Sunday, August 14, 2022

Discipleship, friendship, and brotherhood

Jesus had roughly three years when he directly taught his disciples. When he sent them out, he sent them in pairs, two by two. There may be practical or strategic advantage to sending out people together, but there is also spiritual advantage. In pairs, they could encourage each other, steady each other through unfamiliar situations, keep each other grounded. They could develop and deepen friendships. When family relations already existed, Jesus often encouraged those bonds: we see Peter paired with his brother Andrew, and James paired with his brother John. For others, Jesus helped forge new bonds. No one was left alone or excluded from fellowship, and human connections were made as a matter of course. There are no fifth wheels in the church.

Consider that, at times, Jesus told the disciples not to take extra clothing, extra food, or extra money -- but to take a companion. Having a companion was seen as the most necessary preparation for the journey: more necessary than funding, more necessary than food or a change of clothes. There was no material thing needed for equipment. But spiritually, the journey did not start without a companion. 

My own journey in faith -- modest though it is -- began that way. I started my journey when a friend invited me to Sunday school, and I was not alone. My own journey started with a companion -- and started because of that companion, who included me. 

There are many divisions in our world, many things preventing fellowship. Most of them are needless, pointless divisions. When we follow Christ and Christ alone, we walk together.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

The Holy Spirit v unclean spirits

I've mused before that holiness has more to it than we often credit, more than our irreverent age can easily understand. One thing that we can see is that the Spirit of God is holy, while other spirits are often referred to as "unclean." Is there a sense in which "holy" is the opposite of "unclean"? 

As mentioned, places in the Bible speak of "unclean spirits" on the one side, and the Holy Spirit on the other.

There are places in Paul's letters that use holy as the opposite of unclean, for example: "otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy." (1 Corinthians 7:14)

David prayed, "Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me." He spoke as if being clean and pure were part of what it means to have a right spirit. 

In some well-known passages of Scripture, the Holy Spirit is associated with baptism. There the Holy Spirit is associated with water -- especially in washing and cleansing.

Holiness starts with making us clean and pure; a clean heart is one of God's great gifts, and an honest person's heart-felt desire.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Praying "Your will be done" -- how does that affect our own petitions?

Previously, considering unanswered prayers, I wondered: Did God actually consider Abraham's request when he rescued Lot and his family? Or was Abraham simply right from the beginning, "Far be it from You to slay the righteous with the wicked, that the righteous should be as the wicked, far be it from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" God's will was always to stop evil and save the righteous; Abraham did not introduce that thought to God. (It may be that one reason for stopping the evil was to save the righteous.) So it may be more that Abraham knew of God's justice, and God's justice led Abraham's prayer. 

At first glance Abraham's prayer appears unanswered -- Sodom was destroyed. It seems like a technicality that Abraham never asked for Sodom to be spared unconditionally, that he only bargained down to 10 innocents in the city, and there were not 10. But it is more to the point that the innocent were, after all, spared. That was Abraham's original and persistent concern. If Abraham had simply prayed "Your will be done," wouldn't the result have been the same?

It is easy for me to look at some of my own unanswered prayers, to focus on things that I wished differently. But in the end, wasn't the outcome good? When I pray, "Your will be done," doesn't God's will include compassion for the struggling, and healing for the sick, and reconciliation for the estranged, and peace for the troubled? And more. I think that might give me comfort and consolation even if the details of a prayer are not granted, that God's will still encompasses all the good that I wished and longed for. Even if my own plans do not work out, God's plans continue.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Abraham's Great Unanswered Prayer

Every third year about this time, the lectionary brings us to consider the time when Abraham prayed for Sodom. He showed faith in God's goodness, confidence that God would not destroy the righteous along with the wicked. He showed humility in recognizing God's right to take no notice of his request in the matter, "since I am but dust and ash." He showed persistence, "What if there are only 30? 20? 10?" At the end of the day, God did not spare Sodom -- but he did spare Abraham's relative Lot and his family. (We are not told whether Lot was counted as righteous -- so there is room to wonder whether Lot was spared for Abraham's sake or for his own.*) 

Was Abraham's prayer misguided? The Bible never speaks of it as misguided. God mentions no fault in Abraham's prayer: Persistent, humble, faithful -- and not granted. God still valued Abraham, still kept his promises to Abraham, still honored Abraham -- and yet that prayer was not answered. Even though Abraham's request to spare the city was not granted, his request to spare the innocent (or spare his family) was heard. 

I am not sure whether God considered Abraham's request, or whether Abraham's view was right from the beginning: confidence that God would not destroy the righteous along with the wicked. It gave him the boldness to speak. But it may have also meant that our Father in heaven knew what we needed before we asked him.


* Update: A reader has pointed out that 2 Peter 2:7 calls Lot righteous, so the interpretation of the ancient readers was that Lot was spared for his own sake.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Psalm 119: A Deep Dive into Different Aspects of the Word of God, which the Psalmist praises

Psalm 119 talks about the word of God in different ways. It talks about God's law, precepts, testimonies, judgments, commandments, statutes, or simply the "word" of the Lord. There are even more Hebrew words behind those translations. The differences can seem technical or elusive. A closer look shows some differences which can help deepen our own understanding. First a quick note on that "deep dive" into the underlying words, and then some comments on the different aspects of the Word of God. 

Tools for the "Deep Dive"
First, I determined which original Hebrew word(s) are in each verse. Next, I ran a most-common-words analysis of just the verses using each word (or pair of closely-related words), again using TagCrowd as an analysis too. I looked for words that are associated with the other at least 3 times, to establish a pattern. Here are the basic findings, with the parenthetical numbers showing how often a certain association is found: 
  • Law (Hebrew: Torah): Lord (4), delight (4), love (4), keep (3)
  • precepts (Hebrew: piqqud): Keep (5), quicken (3), understand (3)
  • testimonies (Hebrew: edah and eduth): Keep (4), kept (3), understanding (3), heart (3)
  • word (Hebrew: imrah) According (6), comfort (3), eyes (3), merciful (3), servant (3)
  • judgments (Hebrew: mishpat): Lord (6), righteous (6), according (4), mouth (3), praise (3)
  • commandments (Hebrew: mitsvah): Delight (3), loved (3)
  • statutes (Hebrew: choq and chuqqah): Teach (7), Lord (4), keep (4), heart (4), servant (3)
  • word (Hebrew: dabar): According (6), hope (6), Lord (5), keep (3), servant (3), soul (3), live/quicken (3)
Take-aways from that review
The Law is is seen as worthy of love and delight, not merely obedience. Walking in the Law (Torah) is a way that is pure and undefiled. Loving the Law carries abundant peace, and guards against stumbling.. 

The judgments of God are associated with justice: they are not mere acts of power but of empowered righteousness, and so they inspire praise. As wickedness is a cause of grief, its redress through justice is a cause for celebration. 

One aspect of "word" is sometimes used almost like "promise": he gave his word. In this sense, the word of God is associated strongly with hope. Another aspect of "word" is often associated mercy and (possibly therefore) with comfort. 

Other aspects of the word of God consider aspects of teaching and understanding, or how the Lord quickens us / brings life. The Word of the Lord is also thought of as expanding our ability to love: it "enlarges the heart". 

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Why the fate of "Roe" is not the most important milestone: The more meaningful victory is not about law

I have mentioned previously that my brother and I grew up as unwanted children, born in a pre-Roe-v-Wade era. Before Roe, each state had its own laws governing when a developing human life was recognized as legally human and therefore worthy of legal protection. The Supreme Court has returned that decision to the states once again, and each state is in a position to consider or reconsider its own laws. The laws will likely range the whole spectrum -- protected from conception, or from the detection of the child's heartbeat, or from quickening, or from the age of viability, or from birth. (From time to time, a handful of people have advocated for "from some days after birth", though that has not gained serious traction at this point). There may even be room to build consensus around heartbeat laws, quickening laws, or viability laws.

I have seen celebration among those who believe a developing human life is worthy of legal protection. I find myself unable to join the celebration just yet because of this: Those who argue that an unwanted child's life can be miserable -- they aren't wrong. Over the upcoming years, I would expect to see many state legislatures take up the question of what laws are good and right. Even when the law protects the child from a reasonably early age (for example, heartbeat laws), the law does nothing to promote good parenting. Neither is it the law's place to promote good parenting; that's a question of culture rather than law.

For those who have prayed for the day when human life is better protected, I think we do those lives a disservice by focusing only on the legality or illegality of abortion. Until it becomes normal to expect mothers to love their children, until it becomes normal to expect fathers to stand by their children and the mother -- until that happens, protecting the child from abortion is an incomplete victory.

Sunday, July 03, 2022

Psalm 119: The meditative, contemplative act of worship

The Book of Psalms contains prayers, laments, songs of praise, and psalms for special occasions. Through  all their variety, they share this: they are all recorded acts of worship. Psalm 119 is distinctive in this: it mentions meditation more than any other chapter of the Bible. In fact that one chapter, by itself, contains a sizeable portion of all the mentions of meditation in the entire Bible.* As I read that Psalm, the author's meditation draws me into an act of meditation which is shared, holding fellowship across a considerable distance in time.

I have heard a distinction that I find helpful: "meditation" can be the kind of meditation in which we still our minds, or it can be a meditation in which we engage our minds -- for example focusing on something blessed, spiritual, holy, or wondrous. The meditation that engages the mind is called "contemplation". Psalm 119 is the most extended contemplation in the Book of Psalms, focusing the mind on whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is right, whatever is noble, whatever is worthy of praise within the word of God. 

All the Psalms, as poetry and songs, can rightly be counted as art. In that collection, Psalm 119 is a masterpiece. This is not merely for supporting the acrostic 22x8 structure. While some acrostics struggle with quality in order to fill the contractual obligation of the acrostic form, the author of Psalm 119 reached exceptional content in depth, in spiritual beauty, and in engagement with his own human condition. And so the acrostic here does the rare job of fulfilling its promise: giving order and structure while lifting up the idea that every part has its value, and that staying the course is worthwhile. 

As mentioned previously, this one Psalm is the single most instructive chapter in the whole of the Bible on the topic of meditation. It is unlikely that a poem of such length and structure was written in one session. The author leaves us some insight into his private life: "My eyes anticipate the night watches, that I might meditate on your word" (119:148). He prized his hours of meditation, not as an obligation but as refreshment. 


* I am aware that there are those who assert that the Bible is not the book title of the Bible and so should not be capitalized. While acknowledging some unique situations to be considered, I think they are essentially wrong; it is the title by which I call the book, and there is no other title by which I call the book. And so I continue to capitalize.