Tag Archives: Campbell Divinity School

Adventures in Hebrew, episode one

God’s RocketShip

One of the most exciting elements of my Divinity School work this semester has been the opportunity I’ve had to study Hebrew with Dr. Barry Jones. I’ve never been very good in the foreign language skills department. In high school and college I dabbled in a couple of different languages, but simply trying to get a handle on the nuances and grammar of my own native tongue has been more than enough to push my linguistic abilities. For brevity’s sake, however, let me simply say that Hebrew is fun.

Working through scripture in its original language has been challenging and invigorating. Each little gain in understanding of these sacred texts opens up new truths and insight for me, but I still have a very long ways to go before reading a book, or even a sentence, in Hebrew is as natural and clear as it is in English. So why bother with trying to read the Bible in its original language? Aren’t there already enough English translations available? Haven’t hundreds of translators and scribes been pouring over these texts for thousands of years already? What can I possibly find in the original languages that hasn’t already been identified, dissected and translated by other, more qualified biblical scholars?

Probably nothing.

But that’s not really why we read the Bible, is it? It’s true that some people spend great amounts of time and effort scouring the letters and phrasings of scripture for secret codes, looking for hidden messages that supposedly reveal everything from the date of the apocalypse, to which candidate will win the 2012 presidential election in the United States of America. Others aren’t searching for secret codes, but they are reading the texts in hopes of finding a special verse or word that supports their own presupposed view of God and what he deems to be right behavior, as opposed to reading the lessons and stories of scripture with fresh ears, trying to understand them within the context of the overarching message of the gospel.

Whenever I move through the pages of the Bible, I know that I am walking down a path that many, many people have tread before me; I take comfort in that, and I do not for a moment hope to go one step further than anyone else has already gone. At the same time, I believe that God’s truths aren’t simply passed down from one generation to the next like genetic characteristics or inherited wealth. For scripture to have any real value for an individual, it must be read and understood by that person. If we hope to gain even a glimmer of understanding into the nature of God, we must, each one, seek him out. Knowing how God has worked among the human race in the past is a good place to start. The better informed we are as to the nature of God, of his relationship with mankind, of his movements in history and how he has revealed himself to others, the better equipped we are to identify his presence in our own lives as we seek to live within his will. This is the primary reason that I read the Bible — to know God.

One of the simple benefits of understanding the original language of scripture came through this week’s vocabulary lesson. Among our list of new words to learn for the week was the verb נשא (pronounced: nă•sá) which means to lift or to carry. This is the verb used in Exodus 20:7, the third commandment, translated in the NET (and similarly in the KJV) as “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”. In my experience, most people have understood this to be an admonition against using a name for God as a frivolous slur or in conjunction with obscene language. The verb נשא certainly does support this interpretation. The commandment makes it clear that “lifting up” the Lord’s name to invoke a curse is a sordid thing to do — unless of course, you really, really mean it. However, נשא has another meaning here that, at least in this case, seems to fit this context better than the traditional understanding of “lifting up” God’s name alongside other language that is in poor taste.

The second meaning of the verb נשא, “to carry,” seems to fit in well with the rest of the Exodus story, and even with the rest of the Biblical narrative. Beginning with the exodus and continuing on for much of history, God’s people were not associated with a particular place; they were not known for their great wealth and possessions; they were not known for military superiority or for their hold on a valuable resource. They were known by the law they had been given, and by the God, Yahweh, who gave them that law. As they roamed through the wilderness, carrying all of their few possessions with them, they always found themselves to be strangers in foreign land. What kept them together — what set them apart from the other nations that surrounded them — was their identity as a people chosen by God, called by his name. This act of “carrying” God’s name was not a small thing for the Israelites — it was the most important thing they had!

In 2 Chronicles 7, during a relatively brief period of prosperity and national wealth in the history of Israel, God reminds Solomon, the great king, of this first treasure the Hebrew people had claim to, saying:

“If my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves, pray, seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

When the prophet Jonah was sleeping onboard a ship in peril, the ship’s crew woke him up and asked him who he was. Jonah didn’t tell them his name. He didn’t tell them which town he was from, who is parents were or what he did for a living. He simply said, “I worship Yahweh.” This statement, of course, wasn’t entirely true. It was simply the latest in a string of mistakes Jonah had made. He claimed to be a worshipper of Yahweh, but in reality, he was caught in the act of fleeing from the Lord, of ignoring his responsibilities and following his own desires. Jonah was “carrying” the name of the Lord, but he was not living as one who truly belongs to God.

As Christians, we often divert our attention and make known our disapproval when we hear the name of Jesus used as a statement of anger or frustration, but are we as quick to hold ourselves accountable when our actions or words — though they may be perfectly acceptable by society’s standards — are not worthy of one who carries the name of Christ? How many Christians today pay lip service to God when it’s convenient, but don’t put forward any real effort to follow his commandments to honor the Lord in all we do, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves? Is it worse to ignore God altogether, or to acknowledge him in word but not in deed?

Let us strive to never carry the name of Christ in vain.

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Getting Our Feet Wet

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Today, September 16, 2010, was a very special day for me.

This morning just before 11 o’clock, with a handful of my friends looking on, I was baptized in the tradition of my faith.

Then, before I had time to really process the moment, I was baptized again.

And again.

And…again.

Hopefully persistence counts for something.

The scene might have been a little odd to passersby, but it was a great experience for me and my fellow Divinity School students. Understanding the purpose and practice of baptism is included in the curriculum for our Life and Work of the Minister course, and practicing baptism means getting in the water.

The mission statement of Campbell Divinity School is “to provide Christ-centered, Bible-based, and Ministry-focused theological education.” These three elements are represented, to some extent, in every course the school offers, but the three-fold purpose also guides, in a larger perspective, the multi-facted approach of the entire Master of Divinity program. Most of the courses required for the M.Div. degree can be classified as either a spiritual development course, a course in classical theological education, or as a practical, vocation-driven course. Balancing these three aspects of theological education really allows students to grow spiritually and academically as they work to discern God’s call on their lives, and it is something Campbell does very well.

It’s amazing how my experiences in and outside of the classroom continue to build on each other. Just last week, in Church History I, our discussion was focused on the baptismal practices of the early church. Very quickly in the life of the early church, baptism became such an important part of the spiritual development process that a waiting period of at least three years was implemented for catechumens in order to give them sufficient time to contemplate their own faith experiences and develop healthy practices of discipleship that would allow them to contribute to the church once they became full members. Understanding this influenced our discussion on the spirituality and theology of baptism in Life and Work of the Minister. With this discussion still fresh on our minds this morning, we waded into the water to practice the practical aspects of baptism before we are called on to lead a formal baptismal service. The M.Div. degree at Campbell is really almost like three degrees in one — and at 90 hours, it often feels like enough work to earn three separate masters degrees — but there isn’t anything else I’d rather be doing at this point in my life.

Having professors and peers that I know are genuinely concerned about my spiritual growth is an indescribable blessing. Having courses that keep me challenged academically makes every day fresh and exciting. And besides, where else could I go to get my feet wet, knowing all the while that a quick hand is there to catch me if I slip off into rough water?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Preaching Brimstone and…. Water?

Out of the Depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.

Psalm 130:1-4 (NRSV)

Do you ever hear something that just makes you cringe?

Maybe it’s simply a word that seems vile to your ears. Maybe it’s a harsh truth that stirs up strong feelings when you hear it brought up in casual conversation. Or maybe its a lie; you just get sick at the thought of dangerous untruths digging deeper and deeper into the social consciousness of the people you care about.

I’m not sure which category of cringe-inducing remarks this fits into, but the end result is the same: I can’t help but wince whenever I hear people, especially Christians, talk about the “Old-Testament-god of wrath and vengeance, of fire and brimstone.”

Some people I know who identify God this way are individuals with no real interest in the Lord. They have an image of a God that is cruel and vindictive — often because that is how he has been portrayed by their Christian friends — and they have made up their minds that they want nothing to do with that type of God, so they give up on him all together. My heart breaks for these people. I pray for them, and I hope that I can find a way to show them some portion of the true love that God has for them.

What is more confusing to me is how some Christians talk this way as well. They speak of one god who was legalistic, rigid, demanding and dangerous — an old god who brought down fire from heaven to consume those who displeased him — and another god who is welcoming, compassionate, forgiving and full of love — a Good Shepherd who will leave everything behind to rescue one lost sheep. It’s as if all of a sudden, God changed his mind about how he was going to run things; he changed his mind about how he wanted creation to be ordered; he changed his mind about what kind of relationship he wanted to have with his people, and so he sent Jesus to Earth to give us an update and let us in on the new plan.

This kind of thinking doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t believe God changed his mind. He has always wanted people everywhere to seek him out, to know him, to live in relationship with him and to build healthy relationships with others in order to honor him. When God revealed himself in the person of Jesus, he gave humanity its clearest and most direct glimpse at himself as part of the ongoing revelation that began at the beginning and is still unfolding to this day. In Jesus, men and women saw better than ever the love, compassion, wisdom and grace that God has for all people. That same love Jesus lavished on those he came in contact with, and the same desire he showed to live in intimate relationship with his followers, was not anything new — it had been God’s will all along, but somehow the message kept getting misunderstood; it still does today.

To be honest, not that long ago I had conflicting images of God’s judgment and God’s grace. I had a hard time reconciling the God that created the universe, that preserved Noah’s line in the flood, that lead his people on an exodus out of Egypt and established a line of priests, prophets and kings in Israel with the God who was born in a manager, lived as a homeless wanderer, built relationships with people that crossed all racial, economic, social and religious lines, and then died on a cross to demonstrate his own steadfast love for mankind. The Yahweh of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New Testament seemed so far apart in my eyes.

Then I decided to read the Old Testament; Not just the stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses, but the sacred writings of God’s prophets and priests. Imagine my surprise when I saw the love of Christ embodied in these ancient scriptures.

If any preacher epitomizes the “Fire and Brimstone” style of homiletics, Amos is the man. The book of Amos begins with harsh words for Israel’s neighbors, who have attacked their distant cousins living across the border and pillaged cities that were living in peace. Amos declares God’s judgment will literally be demonstrated by fire raining down from heaven and consuming these people. Then he turns his sight on Israel. Because God’s people have traded in real justice and loving relationships for hypocritical religion and shrewdly-amassed wealth, they also will reap their just rewards. Yet the book of Amos isn’t all doom and gloom. It is a desperate plea to the people. Amos, again and again, calls for his listeners to turn back to Yahweh, to repent, to denounce their greedy lifestyles, to stop paying lip service to God and start living in community with one another as God intends.

The first several chapters of Amos seem to be all judgment with no hope, but don’t give up! Keep reading, and you’ll learn that even when God’s people have utterly disregarded his word and turned their backs on the needs of their neighbors, the Lord is still waiting with open arms to take them back, to call them his own children again, to forgive their sins and guide them into a better life.

Listen to this funeral song I am ready to sing about you, family of Israel:
“The virgin Israel has fallen down and will not get up again.
She is abandoned on her own land
with no one to help her get up.”
The sovereign Lord says this:
“The city that marches out with a thousand soldiers will have only a hundred left;
the town that marches out with a hundred soldiers will have only ten left for the family of Israel.”

The Lord says this to the family of Israel:
“Seek me so you can live!
Do not seek Bethel!
Do not visit Gilgal!
Do not journey down to Beer Sheba!
For the people of Gilgal will certainly be carried into exile;
and Bethel will become a place where disaster abounds.”

Seek the Lord so you can live!
Otherwise he will break out like fire against Joseph’s family;
the fire will consume
and no one will be able to quench it and save Bethel.

The Israelites turn justice into bitterness;
they throw what is fair and right to the ground.

(But there is one who made the constellations Pleiades and Orion;
he can turn the darkness into morning
and daylight into night.
He summons the water of the seas
and pours it out on the earth’s surface.
The Lord is his name!
He flashes destruction down upon the strong
so that destruction overwhelms the fortified places.)

The Israelites hate anyone who arbitrates at the city gate;
they despise anyone who speaks honestly.
Therefore, because you make the poor pay taxes on their crops
and exact a grain tax from them,
you will not live in the houses you built with chiseled stone,
nor will you drink the wine from the fine vineyards you planted.
Certainly I am aware of your many rebellious acts
and your numerous sins.
You torment the innocent, you take bribes,
and you deny justice to the needy at the city gate.
For this reason whoever is smart keeps quiet in such a time,
for it is an evil time.

Seek good and not evil so you can live!
Then the Lord, the God who commands armies, just might be with you,
as you claim he is.
Hate what is wrong, love what is right!
Promote justice at the city gate!
Maybe the Lord, the God who commands armies, will have mercy on those who are left from Joseph.

Because of Israel’s sins this is what the Lord, the God who commands armies, the sovereign One, says:
“In all the squares there will be wailing,
in all the streets they will mourn the dead.
They will tell the field workers to lament
and the professional mourners to wail.
In all the vineyards there will be wailing,
for I will pass through your midst,” says the Lord.

Woe to those who wish for the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the Lord’s day of judgment to come?
It will bring darkness, not light.
Disaster will be inescapable,
as if a man ran from a lion only to meet a bear,
then escaped into a house,
leaned his hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a poisonous snake.
Don’t you realize the Lord’s day of judgment will bring darkness, not light —
gloomy blackness, not bright light?

“I absolutely despise your festivals!
I get no pleasure from your religious assemblies!
Even if you offer me burnt and grain offerings, I will not be satisfied;
I will not look with favor on your peace offerings of fattened calves.
Take away from me your noisy songs;
I don’t want to hear the music of your stringed instruments.
Justice must flow like torrents of water,
righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.”

Amos 5:1-24 (NET)

What do you read there?

Amos reminds me, first of all, that God is inescapable. Whether we acknowledge him or not, trying to hide ourselves from God is as futile “as if a man ran from a lion only to meet a bear, then escaped into a house, leaned his hand against the wall, and was bitten by a poisonous snake.” Sounds like a scene from a movie, doesn’t it? We cannot hide our actions, or even our motives, from the one who made the stars in the sky and the hairs on our heads. This brings us to the next point, that even if God’s big plan for the world, and for my life, seems hard to decipher, it’s important to remember that the most important task he has called us to is to live honest lives, to practice social justice, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and in so doing, honor and worship him with our lives — not just with our organized religious services. “Seek good and not evil so you can live! Hate what is wrong, love what is right. … Justice must flow like torrents of water; righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.” This is the faithfulness God demands from us! This is the type of faithfulness he tried to communicate to his people through the law given to Moses, it is the type of faithfulness the ancient prophets tried to call the Israelites back to, and it is the type of faithfulness perfectly embodied in the person of Jesus.

Then there is the prophet Hosea. Working through Hosea, God took another unique approach to getting his message across to the people. While Amos courageously proclaimed God’s truth to the people until they couldn’t hear it anymore, Hosea modeled the steadfast love and forgiveness God shares with us in his own family relationships. Apparently, at the Spirit’s guidance, Hosea was lead to marry a local prostitute. After the honeymoon period, he continued preaching, and she continued plying her trade; yet Hosea was more than ready to take her back, never hesitated in forgiving her infidelity and always offered unfailing love — even to one who spurned him again and again! When the prostitute is so buried in her life of sin that she is taken into slavery, Hosea goes into town and buys her back. He pays for his own wife, like any other man in the street could, so that he can take her back home with him, forgive her once again, and try, one more time, to begin building an intimate relationship based on love, not selfish pleasure.

This is the type of enduring love the God of the Old Testament has for his people — for all people — even in the darkest of times. The writings of Amos, Hosea, Jonah and the other prophets speak of painful things — suffering, poverty, slavery and death. These hard things are a part of life, often brought into being by our own hands. These things are not God’s will for our lives, but he is committed to finding a way to work through them for the good of creation.

When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt. But the more I summoned them, the farther they departed from me. They sacrificed to the Baal idols and burned incense to images. Yet it was I who led Ephraim, I took them by the arm; but they did not acknowledge that I had healed them. I led them with leather cords, with leather ropes; I lifted the yoke from their neck, and gently fed them.

They will return to Egypt! Assyria will rule over them because they refuse to repent! A sword will flash in their cities, it will destroy the bars of their city gates, and will devour them in their fortresses. My people are obsessed with turning away from me; they call to Baal, but he will never exalt them!

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I surrender you, O Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboiim?
I have had a change of heart!
All my tender compassions are aroused!
I cannot carry out my fierce anger!
I cannot totally destroy Ephraim!

Because I am God, and not man — the Holy One among you — I will not come in wrath!

Hosea 11:1-9 (NET)

The way I see it, God hasn’t changed at all.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that we have changed much either.


Round One

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Life is a blur.

It’s hard for me to believe the summer is gone and I’m already stepping into my second semester at Campbell Divinity School. It’s even harder for me to believe that I have only been a seminarian for about six months; the experiences and lessons I’ve had already seem rich enough to fill a lifetime.

In my first semester, I learned to look at the Bible from a new perspective in Dr. Tony Cartledge’s Old Testament class. I began to understand the complex steps scholars have taken to identify biblical authors based primarily on the unsigned materials they left behind millennia ago (i.e., the Bible). More than anything else though, I have picked up a deep appreciation for the beauty and wisdom that permeates the ancient Hebrew scriptures.

I picked up some more knowledge on how the Bible came to be in its present form in my Introduction to Theological Education class with Dr. Michael Cogdill. I also gained some insight into what it means to be “called” by God to a task, and how people have interpreted and responded to their own calls throughout time. Dr. Cogdill’s class marked the beginning of my own journey of exploration into the classical spiritual disciplines, which have continued to captivate me to the point that I have lead a study on the disciplines with other adults at my church, and continue to find new avenues of application in my own life.

Dr. Daniel Day helped me to discover the difference between an essay and a sermon. As a person who has done a fair amount of writing, I have never been very fond of outlines or strict methodology, but my Ministry of Preaching class with Dr. Day opened my eyes to an entirely different genre of writing — one that is part conversation, part lecture and part prayer. My sermon writing and delivery has improved as a result, and I have found several opportunities to put my preaching lessons into practice over the past few months.

In Worship & Spiritual Formation I gave some serious thought to my own life and tried, as objectively as possible, to chart out the course of spiritual development I have taken over the past 24 years, identifying the major movements, and mentors, that have helped build me into who I am today. I began to understand a little more clearly what Christian fellowship is really all about, and what I can do to help foster that fellowship in all of my interactions with others.

The weekend I spent in downtown Raleigh participating in a poverty simulation pushed me to redefine what it means to be homeless. I walked away from that experience with a keen sense of the value of the personal relationships I hold dear in my own life, and just how illusory our culture’s concept of wealth is.

I signed up for Designing Church Ministries and Programs hoping to get a few pointers on holding Wednesday night youth lessons or putting together a Sunday school lecture, but Drs. Brian Lee and Johnny Ross had plans much deeper than that. Over the course of the semester, our class re-evaluated what it means to be a church in a post-modern culture, and picked up some valuable insights and timeless truths to help keep us focused as we seek to further the Kingdom of God in a rapidly changing world.

Dr. Bruce Powers explained the concepts and principles of servant leadership, as demonstrated by Jesus, in a class called Congregational Leadership — then he proceeded to live out his teachings over the rest of the semester, never missing an opportunity to push us to a new level of thinking as he challenged us to reconsider our preconceived notions of what it means to be a leader, how to identify the relational dynamics in complex situations and how to understand — and even embrace — the paradox of living a life of faith.

As if this whirlwind wasn’t enough, I decided to tack on a summer class: Introduction to Urban and Social Ministries with Professor Stan Yancey. Nearly every Monday in June and July, my fellow students and I visited, observed and discussed projects in place at a variety of very different ministry sites in downtown Raleigh. From homelessness to AIDS; mental illness to chemical addictions; broken families, broken dreams and broken faith; clothes closets, soup kitchens, day cares and emergency shelters — we took it all in, and I would venture to say that not one of us closed out the summer as quite the same person he or she was on June 1.

My first semester at Campbell has been simply incredible. Academically, I have been challenged more than I have by any school experience I have had before; at the same time, I have never felt burdened with work — each experience has truly been a joy. Spiritually, I have been nourished and encouraged beyond anything else I have ever experienced. Every day I walk into class absolutely amazed at how awesome Yahweh is. I continue to be blown away at how my experiences at Campbell keep building directly on the spiritual and academic foundation God has been laying in my life all along.

Hang on.

Here comes the next step.


Living in the Light

Not content to let two months go by without making a little headway on my M.Div degree, I signed up for two courses this summer — the first course is really a practicum project related to my ministerial internship, while the other is a pretty intense introduction to urban and social ministry; in fact, that’s the name of the course: Introduction to Urban & Social Ministry.

Each week we spend several hours visiting a multitude of ministry sites and service agencies, listening to staff, asking questions and talking with the people they serve. Though each organization has a unique mission statement and a slightly different target group of clientele, I think it’s fair to say that all of them are focused on making the world, and specifically central North Carolina, a little better representation of the Kingdom of God.

Several of our visits have been incredible, eye-opening experiences, but this week was particularly meaningful for me. We didn’t have a regular class session this Monday because of the holiday, but we were still assigned independent visits for the week. So Saturday night I found myself sitting in the back row of my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. I needed to attend the meeting for class, but apart from school, this was an important moment for me as someone I am close to was celebrating a new Spiritual Birthday — the one-year anniversary of an addict’s last commitment to get clean and stop using. It was much more exciting, and more important, than celebrating a biological birthday.

“I am the light of the world. The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

—Jesus

As I sat through the meeting listening to speaker after speaker giving personal testimonies, reading passages from the NA book and encouraging one another through their struggles, I was struck by the simple honesty that pervaded the group. Every time someone stood to speak, whether it was to deliver a keynote speech or to ask a short question, the first words to come out were always “I’m David (or Charlie, or Bobbie or Rachel) and I’m an addict.” It didn’t matter if the speaker had gotten high that morning or if he had been clean for 30 years. There was not a stigma of shame or embarrassment associated with the label — something I’m sure takes many, many meetings like this to overcome — it was just the simple truth. “I’m a human, and I’m an addict.” These were authentic people.

I left the meeting that night wondering what the world would be like if everyone was as honest with themselves, and as authentic with others, as this group of humble addicts. I went home. I went to bed. Then I went to church.

Our Sunday school passage that day came from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:

For you all are sons of the light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of the darkness. So then, we must not sleep as the rest, but must stay alert and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But since we are of the day, we must stay sober by putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, our hope for salvation.

For God did not destine us for wrath but for gaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that whether we are alert or asleep we will come to life together with him.

Therefore, encourage one another and build up each other, just as you are in fact doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:5-11 (NET)

Paul is writing to the church in response to questions the believers had about the Parousia, but his instructions are meant to be a guide for daily living at all times, not just in the final days.

The metaphor of light and darkness is an oft used one. In my experience, Christians like to think of living in the light as leading a righteous life; that is, avoiding the major pitfalls of sin and obeying God’s law to the letter. In contrast, being a child of darkness implies living a life marked by sin, day-in and day-out; a life totally separate from God and the law.

I think there may have been a little more depth to the “light” Paul spoke of than we tend to acknowledge; we have a way of trimming God down to size when he gets too big for our tastes. From time to time, we may fool ourselves into believing we are living righteously, pleasing God with our good works and outdoing those poor fools who still choose to walk around in darkness. I heard it said today that there are really only two kinds of people in the world: Baptists, and sinners. I’m afraid a handful of people from my own faith tradition aren’t the only ones to fall into this trap of ignorance. Such thinking proves at least one fact with absolute certainty — those who call themselves righteous have yet to stumble out of the dark their religion has pulled them down into.

I think the “light” Paul spoke of is best described not as righteousness, but as truth. Truth with God, truth with others, and especially truth with one’s self. Jesus has called us to live our lives within the truth of his Creation, of his Divinity, of his Humanity. We must accept the truth that we will never measure up to the righteousness of God, but we can accept his Grace and continue striving to live within his will for our lives.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that doesn’t put much value in authenticity or in truth. We put on different facades when we go to work, when we go to school, when we go to church, when we’re out with our friends and when we’re at home with our families. It’s expected of us, and those who don’t follow the status quo are often penalized for their lack of conformity.

“A time is coming — and now is here — when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers.”

—Jesus

What would happen to our world if our churches began to live and breath with the same spirit of honesty and truth that pushes that group of recovering addicts to better themselves, to value true fellowship over fleeting pleasure and to walk together on the journey that leads them closer to God? What would happen if before I got up to deliver the invocation this Sunday, I felt compelled to tell the congregation that “I’m David, and I am a sinner,”?

I think we would begin to see the light of Christ a little more clearly.


Preaching in the Crisis

I’ve wanted to share this message for a while now. Considering it deals with the same text (John 6) that I discussed in my last post, I thought it would be appropriate to offer it as an alternative perspective.

This sermon was delivered at Butler Chapel on January 19, during the first chapel service I had an opportunity to attend as a student at Campbell Divinity School. The guest speaker that day, Dr. J. Kameron Carter, set the standard high; other speakers this semester followed his precedent, making Tuesday morning chapel services an eagerly anticipated staple of my weekly spiritual diet.

Dr. Carter is an associate professor of theology and black church studies at Duke Divinity School. His sermon digs deep into the meaning of Jesus’s miraculous feeding of the 5,000, as recorded in the Gospel of John. Dr. Carter relies on archeological and historical research to move deeper into this text than I have witnessed any other preacher do, yet he still manages to bring it around to the heavy implications Jesus’s actions have for modern-day disciples. If you don’t believe sincere scholarship, extra-biblical sources and a fiery passion for the gospel can hold places in the same sermon, take a few minutes to watch this video and then we’ll talk.

Let me forewarn you, this sermon starts out slow — very slow. I think Dr. Carter knew he didn’t run the risk of having any of his audience leave the chapel early during the service, so he took some time to build up his message for effect. Stick with it and you won’t be disappointed. If you don’t have time to watch it now, bookmark this page and come back to it one day when you’ve got some free time or just feel the need to listen to some quality preaching. Or, if you prefer, you can download an MP3 of the sermon below and listen to it at your convenience. Enjoy!

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=10459076&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=0&show_portrait=0&color=ffffff&fullscreen=1

In writing sermons this semester, I have been trying to find a balance between reverent and colloquial language; between reading an essay and sharing a conversation. I usually find myself erring too much to one side, and then overcorrect the message to the other extreme — either making it so colloquial I fear I may have offended my listeners, or so lecture-like that I begin to bore myself. I don’t think Dr. Carter’s sermon is the best I’ve ever heard, and I wouldn’t hold it up as a perfect model, but I do think he achieves a wonderful balance between the scholar and the friend.

Let me know what you think.
Does this make for an inspiring message, or do you think too much analysis of the situation kills the sermon? If this doesn’t work for you, what elements go into great preaching that you have heard?

[audio:https://davidajr.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/myrtle-beach-116.jpgwp-content/uploads/2010/05/DrCarterSermonaudio.mp3|titles=Dr. J. Kameron Carter]
Dr. J. Kameron Carter @ Campbell Divinity School
January 19, 2010
Right Click to Download MP3 — 5.7 Mb

Goal Setting

As a final project for my Intro to Theological Education course, I had to come up with a set of personal goals that I hope to accomplish during my time at Campbell. Of course, I had goals in mind before I enrolled in Divinity School, but until they’re articulated, they’re really nothing more than vague ideas.

I think the temptation with any journey in life is to focus on the standard goal: if the journey is a degree program, the goal is to graduate; if the journey is a job, the goal is to make it to the next promotion, or retirement, without being fired. While these standard goals are valid, I think all of us would admit we hope to get more out of life than simply making it to the end of the road. Taking the time to set personal goals along the way helps us make the best use of our time and energy; they provide inspiration when the road gets tough and the standard goal starts to seem less attractive.

So, here’s what I came up with:


As I spend time at Campbell preparing for future ministry opportunities, I hope to…


• Continue personal spiritual development and formation.

As I move through my formal theological training, I must continuously strive to deepen my own personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the risen Savior and Eternal God of all creation. Alongside my educational pursuits, I hope to develop a regular habit of devotional Bible study and prayer. I plan to focus on developing a style of living consistent with the spiritual disciplines, including daily meditation, constant prayer, weekly fasting, confession and fellowship. As much as possible, I hope to continue charting my own faith development, beginning with the spiritual formation timeline I created during my first semester at Campbell.


• Strengthen my knowledge of the biblical canon.


Through coursework and independent study, I hope to retain a solid overview of each of the 66 books in the Bible, understanding the subject matter, context, issues of authorship, chronology and basic history related to each book, as well as how each book fits into the total canon and how the broader canon affects the interpretation of each book. I hope to develop the skills necessary to conduct scholarly exegesis of the text for the purposes of preaching, teaching, devotional study and personal exploration. I hope to develop familiarity with quality extra-biblical resources, including commentaries and reputable journals that I may turn to for future research and study as I continue building upon my foundation of biblical knowledge.


• Expose myself to the original languages of the Bible.


I intend to study both Greek and Hebrew while enrolled at Campbell. Through coursework, I hope to gain a basic understanding of these primary original languages of the Bible. Following my studies at Campbell, I hope to retain knowledge of key terminology and translation issues relative to both languages. I hope to develop advanced skills in at least one of the biblical languages that I may continue to build upon, practice and reinforce following the completion of my education at Campbell.


• Explore the history of the Christian faith and understand how it affects the theological doctrine of sectarian groups today.

I have a general knowledge of the varying customs and liturgy associated with different mainline churches today, but very little understanding of the differences in doctrine that serve to separate Christians in the 21st century. I believe understanding these doctrinal differences, how they have developed from interpretation of the biblical canon and how they have affected application of the Christian faith throughout history is important to developing effective ministry that seeks to broaden and unify the body of Christ.


• Improve my preaching skills, with a focus on textual accuracy, cultural relevancy and effective delivery.

Through coursework, internships and practicum experience, I hope to develop the skills necessary to prepare regular sermons that are based on sound biblical truths and speak to the needs of contemporary listeners. I hope to improve my public speaking and delivery skills so that I might preach a sermon “naturally” from the pulpit — as if engaging in conversation with the congregation, as opposed to simply reading a prepared essay.


• Develop a ministry strategy that is flexible, but always missions-oriented.

I hope to develop the interpersonal and logistical skills necessary to practice effective evangelism in a variety of cultural contexts and situations, as well as the skills needed to encourage others to do the same. Regardless of the capacity I find myself serving in after Campbell — vocational missionary, pastor, youth worker, family minister, etc. — I hope to maintain a sense of “mission,” living and working in such a way that the message of Christ’s love and salvation is demonstrated to others, instinctively drawing them into the body of Christ.


• Continue to become more self-aware, for the purposes of improving interpersonal relationships.


• Successfully meet all of the requirements necessary for a Master of Divinity, with languages.

I hope to maintain a minimum GPA of at least 3.25 on a 4.0 scale throughout my enrollment at Campbell, developing an academic portfolio that will allow me to pursue advanced graduate education in the future.


By no means is this list meant to be exhaustive, nor are these goals set in stone. At this point in my journey though, these goals seem to be the big ones. A few other goals in the background include being ordained by a local church, becoming more familiar with the writings of the classic church fathers (and mothers) and understanding how Christian doctrine fits into the emerging culture of a post-modern world. No need to let the list get too long already though.


Radically Simple

If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more. … But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ.

More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things — indeed, I regard them as dung! — that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness — a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians — 3:4, 7-11 (NET)

We have talked a lot about “call” during my first semester at Divinity School. At the beginning of my course with Dr. Michael Cogdill, we focused on the call of Paul, also called Saul.¹ Paul is often used as an example of a person who made a radical change of direction — a complete 180º — in his decision to follow Christ. The phrase “she had a ‘Damascus Road experience,'” referencing Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Messiah on his way to Syria, is common vernacular today. Indeed, considering Paul’s position when he left Jerusalem — “I do not believe Jesus is the Christ” — compared with his stance once he arrived in Damascus — “I do believe Jesus is the Christ” — it is fair to say that he made a total change.

A broader look at Paul’s life, however, shows that perhaps this change wasn’t as sharp as it initially appears to be. Paul had always had a deep desire to know more about God. Although he worked as a tent maker (Acts 18:1-3), not a religious professional, Paul devoted his time to studying the faith and the ancient scriptures. He became a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:1-3), the most accomplished teacher of his day. Saul wanted to do all he could to please God and serve him, so he joined the Pharisees — a religious-political sect of Jews that followed the rules of their faith, as they understood them, in the strictest sense possible, holding each other accountable along the way. Even among the Pharisees, Saul’s desire to follow the will of God and serve him was unsurpassed (Galatians 1:13-24).

Saul had spent his life studying the scriptures and prophets and knew them as well, or better, than anyone else of his generation. He was a Roman citizen² (Acts 22:22-29), but he had already decided that following God and serving him was more important than focusing on building a career and amassing money. He valued education, he paid attention to the secular philosophies of his day (Acts 17:16-31) and he valued a hard days work. Above all else, however, Saul was committed to serving God, although his understanding of God had been skewed by his narrow focus (Acts 7:51-8:3).

Clearly, Saul was the perfect person to lead the effort of spreading the message of Christ to the world. He had the knowledge, he had the credibility, he had the resources, and above all, his zeal for serving the Lord was unmatched. He just didn’t quite understand what it was God wanted from him.³ Meeting Christ has a way of bringing clarity to things.

In the same way, whenever we find ourselves at a point of conflicting values — when a dilemma of ethics seems to permeate a decision — studying the life of Christ is the best method for clearly judging a right course of action.

Understanding Paul’s life in this way — recognizing the fact that his love of God and his desire to live a life of service did not begin on the Damascus Road — poses a tough question for Christians today. How do we deal with fundamentalists from other faiths? Can we condemn them for holding fast to what they “know” to be true?

Caught in this situation, even as he was being stoned, “Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ Then he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!'” (Acts 7:59-60).

Maybe Stephen was just as confused as Saul was. He seems pretty extreme himself. Again, for clarity, I turn to Jesus:

So when they came to the place that is called “The Skull,” they crucified him there, along with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. But Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Luke 23:33-34 (NET)

Following Jesus isn’t easy, but as Paul found out, it’s worth the cost.

Notes:

1. Contrary to tradition, Saul’s name was not changed following his encounter with Christ. The biblical record shows that he continued to be called by both names after his profession of faith. Like many Jews at that time, Paul kept his Hebrew name (Saul) but used a Greco-Roman name (Paul) in common circles. Considering his zeal for Judaism, and the fact that accounts of his early life are generally concerned with his involvement in the faith, before his conversion to Christianity his Hebrew name was used most frequently.

2. Paul received his citizenship through inheritance, which was an unusual thing at a time when most people living under the rule of Caesar were not considered citizens. This indicates that Paul was likely from a wealthy family of considerable influence.

3. The fact that Paul condoned the killing of an innocent man is not lost on me. Clearly, this is not the kind of behavior God desires from anyone, but this gross misunderstanding of God’s very clear instructions (“Don’t kill. Period.”) has been a recurring issue among people throughout history who have thought they were enacting the will of God. Thankfully, Paul eventually came to recognize the wisdom in putting Christ first. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)


Making Friends

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Matthew 25:34-40 (NRSV)

This past weekend, I spent 25 hours in downtown Raleigh with a group of other divinity school students participating in a poverty simulation. It gave me a small taste of what it feels like to be helpless in a city without a dollar to my name. We slept outside, rummaged through thrift store handouts and trash cans and somehow made our way through the weekend.

We also made a few new friends along the way. I met Willard, a 59-year-old retired mail carrier (probably 60 years old now, Happy Birthday Willard!) who wanted to go back to college just for fun, but needed a little help on his entrance exam. We talked about writing for a while before he had to hurry into the soup kitchen to be sure he had a bit of warmth to get him through the rainy night outdoors. “I’ve got a pretty nice sleeping bag,” Willard said. I remembered him later that night as I scoured for a spot to set up my synthetic-fiber, 15º backcountry fortress from REI. I wonder just how nice Willard’s sleeping bag really is.

I met Raheem, a guy about my age who moved to Raleigh from Philadelphia to be closer to some of his family, just to find out they didn’t really want to be closer to him. He’s spent months searching the newspapers and internet for job listings, but hasn’t found anybody willing to take a chance on him yet, despite his incredible gift for rhetoric — “I can sell you anything!” Raheem told me as he gave his only sweatshirt away to another friend who felt chilled at the thought of spending one more night alone in the park.

I met Steve, a New York native who spent decades building a good life with his wife in North Carolina. Then she died unexpectedly in 2003. Steve got by alright until 2008 when he lost his job. He didn’t have anybody else to turn to, but that wasn’t a big deal. He could make it through. But the months passed on and he still couldn’t find any work in Raleigh; he couldn’t sell the home he had spent the last half of his life working to pay off. A year later, this hardworking, well-spoken, clean-cut, “normal” guy found himself without a place to stay when the banker came to collect his due. Now he hangs around City Market.

I learned a lot this weekend, but the thing that has stuck with me most is something I’ve known for a very long time, I just tend to forget it when the situation makes it convenient for me:

Everybody is different. Every individual is so, incredibly, wonderfully unique. And how awesome is it that God knows each one of us, inside and out.

Early in my undergraduate work, I wrote an in-depth essay on stereotypes. The primary thought that drove that paper was my determination that stereotypes are a necessary evil. Without them, we would simply be overwhelmed by the abundance of information, of power and detail in the natural world that we try to make our way through. We would be unable to function if we tried to truly understand every individual that comes our way, beginning with a blank palette; so we use stereotypes to help us cope.

Unfortunately, though, our stereotypes also blind us to the beauty of the real world God has made for us. We go through our lives like we’re sitting in on an original performance of Beethoven’s 5th, choosing instead to slouch down in the back row and listen to Spongebob Squarepants singing on our iPods.

We have stereotypes. Often times we’re aware of them. We may even try to put them aside occasionally and get to know someone for who they really are. But I would venture to say that of all the stereotypes we hold, those that protect us from the homeless are the last ones we are willing to give up.


Lessons on Love

I simply can’t believe I’m already approaching mid-terms during my first semester of divinity school. My classes have challenged me academically and spiritually, but most of all I’ve come to a fuller appreciation of God’s love for us. I’ve especially enjoyed my studies of the Old Testament with Dr. Tony Cartledge. In my experience, Christian devotions and church studies tend to focus almost exclusively on the New Testament, relegating a few key passages from the Old Testament into children’s Bible stories. While Christians rightly look to the teachings of Jesus, Peter and Paul as the latest revelation of God’s truths, an unfortunate side effect is a trend toward a lack of biblical knowledge among adult Christians.

The Old Testament still has much to tell us about human nature and our relationship with the Eternal God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus was a student of the Old Testament. He diligently studied the stories of Moses and the prophets, meditated on the word of the Lord and used the scriptures to proclaim his message of salvation in the synagogues and side streets. Had he simply been born with a photographic recall of the scriptures, he would not be able to sympathize with us as we struggle through our studies today. Likewise, a solid understanding of the Old Testament scriptures is imperative to fully understanding the teachings of Jesus. The conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus recorded in the Gospel of John is probably the most oft-quoted passage in Christian circles, summing up the core message of salvation in a single verse or two — we are redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus alone, the ultimate example of God’s love for creation. All we have to do is have faith.

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:14-16, NIV

Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, who, as a member of the Jewish ruling council and a student of scripture himself, already knew something of the power of faithful obedience to God. The other members of the Sanhedrin felt threatened by Jesus and had begun plotting against him, but Nicodemus recognized something very special about him. (Their entire conversation can be read here.) This reference to the Old Testament story of the Nehushtan may have seemed baffling at first, but Jesus mentions it for a specific reason.

The Nehushtan, or snake-on-a-pole, was a symbol of God’s healing grace, of his mercy and love for his people. With images of God’s miraculous show of force against the Egyptian Empire still fresh on their minds, the Israelites were wandering in the desert, under the guidance of Moses, in search of the land YAHWEH had promised them. They had had ups and downs, but time and time again, God had proven that so long as they remained obedient and fearful of him, they would be protected and provided for. In fact, the Israelites had just won a tremendous victory over the hostile Canaanites who had been terrorizing them. Appropriately, the Israelites gave YAHWEH the credit for their victory. While their shouts of victory and praise were still hanging in the air, however, the Israelites began to grow discontent, speaking out against God, complaining to their leader Moses and reminiscing about the good-ole days when they were content and happy slaves in a foreign land.

Then the snakes came. Slowly at first. Slinking out from under the desert rocks and leaving their mark on the careless men who got too close. Then more came. They were everywhere. It seemed no one could avoid being bitten.

Perhaps they shouldn’t have been so quick to turn their backs on the Lord who had delivered them from Egypt, cared for them in the desert and thwarted the attacks of the Canaanite king. What to do now? Would the Creator of the Universe take them back under his wing, yet again?

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.”

So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.

Numbers 21:4-9, NIV

So once again, God’s people recognized their own insufficiencies and turned to him. Once again, he redeemed them.

He didn’t do all they asked for, though. The people wanted God to remove the snakes from the land. They wanted him to eliminate pain and suffering from their world; To give them a carefree life. God knew if he simply took away the snakes — if he removed the cause of hurt and trouble in the world — he would also be taking away the freedom of his people. He would be infringing on their freewill and they would no longer be able to turn to him and seek him out of their own volition. No. That was out of the question.

What he did do, though, was provide a way to ease their suffering. He offered them a way out, but they would have to choose to accept it individually, and on faith.

The Messiah, Jesus, understood his mission was to become a similar vehicle for God’s love, but in a much more profound way. He must still be shamed and put on display for the people to see, but when we look upon him in faith, we are healed completely. We are made new. He doesn’t just remove physical toxins and pain that would cause us harm; he purges the blemishes of our soul, forgives us our sins and gives us new life, eternal life, in him.