A former student from DBU posted a comment a couple of days ago. I accidentally misplaced it–durn. Just in case Kevin visits this blog again–hey, how’s it going, thanks for the note.
I will be teaching speech this Fall on Saturday mornings at Brookhaven College. I haven’t taught in six years. So, I’m trying to rethink what it was that I did and what I will do now. Brookhaven will be the sixth place where I have been on adjunct faculty. The first place was WT when I worked there as a graduate student. Then I taught for a year at Amarillo College. In seminary I taught at Weatherford College and Tarrant County College. Then after seminary I taught at Dallas Baptist University. Of those school, WT offered the most support in part because I was a graduate student and the professor in charge of the basic courses was and is a good mentor. I enjoyed Amarillo College where they offered some collegiality but not much in terms of formal support. At Weatherford College, I really appreciated the oversight of the department head, Anita Tate. She was good to work for. Tarrant County was OK. I appreciated the students. The departmental secretary was a great guy. But, the department seemed to revolve around the theater and those of us who just taught speech communication were somewhat irrelevant.
Thus far, Brookhaven seems to be a really good institution. They seem to work hard at (1) including the adjunct faculty as colleagues; (2) communicating regularly; (3) working toward improved teaching. I’m looking forward to it.
God Amazed Through Gideon
One of the things I failed to mention when I introduced our seasonal series, “Saddle Up Your Horses” is this: If you’re gonna saddle up your horse, you have to stay in the saddle. Martin Luther is quoted as saying, “The world is like a drunken peasant; if you help him up on one side of the horse, he falls off on the other side.” I’ve never been able to find the quotation in context so I don’t know exactly what Luther meant—and honestly who really knows exactly what Luther meant. But I’ve always taken the quotation to mean that indeed people have difficulty staying in that place of righteousness. There seems to be mutations of almost any virtue that reside on either side of the virtue on something of a continuum. Take the virtue of patience—it’s absence of course is a short temper on one side but its also easy for patience to fall off on the other side and became passive lethargy. The virtue of joy—one side a humorless piety and the other side hedonism. We have all seen the absence of kindness in cruelty, mean-spiritedness, and arrogant rudeness. But there’s a syrupy, artificial kindness that leads to codependence on the other side of the horse. Indeed, we can be like a drunkard on a horse—God gets us upright in the saddle and we quickly fall off on the other side.
Take Gideon for instance. Gideon was a judge in
It took a lot to actually get Gideon in the saddle. In fact, Judges chapter 6 could be considered a less in excuse making. When the Angel of the Lord arrives to call Gideon the first time, Gideon responds with accusation. He says, “If the Lord is with us, why has all thishappened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of
OK, excuse #1 didn’t work. If you look in Judges 6:11-13, the dialogue is taking place between Gideon and the Angel. And here Gideon is very bold and cocky. But then in verse 14 it is the Lord himself who arrives to speak. And Gideon changes his tune quickly. He pulls out excuse number 2—the inadequacy excuse. Lord, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family. And here the Lord reassures him and says, “I will be with you.” And here’s part of the reasoning that God gives a little later in chapter 7. If Gideon were a tried and true military leader whose capabilities could be seen by all then Gideon would receive the praise for the battle rather than God. God wanted to do something through Gideon so bold that the people would have to recognize that God was in it.
Finally, Gideon tries excuse #3. “How do I really know that this is God’s will?” And so there’s the famous fleecing of God episode. He places a fleece on the threshing floor and says to God, “If this is really your will let the fleece be wet and the floor be dry.” And indeed the next morning the fleece is soaking wet and the floor dry as a bone. But then Gideon says—OK, OK, OK, but one more thing. This time let the floor be wet and the ground dry–because it could be that the fleece simply soaked up all the water. But the next day indeed, Gideon receives his sign. Having been exhausted of his excuses, he saddles up and goes to defeat the Midian army.
Think about those excuses for a minute—they are mutations of virtues. “Where is God in this? I’ve heard the promises; I’ve heard the stories.” It’s a sort of mutation of righteousness called righteous indignation. This situation isn’t my fault—why should I do anything about it. The second excuse is a mutation of humility—I can’t, I’m not good enough. The final excuse is a mutation of spirituality—I’m going to delay a little longer until my spirit has fully discerned that I know exactly what God’s will is. Last week at the Bible study time, we had a competition about the “best excuses.” We each submitted our best excuse—I’m too old, I’m too young, I’m too tired, I’m too busy. Surely there is someone more qualified. I’m not worthy, I’m too clean to do something like that. I have dirty hands, I have clean hands. We didn’t declare a winner but I think my favorite one was, “Well, the last time I did that, it didn’t work out so well. I encountered sand fleas.”
Here’s the thing about excuses though—they’re just excuses. I’ve never seen God convinced by an excuse. I mean—do you think God listens to us and sometimes says—“Oh really, your dog ate your homework. I didn’t know that—huh—cause you know I made the dog and you know I’m pretty familiar with their dietary habits and I don’t remember putting homework on their menu. And I certainly didn’t see that coming—you know being omniscient and all.” God having designed us and empowered through the gift of the Holy Spirit knows what we are capable of. God also knows our limitations. And that which God demands, God supplies. God grants the strength, wisdom, patience, and virtue necessary to fulfill the call for us. When God says, “Saddle Up Your Horses” we should remember that God made the horse and supplies the saddle.
And in some of the commentaries I read about this passage, that’s the knock against Gideon—that he has all these excuses. But, I don’t think that’s the knock against him—at least not the biggest one. God endures all that—the righteous indignation, the mock humility, the fake piety—because each of those in their own mutated sense are ways of relating to God and the whole point of calling us to saddle up our horses is to bring us into relation with God—that we would travel alongside God. And if God has to convince you that is going to act through you, God will enable you to act through God, and that God will be faithful to complete that good work begun in you, that’s what God will do.
And so Gideon goes into battle. And hopefully you’ll come tonight for the musical so, I don’t want to spoil the plot for you. But, God takes Gideon’s sizable army and weans it down to just three hundred men—not much more than a posse to go up against Midian’s army. The Lord said that He needed a smaller army because with a large Army, Gideon would get a big head and think he accomplished it on his own. But with an army this size, Gideon would have to rely on God every step of the way. And the battle plan is remarkable—here like the battle of
The three hundred men carry torches, clay pots and horns and surround the Midian army at night. At the appointed time, they throw down the clay pots, they raise the torches, they blow the horns and the Midians flee in terror. I’m certain that the crashing pots sounded like lockers closing, the loud noises sounded like voices in cinder block halls, and the dissonant horns sounded like an out of tune marching band, the Midians probably awoke and thought they were back in Jr. High—it would make me flee in terror as well.
But after the battle is won, Gideon falls off the other side of the horse. They come to make him King and Gideon knows the right answer and gives it. No, I don’t want to be your king, The LORD, YHWH is to be our King. Indeed, that is the goal with all work that amazes people—to point people toward God. God asks people from time to time to use the gifts entrusted to them to amaze people. Artistic abilities to create amazing beauty, writing ability to provide insight, an amazing experience of faith to provide testimony, the ability to sing. And with each of those expressions of faith, staying in the center of the saddle means ensuring that people understand the motivating and animating force behind the amazing things we do. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” In XXX of Christian Century, If you look in Judges 6:11-13, the dialogue is taking place between Gideon and the Angel. And here Gideon is very bold and cocky. If you look in Judges 6:11-13, the dialogue is taking place between Gideon and the Angel. And here Gideon is very bold and cocky. VVVVV writes about the “handshake ritual” it’s what occurs out here in the back as people are leaving the sanctuary. In an excellently written essay, he talks about the actual ministry that can be done in those brief seconds. But, he also says, it’s one of those moments when preachers have to watch that they don’t fall off the horse. Sometimes, people help you stay humble. xxxxx He quoted one seminary professor who said, “We have too many preachers who desire to hear parishoners say, ‘what a Great preacher we have’ and not enough who long to hear them say, ‘What a great God we have.’” This tendency doesn’t just apply to preachers. We must be careful that we do not crave too desperately to hear—what a great choir we have, what a great Sunday school class we have, what a great outreach program we have, what a great church we are, what a nice person she is, what a good guy he is. Ultimately the longing is to hear people say, “What a great God we have.” And that’s the words Gideon mouths but, as Mother Mangum would say, “His actions were speaking so loudly I couldn’t hear what he was saying.”
Gideon refused that title of King but then started acting like one. First, he acquired a gold earring from each of those who had been in battle with him. And with the gold he made a monument that took on the characteristics of an idol. As judges explains, “All Israel worshiped it and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.” The whole resistance to a king meant that one judge did not appoint his or her successor. When the need arose, God called forth the leader of God’s own choosing. But Gideon tried to convey the power from himself to his son Abimelech. The detail in the storytelling that emphasizes this shift occurs in the presence and absence of the Lord in the story. If you have your Bibles open and can look at the way the word “LORD” is written in a verse like —its written in all capital letters. When our English translations of the Bible use all a caps for Lord like that it means that the Hebrew word being used there is YHWH or the proper name for God. And throughout chapters 6 and 7, YHWH—The LORD—is an active and dynamic character who communicates directly with Gideon as friends and who causes the Midian army to flee. But as Gideon tips to the other side, The LORD ceases to be an active character in the story. Gideon begins to do what God didn’t want anyone to do—he begins to act like a king, convinced that he has won the battle and that his agenda matters most. The people God has to bolster are not nearly as difficult as the ones who think they can do it all by themselves. The timid, the shy, the ones with low self-esteem recognize they have to rely the need God to put them upright in the saddle. The arrogant, over-confident, people convinced of their own trick riding capabilities generally don’t realize they’re riding sideways in the saddle. They can’t be told that they need God’s help. Be careful my Gideon-like friends when God chooses to amaze others through you. The euphoria can be intoxicating. And the arrogance and pride on the other side of the horse seems so easy to embrace. Stay upright that others may be amazed and say, “What a Great God We Have.”
I just saw Pineapple Express. The movie is violent. It has hugely inappropriate language, sexual content, glamorization of drug use. I’m glad I was seeing it down in Cedar Hill. I thought it was hilarious but wouldn’t recommend it to anyone of impressionable age. On second thought, I just wouldn’t recommend it anyone who doesn’t have a really sick sense of humor.
I think I went because I knew it was a movie I could see as an adult and needed to distance myself a little from the kids and teenagers I’ve been dealing with this summer. Lovely children really, it’s just that you need to distance yourself from them at times.
This is my third and final objection to The Shack. As I have said before, I really appreciate the book. I find it helpful and moving. But, being who I am I can’t seem to just unequivocally praise a book. So, I decided to get my objections out initially so that I can say what I appreciate in the book without that luggage. In a conversation between Mack and Jesus, Jesus dismisses the value of institutions like the church–or at least the church in the organizational and administrative sense. Admittedly, my objection probably is rooted in the fact that I receive a paycheck from such an institution.
It may or may not be historically accurate to say that the historic Jesus was not about creating an institution. However, he was a Jew and functioned within his contemporary experience of Judaism. It is wrong to construct a picture of the historic Jesus as someone who threw all the organizational and institutional aspects of Judaism out the window. That’s frequently how we portray Jesus but it simply isn’t accurate. In the December 26, 2006 issue of Christian Century, Jewish scholar (of the New Testament!) wrote about the unfortunate divorce of Jesus from his Jewish background by the church (Amy-Jill Levine, Misusing Jesus: How the Church Divorces Jesus from Judaism, Christian Century, 12/26/2006, pp. 20-25). She points out several moments from the biblical account of Jesus’s life that reveal his attention to Jewish practice.
In terms of the institutions created after Jesus’s life, the book of Acts shows that after the Ascension of Jesus, the people committed themselves to formal practice of religious community. The development of the Epistles from Pauline to Deutero-Pauline to General Epistles also shows this growing awareness of the Christian life as rooted in institution. The earliest epistles of Paul were addressed to particular churches–in Thessalonica, in Corinth, in Galatia. But the Deutero-Pauline epistles of Ephesians and Colossians reveal a growing sense of connectedness between churches. Finally, with the general epistles (Hebrews-Jude), the epistle form is being used but the letters no longer address particular congregations but at the very least groups of congregations and ultimately the church as a whole. While there’s no requirement to believe that the earliest followers got it right, it is nonetheless a misreading of the New Testament witness about normative Christianity to claim that Christians can or should neglect the institution of the church. New Testament Christianity is overwhelmingly concerned with the church as both a mystical community and as an institution. To preach a Christian faith that disdains or denies the importance of the church is to preach against the New Testament witness. This is not to say that you cannot be a Christian unless you go to church. Certainly you can. However, the agency that God has used over two thousand years to bring the message of the gospel to the world has been the church. God could have certainly chosen some other means, but God chose the church.
Having the character say he didn’t intend to start an institution feels good to people who have been burned by the church. And God knows the church has burned far too many people–literally and figuratively. It separates Jesus from the failures of the institutions which have developed around his message, life, death, burial and resurrection. And those failures have varied from the ludicrous to the tragic. But for all our failures, God has not chosen to wash away the church in flood but has preserved us through the storm. Such is the grace of God.
I want to emphasize that I like The Shack very much. I have been recommending it whenever possible and have started the process within the church of thinking through how we get the book into the hands of people who have otherwise felt pushed aside by God and by God’s people. My quandary in all of this has been–How do I name my few problems with the book without tainting the value of the book. So, I’ve decided to give it a shot in this blog–since no one reads my blog–in the hopes that getting it off my chest I can move in more faithful ways.
My second objection to The Shack is that the book is dismissive of the role Jesus plays as our exemplar. In a conversation with Jesus, Mack asks “You mean that I can’t just ask, ‘What Would Jesus Do’?” To which Jesus responds, “Good intentions, bad idea. Let me know how it works for you, if that’s the way you choose to go. Seriously, my life was not meant to be an example to copy. Being my follower is not trying to ‘be like Jesus,’ it means for your independence to be killed. I came to give you life, real life, my life. We will come and live our life inside of you, so that you begin to see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, and touch with our hands, and think like we do. But, we will never force that union on you. If you want to do your thing, have at it. Time is on our side” (p. 149).
The question, “What Would Jesus Do?” comes–ironically–from a bestselling Christian Novel of the last century, Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps. It almost feels like a shot at the last century’s equivalent to The Shack. The phrase has been over-commercialized in WWJD Bracelets, T-shirts, coffee mugs, and boxer shorts. But that doesn’t invalidate the idea. I’m not exactly sure where to pinpoint the origins of his thought that Jesus was not to be followed as an example. Much of Philippians discusses the importance of being imitators both of Paul and of Christ. In John 13, Jesus washes his disciples feet and clearly points to their role in following his example. 1 Peter 2:21–the origin of Sheldon’s book’s title–also points to following Christ’s example.
There seems to be something of a mysticism in what Young proposes to put in place of a conscious imitation of Christ. We surrender to the presence of God in our lives and in an almost organic way God lives through us. That sort of approach to God works for some people. However, others have faithfully lived Christian lives consciously seeking to live by the example Jesus set. A seminary professor I studied with once said, “People are generally right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.” I think Young is right in what he affirms in the above quotation. There is a mystical connection between God and believer that we can yield ourselves to. I think Young is wrong in what he denies. It is possible to authentically live in relationship with God through Christ by consciously seeking to follow Christ’s example.
I tried to address these issues recently in a sermon taken from Philippians. I’ve posted it here.
This sermon is published in the Summer 2008 edition of Biblical Preaching Journal. Though I wrote it, I may very well be violating copyright law publishing it here. However, I refer to it in a later blog and wanted it present.
My apologies to BPJ. thankfully no one reads my blog.
Christ’s Example; Our Imitation
Sermon on Philippians 2:5-11
Interpretive Question: Focus on the myth or model? Scholarly consensus has identified this text as a hymn which predated Paul and which was likely to be familiar to congregation in
What is exemplary? As the sermon tries to convey what we are meant to follow changes depending on our context. Following Christ’s example through martyrdom, interior qualities of humility and humble service are just three answers that have been given over time.
I would encourage people to look at Joseph Marchal’s helpful survey in the July 2007 Interpretation. Marchal, Joseph A. “Expecting a Hymn, Encountering an Argument: Introducing the Rhetoric of Philippians and Pauline Interpretation.” Interpretation 61.3 (2007): 245-56.
This sermon was preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on
When I was in High School, I thought I might have a future as a poet–I know, I know, most high school kids dream of being rock stars or pro athletes, I imagined being a poet. I wrote a lot of poems then, really bad ones. A poet whose poems I had encountered through The Atlantic Monthly, Andrew Hudgins, came to
The Philippians also had a poem. Not that bad poem of a teenage boy but the grand poem of the Christian faith. It’s called the “Christ Hymn” in most academic literature. It starts in Philippians 2:6 and stretches to . It describes Christ’s pre-existence, his humility and obedience as a man, his death on the cross and his exaltation by the hand of God. Most scholars believe that this section of the book of Philippians was an early Christian hymn that predated Paul and that Paul was quoting this bit of poetry. Yet, Paul prefaces it with a perplexing statement—let this mind be in you.
How exactly did Paul imagine we might have the mind of Christ? For Paul, the the mind of Christ was the one mind that could unify the whole church. Paul mean it as a call to for unity. There was apparently an argument between at least Euodia and Syntyche. There were external opponents who threatened to fracture them. And other places in the letter suggest a need for unity. The means for that unity would be found in the example of Christ. If everyone sought to live according to the example Jesus set, they would be like-minded and achieve unity.
Over the years, this notion of following the example of Christ has taken different forms. Church Historian Margaret R. Miles, “Perhaps the most frequently developed traditional metaphor is Christian life as imitation of Christ” (p. 21). The name Christian indeed implies that a person is one who seeks to reflect the character of Christ in his or her own life. But what imitating Christ has meant over the centuries changes depending on time and context.
Three historic examples illustrate the changing nature of following Christ’s example. In the first three centuries of Christianity, when our faith was periodically oppressed by the Roman government the imitation of Christ was often understood as reaching its ultimate fulfillment in being executed—martyred—for the faith. A classic example is seen in one of the earliest Christian texts we have outside the New Testament entitled, The Martyrdom of Polycarp. Polycarp–the 86 year old bishop of
Move forward a millennium and a half. Thomas á Kempis wrote one of the most popular devotional books of all time entitled, The Imitation of Christ. For Thomas the imitation of Christ was conforming one’s interior life to Christ’s interior life not an imitation of Christ’s external deeds. And so, the chief virtue in The Imitation of Christ was humility. This required an excruciating and unflinching self-examination, moral purity, and a refusal to judge other but rather to examine one’s self. For the 15th Century lay movement fed by Kempis’s writing, the imitation of Christ focused on that part of the hymn which speaks to an interior characteristic: “he humbled himself.”
Again, move forward a couple of centuries. In 1896 Charles Sheldon wrote one of the best known books in Western Christianity—In His Steps. In His Steps describes the transformation of the members of a fictitious church—First Church of Raymond—after they commit to living by one simple axiom of imitating Christ. In their efforts to live according to Jesus’ example, they begin working with the poor, they make a sacrificial commitment to face society’s problems head on. While you may not have read the book In His Steps you are surely familiar with its most often repeated phrase and sub-title. In every situation, the exemplary characters would ask: What Would Jesus Do? If only we could require of every wearer of WWJD bracelets, ball caps and boxer shorts to actually read In His Steps. . . . For In His Steps, the imitation of Christ is embodied in this—“he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”
What I hope these three examples reveal is that in each generation of Christianity, sincere Christians have asked the question—what does it mean to imitate Christ’s example. And in each generation of Christianity, sincere Christians have come to different conclusions—righteous martyrdom, pure humility, faithful service to others. And now we ask—what does it mean to imitate Christ in the 21st Century?
One thing that needs to be said in this day and age is that the question cannot be answered for everyone at the same time. The answer needs to be different on the South side of
We have to take our context as a predominantly middle-class, pre-dominantly white congregation seriously. I suspect that if we asked the question in almost one of our Sunday School classes you’d get answers fairly consistent answers about service to others and attitudes of humility. The kind of answers we inherited from the times that gave us In His Steps and the Imitation of Christ. We would concur that external service and internal humility are the characteristics we’re meant to emulate. That’s all good. Yet, we can affirm the virtues of volunteering and canned food drives, clean living and self-discipline without confronting the idolatry of the self that dominates our culture.
The hymn’s opening words say, “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” It is this part of the Christ hymn that matters most, I believe, in our 21st Century Christian context. This is not imply that we had a divine pre-existence in the manner that Christ did. We are not God. But, we habitually make gods out of our culture, our experiences and indeed ourselves. Driving along the highways that bi-sect our city we witness sign after sign of a “me-first” generation—that has been with us so long it’s not rightly called a generation anymore. Though gas prices continue to climb—reminding us of the our infinite dependence on finite resources—the highways are still packed by SUV’s many of which were purchased not because the owners needed that much power but merely because we wanted that much space. On a larger scale, we can be guilty of making a god out of our economy. We
We are able to do this if we commit ourselves to renewing the question—what does it meant to imitate Christ today? That Christians ahead of us have consistently asked this question is more important than any of the answers they have given. We have inherited both the answers and the question itself. Might I suggest that rather than holding the answers at arms length and embracing the question itself, too often we have relinquished the question and deified the answers. Christ-the example we are called to imitate–did not regard equality with God God’s self as something to be held tightly. For the needs of humanity, he emptied himself, entered at a particular time and place and was humbly obedient to God. Why then should we be unwilling to relax our grip on the inferior gods we have generated?
Lightfoot, Joseph Barber, J. R. Harmer, and Michael William Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers. 2nd ed.
Miles, Margaret Ruth. Practicing Christianity : Critical Perspectives for an Embodied Spirituality.
Sheldon, Charles Monroe. In His Steps. Uhrichsville: Barbour and Company, 1985.
Thomas á Kempis. The Imitation of Christ. Trans. George Stanhope.