All Nations

Fun times on the horizon for us! Last year we began something that will be coming back by popular demand—Heritage Sunday! On October 5th, we will yet again celebrate our various heritages and the contributions of various cultures around the globe to our life of faith. We will be sharing in prayers and song from all over the world, and since it is World Communion Sunday, we will also be sharing in breads from all over the world. We also have a couple of important global Christian events coming up at Covenant in the next few weeks.

This Sunday (Sept. 28th) Emily Miller of the PC(USA) world mission office will be at Covenant to talk more about the Young Adult Volunteer program. You may remember that we have sent 3 young Adult volunteers to serve abroad in the last 5 years, and this international ministry has been very important to our church community.

Next Wednesday evening starting at 5:50 we will be having dinner with International Peacemaker Rev. James Ninrew from the South Sudan (note the announcement below for more information). Last year we were blessed to host Rev. Butros Zaour, and we had an incredibly meaningful experience—so don’t miss this chance this year!

I don’t want to leave this reflection as simply a set of reminders and announcements, but I thought it important to highlight for you how we are already beginning to live in to part of our future story that we developed from the New Beginnings Process. One of the four main focuses that came from those discussions was focusing on our calling to world mission.

Of course, all of this comes from our grounding in scripture and our calling as disciples of Christ. The Great Commission in Matthew 28 is often used to focus on evangelism, however, there is another way of looking at our calling, “to make disciples of all nations.” That is to say, the good news of Jesus Christ crosses all cultural and national boundaries. This would mean that when we celebrate the way Christ’s message has united us through our great diversity of cultures and our various heritages, we are celebrating our calling in the Great Commission. We have all been called from all of the great cultures and peoples we represent to share our common bond in the Spirit. Thanks be to God! Let’s celebrate!

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Lighten Up!

Jonah may very well be my favorite book in all of scripture. I know that it is really hard to say that, given all of Jesus’ parables, given the wonderful stories of the patriarchs, given Paul’s finely crafted arguments, given the lyric poetry of the psalms, or even the passionate pleas of the other prophets. For me Jonah nicely sums up the challenge of the good news of the gospel and does so with a boat load of sarcastic, cynical, humor.

Let’s pause a moment to talk about Biblical Genre. You may have heard this speech from me before, but it bears repeating—Scripture varies widely! Unfortunately, the religious community seems to approach all of scripture as though it were written in such a way as to be read the same. There almost seems to be a level of fear that if we don’t approach all scripture with great reverence and gravity we will be struck dead by lightening from above. I would argue if there is a lighting worthy offense, it would be our unwillingness to understand that scripture is written with many different voices, purposes, tones, and intentions. Some scripture is meant to be serious and should be read with high reverence. However, there is a wide swath of scripture that cannot be understood appropriately without a sense of humor. There are so many genres within scriptures: poetry, history (but not in the modern sense of the word), oratory, prophecy (in the speaking truth to power sense of the word), storytelling, epic, romance (even the kind that today would be on the grocery check out shelf variety), and yes—HUMOR!

The best examples of humorous biblical writing for my money are the stories of Ballam, Esther, Elijah, and Jonah. Given our focus for Sunday, let’s consider a few things about Jonah (Park your children’s Sunday School memories of the story off to the side somewhere!)

Jonah is hilarious, and it is absolutely meant to be hilarious. Unfortunately, it does require some research and historical explanation to understand the humor (And you know what they say, if you have to explain the joke…). Jonah is tasked with talking to the Ninevites—they’re the big bad guys that end up being responsible for the exhile of Israel. So what does Jonah do—he runs in the exact opposite direction! At this time in history, Tarshish is probably the furthest any good Israelite had traveled in the opposite direction of Ninevah, so naturally, that is where Jonah decided to go. Of course, he has to rely on other enemies of Israel to do so—the Phoenecians. When the boat is battered by the waves who starts praying? Those wicked unfaithful Phoenecians. When it comes time to listen to God who listens? Those wicked unfaithful Phoenecians. In fact the only person in this story that doesn’t listen to God is God’s prophet Jonah! Even Fish, and bushes and worms obey God, but not Jonah. Jonah is one of the few prophets that actually meets great success and turns the heart of the people to whom he was called to speak. Then Jonah is “vomited up by a fish to go carry out his prophetic duties—and yes, the Hebrew language is that graphic! The Israelites rarely listen to the prophets, but what do those nasty Ninevites do? The Ninevites declare a city wide fast, and they won’t even let their animals eat. Can’t you see it now? A whole city fasts and dresses in sackcloth, and there are their donkeys, sheep and pigs decked out in the same clothing and faithfully fasting as well! What does Jonah do when he is successful? He whines and sulks about God’s Grace! So God in turn appoints a bush, a worm, and a hot wind to teach Jonah a lesson. And the whole thing ends with “potty humor,” as those awful Ninevites are said to eat with the same hand they use in the restroom.

If you can’t allow yourself to see the humor in that story then we seriously need to talk. Make an appointment.

It is okay to laugh at scripture—this stuff was meant to be funny, and I would argue if we aren’t allowing ourselves to laugh at this stuff, we won’t ever get what scripture is trying to teach us. Frankly, I would argue it is flat out unfaithful to approach this story without a sense of humor! But I suppose that there is part of the point with Jonah—the highly religious, self righteous, prophet of God is too serious to get it, while all those terrible, awful, no-good, very bad people do! We need to lighten up. We need to laugh. We need to accept that God works through all sorts of realitys—even divinely appointed worms. But that is a story for Sundays Sermon. See you then!

The Beautiful Depth of Understanding in Scripture

I LOVE the Message version of the scripture this week. You can take a look at it here: The Message Romans 14.

This is a fine bit of writing by Eugene Peterson that adds so much meaning to this passage for modern ears. Of course, this raises interesting questions about what we look for in a version of scripture. If I am looking for the most accurate word-for-word translation of a given piece of scripture, then for my money, I turn to the NRSV. Knowing the original languages, knowing the techniques used in translation for this version, and knowing the people that did it lead me to believe the NRSV is most often the most accurate translation.

However, accuracy is not always about word-for-word translation. Sometimes it is about kinds of meaning that don’t come through in a word-for-word translation. Idioms, cultural references, words that don’t have a good English equivalent, poetry, traditions behind the text, are all important parts of scripture that often can’t be represented in a word-for-word translation. Which means that sometimes, it is better to have a paraphrase like The Message or the Common English Bible (my two favorites) which place more importance on meaning and relevancy rather than accurate words. This kind of interpretation often adds layers that had fallen away from the scripture (this weeks scripture is a prime example). However, a paraphrase does come with its own baggage. A paraphrase has necessarily gone through another level of interpretation, and that leaves the interpretation open to being more influenced by the writer than may be necessary.

Because of the problems that come with both of these types of interpretation, if I am really trying to seriously study the text I look at multiple versions—NRSV, The Message, CEB, NIV, KJV, Greek and Hebrew. Of course that is a lot of work, but it is important work.

What this also points to is trouble that we have in determining what “Accurate” means. This is part of the reason, as Presbyterians, we believe that the bible itself is simply a book—a great and important book, but a book. The Bible is not the word of God, but the word of God is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit moving through the text and us upon the reading or hearing of the Bible. We need the Spirit there to guide us to the word of God. This is another problem with the idea of “Biblical Literalism.” It doesn’t leave room for the Spirit of God, and instead insists that the book itself and our ability to understand are enough on their own, without the work of the Spirit. “Biblical Literalism” lacks the humility to realize that we need the Spirit, and that (as this passage from Romans indicates) sometimes the Spirit moves each of us in different directions—even when we hear the same scripture.

But alas, here I am making judgments on other Christians for their experience of faith—also something of which this passage is highly critical. Please forgive me. Isn’t scripture wonderfully complicated when you really dig down deep?