Thinking Out Loud

January 21, 2019

Eyeing the Competition

While 99% of the people in Pastor Reynold’s congregation met with him at the church or in a coffee shop, Olivia was good friends with his wife which gave her somewhat unfettered access to the pastor at his home.

Dropping in one day while Mrs. Reynolds was out, they stood at the front door and talked for five minutes, and as usual, Olivia was going on and on about the latest podcast she’d heard from some U.S. preacher. “You should check him out sometime; it was absolutely awesome!”

It wasn’t just her; there were a bunch of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings in the church who seemed to trade teaching links the way his generation traded baseball cards. It was as though everyone is looking for the next big thing.

Finally he decided to state the obvious, “So did you like my sermon this week?”

“It was okay.” She seemed to be reluctantly volunteering that assessment.

“Would it be better if I got some skinny jeans?” he asked her, but she just laughed.

So he tried it another way, “Would it be different if I had a podcast?”

“You do have a sermon podcast; the tech team posts your message every Monday.”

“Oh right…” at which point he had to admit to himself that he’d forgotten that; in fact, he’d never even been to the page where the sermons were posted.

Olivia got a text back from Mrs. Reynolds saying she wouldn’t be home for an hour, so Olivia texted back that they’d meet the next day instead.

Pastor Reynolds went back to his computer and tried to find an email he’d received several weeks ago from Jordan, Olivia’s husband. Jordan had recommended that the pastor watch and listen to a particular speaker but the email had sat ignored.

“Where did he say that guy was from?” the pastor asked himself. “Bismark? Boise? Bakersfield?” He found the email, clicked the link and started listening. He’d set the expectation bar quite low and wasn’t prepared for what he saw and heard.

After about four minutes, out loud to no one besides the cat, he said, “Oh my goodness… this ain’t the kind of preaching I was raised on.”

It was actually two hours before Mrs. Reynolds came home, and by then Pastor Reynolds had heard three sermons by three different next generation preachers, and had scrawled two pages of handwritten notes…


…Every healthy church has people of different ages who are being influenced by speakers and teachers online from their generation.  Someone who loves Charles Stanley is unlikely to develop an affection for John Mark Comer and vice versa. A fan of David Jeremiah is unlikely to convert to a steady diet of Judah Smith. A daily listener to Chuck Swindoll is unlikely to abandon him for Levi Lusko.

The point of today’s story however is that pastors would do well to invest some time listening to those teachers who are influencing the people in their congregation. People like Olivia can’t get to John Mark’s or Judah’s or Levi’s church. If they live more than an hour from a major city, they might not even be able to get to one like it. Pastor, they worship at your church and they’re part of your congregation.

But they have these other influences, just as certainly as the older people take in In Touch, Turning Point and Insight for Living. Furthermore, the older members of the church often listen to these radio and television preachers on a daily basis, whereas they only come to church once a week. Media preaching has a greater impact on many churchgoers than what takes place at weekend services.

Shouldn’t pastors take some time every once in awhile to check out what it is people are hearing? In the story, Pastor Reynolds announces to an empty house not that the message is ‘Heresy!’ but rather that the communication style is exceptionally different; greatly engaging. The pacing is different; there’s less shouting; the messages are longer but the times seems to fly by. He makes notes.

I think the practice of listening to the group of rising pastors and authors should be part of a pastor’s occasional routine. I know people in vocational ministry are busy and groan under the weight of all the books people in the church tell them they should read, and podcasts they should watch or listen to, but if someone in your congregation is overflowing with excitement about a spiritual influence in their lives, wouldn’t one would want to know what it is?


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June 26, 2018

Who Says a Parable Can’t Contain a Commandment?

Filed under: bible, Christianity, Jesus — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:34 am

While most of the articles here are original, the ones at Christianity 201 come from “beg, borrow or steal” sources. I do however try to write one myself at least once a week. That was the case yesterday, prompted by a comment on a forum. (Apologies to those of you who subscribe to both blogs.)

Compelling People to Become Christians: Can a Parable Contain a Commandment?

NIV Luke 14:12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

15 When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

16 Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’

18 “But they all alike began to make excuses…

…21 “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’

23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. 24 I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”

In a very, very short comment on a Religion Forum, a writer opened not one, but two different cans of worms. First let’s read what they wrote:

Luke 14:23 reads: The master said: “go out to the highways and country lanes and force people to come in, to make sure my house is full”. This verse is not a command of Jesus, but, rather is at the end of the parable

“A man once gave a feast”. In the parable a man gave a feast and invited many guests. At the time for the feast he sent the servants out to tell those he had invited to come because everything was ready. None of those people came, they all had other things to do. The man sent the servants to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Then the servants came to him and said there is still some room left in the banquet room. The man said go out and find people and force them to come so my house will be full.

This verse was used centuries ago by Catholics and Protestants in Europe to support forcing people to go to the one officially approved church in a nation. Today Christians generally don’t favor forcing people to go to church, so what do Christians do with this verse now? I can’t think of any way to get around it except to ignore it. How do Christians soft pedal this verse today?

Parables exist to either compare or contrast. When “foolish virgins” run out of oil for their midnight lamps, the message is a warning to be prepared. In other words, don’t do what you see happening in the story.

In this story, there’s room at the table. There are still empty seats. The host of the party desires a full house. In other words, you’re supposed to do what you see playing out in the story.

We’re expected to go out

  • i.e. “Go into all the world”
  • i.e. “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria;” etc.
  • i.e. Search for the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son; etc.

and invite people to the great banquet God is preparing.

In a devotional we posted in March 2017, we noted:

C. S. Lewis wrote, “The symbols under which heaven is presented to us are (a) a dinner party, (b) a wedding, (c) a city, and (d) a concert.”

The banquet in Luke 23 could be either the dinner party or the wedding reception. It’s pointing us to something for which God is preparing us.

But the writer of our opening comment correctly notes that this verse has been used to create forced conversions. Even J. B. Phillips, in his translation, says, “make them come.” The Message says, “drag them in.” “Compel” and “Constrain” are frequently used.

Other translations however offer, “Urge them,” “Persuade them,” etc. (This is considered more consistent with the original Greek, as a later response in the same article points out.) A respondent to the comment says, “This in Luke is, to me, the same as the wedding story in Matthew 22. There it states to “bid” them to come which is no more than to ask or invite them.”

So: Which is it?

The comment writer is correct in noting that this is a parable, and some aspects of the story may be very similar while the story is slightly different. Not everything in a parable has a perfect 1:1 mapping. This is because the major point is that God’s desire is for the banquet to be filled. “God is not willing that any should perish.” (John 3:17a.) In some schools of doctrine, this may grate a little since those who are chosen shouldn’t need to be ‘dragged in’ because of the irresistible grace presenting itself. (This is part of the larger question, ‘If unconditional election is a given, why evangelize?’)

I think the other can of worms is where the comment writer misses out.

The end of the parable is indeed a commandment; one that is consistent with the Great Commission, and all of (a), (b), and (c) above.

The parable represents the heart of God.

It’s a call to “come to the table” that in its broader context is being said in the home of a Pharisee and not strictly about who gets in but who is honored and given a place of prominence.

Make it your goal to invite others to the table.

PW

Come to the table
Come join the sinners
You have been redeemed
Take your place beside the Savior
Sit down and be set free
Come to the table.

May 29, 2018

Biblical Contradictions – They Exist and I Love Them

by Aaron Wilkinson

This is a line of thought I’m still journeying through. You may find something helpful or not. It’s cool either way.

In high-school, a lot of my atheist classmates would talk about contradictions in the Bible. I didn’t really pay much attention. I figured they were probably wrong. My pastors and youth leaders never mentioned these supposed contradictions so I figured it wasn’t worth worrying about.

When I got into the habit of listening to debates, I began to hear atheists point to specific contradictions. In response, the Christian apologists would calmly explain them away.

“Take the sentences ‘Bob is rich’ and ‘Bob is poor’. You might assume that these are contradictions, but perhaps they refer to Bob at different times in his life. Perhaps Bob is poor in finances, but rich in terms of relationships and experiences. Perhaps there are two different people named Bob. We can’t assume and we have to know more.” This is, of course, a very good point and I found it very comforting.

But then in a university class a professor pointed my discussion group to a passage in Proverbs. We were supposed to interpret it and share our interpretation.

Proverbs 26:4,5

I read the first half thinking “Ah, reasonable.” Then the second verse completely froze me. “This is Proverbs. This is the book of rules to live by. I can’t do both of these things, so what do I do?” I tried to find ways to harmonize them – maybe you’re supposed to do it sometimes but not other times – but even then, am I not sitting there trying to fix the Bible? Am I not adding something to it?

Here’s another one. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us one thing, Paul tells us another.

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities. All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” – Ecclesiastes 1:2,3
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.” – 1 Corinthians 15:58

Well, which is it? Do we get nothing but vanity for our toil under the sun, or is our labour not in vain? I could list dozens more but sadly I must be concise. Here’s another one in which Chronicles and Samuel are talking about the same story.

“Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” – 1 Chronicles 19:15
“Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”” – 2 Samuel 24:1

Chronicles: Satan did X. Samuel: God did X. Conclusion: … What?

If you’re anything like me, you’re sitting there trying to harmonize, harmonize, harmonize all of these passages. There may be nothing wrong with that. It’s a good impulse, but I fear we might miss out on something if that’s all we do. What that something is I will tell you, after one more example. Or rather, six more.

Open up to Matthew 5 and you’ll hear Jesus saying he’s not coming to abolish the law or the prophets. Then he goes on to repeat the formula “You have heard it said (quotes the Bible) but I tell you (says something different.)” So here we have a double whammy of contradictions. Six times, we have Jesus speaking in contrast to (“Contra Dicting”) other Bible passages, and he frames this by saying that he isn’t going to take an iota away from other Bible passages.

Right now, you’re either fascinated or really offended. Or both. Or you’re thinking the obvious objection that I’m going to cover in one second.

If the Bible is supposed to be a book of rules, it has clearly failed. I can’t both answer a fool according to folly and not answer a fool according to folly. If the Bible is supposed to be a philosophical panegyric, it has clearly failed. Labour can’t be both vanity and not vanity. If the Bible is supposed to be a textbook on spiritual realities, it has clearly failed. Unless God and Satan are the same person, David’s census has some weird stuff going on.

So it seems we’re left with two options. Maybe the Bible is a failure, or maybe we need to rethink its genre.

When I was in therapy, I learned a word. A word I had never learned from any western education institution; perhaps the entire western world needs therapy. “Dialectic.” Think Dialogue. It’s a conversation. Dialectic thinking simultaneously holds two propositions that seem to be in contrast. In therapy, if I’m caught in the anxiety of thinking I’m absolutely terrible or totally perfect, I’m going to have problems. If I can learn to accept that I’m both good and bad, virtuous in many ways while also having weaknesses to work through, that frees me. Now I can grow more easily.

My virtues and my vices are contradictory, but if I can hold them both as true at the same time then I am empowered to grow. The aforementioned objection that I assume you’re thinking is “But you’re defining ‘contradiction’ incorrectly. Contradictions are not simply contrasting statements, but statements with mutually exclusive meanings. You have to consider the meanings of these verses in context.” A brilliant point which highlights two important things: first that the word ‘contradiction’ needs defining (which I rarely hear happen) and tends to be wrapped up in shades of association, and second that we must ask ourselves what the Bible intends.

In the famous (and occasionally infamous) story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, the Pharisees try to back Jesus into a corner by asking him whether the woman ought to be stoned or not. Jesus redirects the question towards something more important. He seems to do this quite often, and what he does in saying “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” is highlight the Pharisee’s need for forgiveness. Jesus contextualizes our questions and frames our understanding in humility. This, I think, is the intention of the whole Bible.

The Bible does not give us all the answers, it points us to a person. It’s a conversation anchored around a person.

Do I answer the fool according to his folly or not? I don’t know, but if I follow the love ethic of Jesus then I’m sure I’ll make the right choice.

Is our labor vanity or not? I can philosophize over this, but if I’m trusting Christ then I know I won’t need to worry about it.

What is the relationship between the will of God and the will of Satan? Does God incite evil against us? A very interesting question, but one that must consider how God shows his love by participating in our suffering himself in the life and crucifixion of the Son of Mary.

People sometimes describe the Bible as “living” and this is why. A plain set of instructions is static. It’s dead. It only goes so deep and then it’s exhausted. A dialectic work keeps you wondering, keeps you asking questions. It is popularly said that Rabbis answer questions with other questions. This isn’t just deflection. We’re supposed to think deeper and, more importantly, better realize how the answers must be found with Jesus.

I recently listened to a sermon in which Bruxy Cavey of the Meeting House interviewed a Zen Buddhist. The Buddhist compared Jesus’ style of teaching with the Koan, the saying or question that’s supposed to freeze your mind and expose your unhealthy patters of thinking. While I think it’s important to recognize that Buddha and Christ have very different goals, there is some true to this. The Bible Project also has a great series that explores some the dialectic aspects of biblical wisdom literature.

In our broken world, if we desire change and growth, we don’t need a static book of precepts. We need someone who is going to freeze our attention, expose our habits, and “make foolish the wisdom of the world.” We need change, not the status quo. We need a living dynamic person to walk with as we grow in life and this is the Christ of the Bible.

This isn’t intellectual foreclosure. It does mean applying our intellect to something more important rather than squabbling over facts and figures. It means finding ourselves in a story, in relation to Christ, and making that the grounds upon which we ask ourselves, and each other, the big questions.

Take us away, Book…


Aaron — who may or may not be related  — describes himself as a bibliophile, language enthusiast, religion enthusiast, aspiring performer, and above all, a writer. This article appeared yesterday at Vox Surrantis: The Voice of One Whispering. Used by permission. Feel free to comment here or at the original article.

April 14, 2018

When Religion Capitulates to the Broader Culture

We often encounter discussions under the general category, “Women in Ministry” and even the most staunch complementarians have to agree that in Christianity as a whole, changes are certainly afoot. While I lean more egalitarian, I do believe there are God-ordained differences between the sexes which could manifest themself in differing church leadership roles depending on the dynamics of the local church.

So it was with great interest this week that I came upon two different articles revealing that similar changes are happening in other faiths.

The first one was in our Wednesday collection of news stories. Mayim Bialik, an actress who played the lead in Blossom and also acts on The Big Bang Theory, is Jewish. She asks the question, “Ever heard of an Orthodox woman who holds a clergy position?” She then proceeds to profile “B’nai David-Judea, the only Orthodox synagogue in Southern California which employs a female clergyperson.” She speaks of “Using our evolving sense of obligation to modernity to find ways to let in more voices.”

Read that last sentence again. You don’t need to be Jewish to see the parallels between that perspective and what’s taking place in Mainline Protestantism and Evangelicalism. You can watch Mayim’s video at this link.

The second one was at Religion News Service, Jana Riess reporting on the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) Annual General Conference.  Among the takeaways she noted, “Sister Bonnie Oscarson, the outgoing Young Women president, gave a heartfelt plea for the Young Women to have important responsibilities in church and to feel that their contributions are valued;” and “Women spoke in three of four sessions…In the April 2017 conference, which featured thirty total speakers over four general sessions, only one woman—Primary president Joy Jones—spoke. One LDS viewer suggested on Twitter on Saturday that it would be great to hear from one woman during each general session, bringing the ratio of male to female speakers to something more like six or seven to one. For this modest entreaty she received significant hateful pushback from some on Twitter as well as support from others.”

The rest of Jana’s article is at this link.

…So returning to Protestants and Evangelicals, inasmuch as we see a broader trend taking place, we have to ask ourselves if we move with those trends simply because we are caving into societal pressure.

For Evangelicals, the bottom line is always, “What does the Bible teach?” But with, for example, the Apostle Paul’s statements on women, some will easily prefer to choose the interpretive analysis as the reason for opting out of traditional teaching. ‘Yes;’ we will say, ‘This is what the church has commonly understood this passage to mean, but we now understand the Greek word [insert Greek word here!] actually meant something in that time closer to [insert different meaning here!].’

This same reasoning is used with the very same apostle when it comes to homosexuality. Without taking sides on this, presently it’s clear that many contextual studies and word studies are brought forward which suggest that Paul was speaking to something other than that which is usually assumed and, Voila! We suddenly find ourselves in a different paradigm.

But that doesn’t mean everyone buys in. These issues can be quite divisive.

In the Roman Catholic Church, change is more stringently created and applied. The Pope merely needs to publish an encyclical redefining the role of women (or other such issue) and the new guidelines would be in effect overnight, but basically there would also be an appeal to a newer, higher understanding of the original Greek or Hebrew texts. He cannot just change the rules out of nothing — out of thin air — there would need to have been significant study.

So again, it’s interpretive.

But how does the book on which we base everything so important and so vital to our faith lend itself to so much interpretation? When absolutes are crumbling? Is this what Jesus means by “knowing in part and understanding in part;” or what Paul himself means by “seeing through a glass darkly;” the still-used KJV rendering of a metaphor in 1 Corinthians which has a variety of expressions.

Are we capitulating to the culture? Or is the culture a catalyst for an awakening of sorts?

The related question: While the deity of Christ and his death and resurrection are absolutes, are there other things which are negotiable?

 

December 16, 2017

Crossword Puzzles and Sermons

I’m told that doing crosswords keeps the mind sharp. That’s certainly a valid goal. I try to do a couple of smaller ones (where I know I can finish) each week, but will also help my wife as she wrestles through the  New York Times level of difficulty.

When we first married, I would criticize her for this indulgence, as I saw them as a bit of a time-waster. “You’re not actually learning anything;” was the thrust of my argument. And it’s true. Unless you doing research to get the answers, or something reveals itself by interpolation with the letters you’ve already written, there is not much in the way of new information.

You’re using your brain to be sure. It beats watching a 2-hour marathon of The Simpsons. You’re bringing to mind things you’ve heard before and then buried deep in the recesses of your memory waiting for this particular moment to unearth them. In those terms, it’s a nice refresher. But again, it’s only when you’ve completed all the across letters in a down clue that you might say, ‘Okay, apparently the seven-letter word meaning _______ is _______.’ Or, ‘So that’s the author who wrote _______.’

Sermons are like this in many churches.

We are often reviewing and being re-presented with information with which we are already quite familiar. Maybe it’s being said in a fresh way and we can then take that particular tact when explaining something to a friend. Perhaps it’s something that needs reinforcing because we do live at the intersection of this world and the world to come and there is a constant inner war raging between our human nature and the nature that was made for higher things.

Generally, this is a good thing. The Eucharist itself is the best example of this. It doesn’t change much from week to week. But we eat, we drink, we remember, we leave differently than we entered. The hymns or worship choruses are not necessarily new; we have sung them on other occasions.

However, there is something to be said for a sermon which imparts new information. One that informs us of things we simply did not know before. Where we say, ‘I’ve never heard that explained;’ or ‘I never knew the context of that particular story;’ or my favorite, ‘How did I grow up in church and never hear that taught?’

Second best are those who help you fill in the blanks. Like the crossword puzzle where you’ve filled in all the letters but didn’t know the word before, the speaker leads you to the moment of, ‘Okay…so if all these things are true then from that we realize that…’  I would rank sermons that contain deduction a close runner up to those providing fresh information.

Personally I gravitate to teachers giving me more background (context, word study, related passages) than I had when I arrived. It doesn’t matter if the sermon is exegetical (expository) or topical, as long as there is some depth and something I can learn that helps me better understand the ways and mind of God, and then apply this to everyday life.

December 11, 2017

Pope Francis Shakes Up The Lord’s Prayer

Today’s article is presented jointly at Thinking Out Loud and Christianity 201.

Matthew 6:13a

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (KJV)
And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (HCSB)
And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one (NLT)
Keep us clear of temptation, and save us from evil. (J. B. Phillips)
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. (The Message)
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one (NRSV)
Do not put us in temptation, but deliver us from evil, (Spanish RV1975, Google translated)
Do not expose us to temptation, But deliver us from the evil one. (Spanish Dios Habla Hoy, Google translated)

Last week Pope Francis raised a theological point which wasn’t exactly new, but made headlines. The New York Times article explains:

…In a new television interview, Pope Francis said the common rendering of one line in [The Lord’s Prayer] — “lead us not into temptation” — was “not a good translation” from ancient texts. “Do not let us fall into temptation,” he suggested, might be better because God does not lead people into temptation; Satan does.

“A father doesn’t do that,” the pope said. “He helps you get up right away. What induces into temptation is Satan.”

In essence, the pope said, the prayer, from the Book of Matthew, is asking God, “When Satan leads us into temptation, You please, give me a hand.”

French Catholics adopted such a linguistic change this week, and the pope suggested that Italian Catholics might want to follow suit…

Then followed some reactions, including Southern Baptist Rev. Al. Mohler, who not surprisingly was horrified. Then the article continued.

…A commentary on the website of TV2000, the ecclesiastical television station in Rome that interviewed the pope, acknowledged that the pope’s words had stirred controversy. But it said, “it is worth recalling that this question is not new.”

“This is not a mere whim for Francis,” it added.

The basic question, the commentary said, is whether God brings humans into temptation or whether “it is human weakness to surrender to the blandishments of the evil one.”

Francis recently took the controversial step of changing church law to give local bishops’ conferences more authority over translations of the liturgy. He was responding, in part, to widespread discontent with English translations that were literally correct but awkward and unfamiliar for worshipers.

On Sunday, French churches began using a version of the Lord’s Prayer in which the line “Ne nous soumets pas à la tentation” (roughly, “do not expose us to temptation”) was replaced with “Ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation” (“do not let us give in to temptation”)…

Saturday morning, Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk — who prefers the type of rendering in the NRSV above — offers a different type of response from New Testament scholar Andrew Perriman:

The Catholic Church is unhappy with the line “lead us not into temptation” (mē eisenenkēs hēmas eis peirasmon) in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:13; Lk. 11:4). The problem is that it appears to attribute responsibility for a person falling into temptation to God. Pope Francis has said: “It’s not a good translation…. I am the one who falls. It’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that, a father helps you to get up immediately.” If anyone leads us into temptation, he suggests, it is Satan. So an alternative translation is being considered, something along the lines of “Do not let us enter into temptation”.

What Jesus has in view is not general moral failure (the modern theological assumption) but the “testing” of the faith of his followers by persecution. The word peirasmos in this context refers to an “evil” or painful situation that tests the validity of a person’s faith.

The Lord’s prayer is not a piece of routine liturgical supplication. It is an urgent missional prayer, best illustrated by the parable of the widow who prayed for justice against her adversary. Jesus concludes: “ And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk. 18:7–8).

The petition not to be led into a time of testing has a very specific eschatological purpose—to keep suffering to a minimum. When it came, as it inevitably would, testing was the work of the devil, aided and abetted by sinful desires. But even then it had a positive value: it proved the genuineness of their faith, and if they passed the test, they would gain the crown of life, which is a reference to martyrdom and vindication at the parousia.


 

November 13, 2017

Sermons that Communicate

Filed under: Christianity, Church, ministry — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:13 am

I had the privilege of working as a Worship Director under four different pastors, but only one of these let me in on his sermon crafting process. It began with a mostly blank form with a line for the date and space in the top 1/6th of the page to answer the question, “Where do you want to take them today?”

It thereby highly focused his attention on what it was that would fill the rest of the page. More detailed notes followed later on other pieces of paper.

Much of public speaking is modeled for us. The job of preacher is similar to the job of school teacher. These occupations are self-perpetuating. That’s why it’s easy for kids to “play school” in the summertime, and Christian kids can equally “play church.” We’ve seen the job played out for us on a regular basis and can  emulate the key moves.

The problem is that just because you are a good speaker, doesn’t mean you are a good communicator. Furthermore, I would argue that being highly skilled or highly polished at the former can actually work against the latter; it can stand in the way of being an effective communicator.

Another of the pastors I worked with and still get to hear on a regular basis is a very gifted in the art of sermon crafting. But at several junctures in the sermon, he will allow himself to deviate from his notes, or what I call going “off road.” Whether or not you call it Holy Spirit inspired — and I would contend that most definitely is the case — he either thinks of something that could still be added to the notes, or you could phrase it that he is still crafting the sermon to perfection even as he stands in the pulpit. There are no PowerPoint graphics that align with what he’s saying, but these are often the sermon highlights.

I also am a fan of conversational delivery; where the pastor is working from very rough, point-form outlines and then delivers the message in a style that suggests he’s talking to me, not simply reading his notes.

Don’t get me wrong. I want there to be sermon preparation. I want to know context; I want to hear related texts mentioned; I want to know he or she did the necessary word study.

But what do I do with it all? How does it impact the week I’m facing? How do leave the building changed and inspired?

To repeat, so much of what we call good preaching is too smooth; it’s too slick; it’s too polished. It’s so rhetorical minded that it’s no relational good.  It’s possible to be a great speaker but actually be a terrible communicator.

 


If you didn’t catch it last week, be sure to read Thursday’s article on the related art of concision, the gift of being able to keep things short.

November 5, 2017

When Science and the Bible Contradict

The one where the astronauts come back from the International Space Station and tell you that they didn’t see the floodgates of heaven…

So I was flipping through the pages of an old Bible I haven’t used in at least a couple of decades and I found the above photocopied sheet sitting between two of the pages. I remember it clearly, but have no idea as to the source. From a scientific perspective, most of what’s in this image is just plain wrong. Did people once believe this? Is this someone’s concept of what they might have believed if they had owned King James Version Bibles? (Kinda like that drawing — see below — where someone takes the description of the ideal woman in Song of Solomon and shows what it would like literally?)

But what if you’re a kid in some previous era’s version of high school and based on the Bible, this is your model of what the world looks like, and modern science is trying to tell you it’s not true?  Or what if your Bible talks about “the rising of the sun” and suddenly you’re being told that the sun doesn’t arise at all but in fact the earth is revolving?

Surely that’s the end of Christianity then and there, right?
Apparently not. Christianity survived the destruction of such misplaced beliefs. And certain verses weren’t excised from the text, either.

The life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is bigger than science. It’s bigger than all the objections that people can raise.


Above: Some portions of scripture should not be taken literally. This was drawn in 1978 by artist Den Hart and appeared at The Wittenburg Door, a Christian satire magazine.

 

October 7, 2017

Bible Verse Numbers: Blessing or Curse?

Go to bible verses

1From Paul, a blogger at Thinking Out Loud, to the church online;
2Greetings and welcome to today’s topic.

3Can you imagine if I were to write a book and give a number to every one or two sentences?
4It would break up the reading for sure,
5And people would consider it somewhat pompous.
6While it might be helpful in an historical account, it would surely break up the flow in a romance story or a parable.
7And poetry would be rather awkward.

8Yet this is what happens when we read the Bible.
9Because we have such easy, pinpoint access to particular phrases, we are able to focus on those.
10And we often miss the context in which they are being said,
11Or worse, we over emphasize them to the exclusion of other truths.

12So one reader believes he “can do all things,” but can he fly an airplane?
13Another believes God has “plans to prosper” him, but what if he doesn’t see material blessing?
14Yet one more thinks that the parenting she has done assures her children “will not depart from it,” but is that an automatic guarantee or just a statement of principle?

15Churches teach that “all these things shall be added unto you,” but the context is the basic necessities of life, not everything we desire.
16Or that, “all things work together for good,” which is simply a bad translation of the verb.
17Or that, “not allow you to be tempted beyond that which you are able,” means that God will never give you more than you can handle.

18God is good, and God can be trusted, but if we are to take him at his word, we need to read it properly and in full context.
19Sometimes the verse numbers mitigate against that.
20So we need to be more careful, and more studious in our reading.
21And perhaps we need to be more aware and more embracing of those recent publications which present the Bible as a single story,
22And those translations which relegate the verse numbers to a place of lesser prominence.

23The grace of our Lord be with you all; Amen.

April 28, 2017

Misconstruing Biblical Passages

Book Review: The Most Misused Stories in the Bible
by Eric. J. Bargerhuff

I get very passionate about books which have application both to veterans — those well seasoned Christians who grew up in the church — and to newcomers and seekers alike. The Most Misused Stories in the Bible: Surprising Ways Popular Bible Stories are Misunderstood is one such title. Randomly remove just one of the fourteen chapters here and you’ve got the basis for an excellent Sunday adult elective for one quarter. Or a mid-week small group. Convene that group within a reasonable driving distance of my house, and I’d want you to call me; these are discussions in which I would love to participate.

I would argue however that the book is title-challenged. Actually it’s a sequel to The Most Misused Verses in the Bible which I have neither seen or read and I do recognize the value of a brand. Still, I think misapplied or misunderstood would be good here, and by stories I found that sometimes a particular Bible narrative served as a springboard for what was really a discussion of a Bible concept or imagery. Also the title implies a tension that appears in various degrees of intensity between the chapters.

Everyone has their tribe, and Dr. Bargerhuff, who teaches at Trinity College of Florida leans in a Reformed direction. So that means sources cited include Carson, MacArthur, Grudem, Challies, the Gospel Coalition website and quotations from the ESV. So in a chapter on Judas, we find a full apologetic for eternal security, though the next chapter, on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, starts out slightly more charitable toward those who teach or experience a post-conversion filling or blessing. (I especially like the title of that one, “The Samaritan Pentecost” as opposed to the Acts 2 Pentecost.)

For those who have experienced much Bible teaching, there are sections of this you will have heard before. In fact, two chapters in I found myself being dismissive of the book as perhaps a bit simplistic. However, pressing in again, I realized I had misjudged. The book does have a sermon-like homiletic quality — Bargerhuff was in pastoral ministry for 20 years — and preachers out there who find they must ‘borrow’ their sermons would  find fourteen high quality manuscripts therein.

But I also struck gold when I discovered the notes. I’m not an academic, but I like to go deeper and really wish these had been footnotes instead of endnotes, however I understand that a cleaner page is more user-friendly to the aforementioned newcomers and seekers; many of whom have been dealing with some of the misconceptions of scripture even if they weren’t part of the church.

Example of many pauses for thought: I never considered it before, but when Jesus first said, “This is my body…” he said it in a room of people who could see quite clearly before him that his physical body and the pieces of bread he was holding were distinct. A key to seeing the bread being symbolic and not literally the body of Christ. (While I tend to think that spiritual authority and the veneration of Mary are the big Roman Catholic distinctives, a local priest recently told my son he gets the most push-back on transubstantiation.)

Having recently read Gary Burge’s alternative reading on Zacchaeus in his Encounters with Jesus, I read that chapter as the third one, and was delighted to see it confronted in this book. And I loved the idea that when Mark tells us that Jesus could not do miracles in his hometown it was not because their unbelief was “some kind of cosmic kryptonite that weakened Jesus’ abilities to perform miracles as the Messiah.” But with respect to Jonah — the longest and best chapter — some of you will be disappointed to learn that with modern maritime knowledge it probably was a whale after all.

There was also more gold to be found in the epilogue on how to avoid mistakes in reading the Bible. I want you to get the book so rather than quote these, I’ll provide a concise, edited and paraphrased version of some:

  • Context matters
  • Don’t miss the main point
  • Avoid modern-day biases
  • Avoid modern cultural influences
  • Don’t miss important cross-references
  • Don’t redefine terms
  • God, not man should be central
  • Watch for poetic imagery
  • Don’t let tradition trump the text
  • …and a couple more.

I hope this helps you get past the title and get a better insight into what the book is about. As I type this, I’ve already read some chapters twice. From me, that’s a high recommendation. So when does that small group start up?

Bethany House, paperback, 171 pages, $12.99 US


There are some similarities here to what’s going on in The Bible Story Handbook, a large (and pricey) 350-page paperback by John Walton and Kim Walton (2010, Crossway) that also looks at the way Bible narratives are often misapplied. That work is broader in the sense that it covers 175 different passages, though obviously not in the same detail.


A copy of The Most Misused Stories was provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.

 

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