Encountering Jesus

 

A Sermon
Presented to the Youth of the Broadway Church of Christ
Lubbock, TX
October 4, 2017

A Living Lord
Jesus is often tamed, no less in our churches.  I think, however, that we like it that way.  When we relegate Jesus to “the before time”, the “back then” we do not have to worry about him showing up today, right now.  When we confine him to stories bound in a book we do not have to worry about him making too many demands.  He becomes a static idea that we can manipulate and skirt around by mental and hermeneutic gymnastics.  But throughout history Christians have confessed their faith in a short summary called The Apostles Creed.  Within that creed there is a confession which reminds one of the most dangerous, terrifying, even rebellious things that we could ever say.  After confessing Jesus born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit, crucified under Pilate, and buried, we continue with this subversive confession: “On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”  Jesus is alive.  This means that he is active.  He still speaks.  He still shows up in the world.  He still meets us unexpectedly, and that’s a terrifying thought.

It’s terrifying because I can read about Jesus calling Peter, James, and John to leave their jobs to follow him and I remain untouched by that command (cf. Lk. 5:1-11).  “Jesus spoke to them”  we say.  And when we get to work interpreting the text we ask, “But what does it mean for us?” as if we are sure it means something different.  We transform this radical call to leave one’s livelihood and we dumb it down and tame it.  We read this passage and we say, “Well, obviously Jesus is not calling us to leave our jobs.  The text only means that we are supposed to have a kind of inner detachment from our work.  It is not to be our god.”  And so we allow ourselves to remain in our jobs and our lives more or less untouched.  That is because we are dealing with a text.  We are not dealing with a living Lord.  If Jesus were to appear to you and me as he appeared to Peter, James, and John there would be no escape.  Sitting in our boats with Jesus upon the shore, our interpretation could not save us.  When Jesus issues the command to leave behind our nets and become fishers of men it would do us no good to turn to our companions and say, “Worry not, friends.  He doesn’t really mean for us to leave our work.  The world needs fishermen too.  He only means for us to carry on our work in a new spirit.  We are to fish as if we fished not.  Our hearts are to be with Jesus while our hands are with our nets.”  Who could imagine Peter, James, and John saying such a thing?  And so we are comforted when we begin to think that Jesus will never meet us like he met them.

Or perhaps we read about Jesus meeting with the woman at the well in John 4.  We read about how Jesus revealed unto her all that she had ever done, and we breathe a sigh of relief that he will never meet us like that.  That was “back there”, “back then”, and now Jesus is way away in heaven.  We don’t have to worry about him meddling in our business today like he did in hers.  But we can only hide when we are hiding behind a text.  We can only take that kind of comfort if we forget that we are dealing with a living Lord.  If we thought that Jesus might actually appear to us, as he did to this woman, while we went about grocery shopping or going to the post-office, we might feel quite differently.  If I really thought that I might meet someone around the next corner who would reveal to me “everything I have ever done” (4:29), I might feel a little more timidity about this Jesus whom we worship.  But, thank goodness I’ll never meet him.  Or will I?

Very often, I think, we are like those children C.S. Lewis describes in his book Miracles.  “There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall?  There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back.  Supposing we really found Him?  We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?”1 . We have been playing make believe. All this church stuff is fun, sure. But we never expected to actually meet Jesus. We never meant it to come to that. Why? Because then we might have to actually do something about it. Well, I’m here to tell you that he is exactly the God you have to deal with.

The Present Christ in the Powerful Spirit
Luke writes his gospel to one Theophilus.  He says, “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (1:1-4).  So we read on and we hear about all the grand things which we applaud and at which we stand amazed.  We read about the things which, while they are fantastic, we are a little glad that they are “back there.”

The disciples, however, felt a bit differently about Jesus’ presence being a thing of the past.  In his upper room discourse with his disciples they worried that he was going to leave them.  So much so that he had to offer them comfort.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled” he said (Jn. 14:1).  He continues, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.'” (14:18, 28).  Even though Christ was going away, we would not leave them orphans.  He would not leave them alone.  He would come to them again.  In fact, he says, it is even better for him to go away and come again.  “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit; 14:16, 17] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7).  After Jesus ascension he returns in the person of the Holy Spirit.  This is why he is able to say, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  This is not metaphorical.  It isn’t the “pretty talk” of cliché bumper sticker religion.  He means it. He will be with us.  Literally.  Jesus is present with the believer by the Holy Spirit.  This is perhaps one of the reasons it was to our advantage that he “go away.”  While Jesus was upon earth his presence was confined by the space of his body.  When he was with Peter, James, and John upon the Mount of Transfiguration he was not with the other nine at the foot of the mountain.  But now in the person of the Holy Spirit he is present with all of us.

So as we continue to read we find that the living Lord is active indeed.  He’s still “doing stuff.”  Luke writes again to Theophilus, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1, ESV).  Did you catch that?  His first book, the Gospel According to Luke, recorded all that Jesus began to do and to teach.  That means that he is still doing and teaching.  The crucified savior is the risen and ruling Lord.  This is what we mean when we confess, “On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”  His seat is a throne of authority from which he continues to act.  When Peter and John go to the temple and heal a lame man they confess that it was Jesus himself who healed him.  “And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you” (3:16).  When the retell the story to the authorities they say, “Let it be know to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (4:10).  After they are released they then pray to God and say these words, “And now, Lord, look at their hearts, and grant your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (4:29, 30).  Still later Peter met a man name Aeneas who had been bedridden for 8 years with paralysis and he says to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you” (9:34).  If we were to watch all of these events we would see Peter healing and praying.  But if we want to know who is really working we have to look at Peter and see Jesus.  Peter doesn’t say to Aeneas , “I heal you” or even simply, “Be healed.”  He says, “Jesus Christ heals you.”  Jesus is still working in the world and he does it through his people, like he always has.

God With Us
When Jesus was born he was called Immanuel, which means “God With Us” (Mat. 1:23).  He is now and has always been that same God.  He does not leave us alone.  He is not “way away up there.”  He is present here and now in the church, his body on earth (cf. Col. 1:18; Eph. 5:29, 30).  That is our business in the world.  We must be Christ for the world.  Christ acts through us.  “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him” (2 Cor. 2:14).  Again, “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11).  The church makes Christ visible to the world.  She is the sign that God is still “God With Us.”

 

The Freedom of Christ and the Hard of Heart
So it is that God is still with us.  He never left.  We may meet him, in flesh and blood, just as the apostles met him.  And he may meet us, just as he met the woman at the well and Zaccheaus.    How does this happen? We’ve already hinted at one way–i.e. in the chuch–and there are other ways as well, like prayer and scripture reading.  We must first mention a quick caveat.

Insofar as we are dealing with a person, not just a text or an idea, he has a will.  He is free. As a person Jesus may choose to appear or not, and that is not up to us.

“If you are a geologist studying rocks, you have to go and find the rocks.  They will not come to you, and if you go to them they cannot run away.  The initiative lies all on your side.  They cannot either help or hinder.  But suppose you are a zoologist and want to take photos of wild animals in their native haunts.  That is a bit different from studying rocks.  The wild animals will not come to you: but they can run away from you.  Unless you keep very quiet, they will.  There is beginning to be a tiny little trace of initiative on their side.  Now a stage higher; suppose you want to get to know a human person.  If he is determined not to let you, you will not get to know him.  You have to win his confidence.  In this case the initiative is equally divided–it takes two to make a friendship.  When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side.  If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him.  And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others–not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition.  Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.”2

Two things should be noted: First, the disciplines which we are about to mention are not magic, nor are they science (which are more related than we like to admit). They are ways of listening. If there is nothing to hear then listening really hard will not help. Spiritual disciplines do not compel God to show up. As such, he may not show up when we want him to. That does not mean, however, that he does not or will not. It only means that he hasn’t yet. We should wait. It is something like what Gandalf says to Frodo when he appears in the Shire. Frodo says to him, “You’re late.” To which he responds, “A wizard is never late. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.”3

Second, if we do not meet Jesus, or hear from him, the fault may be our own. Lewis says that light cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror. Jesus says, “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn–and I would heal them” (Mat. 13:15). If we have never expected God to show up, we cannot expect to have met him. Likewise, if we have never slowed down to listen, we ought not be surprised if we have not heard. There is a reason we are told to “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).

Encountering Jesus
We mention here three ways by which we might encounter Jesus. First, in prayer. In prayer we ask for help. We ask for mercy and grace, and that is pictured as approaching the very throne of God. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). When Isaiah approached the throne of God–which is identified as a vision of Christ (Jn. 12:36-41)–his life was changed forever. He saw himself in contrast to God’s holiness and he confessed, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). Not only did he see himself as he really is, but he was called to a mission in that same vision. When God asked “Who will go for us?” Isaiah responded, “Here am I; Send me!” (6:8). This is not unlike what happened when Peter came into Jesus presence in Luke 5. He confessed his sin and received a commission to become a fisher of men (5:1-11). So, we should be prepared for what may happen when through prayer we enter into the presence of God and approach the throne of grace. We may find ourselves confessing our sins or called to some far flung corner of the world. We never know what will happen or what Jesus might say. Remember, he is a person. This is a relationship. In relationships each responds to the other. And we should expect no less from Jesus.

We should also expect an answer to our prayers.  We should expect God to show up.  When David was exiled from Jerusalem because his son Absalom his trusted advisor, Ahithophel, was reported now to be in service of Absalom.  David immediately prays, “O LORD, I pray you, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness” (2 Sam. 15:31).  What happens then is no voice from heaven, nor does Ahithophel become a babbling idiot.  Still, what happens is no less an answer from God than a voice from the clouds.  “Hushai the Archite came to meet him with his coat torn and earth on his head.  David said to him, ‘If you go on with me, you will be a burden to me.  But if you return to the city and say to Absalom, “I will be your servant, O king; as I have been your father’s servant in time past, so now I will be your servant,” then you will defeat for me the counsel of Ahithophel'” (15:32-34).  David prays that God would turn Ahithophels counsel into foolishness and immediately God answers.  He sends Hushai the Archite to do just that.  When we say that we pray to God and we listen for an answer we do not mean that we hear voices from heaven, or voices in our head for that matter.  But we do mean that God is present.  Jesus is here.  And not only does he listen, but he responds.

There is a story told of Mother Angelica, founder of Eternal Word Television Network. When things were really getting off the ground with EWTN she wanted to expand things and she ordered an enormous satellite dish. She doesn’t have the money to pay for it but she orders it anyway. When the fellow arrives with the dish he says, “I’m supposed to ask you right away for the money. I’m not going to leave this thing here until we’re paid. It’s $600,000.” She says, “Give me one minute” and goes inside to the chapel and prays to God. She says something like, “Alright Lord, I thought you wanted me to have this things, so I ordered it. You better come through.” She leaves the chapel to go and tell the fellow that she doesn’t have the money. Just as she does one of the young nuns runs up to her and says, “Mother, Mother! There’ someone on the phone who wants to talk to you right away.” On a yacht, in the Bahamas, is some business man who had read some of her books and had admired her for quite some time. He said, “Something told me that I needed to send you $600,000.” To which she responds, “Wire it right away!”4 And so she gets the dish which you can still see to this day. When she prayed, God showed up. She expected an answer, and she got one.

Second, we meet Jesus in the reading of scripture.  In the Mishnah it says, “But if two sit together and words of the Law [are spoken] between them, the Divine Presence rests between them, as it is written, Then they that feared the Lord spake one with another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name.  Scripture speaks here of ‘two’; whence [do we learn] that if even one sits and occupies himself in the Law, the Holy One, blessed is he, appoints him a reward?  Because it is written, Let him sit alone and keep silence, because he hath laid it upon him.”5 . As we read and study the word of God we enter into the presence of God and he speaks to us.

Remember that “the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12). It is so because it comes from the mouth of a living Lord. As such, the words are not static. Whenever we listen to the words of scripture it would be a mistake to think that they mean only one thing and that they mean the same thing to every person. If we all came with the same question to Jesus he would not give us all the same answer. Why? Because we are all different and we all need different things. When we treat the word as if it is dead, as if it means only one thing, then we are forced to interpret it in such a way that is becomes applicable in that same way to everyone, and that is a mistake. Jesus did not call everyone he met to leave all and follow him, but he did call twelve to do just that. He did not call everyone to sell what they have and give to the poor, but he did call the rich young ruler to do just that (cf. Mat. 19:21). He did not call everyone to be an apostle to the Gentiles, but he did call Paul to be just that. Can we be sure, when we read scripture, that the words do not apply to us exactly as they are written? It is not for me to say that you must sell all that you have an give to the poor. Neither is it for me to say that you must not. You have to do with Jesus. He is the Lord which issues his command. When St. Anthony went to worship he heard the reading of the gospel which said, “Be not anxious for the morrow” (Mat. 6:34). He immediately got up, left the service, sold all that he had and went to the desert where he would depend solely upon God for tomorrow’s provisions.6 St. Anthony did not ridicule others because they did not follow him to the desert. He did not make the mistake of thinking that the word which Jesus spoke to him in the reading of the gospel was the same word that he spoke to others. But when Jesus’ command came to him he had no choice but to obey, and obey he did. We must allow for the possibility that we may meet Jesus in a similar way. He may gave us similar commands. The word of God is not dead because its author is not dead. What he says he says to each of us individually, if only we are willing to listen.

Finally, we meet Jesus in community. We have seen already how that Jesus is continually active through his body, the church. When the church is what it ought to be, when she is disciplined by the word of God, when she lives in the rhythms of the very life of God and is shaped by her worship, she may speak to us as a spokesman for Jesus.

“One of the most delightful examples comes from ‘the poor little monk of Assisi,’ St. Francis. Francis, it seems, was in ‘great agony of doubt’ about whether he should devote himself only to prayer and meditation, which was a common practice in those days, or whether he should also engage in preaching missions. Wisely, Francis sought out counsel. ‘As the holy humility that was in him did not allow him to trust in himself or in his own prayers, he humbly turned to others in order to know God’s will in this matter.’ He sent to two of his most trusted friends, Sister Clare and Brother Silvester, asking them to meet with one of their ‘purer and more spiritual companions’ and seek the will of God in the matter. Immediately, they gathered to pray and both Sister Clare and Brother Silvester returned wit the same answer. When the messenger returned, St. Francis first washed his feet and prepared him a meal. Then, kneeling down before the messenger, St. Francis asked him, ‘What does my Lord Jesus Christ order me to do?’ The messenger replied that Christ had revealed that ‘He wants you to go about the world preaching, because God did not call you for yourself alone but also for the salvation of others.’ Receiving the message as the undisputed word of Christ, St. Francis jumped up saying, ‘So let’s go–in the name of the Lord,’ whereupon he immediately embarked on a preaching mission.”7 As Peter and Paul were Christ’s representatives to so many, so the church continues to be Christ’s presence in the world. So it is said, “If you cannot listen to your brother, you cannot listen to the Holy Spirit.”8 Of course, the church, even at her best, can be fallible. So we “test everything” and “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thes. 5:21). The frailty of the church does not negate the fact that our brothers and sisters may speak the words of Christ into our lives.

 

Are You Ready?
Hopefully now it has become clear: there is no escape. Jesus is not someone “back there” and his works are not “back then.” Jesus rose from the grave on the third day. He is alive, and he is active. We meet him in a thousand different ways and he continues to speak to us. He calls us, he commands us, because he intends to change us. When we are ready to face Christ in the flesh, as a reality today, we face him as a lion, and so I am reminded of Jill in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair. When she first arrives in Narnia she finds herself unbearably thirsty. Happily, she hears a stream near by, but as she approaches she is stopped dead in her tracks. There, just on her side of the stream, is the Lion Aslan. “If you’re thirsty, you may drink” he says. That’s Jesus invitation to us all. Hearing the stories of men and women like David, Deborah, Peter, and Paul, of certain saints like St. Anthony or St. Francis, all make us thirsty, like Jill, thirsty for an encounter with Jesus. At the same time, we are a little afraid of what might happen if we were really to meet him. So, like Jill, we ask him politely to go away. Aslan says, “Are you not thirsty?” to which she responds, “I’m dying of thirst.” “Then drink”, said the Lion. “May I–couldI–would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill. She wanted satisfaction without the Lion. Like her, we want satisfaction without Jesus. We may even want religion with Jesus. Church and family are fun. They’re full of friends and games, and we like those well enough. But very often, we’d be more pleased if we could have them without Jesus not knowing that even if we could have it, it would not satisfy. Of course, Aslan refused to move. Jill could not drink without drawing near to Aslan, and so we cannot have the life we were made for without Jesus. Of course, even Jesus isn’t so threatening, so long as we can keep him caged up in a book. That was Jill’s thought too. She thought that perhaps she could get close to Aslan by taming him. “Will you promise not to–do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill. Like her we want all of the comfort of Christ with none of the change. We want all of the riches of Christ with none of the responsibility. “I make no promise,” said the Lion. The thing is, we stand before Jesus as we would stand before a lion. We cannot know what might happen if we get too close. But if we give ourselves to Jesus he will do with us what we could never imagine. So follows this final exchange between Jill and Aslan.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
It never occured to Jill to disbelieve the Lion–no one who had seen his stern face could do that–and her mind suddenly made itself up.”9

We may run from Jesus, but there is no other stream. Only he has the water of life (cf. Jn. 4:14). Oddly enough, the most common way of running from Jesus is by trying to tame him. We want a promise that he isn’t going to do anything to us. But that’s not how things work. He is living, and active. His call and commands meet us sternly in prayer, in scripture, and in the community. When Peter, James, and John were commanded to leave their nets, there was no interpretation that could save them. When Jesus told Zaccheaus to come down from the sycamore tree, there was no illusion that he meant anything other than what he said. Jesus’ living voice remains today. Who knows when we will meet him or what he might say? Who knows how our lives might change? When Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy first heard of Aslan they asked if he were safe, to which Mr. Beaver responded, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” There is no grander adventure than being a Christian. It’s exciting. It’s dangerous. There is nothing safe about it. Do not be trouble. Though Jesus be not safe, you can trust that when you meet him you will know that he is good.

 

©M. Benfield, 2017


1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 150.
2. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 164.
3. Peter Jackson, director, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, (New Line Cinema, 2001). A clip of the scene may be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvWCnqY-GWQ .
4. As related by Bishop Robert Barron here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDBTT9NL0_Q&t=379s .
5. Herbert Danby, trans., Mishnah, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), Aboth 3.2, p.450.
6. The story is related here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2811.htm .
7. As told by Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 180.
8. Virgil Vogt, as quoted by Richard Foster. Ibid, 187.
9. Lewis, The Silver Chair, (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 21-23.

Why Pray the Lord’s Prayer?

 

In the tradition of the Churches of Christ it is not common for us to pray the Lord’s Prayer either individually or communally.  I want to encourage us, however, to reconsider the practice.

The Lord’s Prayer Allows Jesus to Teach Us to Pray
Beginners may not now what to pray.  Praying the Lord’s Prayer relieves the pressure of having to come up with the words.  The words have been given to us as a gift.  Beginners need only pray the words of scripture and they have the assurance that Jesus will be pleased. “This the Lord’s Prayer is a great advantage indeed over all other prayers that we might compose ourselves. For in our own prayers the conscience would ever be in doubt and say, ‘I have prayed, but who knows if it pleased Him or whether I have hit upon the right proportions and form?'”1

This prayer, however, is not just for the beginner.  The disciples were all of them Jews.  As such, they would have been in the habit of praying daily.2  Still, they come to Jesus and ask him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1ff).  Their request to Jesus does not indicate that they did not know how to pray.  Rather, they wanted to learn to pray like Jesus prayed.

It would be a mistake if we thought that Jesus intended them to pray only “in the spirit” of his prayer instead of the very words that he gave them.  We cannot merely do something “in the spirit” of another and expect the same result.  Form can rarely (if ever) be divorced from content.  Dallas Willard relates this story.  “Some time back my wife and I visited the haunts of St. Francis of Assisi.  I noticed that the people there in charge of his remembrances were not doing the things that he did.  They did what we might call acts ‘symbolic’ of Francis, but not what he did.  How odd!  It is not odd, however, that they fail to have his inner life and his outer effects.”3 When we pray the very prayer that Jesus granted us as a gift, we are doing his acts after him. Works which are merely “symbolic” of Jesus will not have the same effect. We pray this prayer because it is his gift to us, and so we learn to be like him.

Further, the Lord’s Prayer encompasses all others.  When Augustine of Hippo reflected upon this prayer he remarked, “Run through all the words of the holy prayers, and I do not think that you will find anything in them that is not contained and included in the Lord’s Prayer.”4

It Helps to Form the Habit of Prayer
Martin Luther took the fact that we are to pray for our “daily” bread as an indication that we ought to pray this prayer daily.5 The Didache, a kind of ancient catechism (2nd century) commands to pray it thrice daily.6 Praying the prayer verbatim will help to establish prayer as a habit. This is exceptionally important because whereas prayer ought to be the habit of the Christian “experience teaches us that it is a habit easily broken.”7

Some may object to the repetition citing Jesus’ condemnation of “vain repetitions” (Mat. 6:7). First, it should be noted that the rest of the verse gives Jesus’ meaning. Pagans use “vain repetitions” because “they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” That is, the pagan prayers could be long because they thought that they were thereby meriting their gods’ attention. The prophets of Baal, for example, cried to him from morning until noon attempting to get his attention (2 Kings 18:26). The Christian need not pray such long prayers because “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mat. 6:8). Second, repetition is not inherently vain. Ask any athlete how many times he has practiced his golf swing or jump shot, or how many laps she has run around the track or how many laps she has swam around the pool. They would all admit to having repeated those exercises over and over again. But they would not consider any one of those laps or any of those golf swings to have been in vain. The repetition formed them into the people they have become. This is what the repetition of the prayer does for us. So Luther rightly says, “While mindless and unthinking repetition presents a problem, repeating the same prayer throughout one’s life does not.”8

It is a Means of Discipleship
First, it teaches us how to order our loves. Thomas Aquinas said, “The Lord’s Prayer is the most perfect of prayers … In it we ask, not only for all the things we can rightly desire, but also in the sequence that they should be desired.”9 As we said previously, the form cannot be separated from the content. The very fact that the prayer begins and ends with God teaches us that he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Our lives are from him, through him, and to him. We do not, we cannot, stand upon our own, nor can this prayer. Like bookends on each side God holds up our personal petitions which are found in the middle. This is itself necessary instruction. “‘Deliver us from evil’ comes last. We tend to put it first. The child puts it first; his first prayer is usually, ‘God help me!’ This is a perfectly good prayer, and even the greatest saints never outgrow it; but they outgrow putting it first.”10

Second, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us how to obey the Greatest Commands, to love God and our neighbors. “The structure of this prayer is parallel to the structure of the Ten Commandments because both follow the structure of reality. Both are divided into two parts: God first, man second. And both are concerned above all with love. The first three commandments tell us how to love God, and the last seven how to love our neighbor. The first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer also tell us how to love God: how to adore and worship and praise him. The other four tell us how to love our neighbor, since they tell us to pray for ‘our’ primary needs, not just ‘my’ needs. Intercessory prayer has no separate petition here because the whole second half of the prayer is equally for neighbor and for self.”11 While we may not involve ourselves in corporate worship every day, we pray this prayer and so express our love for God. This fulfills the greatest command. While we may not be able to feed and clothe the poor everyday, we can and should pray for his need. This a way of fulfilling the second greatest command. “My prayers, ascending like mist today, will descend like rain at another time and place, wherever God directs it, where thirsty soil needs it. My prayers can help feed souls far removed from me in space and time, just as truly as my work or money can help feed their bodies.”12

Third, it teaches me to trust God. In it I trust God to know my daily needs better than I do. “It gives God a ‘blank check’–‘our daily bread’ means ‘whatever you see we really need … So when we do not get what we ask for, we know that that is not our ‘daily bread’, not what we need this day. Either God or we are mistaken about what we need. Which is most likely?”13 So we learn to trust that God is better able to distinguish between our wants and needs than we are. If we find than we have less than we asked for then we learn that we needed less than we asked.

Fourth, it teaches me to forgive. The significance of the petition in regard to forgiveness is that both halves are connected by the word “as.” We beg God would forgive us “as” we forgive others. “If we think carefully about it, we realize that Christ is commanding us to pray for our own damnation if we do not forgive all the sins of all who sin against us.”14

Fifth, it teaches me to confess my weakness and my constant dependence upon God’s strength. When we pray that God would not lead us into temptation, we do not mean that he would not tempt us to sin. God never does that (cf. James 1:13). Rather, we mean that God would not lead us into trials. “It would be arrogant to ask God for trials, thinking we are strong enough to endure them. It is God’s business, not ours, to decide each person’s quantity of trials. It is our business to avoid them when possible and endure them in faith when it is not. Even Christ asked, ‘Father, if it be possible, let this cup [of suffering] pass from me.’ Only then did he add, ‘If this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ (Mt 26:39, 42). We are not to pretend to be stronger or holier than Christ!”15

It is Powerful
James reminds us that “the fervent prayer of a righteous man is powerful in its working” (5:16). Alfred Lord Tennyson famously said, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.” As such, we should not neglect the prayer which sums up the whole of the Christian life when we have confidence in its power, or, more precisely, when we have confidence in the God who has promised to answer.

“[T]he Lord’s Prayer, if honestly meant, is sacramental: it effects what it signifies. When we say ‘Our Father’, this faith ratifies our sonship (Rom 8:15-16). When we pray ‘Hallowed be thy name’, we are by that act actually hallowing it. When we pray ‘Thy kingdom come’, we are making it come, since the kingdom exists first of all in the praying heart. When we pray ‘Thy will be done’, the very desire is its own fulfillment, for that is his will: that we pray and mean ‘Thy will be done.’ When we pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, we are already receiving our daily bread, the food of our souls, which is prayer. When we pray ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’, we are forgiving others, for we are praying for our own damnation if we are not. When we pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation’, we are escaping temptation by placing ourselves in the presence of God. And when we pray, ‘Deliver us from evil’, we are effecting that deliverance by holding up our sins and our needs into the burning light of God, against which no darkness can stand.”16

 

©M. Benfield, 2017


1. Martin Luther, Large Catechism, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 2010), 101.
2. Traditionally they prayed three times a day. An explanation of the tradition can be found here: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/682091/jewish/The-Three-Daily-Prayers.htm .
3. Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2012), 115.
4. St. Augustine of Hippo, as quoted in “Catholic Christianity” by Peter Kreeft, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001), 391.
5. Luther, 101.
6. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson eds., Anti-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7, “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), VIII.3.
7. Luther, 97.
8. Ibid.
9. St. Thomas Aquinas, as quoted in “Catholic Christianity” by Peter Kreeft, 391.
10. Kreeft, 401.
11. Ibid, 395.
12. Ibid, 392.
13. Ibid, 397-398.
14. Ibid, 399.
15. Ibid, 400.
16. Ibid, 402-403.

You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me

 

 

The exposition of the Decalogue in Martin Luther’s Large Catechism gives much attention to the first commandment: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2, 3).  He does so because, he says, “where the heart is rightly set toward God … and this commandment is observed, all other commandments follow.”1 He points to the heart and then adds to the affection of the heart the conception of the mind. “It is most important that people get their thinking straight first. For where the head is right, the whole life must be right, and vice versa.”2

What Does It Mean to Have a God?
So, we proceed by way of Luther to ask of the first commandment, as he does, “What does it mean to have a god? Or, what is God? Answer: a god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart. I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol … Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.”3 Later he puts it this way, “Everyone has set up as his special god whatever he looked to for blessings, help, and comfort.”4 He also notes the etymological relationship in German (which exists also in English) between the words “God” and “good”, saying, “So, I think, we Germans from ancient times name God (more elegantly and appropriately than any other language) from the word Good. It is as though He were an eternal fountain that gushes forth abundantly nothing but what is good. And from that fountain flows forth all that is and is called good.”5

This is helpful because we are prone to think that idolatry does not exist today.  This is so because we consider idols as those things which we worship and we construe worship as restricted to prayers and hymns.  Luther’s conception of what it means to have a god challenges us to ask ourselves, from what do we “expect all good” and in what do we “take refuge in all distress”?  When we answer that question then we have identified our God(s).

Some expect money to be the fountain of all good, others, power.  Some run to drugs and alcohol in their distress, others, sex.  Some turn to things a bit more benign.  They turn to work for the source of their good and to family for refuge in all distress.  The question facing us is: when life gets hard, what do I turn to to save me?  Or in other words, what do I turn to in order to make me feel better?  When we ask it this way we find that idolatry is alive and well.  What’s worse, we may find that we are idolaters.

A Caution Against Dualism
While Luther helps us to identify our idols, it is just here that we must be careful to guard against any sort of dualism which might pit God’s creation against himself.  God gifted his creation to man to be enjoyed (cf. 1 Tim. 6:17). Luther is aware of this danger and is careful to protect his readers from any such false step.  He instructs us as to how we might find comfort in God alone without rejecting the world all together.

Receive from God, Not from Ourselves
First, we must ask if the things to which we turn for comfort are enjoyed within the boundaries set by God himself. They must be appropriate objects and enjoyed in appropriate degree. Food is an appropriate object of pleasure, recreational drugs are not. Food sufficient for the belly is an appropriate amount, gluttony is not. Only when we share in the pleasures God has given can we be said to have turned to God for our comfort, otherwise we have turned only to our own will and so to idols. “So no one should expect to take or give anything except what God has commanded. Then it may be acknowledged as God’s gift, and thanks may be rendered to Him for it, as this commandment requires. For this reason also, the ways we receive good gifts through creatures are not to be rejected. Nor should we arrogantly seek other ways and means than what God has commanded. For that would not be receiving from God, but seeking for ourselves.”6

This seems to be the very thing Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Ephesian church. Just before he equates greed with idolatry (5:5) he lists a number of sins which ought to be avoided. “But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk” (5:3, 4a). Paul then contrasts these sins with virtue. We would expect Paul to contrast fornication and impurity with chastity. We would expect him to contrast greed with contentment, and obscene talk with pure speech. But that is not what he does. In place of all this he says, “but instead, let there be thanksgiving” (5:4b). He does this, I believe, because virtuous actions are pleasurable deeds that we can receive as God’s gifts and thereby render thanks unto him.  As a result, thanksgiving becomes the opposite of vice because thanksgiving may only be rendered to God on account of virtue. While sex in itself is a gift of God, fornication, i.e. sex outside of marriage, is not. We cannot thank God for that which he did not give. Such “gifts” are those gifts which we would give ourselves. Talk is another gift from the Lord. Conversation binds together the hearts of those who share in it and strengthens the bonds of community. Obscene talk, and vulgar speech, however, do not. They are not gifts but poisons. And so we cannot thank God for them because he did not give them.  They reside outside of his command. If we are to have no other God but the LORD then we may only enjoy such gifts as he gives, anything else is from idols; We may only enjoy those things for which we are able to thank him in all good conscience.  Thanks for anything else is sacrifice to idol gods.

Recognize the Giver in the Gift
Second, even those things which God approves are potential idols. It is not that finding refuge in family or work is inherently bad.  They are not idols in themselves.  On the contrary, they are part of God’s good creation and they are offered to us for our pleasure.  They are intended to offer comfort.  They become idols only when they are rent from the hand of God and enjoyed as ends in themselves.  But, if we remember that they are gifts, if we remember that God is the fountain of all good (cf. James 1:17), then these things are not idols but blessings; They are instruments of God’s goodness.  “Even though we experience much good from other people, whatever we receive by God’s command or arrangement is all received from God.  For our parents and all rulers and everyone else, with respect to his neighbor, have received from God the command that they should do us all kinds of good.  So we receive these blessings not from them, but through them, from God.  For creatures are only the hands, channels, and means by which God gives all things.”7

Conclusion: Worship Defends Against Idolatry
So long as those acts and objects to which we turn in distress are good in themselves, that is, they are approved channels of God’s blessing and in accordance with his command, then there is no reason why we should not enjoy them. Finding comfort in God does not necessitate hermetic isolation and mystic contemplation (though there may be a time for that too). It does, however, require appreciating them as gifts and it requires recognizing God in them. To ensure that we turn to God-through-them and not to the things in themselves, we must give thanks for them as blessings.

“Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today.  When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.  He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.  Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own and have gotten me this wealth.’  But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today”(Deu. 8:11-18; cf. 1 Tim. 4:3-5).

When we worship God for our gifts it strips those gifts of any pretense to deity. By recognizing them as gift we recognize them as dependent and therefore not as gods. It may then seem like a tautology to say that worshiping the true God defends against idolatry, but as it turns out it is a truth which bears repeating.  And so God says to us all, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

 

©M. Benfield, 2017


1. Martin Luther, Luther’s Large Catechism, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010), 24, sec. 47.
2. Ibid, 22, sec. 31. Because his comments here lean heavily upon the right conception of God we may be tempted to disagree with Luther and protest that we are not what we believe, rather, we are what we love. We must be careful, however, to obey the eighth commandment as expounded by Luther in favor of Luther: “It is especially an excellent and noble virtue for someone always to explain things for his neighbor’s advantage and to put the best construction on all he may hear about his neighbor” (p. 70, sec. 289). We must “put the best construction” upon Luther, and while he most often speaks of the right conception of God he does not neglect the affect all together. Indeed, on occasion conception and affection seem for Luther to intertwine. “Instead, to ‘have’ Him [God] means that the heart takes hold of Him and clings to Him. To cling to Him with the heart is nothing else than to trust Him entirely.” (p.19, secs. 14, 15). Further, Luther was an Augustinian monk and would have been well acquainted with Augustine’s concept of well ordered love.
3. Ibid, 18, secs.1-3.
4. Ibid, 20, sec.17.
5. Ibid, 21, sec.25.
6. Ibid, 21, sec.27.
7. Ibid, 21, sec.26.

“You Brood of Vipers”: Why I Don’t Talk Like Jesus

 

We ought to imitate Jesus.  What else does it mean to be a Christian if not “a follower of Jesus”?  Whatever comes below it should not be said of me that I am not interested in following Jesus or that I am encouraging others not to be like him.

So what do I mean?  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks often says that he did not trust others to summarize his book “The Great Partnership”, so he did it himself.  Similarly, because I do not trust others to summarize this article I will do it myself.  The message that follows intends to demonstrate only this: One’s actions may not be judged separately from him.

 

White People and the “N-Word”
It has become conventional wisdom that the black community is allowed to say the “N-Word” whenever they want, but white people never are.  The word itself cannot be described as friendly or pejorative apart from the person who says it.  The reason white people cannot say the “N-Word” is simply because we are white.1  Here, at least, society acknowledges that one’s actions may not be judged separately from him. What a person does must be considered in light of who that person is.  Who does it is just as important (perhaps more important?) as what they do.  It is the relationship between those two that determines the meaning of what they do.  I call this ethical montage.

Ethical Montage
If you look up the definition of montage it will tell you that it is the process of piecing together separate pieces of pictures, text, or music to create a new composite whole.  It may, however, also describe the effect of the composition.  By juxtaposing separate bits of art one actually changes the meaning or affect that each of those bits would have separate from the whole.

A fantastic contemporary example of this is the Fearless Girl statue.  In order to appreciate the Fearless Girl you must first appreciate the Charging Bull or what is sometimes called the Wall Street Bull.  Wall Street is home to the two largest stock-exchanges in the world.  Wall Street is itself a symbol of wealth, finance, even greed.  The Charging Bull is a statue in this district which symbolizes financial optimism and prosperity.  This is so because a “bull market”, in contrast to a “bear market”, describes a market of generally rising prices.  So, the Wall Street Bull is a portent of such a future.

The Fearless Girl is a statue of a small Latina girl with her hands on her hips confidently, almost defiantly, facing the Charging Bull, and intentionally mimics the style of the latter.  This makes them appear as an intentional whole instead of separate pieces.  The statue was installed on March 7, 2017, the day before International Women’s Day.  It was commissioned by an organization which invests in capitalization companies which rank highest in gender diversity.  The plaque which accompanies the statue reads, “Know the power of women in leadership.  SHE makes a difference.”  That “SHE” is in all capitals indicates that it is not only a reference to the gender of the statue but also to the NASDAQ ticker symbol for the fund.2

The important thing for our discussion is the interplay between the two statues.  Fearless Girl is partially dependent upon Charging Bull for its meaning.  Even more significant is how Fearless Girl actually alters the meaning of Charging Bull.  Whereas Charging Bull alone is a symbol of prosperity, it becomes a symbol of the male domination of the market when it is seen in conjunction with Fearless Girl.

It is also interesting that the juxtaposition of the two pieces had the effect of altering the status of Fearless Girl from that intended by the artists and commissioners.  While it had intentional feminine symbolism it was also intended as an advertisement.  By being paired with Charging Bull its meaning is both contracted and expanded.  It is contracted because its symbolic power in relation to gender equality is so overpowering that most people don’t even know it was an advertisement.  Its meaning as an advertisement is lost all together.  Its meaning is also expanded by its relationship to Charging Bull.  A colleague of NASDAQ said, “[I]t is 100% an advertisement, but perhaps it is on its way to transcending that label.”  One wonders whether it would have been such a powerful symbol if it had been erected in Des Moines, Iowa or Santa Fe, New Mexico.  To defy such a powerful symbol as the Charging Bull requires a symbol just as powerful.  By placing them so close to one another the statue claims for itself a power comparable to the Bull, a power it likely would not have had if it were any other place.  So, not only did Fearless Girl change the meaning of Charging Bull, but, by its relation to such a prominent figure as Charging Bull, the Fearless Girl has superseded its existence as an advertisement to become a symbol of gender equality.  The meaning of both pieces have been altered by their relationship to one another.  It is a sort of contextual alchemy that not everyone is happy about.3

When this contextual alchemy is considered in ethics I label it ethical montage.  To an earlier example, “black” is an acceptable description of a person.  One might be tempted to draw the conclusion that because etymologically “nigga” derives from “niger”, the Latin word for “black”, that it would also be an acceptable address.  The reality, however, is that the “N-Word” is inextricably bound up in a context of hate, oppression, and dehumanization.  Words are not their etymologies, they are their use.  Words derive their meaning from their contexts, social as well as linguistic.  This is why it is a term of friendly address in one community and a pejorative term in another community.  The speech cannot be judged apart from the speaker.  To separate them is to falsify them.

The Grammar of Ethics
I’ve called it ethical montage and contextual alchemy.  We might also consider it in terms of a grammar of ethics.

It is a mistake to isolate a word from a context and say that word “means” so and so. This is because words don’t “mean” anything apart from a meaningful context.  You would be hard pressed to find a word that means only one thing.  Language is piled upon and loaded with meanings which it accumulated from this culture or that one, from this situation or that historical event.  It’s used figuratively here and technically there.  We may be able to say something like, “This word usually means” this or that.  But it would be very hard (impossible?) to speak in universals when it comes to the meanings of words.  A word with one meaning is likely to be brand new, and it won’t be long before it accrues other meanings on top of it.  We do not isolate a word from a sentence and then judge its meaning.  It has no meaning apart from the sentence.

In the same way we should not isolate actions from their context and then judge their meaning.  That context, as I have argued, is provided by the person and his situatedness.  He is a particular person at a particular time in a particular role within a particular community performing a particular action.  That same action performed by a different person at a different time in a different role within a different community could mean something entirely different, just as one word may mean different things in different contexts.

To illustrate, consider women who dress differently.  One woman dressing chastely means, “I hate sex.  I want to distance myself as far as possible from any sort of sexual overtone.”  Another woman doing the same thing means, “I do not want to have sex with you.”  Still another woman means, “I think about sex all the time and I assume you do too.  Even the slightest bit of skin may be inflammatory, so I cover it up.”  The same action, i.e. dressing chastely, may mean either that one hates sex or loves it.  One cannot know unless one knows the person.  Other women may dress with a low neck and a high skirt and also mean different things.  One may mean, “I need money and I’m willing to do whatever I need to get it.”  Another means, “I feel confident.”  Still another means, “Sex never crossed my mind.  I can’t imagine a world in which men might see me as a sexual object and so my body, I assume, will not be the subject of fantasy.”  The same action means different things depending upon who performs it.  While revealing clothing may mean that one is obsessed with sex it may also mean that sex isn’t a consideration at all.  We cannot judge a particular action apart from its ethical-grammatical context.  We have to admit that we don’t know what an action means unless we know something about the person, their history, and their social context.  We may be able to say “what this usually means is” so and so.  But are we sure that meaning is universal?  Likely not.  Seen in this light grammar itself becomes training in ethics.

The Problem With Morals
The very language of “morals” was an invention of an era whose chief goal was to toss off the traditions of their forebears.  That is, they attempted to separate themselves from their historical context.  Beginning with Francis Bacon and René Descartes, the thinkers of the Enlightenment period sought to establish a system of knowledge apart from the received tradition of their ancestors.  Following them, and influenced by them, came men like David Hume and Immanuel Kant who attempted to establish a system of moral justification separate from religious tradition.  The invention of the word “moral” parallels their efforts.

“Consider one very striking fact: in the culture of the Enlightenment the first language of educated discourse was no longer Latin, but it remained learning’s second language.  In Latin, as in ancient Greek, there is no word correctly translated by our word ‘moral’ [i.e. the moral of a story]; or rather there is no such word until our word ‘moral’ is translated back into Latin.  Certainly ‘moral’ is the etymological descendant of ‘moralis.’  But ‘moralis’, like its Greek predecessor ‘êthikos’–Cicero invented ‘moralis’ to translate the Greek word in the De Fato–means ‘pertaining to character’ where a man’s character is nothing other than his set dispositions to behave systematically in one way or another, to lead one particular kind of life.  The early uses of ‘moral’ in English translate the Latin and move to its use as a noun where ‘the moral’ of any literary passage is the practical lesson that it teaches.  In these early uses ‘moral’ contrasts neither with such expressions as ‘prudential’ or ‘self-interested’ nor with such expressions as ‘legal’ or ‘religious’.  The word to which it is closest in meaning is perhaps simply ‘practical’.”4

So “moral” no longer means a habit of goodness but a rule that says this or that action is good or bad.  The significance of this linguistic shift is that it is the first evidence of evaluating a particular action apart from one’s “set dispositions to behave systematically in one way or another.”  Just as some attempt to define words apart from sentences they attempted to establish a system whereby we might judge an action apart from a person.

But how are we supposed to judge an action apart from the character of the actor?  The Enlightenment sought to do so through reason.  “It is of the essence of reason that it lays down principles which are universal, categorical and internally consistent.  Hence a rational morality will lay down principles which both can and ought to be held by all men, independent of circumstances and conditions, and which could consistently be obeyed by every rational agent on every occasion.”5

Immanuel Kant has especially had an influence on how we think about morals.  “Most ethics since Kant has sought to be democratic.  Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ underwrote the assumption that all people could be moral without training since they had available to them all they needed insofar as they were rational.”6  That is, one does not have to be good in order to do the right thing.  He needs only to be rational.

This era effectively produced the separation of morality from ethics, where ethics focuses upon the production of good people and morality centers upon good rules known by reason.

Can a Liar Tell the Truth?
The shift I have attempted to describe above may not yet be clear so it will be helpful to illustrate it.  In order to do so we ask the question, “Can a liar tell the truth?”  If actions may be judged separate from one’s character then a liar should be able to tell the truth.  If it is the case that actions cannot be judged apart from one’s character then a liar cannot tell the truth.

It will, of course, be easy to raise objections.  The reason is that most people are not well established liars.  They are mixed bags of goodness and badness, vice and virtue.  As such we live on a continuum between the two.  For the moment–this ambiguity will be addressed later–allow that the liar here considered is a consistently bad fellow.

Just the other day I watched a television show which takes place in a prison.  During a riot the alarm goes.  It’s rather annoying so one of the inmates, who has studied electricity, wants to clip a wire and turn off the alarm.  She has with her one of the staff of the prison who is notoriously unkind to the inmates.  He also happens to be the one who teaches electricity.  The inmate has difficulty deciding which wire to cute.  She is torn between the red wire and the blue wire (aren’t they always?).  She asks the staff member which she should cut to which he responds very disinterestedly, “Blue.”  She gives him a sideways glance and then cuts the red wire.  The power goes out and the alarm continues.  The man says, “See?  I told you.  Blue.”  She then turns to the fellow and berates him.

This is a very clever move.  The humor of the moment depends upon us recognizing the deception in his answer.  When he says “Blue” what he means is “Cut the red one.”  But it’s a clever move because when she gets angry for cutting the wrong wire he can always defend himself by saying, “What?  It’s not my fault.  I told you the truth.”  Still, we sympathize with the inmate because we know, as she did, that even his “truth” was intended to deceive.  Remember, words are their use.  If, then, the use of the word was to deceive, even though it corresponded to reality, can we really call that truth?  It seems that a liar cannot tell the truth, even when he is truth-telling.  We cannot judge his speech apart from him.

Another example comes from the Lion King.  As Scar tries to convince Simba to go to the Elephant Graveyard he says, “An Elephant Graveyard is no place for a prince.”  That is true, and those same words coming from Simba’s father, Mufasa, would mean something different.  Mufasa would mean, “Stay away from the Elephant Graveyard.”  Scar, however, means exactly the opposite.  He means, “Go to the Elephant Graveyard.  I have a trap set for you.”  And that is exactly what Simba does.  Even though Scar’s words correspond with reality the use to which he puts the words is not an honest use.  He intends to trap and deceive.  It cannot, therefore, be called truth.  Again, this is an exceptionally clever way to lie.  When one questions the morality of the liar he can always defend himself by saying, “But I told the truth.  I told him to stay away from the Elephant Graveyard.”  A pure lie which masquerades as the truth is the ultimate invention.

We can witness this phenomenon in other areas of life.  Imagine a couple who have been married for 35 years.  The last 15 years have been miserable.  They hardly talk.  They sleep in different beds.  And who could blame them?  She is intensely critical.  He is distant emotionally, and often geographically.  He would rather stay out with his friends than be at home with his family.  But, the couple stays together “for the kids.”  Eventually, however, he decides that he doesn’t want to continue to live in such a loveless marriage.  That evening the husband comes home immediately after work and he brings a dozen roses.  The wife, seeing the roses in a vase on the dining room table, grabs them and tosses them in the trash.  We might be tempted to say, “How rude!”  But can we blame her?  The past 15 years with her husband have been nothing but manipulation and emotional abuse.  Words, as well as actions, are interpreted within a context.  The husband has created a context in which his wife is left with no choice but to interpret apparent kindness as a trick.  How can she be sure that this gesture is not an attempt at further manipulation?  For that matter, how can he be sure that his gift is not an effort at manipulation?  Is he sure that he is not perpetuating the behavior he has practiced for more than a decade?  He did not become a bad person over night, nor will he become a good one.  Indeed, the moment she tosses the flowers in the trash he goes on a tirade, storms out of the house, and goes to grab drinks with his buddies where he complains about his wife’s ingratitude.  Of course his buddies pat his back consolingly because, they think, his anger is completely justified.  He has achieved the liar’s perfect invention.  Emotional manipulation and abuse which masquerades as kindness and love.  Seemingly, it cannot be objected to without appearing ungrateful.  The point is, the action, i.e. a gift of roses, may mean “I love you” or it may mean “I want something from you” or something else.  The action must be judged within its ethical-grammatical context.

Again, consider the fact that certain messages mean more to our children when they come from someone other than their parents.  Even if its the exact same message.  This happens because parents have a particular relationship with their children which provides the interpretive context for the words that they use.  Children are not sure if what their parents tell them is the truth or a deceptive attempt at control.  Further, parents are not always sure what they mean when they speak to their children.  Are they really telling the truth?  Or are they trying to subtly deceive, manipulate, and control?  Encouragement, as well as criticism, is often better received from people outside the family.  The same is true between spouses.  There are certain things that I cannot say to my wife precisely because of the relationship that we have with one another, because of the social context that I have created.  Even if what I say is “true”, the ethical montage created by the interplay between our history and the words I speak transforms my message into a power play with the goal of controlling her or exhibiting my superiority in some way.  The question of truth is always bound up in the character of the speaker.  The very same words coming from another may mean something different than they would if they came from me.  My very person provides an ethical-grammatical context different from that of another person.

The difficulty of life together, whether that’s in a neighborhood, a family, a marriage, or a friendship is that most of us are not so bad as Scar, or the immoral staff of the prison.  Most of us have better marriages than the one described above.  We are ambiguous people.  This makes it even harder to discern whether or not someone is telling the truth.  If a person were bad through and through we could know that they are lying.  But because of our ambiguity we are never quite sure.  So we oscillate in our relationships between trust and doubt.  We are never quite sure if the other person is telling us the truth.  Even worse, we are never quite sure if we are telling the truth.  It turns out that telling the truth is a significant moral achievement.

How God Became “Nice”
It is strange that the world in which John 3:16 is displayed by every bumper sticker, tattoo, and football fan is the same world in which Jesus’ love is separated from his person, particularly as reflected in his crucifixion.  Doesn’t John 3:16 say that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”?  Yet, somehow, we have effectively separated “love” from the one who loves.  And because actions must be interpreted in relation to their actors it should come as no surprise that separating God’s love from God has resulted in interpreting “God is love” to mean “God is nice.”  Without the ethical-grammatical context by which we understand love, a context provided by the person of Jesus, we may define love many different ways.  Because we have bought into the idea that words and actions have meaning apart from any context  we may think “love” means something like tolerance or niceness.  We then insert the definition of love which we have created apart from the lover and then insert that into the Bible.  As a result we read that God is love and we think that means that God is tolerant.  We think God is nice.

It is only when we refuse to see love apart from God that we realize what love means.  Love means the cross.  Love means the willingness to be vulnerable for the good of others.  Love means willingness to suffer painful death on behalf of another.  It also means that love is confrontational.  The cross is not a sentimental gesture.  The cross was a sacrifice as well as a conflict.  Insofar as Jesus died “for our sins” he died in opposition to our sins.  He died to fight against our sins.  He died to defeat them.  He died to save us, and salvation is a painful process, for us as well as for him.  Love is not “nice.”  Love is not “tolerant.”  Love is full of conflict.  But the conflict of love cannot be separated from the lover who would rather die than see you destroy yourself.  Love can only truly be expressed when it is paired with such a person.  And that’s why speaking the truth in love is a nearly impossible achievement.

“You Brood of Vipers”: Why I Don’t Talk Like Jesus
You can’t have “good southern preaching” without saying somebody is going to hell.  Or so it seems.  Southern Baptists, revivalist Pentecostals, conservative Churches of Christ, and others with strong roots in the south have a reputation for preaching fire and brimstone.  In our culture it’s considered good form to name the “whitewashed tombs”, the “false teachers”, the “blind guides”, the “hypocrites”, the “den of vipers.”  And if people object the preacher will abruptly inform them that Jesus spoke like that and if their “snowflake” disposition can’t handle it then they’re probably headed to hell too.  It’s the perfect invention.  Meanness masquerading as Christianity.

It’s difficult to object.  It’s a basic tenet of Christianity that Christians are supposed to be like Jesus.  It would seem to follow that if Jesus did it then we can too.  But hopefully by this time it is clear why this is not so.  Jesus’ actions cannot be separated from his character.  Jesus is literally willing to be crucified rather than see one of his brothers destroy himself.  And whatever else he does cannot be separated from that fact.  The cross is the central expression of who he is.

What would it mean to actually imitate Christ’s goodness in this regard?  Have you ever known someone so good that he or she could confront anyone and that person would thank him/her after?  I can only think of one, maybe two people I know who can accomplish that feat.  Their entire lives are characterized by a settled sort of compassion, a genuine holiness.  When they speak, people listen.  If they speak a critical word you can trust that it is a necessary word.  And more than being necessary, you can trust that such people have within them a wellspring of life gushing up from the power of the Holy Spirit, filling them with love and joy and peace.  There is no way to interpret their speech in an ungodly fashion.  Whatever they say means, “I care about you.”  Whatever they say is fitting.  Of them the proverb is true, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Pro. 27:6, KJV).

“There is a story told by Drury, a friend of arguably the most important philosopher of the last century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, about a walk he was taking with Wittgenstein … Wittgenstein, who more than any other philosopher helped us recover the essential relation between what we say and how we live, on a walk with Drury passed a street evangelist preaching to all who passed by.  Drury reports Wittgenstein remarked, ‘If he really meant what he was shouting he would not use that tone of voice.'”7

That is the love of Jesus.  We cannot judge Jesus’ words apart from him.  They are only good because they come from him.  Anyone who would possess the ability to imitate his words must imitate his life.  We cannot have it any other way.  If I were to say the same words that Jesus said they would mean something different.  I would mean, “I want to destroy you.”  Jesus means, “I would rather die than see you destroy yourself.”  And that’s why I don’t talk like Jesus.  The truth is, I’m not good enough to be mean.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Dictionary.com actually includes this “Usage Alert” above its definition of “Nigga.” “Nigga is used mainly among African Americans, but also among other minorities and ethnicities, in a neutral or familiar way and as a friendly term of address. It is also common in rap music. However, nigga is taken to be extremely offensive when used by outsiders. Many people consider this word to be equally as offensive as nigger. The words nigger and nigga are pronounced alike in certain dialects, and so it has been claimed that they are one and the same word.” Notice, the word is considered “a friendly term of address” as well as “extremely offensive.” What makes the difference is who uses it. The speech cannot be judged apart from the speaker. Available at : http://www.dictionary.com/browse/nigga ; Accessed 10 June 2017.
2. http://www.nasdaq.com/article/the-fearless-girl-statue-isnt-a-symbol-it-is-an-advertisement-cm766282 ; Accessed 10 June 2017.
3. Ibid. The creator of Charging Bull is not at all pleased with the appearance of Fearless Girl.
4. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed., (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1984), 38.
5. Ibid, 45.
6. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens, 25th Anniversary Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 98.
7. Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words, “Sent: The Church is Mission”, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 168-69.

Learning to Say “God”: Reflections on Ten Years of Preaching

 

 

At the end of this year I will have been preaching for 10 years. One might wonder why I did not wait until I had fulfilled my years to reflect on them. Ideally that’s what I would do, but as I have come to learn, life is never ideal. I am presently experiencing a shift in how I preach the Bible and I thought it expedient to describe the process while it is happening rather than to try and do it retrospectively after the angst and uncertainty has worn off.

Impossible Prayers
I have not forgotten that this is an article about preaching, but good preaching begins with good prayers, though in my case it began with bad ones. My early Christian life was characterized by almost no prayer at all and when I did pray I believed they were impossible. I believed “God” was unchangeable and that made prayer impossible. I could ask, but he could not change, so it’s easy to see why I rarely bothered asking. Whatever I meant by “God” it was not someone who changed.
It was certainly not someone who changed for me.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
I do not pretend to know what Pascal meant when he wrote the memorial he carried in the lining of his coat, nor do I remember how it came to me, but I do know what it meant to me when I heard it. “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and of the learned.” I realized that my idea of God had been shaped by the philosophers and not by scripture. Somewhere along the way I had heard, and accepted without question, that God was immutable, unchangeable, that whatever he purposed was done and there was no turning to the right or the left. So of course, when I had learned to say “God” from the philosophers, and not from the word of God, I cannot be expected to pray the prayers which only scripture makes intelligible. The “God” of my speech made prayer impossible. But when I went to scripture I saw Abraham pray to God and barter for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah. I saw Moses pray for the lives of the rebellious Israelites. I read the burning passion of the psalms. All of these prayed as if they expected God to change … and he did.

I cannot explain how God changes. When I reason about him, or when I accept the reason of the philosophers, I find that I invent a God that cannot answer prayer. But when I read scripture I find a God who moves heaven and earth to answer the prayers of his children. The crucified Christ is the resurrected Christ who shakes heaven and earth so that only that which is eternal remains, and all that in answer to the petition of little children praying, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” When I read scripture I find a God that I could not have guessed.

Inventing “God”
After graduating preaching school I was enamored with apologetics. It was my great dream to be an apologist and debater. In the apologetics I had learned, you cannot assume God. You cannot assume the thing to be proved. So, you begin with the “facts”, the things that are given. You begin with creation or with Man and ascend step by step until you have arrived at God. This sort of polemic “move” characterized by apologetics as well as my preaching. I would begin with the “neutral facts” and arrive at God.

Recently I have recognized a problem in this order. If God is God then there is no such thing as neutral facts.  The “fact” is that all that exists is created, Man is a creature, and to call Man a creature–which is to tell the truth about him–is not neutral.  If we begin with Man then Man becomes determinative, not God. We allow Man to define God instead of allowing God to define Man. Further, if we begin with Man, without reference to God, then we do not begin with Man at all but only a false idea of Man. There is no “Man” without God. To begin with a “neutral Man”, a Man without reference to God, is to begin with Man misunderstood. And when your premises are false your conclusions cannot help but be false also. To begin with Man or creation, apart from God, is to begin with false premises.

The God I Could Not Have Guessed
Whatever “God” we invent as a result of such faulty premises–such as “Man” apart from God–cannot be the God who is Trinity, the God revealed in the crucified Christ. Indeed, if the God we invent as a result of such natural theology is the true God then he is exactly the God we have guessed. Once again, as I did with my prayers, I had invented a “God” according to the philosophers, one who made the God of the Bible unintelligible. The witness of scripture is that the God revealed in Christ is the God we could never have guessed. The cadence of the Gospel According to Mark is measured by the chorus “They were all amazed.” While the “God” we invent is amazing, the amazement is not at “God” but at the ingenuity of Man. Who could be amazed at a “God” who fits inside the heads of men? One begins to wonder whether the men are greater than the “God.” This cannot be the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Learning to Say “God”
So I find that my preaching has all been a discipline in learning to say “God.”1 The god of the philosophers produced impossible prayers. The god of my natural theology produced a god at which I could not stand in the awe appropriate to Jesus, and it produced a Man which was more awful. Bit by bit I am learning to say “God.” Little by little I am learning that to say “God” at all, if I am to tell the truth, is to mean the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To say “God” is to name a God I could never have guessed.  He defines reality.  I must begin with him, and so must my preaching.  I have learned that if I am to tell the truth, and preaching must be true, I cannot know in order to believe. I can only believe in order to know. Credo ut intelligam.2


1. I have intentionally borrowed the phrase “learning to say ‘God'” from Stanley Hauerwas who increasingly influences the way that I think about God and the task of preaching. The phrase comes from his book, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).
2. “I believe in order to understand.” This comes from St. Anselm’s “Proslogium.” St. Anselm, Basic Writings, (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1992), 53.

Sensus Plenior, Old World Science, and Other Hermeneutic Questions (Part 3)

 

The purpose of this series has been to say something about hermeneutics.  The concern is with allowing scriptures to say what they mean without inserting something into the text which the authors themselves did not intend, which is a prolix way of saying that I’m concerned with keeping scriptures within their context.1 More precisely, my concern has been with whether or not it is possible for a text to have a meaning which the human author did not intend, that is, a meaning outside of its authorial context. If it can, then that meaning is, by definition, context-less. If context-less meanings exist it would spell trouble for meaningful discourse/disagreement, as well as efforts towards unity and unanimity which depend upon intellectual agreement.

In part one I took the position that the human authors did not unknowingly describe modern science. Rather, they sometimes couched theological statements about God (which was their illocution)2 within the Old World Science of their day. This means that there is no context-less science embedded in the OT.  In part two I took the position that many of the NT’s quotations of the OT do not indicate sensus plenior as often conceived amongst the people.3 The OT authors did not intend to prophecy about Christ. It was the NT authors who, in light of the revelation of the Christ event, “read backwards” and were able to notice certain figural patterns in the narrative of history in general and Israel’s history in particular. They then interpreted, retrospectively, the events of history (which were not prophecy per se) as foreshadowing the Christ who would come (cf. John 5:39; Luke 24:27, 44). If that is true, and I believe that it is, “it would be a mistake to read the Law and the Prophets as though their authors were deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus. Rather, in light of the unfolding story of Jesus we’re enabled to read backwards and to discover in the Law and the Prophets an unexpected foreshadowing of the later story.”4 “Foreshadowing”, then, not “prophecy” is perhaps a better term to describe the sensus plenior as used in the NT.  In this way it is the Christ event which provides the context for the reinterpretation of the OT.  These sensus plenior are, therefore, not examples of context-less interpretations as some make them out to be.  On both accounts then, in regard to science in the Bible as well as the NT use of the OT, we find that neither supports the existence of context-less interpretations.

The significance of the figural interpretation of the OT by the NT is this: it makes such interpretations accessible to our reason, as it was to the writers of the NT. This is different from sensus plenior as often conceived amongst the “folk.” The folk conception of the NT use of the OT is that there were hidden meanings in the text only known to those which have a special illumination of the Holy Spirit. And this is, I think, the crux of the matter. It is at least the matter I intend to address in this final article. Either the (fuller)meaning of the text is accessible to our reason in light of the larger Story as interpreted through the Christ event, or we have no grounds to affirm supposed fuller meanings.

I mentioned in Part One about Old World Science that the term sensus plenior is not applied to the supposed pre-scientific statements (as far as I know).  I have labeled it a sort of fuller meaning, however, because they share the same character.  They both claim that there is embedded information which is not evident to the original reader and perhaps even the author.  In a similar way the sort of thing I will describe below is not sensus plenior as the term is commonly used.  Still, it shares the character of fuller meaning because it claims more meaning for certain passages than is apparent from the context or authorial intent.  The problems with such context-less interpretations will be discussed below.  But first, how does this interpretative method express itself in my tradition?

A Dangerous Assumption
Perhaps the most perilous assumption of my tradition5 is the assumption that the Bible must answer every question we raise about religious life.6 A scripture sometimes called in as evidence in this regard is 2 Peter 1:3.  “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”  This is usually considered prima facie evidence that the Bible answers all of our questions about Christian living.  But does it?  Saying that God has told us all that we need to know is different than saying that we need to know everything, and that is precisely how this verse is often treated.  Many with whom I come into contact, some of them ministers, seem to think that if they have a question about worship or ethics then the Bible must address it.  This often results in attributing more meaning to a particular text than was intended by the author.

When considering this it is important to remember that we are never allowed, with the Bible or any other book, to insist that it answer our questions.  We must allow the book to ask us its own questions.  Numerous writers recognize the importance of asking–not any question–but the right ones when reading a text.  Mortimer Adler speaks of reading in general and says, “Ask questions while you read–questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading.  Any questions?  No.  The art of reading on any level above the elementary consists in the habit of asking the right questions in the right order” (emphasis original).7 Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in specific regard to the Bible comment, “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” (emphasis original).8  And finally, Krister Stendahl puts it beautifully when he writes, “Even the divinely right answer is not heard aright if it is applied to the wrong question.”9 There is a sense in which the Bible has a limited number of answers and we cannot take its finite number of answers and apply them to an infinite number of questions. That would be something akin to asking a Magic 8 Ball any question, knowing that it only has 20 answers on the icosahedral die. We may ask the Bible whether this practice or that one is authorized and we get either a yes, no, or a non-committal answer, just like the 8 Ball. We get answers like, “Yes, definitely”, “Most likely,” or “Very doubtful.” Whereas the Magic 8-Ball’s answers may be useful for party games, they are not intended to be a guide for deciding who to marry, which house to buy, or which religion to follow.  It was not designed to answer those questions.  In the same way we must stop to ask which questions the Bible is intended to answer.  If we make it answer questions it was not intended to answer we find the right answers to all the wrong questions.  We’ll take as examples three questions that have been asked within my tradition and upon examining the passages ask whether or not those passages are intended to answer the questions that we put to them.

 

How Many Cups Should We Use on the Lord’s Table?
If we were certain that the Bible was intended to answer this question then finding the answer would be fairly simple.  We need only to scour the Bible and collect all scriptures which reference the Lord’s Supper and decide whether or not one cup was used or many.  Many have assumed that the Bible is intended to answer this question and have done precisely that.  They then conclude that we are only authorized to use one cup for the Lord’s Supper.10 But this comes to the text with a question in mind, like one does with an 8-Ball, and does not stop to ask whether the text is intended to answer that question. Certainly the text is trying to tell us something, but what? What to eat? What to drink? What time to eat? Where to eat? How many cups to use? How many plates? In what direction we should pass the Supper? Is Jesus suggesting a healthy diet? Is he concerned with the frequency of the Supper? We could ask any of these questions, but we would be wrong to do so unless these are the questions the Bible intends to answer.

Without entering the complex discussions about whether the Supper which Jesus shared with his apostles was a Passover meal11 it does seem clear the Passover, at the very least, supplied the imaginative background for the Supper. The Bible writers certainly draw upon Passover language and readily apply it to Jesus (John 19:36; 1 Cor. 5:7, 8). Jesus, then, takes the Passover and reinterprets it around himself. Insofar as the Passover commemorated the Exodus, by drawing on the images of the Exodus Jesus identifies himself as the one who is to bring about the true Exodus, the full and final Exodus which will bring an end to exile, and death, which exile prefigures. When he institutes the Supper he says, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). That’s a radical statement. Up to this point the Passover has been in remembrance of God’s redeeming the Israelites from Egypt. Without losing that significance Jesus superimposes himself upon the memorial. It is no longer a memorial of the Egypt exodus only, it is also a memorial of the exodus which Christ himself would accomplish. The bread, Jesus says, is his body and the wine his blood.

We stop now to ask, is there anything in the text to suggest that the number of cups is at all significant? Is the single cup given some symbolic significance? Would the use of multiple cups change the imagery of the Exodus in any way? Would it affect the meaning of Jesus’ exodus? Would it in any way negate or alter the significance of Jesus’ body and blood? We must conclude that the number of containers is not a concern of any of the gospel texts. But what of others?

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul reflects upon the significance of the Jesus Meal. The Corinthians, apparently, were dividing themselves by class. “I hear that there are divisions among you … one goes hungry and another becomes drunk … do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (11:19-22). Paul points to the theological significance of the Supper in order to combat their division and encourage unity. Now certainly if ever there was a place for the symbolism of a single cup this would be it. In a divided church the necessity of drinking from a single cup would be an effective, not to mention beautiful, image to rally around. But such a point is conspicuously absent. In fact, it is the bread, not the “cup” which receives the interpretive attention.12 Paul writes, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (11:29, emp. mine). Whereas Paul could have drawn attention to the cup (he mentions both eating and drinking) he gives the symbol of unity to the bread. This no doubt draws upon his previous discussion of idolatry in which he also makes use of the Lord’s Supper tradition as an antidote to the erroneous practices of the Corinthian church. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (10:16, 17).  Again, even when the cup is mentioned within the immediate context, the symbolism of unity is focused upon the bread, not the enumeration of cups.

This brief inspection is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the Eucharist. Space does not allow nor is it within the purview of this article. The point is simply to show that the concern of some is not at all the concern of Jesus, the apostles, or the early church. No text which depicts or comments upon the Lord’s Supper draws attention to the number of vessels during the Supper, even when it would have been an appropriate and effective symbol. There is nothing within the context of any passage to indicate it is concerned with the question, “How many cups ought we to have?” If that is not the question that the text intends to answer then we do wrong to force that question upon the text. The Bible is not the one on trial. We do not bring our questions to it. It poses its questions to us.

As far as the context shows there is no evidence that the writers were concerned with the number of cups used nor do they attribute any spiritual symbolism to a single cup, even when it would have been advantageous to do so.  Now, one may agree that the passage does not indicate a concern for one cup and yet still insist that such a meaning is within the passage. If this is so that would mean the one cup requirement is a context-less meaning.  Such a meaning, if it exists, is unavailable to our reason and thus becomes the kind of folk sensus plenior which I mentioned in the introduction.

How Many Elders Must a Congregation Have?
It is a long held position within my tradition that each local church is autonomous and has no higher earthly government than its own elders. Further, each church must have a plurality of elders or none at all. A single elder is, as we say, unauthorized.13 This is a similar question to the one above insofar as it has to do with number. As such, it makes a shocking inconsistency for many who require a plurality of elders think requiring one cup is silly.  But why?  If the mere mention of plural elders requires plural elders today, why does not the mention of one cup require only one cup?  Their reasons for each position are the same, as is the method by which they arrive at their conclusions.  They come with a question and then mine the Bible to find the answer.  Now, if we knew of a certainty that the Bible intended to answer the question of how many elders a church should have, then it would be that simple.  All we would need to do is search the Bible and discover how many elders were appointed at each church. But this comes to the Bible with a question already in hand, like some do with the cup in the Lord’s Supper, and like all do with the 8-Ball. We must first consider whether anything in the Bible suggests that it is concerned with the question.

There are many scriptures which mention elders, some in mere passing and others with more attention.14 Most of the time elders are accouterments of the scene and not the focus of the narrative. We’ll take a quick look at the passages which are most detailed and/or most appealed to by my tradition.

First, let’s make brief note of what is often pointed out, that every mention of a governing body in the church mentions elders in the plural. Indeed, I cannot count the number of times which ministers in my tradition, within my hearing, asserted that the mention of “bishops”, plural, in Philippians 1:1 was de facto evidence of the necessity of more than one elder. But, recall if you will our discussion of Speech Act Theory.15 Words do not merely communicate, they try to accomplish something. They inspire, inform, encourage, describe, commit, etc. We must ask ourselves whenever we read, “What is the writer trying to do?” In Philippians 1:1, is Paul trying to institute something by his reference to “bishops”? Is his intent to prescribe a practice? Nothing in the text suggests this. His goal is to identify the recipients of the letter. “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” This is his illocution, and that is where his authority lies. If that is what he meant to accomplish then that is how it must be taken by the reader. We must ask these same questions of every verse which mentions elders. We must ask, “Does the writer intend to prescribe a practice of appointing only a plurality of elders?” We will find over and over again that that is not the goal of the writer, or at least, nothing in the text indicates this.

Second, one of the most detailed passages we have about elders/bishops is 1 Timothy 3:1ff. We notice first that he speaks of each individual bishop, not of a collective body. The next thing we notice, and the most obvious, is that Paul is not concerned with the number of bishops which are to be appointed in each church. His concern is wholly with the character of the bishops. Nothing in the text indicates a concern for the enumeration of elders.

Third, Acts 14:23 says of Paul and Barnabas, “And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.” This passage is often cited to show that it was the practice of Paul and Barnabas to appointed “elders”, plural, in every church. This is taken to be definitive. A few things should be pointed out: 1. The point of Acts is not to describe church government. It’s references to early church organization are few. The book of Acts depicts for us how the first Christians believed they were to carry the Story of the world forward in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 2. The appointment of elders, much less their number, is not the focus of this section of Acts (chps. 13-14). This portion is concerned with describing Paul’s first exploits among the Gentiles and Gentile churches which will become the focus of the Acts narrative from here onward. 3. We cannot be sure that a plurality of elders was appointed in every church. Undoubtedly someone will point out that the word “elders” is presbuterous and is plural. That is not contested. But a simple insistence upon the plurality of the word does not deal with the nuance of language and so does not solve the problem.

Imagine a town building a new college. The campus is completed and they have hired their teachers. The last step is to appoint the deans of each department. Having done that the newspaper runs an article announcing the completion of this last step and the readiness of the college to open. As you read the article the reporter says, “After establishing the deans of each department the new college will open its doors for the Fall semester.” Does this require that there be multiple deans over each singular department? No. Even though the word “deans” is plural it does not require that each department has multiple deans.  We are to understand that multiple deans were appointed over multiple departments. While it is possible for a department to be presided over by multiple deans such an idea is not required by the text of the article. When we view Acts 14:23 in this way we must conclude that this text is not concerned with answering the question of the enumeration of elders and, if it were, it would not be a clear answer. The construction of the sentence leaves it ambiguous as to whether Luke describes the appointment of multiple elders over each church, or multiple elders with each one over his own church. Both interpretations are allowable.

Fourth, another passage which suffers from the same sort of ambiguity is Titus 1:5. Paul says to Titus, “I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” Just as above, this could be taken to mean a plurality of elders over each town, or many elders each over his own town. Further, and more curious, Paul does not say that Titus is to appoint elders over every church, rather, over every town. One might say that there was only one church in each town and so it amounts to the same thing. But this begs the question. How do we know there was only one church in each town? Moving onward, we find that Paul immediately launches into a description of the character an elder ought to have. We find again that Paul’s concern is not the enumeration of elders but the character that they are supposed to have, just as in 1 Timothy 3. Did Paul intend to establish a particular practice by mentioning elders in the plural? It does not seem so. Nothing in the context suggests it and everything in the context suggests his concern was elsewhere. When we do not come to the text with our own questions, and when we allow the Bible to pose its questions to us, we find that very often the Bible writers’ concerns are wholly different than our own.

 

What Sort of Music Should We Have?
Acappella music is perhaps the most distinctive marker of my tradition.  Countless books and articles have been written making a case for acapella music as the only authorized form of music in the worship of the church.16 The approach to this question is the same as the others. We come with our question, “What sort of music should we have?” The answer, we think, is as simple as collecting all of the verses from the New Testament which mention music in worship and noting that they are all singing without accompaniment. Hopefully by now we can see the difficulty with this. If we knew of a certainty that the New Testament was intended to answer that question then it would be a fair way of settling the question. The difficulty is that we have not allowed the Bible to tell us whether or not it is interested in the question. We have assumed that it must answer the question and we have gone in search of the answer. But what if we backed up? What if we gathered together the relevant passages and then asked, “Is the concern of these passages to limit worship music to singing only?” What if we found that the writers’ interests were different than our own? What would that mean for worship? Let’s take a look at three relevant passages.

James 5:13 is the minor key when it comes to passages called in support of acapella only. The passage reads, “Above all, my beloved, do not swear either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord” (5:12-14). In regard to oaths James is concerned that people may use oaths as a form of manipulation. While they might “promise on a stack of Bibles” in order to coerce someone into agreeing to something that they might not otherwise agree to, James encourages the church to be people whose outward actions always accord with their inward character. They should not be a people whose inward character makes others hesitant to enter into agreement with them. They should not have to take an oath in order to convince others that “this time” they really mean it. Rather, they are to let their “Yes” be yes, and their “No” be no. They should not be deceptive or hypocritical people. Their outward actions are always commensurate with their inner attitudes. It is a short step from here to the next section where James tells the people that their outward actions should always reflect their inner condition, and those actions should bring their inner condition before God. If they are suffering, they should pray. No need to hide our suffering from God Almighty. Instead, we bring our suffering into his presence. If they are joyful, there is no reason to hold that in either. They should express it appropriately, and bring that expression of joy into the presence of God through singing. Are they sick? Well, have the elders pray for them. This is to bring sickness into the presence of God by bringing it to the Christian community by which God’s presence is mediated to us. Having the big picture of the flow of the text we are now in a position to ask, “Is James concerned with prescribing a particular sort of music for the church?” Not at all. His concern is that Christians be genuine and live in the presence of God no matter what the circumstance. Are we really to take singing as the only appropriate response to joy? Could we not shout? Or feast? If not, why not? And if we make singing the only appropriate response, will we then make prayer the only appropriate response to suffering? What about weeping? Or fasting? Is calling the elders to anoint with oil (a thing which we rarely do) the only appropriate response to sickness? What about taking medicine? Or going to the doctor? These are not restrictive commands but representative ones. James is describing the sort of behavior which ought to characterize the Christian, not a particular act. A Christian ought always to express himself appropriately and always in the presence of God, which shows our dependence upon him. If a restriction for acappella is here it is not indicated by the context and must by definition be context-less. If it is context-less then such a meaning is not available to our reason and it shares the character of the folk conception of sensus plenior.

We now move to the central scriptures in defense of acappella only, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. We will not insist that these scriptures answer the questions that we would pose to it. Rather, we want to come to the letters and allow them to speak to us. What is Paul’s concern when he commands singing? Is he trying to restrict the form of worship to acappella? Only an examination of the letter can tell and we cannot assume a particular question going in.

One of the most peculiar things about both texts is that neither actually contains the command to sing. The words which describe the action, “teaching”, “admonishing”, “speaking”, “making melody”, “giving thanks”, and “singing” are all verbals. None are commands. A verbal is a verb which functions as an adjective, adverb, or a noun. If police were to approach a man in a park where people were engaged in all sorts of activities, eating, exercising, kissing, singing, throwing frisbee, and ask that man, “Have you seen Mr. James Smith?” He might respond, “Yeah, he’s right over there.” “Which one?” the police ask. The man then says, “The singing man.” “Singing” here functions as an adjective describing the man. So while it is a verb in form it is an adjective in function. Verbals may also be adverbs. Whereas an adjective describes a noun an adverb describes a verb. For example, I might say, “I’ve been cleaning the house all day, sweeping, mopping, and vacuuming.”  The verbals “sweeping, mopping, and vacuuming” are not additions to “cleaning”, they are adverbs.  They describe the cleaning; they tell what it looks like.  That is how the verbals function in Ephesians and Colossians.

In Ephesians Paul discusses the change that ought to characterize the Christians in Ephesus. They are to “lead a life worthy of their calling” (4:1). They are to “put away their former life” their “old self”, “be renewed in the spirit of their minds”, and “clothe themselves with their new self, created according to the likeness of God” (4:22-24). This contrast between former sinful behavior and present holiness continues into chapter 5 where Paul writes, “So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:17-20). Paul points to activities which characterized their former life, as he has since chapter 4, things like foolishness and drunkenness, and commands them to forfeit those practices in lieu of holy ones. Instead of being filled with wine he commands them to “be filled with the Spirit.” This is the command of the verse.  What follows are verbals which describe that command.  “Speaking to one another”, “singing and making melody”, and “giving thanks to God the Father” all describe what it looks like to “be filled with the Spirit.” This can be taken either to mean that these are the practices which invite the filling of the Spirit, or they can describe the results of being filled with the Spirit. Either way, there is an intimate connection between these practices and a Spirit-led life. We now ask, is Paul concerned with the sort of music in the church? Does he here intend to prescribe acappella music as the only approved sort? If that is a concern, it is not evident. Paul’s illocution, what he is trying to do by writing this, is to encourage the Ephesians to forfeit the “unfruitful works of darkness” (5:11), like drunkenness, and to “live as children of light” (5:7) by being filled with the Spirit. If that is Paul’s intent, can we conscientiously make him say something else?

Paul’s message to the Colossians is much the same. He calls the church to “put to death whatever is earthly” and to be “clothed with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (3:5, 10). “Above all”, he writes, “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything int he name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:14-17). The similarities to the Ephesian passage are striking, even down to the lack of focus upon the sort of music we are to have in the worship of the church. Paul’s concern is a changed life. He expects them to put to death those things which are “earthly” and to live a life filled with the word of Christ which subsequently produces singing and thanksgiving. Does he intend by writing this to limit the worship of the Colossian church to acappella singing? If he does, nothing in the context suggests it. If that meaning is latent then it is context-less and is unavailable to our reason. If any of these passages intend to prescribe a particular sort of music it is not obvious. If we insist that these verses require acappella singing we are assigning the passages a sort of fuller meaning which does not originate from the context of the passage.

Series Summary
We have come a long way. We began by discussing supposed pre-scientific statements. We determined that it was never the intention of the Bible writers to reveal modern science. And since it was not their intention then if such science exists it is context-less, it is hidden, and so shares the character of sensus plenior.

We then discussed the NT use of the OT. We found that even when the NT writers point to the life of Jesus as the fulfillment of an OT passage, they do not mean that it was the intention of that OT passage to prophecy about Christ. Rather, the NT writers “read backwards” and retrospectively perceive events which foreshadow the life of Christ. These figural analogies are then termed fulfillments by the NT writers. The significant thing about this definition of fuller meaning is that it makes the sensus plenior accessible to our reason.  It is not the case that NT writers were “allowed to use scripture out of context because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit”, as a friend once told me.  They did not play fast and loose with scripture.  There is a context to these figural readings, as there is to every appropriate interpretation of fuller meaning, and it is the Christ event which provides that context.

Finally, in this article we have shown that the way many approach the above topics (and others) share the character of a folk understanding of sensus plenior.  They attribute to the passage a meaning which is not apparent from the context, either immediately or in light of the Christ event.

Conclusion
So what?  Why is this a big deal?  The problems presented by such an interpretive method are these.

First, if there is meaning in the text which has no origin in the context then how do we get it?  Some who disagree with my assessment of the NT use of the OT will say that the writers did not “read backwards” and that their use of the Hebrew Bible was not available to their reason.  They will insist that the Hebrews scriptures cited were not foreshadowing but direct prophecy.  They will further insist that the Christian writers were able to discern these fuller meanings only by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.17 If that were the case then it would seem that in order to affirm a fuller meaning in the texts above, or any others, would require a similar claim to inspiration. If the fuller meaning is not available to our reason, and we insist that there is one, how do we know? If the NT writers only knew by inspiration, is this how we know? Would inspiration not be required for us as it was for them? I doubt anyone is willing to claim that sort of inspiration.

Second, I do not want to insist that the above option is the only one and so appear to create a Straw-Man argument. I admit to knowing no one who claims inspiration from the Spirit of the kind we read about in the NT, even though that would seem to be required if they insist upon a meaning not evident in the context. Still, there is another problem with claiming such a fuller meaning which has no origin in the immediate context or through the context of the Christ event, as all valid sensus plenior must. If the fuller meaning under question has no context, then how are we to verify it? Further, how are we to disagree with it? When we insist upon a meaning which is by definition context-less we have forfeit all controls upon interpretation. The moment we affirm such context-less meanings we open wide the gates for  interpretations whose only “context” is the whimsy of the interpreter. This is a danger we can all agree must be defended against. Without context, without boundaries placed upon the number of meanings which can be derived from a text, we become unable to speak of Truth, for truth is “this and not that.” Boundaries are precisely that which divides “this” from “that” and without them we have no definable Way, only a boundless sea, a quagmire of interpretation. Without boundaries we lose all possibility for intelligible discourse or disagreement.

I offer these considerations as a contribution to an ongoing conversation about hermeneutics within churches of Christ. I hope this series has benefited you as much as it has me, whether it has garnered your agreement or vehement disagreement. In all cases I appreciate all who endeavor to draw nearer to God by immersing him/herself in God’s living word. Grace be with you all.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. I do not mean to imply that others are not concerned with keeping scriptures in their context. I would not judge their motives in that way. I only mean that I differ with some on what criteria constitute something being “in context.” It has been the concern of these articles to discuss and model what sorts of things I consider proper and improper modes of interpretation, i.e. which things are, in fact, “in context” and which are “out of context” despite the best intentions of some.
2. See part 1 here for an explanation of illocution within Speech-Act-Theory and its relevance to biblical hermeneutics.
3. I confessed in part 2 that while I initially set out to “debunk” sensus plenior I found that I the more I wrote the more I established it. I maintain, however, that my comments are still valid in one regard. The sensus plenior that I have described is different than that sort which is tossed about by many lay people.  I speak here as a local minister and not as a scholar.  As a result my comments are aimed at the way that I frequently hear lay persons appeal to the text.  Whereas it seems the consensus among scholars that the Bible writers did not intend the fuller meaning, and that that fuller meaning is only understood retrospectively as an event analogous to contemporary ones, the idea amongst many Christians is that the writers knowingly intended two different things: 1. The message for their immediate context as well as 2. A prophecy for future generations. This I hold to be a misuse of the idea of sensus plenior.
4. This quote comes from a lecture by Richard Hays entitled, “Did Moses Write about Jesus? The Challenges of Figural Reading.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlRqu0anrF8&t=690s ; Accessed 14 April, 2017. This lecture masterfully illustrates the hermeneutic I suggested in part 2. At the time I was unaware of Hays’ lecture and so I claimed the view as unique to me, while admitting the possibility that others held it unbeknownst to me. My use of “reading backwards” comes from the title of Hays’ book, which I have yet to read, and my use of the term “figural” is also indebted to Hays.
5. I belong to the churches of Christ, a Protestant tradition which arose during the era often labeled “The Restoration Movement.”
6. By calling it an assumption I acknowledge that many who do this may not realize that they do it and, therefore, may even deny that they do. Still, the conclusions they wrest from the text prove otherwise.
7. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 46.
8. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2003), 26.
9. Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1976), 6.
10. One such example can be viewed here: https://www.newtestamentchurch.org/html/Cup.html ; Accessed 21 April 2017.
11. While Luke seems clear that it was, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you” (22:15), John’s account offers a different perspective which may suggest that Jesus’ supper anticipated the Passover (13:1; 19:14).
12. Gordon D. Fee, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians”, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 551.
13. Leroy Brownlow, Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ, (Fort Worth: The Brownlow Corporation, 2002). I was gifted this classic of my tradition shortly after my conversion. I still own that copy in which the sweet sister inscribed Ecclesiastes 12:1, “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth.” This book continues to be influential in my tradition. In answer to the question posed by the title, it contains a chapter entitled, “[I am a member of the Church of Christ] Because It Is Scriptural in Organization” (chapter 6, 38-44). This chapter discusses Christ as head of the church, the local congregation as autonomous, the congregation as the largest and smallest of all governing bodies within the church, and the necessity of a plurality of elders.
14. In the book of acts alone we find the following: Elders: Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; Overseers: Acts 20:28. Outside of Acts there are the following: Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2ff; 5:17ff; Titus 1:5ff. (Also 1 Peter 5:1ff, though it is disputed whether the referent is the office of elders, or elderly men, or both).
15. You can view the article in which I discuss it here.
16. E.g. Leroy Brownlow, Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ, (Fort Worth: Brownlow Corporation, 2002), chp. 24. M.C. Kurfees, Instrumental Music in the Worship, (Indianapolis: Faith and Facts Press). Everett Ferguson, A Cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church, (Abilene: Desert Willow Publishing, 2013). David Miller, Piloting the Strait, (Pulaski, TN: Sain Publications, 2006), chp. 20. David Miller, Richland Hills & Instrumental Music: A Plea to Reconsider, (Pulaski, TN: Sain Publications, 2007). Rubel Shelly, Sing His Praise! A Case for A Cappella Music as Worship Today, (Nashville: 20th Century Christian, 1987). Shelly, however, has changed his stance since the publication of this work.
17. Whereas I certainly agree that the NT writers wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I do not believe, as some do, that this excludes the use of the writers’ own reason. You can read a brief explanation of how I believe this works in Part Two, which can be accessed here, under the section labeled “Inspiration.”

Vulnerability: The Strength of Weakness

Aristotle wrote, “One … who [does not need others] … is either a beast or a god.”1  Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, writes, “Connection is why we’re here.  We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”2 The Bible, our greatest source of authority, describes Adam in full fellowship with God and animals.  Yet still God says “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).  Even communion with God and creation left something lacking in Adam.  We are created for communion with other human beings.  Like Adam needed Eve for community so we need others.

But how do we create community?  In a word: vulnerability.  “Vulnerable” comes from a Latin word meaning “to wound” and is defined as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” 3  As scary as that sounds, it is necessary.  I want briefly to suggest two ways in which vulnerability helps to create community, both of which have a comparison to our relationship with God.

 

Give Up Control
First, in order to create community we must forfeit the attempt to control others.  We often try to control others by verbal manipulation and sometimes by force.  We do so in order to assure that things go our way, that any annoying habits or silly ideas others might have are quickly snuffed out so that we can go on enjoying our lives as we intend them.  Ultimately this is to create the world in our image, to coerce others to be like us.  This, however, assaults and offends the personhood of others and as a result will cause them to withdraw—the very opposite of community.

Should we expect anything different?  We only have communion with God when we allow him to be himself.  The biblical word for attempts to control God and fashion him in our image is “idolatry” (cf. Deu. 4:15-19), and idolatry precludes communion with God as he is.  On the other hand, if we allow God to be himself then we can have a relationship with him.  This requires vulnerability on our part.  There is no doubt that letting God work in our lives is, at times, uncomfortable, perhaps even involving mourning and weeping.  But when we relinquish control and “draw near to God” he will draw near to us (cf. James 4:8, 9).  That is communion.  And it begins in vulnerability.

The same vulnerability is necessary when dealing with people.  Allowing them to be gloriously “other” than us may involve some pain.  There may be quirks and habits that we do not like which cause discomfort when we invite them into our lives.  But only when we refuse to control them do we communicate our genuine love and respect for their personhood.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it well: “Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become.  It takes the life of the other person into its own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he receives from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.”4 When we create others in our own image, requiring them to be and act just like us, we are making idols of ourselves.  We destroy the “other” in a person and replace it with an image of “us.” By a work of self-centered alchemy we transform their brilliant “Thou” into a banal “I.”  So long as another’s behavior is in accord with truth and goodness we must allow him to be himself and appreciate him as an individual, like us, created in the image of God (cf. James 3:9).

Give Up “Perfection”
Second, in order to create community we must be willing to share our faults.  One study concluded that all parties involved in relationship must be willing to share their true selves in order to produce feelings of closeness and intimacy.5  If we are not willing to share ourselves we cannot be surprised if we do not feel close to those around us.  Holding back for fear of “committing too soon” obstructs the creation of intimacy. The fear of getting hurt may be the very thing which hurts us by leaving us lonely and withholding the one thing which can connect us to others. The tendency to put on a “Sunday face” and maintain our ideal image in the face of others inhibits the generation of genuine community.  To hide our broken selves is to give up all hope for intimate connection.

Again this is true in our relationship with God.  So long as we put on a show for God we can have no genuine communion with him.  The Pharisee who wore his “goodness” on his sleeve was not justified (cf. Luke 18:9-14).  The Israelites who “played church” were condemned (cf. Isa. 58:1-5), because “God opposes the proud” (James 4:6a).

But, thank God, he “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6b).  When we genuinely share ourselves with God by confessing our imperfections He condescends to us and makes his home with us.  “Whoever conceals his sins will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Pro. 28:13).  It is the “contrite in spirit” that God looks upon with favor (Isa. 66:2b).

It is the same in our relationships with others.  In my own experience with vulnerability I can attest to the sometimes physical response of those to whom I confess.  After sharing some fault or struggle of my own with a trusted friend there is often a release of tension in the shoulders, a visible sigh of relief when he realizes, “You struggle with that too?!”  Our vulnerability gives others the permission to be vulnerable and, most importantly, to experience God’s mercy and grace through us.  Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, “You can’t win; if you tell lies people will distrust you.  If you tell the truth people will dislike you.”  That is a lie that we (myself included) have often bought into.  If we hide our faults we can always justify the deception by telling ourselves, “I just want friends, and no one would like me if they knew the real me.”  In fact, it is only by taking the risk of sharing our(broken)selves with others that we offer them the opportunity to know and, finally, to love the “real us.”  Only then can we experience God’s love and forgiveness in the face of our brothers and sisters.  That is real community.

Conclusion
The church is a community created and sustained by nothing but the love of God (cf. Rom. 8:35-39).  Only when we “bear with one another in love” do we “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).  But this requires vulnerability for, as C.S. Lewis put it, “[t]o love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.”6  One might ask, “Isn’t that scary?”  The answer is: yes.  Absolutely.  It’s terrifying.  But there is no other way.  The call to love is a call to vulnerability.  We need courage to allow others to be themselves, and we need courage to be and to share ourselves.  That is the vulnerability necessary to create community.  And so, praise God that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).  The strength of love springs from the weakness of vulnerability.

 


1. Aristotle, Politics, Trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), Book I.2.
2. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 8.
3. “Vulnerable.” New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. 2010.
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper One, 1954), 36.
5. Aron Arthu et al., “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings”, 364. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23.4 (1997): 363-377. SAGE Social Science Collections. Web. Accessed 16 December 2015.
6. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, The Four Loves: 2 Works, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 316.

How to Simplify Your Life (Part 5)

 

After discussing the benefits and challenges of simple living we finally ask the most practical question: “How do I simplify my life?”  Mostly I’ll point you to others which much more experience than I have, but we’ll discuss three areas: 1. Your clothes 2. Your kitchen 3. And everything else.

 

Clothes
There is something called The Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Rule.  Originally described by Vilfredo Pareto (for whom it is named) in reference to economics, it has now been applied in various fields.  In business, for example, they might say that 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers.  And when it comes to clothes you’ll find that you wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time.  The other clothes you use the other 20% of the time are likely seasonal items like rain boots or a heavy jacket.  In the end, we tend to wear the same clothes over and over again.  So why not get rid of the ones that you don’t?  Here’s how:

The Reverse-Reverse.  Go into your closet and turn all of your hangers around the wrong way.  Through out the year turn the hanger around the right way whenever you wear a piece of clothing.  At the end of the year take the clothes you didn’t wear and donate them.  If you haven’t worn it in a year is it likely that you’re going to wear it any time soon?  Chances are if you didn’t wear it you probably forgot it even exists.  Benefit someone else by giving them to a charitable organization.  I’ve done this several times in my life and I’m in the process of doing it again.  It always feels like a weight off of my shoulders.

Consider a Capsule Wardrobe/Uniform.  Nobody knows capsule wardrobes like Courtney Carver.  Her Project 333 is increasingly popular.  A number of minimalists have simple wardrobes as well as men like Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama.  You can read about their wardrobes and reasons here.  But why would you want to wear the same things over and over?  Well, Joshua Becker gives you 8 reasons here.  So, how do you do it?  In addition to Courtney Carver’s website, Jessica Dang‘s article is also helpful.  Neutral colors, layers, and multi-functionality are your friends.  And if a capsule wardrobe seems too stressful you could always consider a uniform.  Aja Nicole Edmond offers great advice, and Ryan Nicodemus of theminimalists.com can almost always be found in a black t-shirt and jeans.  Don’t knock it til you try it.

 

Kitchen
My way of simplifying my kitchen is very similar to the Reverse-Reverse mentioned above.  I took everything–and I mean everything–out of my kitchen and stored it my pantry.  Every bowl.  Every fork.  Every pot.  Every pan.  Everything.  Then I took it out of the pantry as I needed it.  After a year about 80% of it was still in my pantry.  The Pareto Principle strikes again.  How did I end up with that many glasses?  Where did I get 15 spatulas?  Who knows?  They can be successfully regifted or donated to the less fortunate.  Again, if you haven’t used it within a year are you likely to use it next year?  Probably not.  Chances are you need a lot less gadgetry than you think.  Take a look at Jessica Dang’s minimalist kitchen here.

Everything Else
So far I’ve mentioned our closets and kitchens.  I mention those because they so easily get overcrowded.  But once you’ve experienced the freedom of paring down you’ll likely want to extend the practice to everything else.  Here are two things to consider once you’re ready to do that:

Reverse-Reverse EVERYTHING.  Remember the backwards hanger trick?  It can be modified to apply to everything.  I did it with my kitchen.  You can do it with your bathroom.  Or your office.  Or, if you’re super-human, you can do it with your entire house.  That’s what Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus did.  They literally packed up their entire house and only unpacked what they needed as they needed it.  They recorded their 21 day journey into minimalism.  I highly recommend giving it a read.  Maybe you’re not ready to go all out, and that’s fine.  You can do one room at a time.  Or even one room a year.  First you closet, then your kitchen, then your office, and so on.  The most important thing is that you start.

The Joy Test.  It’s been called different things but the bottom line is the same.  If something–it doesn’t matter what it is–doesn’t spark joy in your life then chances are you don’t need it.  If it doesn’t make you say “Wow”, if you don’t put on a shirt and think, “I LOVE this shirt!”, if instead you look at it and say, “Eh“,  then chances are it’s just cluttering up your life.  In the end, when everything else has gone, you will be surrounded by only your favorite things.  Could you imagine living in a house where you love everything you see and everything you wear?  That’s a fantastic life.  And think of all the people that you get to help by donating the excess stuff you no longer need.  Just because it doesn’t make you say “Wow” doesn’t mean that it can’t do that for someone else.

Remember, 80/20.  We don’t need most of our stuff.  And with all the poverty in the world, can we really afford to hold on to things that we don’t need?  With all of the stress related illnesses, can we really afford to worry over things that don’t really matter?  Less.  That’s the greatest secret to productivity that no one is talking about.  It will help you put first things first.  And we need little reminder as to how important that is.  “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you” (Mat. 6:33).

 

©M. Benfield 2017

Simplicity and Ethics (Part 3)

 

Minimalism is more than just a selfish endeavor to help make my life better.  It also helps the wider world.  Two areas where simplicity makes a big difference are ecology and human rights.  And the two simplicity principles which will guide this conversation are: 1. Buy less.  2. Pay more.

Ecology
Annie Leonard, in her now famous 20 minute video “The Story of Stuff,”1 discusses the impact the materials economy (extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal) has on our environment.  Recycling is good and she praises its virtues.  But she also points out that recycling is not enough.  Partly because some things are just non-recyclable, or at least very difficult to recycle (K-Cups for example).2 The answer to the problem?  Buy less.  Pay more (if necessary).

First, buy less.   “The Story of Stuff” discusses “perceived obsolescence.”  This means that certain things are designed so that they will be perceived as obsolete, even though they are not.  When the world around us changes so quickly it doesn’t take long before the stuff we buy easily becomes dated.  But dated doesn’t mean worthless.  Our clothes, our computers, our phones may work just fine but we often get rid of them because they don’t look like every one else’s.  This is no accident.  It was engineered that way.  In fact, it was engineered over 60 years ago.  In the 1955 Journal of Retailing Victor Lebow (mentioned in “The Story of Stuff”) wrote, “The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to … accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats, his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.”3 The point is, we often buy stuff when we don’t need to. We buy stuff to “fit in.” But is fitting in worth neglecting our moral obligation to care for God’s good creation (cf. Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15)? Of course not.  So what do we do?  The equation is simple: Less Stuff=Less Waste. Therefore, buy less.

Second, pay more (if necessary). I say “if necessary” because sometimes wasting less is cheaper. Sometimes we pay high prices for convenience, not quality. If we are willing to put in a tad more work then we can get the same effect for less money. E.g. the refillable K-Cup is actually more cost efficient than the convenient single use cups which are difficult to recycle. But sometimes, paying more is necessary. Just like perceived obsolescence, there is also planned obsolescence. Manufacturers sometimes actually make things which are intended to break/wear out easily so that you’ll be required to buy more. “But,” we think, “it’s cheap.” Is it? See, you may get a shirt for $5, but how long will it last? And do you really want it?  Cheap prices encourage us to “take a change” on buying something that we don’t really want because if we getting rid of it then we’re only out a few bucks, so no big deal.  In fact, according to Annie Leonard’s findings, we only keep 1% of the things we buy longer than six months. But lets assume that you do keep it until it wears out. How long will that be? Sometimes cheap things are cheap both economically and qualitatively.  So before long you return to buy another $5 shirt. Granted, that’s not much. But eventually it all adds up. If you buy 7 shirts at $5 each that’s $35. Not so cheap any more is it? So instead of buying 7 cheap shirts why not take the exact same amount of money and buy something durable, sustainable, and eco-friendly?4 This creates less waste (those shirts you toss out have to go somewhere) and it decreases the likelihood that you’ll get tired of the shirt. If you are going to spend $35 on a shirt you are more likely to think of it as an investment and less like to buy it on impulse. Since you can’t drop big bucks on an expensive piece of clothing every time you need one you are more likely to consider whether or not this is something that you want to wear over and over again. You are making a commitment up front not to toss it out. Who has the money to constantly replace expensive clothing? Paying more lowers the likelihood of impulse buys that end up in the trash, or worse, never worn at all.

We’ve only focused upon “stuff”, and mainly clothes.  But living simply helps the environment in other ways.  If you have less stuff you need less space and if you need less space that means you can live in a smaller house (much smaller than you think)5 and if you live in a smaller house that means you use less energy heating, cooling, and lighting it.  The gains of living simply compound, especially in regard to protecting our environment.

Economy and Human Rights
Have you ever walked into a mega-store to buy something and asked yourself, “How in the world is this so cheap?”  If you haven’t then maybe you should.  And if you have then chances are we should ask that question more often (myself included).  In the end there is only one way we get things so cheap on our end: someone must be paying for it on their end.  This creates a human rights dilemma.  So, what’s the solution?  It’s too complex an issue to offer the solution but we can at least do this: Buy less, pay more.

First, buy less.  If we buy a lot we either earn more or pay less.  Most of us are not earning more which means that in order to buy more we must pay less.  So buying a lot means getting it cheap.  But if our stuff is cheap we need to ask, “Why is it so cheap?”  Chances are the people who make our stuff are not getting paid fair wages.

Eighty percent of the workers in the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh were women between 18-20.  The common working shift was 13-14.5 hours per day.  That’s 90-100 hours a week with only 2 days off per month.  Entry level earned 12 cents an hour, second tier workers earned  22 cents an hour, and the seniors workers earned 24 cents per hour.  This plaza housed a factory responsible for making clothing for the US, Canada, and Europe.  So, how did we get such cheap things on our end?  Because they paid for it on their end.  But on this occasion, they paid not just with their cheap labor.  They paid with their lives.  On April 24, 2013 about 3,639 workers refused to go to work because of the threatening cracks which had appeared in the walls.  The owner of the plaza then hired professional thugs to beat the people in order to force them back to work.  Just 45 minutes later the building collapsed.  There were 1,137 confirmed dead and 200 remain missing to this day.6  You do not have to have a degree in economy to understand supply and demand.  If we don’t want the stuff companies don’t make the stuff.  We created the demand that created Rana Plaza.  Somewhere someone (maybe even me) is wearing a shirt that was sewn in that factory.  How would you feel if you knew of an absolute certainty that the shirt you bought today would contribute to someone’s death tomorrow?  We asked how we get things so cheap.  This is the answer.

Second, pay more.  If we have done the first  (bought less) then we retain more money.  This allows us to pay more for what we buy and ensure that those making our clothes are getting paid a fair wage for their work.  But how do we ensure that happens?  Someone may say, “Make sure it is made in the US.”  And I say, that’s a good idea.  It’s true that US companies often move business off shore so that they can pay their workers less there and sell it for less here.7  But the label “Made in the US” doesn’t solve this problem.  As Heather Franzese points out in her TED Talk, “Changing How You Think About Clothes,”8 being made in the USA only means that “substantial transformation happened here in the USA.”  But, she asks, “Where did they come before that?”  Where did the fabric and dye come from?  We have worded our definition of “Made in the USA” in such a way that it is possible to have a pair of jeans “Made in the USA” using “cotton grown with forced child labor in Uzbekistan and yarn dyed in China … The country of origin doesn’t always tell you what the conditions were like in the manufacturing.”  Franzese suggests that we ask questions where we shop.  She insists that we have a right to know where and how our clothes are being made.  She challenges us to “vote with our dollars and ask for fair and sustainable clothing.”

She also challenges us to investigate our priorities.  Is it most important to us that our clothes be made in the US or that the workers are being treated well and paid fairly regardless of where the clothes were made (including the US).  As much as I would love to see more business done in the US most of our clothes are currently made overseas.  So what do we do?  We can look for the labels (which, admittedly, often do not exist) that indicate it has complied with fair trade standards.  “Fair trade is a third party certification and membership process that assures a business is meeting strict labor, environmental, and developmental standards,” as Benjamin Conard discusses in his talk, “Fair Trade: A Just World Starts with You.”9

I have mostly focused on clothes here but much of what was said can apply to other goods: appliances, produce, coffee, chocolate etc.10 Now buying fair trade goods means paying more because it is the only way to ensure that the farmers, harvesters, manufacturers, and other workers get paid what is just. But the alternative is fueling tragedies like the Rana Plaza. So ask yourself, “Is my cheap shirt/banana/chocolate/coffee worth the enslavement/poverty/death of another person?” I think the answer is obvious.

Conclusion:
Simplicity helps because one of the characteristics of simple living is buying/having less which runs counter to “American” living.  The guiding principles of much American living are “Buy more, pay less.”  These principles are related because the only way we can buy so much is if we buy what is cheap.  But cheap ruins the environment and enslaves people across the world.  This is the “high cost” of being cheap.  And it is not worth paying.  So we invert the principles.  Instead of “Buy more, pay less” we say, “Buy less, pay more.”  This minimizes our environmental foot-print and maximizes the quality of life for those on whose backs our nation is founded.  Being human means being created in God’s image and our original vocation as his image is taking care of God’s good world through love and creativity.  This way of life encourages both.  So, buy less, pay more.  It’s human because it’s humane.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Annie Leonard, “The Story of Stuff.” Available at http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/ ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
2. K-Cup creator, John Sylvan, expresses some regret for creating the single-serve pods. You can read about it here: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/03/the-abominable-k-cup-coffee-pod-environment-problem/386501/ ; While the cups are now recyclable it is unlikely that consumers will do so because of the special device required to separate the plastic, aluminium, paper, and organic material. You can find information about this device, the Recycle A Cup© cutter, here: https://www.recycleacup.com/faqs/ ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017. Also, reusable K-Cups, which I use, are available online and through certain retailers, e.g. Bed Bath & Beyond.
3. Victor Lebow, “Price Competition in 1955”, Journal of Retailing, Spring 1955. Available at http://www.gcafh.org/edlab/Lebow.pdf ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
4. Linen, wool, and cotton are all sustainable and eco-friendly. These are exceptionally important because, as Maxine Bédat points out in her talk “The High Cost of Our Cheap Fashion”, apparel is now the second leading polluting industry. Her talk is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r8V4QWwxf0 ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
5. Among the Tiny House Movement there is not an agreed upon definition as to what constitutes a Tiny House but one blog considers Tiny Houses to be under 500 square feet. Available at http://www.tinyhousetown.net/p/about-blog.html ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
6. “Rana Plaza: A Look Back and Forward”, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. Available at: http://www.globallabourrights.org/campaigns/factory-collapse-in-bangladesh ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
7. Ted Fishman, “Why the Jobs Are Going Over There”, USA Today. Available at: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-05-17-Multinationals-send-jobs-overseas_n.htm ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017; Alex Lach, “5 Facts About Overseas Outsourcing”, Center for American Progress. Available at: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/news/2012/07/09/11898/5-facts-about-overseas-outsourcing/ ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
8. Heather Franzese, “Changing How You Think About Clothes.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rbUQj81dFY; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
9. Benjamin Conard, “Fair Trade: A Just World Starts with You.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xT6TQSxlDOY ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
10. Jason Garman, “Ethical Consumerism and the Power of Having a Choice/Voice.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAG-t-kXcqE ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.