Category Archive: Theology – Pastoral

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September 21, 2018

The Catholicity of Jesus

Category: Bible - NT - Luke,Bible - NT - Mark,Bible - NT - Matthew,Theology - Liturgical,Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

Was there ever anyone with more integrity, and who made greater demands, than Jesus Christ? Yet look at the catholicity of His practice: He ate with publicans, harlots, and sinners, and He took nursing infants into His arms and thus to Himself. Who complained about all this? The Pharisees.

How could Jesus, the spotless Son of God, associate with such evil people? Simple: They were (a) members of the visible church, even though that church was borderline apostate (run by Sadducees and Pharisees). They were (b) not excommunicate from that visible church. They were (c) willing to listen to what He had to say.

Now, of course, after they listened for a while, most of them departed, not willing to persevere. They excommunicated themselves. But initially, they were welcomed according to the catholic principle we have outlined.

Notice that Jesus ate and drank with them. It requires a clever bit of nominalism to miss the sacramental implications of this. Pharisees, beware! — James B. Jordan, The Sociology of the Church, 15.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:33 am | Discuss (0)
July 19, 2018

Evangelistic Preaching

Category: Theology - Liturgical,Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

The Great Commission speaks not only of bringing sinners to the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but also expressly of teaching the converted — indeed, all persons — to obey everything that our Lord has commanded. The week-by-week instruction of God’s people in what they are to believe and what God is asking them to do in this life is evangelism.

From a covenantal perspective, every sermon is an evangelistic sermon. Not only parents and other adults, but also the children of the covenant must be evangelized. By that we mean they must be taught to think of themselves as the people of God and must be trained to be the people God called them to be when he laid his claim on them in baptism and separated them from the unbelieving world. — Norman Shepherd, “Growing in Covenant Consciousness.”

Posted by John Barach @ 5:32 am | Discuss (0)
October 13, 2016

Helper & Helpee?

Category: Bible - OT - Genesis,Marriage,Theology - Liturgical,Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

In Reforming Marriage, Douglas Wilson quotes Genesis 2:18 (“It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him”) and 1 Corinthians 11:9 (“Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man”) and then draws this conclusion:

As a result of the creation order, men and women are oriented to one another differently. They need one another, but they need one another differently. The man needs the help; the woman needs to help. Marriage was created by God to provide companionship in the labor of dominion. The cultural mandate, the requirement to fill and subdue the earth, is still in force, and a husband cannot fulfill this portion of the task in isolation. He needs a companion suitable for him in the work to which God has called him. He is called to the work and must receive help from her.  She is called to the work through ministering to him. He is oriented to the task, and she is oriented to him (p. 19).

I’ve read this book several times and have used it in premarital counseling, but as I read it this afternoon this passage stood out to me and a bunch of questions came to mind.

Are we to think here of men and women, in general, or only of a husband and his wife? Presumably it is the latter. Though the opening sentence speaks of “men and women,” it goes on to speak of how they are “oriented to one another,” and in the context that would be in marriage. Still, it is possible to (mis!)read the next sentence (“The man needs the help; the woman needs to help”) as if it were speaking about every man and every woman, as if women exist to help men. One could wish the wording were clearer to guard against that misreading, but a close reading does suggest to me that Wilson has in mind only husbands and wives.

Still, some questions remain. Is it true that husbands need to be helped and women need to help, and not the other way round? Is Genesis 2 making a blanket statement about husbands and wives, teaching us that the husband is to do the work and needs help in doing it, while the wife is only to assist in the work as her husband’s helper? Does a wife never do the “the labor of dominion” directly, but instead takes part in it only “through ministering to” her husband? May she not be involved in some “labor of dominion” that is distinct from her husband’s particular labor, that she does without ministering to him? Is the husband not to be oriented to her? Is she not in any way oriented to the task (or even to a task that is not her husband’s task)? Is this orientation thing an either/or, either an orientation toward work or an orientation to a spouse? Can it not in some way be both?

Surely “the labor of dominion” in Genesis 1 includes procreation. The command-blessing there is “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” That, as Wilson says on the next page, is something a man cannot do on his own. But is procreation something that the husband does with the assistance of his wife? Is she only helping him do his task of being fruitful and multiplying? Is she involved in procreation only “through ministering to him”? Is he “oriented to the task” of procreation, while “she is oriented to him”?

On the contrary. In the Bible, the mandate given as a blessing in Genesis 1 is given only after the creation of Woman (that is, chronologically after what is reported to us in Genesis 2) and is given to both Adam and Woman:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:26-28).

Both of them are created in God’s image. Both of them, male and female, are blessed. To both of them God gives the mandate to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, to have dominion over the fish and birds and animals. There is no hint here that this mandate is given to the man, with his wife in only a helping role. She receives the mandate too.  She is to be fruitful and multiply as much as he is, and they take part in this calling together. He helps her and she helps him. He receives her help and she receives his help.

What is true of procreation, of being fruitful and multiplying, is true of the other aspects of this mandate, subduing the earth and having dominion over the creatures. As James Jordan has written, “The cultural mandate is given equally to men and women (Gen. 1:28). In cultural life, the man is to help the woman as much as the woman helps the man.”

It is not only that “The man needs the help; the woman needs to help.” It is also that “The woman needs the help; the man needs to help.” Both the husband and the wife are involved in carrying out the mandate God gave, and both need each other’s help in various ways.

What about Genesis 2, then? Doesn’t God say that he is making the woman to be a “helper comparable to” Adam?  It certainly does. But a helper with what?

In Reforming Marriage, Wilson links the help with the “labor of dominion,” but that isn’t mentioned in the context in Genesis 2. At the time God created the woman, the cultural mandate had not yet been given; it wasn’t given, according to Genesis 1, until after the woman was created and then it was given to them both. What about procreation? Again, nothing is mentioned about that in Genesis 2.

One might think more generally of companionship. After all, God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” There is a certain sort of companionship, a certain sort of help, that the wife gives to her husband, a kind of help that he cannot receive from another man or from one of the animals, a kind of help for which he needs someone similar but different, fully human and “comparable to him” but not exactly the same.

That’s true enough. But note, too, the flow of events in Genesis 2. God created Adam first and then created the Garden and put Adam into the Garden to serve it and to guard it, tasks that are later associated with the work of priests. The Garden is God’s sanctuary, the place where God will meet with his people. Adam does not have dominion over it and is not going to subdue it. It is not Adam’s Garden but God’s, and Adam is in it as a priest, a palace servant, commissioned to serve and guard it. That priestly task is given to Adam, along with the gift of all the trees of the Garden (including, obviously, the Tree of Life) and with the warning not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Only at that point does God say that it is not good for the man to be alone and that he needs “a helper comparable to him.” If we are to associate the Woman’s role as “helper” here with any task given to Adam, it is not the task of dominion or of procreation or of cultural development, the tasks that hadn’t been given yet, but the priestly task, the task of serving and guarding the Garden, the task of worship and care for God’s sanctuary  — and that’s how Paul applies the creation order in 1 Timothy 2: not to all of life, not to cultural work or the “labor of dominion” but to the sphere of liturgy and worship (see the provocative discussion here; my link does not, of course, necessarily imply agreement with everything in this article).

Genesis 2, then, is not talking generally about men and women or husbands and wives and doesn’t indicate that husbands are to be oriented toward their work, while their wives are to be oriented toward them and help them in their work. It’s talking, rather, about a specific sphere, a specific sort of work and help in that work. But the broader mandate, the mandate to fill and subdue and rule the world, God gave to men and women, husbands and wives, alike. Each works, each needs help in many ways, each gives help.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:25 pm | Discuss (0)
April 18, 2016

The Real Secret

Category: Miscellaneous,Theology - Pastoral,Theology - Soteriology :: Link :: Print

The other day, I was sitting in a coffee shop and reviewing my exegetical notes on Matthew 8 and reading Gibbs’s commentary. Honest, I was. But I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation going on at another table, a man who looked ex-military rattling on and on about martial arts.

Well, not really. Martial arts, as taught in America, doesn’t use the real secret. This guy had studied under someone (in Tennessee, which, last I checked, seemed to be in America, but never mind that) who had revealed the secret to him.

Mind you, I was doing my own reading and I was some distance away, so I’m sure I missed a lot. But I gleaned that true power is not a matter of learning martial arts. It’s a matter of flipping the switch in our brains. We’re all animals and so this used to come naturally to us but now we have to learn how. But it’s not a matter of trying; it’s just natural … if we only can get our bodies to remember how. “It’s called ‘Mind over Matter,'” the man said.

It’s not punching; all you need is a touch. When you punch, you’re still trying. In fact, it’s not that your arm sends out your fist; rather, your fist pulls your arm. Everything is waves, and in fact if you do this right, you’re not breaking the board; the board is virtually tearing itself apart.

The whole thing is about speed: if you move at 60 miles an hour, then you have force. You’ve got to reach out and touch the wall and get your hand back before you’ve even touched it. That way, the guy said, and I quote, “I can hit you again before I hit you again before I hit you again.” And if a baseball, thrown at 100 miles an hour, were to hit the bat, the bat would shatter. That’s why the bat has to hit the ball instead.

There was a gnostic element to the whole thing, a secret knowledge that turned into seven secrets, of which the first were “Dilate your eyes” and “Empty your body of all air” (because that makes you move fast) and “Point your toes in the direction you want the energy to go” and “Yell” (this is a secret?) and, I think, “Practice one thing for a minute a day” …

And then I finished my work — really, I was working — and headed home, never to know the last secrets that, if I could but master them, would make me a martial arts expert — no! martial arts is about trying! — um … a dangerous animal, capable of having my fist pull my arm out at 60 miles an hour to touch someone and have him virtually tear himself apart because of my energy waves, as I hit him again before I hit him the first time.

It was tempting to stay, to finish the lesson — or was it a sales pitch? — but no. I remain a 98 pound (give or take a hundred or so) weakling, with a pretty good grasp on Matthew 8.

[Update: When I thought about it some more, this talk reminded me of the way some Christians talk about sanctification and our growth in godliness — as if you’re not suppose to be “trying,” as if it’s never right to tell anyone to “try harder,” as if it should all just flow naturally from grace without any effort on our part, as if our efforts are somehow in conflict with grace.  Same sort of bushwa, different barrel.]

Posted by John Barach @ 8:47 pm | Discuss (0)
December 18, 2013

Keeping Ranks

Category: Miscellaneous,OT - Chronicles,Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

F. W. Boreham, commenting on 1 Chron 12:38 (“All these men of war, who could keep ranks, came to Hebron with a loyal heart to make David king over all Israel”), tells the story of the Scottish lad who joined the army.  On parade day, his mother and sister were proud to see him marching but were surprised by something: “Look, mother!” his sister says. ” They’re all out of step but our Jock!”  Boreham comments:

It is not for me to decide whether Jock is right or whether the others are.  But since the others are all in step with each other, I am afraid the presumptive evidence is rather heavily against Jock.  And Jock is well known to all of us.  Nobody likes him, and nobody knows why they don’t like him.  In many respects he is a paragon of goodness.  He loves his church, or he would not have stuck to it year in and year out as he has done.  He is not self-assertive; he is quite willing to efface his own personality and be invisible.  He is generous to a fault.  Nobody is more eager to do anything for the general good.  And yet nobody likes him.  The only thing against him is that he has never disciplined himself to get on with other people.  He has never tried to accommodate himself to their stride.  He can’t keep rank….

Why should Jock destroy his own personality in order to render himself an exact replica of every other man in the regiment?  Is individuality an evil thing that must be wiped out and obliterated?  The answer to this objection is that Jock is not asked to sacrifice his personality; he is asked to sacrifice his angularity.  The ideal of British discipline is, not to turn men into machines, but to preserve individuality and initiative; and yet, at the same time, to make each man of as great value to his comrades as is by any means possible (“Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” in Mushrooms on the Moor, 182-183).

Boreham elaborates:

Jock … may be firmly convinced that the stride of the regiment is too short or too long.  But if, on that ground, he adopts a different one, nobody but his gentle and admiring little sister will believe that he is right and they are wrong.  Jock’s isolated attitude invariably reflects upon himself.  “The whole regiment is out of step!” he declares, drawing attention to his different stride.

That is too often the trouble with Jock.  “The members of our Church do not read the Bible!” he says.  It may be sadly true; but it sounds, put in that way, like a claim that he is the one conscientious and regular Bible-reader among them.  “The members of our Church do not pray!” he exclaims sadly.  It may be that a call to prayer is urgently needed; but poor Jock puts the thing in such a light that it appears to be a claim on his part that he alone knows the way to the Throne of Grace.  “Among the faithless faithful only he!” “The members of our Church are not spiritually-minded!” he bemoans; but somehow, said as he says it, it sounds suspiciously like an echo of little Jack Horner’s “What a good boy am I!” (185).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:48 pm | Discuss (0)
November 12, 2012

Building Community in the Church

Category: Theology - Ecclesiology,Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

Building on what he said (in the quotation here) about the communion of saints being in Christ — the communion of saints is not that I’m connected to you and you’re connected to me, but that I’m in Christ and you’re in Christ and we’re connected in Him — Jim Jordan makes an application with regard to our unity and community as the church.

Building up our community in the church includes obeying commandments (e.g., the “one another” passages in Paul’s letters).  There are things that the church ought to be doing and there are good practices we can adopt.  But those practices and our obedience to the various summonses we find in the Bible aren’t the source or basis of our unity and community.  We aren’t together because we share these practices but because we are in Him, and if we want community to grow, we need Him to work: “We must go through Christ, and then we have communion with everyone else.  If we have a lack of communion here, we must go through Christ to get it with others.”

Posted by John Barach @ 3:29 pm | Discuss (0)
January 1, 2011

Odd Ministers

Category: Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

I never knew a good horse which had not some odd habit or other, and I never yet saw a minister worth his salt who had not some crotchet or oddity: now these are the bits of cheese which cavillers smell out and nibble at; this man is too slow, and another too fast, the first is too flowery, and the second is too dull.

Dear me, if all God’s creatures were judged in this way, we should wring the dove’s neck for being too tame, shoot the robins for eating spiders, kill the cows for swinging their tails and the hens for not giving us milk.  When a man wants to beat a dog, he can soon find a stick; and at this rate, any fool may have something to say against the best minister in England. — Charles Spurgeon, John Ploughman’s Talk, 23.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:15 pm | Discuss (0)
November 17, 2010

The High Doctrine of Mr. Cranky

Category: Theology,Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

Here’s how Charles Spurgeon describes the “religious grumbler” who listens carefully to sermons and loves to find things to complain about:

One tribe of these Ishmaelites is made up of high-flying ignoramuses who are very mighty about the doctrine of a sermon — here they are as decisive as sledgehammers and as certain as death. He who knows nothing is confident in everything; hence they are bullheaded beyond measure. Every clock, and even the sundial, must be set according to their watches. The slightest difference from their opinion proves a man to be rotten at heart.

Venture to argue with them, and their little pots boil over in quick style; ask them for reason, and you might as well go to a sand pit for sugar. They have bottled up the sea of truth, and carry it in their waistcoat pockets; they have measured heaven’s line of grace and have tied a knot in a string at the exact length of electing love; and as for the things which angels long to know, they have seen them all as boys see sights in a peep-show at our fair. Having sold their modesty and become wiser than their teachers, they ride a very high horse and jump over all five-barred gates of Bible texts which teach doctrines contrary to their notions.

When this mischief happens to good men, it is a great pity for such sweet pots of ointment to be spoiled by flies, yet one learns to bear with them just as I do with old Violet, for he is a rare horse, though he does set his ears back and throw out his legs at times. But there is a bragging lot about, who are all sting and no honey, all whip and no hay, all grunt and no bacon. These do nothing but rail from morning to night at all who cannot see through their spectacles.

If they would but mix up a handful of good living with all their bushels of bounce, it would be more bear able; but no, they don’t care for such legality. Men so sound as they are can’t be expected to be good at anything else; they are the heavenly watchdogs to guard the house of the Lord from those thieves and robbers who don’t preach sound doctrine, and if they do worry the sheep, or steal a rabbit or two by the sly, who would have the heart to blame them? The Lord’s dear people, as they call themselves, have enough to do to keep their doctrine sound; and if their manners are cracked, who can wonder! No man can see to everything at once.

These are the moles that want catching in many of our pastures, not for their own sakes, for there is not a sweet mouthful in them, but for the sake of the meadows which they spoil. I would not find half a fault with their doctrine if it were not for their spirit, but vinegar is sweet next to it, and crabs are figs in comparison. It must be very high doctrine that is too high for me, but I must have high experience and high practice with it, or it turns my stomach. — Charles Spurgeon, John Ploughman’s Talk, 21-22.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:54 pm | Discuss (2)
October 9, 2010

Spurgeon on Sluggards

Category: Ethics,Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

I’m greatly enjoying Charles Spurgeon’s John Ploughman’s Talk.  Here are a few choice bits about lazy people:

The ugliest sight in the world is one of those thorough-bred loafers, who would hardly hold up his basin if it were to rain porridge; and for certain would never hold up a bigger pot than he wanted filled for himself.  Perhaps, if the shower should turn to beer, he might wake himself up a bit; but he would make up for it afterwards (10).

Idleness is the key of beggary and the root of all evil.  Fellows have two stomachs for eating and drinking when they have no stomach for work.  That little hole just under the nose swallows up in idle hours that money which should put clothes on the children’s backs and bread on the cottage table (13).

I like leisure when I can get it, but that’s quite another thing; that’s cheese and the other is chalk: idle folks never know what leisure means; they are always in a hurry and a mess, and by neglecting to work in the proper time, they always have a lot to do (14).

Men ride stags when they hunt for gain, and snails when they are on the road to heaven.  Preachers go on see-sawing, droning, and prosing; and the people fall to yawning and folding their arms, and they say that God is withholding the blessing.  Every sluggard, when he finds himself enlisted in the ragged regiment, blames his luck, and some churches have learned the same wicked trick.  I believe that when Paul plants and Apollos waters, God gives the increase, and I have no patience with those who throw the blame on God when it belongs to themselves (18-19).

Oops!  My wife just got home.  I’d better get busy with my Saturday projects!

Posted by John Barach @ 8:59 am | Discuss (1)
August 26, 2010

Do You Understand What You’re Reading?

Category: Bible,Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

In the course of his discussion of reading (better: hearing) the Bible, Eugene Peterson draws our attention to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: “On the road to Gaza I find the focus for my hermeneutical work as pastor: the Ethiopian reading Scripture and not understanding it; Philip guiding him into comprehension” (Working the Angles 127).

While we often hear in the Bible about people listening to God’s Word in the assembly of God’s people, here we have a case of a man reading it all by himself.  I wonder if this stands out to us the way it should.  In much of the Christian world today, with its heavy emphasis on daily Bible reading, we may take it for granted that a man would read the Bible all by himself.  In fact, this may even be our preference: Ask Christians today which is more important, the private reading of the Bible or the corporate hearing of Scripture in church, and I suspect that many would point to the former.

More than that, I suspect that many trust the former more than the latter.  We prefer to read it for ourselves rather than hear someone read it to us, and so even when the minister is reading Scripture in church we open up our Bibles and follow along (or perhaps get distracted by the ways in which his translation differs from ours).  To really understand the Bible, we want to study it ourselves.

Now there’s nothing wrong with reading the Bible all by yourself.  It was fine for the Ethiopian eunuch to be doing so, and it’s fine for us to do so as well.  But if we think that we can understand the Bible best if we study it all by ourselves, poring over the text without anyone else instructing us, then maybe we need to listen more carefully to the story in Acts, where God does not leave the Ethiopian eunuch alone.  Peterson writes:

Hermeneutics begins with a question: “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30).  The play on words in Philip’s Greek is untranslatable: ginoskeis ha anaginoskeis?  The difference between reading and understand seems so slight — a mere prefix (ana) in a Greek verb — that we are slow to realize the abyss that separates what Isaiah wrote from what we understand….  We ride along in uncomprehending familiarity with the biblical text for years, in devout travel to and from Jerusalem, and then a well-timed question stops the chariot.

The question is answered with a question: “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” (v. 31).  The questioner is questioned: Will you guide me?  The word choice is critical: not explain but guide.  The Greek words for “explain” and “guide” share the same verbal root, “to lead,” and have a common orientation in and concern for the text. But the explainer, the exegete, leads the meaning out of the text; the guide, the hodegete, leads you in the way (hodos) of the text.  Pastoral-biblical hermeneutics presupposes exegesis but involves more.  The African invites Philip into the chariot to accompany him as his guide.  This is going to take some time….  Philip decides on hodegesis.  He climbs into the chariot and shares the journey (127-128).

I wonder if it would occur to us, accustomed as we are to thinking that we can study the Bible best on our own, to answer Philip’s question the way the Ethiopian eunuch did: “How can I understand unless someone guides me?”  The implication, surely, is that without a guide he could not have understood what we was reading in Isaiah.  He may have been able to grasp what the various sentences meant and yet he did not get the full meaning of the whole: “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (v. 34).  In particular, he did not see that Isaiah was speaking about Jesus until he had a guide who led him down that path.

That, as Peterson says, is the calling of a pastor: to guide people into the right understanding of Scripture, and in particular to guide them to Christ.  And that is why we need pastors: How can we understand Scripture rightly without a guide?

Reading Scripture is not, it would seem, an autonomous activity.  The solitary reader of Isaiah in the chariot on the Gaza road is interrupted by the Spirit-commanded Philip.  The Spirit brings people together over Scripture — listening, questioning, conversing toward faith.  The questioning reader was joined by the listening interpreter.  Isaiah, dead but word-present in the scroll, made a third.  The unseen but Spirit-present Christ became the fourth (130).

Posted by John Barach @ 2:10 pm | Discuss (2)
June 3, 2010

Listening and Reading

Category: Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

Some time ago, I learned from James Jordan that the sense of sight and the sense of hearing function in very different ways. With the sense of sight, who’s in control? You are. If you’re looking at a picture you don’t like, you can close your eyes or look away or turn the page or even just let your eyes go all wonky so that the “picture” you see is blurry. You’re in control.

But when it comes to the sense of hearing, someone else is in control. If I’m preaching and you don’t like what I’m saying, you can try plugging your ears with your fingers but it’s not going to work. I can talk loudly enough that you can still hear me (unless, of course, you start shouting yourself so that all you hear is your own voice saying, “La la la la la la” the way people do when someone is about to give away the ending to a movie they haven’t seen yet). If you really don’t want to hear me, you’re going to have to leave. (And if you do start shouting “La la la la la,” I suspect someone is going to make you leave.)

With sight, you’re in control. With hearing, someone else is in control. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the Bible often speaks of the eyes in connection with judgment, starting with Genesis 1 (“And God saw … and it was good”) and running through all of those passages about people doing things that are “right in their own eyes.” All through the Bible, eyes and sight have to do with judgment. But hearing has to do with submission. In fact, the word for “hear” often has the sense of “obey” in the Bible.

This distinction applies also to our reading of the Bible. When you read something, you’re using your eyes. If you don’t like what you’re reading, you can close your eyes or look away or turn the page. But we are not to sit as judges over Scripture. Rather, we are to sit under Scripture, to submit to it. And so we find that the Bible does not command us to read the Word; rather, the commandment that we frequently encounter is “Hear!” If we really want to appreciate Scripture, we ought not (just) to read it but rather we ought to hear it, even if that means reading it aloud when we’re by ourselves.

All of this, I say, I learned several years back from James Jordan. I imagine that I encountered it first in either his Reading the Bible lectures or perhaps in Reading the Bible (Again) for the First Time. Probably both, in fact. But the other day, as I was reading Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles, I came across some similar insights:

Listening and reading are not the same thing. They involve different senses. In listening we use our ears; in reading we use our eyes. We listen to the sound of a voice; we read marks on paper. These differences are significant and have profound consequences. Listening is an interpersonal act; it involves two or more people in fairly close proximity. Reading involves one person with a book written by someone who can be miles away or centuries dead, or both. The listener is required to be attentive to the speaker and is more or less at the speaker’s mercy. For the reader it is quite different, since the book is at the reader’s mercy. It may be carried around from place to place, opened or shut at whim, read or not read. When I read a book, the book does not know if I am paying attention or not; when I listen to a person the person knows very well whether I am paying attention or not. In listening, another initiates the process; when I read I initiate the process. In reading I open the book and attend to the words. I can read by myself; I cannot listen by myself. In listening the speaker is in charge; in reading the reader is in charge.

Many people much prefer reading over listening. It is less demanding emotionally and can be arranged to suit personal convenience. The stereotype is the husband buried in the morning newspaper at breakfast, preferring to read a news agency report of the latest scandal in a European government, the scores of yesterday’s athletic contests, and the opinions of a couple of columnists whom he will never meet rather than listen to the voice of the person who has just shared his bed, poured his coffee, and fried his eggs, even though listening to that live voice promises love and hope, emotional depth and intellectual exploration far in excess of what he can gather informationally from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Christian Science Monitor put together. In the voice of this living person he has access to a colorful history, an incredibly complex emotional system, and never-before-heard combinations of words that can surprise, startle, move, gladden, or anger him — any of which would seem to be more attractive to an alive human being than getting some information, none or little of which will make any impact on the living of that day. Reading does not, as such, increase our capacity to listen. In some cases it interferes with it (88-89).

What are some of the things you lose by reading (i.e., looking at) a text instead of hearing it (even if you are hearing it from your own mouth as you read aloud)?

Peterson seems to be suggesting that if you read instead of hear, you lose the sense of a relationship: you no longer have the sense that you are engaged with a person; instead you are examining an object, in this case a printed page. More than that, you do not have as strong a sense that the words you are reading are over you, precisely because with reading you are in charge.

Peterson also indicates that attentiveness may be also be lost. Perhaps. I’m well aware that minds may wander while someone else is speaking. Such things have even been known to happen during the sermon, possibly even when I’m preaching. My own mind has wandered even when people I love are talking to me. And I have paid close attention to things that I have read … though as soon as I say that, I realize that paying close attention as I read usually involves at least subvocalization. I have to slow down and savor — hear! — the words to pay attention to them.

But I suspect that Peterson is not talking so much about attention, which we can lose whether we’re reading or hearing, but about attentiveness, about an attitude. When we’re dealing with a person, when someone is speaking to us, we know we are to pay attention. But when we’re in charge, when we’re picking up a book and turning its pages, we feel free — or freer — to let our eyes drift a bit, to skip the dull parts, to look for something that grabs us, to skim over whatever seems needlessly complicated or unimportant. You can read Patrick O’Brian and skip all the nautical details and the love interest and read only the battle scenes if you want, though I don’t recommend it. But how much worse is it if we aren’t attentive to Scripture, if we dip into it here and there, if we approach it without the sense that someone is speaking to us and that everything He says — whether it’s obscure rules or genealogies or seemingly irrelevant stories or the dimensions of a building we’ll never see — is important, worth hearing, worth paying attention to?

Peterson doesn’t mention it, but it strikes me that if we read instead of hear, we also lose the musicality of Scripture, the patterns and rhythms of writing that was meant to be heard. If you’re reading, it’s easy to skim the repetition — Numbers 7, anyone? — but if you’re hearing it read out loud, it takes the same amount of time to say those words the tenth time that it does the first time. Reading can make us impatient: “What’s all this stuff here for? We’ve already heard this!” but hearing requires submission: “This must be important. God says it, and so I have to make the time to hear it.”

Posted by John Barach @ 3:30 pm | Discuss (1)
May 26, 2010

Cut-Flower Prayers

Category: Prayer,Theology - Liturgical,Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

So if a minister ought not to be a shopkeeper, aiming at getting more customers to buy the church’s goods, what should he be doing? Eugene Peterson gives three answers: praying, reading (actually: hearing) Scripture, and giving spiritual direction. Working the Angles devotes three chapters to each of those tasks.

When it comes to prayer, Peterson urges caution:

We want life on our conditions, not on God’s conditions Praying puts us at risk of getting involved in God’s conditions. Be slow to pray. Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back. Be slow to pray (44).

That may sound odd, but consider Ecclesiastes 5:2: “Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God.” Prayer is dangerous, Peterson maintains, and we should not pray lightly. But so often such light prayers seem to be what people demand of pastors:

One of the indignities to which pastors are routinely subjected is to be approached, as a group of people are gathering for a meeting or a meal, with the request, “Reverend, get things started for us with a little prayer, will ya?” It would be wonderful if we would counter by bellowing William McNamara’s fantasized response: “I will not! There are no little prayers! Prayer enters the lion’s den, brings us before the holy where it is uncertain whether we will come back alive or sane, for ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.'”

I am not prescribing rudeness: the bellow does not have to be audible. I am insisting that the pastor who in indolence or ignorance is politely compliant with requests from congregation or community for cut-flower prayers forfeits his … calling. Most of the people we meet, inside and outside the church, think prayers are harmless but necessary starting pistols that shoot blanks and get things going. They suppose that the “real action,” as they call it, is in the “things going” — projects and conventions, plans and performances. It is an outrage and a blasphemy when pastors adjust their practice of prayer to accommodate these inanities (46).

What does Peterson recommend as a remedy? Saturating ourselves in Scripture, and the Psalms in particular, understanding that all of our prayers are responses, second words in response to God’s first words:

What do we do? We do the obvious: we restore prayer to its context in God’s word. Prayer is not something we think up to get God’s attention or enlist his favor. Prayer is answering speech. The first word is God’s word. Prayer is a human word and is never the first word, never the primary word, never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary… (47).

Posted by John Barach @ 2:44 pm | Discuss (0)

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