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)

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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.

To elicit from Ecclesiastes (2)

[Find part 1 here.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

To choose and commit (my choice)

Can’t imagine what the future holds,¹ but I know that I have made my choice.
And this is where I stand until He leads me on, and I will listen to His voice.
-Twila Paris, “I Will Listen to His Voice.”  © Ariose Music.

A fellow blogger and I made each other’s acquaintance about a year ago.  He and I seem to have parted company, and that’s OK.  Life’s vicissitudes and exhaustions—and simply the passage of time—can affect our sense of what we need to spend time with.  Although this writer and I have shown respect and appreciation for each other, the distance between our respective moorings and philosophies probably keeps us from thinking there’s much point in continuing to listen to each other.  (Or at least that is how I would size it up.)  He is much more erudite in terms of thinking, and I’ve learned some things from him.  He is probably a better writer.  He is deeply entrenched in his feeling that we do not have control over our own choices, though.  For him, it seems that everything is filtered through that notion, and he loses me there.

He certainly respects God’s place in the world, as I do I.  On the surface, it might seem that someone who feels God controls everything has a greater, deeper respect.  My demurrer is simply this:  I have a different way of looking at it, and neither of us can assuredly know.  Whatever the spiritually existential reality turns out to be, I believe I am responsible, within my sphere, for living and choosing and being and doing.  All those things involve my will as manifest in time and space.  If that will turns out to be illusory, so be it.  For now, my sense is that I do in fact have choices, so those choices are what I prefer to emphasize, as opposed to a philosophy of how those choices might all be part of a grand play on a stage.

Like you, I have made several seriously consequential choices in my life.  One lives with consequences, and one hopes that most of the consequences can be good—if most of the choices themselves are good, that is.

I have been long been in a time of feeling that God is silent in my life, and that most certainly is not my choice.  If I’m in some sense right about His silence ( ≈ lack of discernible “presence”), I don’t know why a sovereign God would want this separation, this desolation.  Maybe it has little or nothing to do with choices either of us has made, I know.  Yet I feel responsible to choose my path while languishing here within time and space.  I have at various points retreated to a meditation I read in J.B. Phillips’s collection entitled For This Day.  Phillips, whose New Testament paraphrase has also been a companion of mine for decades, said this:

It appears to me, comparing my experience with that of many friends, that once one has seriously enlisted on the side of God and his purpose, considerable spiritual opposition is provoked and encountered. . . .  Should they once begin to embark on real living and to assist in building the Kingdom of God, then the attack begins!  – J.B. Phillips, For This Day (emphasis his)

I am feeling like the victim of a prolonged, intensifying attack now.  (I do not have the illusion that I have to this point done anything really significant in building the Kingdom of God, mind you, but I do have that Kingdom embedded in my soul.)  Am I being spiritually “opposed” because of choices I’ve made for Him?  More than once, I would say.  I could point to three or four key events in my life, but I could well be exaggerating my own place in God’s mind.  Time will tell.  Maybe.  For now, I have made my choice:  to be one of His, so far as I can do that.  God, help me remain committed to that choice.


¹ This is the first line of the final chorus, whereas the prior choruses have “I don’t know the way to go from here” and “I cannot imagine what will come,” respectively, at this point.  For the full poem, go here.

To remember and honor: Grandmother Casey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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