Moving On: An Ascension Sunday Reflection

By Joe LaGuardia

I once watched my father knock his brother half-way across a boxing ring with a single right cross.

I saw it on one of those old black and white films, homemade from some ancient camera and later transferred to a DVD.  There they were, sparring: My dad, the short, stocky 18-year old with what we–his kids–liked to call his Popeye arms; and my uncle, the tall, athletic Golden Gloves champ.  They were both in their signature Everlast trunks.

My uncle had the awards, the height and the reach.  He is beautiful to watch in the ring, like Muhammad Ali, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”  My dad, however, was the slow one, more passive.  All he had to go on were the size and strengths of his short arms.

In the film, I saw my uncle dancing around my dad.  Jab, jab, jab.  Body blow, slap to the helmet.  Jab, some missed crosses.

Then I saw it: a split second and a misstep by my uncle.  He got too close, and bang!–my dad’s right cross, like a cobra strike.  My uncle went across the ring into the ropes.  I’d never seen anything like it.

****

When I was young, I asked my father why he didn’t become a boxer like his brother or his father, Grandpa being the one in the family who coached his kids and the neighborhood kids, who trained the likes of Tony Danza and others who lived in their Brooklyn community.

Dad gave all kinds of excuses: bad knees, too smart to box, too busy, spending too much time chasing the women and marrying my mother.

When I pressed him again years later, the truth finally came out:

“I couldn’t hit another man,” he said, “I felt bad about it.”

The fact is that the man, my father, had hands of stone, but he couldn’t put them to good use in the ring.  He wasn’t at home there.  It was familiar, but foreign.

That’s how I feel when I look at the disciples on the day of ascension in Acts 1:1-11.  There Jesus was–back from the dead, a miracle, and the disciples did what all of us who lost a loved one only dream about doing: they held his hand again, was able to hug him and heard his voice.

But just as soon as Jesus came, it seemed, he left again and they thought all was lost.  It happened again, but this time Jesus whisked away into thin air.  Jesus couldn’t stay; he wasn’t at home on earth, not yet at least.  It was time for him to ascend to his father in heaven.  Just as Christ birthed the divine life into this world, it was time for him–as Barbara Brown Taylor once noted–to birth flesh into God’s world.

And just as my father wondered what good it was to have hands of stone without being able to use them, the disciples were left with hopes and dreams and an anticipation that seemed all but lost yet again.

They asked Jesus, “Now will you restore God’s kingdom of earth?”  And Jesus left them.

How do you live after a miracle like that?  How do you take the next step when that kind of question goes unanswered?

It was at that very moment that two angels showed up and tapped the disciples on the shoulders.

“What are you doing?  What are you looking at?” They asked, like divine security guards waving people on, “Nothing to see here, folks, keep it moving!”

The disciples, however, were just in the ring with Jesus.  Jesus was on their side, a spirit of stone, but now Jesus was gone just like that.  No butterflies and no bees.

*****

I think that the disciples did what any of us would have done: They headed back to a familiar place, an upper room in Jerusalem.  Maybe they figured that since Jesus appeared to them in this room after he resurrected from the dead, that maybe he will appear to them there again.  They stayed there and devoted themselves to prayer.

Peter seemed to be the first to speak, but its not about the future and there is no sign of some anticipation of things to come–that doesn’t come until Pentecost.  Rather, Peter seems to be just filling the time to do something, which is often better than doing nothing.  He speaks about Judas, talks about the scriptures for a few minutes, and gets down to business.

There, between Jesus’ ascension and the downpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, we have what may have been the first Nominating Committee meeting in the church: They have to replace Judas, twelve is such a godly, biblical number after all.

There doesn’t seem to be any power in it, though.  There is no life, no authority–and theologically, that’s correct.  Jesus had yet to send the Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus promised would give the church power and authority to do what Christ did, to change the world, and continue to bridge heaven and earth.

The disciples had hands of stone, but no use for them yet.  They had a ring, but no authority to wipe the floor with their greatest nemesis, Satan.  And, although we feel badly for them, we get this eerie feeling that we somehow know exactly how they felt.

Who among us hasn’t had a dry spell?  Who hasn’t had a day or even a season in which we felt powerless, short-sighted, a day in which we only piddled around with busy work rather than anything exciting that has the power to change the world?

****

In a sermon on this passage of Scripture, one-time priest Barbara Brown Taylor commented that we feel for the disciples because we are no different from them half of the time.  We join them on that mountain with our necks crooning up towards heaven, and we wait.  We become aware that, at times, God seems absent, as if we are left in the ring to fight life’s fights alone.

But it is that very absence that also has the power to provide a sense of wonder and awe, that, in Taylor’s words, “brings us to church in search of God’s presence,” to go back to that sacred, familiar place again and again, where we saw Jesus last, “to recall best moments and argue about the details, to swap all the old stories until they begin to revive again,” to remember, to pray and rejoice.

Another scholar, John Polhill affirms that this text reveals a major plot thread in the book of Acts.  Acts does not have endings or conclusions.  Even as far as the last chapter, the book does not really end.  Rather, the book shows intermissions, followed by opportunities, promises, and new beginnings.   We are never sure whether church is an intermission or a new beginning, or both.

It is in that very search as a community of God’s people, however, in that recollection and retelling of the old, old story, that extraordinary things begin to happen because we do have an Advocate who fights on our behalf.  In a week, when we recall another old story of Pentecost, we will be reminded that we are not in the ring alone — we have all the power and authority that heaven can muster.  We will learn how God will put our hands of stone back to work, not to harm or punch or hurt, but heal and deliver and reconnect.

****

For now, I guess we just have to live with the fact that we are looking up.  Angels may come and tap us on the shoulders and tell us to move on, move on because when we get stuck looking up, we fail to look around.

When you look around, that’s when you start to notice things–that’s when you begin to see Jesus working in your midst, when you sense the Holy Spirit ready to empower you.

It may not lead to living into the New Heaven and the New Earth that is promised us just yet, but we’re getting awfully close.  Awfully close.

“People of God, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven….Keep it moving, keep it moving.  Nothing to see here.”

A Hunger for Bible Literacy, Part 2

cropped-coffee-and-bible.jpgBy Matt Sapp

This is the second post in a series designed to encourage more of us to read the Bible more often.

In part one, we talked about developing a basic understanding of what the Bible is and where the Bible comes from. When was it written? Who are the authors? Why were they writing and to whom? Most of these questions can be answered by reading the introductions and text notes in a good study Bible.

Today we’re going to try to understand how to engage the actual words of scripture on the page in front of us. We’re going to try to figure out how to read the Bible successfully and most profitably.

WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD I BRING TO SCRIPTURE?

As you read scripture, you should start by asking three questions:

-What does the text say? (a comprehension question)
-What does the text mean? (an interpretation question)
-What questions does the text raise? (an engagement question)

1.What does the text say? The Bible is an old and varied collection of books.  Sometimes it takes work just to understand what’s going on in a Bible passage, but basic comprehension is the first step toward successful Bible reading.  One way to do this is to use “who, what, when, where, why” questions.  Each passage may not answer all five questions, but if you try to answer as many as you can, you’ll start to get a good sense of what’s happening in the passage.

2.What does the text mean?  What can I learn from the text?  What questions might the text be trying to answer? What is this text teaching about God, the human condition, or the world?  This is an interpretive question and is the most important question to answer as you seek to understand how to apply the Bible to your life today.

3.What questions does the text raise in my mind?  Where do I want to know more?  What should I look up when I’m finished reading?  This is an engagement question that encourages you to learn more about what you’ve read.  Over time, following up on this question will help you get better at answering question two—the interpretive question.

So, first try to understand what the text is saying.  Then try to understand what larger truths the text might be trying to communicate.  Finally, identify areas for further study.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

If you want to get a good overview of the Bible in an attempt to understand the whole story, what parts of the Bible should you read first?  Here are my suggestions.  Admittedly, these selections leave out large and important swaths of scripture, but it’s a place to start.

These are twelve relatively short selections that could easily be studied and absorbed over the next twelve weeks.

THE OLD TESTAMENT
Genesis 1-11—The opening narratives of the Bible represent the first efforts of our religious ancestors to answer the biggest, most fundamental questions about human existence. They explore questions about human purpose, human relationships and our relationship with our creator. These ancient myths answer age-old questions about how and why we got here with profound insight and intuitive knowledge. The depth of understanding and the enduring truths revealed in these stories leave no doubt about God’s presence in their formation and preservation.

Genesis 37-50—The Joseph saga presents one of the most well-developed characters in one of the most well-developed plot narratives in all of ancient literature. Joseph represents an indispensable link in the story of Israel. Without Joseph, we cannot get from Abraham to Moses. And, as a character, Joseph has much to teach us about faithfulness, humility, judiciousness, wisdom and forgiveness.

Exodus 1-3 – This records an introduction to Moses and the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt.  These chapters include Moses’ birth and call to leadership at the burning bush. This is a necessary text to understand what comes later.

Exodus 11-14—These chapters recount the Hebrew people’s escape from Egypt.  This is the story that birthed the nation of Israel. The people who marched with Moses through the Red Sea developed the laws, customs and worship traditions of the Jewish faith.  These are the people who received the 10 Commandments and developed the rituals of temple sacrifice and worship.

Job 1-3, 38-42—Job is the oldest book in the Bible, but its insight into the human condition and God’s relationship with humanity continues to amaze.  The first three chapters are Job’s complaint to God about the unusual trials he’s facing.  In the last four chapters, God responds. You’ll notice this selection skips over most of the book.  The middle of the book contains the responses of Job’s friends to Job’s plight. If you have the time, the whole book is worth studying.

Psalms 1, 8, 23, 46, 51, 103—  The Psalms include a blueprint to the worship and prayer practices of the nation of Israel.  There’s nothing particularly special about this selection of Psalms. They’re just my favorites.

Isaiah 1-9, 40, 60-61—How do we act in accordance with the will of God? The prophets challenge us to live in accordance with God’s will and teach us how to do so even in challenging circumstances. Isaiah is one the Old Testament’s most important prophets. The language and imagery in Isaiah are exquisite. These chapters should give you a good idea of Isaiah’s message, and they include some of Isaiah’s most familiar and soaring passages.

THE NEW TESTAMENT
Matthew 5-7
—The Sermon on the Mount—the most important body of teaching in the history of the world. Read it. Then read it again.

Luke 2, 12-18, 22-24—Luke is perhaps the most recognizable gospel. Even non-Christians will find Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ parables, and Jesus’ death and resurrection familiar.

John 1:1-18 and John 13-17— Johannine Christology and Farewell Discourses—The first chapter of John develops a philosophical underpinning for the identity of Jesus and the nature of God.  In chapters 13-17 Jesus takes a private moment with his disciples during Holy Week to deliver his final instructions to them. At the end of his teaching Jesus prays for his disciples, and not just for the ones in the room, but for all who will come after them. When you realize that you’re reading a prayer that Jesus personally prayed for you, it’ll give you goosebumps.

Romans 3-8—The letter to the Romans is the most complete presentation of the theology of the Apostle Paul. This selection is the meat of the argument.

1 John—one early Christian community’s beautiful understanding of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. All you need is love.

WHAT TRANSLATIONS WORK BEST?

The Bible exists in all kinds of translations for all kinds of reasons. It’s best to use a modern translation that is the result of the best scholars using all of the available textual resources and manuscripts to achieve a translation that is both readable and faithful to the meaning of the original languages.

Four translations to try:

New International Version (NIV),
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV),
The Message (Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase),
Common English Bible (CEB).

You can use a Bible app to read scripture, like YouVersion on your phone. You can read the Bible online with biblegateway.com–a wonderful tool for searching scripture.  But the BEST thing you can do as you start to re-engage scripture is to get a good, printed study Bible.  The introductions to each book, the summary tables and timelines, the in-text notes, and the cross references will be invaluable as you seek to better understand scripture. You’ll discover that the extra notes in your study Bible are often able to answer questions you have as you read the text, and the background and insight they provide will make your scriptural explorations more meaningful.

A NOTE ABOUT INTERPRETATION

If reading and understanding scripture continues to be hard for you—if you still don’t feel like you’re getting anything out of it—you’re not alone. That’s why so many people study the Bible together in groups. Join a Sunday School class or find a weekday home group.

In groups, we can lead each other to deeper biblical insights and steer each other back on course if we start to veer off track.

Also, scripture reading ALWAYS raises questions. If you’re part of a study group, you’ll start to discover that others in your group have the same questions you do—and some may even have answers to your questions.

If you’re hesitant to interpret the Bible for yourself, that’s natural. But you have everything you need to read and understand scripture for yourself. Remember these things, though.

The criterion by which we interpret scripture is Jesus Christ.  As Christians, we read all of scripture through the lens of who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and what Jesus taught. If a particular passage of scripture seems to conflict with the life and teaching of Jesus, see if there’s a faithful way to reconcile the two. If there’s not, give priority to the teaching of Jesus.

Here’s a handy rule of thumb: If your interpretation of scripture leads you toward a more committed and complete love of God and neighbor (Matt 22:37-40), you’re most likely on the right track. If it doesn’t, you may need to look at how you arrived at your understanding again.

A FINAL WORD

I hope you’ll take the challenge and join me in re-engaging scripture for yourself. Biblical literacy is a foundational requirement for a healthy church. Our neighborhoods and communities NEED healthy churches led by healthy, biblically informed Christians.

The future of the church in America—and its ability to impact our world—depends on individuals just like you making the commitment to read and understand the Bible for yourselves.

Enslaved souls, and the oddity of Psalm 105:18

shackles

By Joe LaGuardia

Psalm 105 recalls the Lord’s faithfulness in leading Israel from Abram’s call from Ur to liberation out of enslavement in Egypt.  It is a prayer or hymn of thanksgiving, and invitation to remember Israel’s past in order to appreciate God’s future.

Psalm 105 is a part of a triad (Psalms 104-106) that celebrates God’s story of redemption.  Psalm 104 is a creation psalm, for instance, that transports readers to the earliest pages of Genesis, while Psalm 106 rejoices in God’s Law, delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai by way of fire and smoke.

Psalm 105 addresses Israel’s sojourn from the wilderness of Canaan to Egypt.  In the center of the Psalm is the story of Joseph, that ancient Patriarch who was thrust into slavery only to reach the highest echelons of power in the great halls of Egypt.

Psalm 105:16-22 maps out Joseph’s rise: Joseph went into slavery, and there was famine in the land.  Joseph became a magistrate in Egypt, saved Israel, and became a hero noted for his wisdom and righteousness.

Tucked into this saga is v. 18:

Joseph’s feet were hurt with fetters, his neck was put in a collar of iron” (NRSV).

Although some acute readers may note that iron is a bit misleading — shackles of iron did not come about during Joseph’s era, his were likely bronze — the real puzzle of this verse is the word neck, or nephes in the Hebrew.

As noted above, the NRSV, NIV, and other modern translations state that Joseph’s “neck” was in a collar.  The King James Version, as well as the Jerusalem Bible, similarly state that Joseph was “laid in irons.”

Oddly, however, the Revised Version (an old English translation that reaches back to the tradition of the Coverdale Bible) and some King James versions have a footnote providing an alternate translation:

His soul entered the iron.”

This caught my attention, and I dug deeper.  One commentary on Leviticus — the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary by R. K. Harrison — noted that the Hebrew word nephes may derive from the Akkadian or Ugaritic word meaning “throat,” thus affirming contemporary translations such as the NIV.

But Harrison also contended that the word’s wider meaning can bring a range of translations into the poetic repertoire of the psalter.  The word can also mean soul, life, or self.  A quick glance at the Langensheidt’s Pocket Dictionary of Hebrew-English (a must for seminarians and Bible scholars) echoes Harrison’s theory.

Harrison noted:

“It was more than Joseph’s flesh that felt the iron: his whole being came into its embrace.  While Genesis highlights his undaunted spirit of service in prison, the psalm poetically emphasizes the other side: the cruel fact of being caged” (Harrison: 375).

The Hebrew’s play on words (or meanings, as it were) brings about a spiritual reading that makes for two powerful lessons: (1) Enslavement is as much theological as it is physical; enslaving, oppressing or subduing another makes a claim on the inherent value (or lack thereof) of that other person–it is a theological slight of hand that actually devalues or discriminates against a person’s identity as one made in God’s image.  Enslavement, therefore, robs slaves of life because they have become property to be expended, bartered, sold, or belabored.

What some fail to realize in the slavery of the South and Jim Crow is that enslavement was based on theological misnomers and definitions of personhood, not just a bunch of laws that favored a certain regional economy.

Those who claim that some slaves “had it good” under the plantation or segregation systems do not realize that any theological construct that robs anyone of their God-given personhood is not good regardless of one’s quality of life on the plantation.

And (2) Even when we are shackled in the spirit, bound by that which entangles us as deep as our soul’s abyss, God can still wrangle us free and liberate us to a higher plane of prayer, purpose, and ministry.  If enslavement is theological, then so is the liberation that God enacts in letting a people go free.  People move from anonymous to “anointed”, protected children of God (Psalm 105:15).

On this verse, F. B. Meyer stated:

“There is a process also by which God can turn Iron to Steel.  It means high temperature, sudden transitions, and blasts of heavenly air. . . Indeed, life would be inexplicable unless we believed that God was preparing us for scenes and ministries that lie beyond the vail [sic] of sense in the eternal world, where highly-tempered spirits will be required for special service” (Our Daily Homily, 233).

Next time you feel the heavy soul weighed down by the cares of the world or the snares of sin, remember that God may just turn that iron into steel, exalting the humbled and liberating those oppressed, a spirit caged by circumstance but pointed towards a divine liberation upon landscapes yet unseen.