Friday, November 29, 2013

Thanksgiving Challenge #2: What came of it

Here are some notes on the Thanksgiving challenge, where I tried for a more godly perspective and made myself recognize a reason to be thankful for each of the guests on the guest list at Thanksgiving dinner. I mention it in the hopes that it will be helpful to someone else.

I was glad that I had done my homework. It helped whenever tensions arose. It was a safeguard against the temptation of contributing to the problem, and even against unintentionally causing problems through careless remarks. The preparations made me mentally ready to help defuse some tensions as they arose during the course of conversation. I'd recommend this kind of "thankful list" as preparation to anyone who attends family gatherings, and especially if tension is common. 

The notes on my "thankful list" are short because I wrote them on an index card. I read the card just before leaving home, and then again right before I went into the host's home. Though the notes are short, for some people I could have easily made a long list of reasons I was thankful for them. For most, I could have listed more reasons than I put on the card. 

  • Always there for his children
  • Stood by her husband through thick and thin (for 2 people)
  • Has never said an unkind word to me
  • Is a delight to her father
  • Never gave up, and kept trying and trying again, through some long and dark years
  • Kind to her dogs
  • Kind to her neighbor
  • Can speak her mind with good-humor and tact
  • A good and steadfast friend to his friends
I think the list was the most helpful in those cases where I have the most struggle to find a reason to be thankful for the other person. Where there is a long history of trouble, it takes a certain persistence in chasing out the unthankful thoughts, and that was good practice in its own right. 

Every conversation has its subtext -- the unspoken things that are the background and reason for what is spoken aloud. While it would have been awkward to say those "Thanksgiving Challenge" thoughts aloud, it helped to have those thoughts in mind as the subtext behind my own comments. I think, in its own small way, it helped the general tone of the conversation.

Another benefit, though slightly sadder: some of the older people in attendance had lost health to a startling degree in the time since I last saw them. (This is especially so for some "friends of the family" of the host's family, that I may see only once or twice a year.) It was good to know in advance why I was thankful for them, when poor health did not permit them to be their usual selves this year. It enabled me to treat them with the respect that they had earned during their years of fuller health. Honest respect can take away the sting of needing help.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thanksgiving challenge

This year, as part of my holiday preparations, I'm challenging myself to go into Thanksgiving having thought of a reason why I am thankful for each and every person there. I'm looking for something specific that they have done, whether for me or for another person. It makes the saying "count your blessings" a little more personal by focusing on the guest list for Thanksgiving dinner.

I'm wondering if we all did that (meaning my extended family), whether it would help with the atmosphere around the table. But first things first: I want to do my part this year.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

If "love keeps no record of wrongs"

It's nearly the holiday season again, and my annual holiday preparations have to include some mental and spiritual preparations to spend time with my extended family. (Some previous posts on the topic include: Returning good for evil: forgiveness struggles #2, Scroll of remembrance, Christian response to backhanded compliments, and Christian response to backhanded compliments: reprise.)Where I'd left off last year (the "reprise" post), I'd figured out that I should plan in advance for "intentional goodwill", rather than just reacting to the position-jockeying and dueling grievances as they occurred, and armed with nothing more than a wish that peaceful intentions would suffice.

I think that, just like I would never go for a road trip without packing an overnight bag, and like I would never go for the week's groceries without a shopping list, I should probably not be around my relatives without having made any preparations. So what St Paul said about love, "Love keeps no record of wrongs" -- I think love even goes farther. It doesn't just overlook the wrongs. It also keeps a record of kindnesses that another person has done. Now, that part about "keeping a record" could be misunderstood. Love doesn't pursue goals of accounting for kindnesses, or earning repayment, or comparison of goodness, or anything like that. It keeps a record of good for the purposes of remembering. "If there is anything good ... think on these things." When we are kind to someone else, we hope they remember; we hope it makes a difference. In the spirit of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," it seems best to remember when others are kind to us. And when we remember, it seems best to do it better than haphazardly, but to study the good that another person has done, to refresh it in the memory as deliberately as we would make an effort to remember an important appointment, or material for a school quiz. (Even average students routinely remember 70% or better of material they have made an effort to know. But I have a feeling that, when it comes to remembering other peoples' kindnesses, sometimes I remember a lower percentage than that. Especially when there have been unkindnesses that threaten to erase the better memories. The good memories have to be carefully refreshed after a falling out.) And so I'm not too proud to make notes (privately, of course) -- just to help me remember the good things.

So this year, in addition to making sure I re-read the "Scroll of remembrance" I wrote about one relative a few years back, I probably need to write a couple more scrolls remembering the kindnesses of other relatives as part of my holiday preparations. I cannot even begin to tell you how strongly my worse nature is rebelling at the thought of writing down a remembrance of the kindnesses from certain people, when it is far easier to remember the fully intentional unkindnesses. But the kindnesses were intentional too. And in a world where God has shown forgiveness as the path to the world's rebirth, I'm going to have to learn better.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Is there a good way to point out to a pastor that he's being unBiblical?

I expect that anybody who has been in the church long enough has found themselves, sooner or later, in a position where they suspect the pastor (minister, priest, etc) is not teaching quite what you would expect. Maybe he is teaching something that is slightly out of step with the Bible. Maybe he is teaching something that is not quite in line with the church's affiliation. Or maybe both.

I am trying to find the best way to handle such a conversation right now. I'm in a situation where the pastor routinely -- week after week, month after month, at this point year after year -- begins Bible classes by misquoting the Bible. The invocation with which he begins is, "In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit." That's a fairly obvious misquote of part of the great commission: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit". It's not even possible that he doesn't realize that it's a misquote; he says it correctly during church services or (interestingly enough) when his supervisor is in town. I have found myself wondering: Does he think he's improving on the Bible? If not, why change it? But if so, what exactly is his level of respect for the Bible, and its role as a safeguard for the faith once given?

Why am I still there, if he's misquoting it that blatantly, that regularly? Well, it's not for lack of looking around at other churches to see if there's anything out there that is truer to Christ and his word. In the last few years I've visited three different Lutheran churches, a Methodist church, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Church of Christ, and Baptist at various points. But I have yet to find anywhere where the preacher is any more Biblical than my current pastor. Why have I not yet spoken to him, if it has been going on so long? Because the previous time I tried to speak to him about something -- something far less serious, that didn't anger me at all but I thought was more difficult than necessary and thought could be made simpler -- not only was I not able to persuade him to see another point of view, but the particular thing I brought to his attention was promptly used as a sermon example of people not cooperating with church leadership.(At times like this I'm glad I've guarded my anonymity as a blogger over the years; it does help.)

But I'm curious whether anyone has ever navigated through a conversation like that successfully. And by "successfully" I mean not just without getting excommunicated, preferably even without getting used as a bad example in a sermon, but actually succeeded in getting the pastor (minister, priest, etc) to listen?

Sunday, November 03, 2013

What the studies of Galatians tell us

Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians to remind the people that controversies in general -- and their current controversy over the law in particular -- should not take their focus away from Christ. Paul managed a rare thing: he re-focused the people on what was important, without losing focus himself. In order, the top ten most common words in Galatians are:
  1. Christ 
  2. law 
  3. God 
  4. faith 
  5. spirit 
  6. Jesus (2-way tie between "Jesus" and "son")
  7. son (2-way tie between "Jesus" and "son")
  8. brothers (3-way tie of "brothers", "gospel", and "woman")
  9. gospel  (3-way tie of "brothers", "gospel", and "woman")
  10. woman (3-way tie of "brothers", "gospel", and "woman")
The controversy about the law, even as it was being corrected, took a second place to Christ.

The commentaries on that letter do not quite manage to follow that lead. Instead we see how easily our controversies draw us off track, even commentaries on a book that was written to explain how we shouldn't allow things to draw us off track.

The Top Three Spots in the Commentaries

When we limit our view to the top three most common words, our commentators do keep the same top three words as Paul. But not one of them keeps the relative emphasis correct, and so the Bible study becomes to some degree a distortion of the book. (Others would argue it is not a distortion so much as a contextualization inside the larger framework of the Bible and theology. We'll leave most of that question for another day.)
  • Luther's top three: Law, Christ, and God. It's particularly ironic for Luther, whose career is known for returning focus to Christ, to make that particular mistake about this particular book by focusing more on the law than on Christ. Did he realize that his enthusiasm to correct overemphasis on "works of the law" had led him to focus more on the law than on Christ? I expect that Luther would have seen this as a distortion, even if it was caused by what he considered legitimate enthusiasm to correct an error. In correcting it, he fell into a similar mistake. It is a fair warning for anyone who corrects an error not to be drawn off-message by it.
  • Calvin's top three: God, Christ, and law. I don't think that Calvin would have minded that God ended up emphasized over Christ, or that his priorities there were different than Paul's. That overpowering emphasis on God the Father is the deliberate hallmark of Calvin's theology. Still, it remains out of step with the focus of Paul's letter to the Galatians. Where a Lutheran would see this as a distortion to take the focus away from Christ, I expect that Calvin would have seen his emphasis as a contextualization, and supported it as putting things in their right place in the big picture of the whole Bible.
  • Wesley's top three: law, God, and Christ. Wesley is the only one of these major Protestant writers to put Christ -- Paul's top priority -- down to third place. Again, I'm not completely sure that Wesley would have minded that. The writings I've read of Wesley's have a conscious move toward focus on the father, rather than Christ. Again, I expect that Wesley would have seen his change of emphasis as a contextualization, and supported it.
Odd things added or omitted

The word clouds show that some words were emphasized more in the Bible studies than in the original. But some discernment is necessary as to whether these are problems. In a Bible study, it is not too unusual for words like "chapter" or "verse" to have a prominent place in the Bible study but not in the original. This does not by itself mean that the authors are changing emphasis; it means that they are referencing an original. So differences of that kind are not a problem by this reckoning. Likewise "Paul" gets more mention in these commentaries than they do in Paul's writings, because in his own writings he doesn't refer to himself by name. These types of variations are expected in a book written about an original work.

But some variations are more unexpected.
  • Luther's other questionable moves: Of Paul's top ten words, Luther gives so little attention to "brothers" or "woman" that they are not in his top 100. Luther also adds an emphasis on "sin" and the "devil" that is out of proportion to Paul. This last is typical of Luther's writings, as many Lutherans would recognize. Luther repeatedly speaks about "sin, death, and the devil" in a way that has more to do with Luther than the Bible.
  • Calvin's other questionable moves: Of Paul's most prominent words, Calvin repeats Luther's lack of recognition of "brothers" or "woman", and adds another to the neglected words list: "Jesus". The prominence given in the book of Galatians to "Jesus" -- recognized as a distinct word from "Christ" -- is found in Paul, and Luther, and Wesley -- but is absent from the top 100 words list in Calvin's commentary. This underscores Calvin's intentional and systematic approach to de-emphasizing the role of Jesus Christ. Beyond that, the shift away from "Jesus" (historical, personal, relatable) to only "Christ" (theological) is something we have seen before in other word clouds, where it has been a useful indicator of how far someone is removed from interest in the actual Jesus of history, when they drop the personal name "Jesus" and focus only on the theological title "Christ". Beyond this, Calvin also adds several words at high-emphasis that a study of Galatians doesn't necessarily call for: "doctrine", "Romans", and "power". That refers us straight to themes we have discussed before on this blog, about whether "doctrine" has been put in the place of Christ as what saves you, whether "Romans" as a book is the best touchstone for Christian theology, and whether "power" is over-emphasized in Calvinist circles relative to what is warranted by the Bible. The only minor surprise is not seeing "sovereign" or "sovereignty" in Calvin's list of frequently-used words; it leads me to wonder when exactly that became the identifying badge of Calvinist writings as it is today.
  • Wesley's other questionable moves: Of Paul's most prominent words, compliments to Wesley on not dropping the priority of "brothers" as Luther and Calvin did; Wesley has it as "brethren" which looks like it matches the Bible translation he was using. The only one of Paul's top ten words that Wesley drops from his top 100 is "woman". Wesley, like the others, emphasizes several words that the book of Galatians itself does not call for. In Wesley's case, some noteworthy insertions are: "dispensation", "power", "doctrine", and "glory". We touched on "power" and "doctrine" when looking at Calvin. I am in no position to comment on Wesley's involvement with, or later reference by, theologians who promote a dispensational view, or the prosperity gospel with its focus on glory. The focus on "power" is less in keeping with their general reputation. (Wesley also brings in "Genesis" often enough to register, or its abbreviation "Gen.". But this happens in his notes on what Paul said about Abraham, so isn't out of place.)

The point

I'd like to close with two main thoughts:
  1. People writing commentaries generally insert their own concerns and viewpoints into the commentaries, as we have seen with Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. I should mention: if we keep in mind that this happens when someone writes a commentary, we would almost want each author to insert his own concerns and viewpoints into his commentaries. It's part of why we read them, after all. The problem comes when we take them as "what the Bible really means" instead of "what it meant to this man at this time and place, that may have insight for us too". Unless we recognize the risks and take preventive measures, our sectarian Bible studies may lead us farther apart from each other -- and from the Bible.

    Even if the authors have no intent to be misleading, the final effect can still be the same. If someone would say that changing the emphasis simply brings it into the context of their theology as a whole, that begs the question of exactly how sound is their theology as a whole. Our Bible studies teach more than just the Bible; they teach the preconceptions of those who wrote them. That was the reason for those tedious word clouds; I hope the readers can pardon the brief rounds of tedium in exchange for the undistorted view we got of each author. The authors were allowed to pick their own priorities, and I did not invent an emphasis where none existed, instead taking an objective measure. The biggest potential flaws here are the translators and, in Luther's case, the abridger since apparently his original was so long that it was not translated in full.
  2. On a hopeful note, there is substantial agreement on some important things. The first point of agreement is that we should be studying the Bible. All of these authors thought it well worth their while to study such a book in detail, and centuries later we still think the same. It seems that we are in agreement that studying the Bible can advance insight, wisdom, and knowledge of the truth. It seems that we also agree that we should be faithful to the message given us in the Bible, diligent about seeking exactly what the original writer was trying to tell us, open to growth and insight, willing to correct our own views if needed. We all desire to understand the fullness of God's word. It seems that achieving such an understanding would necessarily unite us.

    One question is whether we can be united now, while we still see in a glass, darkly. Another question is how much our current sectarian system causes the glass to be darker. But if unity can be reached, it will be because we are all still earnestly to this day listening to the words of Peter and Paul and John and all the apostles, and most of all to Jesus Christ.