Saturday, September 30, 2017

Models for Christian Living: Lessons from Surfing and St. Paul

What kind of person do I need to become to serve as a model of Christlike character for others?

A Lesson from Surfing
I took up surfing the year before I turned 40. I’d been watching surfers from the safety of the seashore for many years. I figured it was now or never. My daughters were elementary school age at the time and they eagerly took up the sport with me. My progress was hard won. It took well over a hundred attempts before I ever caught my first wave. My youngest daughter showed me up on her first attempt. She was seven years old. She was petite for her age. She was small enough that she didn’t even need a full sized surf board. I taught her using a four foot body board.
 

She caught her first wave just south of Port Canaveral, Florida. We were about thirty yards offshore. She was light enough that she balanced on the body board while I held it steady as we awaited the next set of waves. The perfect one approached. I pushed the board into the wave. My daughter kept her balance and glided down the face of the wave. At this moment, she did something extraordinary. She was so proud of her triumph that while she surfed the wave she began sharing her joy with everyone within shouting distance. She cried out, “Look at me! Everyone, look at me!”
 

I remember chuckling to myself at her lack of humility and thinking that she’d grow out of this. Yet, while reading Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul’s exhortation in 3:17 reminded me of my daughter’s words. Paul wrote, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.”
 

Paul’s Challenge to the Philippians
In Philippians, Paul calls believers to live as citizens worthy of the Gospel of Christ (1:27–30, 3:20). Paul writes to empower the Philippian Christ followers to serve as witnesses of the good news for their city. Of course the principal model for the Christian life is Jesus himself (2:1–18). Yet Paul offers Jesus as the first model of four that he includes from 2:1–3:16 as examples of what a citizen worthy of the Gospel looks like.
 

The issue in Philippians was the status of the believers within the Roman world. Many of the Christians in Philippi (like Paul himself) were Roman citizens. Roman citizenship offered substantial privileges within the Empire and was not common in the provinces. The city of Philippi was a Roman colony so Philippi enjoyed a standing within the Empire that other cities outside of Rome did not.

A fundamental insight in 1:27-4:1 is this: the status that one embraces sets the limits of one’s capacity to reach others with the Gospel. Roman citizenship is a set of privileges that one enjoys and is able to exploit for his or her own benefit. Gospel citizenship is a privileged relationship with God that unleashes one to lay aside personal benefits for the sake of God’s mission and for the good of others. 

Paul begins with Jesus. The hymn in 2:6–11 captures the core message of Gospel citizenship. Although (or perhaps because) Jesus shares equality with God, Jesus did not exploit this status for his personal gain (2:6). Instead, Jesus renounced the status of divinity and embraced the status of a slave (2:7). This was a profound subversion of the Roman social ladder. Slaves were at the bottom far below the gods (and well below the status of a Roman citizen). In fact, Jesus embraced his slave status to the extent that he was obedient to death on a cross (2:8). Don’t miss the significance of this statement. Jesus could have died in a variety of ways to atone for sin. He took up the cross in part because crucifixion was reserved only for those of no status such as slaves. Yet what happened to Jesus (2:9–11)? God highly exalted him and gave him the name above all names.

This is the first model for citizenship. The Philippians are to work out their salvation (2:12) in light of Jesus’ life and shine as stars within their generation (2:15). But it is easy to point to Jesus as the model because Jesus is no longer physically present. His story is aspirational, but Paul offers something profoundly incarnational. 

Paul moves to include three humans whom the Philippians know intimately as contemporary examples of Christ like character and action: Timothy (1:1, 2:19–24), Epaphroditus (2:25–30), and himself (1:1–26, 3:1–16). Timothy demonstrated a genuine other centered outlook in the way that he ministered among the Philippians. Epaphroditus was a member of the Philippian community. He faced death in order to serve in the mission of the Gospel when the Philippians sent him to help the imprisoned Paul. Paul himself suffered in prison (1:12–26) and modeled the reality that knowing Christ Jesus as Lord was a greater gain than any mere human accomplishment (3:1–16).

The Philippians knew these men. Paul couldn’t distort their character. Paul took this risk to teach us the importance of our personal lives in the advance of the Gospel. Paul could say with integrity, “If you want to see what the Christian life looks like, look at me as well as the lives of my co-workers Timothy and Epaphroditus.” 

Implications for Living
This text calls us to remember and give thanks for the women and men in our lives from whom we’ve learned how to live out the Gospel. Who are yours?

More importantly, it challenges us to recognize the necessity of nurturing personal holiness as an integral part of how God advances his mission in the world. Who is watching and learning from me?
 

As I think about Paul’s words to the Philippians, I see and hear my daughter surfing and crying out, “Look at me! Everyone, look at me!”
 

What kind of person do I need to become in order to serve as a model of Christlike character for others?

© 2017 Brian D. Russell



Friday, August 11, 2017

The Danger of Scripture as an Object for Study

As we engage Scripture we must constantly be on guard against the subtle temptation to reduce the Bible to an object of study. The iconic temptation scene in the Garden illustrates this danger. In Gen 3:1, the Serpent begins by asking, “Did God really say….?” Bonhoeffer called this the “first conversation about God.”[1] In the previous chapter, God had enjoyed unfettered fellowship with the first humans and conversed with them. Now at a pivotal moment, God’s previous command becomes the object of study and reflection rather than a natural part of a subjective ongoing relationship with humanity. Imagine how this story would have turned out if the woman had said, “Great question. Let’s invite God into this discussion.” 
 

The distinction between subjective and objective in the study of Scripture flows from first family’s objectification of God. Philosopher and writer Peter Rollins tells the story of an infantry unit preparing to launch an attack during World War One. As the battle opened, the men hunched down sheltered by a trench. As the moment arrived for them to join in the assault, their commander yelled out the order, “All right lads. Over the top!” The men failed to follow the order. A second time he bellowed, “Lads, over the top!” Still there was no movement by the troops. Finally, a third time the commanders yelled out in a deep guttural tone, “All right lads. Over the top!” The men looked at each other, looked at the commander, and said, “What a wonderful voice he has! What a wonderful voice!”[2] Clearly the commander expected a response to his order rather than commentary on its delivery.
 

This comical anecdote reminds us that the interpretation of Scripture for the Church can never remain merely an objective or descriptive task. Action by the reader is required. The goal of interpretation is to understand the message of the Bible and respond to its teaching and the expectations it has for our lives. In short, Scripture desires to convert us in every encounter that it has with us. In his classic Eat This Book, Peterson wrote, “Exegesis is simply noticing and responding adequately (which is not simple) to the demand that the words make on us, that language makes on us.”[3]
 

As interpreters, we must use all of the skills and techniques honed throughout the history of biblical interpretation. This means learning to define terms, navigate ancient cultures and customs, and understand classical genres and rhetoric. But observing, translating and transmitting this information is never enough for the nourishment of God’s people. Pastors and commentators must avoid merely teaching their audiences interesting facts about the Bible. Scripture desires to shape us by molding our thinking, changing what we care about most deeply, and driving us to action in God’s mission. Of course, our subjective response to Scripture must be rooted in our objective study. But Scripture desires to craft and unleash God’s holy people as a missional movement to share good news across our planet.
 

How do we achieve a robust conversation with the Bible that is both objective and subjective?
 

First, as interpreters we must remain open to astonishment. Thomas Merton wrote, “There is, in a word, nothing comfortable about the Bible–until we manage to get so used to it that we make it comfortable for ourselves. But then we are perhaps too used to it and too at home in it. Let us not be too sure we know the Bible just because we have learned not to be astonished at it, just because we have learned not to  have problems with it.”[4] I’ve found it helpful to begin by praying, “Lord, astonish me anew with the riches of your word. Speak to me I am listening. Amen.”
 

Second, let us remember that the goal of interpretation is not to master the text but to open ourselves to the text mastering us. We must be the first convert to each text before we share its demands and message with others. If we remain only engaged objectively with the text, our attempts to share its subjective demands with others will lack bite.
 

Last, take delight in the work Scripture does in our lives and share it with the world. Psalm 19 ends memorably with a prayer, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you O Lord my Rock and my Redeemer” (v. 14). How does this prayer relate to the rest of the psalm? It flows from the psalmist’s recognition of the profound prescriptive power of the Scriptures in vv. 7–13. Unlike the witness of the heavens (vv. 1–6), Scripture alone contains the Instructions of the Lord and is capable of bringing about transformation in its hearers. This transformation leads the psalmist to join in God’s mission by speaking the good news to others. This mission remains ours as modern readers of the Bible.



[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3 (Translated by Douglas Stephen Bax; Ed. By John W. de Gruchy; Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, 3; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004), 111.
[2] http://robbell.podbean.com/e/peter-rollins-an-introduction-to-love-part-1/ accessed August 2, 2017.
[3] Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 20060, 51.
[4] Thomas Merton, Opening the Bible. With an Introduction by Rob Stone (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1986), 37.

Monday, July 10, 2017

How to Experience Joy and Peace in All Circumstances (Dear Kittens #44)

(I write my daughters aka "kittens" a short letter each week under the pseudonym "TOC"="The Old Cat". We've always had cats so this rubric works for us. My daughters are both in high school. I try to distill the wisdom gained from my 48 years that I wish I'd have learned when I was a teen.)
 

Dear Kittens,
 

One of the keys to experiencing joy is to learn to understand the difference between the things that we can control and the things that we can’t control. In Discourses and Selected Writings (Penguin Classics), Epictetus taught, “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them.” In other words, how we feel or think about an event in our lives depends less on the event itself and more on the meaning that we give to it. Jack Canfield, author of The Success Principles(TM) - 10th Anniversary Edition: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be offers a formula to help us understand the way of thinking advocated by Epictetus. Canfield suggests that we view life this way: Event (whatever happens) + Our Response = Outcome. If we reflect on this principle, we can recognize the part of each outcome that we can control. Of course, this means our response to the events that happen to us rather than the events themselves.
 

Once we gain this wisdom we can experience a deep joy that does not depend on our circumstances. We can find joy in the good times and the challenging ones. The apostle Paul adds a critical teaching that reminds us of God’s role in our response to events.
 

One of my favorite passages from Paul is Philippians 4:4–7: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
 

In these verses, Paul teaches us how to respond to events in a way that leads to joy and peace. Paul begins with joy and ends with peace. These are related. We can find joy in all circumstances by experiencing the inner peace and calmness that God can give to us. Paul wrote these words while awaiting trial under house arrest in Rome. His life was on the line and he faced possible execution. Yet, he can write about joy and peace in all circumstances. Kittens, I hope that your ears just perked up.
 

Here is what Paul says about how to respond to any event. I’ve put Paul’s teaching from Philippians 4:4–7 into a formula: Remember God’s provisions (“the Lord is near”) + release of anxiety in prayer + practicing gratitude in all circumstances = peace that passes all understanding. When faced with wonderful events or challenging events, we must remember that Jesus who experienced both death on a cross and Resurrection is present with us. Moreover Jesus has all futures under his control. Once we recognize this when we face an event that triggers our anxiety we must release our anxiety and fears to God in prayer. If you struggle releasing anxiety and find your mind racing, add a list of things for which you are grateful into the prayer. Gratitude is critical for grounding us in the present and pushing aside our anxiety about what an event means for our future. When we take these steps, we can experience God’s peace.
 

Then our gentleness can be evident to all. Paul is not advocating wimpiness or weakness. Gentleness is patient resilience. It is a cool confidence in the abundance of the future regardless of what happens. A response from a God-shaped gentleness rooted in joy and peace creates a much better outcome for us.
 

Kittens, life has highs and lows in it. This is unavoidable. The good news is that God provides a way to experience joy and peace for our journey. Jesus once said this to a raging storm: “Peace, be still.” 
This is a calmness we can experience too.
 

With much love,
TOC aka "The Old Cat"


If you would like to be added to the Dear Kittens email list to receive future notes from TOC, send me an email: brian.russell9113 at gmail.com



Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Work, Life, and Sabbath: A Personal Reflection

A couple of years ago, my then 16 year old daughter asked me, “Dad, why do you work so much?” She asked this innocently. She had observed how fatigued I was driving home from work and asked this out of a deep concern for her dad. I had taken on multiple new roles and was struggling to juggle all of my responsibilities.
 

My initial response was purely defensive. I said, “To buy you all of the stuff that you ask me to purchase for you.” I quickly apologized but I found that I did not have a real answer. At this point, it would have been easy to say, “I work so much because God wants me too.” Those of us who live out our vocations as pastors, teachers, and religious professionals can easily mask over a compulsion to work by appealing to a sense of calling. But what happens when the work I believe I’m doing for God begins to feel like its eroding the work that God desires to do in me?
 

When I open the Bible, its initial words challenge my assumptions about Christian calling, vocation, and work. Genesis 1:1–2:3 sets the tone and agenda for life as God intends. In sweeping language, Genesis narrates God’s effortless work of creation. God speaks creation into existence over six days. Then God rests. This rest is called sabbath. It establishes the rhythm of creation for those open to Scripture’s revelation.
 

The God who created the universe and all that is in it stitched rest into the fabric of our existence. But this is even better than you think. Go back and ponder Genesis 1:1–2:3 anew. You may notice some patterns. First, verse 2 begins with a description of chaotic beginnings. God does not begin with a clean and polished finished product. God begins with a chaotic mess: formless, empty, dark. But God’s Spirit is there at the beginning. God hovers over the mess, poised and ready to act. This is a powerful reminder for all who seek the God of Scripture. We do not have to appear before God at our best. We only have to open ourselves to God’s work. In Genesis, God may begin with a raw collection of shapeless stuff, but God does not end there. God will transform this chaos into a very good world. This is true of our lives too. With God there is always hope of a beautiful tomorrow.
 

Second, the six days of creation unfold calmly and without drama. God’s work appears almost effortless. There are no hiccups. There are no false starts. Everything goes as God intends. God simply imagines the elements of creation and speaks them into existence. All of us know that creative work of any kind is difficult. It is toilsome. It is tiring. But God makes it look easy in Genesis 1 and God still pauses to rest on the seventh day. God does not keep on creating. God works for six days and then rests. God is powerful enough to make the work of creation seem simple, but still takes sabbath and embeds rest into the contours of creation.
 

Third, the work of creation advances from chaos and darkness to order, beauty, and light; from work to rest. This timing challenges our modern rhythms. We tend to think of a day as moving from day to night. Yet in Genesis the flow is this: “there was evening; there was morning.” Also we often rest so that we can work instead of God’s model of work that culminates in rest. These differences may appear subtle on the surface, but with reflection we find a radical challenge to our lives. Life’s end is not darkness or endless work. It is light and rest. The future is better than the past.
 

Finally, stepping back from the whole of Genesis 1:1–2:3 notice the overarching movement. In 1:2 we encounter a messy chaos. On days 1–6 God orders, shapes and fills the created world. On days 1–5 God remarks that his work on each day was “Good.” So on days 1–5 God moves creation from a mess to one that is good. Then on Day 6  God finishes God’s work by filling the earth with all types of animals and then creates men and women in God’s image. At the end of Day 6, God evaluates the whole of creation as “very good” (1:31). So now creation has moved from a mess to good to very good. But the good news gets better as Scripture announces something even better than “very good.” This something is called Sabbath (2:1–3).
 

Sabbath is a space in which all striving and work ceases. It is where our identity depends not on what we do or have done, but who we actually are–people created in God’s image for relationship with the true Lord of Creation who invites us to rest with and in him.
This is the promise that Jesus offers his followers in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
 

Sometimes we justify our endless work for God by appealing to Jesus’ actions. Since Jesus did good on the sabbath and helped others, so should we. It is easy to cite Jesus’ words in support of this: “The Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27–28) or “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm; to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4). In both these contexts, Jesus is being provocative. Jesus did not break sabbath in order to advocate for 24/7 ceaseless activity by his followers. Jesus broke sabbath to prevent religious authorities from thwarting the true meaning of sabbath by suffocating those most desperate for God. If we use Jesus’ example to justify our lack of Sabbath, we are missing the point.
 

I continue to ponder my daughter’s question. If God who effortlessly created this universe through words alone modeled rest on the seventh day, why do I feel the need to work so much? Perhaps I have something to prove. Maybe its to cover up the dull ache on the inside that reminds me of past failings, disappointments or regrets? Is it a deep longing for absolute certainty and security that depends more on my abilities and strengths (or lack thereof) apart from a deep trust in God? Or maybe its simply that I don’t believe I’m enough.
 

This thought brings me back to the opening chapter of Genesis again. God began with a mess, brought it to very goodness, and then added rest on the other side of very goodness. Perhaps Genesis 1:1–2:3 is not merely a story about creation. Instead, maybe its an invitation to true life and rest. Maybe Scripture wants to tell me that God is enough for me and I am enough for God. Maybe then I’ll find the rest and abundance that God has offered us from the beginning. What do you think? Will you join me in finding out?


© 2017 Brian D. Russell

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Monday, May 29, 2017

Reading Psalm 51 for Transformation


Psalms 51–72 offer a Davidic core at the heart of Books II–III. Most of the psalms include “Of David” or are untitled except for Ps 72 (“of Solomon”). Ps 72 concludes with “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended” (72:20).  Moreover, eight of these psalms (Pss 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, and 63) include in the heading references to challenges in David’s life from the books of Samuel.  By linking psalms to difficult episodes in David’s life, the Psalms remind us that even godly kings such as David still faced challenging seasons. As we seek to live out God’s missional in the world, we must recognize that this commitment will not translate into a worry free or storm less life. For the next two weeks, we will explore these Davidic prayers as models for our own during times of need.

We begin with one of the most well known psalms from Book II: Psalm 51. Psalm 51 is a penitential prayer (prayer for forgiveness). The others are Pss 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143.

Ps 51 is a model prayer of repentance, sorrow, restoration and renewal. In 2 Samuel 11–12, David sinned greatly, but turned wholeheartedly to the LORD. Israel’s great king committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba. Then after Bathsheba became pregnant with David’s child, he ordered her husband Uriah murdered. The words in Ps 51 attempt to capture the spirit of his prayer as a model for all God’s people on how to pray when we have sinned. It serves as a reminder of the grave burden and consequences of sin, but also of the great mercy of God.

God desires for us to walk faithfully in love of God and neighbor, but when we do sin, God invites us to pray.  As Jesus’ followers, we have this promise, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

The psalmist cuts to the heart of the matter in vv. 1–2:
Ps 51
To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

51 Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin!

There are no excuses, hedging, or nuances in the psalmist’s words. He opens immediately with a request for God’s mercy and grace. The psalmist can pray boldly because he knows God’s character. He bases his request on God’s faithful love and abundant compassion. These are God’s core characteristics. The psalmist recognizes his guilt and uncleanness before God. God is his only hope. Verse two imagines sin and transgression as a filthy contamination that needs to be cleansed in the same way that dirty cloths must be washed.

The opening verses of Psalm 51 may remind readers of the prayer of the tax collector in Luke 18:13, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” This was a prayer that Jesus affirmed as one that God answers. So it will be with those who pray Ps 51.

How do verses 1–2 teach us about praying to God for forgiveness?
What are areas in your life for which you need to ask for God’s mercy and grace?

Now let's look at the rest of Psalm 51:
3 For I know my transgressions,
 and my sin is ever before me.
 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
 and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
 and blameless in your judgment. 
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
 and in sin did my mother conceive me.
 6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
 and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
 

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
 wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
 8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
 let the bones that you have broken rejoice. 
9 Hide your face from my sins,
 and blot out all my iniquities.
 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
 and renew a right spirit within me.
 11 Cast me not away from your presence,
 and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
 and uphold me with a willing spirit.
 

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
 and sinners will return to you.
 14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
 O God of my salvation,
    and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
 15 O Lord, open my lips,
 and my mouth will declare your praise.
 16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
 you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
 a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
 

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
 build up the walls of Jerusalem;
 19 then will you delight in right sacrifices,
 in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
 then bulls will be offered on your altar.
 

 The psalmist’s remaining prayer breaks up into three sections: vv. 3–9, 10–17, and 18–19.
 

Verses 3–5 summarizes the psalmist’s sorrow. There are no excuses—just confession of guilt. The psalmist does not attempt to hide wrongdoing, but admits that they are ever present burdens (v. 3). Moreover, the psalmist recognizes that these sins are against God. Yes, when we sin, we hurt others and ourselves, but our sins are ultimately against our loving Creator (v. 4). It is to God we will answer. The psalmist ends this section with a categorical confession of lostness (v. 5). His recent failures are recurring patterns. He has been trapped in sinful cycles since conception. The psalmist recognizes his inability to save himself. There is only one solution: the mercy, grace, and unfailing love of God. Often God’s greatest work begins on the ruin of our lives when we turn to him fully.
 

In verses 6–8, the psalmist again requests cleansing. The psalmist continues his view of his sinfulness as a stain that needed removed (cf. v. 2). The psalmist recognizes that his inner life does not line up with the expectations and will of God (v. 6). He asks  for God’s cleansing (v. 7) so that he can return to a life of joy and fulfillment. Sin will weary us. We must be sensitive to our need for God’s grace and turn to the LORD whenever we stray from God’s ways.
 

Verses 9–17 focus on specific for renewal and include vows of actions that the restored psalmist will take. Verses 9–12 lyrically capture the heart and passion of this prayer. The link to David is powerful. The great king has sinned and the stakes are sky high. David throws himself fully into the arms of God knowing that only God can restore him. He wants his sins and inquity removed (v. 9), but more importantly he wants his moment by moment relationship with God to be healed (vv. 10–12). This requires a work beginning in his inner core—his heart. Remember that heart refers to the will, intentions, and thinking center of a person.
 

In verses 13–17, the psalmist vows to teach others the way of the LORD and to confess publicly the praise of God. Experiences of God’s grace must always be spread and shared with others. Moreover, v. 17 reminds us of the posture with which we must approach God. Confession must be authentic. The psalmist is shattered by his sin. He approaches God not with sacrifices, but by freely admitting brokenness and lostness.
 

Psalm 51 concludes with a prayer that moves beyond the sorrowful psalmist to include blessings for Jerusalem/Zion (vv. 18–19). This is a reminder that our prayers must move beyond ourselves. Sin is subtle. It continually attempts to guide us into a deeper sense of individual entitlement and self-centered focus. The mark of the truly repentant in part is the ability to pray beyond our personal needs for the good of the community around us.

How specifically does Psalm 51 teach you to pray when you have sinned?
 

Describe how the psalmist understands restoration, renewal, and forgiveness.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Defining Truth

Fake news thrives in a world that longs for certainty apart from a deep trust in God. The fundamental question of truth will never be answered in a culture shaped by spin and talking points. The danger of our day is the temptation to root identity and truth in political ideologies of the left or right rather than in a moment-by-moment relationship with God.

This temptation finds in roots in the opening chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 3, we encounter the narrative of Eve, Adam, and the Serpent. Genesis 3 opens with the Serpent asking a probing question: “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” Bonhoeffer described this exchange as the “first conversation about God.”[1] In other words, the loss of truth emerges at the moment when humanity makes God an object of reflection and conversation rather than the principal subject of relational connection. 


In Genesis 3, Eve and Adam quickly succumb to the serpent’s words and eat the fruit of the tree that God had forbidden them from consuming. This changes the future for all humanity and marks the entrance of sin and death into the world (Rom 5:12–21). Once relationship is broken alternative truths become engaging. At the heart of the Genesis 3 story is a question that we must answer: Do I trust that a loving God has my best interests at heart as well as the interests of those whom I love deeply?


For Adam and Eve, they ultimately answered “No.” The rest was history. Yet Adam and Eve’s story is also a tale of our lives. It explains the origins of sin, but it also serves as a warning to us. When trust with the Creator is broken, we are left to find alternative pathways to certainty. This often leads us to trust our instincts, ideologies, and interests apart from a moment-by-moment relationship with the LORD. 


In the Old Testament, truth is anchored in the LORD (Deut 32:6, Isa 25:1, Ps 119:30). The Hebrew word is ’emunah. This word may be translated as “true”, “truth”, “reliable”, or “faithful.” What does it mean to be “true” or to be “truth”? It means that one is reliable, dependable, and faithful. Truth is found in the character of the LORD. Thus, it is relational because truth is defined in relationship with the LORD who is faithful and true. The LORD does and acts rightly, at the right time, every time. The LORD is dependable. The LORD is trustworthy. The LORD embodies faithfulness and stands over all human claims to truth. 


Scripture testifies to this truth from Genesis to Revelation. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus lived out the truth and invites us to walk in its light. The way forward for us today is a moment by moment relationship with God.


Ask yourself: Do I trust that a loving God has my best interests at heart as well as those of the people whom I love deeply? When we can say “yes,” we have embraced the truth that truly makes us free.


This essay appeared originally in the Spring 2017 issue of the Asbury Herald.





[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3. (Translated by Douglas Stephen Bax. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 3. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2004), 111.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Conversations with Scripture and the Temptation of Idolatry

The Bible is an invitation to experience liberation from all the powers that bind us. What if the goal of spirituality is to free us to live fully as the people we were created to be?

One of the core confessions in Scripture is the Shema:
“Hear O Israel. The LORD is our God; the LORD is one. You will love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:4-5)

Verse 4 begins with the exhortation: “Hear.” To hear is to listen and take action. True hearing assumes a faithful response. To listen is to hear and take action. The remainder of verse four may be translated several different ways. For example, the above translation follows the ESV, NASB, and NIV (among others). The CEV reads “Our God is the LORD! Only the LORD.” This is close to NRSV’s “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” Various attempts to render the Hebrew focus on the meaning of “one.” Is it a statement of God’s uniqueness, Israel’s singular exclusive commitment, or God’s unity?[1] Each of the possible English translations struggle to highlight one of these dimensions.

Moberly has advanced the issue by suggesting that the idea may be expressed by thinking of the LORD as Israel’s “one and only.[2]” The same word translated “one” appears in Song of Songs 6:8–9. The emphasis in the Song was on the selection of the beloved out of all competing options available for the writer.

The issue at stake in Deuteronomy is two fold. First, there are competing gods in the Near East. At minimum, 6:4–5 calls for allegiance to the LORD. Israel is to choose the LORD for exclusive service over all others. Second, the LORD is incomparable to any other deity. This is the reason for Deuteronomy’s adamant opposition to idolatry in any form. The LORD is unique as Israel’s “one and only.” There may be claims about the existence of other gods, but if the incomparable LORD is indeed god, there cannot be any other God for God’s people (cf. Deut 4:35, 39). The LORD is qualitatively different and thus must be embraced exclusively by God’s people.

Following the declaration of the LORD as our “one and only”, verse 5 calls for a response of full devotion and commitment with the totality of who we are as people. Faithful commitment rather than sentimentalism captures the meaning of love here. This is not to deny an emotional response to God, but the emphasis falls on a moment-by-moment decision to live faithfully. Our faithfulness in terms of exclusive commitment is the means of expressing love for God. “All your heart, all your soul, and all your strength” form a triad that emphasizes the whole-person response to the LORD. “Heart” refers to the will or thinking center of a person. “All your soul” covers all aspects of a person as a living being. “All your might” is a magnifier that emphatically restates the need for a full commitment. Together this triad calls for an “all in” response by us to the LORD as our “one and only.”

The language of “one and only” is helpful as we seek to live as the people that God created us to be. As modern believers, the challenge of idolatry is not diminished. 1 John 5:21 ends with a warning, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” For readers of 1 John, this is the sole time that John addresses explicitly the issue of idolatry. As I read through Scripture, idolatry is a common topic. What if spirituality involved freeing ourselves from idols? What if John’s concluding advice is the key to our growth?

We live in a globally connected world. There are competing narratives about the divine. Is the material world all that exists or is there a divine presence? Is the Universe, Mother Nature, and God all the same realities? Is there one God or many gods? If there is only one, who is the true God?

Whether we choose to believe in the existence of the universe, gods, or God the reality that they represent is real. In the ancient world, there were many gods. Each of these tends to function within a specific sphere of life. There are separate gods for sex, wealth, war, health, and wine among others.

Some present day religions such as Hinduism still work within such a polytheistic framework. I want to suggest however that many of us are at minimum practical polytheists. If we think of gods as spheres of life, we can make a list of the gods that exist in our secular world: sexuality, family, work, affluence, security, sickness, health, pleasure, beauty, and fitness. For some of us, our political ideologies take on the role of a god. Many of us cannot separate our allegiances to the Democratic or Republican parties from our self-identity.

Whatever is the name of the god or gods who hold our allegiance we must recognize that this choice matters. The god(s) we choose to embrace define(s) the chains that bind us. The Bible makes exclusive claims about the uniqueness of God, but more often it is subtle. For much of Scripture, its authors do not deny the reality of other gods. Instead, they deny that any other “god” is truly worthy of the title God. This is an important distinction especially in the 21st century where there are so many competing claims to truth.

Is the LORD truly our “one and only”? What would it look like if we de-elevated all other gods and lifted up King Jesus? Is this not the heart of the confession “Jesus is LORD”? This is a conversation that Scripture desires to have with us.
 
© 2017 Brian D. Russell



[1] See S. Dean McBride, Jr. “The Yoke of the Kingdom: An Exposition of Deuteronomy 6:4-5” Interpretation 27.3 (1973): 273–306.
[2] R. W. L. Moberly, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture (Baker Academic, 2013), 7–40.