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Archive for November, 2008

The remarkable vision of the book of Daniel involved a lot of giving and receiving. This redemptive-historical passing of the baton occurs with regard to great pagan kings who must learn that their dominion has been given to them, the stripping of imperial privilege from one pretender after another and its deliverance into the hands of a successor, and the Ancient of Day’s deliverance of a power that was apparently his to claim from the start into the possession of ‘one like a son of man’. (more…)

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The interaction of the Christian believer with Scripture evolves as she makes her way though the journey of life. At least it should. Seasons of life come and go. Each has its own rhythm of opportunity and requirement. Each shapes life’s disciplines into a momentary form. Stagnation and abandonment are, perhaps, the principal enemies. Change is a given, not an adversary.

Yet life with Christ seems to require a substantial, ongoing conversation with Scripture. It is almost inconceivable that what Paul calls ‘the mind of Christ’ should adequately saturate one’s own life without this. (more…)

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Poetry often speaks as clearly by its form as by the words it employs. In such cases, structure trumps sound. This is particularly the case when self-selected rigidities of form limit the poet’s options. In such moments, he can do and must do only what he he has chosen to do.

Take the ‘acrostic psalms’. These unnatural compositions shackle themselves to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, imposing upon the poetic spirit the requirement that it begin the next eight lines of verse with the equivalent of say, ‘c’ or ‘d’ or ‘e’. Like an athlete training with repeated forty-yard sprints even though he knows he’ll never perform exactly that movement after the whistle blows and the frenzy begins, the poet hones his muscles with an acrostic psalm. He finds out what he can do and, in the meantime, discovers facets of reality that the normal, more liquid course of life simply does not throw up. (more…)

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The naked cut and thrust of the biblical proverbs is sometimes too much for the pious soul to take. Given to brevity rather than to elaboration, these aphorisms often claim that the truth lies right over there rather than describe the meandering path and the two or three streams that will need to be traversed before one can safely rest one’s tired feet in that place. Such literature is not easy going for the reader who must have everything spelled out. Exhaustive surveys of the moral landscape escape the priority list of the biblical proverbialist. He has no time for nuance and is not bothered by the danger of hurt feelings. He counts on his readers knowing that some truths are best risked as absolutes. (more…)

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The heat and burning of fire comprise an inconveniently common motif in the biblical literature. Some of the best and worst things that happen are mediated by that flame which destroys or purifies.

The Petrine literature, with its tilt towards apocalyptic and its extreme sobriety, is particularly fond of such imagery. Peter is convinced, like the prophets Isaiah and Zechariah before him, that fire can be a very good thing indeed. Good, even very good, but always unpleasant for the time of its burning:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed

The remarkable conceptual medley that makes of such an opening doxology the very stuff of life as it is worked out in the non-idyllic life of Christian believers, joins the Lord’s keeping of his newborn children to the reality that their faith will even within God’s own design be tested by fire. Close inspection suggests that Peter is not confused or undisciplined in his merger of two motifs that lesser souls might choose to keep remote one from another. Rather, he has understood that protective divine love is purposeful, determined, and resolute. It is not, however, cuddly.

C.S. Lewis, in his The Problem of Pain, taught us to anticipate that a God who genuinely loves humankind will not settle for the object of his affections wallowing or stagnating in its decrepit and mediocre stagnation. He will love it until it becomes something better.

So comes fire.

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A modest tributary to the stream of biblical wisdom carries the thought that it is proper to choose mourning over celebration. The funeral home is, at moments, a more wisely chosen venue than the dance hall. Sadness, sometimes, produces when rejoicing has become an amiable pickpocket, slapping backs and telling jokes while relieving us of our substance. (more…)

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James, the author of a New Testament letter ‘to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion’, is sure that the Christian community has no place for favoritism based on wealth or status. His rhetoric is nourished by the Hebraic legacy of a divine Turner of the Tables. Yahweh, by these lights, is almost before anything else a liberating God who brings low the mighty and arrogant and lifts up the humble poor:

Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

The novelty of James’ expression lies not so much in his conception of the Lord as social revolutionary—this has a long pedigree—but rather in his instruction to members of the Christian community that they should enthusiastically discover their own identity by this same light. The ‘believer who is lowly’ is urged to boast in being raised up. The rich person, paradoxically, is to find delight and a defining role in the experience of ‘being brought low’.

Surely James intends that the relativization of all rankings that the natural order of things imposes upon human beings should be welcome by followers of Jesus as an invigorating and delighting redefinition of community. The rich man should not only embrace the poor man with unembarrassed glee. He should find great joy in doing so.

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