Monday, April 27, 2015

Searching for a New Church

I am moving across the country, and one thing that I will be looking for is a new church.  That is pretty intimidating.  I have been attending the same church for the past four years, and one reason I like it is that I know what to expect.  I also want to make a good decision, because I probably will be living in the place to which I will be moving for a very long time—-longer than any place I have lived before.

I am not the sort of person who enjoys shopping for churches, at least not anymore.  I like the same setting every week.  But, by contrast, I am also not the sort of person who will waste my time on dead wood.  What I mean by that is that I used to feel that I had to stick around in environments that did not accept me, at least on some level, and I do not feel compelled to do that anymore.  At the same time, I don’t want to find myself in the same situation that I was in over ten years ago, after I had moved to Cincinnati: not going to church at all for three years.  Things were missing from my life as a result of that: the joy of communal worship, community, the opportunity to show love for others, a change of pace on Sunday mornings, and a positive way to orient my week.

So that puts me in a bind, doesn’t it?  I’d better pick the right church the first time, or I will find myself shopping for churches, which I hate doing!

I have been searching for churches on the Internet.  The area to which I will be moving has some hip evangelical megachurches, and I definitely am ruling those out.  Not only am I not particularly hip, but I also think that I can find a better, more accepting, less stressful community environment within a mainline church.  Someone I know in the place to which I am moving occasionally attends a Unitarian-Universalist church, and, while I have found UUs to be thoughtful, I would like something that is more explicitly Christian.  There are the Episcopalians, and I have found them to be mostly friendly, but, as a recovering alcoholic, I am reluctant to take wine as part of the communion ceremony, and an Episcopalian site that I visited appeared to view that as a non-negotiable.  I am not saying that the Episcopalians have to cater to me personally, but it would be nice if the Episcopalian church at least recognized that there are people who struggle with alcohol and who may want to attend its services.  (Maybe it does, and I am not aware of it.)  I visited a Methodist site, and it did appear to have that sort of sensitivity, so I may go that route.  Or I can try a liberal baptist church, or PC(USA), the denomination that I am currently attending.  I am even interested in trying out the more conservative PCA, as long as people there don’t grill me on controversial issues.  I may try an Evangelical Free Church.  While I tend to recoil from aspects of evangelicalism, I did have a professor years back who pastored an Evangelical Free church, and I found him to be very thoughtful, profound, and learned.

Of course, I know from people’s stories, and even from personal experience, that there are mainline churches that can be pretty cold.  I have to decide for myself how much of that I can take, and if I should move on to try another place.

As I contemplate looking for a new church, I often think about how fortunate I am to have found the church that I currently attend.  I do not have a car, so I was limited in my options of where to go.  The closest church to me turned out to be an awesome church.  The people are friendly.  It talks both about spirituality and also giving to people who need help.  The sermons are thoughtful and leave me with things to think about, and to blog about.  It will be a tough act to follow.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Last Day at My Current Church

I am on a laptop right now, and I have not gotten the hang of copying and pasting without a mouse that is separate from my computer, so I will link to the post on my Wordpress blog.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

II Chronicles 30

II Chronicles 30 is about righteous King Hezekiah’s Passover, which Judahites and some Northern Israelites attended.

There is debate about whether or not Hezekiah’s Passover actually happened.  After all, does not II Kings 23:22 state regarding the Passover of a later king of Judah, Josiah: “Surely there was not holden such a passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah” (KJV)?  Why would that passage say that, if the author was aware of a previous Passover under King Hezekiah?

Raymond Dillard, in his Word Biblical Commentary, refers to a couple of arguments that may coincide with the historicity of Hezekiah’s Passover.  One argument is that the Deuteronomist in II Kings wants to exalt King Josiah, and that he may have chosen not to mention Hezekiah’s Passover so as not to detract from the Passover of Josiah; II Kings 23:22, therefore, does not mean that Hezekiah’s Passover did not occur, according to this argument, but that the Deuteronomist, for ideological reasons, chose not to mention it.

Another argument is that the Chronicler, who values the cult, would not invent the sort of chaotic Passover that we see in II Chronicles 30.  In II Chronicles 30, the Israelites are simply not ready to observe the Passover, and so the festival is pushed forward by a month, and Hezekiah asks God to show mercy to the Northern Israelites who eat the Passover in a state of ritual uncleanness.

There may be something to the first argument.  At the same time, I should note that the Chronicler himself makes a statement similar to that in II Kings 23:22.  II Chronicles 35:18 states regarding the Passover of King Josiah: “And there was no passover like to that kept in Israel from the days of Samuel the prophet; neither did all the kings of Israel keep such a passover as Josiah kept, and the priests, and the Levites, and all Judah and Israel that were present, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (KJV).  The Chronicler could simply be relying on II Kings here, but I doubt it, for the verses are not entirely similar: the Kings passage mentions the judges, whereas the Chronicles passage mentions Samuel the prophet.  Dillard may have a point about why the Deuteronomist fails to mention Hezekiah’s Passover, or perhaps the Deuteronomist does not mention it because, as far as he is concerned, Josiah was the first king to hold a national Passover.

As far as the Chronicler goes, the Chronicler may mean that no such Passover was held until the Passover of Josiah in the sense that Josiah’s Passover was the best, better than the one that Hezekiah held.  (Abarbanel held this sort of view.)  Indeed, in II Chronicles 35, Josiah’s Passover does run smoothly, due to the help of the Levites.  Moreover, while, in II Chronicles 30, there were Northern Israelites who were unwilling to attend Hezekiah’s Passover, Josiah’s Passover may have gathered more Northern Israelites.  II Chronicles 34:33 seems to indicate that Josiah compelled Northern Israelites to worship God, and 35:3 affirms that the Levites taught all Israel.

On the second argument—-that the Chronicler would not invent a chaotic Passover like Hezekiah’s Passover in II Chronicles 30, and thus the Chronicler was reporting what happened—-I am not convinced.  The reason is that, a couple of other times in Chronicles, we see stories about the religious leadership of Judah delaying what it is supposed to do to honor God (II Chronicles 24:5-6; 29:34).  That tells me that one could have reason to believe that a theme of delay is part of the narrative ideology of the Chronicler, and thus it is not unreasonable to think that he could invent a chaotic Passover.

Could this reflect Israel’s post-exilic period in any way, the period in which many scholars believe the Chronicler wrote?  I think so, for the prophet Haggai rebukes the returned Jewish exiles for failing to rebuild the Temple.  Could the Chronicler, by mentioning the theme of delay, be exhorting the post-exilic Jews to get on the ball?  And could his depiction of Josiah’s Passover be designed to show post-exilic Jews about what could happen if they take their first step to the construction of the Temple: that, even if there may be chaos, eventually things will pan out and go more smoothly?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Book Write-Up: Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans.  Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.  Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

In Searching for Sunday, popular Christian author and blogger Rachel Held Evans discusses the church.  She shares her experiences with the church: the community that she enjoyed when she was growing up as a conservative Christian; how her relationship with conservative Christianity changed when she had religious doubts; her search for a new church, and the time when she did not go; her attempts to start a new church with the youth pastor from her youth and others, and her disappointment when that church closed; and the joy that she has experienced at an Episcopalian church.  Evans also reflects on the sacraments, such as baptism, communion, and communion, and she addresses church history (the good and the bad) and the ways that churches have treated the LGBT community.

Many of Evans’ critics believe that she promotes a consumerist mentality, and they stress that church should be about God and not the preferences of attendees.  They say that church should be a place to learn to love difficult people and to serve, not a place to abandon when the going gets tough.  They think that Evans wants the church to cater to the latest trends rather than the word of God.  They maintain that she promotes acceptance of people where they are, when church should be a place where sin is challenged.  They think that she and millennials who have left the church have a sense of entitlement.

I cannot agree with them after reading Searching for Sunday.  Granted, I am a bit biased, for I am rather progressive, and I am inclined to choose Evans over her conservative detractors.  But I could not read this book and walk away seeing her as some consumerist with a sense of entitlement.  She has strong beliefs and a passion for justice.  She is for service to others and the fruit of the Spirit.  Whether or not one agrees with her on LGBT issues, I hope that anyone would read her stories about how LGBTs have been treated and be heartbroken.

Even though Evans leans more towards the progressive end of the spectrum, she is not a firebreathing progressive, for she acknowledges and values her evangelical heritage (even though she is honest about the times when she wants to walk away from it for good), the church that she helped establish had conservatives, and she critiques her own cynicism.  She tries to practice love and acceptance, even towards her critics and people with a different ideology, and she narrates how church has helped her on that path.

While her prose can sometimes be a bit flowery or over the top, her stories are beautiful.  She is honest and vulnerable when she tells her own story, and she also tells stories about others.  Some of her stories made me laugh, some of them made me cry, and many of them resonated with me.  I liked her story about how the pastor of the Baptist church that she and her husband left handled their departure: he said that he understood that people who change their beliefs may want to find another church, but he also made clear that Rachel and her husband were welcome back anytime.  I liked the part of the book in which she mentioned and honored the faith journeys of people she knew, as some went to evangelicalism, and others chose other Christian paths.  The story of the church that chose to close rather than obey the denomination’s demand that it rescind the membership of a gay couple brought tears to my eyes.

I have followed Evans’ blog for years, so I felt in reading the book that I was getting the inside story of some of the things that she has discussed on it, at various stages of her journey.  In her book, she proceeds towards a resolution of accepting the church.  In following her blog for years, I got to read some of the previous stages of her journey.  She says that faith is a walk with God, and she has manifested that and continues to manifest it.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through the BookLook Bloggers ( program.  The program does not require for my review to be positive, and my review reflects my honest reaction to the book.

Ramblings on Goodness and Pride

I recently reviewed Daniel Westberg’s Renewing Moral Theology.  On page 96, Westberg quotes something that Geoffrey Bromiley says about human sinfulness:

“And even if one does the good or avoids the evil, how easily it is all soured by the self-righteous satisfaction that for once at least one has done a pure and blameless deed.”

That did resonate with me when I first read it.  The next day, well, it did not so much.

When I first read it, I could see myself in what Bromiley was saying.  I can easily pat myself on the back when I do something good, even though there are plenty of deficiencies in my character.  Moreover, I agree with Bromiley that doing something good can lead me to become proud.  That pride is not entirely valid on my part, for I do not always do good, and I have sinned.  I need forgiveness.

But, as I go through the day, beat myself up, and think about others’ criticisms and judgments of me, I get to the point where I say: “Look, I am not totally bad!”  I have done good things in my life.  I have helped people.  Who are other people to call me selfish, as if that is the sum total of my character?  Don’t I deserve to give myself credit, at least once in a while?

I don’t think that evangelical Christianity is particularly helpful on this issue.  When evangelical Christians are preaching the Gospel to the unsaved, their goal is to convince the unsaved (with the Holy Spirit’s help) that they indeed are sinners in need of God’s forgiveness and grace.  In doing that, they point out that the unsaved person is flawed, even if he may have done some good thing.  Once a person accepts Jesus, however, a person feels a need to convince herself (or others) that she truly has been regenerated by God, and one sign that Christians point to is fruit of the Spirit and a declining pattern of sin in one’s life.  Even Westberg mentions the view that sin in a believer’s life is occasional.

So evangelicals try to convince the unsaved that they are bad by pointing to their flaws, or by encouraging them to be honest about their own flaws.  Then, once the unsaved accept Christ, they are expected to switch gears and to try to look for good in their lives so they can feel assured that they actually have been born again.  Does that make any sense?  Here’s a thought: People are good and bad, whether they have accepted Christ or not.  I know that I cannot generalize about evangelicals, for there are evangelicals who believe that they are still sinners in need of grace, even after conversion, and there are also evangelicals who are critical of Christians looking to their good works for assurance.  But I am critiquing an evangelical approach that is out there.  It is not a figment of my imagination.

I have been reading my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha for my daily quiet time.  Right now, I am in the Letter of Aristeas, which is about the translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek Septuagint.  Aristeas talks about his attempt to persuade King Ptolemy of Egypt to release the Jewish slaves and soldiers from captivity, and Aristeas says that “whatsoever men think to do in piety in the way of righteousness and attention to good works, God the Lord of all directs their acts and intentions” (R.J.H. Shutt’s translation).  This is in the context of Aristeas’ hope that God will move the king to release the Jews from captivity.  It does raise some profound questions, though.  Is everything good that humans think and do from God?  If so, then is not God responsible when we do not do good and instead do evil: did God drop the ball by not motivating us to do good, in that case?

Whatever my questions, I do believe that, whenever I am attracted to good, that is the work of God within me and upon me, in some way, shape, or form.  I like something that Westberg says in his book about the work of the Holy Spirit within us: that it makes virtue look attractive to us.  I may be far from perfection.  I cannot say that there is a declining pattern of sin in my life, for sin and selfishness are a part of me during the majority of most days.  Yet, virtue is important to me, and I recognize the value of at least trying to get outside of myself and to have love for others.  The problem is that there are times when I am trying to do so while kicking and screaming—-when I am outwardly showing love, while inwardly seething with resentment.  Westberg talks some about that situation in his book.  In those cases, I am reminded of my continual need for God’s grace to be and to do good.

How can I do good without falling into pride?  I can remember that God is the one motivating me to do good.  And I can keep in mind that good is good because it is good: sure, God may reward us for doing it, but it is what we are supposed to be doing anyway.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Book Write-Up: Renewing Moral Theology, by Daniel A. Westberg

Daniel A. Westberg.  Renewing Moral Theology: Christian Ethics As Action, Character and Grace.  Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Daniel Westberg teaches ethics and moral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.  In Renewing Moral Theology, Westberg explores the topic of Christian ethics, focusing in particular on the thinking of Thomas Aquinas.  Anglican liturgy and teaching are also a significant aspect of this book, as Westberg compares and critiques what they have said about sin, repentance, and God’s law.

The book interacts with a variety of issues and questions.  Is Christian morality merely a matter of obeying rules, or is there more than that?  Are the virtues interconnected with each other?  If Christian faith is necessary for true love to exist, how can one account for non-Christians who have virtues?  Can one attain virtue by continually practicing it until it becomes habitual, or does there need to be an inward transformation or disposition?  How can Christians approach God’s law, when the positive commands are more difficult to apply and obey than the negative ones (and I definitely appreciated this observation!).  Westberg also addresses mortal and venial sins, and the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  Westberg discusses these subjects thoughtfully, while interacting with a variety of Christian thinkers.

My favorite parts of the book were Westberg’s treatment of the topic of love.  This was surprising to me, since I am not exactly a people-person, and I usually feel put down when I read Christian discussions of love—-put down, and presented with a lot of commands that are far beyond my reach.  And, indeed, in reading Westberg’s book, I did feel as if I fall short of Christian morality, especially in the area of courage.  Still, Westberg did offer a possibly new way for me to understand I Corinthians 13, the love chapter.  The chapter does address how humans relate to each other, but, for Westberg, it is also about human love for God.  It talks about the future beatific vision of God that people will have, after all.  In light of that, love is more important than faith and hope because faith and hope will become unnecessary when we are actually seeing God, but our love for God will still exist and be significant.  The reason that Paul says that self-sacrifice and giving to the poor are nothing without love is that love for God (and God’s love) should provide the context and foundation for those things.  I am not entirely sure if Westberg’s approach works exegetically, since I Corinthians 13 focuses so much on horizontal human relationships, and yet it does make sense to me practically.  I have often felt put down by I Corinthians 13 because I really struggle to like and to interact with people.  I believe that I should still be convicted and shaped by the values of I Corinthians 13, and yet I also think that I should remember that God’s love is to serve as a foundation for my love.

Westberg’s chapter about love interested me because he wrestled with the conceptualization of love.  Should we see it as self-sacrifice, as if egoism is not a part of it at all?  Should we see agape love as an impartial desire for the well-being of others, even of those we may not particularly like?  Westberg acknowledges validity in both approaches while also critiquing them, and he settles on a definition of love that centers on human friendship and fellowship with God.  Under this conceptualization, we love others because God loves them, and we desire, not only their material well-being, but their fellowship with God as well.

In terms of critiques of the book, there were times when I thought that Westberg was a bit legalistic.  Of course, Westberg was distancing himself from legalism by focusing, not on rules, but rather on the formation of character in reference to a relationship with God.  Still, Westberg’s section on gluttony did not particularly appeal to me, for he seemed to me to be criticizing those who are interested in gourmet cooking and detailed recipes.  I would ask: Cannot enjoying good food be a part of enjoying God?  God did give us taste buds, after all!  Westberg later does offer a brief criticism of the idea that one should always engage in pleasure for a purpose, however, as opposed to enjoying the pleasure because it is pleasing.

I also disagreed with Westberg when he said that animals cannot show concern.  I wrote in the margin, “Who says?”

Overall, though, I was edified by this book.

Intervarsity Press sent me a complimentary review copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Ramblings on "Joseph and Aseneth"

I have been reading the Jewish work, “Joseph and Aseneth,” for my daily quiet time.  The date given underneath the title of the work in my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha is the first century B.C.E. to the second century C.E.  Aseneth was the daughter of Potiphera priest of On in Egypt, and the Pharaoh gave her in marriage to Joseph, according to Genesis 41:45.  “Joseph and Aseneth” largely revolves around her conversion from idolatry to monotheism.

I have not yet finished the book, but here are some items from my reading so far:

1.  In Joseph and Aseneth 8:10-11, Joseph prays for Aseneth’s conversion, and he seems to describe such a conversion in reference to creation.  In the same way that God brought life out of death, truth out of error, and light out of darkness, Joseph prays, so may God renew Aseneth and grant her eternal life.  While reading this, I thought about what the apostle Paul says in II Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (KJV).  I was wondering if the comparison between conversion and creation was distinctly Christian, and thus Joseph and Aseneth 8:10-11 was a Christian interpolation, or if it could have been a Jewish concept, too.  I do not know the answer to that question, but it did occur to me.

2.  After Aseneth converts and marries Joseph, we read a couple of times that Aseneth will be Joseph’s wife forever and ever (21:3, 21).  I thought about the Book of Revelation’s statements about the eternal torment of the wicked; Revelation says the torment will go on forever and ever (Revelation 14:11; 20:10).  In a discussion about hell a while back, I was arguing that “forever” in the Bible can be temporary (see my post here), and a believer in eternal torment in hell tactfully responded that this is sometimes the case, but that “forever and ever” means eternity.  Those passages in Joseph and Aseneth say that Aseneth would be married to Joseph forever and ever.  Do they mean that she would be married to him eternally?

They could conceivably mean that she would be married to him for the rest of her life.  Exodus 21:6 talks about a procedure by which a man can become a master’s slave forever, and that probably does not mean all eternity, but rather the rest of the slave’s natural life.  But “Joseph and Aseneth” does have a concept of an afterlife, or eternal life, so perhaps it does envision them being married forever, as in eternally.  If so, that may differ from Jesus’ statement in Mark 12:25 that those resurrected from the dead will neither marry, nor be given in marriage, but would be like the angels in heaven.

Another consideration is that Aseneth in “Joseph and Aseneth” is often likened to a city—-a city of refuge, a city for proselytes.  I do not know entirely what that means.  Is she simply being called a mother of proselytes because, by her example, she is encouraging other Gentiles to seek the Lord, and she is like a city of refuge in that sense?  Would she and the house that she set up somehow be a refuge for the oppressed Israelites in Egypt?  In any case, Aseneth’s significance seems to go beyond her earthly life, and perhaps that is relevant to her marriage to Joseph being forever and ever.

3.  I am in the part of the book in which Aseneth meets Joseph’s family.  She gravitates towards the wise prophet Levi, one of Joseph’s brothers, who secretly teaches her mysteries about God.  This stood out to me because it strikes me as inappropriate for a woman who is married to someone else to meet with another man secretly.  Maybe it is because I one time read a story about a woman who met with her male pastor for regular Bible study, and they ended up having an affair!  But I also wondered how that scene in “Joseph and Aseneth” fit into Judaism’s views of how men were to relate to women, and vice versa.

In Joseph and Aseneth 23, the son of the Pharaoh wants to enlist the help of Simeon and Levi in killing Joseph, their brother.  The Pharaoh’s son is upset that Joseph married Aseneth, which the Pharaoh’s son was hoping to do himself.  Plus, he heard about how Simeon and Levi slaughtered the Shechemites after one of them raped their sister Dinah.  Simeon is outraged by this request, which sounds to him like a command, and he is about to kill the Pharaoh’s son, until Levi reminds Simeon that they are worshipers of God and that they are not to return evil for evil.  Levi then refuses the request and says that, if the Pharaoh’s son harms Joseph, he will have to answer to them, and Levi reminds the Pharaoh’s son that they had killed the Shechemites.

This is an interesting story.  It is a bit inconsistent, since Levi is against returning evil to evil, even though he did precisely that when he killed the Shechemites; “Joseph and Aseneth” may be trying to portray Levi positively because he would become a priestly tribe.  I also wish that Levi, who could read minds in the book, showed some understanding and compassion towards the Pharaoh’s son, as wrongheaded as he was.  Still, Levi’s exhortation of Simeon to have a cooler head resonated with me.

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