The Life-Giving Word

I run in the path of your commands, for you have broadened my understanding. (Psalm 119:32)

The verse above resonates with me because of the vivid picture of running within the path. Making the imaginative leap to our lives is not difficult. Like the conservationist carefully clearing and marking the trail or like the parks personnel diligently planning and laying the walkways, God’s Word creates a path for us to walk within. If the path seems confining, spiritual and moral wilderness is the alternative. The right path is a gift.

What I love best about this verse is how the boundaries of a path and the broadness of the person’s understanding are matched together. Other translations use images of a heart freed or enlarged. Both ways of rendering the original Hebrew phrase gets at the same idea. See the contrast? When our path has clearer boundaries, wisdom broadens. The reverse is also true. When our path’s boundaries are blurred or non-existent morally and spiritually, wisdom shrinks. Hearts are chained, not freed.

So, what paths does God mark off clearly for us as Christians? Sex is an obvious one. The traditional standard of sexual intimacy within the context of marriage is the Christian teaching. Walking terrain beyond this path fails to free hearts and broaden wisdom. Experiences? Yes. Wisdom? No. Let’s be clear about that. But let’s be equally clear that God’s path includes boundaries for stewardship and generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation, justice and compassion. Stinginess, judgmentalism, self-centeredness, hard-heartedness, and pride are at least as pernicious vices. Probably more, in fact, since their root systems are concentrated in the heart, mind, and soul. If we don’t perceive ourselves “sinning in the body,” sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking that we aren’t in any wilderness at all.

Yet, God does give us commands: the Ten Commandments, the Great Commandment of love of God and neighbor, the fruit of the Spirit—most of all, the life and teachings of Jesus. Even better, God makes choosing and staying on this path possible by the power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, and through the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church in our lives.

Want broad understanding? Expanded wisdom? Strong, free hearts? The Psalmist is clear. Run in the path of God’s commands.

Ben Witherington on “Why I’m a Wesleyan”

Dr. Ben Witherington III is one of the most prominent New Testament scholars in the world. In this brief video from my friends at Seedbed he addresses the topic, “Why I’m a Wesleyan.”

Now, I’m a generous orthodoxy sort of Christian (before the Brian McLaren book seized upon the phrase). I believe in creedal orthodoxy, represented by the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. And I believe in a generosity about the Body of Christ: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity, as the saying goes. But I also think it’s alright to put forward the distinctives of one’s own branch of Christianity’s family tree and make the case for its faithfulness to scripture, even over against other branches of the family tree, provided it’s done in love.

So, without further adieu… Here’s Dr BW3:

Review of Laying Down the Sword, by Philip Jenkins

My latest book review is up at Asbury’s resource site, Seedbed.com. It’s a review of Philip Jenkins’ fall 2011 book, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses.

The book deals with a difficult subject, the presence of troubling examples of, and even commands to participate in, extreme acts of violence. It’s a subject that represents a stumbling block to many.

Jenkins is a scholar with a good reputation. I read his excellent book, The Next Christendom, ten years ago. It calls attention to the shift in the “center of gravity” in global Christianity from the northern to the southern hemisphere with the exceptional growth of the Church in South America, Africa, India, and China.

Check out my review of Laying Down the Sword here.

Review of Practicing Theological Interpretation

My latest review is up at Asbury’s Seedbed.com resourcing site. The book is Practicing Theological Interpretation, by Joel B. Green. Joel was my professor for Introduction to the New Testament at Asbury. Great teacher and scholar. He is now at Fuller Seminary in California.

I enjoy reading Joel’s work. It’s challenging–you need your thinking cap. He has a wonderful command of the English language and never fails to offer penetrating insights and arguments. Practicing Theological Interpretation is no different.

What Leviticus Teaches About Giving

Most folks know someone who is picky. Picky about their tastes in food, movies, music, books, and decor. Picky about how things are done–properly or “by the book” or whatever.

I read Leviticus recently (with a bible-in-a-year reading plan). If you read Leviticus, one of the first features that strikes you is how picky God seems about the sacrifices the Israelites are to bring before him. Whether a grain offering or an animal offering, God is exclusively interested in the best. Consider: “If the offering is a communal sacrifice of well-being, the one who offers the herd animal–whether it is male or female–must present a flawless specimen before the Lord” (Lev. 3:1 CEB). And, “When anyone presents a grain offering to the Lord, the offering must be of choice flour” (Lev. 2:1 CEB).

That specificity is repeated throughout the instructions on sacrifices in Leviticus 1-7 (and even made more explicit in some verses). No wiggle room on this subject.

What’s going on here?

The best flour and animals without any blemish would have been the most valuable to the people. I don’t think this is about God being “worth our very best.” After all, he’s actually worth far more than we can give. But to give the most valuable animals from the herd and grain from the harvest would have been to exercise practical trust in God’s provision. It would have made such a financial impact, it would clearly and unambiguously demonstrate practical faith in God. Giving the flawless animal was actually a way of giving oneself to God, showing who one treasures and trusts.

The connection to our own giving is clear. Does what we give indicate practical trust in God’s provision?

God is picky. He is picky about having our heart to himself. And as Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21 CEB)

With

Here’s the scene.

Jesus has been busy getting his ministry off the ground and he’s got an excellent start. He is healing, teaching, preaching, and even squeezing in a meal that he can write off as counting for work! He’s called a few disciples thus far and he has a knack for attracting a crowd.

In Mark 3:13-19, Jesus is ready to take yet another step. From among those who are following him, seemingly showing interest and some commitment as disciples (that is, learners/students or apprentices), he appoints twelve as “apostles.”

Twelve. The symbolic connection is clear–twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles.

Apostles. “Sent ones.” That is to say, persons commissioned and sent by someone greater to represent them and/or do work on their behalf.

Jesus is ready to expand the ministry through some key leaders who will have a peculiar role as persons appointed to represent him and share in his ministry of preaching (declaring the word and gospel of God) and casting out demons (we could say, just as accurately, “standing against the forces of evil, injustice, and oppression”).

But what is the very first thing on the list?

“…to be with him”

Well, that makes a lot of sense. After all, how can they (we) preach or testify to Jesus without serious proximity to him? How can they (we) stand courageously against the demonic forces of evil and injustice without a serious connection to Jesus’ power? Look at what they’re (we’re) being appointed to do! Of course, they’ll (we’ll) need to spend time with him.

Here’s a tension. We can’t do what Jesus appoints and sends us to do without being with him. But at the same time, being with Jesus is not simply an instrumental means to a pragmatic end.

Being with Jesus is it’s own reward. With is a relationship word. And it’s the first word used to describe the nature of our appointment by the King of all creation. Before he gives us anything to do, he appoints us to be with him.

With him for it’s own sake–that’s how relationship works.

How might we nurture and practice being with him? Of many spiritual disciplines or practices we could list, let me simply offer three.

I could say more, but I trust you can make the connections yourself.

“He appointed them to be with him…” Amazing.

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Scripture quoted is from the new Common English Bible. I have access to a limited number of copies to give away for free. If you are interested, please send me a message with your name and contact information.

Advent Voices, part 1

As we turn our focus from Thanksgiving to Christmas, many voices vie for our attention. Some of those voices come from outside. They want us to buy their product or service. They distract from the meaning of the season by playing into the materialism and consumerism of our society.

Other voices come from within. They actually tap into the significance of the season and struggle with it. Perhaps we hear a voice of sadness because the holidays remind us that someone we love is no longer with us. Perhaps it is a frustrated or despairing voice due to a strained relationship. Perhaps it is a depressed voice wondering why we don’t feel as joyful and upbeat as others appear (comparing our inside to others’ outside can be a shaky enterprise though).

Isaiah 40 offers 2 different voices to the conversation. The first voice is found in 40:3-5 (CEB):

A voice is crying out:
“Clear the LORD’s way in the desert!
Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
and every mountain and hill
will be flattened.
Uneven ground will become level,
and rough terrain a valley plain.
The LORD’s glory will appear,
and all humanity will see it together;
the LORD’s mouth
has commanded it.”

I remember a drive out to the Texas Panhandle several years ago. I grew up in East Texas with slightly hilly terrain. But a little west of Fort Worth the earth begins to flatten. When you see the Amarillo skyline on the horizon, you’ve still got a good distance to travel. The view is completely unobstructed.

When the gospel writers reflected on the ministry of John the Baptist, this text from Isaiah leapt into their minds. Surely John was enacting this scene from the prophet. He located his ministry in the wilderness geographically. But his work of calling the people to repentance was work in the wilderness of the soul.

Receiving the gift of life in Jesus Christ requires inner work that removes the barriers that obstruct the work of the gospel in our lives. That’s what John’s ministry represented. Repentance removes barriers in the heart that obstruct the grace of God.

Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas. It is a season for us to hear an ancient voice in the midst of other voices calling us to prepare to receive Christ by repenting of our sin, thereby allowing grace to work in us obstructed.

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This post is part of the Common English Bible (CEB) Blog Tour. The publisher has made copies available for me to giveaway. To participate, please link this post on your Twitter and/or Facebook. You can use the buttons below to share (for twitter, please add #CEBtour). If you don’t have twitter or facebook, please share this post via email and cc me.

I’ll make a decision on Monday and contact you via twitter/facebook/email. I’ll be able to give away one per week, so if I don’t pick you this time, please try again!

Jesus is the Game-Changer

The New Orleans Saints trailed the Indianapolis Colts at halftime of the Super Bowl in February 2010, the franchise’s first appearance in the big game.

A surprise play, one that no one expected, served as a huge pivot point for the momentum of the game. The Saints executed a successful onside kick to begin the second half. They recovered the ball and scored, then went on to win the game.

After the game was over, that play could be referenced as a huge shift in momentum and as a pivot point for the outcome of the game. But in the moment, even though onlookers could see the importance of that play, they would not have said the game was sealed for the Saints.

In Luke 1:46-55, Mary sings a song of praise that has inspired some of the best music of the Advent and Christmas seasons, both classical and contemporary. She is visiting her cousin Elizabeth, herself pregnant with John the Baptist. Elizabeth shares Mary’s excitement and blesses her for her faith: “Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her” (1:45).

Her response to Elizabeth’s kind words of blessing is praise:

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46b-55 CEB)

The word I notice most among all of these grand verses is the simple word has. Now, I do think that Mary is probably referring to past events here. After all, praising God for what he has done in the past is a way of proclaiming faith in him for our present and future. The same God who has been faithful in our past is the God we can trust this time too.

But perhaps there’s another dimension. Perhaps Mary is grasping that the coming of God’s Messiah means that the outcome of history is accomplished in him. “Victory in Jesus,” we sing concerning his cross and resurrection. Maybe there is a trust in God’s decisive work in sending the long-awaited Messiah that warrants speaking about history in the past tense.

That is our hope.

Jesus, we trust, is the pivot point of history. A little like the gutsy, unexpected onside kick by Saints coach Sean Payton to begin the second half of that Super Bowl game, Jesus is the game-changer whose birth (and everything else for that matter) represent something no one was predicting. Yes, they expected a Messiah, but not one like him.

Mary’s Song  declares what God accomplishes in the birth of Jesus. A decisive turn-of-events that signals that the outcome is now set. Jesus saves, God sets things right. The game is being played out, but we who have been graciously included on the team have the advantage of knowing that the Spirit’s labor through us is in the service of a victory already gained in a lowly birth in the City of David roughly two thousand years ago.

In light of that truth, we join Mary in praise: “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.” (1:46b-47)

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This post is part of the Common English Bible (CEB) Blog Tour. The publisher has made copies available for me to giveaway. To participate, please do the following:

  1. Link this post on your Twitter and/or Facebook. You can use the buttons below to share (for twitter, please add #CEBtour). If you don’t have twitter or facebook, please share this post via email and cc me.
  2. Post a comment on this post on the theme of what you find inspiring in Mary’s Song.

I’ll make a decision on Monday and contact you via twitter/facebook/email. I’ll be able to give away one per week, so if I don’t pick you this time, please try again!

Waiting in Hope

I hope, LORD. My whole being hopes, and I wait for God’s promise. (Psalm 130:5 CEB) 

We’ll blink and Christmas will be here. This is the time of year when the calendar seems to accelerate, holidays racing past us at the speed of light. The accelerated pace on the outside—on the calendar—has a way of creeping in so that we feel hurried on the inside.

The season of Advent is an invitation to “just say no” to allowing the busyness of the time of year to busy our souls. Like a hurricane that has a calm center around which torrential winds and rain swirls, Advent invites us to allow the busyness in our society to be held at arm’s length from our center, from our soul.

One way we say “no” to a busied soul is by practicing an attitude of waiting. We usually think of waiting as cultivating patience. That’s true—patience is only acquiring by waiting (even though we all wish we could get more patience without having to actually practice it!). But waiting also cultivates trust. Why? Just listen to how we assess when waiting makes sense and when it doesn’t. We ask ourselves, “Is is worth the wait?” In other words, do we really believe this person will come through or that circumstance will come about? That’s a trust question.

And in this sense, trust is another word for hope. Hope says that how we live in the present is based on who or what we trust holds the future. The psalmist says, “I hope, LORD. My whole being hopes, and I wait for God’s promise.”  The psalmist can wait because God’s promise is trustworthy—worth the wait.

Advent is a time of waiting in hope. It is a time when we acknowledge that Christ is worth the wait. Advent invites us—yes, challenges us—to navigate a busy calendar but choose a posture of the soul that waits in the hope of Christ.

Got My Common English Bible Today!

The Common English Bible (CEB) is a new translation of the Scriptures that comes from a process of high engagement with scholars, pastors, and everyday readers in order to craft a “fresh translation to touch the heart and mind.”

To get the word out, they’ve invited folks who blog to post reflections over the next few months that use this translation and work on the themes of the season, from Thanksgiving to Advent & Christmas to the New Year.

As a participant, they’ve generously provided me with a free copy, and—even better—my readers can get one too. I’ll be able to give away some paperback editions, so keep an eye out for your opportunity.

In the meantime, if you’d like to check out the CEB website for more info, here’s the link: CommonEnglishBible.com.

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