Category Archives: Body of Christ

Biblical Literacy in a Multi-Level Youth Group

This month I had the privilege of speaking to a group of PCA youth leaders about the challenge of caring for teens who, as newcomers to the Bible, find themselves in a youth group where most of the other kids have grown up in the church.  I think most youth groups qualify as “multi-level” in terms of their students’ biblical literacy skills and background knowledge, but in a large group of students (>50) the population of beginners will be particularly noticeable.

Being an older learner and having to catch up on basic biblical literacy can be embarrassing and frustrating for a teen or an adult, so addressing these needs sensitively is a must.  Those of us who read the Bible competently as adults will need to grow in our awareness of the skills and background knowledge needed for the task – the tools in our biblical literacy toolkit, if you will: those Bible details that we’re no longer conscious of, like the order of the books or the difference between the Old and New Testaments or what all those little numbers mean.  And we’ll need to share these tools with newcomers in ways that foster small successes in safe spaces, to reduce those feelings of incompetence and exposure when they realize they don’t already know what everybody else seems to.

I put together a packet of suggestions, examples and skills lists for our meeting, and it’s linked here for you to use as well.  (It’s a Word document, and you have permission to alter and distribute any part of it that you wish.)  Briefly, here are the three practical suggestions that I passed on to the youth leaders:

  1. Messaging: Make the goal of biblical literacy a public one, helping all the kids grow in their awareness of the “toolkit” that’s needed, even if they learned those skills long ago.  Help them understand and care about the challenge of being an older learner.  Be self-conscious about biblical literacy, calling attention to the skills and background knowledge that you’re tapping whenever you teach from the Bible.
  2. On-Ramp: Arrange for a regular, anticipated, lively, and brief tutoring session for the youth who need the basics – or, at the very least, use this time to equip peer tutors who can learn some things to pass on to their friends.  (The attached packet has lists of skills to target, as well as a handful of quick and catchy teaching ideas.  My favorite one is described below.)
  3. Scaffolding: a term from special education—it refers to the supports that you might offer in a large-group lesson so that kids who don’t already have the biblical literacy skills will be given a boost and be better able to keep up with the rest.  Basically, this just means making a list of vocabulary, geography, history, and Bible details relevant to the target passage and introducing these elements before you start the lesson.  Here’s an example of how I’d do this for Psalm 23.

(By the way, note that all of these approaches are also exactly what English Language Learners and students who struggle academically will need as they participate in a youth group, regardless of how much experience they already have with the Bible and the church.)

I love the fact that in the Book of Acts, all of the converts to the Christian faith were older learners who had to catch up on their biblical literacy.  Even the Apostle Paul had to relearn his theology from the ground up!  And all of those Gentiles who didn’t even have the Hebrew Scriptures (our OT) would have had a lot of homework to do.  Let your older learners know that they are in good company, and that there’s no shame in being a beginner.  Talk about what motivated those early Christians to keep going, if the task seems daunting or frustrating to your students.

You’ll find a handful of teaching ideas in the packet, but I’ll leave you with a quick “Bible hack” for now.  One of the hardest things for a new learner (and one that feels the most defeating at first) is trying to find a specific passage in that big book.* You know how it is when you have a dictionary that doesn’t have the little cheat-notches, but you can still estimate about where “mellifluous” would be because you know the Alphabet Song? Well, those Bible books aren’t in ABC order, so a beginner has no clue what’s at the beginning, middle, or end.  So do this to help them orient themselves:

  • Open your Bible in the middle. What’s there?  (Depending on the amount of extra material at the end of their version, it’s usually Psalms or Isaiah/Jeremiah.)
  • What kind of book is this? (Wisdom Literature/Major Prophet)
  • What’s just before this book? (Wisdom Literature)
  • What’s just after this book? (Major Prophets)
  • Now take the last half of the Bible and open it in the middle. What’s there? (It will be NT, usually a Gospel.)
  • What’s just before the Gospels? (Those elusive Minor Prophets! Tah Dah!)

Have some fun while you care for your older learners, both beginners and old-timers.  Since nobody ever arrives at “perfect” biblical literacy, even the leaders will benefit from revisiting their biblical literacy toolkit sometimes!

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*Yes, I know that lots of people today access the Bible on one electronic device or another, and so you’d think that it might not be necessary anymore to help them navigate the actual book version.  Now, I’m no Luddite, and I certainly recognize and rejoice in the convenience of mobile technology.  But there is so much incidental learning that happens when you have an actual Bible in your hands and have to flip through it to find what you’re looking for.  As youth leaders, you’d be giving your kids a gift to do this the old-fashioned way.  Put a hard-copy Bible in their hands and teach them how to find their way around in it.  They’ll learn Before/After, neighbors (groups of books filed together), relative size, comparative layout (poetry v. prose), and the contents of the two Testaments just from rummaging around trying to find Jonah or Philemon.

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Filed under Acts, Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Body of Christ, Instructing the Body, Youth Ministry

New Talk: “Seeing a Tree and Remembering the Forest”

It took a while to hammer this one out, but I’m excited to finally share this 26-minute talk on Bible study strategies with you.  Originally commissioned for a Bible study conference in October of 2016, this is my whimsical way of getting people up to speed on the difference between “doing our devotions” and studying a passage of Scripture.  I walk through Isaiah 61 to demonstrate different detailed and big-picture study strategies, illustrating everything with lots of gorgeous shots of TREES (mainly thanks to our local photographer extraordinaire, Missy Herr!).

If you’re a Bible teacher working with teens or others who are new to a “studied” reading of Scripture, or if you would like to brush up on your own Bible reading practices, or if you are my good friend and you want to make my day, please listen along and share this!  (The video slides just supplement the audio, but they aren’t important if you just want to listen to it.)

The page of Paige’s Quirky Symbols mentioned in this talk can be found here.

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Filed under Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Body of Christ, Instructing the Body, Isaiah, Jesus, Messiah, Old Testament, Prophets, Redemptive History, Talks, Women in the Word

Race Matters, Ch. 2: Defining White Supremacy

This is the second of three Race Matters posts in which I intend to define some troublesome terms often involved in the contemporary discussion of race in America.  The material for these posts was originally developed for a panel called “Race, the Church, and a Way Forward,” held at a Presbyterian church in January of 2017.  Although I am white, I was invited by a friend to join four Christian brothers of color to offer some introductory thoughts on this subject, because I’ve been reading pretty deeply in the history of African Americans and listening carefully to my neighbors of color in the present.  (I don’t claim to be an expert, but now I know the basics.)

I’ve included these thoughts about race and history here in my Bible Journal because of my conviction that we believers are called to love our neighbors knowledgeably. It’s my hope that defining these terms will increase our understanding, and improve that neighborly love.

I’ll review a little below before I get into the topic of White Supremacy, but if you want to read more you can find my post about White Privilege here.  Eventually I will also write about White Guilt (describing the complex feelings of discomfort that tend to be bound up in this discussion for many white people).  By the way, these terms are not typically capitalized when people write about these topics; I’ve chosen to do so here to make sure they stand out in the text.

In my previous post, I noted that terms like “White Privilege” and “White Supremacy” have been in use for some time, and if we don’t realize this when we enter discussions about race we might incorrectly assume that we know what they mean.  For example, the term “White Privilege” is often misunderstood to be referring to wealth, power, and prestige, when actually it was coined by a sociologist named Peggy McIntosh to describe the ease with which white people move through life in America, relative to their neighbors of color.  I compared this “privilege” to having an invisible EZ-Pass stuck to our foreheads, allowing us to proceed smoothly through the toll plazas while our neighbors are slowed or obstructed at the Cash Only lanes.*

Similarly, the term “White Supremacy” conjures up in our minds one particular narrow reference:  White Supremacists, and White Supremacist groups, who openly advocate for the superiority of a white-male-led society.  Even if we rightly distance ourselves from such extremist views, we may miss the fact that this term is used in a much broader sense in contemporary discussions.

To put it simply, in general usage “White Supremacy” refers to the way whiteness tends to be the standard or norm for decisions that are made in our culture.  And whenever standards or norms are defined, it’s then possible to set expectations for, make evaluations of, and delimit possibilities for people.

Here’s a very, very innocuous-seeming example of White Supremacy in this sense—though it’s representative of a much larger reality about decision-making that pervades all areas of life in this country.  If I need to purchase band-aids at the grocery store, I can easily find a pack that has strips that more or less match my pale skin.  But if my skin were very dark, would I even know where to find band-aids that remotely blend in?

As I said, that’s an innocuous-seeming instance of the norm of whiteness informing decisions that were made about the production and marketing of one little item.  But multiply this by hundreds and hundreds of examples, some more life-impacting than others, and you begin to get a picture of the world our neighbors of color have to navigate every day of their lives.*

Whiteness has long defined what is “normal” in America regarding decisions about casting in television and movies, representation in classroom textbooks and children’s literature, and presentations of American history.  Historically, this standard has also informed decisions about who may access government loans, housing in middle-class neighborhoods, swimming pools, and union membership.* Participation in higher education, job hiring and promotion, and access to positions of influence in the political arena continue to be areas where being white is the norm and often informs expectations, possibilities, and decisions.  The fact that we are still numbering firsts among people of color achieving certain goals or positions should give us pause.  (Why is it, for example, that not until the year 2016 did an African American woman medal individually in Olympic swimming?  Google Simone Manuel and the story of American swimming pools for more.)

simone-manuel-swimming

Again, this normalizing of whiteness has deep, pervasive historical roots.  It’s something present generations have inherited, usually unexamined, from decision-makers in the past.  And since White Supremacy ends up being self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing—influencing, as it does, the very presentations of American history that we encountered in school and hear or read today—it requires an unusual degree of awareness and effort to recognize that we have missed great swaths of the American story, and to start to make up for lost time.  If you’re inclined to expand your view of the American experience, this list of resources that we put together for our panel should keep you busy for some time.

One example of White Privilege relative to our panel (and these posts) is the fact that if we are white, we can choose whether or not we talk or think about race.  We can also choose whether or not to accept the challenge to reexamine what we think we know about American history and life in our country, with all of the lens-adjusting discomfort that this challenge entails.

But our neighbors of color have no choice but to know, in their very skin, that whiteness is the standard for normalcy in this world that they navigate.  Recognizing that this is so is a good start to learning to love our neighbors knowledgeably.

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*For specific examples of how this plays out in contemporary American life, see my previous post on White Privilege.  You can also find a summary of Peggy McIntosh’s extensive list of the privileges she noticed, here.

* One African American friend likens this to the experience of a lefty continually reaching for scissors in a right-handed world: over and over again, you are reminded that you don’t fit.

*And no, this didn’t just happen in the South during Jim Crow.  Google “redlining” and “racist lending practices,” for a start.

The photo of Simone Manuel was found at https://mediadiversified.org.

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Race Matters, Ch. 1: Defining White Privilege

This month I had the honor of participating in a panel on “Race, the Church, and a Way Forward,” held at a Presbyterian church in Langhorne, PA.  My friend Marcos Ortega invited me, two pastors, and a professor to speak out of our knowledge of (and, in their cases, their experience of) race/racism in America, giving us a chance to talk about the taboo subject of race in a Christian setting.  The other three panelists were powerhouses. I wish I could have captured their many wise words while they spoke, but I didn’t even remember to bring a pen up front with me.

I’m sure I’ll gradually remember some of the excellent things these brothers taught us that evening, and those ideas will make their way into a few “Race Matters” posts here at the Library.  I would love to share with my readers a robust vision for loving our neighbors of color knowledgeably, so I’ll start that project here with an introduction to the two terms that Marcos asked me to define during our panel conversation: White Privilege and White Supremacy.  If these terms have ever bothered or confused you, read on. (I treat White Privilege in this post, and I’ll cover White Supremacy in another one soon.)

To begin, I should explain that I am white, and my presence on the panel came about because my friend Marcos had noticed that I have been diligently seeking input for several years about African American history and the black experience in America.  Paying attention to these new sources and voices has paid off in a dramatic shift in my perspective on American history, the contemporary American experience, and my own life.  To illustrate how profoundly my perspective has changed, I like to use the analogy of viewing a printed optical illusion:*

optical-illusion

 

At first your eyes see only random lines, but then (if you’re lucky!) the lines resolve into meaning, and you perceive the word or picture that was previously hidden.  And after that, you can’t go back to unseeing the meaning.  That’s how it’s been for me, regarding my perspective on these matters of race:  I can’t unsee what I’ve come to perceive about our history and present situation.

Early in the panel discussion, Marcos asked me to define these two troublesome terms, White Privilege and White Supremacy.  As I explained that evening, the first thing to observe is that we white people are mostly coming to this conversation late—you might say we’re a couple hundred years late; but even in terms of the past few decades or half-century, we’re late.  And that means that there are some words and terms that have been in use for a while, and we need to learn their meaning in context.  White Privilege and White Supremacy are two such terms. In fact, our incorrect assumptions about their respective definitions can lead us to shut down or shy away from conversations where they are in use, either because we feel offended or because we figure they have nothing to do with us.

For example, when we hear or read the phrase White Privilege, our minds typically fasten on the word “privilege,” which we associate with wealth, power, and influence.  We’re likely to compare ourselves to those we deem privileged, people like the Kennedys, or even the Trumps, whose vast personal wealth means that they don’t have to work very hard to get what they want.  By contrast, we are hardworking people, keeping wary eyes on our bank balance; as a matter of fact, sometimes we’re barely scraping by.  How could the word “privilege” describe us?

But in the context of discussions about race, White Privilege has a very specific meaning.  It’s a term that was coined in 1989 by a white sociologist, Peggy McIntosh, who wrote an article that came to be known as “White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”  (Her figure of the “invisible knapsack” is supposed to convey the idea that it’s something that white people carry around without even realizing it.)

As sociologists will do, Peggy McIntosh observed human behavior and then wrote about it, trying to make sense of it.  In this case, she began with something she had noticed while out shopping with African American friends: they were likely to be followed by staff in the stores, or even harassed, because they were suspected of being potential shoplifters.  This had never happened to Peggy, and when she asked her friends about the experience they confirmed that this was typical; they pretty much expected it whenever they went shopping.  She also noticed that her black friends had to be deliberate about shopping for beauty products, while she could easily walk into the local grocery store and find the hair care products or makeup that she needed.

From these small beginnings, Peggy McIntosh made a list of many, many areas of American life that she, as a white woman, sailed through easily, relative to her neighbors of color.  (You can read over a summary of the list here.)  In everything from assuming that her race would be represented in movies and television shows, to never wondering whether the color of her skin would interfere with her getting a bank loan or buying a house, Peggy saw that her white skin gave her an advantage: she was privileged, just by virtue of having been born white.

Of course, the other key element of her observation was the invisible nature of this privilege, at least to the white folks that carry it around.  Usually we are oblivious to the difference, until someone points it out and we begin to perceive it.  My own metaphor for this phenomenon is that it’s as if we white people have an invisible EZ-pass stuck to our foreheads, permitting us to sail blithely through the toll plaza while our neighbors of color have to stop and fish for quarters.  Then we wonder why they can’t keep up with our achievements and progress, and fault them for not trying hard enough.

Here’s an apt illustration of White Privilege to round out this summary:  Those of us who are white can go away from a panel discussion like this one, or from a blog post like this one, and not think about the topic again for a week . . . or a year . . . or ever.  If we are white, the subject of race is one that we can decide to think about, or not; since it doesn’t intersect with our daily lived experience, we have the privilege of choosing to forget about it.

Not so for our neighbors of color, who cannot ignore an aspect of their existence that is constantly being brought to their attention as they navigate life in this country.* Cultivating an awareness that this is so is part of the challenging work of loving our neighbors knowledgeably.*

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langhorne-race-panel-2017

Participating in this panel, from left to right, were Marcos Ortega, Joe Kim, me, Luke Mason, and Keith Plummer.

*This optical illusion was found at http://www.opticalspy.com/opticals/category/interesting

*And the reason why it’s constantly in their face will be the subject of my next Race Matters post: White Supremacy.

*A good friend pointed out that terms like White Privilege and White Supremacy often come packaged with the message (spoken or implied) that individual white people are inherently guilty (blameworthy) for their position of privilege.  Sometime I will write more about the subject of White Guilt (where it comes from, what we do with it, and how we might sidestep the blame game in Christian love).  But for now let me say that bringing up these topics is not inevitably tied to that message, something that was stressed by the participants on our panel. These definitions of terms are offered as instruction about our neighbors’ experience, so we can begin to love these neighbors knowledgeably.

 

For the panel we prepared a resource list of books, films, podcasts, and topics to Google for those who want to learn more about the subject of race in America.

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Examining Ourselves

[Text: 1 Cor. 11:17-34]

Paul’s Corinthian children were a challenge.  On the one hand, they were truly believers, confirmed in their faith by the more voluble gifts of the Spirit and zealous for the wonders of God in their midst.  On the other hand, they seemed to have missed the memo about “Love one another.”  So Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to straighten out their many misconceptions about being the Body of Christ.

One of the targets of this corrective epistle is the Corinthians’ handling of the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Cor. 11:17-34).*  More than just a bread-and-juice remembrance ceremony, this was apparently a full meal shared together as a church—only the “sharing” in this case seemed to be the exclusive prerogative of the wealthy members of the congregation, who gobbled up the feast while their poorer brethren went hungry.  Paul gives them a remedial lesson in the origin of the Supper—“This is a celebration of the Lord’s death, not an opportunity to get sated and drunk!”—thus putting into theological perspective any wrongheaded approach to the meal.  “If you get this wrong, it is very, very serious,” Paul warns.  “In fact, your unworthy approach to this celebration is the reason some of you have become sick, and some of you have even died!”

The wrong that Paul names here is failure to “discern the body,” a phrase that has led to some strange interpretive developments over the centuries of Christian history.  Where the focus has been on the elements (bread and wine), theologians and church leaders have usually quarreled over what true believers should “discern” these to be:  are they physically transformed into the very body and blood of our Lord?  Or do they spiritually deliver the presence of Christ within the participant?  Much additional attention has been directed to Paul’s solution to the problem, namely that each one should “examine himself” and make sure he is partaking “in a worthy manner.”  Elaborate schemes for determining a person’s spiritual readiness to participate in the Supper have been proposed, including the adoption of a token system indicating that one has appropriately confessed one’s sins before eating.

Suffice it to say that, just like the Corinthians, these discussions also miss the memo about “Love one another.” Paul hasn’t actually veered from his central theme in this section, so neither should we.

In context, the fault of failing to “discern the body,” and the remedy of examining ourselves to make sure we are partaking of the Supper in a worthy manner, have everything to do with believers’ consideration of and care for their fellow celebrants.  Harking back to the congregational factionalism that he dealt with earlier in the letter, Paul defines what this behavior actually is, in the eyes of God:  he writes that those who proceed to feast without regard for family “despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing.”  It is unlove that is the problem here, not an improper evaluation of the elements or a guilty conscience in need of confession.

So Paul proposes that each one should “examine himself . . . and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”  Our English verb examine may not be the most helpful translation here, since in our experience it’s possible to accomplish an “examination” merely by looking at the subject.  Imagine a repairman examining a broken hinge to see how badly damaged it is, or a cook examining an egg to see if the shell is cracked.  Maybe just a cursory glance at the state of our heart is enough?

The Greek verb dokimazō, meaning to test or try, pushes us past this limited idea and back towards an older use of the English verb, which is, after all, the root of our academic word “exam.” This dreaded culmination of all the learning that we have (supposedly) done for a course involves questions that we are responsible now to answer.  Our readiness to answer has nothing to do with a sudden change of heart in the moment, and everything to do with how we have lived our lives up to this time of examination.*

So I want to propose a series of questions that should get at the heart of what it means to “discern the body,” in Paul’s use of the phrase.  These suggestions should be taken as friendly reminders of our call to love one another, not as a blueprint for a new era of communion-token exams in the church.  Consider asking yourself these sorts of things long before the next Communion Sunday:

Do I know the names of many of the brothers and sisters communing with me?*

Do I know something about their story?

Am I interested and involved in the lives of others, especially those outside my immediate circles?

Do I treat everyone here with gentleness and respect?

Do I share what I have with those who have less?  Do I perceive needs around me?

Do I ever mock, dismiss, malign or gossip about any individual or any class of people?

Do people in this church generally feel safe with me?

Do people in this church trust me to take them seriously?  Am I a good listener?

Am I sensitive to the bigger-picture issues that may affect some of them more than these things affect me?  Am I compassionate towards those who grieve things that I cannot immediately identify with?

As Paul indicates in this chapter, if we take the time to evaluate ourselves, we will avoid the embarrassment and discomfort of our Father God bringing our unloving behavior to our (and to others’!) attention.  Let’s examine ourselves, then, to make sure we are seeing our family of faith with clarity and compassion.

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*Although some verses have been paraphrased, all direct biblical quotations used above come from the ESV.

*Those pastors in earlier times who quizzed their congregants about their beliefs and behavior prior to communion were also examining their people in this way; but they did not ask the kinds of questions about “discerning the body” that I am proposing here.  They were looking for evidence of catechesis and personal purity.

*Re. each of these questions, be realistic about how much you can know about the people in your congregation.  Not even the pastors can hope to know everybody well, especially after the population of a church reaches a certain number.  But do you know a reasonable amount about a reasonable number of people outside your circles of close friends and family?

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, Applying the Scriptures, Body of Christ, Epistles, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Jesus, Paul

A Topical Concordance of James

[Text: The Epistle of James]

The Book of James may be small, but it packs a lot of thematic muscle.  In an effort to accelerate my relearning of this letter before a last-minute Bible teaching assignment this fall, I set myself the task of collecting James’ statements on a number of subjects into a comprehensive topical list.  Listing things, by the way, is an effective strategy for getting to know the details of a passage or biblical book.  A topical concordance happens when an over-the-top list-maker publishes her lists so that others can use them as reference resources.  I highly recommend that you make your own lists while studying, because that’s a great way to train your brain to know what’s there; but if you would like to lean on a prepared collection of James’s themes, here you go:

Prominent Themes in the Book of James (pdf)

Here’s a brief sketch of the subject matter that James is working with in this letter, according to the categories that stood out for me as I read.  (I’ve listed these here from most prominent to least, though I have arranged them in random order in my document according to what fit neatly onto a sheet of paper for printing!)

Speech & Communication

From beginning to end, James shows his concern for how God’s people use their words.  How we speak to God or about God matters; how we speak to our brothers matters; how we speak to visitors matters.  Even what we say to ourselves matters (e.g., “God is tempting me!” or “Let’s go to such and such a place and make some money!”).  According to James, you can’t overestimate the power of the tongue.

Christian Conduct and Experience

This list overlaps with some of the others, as it’s a general catch-all for anything related to the behavior of believers.  James is big on “shoulds,” and in his brief letter I think he manages to communicate just about everything that is expected of a follower of the Way.  This collection of imperatives (mostly direct, though some are implied) would make a great overview of the life of faith for a class of new believers.

Theology

This densely-packed letter also manages to convey a significant amount of information about God and his work of redemption.  We are left with an impression of his majestic power and fierce compassion:  he gives generously, cannot be tempted, tempts no one, never changes, saves and destroys, gives grace to the humble, and listens to the cries of the oppressed.  Metaphysical realities are here too, hinting at what’s going on in the universe beyond what our eyes can see:  demons and the devil are active in the affairs of men; God chooses “the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom,” giving us new life by implanting in us the word of truth. James also conveys a strong message about future judgment, laying great stress on the consequences of the self-indulgent injustices practiced by the rich.

Don’t Be Like This

As a corollary to the collection of imperatives mentioned above, here is a list of warnings about behaviors and attitudes believers should avoid.  James’ whole letter may be seen as a series of corrections, aimed both at wrong thinking and wrong action.  Our assumptions about God, ourselves, and what is permissible in our treatment of others get a thorough housecleaning in this epistle.

Figurative Language/Nature & Agriculture

More than any other New Testament letter, the book of James offers a colorful glimpse into agrarian life in the first century.  From nautical metaphors (waves of the sea driven and tossed by the wind; the rudder of a ship) to agricultural figures (a flower of the grass; forest fires; the domestication of animals; fig trees and grape vines) James reinforces his teaching with the same sensitivity to his audience’s context that we see in Jesus’ parables.

Biblical Echoes

James’s use of Old Testament phrases and stories is a similarly rich strategy for underscoring his message to these new converts to the faith.  As his audience was likely made up of Jewish Christians, these references to familiar texts and figures would have caught their attention and convinced them the more strongly of his points.  Readers today will notice echoes of Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians in James’s use of the words “justification” and “works” – but we should take notice of the fact that because James’s letter was written well before Paul’s, in this letter the terms retain an ordinary rather than a theologically specific meaning.  (See Chronological Contexts and Multiple Meanings for more on the difference between James and Paul.)

Socioeconomic Status

Much of James’s corrective teaching regarding the treatment of others has to do with economic status and power.  Wealth brings with it the temptation of self-indulgence at the expense of the poor, or of favoritism within the congregational gathering.  James also calls out the inconsistency of the church’s flattering a potential wealthy patron while undergoing legal persecution by that same class of people.  Apparently the allure of riches had not been dulled by conversion in James’s day any more than it is in our own.

Judicial Language

James does not hesitate to set all of his warnings in the context of the ultimate Day of Judgment.  The vocabulary of the courtroom is also in play as he describes the lawsuits pursued against these believers by wealthy persecutors and the right or wrong way of following the “perfect law, the law of liberty.”  In his argument that partiality is a flagrant offense against “the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” James uses the analogy of the Mosaic law, which, if broken in any part, designated the transgressor as a breaker of the whole.

Bad Influences

James cites our own passions, the oppressive and blasphemous rich, the world, and hell itself as the influential powers that believers must resist.

Historical/Cultural Context

Finally, there’s a bit of incidental learning to be gleaned from this letter about the life experiences of James’s intended recipients.  They were apparently Jewish Christians, scattered throughout the provinces of the Roman Empire; they were being harassed and oppressed by people of influence and wealth in their communities; it was likely that there would be economic disparities among the members of their congregations; and they engaged in trade, travel, and agricultural pursuits with enough regularity that James could lean on these topics as handy illustrations.

As thorough as my list seems, I am sure that I have not exhausted all the possibilities of this brief but dense epistle.  Dig in yourself sometime and see what I’ve missed!

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All biblical quotations come from the Book of James, ESV.

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Filed under Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Body of Christ, Epistles, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, James, Theology

Afflictions, Judgment, and Idleness

[Text: 2 Thessalonians]

Generally when people visit Paul’s brief second epistle to his friends in Thessalonica, the main attraction that sets us wondering is the “man of lawlessness” described in chapter 2.  We want to know his identity, or at least pin him down in time – was Paul speaking cryptically about a Roman leader who would soon have his way in the Temple at Jerusalem?  Or was he prophesying about a world ruler who would emerge in the Last Days (in which we’re certain we’re living)?

Sorry to disappoint, but I have no new revelation about him.  But I did notice three prominent themes in this little letter that I think are worth savoring a little:  Afflictions, Judgment, and Idleness, all of which are relevant to today’s believers, whether or not the “man of lawlessness” has anything to do with us.  Here are some observations that I hope will get you thinking.

On Afflictions:  In particular, the kind of afflictions that come from those who want to destroy the people of God.  These afflictions exist precisely because the people of God persevere steadfastly in faith.  If they gave it up and threw in the towel, they would no longer be targets.  So the faith of this community must be both strong and visible in order for their persecutions to rise to the level that they have.

It’s notable that the chief evidence of the Thessalonians’ faith, which is the subject of Paul’s boasting “in the churches of God about you,” is the believers’ love for one another.  If you think about how easily hardship and suffering isolate us from one another, as each of us tends to our own needs and wounds, a robust and visible mutual care during a time of persecution seems a wonder.

But it’s God’s pleasure always to work his kindness out in the world through community, undermining the fallen human tendency toward self-protection and wall-building.  Where you find a believing community compassionately involved in one another’s lives – especially in the foul-weather times – you’ve found the Spirit of God in action.

On Judgment:  The temporal distance between the present situation of suffering and a future day of cosmic justice seems diminished in this letter, as Paul vividly describes the second coming of Christ and the final separation of believers from the condemned.  With his apocalyptic language (think: angels, flaming fire, and eternal punishment) he evokes visions of the End that seem no less certain for their being set in the future.

Along with descriptions of the punitive justice that will fall on those who have rejected the gospel of Jesus, Paul’s picture of God’s ultimate justice includes the rewarding of those who have endured in the faith to the end.  Curiously, he expresses this thought in terms of the assessed value of the believers, insisting (and praying) that at the end they will be “considered worthy of the kingdom of God” through their suffering, and that they’d be in the meantime “worthy of [God’s] calling” in their conduct.

Since we know Paul’s emphasis elsewhere on the gracious gift of salvation, something that is undeserved, this stress on being found worthy of the kingdom may seem a troubling contradiction.  Yet in his letters Paul is not hesitant to look to the fruit of a life lived out for evidence of true faith.  Those who claim to be believers, then, ought to show outwardly – in patient endurance of suffering, steadfast belief despite persecution, and visible acts of mutual care – the inward activity of the Spirit.

On Idleness:  Our third chapter of this letter dwells much on the theme of idleness, the irresponsible shirking of work to the extent that one is dependent on others for handouts.  Perhaps you’re familiar with the admonition, “If a man will not work, neither should he eat,” and perhaps you remember Paul’s exemplary (and literal!) “tentmaking” missionary strategy, by which he supported himself so that he was never a financial burden to those he evangelized.

I quoted the KJV translation of the verse above (3:10) because that may be the construction of this phrase that we’ve read or heard most often.  Actually, though, this translation is somewhat misleading, and it unfortunately has resulted in an attitude of condemnation towards any able-bodied person who does not work and who instead relies on the generosity of others (or on the government).  A more accurate and helpful translation (such as in the ESV or NIV) brings out that it’s the desire to work that’s in view here:  “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

Mark that small difference, because it’s important – and in fact it opens up the possibility of developing truly compassionate understanding of our fellow travelers.  It’s likely that, even in the first century, some Christian believers faced real and discouraging roadblocks in their efforts to support themselves and their families.  Perhaps there were no living-wage jobs available where they lived, or perhaps their education hadn’t provided them with the necessary training for the trades that had openings.  Maybe they lacked child care or transportation.  Maybe they had funny-sounding foreign names and so were passed over in favor of native applicants.  Maybe they’d been in prison and couldn’t shake off the stigma.

From a distance it might be easy to judge these people, too, as being among the idle: after all, in their unemployment they don’t look a whole lot different than those who aren’t working because they’re lazy.  In a community of believers, though, the particular obstacles faced by individuals would be known by their brethren, who would also recognize their willingness to work.  And once again, God’s kindly corporate arrangements come into play, and in this case actually provide for the welfare of the unemployed – for anyone who can heed Paul’s admonition about idleness should “not grow weary in doing good” but rather (as he writes elsewhere) “do honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”*

Perhaps this sharing looks like handouts, or like hand-me-downs; perhaps it looks like developing actual paid work opportunities for our brothers and sisters.  We can be creative with this ongoing, open-ended task of interdependence, and maybe take turns being the givers and the receivers.

Once again, we see that the heart of God is all about us loving one another.

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*Except where noted, all quotations are taken from the ESV (2 Thess.).  This one is from Ephesians 4:28.\

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Filed under 1&2 Thessalonians, Applying the Scriptures, Biblical Literacy, Body of Christ, Epistles, Historical Context, Instructing the Body