Month: June 2012

speaking of righteousness

I’m becoming fascinated by the prominence the Psalms give to speech in their description of the righteous human life.

Take Psalm 15 for example:

A Psalm of David.
1 O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
3 who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbours;
4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honour those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
5 who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

I love this description of the righteous person. In just five short verses we’re given a comprehensive sketch of the distinguishing characteristics of the person who enjoys fellowship with God.

But what’s even more amazing is that no fewer than four out of the ten characteristics mentioned have to do with how we use our lips!

Speaking truth from the heart. Not slandering. Not taking up a reproach against our neighbours. Standing by our oaths even when that’s costly and painful.

Evidently, our speech plays a load-bearing role in the righteous life.

This understanding is reflected in the top billing much of the Old Testament prophetic hope gives to renewed and purified speech. Think of Joel’s famous promise about all prophesying when the Spirit is poured out. Or the way Zephaniah 3.8-13 spotlights speech behaviour in its vision of Israel’s restoration and God’s final vindication.

All this makes for a compelling ‘backstory’ to the New Testament stress on the difference trusting Jesus makes to our speech — whether we’re talking about the detailed case study of how Christians should speak to each other when gathered together in 1 Corinthians 12-14 or the broader-brush stuff in Ephesians 4-5.

Ultimately, I even suspect it could help us connect the evangelical emphasis on God’s achievement in Christ — proving him righteous as he declares us righteous, etc — with the more typically charismatic/Pentecostal accent on God empowering us here and now — especially in terms of speech-acts like prayer, praise, and prophecy/words of knowledge.

If our understanding of righteousness was large — and biblical — enough to have speech stitched into its warp and woof, then maybe we wouldn’t have to choose between the two.

pause and frame a thought

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It’s often said that the emerging generations (Gen Y, Z, and whatever else we’re up to) are more feelers than thinkers.

For us, apparently, experience is king. And (the argument continues) we’re so plugged in and connected that we’re too distracted to engage in sustained thought or serious reflection — the kind of thing required by novels, sermons, essays, etc.

Anecdotally, lots of people I know are far more likely to take a photo with Instagram and post it to Facebook than to sit and ponder the mysteries of existence. (Although, for some reason, popular New Atheist manifestos like The God Delusion often still manage to get traction. Hmmm…)

But I’m wondering if the judgement that’s been passed on younger generations is too hasty.

You see, taking a photo — and applying a filter (or border) to foreground particular aspects of the composition as Instagram allows, and giving it a caption, and then sharing it (potentially along with a number of other photos) — demands that you step back or aside from experience.

To snap a good photo you’ve got have at least one foot outside the moment. You’ve got to pause and frame it. And — even if you’re not yet fully engaged in reflecting — you’ve got to start moving in that direction.

This may be different from traditional ways of doing reflection. And it’s no doubt tangled up with all sorts of other things — the desire to capture/manufacture the quintessential ‘cool’ shot, a need to impress, etc (although traditional modes of reflection are hardly immune from these forces). But it isn’t necessarily a failure to reflect.

The challenge is to work out how to harness and develop this mode of reflection — even letting new generations teach the rest of us new (and potentially more powerful) ways recollecting and reflecting.

getting out of the depths

I’ve been spending some time in the Psalms lately. It’s been good for my soul. Very good.

One reason it’s been good is that I’ve been more or less able to stop my ears against the insistent bleating of the flock of interpretive questions I’ve gathered over the years. It’s (mostly) just been me and Israel’s hymnbook.

And yet there have still been a few puzzling moments — where I struggle to know what it means to take the Psalmist’s words to my lips (or even if I can).

As I Protestant, I have the obligatory difficulty with all David’s talk of his righteousness and longing for God to smash his unrighteous enemies. Added to this is my postmodern recoil from the potential social/relational implications of this kind of (apparently) self-assured, vengeful talk.

And as someone who’s had my fair share of emotional ups and downs, I’m also a little puzzled by what makes it possible for the Psalmists to pour out their hearts in agony and oppression and yet somehow suddenly reverse this and get out of the depths.

Psalm 13 is one example of this that I’ve sat with recently:

To the leader. A Psalm of David.

1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

5 But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

I can follow the trajectory from complaint (I think the technical term might be ‘lament’) to impassioned plea down through verses 1-4. As the darkness around him descends, David begs God to give light — the light of life — to his eyes.

But what I don’t get is how he turns the corner into verses 5-6. What gets him out of the depths?

Obviously, the things he mentions here have something to do with it — God’s constant and steadfast love, the salvation he has effected (or will effect), the way he’s dealt bountifully with David (presumably in the past, although it could be in the present moment).

But what triggers these thoughts for David? What stirs him up and prompts him to attend to God’s character and (habitual) works?

Other Psalms trace the path more carefully. But this Psalm is silent. Something happens somewhere between verse 4 and verse 5. But what happened, where it came from, and how it happened… Who knows?

And maybe that’s the point. We can’t manufacture this or follow a pre-package recipe. God in his goodness has to lift us up — so that the glory goes to him.

you’ve heard of the three Ps, but should there be a fourth?

You’ve heard of the three Ps. I’m sure you have.

Spinning out of passages like Colossians 1.24-2.5, it is argued that Paul’s ministry strategy consisted of proclaiming the gospel to people — an activity he saturated in prayer.

These three Ps are how Paul sought to move people towards maturity (or perfection, teleion) in Christ. And this, we’re told, is how we should operate too.

And it makes a whole lot of sense. Expressing the conviction that God promises to work as the news about Jesus is spoken in the context of personal relationships. Which means we don’t have to be expert counsellors or have magnetic (or forceful or manipulative) personalities to help people press forward as Christians.

But I’ve been wondering if there might be room for a fourth P?

Not that I want to cancel out the others. Or even particularly add to them. But I suspect it would help us extend and sharpen them up in terms of the goal they all drive towards to think about each person’s pathway to Christian maturity.

Like I say, this isn’t meant to replace or hold the other Ps hostage. But it is meant to help us get concrete on how we hope to see the ministry strategy play out. Which see it doing in two ways:

First, it will force us to get specific as we seek to fill out the content of the ‘maturity’ we aim for. Among other places, this could take us back to Colossians — and to the logic of the letter (which appears to be a self-consciously worked example of Paul’s ministry strategy applied to a group of believers).

There we’d see that the vision Paul has of maturity is one in which Christians calibrate their inner compass by the new identity they’ve received through their union with Christ in his death and resurrection (2.6-3.4). And this inner recalibration is plays out not only in personal holiness but also in our relationships in our family, church, and secular work/community context (3.5-4.6).

Second, it will make us embrace what I like to call ‘next step’ thinking — not necessarily plotting out other people’s entire life trajectory but at least being able to open up a conversation with them about what the next step or two towards maturity could look like for them.

My hunch is that in doing this such fourth P, ‘next step’ thinking will allow us to integrate our development of ministry structures (and where you’ve got people, you’ve got structures — de facto if not de jure) with the biblical priority of people, prayer and proclamation.

What do you reckon?