Archive for September, 2011

A Sermon from an Alumnus

by   |  09.11.11  |  Uncategorized

On occasion, we like to publish something by one of our alumni.  Here is a brief homily by Ben Fike, a 2011 MDiv graduate and now campus minister of the University Church of Christ in Abilene.  Enjoy!  And, if you have a sermon of your own that you’re particularly proud of (it’s okay to be proud in this case!), send us a link or a manuscript.  We would like to collect such things for wider circulation.

 

Further Up and Further In: Psalm 1

By Ben Fike

at 9 o’clock worship service, UCC Abilene, 8/28/2011

 

“What’s next?” Every family, every group of friends, every road trip I’ve been on. There always seems to be someone asking the question, you know? “What’s next?” When I was growing up, it was my older brother. Every family vacation, every dinner, every outing “What’s next?” We’ve only just arrived at my grandpa’s farm, only just pulled into the parking lot of Walrus Ice Cream in downtown Fort Collins, CO where I grew up and he asks the question – “What’s next?”

Where do we go from here?

What happens after this?

Now that he’s 28 years old, my brother has long outgrown this. Although, I wonder if any of us ever really do. As human beings trapped within the constraints of time and space, it’s hard not to get caught up in the endless momentum of it all. Always moving forward, always pressing on. One year, one month, one day, one event, one moment to the next. And then what?

What’s next?

What classes are you taking next semester? What are you going to do after you finish your degree? What are your plans for the summer? What are you doing this weekend? What are we doing for dinner?

What’s next?

Perhaps it is no surprise then, that the Psalmist writing Psalm 1 imagines life as if it is a way, a road, a journey. Or more specifically, two ways – the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous,” he writes.  “But the way of the wicked will perish.” Of course, when he puts it that way, there’s really no choice is there? Do you want to walk the road of the righteous or take the path that sinners tread, follow the advice of the wicked, sit in the seat of scoffers? It’s like here’s two options: 1. You can jump off a cliff, or 2. You can go out to a nice steak dinner with friends. You decide.

I think we get this. We get that we would rather walk along the way of the righteous. We would rather God lead us ahead as we move forward through this life. If life is a way, a road, then we want to walk the path with God rather than without. I think we get this. Right?

But it strikes me, that the Psalmist is not content to keep us moving in one direction, as if the passing of time is the only force at play. As if forward momentum is the only direction we can grow. No, the image shifts, the metaphors mix. And in the poetry of the psalm we find the righteous pilgrims, whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on God’s law they meditate day and night” But they are not described as wanderers, troubadours traveling down the highway.

No, the psalmist tells us, “They are like trees.” Like trees?

Yes, “Like trees planted by streams of water,

which yield their fruit in its season,

and their leaves do not wither.

In all that they do they prosper.”

Like trees planted by streams of water. Can you imagine anything more stationary? Can you imagine anything more passive than a tree?

But then, maybe that’s part of the point. To be among the righteous is not merely to be busy, on the move, tracking forward, as if the passing of time controls all that we do. No, to be among the righteous also means to be rooted, to be deep, to sink our legs deep into the life-giving streams flowing from the throne of God. The water of life. Streams of mercy. Justice rolling like a river.

To live in the way of righteousness means God calls us forward, but also grows us deeper, deeper, deeper into God’s love.

The metaphors are mixed, but maybe this is what it means to live among the righteous. We are mixed metaphors. We are walking trees. We are stationary pilgrims. Traveling without moving. Roots sinking deeper into the soft soil as we follow God down the road. Maybe this is what it means to live among God’s people. Moving forward but growing deep.

My hunch is that if you’re like me, we often live as travelers. Pushing on down the road ahead. Always wondering what is just beyond the horizon. Wondering what God’s plan for us might be in the future. What’s next? Where are we going? What’s after this? But perhaps we get so busy sometimes, so caught up in the passing of time, that we fail to live also as trees. To be still. To meditate on God’s Word. To drink deeply from the life giving waters of God as they swish and swirl around our roots. To grow deeper into God.

My hope for us all as we begin the semester, is that we do not get so caught up in the forward momentum of life that we fail to let God grow us deep. Don’t become such a pilgrim that you fail also to be a tree. My hope for us all is that we do not get swept up into life on the road so much that we fail to let God’s streams of mercy sweep around us. My hope for us all is that as God leads us forward, God also grows us deeper. Deeper in God’s way of self-sacrificing love. Deeper into each other.

In the final book of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, The Last Battle, at the end of the world, all the characters “pass on” from the Old Narnia to the True Narnia. As the children and the creatures and talking animals of Narnia are met with the endless expanse of True Narnia – like a vision of heaven – so real, so green, so fresh it makes their old life seem like a dream. At the end of all things, Aslan, the Lion-King, calls out to those following him, and says, “Come further in! Come further up!”

Further up and further in. This is the way of the righteous. Walking trees. Stationary pilgrims. May God lead us forward. May God grow us deep.

Facing the Fray: A Head’s Up for Kingdom Workers

by   |  09.05.11  |  Uncategorized

Enjoy these thoughts from Kent Smith, who teaches missions (especially for North America) here at ACU.

The most vibrant, powerful and downright enjoyable people I know are those who are proactively engaged in God’s life and work. I’ve had the opportunity this summer to spend time with a number of these people across North America. But the challenges such people face often come without warning and go without telling.

And the challenges need to be told. To avoid being blindsided, I think it’s important to name the normal opposition that comes—sooner or later—to everyone engaged in significant Kingdom initiatives. If you are actively paying attention to what God is up to, and purposely joining God in that work, you can expect to be opposed.

The opposition comes in many forms. Some of the most difficult to face is internal—temptations, irrational fears and baseless bouts of depression. From long experience I know that whenever I am engaged in work that promises new Kingdom advancement, sleepless stretches in the middle of the night lie ahead. During those times I am made to witness vivid scenes of coming disaster and my inadequacy for the job.

If that were not enough, we often face daunting external opposition. People bail on us or openly resist and criticize our work. Carefully constructed plans go awry, things break without warning, even our bodies seem to betray us. At times it feels that, despite our best effort, we are accelerating away from where we hoped to go.

Though we shouldn’t be surprised by all this, it seems that often we are—and discouraged to the point of giving up. That, of course, is precisely the point of all this assault.

And make no mistake. Assault is what it is. The Opposition to God has a well-proven plan for taking you out of play: Distract—Discourage—Disable.  If the Enemy through opposition can redirect your attention from our good, strong and loving God and onto the problems and threats, you will be distracted. The longer you remain distracted, the more discouraged you will grow. At some point you will give up and be disabled for the work. This is standard tactics in the Enemy’s Kill, Steal and Destroy campaign.

The apostle Paul, no stranger to the worst opposition, saw the challenge differently:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day.  For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison—because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.   (1 Cor. 4:16-18)

Two thoughts stand out to me here.  The renewal we need in our corrosive world is day by day.  It is daily.  The inner perspective to carry on in the call of God is sustained in a relentless commitment to receive daily renewal. And—the key to that renewal lies in where we are looking. If our attention is riveted on the Eternal, attempts to distract us with the temporary will find little footing.

Can this really be done? Yes. Expect opposition—but refuse to let it distract you. Instead, face opposition by turning your daily attention to eternal truth, eternal community, to eternal God.  From that place you will see with growing clarity the forces aligned against you for the light, momentary distractions they are.

People who are learning this discover a key to lives of joy—not just in the absence of challenge—but in the face of it.

August in England

by   |  09.01.11  |  Church History, Sabbatical, 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 research trip to England:

August in England

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I can think of several good reasons to go to England in August:  For one thing, it is cooler. Whereas the high temperatures in Abilene, Texas during the first week of August were consistently around 106º, the same week in Oxford, England saw highs between about 70º–82º. The hills are green and there are trees. The culture is delightfully diverse, and the food equally so. Also, there is no better place to have a Will-and-Kate sighting than England.

But none of these things drew me to England this time. Instead, I was lured there by two of my favorite things: old libraries and ancient manuscripts. Surprising as it may seem, the U.K. is home to some of the world’s great collections of ancient Syriac manuscripts.

As you may recall, Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, still in use today but flourishing especially in Christian communities in the Middle East during the 3rd–13th centuries. Many old Syriac texts survive and remain to be studied, but these days I am especially interested in the 5th-century Syriac translation of John Chrysostom’s Commentary on the Gospel of John. With the help of ACU and the Loeb Classical Foundation, I am preparing this lengthy text for publication and translating it into English in order to make it available to a wider readership. But that requires getting my hands on the manuscripts themselves—thereby explaining this year’s travels to St Catharine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai, the Vatican Library, and now several libraries in the U.K.

Jeff at the British Library, London

First on the list is the British Library in London (BL), home to 10 of the surviving manuscripts, whose dates span the 6th–13th centuries. In fact, the BL has hundreds of very old Syriac manuscripts. This is thanks to Moses of Nisibis, a 10th-century monk who collected Syriac books when he was traveling to Baghdad in order to ask the caliph for tax breaks. He acquired many old manuscripts along the way, bringing them back to his monastery at Wadi al-Natrun (Scetis) in the Egyptian desert, where they stayed until most of them were relocated to European libraries in the 18th and 19th centuries. The BL ended up with the largest portion, by far. The oldest dated biblical manuscript in existence —in any language—is a Syriac manuscript of the Pentateuch from this collection, now residing in the BL.

I spent many hours poring over the Syriac Chrysostom in the Asian & African Studies reading room, taking breaks only to grab a quick lunch in the Library café with my friend and colleague, Bill Rankin. Bill was also conducting research in the BL, working on—appropriately enough—the history of the book. Alongside several long and fairly complete manuscripts that I needed at the BL, I was also able to look at a recently identified fragment that had originally been part of a larger manuscript at St. Catharine’s Monastery.

Jeff at the University of Birmingham, England

The other known piece of that same manuscript brought me to the second library on my list, that of the University of Birmingham. Though my time there was brief, it came with an extra treat: staying at a hotel adjacent to the Cadbury Chocolate factory in suburban Bournville. The aroma was caloric.

Naturally, I also spent time in Oxford. But although I was briefly in Oxford’s Bodleian Library—and in the world’s oldest continuously functioning Library at my own Merton College—my time at Oxford was dominated by the International Conference on Patristic Studies, where I read a paper about my recent work and sought feedback from other Syriacists and Chrysostom-specialists. Their input was very helpful.

Merton College Library, Mob Quad, Oxford

Since my alma mater had none of the manuscripts I needed, I left Oxford and went to The Other Place and the third library on my list, the resting place of two fairly late Syriac manuscripts awaiting my inspection. Although the manuscripts turned out not to be as useful as I hoped, the library staff were very helpful and quite nice.

Cambridge University Library

After several airplane flights and train journeys, I now have all the manuscript data I need to finish work on my project! Now I need only the time, the energy, and the focus. Somehow Sir Henry Savile, Warden of Merton College and Queen Elizabeth’s Greek tutor, was able to find time while translating the King James Version of the Bible to publish in 1610 a massive 8-volume folio edition of Chrysostom’s works in Greek, “the first major work of patristic scholarship to be published in England”[1] and “the one great work of Renaissance scholarship carried out in England.”[2] While I don’t expect the modest Chrysostom project of this Mertonian to have quite the same impact as Savile’s opus, his work inspires me to get it done!

As Chrysostom himself exhorts near the beginning of his Commentary on John, “Let us give diligent attention to the book that is laid open before us…” (Memra 2.11). His ancient meditations on John lay open before me, and as I read and translate them line-by-line, I am learning the truth of his insistence that the hard work of constant digging in the study of sacred things pays off in the discovery of pure gold for the soul (Memra 40.1).

Jeff in the British Library—relaxing, or happily shackled to the books?

 


[1] Jean-Louis Quantin, The Church of England and Christian Antiquity. The Construction of a Confessional Identity in the 17th Century (Oxford: University Press, 2009), 405.

[2] Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries. The Making of the King James Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 167.