Of confinement and freedom

These inspirational quotations come directly from Roger Thoman’s blog.   The original source is Francis Chan, Letters to the Church.

Church, the answer is not to build bigger and nicer cages. Nor is it to renovate the cages so they look more like the wild.  It’s time to open the cages, remind the animals of their God-given instincts and capabilities, and release them into the wild.

There are elements of modern churches that on the surface seem like good ideas, but they can actually keep us from the biblical vision of unity, true fellowship, mutual love, and pursuit of the mission.  Too many look at these elements and insist you can’t have a church without them.

I believe God is leading a movement in this country toward simple, smaller gatherings, and I long to see this movement gain greater traction.  I get so excited when I dream about the Church spreading in small, invigorating expressions that look and feel like the early church. 

Advertisements

Of manna

This is the quickest-written, most spontaneous, least proofread piece I’ve written in years.  It’s about God’s provision, as I’ve recently experienced it.

Yesterday
Two friends appeared at just the right moments.  One of the moments was surprising:  I have only known this person for a couple years, and some of that time was spent intentionally staying away from one another.  Then there were marked steps in a better direction, including but not limited to a revealing moment in a conversation a few months ago:  she said she had made the decision to move from being a believer to being a follower.  I have observed bits of the fruit of that decision in her life, and good interactions of various types have sustained and renewed the friendship.  To the point, yesterday, she was at the right place at the right time.  She told me something about a poignant song, and it moved me.  A few minutes later, I simply had to tell her that I felt she was used by the Almighty in my life.  This was a provision of daily bread for me.

And then another bit of friendship “manna” came a few hours later.  Longstanding friendship comes in different shapes and hues.  This devoted friendship is rich, has multiple good facets, and has been unquestioned for a decade.  The conversation here was longer, providing sustenance on an even deeper level.  A listening ear … personal and spiritual connections … words cannot adequately convey my gratitude for this “manna” from God.

This morning
It’s only mid-morning.  As Jedd I sat at the table for oatmeal, I called to mind the back of a Fernando Ortega CD case I had just seen in my study.  One song’s title is “This Good Day.”  I could not in all honesty yet call this a good day, so I simply prayed openly about “this day.”  All I can ask is for His provision for this day.  It’s my recollection/understanding that God’s manna, provided during the Hebrews’ wilderness wanderings, was purposefully provided on a daily basis—precisely so the people would know God provides on a daily basis.  There was to be no storing up, no stockpiling.

In the same vein, I should try not to worry about provision for tomorrow or next week.  I am grateful now for the provisions of yesterday through two friends, and for sustenance for this day.   This is God’s manna.

In terms of parenting and discipling, I am glad Jedd knows without doubt that I was grateful to, and dependent on, the Lord this morning.

Of handwriting and old letters

My handwriting is getting worse.  Our son’s handwriting is sporadically OK (e.g., with his name) but isn’t improving as nicely as we’d like.  This interview-blog with Steve Reece, professor of classical languages at St. Olaf College, is about handwriting in ancient letter-writing, and it kept me reading.  The particular passage at issue is Galatians 6:11-18, which begins with the famous exclamation “See what large letters I make . . . in my own hand!”  For a thoughtful professor and researcher, multiple questions arise when students ask a question about such a passage.

Some Christians cater to teachers and preachers who believe in the so-called dictation theory, which has God/the Holy Spirit dictating words to apostles (controlling the motions of their hands and arms?)  In the following paragraph, Steve Reece describes another possible scenario, expanding his thoughts to the way we think generally of the production of scripture—and, in particular, the writing of letters:

My impression is that Paul may have sometimes dictated syllable by syllable (e.g., Philemon), but that at other times he may have dictated the words and phrases to his scribe but given him the freedom to use his own diction and style (e.g., some of the Pastorals). The composition of a letter may have been a team effort, as Paul, his companions, and the scribe(s) bounced ideas off one another and read and re-read drafts of the letter. Obviously, if it were determined that Paul used his scribes to varying degrees in the composition of his letters, this would offer another angle from which to contemplate the ongoing debate about the Pauline authorship of some of the letters that have been traditionally attributed to him, particularly with respect to judgments that have been made about the authenticity or inauthenticity of some of the letters based on their stylistic and linguistic traits. Differences in the style and diction of letters may have arisen from the influence of scribes working at various levels of participation with the author/sender, for in such different compositional circumstances we should not expect stylistic and linguistic uniformity.

I found that succinct depiction very helpful.  It dovetails with, and bolsters, some of my comparatively non-studied hunches.  In the following paragraph, Reece deals with the specific of 1Cor 1, speculating a bit:

Incidentally, we appear to have a vestige of Paul’s interaction with a comrade and a scribe at the beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians, which he is dictating to a scribe, perhaps his companion Sosthenes (1.1). An irate Paul declares to the Corinthians (1.14-15): “I give thanks that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that none of you may say that you have been baptized in my name.” Then, perhaps having been reminded by the Corinthian Stephanas – who appears to have delivered a letter to Paul from the Corinthians, was expecting to deliver Paul’s letter in return to the Corinthians, and therefore was a witness to the dictation process (16.15- 18) – that his memory has failed him here, Paul offers an addendum (1.16): “And I also baptized the household of Stephanas, but as for the rest I do not know if I baptized any other.” We seem to be witnessing here a glimpse of the actual process of composition: having misspoken during his dictation, Paul simply had his scribe insert a parenthetical correction, perhaps interlinearly or marginally, rather than requiring him to go back and rewrite the entire section. Later copyists inserted the parenthetical addition into the body of the text, where it has resided, though somewhat uncomfortably, to this day.

Find the entire interview here.

Of food banks, large charities, and Hayden

Not being exceptionally generous by nature with money (some would call me “cheap”), and also simply distractable, I was having a difficult time making decisions on some holiday-time contributions.¹  I asked my wife to help, because she is typically a quick (and good) decision-maker.  She filtered through eight or nine pieces of paper and chose three charities, focusing first on some nearby needs:

  • Second Harvest Food Bank (a semi-local operation)
  • United Way (local chapter)
  • World Vision (because we all like the idea of giving things like goats for milk and chicken for eggs to under-served people groups in developing nations)

These were good suggestions, and we have contributed to at least two of them in the past.  I thanked my wife and eventually took the materials back to my desk.  Then life happened, and I was almost “too late” with one of them . . . and didn’t get to the last one before another opportunity came our way.  Let me share with you why we are now contributing the most to the mission internship fund of a college senior named Hayden.  On hearing about it, I instantly felt the desire to help some, but after reading the cover letter from the director of a program and Hayden’s personal appeal letter, I am even more moved to contribute.  Certain key aspects of this opportunity make it purposeful and appealing to us:

  • It is an internship, involving “mentoring” with an experienced missionary (as opposed to a “campaign” that, in these times, I fear can end up being as much for summer fun as for bona fide mission)
  • Hayden has been “sitting on this” for 2 years—in other words, it was not a shallow, short-lived plan that led to this
  • Hayden’s time period is stated as 4-6 weeks, whereas the letter from the overall program director states that internships are generally 6-8 weeks … it sounds as if Hayden is driven to be with this man in that land, even though his experience may not be as long as that of some other internships
  • The internship is in an Asian country where there is some but not extreme danger—and a lot of need, coupled with a generally peaceful ethos
  • Hayden quotes the late Jim Woodroof (long an inspirer of many)
  • Hayden describes the resident mission family, with whom he will be interning, as “putting nothing before the Kingdom‘s work.”  The mention of Kingdom is always sure to pique my interest.

Add to all that our appreciation for Hayden’s entire family (my parents’ neighbors for several years), the fact that he has made time on a few occasions to visit at length with my mom after my dad died (also helping her with several minor repair items), and that he is studying Hebrew, which I don’t think is a requirement for his major.  Not only does Hayden have character and background and spiritual drive, but he also cares about biblical languages.

I think he just might be destined to make a difference in the Kingdom, and we are privileged to help just a little in one segment of his journey as a disciple and subject of the King.


¹ We don’t itemize on the tax return, so there is no tax benefit to us for making charitable contributions.  Still, it seems a good time to give something to others.

Honors and tributes

Today, I post in my honor of my dad, Gerald W. Casey, and also in tribute to my mom’s father, Andy T. Ritchie, Jr.  Both men died in November:  Ritchie, 25 years ago, and Casey, one year ago today.¹  Having been strongly influenced by his father-in-law, my dad would have wanted to be present for a special event last month.

In recognition of Ritchie’s influence on many Harding students, the university named an endowed chair in his honor.  Here is the invitation to the ceremony:

And here is the program for the event:

The ceremony was an effective length, I thought, and it was carried out nicely.

Some might question the label “Endowed Chair for Discipleship and Church Planting.”  While the term “discipleship” has acquired more meanings and significance since the 50s and 60s, and while the term “church planting” is perhaps not entirely descriptive of Granddaddy’s activities, he expended much energy in personal, relational evangelism² with individuals.  He also led summer campaigns, worked in multiple Christian camps, and preached and led worship in song for evangelistic “meetings.”  His influence resulted in devoted discipleship, and, by multiplication and extension, his work resulted in the planting of churches.  Harding President Bruce McLarty commented, “I began to learn of who this was that I had seen by listening to people who told of the impact he had on their souls—and what he taught them about the presence of God and the holiness of God and the worship of God.”

Below is the bio that appeared in the program:

Granddaddy’s influence was experienced on the Harding campus in group devotionals and leadership in chapel; classes in New Testament, the Psalms, Prophets, and Christian worship; and for a short time, in the chorus.  His book Thou Shalt Worship the Lord Thy God was used in college courses and enjoyed a berth on many shelves.  Also notable, but presumably not directly pertinent to the naming of this university chair, are my grandfather’s teachings and examples in congregational and private worship.

For those who might wish to view the event, I happily share the link to a video provided by Harding University.  Toward the end of the video, in conjunction with biographical photos, my grandfather’s voice is heard saying a few things about worship.  Today I am grateful for the memories of Andy T. Ritchie, Jr., and Gerald Casey.


¹ In the early morning hours of November 28, 2017, just a few hours after he had arrived in the hospice wing of Unity hospital in Searcy, my dad died.  Mom had been with him just a few hours earlier, and his brother all his children, and one of his grandchildren had been with him during Thanksgiving week just prior.

² I recently learned that Granddaddy had a habit of asking for the names of students who were not known to be Christians.  He would seek them out in personal conversation.

³ I observed, in briefly reviewing a copy of the official document last week, that the word “Endowed” was replaced by “Distinguished.”

Real, live musicians

A full-of-life conductor
In June of 2002, my soon-to-be-bride and I spent a few minutes talking with H. Robert “Bob” Reynolds and his wife Kristin Reynolds.  This conversation, at a casual, post-conducting-symposium soirée, was rich because of musical and relational connections.  It was clear to both of us that this special couple had something going for them.  Kristin, an accomplished oboist, had returned again to CU-Boulder as a volunteer, offering her artistic talents to play in a rehearsal ensemble for the benefit of conductor-students.

Bob was guest lecturer in an afternoon session, and he did something “off the beaten path” that contributed, materially and memorably, to my education.  He shared with us the Jessye Norman recording of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs; these recorded performances, Bob put forward, were an example to all music-makers.  This lesson provided a model for a group of conductors—who are, after all, music-makers who lead and inspire groups of other music-makers.

Last night (November 18), Reynolds led portions of a rehearsal of two Baylor University bands, and I was privileged to watch a video feed.  Bob’s masterful, mature leadership actually brought tears to my eyes.  I knew two of the works he was conducting fairly well, but he knows them intimately.  His conducting was, to say the least, inspiring.  Anyone may tune in tonight for the live performance; several works will be conducted by Bob Reynolds.  The URL for the performance is https://www.baylor.edu/music/index.php?id=935526.

A living composer
Sometime in the summer of 2009 or 2010, I contacted composer Carter Pann about his music.  I had heard the wind band transcription of his orchestral work Slalom and wanted to acquire the piece for use with my orchestra at the time.  Pann congenially sent me a burned CD with Slalom and three others, along with a handwritten note.

These kinds of interactions with living composers of art music can be energizing.  I wish our performance had done his great music justice.  It was a technically demanding piece than my ensemble should have attempted at the time, but we do have fond memories of it.

~ ~ ~

The general public tends to think that “classical” or cultivated, artful music (1) is only of interest to dull people and (2) was only written by dead composers.  Reynolds and Pann are two fine examples of vigorous, living musicians who give the world something of beauty and artistic merit.

If we took the microphones away

  1. If we took the microphones and the electronic effects away from half the vocal “artists” in the world, we would hear something far less impressive.  (This assertion begs questions around artistry.)
  2. If we took the microphones away from those with the gift of gab who are in leadership positions, they might talk less, and the rest of us would waste less time.  I regularly observe a lack of audio-consciousness on the part of those who would probably do better if they were only made aware.  Conference calls with poor microphone placement and paper shuffling and people muttering….  Processes are sometimes hindered, and the experience can be frustrating.  I digress.
  3. If we took the microphones away from half the men who pray aloud and read scripture publicly in many churches, we would hear little to nothing, although many of us have probably heard such machismatic mumbo-jumbo as “Hey, I don’t need a microphone.  Heh-heh.”

Did you notice that I referred to “men” who pray aloud and read scripture publicly?  What about women?  If we took the microphones away from church venues altogether, much of the “official” sense would fade from the minds of those who have concerns about women’s roles “in church.”  I myself care about such things, but not necessarily with the same level of concern, or for the same reasons, as many of my historically closest siblings.  Today, I’m wanting to pay attention to only a side aspect of this age-old struggle:  the physical setting.  I would put it this way:  The more informal the setting, i.e., the less official and pulpit-like (with microphone), the less present the women’s-role issues.  Of course, the size of the venue can be an issue; if it’s a large hall or other acoustical factors are present, amplification is necessary.

Thoughts of pulpits and microphones are surface-level thoughts, and people’s actual concerns are not necessarily so shallow.  Or are they?  If such physical items are removed from the scenario, and if a guy’s concerns then fade a little, I’d say he wasn’t sure what really mattered to him in the first place.  Did the bare fact that a woman spoke create the issue for him, or was it the setting in which she spoke?  Is it her voice when there are men present that disturbs, or is it the audible voice amid pulpits and microphones and pews?  Perhaps a conservative or narrow-minded person doesn’t need to ignore his conscience but to ponder why he feels the way he feels.  If the issues seem to fade when the surroundings are less official-looking, less institutional . . . then I’d suggest that the woman’s voice wasn’t the only concern in the first place.

A particularly traditionally minded person once spoke for many of his mindset while on a youth retreat.  He noted a few nontraditional elements in what we were doing in that setting and commented setting, we could “get away with” more where we were (in a big cabin in the woods).  The praise team didn’t bother him there, for instance.  See what I mean?

The shield

In Ephesians 6 we have Paul’s famous, extended “armor of God” imagery.  Here are some memory-jogging highlights:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.  11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. . . .  13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. . . .  (Eph 6, NRSV)

In the context, we might first note the imperatives in 6:10-20.  The first imperative—”be strong” or “be strengthened”—while clearly indicating voluntary action on the part of the Christian, employs the “passive voice,” suggesting the power comes from another source.  In other words, the Ephesian Christian is not told to exercise his triceps, which would result in power based on his own efforts.  On the contrary, the source of power here is God.

A second notable aspect of this first imperative, to be strengthened, is that it appears to be modified by three succeeding imperatives,¹ and this fact is instructive.  We might then ask the question how is one to be empowered/strengthened?  Then we see the answer:  take up the armorthat’s how.   In other words, Paul employs the armor language in 6:13-17 to suggest how the strengthening or empowering is to occur.

Previously, here, I offered a generally pejorative look at the communicative issues with battle imagery.  I would like now to hone in on one piece of the armor—the shield of faith(fulness)—discussing its interpretation and application.  Although we could bog down in the type of shield (the word signifies not a little, round shield but a larger one), I rather want to shine light on the faithfulness represented by the shield.  Here is the text:

In every situation take the shield of faith,
and with it you will be able to extinguish
all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  (Eph 6:15b, HCSB)

Although Paul appears to have drawn on older texts in Ephesians 6,² this is the only time the word translated “shield” is used in all the NT writings.  It might also be noted that the Ephesians example gives us the most extended armor language in the NT.  Those observations might not turn out to be significant.  What we can be sure of is this, though:  in the Ephesians 6 micro-context, the shield is uniquely emphasized textually in at least these two respects:

  1. The expression “in all” or “in every situation” above (en pasin in Greek) appears with the shield but does not appear before the other armor elements.  The root word is employed several times in 6:10-20, perhaps most notably in v18 where prayer is the topic.
  2. The future tense, not used in connection with the other armor pieces, seems to indicate for Paul a certain result:  that the one who takes the shield will be able to extinguish the flaming arrows.

We should bear in mind that it’s not the size or composition of the shield, or the nature of the darts, that matters most.  It’s what the shield represents in the life of the believer:  pistis.  I use the English transliteration of the Greek word here both advisedly and conscientiously.  I certainly don’t intend to put up any barriers for those unfamiliar with Greek, but I do purposefully assert that it is the original word-concept to which we should appeal, not the word-concept that has developed around it—in another language, centuries later.  Pistis, or faith(fulness), is found all over the place in Paul’s writings; it appears eight times in Ephesians, for instance—in every chapter but the 5th.  The range of meaning for this word includes (1) trust, (2) “the faith,” i.e., a collected body of understood beliefs, and (3) faithfulness.  It is this last possible definition that I am after in the context of the shield of Ephesians 6:16.

Here I would refer to the motivated reader to Matthew Bates’s book Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King.  I have blogged about that book previously here and here.  I find Bates’s thoughts persuasive—and also very helpful to the overall Christian proposition in terms both of doctrine and pragmatics.

To reiterate:  in the perspective of 6:10-20, we see a built-in textual design that spotlights the being empowered/strengthened.  The taking up of the shield is illuminated by a somewhat less intense spotlight, but it is a spotlight nonetheless.  The primary concern is the pistis, not the shield.  But what did Paul mean by pistis?  Is it the “trust” aspect he had in mind in telling Christians to hoist the shield?  Or is it the quasi-corporate aspect of “the faith”—in other words, was Paul saying they should surround themselves with “people of ‘the faith'”?³  Perhaps one, or the other, or both.  Here, though, I commend the reading in blue below as plausible and perhaps the most helpful:

Be empowered . . . (6:10)

To do so, take up God’s armor; withstand, and stand firm (13, 14)

by fastening truth (14)
by putting on righteousness,
by preparing for spreading the gospel of peace
and in all, shielding yourself by allegiant living (6:16)
by topping with salvation
by being prepared to take the Spirit’s message

“Taking the shield of faith,” then, could mean “shielding oneself by making faithful choices that are loyal to the Lord.”  The verbs above are naturally plural, since Paul is writing to a group, so there is a corporate aspect to Paul’s language.  However, I would suggest that taking up the shield of faith represents an individual choice to live loyally to King Jesus.  This same King had been in the literary spotlight in 1:19-21:  God’s power led to His resurrection and ascension, and that same power is in turn connected to my being individually empowered to live loyally.  As I ponder, attempt weakly to live out, and experience a degree of allegiant living, I am becoming persuaded that holding the shield of faithfulness becomes an integral part of “standing firm” (6:13,14).  That same shield in turn is a key aspect of being empowered (6:10).

B. Casey, 10/24/18 – 11/7/18


¹ “Take on” and “receive” are basic past-tense imperatives that are “simply listing what empowerment entails.” – Stanley Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament (1999), 13,2.3

² Isaiah 59, Wisdom 5, and 1Thess 5.  The shield is not mentioned in Isaiah or in 1Thess.  Another word for “shield” is used in Wisdom 5 and in many other OT and Apocryphal texts.

³ On this point we might recall that the “struggle” of 6:12 appears to signify a close-encounter “wrestling match” type of conflict.  See my prior post here, noting particularly the expression “hand to hand combat” in the 3rd footnote there.

 

Does the “armor of God” imagery communicate as intended?

In Ephesians 6 we have Paul’s famous, extended “armor of God” imagery.  Where does this battle language come from?  Approximately 14 years prior, Paul had used similar language in his first letter to the Thessalonians.  He also appears to have drawn on other texts—specifically, Isaiah 59 and Wisdom 5:17-20.  These armor texts might at first seem about the same, yet it soon strikes the reader that there are similarities but no quotations per se. 

I don’t think the point in Ephesians 6 is to relate each piece of armor strictly to a particular aspect of Christian life.  It’s not, for example, that Paul is saying the helmet protects the salvation thoughts in our brains so we can avoid the loss of salvation.  Paul’s purpose in using this extended metaphor seems somewhat more general.  The battle imagery has found continued life in many Christian songs through the ages—some good ones and some not so good.  “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” (1742), for instance, contains quite a few expressions derived directly from Ephesians 6:

  • “Strong in the strength which God supplies and in His mighty pow’r” (6:10)
  • “Stand entire at last” (6:13)
  • “Take, to arm you for the fight the panoply of God” (6:11, with “panoply” being a transliteration of a Greek word)
  • Still let your feet be shod, ready His will to do (6:15)

The full poem (found here) does descend into militaristic machismo a time or two.  Here’s an example:

Brandish in faith till then the Spirit’s two-edged sword,
Hew all the snares of fiends and men in pieces with the Word

I doubt that stanza has ever shown up in a widely published hymnal (!), but the song’s references and analogies are communicative overall.

“Lord, Speak To Me” (1872) similarly echoes the Ephesians emphasis on being filled with God’s power, especially in the later stanzas:

  • “O strengthen me, that while I stand firm on the rock, and strong in Thee” (6:10, 11)
  • “O fill me with Thy fullness, Lord” (1:10; 4:13)

Never a favorite of mine but widely sung for more than a century, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” (1858) has some negative expressions, such as “charge for the God of battles, and put the foe to rout” and “each soldier to his post; close up the broken column, and shout through all the host.”  To my ear, those phrases are gratuitous appeals to those experienced in the military forces and are not very communicative of spiritual realities or imperatives.  Yet a phrase such as “put on the Gospel armor; each piece put on with prayer” does highlight not only the armor angle in Ephesians 6 but also the letter’s strong emphasis on prayer.  On the whole, it is easy to see why this song has been published in more than a thousand hymnals.

The children’s song “I’m in the Lord’s Army” includes these words:

I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery.
I may never zoom o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s Army!  (Yes, sir!)  

As the reader might remember, body motions suggestive of physical battle accompany that song.  And why shouldn’t there be (from a keep-the-children-active perspective)?  The actions are fun.  Yet weaning children on that kind of thing probably gets them thinking more about U.S.A. military service than about spiritual armor and battle.  Recently, I unexpectedly acquired a castoff record of George Beverly Shea (singer for Billy Graham crusades) and found myself unwittingly listening to a  song called “The Army of the Lord.”  This song is a hokey exhortation to march for the Lord, laced with Christianese, and set to music that unites Leroy Anderson with a sort of Sousa-like polka.  At least it didn’t become blatantly militaristic.  At this point, I start to wonder whether it’s been military personnel who write such things, as opposed to theologians or biblical exegetes.  Leaving those ill-advised examples now, let me comment more thoroughly on the implications of two songs I would call ambiguous or perhaps questionable.

In the church of my youth, we sang “Faith is the Victory” (Encamped Along the Hills of Light) (late 1800s) quite a bit, but I don’t think I’d sing it today without prefatory explanation for the sake of the contemporary mind.  For instance, what do the expressions “press the battle” or “let all our strength be hurled” mean to us nowadays?  Yes, in one sense, “faith is the victory that overcomes,” but if we appeal to those “saints above” who “with shouts of triumph trod” and “swept on o’er ev’ry field,” we might start to envision a physical battle, largely unaware of the unseen realm that is under consideration in Ephesians 6.  Put differently:  if we have human war mechanisms at the forefront, trying to apply their strategy and protective gear to the (spiritual) cause of Christ, we’ll stumble.  On the contrary, Paul had the cause of Christ in mind first, applying various metaphors and analogies in order to explicate Christian living, here focusing on the unseen.

The song has “we’ll vanquish all the hosts of night in Jesus’ conqu’ring name,” and that sounds like a mass military offensive, whereas Paul’s idea of “living as children of light” (Eph 5:8) is not aggressive at all.  His advice to put on the armor so that you can stand against the schemes of the devil (6:12) is singular/individual, so it’s a leap to conclude that this is directly about any kind of “army of the Lord” or the actions of any faith community group. 

Curiously, the music for the once-popular “Onward, Christian Soldiers” (1864) was written by Sir Arthur Sullivan¹ of British operetta fame.  Sabine Baring-Gould’s lyrical exhortation to be a soldier for the Lord is biblical, yet what is communicated now (or in the 1860s, for that matter) to an American by the term “soldier” may not be what was originally intended by the poet, an Englishman, in words written very hastily for a children’s procession.²  The first stanza (“marching as to war … with the cross of Jesus going on before”) seems the most problematic, possibly conjuring up Grant or Sherman for a Union loyalist, or Constantine and Theodosius for those with a broader view.  The song has been removed from some hymnals, but it might still be used judiciously, if one is aware of possible communication gaps.

Further on the differentiation of corporate military actions from the individual spiritual battle, we might note at this point that Paul chose a word for “struggle” (6:11) that had been used in secular literature for a wrestling match.  The word describes not a company-front marching offensive but an individual, up-close-and-personal conflict with the devil.³  Christian solidarity is no bad thing, but the notion of a Christian flag carried at the front of a marching military regiment communicates more to those versed in military history or experienced in the ways of war than to those who wish to understand the Christian life and mission on an individual scale.

Neither “Faith is the Victory” nor “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is a bad song if one interprets appropriately, but as the decades pass, and as we have in the collective consciousness not only the Civil War but the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein, ISIS, and more, the picture becomes obscured with different types of clouds.  The so-called Cold War and justifiable indignation over various outbreaks of tyranny, genocide, or human enslavement have led to increasing, many-faceted polarization.  Anti-war politicists are more in the mainstream, if not more rabid; and it seems increasingly likely that rightist “Christians” would indiscriminately mix human/geopolitical militarism with Pauline imagery, forgetting that killing people is foreign to Christ and His ways.  Apparently with notions of “manifest destiny” at heart, none other than the late Prime Minister of Great Britain said this, for example:

We sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers” indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we were serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals … it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.  W. Churchill, 1941)

It makes great sense for Mr. Churchill, as the Prime Minister, to have delivered that stirring-if-over-confident “kill the Nazis” rhetoric at that point in history, but his comments became presumptuous at the point at which he appealed to “on high.”  It was ignorant and arrogant for him to have mashed together (a) those who were killing the enemies with (b) those who spoke English, all under the aegis of “Christianity.”  Yes, presumptuous:  the very suggestion that God would help the English-speakers rid the world of that particular horror passes lightly over the prospects of death and hell in a way that Paul would abhor, suggests that Churchill and Truman had taken a prophetic mantle, and ignores that God had not always led His Old-Covenant people to physical victory.  So why would God assure Great Britain and the U.S.A. a victory from on high?

In the event that I would be judged too serious and “too heaven-minded to be of any earthly good” at this point, let me share this fine parody on “Onward, Christian Soldiers”:

Like a mighty tortoise,
Moves the Church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
Where we’ve always trod.

(Ian Bradley, The Book of Hymns, New York:  Testament Books, 1989, p. 333)

Perhaps church music in our era is no more nuanced or developed in the few instances in which it uses military imagery.  In my estimation, “The Battle Belongs to the Lord” (1984), full of musical strength, has some ironically weak lines.  It is not a great song, but it does greatly point to the great Lord.  Surely it is good to remind ourselves often that we have a greater One to serve.  In considering this notion, we might recall Paul in 2Tim 2:  the soldier’s aim is to please his “commanding officer.”  And of course, the Lord’s power and strength are themes in Ephesians (e.g., 1:19ff; 3:16,20; 6:10).

The hymn-style “Fight the Good Fight” (1853) was once among my top 50, but I doubt it rises to that level for many.  My conception of it was shallow, and its words do not even speak much of battle or armor, but I mention it here mostly to call attention to its title.  “Fight the Good Fight” would not be sung much these days because concepts fighting and battles are different now, geopolitically speaking.  I do love expressions such as “Christ is thy path, and Christ thy right,” “lay hold on life, and it shall be thy joy and crown eternally” and “upon thy Guide lean.”

Perhaps it is largely a result of my non-violence bias that I find so much of the military imagery in songs to zoom over the area of Paul’s real concern.  The singer may mentally don his fatigues and load his guns, having been raised in post-World War America, before he ever stops to ponder what Paul was really writing about.  As we ponder what “spiritual warfare” in the unseen realm means to individual Christians and to our churches, I think there are multiple good reasons to emphasize the shield of faith(fulness)—both in the Ephesians literary context and in the real-life context of Christian existence.  In the next post, I will deal more briefly with an interpretation of this central piece of the “armor.”

B. Casey, 10/24/18 – 11/4/18


¹ Operetta, a subgenre touched off by Jacques Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan combo, is light, humorous opera.  Sullivan wrote comparatively few “serious” works.  It would come as no surprise that no deep or stately connection to Christian theology arose when Baring-Gould’s words were set to his music.  Aside:  Sullivan wrote “religious music” while being known to have adulterous affairs, indulge heavily in gambling, and participate in Freemasonry.  See this Wikipedia link for more information.

² Baring-Gould apparently had second thoughts about some of the words and revised some later.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onward,_Christian_Soldiers.

³ According to Benjamin Merkle, the word πάλη  | palē “was most widely used for the sport of wrestling.”  Merkle continues, “. . . Paul is envisioning a fierce battle and not merely an athletic competition.  Nevertheless, the term may have been used to intensify the closeness of the battle.  The struggle is not fought by proxy or at a distance but involves close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat.”  Benjamin L. Merkle, Ephesians, ed. Köstenberger and Yarbrough, B&H Publishing Group, 2016.

Come together

The number of “together” words and expressions in the NC¹ documents is impressive.  As I live and read and think, I apprehend these words (many of which begin with the prefix “syn” and many of which are found in Pauline literature), comprehend them as I can, and ponder their significance.

For example, we find five instances of synerchomai” (come together”) in 1Corinthians 11:17-34, and two more in 14:23-26.  There are quite a few more “syn” words in Romans, and three in Ephesians (with some duplication of two key examples in Colossians), where the coming together of Jew and gentile² is a key topic.  Paul might even have coined some of these words.

When no single term exists to translate a word, it will naturally appear as a phrase in our English Bibles, and that is the case with the ones I’ve selected below.  The spiritual realities embedded in these “with” words/phrases should elicit a reaction nothing short of “wow”:

Romans
6:4 buried with Him (pl.)
6:6 crucified with Him (sg.) (note:  this Greek word drops the “n” on the prefix “syn”)
6:8 live with Him (pl.)
8:17 (2 words) suffer with Him (pl.)
be glorified with Him (pl.)
Ephesians
2:5 made us alive together with Him (sg.)
2:6 (2 words) raised us up with Him (also Col 2:12, Col 3:1) (sg.)
seated us with Him in the heavenlies (sg.)
2:21 joined us together (participle) (sg.)
2:22 built together (passive voice) (pl.)
4:3 bond of peace (noun)
4:16 joined and held together (participle) (sg.)

Paul’s choice of singular vs. plural is intriguing, and studying the senses of participles may be, as well.  Primarily, though it seems to me that Paul is intent on presenting and intensifying a cognizance of spiritual togetherness.  To what extent do we comprehend these realities and their underpinnings?

Men named denominations like the “United Church of Christ” and “Unity” and Unification Church—ostensibly with some sense of unified “with each other” in mind, but the basis of the unification is questionable.  In some cases, it seems as though people are supposed to unify over nothing (or little to nothing).  In the case of Paul’s theology, however, it is hardly nothing.  Cosmic significance is found in the unification of Jew and gentile.  The two groups are with each other, and that is the unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:3).  The basis of the unity is sound, solid, and spiritually significant, for it is none other than Jesus the Christ.  I think that fact is as significant now as it was then.  Christians are with each other in a very spiritually rich sense.  We are buried together, made alive together, raised up together, and more—because of Jesus.


¹ I sometimes like to choose “NC” over “NT” for reasons of stylistic variety and because of my interest in the word “Covenant” in addition to the older, more time-tested word “Testament.”
² The lower-case “g” on the word “gentile” is intentional.  I think it helps our understanding of the 1st-century milieu to see “Jew” as more of a proper name, with “gentiles” serving more as a common-noun catch-all for others, i.e., non-Jews.

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.

 

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.