Below are a few pictures from the scores I took during our 2019 visit to the “The Kilns,” the adult home of scholar and author C. S. Lewis, located on the outskirts of Headington Quarry, Oxford, England. The place is named for a brick-making operation that had two large kilns on site. The house today is a study center, so reservations for tour times are required. Our guide was a doctoral student from the United States, and we had about 20 minutes before the tour began to talk about the research he was doing for his dissertation. The best tour guides are those who share the stories we don’t read about in books, and our guide had plenty of those woven into his presentation. In the end, it was great to finally see where so many of Lewis’ treasured thoughts were put to paper.
“Jack” as Lewis was better known, slept in the upstairs bedroom, the smallest and most inconvenient room to access. When his college roommate Paddy Moore was killed in World War I, Jack befriended Paddy’s mother, Mrs. Janie King Moore, and her adolescent daughter Maureen. In 1920, after completing his first degree, Lewis decided to share lodgings with them (in fulfillment of a vow he had made to Paddy during the war) so he could more carefully look after their needs.
Lewis gave Mrs. Moore the larger bedroom, which he had to pass through to get to his own. That would have been inappropriate, so Leiws had an external staircase built off his room so he could access it another way. If he needed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, he would use this staircase, putting himself out for the sake of his friend’s mother, who could be quite demanding. Lewis patiently lived what he wrote in The Four Loves.
The simplicity of the Kilns was quite a contrast to the ornate houses, palaces, and castles we visited during our time in England. It just goes to show that we don’t need to be wealthy or live in luxury to have a great impact. We just need to have an openness to the beauty, truth, and goodness of God as revealed in Christ—a willingness to be enchanted by wonder.
Last night I sinned. Multiple times. My son and son-in-law were with me at the time. They sinned, too, and we all had a great time doing it. Let me explain. We were celebrating my son-in-law’s birthday, so we went to a shooting range before dinner, cake, and gift giving. It’s something Micah enjoys, though he doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to do it, so we surprised him with a round at Enck’s Gun Barn. My son Drew also has more experience than I do in this area, making me the rookie of the bunch.
I’ve shot pistols before, but only a few times in the distant past and only at Coke cans set up in the woods near my brother-in-law’s house in North Carolina. Last night we used a rifle—a Ruger AR-556, which is considerably louder than a pistol, though the kickback isn’t bad at all. Given my lack of experience, I was hoping to just get my shots on the paper target!
I didn’t get a bullseye this time, but all my shots were inside the 8 and 9 rings, and one even nicked the center circle. Not bad for a beginner. But all three of us kept missing the mark, which is one of the biblical metaphors for sin. There are many other images, too, but this one is prominent.
Judges 20:15-16 says, “At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred chosen men from those living in Gibeah. Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].”
The word ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ is a general word for sin, usually having the sense of missing the mark, going astray, offending, or ignoring something required by God’s law (e.g., Gen 40:1; Jdgs 20:16; Neh 13:26; etc.). It can also mean “sin offering” (e.g., Exod 29:4).
King David prays in Psalm 51:2, “Cleanse me [ṭāhēr] from my sin [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].” The word ṭāhēr means to “be clean,” “cleanse,” “purify,” or “pronounce clean,” as from a defiling condition. It can have a ritual context (e.g., Lev 11:32), or it can refer to the actual cleansing of impurities (e.g., Naaman’s leprosy in 2 Kgs 5:10).
It can also refer to the removal of impurities from metal (e.g., refined gold and silver in Mal 3:3). Therefore, the word does not necessarily have a sacramental connotation (contra Goldingay, etc.) or even a ceremonial connotation (contra Wilson, the ESV Study Bible, etc.). Indeed, David’s hope of forgiveness rests on nothing ceremonial (cf. vv. 16-17). The sense of his prayer in v. 2 is, “Purify me from my defiling sin.”
Because of his mercy, grace, and compassion (Ps 51:1), God can certainly do that. And because David came to him humbly, he did. “The Lord has taken away your sin,” said Nathan the prophet. You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12:13-14). David later wrote, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven” (Ps 32:1).
Interestingly enough, all three of us last night were landing our initial shots low and to the right of the bullseye. That would seem to suggest a sighting issue on the gun. Our Range Safety Officer (RSO) helped us make the necessary adjustments to shoot more accurately. He also helped me with my stance and positioning vis-à-vis the target. He was patient, kind, and supportive, not condescending at all toward this novice.
Probably my biggest challenge as a shooter is the fact that I’m left-eye dominant trying to shoot from a right hander’s position. My impulse, then, is to use my left eye to align the sights, but that doesn’t work when you’re pressing your right cheek to the gun stock. Here again, the RSO was perceptive and gave me some suggestions to help me “not sin.”
Our night at the range caused me to think about the fact that we’re in this spiritual journey together. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), which is why judging and condescension are out of place in the Christian life. Smug self-righteousness is just a way to justify our anger at other people because they sin differently than we do.
Our natural misalignments and daily temptations to “miss the mark” don’t go away when others scold us, humiliate us, or impose their asceticisms on us (Col 2:21-23). They tend to dissipate when those with a little more experience help us learn how to aim higher.
We are pilgrims on a journey We are brothers on the road We are here to help each other Walk the mile and bear the load
The RSO actually showed me last night how to be a better pastor. Lord knows, I need ongoing training.
Readers of TNL will likely know of my affection for detective, crime solving, courtroom, and spy shows, along with a few period dramas from time to time. My latest binge is Grantchester on PBS’s Masterpiece. The British detective series is set in 1950s Cambridge, England, and features the Anglican vicar Sidney Chambers (James Norton) developing a side sleuthing gig with Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green).
Father Chambers apparently gets replaced in a future season with a new vicar, William Davenport (Tom Brittney), but I’m just getting started. The best way to describe the series is “one part Endeavour smooshed together with one part Father Brown.” So far so good. My recent previous binges in this genre have included:
Alias (Jennifer Garner)
Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch)
The Mentalist (Simon Baker)
Covert Affairs (Piper Perabo)
Broadchurch (David Tennant)
Blue Bloods (Tom Selleck)
Poirot (David Suchet)
Father Brown (Mark Williams)
Endeavour (Shaun Evans)
Inspector Morse (John Thaw)
Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whately)
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (Essie Davis)
Columbo (Peter Falk)
Past and ongoing binges in the period-piece genre include:
Victoria (Jenna Coleman, Tom Hughes)
The Crown (Claire Foy, Olivia Colman)
Reign (Adelaide Kane, Toby Regbo, Megan Follows)
Downton Abbey (Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith)
Pride & Prejudice (Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth)
Sense & Sensibility (Hattie Morahan, Dominic Cooper)
And then there’s Stranger Things (Winona Ryder, Millie Bobby Brown), which is in a class by itself, and the ubiquitous NCIS and Law & Order. Oh, and the Friday night Marvel binge with my son. (My waning love of professional sports has made more space for the arts and a better use of my brain.)
What are your favorite binges?
UPDATE (01.15.2021): As it turns out, Grantchester is rather slow moving, only marginally interesting, and unfortunately overt in its socio-political agenda. I’m not sure I’ll continue with it. Worst of all (for this genre, anyway), the viewer can never really solve the crime beforehand because important clues are concealed until the end. Where’s the fun in that?
1. Well, the decorations will have to wait (cf. #5 here). Slight sickness invaded the home yesterday, so out of an abundance of caution, we kept “Grandma” away from our side of the house to keep her safe. Consequently, our little forest of Christmas trees still stands. My son and I simply continued our Friday night ritual of making our way through the Marvel movies. (We both got Marvel pajama pants for Christmas—what a hoot!) Last night we watched “Guardians of the Galaxy, Part 2.” It wasn’t as good as the other flicks, story-wise, but the combination of live action and computer-generated imagery (CGI) is amazing. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to lumberjack the trees now, as Saturday is always a big prep day for Sunday. At least the sun is out today, though it’s frigid.
2. It’s interesting to see what holiday snacks remain now that all the festivities are over. In first place are my disastrous chocolate chip cookies. We didn’t set them out, and I snicker every time I see them, blushing and condemned in their hiding place. Time to toss them out, but I’m guessing even the birds won’t eat them. In second place are the smoothies—a mixture of white chocolate and butterscotch chips in little paper cups. I don’t eat them, but those who like them rave about them. (Maybe they lasted precisely because I don’t eat them. Ha! Actually, my sister-in-law made so many, there was no way to polish them off.) In third place are a handful of peanut butter cookies—but not the blossoms I made. My Wilbur bud creations disappeared quickly. A few other treats remain as well, but they’re all off limits now. I don’t miss the pain and inflammation that came with the carb overload of late December. It was a nice treat for a season, but it’s also nice to be back on a cleaner diet. Health goals—like business, academic, or athletic ones—require a lot of discipline.
3. Gotta share this little story—if only because “a little nonsense now and then” is a nice escape from the chaos and lunacy that has become the United States these days.
The Presbyterian church called a meeting to decide what to do about their squirrel infestation. After much prayer and consideration, they concluded that the squirrels were predestined to be there, and they should not interfere with God’s divine will.
At the Baptist church, the squirrels had taken an interest in the baptistry. The deacons met and decided to put a waterslide on the baptistry and let the squirrels drown themselves. The squirrels liked the slide and, unfortunately, knew instinctively how to swim, so twice as many squirrels showed up the following week.
The Lutheran church decided that they were not in a position to harm any of God’s creatures. So, they humanely trapped their squirrels and set them free near the Baptist church. Two weeks later, the squirrels were back when the Baptists took down the waterslide.
The Episcopalians tried a much more unique path by setting out pans of whiskey around their church in an effort to kill the squirrels with alcohol poisoning. They sadly learned how much damage a band of drunk squirrels can do.
But the Catholic church came up with a more creative strategy. They baptized all the squirrels and made them members of the church. Now they only see them at Christmas and Easter.
Not much was heard from the Jewish synagogue. They took the first squirrel and circumcised him. They haven’t seen a squirrel since.
4. There’s an old addage (variously attributed) that says there are only two plots in all of literature: (1) a person goes on a journey; and (2) a stranger comes to town. Here’s a golden oldie that seems to combine the two—a stranger comes and invades a person’s journey. For some reason, I woke up this morning with “Come Sail Away” by Styx in my head. I never really knew what the song was trying to say, and people still argue about hidden meanings, but it was a big hit long ago—part of the background noise when I was very young. So, here’s a throwback:
UPDATE: I’m told that Mrs. Mosby just ate a single Hot & Spicy Cheez-It today and didn’t even dash off to her water bowl afterwards. In fact, she then went back for more treats. She’s definitely Micah’s cat! I may have to pick up some sriracha for her the next time I go grocery shopping. We could put it on her Mice Krispies in the morning. And if her mouth gets overly heated, she can always lick a very cold mice cream cone. O.k., I’ll stop now. Please don’t hate me. I’m just feeling spicy today. 🙂
UPDATE 2: And right after posting about hot sauce and spice, I started making an omelette for the patient. When it came time to put salt in the concoction, the lid of the container flew off and ruined my masterpiece. Even my mustard-seed faith couldn’t remove the mountain of sodium chloride and cast it into the sea. Heavy sigh. Let’s see what I can accomplish next with the sugar in the house. Ha! Nothing like getting the whole range of flavors in one day…sugar and spice! LOL.
1. Proverbs 26:20a says, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.” The message is clear enough. You want to minimize contention? Then stop talking for a while. Our nation should try it. The last thing anyone needs right now is another opinion on social media, which can only become fuel for the dumpster fire that has become political discourse in our country. As such, I will say very little today. De-esclation is sorely needed after yesterday’s riot and storming of the U.S. capitol by protesters. There’s “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Eccl 3:7b), and I will stay largely silent for right now.
2. What I will say is the obvious—what everyone should be able to say across the board without equivocation: I condemn violence and destruction in the attempted furtherance of any political agenda, whether it comes from the left or the right. I also condemn the hot, biased, and inflamed rhetoric of our corrupt media. They are as guilty as any politician or protester. Alas, I’m not optimistic that they will do any self-reflection in this crucial moment.
3. For now, I have said everything I wish to say about politics here. Additionally, Carey Nieuwhof has a good post here on “Why Your Words as a Leader Matter (Far More Than You Think).” There is some overlap there with the study I did on TNL called “Oh, My Word.”
4. One of the joys of teaching at the master and doctoral levels is the depth and quality of work from my students that I get to review on a regular basis. I’ve been fed and inspired by projects submitted for my courses in preaching, ecclesiology, semiotics, outreach, and Old Testament. The students really hit it out of the park this semester. I’m also looking forward to serving as a member of the dissertation committee for three Th.D. students over the coming months. Not only are their topics fascinating, their passion and scholarship are coming together in such a way that I get to be the beneficiary of their labors.
5. Is it “de-decorate” or “un-decorate”? I’m not sure, but the time has come. Epiphany Day has passed, although the season remains for a little while longer. Putting the Christmas decorations away has always made me a bit melancholy. And this year we can’t have our Epiphany party for the neighborhood because of the virus. (Even this introvert misses that special get together.) Were it not for the bright sky today, I’d probably be sitting in the sad seat. So, let’s hear it for the appearance of the sun! Time to go out and make my FitBit happy, not to mention my spirits.
6. One last thing for now. We’re finally singing “The Blessing” this Sunday at church. I’ve already written about that song in this space, and I’ll post it again soon as it will be new for most of the folks in our congregation. “May his favor be upon” each and every reader of TNL, especially now since my frequency of posting has to drop for a while. Ugh!
The Lord bless you and keep you Make his face shine upon you And be gracious to you The Lord turn his face toward you And give you peace
A Bonus—Just for Grins
My son and I had way too much fun with this comic. We’re not sure if the two guys are to be understood as skinheads, or if the bear is to be understood as a butt-head. Either way, it…uhm…cracked us up.
It has often been said—based on a journal entry by Søren Kierkegaard—that life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. There’s a lot of truth to that sentiment. But what if the sequence were reversed? What if we started out as old folks and got younger with the passing of time? What if we went from being slobbering seniors to drooling infants rather than the other way around? Would that contradict another truism that says youth is wasted on the young?
Welcome to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 2008, the piece was made into a film by the same name starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (story by Robin Swicord and Eric Roth; directed by David Fincher). It was also made into a stage musical in 2019. I’m captivated by the mind-bending thoughts prompted by just a cursory glance at its plot.
Born under “unusual circumstances,” Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) springs into being as an elderly man in a New Orleans nursing home, and he ages in reverse. Twelve years later, he meets Daisy, a child who flits in and out of his life as she grows up to become a dancer (Cate Blanchett). Though Benjamin has all sorts of strange adventures over the course of his life, it’s his relationship with Daisy, and the hope that they will come together at just the right time, that drives Benjamin forward. One of the money quotes in the film, which is often misattributed to Fitzgerald himself, is this:
“For what it’s worth, it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”
We always want that fresh start, don’t we? We always feel the need for genuine newness, but we worry that the sand in our hourglasses will run out of grains before we get there, leaving us with a pile of broken dreams and regrets. That’s why we write pop tunes like, “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher), and song lyrics like, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future” (Steve Miller Band), and clever aphorisms like, “You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays” (Meredith Wilson).
We even have a whole series of contemporary movies called Back to the Future. And then there’s Dr. Who’s TARDIS, the British time machine-spacecraft that can go anywhere in space and time at the push of a button. It’s all fantasy, of course, but these stories reveal that we’re a species obsessed with going back and starting over.
Thankfully, it’s a gracious God who provides genuine newness in Christ—the one who said we can be transformed spiritually, from the inside out, like a caterpillar to a butterfly, as if we we were being born all over again (John 3:3-8; 1 Pet 1:23).
Moreover, it’s a good and wise God whose timing is always perfect. He has promised to make all things new (Rev 21:5).
I already miss not blogging on a daily basis, but duty calls. Today would have featured glistening pics from the all-too-brief dusting we had this morning in south central PA. It was stunning, yet I almost missed it! I got up at 5:15 a.m. but didn’t discover until around 8:30 a.m. that it had snowed. So much for my powers of observation. By the time church was finished, we were just walking around outside in a slushy mess as the temperatures went above freezing and it started to drizzle. All the more reason to make it a hot chocolatey kind of night.
Instead of pics, I’ll share a vivid piece I came across while studying for today’s message. It’s Frederick Buechner’s description of Zacchaeus and his encounter with Jesus. It was originally published in his Peculiar Treasures, the second book of his popular lexical trilogy, where he profiles more than 125 of the Bible’s most holy and profane people—and one whale. It contains lively and witty prose, and the other volumes are going on my wish list pronto!
ZACCHAEUS APPEARS JUST once in the New Testament, and his story is brief (Luke 19:1-10). It is also one of the few places in the Gospels where we’re given any visual detail. Maybe that is part of what makes it stand out.
We’re told that Zacchaeus was a runt, for one thing. That is why when Jesus was reported to be en route into Jericho and the crowds gathered to see what they could see, Zacchaeus had to climb a tree to get a look himself. Luke says the tree he climbed was a sycamore tree.
We’re also told that Zacchaeus was a crook—a Jewish legman for the Roman IRS who, following the practice of the day, raked in as much more than the going tax as he could get and pocketed the difference. When people saw Zacchaeus oiling down the street, they crossed to the other side.
The story goes like this. The sawed-off shyster is perched in the sycamore tree. Jesus opens his mouth to speak. All Jericho hugs itself in anticipation of hearing him give the man Holy Hell. Woe unto you! Repent! Wise up! is the least of what they expect. What Jesus says is, “Come down on the double. I’m staying at your house.” The mob points out that the man he’s talking to is a public disaster. Jesus’ silence is deafening.
It is not reported how Zacchaeus got out of the sycamore, but the chances are good that he fell out in pure astonishment. He said, “I’m giving everything back. In spades.” Maybe he even meant it. Jesus said, “Three cheers for the Irish!”
The unflagging lunacy of God. The unending seaminess of man. The meeting between them that is always a matter of life or death and usually both. The story of Zacchaeus is the Gospel in sycamore. It is the best and oldest joke in the world.
Buechner’s description reminded me of a bit from George Target, as quoted in And Jesus Will Be Born. It highlights the ridiculousness of the “mutterers” in Luke 19:7—those religious up-tights who were against all the right things, but you somehow knew they were missing out on the abundant life that Jesus had promised.
They don’t smoke, but neither do they breathe fresh air very deeply; They don’t drink wine, but neither do they enjoy lemonade; They don’t swear, but neither do they glory in any magnificent words, neither poetry nor prayer. They don’t gamble, but neither do they take much chance on God. They don’t look at women and girls with lust in their hearts, but neither do they roll breathless with love and laughter, naked under the sun of high summer. It’s all rather pale and round-shouldered, the great Prince lying in prison.
Jesus was the key to Zacchaeus’ prison door, but he wasn’t the only person in Luke 19 who needed to be sprung from his cell.
1. Christmas Day has passed, and members of the extended family have all returned home. The house is quieter now (always a delight to us introverts, though still a bit depressing after all the excitement), but the Christmas season continues through January 5 on the liturgical calendar. Epiphany Day is Wednesday, January 6, and the season after the Epiphany extends through February 16, which is the day before Lent begins. Normally we would leave our decorations up and have an Epiphany Party for church members and the neighbors, but the virus makes gathering a real problem right now, so I’m not sure when the decorations will go back into hibernation.
2. The general theme of the Epiphany and the season that follows is Jesus’ manifestation of himself as deity. (The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek word for “manifestation” or “appearance”). In lectionary churches, Bible readings and sermons during this time of year typically deal with Jesus’ identity. In the eastern Church, Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Christ. In the western Church, Epiphany commemorates the natal star and the arrival of the Magi, with the following week focusing on Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. So, there is much for believers to look forward to, and any post-holiday spirits that are flagging can be reinvigorated by these great truths. In my experience, emotions can be like sine waves for many people (myself included); they go up and down in patterns, sometimes exhausting us in the process. Thankfully, Christ is the steady, unchanging “x-axis” that cuts through all the motion and commotion. That’s not a cliché; it’s an anchor for the soul when we’re feeling blue.
3. The civil calendar is fast heading toward January 1, which is New Year’s Day for most of the world. We find ourselves, then, living in between high moments. I suspect many people this year will be welcoming the calendar change from 2020 to 2021. That’s understandable, as a lot of awful things have happened this year. At the same time, believers are instructed to “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). That’s easier said than done, but it does mean that God always has a purpose in the our pain.
4. Yes, God is always up to something good, even in the challenges we face. And, of course, he’s always faithful to his people in the midst of those challenges. I’ve been thinking of Matt Redman’s song “Never Once” as I look back on 2020 as a whole. It’s a good reminder that God has never abandoned us—not once.
Scars and struggles on the way But with joy our hearts can say Yes, our hearts can say
Never once did we ever walk alone Never once did You leave us on our own You are faithful, God, You are faithful
5. As I look back on the fourth quarter of 2020, and especially the month of December, I do so with a good deal of gratitude and satisfaction. It’s been a joy to put more time and energy into This New Life, establishing a number of templates for future posting. I especially enjoyed preparing the articles I did that focused on the Incarnation—one of my favorite theological topics to research and ponder. I’ve never been a huge fan of “The Little Drummer Boy” song, but I’ve been thinking about one line in it for several days now: “I played my best for him, pa rum pum pum pum.” What do I have to offer my Lord except what he’s already given me? Absolutely nothing! Moreover, there’s not a single thing he ever needs from me—a mere human being with faults and flaws all over the place. He is, after all, the sovereign king and creator of the universe; he has no needs.
But he does accept our gifts when we offer them in sincerity of heart—like parents who open a small, homemade present from their young children on Christmas morning. The parents’ delight in that moment is not manufactured; it’s a genuine response of gladness to the relationship, more so than the intrinsic value of the thing itself. It was the love with which the gift was made that sparks joy in the parents. I have a few things like that from my own kids, and they’re precious to me.
Looking back on this past month, I can honestly say, “I wrote my best for him,” seeking to honor and somehow articulate the incomprehensible miracle that is Christmas. Jesus doesn’t need my pen, but I gladly give it in service to him, as I can think of nothing more incredible to write about. My earnest hope is that he was pleased with my literary drumming. (And I hope it didn’t keep baby Jesus awake!)
6. Perhaps there is one thing more incredible to write about than Christmas, and that’s the other end of Jesus’ earthly life, where on the cross something truly astonishing happened: “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21). When that kairos moment took place, the veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom—a highly symbolic and theologically rich act of God that will be the focus of my dissertation. My broader work on Israel’s tabernacle has been narrowed down to explore the significance and implications of that one incredible portent at Herod’s temple in the first century. What exactly happened? Why did it happen? Why does it figure so significantly in the book of Hebrews? What does it mean for us today?
7. So, my research and writing efforts must now shift to that project during the first part of 2021. It will be labor intensive, so I need to disappear from TNL for a while—though not completely. I’ll continue posting a few things from time to time, but not as much as I have been these past several months. I’ll keep scanning my favorite blogs when I can (because I love your stuff, and it gives me hope and inspiration!), but I won’t be able to generate as much content for a while—just sermon summaries, classroom handouts, weekly songs in the sidebar, and occasional updates and fun stuff as time allows. All prayers are appreciated for this new venture, as I cannot do it alone. “No man is an island,” said John Donne, and he was right. So, thanks for your support!
I look forward to getting back in the blogging groove again after this major project is completed, and I can say with Jesus, “It is finished!”
Love to all in Jesus’ name. Be blessed on your journey in 2021.
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”
It is clear from Scripture that God is worthy to be praised, but why does he want to be praised? Indeed, why does he demand to be praised (cf. Deut 6:13)? The first commandment allows no room for any other gods besides Yahweh (cf. Exod 20:3). Such a claim seems narrow and exclusive in an age of pluralism and tolerance. Here’s a God who says that alternatives and substitutes are off limits to his people.
That raises the question of whether or not God is ego-heavy after all. Is he not humble? Is he needy in some way? Is he insecure? Why must he always get top billing? People who act like that are considered narcissistic.
C. S. Lewis pondered the question, and he was troubled for some time by its possible implications. Is God, he wondered, like “a vain old woman seeking compliments?” After soaking his head in the book of Psalms, Lewis came to an insightful conclusion. In Reflections on the Psalms he writes:
“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . .
“The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
Still, the question remains: Is the first commandment somehow a violation of meekness? Is there something arrogant about God wanting to be regarded as utterly supreme in the universe? No. God is utterly supreme in the universe! Moreover, he wants his people to live in sync with reality; anything less would be insanity.
Ancient gods that were the products of people’s imaginations—idols that needed to be fed, dressed, bathed, and cared for by the priests in order to function—were not and are not ultimate; therefore, they are not worthy of worship. Serving such gods is a delusion, a waste of time, and ultimately disappointing. Only Yahweh is authentic, supreme, and able to “deliver the goods.”
Recognizing this theological truth is the beginning of wisdom and the first step toward living in accordance with reality. Deviate on this issue, and everything else will be askew—like missing the first buttonhole in a shirt; every other button is wrong, and the entire garment is misaligned. But to be properly aligned by recognizing the supremacy and exclusivity of Yahweh, and worshiping him alone, brings with it its own spiritual benefits, not the least of which is genuine life transformation. As Archbishop William Temple once said:
“Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of the conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose—all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.”
Such selfless adoration is indeed a great pleasure. Gone, for the moment, are all the cares of this world during true acts of worship. As Lewis said, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.”
“The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.”
In the end, God allows people to reject him, disbelieve him, and not worship him as God (at least for now). And that’s the very definition of humility—to have infinite power to compel submission while putting oneself in a position to be rejected.
Like Father, like Son.
Image Credits: crosswalk.com; Lori Thomason (Pure Devotion).
The long, complicated, and contentious history of biblical theology shows that the entire field once needed a savior. Mercifully, one came along a few decades ago, though it had been hiding in plain sight for more than two millennia. The knight in shining armor turned out to be the Bible itself, now released from the shroud of higher criticism, yet still bearing a few scars from the battle. More specifically, it was the supernatural worldview shared by each of the biblical authors as they penned their compositions that finally rolled away the stone. For all the diversity inherent in Scripture, it is the biblical writers’ shared philosophy of life—their overarching conception of reality—that holds together the Bible’s collective witness across the generations. As Thiselton writes, “Continuities within the biblical writings do not exclude diversity, but they witness to monotheism rather than polytheism. To focus piecemeal only on atomistic textual units . . . is to miss the transcendent dimension of the whole.” The biblical authors would agree; the God about whom they wrote was—and still is—transcendent. Therefore, it is not enough for preachers to see the “big idea” of a single text; we must also see the “Big Story” of the entire Bible.
Such a claim implies that Scripture is not merely an ancient record of religious beliefs or a catalog of profound spiritual experiences in response to divine revelation outside itself, though it certainly contains such elements. Scripture itself is divine revelation. The books of the Bible were written by believers—individuals embracing a theistic worldview—precisely because they had encountered the living God who moved them to write what he had deigned to show them (cf. 2 Pet 1:21). To those writers, God was the self-existent creator of the universe, and he personally involved himself in the affairs of men and women whom he created and rescued from folly. The biblical authors’ conviction was that God unveiled himself in history, documenting for posterity his unfolding revelation over time via the apostles, prophets, and evangelists in texts that would eventually comprise the canon. Wherever the authors’ perspectives on reality may have diverged across the full sweep of biblical history, their perspectives on ultimate reality converged without hesitation or deviation: God lives, God loves, God speaks, God acts, and God makes himself known in the world—fully and finally through his anointed one, the promised messiah. As such, their worldview was deeply theological from start to finish. Theirs was a theocentric orientation.
Now, there is a sense in which appealing to the Bible for its own authority is a kind of circular argument. That, however, does not make invalid. As Grudem notes, “All arguments for an absolute authority must ultimately appeal to that authority for proof; otherwise the authority would not be an absolute or highest authority. This problem is not unique to the Christian who is arguing for the authority of the Bible. Everyone either implicitly or explicitly uses some kind of circular argument when defending his or her ultimate authority for belief.” Grudem offers the following four claims where a similar dynamic is at play: (1) “My reason is my ultimate authority because it seems reasonable to me to make it so”; (2) “Logical consistency is my ultimate authority because it is logical to make it so”; (3) “The findings of human sensory experiences are the ultimate authority for discovering what is real and what is not, because our human senses have never discovered anything else: thus, human sense experience tells me that my principle is true.”; (4) “I know there can be no ultimate authority because I do not know of any such ultimate authority.” In all of these arguments for an ultimate standard of truth, an absolute authority for what to believe, there is an element of circularity involved.
Issues of self-authentication aside, the view advocated here is one of taking the Bible on its own terms, respecting its own supernatural worldview orientation. For interpreters today to ignore the biblical writers’ conception of reality, or even to grant it for the sake of argument while personally dismissing it as primitive, naïve, or wrongheaded, is potentially to misperceive the gravity and gladness of what those authors sought to communicate, even in the very process of analyzing their work. In my own ministries, I use a theocentric approach to biblical theology because it aligns with the worldview of the biblical writers themselves. That is, I start where they started—with God at the center—and I remain open to the univocal worldview that undergirds the diversities they present throughout the canon. Indeed, only a supernatural conception of reality can produce a vibrant biblical theology that serves the church rather than undermines its confessions. Such a theology must be equipped to deal with the witness of Scripture on its own terms, accommodate the church’s longstanding faith tradition and experiences of God, and allow for the possibility of people today encountering that same God through what he moved his people to enscripturate. As such, evangelical pastor-scholars take as their authority in ministry what God has spoken supremely through his living Word, Jesus Christ, as revealed to us in his written Word, the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible. Such a view requires us to strive to engage in a proper handling of both the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which contain a treasure trove of insights about God and his ways. When we rightly hear the human author who composed the text, we ultimately hear the divine Author who inspired the text.
Of course, there is no shortage of writers today who adopt a critical view toward the text, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to analyze them. It is enough for me to briefly state and defend my contention that an attitude of openness is preferable to a disposition of doubt when it comes to the canon. Stuhlmacher advocates a “hermeneutic of consent” (as opposed to a “hermeneutic of suspicion”) with respect to the biblical texts, along with an attitude of genuine “receptivity” toward their claims. He does so as a result of his long and sophisticated interaction with the German school of higher criticism and its deleterious effects on the church. While not abandoning the historical-critical method entirely, Stuhlmacher encourages a more thorough examination of its rationalistic assumptions, which are at odds with those of the biblical writers. He is also concerned about the ethical responsibilities associated with biblical interpretation. Handling a biblical text has moral connotations, he says. The locus of meaning cannot be arrogated by the reader alone or become the exclusive domain of higher criticism. The Bible is neither a spiritual ink blot for divination nor an academic code for cracking.
While the claims of higher criticism should always be heard, those claims need not go unchallenged as if they were settled law in every jurisdiction where biblical theology is done. As even Barr noted two decades ago, “A certain weariness with historical criticism has been an important part of the reaction which produced biblical theology in its twentieth-century form.” By shedding the hermeneutics of suspicion in the 21st century, biblical theology has become even more robust. What was long seen as a severe criticism leveled at the biblical writers—that they were driven in their composition by an underlying theological agenda (i.e., a “bias”)—is actually a compelling rationale for pursuing a truly biblical theology. If we start from the vantage point of accepting the biblical record as an account of what actually happened in history, we can then produce a biblical theology that the biblical writers would not only recognize but wholeheartedly embrace. Fueled by a theocentric approach to both worldview and Scripture, biblical interpretation—and the biblical theology that derives from it—can keep pulsating with life.
One development that has sucked the life out of biblical theology over the last three hundred years is the Graf-Wellhausen (JEPD) Documentary Hypothesis and its various descendants—views that claim the Torah assumed its present shape not from the hand of Moses and his contemporary aids, but from multiple contradictory sources that were compiled and redacted over the centuries in a developmental (and therefore uninspired) fashion. Because of my work under Drs. Buckwalter and Dorsey, and my own work on biblical literary structure since Dorsey’s passing, I view all such theories of origins with suspicion, giving the benefit of the doubt to the biblical text as we now have it. Indeed, I give literary criticism priority because it often serves as a better tool for rationalizing a text’s formation and, more importantly, uncovering an author’s intended meaning, whatever its oral pre-history may have been. While the arguments of source criticism should be heard and evaluated on a case-by-case basis, the fact remains that the extant biblical manuscripts have been found largely intact, so the textual “fossil record” does not support a “divergent evolution” model of canonical development.
Applying the methods of source criticism to, say, The Lord of the Rings, may well lead to the hypothesis that multiple authors from successive generations synthesized various traditions with conflicting storylines. After all, Aragorn, like Yahweh, goes by many names throughout the epic tale, including Strider (S), Estel (E), Thorongil (T), the Dúnadan (D), and several others. Moreover, the novel has been criticized for its plot holes, minutiae, violence, racism, lapses in logic, and other missteps, not unlike the charges often leveled against the Hebrew Bible. One can only imagine Tolkien’s response to such an analysis of his work. Moreover, as Kaiser rightly insists: “A good exegete will have nothing to do with hypothetical sources which have never materialized in any form. These sources are deductively ‘authenticated’ and then inductively ‘proven’ from the same document in what becomes a most vicious circle. What you put in, you get out.” Rather, the burden of proof should fall on source critics who must reconcile the teleological nature of biblical texts with an evolutionary model of their origin. The explanatory power of such models is often insufficient to account for the literary artistry and intentional patterning we now know permeate the Hebrew Bible (and even the New Testament). In the end, literary criticism may not answer every question we have about the compositional history of a particular passage, but granting this tool priority over source criticism can help reduce the endless speculation and frustration inherent in the quest for textual origins, not to mention the unnecessary cynicism that evolutionary models often display toward the final form of biblical texts. The more exquisite a block of biblical text, the less likely it is that many hands contributed to its final form in a complex redactional process spanning the centuries. As in the kitchen, so in the scriptorium: too many hands spoil the broth.
One way to test the legitimacy of higher criticism’s rationalistic assumptions is to apply both a naturalistic hermeneutic and a theocentric hermeneutic to a particular biblical phenomenon and then determine which approach better accounts for the evidence. For example, does the Israelite religion as portrayed in the Old Testament mirror the faith—or even borrow from the faith—of its ancient Near Eastern neighbors, or is it unique and exceptional as it is? A naturalistic hermeneutic tends toward the former because of anti-supernatural presuppositions as well as thematic parallels found in correspondent literature. But a solid case can be made for the latter. Indeed, the Bible everywhere affirms Israel’s uniqueness, and its historical claims are not easily divorced from its theological claims. To mythologize the history is to neuter the theology. Indeed, a naturalistic worldview has to dismiss divine revelation as a legitimate source of knowledge because it presupposes a world beyond the senses and the existence of a realm that one cannot see or control. It is a fully supernatural, theocentric realm, so it is rejected out of hand by historical criticism. Yet a theocentric approach to Old Testament texts actually strengthens the claim to historicity, affirming Israel’s uniqueness and distinction. As Oswalt argues:
“When we ask the Israelites where they came up with these fantastic concepts, they tell us they did not ‘come up’ with them. They tell us that God broke in upon their lives and dragged them kicking and screaming into these understandings. They tell us that they did their best to get away from him, but that he would not let them go. He kept obtruding himself into their lives in the most uncomfortable ways. If that report is not true, we are at a loss to explain where the fundamentally different understandings of life in the Old Testament came from.”
Oswalt’s observation is perceptive. To strip the biblical world of its theocentric orientation is to be left mystified by the sociology that remains. The community’s rich theology is boiled off by skepticism, leaving only a historical stain at the bottom of the cup. But the sparse residue lacks sufficient explanatory power to account for the historical, theological, and textual phenomena. No one ever would have fabricated the theology that Israel embraced, as it placed them too far out of step with the rest of the ancient Near East—especially when it came to the prohibition of idols, the observance of Sabbath, the wearing of tassels, and the keeping of laws protecting widows, orphans, immigrants, and slaves. The Israelites were a strange and quirky people in the midst of a dark and hostile world. It was only their submission to divine revelation and their sense of identity as God’s covenant people that kept them willing to remain strange. Even then, their drift toward syncretism was a constant temptation. As Oswalt points out, much of their history involved a fair amount of “kicking and screaming” against the God who had graciously revealed himself to them.
Parallels in correspondent literature can be explained in other ways besides mirroring or borrowing. Indeed, one of the most striking features about correspondent literature is the myriad points of contrast not comparison, as if the biblical writers sought to critique or parody much of that literature. Yahweh feeds his people, not vice versa. Yahweh clothes his people, not vice versa. Yahweh illuminates his people, not vice versa. Yahweh leads his people, not vice versa. Yahweh gives rest to his people, not vice versa. Yahweh helps his people, not vice versa. Most of what we read in the Torah reverses a vast array of ancient Near Eastern conceptions of the divine, standing many of those ideas completely on their head. Quite significantly, to discover something about the character of God in an Old Testament text is to discover something about the character of Christ as well, for “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19), and “he is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3a). For the Christian interpreter, then, theocentricity leads naturally to Christocentricity; they are not mutually exclusive considerations. When I come to the end of my interpretive work on an Old Testament passage, I should be able to say, “Like Father, like Son. I can see how the God who inspired this text is the same God who took on flesh in Christ.”
That said, biblical theology is more than a mere academic discipline; it is a reconstruction of ancient thought patterns with crucial spiritual implications for today. Failure to attend to the biblical authors’ theological interpretation of God’s acts in history is to stop short of biblical interpretation itself, for such an approach either avoids or minimizes the impetus behind their rationale for writing in the first place. Consequently, simply analyzing biblical texts is incomplete until a truly biblical theology emerges. As Rosner has said, “No one would dispute the legitimacy of studying Shakespeare’s plays for their artistry and language, or to consider the evidence they provide of the social mores or political conventions of their day, or to trace their impact on the history of literature and ideas. But to do only this is by no means to engage in the interpretation of Shakespeare. The same principle applies to the Bible.” In Christian terms, one could likewise say it is possible to “study” Jesus without actually following him, but the results would be both intellectually and spiritually deficient (cf. e.g., Luke 7:36-50; John 5:39-40). I must always guard against this drift into theological intellectualism. Academizing the faith is no guarantee of spiritual maturity.
In the end, it is only a theocentric approach that enables the church to hear God’s voice in Scripture and respond with joyful obedience. The hermeneutic of suspicion is a muzzle to that voice, for it concludes that no such voice exists. A hermeneutic of consent, on the other hand, is a megaphone to that voice, for it recognizes that God is still speaking today by his Spirit through his Word. God has revived biblical theology in our day, and we are enjoying the fruits of it.
 For a brief overview of the consternated history of biblical theology, see, e.g., Charles H. H. Scobie, “History of Biblical Theology” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 11-20; James K. Mead, Biblical Theology: Issues, Methods, and Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 13-59; and Edward W. Klink III and Darian R. Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 14-17.
 Anthony C. Thiselton, “Introduction” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation, Scripture & Hermeneutics Series, vol. 7, eds. Craig Bartholomew, Scott Hahn, Robin Parry, Christopher Seitz, and Al Wolters, eds., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 5.
 The slogan of one famous preaching ministry today is, “Unleashing God’s truth one verse at a time.” A better approach might be, “Unleashing God’s heart one story at a time.”
 See John S. Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 13-15.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 68-69.
 James Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 8.
 Mead writes, “The field of biblical theology has entered a new century with a tremendous surge of interest and vitality. Scholars and students from many and diverse communities are reading the Bible theologically, seeking to understand its message and shape the methods whereby we approach the Bible.” See Mead, Biblical Theology, vii.
 Two can play the suspicion game. Those of us with a high view of Scripture can be provocateurs, too.
 Analogy first suggested to this author by Paul Elliott, Concordia University Irvine, via personal conversations with Phil and Sarah Bollinger.
 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 64.
 John N. Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 17.
 Brian S. Rosner, “Biblical Theology” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 4. Emphasis mine.
I may be rolling into the New Year. My sister-in-law, who’s an expert baker, brought a trove of goodies to our house for the Christmas break. Alas, my tongue is craving more than my stomach can handle. Among her delectable treats are:
Peanut Butter Cookies
Yule Log Cake Roll
Chocolate Covered Pretzel Sticks
Other Assorted Cookies
Joan is a high-power exec at her company, so it’s a wonder she has the time to do all this work. And not just do it but do it well. Her husband John is an expert bread maker and a boss at the grill. So, I’m raising the white flag today because I can’t come close to competing with these skills. (Not that this is a competition.)
I will say, however, that my peanut butter blossoms—topped with Wilbur buds—are right up there in taste. And, as I like to say: Chocolate is proof of God’s existence. Peanut butter is proof of God’s power. And the two together are proof of God’s goodness.
All of this divinity, however, is giving me a sugar headache!
I mentioned yesterday that I got way too many gifts for Christmas—all of them special and much appreciated—with two from my kids that truly captured my heart. Here are snaps of those two gifts.
The wooden Phillies mug on the right is made in the shape of—and out of the same material as—an MLB bat. It’s so tall I needed a chopstick to stir the creamer! Drew has a way of getting us the most unique gifts—the kinds of things we would never buy for ourselves but bring a smile to our hearts when he gives them.
My daughter and son-in-law choked me up with a canvas made on their cricut that says, “Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices, Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born,” a line from my mom’s favorite Christmas carol, “O Holy Night,” the same one we were singing to her when she passed away. Next year, Lord willing, I’ll write more about that carol and its history. It was an awful lot of work for Bethany and Micah to put this together.
It was a memorable day. (We even had a bit of snow for a few hours!) The greatest gift of course, was the child in the manger. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Andrew also made each of our likenesses into a 3D-printed comic figure. (I am Batman, haha!) We’re still waiting for the USPS to deliver them, but we have printouts of what they will look like. How in the world did I get such creative kids?
I hope your Christmas was as delightful as ours. The morning was quite leisurely—just hanging out in our pajamas and waiting for our daughter and her husband to arrive. Our son stayed over night last night after the Christmas Eve service, and we watched It’s a Wonderful Life together before going to bed. He and I had wonderful conversations and plenty of laughs this morning.
That was after I got up at 4:30 a.m. to place baby Jesus in the manger. Knowing of our tradition, my son-in-law last night placed Mary in a supine position (unbeknownst to me) to simulate her posture in labor. I chuckled when I saw it this morning, but I wasn’t sure at that point who the culprit was. I found out later it was Micah. I told him that Mary probably delivered her child on a birthing stool while holding onto an overhead rope. He said he’ll try to simulate that next year, and we’re all eager to see what he comes up with!
I made hot cinnamon rolls for breakfast, and we had a special blend of Brazilian coffee to help wake up. I then set out all the Christmas candy and goodies we’ll be grazing on over the next several days when the out-of-town family members arrive tomorrow. Many of these treats were selected because they’re the same kinds we had in my childood:
Milk and dark choloclate Wilbur buds; milk and dark choloclate covered pretzels; red and green Hershey kisses; red and green M&Ms; red and green peanut butter cups; chocolate filled straws; nonpareils; and choclate-mint truffles. The cookie collection includes peanut butter blossoms, sugar cutouts, and chocolate chips.
Before we opened our gifts, I read the story of the Magi from Matthew 2. I got a bit emotional—as I do almost every year—because I was reading from the Bible that belonged to my dearly departed father-in-law, who was also a pastor. We then gathered around the manger to remember Emmanuel, “God with us.” After that, the kids served as elves and distributed the gifts.
There are far too many presents to mention here, but I’ll note two from the kids that captured my heart. First, my son gave me an incredibly unique wooden Phillies mug—made out of an actual bat! I can’t wait to try it tomorrow morning! My daughter and son-in-law made me a gift that got me super choked up. It’s a cricut canvas that says, “Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices.” That’s a line from the hauntingly beautiful Christmas carol “O Holy Night,” the same one we were singing to my mom when she passed away.
We then had Christmas dinner, which consisted of oven-baked turkey, Pennsylvania Dutch potato filling, green beans, dried (Cope’s) corn, salad, crescent rolls, apple pie, and sparkling cider. All of us are stuffed. And grateful.
We’re now watching a movie as the day winds down. It was Micah’s turn to make the selction this year, and he chose Elf, which is one of his favorites.
I’m so glad we don’t live in a world where it’s “always winter and never Christmas,” to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis. Rather, the manger is full. And so are our hearts.