Wednesday, August 17, 2016

faith in search of lament

If our picture of the Christian life is primarily shaped by the evangelical church service, what is missing? How might it be skewed?

This is the question I posed to myself after a campfire chat with a faculty colleague.

The Scriptures contain the full range of expression that animates the life of faith, and we develop the capacity to live faith-fully by patterning our own expressions after these.

Lord, teach us to pray. 

But for our church services we typically take a select few of these elements and canonize them, leaving others nearly untouched.

We sing praise.
We greet one another.
We preach the Word.
We exhort.
We take up an offering for those in need.
We pronounce a blessing.
We remember the Lord's death by celebrating communion.
Occasionally we baptize.
We pray for the sick.
Now and then we pray for our nation's leaders.

What's missing?

We generally don't confess our sin (at least not out loud, to each other).
We don't seek refuge.
We don't complain.
We don't wrestle out loud over what's wrong and broken in our world.
We don't lament.

That is a problem.

It's a problem because the lack of confession and lament leaves us with a monotone, anemic faith. We miss out on the richness available to us in the Scriptures, and we lose touch with reality. Our faith becomes compartmentalized rather than a fully integrated part of our selves.

Put another way, Job and Jeremiah and David and Habakkuk and many other biblical writers model for us the language of lament. Do we think we no longer need these vehicles of expression?

What would it look like to incorporate the language of the Psalms -- not just the praise psalms, but the laments, too -- into our services? How can we create a reverent space where the groans of the human heart may be articulated?

How might it feel to leave things unresolved -- to refuse to tie a neat bow on it all at the end of the service because we as a community have become accustomed to letting God do the answering and not to answer for him?

Here I'm thinking of Elihu, the "friend" who shows up out of nowhere in the book of Job. After Job's complaint is laid out before God, Elihu rushes in to answer on God's behalf. Like the other three "friends" who respond to Job, Elihu is angered by Job's words (Job 32:1-5). He feels a strong need to defend God and put Job in his place, rushing in to fill the silence with correction. But when the Almighty does reply, Elihu's words are swallowed up in the storm with everyone else's. Literarily, the lesson is clear: God doesn't need us to answer on his behalf. God can speak for himself.

When we rush to the answer we lose the depth that comes through sustained waiting. To brood over our grief -- to articulate our deepest longings for God to do something -- positions us to experience God's answer more profoundly. Ignoring our wound, we miss out on the opportunity for healing.

Lord, teach us to pray. 

Sure, now and then we're brave enough to complain to God on our own. Why did you let this happen? God do something! But communal lament -- lament as a body -- is a lost art. If we could find the voice of corporate lament it would open up new avenues to enter into one another's journey. Rather than fixing each other, we could join each other side-by-side in articulating the heart's cry.

Why should we be scared of lament when the Scriptures devote so much time and space to it? Why do we feel it's irreverent to complain when complaint is the backbone of books like Psalms, Lamentations, Habakkuk, and Job?

Life hurts. Missionaries get stabbed. Cancer returns. ISIS prevails. Lives are lost in meaningless altercations. Believers are falsely accused. When grief, complaint, longing, sorrow, and confession are kept to ourselves, out of sight, the muscles of our faith atrophy, and we lose the art of responding faithfully to our trials. It's a missed opportunity for our community to grow together in love.

One of my students, Beth Erickson, created this beautiful graphic poster of Habakkuk's lament in light of the recent racial tensions in America. I share it here with her permission. This poster is an example of one way we can begin to incorporate lament into our worship.

Every year, Jewish communities read the entire book of Lamentations aloud together. When I did this with my class on the Old Testament Prophets this summer, the effect was powerful.

Lord, teach us to pray.

Friday, August 5, 2016

gems from Jobes on James

I've spent the past few days immersed in Karen Jobes' chapters on the book of James in Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles. I think of Dr. Jobes like I think of a forest ranger in a National Park. While I can appreciate the park's beauty on my own, a few moments with the ranger opens up new worlds of understanding, showing me what I would otherwise miss and helping me understand the mysteries of nature. Dr. Jobes does that for these New Testament books. Having spent half a lifetime immersed in these texts, she is a proficient guide who can help me get the most out of reading them.

Here are some of my favorite gems on the book of James (emphasis mine):

"Simply put, the purpose of the letter [of James] was to instruct Jewish Christians how to live faithfully to Christ within their heritage as Jews." (166)
"James is presenting the Christian concept of a whole and unified person as the goal of spiritual maturity." (202)
"Every test [or trial in life] occasions a theological crisis, when the believer is more easily deceived or confused about who God is and how God acts." (167)
"Love for God expressed through love for neighbor is the wellspring of the faithful life wisely lived." (205)
"What is distinctive in [Jesus'] message is that he proclaims himself to be the way to life's highest good -- the way to eternal life reconciled with God." (211)
"Whatever a profession of faith in Jesus Christ might mean, it cannot mean a license to live free of God's moral order." (221)
"If believers of means [i.e. wealthy Christians] rely on their resources rather than God, if they expect to be treated with privileged status, if they oppress others to sustain self-interest, then they are 'the rich' who are condemned. . . . James's point is that Christians with resources must live differently than 'the rich' by caring for the poor; otherwise they have not truly understood and believed the gospel." (229)
On the perceived conflict between the theology of Paul and James, Dr. Jobes writes:
"Given that James and Paul, as well as Peter, left the Jerusalem Council [see Acts 15] in agreement on the epoch-making decision that Gentiles would be received as Christians without becoming Jewish and keeping the law of Moses, it seems unlikely that they disagreed over the fundamental nature of faith and salvation." (173)
"James was not writing in reference to justification but rather to describe the moral responsibilities that flow from saving faith." (219)
The final gem is a quotation from Ellen Charry's By the Renewing of Your Minds, quoted in a sidebar in Letters to the Church. This may be my new all-time favorite quote:
"The central theological task is and has always been pastoral, assisting people to know God, and by knowing him to be enabled to strive toward the excellence of his character in their own lives." (222)

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

a textbook that inspires

I'm working on a really fun assignment this week. About 6 weeks ago, Zondervan Publishers asked me to help them develop instructional resources for a textbook by one of my mentors, Karen Jobes, on Hebrews and the General Epistles (James through Jude). What I'm writing won't come out in print, but it will be made available digitally to professors who adopt this textbook for their New Testament courses. I'm writing chapter summaries, collecting key words, coming up with quiz questions, and developing basic PowerPoint slides for classroom use. I've used Zondervan's instructional resources like this for the classes I've taught, and believe me -- they are a blessing!

The BEST part is that I'm getting paid to learn.

Last week I was introduced to a new couple, and when they found out I was a Bible scholar, they popped their current nagging question, "So who wrote Hebrews?" It just so happened that I had worked through Dr. Jobes' chapter on the authorship of Hebrews the previous day, so I had an answer ready. Gaining knowledge is one benefit of this kind of study. (By the way, if you want to know the answer you'll have to read the book for yourself!)

But what strikes me most about this textbook is the depth of wisdom it offers for the Christian life. Dr. Jobes' writing is clear and compelling. Her theological insights are profound. Here are a few of my favorite gems from the chapters on Hebrews:
"Death is not a punishment; it is the inevitable consequence of turning away from the source of life, which is God himself." (119) 
"[Sabbath rest] is not an invitation to idleness, spiritual or otherwise. Rather, it is a place of being where the normal routines of a right relationship with God can be established and enjoyed, because Christ has resolved the crisis of humanity's separation from God and an eternal stability has been achieved." (131)
"Anyone worried about committing the unforgivable sin or becoming apostate hasn't done so. Apostates are by definition hardened to God and arrogant toward what he has said by the Son." (141)
"The reason the unforgivable sin is unforgivable is that by rejecting the work of Christ as something other than the gracious work of God, one cuts oneself off from the only means of forgiveness and the only salvation that God offers. It is, therefore, the only sin that cannot be forgiven." (140) 
"To stay in a spiritually immature state under the delusion that it is okay to sin is like walking backward in the dark toward the cliff of apostasy." (141) 
Dr. Jobes also has great sections on the cultural and Scriptural background for understanding Jesus' role as the Son of God, on what it means in a Roman context to be an "heir," on the reasons that Jesus supersedes the Old Testament, and on the meaning of "perfection" in the book.

If you're a layperson who is motivated to understand the New Testament more deeply, you could profitably work your way through this book on your own. It's filled with helpful pictures, charts, and a glossary that will guide you. If you're a professor who will be teaching on this part of the Bible, don't miss this great resource!

p.s. In case you're wondering, Zondervan didn't ask me to write this. I simply felt that this resource was too good to keep to myself!