Mandy, Marlena, and Tom: Sabbath concepts

This is a sabbath story.  It’s not a story written on the sabbath day (although I’m starting this only five hours from the beginning of a sabbath, in Jewish terms), but one about the sabbath.  And it’s actually three stories, not just one.

For illustration, I’ll use thoughts from (1) a former student/acquaintance, (2) a friend, and (3) a well-respected scholar/thinker/writer.  I take the first two as representative of many others, but I won’t use their real names.¹  The third, in my view, is a typically helpful theologian (a category I don’t often uncover!—see here for more on that).

Mandy seemed popular, and she was one of my students.  She had real talent and was an energetic player.  There was something about her that struck me as discontent, even rebellious, and later information bore that out, but that’s beside the point.  At the time, I myself was also in survival mode, or even fight mode, so I wasn’t going to judge her.

In a Christian collegiate institution that legislated Sabbath (read:  Sunday rest) observance, Mandy submitted for a while, but apparently fumed.  I did, too, but I didn’t feel comfortable saying much, and no one kept me out of my office if I felt like going there on a Sunday afternoon.  On the other hand, students were effectively banned from any classroom buildings, including the music building.

Aside:  here, it’s good to be clear that when Christians speak of “sabbath,” 99% of them are talking about Sunday.  That in itself should send one scurrying to the pages of what we call the “New Testament” to see if Sabbath is there.  Paul didn’t really write about Sabbath (other than perhaps a negative reference in Colossians), and that fact should cause us to question any weekly New Covenant application.

Back to Mandy.  One week, Mandy reacted to institutionalized, legislated Sabbath, by means of a letter to the editor of the campus newspaper.  She appealed to the College administration and the whole community to open up the Music Building and let her have “sabbath” recreation by making music.  I saw and supported Liz’s point, but I was more concerned with the overall issue of legislating that which belongs more in the realm of Jewish religion than Christian devotion.

Marlena wasn’t a student of mine but quickly became a friend through another friend.  She is as sincere, intelligent, studious, and devout as they come, and she could be both serious-minded and appropriately silly.

On multiple occasions, Marlena articulated a reasonable, genuinely pious view of Sabbath.  She supported it, practiced it in various ways, and in doing so encouraged others to do the same.  I recall feeling an inclination to do as she did, a twinge of guilt that I didn’t, and also a wistful wish that she wouldn’t attempt to transport Sabbath into our time.  Mostly, I felt a longing to be as spiritually devoted as Marlena seemed to be.

Enter N.T. “Tom” Wright, in a podcast interview.  There, Wright said as much about sabbath in a few short sentences as the sum total of what I’ve ever heard or thought.  Here is a transcript of excerpts:

“The Law was a good gift, for a good but time-limited purpose.”  (Then the Law was “set aside.”)

“The Messiah is Israel in person as well as being the Living God in person.”

“The point of the Sabbaths is that they are the weekly anticipation of the Age to Come, the Coming Age.  That when the Shabbat comes, we are living, in advance, in the Age to Come.”  Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  We are now in ‘perpetual Sabbath.’  That’s why in Luke 4 he says, “This scripture is fulfilled.”  It’s the Jubilee.  It’s the Sabbath of Sabbaths.  Because he’s here.

And you don’t put up signs saying ‘This way to London’ in the middle of Whitehall, because you’re there already.”

Then by strong implication if not outright statement, Wright says it’s just as inappropriate to declare that Christians should observe the sabbath,” because we’re there already.  You can find the complete podcast(on the Christian and the Old Testament) here, or through your podcast app.

Note to my Sabbath-loving friends and other readers
These final comments are especially for the ones who feel Sabbath is more than a principle and is actually a thing to be observed under the New Covenant.

First, it is my sincere wish that all of you would realize Sabbath observance per se is something that is done away with.  There is no such thing as a weekly Christian Sabbath, and it’s high time we realized that.  We can enjoy believers’ gatherings and napping and reading on Sundays, sure, and I myself take a steps to make Sundays feel different from other days.  Rest and re-creation are important, and I need to give attention to them.  The when and how are choices, though—not laws.  Understandably and admirably, “Mandy” reacted to a false law.  Equally understandably and admirably, “Marlena” went beyond said law and made “sabbath” a principle for good.  But it isn’t a law at all anymore, and that is key.

With that said, more important than the above is the positive, as spotlighted by N.T. “Tom” Wright.  We Christians are living in the fulfillment of sabbath rest constantly.  Jewish shabbat anticipated rest, and Jesus brought awareness of that rest in a renewed understanding, and living, of God’s kingdom.

So be it

B. Casey, 2/21/20 – 3/1/20

¹ I’ve actually used the names of daughters of other women with the same names as the actual people.  This little stratagem will help no one identify the people, but it might help me remember them one day when I look back on this!

Words . . . and the Spelling Bee

Actor James Spader and his characters have word gifts.  In the scene below, he was losing it (as TV attorney Alan Shore):

Shore’s affliction was word salad.  What a concept.  It must be very difficult to toss your words around like that if you don’t have an actual mental deficiency.

Linguistic perceptiveness can be a curse, but it can also create joy through heightened understanding.  I’m glad my son has some exceptional language ability.  FB tells me that, four years ago when he was in 1st grade, he was reading aloud to me and came upon the verb “present.”  He mistakenly read it as though it were the noun, i.e, a gift.  Then he corrected himself without any help.  I asked him how he knew which meaning was the right one.  He replied, “You can tell by the surrounding words.”

That’s a gift with words, I’d say . . . and it can help him understand other people, scripture, a homework assignment, the intent of lines in a play, and more.

The Podcast “Way with Words” is a new pleasure.  Jedd heard part of an episode for the first time last weekend.  I figured 10 minutes would be enough for a 10-year-old and was about to turn it off, but he said not to.  He liked it.  He too is stimulated by thoughts of words, their meanings, their connections and ramifications, their humor.

In late January, he placed 2nd among all the fifth-graders at his school in the spelling bee.  He asked for definitions to check himself on a couple occasions.  He made it about 12 rounds before being distracted by someone’s cell phone and missing a double “s” that he would know any day of the week.  But no sour grapes.  He was happy with 2nd place and was a good sport, congratulating the very capable winner.

I’m happy that I get to share linguistic interests with him often, and I was proud when he almost won the school spelling bee a few days ago, and I hope he places in today’s county-wide spelling bee, which begins in one hour!

He chose a special outfit this morning, and I adapted.  Below is today’s solidarity attire, on the way to school this morning.

But my feet are kinda frozen on terra firma

This meandering little piece could alternately be titled “In the Bleak Midwinter” or simply “Midwinter Melancholy.”

Do you remember the ol’ children’s finger-play about the church/steeple/people?  It might have done more harm than good, because it started out wrong with the words “Here is the church,” while indicating a representation of the building.  Most folks still have trouble realizing that people are the church.

I think about church a lot, and not only on Sundays.  What is church?  What has it been—for me, for others?  What could it or should it be?  I daydream,¹ and I become disillusioned, and I gain some energy or hope once in a while.  A week or so ago, on my go-to “simple church” blog, I read about God’s being on the move, and I was at once inspired and repelled.  Inspired, because I like thinking of a God who is as active as in the old times.  Repelled, because I don’t sense the motion right now.   Regardless, I do like the ideals below, from this blog.  Try them on, opposite your concept of “church”:

  • It’s about a Jesus-lifestyle, not an organization to belong to
  • It’s about being God’s people 24/7, not attending meetings or “services”
  • It’s about incarnating God into the world, not attracting people to a clubhouse
  • It’s about gathering in a participatory manner rather than being priest-led
  • It’s about leadership that empowers and releases rather than controls
  • It’s about discipling by relationship rather than by program

– Roger Thoman, Simple Church Journal (edited)

So what do you think of those affirmations?  I would say very similar things, but I eventually become disappointed by ideals:  they only go so far when there’s no motion—or any real hope of motion.

Remember the song “I’m Pressing On”?  It begins like this:

I’m pressing on the upward way.  New heights I’m gaining ev’ry day.

Johnson Oatman Jr. (1856-1926)

Hmm.  I press on most of the time, but I feel like a flatlander, not a height-gaining mountain climber.  Another stanza begins,

I have no desire to stay where doubts arise and fears dismay.
But still I’ll pray ’til heav’n I’ve found, ‘My prayer, my aim is higher ground.’

Like Oatman, I have no desire to stay where I am, and my aim is higher.  Still, actually, I don’t feel like there’s foreseeable “advancement.”  God might well be “on the move,” as suggested in the blog referred to above, but I don’t feel as if I’m part of that right now.  I feel like my feet are frozen.  Will the frostbite keep me from reaching “higher ground,” or will I deal with the numbness and tingling, brave the headwind, and plod on?

Oh, for like-minded souls—whether we deal more in the personal sphere or the “church” one.  Or maybe just a couple good friends who will accompany me across the snowy tundra, sharing struggles and wonderings and possibilities. . . .

B. Casey, 1/11/20 – 1/29-20

¹ See this page as an evidence of some rather intense daydreaming.

Judging (general)

This post is a kind of interlude within a mini-series on “judging” topics—topics that have been a little dangerous.  I don’t want to give the wrong emphasis to readers; neither do I want to paint myself into a corner in anyone’s eyes.  Let’s take couple steps back.

Last fall, I wrote a few posts on gleanings from the book of Judges (link opens in a new tab).  That book, within the library we call the “Bible,” continues to draw me in.  Sure, the stories are riveting, but it’s not that, really; it’s the events described.  What happened is revealing:  how God’s people’s navigated those events, and how God dealt with them over a period of decades.  I think the time of the Judges can be wrongly dismissed as a few cool stories—without apprehending the theological significance of what was going on at the time.  PictureMy current series on “judging” doesn’t have anything directly to do with the book of Judges, but there’s obviously a verbal connection.

What are “judging” and “judgment” after all?  The English word ‘”judge,” when used as a verb, tends to be pejorative, but the corresponding words in other languages might not have the same import.  For instance, I suspect the ancient Hebrew word would have had different nuances and implications.

As to this current series on “judging”:  I have intended it to deal more in (1) spiritually or logically assessing than (2) legally judging or (3) ultimately condemning.  Secondarily, I mean to challenge the notion that judging is necessarily to be avoided.  In fact, one well-known personality inventory (non-judgmentally!) validates judging as a neutral trait.  The diagram here comes close to representing my own personality, as assessed a couple dozen years Image result for judgingago.  I’m largely introverted, intuitive, and feeling.  At that time, I came out near the middle of the fourth spectrum that encompasses “judging” and “perceiving,” but my judging tendencies, as defined by Meyers-Briggs, meant that I made many decisions in my outer life based on plans, order, and organization.  I liked to “bring life under control as much as possible.”  These days, I’m more flexible and would probably be stronger in “perceiving,” at least in some respects.  None of this relates too much to what I’ve been saying about judging; it only serves to illustrate that we need to know what we’re talking about when we use a word like “judge.”  Context can help.

On the way to work this morning, I judged that a driver was less competent and courteous than I.  I judged that based on evidence of how that person treated a stop sign.  Yesterday, I judged myself to have enough fortitude to do something that needed to be done.  This was perhaps a spiritual prompting to go out of my way to be kind to someone who had not been kind to me.  That is a judgment I made, as well.  Had I not taken the step I took (which was well received, I’m happy to report), I would have judged myself weak.  I judge myself too harshly at times, and too graciously at other times.  Judging oneself involves many pitfalls, and as a result, we need accountability within small, organic groups of Christians.

Repeated experiences with individuals may lead us to note inconsistencies, or even hypocrisy, in their character.  Less ominously, we may simply assess traits and tendencies and opt out of close association with this or that person.  These are all “judgments” that need not be considered malevolent.  They may not in fact contain any ill will at all.  It may be necessary to judge at times—in order to keep oneself sane or pure.  Judging is not all bad.  We just need to judge rightly … and not direct all the judgment outward!  (See end of previous post.)

The next post, I think, will take a while to construct, and it will conclude the series.  It will briefly evaluate (assess, judge) one view that’s spotlighted in the book Three Views on Israel and the Church (book title).  The format of this book is geared for critique, which is another type of judgment.  My particular critique of one of the views is important to me in several aspects:

  1. It deeply touches my overarching focus on God’s Kingdom vs. the governments of humans.
  2. Generally, I want to challenge myself in scholarly thought process.  I want to be able to think through something with a clear head and without prejudice, inasmuch as this is even possible.
  3. A dispensationalist preacher recently showed patience with me but has judged a few related things quite differently from the way I’ve judged them.  I want to investigate before heading back to finish the conversation.

I’m not sure which of the above will take the lead in my heart or mind.  I do look forward to being challenged by the views, the scholarly responses, my intellectual process as I read all the above, and the process of communicating all that on this blog.  It may take a bit of time to get it all together, and other posts may come in the meantime, so please stay tuned.

And if you haven’t signed up to received posts by e-mail, please considering doing that.

B. Casey, 1/2/20 – 1/17/20

Judging fruit

You know how they pack strawberries in those plastic containers, sometimes hiding the mushy or blemished ones?  Well, according to an esteemed opinion, I have a knack for choosing strawberry packages well.  Looking at the outside fruits critically can reveal possible issues with the berries within.  I can choose a fair blueberry or apple, too.  I chose three avocados last Saturday and made my first guacamole—a nice success.

I can also see fruit in others’ lives from time to time . . . and the implications run deeper there.

Long ago, I was acquainted with a charismatic (read:  affirms and claims all the miraculous “gifts of the Spirit” now) Christian.  He was invited in to guest-teach an adult Bible class in a non-charismatic church.  This class was not exactly cutting-edge, but it included some relatively open-minded folks who wanted to grow, so I figure they intentionally reached out to this guy—an acquaintance of a member of the class—so he could instruct them more accurately in the ways of the Spirit of God.  Come to find out, he was having an affair with the married woman who was his connection to the class.  The activities might not have been sexual at the time he taught the class, but at the very least, being involved illicitly in emotional adultery, he should have judged himself unworthy to speak of the guidance of the Spirit of God in his life.

People who claim to be followers ought not to act or speak in certain ways.  Further, the claim that God indwells, i.e., lives in us is a claim with which we ought to be pretty careful.  If a guy asserts that he has miraculous abilities given directly by God’s Spirit, I figure that same Spirit ought to keep the person from obvious, egregious sins.  A Christian marriage broken by a supposedly Spirit-filled Christian?  I judge that fruit decisively.

Here’s another post in a similar vein:

Some say Christians shouldn’t “judge” but may be “fruit inspectors.”  I say that’s probably just a semantic distinction.

That was easy.  Now to the hard part:  me.  Judging within God’s household is entirely appropriate, and I don’t have many people nearby that I consider part close to me in that household, but there are some.  What are the people of God seeing when they assess the fruit in my life?  It’s also important for me to be cognizant of what nonbelievers and less committed believers are seeing in my “fruit bin.”  Even if they are less discerning than I, or though have different baggage (doesn’t everybody?), or if they have wronged me, or if they are moving away from God rather than toward Him at the time they cross my path, they are no less valuable to the Father.  I need to bear good fruit in order to be a good representative to all, whether they (1) reject the Christ, (2) claim Him, or (3) claim and intentionally, noticeably honor Him.

Judging charity opportunities

I like AccuRadio and have publicly mentioned their diverse music offerings more than once.  I’m also impressed that they have (at least two years now) had their listeners vote on charities for the company to support financially.  I’m not impressed, however, with the balance of their charity listings on one day in particular:

That was representative of most days I noticed this.  15 charities, and less than half for basic human needs?  4 of them for animals?  What are they, in cohoots with Antenna TV with their sad cat commercials?  I mean, I like animals as much as the next guy.  I particularly like good dogs, I’m generally sympathetic and fond, and I would oppose any cruelty.  But when human trafficking and cancer and diabetes lose out to blind cats, something is amiss.

I’m equally unimpressed with the choices made by their listeners:

Getting your wish is nice, and purple-hearted people deserve some national attention, but I see many higher priorities in the list than those enterprises and two other top vote-getters (including two non-human causes).

On the positive side of judging:  my own votes last month went to causes such as juvenile diabetes and cancer research, human trafficking, and homelessness.  Charities that have received other recent attention from our home attention are Second Harvest Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity, a nearby family whose 8-year-old girl has a debilitating brain disease, and World Vision.¹  We judge (evaluate) these charity opportunities to be in line with Christian living, and we trust Jesus has been pleased with our meager efforts.

¹ We love World Vision’s opportunity to give animals such as ducks, goats, and pigs to a family or community that needs ongoing food supplies like eggs and goat milk!

Judging books

Early in life, I learned to care too much what other people think.  I think this was one of Dad’s faults, passed on to me.  I’m generally private about my business, and I’m usually hyper-aware of talking so loudly that the neighbors might hear.  Will someone notice me in jeans on Sunday and think I’m not going “to church”?  Will someone notice me in a sport coat and think I’m some haughty Christian who thinks he’s better than everyone else while going “to church”?

My mom, on the other hand, cares far less about others’ perceptions, and this ends up being one of her faults.  I suppose I got some of this one, too.  Sometimes I’m just going to do the thing I have in mind or heart, no matter what someone might think.  This trait, I think, can manifest strength of character.  It can also betray stupidity.

It’s with these inherited traits in mind that I mention (and discuss a little) a few book titles that I’m embarrassed about.  In other words, I’m afraid these books—and I—will be judged by their covers.  I’ve never gone out in public with some of them . . . or I hide them . . . or I at least think twice.  For the embarrassment, the caring-too-much-what-people-think, I owe Dad.  For the willingness to make it public in this blogpost, not caring too much what naysayers might think, I owe Mom!  (Writing was/is a strength for both of them.)

These titles will come in two supra-categories:  the negative (those I judge to be not for public view) and the positive.

Not for public view

The Politics of Jesus (John Howard Yoder)
I’ve had this book for a couple years but have barely cracked its cover.  It’s written by a now-deceased Anabaptist theologian whose mind has been highly influential but whose character and actions have been seriously (legally) judged.  I’m pretty sure this book is going to challenge me with a deeper view of “politics,” dealing with Jesus’ views and ways and means in the areas of social intercourse and ethics.  That is a much higher road than the pathway that leads to the polarizing party system and the mixing of authentic Christianity with today’s political “right.”

I’m afraid that when people see this cover, they’ll think I actually align myself with the religious right.  Not at all.  I’m interested in pretty much anything that deals soberly with Jesus, but I have no time for those who think Jesus wants to change the government of a contemporary country—or that He was at all concerned with affecting the Roman empire in any political sense.  My Jesus isn’t in the business of geopolitics or national politics, although He cares about all the business of people’s lives.

Standing with Israel (David Brog)
A real academic is not embarrassed about having books on his shelves that take contrary views.  He, in fact, has been intellectually stimulated in dealing with such opposing views, and has incorporated some of their aspects into his own thinking.  I, however, am not this kind of academic.  Not all the time, anyway.  Also, it is not other academic-types who’re likely to see my shelves . . . so I even hide the spine of this book in my own home.  The friends who might see it in my living room would not understand why it’s there, or wouldn’t know to ask, or would likely assume something about my thinking that I’d be horrified about.  I wouldn’t take Standing With Israel out in public.

I have one book in this camp that’s even worse.  I note that it was published by a Time Warner imprint (not a religious publisher such as Zondervan or Eerdmans), and the TW entertainment conglomerate might have been onto something.  I consider this title merely entertainment:  The American Prophecies:  Ancient Scriptures Reveal Our Nation’s Future.  One doesn’t have to go beyond the cover to realize this is balderdash.  Baseless fiction.  Nation Under God is another one I wouldn’t want public, although its content could head in multiple directions.  The Great Church-State Fraud is provocative, and I might carry that one around eventually. 

I’m proud now to own Three Views of Israel and the Church, a thoughtful debate book that presents representatives of three distinct views and includes scholarly challenge to each view.  I’d be cautious about this one—again, because of presumptions about the religious right—but I plan soon to post notes based on gleanings from this book.

Holy Bible (NRSV)
I wish the covers of some Bibles were different.  Believe it or not, I’m actually embarrassed at the words “Holy Bible.”  For the nonbeliever or disinterested party, I fear the “holy” part sounds presumptuous.  And for all of us, I feel a kind of mesmerizing effect that puts us to thoughtless sleep instead of thoughtful introspection.  In other words, we can be lulled by having a “Holy Bible” in our hands rather than pondering and dealing responsibly with the varied contents of this library we call “Bible.”

Yes, I’d let these be seen by almost anyone

On the other hand, some book titles I’ve been proud to carry around, hoping someone might ask me about them:

  • This Beautiful Mess (Rick McKinley)
  • Mere Discipleship (Lee Camp)
  • The King Jesus Gospel (Scot McKnight)
  • The Kingdom of God in the Teachings of Jesus (Norman Perrin)
  • Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Matthew Bates)

Will someone be interested, judging these titles worthy of note?  Will we be able to dialogue about the nature of God’s kingdom—and humans as loyal subjects and disciples?  Will they ponder the words and work of Jesus just a little more?  Do I care too much about what people think?  I’m not a very good ambassador in most ways.  Far too often, I don’t represent my Lord very well, and maybe, just maybe, someone could see my intent in a book, overlooking my personal failings.

What if I carried around a little book titled The Gospel of Christian Atheism without hiding its cover?  Would that start some discussions, or what?  I can hardly wait to get into that one.  According to a cover blurb, this is no atheist author.  Rather, he seeks to promote primitive Christianity; “gospel” and “atheism” are used advisedly, provocatively, in order to attract readers who might not otherwise pick up a “Christian” book.  But what is “Christian”?  I suspect that this author will use a working definition closer to my own than to, say, most journalists’ or evangelicals’ definitions.

For those who aren’t interested in topics of scripture or Christianity:  I’m never ashamed of Grisham novel titles; I recently finished Camino Island and have read a dozen others.  Most of my baseball books are displayed proudly.  Poetry?  Short stories?  Sure.  And I’d be proud to carry The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Nicholas Carr).  And yes, I just searched the WWW to make sure I have its author’s name correct!

MM: Baloney

[This is an installment in the very-sporadic Monday Music series, which initially dealt with Christian music topics and has more recently included other music.  The MM category of posts may be accessed here.]

Never has a more ridiculous stanza been written than this one:

Not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies,
But his smile quickly drives it away.
Not a doubt nor a fear, not a sigh nor a tear,
Can abide while we trust and obey.

That’s from “Trust and Obey,” otherwise known by its first line, “When We Walk with the Lord.”  There are many good thoughts in the song, and I’d sing most of them willingly.  But not the above lines.  Even if God’s smile drives some shadows away for some people some of the time (a reality I accept), it is patently unhelpful to suggest that there’s no shadow or cloud or doubt or fear that can last while we trust and obey.  I know too much about the shadows and clouds to sing such baloney.

Now . . . never has a more appropriate, helpful stanza been written than this one:

The anger of the enemy would have swallowed us alive
Had it not been the Lord who was on our side.
The waters would have engulfed us; we would have surely died
Had it not been the Lord who was on our side,

The above stanzas, being poetic, are probably better interpreted figuratively, and I should be charitable, allowing others to understand it non-literally.  Despite the direct reference in the second example to scripture, the first example makes better English poetry.  My own introductory expression in each case—”never has a more appropriate/ridiculous stanza been written”—is but poetic hyperbole, too, and I acknowledge that.

Whether we trust and obey, or run and hide, or peek around the corner to see what the next horror or disappointment might be in this life . . . or become overwhelmed by a flood, I affirm what the chorus of the second song proclaims:

Blessed be the Lord, who would not give us up.

– Leonard E. Smith, Jr., “Had it Not Been the Lord”

I’m relieved not to have been subjected to Christmas music yesterday.  A couple of weeks’ worth is enough for me.  Today, some score study of Dvorak and Carpenter and some fun flugelhorn playing.  The musical diet tomorrow will include master Horowitz on the piano.


Not being a bandwagon kind of guy, I prefer (for myself and others) that statements be based on individual thoughts rather than groupthink.  I don’t know about you, but it’s not often that I start statements like this:

“Well, as a longtime member of this club, I say we should . . . .”

“As a taxpayer, I demand that . . . .

“As a ____________, I think we have to . . . .

If you begin a statement or demand with an affiliative preface like that, what is mostly likely to fill the blank?   What is foremost in informing your philosophy of living?  And what does it mean for that thing to be primary?

Image result for number 1

Depending on the seriousness of the matter, what it comes down to is how we self-identify.  What is foremost in your identity?  Are you first a husband/wife or father/mother, or daughter/son?  Do you identify yourself based on your occupation, e.g., as a teacher, manager, builder, accountant, or chef?  Do you think of yourself as a churchgoer?  Broader descriptions such as “good citizen” and “good person” may run deeper but also fall short.

It was recently suggested that I could “detach”; I took it that I was seen as too personally involved.  The tenor and direction of another conversation surprised me, and the use of a simple phrase revealed a possible difference in operating paradigms.  In both cases, it seems to me, it was assumed that one could be someone different in one setting than he is in another.  I’ve detected this distinction before, and I’m keenly aware of its depth and breadth.  While the difference might go no further than shading opinions, it can also be pervasive and far-reaching.  It has to do with what is foremost in our hearts and minds as we self-identify.  What affiliation primarily determines our thoughts and courses of action?

Some of us have particularly strong family identities.  Did your parents send you out the door to school with the exhortation, “Remember, you’re a Robertson?”  After that, do you think of yourself primarily an employee—one who thinks and acts first as a servant of the employer?  If you have ever been active in the military, you might tend to identify yourself foremost as a soldier.  (I gather there is often a kind of pride in that, and it tends to take precedence over other life-aspects and affiliations.)  Are you an artist, an introvert, an entrepreneur?  These things may be very important in your self-identification, but are they first for you?  Or are you, first, a friend?  (Now we’re getting somewhere.)

Many would identify self in terms of country.  They would say they are, primarily, Americans (or Argentinians or Greeks or Ghanaians or Iranians or Indonesians).  I heard a speech recently that seemed to assume that any American would be, first and foremost, an American.

Not so for the Christian.  Not first, anyway.

The loyalty to Jesus Christ, and identification with Him, will not erase all the other identifications.  A Christian may still be an American and a daughter and an employee.  But the Christian is, foremost and forever, a Christian.  That should trump everything else (when we are at our best).

Of holiday times, people, traditions, and peace

It’s been quite a while¹ since I wrote on this blog.  Not that I’ve been empty-headed; I’ve just had to prioritize other concerns.  I have been making notes for future posts, but it usually does me good to express prosaic thoughts, so here goes . . . .

~ ~ ~

I have deeply mixed feelings at this time of year.  The better part of wisdom would suggest keeping such feelings to myself, but I tend trust the written word (often more than talking, in my case) more than the wisdom of holding the feelings in.

I have made many mistakes in my life.  As in your own life, aren’t there too many to count?  Mine have included these:

  • poor judgment calls (that could have turned out for good or bad [and did—both])
  • near-misses that made God’s sheltering grace clear
  • rough-shod runs over people, in the course of overzealous churchmanship ²

I also established obsessive work patterns that, among other negatives, pigeonholed me as a non-people person.  (See here for more on identification as a “people person.”)  But it is holiday family times, not the work environment, that I intend to focus on here. . . .

I can recall a kind of melancholy retreat from holiday family activities, into a corner where I would do what I was better at than spending time with people:  work on my laptop.  This “work” was almost never work-work (for which I was paid); rather, I would be creating music or emailing or reading about God things.  I was hiding from the people nearby, to whom I was related, in order to be “with” other people across miles.  There were reasons for this arguably antisocial behavior, including profound disillusionment over the impoverishment of two cherished institutions, and the powerless feeling of having had to relinquish important ideals.  It’s for good reason that that’s a packed sentence.

I remember that one relative criticized me for laptopping, and I reacted defensively.  Turns out he was annoyed (and on target) for the same reasons that now annoy me when I observe others doing what I used to do.  I still do that kind of thing at times, but I catch myself and quit.  When I’m with people I care about, I ought to show them I care about them by paying Image result for cell phone during conversationattention to them instead of stuff on a device.  The pic here makes me especially sad, because I value fresh, outdoor air, and I feel these folks would do so much better to look at the green around them, sniff the air, and talk to each other.  I place a higher value on human interaction than on nature, and I do know we need, or at least like, to take pics of our experiences in nature and with others.  But do we spend more time finding pics to show people than talking about real life, in the moment?

Image result for google images cell phone in restaurantSee this article on tech addiction and what to do with your smart phones while at restaurants.  I noted that another restaurant offers free kids’ meals when the parents ditch their phones while at the meal. I think that is about the best sociological development I’ve heard all year.

Christmas-season church stuff abounds.  I’ve participated in some of it, as in most recent years.  Yes, I have about 30 Xmas CDs, a couple dozen Xmas cassettes, and a dozen vinyl records.  I think I’ve played a dozen of them so far this year.  But in church, Christmas music often bores me.  (I’m not much of a traditionalist or a creature of habit.)  Some of it is downright glorious, though, and I’ve benefited from it.  I do wish we would dispense with some of the the formalities, and all the presumptions of validity based on tradition.  It is entirely right to ponder and celebrate the coming of God to earth, but certain ceremonies and phrasings put my soul to sleep more than helping me ponder “Love’s pure light” or pushing me to sing, “Glory to the newborn king.”³

One pop song touches me every time I think through some of the words.  “Grown-up Christmas List” (which a former student introduced to me in 2002) combines expressive melody, colorful chords, and key changes in support of phrases like “no more worlds torn apart” and “time would heal all hearts.”  What’s your list like?  I remember being the kid who passed out the presents to the extended family, and I liked that role, and I like seeing my son becoming enthused over similar things.  As grown-ups with years and hurts and growth under our belts, how much do we now care about wrapping paper and bows?  Wouldn’t it be enough if hearts were healed, and if peace reigned in our little worlds?

Here’s where I insert a few lines of my old friend Paul’s favorite carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
    “For hate is strong
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Last December, I recall having had marked feelings of generosity, resolve, and hope.  This time around, time-bound hope doesn’t rise within me, but the other two feelings remain.  I’m just as intent as last year on giving (in various ways)—more than worrying specifically about presents or cookies.  No being tied to a computer for too long, or retreating from being actually with people I love.  Somehow that would not be emulating the God who came to be with us.

– B. Casey, 12/1/19-12/20/19

¹ There have been other breaks of this length.  I suppose, at ~1800 total posts (including my other two, less active blogs), breaks are OK.

² I’m an avowed Christian—but no longer a churchman and will probably never be one again.  I consider myself somewhat uncomfortably berthed among God’s people, and (don’t miss this next phrase!) unflaggingly, observably interested in connections with groups of said people, but it’s harder and harder to buy in to the trappings of local bodies, much less denominations.

³ Wait.  Was he actually a king then?  We shouldn’t be so assertive with theological history here!

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?

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

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.