rewarding to ponder the connections between the prologue and the rest!  The later-stated purpose—”to believe and have life in His name”—is most meaningful not cordoned off as a general, theological pointer-to-belief, or re-appropriated as a pulpit exhortation, but in its John-context!  Truly, nothing in literature should be considered to “stand alone.”  Every word has context.  (On this question, if you have more time, you might be interested in what I wrote here about “The Farmer in the Dell,” Paul’s letters, and context.)

Matthew’s “parousia “and Paul’s “parousia” and John’s “until I come” do not necessarily share the same referent.  So Paul is not Matthew, and Matthew is not John.  (Nor is any one of them Lindsey or Hagee or Casey, and that’s not beside the point.)  Each NT author wrote from a uniquely God-inspired vantage point, and in many cases to unique Christ-communities.  Accepting both God’s involvement and these “communicator” and “receptor” identifications doesn’t mean that all documents use a word identically—or even that each subcontext within a single document necessarily uses a word the same way.

And Greek is not English.  Sometimes, not even English is English!  Translation can involve both art and science, and it comes into play even within a single language.  Words are curious, sometime chameleonic characters, as is communication in general.  Decades and even centuries of Christianese and Christian publications have had impact on how we read and hear some words and expressions.  My mention of “parousia” is but one example, based on a single word.   Hundreds and maybe thousands more exist!  What is required of a conscientious reader?  To read responsibly and contextually, honoring God and the intent of the original document.

A holistic study of a single document such as Matthew will lead to questions not only about the coming/presence/arrival/parousia of deity, but also about such topics as these:

  • The Mosaic Law
  • Righteousness
  • The Jewish temple
  • The “kingdom of heaven” theme as traced throughout Matthew
  • “The end of the age” (a phrase unique to Matthew, occurring in two of the five “teaching blocks,” including Matthew 24—and notably appearing at the very end of the gospel, 28:20)

Few questions about what Matthew was attempting to say about the above topics will be addressed aptly without focused study of that single document.  It seems that Matthew has designed his gospel intentionally to connect some of these things.  On the other hand, John’s scope, purpose, and design are quite different from Matthew’s.  If we found a “Law” or “temple” in John, we would not want to assume the implication or meaning is the same as in Matthew.

But who can focus so sharply?  You can, and I can.  Responsible reading and interpretation may at points start to seem attainable only by academically trained scholars such as experts in biblical languages.  Not the case!  Yes, there are academic principles involved, and knowledge of biblical languages helps immensely, but there are so many tools available to any serious reader-investigator these days.  Diamonds await those of us who will simply read responsibly, carefully, contextually, and with an eye to an author’s intentions.

Underlying my whole thrust here is something I think of as a “differently high” view of scripture— a view that elevates (1) the book-level (single-document) context and (2) the inspiration of the author as he wrote a single document.  I tend also to downplay inter-document connections in the Bible as a whole.  (After all, the “whole” of the Bible is really a collection of single, whole documents.)  The connections found when comparing documents can be very real and meaningful, but they also tend to be overstated and unwittingly abused by those who are largely untrained, like you and me.  We do well to abide in one document at a time.

[ . . . ]


The above began as a draft letter to a person I’ve never met face to face.  I decided not to send it personally, but I thought I’d share it here, with much adaptation and expansion, since I feel this is broadly applicable.

What have I written that raises questions in your mind?

Does anything appear misleading or erroneous?

How would you conclude the letter?

A letter about Bible reading (1 of 2)

If I became aware that a person I knew was in a “daily Bible reading” program but was not growing from it, I might write something like this to him.


I pick up that you want and need more than you are getting.  Maybe you have the impression that “reading the Bible through” alone will offer you the best-quality picture of things, but I want to encourage you instead to apply your energies to reading and working on understanding single biblical documents.  I realize it can feel good to see a “daily Bible reading” project through to the end, but maybe next year you would consider something different.

You could read Galatians first, engaging with the details of its book-level context; then investigate the sharply focused design of Mark; then immerse yourself in the narrative of Genesis or one of the prophets.  In Galatians, you would gain new insight into what Paul said to one audience about freedom, and about justification, and about faith.  (Is “faith” in Galatians about trust, or about allegiant, faithful living for the Christ, or a combination, or sometimes one and sometimes the other?)  What connecting lines can be drawn from the core of Mark (8:22-10:52) to its bookends in chapters 1 and 16?  Whether it’s a gospel or a Pauline letter or a work of Hebrew history or prophecy, impressive themes and motifs can become apparent when one remains within a single book for an extended period of time!  And Galatians and Mark and Genesis or Zechariah seems like plenty for a year!  In slowing down and reading thoroughly, carefully, and investigatively, you will without a doubt end up getting more of the intended message of each unique book.

Although “daily Bible” or lectionary reading plans can offer seemingly good devotional experiences, those kinds of programs might also skew one’s sense of what’s been written.  Readers might whiz through and miss much, or they might get beef tips and gems but not a sense of the original cow or diamond mine as a whole.  For instance, the meaning of “keep in step with the Spirit” (or any other familiar snippet) can run deeper and richer when taken within its whole literary context.  A hand-picked verse might initially impress one as nicely inspiring, and it will have been cheap and easy to pick it, but often, a more expensive reading awaits.

Are beef tips tasty?  Yes, but you might find out they actually came from elk or bison, and that changes the perception and cost!

Is a gemstone valuable in itself, quite apart from the mine from which it came?  Yes, but if one encounters an unknown gem, he might think it was a diamond when it was really cubic zirconia.  Moreover, he might not even notice the gold and silver around the zirconia!

Perhaps even more to the point, the perceived value of an isolated thing—whether meat, a diamond, or a Bible verses—can be arbitrary.  This is especially the case, it seems to me, when the valuation has been based on forces outside the thing itself, e.g., the economy of the jewelry trade or a given theological dogma.

An individual reader’s biases morph into a lens through which he reads and interprets, coloring his or her perceptions considerably.  He might not only exaggerate or underestimate the value of a thing; he might not see it at all or might imagine elements that aren’t even present.  This can also happen when one does abide in deep study of a single document, but it’s less likely that one will stray from the original intent of the author/document if one is swimming in the waters of that one document.

All this matters a lot to me, and I know it does to you, too, so I want to take care to say communicate as well as I can—and also give you time to digest it.  I’ll write more in a couple days.

To explain and clarify

Caveat lector:  I seem to be in a phase of some comparatively intense, historical pondering, so please consider this difficult-to-categorize post accordingly.  (The thinking here began with the first two installments in a sort-of infinitival series:  “To Serve and Contribute” and, before that, “To Lead and Serve.”  I’ve actually delayed posting this one for quite a while, interposing others that were similarly titled, and having difficulty coming to terms with what to say and how to say it.  If all this is too cryptic, well, just skip this post, wonder what purposes might be served through it, and come back for an unrelated post in a few days on Bible reading and study!)

~ ~ ~

Several years ago, I had a very good telephone interview for a faculty position and had air travel arrangements set for a follow-up, on-site interview.  (I think I was one of two candidates at that point.)  About two days before I was to leave, I received another phone call in which the department chair questioned me about a thing or two, beginning to back off from considering me.  I instantly thought I knew what had happened and have never doubted that I was right:  someone at that college had gotten herself a half-story about a situation, through someone who knew half of it himself (second hand—he wasn’t around anymore, anyway).¹  The first someone had known the second someone in the past, so the connection was easy.  The world of patently Christian colleges is small—and its sense of its own perceptive abilities, sometimes myopic and aggrandized.  The long & short is that I was un-invited for the on-site interview.

A couple years later, the same school was again hiring for the same position.  I did not exactly apply that time, but I did send a personal letter to the chair, revisiting the previous conversation in order to explain and clarify.  That conversation had not ended comfortably.  Inasmuch as it depended on me,² I hoped later to shed light and smooth things over more than anything else.  I’m pasting in some slightly adapted versions of things I wrote in this follow-up letter, with most of the identifying marks removed.

Things back then were, to say the least, in a state of flux.  Personally speaking, I almost never felt secure, and my entire time [there] was marked by instability: the departure under negative circumstances of my predecessor; pervasive angst about administration and turnover; major initiatives that led to more than one openly heated debate….  

The new [ … ] had come in with a flash, spending money [unwisely] and making promises.³  He seemed to be gone from campus as much as he was present that semester.  Relatively soon, he found a new position and left.

Going back to our last telephone conversation . . . I recall reacting with a rather strong voice to questions that I believe were based on misinformed suspicion (perhaps “misleading ‘spin’” would be a better way to put it).  [I]t seems that my candidacy was essentially torpedoed by someone who was poorly informed of certain realities and who acted antagonistically.  

[To explain and clarify: This person] and I had had good times and bad times.  He affirmed some of my efforts and gifts, and he ignored or detracted from others.  He laughed with me and caused me more tension than I have experienced with any other boss. . . .  He spoke on isolated occasions with language I consider unbecoming, and he also tried sincerely to inject God. . . .   Some colleagues—who had not had opportunity to see his deep generosity and hard work first-hand—seemed to carry a rather one-sidedly negative opinion of him (as opposed to a mixed one, like mine).  I was as frequently embarrassed by (and intimidated by) his overbearing demeanor and persona as I was impressed by his work ethic and his intent to serve.  A study in contrasts, he.

[At any rate,] … had I been directing, conducting, and teaching for [ …] since the last time you posted this position, we might or might not have enjoyed perfect chemistry, but you would know the real me—someone who cares deeply and works with conviction for his students, his program, his colleagues, and his institution . . . and someone who sometimes comes across defensively or with too much intensity. . . .

——————

All this reminiscence and re-traversing brings fresh emotional pain (to which I am no stranger in general).  I am of the general, unstudied opinion that such reflection is to be engaged in, not avoided.  (I suppose it is usually better under the guidance of a trained therapist!)  Personal growth can occur when we go through the muck and the deep waters.  I’m not so sure I’m growing, and I intermittently smell of muck, but my head is above water.


¹  To describe the situation would be to say too much here.  I had tried to handle it as well as possible.  In hindsight, I suspect the “new” person referred to as “new [ …]” in the second inset paragraph above ignored a red carpet I laid out in order to have the scenario appear a certain way.  I was a scapegoat and later a lame duck, to some extent.

² The particular religious/philosophical alignment of the hiring college turns out to be ironic:  it is affiliated with one of the so-called “peace churches,” but it had unwittingly been a part of a very un-peaceful chain of events.  Here, I do not present myself as a peace-bringer in the first instance, but that was actually a large part of my goal in the follow-up letter quoted above, from a couple years later.  I received no reply.

³ The particular promises seemed to be based more on Christianese fluff than on reality or even faith.  This is beside the point, yes, but I would say it is also another, related, important point.

Not an elder, but older (and wiser?) (2)

[Find part 1 here.]

Given my background/scriptural understandings and some of my personal history, the reader won’t be too surprised that my suspicion of “church leadership” has not faded.  I think my church paradigm overall has been morphing and growing ever since.  It has reached a point of no return and very little likelihood of being influenced in a different direction.  I say this not to discourage dialogue but to acknowledge a reality.  I simply have no interest in what smacks of pandering to a clergy person or to a hierarchy or any other structure.  These organizational things trouble me too deeply.  Lest a CofC reader think I am talking only about other denominations, I will clarify that I think the problem is of the same hue (although typically not as deeply tinted) in CofC congregations as in, say, Methodist or Baptist ones.  It is notable that small, non-franchise “community church” groups are likely to be equally un-healthfully reliant on the “pastor.”

I do affirm that, when possible, people with training and/or experience should work in some areas.  I think here of the teaching of children, the counseling of youth and married people, and the exposition and exegesis of scripture.  Talents, training, and experience do have their places in the healthy, vibrant functioning of churches and other Christian groups, but titles and staff ministry positions can distract and can even be found to compromise the health of a body of people.  Although in just the right situation, I suppose I would myself consider taking a church salary for some kind of church role or roles, I really do not believe in that kind of church anymore.  That doesn’t mean I don’t find good people in institutional churches, and that doesn’t mean I don’t go to them regularly.  I do, and I do.  I simply cannot invest in them or dream about them as I once did.

Back to the present
So, now that I am old enough and experienced enough to be an elder or pastor or shepherd or bishop just about anywhere (no matter how the given group conceives of the label), I have to wonder about another aspect of being the church elder I once aspired to be:  wisdom.  (Please recall that I have recently been drawn to the “wisdom literature” in the Hebrew Bible.  See here and here.)  It is assumed that the old have gained some wisdom.  Not that I’m all that old, but I am a whole lot older than I was 20 years ago.  So, while I thought I had all the main things right in my head in my 20s or 30s, I later learned that that I didn’t.  And now, even if I wanted to be an elder in an institutional church, I wouldn’t think I was wise enough.  I’m surely a little wiser than I was when I was 20 or 30 or 40, but I would feel so inadequate if I were in a role that caused a church group to view me as inherently wise.  Here is another way to put that:  I think all pastoral pedestals ought to be destroyed and discarded—especially any that any unsuspecting person would try to put me on!

Enter another assumption I learned as a kid, based on a patternistic, proof-texty reading of two brief passages in Paul’s (so-called) pastoral letters:  maybe a special level of wisdom comes from having a plurality of children in the home.  A 33-year-old father with three kids (like my dad was) goes through all sorts of interpersonal situations, and by the time he’s in his 50s or 60s, he surely has learned a great deal about how to “shepherd” different personalities within a group.  I, on the other hand, have an only child, and I haven’t always manifest wisdom even in dealing with the one.

When I was having a heart-to-heart with my son a year or so ago, I told him that there are some benefits and some drawbacks to having an older (more presbytish!) dad.  On the downside, I am wounded (deeply so), and life’s experience brings as much incapacity as capability.  I am tired and generally less than patient with antics than a younger dad.  On the upside, there are experiences and insights I can share with him that could not be shared by a younger father of a nine-year-old.  I don’t think I’m a very good soul-shepherd, but I’m a passable physical-needs overseer for him.  I could teach him things that a 33-year-old father probably couldn’t.  (I’m rambling in a sea of inadequacy.)  I would hope I have additional wisdom, but I’m not so sure most of the time.

I feel pretty experienced in “the faith” (depending on how you define that), and I’m “apt to teach,” and I might manifest a couple other qualities mentioned in Paul’s lists, but I don’t feel wise enough to be an elder or a dad.  I will never be an elder in a traditional sense.  I am a dad, however, and I can only hope that I have more wisdom than I did before Jedd was born, and more likelihood of using it in difficult situations.  Good grief.  He just turned nine, and we have not even had difficult situations yet, really.  I am terrified of when he is 11 and 12 and 14.  God, give me wisdom.

Not an elder, but older (and wiser?)

In our day, the notion of “church leadership” appears as something of an overlay on New Testament principles and scenarios.  For some, the disconnect (between the status quo and the original info) is tantamount to heresy; for others, it’s just the way things are, a non-issue.  As for myself, it’s complicated (I know, like many other things).  I have some definitive ideas, but there are gray areas, and I don’t care about all the same subtopics anymore.

For starters:  I find the contemporary use of “pastor” to represent a human misdirection, sometimes running counter to God’s purposes, although almost always well-intended, at least at the outset of a “pastoral ministry.”  In the NC scriptures, I don’t see the word “pastor” referring to a role that’s much like today’s pastoral roles, and I think that’s worthy of note.  Primarily, I’m interested not in a strict-minded, narrow approach but in an awareness of the kinds of leader roles that emerged in the early church.  In other words, it’s not about the title or label, really; it’s about what people are and what they do.  One problem arises when a Bible word is used to refer to a current role, thereby linking the two and imbuing the modern practice, title, or role with supposedly biblical authority.  Such labeling doesn’t mean a practice, title, or role is necessarily bad; it just means we have jumped to a conclusion.

I’d say we ought to differentiate roles and titles in each unique situation, and we ought to explore nuances, and we ought to engage in word studies and historical studies, too.  Is it possible that (the Greek antecedents of) “bishop,” “overseer,” “shepherd,” “pastor,” and “elder” might describe similar (but not necessarily the same) roles in the first-century church?  And aren’t these labels commonly distinguished differently today?  John A.T. Robinson has commented that the letters to Timothy and Titus “do not presuppose monarchical episcopacy” (ruling bishops) that appeared at least by the 2nd century.”  Pauline writings, on the other hand, appear to assume the “equivalence of bishop and presbyter”—or overseer and elder, in alternate translation. °

At this juncture I could be found betraying a mentality that’s now part and parcel of Church of Christ operational doctrine.  I am not particularly interested in whether two centuries of sectarian history in this respect have been on target, nor do I care much anymore about a patternistic re-appropriation of first-century titles and labels.  After all, we are separated by millennia and language, and this whole scene ought to benefit from more thorough, careful examination.  I am after an honest assessment of church leadership roles that I see as having run amok.  I think Christians should all be deeply interested in meaningful leadership roles, quite apart from the titles and routines of tradition—no matter whose tradition, and how deeply or widely it is entrenched.  With all that said. . . .

Once upon a dream
As a child, I never envisioned myself becoming a preacher, despite being a “good kid” and a good Bible student who was always at church.  (I developed a moderate stutter that stayed with me into high school and beyong, so perhaps no one else wanted to see me turn out to be a preacher, either!  I could always have done better than the devoted but poorly spoken Mennonite man who muttered, sometimes unintelligibly, for 50 minutes two Sundays ago, but that’s beside the point.)  I do recall wistfully that my youthful vision for later adult life involved being a church elder.  That role seemed important to me, and the men I knew as elders were worthy of respect.  I knew of a couple of elders who were also preaching ministers, and that was generally viewed askance in my tradition because one could be viewed as one of those “pastors” who had too much power.  Although I retain some of the same philosophy of suspicion, most of this was in a very different time and place for me.  Worlds apart, really.  Elders were elders, and preachers were preachers, and I didn’t know anyone personally who went by the title “pastor.”  I did know fairly well a man who became a church elder when he was 35.¹  By the time I passed that John F. Kennedy age, I was already past thinking I would ever be an elder.  Soon after that, I decided I never wanted to be one.  It was moot, really:  I was soon to be a divorcé and had no children—that those facts would disqualify me in most churches I cared about.

Background understandings
But what is, or was, an elder?  A pastor?  A minister?  A “clergyman”?  A childhood anecdote should help to illuminate some of my predilections.  There was a period in which my dad was visiting people hospitals fairly regularly, and he apparently noticed there were “clergy” parking spaces . . . so he had the wood shop teacher in his school make him a “C L E R G Y” block.  It stayed in the glove compartment, but Dad put it in his window when he was at the hospital.  A schoolteacher by vocation, and also a servant of God and of the church, my dad was somewhat more narrowly read than I in Christian matters.  Nonetheless, he stood on solid ground in conscientiously believing he was a minister or “clergyman” just as much as someone with a salary and a title on the letterhead, and I believe he was right.

It was later that I learned from my parents to be suspicious of the notion of “church staff.”  I was not completely on their side at the time:  once, I sided with a “junior minister” (with whom I was working closely) in the reality that there was a de facto church staff, and it probably needed to have a meeting periodically.  For as long as I can remember, though, I have given absolutely no credence to the clergy-laity distinction, seeking to overturn that supposition in the minds and hearts of anyone over whom I have any influence.  However, specified roles will naturally exist.  What if one person works primarily in administrative/secretarial capacities, another is the primary teaching minister, and another serves and engages with families of young people?  In a large church, their roles will interact and overlap, and it certainly doesn’t hurt for the three to talk together every now and then.  They should be on the same page about procedures, philosophies, etc.  Now, if one of them came from the “staff meeting” and declared to the whole church, “In our staff meeting this week, it was decided that X,” I would smell something going awry.²  Neither a staff nor a staff meeting ought to become invested with power and influence—an institution itself, we might say—but just talking isn’t a bad thing.

Surely Paul, who couldn’t have envisioned seminarians or sound systems or elevated pulpits or “senior pastors” or parking lot ministries, would be supportive of dialogue among those who lead and teach.  However, that which is acceptable in a modern scenario might never have been imagined by New Testament writers.  It’s hard to imagine Jesus’s or Paul’s approving of an in-charge “pastor” who makes business decisions.  Don’t fool yourself thinking that your senior pastor is different from the rest—a real spiritual leader and carer-of-the-flock, you say?  He is on a pedestal and a platform, “elevated” to clergy status.  You likely don’t even call him by his first name, or if you do, you prepend “pastor” or “brother.”  He is surely a good man, but he is in a different class in your mind.

I remember that Dad once “pranked” our church’s preacher by asking for “the reverend” on the phone, so I learned that there were jokes to be made, but I don’t recall much else specific along these lines from my early years.  I do tend to “blame” my parents (particularly, my dad) for maybe half of my negative inclination toward pedestalizing church staff.  I don’t think it’s off-base, mind you, but it is quite a strong bias that has probably kept me from getting a hearing in some situations.

For a couple decades, Dad had a deacon role that primarily involved making arrangements for assemblies and brief devotionals on Wednesday night.  Mom taught ladies’ the Bible class.  Neither of them would have been considered among the official leadership per se then.  Later, Dad did become an elder/shepherd, and he could have been called the “head elder” in a couple of respects, although he would not have liked that at all.

Conclusion (next post):  my continued, apparently irreversible “morphing” with respect to “church leadership,” and my relief that I will never be an “elder,” so to speak


° John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 68.

¹ Being an “elder” at 35 sounds as silly as being a “senior pastor” at 30 or even 40.  Hey, at least it beats the Mormon Church practice of college-aged “elders.”  In the case of the man I knew, he was one of the two oldest men in a very young church, he had four children, and he was relatively experienced in the faith (or in church matters, at least), so his having been named an “elder” made some sense, speaking relatively.

² And something did go awry, with the “junior minister” mentioned above, in multiple ways.  I think he became jealous of my influence, and my personal life took a decidedly negative turn, and I began to annoy him, and he rejected me, and he popped open a can of ego.  I perceived that he was the primary purveyor of the “official clergy” mindset among the three “church staff” members, and he began to rub a few of us the wrong way, although he had an intensely loyal following.  I wish he hadn’t later made a point of the logo he created, claiming it was his intellectual property and denying the church the use of it after he left.  I’ve actually experienced similar feelings in my vocational world, so in a sense, I get it.  And some of that would never have come to mind if (1) the other guy had not been a staff minister and (2) I had not learned what I had learned.

To elicit from Ecclesiastes (2)

[Find part 1 here.]

Can we who live now really connect with, and gain from, ancient-yet-timeless wisdom?  Ecclesiastes says it’s “not from wisdom” that we long for the former days.  In further contemplation of this ancient “wisdom literature,” another “contemporary” song comes to mind.  The song “That’s What Matters” on Rebecca St. James’s 1996 album “God” is of particular note since it originated with one so young.  Wisdom must not be entirely gained with age:  I think RSJ was barely 20 when she co-wrote and belted the words, “Don’t wait for a better day.  Be glad, and use the one you’re in.”  That is not only musically punchy but also spiritually and emotionally wise, and I ought to heed it.  Peter, Paul, & Mary asked, “Where have all the flowers gone?” and I presume they were commenting on the ubiquity of war more than yearning for generally halcyon days.  Regardless, when we recognize that things are not looking good right now, it probably doesn’t serve to spend much time either in the future or in the past.

The conclusion of Ecclesiastes, basically filling chapter 12, exhorts us to “remember the Creator”—to Whom the spirit returns when all is said and done in this life.  “Fear God and keep His commandments,” and that is about the size of it all, says the Teacher.

Here are some (non-copyrighted, I might mention) quotations from Jon Collins’s article in the periodical from The Bible Project, mentioned in part 1):

“Ecclesiastes can feel like nihilism—like nothing really matters—but, surprisingly, it doesn’t end there. Throughout the book, the teacher pauses to draw the conclusion that even though life is smoke, we still need to live it in a way where we can find joy…. Just because we do the right thing, it doesn’t mean that life will work out…

“… The hope at the end of all this is that one day God will clear away all the smoke and life will be as it is meant to be….

” Ecclesiastes is a reminder that even the best life comes with bangs and bruises, disappointments and depression.  Life can be well lived, but it can’t be controlled.”

I cannot control life in general; neither can I control others’ behavior—or its consequences in this life or the next.  What happens to others ultimately must not be my concern.  Here I recall the old³ Stamps-Baxter song “Tempted and Tried.”  I learned a regurgitatory distaste for the song as a child, but in recent years, more of it has begun to resonate for me.  “We’re oft made to wonder why . . . while there are others living about us, never molested tho’ in the wrong.”  I may not understand it “all by and by,” and that will be okay ultimately, but it doesn’t seem so okay now.  If anyone says, “Cheer up, my brother” to me, all twangy-like, I might just issue a tangy rejoinder, but there are two major truths for me here, stemming from the song and from Ecclesiastes:

  1. Things happen that don’t seem fair or make sense in this life.
  2. I can’t control that.

Collins spotlights the paradox between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, noting that the axioms of Proverbs can seem to be contradicted by the philosophy of Ecclesiastes.  In sum, Proverbs seems to give wisdom maxims, asserting that if one does X, then Y will result.  “All hard work brings a profit,” for instance (14:23).  Ecclesiastes then presents another side of the coin, more or less acknowledging that things don’t always work out like the Proverbs suggest.  “Time and chance happen to them all” (Eccl 9:11).  Subordinate to God’s eternal purpose, some arbitrariness seems to be part of the cosmos.  Here I feel like getting the attention of all those who feel wise or helpful when they remark, “I believe everything happens for a reason.”  (Would my objection be “happening for a reason” in their minds?)  Nope.  Not everything.  In this life, some things just happen.

Leaving Proverbs in the dust again, it seems to me that more similarities exist between Ecclesiastes and Job, in terms of the ultimate import.  We are left, in both these cases, with this resounding message:  what’s left, when all is said and done, is God.  We are not Him, and we should fear/revere Him in awe.  Philosopher Slavoj Žižek offered, “The only thing we have to fear is fear of the dialectical misappropriation of counterrevolutionary bourgeois socio-antidisestablishmentarianism itself.”  Perhaps—in this life, at least.  But I’ll opt to pay more attention to the Teacher of Ecclesiastes.  Collins’s conclusion will serve as mine here:

“The answer to fear is to know what to truly fear.  There is only one thing in the universe worth fearing, and that is the creator of the universe.  And surprisingly, when you let that be your chief fear, you will find a life where fear loses its power.  A life without chaos is impossible, but a life connected to divine wisdom is a good life and a life that can be lived without fear.”


³ The song is less than a century old, which is not very old, all considering!