Someone asked the other day, what I have been reading. At that point, the answer was not much. I was part way through a Booker prize winner from a few years ago, which was not really grabbing my interest, as well as a book called Lamb, by Christopher Moore, a comical, but thought provoking, fictional epistle recording the childhood of Jesus, through the eyes of his childhood friend, Biff. I haven’t finished either of them and they continue to languish, one on my ipad, the other on the bathroom floor.

Three more books have come into my life since the question was asked. One from the questioner herself, the rest through a web page suggestion from Nettie at This Dusty House. None are fiction, all have to do with the Christian church, and they just seemed to compliment each other, as I read them together, over this past week.

imagesThe first was Mark Buchanan’s Your Church is too Safe (Zondervan). Following on the theme of his earlier book Your God is Too Safe, Buchanan pulls out well known, well loved, Biblical passages and presents them in a new light. He portrays God as a God who expects us to take “some hell-bent-for-leather risks” if we are to truly be faithful. He encourages churches not to try to choose between fellowship and mission, but to see them as partners together. He suggests that we get back to the basics of being church, devoting ourselves to “teaching, fellowship, sacraments, worship,and stewardship” and to stop spending energy on vision casting. He points to the “religious spirit” which works its way into many churches as being the most difficult to remove, the most harmful to the growth of the church, and often the most counter to God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s working. Buchanan is Canadian and writes with a Canadian accent, which I appreciate,

cover30351-smallThe second book this week is a brand new one, due to be published this week. Aliens in the Promised Land (P&R Publishing), by Anthony B. Bradley, provides a hard hitting, frank, overview of the place of minorities in American churches. As a Canadian, I’m sure some of the criticism Bradley aims at the white dominated denominations in America can be brought across the border as well. As part of a bi-national denomination his words come with a sting. His language and writing style are colourful and provocative, setting the tone already in the introduction by labeling some of his detractors as “John Calvin-loving racists” and going from there to point an unwavering finger at all of the mainline churches as he enumerates their misdeeds and missteps. Bradley has gathered other voices as well as his own African American one. Chapters by Asian, Hispanic, Latino, and other African Americans all tied together by the work of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and their report: Racism and the Church. The book is not all negative. Each chapter provides corrective words and encouragement to the church. Its final chapter is a what’s next, step by step plan for the future. Bradley himself states, in the closing words, his hope that this book will start a conversation, to get folks to listen to someone outside their tribe, to move toward embracing our common human dignity.

cover27745-smallFrom moving to unsafe, uncharted territories, to the issues of racism  it just seems right that the final book of this trio be one on we one thing we as churches, in one way, or another, share, worship. R.C Sproul’s How Then Shall We Worship (David C. Cook) is coming out in it’s second edition. First published in 2006, this book takes us through the Old and the New Testament in an effort to reground our worship practices in scripture, to reclaim the symbolism of the sacraments, and to have us rethink the meaning of worship. I was particularly taken by his study of the Church as a house of prayer recognizing that the practice of worship in ancient Israel included praise, prayer, and sacrifice, he wonders why  Protestant churches in North America are not houses of prayer, why prayer is pushed to the side by other elements we apparently find more exciting. Sproul does a wonderful job of connecting the elements we find in worship to scriptural anchors, in a very readable way,  resonating with my own Calvinist background.


The Bible (2013)

I received an email, earlier this week, from a friend, urging me to promote and watch The Bible, a mini series that premiered on the History Channel last night. Initially, I was going to ignore it, particularly since we don’t have access to the History Channel. If the buzz about the show was hot enough, we would find it on DVD or watch it later on the internet. But, yesterday afternoon an invitation came to watch it with a friend, so off we went.

I was disappointed on a number of fronts.

The producer of the series, Mark Burnett, quoted in USA Today says “By telling these emotionally connected, big stories, hopefully millions of people will reopen their Bibles,” he goes on to state “If you know the Bible, you’ll enjoy  seeing the stories come to life. If you’ve never read the Bible, I think you’ll love the stories,”. There is truth in both the statements, but I’m not sure it.s the truth he was looking for.

As we watched last night, we did indeed reopen our Bibles. It wasn’t because we were so excited about the story we were seeing, it was to somehow verify the things we were seeing were actually there. I some cases they were, but somewhat obscure, in others it would appear the writers of the program started with the biblical story, closed the book, and then said “how could we make this better?”

The seeming need to portray gratuitous violence is a good example of the odd way stories were chosen. Abraham’s story is generally one of peace. He lives in the promised land as a nomad, he even buys, at his own insistence, a piece of ground to bury his wife. There is one instance of violence recorded in the Hebrew Bible, the rescue of Lot. This little story doesn’t have a lot to do with the main story line except to give an indication of how large and strong Abraham’s community had become. It did, however, offer an opportunity for sword play, blood, gore, and adrenalin flow.

Later, the program depicts a couple of ninja angels fighting their way out of Sodom (I can’t find a reference for that one), a sword fight between the young Moses and Pharaoh’s son (extra biblical), and in the final scenes of the first episode, a sword fight between the two spies and the residents of Jericho (their presence was suspected, but I don’t remember dead bodies in their wake). Is this violence just inserted to keep the male in me engaged? It could be, but by highlighting the violence, God’s work, and power, are diminished.

Choosing episodes which can draw the excitement oriented audience also means other, more important parts of the story need to be left on the cutting room floor to make the show fit into ten episodes. All of Jacob story, along with the migration to Egypt, and care God gave the people through Joseph, is missing. We just suddenly, inexplicably, begin a new scene in Egypt four or five hundred years after the preceding scene. When Moses comes down from the mountain with the tablets of stone, I am expecting the story of the Golden Calf, but instead, we suddenly jump ahead fourty years to Joshua and the city of Jericho. Anyone, not familiar with these stories would have been lost trying to connect the dots.

Another area of disappointing choice made by the writers is in their depiction of women. God’s redemption has often come through women, seen as the weaker part of the ancient society. We do see Eve take the fruit, cause the fall, however, the roles of Sarah, Hagar, Miriam, and Rahab are diminished to the point, in some cases, of being unnamed. We don’t even get to meet Rebekah,

I’ve made it sound like the show was all bad, and that’s not true.  It was cool to sit and watch someone else’s visualization of the well known stories of the Bible and compare it to the one in my own mind. The task is a daunting one when all of us have images burned into our minds by Sunday School teachers of how the promised land must look and feel,  what the plagues were like, and how beautiful Sarah was.

The Bible is trying to tell me a story that I already know intimately, can picture vividly, have grown into, and unfortunately they just won’t be able to get it right, but they did manage to achieve one of their goals, they did get me to open my Bible again if only to try to figure out what they were thinking.

Logos Training

As many of you know, I attend a seminary not affiliated with the denomination in which I grew up and continue to be part of. My denomination has a program for those of us who want to enter the ministry from a seminary other than Calvin Seminary. This program has been modified over the years and in 2010 a long distance option was proposed. I applied and became one of the first to head into a 24 month journey that could end in candidacy in the Christian Reformed Church and potentially ordination.crxx_ChristRefChurch_graphic_black

The program has a lot of hoops to jump through, most of which the graduates of Calvin Seminary have had to jump through as well. Some are unique to the “foreign” seminary experience.

I had two of those unique experiences this past week. I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan for the entire week (a bit of a culture and temperature shock after four days in Florida). On Monday I had an interview with a committee of seminary faculty members. They give the denomination a recommendation on each of the potential candidates, but cannot really do this well for long distance students because they never interact with us in person, in class. Everyone seemed to be pleased with the meeting we had, the questions were tough but fair. This hurdle is behind me, but it did cause a level of anxiety; I was really unsure about what I would need to know and articulate clearly.

logocmykhlgThe other piece was training on a computer software program called Logos. This is a Bible Study program which helps to work with all sorts of resources including the original languages (Greek and Hebrew).  A level of proficiency in both of these languages is required by the denomination. Rather than try to directly test for these abilities, the seminary offers training in this program, followed by a test, which must be passed. Many of the answers on the test would have come from prior studies in the languages and could not necessarily be found in the program resources. I found the training valuable but the test tough enough that I’m not sure the required 70% happened. I wrote for something over four hours. When I finished, about half of the group was still there. I was totally exhausted, got in the car,and drove straight home (400km)

Apart from the test, the training was very worthwhile. Logos is a very valuable resource. It’s not just one resource. My copy has over 750 books in it, all searchable, and linkable. It will search for words and meanings, compare Bible versions, highlight different parts of grammar, link to dictionaries and lexicons, the list goes on. There is a lot to learn and remember, but most of it is relatively intuitive. I wish that I had bought it earlier. I have been using it for the past four months, but the training this week has really opened it up.

The prof who taught the course made it what it was. His skill, knowledge, and outspoken opinions (usually good ones) gave us plenty to keep us awake for the three days of set-up and explanation.

So…two more milestone markers have passed on this journey, with still no firm destination in sight.

Hebrew: The Language

Hebrew is a slippery language.

Its slippery in more ways than one and the internet provides a wonderful metaphor for its slipperiness. Just try copying and pasting a piece of Hebrew text from say Wikipedia into a word document and see what happens. The moment you hit paste, and the text appears, it changes into something else, moving words and letters. You can trick it by copying the English text around it, pasting the whole thing into your document, and then, very carefully sneak up on the Hebrew, deleting the English. Sometimes it will hold and you can go on merrily writing things, even saving from time to time. Close the document, come back tomorrow, and you may find, that over night, somewhere in the bowels of your hard drive, the Hebrew words had a party, ate matzah balls, drank kosher wine, and forgot where they belong and just lined themselves up in what appears to be a new, random order.Their sentence now says something completely different.

Now, I realize that all this running around of words has more to do with word processors, left and right margins, and the direction of text, mechanical things, but, I think it says something about Hebrew as well in a metaphorical way. Hebrew scholars talk about four different ways of interpreting Hebrew text:

  • Peshat (Hebrew: פשט‎ lit. “simple”): the direct interpretations of meaning.
  • Remez (Hebrew: רמז‎ lit. “hint[s]”): the allegoric meanings (through allusion).
  • Derash (Hebrew: דרש‎ from Heb. darash: “inquire” or “seek”): midrashic (Rabbinic) meanings, often with imaginative comparisons with similar words or verses.
  • Sod (Hebrew: סוד‎ lit. “secret” or “mystery”): the inner, esoteric (metaphysical) meanings, expressed in kabbalah. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

So while the text is running all over my page, making new meaning as it goes, there are already at least four ways that is could be considered even before it started moving.

I suppose that other languages could be treated in the same way, looked at from four different aspects. Hebrew scholars would likely agree, but, they would also likely argue that Hebrew is the only language designed to be handled in this way, designed to lend itself to different levels of meaning, particularly when it is found in the sacred texts.

I just think its cool.

For Everything There is a Time.

The Revised Common Lectionary uses the following passage as one of the readings for New Year’s Eve. Many of us know the first eight verses, maybe not the words exactly but the back and forth contrasting style of the “times”. These words have be made popular musically and they ring true in our lives. There is a time for good and bad, for happy and sad, for singing and silence. Our lives are contrasts.

I wondered why the lectionary passage continued past the familiar first eight verses. It seems to move into another territory. And yet, tucked away in the words of toil, is that small statement that says so much “moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds”. We are able to compare one time to another. We can write our Christmas letters from memory. We can dream about what the future could hold. What a gift!

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 7a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

9What gain have the workers from their toil? 10I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.11He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-12, NRSV)

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are a good time for remembering and dreaming. We have been blessed here in this household again in the past year. God continues to walk along beside us on our journey (it’s a good thing because He knows the destination). We continue to look forward to what the next days, weeks, and months will bring. I hope that you can as well.

Happy New Year


A Tough Week

Its been a tough week. It seems like I spent a lot of it in my office, tied to my desk and my computer. The list of papers to write and presentations to do has gone down. There are still some left for next week (6000 words with 2000 of those written as a first draft). It feels a little more manageable. My Hebrew prof even gave me an extension so that these last efforts can be a little more spread out (Who says there is no grace in the Hebrew Bible?). I’m getting tired though, and that leaves me wondering if I just should have stayed where I was, selling feed.

The week has been tough on other fronts as well. The mother of a good friend passed away this week. He’s on his way to Holland, right now to attend her funeral. I’m glad he can go. One of my professors suffered a heart attack earlier this week. She’ll be fine but, again, we come face to face with the fragility of life.

With these things in mind, since it was my turn to lead devotions in the worship class (co-lead by the a fore mentioned prof) I reached back and picked up the Heidelberg Catechism and brought the words of Lords Day One to my largely Lutheran class. Coupled with a reading from James Schaap’s Every Bit of Who I Am it helped me, and I hope my class mates as well, not to understand, but to take comfort.

Q. What is your only comfort
in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own,
but belong—
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven:
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.


Camino for the Soul

To walk the Camino is supposed to be good for the soul. It is also hard on the feet.  Today we traveled 20.6 km from Burgos to Hornillos del Camino, from city into empty country, through some little villages and finally to a small village dominated by a church with it’s population likely doubled by pilgrims.

We began our day standing in the street outside our hotel, holding hands and sharing a prayer. The prayer was in French, led by our guide.  Here is that prayer:

God, You called your servant Abraham from Ur in Chaldea, watching over him in all his wanderings, and guided the Hebrew people as they crossed the desert.  Guard these your children who, for the lover of your Name, make a pilgrimage to Compostela.  Be their companion on the way, their guide at the crossroads, their strength in weariness, their defense in dangers, their shelter on the path, their shade in the heat, their light in the darkness, their comfort in discouragement, and the firmness of their intentions; that through your guidance, they may arrive safely at the end of their journey and, enriched with grace and virtue, may return to their homes filled with salutary and lasting joy. 
    -Codex Calixtinus- 12th Century
Sharing those words together as we set out on our journeys, each with their own goals, hopes, dreams for the trip, was a special moment.  It was a moment that drew us together again as a group, but also as children of a God who loves and cares for us.

Much of today's walk was through "big" country

We ended the day in the church in Hornilos del Camino, a church that could likely hold the entire population of the own a number of times over.  We had asked for a place to have a Eucharist Service for our group and were offered the church. Our service was attended by only twelve people, our group and two other pilgrims, but it was very meaningful as we shared the bread and the wine together, each one of us coming from a different religious tradition, yet bound together by this sacrament. I have never sung in such a space before. It was wonderful.