To remember and honor: Grandmother Casey

Ruth Edwards Casey, b. 7/14/1914, Denmark, AR

Grandmother Casey would have been 104 today.  The picture above was probably taken in Texas, perhaps when she was in her late 60s.  She was the last of my grandparents to live on this earth, and she was an unassuming, industrious, unselfish, worthy woman.  My grandparents’ house, also unassuming, was on Market Street in Searcy, just across from the sidewalk that split the student center and the American Heritage Building.  The house no longer exists, but memories do.

Two cars could park parallel to the street in front of the house.  I remember four cars my grandparents The 1963 Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe had crisp and angular styling.owned from my early childhood through my 30s:  a ’53 Chevy that my grandfather drove to work in Judsonia, a white Chevy sedan that looked much like the one here; and two green Plymouth Furys from the 70s.  I drove one of those Furys myself, and I can remember how it sounded when it started.

There was a tiny storage barn “out yonder” on the north end of the property.  (I think it had once housed chickens.)  The large front porch featured a hanging bench swing.  I remember the unheated, fully enclosed “back porch” where one could always find aged 2-liter bottles of Dr. Pepper and Coke, old newspapers, a washer and dryer, and cleaning products.  A door went through to the 2nd bedroom, but that door was almost never opened.  Back in the back room (also unheated, and reached only through the 2nd bedroom), there was an 8-track player with two cassettes that Grandmother had won in a radio call-in contest.  I remember a box full of simple toys—for example, a nonfunctional camera and some empty, plastic, Avon bottles—that Grandmother or Granddaddy would get out when the grandkids came home for Christmas.  Grandmother would giggle and sometime even cackle.

Arkansas could be awfully hot, and there were two window air conditioners.  It could also get deceptively cold in winter, and Grandmother would stand near the “fire” (a large, vented gas heater in the corner of the living room) with her hands behind her, warming herself.  I remember her kitchen—dwarfed by a table that could seat eight if it had to—and the lack of counter space that she somehow worked with anyway.  She had a wooden stool with fold-out steps, and I would sometimes find her up on it, reaching for something in an upper cabinet.  We went out once a month or so to eat at Wendy’s or Pizza Inn.  She never had much money, but she had a few good friends; Laverne and Lavelle stand out in particular, but people all over who knew her had kind words for her.  She picked strawberries every spring with Laverne during the time I was aware of it.  She had younger friends, too—for instance, Patti, our family’s good friend from Delaware, attended Harding and was at Grandmother’s house regularly.  Patti has spoken glowingly of Grandmother to me, indicating how she “loved Ruth Casey.”  Marcella from next door considered her a friend, too.  The Latham sisters’ storm cellar, three doors down, was a haven during a tornado warning a time or two.

I had the benefit of Grandmother’s cooking on a daily basis during my 3.5 years as an undergraduate at Harding University.  She would serve lunch according to my chorus rehearsal schedule (11:45-12:35 one year, 1:00-1:50 the next, then back to 11:45).  Dinner came after band rehearsal, around 5:45.  I don’t think she left me without a meal once, although I barely took enough time to thank her.  (Yes, I gained weight during college!)  Grandmother once scolded me a little for not wanting her to spend time ironing my shirts.  She liked serving others and would sometimes also welcome my friends to her table–Kandy, Allen, Glenn, Jim, and Debbi, for instance.

Grandmother was a homemaker most of her life but had worked outside the home briefly.  She took up the piano in her late 50s or early 60s, acquiring a cast-off upright from the college.  That piano was in its only possible place in that house–the 8×8 hall with five doors, leading to bedrooms, the bathroom, the living room, and the front porch.  (The door to the porch was never opened after the piano was moved in.)

I sometimes left notes on the telephone table across from the piano, and I addressed them to “GMC,” but I called her “Grandmother.”  That might sound formal or distant if you called yours “Grandma” or “Nana,” but that doesn’t mean my grandmother herself was distant in any sense.  She was comfortable to be around, and I always liked being in her house.  My sisters also had the benefit of living with her for a year or two during college, and they then called her “Gram.”  These days, if she were around, and in view of one of my own developing interests, I might call her “Gramma(r).” ¹

Compared to my other grandmother, Grandmother Casey was less educated, more nurturing, and non-judgmental.  She attended the College Church pretty much every time the doors were open, sitting near the back, often with a friend.  She had only two Bibles:  a KJV and a Living Bible.  She read them at home but didn’t talk much about anything deep.  I’d say she was shy but was also a true believer.  On a few occasions, I tried to engage her about spiritual things, and she responded with faith, concern, and not too many words.

After Grandmother died in 1992, my uncle uncovered her checkbook and showed it to my dad.  She had done the math meticulously and apparently often was down around $1.00 before the next Social Security check came.  There was always room in her house and at her table for another, though.  I wish my son could have known her,² but she was gone nearly two decades before he was born.  Grandmother Casey was a good lady.  I miss you, Grandmother, and I wish you had met Karly and Jedd.

¹ Here is a short list of gramma(r) issues I’ve heard just in the past week or so, from three different people:

  • I need it broke down.
  • It was already ran.
  • I seen him.

My grandmother had fine grammar, especially for an uneducated woman.  I just felt like including the above.  🙂

² Jedd has what I consider a skewed sense of extended family, for two reasons.  (1) the generations are very spread apart, so more grands and greats have died, and (2), to say the least, there are some very unbecoming, non-familial people on both sides of our family.  I am thankful that Jedd knows well his great-grandmother Clara and a great aunt Marie on Karly’s side, and he knew/knows both of my parents.  A couple years ago, he had met a great-grandfather, John, and he’s been a round a few others.


To edit and harmonize (opportunity for musicians)

If the publishers had only asked, I would have edited and re-harmonized this song for them in the children’s theater script!  First off, I would have researched whether the “Mexican polka” idiom is real.  Perhaps there is a better description.  Next, I would like to have known about the Spanish grammar in measures 1-2.  In context, it means “very clever/cunning, very devilish,” but, Spanish-speaking friends, isn’t “diablo” a noun, not an adjective?  Maybe this would be an idiomatic or slang expression?   Now to the stuff I know more about:

  • In the last line, “yip” is probably better as a staccato eighth than as a dotted quarter.  It’s impossible to sustain the “p” consonant, and a sustained vowel (“yiiiiiiip”) sounds dumb.  Practically speaking, a shorter notation would make the interpretation of those notes unmistakably clear to a less-than-confident, neophyte director.
  • I think I would have started it with a D (IV) chord through the whole first measure.  If so, maybe an Amaj7 in measure 2?  Better yet, how about this for the first 4 measures:

|  D ///  |  C#min ///  |   Bmin7 / E9 /  |  A /// |

  • Anyone for an F# minor (vi) chord in m. 6?  That would have helped to make it more of a real progression in measures 5 through 8. One has to try things sometimes, and it looks like this tune benefited from precisely zero read-throughs before it was published.
  • Now, can you spot two outright errors (melody/harmony mismatches) in the last half of the song?

In the play, the college-student helper who played guitar did a great job, adjusting her rhythm to match the kids on stage, and her guitar stylings sounded pretty authentic to me.  Our son Jedd also did well as Puerco the porcupine.  He had quite a few lines at the beginning and the end, serving as the Master of Ceremonies at an animals’ fiesta.  And my TAMUK friends will be happy to know he pronounced “Armadillo” authentically!

You’ve got this (they say)

Image result for catching fly ballIn baseball, when there’s a fly ball near two players, one is supposed to call, “I’ve got it!” (if in fact he is sure he can catch it in the air).  If he turns up with the ball in his glove, well, then he did in fact get it.  The results are pretty clear.

In various life situations, it’s fashionable to assert “I’ve got this.”  Alternately, friends who wish to be supportive will sometimes say to someone facing an obstacle, “You’ve got this.”  The “___ got this” sometimes turns out to have been an overstatement at best.  I think immediately of two situations in which the result could be called into question.

  • A woman confidently asserted, “I’ve got this” and did in fact make a great stride, but it is only a temporary, limited victory.  Did she “have this”?  Time will tell, but I doubt it.
  • A dad encouraged his young son the pitcher with “You’ve got this!” but turned out to be incorrect.  More batters walked, the pitching form deteriorated further, the umpiring didn’t really help, and the game was lost.

I’ve begun to look the other way in sympathetic embarrassment, not wanting people who say “I’ve got this” or “you’ve got this” to be proven wrong.  When someone says one of those things, the reality of the result isn’t always as clear as with a fly ball to the outfield, but the situation can usually be sized up at some point.  I start to think “You’ve got this” is little more than an empty phrase.

In Christian circles, some are fond of saying, “God’s got this.”  As for me, I wonder how they Image result for God's got thiscan be so confident.  A Google image search brings up a whole caboodle of e-designs, most of which were probably originally on church signs or PowerPoint sermon slides, e.g., the one shown here.  I suppose God Himself could utter this pop-culture saying, and He would always be correct.  I mean, if He actually were to proclaim, “I’ve got this,” well, then, He does.  (Would He say “I got this” instead of “I’ve got this” in order to communicate well with English speakers who don’t use good grammar?  Maybe so.)

In one sense, it is an expression of faith to assert that God’s “got” something, but I still wonder how the reality, or lack of it, is ascertained in some situations.  Honestly, the saying sometimes seems more like shallow, nearsighted, human overconfidence than faith.

Fly balls may fall to the ground; pitching and personal business may go out of control.  Those are normal-life things, some of which we can control,¹ to an extent.  You or I might claim “I’ve got this” with limited implications.  The “God’s got this” thing, though, goes directly to the eye of faith:  how far, and how well, can I see?  And I’ll go further, out on a limb:  how can a “got-this” God who exists out of time be seen by those who are bound within time?

On this point, please take a few minutes to hear and ponder the late Rich Mullins’s words, from his song “Hard To Get” (YouTube link here).  I resonate with one of Mullins’s poignant prayer-thoughts:

You who live in radiance,
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin.

¹ Some would say that any sense of human control over events in our physical lives is an illusion.  I disagree.

To serve and contribute

Some time ago, I worked for a specified time time in a difficult role.  I worked hard, and I worked well.  I felt appreciated by subordinates and was commended by colleagues for my service.  However, I learned recently that my former supervisor spoke of me in a less-than-complimentary way, and I felt blindsided.

I notice that it is getting more and more difficult to spin things positively.  Mistreatment breeds insecurity, distrust, and disillusionment.  These can in turn lead to rash statements (of which I have been guilty).

I’ve had more than one difficult boss in my life.  (My current boss is just fine, and he seems to appreciate what I try to do, I hasten to point out!)  But not everyone has been like that.  One previous boss was embarrassing to be around at times.  He was called “a bull in a china shop” by a colleague.  Another one was called a “dud” by his boss.  Another looked like (and acted a bit like) Boris Yeltsin.  Yet another boss was a flash in the pan, coming on like gangbusters with unwise, early decisions and moving on pretty quickly.  That one seemed deliberately to mislead me on one occasion by diverting attention to a personal connection (instead of dealing with time-sensitive substance) for nearly an hour.  I’ve had a few benign bosses, and a few very good ones.  But one boss had done what he could to undercut his predecessor, forcing him out; then the guy promptly undercut the good I had been doing (which had been documented and strongly approved by said predecessor).  Aside from the boss element, more than one position I’ve held has turned out to be something other than what it was cracked up to be.  In one situation long past, it was my immaturity and a philosophical misfit that led to my decision to move on quickly.  In two others, I was treated dishonorably and even unethically.  I feel at this point that I have had more than my share of difficult situations.

I should also acknowledge that I have not always been the easiest employee for my bosses.  I’m relatively task-oriented but can become distracted and discouraged when barriers arise, one after another.  I’m communicative, honest, and helpful, but my manner of communication can be problematic for people who are less complex.  I’m creative, and a natural analyzer/challenger of the status quo, but also a proofreader—which is patently annoying to some people who don’t pay attention to those kinds of details.  Some of these qualities, while they are strengths, can also make me difficult to “manage.”  (Fortunately, I neither need nor want managing most of the time!)  I have made unwise decisions, and I have spoken too quickly on occasion, but I have never been unethical or misrepresented facts to hurt someone else, whereas those things have been perpetrated on me.  Thinking back . . . and I do think and remember too much of the past . . . I have an increasingly difficult time believing in people, processes, and institutions.  It can be hard for me to maintain a positive outlook.  Basically, in my better moments at the outset of a new endeavor, I see the good and am enthused over the potential, but when downturns occur, I can become cynical because of past experiences.

New opportunities
I think I’ve been a positive contributor to a startup arts school’s board during the last year or so, but my role is so far limited, and that school will be 60 miles away.  Now comes the opportunity also to serve in a nearby public school organization.  I would get nothing for this other than some potential fulfillment as I try to help the cause.  Can I ultimately be a positive contributor?  My answers to two application questions about this role led to some reflection, and it was not easy to probe certain situations mentally.  For the time being, here are two sentences through which I hope I presented myself and my potential contribution both honestly and in an upbeat manner:

“I would rather listen, share collaboratively, and attempt to bring collective wisdom to bear along with others than simply to wonder or listen to gossip.”  (I intended the “gossip” reference to speak to certain newspaper articles and a destructive, gossipy Facebook group that has made the school’s work more difficult.)

“I am honest and sincere to a fault, often governed by principle.  I am usually able to see various “shades of gray,” and I can intuit fairly well, but I am also rational.”


What do you think of those statements?  If you were forming a team of people to help a public school, would that sound terrific, or would any of it give you concern?

Christian groups
May I just say that it’s also difficult, given the paths I’ve traversed with churches and other Christian groups, to consider and speak of those possibilities in a positive light.  I have seen a bit too much and have become  disillusioned after successive experiences.  So many churches are little more than religion clubs, and Sundays can be humdrum at best.  Where are the believing analyzers, the dedicated disciples-in-training, the challengers and reformers with whom I could partner?  I don’t have much patience with the antics of ritual, but I do want to be in the midst of thoughtful, organic/simple approaches to Christian gatherings, earnest efforts to engage with scripture texts, and honest moves to honor God in word, thought, and deed.

General/civic engagement
I retain a longing to contribute to good things of various types, even if I’m not fully “on board.”  Last Sunday morning, I did something that I put in this category (although you might just as well place it in the above section).  On the previous two days, I did something else to help another group.  I don’t actually do very much at this point, mind you.  My wife is more interested and involved in certain aspects of “civic life,” but I do think about things and stay marginally informed on a local level.  Serving as an assistant coach on my son’s baseball team was terrific in terms of working relationships, and I’d say the three of us did something good for the community through the team . . . but I do have some suggestions for the league that might not make me popular with them.  Remember, I’m creative, analytical, and a proofreader by nature.  Plus, I actually have the gall to believe that umpires ought to be able to identify the strike zone before being inflicted on unsuspecting, young players!

For more on civic service, please see

Next in series: 

“To edit and harmonize (opportunity for musicians)”

“To explain and clarify,” an even less comfortable post that defies categorization as it covers some old personal ground.  This one may take a while to finalize.

Freedom reflections

“Freedom” is an English word which suggests a value held by most Americans—arguably, an innate value.  What, though, is the referent of “freedom”?  It depends on the context.  Are we talking about Scots in the feudal period (see my essay with a Braveheart connection here), 19th-century Africans-become-Americans on the move, Jews or Christians in the 1st-century Roman Empire, or “free speech” in the 21st century?¹

I presume that all thoughtful people, regardless of how (or if) they feel patriotic, or how they support (or do not support) military action, can agree on a few things—for instance, that the loss of human life is to be avoided when possible, and that all human enslavement in recent history is abhorrent.  I certainly consider freedom from such enslavement a worthy human cause.  I would like to spend a few clarifying minutes here, though—sharing an illuminating, distinguishing feature of “freedom” in the New Covenant writings.  There can yet be appropriate lessons for Christians to draw out on the occasion of a national holiday.  I hope this post turns out to impress readers as just such a lesson, refining and deepening our thinking.

We should be aware, first off, that concepts and practicalities around freedom and slavery have changed through the ages.  What felt like freedom to an ancient, freed Hebrew who had lived in Egypt would surely still feel like bondage to me, a person of some privilege.  We know more of the life of a bondservant in New Testament times, but assumptions must still be made.  One conclusion we might draw is that, whatever Paul thought about about Roman-era slavery, he didn’t consider it inherently evil, or he wouldn’t have sent the “slave” Onesimus back to Philemon, and he wouldn’t have told “slaves” to obey their masters.  The point here is that one must learn something of the reality of the situation—the context of the “freedom”—before he can make apt assessments.  Moreover, the human enslavement that occurs today is of a different stripe from that of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in western Africa (and they’ve all been awful, on the whole).

The first three “freedom” definitions given in one e-source all focus attention on liberty from something—from restraint, from despotic government, or from enslavement.  Those definitions and references do summon images and historical education for many of us.  But these are not necessarily directly related to “freedom” in the NT writings.

In 2015, Dr. Larry Hurtado, an influential, reputable scholar retired from the University of Edinburgh, wrote a paper entitled “Freed by Love and for Love:  Freedom in the New Testament.”  Hurtado first treated NT references to freedom in the historical context of Roman slavery, which again deserves consideration in its historical context.  He proceeds to emphasize that, in the NT, freedom is “for a certain direction in life” (Hurtado p. 1) and is to be seen in (positive) connection to other people.  This freedom for something is to be seen in contrast to mere freedom from something—even something as dehumanizingly evil as the kind of slavery we typically think of.  On the contrary, the secular view of freedom in the Roman world—and, we daresay, throughout the West today—is often seen to be “at the expense of others, their labor and service enabling one to enjoy a freedom from labor and service.” (p. 25)  This assertion at first sounds overdone, but I consider it justifiable.  In other words, the freedom I enjoy as a U.S. citizen does not on the surface seem to be at the expense of others, yet when it is analyzed, a good part of it turns up wanting.  Hurtado’s point seems valid.

I don’t share all of Hurtado’s perspectives or concerns, and I wouldn’t claim any more than 10% of his intellectual capacity and insight, but I surely do appreciate the whole of his “Concluding Reflections,” which I reproduce below, with bold emphases of my own.  Again, the stress is not on what one is free for, but on what she is freed to do.

Anyone may find Hurtado’s paper freely available in its entirety here.

– B. Casey, 5/20/18 – 6/30/18

Those who require an explicit scriptural text to authorize any thought or action will find the absence of NT statements on political liberation either frustrating or a (dubious) justification for conservatism.  Those whose vision of liberation is essentially a hastily baptized version of Greek traditions of autarchy will find the NT vision of freedom incomprehensible and repugnant.  I suggest, however, that both responses reflect shallow thinking.  In any case, neither represents an adequate engagement with the NT.

As we have noted earlier, the NT does not teach about political liberation, largely because the sorts of actions open today (especially political organization) were not available or even conceived then.  But the strong affirmation and enhancement of personal moral agency in the NT are most compatible with social and political environments that make ample room for freedom of conscience and action.  The agapē urged in the NT requires a real measure of personal freedom in order to be exercised authentically.  It is not possible to render the love advocated in the NT under compulsion and coercion.  So, e.g., freedom of religion and conscience, and freedom from intimidation and oppressive social relationships are essential for the cultivation of opportunities for true faith and loving freedom to be exercised.

The eschatological vision that fuels NT teaching on freedom and other matters has been effectively lost in most versions of Christianity, along with the concomitant radical view of evil, with unfortunate results.  Conservative Christianity has tended to identify too readily the Kingdom of God with this or that political regime (from Constantine onward), whereas liberal Christianity has tended to under-estimate the depth of evil and in its own ways has tended to assume that radical change for the better can be achieved by well-intentioned people.  But the eschatological outlook of the NT reflects a profound, if jarring, view of the human predicament, which, in view of daily news reports, at least seems more realistic.  Moreover, that same eschatological hope also requires a stubborn refusal to confuse any human regime with God’s Kingdom, which should allow scope for critique of all regimes, even those established in the name of freedom.

The NT emphasis on freedom for the love of others may be instructive as well.  There are plenty of indications that modern liberal democracies are good at promoting individualism, and a culture of self-attainment.  But these societies are not very successful in promoting a productive and free social cohesion, and common values, or in getting individuals to use their wealth and other advantages for the good of other people.  Perhaps, then, the remarkable version of freedom in the NT is worth a second look.  One implication of the NT treatment of freedom is that a “free” society cannot be measured simply in the degree of autocracy exercised by individuals.  In today’s political climate, choice is a major commodity offered by politicians to a public coached to prize enjoyment of maximum personal opportunities.  But the NT idea of freedom rejects acquisitive choice in favour of serious and productive inter-personal involvement.  This dynamic freedom involves a greater realization of one’s own moral agency and an enlargement of one’s vision to take in others.  The expression of this sort of freedom promotes inter-personal relationships that nurture and enhance others, freely loving others in the power of God’s freely given redemptive love.

– from Dr. Larry Hurtado, “Freed by Love and for Love:  Freedom in the New Testament” (2010)

For the benefit of both sets of readers, this is also posted on my Kingdom blog.

For more (roughly) seasonal reading:

Nations—a probing of the ideas and concepts in the word(s)

The Babylon Bee can step on toes—and be rather probing with its stingers.  Enjoy this year-old satire on one of the U.S.’s special days:

Former enlisted man now a CO  (about what happened to change a “soldier’s” philosophy and allegiance)

¹ I don’t list here the countless Christian songs that rhyme with “set free.”  Some of them might have something theologically sound in the background, but others seem rather glib and gratuitous, with no particular reference.

Going back (1)

There seems to be something that causes humans in some kind of crisis to need to return to something they had previously known—and in which they had found some kind of comfort.  I’m not sure how to label this observed human tendency, so, for lack of a better term, I’m just calling it “going back.”  One or two other “going back” blogs may appear; those will be of different types.  Here, I am thinking primarily of the spiritual, sociological, and/or psychological pitfalls inherent in retreats to one’s former ways.  Thus, “going back.”

The scenarios to which people go back might be positive or neutral.  A family friend, upon learning of my trying times in another phase of life, commented that I might need to go back to “the Northeast,” which is the area of the country in which I was raised.  I did go back, rather purposefully, and it turned out to be a good thing for a while.   Going back can also be decidedly negative, such as with incarcerated individuals who, upon obtaining freedom, may revert subconsciously or even intentionally to harmful or illegal ways of life.

A person who struggled rather openly with homosexuality later repudiated homosexual practice in a speech to other believers.  Still later, the person went back to homosexual practices that began during child abuse, presumably (consciously or subconsciously) looking for some emotional salve.

Again, not all retreats constitute lapses or regressions, but many do.  Countless would be the sad stories of alcoholics who start on the recovery road but then return to destructive drinking.  I have also seen people go back negatively in conjunction with the impending failure of a marriage.  For instance, a deacon in a Restoration Movement Church went back to his less-well-founded religious roots even as he concurrently abandoned his family.

I knew of a person who had accepted principles of non-participation in human government as an expression of allegiance to Jesus Christ’s examples, teachings, and Kingdom  That person made demonstrably poor, sinful choices over a period of months and was eventually divorced.  A couple years later, in a new dating relationship, the person went back to the pro-military stance affirmed in the family of origin.  It would be hard to say this “going back” could have led directly to any emotional solace, but there might have been something vaguely comforting about returning to one’s roots.  What became of the higher, more enlightened way learned as a young adult?  It is difficult to imagine that both the prior course and the latter one were both matters of conscience.  Perhaps the conscience was undeveloped in the first place, allowing room for political conservatism to edge out Christ-ian devotion.

A family lost an adult son in a horrific accident.  One of the parents has reverted, in some measure, to his Roman Catholic upbringing, seeming to find meaning there, even though he retains connections in evangelical non-denominational, quasi-Reformed expressions of Christianity.  (I don’t know the timing for a fact here, but it is difficult to conceive of another reason in this particular case other than the life-tragedy experienced.)  Even for those who see Roman Catholicism as one way among many or even as the way, an argument could be made in this case that the redirection constituted a conceptual regression.

The particular “goings back” that I have noted are but a few, but I hope the general point is clear:  something often causes humans in some kind of of crisis to revert to something they had previously known—something in which they had found solace or meaning.

This has perhaps amounted to little more than an unstudied observation about human nature.  Is there a doctrinal “beware” here?  Something related to the “Hebrews” letter, maybe?  I wouldn’t suggest that every negative “going back” (above or otherwise) should connote the revulsion of a dog returning to its own vomit (Prov 26:11; 2Pet 2:22).  At times, it seems, we return to patterns of the past, and at times, those are negative patterns.  Moving away from observations of others, I ought to beware of any destructive or negative “going back” behaviors in my own life.

Two empires (2 of 2)

Now posted on my other blog here:  a second set of quotations on the kingdom of God from Sweet and Viola’s Jesus Manifesto.  Ostensibly moving from the “manifestos” of Marx & Engels and Francis Schaeffer, these packed-with-punch authors pen powerful statements such as these:

Justice does not assume freedom from suffering.

The kingdom is a presence that we enter, a gem-like gift that we receive and treasure, a new creation that engulfs and embraces us. In other words, the kingdom of God is Jesus the Christ, and his righteousness.

Christians don’t follow Christianity.  They follow Christ. 

Click here to see this whole second set of quotations, and here for the first set.


Interesting translation questions in Philemon 6-10

In returning to Philemon for two different purposes lately, I’ve been engaged again in the deep study of this absolute gem of a letter.  I’ve been reworking my own translation basted on expanded knowledge and senses of the letter as a whole.  Below are some translation-oriented matters that have particularly intrigued me in Philemon verses 6-10:

6 – The expression “partnership/fellowship of faith”—which has so many possibilities that it can make your head spin.  At issue here are the numerous ways to understand the genitive case of the noun “pistis,” most often translated “faith”—and also the range of meaning of both nouns individually.  “Partnership” (koinonia) can also be “fellowship” or even “contribution.”  Although financial concepts do appear in this short letter to Philemon, I rather feel the sense here is more strongly tied to joint effort.  I am aware, for instance, of the notable greetings and concluding phrases about fellow-workers and fellow-prisoner.  The primary sense of the word “koinonia” here is the work together, the partnership.

Although I am intensely aware th ese days of the NT word “pistis,” insofar as I can tell, I did not come to this passage with a prejudice over whether “pistis” implies mental assent, trust, fidelity (or some combination of the three) in this passage.   For the present, however, I’ve ended up with the translation “faithful partnership,” which does lean in an atypical direction, along the lines of author Matthew Bates’s suggestions.  (See this post on my Subjects of the Kingdom blog for more on Bates’s book Salvation by Allegiance Alone and the translation of πιστις | pistis.) 

6 – The beginning of v6.  Just before the expression “partnership” and “faith” appears the word “hopos.”  The import of this word is a trifle difficult to narrow down.  Traditionally, the words “I pray” have been supplied by translators.  (One must supply something in order to have the verse make sense in English.)  “I pray that …” is not the only possibility, however.  “Hopos,” the lead word, is not nearly as common as its cousins “hina” and “hoti,” which head many clauses in Greek, and which usually mean something along the lines of “in order that” or “because.”  The question here is whether “hopos” serves more of an adverbial function (how the next thing relates to the former) or a conjunctive one (joining the two in a different way).

In the BDAG lexicon, a conjunctive sub-type is proposed as a possible fit for Philemon 6.  In this sub-type, the word “hopos” essentially replaces an understood infinitive.  Accepting this possibility, and reaching back to include the main verb in v4, one comes out with

“I thank God …, (v4)
hearing of your love …, (v5)
and I want to ask that….” (v6)

Why not simply stick with the traditional understanding that Paul is continuing his prayer in v6?  Well, because I suspect Paul is moving toward asking something of Philemon instead of God here, and he might be intentionally engaging in a bit of ambiguity.  Supplying a verb such as “to ask” can leave both possibilities open.

6 – The word “epignosei.”  This word can mean knowledge or full knowledge but seems in the context of Philemon to move in the direction of recognition or awareness of “every good thing.”  This expression is used twice in the letter—intentionally so, I’m persuaded.

7 – The word “splangxna.”  This interesting word is most often translated “heart,” and it is discursively significant within the Philemon document.  The thing is, this is a plural word, and it’s exclusively used in the plural in the NT.  Clearly, though, it cannot be translated “hearts” in many instances.  At issue here in Philemon are both linguistic and psychological concerns, i.e., how the ancients and we understand the source of human emotions.  The King James had “bowels,” which does a nice job with the plural but is obviously ill-advised in our age.

Personally, I’m moving away from “heart”—or I want at least to consider something different—because I feel that “heart” has been co-opted, becoming a kind of Christianese slang that could lead a reader down a rabbit trail instead of communicating to us what Paul was communicating to Philemon.  I am wondering about translating the plural word splangxna (which, by the way, I understand is diachronically etymologically connected to the English word “spleen”) as “affections.”  In Philemon, we would have

  • “the affections of the saints have been refreshed through you” (7)
  • “I am sending him back to you—the object of my (brotherly) affections” (12)
  • “revive my affections in Christ” (20)

At this moment, I like the “affections” option in v7 and v20, but not so much in v12, because it’s hard to make that phrase sound non-homosexual in English these days.  If we leave v12 as “heart” while rendering the other instances otherwise, though, the verbal connection is lost in the English translation.

7/8 – The parallel use of the verb “exo.”  This verb means “to have” and which appears in two distinct tenses in versus 7 and 8.  Regardless of the particular type of of aorist Paul intended in v7, the present participle form of this same verb in v8 seems to indicate some measure of heightened emphasis.  In other words, his saying “I have great boldness to command you” is stronger in some way than “I have great joy and consolation” above.

9 – The unusual (to me, at least) sequencing of words ὢν ὡς (ōn hōs). I think this expression is idiomatic.  The two words are (1) a being verb and (2) a particle of some kind—a conjunction, or a preposition, or an adverbial particle.  Taken together, we might translate “ōn hōs Paulos” simply as “This is I, Paul.”  In the mid-range context, Paul appears to be revealing himself, or self-identifying, as an old man and a prisoner—all for the sake of influencing Philemon’s future behavior.

9 – The word “presbutes,” often translated “elder” or “old man.”  “Presbutes” is used only twice in Paul’s extant writings.  Once in Luke makes a total of three instances in the NT.  I wondered whether the RSV rendering “ambassador” might be a viable one in Philemon 9.  A cognate of “presbutes” is used in Eph. 6:20, also juxtaposed with the prison (a different word for “chains” there than in Philemon).  The range of meaning of “presbutes” in non-NT literature does include “ambassador.”  Still, I’m not persuaded that it means “ambassador” here.

10 – A verb that roughly means “to become the father of”  How can gennao be translated in a way that comes across both smoothly and meaningfully in English?  Is “became my son” (switching the agency from the producer to the one produced, and converting the verb to a passive sense) sufficient to do Paul’s expression justice?

Xposted: Kingdom glances (3) — allegiance

Faithfulness/allegiance to the kingship of Jesus will ultimately be significant to everyone.  This final installment in a short series on my other blog speaks in some detail about some key language of Christian “faith”—which, as it turns out, is often the language of allegiance.

Among other challenges, Matthew Batesʼs Salvation by Allegiance Alone aims to move us toward a fuller, more apt understanding of pistis (“faith” in English Bibles).  Please click below (to my other blog) to read more on faith as allegiance to Jesus as King:

Apologies to readers who receive posts by e-mail for this blog.  I clicked prematurely yesterday.  If you have already read the linked post above, know that nothing has changed there other than a correction of a typo. 

A birthday tribute to the late KCR and ATR, Jr.

There are probably only two dozen birth dates I have remembered through the years, and this post comes precisely between two that have always stood out in my memory.  109 years ago last Wednesday, my maternal grandmother was born.  Two weeks later, my maternal grandfather was born.  Here they are in a well-worn photograph, at approximately the age I remember them best.

Kathryn Delma Cullum married Andy Thomas Ritchie, Jr. in 1933, and they had been married barely 50 years when the latter succumbed to congestive heart failure and other circulatory concerns (presumably related to diabetes).  Both of their fathers had been influential Christian leaders.  The two met at David Lipscomb high school and also attended David Lipscomb college (now University) in Nashville.  Their early life together included stints in radio and church work in Texarkana, Nashville, and Washington, D.C.  They would soon move to Searcy, Arkansas, where they would reside for the rest of their earthly lives.  Grandmother taught math at Harding Academy, and Granddaddy led the Harding College (now university) Chorus for approximately a decade, then taught Bible courses for the remainder of his career. 

After their children were grown, they took a voyage across the Atlantic—the trip of a lifetime—making stops in the Holy Land and in Scotland.  My perceptions of the two are limited since I saw them but once or twice a year through my childhood and teens, and I did not take enough advantage of their presence while I was a student at Harding.  Still, I can attest, based on second- and third-hand interactions, to the fact that their lives had impact on a great many people.

Grandmother played the piano well, often accompanying Granddaddy’s bass-baritone voice.  She had exceptional responsibilities for his care, since he was not only diabetic but also legally blind for the latter half of his life.  In hindsight, one of the things I would say she was known for was “juggling” a full-time teaching position, the raising of four children, and the care and support of her husband.  Rare would be the Harding Academy high school student who did not respect Kathryn Ritchie’s math teaching capability, her intelligence, upright living, and Christian devotion.  The College Church’s congregational singing included her strong alto for decades.

Also rare would be the spiritually attuned Harding College student in the late 40s, 50s, and 60s who did not hold Andy T. Ritchie, Jr., in the highest regard as a deeply, genuinely pious Christian and a devoted, humble servant of his Lord.  He led quite a few summer evangelistic campaigns in the Northeast, preaching nightly, and he worked in Christian camps, as well.  As a church leader, he was known for preaching and also for leading congregational singing, emphasizing high-quality songs with good poetry.  He led worship in song long before the term “worship leader” was fashionable.

I recently unearthed a song for which I’d written the music long ago.  I had set a poem that Granddaddy favored when performing weddings, including a few family ones.  Below is the complete poem by Richard Wightman:

Of course, the question how far will you go with me? and the ultimate notion of “going to the end of the lane” rise well above the sophomoric.  Grandmother, a late-in-life cancer victim who outlived Granddaddy by almost five years, certainly “traveled the lane” with devotion, and the two were a pair until the end.  Since I have no recording available of Granddaddy’s voice reading this poem, please accept two of my favorite songs from his solo record as a consolation prize.  At the point at which he recorded these, his voice and ear were probably a bit past their prime, but one can still perceive the talent and the storytelling ability.

Big Bass Viol

Little Boy Blue

Youth, service, and “God time”

In connection with what gets labeled as “God time,” I think of two youth group “mission trips” to Mexico.  I was not involved, so I know only second-hand of how the lives were affected, but I suspect those who went on the trips would agree that it was an entirely positive experience in terms of relationships with each other and with God.  If you asked Bret or Mark or Matt or Holly or any number of others, I’m sure they’d echo the last sentence.

Thom Schultz’s (Group Publishing) polls show that young people tend to draw strong connecting lines between service opportunities and relationship with God.  There is a downside, though.  Schultz mentions how these “service opportunities” are typically framed:

With all this ministry firepower working for us, you’d think we’d be dialed-in to the discipleship possibilities that service trips generate.  Instead, the actual experience most-often compartmentalizes the service part of the trip away from the “spiritual” part of the trip.  I mean, the work kids do to serve is framed as simply “helping people,” while the program (morning and evening gatherings, and devotion times) is billed as “God time.”

Well, the Kingdom of God is not organized into compartments.

– Thom Schultz (Group Publishing, Holy Soup blog), “De-compartmentalizing your Disciple-Making”

Right he is.

Of course, the Kingdom of God is not equivalent to the church or the institutional church, either (heavens, no).  Not one of those should be thought of as involving pigeonholes.  Even the institutional church is better conceived as having a reach outside the walls of a building.

Despite the influence and good intent of songs such as “Take Time To Be Holy,” it should be understood that no devotional or church assembly is inherently more holy or more “God timey” than helping people.  This reality does not downgrade the assembly or prayer or listening to Christian radio or studying the Bible.  It does, however, allow a higher berth for other Kingdom activities.

Story and narrative

It’s an age-old problem—distinguishing between stories on the one hand and stories on the other.  (Yes, that’s what I meant to say.)  The problem is precisely that the word “story” can be used in more than one way!

“Let me tell you a story about the storied history of a three-story house.”

Do you think a story that begins that way would be just a story, or will it be history?  The plot might thicken, or it might not.

Children’s bedtime stories might include “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Curious George Goes to the Fair” and “Peter Rabbit” and “Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” and Bible stories and something about pigs and pancakes.  How will a child learn to distinguish and interpret all this?  (Then there is the comparison between stories about Santa Claus and stories about Jesus, but that’s another story.  I worry about this off and on, but I don’t recall having trouble separating fact from fiction as I moved into preteen years, so I guess my son will be okay, too.)

As skeptics are quick to point out, not every element in a biblical story may be “true” as a 21st-century western mind conceives of “true.”  To be sure, some discrepancies and inconsistencies appear.  I think some of the difficulties may be traced to textual provenance and editing concerns—i.e., we don’t have the original text or even a 2nd-generation copy of it, so we can’t pinpoint how a new word or different spelling crept in.  Other incongruities indicate that ancient writers weren’t concerned with the accurate reporting of “fact” in the same way we are.  Yet the narratives in our Bibles were written to convey important truths, and they are largely structured around historical realities such as the Herodian dynasty, the 2nd/rebuilt temple, the Philistines, or ancient Egypt.

In interpreting narrative, it is both important and helpful to pay attention to the tools of the storytelling trade, such as . . .

  • the presentation and development of characters 
  • the pacing of a story—where it slows down and spends time, and where its gaps occur
  • the setting 

In the area of “setting,” I recommend this short video produced by The Bible Project