Friday, March 31, 2017

Fresh Studies in Matthew, Matthew 13


It might be that the parable of the sower is a picture of what he teaches them from Isaiah.  Some will not hear in Israel.  Some will follow and be receptive for a while but not truly internalize the whole of the gospel, and some will be seduced by the cares of the world and persecution.  But many will stay with him, and grow.  The first church was mostly Jewish; we forget hat, but the leaders of Judaism were against it.  Eventually the Gentiles outnumbered them, and then over they decades some anti-semitic elements came in.  I think it was mostly Constantine and the growth of Catholicism in terms of a state church.  One of the reasons we don’t celebrate Easter on Passover (as we should) is that Constantine didn’t want the Christian holy day to be conflated with the Jewish one.  (I’m sure there are books on this.)
The passage in Isaiah and its use here is a problem passage to me, in our modern sense of the ideal pure democracy of the gospel.  Does everyone have equal access to the gospel and equal ability to respond?  The Bible seems to contradict itself on this.  We don’t get access to the knowledge of who is able to accept, but all are invited.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Myth of Easy

Having recently finished leading a (small) book group with colleagues on Mindset by Carol Dweck, I have a few thoughts--well, more than a few, but I'll just share the most useful, in my thinking.

First, I would recommend the work of Angela Duckworth and David Yeager.  This video on YouTube is a good start:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUrkU4yjZu4 

This is one of many you could find (Angela has done Ted Talks and is the "grit" lady) but I think this one combines them in a coherent way.  I heard David Yeager speak at AASCU last year and he has a lot to say to serious college teachers.  By serious college teachers I mean those who really want to attain student learning outcomes and are willing to set aside ego and biases to achieve that goal.

My major take away from Mindset: the myth of easy.

Learning is supposed to be fun, right?  And everyone can be whatever they want to be, right?  And everyone should have great self-esteem on the basis of just being, right?  Without having actually achieved anything, right?

Self-worth and self-esteem are two different things, by the way, and from a theological standpoint the first comes from the IMAGO DEI.  I mean, where else would it come from?  The other narrative is that we are biological products of natural selection anyway,  with no intelligence behind that selection other than the process itself.

Self-esteem needs a basis.  And that gets into the myth of easy.

If learning is easy, then it can't be hard.  If learning is hard, than I must not be good at something.  If I am not naturally good at something, there is no reason for me to spend time on it.

Math is hard.  Biology is hard.  Learning to write cogently is hard.  Because they are hard, I must not be good at them, because they would come easily to me if I were good at it.  So, I shouldn't have to do it.

Anyone who has taught difficult classes to freshmen (Writing, Public speaking, algebra, biology, a foreign language) has heard some variation on this.  Since I teach the first two, especially public speaking, I hear versions of it quite a bit.

The fault lies in the presupposition that LEARNING IS EASY.  It is not. It was never intended to be easy and is in fact not, not from a psychological, biological, or social standpoint.

Duckworth points out that learning comes from powering through (that's the grit) periods of confusion.  Without the confusion, there has been no learning because it's already known.  This parallels Vygotsky's zone of proximal development, which I think is an important theoretical perspective.

We need to stop portraying learning, at any age, as easy.  It is hard and it's hardness has nothing to do with one's ability to do it or its value.

I am reminded of the research about people who believe in soul mates having more divorces.  Your soul mate is not supposed to present any challenges or problems in the marriage.  If there is a problem, the person is not your soulmate; you made a mistake, so you must divorce that person and go find the real soulmate.  This is the plot of almost every Hollywood rom-com, where the protagonists are in relationships with others but break up  to be with the right ones. The "break up' partner is always clearly flawed in some way and the "right one" is always perfect, unflawed.

The point is that since love with your soulmate (a strange concept, really), see here is supposed to be easy and not hard, it's just right to jump ship than to work through relationship problems like an adult.

Years ago my husband wanted to get into snow skiing.  I learned it.  It was hard.  I did get to a minimal proficiency.  There was some enjoyment in it, but not really.  I mean seriously--it's cold, the boots are painful, the likelihood of injury is high, and it's darn expensive.  So, ultimately, despite the learning, I don't ski any more and don't plan to, especially the way my back is now (which may have gotten bad from the skiing).  Learning is not easy.

Now, in terms of the Mindset book, we decided in the group that it was too black and white, that it portrayed people as either being in a growth mindset or a fixed mindset.  This is way simplistic.  I think it's a range, and it's contextual/situational, and it's a tendency rather than an "always reaction."  I may have a growth mindset and have failure set backs but find that resiliency after a period of time.  I may be growth about somethings and fixed about others.  I may be 75% growth and 25% fixed.  Life is not as simple as this book portrays.

If I know anything, life is complicated.  And the myth of easy doesn't help.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Jesus and his family

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My first response to this lesson (Jesus in the Temple) was that it was kind of odd, so I had to think about why I thought it was odd.  This doesn’t seem to be a passage of the Bible that really bears on our lives, more like an interesting but disconnected event in Jesus’ life when he was a young adolescent.  Luke had a reason for including it, at the Holy Spirit’s leading. 

By the way, Luke as a physician was probably a slave.  I imagine someone bought his freedom at some point, or he bought his own.  Roman slavery had nothing to do with race, only with captivity or poverty.  Only American slavery is about race. 

It is the only biblical story (there are mythical stories that the Catholics tell, but they have no basis really) that tells us anything about him from toddler age to full adulthood.  Luke, we are often reminded, wrote for the Greeks, was a physician, included a lot of information about women, and wrote more about the humanity side of Jesus Christ than they others might.  (I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but that is what we are told.)  Maybe there is less direct theology in Luke and more true stories.

For me there are three factors here
1.     What does this and other passages teach about the God-side of Jesus (Christology)
2.     What does this and other passages teach about the human side of Jesus, and
3.     What does it tell us about Jesus’ family? 

The take aways are Identification and solace about family differences. 

First, I shouldn’t call it the God side because it makes Jesus sound like a coin with two sides, and that is far from the case.  His human spirit/soul/mind/consciousness was in addition to and under the fully Godness of him. 

Do I understand this?  No.

Do I know when Jesus as a human being/child knew he was fully God and fully man?  No, but I don’t think it was here, although the literature says it was.  I don’t think we are capable of knowing, but I personally believe it was long before this and that this instance happened when it did because of the age of twelve, the typical age of “becoming an adult” in traditional cultures (confirmation, bar mitzvah).

Can I understand how a person can live and not sin?  That one is a little easier to deal with, although Jesus is the only person who has.  Now, let’s talk about sin.  Some people think Jesus is disobedient here to his parents, or inconsiderate.  Why would he put them out like this?  Well, maybe they left him! It’s the parents’ job to keep up with the kids!  Some would say, “He should have then kept this from happening.”  Why?  The fact that he did not keep them from sinning is indicative of God’s relationship to us.  God does not keep us from choosing the wrong action.  In the bigger picture, though, this had to happen so he could clearly make that division with them and show that as he became an adult according to that culture’s timing, he was not going to be like the others and they should not expect it.

Second, and more to the point, his parents should have been expecting this to happen at some point. Considering all they knew about his birth, wouldn’t you expect your son to stand out at any point, especially on the verge of adulthood.
 
But again, in terms of comparing Jesus’ every ethical choice to ours, we have to understand that the standard Jesus lives under is a little different from what we live under, but at the same time, we call things sin that are not sin and call things good that are sin. Staying to talk with the elders was not sin, but part of his mission. Throwing over the tables in the temple before the cross was not vandalism, because we don’t understand the absolute Mafia kind of stuff that was going on here with what is called the “moneychangers.” 

The temple priests required a certain type of coin to buy those animals for sacrifice, and wouldn’t accept the Roman coins.  The moneychangers exchanged one type of coin for another at a high cost that was very hard on the poor, and then those who had the animals were gouging them because no other animal was good enough.  We think it’s bad when we can’t take food into the movie theatre and have to pay $10 for popcorn.  That’s nothing compared to this level of scandal, exploitation, fraud, and corruption, because they were doing it in God’s name and it was necessary to participate in the religious and social community as a good Jew.  It’s the same as freeing a young girl in the sex trade; the pimp is not an honest businessman who is being defrauded by the loss of his prostitute. 

His interaction with the teachers of the law is not that he is lecturing them.  The common practice was to argue and debate based on the texts.  They were amazed that a poor twelve-year-old from the sticks is so knowledgeable about the text.  He was one of the writers in his deity, so he knew these things long before he showed up in the temple that day. 

So, I can’t say I understand how Jesus is fully God and fully man at the same time, but I do see how he responded to people.  I do know that as Luke says, “He grew in stature (so he had a normal body that looked like everyone else’s” and “in favor with God and man,” so his daily life was normal, he had a place in the community, etc.  He didn’t have a superman body.  Would he conceivably have lived forever like Adam would have. I don’t think so.  He had friends and was usually extroverted but the pain of being so sought for miracles meant his body needed down time.  He didn’t sit under a tree and expect “followers” to come to him but he went out to them and connected, touched, and kissed people everyday.  

He didn’t get married, regardless of what the DaVinci code says, which was probably odd in that culture and nothing is said of it in Scripture.  If he had been, surely there would have been words about it by the apostles because Paul mentions in I Corinthians that some of the apostles brought their wives with them on trips and missionary journey, but he didn’t mention that Jesus did, which would have been his strongest argument for it. 

So, what about his family?  He had half brothers and sisters, and that was a difficult relationship.  They would not have been that much younger than him. At one point, at least, they were coming to collect him because they thought he was crazy.  Mark 3:21.  Why would they think he was crazy?  Didn’t Mary tell them the whole story?  Did they resent him?  (How could you resent the Savior?)  It seems to be tied to his extreme “popularity”  and that he wasn’t eating or taking care of himself.  But I think there were some more motives.  We all know that motives with our closest family members can be complicated. 

If Jesus got kicked out of the synagogue, so did they.  Families were excommunicated together.  So they had a big reason to keep him away from opposition. 

But what is Jesus’ response when they try to take him away for being “out of his mind” or “beside himself? That family in the kingdom of God is bigger than blood. “For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35)  I wonder how that hit them?

Strangely, his brothers didn’t believe in him, John 7:1-5.  Even those who know him best find a reason to disbelieve; they want him to go on being popular if it means something good for them.  There is almost disdain for him.  This shows that disbelief is not always about lack of evidence, but will. 

After the resurrection, Paul points out in I Corinthians 15:3-8 that Jesus had a special meeting with his brother James.  As Beth Moore has said, wouldn’t you want to be a fly on the wall for that conversation?

We are not promised that being a Christian will mean good family relationships, necessarily.  Matthew 10:34 ff.  We want it to, and the Christian faith makes it possible for family relationships to be wonderful if there is mutual obedience to Christ.  But when the faith is not shared, Christianity can be divisive because it means a different allegiance comes first. 

 My family did not understand me when I came to Christ.  I was young .  It was hard and took many years.  They are still not fully there because people make their own choices, but most have professed Christ in some form, not necessarily my version of Christianity (Baptist, conservative). 

If Jesus had conflicts in his family, we do not have to feel left out because we do.  We should not allow minor things to come between us, and we should recognize they have freedom of choice; on the other hand, we never stop praying and being faithful and kind witnesses, but not annoying ones.  That’s going to look different for each but we know that Jesus is with us and identifies with us in the midst of family conflicts.    

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Birth of Christ


Tomorrow I am teaching on the birth of Christ.  Here is the lesson. It seems out of place in the calendar but so it goes.

This is one of those theological words that doesn’t appear in the Bible but is used to cover a large, difficult to understand concept.  “Carn” means flesh; The Eternal Son of God became man with flesh and blood in a specific time and place and was named Jesus, the Christ.  He was/is Lord (not to be confused with LORD in Old Testament).  This introduces the word trinity, another word that is almost impossible for us to grasp and we make human attempts to understand this, which is a mystery.  A mystery is a Bible word for something not revealed until a specific time, but there is more to it than that.

“The biblical idea of mystery, then, reminds Christians that God holds the course of human events in his hands and has so shaped them that they work for the salvation of his people. It also demonstrates the graciousness of God in revealing his redemptive purposes to prophets and apostles and, through them, to all who are willing to hear.”  Frank Thielman, Eaton’s Bible Dictionary

“The calling of the Gentiles into the Christian Church, so designated ( Ephesians 1:9 Ephesians 1:10 ; 3:8-11 ; Colossians 1:25-27 ); a truth undiscoverable except by revelation, long hid, now made manifest. The resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:51 ), and other doctrines which need to be explained but which cannot be fully understood by finite intelligence ( Matthew 13:11 ; Romans 11:25 ; 1 Corinthians 13:2 ); the union between Christ and his people symbolized by the marriage union ( Ephesians 5:31 Ephesians 5:32 ; comp 6:19 ); the seven stars and the seven candlesticks ( Revelation 1:20 ); and the woman clothed in scarlet ( 17:7 ), are also in this sense mysteries. The anti-Christian power working in his day is called by the apostle ( 2 Thessalonians 2:7 ) the "mystery of iniquity." Eaton’s Bible Dictionary

The incarnation, trinity, and mystery are three theological words that are important to this lesson on the birth of Jesus.

I can’t get into this much more without discussing The Shack.  First, I read it; I don’t believe in criticizing something I haven’t seen or read.  I am going to be prophetic here, which means I will say things you won’t agree with and may make you mad.
1.     Hollywood is not to be depended on for your Christian growth.  Hollywood wants to make money, and since Paul Young’s book sold two million copies, they knew they would make money off a movie.
2.     Something being popular does not make it right.  Just because two million people or more read that book did not make it right in its teaching.
3.     Paul Young has written and spoken in other places where he has clearly denied Bible doctrines like the need for salvation, hell, and authority of the Bible.  He was raised as a missionary kid but abused and he has issues, which come out in the book.  You need to see the book as him trying to work out his psychological problems including hatred for a legalistic and mean father. 
4.     If you enjoyed the movie, fine, just don’t take it for the Bible.  It’s not, very far from it.  We don’t need a shack to know God loves us supremely, is kind, gracious, good.  Romans 8:32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?”

So, where does that leave us?

God the Son came to earth as a baby. He did so to teach us the gospel and reveal the nature and will of God (the mystery part), to start his church/bride/body (not a new version of Israel), and die to be the last, final sacrifice for the sins of the world (our rebellion against God personally and corporately) so that eventually the universe would be restored to what God intended it to be. 

Matthew and Luke tell us about the facts of Jesus’ birth. 

Read the two stories.  What do you see as different in the two?
Matthew 1:18-end of 2.
Matthew tells us the story in terms of how it fulfills Old Testament prophecy.  That’s why your copy of the Bible might have italicized words where it quotes Isaiah or other prophets.  His version is mostly for the Jews.  His other name is Levi.  He writes about the dreams (5) that led to the story and deliverance.  He places it in the context of the politics, with Herod, the fake king of Israel trying to secure his place as king by committing horrible crimes. He talks about the magi and their gifts. 

Luke 2:1-24
Luke tells us the story like an historian or reporter with more emphasis on small facts and details.  He emphasizes the women, Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna.  He emphasizes that the people were poor and humble:  the stable, manger, shepherds, elderly people in the temple.

We see a lot of contrasts in these accounts.  Poor vs. rich; powerless/humble vs. worldly powerful; believing vs. unbelieving; accepting vs. rejection; sincere vs. deceptive; happy vs. angry; compassionate vs. mean/cruel. 

These two accounts give us the details and history.  The rest of the New Testament explains it: 

1.     incarnation, God the Son, the Word of God, became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:14-16).
2.     Identification:  Mark 1:9; Luke 7:34; Hebrews 4:14-15; Matthew 27:46(cross)
3.     Imitation:  I Peter 2:21 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Fresh Studies in Matthew, Matthew 12:46-48


Chapter divisions are really meaningless, so we have to overlook them most of the time, especially here.  Twelve is a very long and intense chapter.  We start with controversies over nothing made into something and end with an incident with Jesus’ family where they seem to think he’s crazy.  It may be they just don’t know what to do with him.  His mother should have known better, but they were, at the core, afraid for his life.  His unbelieving siblings probably feared for their own, since in those days the family was often punished with the wrong-doer.  At first I thought that this story, which is recorded three times in the gospels, did not have a reference to their thinking he is out of his mind, but I was wrong—it’s in Mark 3.  There it says “his own people,” so it assumed that is the reason they are there, asking for him.

 Jesus does not reject his family here really, only shows that blood ties have their place and there is a stronger tie, faith and following him, identity in him.  That is very revolutionary, since in most cultures family and genetics is all.  It shows how much we are loved. 

Tribal Leadership


Reading this book because it was recommended by a higher up at the college who wanted to lead a book group on it, and the book group is this week.  I am slow to recommend books like this, but I found it helpful.  It took me a while to get into it, and it’s pretty anecdotal and of course, like all these books presents its ideas as the salvation of the organizational world. 
Essentially, it posits five levels for organizations.
Stage 1 – Members say, “Life sucks.”
Stage 2 – Members say, “My life sucks.”
Stage 3 – Some members say, “My life is great.”  Here we have people performing well but only for themselves.
Stage 4 – Members say, “We are great,” which is an us-them mentality but is preferable to Stage 3, where everyone is about themselves and their own success.  At this stage the leaders have had epiphanies that show them the organization is bigger than individual members, etc.  Sort of a Jack Mezirow transformative learning thing.
Stage  5 – We don’t have to worry about being great because we are not about ourselves or beating the competition, but about serving the greater good, the globe, etc.  Sort of like Maslow’s self-actualization level. 
Since I recently read Carol Dweck’ Mindset, I couldn’t help seeing the connections with that book, which I do recommend although I wish she had put more scholarship into it.   

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Fresh Studies in Matthew, Matthew 12:33-50

--> A difficult passage, because (1) this is not the pat, nice Jesus we like, (2) it is very black and white, and we moderns like the phrase “It depends,” connoting contingency, gray areas, unnecessary complexity to give us wiggle room, (3) we see ourselves in the condemnation of foolish talk, (4) we see our culture in those who have massive amounts of revelation and still rejects, and (5) the parable of the demons coming back after exorcism is odd and creepy.  But this is coming after the unbelievable accusation that Jesus was demon possessed or even worse.

I don’t think the story of the unclean spirit is so much a parable as a hypothetical story.  Or even a generically true story, because it is in present tense.  If a demon spirit is exorcised (commentators imply this rather than that the demon leaves by choice, which they apparently don’t do), he will not find a place in the desert.  The Jews of that time believed the desert was a place of demons (which gives another sense to Matthew 4).  So the demon decides to re-enter the person and takes “friends.”  The formally possessed person is now socially acceptable, clean well-ordered, but the demons can return and cause more devastation.

This raises a lot of questions. Can a person who has gone through exorcism be possessed again?  Apparently.  How much choice do demon spirits have?  What were the conditions that allowed the demons back? And Jesus ends with “And so shall it be with this wicked generation” referring back to those who want a sign when they  already had plenty of them already.  They did not recognize the power they were witnessing or the level of person they were dealing with.

So, he’s talking about the religious leaders of Judaism at that time. The commentators say this is about outward legalism compared to true belief.  After the demo is sent out the person looks good on the outside but is still vulnerable to possession.  The legalism did not fix the core of the person and they were more possessed than before.  He end of the religious leaders and their system will be worse.  I read somewhere that Josephus wrote about the Jews after the crucifixion as having many internal problems; I have never heard that and should only quote it if I have read it.  It is simply wrong to cite things secondhand. 

Friday, March 03, 2017

On Baptists

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About two years ago I was asked to be on a panel about religion .  I had prepared a spiel about the global state of Christianity, but the moderator had one question for me, “How do you explain Westboro Baptist?”

I am still floored by this, and eventually, toward the end of the talk, was able to make the point that there are 2 billion people on the planet who call themselves Christians and there are 29 people in Westboro Baptist, so it’s not really a comparison.  Needless to say, I don’t plan to be on a panel like that again.

The problem, of course, is that there are dozens of kinds of Baptists and it doesn’t take an act of Congress to put the name Baptist on a shingle.  Also, people don’t know that the pastor of Westboro Baptist was a civil rights attorney and defended African Americans against Jim Crow laws.  He was also allegedly a pretty nasty fellow at times. 

Where would America be without Baptists?  I ask this seriously. First, there would be a Rhode Island.  Roger Williams fought the hegemony of the Puritans, who, although I respect them in many ways, had it all wrong about religious freedom.  If everyone doesn’t have religious freedom, no one has it, not really.

We wouldn’t have that famous, often misquoted and generally misunderstood letter where Thomas Jefferson talked about a “wall of separation” between government and church.  That was written to Baptists in Virginia.

We wouldn’t have had the second great awakening around 1800.

We wouldn’t have had the same kind of missionary movement, thank you William Carey.

We wouldn’t have had countless orphanages, missions, colleges, schools, and hospitals. 

Now, before anybody gets riled up, this has nothing to do with Westboro Baptist.  They were reprehensible and I don’t know how they kept from being the heck beaten out of them at some of their protests.  They seem to have gone away, at least from media attention (but not really), so good riddance. 

This is also a recognition that not all Baptists (as in most of them in the South) got it right about slavery or civil rights. They were woefully wrong about that, and the Southern Baptists are trying to make it right, I think, from the leadership.  Unfortunately, many in the pews hold on to racist ideas and attitudes and feel pretty good about it.

I know this because our pastor put a link to an article in the Gospel Coalition about Spurgeon, an ardent abolitionist, who was warned not to come to the South on a preaching tour because his books were being burned and he was being physically threatened.  The article is pretty sickening, and some of the comments show that “being a Southerner” and defending Southern honor was more important to the commenters than being spiritually right about the dignity of the imago dei. 

They hide this under Southern pride, as if being a Southerner should be seen like being African American or Hispanic. This kind of thinking escapes me.  Spurgeon was right, his opponents were wrong.  Not because they “were on the wrong side of history” (an odd phrase, when you think about it), but because desiring to keep people enslaved and/or without their legal rights as citizens is wicked and always is and was, despite what “history” says (a logical fallacy of hypostatization, by the way.)   
And this is not to even touch upon the great contributions of African American Baptists in fighting for equal treatment under the law. 

It is simply to state we wouldn’t be the U.S. today, better or worse, without the influence of Baptists of all stripes. 

The core of being a Baptist is being a person of the Bible, of conscience, and being a little bit ornery or at least willing to be different.  Early Baptists were treated pretty badly just because they didn't want to baptize babies and wanted to wait until the convert was an adult, a pretty innocuous  desire, when you think about it, but it was seen as disrupting the whole social order at the time.  Martin Luther sure wasn't very kind to them.  The German Anabaptists (who became Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish) were a somewhat different breed than the English Baptists of the 1600s from which most of us descend theologically today, those dissenters who operated outside of the state church of England and were represented in literature by Paul Bunyan.  They were Calvinistic but had different takes on church polity.

Fresh Look at Matthew: Matthew 18 in total

I have decided to post all of my thoughts on Matthew 18 at once.  After this I will take a short break from posting about Matthew, not becau...