Thursday, February 23, 2017

stained and broken

Image result for stained glass picture
Image from applyityourself.co.uk
Recently, I was asked to speak at another church, and the passage of Scripture which was assigned to me was John 1:6-8. "There came a man commissioned and sent from God, whose name was John. This man came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe [in Christ, the Light] through him. John was not the Light, but came to testify about the Light." (John 1:6-8, Amplified Bible)

The first question I usually ask when reading something in the Bible is this: What does this tell me about God? Two things are immediately obvious - God is a sending God and God wants to communicate - but there is a third which merits a bit more attention. Though God could communicate directly with humanity, sending truth and love to every individual via some divine mind-and-heart-meld, God chooses to send messengers. Not only that, instead of introducing Jesus directly to the world as the main event, an opening, warm-up act appears as a precursor. What is the point of incorporating a witness, a go-between, a messenger? It seems inefficient at best and a recipe for miscommunication at worst.

Perhaps one way to understand the role of a messenger or witness is to look at the metaphor of light used in this passage. Here we have two important words, both used three times in these three verses. Light (phos in Greek) means source of light, radiance, to shine. It implies a pure, brilliant quality, and here it refers to the manifestation of God's self-existent life and also divine illumination which reveals and imparts life, especially through Christ. It reminds one of the Psalmist's words to God, "In your light we see light" (Psalm 36:9). The second word is witness (martureo) which means to testify, commend, or speak well of. In being a witness, one affirms that one has seen or heard or experienced something, and gives testimony instead of being silent.

Two other very small words that are notable here are the prepositions peri (around, about) and dia (through). Peri means concerning, properly, all-around on every side, encompassing, full and comprehensive. This meaning is evident in the word peri-meter. Dia means through, by the instrumentality of, to bring successfully across to the other side of something. Hence the word dia-meter. John testifies about (peri) the light so that all might believe through (dia) him. When a messenger testifies fully and properly, people are successfully brought across to the other side of the message to engage directly with the subject. In other words, they are able to focus on the light instead of the witness to the light. John, the messenger, is not the light, but he testifies to the light. This "throughness" is what John means when he says, "He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).

So, how does someone testify about the light? A metaphor that might be helpful here is that of stained glass. Stained glass is made by adding metallic salts during its manufacture. Sodium chromate yields a yellow colour. Potassium dichromate makes orange. Red comes from cobalt nitrate, purple from potassium permanganate, and green from nickel chloride hexahydrate. Most mineral pigments and dyes are salts. This lends another slant to Jesus's words, "You are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13). It is interesting to think of Jesus's followers as not only the flavour and preserving agent, but the "colour" of the earth.

In order to adjust the colour and texture of stained glass, it is heated to around 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. The coloured glass is then cut into small pieces which are arranged side by side to form a design. Finally, they are soldered together with strips of lead and held in place by a rigid frame. Heat (fire) and radiance (glory) are often linked in the Scriptures, perhaps most notably in the passion of Christ and his subsequent resurrection. The joining together of differently coloured pieces reminds us of the nature of the church, where each part is "joined and knitted firmly together" to form a functioning, unified whole (Ephesians 4:16).

Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of stained glass is that it is stained and broken. It is not a large, clear window allowing an unobstructed view of the light. In fact, the purpose of stained glass is to limit light, to constrain it, and to do so through showcasing broken, stained pieces of glass purposefully arranged by an artist. This constraint is what renders a masterpiece, what makes a work of art, what tells a beautiful story in glowing colour. Stained glass is a lesson in humility and restraint, both of which were embraced by Jesus when he walked this earth. He set aside his divine privilege and became broken, stained with blood and sin in order to reflect the Light of heaven in all its loving splendour. But not everyone saw the divine light in Jesus. The outside of a church with stained glass windows or a piece of stained glass sitting on a table do not look like anything special. But go inside a church and face the sun, or lift up a piece of stained glass to the light, and you will see colours and patterns and reflections which will astound you. In order to see the true beauty of stained glass, we must be facing the light. And if we are stained and broken pieces of glass seeking to reflect the true Light, we must remain in the Light.

Back to the question I posed at the beginning: why does God choose the inefficient use of messengers and witnesses? Why not a more direct route for revelation? Human messengers are imperfect, they are stained, they are broken. And that seems to be the point. The stained, broken pieces are nothing without the light, and they are nothing without other stained, broken, pieces. Donald Miller writes, "We are a little sliver of glass in a stained-glass window. We aren't the whole and we aren't the light." In some mysterious way, the relationship between God and humanity is always intertwined with the relationships we have with each other. This is the indirect, inefficient way that a loving, relational God chooses to reveal himself. But, oh, what a wondrous beauty shines through human beings when they join together and turn themselves toward the full light of heaven. When stained, broken glass is enlightened, the whole world is enlightened.

"There came a man commissioned and sent from God, whose name was John. This man came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe [in Christ, the Light] through him. John was not the Light, but came to testify about the Light. There it was - the true Light [the genuine, perfect, steadfast Light] which, coming into the world, enlightens everyone" (John 1:3-9, Amplified Bible).

Thursday, February 09, 2017

fun with hermeneutics



I am a reader. The stacks of books in my bedroom, living room, and office, many of them still waiting to be cracked open, testify to this fact. I love to read, but I also know that not all reading is the same. Some is more work and some is more pleasure. A light work of fiction requires little of me but to engage my imagination and be carried away by the story. Online reading requires a bit (or a lot) of discernment to make sure the sources are reliable and the facts check out. Academic reading requires me to reason through the arguments being made and connect them to what I already know or have read in the field. Reading an ancient text requires that I suspend my 21st century perspective as best I can and learn a bit about the worldview and language of the time. Acknowledging a text's context, intent, and genre enables me to hear the words and ideas in such a way that my view of history and the world are enlarged.

Reading, interpreting, and understanding the Bible are important to those who profess faith in Jesus, but they have their challenges. When done poorly, with little thought to the context or genre, it is easy to twist the meaning of a text to suit our purpose. And this has been done by well-meaning and not so well-meaning people over the centuries. Take any high school literature class and you will know that it takes some effort to understand poetry, allegories, fables, and theatrical plays by the likes of Shaw and Shakespeare. Even the simplest work of fiction has multiple layers, and any historian will tell you that a historical document is never as straightforward as it seems. Likewise, the collection of books known as the Bible is not all that easy to read or understand. There are multiple genres (poetry, history, prophecy, wisdom, narratives), the collection covers a rather large swath of history and includes various accounts of the same time period, and some of the language is so obscure and/or filled with unfamiliar metaphors that the meaning is confusing. Nevertheless, there are many passages which are inspiring and beautiful in their simplicity, easily transcending the differences in time and culture to speak to us today.

If you are a student of the Bible, it is in your best interest to learn some basic principles of interpretation for this unique collection of books inspired by God. The science of interpretation is called hermeneutics. Below is a quote from Biblical scholar, Milton Terry. It is over a century old. I chose to include it because not only will it give you the chance to learn a bit about the topic, it will also give you the chance to practice adjusting your thinking to a slightly older way of writing. Here it is.

“Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. The word is usually applied to the explanation of written documents, and may therefore be more specifically defined as the science of interpreting an author's language. This science assumes that there are divers modes of thought and ambiguities of expression among men, and, accordingly, it aims to remove the supposable differences between a writer and his readers, so that the meaning of the one may be truly and accurately apprehended by the others.”

Thanks, Milton. I have hobbled together a few principles of Biblical interpretation and I share them with you here. Some I have gleaned from different sources, some I have learned in my studies, and some I have found in thoughtful readings of the text itself. The list is by no means complete, but should give you a good start in reading the ancient texts with a bit more understanding and a bit less confusion. Hopefully, it will also cut down on misinterpretations of the text (don't worry, we all do it at one point or another).

A few principles for interpreting the Bible:

1. The Hebrew Bible (OT) and the New Testament should not be separated. The mystery of Christ sheds light on the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament cannot be properly appreciated without knowing the history, style, and spirit of the Hebrew writers. The whole Bible is a divinely constructed unity, and in studying one part to the neglect of the other, we may fall into “one-sided and erroneous methods of exposition.” (Milton S. Terry)
2. The Bible is both a divine and a human text. This means that it speaks of divine mysteries through the lens of human experience. If we emphasize one aspect over the other, we miss the generous encounter in which it is grounded.
3. Take into account the author’s intention. We are over 2000 years removed from the biblical authors and in order to understand what they are saying, we must know a bit about their context, history, culture, literary forms, and audience. The scriptures were not written to us as contemporary readers, but they have implications for us. Commands and directives given to the nation of Israel are not necessarily commands to us, and promises made to biblical characters are not automatically transferable to us.
4. The context of a passage should always be considered. Context determines meaning, and isolating any phrase or story can lead to a misguided interpretation.
5. Identify the genre of the biblical passage. Is it historical narrative, laws, wisdom literature, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, gospel, parables, or correspondence? Each type of literature requires a slightly different hermeneutic method. Histories recount journeys we can relate to. Wisdom contains principles to live by. Parables make a certain point to the hearers. Poetry uses imagery and metaphor to paint pictures of ideas and express feelings.
6. Do not confuse interpretation with application. Jesus calls his followers to leave their jobs in order to follow him. This is part of a larger story in which Jesus gathers disciples. It is not a command for all people everywhere to forsake their family businesses. Just because Paul wrote that slaves should obey their masters (Ephesians 6) does not mean that he is condoning slavery.
7. We all bring our own worldview and context to any interpretation, which is okay, but we must be mindful of imposing our own presuppositions or unrealistic expectations on the biblical text. Peter Enns says, “If we come to the Bible expecting something like a spiritual owner’s manual complete with handy index, a step-by-step field guide to the life of faith, an absolutely sure answer-book to unlock the mystery of God and the meaning of life, then conflict and stress follow right behind… what if God is actually fine with the Bible just as it is without needing anyone to stand guard over it? Not the well-behaved-everything-is-in-order version we create, but the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible that we actually have? Maybe this Bible has something to show us about our own sacred journey of faith.” That being said, it is perfectly normal to have questions about what you read in the Bible, to be puzzled about certain things and bothered by others, and to change your mind on what it means as you delve deeper into these sacred texts. It is the joy of engaging with the divine mystery. (The Bible Tells Me So, pages 7-9)
8. God reveals himself to us through Jesus, the Word of God. The Holy Spirit is our teacher. Our own efforts at understanding accomplish little without the life and breath of the Spirit. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you when you read and study the Bible. “The Bible … isn’t a problem to be fixed. It’s an invitation.” (Peter Enns)

And if you want to practice a little hermeneutics right now, try reading these scriptures, keeping the above principles in mind (questions below based on material by Craig Keener).

Read Psalm 50. Is God’s announcement that He owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” an assurance that He can supply all our needs? (v. 10) Or does it mean something else in this context?

Read Psalm 118. Which day is the “day that the Lord has made” (v. 24) Does the text refer to every day or to a specific day?

Read Romans 10. What is the “word of God” (or, “word of Christ” in most translations) in verse 17? Does it refer to the Bible or to something else?

Happy hermeneuting....Matte

Friday, February 03, 2017

disruption

Image result for disruption
Image from thefinancialbrand.com
A nasty virus hit me a week ago on Thursday evening and laid me out for most of three days. I had proposals I was working on, a pile of paperwork on my dining room table that needed attention, preparations to make for church on Sunday, emails to answer, supplies to be bought, a house to clean, and laundry to be done. All of that was disrupted. The sickness rendered me unable to think, read, work, stand upright for any length of time, or do much else other than sleep and ingest the occasional protein smoothie. I thought of chocolate and had no interest. I thought of checking my email or Facebook and it just didn't seem to matter. I picked up a book and put it down again without even cracking it open. My fever finally broke Saturday evening, but I was still pretty useless the next day, my brain and body not capable of much. Monday morning, I woke up feeling almost normal. I decided to read a theology blog. My brain ate it up like it was the first bite of solid food in days. And with that bit of fuel, my brain immediately started to put together some writing ideas, plan a paper proposal, and thought of ways to incorporate what I had read into a research proposal. I said out loud, "Welcome back, brain!"

In some ways, it felt like my brain had been turned off and then on again, and the renewed clarity was a gift I humbly received. Once again I could see why a certain way of thinking wasn't working or making sense, I could articulate things, I could make connections between ideas. What had originally seemed like a total waste of three days, was somehow a good disruption, a Sabbath in disguise.

Life is riddled with disruptions. It is rare that something goes exactly as expected. The challenge and adventure of being human is this: how do we take everything that life throws at us and turn it into the most beautiful story of love and hope that we can manage? This is not an easy task, and though some of us would prefer if everything unfolded according to plan, that would make us closer to robots than humans. One thing a robot (or computer) is incapable of is wisdom. This virtue is gained through facing disruptions and adversity and, despite the odds, finding a compassionate way forward.

A disruption is basically neutral, meaning that it can be either good or bad depending on the context. Someone turning off your computer in the middle of a project would be a bad disruption. Someone turning off your computer when your screen freezes is a good disruption. Disease is a disruption of health, but healing is also a disruption of disease. Most disruptions are not so clearly defined; they tend to be a mix of good and bad, and it requires a good deal of discernment to extricate one from the other.

Right now, the political landscape is filled with disruptions. Many people don't know what to make of it. Those who thought things were going in the right direction are dismayed and troubled. Those who were fed up with the status quo feel empowered. The reactions are varied: denial, paralysis, bravado, resistance, compliance, and booing as well as cheering. But what is wisdom here? What is the way forward to writing the most beautiful and hopeful story we can manage? Digging in our heels and amplifying divisions will only create volatile situations, and engaging in power struggles has never ended well (it is called war). So what do we do? Might I suggest that we use these current disruptions to take a moment to rethink things, to reboot compassion, to lend our ears to voices we might have overlooked or neglected.

Disruptions are golden opportunities for us to learn something new about ourselves and our world and above all, be transformed into better disciples of Jesus. The choice is up to us. How will we respond to the disruptions? Here are a few ideas.

1. Disruptions can make us compassionate helpers or armchair critics. When disruption comes, we can choose to get close to those most affected by the disruption and alleviate their suffering or we can offer critiques at a distance where it costs us nothing.
2. Disruptions can humble us or make us more stubborn. We can choose to exhibit a willingness to listen, to question our assumptions, to step outside of our limited worldview and see someone else's, to admit that we don't know it all, or we can adopt a defensive stance, protecting our perceived rights and shoring up our sense of superiority by surrounding ourselves with agreeing voices.
3. Disruptions can draw us together or split us apart. We can choose whether we will open our arms and our homes or lock everything up tight in fear.
4. Disruptions can challenge us to find inner strength or steer us to outward shows of force. "Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus said, "for they will be called children of God." Jesus never taught his disciples to threaten others or seek positions of power and influence in order to further their cause. Quite the opposite. He taught his followers not to fear those who can only harm the body.
5. Disruptions can make us bitter and angry or we can choose to face our own demons in ways we never have before. This is perhaps the biggest of challenge: to see ourselves in the faces of those we disagree with or those who are making our lives difficult. Jesus asks us to love God, to love our neighbours, and to love our enemies. That means love must rule.

Disruptions are harsh gifts, but they are gifts if we are willing to do the hard work of learning what wisdom they are offering and seeing what transformation is required in order for us to flourish in love and humility.