Archive for June, 2010

Renewing worship: Lessons from the Prophets (part 1)

by   |  06.29.10  |  Bible, Christianity, Church, Justice, Prophets, Theology, Worship

There’s a set of texts in the Minor Prophets I’ve been thinking about.  The following comments are part of a curriculum I wrote for a great church in Arlington, Texas.  Maybe it’ll be of use to others.  To preface it, let me say that I think much of our discussion of worship — and by “our,” I mean every religious group in America — misses the point.  Recall the acid comments of an Amos who has God saying “I hate, I despise your feasts.  (And that’s just for starters.)    Here’s a conversation we need to have.

To think about worship is to think about many things, including time, space, matter and its uses, the importance of leaders, the relationships between attitudes and actions, and many others.  Worship involves both external phenomena (such as movements and words) and internal realities (the inclinations, passions, longings, and perhaps even fears of the heart).  To worship well is to receive God’s gifts with gratitude and peace to offer to God, not our things or even our works, but our very beings.  Worship is not a transaction or an exchange.  It is our response to God’s overwhelming love and mercy.

The Bible speaks of worship in many ways: response to God’s creation (Job 38; Psalm 84), the response to God’s justice (1 Corinthians 11:17-22), and so on.  The Minor Prophets, in particular, take up two aspects of worship, its focus on the true and living God and its implications for the life of the community come together as one before that God.  The next lesson will focus on the latter theme, and this one on the former.

***

Like many Psalms and other biblical texts, the prophets call their audience to consider the majesty and generosity of God.  Unlike texts such as Isaiah 40-41, which explore God’s incomparability in detail, Hosea, Amos, and Micah praise God in incidental ways.  Consider some examples.

Hosea talks often of the God who redeemed Israel in the exodus (Hosea 9:10; 11:1; 12:9; 13:4-5).  This God calls human beings to lives of goodness and opposes evil (Hosea 4:1-3).  God does not show favoritism or allow election to be an excuse for oppression and injustice.  Such a God, therefore, cannot be represented by creations of human beings (idols), since any attempt to reduce God to something we understand denies the life-giving power of divine mercy (Hosea 14:8).  Yahweh is worthy of Israel’s worship because of His character.

Amos makes the grandeur of God even more explicit, not only by focusing on divine mercy toward all, by reminding his hearers of the language of the hymns they already know, which point toward divine power over creation and willingness to communicate intentions to human being.  Thus in Amos 4:13, the prophet quotes a hymn that speaks of God’s ability to create a beautiful world (compare Job 38 as well as Genesis 1) and then turns quickly to the phenomenon of prophecy (“and tells his thought to people”; see also Amos 3:7).  It is interesting that prophecy and creation can be mentioned in the same breath, as though they are two examples of the same sort of thing.  Prophecy – revelation of God’s will to people and thus guidance in things that matter permanently – creates something new.  In any case, the poem turns back to creation, speaking this time of God’s ability to undo what we have come to expect as normal and use it for new purposes.  The poem concludes with a reference to another of Yahweh’s names, “the lord of hosts” or “armies,” speaking of God’s mastery of the angelic hosts and thus of a world in which human beings play only a small role.

Amos also contains a second hymn, 9:5-6, which speaks of God’s incomparable power to reverse the normal flow of natural forces.  What is at stake in such a view of God?  Recall that the Bible does not celebrate power for its own sake, even God’s power.  Rather, it always speaks of power as it is used for good ends.  For example, kings use their ability to coerce others in order to end evil and bring about justice.  Parents use their power to train children in the ways they should go.  And God uses more or less unlimited power in order to draw human beings, and especially those in covenant, toward ethical, grace-filled lives.  At the same time, Amos wants to remind his audience of God’s majesty so that they will no longer ignore their commitments as though God were someone they could ignore or treat contemptuously.

Micah, meanwhile, offers many of the same visions of God as a majestic judge.  Chapter 7  opens with a lament (verses 1-6) to which a pious speaker responds, “But as for me, I will look to the Lord, and I will wait for my saving God.  My God will hear me.”  This God aids those who humbly wait for deliverance in a troubled time.  Verses 8-13 respond to the lament in a different way by considering the possibility of a reversal of fortune for Israel, a time of healing and the rebuilding of community.  Those who believe Israel’s God cannot deliver the oppressed from their bonds will have a rude awakening.  How, then, does verse 7 connect to what follows it?  The answer seems to be that the book of Micah is designed to encourage the few who do hope in God to remember that God’s power and graciousness are complementary realities.  Power will be used for the good of humankind.

***

Two reflections are in order at this point.  First, notice that the prophets use an image of God with which many of us are very uncomfortable: God as judge.  Our discomfort comes from the way the image has sometimes been used.  Some Christians have made God into a judgmental figure, the “all-seeing eye watching you,” who takes note of every infraction and punishes without fail.  This understanding of God as judge is not what the prophets have in mind.  Their image is of a God of supreme mercy whose indignation is at injustice, not at petty violations, but at gross abuses of power and mistreatment of the vulnerable.  God the judge is God the vindicator: these are one and the same role.

Second, the prophets assume (as does the rest of the Bible) that those who are think deeply about the majesty of God will be better people than those who do not.  Awe before God leads to humility, graciousness, forgiveness, generosity, and other virtues that profoundly shape a life.  A vibrant, growing faith leads one to think of others as God’s children and thus as objects of our care as well.  (to be continued)

Dr. Mark W. Hamilton
Associate Professor of Old Testament and
Associate Dean
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699
Editor, The Transforming Word

When Mommy Gives You Lemons, Make a Lemonade Stand

by   |  06.14.10  |  Contextual Theology, Hospitality, Students

After setting up a lemonade stand for mommy and daddy in the living room, our son decided to take his show on the road. Though ostensibly to grow his “Toy Story 3” fund, I think he really just enjoyed making the homemade, freshly squeezed treat and sharing it with others. He sold it cold in the doorway of my seminary office for “one, ten, or twenty-five cents.” The “customers” responded well to his approach- most payed a penny and left a quarter tip. He was also was quick to tell folks it could be free if they questioned the pricing structure. Thanks to all who stopped by!
aidanlemonade

Russ Kirby
Director of Student Services
ACU Graduate School of Theology
http://www.twitter.com/acugst
http://www.facebook.com/acugst

One Student’s Journey to Seminary

by   |  06.11.10  |  Uncategorized

(h/t to M.Div student, James Prather, who recently posted this on his blog. Quite a trip!)

This Is My Journey

by James Prather

On Monday, June 7, 2010, I took the biggest step yet in a journey that many of you know very little about – I turned in my two weeks notice. My family and my church family have known about this for quite some time, but I have had to keep it shielded from the rest of the world before I was ready. Now I’m ready to share. In short, I’ve discovered what it is I’m truly passionate about and I feel called to go into ministry. I’ve been accepted to the ACU Master of Divinity program and I’m moving out there to go to school full time. For the full story as to what caused this to happen, I’ve reproduced a slightly redacted version of the admissions essay which I wrote in September of 2009. My redactions have been for the sake of transitioning the piece from a “timely” admissions essay to a “timeless” blog post. The admissions essay should give you some idea of why I’m doing this and what’s driving it. After the essay I’ve added in the saga of my life over the last 9 months and how God has worked in amazing ways, teaching me many things in the process. More »

Can Theology Be This Fun?

by   |  06.10.10  |  Behavior, Christianity, Society, Theology, Video, Worship

“We believe that the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better is by making it fun to do.”

Russ Kirby
Director of Student Services
ACU Graduate School of Theology
http://www.twitter.com/acugst
http://www.facebook.com/acugst

A brief book review

by   |  06.01.10  |  Uncategorized

After teaching all last week 8 hours a day, I don’t have the energy to write a long post.  Or maybe it would be more honest to say that I don’t have that much to say.

But I have read a book many people would enjoy, called The Bible and the People by Lori Anne Ferrell (Yale University Press, 2008).  It’s a history of the English Bible since 1066.  That may sound deadly dull to some people, but it isn’t.  She has traced how the Bible, through a series of changes in format and usage reached masses of people and thereby changed the English-speaking world and far beyond.  Did you know, for example, that the first Bibles printed in North American were in Algonquian and German?  Neither did I.  Printers in the U.S. didn’t get around to English Bibles until the 19th century.

And then there’s the question of exactly what is a Bible.  Many of us have had students say to us, “my Bible says” this or that, when what they meant was that the notes in their Bible said something.  The apparatuses that surround the biblical text itself have evolved over the centuries based on the assumption that, while the Bible is for everyone, it is not that easy to understand.  So we get something as formal and, frankly, dry as the historically-oriented notes in the Oxford Annotated Bible or something as airy as the magazines Revolve and Refuel for teens (think the Bible meets Seventeen).  Also, the Bible has often been surrounded by oral interpretations of it, whether in the form of sermons or in the more interesting but harder to control form of artistic re-creations of the biblical stories.  Think about medieval mystery plays, for example.  Separating text from para-text is none too easy.

Ferrell writes in a very readable, occasionally even breezy style.  You can imagine yourself having a pleasant conversation with her in which you’d learn a lot, but nobody would take it all too seriously.  Your group could sit in Starbucks or someplace more affordable and enjoy the learning.  And then you’d leave and begin to notice things you hadn’t before and wonder just why you had ignored the obvious.

For Bible believers, of whatever sort, the history of the Bible should give us pause.  It reminds us to think deeply about what a text is — any text, but especially this Text — and ask how it relates to us and we relate to it.   It reminds us that our commentary has weight and therefore we should be careful.  Most of all, it reminds us that this book is worth serious consideration, and that you can never know enough about it.  So, thanks, Lori Anne Ferrell.  I’ll write more when I have more to say!

PS This week many of us will be at the Christian Scholars Conference in Nashville at Lipscomb University.  Hope to see some of you there.

Dr. Mark W. Hamilton
Associate Professor of Old Testament and
Associate Dean
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699
Editor, The Transforming Word