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.

How Membership Is The Same Everywhere

In the final chapter of “Church Membership”, Leeman discusses how locale and context affects church membership. In light of all that is going on in Afghanistan of late, but also the experience of churches in China and some parts of Africa, and increasingly here, this chapter reflecting on what membership looks like under different societal and political forces is helpful. It bears out the flexibility and wisdom Leeman brings, rather than a rigid set of rules.

And as discussions of viruses and vaccines continue to dominate our lives, this section hits home:

Now, Satan uses different devices in different locations to undermine Christ’s kingdom. A favorite device in the West is cultural Christianity. The American brand of cultural Christianity results from well-intending adults handing out the candy of cheap grace to five-year olds and twenty-five year olds alike. You ask them if they want to be with mommy and daddy in heaven or pressure them into walking an aisle. The point is, you play on their fears, emotions, or appetites in order to get quick, unconsidered professions of faith. Then you immediately affirm those professions. The European state-church brand, on the other hand, is much more civilized. Cheap grace comes with a birth certificate.

The genius of this device in both locations is that it allows Satan to inoculate their hosts against real Christianity. It’s nearly impossible to share the gospel with a cultural Christian because he already gives lip service to it. “Yes, I believe that.” But there’s no repentance. He merely baptizes a slightly sanitized version of his old self into Christianity.

Church Membership, pp. 122-23

Before getting into what membership looks like in those locales experiencing more pervasive and physical persecution, he makes the point that “cultural Christianity…fools churches into thinking that they don’t live in enemy territory.” (p.123) It should be enough to remind us of James 4:4: You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

The local church exists to show off God’s glory and mercy. Leeman is on solid ground when he remarks that, “the local church protects the gospel from all kinds of attack by taking great care in who it receives as a member. Every church must ask the basic questions: Who do you say that Jesus is? Are you sure you’re really ready to take up your cross and give yourself to identifying with him and his body?” (p.124)

A persecuted church may not have a physical membership role, and may not even vote on incoming members, but you can trust every member knows who is “with them”, who is a part of the body, who is set apart as a disciple and who is not. In a world of easy membership with no responsibility, and little to no accountability, I think churches are wise to put extra effort on the front end, to ensure that the resulting body is actually Christ’s body. Not a perfect or sinless one, but one that lives and proclaims the gospel by being set apart for God’s work.

-G

On Submitting to the Local Church

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of Jonathan Leeman over the last few days, and I’m definitely benefiting from his skill in teaching. I’ve read him writing in a more academic tone, and loved it. Pleasant to find he can write equally well in a style that is more down-to-earth.

I’m almost done with Church Membership, in the 9Marks series, and I would definitely recommend it for every Christian. This is a quick and easy read to situate the believer as a citizen of a kingdom and a member of a body, striking at both the structural and the organic nature of the church in the life of a believer.

Chapter 6, “How Does a Christian Submit to a Church? (Being a Member)”, stands out powerfully. Beginning with yet another image, another metaphor, for the body of believers – stars in the night sky (see Philippians 2:12-16) – he moves on to eight practical ways to submit to the local church. I can hardly quote it all, but as just a taste, Leeman offers the following. Christians can submit to the local church:

  • Publicly – “…by which I mean formally or officially…Jesus publicly identified himself with his church. We should publicly identify with him and his people as well…” (p.95)
  • Physically/Geographically – “Now, let me raise the stakes a little. If you can, ‘consider others better than yourselves’ and ‘look to the interests of others’ by living geographically close to the church…it’s easier to invite people to one’s house for dinner, to watch one another’s children while running errands, to pick up bread or milk at the store for one another.” (p.96) Better yet, “Did Jesus submit himself physically and geographically for our good? He left heaven!” (p.97)
  • Socially – “Christian friends are surely valuable inside or outside the same local church. But friends within a local church will be formed by the same ministry of the Word, giving them the opportunity to extend that ministry more carefully into one another’s lives throughout the week.” (p.98)
  • Affectionately – “He commands us to rejoice with the brother who gets a big job promotion and all the money and prestige that comes with it. Can we? He commands the thirty-year-old single woman who longs for marriage to rejoice with the twenty-two-year-old woman when she marries. Can she? Can the poor man mourn with the rich man when he loses his job? Saying yes to these questions – rather than saying yes to ‘selfish ambition and vain conceit’ – requires something more than sentiment. It requires a heart to be altered by the gospel and the Spirit.” (p.99)
  • Financially – “This will look different from context to context. But however it’s done, Christians should look for ways to fulfil biblical commands like these…” (p.99)
  • Vocationally – “I know men and women in secular employment who, for the sake of serving in their local churches, have turned down promotions and more money, who have moved from larger, more reputable firms to smaller ones, who have refused to move to another city…because he or she knew that it would have hindered the ability to care for the church and family.” (p.100)
  • Ethically – “…Christians should look to the church for ethical instruction, counsel, accountability, and discipline in matters that are addressed in God’s Word.” (p.101)
  • Spiritually – “By this I mean three specific things: First, this community is where we should seek to exercise our spiritual gifts…Second, the local church is the community where Christians should build one another up in the faith through God’s Word…Third, it’s the people for whom we should intercede regularly in our prayers.” (p.102)

As you can hopefully see, Leeman offers spiritual wisdom that grounds the believer in reality. Being a Christian, and thus being a member of a local church, is more than just words, more than just “ideal”. It has real implications for how we live our lives together before a watching world. It calls us to consider how our actions impact one another, how our decisions represent Jesus and the gospel proclamation in our communities.

As a final quote, wrapping up the chapter:

Truth be told, people are not afraid to submit. They just want to submit to beauty, like the valiant hero who submits himself to rescuing the damsel in distress.

What’s unexpected about Christianity is that its hero doesn’t risk all for the damsel but for what the Bible likens to a harlot. Then he calls everyone that he saves to submit themselves to this same harlot – the bride still being made ready, the church.

Now submitting to ugliness does scare people. And that’s what submitting to the local church can be. Churches are filled with other sinners whose visions of glory contradict our own. But this is how Christ loved us: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34 ESV)

Christ’s love wonderfully transforms the ugly into the beautiful (see Eph. 5:22-31). Our love for one another should do the same thing – help the ugly become beautiful.

Who can love in this way? Only the ones whose eyes have been opened and whose hearts have been freed from the slavery of loving this world: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 ESV)

Church Membership, pp.102-3

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.

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!

Learning Through Fiction

The final “textbook” for NT1 came in the mail today. It is interesting to be assigned a fictional work, Killing a Messiah by Adam Winn. I find the idea behind it reasonable though…sometimes we get caught up in our assumptions about the backdrop, the context, of historical (and in this case religious) events. Fiction can be a way of looking at things from a slightly different angle.

Probably be a bit before I get started n this one, but looking forward to it. Already neck deep in Who Chose The Gospels, by Hill. Chapter one got right down to business countering arguments that non-canonical gospels were on an equal footing in the early centuries of the church.

“The Long Awaited Return of God”

Books are arriving for my next class, “Intro to the New Testament 1”, with Dr. Pennington. This class surveys the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Intro to NT2, which I took earlier, covered Acts through Revelation. I’ve already been through this week’s lectures, and am really looking forward to the class!

Time to get reading!