Merry Christmas!

Evening Prayer has been prayed, the children are nestled all snug in their beds…well, Jack is yelling and singing in his crib, but he’s got a weird, nasty virus; Eliana is wheezing and hacking; Mikayla doesn’t feel good and her best friend has strep; but I do believe Olivia is sound asleep. Santa is on his way to our house, and Marjorie is preparing for him in the other room (let the reader understand). So I’m here for a few minutes, wishing all of you a blessed and peaceful Nativity Feast.

I’ll be on the road for about a week, but I hope to post here once or twice. If not, enjoy the feast and the Twelve Days.

May our Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ keep you in His grace and mercy.

On Writing

I struggled with writing sermons my first few years in the ministry. I would preach the manuscript and leave feeling very unsatisfied. I would ask my wife what she thought, what the main point seemed to be and sometimes I was really crushed when she had to guess, or knew it because she knew me, but not from what I had preached. It was a depressing time. I knew what I wanted to say, what I wanted to communicate, but it wasn’t happening. Forcing the words in my brain to get out on paper wasn’t so easy. I finally realized the problem was I was trying to be subtle and nuanced. I was trying to create an effect instead of words.

I saw a similar tendency in a young preacher who shared his sermons with me (this is vague, and a terrible sentence, but I don’t want to be more specific and have everyone know who I’m talking about). He was a very good writer, a sharp student, a thoughtful and caring man. But occasionally I’d review a sermon of his and ask, “What exactly do you want to say in this section?” He’d think for a moment, and then tell me quite clearly and coherently. His writing–and mine–improved the moment I told him, “Go right now and type what you just said to me. Just write what you want to say and don’t worry about it being too blunt or simple.” It’s advice I am still trying to take to heart myself.

Many of us have had the amazing experience of watching someone’s argument build up, layer upon layer, until, in the last paragraph or chapter, the author with a flourish reveals his conclusion, “Thus the sun must revolve around the earth!” We gasp at how skillful he was in leading us right to where he wanted us. It is a shocking experience, to be pulled along, hook-line-and-sinker by an amazing thinker who convinces you unwittingly and forces you to his own conclusion. Or at least the reasonableness of his conclusion. In fiction, mystery writers are particularly gifted at this, especially when the perp is not some deus ex machina but has been dropping bread crumbs throughout the story. Whether reading fiction or non-fiction, that experience can be electrifying, seeing the power of words, of arguments, of leading a reader in the direction you have planned, carrying him through until he’s convinced in the end.

Attempting to emulate this without the skill and gift is a fatal mistake. I can’t do this, at least not by sheer will. It takes an organized, subtle, logical mind to write in an organized, subtle, and logical way. It cannot be forced, and it cannot be created ex nihilo.

You cannot write for effect. Every writer wants to create certain effect in his/her readers, but we don’t write effects–or affects either. We write words. In sentences. We write words that we mean, conveying the information you want to convey. If you are not writing words, but writing for an effect, with the eye to the emotional response you want your reader (hearers) to have, you will go wrong, and create nothing that makes sense nor moves anyone.

Instead, remember that a writer writes words. That’s the key to good writing. Write what you want to say, using words. Write what you are thinking. Don’t try to be polished and nuanced and subtle. If you are polished and nuanced in your thinking, then it will come out on the paper. If you’re not, don’t pretend to be. Just write. If you attempt to write in a way that your brain doesn’t work, what will show up on your paper will be meandering and vague. It is inevitable: what is in your brain will show up on paper, in some form. If you’re unclear about the point you are making, your unclarity will be seen by all. If you’re certain about what you want to write, then your writing will be uncertain. But if it’s the case that you’re not sure which approach would be best, that is, what sort of argument to make, how to introduce this topic which builds to that topic, what kind of rhetorical outline or composition to use, the best approach is to simply pick one and write. If it’s the wrong approach or outline, then you’ll know when you edit it.

If you’re writing because you want the reader to feel the way you feel, then you must feel, and write what you feel and explain why. Know what you want to say, then write it down. It works.

A New Bible Translation Worth Checking Out

Thomas Nelson is preparing to release the The Orthodox Study Bible: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today’s World available for pre-order now.

Why would I recommend purchasing such a “denominationally-specific” study Bible that is not Lutheran? Because of the unprecedented translation, which is based on the New King James Version (a highly readable version, by the way).

Prior to this publication every English Bible has been produced using the Hebrew Masoretic Text and a hodge-podge of Greek text traditions for the New Testament. The Orthodox Study Bible is different, using the Septuagint for the Old Testament text and the Byzantine Text for the New Testament.

Why is this good? To answer this question, we need to know a little bit about the history of the text of the Old Testament.

The original manuscripts of the books of the OT from the hands of the prophets were most likely written in various forms of ancient Hebrew. These were copied over the centuries and no doubt updated at various times to reflect the changing grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of Hebrew. In the 3rd Century BC, the Greek-speaking King of Egypt Ptolmey II Philadelphus asked Jewish scholars to make a translation of their holy texts into Greek for the Library of Alexandria. Legend has it that 72 scholars gathered and independently translated the books. Upon completion they compared their translations and found that they agreed word for word. This was seen as a sign of divine inspiration of the translation. This version has since been referred to as the Septuagint (“70” in Greek) or LXX. Modern scholars dispute this story, noting great differences in translation style, some being nearly word-for-word, others being paraphrases of Hebrew texts, pointing to different translators with different theories of translation over time. But the fact remains that many Jews believed the LXX was the inspired version of the Old Testament texts, and it was used widely, especially in the Jewish diaspora (those Jews who lived outside of Judea).

This usage continued until the beginnings of the Christian Church. Many of the OT quotations in the New Testament are based on readings from the LXX. Modern readers note this when looking up the quoted passage in their English Bibles and realizing that something is wrong. It often appears that the NT writer was misquoting the text, or paraphrasing it, when in fact he was quoting directly from the OT LXX.

There began to be growing tension between Jews and Christians centered around the LXX, however, for many passages in the LXX are more explicitly Christological than some Hebrew versions at the time read. One example is Psalm 40:6. In the Masoretic text it reads, “Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. (ESV)” But in the LXX it says, “Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not; but a body hast thou prepared me: whole-burnt-offering and sacrifice for sin thou didst not require.” 1st Century Christians held this to be a reference to the body of Christ whom God prepared for our salvation.

By 70 AD, Rabbis were beginning to push for abandoning the LXX and returning to Hebrew versions. They claimed that Christians had deliberately changed the text of the LXX to bolster their claims about Jesus (which is completely absurd, given the numbers of Christians and the numbers of manuscripts scattered throughout the world). But by the early 2nd Century, Jews began to collect old Hebrew versions and eventually settled on a text tradition. What is remarkable about this text is that, like all early Hebrew, it contained no vowels. Rabbis were left to interpret the meaning of the words based only on the consonants. The complicating factor is that all Hebrew verbs are based on a three-letter root, and many nouns as well. One three-letter combination could be any number of words, based on what vowels were added by the reader.

But sometime in between the 7th and 10th Centuries, a group of Jews known as the Masoretes began producing a version of the OT which included “vowel-pointing,” small marks under and over the letters to indicate what vowels to pronounce, and thereby the meaning of the word. Christians sometimes wonder how much was deliberately translated to avoid hints of Christian theology during this time period. But this is the text of the OT that is used for every English translation of the Bible–sometimes with reference and comparison with the LXX, but not always. Isaiah 7:14 is one of the few passages that English translators have used the LXX version instead of the Masoretic. The Greek LXX uses the word for “virgin,” while the Masoretic text uses a generic word, almah, meaning “young woman.” Matthew 1:23 quotes from the LXX, and so most English translations use this reading in Isaiah as well. In other passages, though, the Hebrew Masoretic text is unintelligible, and so translators appeal to the LXX to amplify the meaning. This is often noted in the margins of English Bibles.

Thus the Masoretic text does have some deficiencies, being a late version of the Hebrew Bible (the oldest copy dates to the 10th Century AD). It is also problematic in dozens of places where the older Greek OT seems to include Messianic predictions and anticipation of Christian theology, but it does not. In the interest of fairness, however, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars have noted that the Masoretic text is virtually identical to some Hebrew versions circulating in the 1st Century BC.

So we can ask the question, “Why do Christians read a version of the Hebrew text that was used by Jews purposely intent on rejecting Messianic predictions when a previous version of the texts, once affirmed as inspired by Jews exists? One even quoted by Jesus and the Apostles in the NT?” Good question. I believe the answer lies with Humanism, but I do not have space to delve into that.

The Orthodox Church has always used the Septuagint. They were using it when the Apostles preached and never stopped. Previous to the Orthodox Study Bible, the last English translation of the Septuagint produced was in 1850 (the Brenton translation). It’s a difficult read. This new translation is based on the New King James Version. What this means is that as the translators worked, they compared their translation with the NKJV. Where they held the same meaning, the NKJV was retained. Where the LXX differed, the translators edited the text of the NKJV to reflect the LXX’s reading.

Finally, someone may object to the notes and study helps of the Orthodox Study Bible, wondering if people will get false doctrine from those notes. Why not buy an edition which uses the LXX but doesn’t have the Orthodox perspective in the notes? It would be nice for those in other church bodies, but so far Thomas Nelson (whose CEO is a Deacon in the Orthodox Church BTW) has not indicated they will be publishing any other version.

Let us consider this. The so-called “Concordia Self-Study Bible,” putatively a Lutheran study Bible, is a lightly edited version of the Zondervan Study Bible, which is thoroughly Evangelical. The changes between the two are hard to spot, and I don’t always agree with how the Zondervan editors nor the CPH editors interpret passages. Isn’t that arrogant of me? Probably. But I don’t think the Lutheran editors of the Zondervan Study Bible are always true to Lutheranism, nor the best interpretation of certain texts. At best, the Self-Study Bible is a minimal Lutheranization of an Evangelical study Bible.

Second, members of my congregation regularly read study Bibles that are un-Lutheran, like the Ryrie, the Scofield, the Zondervan, and various others of greater or lesser charismatic stripe. If people are going to use a study Bible, it makes sense to use a study Bible that is at least sacramental. The Orthodox Study Bible has the further advantage of giving us quotations from the Church Fathers, so we get to learn how early Christians interpreted various texts and not just modern scholars. Yes, I imagine there are will be some particular Orthodox positions. I’ve read reviews of the Orthodox Study Bible that claim it was edited for Evangelicals and Protestants who have, or are converting to Orthodoxy, and thus is tailored to answer their questions. I don’t know about this one, as I’ve not seen a published copy yet.

But even for those who are rabidly anti-Orthodox (you know who you are), I still would recommend this edition, at least for the sake of the translation. You might even learn something from the notes too. 😉

Christmas Sermons

Every year I feel great pressure to preach a “winner” on Christmas Eve, almost more than I do at Easter. Much of this pressure is borne by the fact that there will be many hearers who have not been to church all year. This may very well be the only Christian sermon they will have heard in 2007, so I want to preach in the most engaging way that I can. Not that I don’t give due diligence to all my sermons…well, I don’t. I want to, but some weeks fly by and I have to go with the best I can do for that week.

For the Pastors who read here: do you feel the same way? Do you do anything different as far as structure and delivery?

For the Laity: do you go to Church on Christmas Eve expecting to hear a bang-up sermon? Do you think others feel the same?

Success and Cynicism

Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for. –Bill Hybels

I wrote about this here but I’ve been pondering these words ever since. As loathe as I am to admit it, what was almost as surprising as Willow Creek’s admission of failure was their stated goal, to “help our people grow and develop spiritually.” Is that why they are doing this? Really?

It sounds so cynical, but for those of us outside the Church Growth movement, it seems that their only purpose is the numbers and the cash. That has been reinforced when I hear lay people advocating these methodologies or extolling the huge churches they’ve seen elsewhere. They praise them for how many young people they have, what great giving and future the congregations have. It is the easiest measure of success, the most obvious.

But success in congregations is measured not according to the numbers and amounts, but according to the fruit that is being produced in people’s hearts. Success for the Christian can only be salvation, that of growing more Christ-like in word and deed, in humility and love.

It sounds so basic to write this, yet the flesh, pride and worry constantly drive our eyes to admire external things, to emulate them, to every temptation of worldly life and success we see. Lord have have mercy on us!

Old Times

Some time ago, Pr. Beisel wrote about Lutheranism’s struggle against “The Old Tyme Religion.” He wrote, “This is one of the most basic and fundamental aspects of American culture, and it is the reason why Lutherans, at least those of the Hypo-European bent like myself, will always be lonely, will always be unpopular, will always be “Roman.” (“What We’re Up Against”)

Old-Time Religion has a big family Bible on a stand right next to an American flag. Old-Time Religion boasts of “heart-warming hymns,” like “Sweet Hour of Prayer;” “I’ll Fly Away;” “Does Jesus Care;” “Love Lifted Me;” “Beulah Land” and so forth. Old-time religion is what passed for churchin’ on the radio before television, and what was church for many, a mix of God and Country, Morals and hard work, a heart-warming for the hard-working.

Old-Time religion hasn’t died. It changed stripes, it metamorphosed into Evangelicalism of some sort, transferring the heart-warming “over yonder in heaven” with “my dearest sweet Jesus” of the love songs for Christ. No longer about “that strand beyond,” but more of comfort today, the country twangs and sliding thirds replaced with soft-rock sixths and drum machines.

This is American Christianity, a Christianity founded upon the individual, upon emotions and escapism, upon the economic misfortune of the late 19th and early 20th centuries coupled with an ironic belief in the progress of man. It is a Christianity of me and Jesus alone, a Christianity of shedding behind this mortal coil and “flying away” to a land where we can fish and farm and hunt in the great zephyr beyond. A Christianity of sentiment but no sacrament.

Obviously it bears but some resemblance to the Christianity that existed for two millennia previously. It’s a folk expression of Christianity that all too often replaced genuine Christianity.

The Question to Ask

If we are ready to condemn this one film as “anti-Christian,” we should also be asking, “What in my life is ‘pro-Christian’? What else, besides my viewing habits, needs to change to reflect the light of Christ in my life?” (Fr. Mark Leondis, HT Dixie)

I’ve asked the question enough times, especially when I was a child, “What’s wrong with this?” Can’t this be ok?” As an adult–a mature Christian in theory–I sometimes catch myself rationalizing instead of asking. And I hear the question often enough, and more often implied, “What’s wrong with that? Are you suggesting a Christian cannot do such-and-such?”

To be sure, we have our “Christian Freedom” and all. Christ has set us free; we can be slaves no longer (Rom. 6:6). But we easily abuse this freedom as an excuse to dabble in what is harmful to us. Fr. Mark is right. Instead of asking, “Is this sin?” or “Can’t I do this?” or “What’s wrong with this?” the question that will help us most is, “What can I do to help my faith? Is this something that will make me more Christ-like in thought, word, and deed? Will this help my neighbor? Will this give me Christian, godly joy, or worldly, sensual joy?”

Fr. Jonathan Tobias, in writing about Second Life and the gaming culture, put it this way:

One should not begin his ethical thinking with the question, “What is wrong with my having a libertine MySpace page, or shooting Nazis in Wolfenstein?” Instead, he should begin with the question, “What is right with it? Does it deepen my love for God and my fellow man? Does it help me control my passions, and does it open my heart more to receiving grace?” (full text here)

This is the strongest medicine to heal our diseased souls. But it is also the hardest question to ask when you feel like shooting some pixelated Nazis or ogling women. It is the hardest question to ask when you are bored and ready for some Bruce Willis or Jason Bourne. Everything in us arises and says, “I’m too tired. I can’t think. I need something mindless.” This should be our first clue that sin is having its way.

Luther Ought to be Blamed Too?


Heather Whipps
Special to LiveScience
Tue Dec 11, 8:55 AM ET

The translation of the Bible into English marked the birth of religious fundamentalism in medieval times, as well as the persecution that often comes with radical adherence in any era, according to a new book.

The 16th-century English Reformation, the historic period during which the Scriptures first became widely available in a common tongue, is often hailed by scholars as a moment of liberation for the general public, as it no longer needed to rely solely on the clergy to interpret the verses.

But being able to read the sometimes frightening set of moral codes spelled out in the Bible scared many literate Englishmen into following it to the letter, said James Simpson, a professor of English at Harvard University.

“Reading became a tightrope of terror across an abyss of predestination,” said Simpson, author of “Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and its Reformation Opponents” (Harvard University Press, 2007).

“It was destructive for [Protestants], because it did not invite freedom but rather fear of misinterpretation and damnation,” Simpson said.

It was Protestant reformer William Tyndale who first translated the Bible into colloquial English in 1525, when the movement away from Catholicism began to sweep through England during the reign of Henry VIII. The first printings of Tyndale’s Bible were considered heretical before England’s official break from the Roman Church, yet still became very popular among commoners interested in the new Protestant faith, Simpson said.

“Very few people could actually read,” said Simpson, who has seen estimates as low as 2 percent, “but the Bible of William Tyndale sold very well—as many as 30,000 copies before 1539 in the plausible estimate of a modern scholar; that’s remarkable, since all were bought illegally.”

When Catholicism slowly became the minority in the 1540s and 50s, many who hadn’t yet accepted Protestantism were berated for not reading the Bible in the same way, Simpson said.

“Scholarly consensus over the last decade or so is that most people did not convert to [Protestantism]. They had it forced upon them,” Simpson told LiveScience.

Persecution and paranoia became the norm, Simpson said, as the new Protestants feared damnation if they didn’t interpret the book properly. Prologues in Tyndale’s Bible warned readers what lay ahead if they did not follow the verses strictly.

“If you fail to read it properly, then you begin your just damnation. If you are unresponsive … God will scourge you, and everything will fail you until you are at utter defiance with your flesh,” the passage reads.

Without the clergy guiding them, and with religion still a very important factor in the average person’s life, their fate rested in their own hands, Simpson said.

The rise of fundamentalist interpretations during the English Reformation can be used to understand the global political situation today and the growth of Islamic extremism, Simpson said as an example.

“Very definitely, we see the same phenomenon: newly literate people claiming that the sacred text speaks for itself, and legitimates violence and repression,” Simpson said, “and the same is also true of Christian fundamentalists.”

On the Remodel

I spent a good bit of Saturday working on the site here, and am pretty happy with the results. The picture in the header is different, and I’ve got three columns now with some more goodies. Scroll down and play Pacman without leaving the site (my daughter is now addicted).

Also note the section entitled “My Library,” and the random images of book covers from my collection…they are clickable too! I know that canard about judging a book and all, but this is a pretty cool bit of code.

Then there are the other items that help the cause (let the reader understand). I’ve actually had some second thoughts about these, er, commercial aspects of this site, and what that might mean or imply about me. On the other hand, I harbor no illusions about the “seriousness” of the site, nor am I of the generation concerned about “selling out to the Man.” Pretension and pride is what motivates that anti-commercial spirit. Or Communism. I try to avoid all three. I am, of course, referring to the Sponsored Links on the side panel…of which I am not allowed to draw any more attention to.

So tell me what you think about the redesign, and enjoy!

Why Was Church Canceled?

I used to be like Pastor Brown. At his blog, he said,

Well, use your sanctified common sense. If you are frail and will fall – stay at home. If you must drive great distances, perhaps you should remain at home (that’s why our organist, who lives 45 miles away, isn’t going to make it). But if you can – I will be here.

Why would we ever think about “canceling” Church? If the building burns down (Lord forbid) on a Saturday night, I will be preaching in the parking lot on Sunday, even if it is winter. The Word of God is to be proclaimed, come sleet or snow, come hail or thunder, come mono or plague — as long as I can haul my carcass over there, there will be service. (full post here)

As I wrote in a comment there, I used to feel the same way. The Divine Service can be stopped by nothing in this world. I still don’t let my health stop me, never have, never will, God willing. But I’ve changed my mind about bad weather.

On Sunday morning I drove into church early, and slipped and slid all the way. The parking lot was a solid sheet of ice. I walked around the church and back to the office, to check the weather on the internet. There were more bands of heavy sleet and rain about to hit. I called the head elder, who admitted the smart thing to do would be to cancel. We made the decision.

About five minutes later, an elderly member called the church and asked if we were canceling or not, and that is when it hit me. This person has no business walking or driving in hazardous conditions, but the couple would have come if there was church. I told Marjorie that even if I canceled just for them, it was probably worth it.

Pr. Brown advises, “Use your sanctified common sense….” Indeed. But I am discovering that this is lacking for some. And like every father, I had to make a decision for the children of God because they may not make good ones by themselves. That sounds patronizing, and it is. Despite that we don’t call our pastors “Father” it does not change the fact of the relationship. It is a paternal relationship, so patronizing I will be (pater…patronus…patron, patronize –that’s the derivation).

The decision to cancel church is in some respects an instance of the balancing act that pastors must exercise all the time: balancing the spiritual needs and life of the congregation against the ideal, the fullness, so to speak. The Orthodox call this oeconomia, an act of economy, of management, of applying pastoral care to individuals in diverse circumstances. I suppose we call it “pastoral care.” But by the principle of oeconomia, one cannot judge the actions of another (nor should we under any circumstance). How I applied care to this congregation is to be judged on its own basis, not in comparison to others.

So, Pastor Brown, I thank God for your dedication and decision to carry through with the Divine Service. I wish I could have here, but I feel I made the best decision for my flock.