Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

The Sweet Joy of Forgiveness: The Psalms in Our Worship 24

by   |  02.24.11  |  Bible, Psalms

Blessed is the one whose transgression is lifted off, whose sin is covered over.  Blessed is the one to whom Yahweh does not attribute guilt and in whose spirit is no treachery.

One of the hardest parts of writing anything is knowing where to begin.  The Psalmist could hardly have chosen a better opening.  In just 15 words in Hebrew, Psalm 32 offers a picture of a possible reality.  Conceiving of sin as a burden to be carried or a blemish to be hidden, this text enters into the very soul of the follower of Israel’s God.  The faithful life is about the removal of the terrible weights that crush us.  Faith is a search for the lighter, healthier, saner approach to life.  The person who experiences such removal of the weight of sin can now live with confidence in the saving power of the Almighty.  Emotions and actions follow, as well as reinforce and celebrate, the liberation given.  And, in many ways, the actions and feelings of lightness of being are themselves resources for preventing the reacquisition of the weight.

Yet this change of status has not come easily for our author.  Rather, Yahweh has disciplined the pray-er of this psalm (vv. 3-4), leading the penitent human being to acknowledge his or her sins (v. 5: “I made my sin known to you and did not cover up my guilt”).  A curious thing here: verse 1 celebrates the covering over (Hebrew: kasah) of sin by God, while verse 5 recognizes that for human beings to cover over (same verb!) sin is highly inappropriate.  To obscure sin is a divine prerogative.  Repentance, which implies truth-telling about our failures, is ours.

And this is why the righteous praise God.  The removal of the evil in the life of an individual or a group is an extraordinary miracle, and one well worth celebrating.  Nor is the celebration our job alone, for the one who finds God to be a hiding place (v. 7) also hears the divine voice offering illumination and guidance (vv. 8-9).  The conversation about forgiveness includes those who experience it, and the God who gives is.

For me, thinking about sin and forgiveness this way is immensely helpful.  In our conversations in church, we seem too wedded to one image of sin, the judicial one.  The overemphasis makes us say many silly things (such as the idea that all sins are equally bad or that God abhors sin so much he can’t be in the same room with it, making God sound like a paranoid germophobe).  It’s helpful to correct our speech by thinking about other aspects of sin, whether it is weight in this text or debt as in the “Our Father” or disease in other places.  Evil has many dimensions.  And God can triumph over them all.

Postscript: If you want to read more about images of sin in the Old Testament and early Judaism and Christianity, read Gary Anderson’s little, but very learned and readable, book Sin: A History (Yale University Press, 2010).

Deliverance 101: The Psalms in our Worship 23

by   |  02.22.11  |  Bible, Psalms

Having grown up in a family in which my dad had a steady job and our schools were safe and our churches more often encouraging than not, deliverance is a hard concept for me.  What does it look like?  Not everyone has this problem because not everyone has mastered the art of projecting illusions.  But those of us who do imagine ourselves to be self-contained could use a refresher.

Psalm 31 offers such a primer.  It’s an odd psalm really.  It seems to go in several directions at once, almost as though its creator wished to evoke either the mental turmoil of the one seeking deliverance or the ecstasy of the one receiving it.  Some scholars have thought of it as two or even three different psalms welded together (much as one sees in 1-2 Chronicles, for example).  This is possible, but the text has come down to us as a single work.  As the commentator Samuel Terrien puts it, “It is a cry of fear and love for the Lord, which ends with an exhortation addressed to all true adorers of Yahweh.”  Nicely said.

The psalm opens by expressing confidence in the God who provides deliverance, coupled with a plea for further deliverance (v. 1 [2 in Hebrew]).  On the one hand, the psalmist sees God’s rescue as an abiding reality, as one of those anchor points for the life of faith.  Yet, on the other hand, deliverance is also an ongoing need, and thus a future possibility.  It is never a final result, a reality that is fixed and immovable.  Deliverance is a process, and it is also a relationship in which the one delivered recognizes her or his ongoing contingency and thus dependence on God.  (And as Christians aware of the eschatological dimensions of God’s work, we would add that final deliverance comes only when God makes all things new and draws us into the divine being at the end of time.)

The psalm then offers us an anatomy of deliverance that includes the end of shame (or perhaps we would say, alienation), moral clarity about idolatry and the ways it produces disloyalty to God, a deeper awareness of the possibility of humans having a trusting relationship with God, and finally a new capacity for celebration concentrating on the praise of God.

This last part, beginning, in verse 19 (20 in Hebrew), seems to many scholars to be a separate psalm.  Perhaps it originally was a free-standing hymn.  No one knows.  But I am interested in the fact that it has been associated with the cry for deliverance early in Psalm 31.  What is the connection?  Since the association of two such elements appears in many psalms, it would be good to know the answer.

Perhaps part of the answer is that human beings who can celebrate and can give due honor to God (and as appropriate, to other men and women) are free.  They are no longer enslaved to whatever evil had previously shackled them.  Even if they remain in the outward condition of subjection to evil, their capacity for rejoicing marks them as liberated people.

This last idea requires some further development.  Hear the words:

How great is your goodness, which you hid away for those honoring you!

You made them for those taking refuge in you, in the presence of human beings.

You hid them in a secret place before your face [perhaps: a secret place only you knew about],

away from human contamination.

You hid them in a booth away from quarrelsome [or maybe, gossipy] tongues.

The image is of a God who tucks away the best possible gifts until human beings truly need them.  The psalmist expresses the confidence that not only God’s work, but even the timing and execution of that work, reflect divine care for our weakness.  Such hard-won confidence, the result of suffering and spiritual struggle, allows the psalmist to celebrate in public and to invite others to join in, whatever their personal experiences.  And so the deliverance spreads, accentuated and reinforced by the words of a community whose collective memories allow it to recall its best experiences before God as a model for all things to come.

Perhaps there is no better way to end these remarks than with the ending exhortation of the psalm itself:

“Love Yahweh, all his loyal followers, Yahweh the protector of the trusting and the ruler over the rest who act too proudly.  Be strong all who hope in Yahweh, and [God] will strengthen your heart!”

  This is how delivered people talk.  I’d like to join them.

Beyond Gratitude: The Psalms in Our Worship 22

by   |  02.13.11  |  Bible, Gratitude, Psalms

I often hear that the proper response to God’s grace is gratitude.  This is true, as far as it goes, but seems a bit passive.  Worse, in human beings, gratitude often turns to resentment at the humiliation caused by disproportionate, un-pay-backable gift-giving.  So I often wonder if we can say more.

In the Psalms, as we have already seen, the laments and hymns of praise have a close relationship to each other.  The laments often end with a promise to praise God for deliverance, once it comes.  And hymns often refer back to the calamity whose termination and redemption have led the singer of the psalm to praise.  Psalm 30 fits the latter category.  It reminds the hearer that the composer has experienced tragedy (verses 2, 7 [Hebrew 3, 8]) and has sought Yhwh’s help (verses 2-3, 11-12 [Hebrew 3-4, 12-13]).  God has aided him or her  in unspecified ways.  Hence the hymn of praise itself.

But today I am struck by the psalm’s comment on the whole experience of redemption: “For his anger lasts a moment, his favor is lifelong.  In the evening weeping takes up lodging, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”  The faith of the psalmist is not simply a matter of gratitude for services rendered.  It is a deep-seated, radical, existentially transformative  trust in the basic character of God as one who seeks to extend mercy to all.  This God rescues those who ask from death itself, allowing not even the most powerful force in the universe to defeat humanity.  This God works for a culture of respect (“my foes have not rejoiced over me”).  And this God forms a community who testify to their own experiences of grace.  It’s not just gratitude in play here.  It’s deeper than that.

In exploring the theme of grace, a theme fundamental to Christian understanding of the human relationship with the divine, we must come to know and feel the deep sense of responsibility it imposes on us.  As the old hymn says, “O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be.”  Constrained.  Debtor.  To be.  But to be free of that debt is to have nothing at all.  This too is something for which to be grateful, and so much more.

Does the Gospel Sell Itself? (part 4)

by   |  05.04.10  |  Bible, Change, Christian, Church, Gospel, Hospitality, Identity, Ministry, Society, Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology


Does the Gospel sell itself?  That’s how I began this series of posts, and that’s how I’ll end it.  If we are on a road alongside of which are exits to narcissism, self-indulgence, and self-promotion, and the Heavenly City seems further away in our rearview mirrors, then how do we change directions?  (I’ll drop the metaphor there, if you don’t mind!)  I’ve tried to set out some of the interpersonal and intellectual challenges because to reflect theologically and to act on the basis of that reflection, we need to consider several factors.

But here’s the final one, and the decisive one.  What does God want?  Now, I know that this question is tricky and easily hijacked by various sides of any given debate.  If you want change, you point to the God of renewal, and if you don’t want change, you mention the old paths.  Both sets of languages — both descriptions of the nature of God — have biblical warrant.  Which one applies at a given moment depends on several factors, not all of which everyone will agree upon.  Moreover, Christians have a wide range of views of just how specific God intends to be.  Neo-Calvinists assume that the sovereignty of God implies a very high degree of planning of human lives, while most other Christians are content to think of God painting in the cosmic picture in broader, more impressionistic strokes.  I do not say any of this to be cynical, but simply to note that I am aware of the hazards.

Still, as a Christian, I must always ask myself what God wants.  It is not legitimate to try to escape the question, if you want to think in Christian ways.  Here are some things (not everything!) that Scripture, which I believe to be the best indication of God’s will that we have, seems to think God wants from us:

1. Let’s be passionate about the search for God.  Christians should pray a lot and with passion.  If we spent more time on our knees, we might spend less time wringing our hands or shouting.  As Paul said to the Athenians, God has given us evidence of nearness by raising Jesus from the dead.  The search is not an idle quest for an elusive goal, but the pursuit of one lover for another seeking rest together.

2.  Let’s care about the stranger.  I have long been struck by Exodus’s story of the redemption of Israel and the legal conclusions that the text draws from that experience: “you shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).  Perhaps Christians are so hostile to immigrants and other vulnerable people because we have concluded that this land really is our land, not simply a place on loan from God while we move toward our final home.  Have we forgotten that we too are strangers, that we too are redeemed people?

3. Let’s remember that we are in this together.  It is distressing to watch churches split over issues that can only be classified as trivial.  I have always found that praying for those with whom I disagree (which is quite a few people, as it happens!) or whom I found narrow and annoying and petty (also a fairly large group) changes things.  Very few Christians are so alienated from their own calling that we cannot find in them something to cherish.

4. Let’s remember that change can be both good and necessary.  Some folks I know are worried about “change agents.”  I’ve even read journals that argue that all change is to be resisted.  Of course, this is absurd.  Sometimes change is apostasy, true, and that is to be resisted.  But sometimes change is repentance, as when churches quit making one race sit in the balcony while another sat on the pews on the floor.  Sometimes change is simply maturation as when we recognize that our group does not have a monopoly on Christian commitment or understanding.  And sometimes it’s just change, relatively benign and neutral in meaning.  To fear change is to fear life.  The key is to make change rather than suffer it, and to make it with the highest Christian ideals in mind.

5. Finally, let’s remember that to be church is the greatest calling in the world.  We cannot cherish Christ without also cherishing his bride.  The church often needs correction — we are always reforming — but we also need to be loved and to love the magnificent calling we have received to be harbingers of God’s Kingdom, in which no one suffers hunger, no one is alone, no one is disrespected, and all find a place of dignity and honor at the bountiful table of the Lord.

May it always be so!  I’ll start a new series in a few days, after the Pepperdine lectures.  I hope to see you there!

Does the Gospel Sell Itself? (part 3)

by   |  04.22.10  |  Bible, Church, Ministry, Mission, Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Ours is a time in which all the old truths have seemed questionable, all the old habits indefensible, and all the old passions unthinkable.  Since Christianity is no longer a new religion and since Christians are often leaders in the power systems of the world and therefore often implicated in its evils, many men and women ask us whether Christianity, and thus the Gospel, makes any sense.  They ask, to put things very bluntly, if Christianity is good for you.  Does following the way of Jesus make you a better person?  Does the church help people live in community in better ways?  If there is a God, is this God good?  Critics of Christianity such as Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens tell us that God is not great, and that religion (at least they don’t just try to finger us!) is the source of all the evil in the world.

Now a lot of their rhetoric is nonsense.  Let’s be clear about that.  Many of the critiques are ill informed about all sorts of things.  They set up straw people to knock down.  They pit the most ignorant Christians and against the best informed non-Christians.  So there is much of the noise we can safely ignore as the last rantings of a publicity-seeking, sensationalistic media and public.

But is that all there is to the brouhaha?  Surely it is fair to say that many of us Christians (and other religious people) are confused about what our faith really teaches.  We adjust to a series of compromises with worldly structures and react out of fear when we should act out of hope.  The critics have a point there.  To provide a real answer to the intellectual challenges facing us, then, Christians have to be clear about a few things that our faith actually teaches.  Here are some:

1. There really is only one God, and we are not it!  The great Christian confessions such as the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed, to say nothing of the Bible, are organized around the confession of the supremacy, transcendent goodness, and honor of God.  The center of the faith is not the faith itself, much less any laws, practices, ideas, doctrines, etc. deriving from the faith.  God is God, and we are all seekers in need of redemption.

2. The human approach to God comes through radical submission to the way of love.  Christians vigorously pursue nonviolence in all we do.  We join in the criticism of the relentless pursuit of money and power.  We strongly question any human system that turns people into commodities.  We disdain privilege in all its forms.  We believe that God calls us to love all our neighbors as ourselves.

3. We also believe that all human systems are flawed, some very deeply.  Some Christians call this original sin, and of course we debate just how deeply flawed humans are.  Surely the evidence is complex.  But it is also incontrovertible.  When St. Paul said that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, he was simply stating the obvious.  It follows from this fact that no human system can command our final, unquestioning loyalty (not a nation, not an economic system, not even a way of doing family).

4. We Christians think that vigorous pursuit of truth is a worthwhile goal, and that we have nothing to fear from honest inquiry.  We think that our congregations should be places in which such inquiry occurs.

5. Our faith is deeply intertwined with hope.  Our critics misunderstand what we mean by hope, and frankly many Christians do too.  We seem to see heaven as an escape from this world, as a kind of ace up God’s sleeve to make everything right.  But that’s not what Scripture says.  It talks instead about living lives that participate in God’s work of redeeming humanity.  It talks about a God who can balance mercy and justice just right so as to bring about the final elimination of evil (something we can just barely conceive of).  That’s a different view than the one attributed to us, and it’s different than the one we sometimes hear in church.

This is a long blog post.  Thanks for sticking with it.  More next time!

Does the Gospel Sell Itself (part 2)

by   |  04.15.10  |  Bible, Church, Ministry, Mission, Theology

How do we get off the road?  How do we join the earliest disciples in their journey, for which a single change of clothes and the greatest possible trust in God was enough?  How do we do this together, so that we don’t play generations or theological stances or ways of doing church off against each other, adding to the divisions of Christendom?  Let’s try some basic ideas.

First, let’s get some clarity on mission. The Bible talks about the church in many different ways: herald of good tidings, a people sent, an attacking army (remember that line “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”?), the cosmic body of Christ, God’s household, and other things.  The church is not a dispenser of goods and services, but a body of praying and serving people.  We don’t point to ourselves, but to God living in us.   Selling the church as such is almost the worst thing we can do.  We “sell” the story of God’s redemptive work in us and beyond us.

Second, let’s shift from an idea of the church member as consumer to the member as seeker of God. All of us are seekers, and all of us are trying to grow in our love of God, our faith in God’s promises, and our hope for a better life for everyone.  A lot of my friends want us to get rid of the idea of church membership altogether, because they think it’s unbiblical (which, technically, it is) and, more seriously, unhelpful.  It reinforces divisions (insiders and outsiders) that don’t quite make sense.  I’m not sure I think we have to get rid of the language altogether, but my friends have a point.

Third, let’s think small. Now, I’m not criticizing big churches.  That’s not the point.  Healthy big churches work hard on building relationships in small groups, and they use their size to accomplish things that small churches usually can’t pull off.  The problem is not size as such, but anonymity.  Let me give an analogy.  When I was a little kid, I used to love to go to my grandpa’s service station.  It had two gas pumps and a garage for a mechanic.  And it was a gathering place where people had relationships.  If you couldn’t pay for your gas this week, Grandpa Sullivan would put your name in his little book so you could pay next week.  Contrast that with the chains I buy gas at now.  They’re quicker, more efficient, probably more environmentally responsible, and they sell more of the junk food we like on long trips.  But relationships?  Not really.  In our increasingly fragmented world of people bowling alone, churches have to think pretty carefully about community.

Fourth, to tie all this up, let’s talk about stakeholding. In other words, are there people in our churches whose absence we would not miss, whose opinions we do not consult, whose faith we do not consider, and whose wisdom we don’t draw on?  My guess is that the answer is yes.  Think about the incredible waste of that situation.  How do we give more people more of a stake in what happens in our congregations?  This especially applies to the young and the old, but it applies to all of us.

These are some thoughts.  I’d welcome your comments.  Next time, I’ll try to talk about the intellectual/theological issues we face today.

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

Does the Gospel Sell Itself? (part 1)

by   |  04.09.10  |  Uncategorized

Like many other people, I read the other day about the big church that was giving away cars, big screen tvs, and other spiffy consumer goods to draw folks to their Easter service.

Also like many others, especially smart-alecky professor types, I quickly passed through the stages of theological grief: mockery, dismay, resignation, and sadness.  What are we coming to?

But then a deeper thought: granted, it’s sad to imagine that the news of resurrection from the dead and radical human transformation seems passe to jaded Americans and (even more seriously) the churches that serve them.  But one does not arrive at such a state overnight: like the pilgrims on the Canterbury trail, we all get there one step at a time.  So, I thought, where am I and where are the churches I serve on this road, and how do we get off?

Where we are is fairly clear.  In a consumerist society in which the ultimate value is choice, a message of sacrifice and transformation casts such a dazzling vision of hope as to be totally counter-cultural.  The Christian message is unsafe and so it must be domesticated.  So we think.  And so we do, in many ways, large and small.  When I was a kid, that meant inviting people to marriage seminars in the hopes that they would then, somehow, hear the even better news of the gospel.  I’m not sure that ever worked, but it was honorably, if naively, intended.  It got too easy to come to think that a better marriage was the gospel.  Or, more generally, we can reduce the life of the church to a sort of self-help society for those who are, or would like to be, upwardly mobile.  No sacrifice required, no hope for a totally different world, just a cleaner version of this one.  It’s as though Jesus had hired a p.r. firm to remessage himself.

Diagnosis is easy; cure is much harder.  How do we get off the road?  I’ll take that up in the next posts in more detail.  But for now, let me try three simple ideas from the world of consumerism and p.r. (we might as well take back something from this road we’re on!).  They may seem hokey, but they’re something to talk about, at least.

  1. Product placement.  We all know about the box of Special K on the kitchen counter in sitcoms.  Seinfeld gave us that.  What if the gospel were a product placed in our own lives? Where would we hide it so everyone saw it but no one thought it out of place?
  2. Social media.  The Christian congregation was a radical innovation in the Roman Empire.  It crossed lines of ethnicity, gender, and class so people could hear the bad news of human sin and the good news of divine redemption.  It’s still a radical idea when it’s freed of consumerism, showmanship, and spin.  And it brings real friends, not just the other kind.
  3. Messaging.  And speaking of spin, shouldn’t church be the ultimate no-spin zone?  Could it be a place where we can talk about absolutely anything that really matters in light of Christian teaching?  It’s a radical idea.  Maybe we should try it sometime.

I’ll write more about all these things soon.  Stay tuned.

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

The Relevance of the Bible for Life Today: Justice

by   |  03.09.10  |  Behavior, Bible, Church, Justice, Power, Theology, Wealth

What is justice? How can we be more just people, and a more just church? These questions seem acute in our time, as American Christians have access to unprecedented wealth and power while so many of our brothers and sisters sometimes lack even daily bread. As this new series of podcasts tries to show, the Bible offers a profound and eminently workable approach to changing our own lives — our attitudes, behaviors, values, and desires — so as to become more just people. I hope you enjoy this series and welcome your comments or questions.

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