Archive for March, 2011

The Shalom Blues: The Psalms in our Worship 27

by   |  03.30.11  |  Uncategorized

On some days, it’s hard to get your thoughts together.  The allergy medicines and the crush of routine conspire to prevent it.  On such days, it is easy to treat even the dramatic and beautiful lackadaisically. Here are a few observations, as tightly woven as the meds permit!

Allowing such a thing to happen when considering Psalm 35 would be a pity.  So let me begin with a text, not just my feelings about it.  Many individual lines of the psalm seem cliched, leaving an initial impression of a fairly hackneyed composition.  But this superficial impression changes on closer investigation.  The psalm begins familiarly enough with a cry to God for help against oppressors.  The psalmist asks God to join him or her in court (“oppose my opponents” or even “sue those suing me”) and then offers a series of synonymous pleas (“strengthen the shield,” “rise up in help of me,” “brandish spear and dart,” “speak to my inner being,” “let them [the foes] be ashamed” and all the rest).  It is the language of conflict, or as the Greeks would say, of agon.  Life is portrayed as conflict, struggle between the good and the evil.

Of course, it is tempting to hear such an opening as the ultimate in self-serving behavior.  What could be more narcissistic than to believe that the infinite sovereign of the universe would take my side in my petty quarrels?  (Nothing, that’s what!)  But what if the psalmist really is under assault by evil?  Does our suspicion of the text reflect our own discomfort with sham religion (“woe to you Bible professors, hypocrites!”).  Or does our suspicion reflect the cynicism borne of privilege.  No one is hunting us.  Our quarrels are petty.  Our complaints are those of the powerful who don’t get every single thing we want.  But what if some complaints are legitimate and some are truly oppressed?  What prayer should they pray?  How should the rest of us hear their prayers?

The long indictments of the psalm (vv. 1-8, 11-18) describe a world in which some people use all their resources to acquire more, regardless of whom they run over in the process.  The empirical observations of the psalmist — who can deny the existence of such practices? — depict a cast of characters that could be lifted off today’s newspaper.  Wickedness is defined as antisocial behavior that leaves the vulnerable in the dust for the sake of the convenience of the powerful.

Yet amid the indictments, there is another theme, the character of the defender of the vulnerable.  It first appears in verses 9-10.  Notice the description of God as “the one rescuing the poor from the one stronger than he or she is, yes the poor and the need from the one cheating/swindling him or her.”  A major touchstone in the Bible’s reflection on social solidarity is that God defends the vulnerable by opposing the greedy.

The thread appears twice more, as the psalmist considers the character of human beings.  He or she depicts himself or herself as the one who prayed for all the sick, including those who too greedy and self-absorbed to care for anyone else (vv. 12-14).  The commitments normal to the social bonds of family extend to others beyond the family, and this extension marks a critical distinction between the righteous and the wicked.  (The wicked just focus on their own families!)

The psalm ends with the same thread as it summons others to join the petitioner in caring for the vulnerable.  All who truly sing the psalm with an interest in their own lives, that is, those for whom the psalm becomes material for character formation, hear it as a summons to a religious life that includes good deeds.  Without such deeds, religion becomes lifeless and a matter of mere words.

The last couple of verses deserve a bit more elaboration:

Let those taking pleasure from my loyalty [or loyalty to me?] celebrate and rejoice and say always,

“Yhwh is great, delighting in the well-being [Hebrew: shalom] of his servant.”

And let my tongue report on your righteousness; let it praise you all the day.

A few things are interesting.  First, when verse 27 says “taking pleasure from my loyalty” (Hebrew: chafetse tsidqi), it might be focusing on the psalmist’s righteousness/loyalty/justice (all possible translations) or on God’s righteousness/loyalty/justice toward the psalmist.  Either is grammatically possible.  Perhaps the ambiguity is deliberate.  The second thing is the first clause in verse 28 (“my tongue reports”); the Hebrew verb yehgeh is the same as the verb in Psalm 1:2, usually translated “meditates.”  The delivered person has a one-track tongue if you please.  There is not much else worth talking about.  The moment of salvation, that is, of reintegration in the community of people who care about each other because they care about God, becomes the content of the story the psalmist sings (and therefore that everyone who sings the song sings).

Miles Davis once said that “Sometimes you have to play a long time to play like yourself.”  I hope that hearing psalms like this one will let me begin to sing in my own voice and that that voice will sound like that of the one who delivers the weak from the one stronger than he or she is!  Better get practicing.  Better get practicing.

The Tales we Tell: The Psalms in our Worship 26

by   |  03.24.11  |  Uncategorized

You are what you narrate.  When I was a little boy, I loved to hear my grandmothers tell  about their childhoods.  One was born in 1900, the other in 1907.  Each had seen hard times and good, had brought children into the world, and had led lives of integrity.  I believed them because of who they were, and their stories were interesting and orienting because their very strangeness still made sense in my very different life through them.   (My grandmother Hamilton had once heard William Howard Taft speak, for example, and both she and my grandmother Sullivan knew how to hitch up a wagon and wash clothes on a washboard, among many other now forgotten skills.)  You are the stories you tell and the stories to which you listen.

If this is so, then choosing the right stories and the right ways of telling them becomes crucial.  This is why I am struck today by the opening lines of Psalm 34.  This elegant little acrostic psalm (each verse starts with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, except the final, summarizing verse) celebrates the fact that, as the conclusion puts it, “Yhwh redeems the life of his servants, so that none who seek refuge in Yhwh are ashamed.”  The end of humiliation is the sign and result of Yhwh’s saving work.

Who are those ashamed?  The opening of the psalm makes the answer very clear:

I will bless Yhwh all the time;  Yhwh’s praise will be in my mouth perpetually.

My very life praises Yhwh.  The poor hear it and rejoice

They will praise Yhwh along with me, and we will exalt his name together.

Why does the psalmist include the poor here?  What is it about the praise of God that encourages the poor?

In this conversation, you can almost hear Karl Marx, who famously wrote that “Religion is the cry of the oppressed creature; it is the opiate of the people.”  He argued that religion was a way of both naming the standing crisis of our inhumanity to each other as one of the few species of animal that hunts its own members, and of pretending that crisis away.  There is some truth to that position, though I think it vastly oversimplifies things.

A better direction is to ask, what sort of faith offers truly good news to the oppressed of the earth, and how can I join the story of that faith?     Such a religion would have a God who cared for all human beings alike, was unimpressed by our hierarchies and patterns of deference and control (or at least used them for higher purposes), and who offered tangible ways to feed the human spirit in all its dimensions (not just its real need for physical well-being).  Such a faith would comprehensively work in human individual and communal life in order to bring about such results.  And so the stories of such a faith would report acts of deliverance from suffering in all sorts of forms, ranging from outright healing to an altering of the mind leading to alteration of practices.  There would be great variety in the story, but also continuity so that those of us who have not hitched up wagons could love and understand those who have.

In short, one candidate for such a faith would be the religion of Israel and the faiths that came from it.  The God of the Bible would be a candidate for the inspiration of such a faith because the stories about this God consistently report just such concerns and actions.  Yhwh protects families who wander in strange lands, hears the cries of slaves, brings healing to the sick and fertility to the childless.  Not always.  Not always in the same way.  But often and with a consistent logic.  Even more tellingly, Yhwh never acts to strengthen the wicked in their power, to confirm the prejudices of the affluent and comfortable, to defeat those who have a just complaint about mistreatment, or to turn away the penitent.  I say this because with our modern hermeneutic of suspicion, it is easier to focus on the problems (holy war, so-called Israelite nationalism etc., themes I’ll talk about in later posts) and to forget the larger picture.

So, today let’s tell the story of the God who delivers the poor.  May those of us who are not poor join those who are in this celebration so that we too can be redeemed.

Two Upcoming ACU Events

by   |  03.22.11  |  ACU, Broom Colloquium, Evangelism, Theology

We are excited about two upcoming ACU events.

First, you are invited to hear Dr. Abraham J. Malherbe, Buckingham Professor Emeritus of Yale University, on the topic “What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem” this Thursday, March 24, at 3:00 p.m. in room 114 of the Onstead Packer Biblical Studies building. Dr. Malherbe is one of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars; he is the author of many books and articles, including major commentaries on the Thessalonian and Pastoral epistles.

Also this Thursday, at 7 p.m., Professor Elaine Heath, McCreless Associate Professor of Evangelism at Southern Methodist University, will give the annual Broom Lecture in Hart Auditorium. She is the author of, among other works, The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach. She will offer strong reasons why we need to rethink evangelism and its central role in Christian practice. The word has fallen on hard times, in part because of the ways in which Christians have abused it. But her lecture will help us think in fresh and exciting ways.

I am sure you will want to be part of these events. Admission is free, but the learning will be priceless. We hope to see you for both of these outstanding speakers!

Out of Egypt

by   |  03.14.11  |  Church History, Sabbatical, St. Catherine's, Translation

Dr. Jeff W. Childers, Carmichael-Walling Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity in the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University, offers some reflections on his recent trip to Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai:

Out of Egypt

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

For a book nerd like me, it was a dream come true. In my hands I held a volume whose well-thumbed margins had grown dark from generations of reverent use. Scattered across the table-top in front of me were numerous fragments from books that had fared less well, bearing the scars of centuries—tears, stains, and the accretion of desert soil. Some had only recently come to light; some were even awaiting identification.

After years of expectation, months of planning, and weeks of uncertainty due to the precarious political situation in Egypt, in late February 2011 I had journeyed at last to Mount Sinai, as the latest in a long stream of pilgrims searching for wisdom in ancient texts from the holy mountain.

Jeff at the summit of Jebel Musa (Mount Sinai), 2500 ft. above the monastery.

St. Catharine’s is the oldest Christian monastery in the world still in use for its initial purpose. Its library is nearly unparalleled—only the Vatican has more ancient Christian manuscripts. This remote outpost of Christian learning and desert spirituality, set in the arid climate of the Sinai wilderness, turned out to be well suited for the preservation of books written there and from other places. Bible students everywhere have heard the story of Tischendorf’s 19th-century “discovery” at St. Catharine’s of the celebrated Codex Sinaiticus, containing the oldest complete copy of the New Testament. Yet the monks of St. Catharine’s are the guardians of many other extraordinary texts as well, and it was to gain a look at some of these that my research brought me to Mount Sinai.

Father Justin recounts tales of the monastery’s extraordinary library.

Along with manuscripts in many other languages the Library holds a remarkable collection of Syriac texts. A dialect of Aramaic, Syriac is a language used by a number of early Christian communities throughout the middle-east. Today Syriac-speaking Christians are still proud to have Jesus’ native language as their own mother tongue and language of worship. Among the many original texts and translations that survive in Syriac, the versions of John Chrysostom’s 5th-century commentary on the New Testament have caught my attention—especially his homiletic commentary on the Gospel of John. Despite their early date and rich content, the Syriac manuscripts of this patristic commentary have never been edited, translated, and published, much less thoroughly studied. But in order to make them available to a wider readership, it is necessary first to gather the data from their ancient resting places in various places around the world—including the archives of St. Catharine’s monastery. The Sinai collection includes several manuscripts containing portions of the commentary, some of which have only recently come to light as part of the monastery’s “New Finds,” that are still in the process of being catalogued.

Jeff and daughter Rebekah in front of St. Catharine’s Monastery.

Upon learning of my interest in the collection, the Archbishop and the Holy Council of Fathers invited me to visit Sinai and use the Library. With the gracious and capable assistance of the librarian, Father Justin, I spent many hours poring over parchment books and fragments copied centuries ago, drinking in their biblical meditations, transcribing the texts, comparing them to each other and to texts found elsewhere. As a bonus, my daughter Rebekah accompanied me to St. Catharine’s, where she conducted interviews of the monks, gathering living data for her senior Honors capstone project at ACU on “Thin Places and Holy Sites.” Each day we worked side by side in the venerable monastery, taking advantage of prescribed breaks to join the monks for worship, to enjoy the art and gardens of the monastery, to become better acquainted with the local Bedouins, and to climb the rugged Mount Sinai (7498 ft.) together. It was an unforgettable and enriching experience.

Jeff attempts to decipher tattered Syriac fragments of the ancient commentary text.

As for the Syriac Chrysostom, it will be some time before I can assess and prepare all the data for eventual publication, yet it is already apparent that the evidence from Sinai is even richer than I had supposed. I am grateful to the monks, and for the financial support of ACU and the Loeb Classical Foundation that helped make the trip possible. But I am especially grateful for the faith of Christians of long ago, whose diligent labors in copying and preserving these ancient books has ensured that the testimony of past believers may still edify us today.

Dr. Jeff Childers
Carmichael-Walling Chair of NT and Early Christianity
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699

BMIS 680 Urban Missions

by   |  03.09.11  |  Announcements, Contextual Theology, Contexual Education, Ministry, Mission, Mission of God, Society, Students

A one-week intensive course in New York City

May 28- June 4, 2011

Dr. Jared Looney – Bronx Fellowship, Adjunct Professor

Why? At the beginning of the 21st century, more than half of the globe is now urban, and in North America 83% of the population is distributed in 475 major metropolitan areas.  Urban worldviews and lifestyles touch virtually every corner of our society – whether central city, edge city, suburb, or exurb.  Urban demographics are constantly shifting.  Urban life touches the church as arts, business, education, politics, and nearly every aspect of societal discourse emerges from within cities.  Urbanism – both as place and as worldview – matters to the whole church from the suburb to the central city.   

How? In a one-week intensive, students will engage in theological and missiological reflection while embedded in a diverse urban context.  The class will benefit from interactions with the city as well as with practitioners serving in the city.  Ranging from youth culture to community development to church planting to congregational ministry, missional practice will be emphasized.  Students will focus on theological principles, cultural context, and practical ministry.

Course Fee = $185
The course fee includes lodging at Refuge House (Bronx, NY) for seven nights; most meals; and Metro Card for transportation about the city.
Students are responsible for their own travel to/from NYC.

For more information contact Dr. Stephen Johnson, Director of Contextual Education.

The Praiseworthy God: The Psalms in Our Worship 25

by   |  03.08.11  |  Bible, Mission of God, Psalms

One of the most useful words in Hebrew is the little particle ky (sounds like “key”), which means either “because” or “so that” (causal either forward- or backward-looking), or sometimes “when.”  Maybe I like it because I always want to know why something is so or at least why people think it’s so.  “Because” is a good introduction to further conversation and reflection.  It takes you somewhere.

In Psalm 33, “because” in verse 4 introduces a long list of reasons for praising God.  The psalm opens, like a typical hymn, with a call to praise (verses 1-3).  And then it recognizes the potential for doubt in the minds of worshipers by offering reasons.  Let me stop on this point a moment.  Hymns always assume that those of us singing them both believe and question the ideas, values, and commitments we’re singing about.  We sing the songs in order to reinforce our convictions, and sometimes to deepen and challenge them.  Hence “because.”

So what is it about God that is praiseworthy?  The psalmist lists some remarkable character traits.  Some of the epithets of God include “lover of righteousness and justice,” “gatherer of the sea waters,” showing that this psalm, like many others, thinks of creation and the enactment of justice as two closely related divine activities.  God brings order and purpose.

However, the psalm’s preferred way of speaking of God is through verbs of action, all worth tracing.  Thus Yhwh’s steadfast love fills the earth (v. 5), and Yhwh’s words are the means by which the world was created (v. 6).  (Again, notice how creation and justice-making go hand in hand.)  Verses 6-9 seem to be a summary of Genesis 1 or at least the main ideas there, with creation being simply an act of divine speaking (“he spoke, and it was so”) and thus of divine justice-making.

The actions continue in a new section beginning in verse 10.  Here the psalmist reflects on the futility of the schemes of the powerful nations of the world, noting that neither wise counsel nor military power can ultimately bring stability.  We, of course, know that too, and have received a clear reminder in recent weeks as the Middle Eastern dictatorships have collapsed to be replaced with God-knows-what.  But then again, people of faith never forget this point.  The lessons of history — besides the one that there are no lessons! — surely signal to us the ultimate futility and even folly of human pursuits of power.  The psalmist takes this basic insight a step further by celebrating Yhwh as the God of history, the great maker and unmaker of human rulers.  God here becomes the one working for justice, using whatever human allies are at hand, but also holding them to account.

The conclusion comes in verses 18-22.  God is praiseworthy because of the persistent care for men and women who honor (v. 18) God and await the effects of God’s steadfast love.  When humans engage in trusting praise (and, as the prophets would add, live out the implications of that praise in their moral choices and actions), then God cares for them by rescuing them from death and all its allies and manifestations.  The relationship is reciprocal (both sides have obligations) but asymmetrical (those obligations are not equivalent, since humans are not equivalent to God).  Reciprocity and relationship are the surest tokens of God’s praiseworthiness.

The psalm ends by naming the creative tension in which believers always live.  Singers of the psalm call out, “O Yhwh, may your steadfast love be upon us, just as we wait for you.”  The reality of salvation is always almost present, just beyond our fingertips, and we long to grasp it fully.  We can taste it and smell it, and we long to make it fully our own.  And out of this longing for what we already have in part comes the awe that makes us whole people before the One who created us and all things.