Monday, January 16, 2017

Spiritual Formation and the Car Battery

This weekend my car battery died. It was a sad event because I had not planned to do any automotive repairs in my schedule or budget. However, most tragedies are unplanned and unanticipated. They simply happen. Fortunately, the car whose battery died is not my wife’s, nor my, main mode of transportation; it is a backup vehicle. So the consequences of the tragedy were averted temporarily. But my reflection on the situation was not.

What a wondrous 400 cubic inches a car battery can be! Within those six battery cells is enough power to engage a starter motor and provide spark to begin the process of an internal combustion engine. When properly connected to the electrical system the battery is recharged while serving as the route for electrical current to lights, gauges, radio and speakers, and even the electrical fuel pump! Most of the time the car battery is unseen, undisturbed, uninspected.

But when trouble comes, it is usually not accidental. Lights are left switched on, a wire has a short and continues to draw current away from the battery, or the alternator fails to charge. We act surprised when we turn the key or push the starting button and nothing happens. The sound we hear may mimic a weak rattle or be absolutely still. The battery needs help to function. We connect the battery to another car that is running or perhaps place it on a charging unit converting household AC current to the battery’s DC current. After a few seconds or minutes the vehicle storms to life with a roar! We are ready to go again for days, weeks, months and even years. The problem is solved and the battery drops off our conscious checklist, or so we think.

That didn’t happen this weekend. The first time there was noise. The process of charging took place and the battery’s life was renewed. But when I went out to check it again, the car was silent. No open door chime with the key in the ignition, no interior lights, nothing. Dead, dead, dead! The battery could no longer hold the life giving charge and dispense it when needed. It was burnt out.

That is when the reflective side of my personality sprang into motion. Our spiritual lives are like the battery. We have within ourselves a life giving force that can start a more complex system operating. Yet, vital to our ongoing function is a crisp connection to a recharging system. Connections must be in place, corrosion free, and inspected from time to time. But as long as the complex system functions, we give little time or thought to the inner life giving spirit. Until it is too late!

Recently pastoral burnout has been flagged by my sensory perception modes: ears and eyes. In conversations and reading this acute problem has been emphasized. I came to realize that burnout-like a dead battery-is not really all that unanticipated. The overuse of the stored energy by lights left on-or critical comments by parishioners, the corrosion of cables-habits of the old self that have not been addressed, the long periods of time between usage-failures to retreat and rest-all these lead to pastoral burnout.

Perhaps the most detrimental element to a growing, thriving spiritual life comes in the form of corrosion. The points of contact between the energy giving spirit and the means by which that energy is transmitted are not fully and clearly in touch with one another. This corrosion can come in the age-old cardinal sins—pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust—or in the modern packaging of addiction: prescription narcotic drugs, recreational drugs, pornography, or alcohol. Whatever the source the corrosion still impacts the spiritual energy in one’s life. As long as the addiction or cardinal sin is permitted to exist it will congregate at the primary point for connection and decrease the spiritual power transmitted into one’s life. Corrosion must be battled through constant inspection and cleaning. This can consist of confession as well as seeking an outside party to inspect and probe one’s life and practices.

A second problem arises when the spiritual power is drained on a frequent basis through misuse. As when lights are left on when not needed so, too, the constant drain of ministry without a source of regeneration leaves the body and soul in need of a strong, long, slow charge. A series of these battery draining events will damage the person’s ability to receive and store the energy available. The ministry they value to the detriment of their health will be short lived. 

Spiritual Formation is a conscious decision to care for the battery that is my soul. While a battery does have a standard functional life, that term can be greatly shortened by misuse, or perhaps prolonged through proper care. Just as a damaged battery can have collateral damage for other electrical components, a weak and damaged soul can inflict wounds in unimaginable locations. The question is whether a person will be proactive in nurturing their soul’s energy level or reactive when the damage is made manifest.

One thing is clear from my episode this weekend; if you haven’t serviced your battery in seven years, you have not been giving it much attention!!

FYI: This incident occurred in September 2015.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Use of Didactic Materials from the Bible in Spiritual Formation: Part Three

The Use of Didactic Materials from the Bible in Spiritual Formation
Part Three

A proper introduction to a speaker, a presentation, or a book can hook the audience to focus their attention. Yet, the introduction is rarely the key point of the presentation, otherwise it would be exceedingly short. Neither are the introductory sections the key reason for the instruction being provided. Ancient letters allowed for appropriate attention to etiquette, but then moved on to the main reason. One factor contributing to the need to get to the point was the expense related to using papyrus for sending correspondence.

It is unfortunate that the body of the ancient letter doesn’t have a fancy name in English, like torso or syndicate. It is simply called the body. Yet this plainly named section contains the critical elements for the letter. The language and grammatical structure tends to be drawn out, with a seemingly excessive number of clauses, and is much like reading 17th or 18th century English prose. However, the interpretation of the body of a letter is subject to various rules of rhetorical skill and can cause some problems.

One example that is often cited in describing the means of presenting a position in the ancient world is chiasm. Chiasm is a means of constructing a series of repeated statements. One example can be found in Romans 2:7-10.
to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (NASB95)
The first and final statements describe those who seek glory and honor and the two middle statements describe those who are unrighteous or evil. This type of repetition is common in small paragraphs as well as larger segments of a text. A larger pattern can be seen in Romans 7:14-20.
For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. (NASB95)
The two sections in this discussion by Paul begin with a reference to the idea of “flesh” while the last line of each segment ends with the same phrase, “but sin which dwells in me.” Does this repetition imply that Paul is describing an increasing phenomenon from verse 14 until verse 20, or is he saying the same thing twice using different words? Awareness of such appearances of chiasm or chiastic structure is necessary for better understanding the instruction provided in these prose texts.

A second thought to keep in mind as you read through the New Testament letters is that the appearance of “you” is not always directed toward you, the reader. Out of the over 1000 occurrences of the 2nd person language from Romans to Jude only about 270 are addressed to a single individual. The more than 800 remaining appearances refer to a community of people. In our individualistic focused culture, we assume too often that “I” am the center of attention and this “you” language is directly focused at “me.” More often in these prose writings it is a “we” who should be listening. The New Testament teachings are overwhelmingly geared toward a community of believers in Jesus, not toward a single one. So as “you” read, try to place yourself within a larger group and consider how y’all together can follow the Scripture’s instructions.

A third pattern in prose letters that seek to explain, clarify, or instruct an audience from a distance-the original distance learning although not on-line-is much more difficult to recognize from a mere reading. Because some languages-even English-employ more complexity in their grammatical rules, translations into an easily read modern language-especially an international one like English-sometimes simplify and leave out the grammatical detail provided. Commentaries that discuss the original language become increasingly useful here. The main focus of the Greek language resides in the verbs utilized. Some of us learned the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs in English, and we might even remember a gerund ends with –ing. However, for a majority of Americans, complex language structure, including lengthy sentences, is not to be preferred, lest we lose track within these comma-laden wanderings signifying dependent or relative clauses and be forced to reread once, twice or maybe even thrice, the words on the page. We want is simple. We want it brief.

John runs. John is a runner. John is running. The word, runs, is easily identified as an action verb. The word, runner, is recognized as a noun. Yet, what is the word, running? It is an adjective that describes the action John is engaged in.

There are times in the didactic portions where a verbal adjective describes and portrays what a commanded action or an instructed behavior should look like. However, in English translations these phrases often take on the form of the command itself, thus we end up with a long list of “do’s and don’ts.” A favorite example of mine is found in Ephesians 4-5. The section begins with a call by Paul to live lives worthy of the calling described in Ephesians 1-3. Beginning in 4:25 and continuing in a single, complete sentence in Greek through 4:32 there are seven verbs of command. This is continued in 5:1 with an eighth instructing them to imitate God in the same way that children imitate the parent figure while a ninth in 5:2 instructs them to live their lives “in love” just as Christ loved.

Various other sections of Ephesian 5 contain more verbs of command, fourteen total between 5:3-18. The final two commands in 5:18 are often memorized, “Do not be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.” The verb based words that follow in the next three verses: speaking, singing, thanking and submitting, are sometimes viewed or interpreted as equivalent to the command verbs. Yet they are not. These English gerunds are describing what the command on 5:18, “be filled with the Spirit,” actually looks like when lived out.

As a warning to the one who reads through these sections of Scripture that include instructions on living in Christ, not all verbs are equally active! The modern debate between actions and attitudes remains unsettled. Do our actions begin to shape our attitudes? Do our attitudes begin to shape our actions? Which comes first? Yet, Paul often refers to the fruit of our lives, or at other time using the language of sacrifices offered to God, the aroma of our lives.

Without a doubt, if you read Scripture with the intent to submit to God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit then you will find both an action and an attitude adjustment occurring in your lives. This Spirit-guided change is the purpose of didactic prose in the New Testament letters.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Use of Didactic Materials from the Bible in Spiritual Formation: Part Two

The Use of Didactic Materials from the Bible in Spiritual Formation
Part Two

“All that glitters is not gold” was a phrase William Shakespeare applied to making decisions based on external appearance. The idea is equally true when reading through the New Testament letters; not every word weighs equally. The joy lies in finding the words with true weight. Therein lies our first predicament-where shall we look? So often Bible studies I have done earlier in my life take a painstakingly slow course through a biblical passage examining each and every word as if under a microscope, turning it vertically and horizontally, hoping to find a glimmer of gold within those letters. Yet we would be appalled if someone took each word we uttered throughout the day and examined it with such detail. The sad part is how often our words are misunderstood by the one we speak with, as he or she takes a meaning from it which we never intended. We would be quick to play the C card, context.

Each of the New Testament writings has a context in which it was written, an audience it was directed to, and a language with associated meanings and ideas. Recovering these is a long, arduous task that sometimes yields a bounty and at other times only a bone. Yet, when it comes to the letters of the New Testament there is much value found on the surface if you and I know where to look. Context is key to guiding our eyes, ears, heart and mind.

Ancient letters had some structural elements that varied based on the type of letter or the audience for the letter. Searching for these common elements as we read will help us determine the nuggets of gold from the rocks and pebbles. As with most writings the first place to look is at the beginning, the introduction to the letter, or more formally the Salutation. Due to the lack of envelopes, the Salutation would include as first and foremost the name of the writer so that the recipients could quickly associate the writing with him. That is why Paul’s letters begin with “Paul.” The Salutation also included the recipient of the letter. Lacking a mail delivery service for non-imperial communication, letters were hand delivered by a traveler going in the same direction. It would be important to readily distinguish between one papyri sheet and another. Finally, the Salutation included a greeting, usually “Grace to you and Peace.”

  • Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, (Rom 1:1)
  • Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, (1 Cor 1:1)
  • Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, (2 Cor 1:1)

  • To the church of God which is at Corinth with all the saints who are throughout Achaia (2 Cor 1:1)
  • To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi (Phil 1:1)
  • To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker (Philm 1)

  •  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philm 1:3)
  •  Greetings (James 1:1)
  •  May grace and peace 2be yours in the fullest measure. (1 Peter 1:2)

It was customary to include a few religious acknowledgements in these ancient letters also. In the period of the New Testament many gods were recognized and petitioned, but the New Testament letters reflect the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity.

  •  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, (2 Cor 1:3)
  •  always offering prayer with joy in amy every prayer for you all, (Phil 1:4)
  •  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, (1 Pet 1:3)

  •  I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God given you in Christ Jesus (1 Cor 1:4)
  • I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, (Phil 1:3)
  • I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, (Philm 3)

Recognizing these customary practices helps our reading and study by comparing and contrasting the language between letters rather than continuously focusing on the individual word choices within a single letter. We can also notice those times when more is added, as in Romans, 

set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among call the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; (Rom 1:1-6)

or when something is left out, as in Galatians.

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; (Gal 1:6)

These customary elements to ancient letters are practical more than they are theological. Yet in the comparison of language used in various letters, the sensitive reader can identify a difference in the author’s tone, purpose, or familiarity with the audience, thus influencing how the remainder of the letter should be heard. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Use of Didactic Materials from the Bible in Spiritual Formation: Part One

The Use of Didactic Materials from the Bible in Spiritual Formation
Part One

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” This popular adage is normally applied to instruct a friend or a child to be more sensitive toward another person whose first impressions may rub some spots raw. It should equally be applied to the book of books, the Bible. The various pages of this collection of individual books divided into two sections, The Old Testament and the New Testament appearing chronologically on either side of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, contain varying genres, or styles of writing.

Poetry is easily recognized on most printed pages by the unusual format, although there are various subtypes that appear in poetic form: songs, hymns, proverbs, and prophetic utterances. The bulk of the material appears in prose form, word after word from beginning to the end of a line followed consecutively by more words forming sentences, paragraphs and entire chapters. Yet within these many words punctuation marks often distinguish between types: narratives frequently include “direct quotations” and “verbal command are identified with a punctuation mark!” Yet many lines have no identifying marks except for the comma and period. A third concern that frequently requires a touch of sensitivity so as not to draw the wrong conclusion appears in the voice of address used. The biblical text may simply be telling a story in the third person as it describes the actions of David, Samuel, Jeremiah, or Jesus. Yet other times it will use the second person form of address when “you” is/are included in the reading. Is the “you” singular-an individual reader- or plural-a community of readers? It is difficult to tell in most English translations.

A final distinction among prose writing comes in the oft-misunderstood teaching sections, where instructional, or didactic, words are written to an audience prior to the first century of our calendar. What shall I do with these words of instruction that most often seem foreign or address issues I am not encumbered with? That becomes the issue when you and I attempt to read the Bible to gain spiritual nourishment from the river of life. Didactic materials are focused primarily in the New Testament letters, although it is not unusual to encounter such materials in the Old Testament in places like Jeremiah 29, where Jeremiah writes to the exiles living in Babylon sometime between 597 and 587 B.C. Because mining for gold requires finding a rich vein, you and I will do most of our excavation where we know gold may be found.