To Love Psalm 127

After our third child was born we thought our family had found its natural limit. That was before we discovered there were ways to have children AFTER the wife has a total hysterectomy.

After the fifth was born and hauled home in our VW Vanagon, I joked that the proper translation of Psalm 127:5 was ‘blessed is the man whose Vanagon is full of them’. And suddenly, there was a sixth and an eight passenger van.

I joked. For many, this verse is no joking matter. It us the centerpiece of disappointing controversy and deep sorrow. And it is the psalm I preached on this past Sunday.

Psalm 127 can be dicey territory for a preacher. A friend knowing that I was heading into ‘quiver-full’ territory emailed me, “I hate that quiver-full verse. I cringe every time I read it.” It’s no wonder she would. An entire industry of guilt has arisen around it.

In the sermon (which you can hear here when it is posted) I did not address directly the ‘have-as-many-babies-as-you-can’ corruption of the psalm that some have made popular. I was not avoiding it. It’s just that this is NOT what the psalm is about. The psalm is about the rest that comes to those who belong to God, which makes the guilt inducing application of the psalm particularly troublesome to me. Along the way, I made these interpretive points:

  1. Just because a text mentions a thing does not mean that the text is about that thing.
  2. This psalm is about blessing, not command.
  3. This psalm is not about how we do a thing, but how we view a thing.

The application of the psalm is in verse 2: God grants rest. He grants rest through his justifying us in Christ. In Christ, we are blessed. In him we find sleep without restlessness because what matters most to the wandering soul is to know he has a home and that he is at peace with God.

The fallen human impulse is to seek to justify ourselves, to seek to make ourselves somehow worthy in the eyes of those who matter to us: parents, employers, friends, the world, God. We find what matters to those we wish to please, and we try to provide the success, talent, looks, money, houses, children, or whatever else is the currency of justification in order to gain the acceptance we crave. But that is all vain – for what matters is not what we do but who we are, and we are, through Christ, his. Rest only comes when we embrace that. That is what the psalm is about.

The reference to children in this psalm is not the application of it, but an illustration of the point that the things we think we produce to earn favor we can never produce. They, like success, security, and whatever else we crave, are a gift from his hand. This passage is NOT about children. It is about rest, relief from the agony of self-justification.

We are told that children are a blessing and that it is therefore imperative that genuinely godly people not do anything that would limit the blessing of God. That is the guilt trip mapped out for couples who consider limiting the size of their families.

Of course children are a blessing. So are, in this psalm, houses and security. So are, elsewhere, food on the table and crops in the field. We set limits on blessings all the time. We are not animals acting upon impulse and bound by biology. We are men and women created in the image of God. We have wisdom; we understand prudence.

A large or small family is not an emblem of godliness in either direction. Every couple must exercise wisdom and prudence in these decisions, and they are best made with good counsel in a healthy community. I will in fact remind couples who are making these decisions to think carefully about the anti-child bias of our culture that we as Christians easily imbibe. But there is no biblical mandate commanding every or any couple to have as many kids as the wife’s body can produce.

To impose one vision of ‘the good-life’ and to invoke spurious biblical justification for it is deeply irresponsible. It causes people who love Jesus and who want with every fiber of their being to glorify him in every area of their lives, like my friend, to battle a guilt they need never feel.

That a psalm written to encourage rest becomes ‘cringe-full’ multiplies the tragedy. I want to reclaim this psalm for the exhausted who need rest. That would be just about all of us.


No More Mr. “Nice” Guy

Fresh reflection on old words is why I’m reading Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace. I don’t expect to agree with everything she says, but it is good for me to step out of my tradition and examine the ideas central to my faith from a fresh pair of eyes.

Though I continue to find the book helpful, I’m dismayed that she begins one section like this:

The word “conversion” comes from the Latin for “to turn around.” Thus it denotes….

Whenever one sees such logic in writing or hears it in preaching (and it seems common in both) one’s critical radar should begin beeping wildly. The meaning of a word depends on the context in which an author uses it. It’s etymology might be interesting (“Ah…”), but it is never definitive (“Thus…”). And it at times might be misleading.

It is interesting, for example, that the word ‘nice’ comes from the Latin nescius mediated into English through French and Middle English. It is interesting that in the Latin and Middle English it meant “ignorant, incapable, foolish, stupid”. It is interesting, but you would be justifiably shocked if I punched you for calling me “nice”. And if I tried to justify my action by saying,

The word “nice” comes from the Latin for “ignorant.” Thus it denotes….

you would rightly be mystified that I had so easily misunderstood you.

When we as teachers, writers, or preachers try to prove a point using the etymology of a word, we run into muddy waters. Just because a word I use today in English comes from a word with a certain sense in Latin or Greek or Middle English does not mean that is the sense with which I use it today. My atheist friend will without a doubt say goodbye to me when we part, but I cannot assume that he’s had a sudden conversion (!) and sincerely wishes “God be with ye”.

I’m particularly sensitive to this because I spend so much of my time trying to translate ancient concepts into modern terms. It can be a dicey business to to take biblical language from 2000 years ago and accurately convey its meaning in 21st century English. Biblical interpretation is marred by the dual danger of improperly importing a word’s origins into its New Testament usage, for example, and of importing a modern meaning back into the text which would have been foreign to the original author. Both need to be avoided, and often aren’t.

The sagest advice (of course!) is found in the words of Mortimer Adler whose admonition is to ‘come to terms’ with an author. I wish I had Adler’s How to Read a Book at hand so that I could quote him directly. His point is that we must learn the way an author himself uses particular words and accept the meaning that he embraces. Only THEN will we be in a position to genuinely understand what we are reading or hearing.

Wise advice that if heeded might keep us from getting punched. Or worse.

How to Read a Bible

As one committed to historic Christianity I believe in the verbal inspiration of Scripture – that God so moved the writers that what was written was precisely what he wanted written. But I also believe that what was written, being written by human beings in human language, is to be approached and read in most respects as we would approach and read any other book. We need not apply any special code or method (and we certainly don’t need bibles edited for every possible demographic, but that’s for another post).

Years ago, I read what I thought to be a curiously titled book, Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. The premise of the book was that though most of us can ‘read’ words on a page, few of us have developed the ability to read for understanding. I found to be extremely helpful on a number of levels.
It struck me as I read it that if any of us were to apply his insights to the simple reading of the Bible we would come away with a good bit more understanding and, perhaps more importantly, far less mis-understanding.

I get giddy when really smart people agree with me. How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth is an excellent little book on understanding the Bible written by Douglas Stuart and Gordon Fee. They ask, “How do we learn to do good exegesis? (“Exegesis” is a fancy word for the process of understanding the Bible.) Their answer, among other insights, includes this:

“The key to good exegesis, and therefore to a more intelligent reading of the Bible, is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text. One of the best things one could do in this regard would be to read Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book (1940, rev. ed. With Charles Van Doren, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972). Our experience over many years in college and seminary teaching is that many people simply do not know how to read well. To read or study the Bible intelligently demands careful reading, and that includes learning to ask the right questions of the text.”

I still get giddy when I read that. But I’m weird that way.

John the Painter

I’m getting closer to the day when I will preach through the book of Revelation. It is such a fascinating book, but one about which so many people have such strong opinions. I want to make sure that I can swim before I wade into those waters.

Recently a certain motif, a certain way of looking at the book, has occupied my mind which, if justified, may be very helpful in my trying to understand and then to communicate the sense of the book. John, it seems to me, was a painter.

So much damage has been done to the book by trying to force it into a linear pre-telling of human history. The book does not bear a forced linear interpretation and those who try to treat it as an overlay of current human history are always embarrassed by the result.

We need to think of the book less like a western history and more like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It is a collection of images masterfully sketched and shaded and ordered to convey a grand vision of God for his people, some who are facing severe persecution and others who are in danger of allowing their passion to dry up and blow away. It is a great work of art in which a variety of images come together to form a unified whole which speaks more than the individual images isolated from one another.

I’ve not developed this much further, and would not be sharing it here were it not for some corroborative input from the late New Testament Scholar Donald Guthrie. In his New Testament Introduction he assesses the structure in this way:

The majority of interpreters of this book assume that the action is not intended to be continuously described but rather that successive groups of visions each portray similar events in different ways. (page 969)

Much time spent in the evangelical subculture would lead one to be surprised by this statement. Most, in the evangelical world ASSUME that the book contains history ‘continuously described’, and that before it happens.

I know that seeing the book as a series of images or impressions is nothing new. But I also know that it is not a view often spoken. I make mention of it here as a help for those of you reading the book and as a helpful alternative for those whose thinking is only informed by the linear approach.

I’m hoping that thinking down this line might help us make better sense of a difficult but profound book. I’m thinking I will begin to preach on the book by the end of 2014 should the Lord tarry and I not come to my sensese.

More on Fishing

This has become fun.

One of the peculiar aspects to the disciples’ fishing trip in John 21 is that after having fished all night, some stranger on the shore says, “Try the other side” and they do it. I would have been, I think, too proud and incensed and might have shouted back, “What kind of an idiot do you think I am?”

But I’m not a fisherman, and so I love Donald Carson’s comments on this. Thought others might smile at this as well:

If the disciples are not expecting Jesus to appear, and do not recognize the man on the shore, it is hard to see how Jesus’ exhortation to throw the net on the starboard side greatly differs from advice contemporary sports fishermen have to endure (and occasionally appreciate): ‘Try casting over there. You often catch them over there!’ (If there are some contemporary sports fishermen who have not yet experienced this delight, I recommend they take my children with them on their next trip.) (671)

A Biblical Apologetic for Fishing

Christian fisher-persons looking for yet another route by which they might justify their obsession might find an ally in the Reverend Bruce Milne, who penned a commentary on the gospel of John for the The Bible Speaks Today series.

In commenting on their Galilean fishing trip recorded in John 21, he notes that the disciples of Jesus have taken it on the chin over the centuries for their decision to go fishing so soon after the resurrected Jesus had commissioned them to be sent as he had been sent (John 20:21).

Milne is sympathetic, which causes me to picture him with his own pole in his hand:

“It has also to be said that in terms of their psychological and emotional well-being a fishing expedition back in the old familiar surroundings of the Sea of Galilee was therapeutically ideal. The last few days had been an emotional roller-coaster. In a matter of a week they had been lifted up to the giddy heights of Palm Sunday, sent spiraling down into the utter depths of despair on Good Friday, and then been swept up again to the heavens by the glory of the resurrection. A good night’s fishing was probably just what a doctor would have ordered.” (310)

There you go. Biblical support for therapeutic fishing.

God, Gays, Heaven, and the End of the World

Some say that there is no such thing as bad publicity. If that is so, then, it has been a good few weeks for the Bible.

But maybe not.

First, except for those living off the grid in a cabin deep in the Montana wilderness, we all know that certainly (probably? maybe?) the beginning of the end comes this Saturday, at 6:00 PM, New Zealand time. Harold Camping has often been wrong and never in doubt. But he always hedges his bets. His earlier prediction was detailed in a book 1994? with its carefully placed and distinctly ambiguous mark of punctuation. Now he ratchets up his precision (though some in his ‘camp’ say his math could be wrong – there always seems to be an ‘out’). The Bible, his followers say, is always right, and so we wait.

Then, recently, the Presbyterian Church (USA) reached a milestone as the tally of those presbyteries supporting a change in the church’s constitution which would allow actively gay clergy reached the total necessary for approval. This was not unexpected and generated much media conversation about what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality. The religion editor for the Orlando Sentinel quoted a scholar who, while having the integrity not to try to deny the Bible’s opposition to homosexual sex, nevertheless dismisses such opposition as hopelessly colored by the primitive times in which those prohibitions were written.

Finally, Stephen Hawking has declared that heaven is no more than a fairy tale for those who are afraid of death. In the wake of that claim, which should come as no news to anyone, media has been all over actor Kirk Cameron’s Facebook response and relatively silent on the response of Bishop N. T. Wright (a fairly smart man in his own right) which was respectful and reasoned.

The media loves a tussle, because we love a tussle. But if we are not careful in all of this, there will be serious collateral intellectual damage. The great temptation for any of us once we get hold of a book which possesses authority is that we will want that book to say what we want it to say. If WE believe that communism is right, or capitalism, or whatever, we will want the Book to side with us and we will begin to read it that way.

And for others, hearing people argue passionately opposite sides while claiming the same authority will cause many to determine the book itself has no value. If the book can be made to say whatever its handlers want it to say, then it says nothing at all. If you can prove anything from the bible, then you can prove nothing, and the book is worthless.

As a pastor all of this makes me very cautious in my approach to scripture. We all need to come to the text with deep humility, aware of our own biases and weaknesses and of the ease with which we could slip into error. My prayer, and the prayer that I hope others pray for me and for other pastors, is that when I speak with the Bible as my authority, that I will do so with care, speaking clearly that upon which the Bible itself is clear, and with restraint upon every other thing.

Wise Words on Judgment

The quote below is from Donald Carson’s commentary The Gospel according to John and references the following words of Jesus:

Matthew 7:1 “Judge not, that you be not judged.”

John 7:24 “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”

John 7:17 “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.”

Carson comments:

“In an age when Matthew 7:1 has displaced John 3:16 as the only verse in the Bible the man in the street is likely to know, it is perhaps worth adding that Matthew 7:1 forbids judgmentalism, not moral discernment. By contrast, John 7:24 demands moral and theological discernment in the context of obedient faith (7:17), while excoriating self-righteous legalism and offering no sanction for censorious heresy-hunting.” (page 317)

Wise words worth pondering.

Context is everything in interpretation.

The Sojourner

I’m preparing a sermon on Psalm 94 for this Sunday and noticed that God’s concern for the weak and oppressed and under-served finds expression in verse 6 as the psalmist expresses anger that the wicked “kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless.”

The lexiconsays that the word translated here as sojourner “…is a man who (alone or with his family) leaves village and tribe because of war, famine, epidemic, blood guilt etc. and seeks shelter and residence at another place, where his right of landed property, marriage and taking part in jurisdiction, cult and war has been curtailed.”

It is clear that God has a heart for the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner, and it is clear that he reserves judgment for those who misuse their power over such.

To apply Scripture to life requires considering how biblical categories translate into modern situations. In our case, the widow may be the literal widow, or the single mom. The orphan may be the child bounced around in foster care, or the unborn child in the womb.

Who in our day would correspond to the sojourner?