Frequently Misused Verses: the fear of the Lord

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. – Proverbs 1:7 & 9:10 & Psalm 111:10

Oftentimes, quotes from the Bible are misused because they’re part of a relatively complex setting and get oversimplified when taken out of context.  This verse is the opposite: it is a very simple statement that people end up over-complicating.

Frequent Misuse: backpedaling

The reaction many Christians have to this verse from Proverbs and a Psalm is the same reaction that Satan had to God’s Word from the very start: “Did God really say…?”  We look at the word fear and we insist to ourselves that God clearly couldn’t really have meant what he said.

Fear, we rationalize, is actually reverence or respect.  It’s a reverential awe for God that we’re supposed to have, surely that is a wise Christian posture before God, right?  And we can even grab at some New Testament verses to back up this rationalization.  Take, for instance 1 John 4:18…

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.

Surely, then, “the fear of the Lord” can’t be the beginning of wisdom.  So we change the word “fear” to “respect” or “reverence” whenever we teach or preach this verse, and assure everyone that there is no reason to be afraid of God.

He is not a tame lion.

When St. John the Apostle & Evangelist, who had walked with Jesus for three years and bore witness to his resurrection, had a vision of Jesus in all his glory in heaven, he “fell at his feet as though dead.”

When Isaiah the Prophet saw a vision of God, his response was to say, Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!

Ezekiel, Daniel, and many others also fell on their face as if “asleep” (or dead!) when they saw visions of the Lord, or even just of his angels.

As Mr. Beaver said of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “he is not a tame lion.”  God’s power is immense and terrifying.  Modern Bible translations almost universally avoid this, but if you go back to the classic King James Bible you’ll find references to God’s works being “terrible” in Exodus 34:10, Deuteronomy 7:21, 10:17, 10:21, 26:8, Judges 13:6, 2 Samuel 7:23, 1 Chronicles 17:21, Nehemiah 1:5, 4:14, 9:32, Job 37:22, Psalm 47:2, 65:5, 66:3, 66:5, 68:35, 76:12, 99:3, 106:22, and about 25 more times in the writings of the Prophets.  For sure, “terrible” doesn’t mean “bad;” it means “terrifying” or (as many modern translations render it) “awesome.”

Awesome was a decent word for how fearsome God is, but in the past 30 years even the word “awesome” has been dumbed down a bit.  It has become a synonym for “cool.”  God is not awesome like your favorite movie is awesome.  God is awesome like a hurricane is awesome.  His power is immeasurable; the Lord gives and the Lord takes away.  As it is written in Isaiah 44:6-7…

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
    and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
    besides me there is no god.
ho is like me? Let him proclaim it.
    Let him declare and set it before me,
since I appointed an ancient people.

But he’s good.

Continuing from the above quote, the next verse begins: “Fear not, nor be afraid.”  Now the puzzle is beginning to come together.

What we find in Scripture is a picture of a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly holy, and perfectly just.  He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good.  And actually, compared to him, even your goodness is tainted with sin.  He created you, your life depends on his sustaining you.  If he wanted to destroy everything, you’d never know what hit you.  If he chooses to punish you for your sins, you’d totally deserve it.  God is a scary God.  Any omnipotent being is a scary concept to our fragile human existence!

But whenever God reveals himself to us in that way, he always follows up with the encouragement: “do not be afraid.”  God is scary, but he tells us that we don’t have to be afraid.  Because not only is God all-powerful and all-knowing and all that, he is also perfectly loving.  He cares about his creation and his creatures, he has chosen to help us out of our sinful predicament, and through his Son Jesus Christ he has given sure and certain promises that his love for us will be carried out to the fullness of redemption for all who are united to Him.  God is scary, but if you’re united with him, you no longer need to be afraid.

This is wisdom.

To fear God, to realize how scary he is, is the beginning of wisdom.  A God who loves us is a nice and attractive concept, but unless we recognize that there’s a need for his love, we have little motivation (at first) to accept it.  Wisdom, generally speaking, is the ability to apply knowledge towards good decision-making.  In the Bible, wisdom is specifically about applying knowledge of God and his Word toward good decision-making in our lives as we seek to follow and obey Him.  Knowing that God is scary (all-powerful, etc) is a basic truth that we need to grasp if we’re even going to begin to try to live appropriately before him.

Now, as we grow in our knowledge and love of God, we come first to his encouragement “do not be afraid” and then the promise “nothing can separate us from the love of God” and then finally “perfect love casts out fear.”  But it’s a progression, and we can’t simply jump from being a non-Christian to exhibiting perfect love.  The Christian life is one of growth and progress toward the perfection of Christ.  I would argue that nobody attains “perfect love” in this life.  As long as we continue to sin, we are incurring guilt upon ourselves and defying the Lord we are striving to love.  While we need not necessarily fear his rejection because we’re misbehaving, we would do well to remember the basic “fear of the Lord” that gets us started on the road toward knowing him.

“If God is for us, then who can be against us?  This is a great exclamation and promise from the Bible.  But remember what it is presupposing: God is a more fearful opponent than any other.  If you’re on his side, he won’t be scary toward you, though that in no way diminishes his power, glory, honor, and strength!

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The Four Degrees of Love

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) was a monk who was very influential in his day and has been ever since.  Even the Protestant Reformers, including John Calvin and Martin Luther, looked back on his writings with fondness and respect.  Among his most popular writings is a treatise called On the Love of God.  There, we find a wonderful little document examining the why’s and how’s of loving God.  Early on, he describes four levels (or degrees) of loving God.  Let’s take a look at them.

The 1st Degree: Loving Yourself For Your Own Sake (Selfish Love)

The love of self, as St. Bernard observes, “is not imposed by a command but it is implanted in nature, for who ‘ever hated his own flesh?’ (Eph. 5:29). But truly if this love, natural as it is, begins to be too precipitate or too lavish and is not at all satisfied with the riverbed of necessity, overflowing rather widely, it will be seen to invade the fields of pleasure. At once its overflow is held in check by the commandment that opposes itself to it: ‘You shall love your neighbors as yourself’ (Matt. 22:39).”

We need to be awakened to love for God by hearing his commands and observing his acts of love toward us. As Psalm 146 puts it, “You [God] open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” St. Bernard continues, “There is no doubt, surely, that He who is not absent in the midst of plenty will gladly be present in the time of need. He says ‘Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and these other things will be given to you besides’ (Luke 12:32). He promises that He will, of His own accord, give whatever is necessary to him who restricts himself in superfluities and loves his neighbor.

This twofold work of God’s law (restricting our sinfulness) and God’s grace (tugging at our heart) brings us to the second degree of love.

The 2nd Degree: Loving God for Your Own Blessing (Dependence on God)

St. Bernard describes the second degree as loving “God but still for a time for one’s own sake, not for God’s. It is, however, a sort of prudence to know what you are able to do by yourself, and what you are able to do with God’s help, and to preserve yourself guiltless for Him who keeps you unharmed.”

There is a dynamic of struggle that seems to characterize this stage of love for God. On one hand, you have willfully committed yourself to loving God, yet you realize that you aren’t able to love God with all your heart. You see that you never measure up, you always fall short, and you need God’s help just to hang on, let alone to grow in love.

Our progress through this second degree love, comes from frequent time spent before God.   Especially in the worship of the Church, where we receive Christ through His Word & Sacrament, we “taste and see how good is the Lord” (Psalm 34:9). And, as St. Bernard says, “when once His sweetness has been tasted, it draws us to the pure love of God more than our need impels.”

The 3rd Degree: Loving God for God’s Own Sake (Intimacy with God)

“Just as in the case of the Samaritans who said, speaking to the women who had announced that the Lord had come, ‘We no longer believe because of your word, for we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is the Savior of the world’ (John 4:42), similarly, I say, we too, following their example, speaking to our flesh we may justly say: We now love God, not from your necessity; for we ourselves have tasted and know how sweet is the Lord.”

The witness of our own hearts, minds, and bodies, that we need God for everything, including loving Him properly, is a basic witness that gets us started, but it is the grace of God Himself that lifts us from the second degree of love, characterized by dependence on God, to the third degree of love, characterized rather by intimacy. 1 Peter 1:22 says, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again… through the living and abiding word of God.” This sincere and earnest love, loving God for the sake of God alone, is beyond our natural ability; it comes only through the rebirth given by the Holy Spirit.

St. Bernard gives an interesting description of this third degree of love. “This love is deservedly acceptable because it is disinterested – not offered with a view to obtaining more favors.” ‘Disinterested’ love highlights that love has no agenda. This level of love no longer seeks gain from God, but only to enjoy Him. “Give praise to the Lord, for He is good,” Psalm 118 begins. It doesn’t say God is good to me; God just is good.

The 4th Degree: Self-Love for God’s Sake (Being United with God’s Love)

And yet there is a more perfect way, St. Bernard describes. “Happy is he who has deserved to attain as high as the fourth degree where a man does not love even himself except for the sake of God.” This doesn’t mean we cease to care about our own existence, exactly, nor does it presume that we somehow become so important to God that he needs us. Rather, the love of God becomes our everything. Perhaps some quotes from Scripture can help describe this.

1 Corinthians 6:17, 19-20a “But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him… do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.”

Psalm 73:25-26 “Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

Proverbs 16:4 “God has made all things for Himself.”

Our prayer will be “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

St. Bernard also argues, “Otherwise, how will ‘God be all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28) if in man there is left anything at all of himself? The substance, indeed, will remain, but in another form, another glory, another power. Man’s human nature and individual identity will remain, transfigured.” When will all this happen? Is it even possible in this life? St. Bernard believed that this fourth degree of love “will not come to pass with perfect fulfillment… until the heart itself is no longer compelled to think about the body, and the soul ceases to have to attend to quickening the body and to providing it with sense-perception, and the body’s strength freed from vexations is made strong in the power that is of God. For it is wholly impossible to concentrate all these, heart, mind, and virtue, upon God and to hold them fixed upon His Face so long as it is necessary for them… to be subject to this frail and wretched body. And so, in a spiritual and immortal body (as promised in 1 Cor. 15:44), in a body perfect, calm, and acceptable, and in all things subject to the spirit, let the soul hope to apprehend the fourth degree of love, or rather, to be apprehended in it.”

Summary

So these four degrees of love are a useful framework to help us understand and pursue our growth in our love for God. Especially seeing the non-Christian first degree and the impossible-to-reach fourth degree, we are reminded that God has a plan for us that began before we even knew Him, and will continue even beyond this mortal life!

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Fequently Misused Verses: One will be taken, and one will be left

Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.  Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.  Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.
– Matthew 24:40-42

Frequent Misuse: this is a description of the Rapture

From Jesus’ extensive end-times teachings comes this set of verses that deeply resonates with many Evangelicals today as they look forward to the Rapture – the day (they say) that Christ comes near the earth to take his people away to heaven with him.  Although dealing with the many issues that this doctrine of the Rapture is beyond the scope of this little blog post, correcting this misuse of these verses will suffice.

Who will be taken?

The assumption that Rapture-believers incorrectly impose upon these verses is that those who “are taken” are the faithful people of God, being taken away to safety by Christ so that the judgment of condemnation can be dealt out on the sinners who “are left behind” on the earth.  But, as usual, context clears up this misreading very quickly.  Let’s back up and begin at verse 37.

As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.  For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.  That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.  Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left…

Our Lord is making a comparison between the Day of His Return and the Flood in Noah’s time.  Life will be going on as usual until, all of a sudden, the wicked are taken away.  Just as the flood swept away the sinners who rejected God in Noah’s day, so too will the Judgment sweep away the sinners who reject God at the end of our present age.

Who will be left?

Once we realize that it is the sinners who are being “taken away,” we realize that we actually want to be the people who are left behind!  Several times throughout Jesus’ teachings he compares the Kingdom of God to a house or a banquet: when people are faithful to him, they are allowed to stay with God there forever.  When people reject him, he will return “at an hour they do not expect” and they are “cast out” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 21:40-41, 22:13, 24:50-51, 25:10-13, 25:30, 25:46).

So if you believe in the Rapture, know that these verses do not describe the event of Jesus taking away his faithful people.  Rather, this is a picture of the judgment of those who reject God, and their separation from the inheritance of eternal life at the end of this age.

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Worship and Psalm 28

This weekend, my family enjoyed attending the Bolton Fair.  As a mainstay of local life, you could say that the Fair is part of the “liturgy” of living in that area: it’s a part of life that is recognized, acknowledged, and shared by many people which has a result of bringing lots of people together.  I call it part of the “local liturgy” because I want to highlight, before we begin, that liturgy is not just about how worship services work (as us boring clergymen sometimes make it seem to be); rather, liturgy is the stuff that people do together that builds and shapes a community!  For Christians, worship and prayer is one of the major things that brings us together as the Body of Christ – not just on Sunday mornings, but at other times and in other ways as well.  As we approach the topic of worship and liturgy today, I want that to be kept in mind: this is what binds us together as God’s people.

Psalm 28: a prayer in time of trouble

There are two things I want to point out about how to pray Psalm 28.

First is an important dynamic of “revelation and response” that shows how prayer and worship work.

Revelation: v1-2     pray to God, the only one who can help me
Response: v3        prayer for protection/survival amidst evil
Response: v4        prayer for justice upon evildoers

Revelation: v5        acknowledgement of God’s judgment upon evil
Response: v6        trust in God’s faithfulness enables praise
Response: v7        we can rejoice even now because of who God is

Revelation: v8        God saves his people, his anointed
Response: v9        final prayer, accordingly

Second is the issue of enemies. Last time we looked at external, now let’s consider internal.

  • We pray for justice, knowing that we are sinners.
  • v3,8-9 cry out for salvation despite the evil around us
  • When praying against evil, don’t lose sight of your guilt;
    acknowledge and confess it, seeking God’s cleansing forgiveness.

Revelation & Response: a model for how worship works

The Summary of the Law is a revelation of Christ’s law for us. The Kyrie is our first response.

The Collect of the Day, as with most of these collects, models the dynamic of “revelation and response.”
God’s Revelation: God declares his almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity.
Our Response: Grant unto us such a measure of your grace that we, running the way of your commandments, may obtain your gracious promises.

The Old Testament Lesson is a revelation of God’s Word to us. The Psalm is our first response.
The New Testament Lesson is revelation of God’s Word to us. The Hymn is our first response.
The Gospel Lesson is a revelation of God’s Word to us. “Praise/Glory to you, Lord Christ.”

What other examples of revelation and response can you find in our worship service?

Regula: what is it?

Regula” refers to an overall approach to worship that creates an environment of complete and continual relationship with the presence of God by a community.

By means of a regula we respond to Christ’s presence:

  • In creation and all his creatures
  • In the gatherings of the baptized
  • In the Word proclaimed
  • In the Sacraments

When we live out a regula, how we understand worship services (or liturgy) is changed:

  1. The Liturgy is no longer just a worship service, but a dynamic system that taps in to the grace that God has offered to give us.
  2. The Liturgy is not just our way of declaring God, but God’s way of declaring himself.
  3. It becomes less about how we imagine God to be, and more about how God imagines us to be.

Regula: the threefold Rule of Life

Acts 2:42 gives us the basic apostolic regula: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This formula set the stage for how the Early Church ordered its worship life, how St. Benedict ordered the Rule of Life for his monks, and how the Book of Common Prayer was put together.

  1. Apostles’ teaching & fellowship = Devotion
  2. Breaking of bread = Communion
  3. The prayers = Office

These three pieces of the regula correspond with the full revelation of God as three-in-one.

  1. The Divine Office is our responding to the transcendent nature of God the Father.
  2. Holy Communion is our responding to the presence of God the Son.
  3. Devotion is our responding to the activity of God the Holy Spirit.

The Office is a response of praise and thanksgiving to the presence of God the Father that is made by the entire Body of Christ. That is why the Daily Office hardly ever changes its content: the formal and consistent set-prayers, centered around the Lord’s Prayer, together thank and praise God for who he is, regardless of the ever-changing world in which we live at this moment.

Holy Communion is a response to the presence of God the Son, Jesus, who is both God and Man. Thus the Communion liturgy has both changeable and unchangeable elements, just as Christ is the eternal unchanging God who took on human flesh and lived among us. Centered around our daily and eternal bread of life, the Communion liturgy points us backwards as we examine our conscience and look to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, as well as points us forwards as we receive a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven that he is preparing for us even now.

Devotion is a response of openness to the presence of the Holy Spirit within each and all God’s people. Because the Holy Spirit dwells not just in the Church, but also in each one of us individually, devotion is the most variable part of the regula. How I live out my life as a Christian and praise God in my actions will look very different from how you live out your lives as Christians and praise God in your actions. But even here, the diversity is not incoherent: the Bible remains the ruling guide for all of us as we strive to follow the calling of the Holy Spirit upon our lives, and it binds together us all under one Teacher.

Regula: keeping the balance

Because each of these three elements of the apostolic regula respond to a different person and revelation of God, they need to be kept in balance if we are to have a healthy life of worship and discipleship.

  1. De-emphasis of the Office diminishes our sense of divine transcendence and can lead to subjectivism, sentimentality, pantheism, earth-bound faith. (This has become a problem for many modern Christians today who have largely given up the practice of objective daily corporate prayer.)
  2. De-emphasis of Holy Communion diminishes our sense of sacramental fellowship (throughout the world and throughout history), and can lead to idolatry and a disconnected lifestyle. (This has become a problem for many protestants who have ended up seeing smaller and smaller pictures of the Church. If the Church becomes so small that they no longer feel like they’re “part of something bigger than themselves,” then they’ll join something else to restore that feeling – like a political or social justice movement, or a club or some other fellowship.)
  3. De-emphasis of Devotion diminishes our sense of divine immanence and can lead to rigidity, formalism, and insularity. (This has become a problem for many Catholics who think they just need to ‘show up for Mass’ each week, and fail to allow the life Christ in them to flourish during the week.)

So, only a complete and full regula expresses the complete living faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Through this regula, the whole person and a whole people, together respond to God.

Regula: how does the Prayer Book help?

The Book of Common Prayer is often misunderstood today. “Common” does not mean that the book contains prayers that people use a lot, it means that it contains prayers that everyone is supposed to use together! Originally, it was made in 1549 as a solution to the various problems in the Church throughout Europe at that time. Since then it has been refined a couple times in England, and a few more times in other countries. But its basic shape and contents have always remained the same.

  1. It begins with the Daily Office (Morning and Evening Prayer), grounding us in the basic response of praise to God the Father.
  2. It continues with the service of Holy Communion, grounding us in the basic response of repentance and commitment to God the Son.
  3. It then supplies liturgies for Baptism, Holy Matrimony, Ordination, anointing the sick, burying the dead, and a number of other events that happen in the Christian life which bind us together as one Body.
  4. All of this, then, provides a corporate habitat in which we are invited (and actually commanded) to pursue our individual callings, vocations, and devotions to God as directed by his Holy Spirit.

Conforming our lives to the fullness of the apostolic regula

The Christians in Acts 2 devoted themselves to apostolic teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. How are we doing the same?

Last week we looked at praying Psalm 17, and today we glanced more quickly at Psalm 28. Praying the psalms is one of the core ingredients of the Daily Office. Together with the Lord’s Prayer, the psalms teach us how to pray to God, using his own words, and often identifying with his own Son. This is a very important and valuable practice that Christians need to recover, for we have become very focused on two extremes: showing up at Mass every week to listen to the priest pray, or upholding a free-form open prayer style where anybody can pray in any way they want. Sometimes people think that the measure of a mature Christian is someone who can both pray “freely in the Spirit” and silently follow along during a formal worship service. That is almost true. What’s missing is the element of Office-style worship: where everyone prays together with one voice. With the psalms, you don’t need to be an eloquent speaker; you don’t need to be brave enough to stand up front; you don’t have to follow along silently.

Rather than throwing Prayer Books at you, I’d like to suggest something simpler. If you don’t already do something like this, consider this 4-step prayer time: 1) pray a psalm, 2) read a chapter of Scripture, 3) pray the Lord’s Prayer, 4) close with a prayer of your own. Psalm, Reading, Lord’s Prayer, and other prayer is the absolute basic outline of the Daily Office. As you get used to that, once a day, you can try adding to it as you grow, or re-grow, a daily discipline of prayer and praise to God.

And it won’t just be about you, but as we grow in this regula, this liturgy, this life of worship together, we will also grow closer together as a family, both as a local church and with the global Church.  Just like how the Bolton Fair unites a region of town together every year, so will our shared life of worship unite us with one another and the countless other Christians across the world and throughout history who are doing the same.

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Advice from the Saints: how to teach

St. Augustine said:

We should watch the hand of the actor, not the mouth of the speaker.

St. Jerome said:

To teach others, one must have learned over a long time the art of correct behavior.

They lose the authority to teach if they undo their words by their deeds.

The modern-day proverb “practice what you preach” seems to be the summary of this advice about teaching so far.  What people do conveys a great deal of meaning compared to what people say.  When they don’t match, we tend to judge people according to their actions, despite their words.  So when we teach, we need to be sure that we have internalized our teachings to the point that they are reinforced by our habits or lifestyle.

This is not something that comes over night, but is learned “over a long time.”  As St. Jerome also said:

Only stupid people teach what they do not themselves know.

At first glance, sure, it’s obvious that you can’t teach what you don’t know.  But when you consider the first set of advice – that you need to portray the teaching, not just speak it – this quote sinks in more deeply.  It is foolish not only to try to teach things we don’t understand, but also to try to teach things we understand but don’t yet live out.  This is especially a challenge for young teachers who are fresh out of school and eager to teach what they’ve been learning.  If we haven’t put our teachings into practice, and started living them out, then we haven’t completely learned them properly yet.  It is valuable and important not to get ahead of ourselves, rather making sure to teach what we have fully comprehended in thought, word, and deed.

That’s the inward focus that the teacher needs to be attentive to.  On the other side is the outward focus: what is the relationship between teacher and learner supposed to look like?  St. Jerome, again, said:

The pastor should also be master.  In the Church, however saintly they may be, none should take the title of pastor unless they are capable of ruling those they feed.

St. Gregory said:

Let no one take on himself the office of preacher unless he loves his hearers.

These are very important sides to the teacher-learner relationship, especially in the context of church ministry.  Although this is often downplayed today, there is great wisdom in making sure that a teacher is ready to lead.  After all, when St. Paul listed some ministry gifts in Ephesians 4, he tied Pastor and Teacher together.  Teaching, feeding, and leading are closely-related ministries that are (practically speaking) impossible to separate.  Preparations to become a teacher must include preparations to become a leader of some degree.  (This doesn’t mean that every Bible Study group has to be led by the congregation’s head pastor; there are many levels of leadership that can be understood.  What’s important to recognize, though, is that even leading a local Bible Study is a part of a congregation’s leadership dynamic.)

As a result, all the advice and instruction given for elders (presbyters) and overseers (bishops) in the New Testament should be listened to very carefully by anyone who is going to be a teacher.  St. Gregory boils this down to a very helpful summary: a teacher must love his students!  And as we remember that love is not just a fluffy emotion, but a willful commitment to the well-being of the student, we’ll find that this is a serious calling and commitment indeed!  For a teacher to love the students properly, there must be prayer and attention given, and a careful concern for the accuracy of the material being taught, including the refutation of any false teaching the student might come across.

Finally, St. Jerome said:

An effective orator reaches many listeners with few words.

This is an echo of biblical wisdom, such as from Proverbs: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”  This is also confirmed in modern-day wisdom about public speaking: “less is more.”  If you can explain something in fewer words, then do it.  It’s easier for people to listen to a short speech than a long one.  If something is complicated and requires a longer explanation, that’s fine, there’s no sin in that.  The concern here is that speakers sometimes go on too long because they’re rambling and undisciplined, or worse, because they like to hear themselves talk.  If something can be taught just as effectively in a shorter amount of time, then do it.

All quotes are taken from the Early Christian anthology, Liber Scintillarum.

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Advice from the Saints: how to learn

St. Jerome said:

Take care not to seek to become a teacher first and then a pupil, or an officer first and a soldier afterwards.

Take care not to enter a street you have never been in before if you do not have someone to show you the way.  You could get completely lost.

No art can be learnt without an expert teacher.

You will need a long time to learn what you ought to teach.  If any applaud you, don’t believe them.

Those who are industrious and wise, even if they have something yet to learn, are already teachers because they ask questions with sagacity.

My one-word summary of this is: humility.  To be a good student or disciple, Jerome advises us to put first things first: be a pupil before trying to be a teacher, like how soldiers rise through the ranks, not seeking to skip the lowly positions.  Traveling with a guide, and seeking an expert to teach you also are ways to avoid the presumption of thinking we can skip the hard work of learning and becoming skilled and knowledgeable immediately.  ‘If any applaud you’ too early in the process, don’t let it get to your head; keep learning.

And after all that, a good learner makes for a good teacher!  The quest for knowledge and skill that marks a good student is precisely what a teacher needs to share with students.

Similarly, St. Cyprian said:

The one who learns what is better day by day is the one who will teach in the best way.

Again, the idea of constant growth in learning and skill (rather than cramming for an exam, or waiting for a sudden epiphany to make everything fall into place) is not only better for a student, but also for a teacher.

In my own experience, I have found that I am prone to giving an “information dump” – throwing a huge pile of information at someone all at once.  This is not good teaching, because it does not make for good learning.  Effective teaching is done bit by bit over a period of time so that the learner has time to process the information or skill.

These quotes about learning apply also to spirituality: it is better to grow “day by day” and not presume to become an “officer” without first becoming a “soldier.”  It is through the practice of daily spiritual disciplines that a Christian matures in faith and grows in the knowledge and love of God.  Sudden spiritual awakenings (like at a retreat, revival, or other big event) are great when they happen, but too easily they are like an “information dump.”  Too much hits you all at once, and so while the excitement is high and experience is profound, the end result is minimal life change or growth, because there was no time to take it all in.

Also, “no art can be learned without an expert teacher,” so be sure to pray and read the Bible not alone, according to your own whims, but alongside other more experienced Christians who can help you learn how to pray, and how to read.  Otherwise it’s as if you’re on a “street you have never been in before” and “you could get completely lost.”

All quotes are taken from the Early Christian anthology, Liber Scintillarum.

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Frequently Misused Verses: I will heal their land

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. – 2 Chronicles 7:14

If you’ve ever been to a special prayer service around the 4th of July in the United States, or attended a National Day of Prayer service, or other such “pray for our nation” event, chances are good that you’ve seen this verse printed on the bulletin cover, projected on the screen, or otherwise quoted in the advertising or at the event itself.  I mean, it’s such a perfect verse, isn’t it?  It calls for repentance and humility among Christians, it highlights God’s mercy and forgiveness when we do so, and gives us hope that God can “turn this country around” or something like that.  What could possibly be wrong with using this verse in this way?

As is often the case in such misuses of Scripture, it’s a matter of context, context, context.  And I type that three times because there are three levels of context that are ignored.

Context #1: finishing the sentence

Let’s start with the basics.  This verse is often translated such that it is not a complete sentence on its own, but connected to the previous verse.  Re-united with its other half, this is what it says now:

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

I underlined three key words to make the message of this sentence clear.  When God sends plagues upon the land itself because of his peoples’ sins, then God will stop and heal that land if his people humble themselves and repent.  So verse 14’s “if/then” statement is connected to a particular set of circumstances: drought, famine, and disease.  It’s not a blanket statement about how God will look after his (or any other) country based upon the repentance of believers.  It is a promise that he will take away the punishments that he gives out if his people pray in repentance.

But wait, there’s more to the story than just that.  Let’s zoom out from these two verses a bit more.

Context #2: completing the prayer

In 2 Chronicles 5, the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the newly-constructed Temple in Jerusalem.  In chapter 6, King Solomon blesses the people and offers a prayer of dedication for the new Temple.  In chapter 7 we see God’s responses to this prayer: he accepts the burnt sacrifices and than speaks to Solomon.  It is in this response from God that we find our frequently-misused verse(s).

God begins his verbal response with these words: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice.”  Immediately after that comes the two verses we’ve been examining thus far.  Verses 15 and 16, following them, emphasize something critically important:

Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time.

Notice that the promise God makes about hearing the prayers of his people to look after them and the land he has given them is centered around the Temple.  The Temple is the place that they are to “seek his face” and pray and repent to him.  God’s promises are at this moment fixating on the “how” of prayer (come to me at the Temple) rather than the “what” of prayer (I’ll do all this stuff for you).

Obviously, we don’t have to seek God at the Temple of Jerusalem anymore, so how does this promise from God relate to Christian prayer today?

Context #3: accounting for the covenants

In the Old Covenant, given through Moses, “God’s people” was essentially a family: twelve tribes sharing a common ancestry, bound together with a Law, priesthood, and liturgy, detailed in the Books of Moses.  God’s people, Israel, was liturgically centered around the Ark of the Covenant, which in Solomon’s day was housed in the Temple in Jerusalem.  That was God’s house, where people could go to meet him face to face, if not visibly with the earthly eye.

In the New Covenant, given through Jesus, “God’s people” is a spiritual family: beginning with twelve apostles, continued through a spiritual ancestry, bound together with the New Testament Scriptures and its corresponding ministry and liturgy.  God’s people, the Church, is liturgically centered around the Body of Christ, which is the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  That is God’s house, where we go to meet him face to face, if not visibly with the earthly eye.

But there’s one other piece of this puzzle that we need to identify in order to understand 2 Chronicles 7:14 in its Christian application: what is the land?

In the Old Covenant, God’s people (Israel) was given an earthly inheritance of land.
In the New Covenant, God’s people (the Church) is given a heavenly inheritance.

We can talk about ourselves as God’s people, God’s family, God’s chosen or elect, just as the ancient Israelites did.  But we do not claim for ourselves an earthly homeland that is “church territory.”  Instead, Jesus and the Apostles emphasized a Kingdom not-from-this-world.  Ultimately, Jesus is to become King of the entire world; the promised land is a New Heavens and a New Earth.  So there is no “holy land” that we can lay claim to.  There is no earthly “promised land” that we have to protect.

So what do we do with this verse?

As a result, when we see Old Testament promises that God will “heal their land,” we have to remember that we as Christians have no land for God to heal.  That particular promise was for his ancient people, before Christ.  Instead, when we turn to the Lord and humble ourselves and pray in his spiritual Temple, the Church, with our fellow Christians, God has promised a greater healing: the healing of our souls and bodies to be holy, reasonable, and living sacrifice unto Him.  He promises us eternal life to those who “believe and are baptized” – that is, if we repent and follow him.

Praying for our earthly countries is a good thing, and there are several New Testament quotes that can be used to endorse this.  But it is wrong of us to lay claim to one of God’s Old Covenant promises and force it into our New Covenant situation, when we (should) know that the promises he has given us to are far better than the promises of old!

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