Epilogue: perceiving the Judges

The history of Israelite Judges is an account of a series of so-called deliverersEach one, in sequence, appears to have been victorious over this or that people group, in this or that way, for some length of time.  John Bright has offered a neat historical portrait:

It must be understood that the Israel of the early days in Palestine was not at all a nation as we would understand the term.  On the contrary, she was a tribal League, a loose confederation of clans united one to another about the worship of the common God.  There was no statehood or central government of any sort.  The clans were independent units unto themselves.  Within the clans there was the recognition there was recognition of the moral authority of the sheikhs, or elders, but organized authority was lacking. . . .  [At Shiloh] the tribesmen gathered on the feast days to seek the presence of their God and to renew their allegiance to him.  This tribal structure corresponds perfectly to the covenant-people idea and may be assumed to be an outworking of it.  The covenant league was a brotherhood; it was ruled only by the law of the covenant of God.

One may best to see how the primitive order in Israel operated from a reading of the book of Judges.  Here we see the clans maintaining a precarious existence, surrounded by foes but without government, central authority, or state organization of any sort.  In times of danger there would arise a hero, one upon whom the spirit of Yahweh rushed (Judg. 3:10; 14:6), called a judge (shôphēt).  He would rally the surrounding clans and deal with the foe.  While his victories no doubt gain him prestige, he was in no sense a king.  His authority was neither absolute over all Israel nor permanent; in no case was it hereditary. -John Bright, The Kingdom of God, 31

I’ll add just a comment or two here.  First, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to paint all the “judges” as men over whom “the spirit of Yahweh” rushed.  The judges were a motley crew, so I’d like to guard against a monolithic view that considers only the stories, say, of Gideon, Samson, and maybe Deborah.

Next, Bright has observed some important limitations.  The Judge was not a king; s/he was not absolutely or broadly in power; and there were no dynasties.

Also important from a higher vantage point is this textually based, yet also philosophical probe:  Texts may have multiple aspects or even “purposes” in different times, with different audiences.  A reader in, say, 500 B.C.E. would naturally have read the Judges text differently in his historical/cultural context than you and I read it in our situation.  And that variance ought not to threaten the sincere student; rather, if we’ll allow it, the cognizance of different contexts can illuminate.

In this brief series on the Judges, I have offered but a few snippets.  I didn’t care to go into Ehud or spent much time with a few others.  I’ll conclude this series before the sad case of Eli’s sons and Samuel’s unique influence.  Overall, in reading and observing, I think of all the history of God and his people—not only during the actual time of the Judges, but during the centuries and millennia to follow.  And I’m essentially led to wonder this:  Is the whole history of Judges/Deliverers recorded for ancient Israel and New Israel to see that those deliverers were nothing but human, whereas God is the only One who delivers and is sovereign?  Although some times of peace lasted 40 years or more, no one could ultimately deliver Israel except God.

Did Israel ever comprehend God’s utterly singular sovereignty?  Do we?

Interlude
In the tale of Abimelech, a son of Gideon, the name Ebed or Obed appears.  I suppose it’s doubtful that this would be the same Obed who was the son of Boaz, since Abimelech’s clan is said to have lived quite a bit north of Boaz’s.  Yet the later Israelite reader might connect the two stories, and, after all, the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz is set in the time of the Judges (Ruth 1:1).  At least, we might note that Abimelech (meaning something like father-king” or “my father is King”) figures into the Judges narrative, in which the Israelites are hopelessly un-delivered.  On the other hand, Naomi’s husband is Elimelech (meaning something like “my God is king”).  Something tells me the reader would pick up more than a name here.  Not only Naomi is given renewal and hope; Ruth, a Moabite outsider of all things, is also given a place within God’s providence.  Here, God is a benevolent, gracious King.  We remember here, with John Bright, that “the idea of monarchy [had been] consciously rejected.  This was Illustrated in the words with which stout Gideon spurned a crown:  ‘I will not rule over you. . . .'”   Bright, 32

Recapitulation
As Bright observed re:  the “primitive theocracy” with a given Judge, “it was the direct rule of God over his people through his designated representative.” (32)   In a very real sense, the entirety of the Christian believer’s life may be summed up in two aspects:  the perceived place/role of God the King, and doing His will.  More succinctly put:  Kingdom and discipleship.  God is our Emperor/King, and we owe Him allegiance, which might also be termed loyal living as a disciple of Jesus, who was God’s “designated representative.”

Coda:  Excursus
N.T. Wright has asserted these truths:

“[T]the call to faith is also a call to obedience.  It must be, because it declares that Jesus is the world’s rightful Lord and Master.  (The language Paul used of Jesus would have reminded his hearers at once of the language they were accustomed to hearing about Caesar.)  That’s why Paul can speak about “the obedience of faith.’  Indeed, the word the early Christians used for “faith” can also mean “loyalty” or “allegiance.”  It’s what emperors ancient and modern have always demanded of their subjects.”

Living by “faith,” therefore, is not merely saying “Jesus, I trust in You,” although that attitude and posture are important.  Living by faith is also living loyally, acting obediently, being a disciple of the one everlasting “emperor.”

Being real & vulnerable

Some topics I touch are ones I should probably stay away from.  “Vulnerability” might be one of those.  Inimitably and famously, Brené Brown has given talks on this topic, touching something deep within many of us.  Surely no one like me could add anything worthwhile to her research and insights on this topic.  On the other hand, it might just be that I can note and transmit something very important, being an under-informed but sincere, sometimes-earnest observer of people and culture.  I’m betting many of you will agree that the following material about vulnerability and the pressure of social media is on track.

A book by Donna Freitas is titled The Happiness Effect:  How Social Media Is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost (Oxford University Press).  Freitas, also the author of Sex and the Soul, “comes from an epicenter of sociological research on adolescents and young adults, Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society.”  She conducted 200 interviews of university students.

The Happiness Effect is organized around the topics covered in these conversations.  Each chapter overflows with personal stories, making the book an enjoyable read.  But on a deeper level, Freitas has a theory to test.  She contends that headline-grabbing abuses like bullying, stalking, and sexting are not the greatest dangers that social media poses for young adults.  Rather, they distract from a more insidious phenomenon:  the drive to look perfectly happy, all the time.  (emph. mine   -bc)

. . .

As Freitas puts it, Facebook and Twitter are, in a way, the anti-confession, the places we pretend that we have it all together as though we were the gods of our own future.  The gospel challenges the assumption that confessing weakness and need makes you a failure. . . .

– Andrew Root, Reviews, Christianity Today, March 2017

“Church” has for decades (centuries?) been a place for facades, for hiding.  The age-old story of the stereotypical, churchgoing family yelling at each other, slamming doors, stewing in silence all the way to the church building, then putting on fake smiles and acting as though “God is good all the time” is anything but humorous.  Despite encroaching reports of the likes of emotional illnesses, divorce, pain from LGBTQ concerns, human trafficking, and more, some Christians are still fixated on the need to “celebrate Jesus.”  This celebration sensibility comes from reasonably good, yet partly shallow theology and from good-hearted people.  I, on the other hand, resonate more with the need to be communicative, “real,” and vulnerable, sharing every emotion and experience, not only the nice ones.  I’d go further, too:  lament and other negatives need some affirmative action in churches.  In other words, there’s already enough celebration and praise, way too much slap-happy trivia and hype, and not nearly enough honesty.¹  Let the vulnerability emerge.

Facebook is not the only venue through which anti-confession (falsely presenting oneself and one’s situation as marvelously in control and persistently happy, as though there is no weakness and need) rears its head, but it’s a nearly omnipresent one.  Most of those I know are both well acclimated to FB and/or aware of its limitations and potential fallout.  Let us use it well (and not too much).  Let us share the great pics of our kids and our food creations, and maybe an interesting selfie or two (up to two, not two hundred, thank you very much).  Let us share our inspiring thoughts for the day and our scriptures.  But let us also share² our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, and even our griefs.


¹ Our chosen, local church takes as its moniker “Historic Faith – Honest Fellowship – Humble Service.”  It makes quite a nice triumvirate, I think, and here, I would call every reader to the “honest fellowship” part—honest both with God and with other believing journey partners.

² Facebook allows one to share selectively, i.e., via private message and to specific individuals or groups.

Redefining “people person”

A “people person,” supposedly, is one who enjoys and likes crowds of people, parties, and such.  What if we could redefine “people person” as one who places a high value on other people and interactions with them?  One definition doesn’t necessarily exclude the other, but the focus is very different with the more customary understanding.

Image result for extrovert

Consider the person who is relatively extroverted (a quality that one source equates with being a people person), loving groups and large-scale social intercourse.  It’s fine to be extroverted, but merely being Image result for people personin groups without genuine interaction or concern for other people isn’t of much interest to me.  Moreover, if an individual were to show disregard or discourtesy, I would generally have to challenge that person’s connection with, and interest in, other people—at least in those moments of self-centered indifference.  It can be more detrimental to disregard someone than to treat him/her with hostility.  Can a person who is so disconnected that he does not truly regard others be a “people person”?

A persistent lack of interest in communicating with another person would tend to indicate a lack of genuine regard and empathy, all other things being equal.  My antennae are up for manifest empathy these days.  About 20 years ago, on a personality profile test, I had a high empathy score, but I don’t know that I would score that high today.  There could be multiple explanations for a lack of empathy here and there, but could someone who rarely cares for others’ pain really be considered a “people person”?

For that matter, was Jesus a “people person” in the stereotypical sense?  Could we say that?  I’d suggest that it depends on the definition.  Some well-meaning extroverts seem to be of the skewed opinion that introversion is actually a weakness to be overcome!  (Here I would refer you to this 3-minute video I recorded a few years ago about a “Bible study”—which really wasn’t one, I hasten to point out.)

Unless I’m conducting or teaching, it’s not natural for me to be extroverted or gregarious, and I doubt anyone would think of me as particularly congenial these days.  I did get place 2nd in the “Mr. Congeniality” voting as a 17-year-old at a Christian camp, but that was a long time ago.  In 2019, I may or may not look forward to a small party or a dozen people at a dinner table, but I did enjoy two such events within the last month or so.  Typically, after that type of gathering, I can use some time alone, or with one or two people.  I do relish connections with people.  I want to spend time with them.  And I sincerely hope I’m still viewed as caring and interested.  We introverts do actually enjoy people and conversation and laughter!

Congeniality and empathy could be said to be traits of a people person.  Extroversion is more typically connected with being one, and that’s what I resist in my attempt at redefinition.  I suppose it isn’t very Image result for people personrealistic to take a term that usually means one thing and unilaterally superimpose another meaning on it.  In the final analysis, a “people person” is probably whatever this or that person thinks it is.  My hope would be that those who know me on any level would not think me a nonpeople person simply because I don’t care to spend too much time at large parties or in shallow, loosely connected groups.

As I think about people and connections. . . .

Some people regularly challenge me to be a better version of myself by their presence or their words.

Others present opportunity to show grace or patience.

Still others demonstrate starkly how not to live.

And all of those are valuable human beings, deserving considerate regard, kindness, and grace.  I’m not suggesting that I myself always do right by people.  Rather, treating others well is a goal.  Genuinely regarding all people, paying attention to them, and interacting with them as valuable humans—sometimes one by one instead of in large groups—is a valid way of being a people person.

In sum:

  1. If “people person” is as shallow and as large-group-centric as it often seems, I want little or no connection with the label.
  2. On the other hand, I’d like to change people’s conception of what a real people person is:  one who interdependently lives in and among people, being with them in various ways and enjoying various levels and types of productive and/or spiritually helpful relationships.
  3. I’m somewhat a people person (not in the common sense) now, and I want to grow more in terms of healthy interdependence and interactivity.

B. Casey, 4/3/19 – 7/2/19

Yancey on Psalms and Ecclesiastes

Philip Yancey has for years been a favorite author of mine.  He writes fluidly, communicating genuinely to the common person without “talking down” to him/her.  His work never fails in terms of significance.  I’d say Yancey generally does Christian writing without Christian platitudes.  His is a voice worth hearing.

I recently picked up a Yancey book I’d seen before but have never read:  The Bible Jesus Read.  (The title refers to the so-called Old Testament.)  I sampled four sections.  Below are a few gleanings from two of them.

Psalms
While lament is widely recognized as an important feature of the Psalms, rarely does the typical believer take note of its prevalence.  Under the heading “Realignment,” Yancey refers to Eugene Peterson, who had asserted that more than 70% of the Psalms’ material can be seen as lament, as opposed to praise or trust or something else more “positive.”  Yancey has a hunch that “the average Christian bookstore reverses the proportions.”

If Yancey had said anything about churches in this regard, I doubt his publisher would liked it.  I’d say most churches do worse than bookstores—rarely if ever giving vent or voice to lament, in times of either personal or corporate distress.  Compared to celebration, praise, and other upbeat activities, lament seems less desirable, but it’s just as important for the human soul.  I could elaborate more and add personal observations about congregational practice, but I’ll simply let this stand for reflection.

Ecclesiastes
On Ecclesiastes, Yancey offers this:

[The] key word “meaningless” appears 35 times, drumming home the theme from beginning to end… It conveys a strong sense of “the absurd.”  The issues bothering the teacher were the same ones that bothered Job and that bother all fair-minded people today.  The rich get richer and the poor poorer, evil people prosper as good ones suffer, tyrants reign, disasters happen, disease spreads, everyone dies and turns to dust.  Life is unfair.  Nothing makes sense; the whole world seems off-balance and twisted….  There is only one word fit to describe this life:  meaningless.

Existential despair did not terminate in the hell holes of Auschwitz or Siberia but rather in the cafes of Paris, the coffee shops of Copenhagen, the luxury palaces of Beverly Hills.  After a trip into Eastern Europe during the Cold War, novelist Philip Roth reported, “In the West, everything goes and nothing matters.  While in the East, nothing goes and everything matters.”

 

Despair is certainly appropriate at times in human existence, but not always.  Ecclesiastes has struck me as being deeply philosophically and appropriately filled with melancholy.  I seems good to realize, too, that Psalms are not brimming with praise; rather, they alternate and juxtapose God-lifting thoughts with cries and laments.

Negative emotions need voice, and literature such as the Ecclesiastes and the Psalms can help.


For two previous posts on Ecclesiastes:

To elicit from Ecclesiastes (1)

To elicit from Ecclesiastes (2)

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 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.”

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.

Clouds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a saying I have engraved inside my soul:

Marana tha.  

To explain and clarify

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————

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


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

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

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

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

[Find part 1 here.]

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

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

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

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

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

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