The problem with Paul

The problem with reading Paul in isolation from the rest of the New Testament is that we end up with an imbalanced view of apostolic practice and teaching.

The letters of James, Peter, John, and Jude, and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all offer important insights into the character of Jesus and his way of life that will be missed if we draw our theology and ethics exclusively from Paul.

The Confession of Dirk Willems

The Confession of Dirk Willems

Source: https://carolpenner.typepad.com

What I remember most
is the joy of God’s words on our lips,
in our hearts.
That good news bubbling out,
freely shared with any person we met,
old categories of friend and foe forgotten.
I remember the power of God changing us,
from empty Christians
to disciples full of fire.
I confessed my faith
and chose baptism, freely, consciously,
my prayer as the water trickled over me,
“O my Lord, my God!”
My family and friends,
my neighbours near and far,
they flocked to my house to hear that story.
We read from the Bible,
we prayed together.
And always every meeting,
their words echoing in my ears,
“Can I too be baptized?”

Yes, there was danger.
It was a crime for us to baptize
since we weren’t priests,
and the authorities were out to find us.
But we Brethren were quick,
our feet given godspeed.
So often we escaped
even when escape seemed impossible:
ducking out windows,
fleeing to the fields in the dark,
our pursuers’ lanterns bobbing behind us.
So often God protected us from evil.

The persecution became more severe.
First one brother, and then a sister,
another and another,
arrested, tortured, brought to trial,
made an example.
They were an example to us,
so many, so faithful,
freely bearing their cross, like Jesus.
A witness to God’s glory even in death. 

And then it was my turn to be arrested.
They were there waiting for us
hidden in the darkness as we gathered,
no time to run, just a quick whispered prayer,
“O my Lord, my God!”

Into the prison, and there I had time
to sit and think and pray,
to prepare myself for the ordeal to come.
I was more surprised than anyone
when the opportunity arose
for me to escape.
God works in mysterious ways,
and like Paul before me,
the way was open and I took it.
I ran like the wind;
I could hear shouts behind me
and I knew I was being pursued.
Over that wintry river I fled,
the ice creaking ominously below me.
Even as I ran I prayed,
“O my Lord, my God,
let me run on water this day,”
Cracks formed with every step I took,
and like Peter I doubted.
I pictured them fishing
my frozen body with a hook
out of the cold river.

But God be praised,
my feet reached solid land
and running still, I spared a glance behind me.
I saw my pursuer stepping on the ice,
one of the guards sent to catch me.
I doubled my pace along the river
but my eyes were drawn to him
lumbering, lumbering along.
Suddenly there was no figure at all.
My legs kept running
but my whole attention shifted.
I saw the arms and head appear in the watery pit
bobbing and grasping, ice breaking, splashing.
I could hear his frantic call for help.
I stopped, and looked to his friends.
They all hugged the shore,
afraid to venture to him on the ice.
They were not going to help him.

Having just crossed that wide white river,
having feared that icy grave,
my heart went to him.
I turned around.
It was I who would be a fisher of men this day.
Running back toward my pursuer this time,
I reached that treacherous surface,
and when the cracks seemed louder than my heartbeats,
I dropped gently down on my stomach, sliding sideways,
arms spread wide, reaching for him.
Him reaching for me with freezing fingers,
and then our hands locked,
and the slow, slow, pull to safety.
We did it. I saved him.

We both lay on the ice for a long moment.
Me totally spent from the chase and the rescue,
he totally spent from being immersed in fear,
dazed at returning to the land of the living.

The voice of the burgomeister shattered the silence,
calling from the safety of the shore:
“Arrest that man. 
Arrest that man right now! 
Do your duty.”
I looked at him,
my companion on the ice.
Our eyes held each other,
frozen there on that hard river.
We both watched transfixed
as his hand slowly reached out
and grasped my elbow.
I closed my eyes,
“Oh my Lord, my God.”

And so I am here in the prison again.
They have convicted me,
and today I am to be burned.
In the icy river or in flames of fire,
I am not alone.
Jesus is with me as I take up my cross.
Be with me now,
Oh my Lord, my God

Meditation and the Bible

The first mention of meditation in the Bible comes from the story of Isaac and Rebecca, in the book of Genesis. It reads, “He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching.”

Now of course this particular text is only saying what Isaac did, it is not saying what you should do. But it is worth noting that meditation is never spoken of negatively in the Bible. Indeed it is most often referenced in songs of praise.

So I have never wasted much time on the question of IF we can meditate as followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I have always been much more interested in the question of HOW to be go about it and WHAT folks like Isaac were meditating on.

Anabaptism and Mysticism

I find Anabaptism and Mysticism overlap in a number of interesting ways. 

Both emphasise the limitations of theological pontification, the Anabaptist tradition through an emphasis on everyday discipleship, the Mystical tradition through negative theology and an emphasis on direct experience. 

Both also emphasise the goal of unity and the process of reconciliation, the Anabaptist tradition emphasising the outward, social dimension more, the Mystical tradition emphasising the inward, psychological dimension more. 

I find the process of integrating both traditions to be quite fruitful.

The Bible ain’t always pretty

To say I find the Bible inspiring is not to say I find everything in it attractive. On the contrary, there’s a lot that I find repulsive. The Bible doesn’t shy away from bearing witness to the ugly side of humanity, and indeed, the ugly side of religion. And we are supposed to see that ugliness as tragic. It’s doubly tragic when fans of the Bible don’t. That’s an exercise in missing the point.

Personally, I find the book of Judges from the Old Testament one of the ugliest and tragic books ever written. It was meant to be read that way. The conclusion makes that abundantly clear. But there’s plenty of stories of people falling into depravity and callousness in the New Testament books as well, not least those featuring religious leaders. It’s a thread that runs through the Bible. One of the functions of these books is to hold up a mirror to ourselves, particularly those of us who consider ourselves religious or spiritual. If only we care to look without flinching.

But there’s more. The Bible also functions as a window. It offers us glimpses of redemption, of beauty breaking into even the ugliest situations. Therein is the message of hope. That there’s no situation ugly enough that beauty can’t break in. And its in the ugliest situations that beauty shines most brightly.

Am We Marxist Just Because We’re Anti-Racist?

You won’t find “racism” mentioned in the Bible. Such language arose far more recently. What you will find though is plenty of mention of “foreigners” and “gentiles” who dwell amongst you and how you should treat them.

For example, in the book of Exodus we are told: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” The are countless passages like this, that command the just treatment of “foreigners”.

So don’t ever tell me that Christian critiques of racism are evidence of Marxist infiltration of the church. No, they’re evidence of Christians paying attention to what the scriptures have to offer on the topic.

Unjust Laws: When Sin is Institutionalised

I’ve been told by many so-called conservatives on many occasions that the Bible has nothing to say on social justice and institutionalised sin – that it’s only concerned only with the actions of individuals and Christians with social justice concerns are just following the culture.

I would suggest such individualism is itself more reflective of a western cultural perspective than an ancient Hebrew perspective. Here’s what just one prophet, Isaiah, had to say on the functioning of institutions:

“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”

Our society is governed by both people and the laws and policies they put in place. Such things are not ethically neutral, and when harm results from them it’s appropriate to repeal them and put better laws and policies in place. Isaiah is very clear on that.

Felt Needs vs Real Needs

The problem with adapting church to our felt needs is that our felt needs, our desires, can sometimes be precisely what stands in the way of our own transformation. We need to critically examine our felt needs in the light of scripture rather than presuming their sovereignty. Failure to do so often leaves us with syncretised church rather than contextualised church.

Prayer before studying the Bible

This is a prayer that may be used to open a session of Bible study. It was written by Julie Palmer.

As we open our Bibles

We also open our hearts.

May these words of truth fall upon the very fabric of our lives.

Father, we pray that these ancient scriptures would come alive within us,

To inspire, to heal, to cleanse, to teach

To restore and to guide our hearts and minds.

Lord, come weave your words of life in us.

Amen.

Churches fighting government over vaccine mandate?

This morning the Sydney Morning Herald reported on opposition to proof of vacination mandates by a number of church leaders including the Catholic Archbiship of Sydney and Anglican Archbiship of Sydney.

I think this exposes some stark differences over how different people define “church”. If you define “church” in terms of community, as I and many others do, then it can happen anywhere, including outdoors and over zoom. So it never really stopped, and while the proposed mandate may create a few challenges they are far from insurmountable. If however, you define “church” in terms of a building, well, yes I can see how the proposed mandate sounds like “turning people away from church”. But I’d suggest the bigger concern should be the likely consequences to your community of failing to exercise basic risk management in the midst of a pandemic. Isn’t caring for the vulnerable part of our mission? I’d suggest some self-reflection before Christians jump on the bandwagon here.