Saturday, January 29, 2011

Add to Your Faith! A Message from 2nd Peter 1

Tucked away in 2 Peter chapter 1 is a great passage that deals mainly with two things: what God has done for his people, and what he expects his people to do in response.

Peter begins the letter by reminding his Christian readers of what God has done for us. By exerting his "divine power," the Lord has given us "everything we need for life and godliness." By sending Christ, who was crucified for our sins and raised by the power of the Spirit for our justification, the Father has provided the way through which we can receive everything that we really need. Christians have joy and confidence because we know the one who has "called us by his own glory and goodness" (1:3).

Also, by calling us and allowing us to know him, God has extended to his people "very great and precious promises." Such gifts are not an end in themselves. They are meant to enable us to “participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world" (1:4). To put it another way, the promises of God draw us closer to him and encourage us to live lives in which we become holy, even as God is holy (Leviticus 20:7-8; 1 Peter 1:15-16). By living this way, we are set free from the destructive power of a sinful lifestyle so that we can fulfill our one great purpose of bringing glory and honor to God. This leads directly into a discussion of the human response to divine grace.

Beginning with verse 5, Peter turns from his description of God’s grace to the responsibilities of God’s people. We are to give “all diligence” (KJV) or “make every effort” (NIV) to “add” certain qualities to the foundation of our faith. There’s hardly a good way to translate the Greek word for “add,” which actually means “to provide at one's own expense.” The term highlights the idea of effort and sacrifice. The language suggests that although adding to your faith is worthwhile, it is not always easy. Consider each item that Christians are to have or to add:

Faith refers to our loyalty to God as well as our trust in him. It is mentioned first in the list because without faith we cannot even begin to please God (Hebrews 11:6). But on the basis of faith, we can obey and live for God. It is in this sense that we are justified by faith (Romans 5:1). Faith is the victory that overcomes the world (1 John 5:4).

Goodness carries the idea of "moral excellence" in the broadest sense of that expression. Because the Greek term here is so very general, the King James translators chose the word "virtue." Like their Lord, the followers of Jesus Christ should be known as people who do go about doing good things (Acts 10:37-38).

Knowledge supplies a Christian what he or she must have in order to make moral choices and doctrinal decisions. It is only upon the basis of knowledge that Christians can “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21) or “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1-3).

Self-control is the virtue that enables a Christian to resist temptation and closely follow the footsteps of Jesus. Developing this trait requires a person to rise above our environment. To be self-controlled runs against the grain of a society that practically worships unsuppressed action and the breaking down of inhibitions. But people who want to please God will work at strengthening the muscles of restraint so that they can act as they should.

Perseverance is translated from a word whose verb form means "to remain under." From this we gather that to persevere is to willingly remain under a heavy load you'd rather not carry. In this sense, the call for patience is similar to our expression, "Stick to it" or "Stay with it." Far too many families and churches are plagued by a lack of loyalty, an unwilling attitude in the face of those inevitable conflicts. The gospel has something to say to people who are prone to give up. It says, “Stick to it, and learn to patiently endure whatever you must for the sake of the kingdom of God!” (compare Hebrews 12:1-3).

Godliness refers to a right attitude towards God which leads to the right actions towards God's creation. Whenever we gratefully acknowledge the Almighty as the maker and sustainer of everything, we develop a sense of how we should treat other people, who bear the likeness and image of God (Genesis 1:26-27, James 3:7-10, and 1 John 4:20).

Brotherly kindness initially speaks of the warmth and affection that should be found in every family, but especially in the church, the family of God. According to Peter's first letter, sincere love for our brothers and sisters in the Lord is a by-product of our obedience to the truth (1 Peter 1:22).

Love is mentioned last. Why? Because love is the single quality that encompasses and supports all the others. Love is the capstone quality of the Christian life. It is what makes our abilities and sacrifices worth something in the eyes of God (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

So what do you need to add?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Been Readin' Again

Two new articles that are especially noteworthy:

1. It's time for me and other college instructors to really roll up our sleeves and make higher education reach higher. Here's the low-down on learning in American colleges and universities.

2. Gordon McDonald tells a heart-warming, challenging story: Seat Selection for Worship: Sometimes the Spirit doesn't give you the coveted aisle seat.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Learning How to Interpret a Biblical Psalm

A few years ago, I developed the following lesson plan for a unit on the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament course that I teach at Amarillo College. I want to give credit where credit is due: I based my observations and the student exercises on a presentation by Professor David J. A. Clines of the University of Sheffield, in the U.K. Dr. Clines was speaking at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in November 2000. I attended the session and got the following ideas from what he said:

Exercise 1: Describe the relationship between the two halves (or several parts) of these verses in the Book of Psalms. How does the second (and third, fourth) part of the line relate to the first part?

1:1

1:6

24:2

29:1

91:14

119:11

As you have seen, the most basic feature of Hebrew poetry is couplet composition. This feature is more commonly called parallelism because the two or more parts of a psalm verse are in some way parallel to each other. Each verse consists of A and then B (and occasionally C, and even D). In order to understand it, each verse requires the reader to identify how B relates to A.

A second feature of Hebrew poetry is the strophe. What's that? Think of it this way: a strophe is to poetry what a paragraph is to prose. A strophe is a distinct block within poetic material. It's clear that the biblical poets thought and composed in strophes. However, the Hebrew text of the Psalms contains no markers for strophes. So it’s up to us to locate and identify them. What is the point of doing that? It reveals the major sections, the basic structure, and the progression of a psalm.

Exercise 2: Close your Bible. What follows is Psalm 2 in the New International Version translation. However, here the verses come one after the other, with no breaks to identify the strophes. (You may have never noticed it before, but the actual text of the NIV does mark off strophes with a blank line in between them). Now, identify the strophes by marking where you think the main divisions of this psalm occur. Be prepared to explain your “division decisions.”

Psalm 2 (NIV)

1 Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One.
3 "Let us break their chains," they say, "and throw off their fetters."
4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.
5 Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
6 "I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill."
7 I will proclaim the decree of the LORD : He said to me, "You are my Son; today I have become your Father.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery."
10 Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. _______________________________________________________

What kinds of signals or indicators led you to mark the divisions as you did? Once you have answered that question for each strophe, compare your results with your copy of the Bible. (Most modern translations of the Psalms indicate strophes by a blank line between them).

Now that you have identified the four strophes of Psalm 2, we can theorize about strophe identification:

1. Here are some clues that one strophe has ended and another is beginning:

change of speaker
change of location, setting
change of mood
change of topic

2. Here are some clues that a strophe is concluding:

a line repeats (word-for-word or in ideas) the line that opened the strophe
words like “forever,” “always,” or “death” may suggest an ending
a line summarizes the thought of the strophe as a whole
a refrain (a line that appears at the end of several strophes)

3. Here are some are clues that a new strophe is beginning:

change of addressee
words like “therefore” and “now.”

Exercise 3: Now it’s time to sharpen your ability to visualize what’s happening in a psalm. Imagine that you are a screenplay writer. You have been assigned the task of preparing a script for a short film depicting Psalm 2. For each strophe, you will need to identify things like:

· The location. Where does the action take place?
· Who is present?
· The speaker(s)
· The lighting, atmosphere, colors, mood, camera angles, etc.
· Since you are incredibly talented, go ahead and compose the soundtrack too. Does each scene include a musical score? What does it sound like? What specific recordings would you select for each scene?

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Ecclesiates: How It Works, What It Says


It's been a long while since I've written anything about Ecclesiastes. In previous posts, I discussed the book's setting in the leadership structure of ancient Israel, and also the title of the book. But now I want to get around to talking about how Ecclesiastes works, what it's actually saying and how. What follows is a short overview of my take. See what you think:

1. Unlike the practical wisdom book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes is an example of reflective, speculative wisdom. Instead of asking about how to live one’s life, this book asks about the meaning of life. The one other Old Testament book in the speculative-wisdom category is Job.

2. Ecclesiastes explores a specific question: What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? (1:3 NIV). I take this to mean something like: What is the point of a life well lived, a life characterized by productive work? Is there a lasting benefit? What aspect of ourselves will survive death and the ravages of time? As one would expect, since this question serves as the program for Ecclesiastes, the author repeats it several times. (See, for example, 2:22, 3:9, 5:16, and 6:8).

3. In response to his own question, the author of Ecclesiastes offers an initial, standard answer, which sounds hopeless and bleak: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." (1:2). For the time being, I'll stay away from the question of what is the best English word for the Hebrew hebel, translated "Meaningless" here. Whatever the right word is, it's important to note that Ecclesiastes often repeats this first, most-basic conclusion announcing the enigma or futility of the search for significance in life. (See, for example, 1:14; 2:1 and 11, etc.). The book ends in 12:8 in much the same way as it began in 1:2. Connected to his general conclusion is the author’s frequent observation that the pursuits of human life amount to a chasing after the wind (1:14, 17, 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16 ).

4. The author’s experiences and observations have led him to his pessimistic conclusion. A few examples:
  • Famously (or infamously) the author appears to be agnostic about life beyond the grave: Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth? (3:21).
  • He denies that anyone can predict the future with any kind of accuracy: a man cannot discover anything about his future (7:14).
  • He insists that the search for true, never-fail wisdom is also futile: Whatever wisdom may be, it is far away and most profound – who can discover it? (7:24).
  • Sorting out what seems to be clear and well-known is apparently an impossible task. "Who knows the explanation of things? asks the wise man" (8:1). No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it (8:17).
5. So at one level, the human quest for meaning and significance meets with failure and frustration. However, Ecclesiastes is not entirely pessimistic about the possibility of joy and contentment. The author includes a series of passages that use phrases like find satisfaction and be happy and enjoy in a positive way. Ecclesiastes introduces this series with the words "nothing better" (2:24-25, 3:12-13, 3:22, 5:18-20, 8:15, and 9:7-10). When reading these passages, one notices that the sequence moves from (a) observation to (b) commendation to (c) the final imperative of 9:7-10, which strikes me as a high point of the book.

Here, the legitimate enjoyment of good things is brought within the circle of God's will for humanity. This is the single most important contribution that Ecclesiastes makes to the biblical witness: that taking pleasure, today, in your work, in good food and drink, and in your family, is not only approved by the Almighty. In fact, happiness and joy are an important aspect of the revealed will of God for human life.

Does this look convincing? What are some of your own thoughts and reactions to Ecclesiastes?

Note about Study and Sources:

At different times over the last 20 years, I've taken a series of runs at Ecclesiastes. One time I read it almost every night for about a month. When it comes to really getting a handle on a particular book of the Bible, or any text for that matter, there's just no substitute for careful, repeated, sometimes-slow reading. Anyone who's tried this knows exactly what I mean. There are some books that probably should be read in a hurry. But a book like Ecclesiastes is deserving of meditation. In addition to reading Ecclesiastes, I've spent some time with a few of its better interpreters. Two authors in particular have helped me to get a handle on this book: the late, great Robert Gordis, and an Old Testament specialist from the current generation, Graham S. Ogden.

Monday, January 03, 2011

My 10 Best Books of 2010

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope 2010 was a good one for you. Either way, we now have one of those psychological new beginnings. So make the most of it.

I took a couple of graduate courses in history last year. So, many of the books I read came from an assigned list. The first course I took focused on the Holocaust. The other one dealt with the Cold War, especially the Cuban Missile Crisis. Every once in a while I had the chance to pick up something that wasn't required reading. Anyway, listed in the order I read them (and highly rated because I just like them) here are "My 10 Best Books of 2010."

1. Hiding in the Spotlight, Greg Dawson.

A true Holocaust survival story that reads like a Dickens novel. The author is the son and nephew of the two main characters. He's also a seasoned journalist. This book is beautifully and tenderly written.

2. Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories, Raymond Carver.

I'd love to write half as well as the great Raymond Carver did. I can't stop reading his stuff. He wasn't afraid to tell sad, gritty stories generated by his own hard experiences.

3. Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume I: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939, Saul Friedlander.

First published in 1997, this book has gone on to establish itself as a major contribution to Holocaust studies. For Volume II, which covers the years of the War, 1939-1945, Friedlander won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

4. Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcomb Gladwell.

An easy reading book about how personal success is a matter of background and sustained effort. Gladwell says that both are highly significant.

5. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Tribe in American History, S. C. Gwynne.

Wow. It's like David McCullough wrote a book about the Comanches. It's that good. Well-researched, superbly-written, this one is an armchair historian's dream come true.

6. The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, John Lewis Gaddis.

A series of eight lectures by a Yale history professor. Gaddis responds to questions like, What do historians do? Why? And what is the value of their work?

7. Restoration Roots: The Scottish Origins of the American Restoration Movement, Lynn McMillon.

The subtitle says it all. This is a popular edition of McMillon's doctoral dissertation completed at Baylor University in 1972. It overviews the impact of Scottish religious leaders like John Glas, Robert Sandeman, and James and Robert Haldane on the subsequent American Restoration Movement (also known as the Stone-Campbell Movement).

8. The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis, Sheldon M. Stern.

From 1977 to 1999, Stern was Historian at the JFK Presidential Library. He was almost certainly one of the first to ever hear the tapes made at the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. From his transcripts of those tapes, he narrates the episode and provides a historical framework.

9. The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power, Garry Wills.

Wills, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and historian, serves up an analysis of the Kennedy clan. Sometimes sympathetic, often scathing, this book was written not long after Ted Kennedy's unsuccessful bid to gain the Democrat's nomination for President in 1980.

10. Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire.

Born in Havana in 1950, Eire was a grade-schooler during the Castro revolution. These days he teaches religious history at Yale. In this memoir from his early years, the author brings together his childhood fun and fears, theology, and a deep, dreamy wonder about what might have been.

So, what were some of the better things you read in 2010? Has anyone else read the titles (or authors) I've listed here? What's on your reading agenda for 2011?