A Little Leeway

1 Kgs 19:14; Exod 4:1; Acts 5:38-39; Amos 9:7

On a recent rainy weekend following a particularly demanding work for both of us, my wife and I spent a significant portion of Saturday afternoon watching a “Matlock Marathon” on cable TV. I found it amusing that, quite formulaically, the moment came in every episode we saw when Matlock would stop cross-examining the witness (invariably the true perpetrator of the crime) and begin testifying himself. The prosecuting attorneys in each of these episodes soon objected regarding the “relevance” of Matlock’s “line of questioning” or the fact that Matlock was “assuming facts not in evidence.” Without fail, Matlock then begged the court’s indulgence, asking for a “little leeway” and promising that facts were forthcoming and that relevance would soon become apparent.

In this entry, I will briefly discuss four passages of scripture that may appear to be irrelevant to one another at first. Like Matlock, I beg the reader’s indulgence and I promise that their relevance will some become apparent.

The first passage I introduce in evidence, 1 Kgs 19:14-18, deals with what might be called “Elijah-syndrome.” Inexplicably, after his remarkable success in the competition with the prophets of Baal staged on Mt. Carmel, Elijah laments that, of all the prophets faithful to YHWH, “only I remain” (v 14, all translations mine). A few verses later, the Lord reminds Elijah that, in fact, some 7,000 Israelites “have not bowed the knee to Baal” (v 18).  Exhibit B, Exod 4:1, reports Moses’ third object/excuse in response to God’s commission for him to deliver Israel from Egyptian bondage: “But what if they do not believe me or list to my voice because they say, ‘YHWH did not appear to you!’?”  Next, from the New Testament and an actual courtroom scene, the Sanhedrin’s Matlock, Rabbi Gamaliel, warns the Sanhedrin against too harshly and too quickly passing judgment on the Apostles. He counseled them to rely on the test of time: “…if this plan or work is of human (device), it will be destroyed, but if it is of God, you will be unable to destroy them, lest be found fighting God” (Acts 5:38-39).  Finally, in a somewhat obscure passage in Amos (9:7), the prophet communicates God’s ironic questions concerning the nature of Israel’s unique status as the chosen people of God:  “Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” Although these questions clearly expect affirmative answers, they raise other questions, unanswered in the context, about the nature of God’s relationships with these two other nations whom God has guided through at least a portion of their histories.

Almost weekly recently, I hear, see, or read about the decline, or even predicted demise, of the Church in the West, about the “nones,” about the “spiritual-but-not-religious,” and so forth. I teach seminary classes with enrollments only a small fraction compared to the same classes when I began my career. The demographics of local churches are aging. I assume that my reader knows the story.

Occasionally, I find myself slipping into Elijah-syndrome. Naming the condition already helps to remedy it.  Nearly three millennia ago, Elijah felt that the integrity of the people of God had been fatally damaged, that the threat posed by Baalism was too great. History demonstrates that he was wrong. Of course, Moses before him had feared similarly. After Elijah, Israel and then the Jews would survive the Philistine, the Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Seleucid, the Roman, and the Nazi threats. They would adapt and persist through the Persian occupation and centuries of Diaspora existence. The Church has faced its own danger, internal and external, over the course of 2,000 years, too. Giving up is not a prescription for recovery.

Of course, while the health of the Church depends to a degree on the behavior of its members, and, as with Moses, God works in the world, at least in part, through human hands, the survival of the Church does not depend, ultimately, on the successes of any persons or group of persons. Moses expressed concern that he might not be able to convince the Israelites, that they might not believe his testimony. Through a series of sign-wonders, God essentially reminded Moses that Moses responsibility was to convey the message; God would convince Moses’ audience to believe.

God does the convincing. This assertion brings us to the core of the matter and to Gamaliel. As a seminary professor, I highly value ‘studying to show one’s self approved.’ God works through those whom God has called into the Body of Christ. Trained hands do better work. Church leaders should examine the social dynamics of the decline of the western Church and seek remedies. Preachers should reflect on how better to communicate the old story in new times. Standard paradigms require adjustments. Nevertheless, the life of the Church does not originate in its structures, or models, or members, but in God through Jesus Christ. Faith in God’s determination to redeem the world and to complete the Body of Christ negates Elijan pessimism about the future of the Church.

Furthermore, this faith is not merely wishful thinking. I have evidence. Amos confronted Israel’s cultural myopia with the jarring suggestion that God’s relationship with Israel was unique in character, but that it did not preclude God from relationship with other nations of the world.  If the Church intends to discern evidence of the movement of God in the world and to join in God’s work, then the western church may well benefit from lifting its eyes to look around. When it does so, it will see the vibrancy of Christianity in the so-called “global South.” Western Protestants look for the fresh winds of God’s Spirit can take inspiration from Pope Francis. Even around and among American Protestants, Christianity thrives and grows in minority, especially Hispanic and Asian, populations.

I suggest that this shift in the Church’s demographic center of gravity is tantamount to a call for mainline American Protestantism to engage more fully in the life of the Church universal.

Thanks for the leeway to make this case.

Take Some Time

Jer 28

When my children were still at home, one of them would sometimes find me sitting at my desk apparently doing nothing. Inevitably, he or she would ask what I was up to; invariably I would answer,”Working.” I remember several such encounters very well because the child in question would also, without exception, express disbelief.

Our activity-oriented culture does not always appreciate the fact that creativity, problem-solving, analysis, and similar “thought-work” often require quiet contemplation. A scholar cannot schedule having a brilliant insight for 9:00 Tuesday morning (when I am writing this). A poem may be only a few lines of a few words each, but the poet must take the time to devlop the imagery and explore the possibilities of language – to craft the poem.

It is the beginning of a new semester. Therefore, I have not had the time for reflective contemplation lately. The situation reminds me, however, of an event in the life of the prophet Jeremiah that I find instructive. The Babylonians took Judeans as hostages on at least two occasions, a relatively small number in 597/6 BCE (the so-called “First Deportation”) and again, in response to Judean recalcitrance, ten years later (the so-called “Great Deportation”). The first time, the Babylonians also plundered valuable objects from the temple; the second time, they breached the city walls of Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.

At some point in the interim, Jeremiah went to the temple to preach that Judah must repent of its infidelity to YHWH and submit to Babylonian overlordship for a time. To help make his point, he fashioned and wore a yoke to symbolize submission to the Babylonians. While in the temple, Jeremiah encountered Hananiah, who offered a competing message. To help make his point, Hananiah took Jeremiah’s yoke, broke it, and announced that Babylon’s dominance would have short duration and that both the exiles and the temple furnishings would soon return to Jerusalem.

Jeremiah’s reaction astonishes. He confessed that, since this message was new to him, he needed time to wait on insight from the Lord.  He admitted that he hoped Hananiah was correct but that, although he also doubted it, ultimately he did not know. He did not, in that moment, have a word from the Lord. He needed the leisure of reflection. Consequently, Jeremiah simply went home!

The account of the episode goes on to relate that, after the passage of some time, Jeremiah did hear a forceful word from God: Hananiah was wrong; he had spoken falsely; and, therefore, not only would Babylonian dominance persist, but Hananiah, himself, would suffer divine punishment. And so it was: Hananiah died, Judah rebelled, and the Babylonians returned in vengeance.

Ironically, thinking about the fact that I have not had time to think lately has, after all, led me to a number of recognitions. The first, of course, involves the urgency of disciplining the use of time to create time in which thoughts can “happen.”  German has a wonderful expression for this “happening” of thought. The phrase “Es ist mir eingefallen, dass…” (literally, “it fell into me that…”; in idiomatic English “it occurred to me that…”) acknowledges that insights cannot be manufacture. Instead, they mature with time; they arise from observation; they “dawn” on us.

The second lesson I take from Jeremiah and Hananiah concerns the danger of yielding to the expectation that one can produce wisdom on demand. I have compassion for pastors, in particular, whose congregations expect them to propound profound truth Sunday after Sunday, when the same congregation also expects a sixty-hour workweek. Churches would benefit from  insisting that their ministers make room for ample time in scripture study, reflection, and prayer.

Finally, I take the exchange between Hananiah and Jeremiah as a cautionary tale for any who claim the authority of God’s word. Hananiah, it seems, confused what he sorely wanted or his opinion of the state of affairs with divine inspiration. Like the leaders in the early church whom Paul castigated because “their gods [were] their bellies” (Phil 3:19), preachers (especially on radio and television) can easily identify their desires and fears with the will of God. It is probably good that we no longer stone false prophets.  Since God does not supply inspiration on demand, I recommend that, before speaking in God’s name, one should take some time.

By our Fruits

Luke 16:19-31

Several years ago now, when I had been teaching undergraduates for a few years, I said something (demonstrably true) in class about the text-critical problems with a particular passage of scripture that caused a minor disturbance among students.  It soon reached the ears of the administration.  Nothing came of it in the long run, I am happy to say, except for Continue reading By our Fruits

Because he could

Gen 32:28

Translating from one language to another always involves imprecision and a degree of informed speculation.  Such is especially the case with dead languages since the translator cannot have access to a native speaker for advice.  One passage in Genesis has long intrigued me because the almost universally accepted translation does not seem to fit the Continue reading Because he could

Grace: Transactional or Transformational?

Exod 2:24; Judg 2:16; Luke 17:12-19

This time of year means preparation for facing first year students. Most have never engaged in rigorous academic study of the Bible. They come to seminary as I came to my undergraduate religion major, innocently expecting that the Bible says what they have always thought it said and that serious study of it will only confirm what they Continue reading Grace: Transactional or Transformational?

“Be Angry and Sin Not”

Eph 4:26 (Ps 4:5 [4])

My parents had a mixed marriage of sorts.  My mother had Quaker and strict Methodist heritage; my father was (still is, he would say) a United States Marine.  Mother taught me that I should avoid conflict, bear insult and injury with quiet grace, and, above all else, maintain control of my temper.  In her view, anger was always and only as dangerous and Continue reading “Be Angry and Sin Not”

Christians should Engage in Politics

This continues a discussion of Christian discipleship and politics begun last week via excerpts from a series of lectures entitled “Baptist Polity, Biblical Theology, and Responsible Citizenship” that I delivered as the Solon B. Cousins Lectures at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond March 29-30, 2016.  The full text of the lectures is available under the “Sermons and Lectures” tab on this website. Continue reading Christians should Engage in Politics

Render Unto Caesar

Matt 22:21

The political season began in earnest yesterday.  It seems to me that politics represent “an attractive menace” for Christians. What can be more important than determining the values and policies that govern everyone’s everyday lives? Christians must be interested and involved. On the other hand, of course, lie the temptations to exercise control over others, to mistake temporal concerns for eternal, to compromise the core of Christian identity, and a host of others.  I addressed these concerns in a series of lectures entitled “Baptist Polity, Biblical Theology, and Responsible Citizenship” delivered as the Solon B. Cousins Lectures at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond March 29-30, 2016.  Below is an excerpt outlining what I believe to be the principle temptations.  The full text of the lectures is available under the “Sermons and Lectures” tab on this website.

Continue reading Render Unto Caesar

Hamas!

 

And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh is coming before me because the earth is full of violence (hamas) because of them.  Now I am about to destroy them along with the earth.  (Gen 6:13, my trans.)

 

The Priestly authors of portions of the Genesis narratives of the beginnings of the human race did not clearly elucidate their understanding of humanity’s responsibility for “subduing” the earth, but they did include statements that rule out any notion that this responsibility could include exploitation. In the Genesis 1 creation account, for example, Continue reading Hamas!