Holy books, wholly understandable

I try, every year, to read the scripture of some other faith. That is, read the books themselves, not just a second-hand analysis of them

In 2016 it was the Koran, which I found well worth the read, if a little repetitious. It is about 4/5 the length of the New Testament.

In 2017 I have read the Bhaghavad Gita, which is a substantially shorter book. And I have just started the Book of Mormon, which is twice as long as the New Testament.

The two books I did as Audible recordings, of which I am a major fan, the Book of Mormon on LibriVox.

My observation here has to do with clear communication:

The Koran I read was the Penguin edition (1956) by N. J. Dawood; it is meant for non-specialists and was very understandable. Click HERE.

The Bhaghavad Gita I accessed two ways; first through then through the wonderful introduction and translation by Eknath Easwaran. And much, but not all, of the 2000-page commentary by Swami Ramsukhdasji, a gift from a dear Hindu friend.

Especially in the case of the Eknath Easwaran edition (click HERE), the rendering is very clear, with technical terms carefully explained; and then before each chapter, the author sums up the previous context, then gives a summary of the new chapter. In other words, it couldn’t be easier for the non-Hindu.

Foment curiosity and independent thinking? Sure! Create confusion? No!

All to say that, in both cases, someone exerted a great deal of effort to make clear to me the basic message of the holy books of another faith. In neither book was I ever lost, although of course my understanding of them remains superficial.

The application for the Christian should be clear.

How much more should someone who is interested in communicating our true message take great pains to

  • study it seriously,
  • meditate on it deeply,
  • pray about it thoroughly,
  • rely on God’s grace to live it authentically, and
  • seek God’s direction to proclaim it truthfully and powerfully.

Also, I would add, use straightforward language instead of flowery or technical; and to employ good English – rather than Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, or Bohairic, or who knows what. (See my long article on this issue HERE). To give Paul’s statement a different but legitimate application: “in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” And out of the church, even more so.

These versions of holy books remind me of our dear late professor, I. Howard Marshall; the first sermon I heard him preach, in Kings College Chapel in Aberdeen, was on the theme of “repentance” from Romans 2: “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” He was speaking to a mixed group, some of whom were not very familiar with the Bible. I paraphrase him: “Repentance is not making ourselves out to be the worst person that ever lived,” he began, and then gave us a simple short sentence on what it does mean to repent. Clear as a bell. The handful of times I went to hear John Stott preach, same thing.

That is the apostolic way, it is the way of love.

“Holy books, wholly understandable,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Your politics is not Christianity

No matter what you think; no matter what your favorite pundit tells you; no matter what the majority of your friends believe; no matter if you are Right, Left, Center, or Other:
Any word you can tack “ism” to the end of is a potential idol. Anytime you add a hyphen to the word “Christian” (Christian-hyphen-whatever, or Christian-slash-Whatever) you nibble away from the significance of “Christian.”

Whether election season or not, this wonderful insight from Thomas Merton remains relevant:

…on a superficial level, religion that is untrue to itself and to God, easily comes to serve as the “opium of the people.” And this takes place whenever religion and prayer invoke the name of God for reasons and ends that have nothing to do with him. When religion becomes a mere artificial facade to justify a social or economic system – when religion hands over its rites and language completely to the political propagandist, and when prayer becomes the vehicle for a purely secular ideological program, then religion does tend to become an opiate…his religious zeal becomes political fanaticism. His faith in God, while preserving its traditional formulas, becomes in fact faith in his own nation, class or race. His ethic ceases to be the law of God and of love, and becomes the law that might-makes-right: established privilege justifies everything, [his] God is the status quo.

Taken from Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, available cheaply used or on Kindle. Merton was, by the way, strongly in favor of political activism, as am I; but not religion as the appendage of a political ideology.

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Bible study – a work of prayer!

This is a prayer of the great church father Augustine, which he was accustomed to use after his sermons and lectures. I have updated the version found in NPNF 1,8, p. 683.

We now turn to the Lord God, the Father Almighty, and with pure hearts we offer to him, so far as we can with the little we have, great and sincere thanks.

With all our hearts we pray for his exceeding kindness:
– that of his good pleasure he would condescend to hear our prayers,
– that by his power he would drive out the Enemy from our deeds and thoughts,
– that he would increase our faith, guide our understanding, give us spiritual thoughts, and lead us to his bliss,
through Jesus Christ his Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Gary again: I don’t care how well you know the original languages, or what study method you use, or how many commentaries, and what preaching method – and I affirm them, one and all! – without prayer, there is no authentic Bible study or teaching.

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“Bible study – a work of prayer!” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

The Golden Rule and Political Discussion

This has been the most difficult election season, at least since 1948, perhaps since 1860.

For that reason, may I request that, when someone didn’t vote the way you or I did, that we not automatically respond:

  • “Oh, that means you don’t care at all about ____.”
  • “Oh, you’re ignoring the sins of your candidate, and damning the sins of mine.”
  • “Oh, you’re deluded by your choice of news outlet.”
  • “Oh, you only look at information that backs your candidate.”
  • “Oh, only imbeciles and morons vote for ____ (not my terms, I’m quoting).”
  • “Oh, only people with zero education vote for____.” When I tell people I have a college education, some reply, “Well, there are plenty of stupid people with degrees, they don’t mean anything!”
  • “Oh, you must be brainwashed or a ‘useful idiot’ or politically-correct or anti-politically-correct.”
  • “Oh, you must be a lemming (or some other slow-witted mammal).”
  • “Oh, why would you vote for the devil” or “the antichrist?”
  • “Oh, you must be morally corrupt.”
  • “Oh, you have an agenda! (And I sure don’t).”
  • “Oh, you can’t possible be a Christian if you voted like that!”
  • “Oh, God told me how to vote, so if you voted differently, you must not love the Lord!”
  • “Oh, prayed about my vote, and if you did not vote the same, you must not have prayed.”
  • “Oh, that means you are a (communist, fascist, Nazi, etc.).”
  • “Oh, you just threw your vote away (maybe on a Third-Party Candidate).”

These are all more or less quotes from things I’ve seen the last few days. From Christians and non-Christians.

Personally, I can’t think of anyone I know who found this election easy. Maybe you didn’t have to think hard about whom to choose, I certainly did. This isn’t a math problem, where 2 + 2 = 4 every time, there are hundreds of variables, and I know thoughtful people who have come up with different answers. That’s not “moral relativism,” it’s a nod to the difficulty of the problem we are trying to solve.

The Golden Rule would suggest that I should do unto others (I should assume they had wrestle through this) as I would have them do unto me (I want people to assume that I had to wrestle through this).

May we please – for the nation’s sake – assume until we hear otherwise, that perhaps, just perhaps, the person who voted for the other team really does care, really did look into things, and really did have to struggle about how to vote.

Yes, it works in politics, too

Yes, it works in politics, too

“The Golden Rule and Political Discussion,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

My Time with the Koran, April 2016

Read the whole file here shogren_my-time-with-the-koran or download it on your phone. my-time-with-the-koran

My reading the Koran is like a rock-and-roller trying to figure out what in the world that jazz trio is up to. Still, if I will opine that the Koran is right, wrong, or indifferent, I feel I should have at least a basic, first-hand awareness of what it actually says. This, even though people all the time comment on books they haven’t yet gotten around to; the Bible in particular, unread by many Bible-believers.[i]

I bring this up because, like you, I have seen certain Facebook memes and books that “prove” that all Muslims are “really” in a jihad against the West; and that when some (apparently very nice) Muslims claim they are not planning to blow stuff up, well, they are lying, since everyone knows that in Islam it’s cool to lie about not being involved in jihad in order to be more effective in jihad. See my dilemma?

We live in a world where from all directions, especially in the social media, we see quotations taken out of context. I love the new usage of “cherry-picked,” a term that is often applied during election years. According to the Urban Dictionary, it is “When only select evidence is presented in order to persuade the audience to accept a position, and evidence that would go against the position is withheld. The stronger the withheld evidence, the more fallacious the argument.”

Jefferson’s well-known statement that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing” is usually taken out of context; when Lincoln “said” that he was not concerned about slavery, but maintaining the Union, that’s cherry-picking; and when the Lincoln meme tells us “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet,” that’s just a fake. We run into supposed quotes from George Washington, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Joe Stalin, even George Carlin. A snatch of a phrase from Alexis de Tocqueville or Gibbon’s Rise and Fall, also practically useless unless read in context.

At any rate, I have had on my reading list for some time to go ad fontes (Latin, “back to the sources”) and read books of other faiths, not objectively—which is unattainable for anybody—but directly and unmediated. I have a copy of the Book of Mormon waiting in the wings; a dear Hindu friend gave me a beautiful edition of the Bhagavad-Gita, also on my list; Confucius’s Analects I read long ago, also the Mishnah and the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic literature. On the wackier side, I have read the prophetic quatrains of Nostradamus (meh) and looked over some of the “exposés” of the Catholic Church by Charles Chiniquy (yow!). I read Pope Francis’s Laudato Sii on environmental issues and later on his Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee: the latter in part because I heard somewhere that it promised to send Protestants to the guillotine in a 21st-century Inquisition; turns out, it did not mention decapitation or any bloodshed; who knew?

I also wanted to read the Koran because of a phenomenon that is very obvious from a Google search, that there are Muslims apologists who carefully read the Bible—in order to refute it.[ii]

So, this was my first time through the Koran, and I went cover to cover. I looked up some points to clarify what I was looking at, but tried to avoid the Hadith interpretations or other viewpoints, except for the ones I read afterward about jihad. It was “Back to the Koran” time.

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Let me give some broad observations, from a Christian for Christians, and then address specific topics. (more…)

Busyness is no excuse for being an uncommitted Christian

With all due respect to the original, this is my thorough paraphrase, condensation, and updating of George Whitfield’s, “Worldly Business No Plea for the Neglect of Religion,” Sermon 20 of his Collected Sermons

Matthew 8:22 – “Let the dead bury their dead.”

When Paul preached at Athens, he observed that they were “very religious.” But if he came and visited us today, he wouldn’t be able to make the same claim. Rather he would say you are very “fixed on this world” or “pursuing your careers,” so much so that you neglect or even ignore completely the one thing that a Christian needs to do. That’s why I will point out to such believers that they are too busy grabbing material things and instead must be fixed on their future.

It is so easy to be fixed on this world. We claim to be doing God’s will by working hard at our job, but we allow this to make us spiritually dopey.

“Let the dead bury their dead” shows how we should be focused on the life to come.

Jesus Christ himself said these words after he had called on a man to be his disciple, but the man replied “Let me go home first and bury my father,” which probably means, “Let me go and bring my business dealings up to date, first.” Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their dead.” This means, leave the business of this world to people of the world, let your secular matters become unraveled, if that is what is keeping you from following me.

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We don’t know how this man responded in the end. But we do know that Christ is whispering the very same thing to people here, people who get up early and knock off late, and their income comes through stressful work. He says, “Stop fixing your heart on the things of this life (more…)

Will it Kill your Pastor if he Visits You? A Response to Thom S. Rainer

Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources and has a very popular blog on church life. Having read with approval a number of his other articles, I was surprised to find one that I roundly disagreed with.

It is titled “FIFTEEN REASONS WHY YOUR PASTOR SHOULD NOT VISIT MUCH”

And he is serious. He is really not happy with churches which expect to see their pastor in their home any time soon. Unless it’s an emergency. A big one.

So with all due respect, I responded to him on his blog, and will offer much the same thoughts here. (Here is another, very useful, response, by Andrew Roy Croft, who offers a positive argument for pastoral visitation).

To begin with, I thought this was one of those stealth articles that start off, “10 Reasons to Vote the Socialist Ticket,” but turn out to be pro-Republican. But no, I read it through a number of times, and it’s not ironic.

His point is that pastoral visitation a newfangled idea, that there’s altogether too much visitation going on, and it should be slimmed down and (perhaps) limited only to extreme situations. Otherwise pastor visitation is the Zika virus that will kill your church, leave your pastor burned (out) beyond recognition, and make him/her leave! Oh yes he will!!

Don't answer the door! It might be the pastor, and it will lead to him burning out, quitting, and destruction for your church!

Don’t answer the door! It might be the pastor, and it will lead to him burning out, quitting, and apocalyptic destruction for your church!

Pastor Rainer has 15 objections to pastoral visitation, many of which are, upon closer examination, the same reason stated differently. To quote:

  1. It’s unbiblical. 2. It deprives members of their roles and opportunities. 3. It fosters a country club mentality. 4. It turns a church inwardly. 5. It takes away from sermon preparation. 6. It takes away from the pastor’s outward focus (the same as #4, right?) 7. It takes away vital leadership from the pastor. 8. It fosters unhealthy comparisons among the members. 9. It is never enough. 10. It leads to pastoral burnout (see #9). 11. It leads to high pastoral turnover (see #9, 10). 12. It puts a lid on Great Commission growth of the church (see #4, 6). 13. It leads pastors to get their affirmation from the wrong source. 14. It causes biblical church members to leave. 15. It is a sign that the church is dying (see #14). And then later: It’s a key sign of [church] sickness. It’s a clear step toward [congregational] death.

So, it is no exaggeration that his message is that pastoral visitation may even now be killing your church!

Let’s define “pastoral visitation” as, where one or more of the leaders of the church go to where their people are, traditionally but not necessarily in the home, hospital, or long-term care facility, in order to spend time with them and to conduct pastoral ministry (exhortation, encouragement, correction).

Here is part of the response that I wrote on his website, that there were three weaknesses to the argument; I address the author as “you.”

First, the historical. You write that “‘Visitation of the members’ became a common job description of pastors about a century ago.” You imply that it is a recent innovation.

While it may have become more conventional these days to write the thing out in a job description, visitation of the members has been part of the pastoral task since the beginning. In fact, it was a vital aspect (more…)

Love, sure, but during an election year?

A fresh preface to my essay, “The Forgotten Sign of the End Times: icy relations among God’s people.” I include here not only things I observe in others, but principally the things I’d like to root out of my own heart.

The Lord’s return may – or may not – be near, but no-one who reads church history would conclude that we clearly live in the last days. There are relatively no more wars today than throughout history (probably fewer), no more frequent earthquakes, no worse famines. And we have 2000 years of unloving actions on the part of the church to make our current lack of love seem mild by comparison.

Still, Jesus warned us in Matthew 24 that part of the future apostasy will be that “the love of most [believers] will grow cold.” And while 2016 isn’t necessarily the end of history, the fact that it is a political season gives us pause to gauge our level of charitableness.

The Evil One wants to freeze your helping hand

The Evil One wants to freeze your helping hand

The Enemy is pleased to put our love on ice, and he uses arguments both old and new to entice us to join in with him.

A few of his LIES:

“If you really have the truth, then you have the right to be reckless in how you present it.”

“If you feel charitable toward the needy, that is just as good as actually doing something to alleviate their needs. E. g., if you ‘share’ a post about starving children, that’s as filling as a sandwich.”

“Violence is tolerable, so long as it is doled out against the Other, not Us. Because They probably deserve it.”

“Using bad words, even from the pulpit, is okay, since if we love people, we need to get their attention, and fast.  If not curse words, then at least use sheeple, wingnut, moron, etc. Oh, and again, this is cool so long as it’s against the Other, not Us.”

“If you want to help a woman with an unwanted pregnancy, don’t worry about saving the child she is bearing.”

And conversely, “Keeping her from ending a pregnancy is the sole expression of love we need to show toward her.”

Take up your cross and follow Christ refers to abstract, spiritual things, not our daily behavior toward other human beings, and certainly not to our behavior on social media.”

“Hasty and off-the-cuff responses are sweeter to the tongue than slow-brewed wisdom.”

“It’s okay to hate the haters.”

“Well, they started it!”

“Those victims probably deserved it and shouldn’t complain, Our victims are faultless.”

“When people encourage us to act with respect to others, that’s just a ploy of the Politically Correct to shut us down.”

“We should love ‘our own’ first (family, neighborhood, race, religion, tribe) and others less.” [Note: Charity begins at home, while a Christian truth, is perverted when in Satan’s hand.]

Cynicism is a favorite of Hell, to despise the sinner, to make the Other the focus of evil in the world and the butt of “Well, what do you expect of Them?” The fruit of cynicism is sarcasm, sneering, suspicion, contempt, and given time, hatred. Love teaches us remain vulnerable, and endure and even embrace the pain that results from being witnesses to wickedness.

Christ was the one who was “oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth” (Isa 53:7), and he invited us to take up our cross and follow him, even during presidential elections, and he gives us the mighty Holy Spirit to rewrite the code of our mind to enable us to do it. This is what separates Christian charity from mere pleasantness or good manners.

But from all indications, Christian love apparently is meant to follow some weird liturgical calendar, by which the church allows us to lay it aside in 2008, 2012, 2016, 2020, etc., you do the math. That’s why Francis’s prayer of self-dedication, “grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand” (see more below), strikes us nice and Christ-like, but only applicable outside of election seasons. Don’t eat meat on Fridays is sooo medieval; Don’t be charitable every four years is the new fashion!

I urge myself, and invite you, to take Francis at his word, in the run-up to the November election and in any season:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

CLICK to go to The Forgotten Sign of the End Times: icy relations among God’s people.”

“Should we be loving during election years?” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, San José, Costa Rica

Grumpy Legalists

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What can turn happy, friendly Christians into a snarling mob? What transmutes a Good Friday Gang into a Black Friday Mob?

Legalism.

What transmutes a Good Friday Gang into a Black Friday Mob? Legalism!

What transmutes a Good Friday Gang into a Black Friday Mob? Legalism!

(more…)

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Part Two [Humor]

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