Quiet time (4) — the hermeneutics of it all

In what will probably be the last post on this subject for a while (rather than thinking and writing about Quiet Time, if I have the time, I probably need to use it as Quiet Time!), I want briefly to treat the notion of “following Jesus’ example” as a subtopic of hermeneutics.

First, to retrace a few steps.  (Skip this paragraph and the next one if you’ve been with me all the way.)  I suggest that Quiet Time (hereinafter “QT”) is, to some extent, a creation of the marketable Christian world and is not, as such, a requirement put forward by scripture.  As support for this, I call attention to the facts that a) supposed “habits” of Jesus cannot be assumed based on scripture, and b) nowhere in the NC writings — in either a general imperatives or a specific, problem-addressing context — have I found an injunction that says “Christians are to have a regular, set period of quiet time.”  I quickly acknowledge that my particular personality type needs QT–however one defines it and works it out–more than I take or get it.  18% of me also suspects, on some gut level, that I would be better off spending this time right now in QT activities as conceived by Christendom than in explaining why QT is not a law.  While for me it is an imperative to resist attempts to legislate doctrines and practices not legislated by scripture, I do acknowledge that, in general, QT is a good idea.  The devoted advice “if Christ did it, we should do the same” is eminently well-intended, but the assumption that our Christ did QT regularly is just that–an assumption–thereby weakening the supposed imperative.

The verb tense in Luke 5:16 is ambiguous:  when the wording in English is “But he would withdraw into the lonely places and pray,” the Greek tense does not necessarily imply a habitual activity on Jesus’ part.  It doesn’t preclude a habitual action, but it doesn’t require one, either.  Even less to the point, Mark 1:35 mentions one instance and brings to the scenario no implication of a regular practice.  In my lifetime, I’ve probably heard 101 sermons and devotional talks that encouraged regular QT, and many of them appealed, obliquely, to English translations in these isolated verses.  Those appeals are largely bogus.  Now, if I had to guess about Jesus’ habits while on earth, I would suspect that He often, or at least periodically, had QT, but I seriously doubt that He always prayed for 30 minutes at 7 a.m. or before going to bed, or that He read a Torah chapter per day.

Now, for the new stuff:  hermeneutics. I think I learned this word when I was in college, and it’s been with me ever since, as my perspectives grow.  Not merely a religion word, it derives from Greek; a relationship may be seen with the name Hermes, the messenger “god.”  Hermeneutics, put succinctly, is the science of literary interpretation.  (Pause for excursion into Wikipedia land, where I just spent a few minutes making minor edits on the hermeneutics page!”)

In the American Restoration Movement tradition, a somewhat standard biblical hermeneutical formula emerged and has endured, to an extent:

  1. command
  2. example
  3. necessary inference

Although I am no real student of hermeneutics, I have been around long enough to observe the effects–both positive and negative–of adherence to this formula.  (Many more aspects and questions come into play in hermeneutics; in no way do I suggest that these three items encapsulate it all.)  Initially, it seems sound to categorize in this way, and I have assumed that those who propound this method of interpreting scripture view it as hierarchical, i.e., that commands come above examples, and examples, above inferences.  In actual working out, the 3rd level–the necessary inferences–have proven divisive within the ARM, even creating branches and sub-branches of denominations, while the 1st- and 2nd-level commands and examples are more universally problematic.  Stated another way:  while few outside the ARM care much about provincial “necessary inferences,” there is sufficient disagreement on the nature and implications of “commands” that plenty of arguments can occur there without descending to the 2nd and 3rd levels!

Commands

In scripture, at first blush, a command would appear to be just that–an authoritative instruction issued by the Father, the Son, an apostle, etc.–for us to follow, no questions asked.  However, it’s not that easy.  Jesus said “Go thou and do likewise.”  Does that mean I have to find myself a Samaritan?  When we read in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “Greet each other with a kiss,” should I pucker 77 times per Sunday, or are handshaking and hugging approved substitutes?

Examples

In scripture, we find abundant examples.  Which ones are meant for us to follow, and which are merely to be taken as records of other people’s behaviors?  (Before I write what I’m about to write, I want the world to know that I have called my old friend to warn him that I was going to do something like this, letting him hear the grin in my voice before I actually wrote this, tongue in cheek.)  When scripture tells us that Jesus once (or more) had QT, you tell me I should follow that example?  Yeah, I guess you’re right.  Pardon me first, though, while I go change a Brita water pitcher into one filled with Chardonnay, chuck demons into pigs, precociously ditch my parents, sting a flock of Pharisees with my sharp criticism, weep because of Jerusalem has rejected me, and get transfigured.  🙂

You get the point, I’m sure.  In the world of examples, we must interpret contextually.  Some examples are clearly meant to be followed, others are clearly not to be imitated, and a bunch of examples in the middle are left to our interpretation.  We must figure out if and when we are to follow this last group.

Inferences

One question about so-called “necessary inferences”:  who decides whether they’re “necessary”? This question, for me, swings a heavy axe near quite a few roots:  of religious freedom, of the institutional church, of the clergy system, and even of the basic nature of Christian discipleship.  I may infer something that you don’t infer … or, you may infer it, too, but not find it as significant as I find it.  If it’s “necessary” for you, it may not be “necessary” for me, and after all, it was only an inference, not a clear statement.

Finishing off …

It’s not always easy to determine what falls in the command category,  the approved example category, or the necessary inference one.  I immediately think of a major area of Christian doctrine that is perpetually the source of significant disagreement and disunity.  In my estimation, for instance, Billy Graham was wrong in this area, having made little of the commands and examples involved, and not having inferred enough from the scriptural implications.  On the other hand, some in my tradition have been too insistent on particulars and have not found viable frameworks for Christ-centered unity, where sincere, studied differences surface.  For me, in this area, it’s a matter of a) what seem to be clear commands, b) supported by many examples, and therefore c) implications that are abundantly clear.  But for others, based on what I believe is  legacy-inflicted error, the commands are explained away, and the examples are neatly ignored … the inferences therefore become wispy to the point of non-existence.  A tough area for Christians, historically, and it all comes down to hermeneutics.

The “example” level in this ARM hermeneutical model–and particularly the assertion that “if Jesus did it, we should, too”–led me into this blogpost, but I’ve gone far afield of the initial topic!  One thing is certain:  heremeneutical differences create disunity.  How we handle that disunity, it seems to me, is highly significant.  For now, I’ll try to have more (and more focused) QT, and you have your QT … but please don’t try to require QT of everyone.  I know of no valid biblical hermeneutic or exegetical principle that requires QT or even suggests that it is to be a pattern.  At this juncture in my walk, I am opting for a more broad list of “devotional” practices, including communal experiences in Christian gatherings, worshipful noticements of nature on casual walks, special moments of closeness with God inspired by gratitude for private experiences of exercising gifts (such as musical gifts), biblical studies, some QT experiences, writing on things I believe are important to the Kingdom, and the like.

If I’ve annoyed or offended you in this essay, please know that two results of my thinking and writing about Quiet Time are

  • a greater consciousness of QT in general
  • a sense of increased need for QT in my own life

Quiet Time is no Christian law, period.  However, as one valid expression of the Christian disciple’s devotion, it can be highly valuable in deepening the connection with God.

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Deadlines and Jesus (3)

The granddaddy of all the “deadliney” altar-call songs–many of which wield emotional power over the potentially penitent–is “Almost Persuaded” by Philip P. Bliss (of “When Peace Like a River” fame).  “Almost Persuaded” takes its motif from the possibly mistranslated words of King Agrippa (Acts 26); every line has the potential to have impact on a fearful, sorrowful, quivery soul who wonders whether he should “go forward” to be counted among those who “respond”:

  • “Some more convenient day on Thee I’ll call”
  • “Jesus invites you here; angels are ling’ring near; prayers rise from hearts so dear”
  • “Harvest is past … doom comes at last”
  • “‘Almost’ is but to fail — sad, sad that bitter wail — ‘almost, but lost!'”

The intimacy of some of these thoughts overwhelms and even embarrasses me … I resist the possibility that these words could be appropriately used in an assembly in this day and age.  Is my reaction because of the generation(s) with which I’m associated, i.e., would these words ever have been appropriately used?  “Prayers rise from hearts so dear”–I think we’re supposed to picture our grandmothers and Sunday-school teachers praying for our lost souls, and that could be a good thing.  But if emotionalism is the sole determinant in leading me to take a step toward Jesus, I doubt my relationship with Him will last.

“Doom comes at last”–seriously? Today, can anyone really use the word “doom” in a conversation about eternity without sarcasm?  “Almost, but lost!”–I think now of a couple of men in the church of my youth over whom my dad would often express spiritual concern.  “Bobby” is one of them–a well-educated, articulate, former corporate businessman who has been a brother-in-law to the church for something like 65 years.  I can well imagine that the words “Almost, but lost!” might apply to Bobby, but the situations in which such a phrase are applicable are few.

If we picture ourselves in revivalish, churchy settings such as that shown here, very few of these “come to Jesus now” songs have much application these days, it seems to me.  Yet one song traditionally used as an invitation towers above most of the rest.  “Just As I Am” expresses such strongly penitent, yet beautifully weak longings.  Not manipulative by nature, and not meaninglessly emotive, but spiritually astute and worshipful in a sense only a few contemporary worshippers comprehend, this song still deserves use when there must be an altar call, but also on many other occasions.

No West Coast pseudo-prophet, and not even a true biblical exegete, knows the day that Jesus returns before He actually does.  But there should be some sense of spiritual “deadline” in our lives.  “Be prepared” is the message of the parable of the Ten Virgins at the Wedding, and it resounds in our century, too.  Some things must not be put off interminably; we must be ready.

May we all worship and “come to Jesus” even now, whether it is the initial response that leads to putting Him on and walking as His disciple, or a later dip into repentance or confession.  May we sense urgency in the spiritual sphere, coming to Jesus without pretense. . . .

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
With fears within, and foes without,¹
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, Thy love unknown
Hath broken every barrier down;
Now, to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.²


I’ll close this series with these good words.  Maybe you’ll even have time to read these words over again, or print them for later meditation and inner response.

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¹ The original line seems to have been “Fightings and fears within, without,” but the hymnals I know have made a change for the sake of better syllabic connection with the music.
² I had never seen the final stanza before looking this up today.  I think I prefer leaving it as is–the ideas of God’s love breaking barriers and the yearning to be His alone are wonderful final thoughts.  For the hymnologist, though, here is the final stanza as penned:

Just as I am, of that free love
The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Consistent voices

Christendom has its share of struggles and scourges. There’s truly a lot to criticize (although not as much as the news media appears to believe).

But I find in contemporary Christian culture that there have been some consistent voices … voices that have spoken for more than a decade and have not succumbed to scandal. Voices whose messages have been sound and inspirational. No person should be idolized, and I’m no groupie, but I have retained a certain admiration for some of these folks and thought it would be worthwhile to mention them. Honor to whom honor is due. . . .

  • Twila Paris, worship songwriter (and, to a lesser extent, a singer) whose contemporary anthems and God-oriented songs have moved many for more than two decades
  • Michael Card, songwriter (and, again, to a lesser extent, a singer) who has a particular gift with reducing large-scope biblical messages into coherent, poignant song lyrics
  • Michael W. Smith, the now-legendary Christian songwriter who has an absolutely horrible voice but whom I find to have both a creative gift and a humble heart
  • Fernando Ortega, singer-songwriter whose earthy lyrics are as beautiful as they are Godly
  • Bob Kauflin, known primarily a songwriter for Glad and other groups, but who also does steady, local church work in Maryland (his “I Stand In Awe,” by the way, has been corruptly dumbed-down by many a cappella churches)
  • Rich Mullins, who perished while driving in the Heartland some 10-or-so years ago, whose songs and mission with Native Americans were equally well-conceived
  • Graham Kendrick, a British songwriter who’s been “around,” having been part of the British worship renewal that began more than 20 years ago
  • Max Lucado, whose writings have probably touched millions … I haven’t kept up with the last 5 or 6 books but have been inspired many times in the past
  • and I should surely name Billy Graham, despite my disagreements with his soteriology … the man had/has character

I claim no personal knowledge of these people’s lives but have never heard them ill spoken of, and have a fair amount of experience with many of their works through the years. They seem sincerely enagaged in Kingdom work to me.

Would anyone care to add to the list?