Sabbatical Progress – Week 2

Continuing what I began last week, I wanted to give you a little taste of what sabbatical has involved this week. Still a bunch of reading, but other stuff, too! God has been speaking through it all, answering prayers for wisdom and understanding, while at the same time challenging me in areas that I haven’t fully considered or in some ways hadn’t dared to consider.

  • I’ve continued to keep ahead with my Hebrew work. I’m really enjoying Hebrew! The approach taken by the author (the professor) is quite engaging. The workbook is really helpful for cementing ideas after doing the memory work.
  • I continue to make daily progress on 6 Ways the Old Testament Speaks Today. The readings on the voice of prophesy were great. Today, I started in on “The Voice of Wisdom”. The way the author sets Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes in contrast to one another was insightful, to say the least. Looking forward to seeing it fleshed out this week (and maybe just a little more from Song of Solomon)! This has been a great resource in daily engaging with Scripture.
  • As well, I am progressing through The Path to Being a Pastor. This is a really good book. It has been convicting, encouraging, and altogether challenging so far, and I am only a third of the way in.
  • Today, in coordination with our church’s week of missional focus, I began Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus. I’m only through the introduction, but J. Mack Stiles is already challenging and winsomely engaging the reader. As a side-note, I will say that John Power, who gave the sermon this morning, did a really good job. Also, all those who read Scripture came prepared and did an awesome job of doing more than reading – but really helping the congregation engage the Word.
  • On a more restful note, I have also taken some time for some fiction, with Asimov’s The End of Eternity and Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings. Both authors do a great job at building worlds and capturing people.
  • And, as a final note on “rest”, after some grueling work getting the room clean and the puzzle table in place, I started a puzzle for the first time in a while. It’s going to be beautiful, although for now, I must say it is maddening. The pieces are not very firmly connected, so they shift really easily. Also, the distinction between pieces can be quite unclear. It will be slower-going than intended!

So, onward to week 3. And thinking on a number of themes that God brought together this week, I’ll leave you with this from Deuteronomy 6:

Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise…

Deuteronomy 6:4-7 ESV

Sabbatical Progress – Week 1

So, today was the first Sunday of my September sabbatical. It’s been a restful time so far, and that time has also been put to some good use! Thought I’d stop a moment each Sunday and consider the week. Primarily, this is a help to me, helping me remember what God is doing.

  • So, for starters, there has been a bunch of prayer. Prayer for my local church, prayer for my wife and kids, prayer for direction. Especially, I’ve been in prayer asking God to raise up leaders and servants, and to provide opportunities for purposeful discipleship.
  • I actually jump-started my sabbatical finishing one of my first reading goals. The book in question was Leeman’s Church Membership. I shared a couple quotes and thoughts here and here. Great book, if you are looking for something to help you think through meaningful membership.
  • I followed that up with another book in the same series, Dever’s Discipling. You can find some thoughts I posted here. Also a good read, with some great motivation for discipling with purpose, especially as it approached the final chapters.
  • I’m keeping up daily with 6 Ways the Old Testament Speaks Today. Last week, I commented on how he addressed worship. Today, I began the next “voice”, the voice of prophecy. I’m excited to get into the daily “devotional” portion, as last week bible readings were great reminders of how God calls us into worship.
  • I sprinted ahead in my Hebrew textbook, finally stopping at chapter 12. That basically got me through the Qal-stem forms (qatal, yiqtol, weqatal, and wayyiqtol, plus the infinitive construct). Now to go back and do some more systematic review. I’m still much further back in the workbook. I’ve also been busy loading up my Anki deck. Anki has really helped with memorization of vocabulary. Debating if I should put time into using SIL’s FLEx to begin capturing nominal/verbal system rules…debating if it is worth the time/effort. I haven’t done much with infixing in the tool, which would be critical.
  • I helped my father-in-law find a Bible translation that was good for reading. He specifically was looking for one that would be good for reading more for the fuller story, the flow. A nice, cheap HCSB arrived more quickly than I could have imagined.
  • The family spent the long weekend up in the North Carolina mountains visiting Kim’s parents, “camping” out in the front yard. Also a lot of hikes with the dogs. It’s been a blast, but tomorrow we will head back home.

Well, that is a lot! But it honestly has been quite restful. Getting some time set aside for determined reading means books are no longer building dust on the shelf, which is a weight off the shoulders! If you find the right moment, pray for me, that I might continue to use my time wisely.

Old Testament Wanderings: Worship, Personal Choice, and Vanity

In my last class, I picked up 6 Ways The Old Testament Speaks Today by Alec Motyer. It was meant as a book the student could read and review for extra credit. I fully intended, though I had no need ultimately, to do the extra credit. But, my failure to plan my time then means I have a great book now that I can use devotionally for a much more leisurely paced venture.

Each of the main chapters addresses a particular “voice” in the Old Testament. They begin with a summary of the idea, then 6 days of bible readings and discussion, plus more readings in the back of the book for deeper digging. I had already completed the first two chapters, “The Voice of History” and “The Voice of Religion”, so now I’m tackling chapter 3, “The Voice of Worship”.

I’ve loved Motyer’s manner so far, but the first day’s Bible reading for “worship” really captured my attention. Motyer sends the reader to Genesis 4:1-15, the account of Cain and Able. I must admit that when I think of dwelling on worship in the Old Testament, my mind doesn’t (or didn’t) race to this story in Genesis 4. As Motyer notes, this story “is one of the many places where we really wish the Bible gave us more information.” (p.67)

Motyer briefly walks the reader through some options for understanding the naming of Cain and the implications of God’s words to Cain in verses 6 and 7. There is a brief consideration of the type of Cain’s offering, finally turning to the “disposition of the offerer”, the fact that unlike Cain, Abel appears to go out of his way to offer the best portions.

Which brings me to the following:

If we are at all moving along the right lines (and at least it all concurs with what we learn throughout the Bible), then as a basic rule, worship must rest on, and be obedient to, a previously revealed will of God. We are not free to be self-pleasing. Worship is not an area in which personal choice and what we might find “helpful” are in order. As Calvin remarks on Matthew 15:9, “True religion must be conformable to the will of God as its unerring standard.” Jesus was, if anything, sharper: worship that is no more than a human device is “vain” (Matt. 15:9). This was the pit into which Cain fell, where arrogance, pride, and sinful animosity bound him and turned him into a brother-hating murderer (1 John 3:11-15). And indeed, we need to keep our traditions of worship constantly under review, with ceaseless reformation and adjustment according to the Word of God, lest our coming together be condemnation rather than a blessing.

6 Ways the Old Testamant Speaks Today, pp.67-68

This hit me pretty hard this morning. In what ways might I turn away from proper worship? Is it devotion to a particular style? The demand for a certain level of performance or execution? A desire to cling to tried-and-true patterns, or the warmth of nostalgia? Or maybe a persistent search for the new, different or unique. It brings up a lot of questions!

Is worship about what “works”? It was for Cain. He gave what he had, without thought for God’s former provision. Is worship simply a filler in our services, or potentially worse, clever religious marketing? Is it there to please a certain crowd, draw a certain audience, to create the right image, to check a box? Or is it there to set the mood, to create an emotional response, to cover up the transition from one part of our corporate gathering to another?

Does worship say more about us than about God? Are we focused on Him or are we looking for an outlet for our religious fervor? Is our worship aimed at humbling ourselves before God? Paul deals with this as he addresses the Corinthians. Rather than proper worship in loving community, they have perverted the Lord’s supper by their selfish carousing, taking on the role of Cain in this murderous drama. Paul does not mince words.

Finally, how do I – how do we – respond to distractions? Is a child in service – our own or another’s – a distraction that “ruins” worship? If worship doesn’t measure up to our expectations, do we respond with frustration, irritability or hurt feelings? What if the band or singers makes a mistake, or a couple mistakes, or can’t seem to get it together? How is our worship affected? Where is our focus?

Motyer has got right to the point in this first offering. Worship starts by asking what God wants, how to best please him. And our efforts to make worship in our own image stink of the grave.

How Flawed and Insufficient Your Love Is

I’ve now started into my next book, as I had mentioned in the last post. Chapter 2 of Discipling is titled “Oriented Towards Others”. A number of passages are addressed as Dever talks about the biblical pattern we experience in Jesus through the gospels, as well as the example Paul provides. But the one that stood out for me was Colossians 1:28-29. He looks at it through the lens of two different word pairs.

The first pair is “toil” and “struggling”, reflecting on the need to engage, to work hard to see the gospel take root. Discipleship doesn’t just happen. It takes conscious effort, fueled by the work God is doing in us. The second pair was “proclaim” and “present”. Here, while he is usually not making any pastoral-specific points, he does make a detour, and I am glad he did:

A Brief Word to Pastors

If you are a pastor or are considering the pastoral ministry, you should think long and hard about this passage [Col 1:28-29]. Notice that the ministry involves both fully proclaiming the Word of God and working to present the people of God mature before him.

This requires utter selflessness on our part. There is much that is good about being a pastor, but, given the sinfulness in both church members and pastors, there is also much that’s tough. Pastor, you will toil and struggle out of love for the members of your congregation, and they sometimes will respond by explaining how flawed and insufficient your love is.

Ultimately therefore, your toil and labor cannot root in your love for them or their love for you. It must root in your love for Christ, his love for you, and his love for them. He has purchased them with his blood. And you mean to present them to him. It is for him that you do it all.

Discipling, pp.32-33

He ends the chapter returning to the need for all Christians to be disciplers, each of us one who “proclaims now so that he might present later.”

Beyond what I found to be a well-aimed reminder, I thought this chapter was well timed, as well. The overlap between Colossians 1:28-29 and Ephesians 1:1-14, which our men’s group studied this morning, made me pause for a moment. God be praised for seeing fit to shower us with his grace at the right time, to call us into the work of developing biblical maturity in those we have been connected with through the Spirit.

The First Step – Reflecting on Nehemiah 2:17-18

I’m finished reading Nehemiah: A Pastoral and Exegetical Commentary, but am behind in sharing the few quotes that stood out to me. Many of the quotes that did so are longer, but this one, not so much:

God often uses his messengers and his word to shine a light on matters in our lives that are unacceptable to God and yet have become accepted by us. Jerusalem is “desolate.” Perhaps they have grown accustomed to the disgrace. The first step in changing a situation is to honestly assess the situation. Only then will one recognize the need for the change.

Nehemiah: A Pastoral and Exegetical Commentary, p.43

What in your life have you gotten used to and stopping resisting? What sin seems a losing battle? What conversation, situation or relationship do you avoid messing with, settling instead for the status quo? Sometimes all it takes is for fresh eyes to point out our precarious position, to point us back to God, to help us reflect on his love and care for his people. In this case, it was the perspective of a leader committed to bringing God glory, removing the reproach that had become “the new normal”.

In chapter 2, Nehemiah helps the people see their condition. It’s not that they didn’t already know what Jerusalem was like, the desperate state it had fallen into. But they needed someone to point the way forward. They needed encouragement, even exhortation, that was grounded in God’s glory and promises. They needed to be confronted with how their ambivalence and acceptance of the situation dishonored God and prolonged the situation.

I’m coming to realize, more and more, when the day-to-day looms so large that it begins to choke out our vision of God, we need the Spirit’s voice spoken through brothers and sisters in Christ. We cannot and must not walk this life alone, separate from other believers. We need the gospel applied in our lives daily, and we need all the different gifts, voices and perspectives that come from God’s covenant community.

In The Mail – Elementary Hebrew Texts

Woohoo! Hebrew textbooks and Old Testament hermeneutics in the mail. Can’t complain about that. This upcoming semester I’m taking 20400 WW, otherwise known as “Elementary Hebrew”, with Dr. Garrett. There are two textbooks (really a book and an associated workbook), two recommended texts, plus an extra credit book.

In The Mail Today

So, for text and workbook, and the extra credit, all pictured above, I’ll be working with:

The “recommended” texts are A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament and Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS). The first I recently picked up cheap at a used book store, in really good condition. Someone even did the much appreciated work of tabbing the book by initial letters! The other, I may go for in the future, but I have Zondervan’s Hebrew and Greek reader from a couple years back, which is the Leningrad Codex (L), and supposedly only slightly different from BHS. I’ll save a couple bucks for now sticking with it. Fairly readable font, too, and I hear the cheaper variations of BHS can be difficult on the eyes – all those tiny lines and dots!

The professor and OTA both highly encouraged going ahead and getting started on the text, even though there are still about 3 weeks until class starts. To that end, they provided the first couple chapters as pdfs, and I have already begun working on chapter 1, with lots of memorization. Starting to load and run through vocabulary with a custom ankiweb deck. Practicing handwriting, letter names, alphabet order, and some initial vocabulary on paper (here is just one sheet of example, of which there are numerous):

Getting Better, But Still Not There Yet

So, that’s what I am going to be working on for the near future. How about you?

G

The Conscience, As Illustrated by Ezra and Nehemiah

I’m currently reading Nehemiah: A Pastoral and Exegetical Commentary, as part of Introduction to Old Testament I (SBTS). Really enjoying it so far. It strikes a good balance between textual matters and application in the life of the church.

In Chapter 2, in the section concerning 2:7-8a, I ran upon this section, that made me stop and think:

Nehemiah basically makes two requests. The first request is for letters ensuring his safe passage to Judah. As noted in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, Judeans faced stiff resistance and oppression from their enemies (see Ezra 4-6; Neh 4). Obviously, Nehemiah knows of the dangers and asks the king for help. It may be of interest to note that about thirteen years earlier Ezra refused to ask the king for an escort to travel from Persia to Judah because he had told the king, “The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him” (Ezra 8:22b). Brown’s comments are helpful for thinking about the differences between Ezra and Nehemiah:

Everybody is different and there is nothing monochrome about God’s servants. Thirteen years earlier Ezra had refused the offer of Persian soldiers to accompany his people on their way back to Judah, believing the “gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him.” But Nehemiah maintained that because the gracious hand of God was upon him, the king granted his request for protection. One man’s commitment to God precluded the escort; the other welcomed it. Ezra regarded soldiers as a lack of confidence in God’s power; Nehemiah viewed them as evidence of God’s superlative goodness…We must not rigidly stereotype believers into identical patterns of spirituality.

Both Ezra and Nehemiah sought to honor God in what they did, and God blessed both of them for it. Depending on the Lord and acting in a way that brings him glory must be the preeminent goal. God will bless the efforts of such individuals regardless of the various paths they take to accomplish it.

Nehemiah, T.J.Betts, pp. 33-34

That reminds me of the classic set of verses in Proverbs (26:4-5), Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. So which is it? Faced with a fool, are we to answer or stay quiet? Yes! Wisdom and humility make all the difference. Or, jumping to Romans 14:4, Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

Some things are going to be one way and one way only. I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me, says Jesus in John 14:6. But Nehemiah, though Dr. Betts, provides a helpful reminder that with much of life, including a faithful walk before God, humility is still necessary, our way of “getting the job done” may not be the only way, or even the best way, and that God’s glory should be determinative. And, I’m inclined to believe the Spirit has something to say, too.

Dropping The Book For A Moment

So, this morning, I just need to put the textbook down for a moment and write. My hope is to give you a brief, inside look into what it feels like to be in non-vocational pastoral ministry. And I’d say vocational pastoral ministry, too, though I don’t have that exact experience. I don’t often write like this, because often it is hard to know what I should share. Other times, it is a chore to determine whether sharing something will be received as a targeted rebuke, rather than a general encouragement, etc.

The thing I most want to say is that, in my experience, if you are a member of a local body of believers, you are being prayed for. You’re likely being prayed for either way, but as a member of a local body, I can say it with much greater certainty.

You may be a faithful servant, teaching kids, or serving in behind-the-scenes ministry, or highly visible, singing or playing an instrument. You are being prayed for. Your spouse (if you have one) is being prayed for. Your marriage is being brought before the throne. Your kids (if you have them), their goals, their longings, their futures, are all being lifted up. We are praying for God to lead you – to direct your words with friends, to forgive when necessary, to show and receive mercy as you become more like Christ. We are praying you will be rescued from temptation, that you will be a humble and wise witness of the love of Christ in a fallen world.

Or you may be struggling to find connection. You may be having a hard time relating to a leader or another member. You may want things about worship, or children’s ministry, or church direction, that just aren’t happening though you wish they would. You may be absent because of Covid, or present, but feeling invisible. You are being prayed for. Your spouse is being prayed for. Your marriage is being brought before the throne. Your kids, their goals, their longings, their futures, are all being lifted up. We are praying for deeper connection with the local body. We are praying for friendships to be built, for the Spirit to bring unity. We are praying for the church to be what Scripture calls it to be. And we are encouraging other servants in the body to pray, too. To reach out with a meal, with a conversation, with an open home.

I’m not looking for applause or even kudos – I am not always (or often) the best at this. But if you sometimes wonder whether your service is worth it, or if you are even noticed, the answer is, “Yes!” You are loved and cared for. Frequently I am at a loss for how to serve hurting people well. How to reignite the flames of a marriage, how to rekindle a passion for ministry, how to encourage involvement in the body. I need the local body, and the wisdom of the Spirit, too. But we are praying. We are watching to see hearts who are willing to step into those difficult spaces and build connections. We are looking for those who are willing to sacrifice to serve others well.

Non-vocational pastoral/elder ministry looks like unanswered texts and calls, trying to reach out to people and wondering if you’ve done something wrong. It can be discouraging, honestly. It looks like sleepless nights (or waking up unintentionally sometime around 3AM) and praying for the body because you long to see it thrive, to glow with the person of Jesus. It looks like trying to bring Scripture to bear on real issues that people are dealing with, and it looks like holding out heady truths about who God is, what Jesus has accomplished on the cross, and what the Spirit is doing in and through the local body of Christ. Often these two threads are more related than we know or believe.

Thankfully, it is also watching worship come alive on the faces of people God has changed. Discouragement is met by the Spirit speaking and the knowledge that others are praying for me. I get to watch people serve in so many different ways, all according to the way God has gifted them. It is seeing people grow more patient towards their children, more forgiving with their spouses, more aware of their sin and more passionate about Christ’s people.

But overwhelmingly it looks like prayer. Prayer for laborers in the field. Prayers for unity in the body. Prayers for God’s will to empower and guide everything we do. Prayers for wisdom and forgiveness when we fail to be what God calls us to be. It is prayer for the church to be the church and you to be an active and integral part of that local assembly. Not some ethereal entity, nor just a location to meet on a particular day of the week, but a vital people called out by God to love one another. The reign of God in the present, and the new people he has created, really do matter!

And with that said, time to get back to a book review on “Killing a Messiah” (good book, by the way) and studying for a final exam. But I’ll still be praying.

Out with the New, In with the Old

Week 6 of 8 is almost complete for spring term 2 (Introduction to New Testament I). I’ve enjoyed Dr. Pennington quite a lot. Nevertheless, time to start planning and registering for summer and fall. To that end, I signed up to take Introduction to Old Testament I over the summer with Dr. Betts, and then in the fall, consuming both terms, will be Elementary Hebrew with Dr. Garrett.

I think they usually suggest Greek first, then Hebrew – and I can understand it at least on the fact that Greek is closer to English than Hebrew is. If it is a first or even second time doing another language, it pays to do one similar I suppose. Having studied a few languages at this point (my current, daily study is Spanish, German and Japanese) and having some Greek already under my belt (and maybe I can study on the side to eventually test out of it?) I thought I would jump to Hebrew. I’ve studied just a smidgen of Biblical Hebrew already. I’m prepared for it to be a doozy…

And my books for Old Testament I have arrived already, even!

Back to Luke and John!

The Gospel and The Gospels

This week’s reading lays the framework for a deeper study of the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in coming weeks. So far, that reading includes Who Chose the Gospels?, by C.E. Hill, Reading the Gospels Wisely, by Jonathan T. Pennington, and Four Portraits, One Jesus (2nd Edition) by Mark L. Strauss. The reading for this week surveys the gospels themselves (what they are), the gospel message (what the gospels are for), and how the gospels have been (and are) used and studied. Great stuff, really – healthy does of history and hermeneutics.

Two passages in the reading stand out to me, both from Pennington. And why not, since he is the prof, after all!

Bringing our discussion of the first two chapters to a close we may ask again, what are the Gospels? After our exploration of the origin and usage of the euangelion word group, I proposed that for the New Testament authors the “gospel” is the proclamation of Jesus’ fulfillment of the promised return of the reign or kingdom of God. We have seen that this oral apostolic proclamation naturally and understandably is eventually written down, and the result is our canonical Gospel, given to us in its fourfold narrative form, or as we say today, the Gospels.

Reading the Gospels Wisely, pp.34-35

That acts as a powerful conclusion that allows him to move into the next chapter on why we need the Gospels, and not just the Pauline (Petrine, Johannine, etc. – the “letters”) corpus. The “modern”, scientific mindset, with its predisposition for analysis in abstract, for atomizing, isolating principles, can easily miss the big picture with all its messy interactions, a “forest for the trees” view of the world and our relationship with its creator. Narrative provides a unique way of teaching that looks more holistically at life, and thus can approach the complexity of faith in interaction with a real, fallen world in need of God. And with that, the other quote (and a reference to Tolkien!):

We are story people. In the very fabric of our beings we are spring-loaded for story. Story is how we make sense of our world and our own lives. Story powerfully creates life and hope, the lack of which is depression. Hope is imagination, and imagination is central for human flourishing and life. When we hope, we are using God’s image-bearing gift to envision a reality that does not yet exist. Creating story (including the writing of history) is at the height of or abilities as those made in God’s image or, to use Tolkien’s language, as “subcreators” modeling after the Creator. Story is created by and creates imagination. Abstract reflection and doctrine are necessary and good, but they do not have the the same kind of effect and transformative power that a story does. (italics mine)

Reading the Gospels Wisely, p.46

In my last class, an author quipped that we are interpreters of life and our circumstances. We don’t view reality objectively, but always interpretively, connecting what we see and giving it meaning. It’s been percolating in my mind, and with all this talk of hermeneutics and meaning, of teaching and life, reminds me also of Douglas Hofstadter’s Surfaces and Essences, where he makes a powerful case for understanding consciousness and thought as essentially a thorough-going development of analogy.

I have to just sit back in awe, and consider how looking at the Gospels connects math (yep), consciousness, artificial intelligence, history, philosophy, language, revelation and the heart, just to name a few things. It reminds me that God does not always give us what we might want (a single, comprehensive, written Gospel, among other things), but he knows what we need. We see glimpses of the grandeur, but he created it, and invites us to partake of his nature (1 Peter 1:4). The Gospels take our costly faith and turn it to the goals of increasing virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and finally love. They give us both the living example and effective work of Jesus. They don’t just give us information to bolster theological arguments, they call on us to follow him and be changed by him.

Blessings to my fellow followers of Jesus, as we look toward our times of local worship tomorrow: May you together experience the blessings of the body of Christ and the power of the Spirit!