The Weekend Wanderer: 11 December 2021

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like. Disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.


cultural-infusion-scaled“Cultural Infusion” – Caroline Stowell in The Other Journal: “One Sunday morning at my Evangelical Covenant church, the tech team projects a video interview with an Iranian woman who came to Boston for an education and ended up finding Jesus. She encourages us to reach out to those around us, because you never know when someone might be ready to hear about this hope she now has in Christ. I have tears in my eyes by the end as I think of Zahra. Zahra and I met this spring at a Cambridge community playgroup I attend with my twin three-year-old boys, Kyle and Tasman. She’s here from Iran with her two young boys while her husband studies at Harvard. One day, at a playgroup shortly after I watched the video at church, Zahra asks me what else I do with my kids during the week. I tell her about the library story time and the boys’ dance class. Then I tell her about church and the moms group I attend there on Wednesdays.  ‘Church?’ Zahra chirps at me like a startled bird. ‘Mm hmm.’ ‘Are you a Christian?’ ‘Yes,’ I say. She smiles and nods.’You are Muslim?’ I ask, trying not to gesture to the hijab that outlines the olive skin of her face. ‘Muslim? Yes,’ she says.”


Sarah Ruden - The Gospels“The Bible Made Strange: Sarah Ruden’s Four New Gospels” – Scot McKnight at Marginalia: “People think they know how a specific verse should sound. Such opinions flow freely from those who have never learned a word of the original languages. Our Bibles are so Englishy sounding, most readers think their preferred translation is the translation. Add to this that committees authorize our most common translations: the New Revised Standard, the English Standard Version, the New International Version (2011), and the Common English Bible. Authorized translations are publicized and marketed and then used in churches where they acquire sacred standing. Churlish such accusations may be, but each of these translations represents a particular tribe of Christians, and it takes no hard thinking to recognize the tribe behind each. As a sometimes preacher I learned long ago to ask which translation a church uses and go with it, for anything else leads to not-so-gentle questions about one’s orthodoxy. The only translations transcending tribalism are done by individuals, despite the obvious shortcomings of one person translating the whole Bible (Eugene Peterson’s The Message) or separate testaments.”


Roman crucifixion evidence“Best physical evidence of Roman crucifixion found in Cambridgeshire” – Jamie Grierson in The Guardian: “Found at the site of a future housing development in Cambridgeshire, the near 1,900-year-old skeleton at first did not seem particularly remarkable. Aged 25 to 35 at the time of death, the man had been buried with his arms across his chest in a grave with a wooden structure, possibly a bier, at one of five cemeteries around a newly discovered Roman settlement at Fenstanton, between Roman Cambridge and Godmanchester. But once his remains were removed to a laboratory in Bedford, a grisly discovery was made – a nail through the heel bone that experts now say is the best physical evidence of a crucifixion in the Roman world.”


biblical archaeology“How Archaeologists Are Finding the Signatures of Bible Kings, Ancient Villains, and Maybe a Prophet”– Gordon Govier at Christianity Today: “The closest I’ve ever felt to the prophet Jeremiah was sitting at the bottom of an empty cistern. About 20 years ago, I was taken to an excavated water reservoir in Jerusalem and told this could be the actual hole in Jeremiah 38:6 where the prophet was left to starve when four government officials decided they didn’t like his messages from God. I sat on a bench and looked up at the stone walls. Jeremiah sank into the mud, according to the biblical account. But maybe it wasn’t at that spot. Who’s to say it was this cistern, which was dug up in 1998, and not another one that has yet to be found? Or perhaps it will never be found. I could imagine the prophet trapped in that exact place, wondering if God would rescue him, but short of finding ‘Jeremiah’ scratched on the wall, no one could say for sure. In the time since I was there, questions have been raised about that cistern, casting doubt on its role in the Jeremiah drama. It’s not a place people visit these days. Archaeology can take you so close to the biblical world and still leave you wishing someone had left a signature.”


Old-Vintage-Books“A Year of Reading: 2021” – John Wilson in First Things: “I don’t know about you, but my sense of time has been altered—to some extent “thrown off”—by the still-unfolding pandemic. But here we are, approaching the end of another year, and according to the prescribed ritual I entered into a mildly trancelike state to think about books from 2021 that stand out. As usual, I hasten to add that if the list were made on another day, it would be at least slightly different from this one. At any given moment, even when I am not under the spell, books are jostling around in my head. I am particularly looking forward to Toya Wolfe’s novel Last Summer on State Street, coming from William Morrow in June. Just around the corner, I expect to see On the Theory of Prose, a new translation (by Shushan Avagyan) of Viktor Shklovsky’s classic (Dalkey Archive). Then there’s Adam Roberts’s new novel, coming in February in the U.K. (can it really be titled The This, purportedly with reference to Hegel?). But I mustn’t keep going down this path. There are so many books to look forward to, not to mention many more that will take me by surprise. But on with the list. As usual, the titles are (mostly) in alphabetical order; the logic of departures from that rule will be clear. The Books of the Year will come at the end.”


Middle East - disappearing Christians“A Requiem for the Disappearing Christians of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Gaza” – Tim Dowley in Christianity Today: “‘Islamic fundamentalist groups, in particular ISIS, have ravaged parts of Iraq and Syria and brought those countries’ already decimated Christian population to the verge of extinction. In Egypt, Christian Copts face legal and societal discrimination. In Gaza, which in the fourth century was entirely Christian, fewer than one thousand Christians remain.’ Sobering statistics like these set a grim backdrop for The Vanishing, war journalist Janine di Giovanni’s fearless account of what the book’s subtitle calls ‘Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets.’ There can be few better suited or equipped to tell this story than di Giovanni, who has previously reported on the genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Syria and is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. The Vanishing is neither a chronological record of Christian withdrawal nor a geopolitical analysis of religious trends. Instead, di Giovanni offers a kind of requiem for a disappearing religious culture, a tale rendered all the more heart-wrenching for having been written during some of the worst months of the COVID-19 crisis.”


Music: The Porter’s Gate, “Isaiah (O Come),” Advent Songs

A Prayer for Purification

“Is not my word like fire, says the Lord,
and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29)

burn our hearts, O Lord,
with Your pure word.
You, who are consuming fire,
in whose radiant holiness none can stand,
come with refining heat
to purify our wayward hearts
and with Your pure word,
O Lord, burn our hearts.

break our hearts, O Lord,
with Your hammer-strong word.
You, who made all things,
who raise up and throw down,
come with pure fire
to shatter our hardened longings
and with Your hammer-strong word,
O Lord, break our hearts.

A Call to the Wilderness: What We Need to Hear from John the Baptist Today

John the Baptist’s preaching and baptisms occurred in the wilderness of Judea at the Jordan River near the Spring near Salim (John 3:23).

The wilderness was an evocative place in the imagination of the Jewish people. It likely brought immediate memory of the Exodus. The wilderness was both the place between slavery and promise, but also the place where an entire generation died off because of disobedience to God.

Simultaneously, the wilderness was rich in imagery from the prophets. Again and again, the prophets called the people back to the wilderness for a transforming encounter with God. The wilderness was the place of turning from self to God and stripping away of false gods. The wilderness was the place of judgment, purification, and renewal.

The prophet Jeremiah, speaking on brink of Israel’s catastrophic failure and exile, offers these strong words from the Lord:

“This is what the Lord says:
‘I remember the devotion of your youth,
    how as a bride you loved me
and followed me through the wilderness,
    through a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the Lord,
    the firstfruits of his harvest.’” (Jeremiah 2:2-3)

The prophet Hosea, whose very life and message portrayed God’s desire for dedicated love relationship with His people, relates God’s longing to bring the Israelites to the wilderness for a sacred encounter with Him:

“Therefore I am now going to allure her;
    I will lead her into the wilderness
    and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
    and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
    as in the day she came up out of Egypt.” (Hosea 2:14-15)

And so, when John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, he calls people into a radical encounter with God. It is a call to turn from the self and turn to God. It is a call to be stripped of false gods and false self and to face reality. It is a call to judgment, purification, and renewal with God.

In these days, I cannot help but wonder if the people of God must once again enter the wilderness. Could it be that we have forsaken our first love, turned aside to other gods, and must be led away from our captivity into the place of judgment, purification, and renewal with God? May God give us grace to hear what the Holy Spirit is speaking to the church in this hour.

How Do We Hear from God today?

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Through the past two blog posts , I have held up a vision of the God who speaks in various ways and we as His people hearing from Him. That is the vision I want to put in front of us. The prophets heard from God, and their hearing is unique from ours as authoritative Scripture. However, their hearing is not unique from ours in that the Bible tells us the people of God will relate to God as He speaks and we respond.

So, how do we move from the vision of what this is into the reality of hearing God in our everyday lives? Let me suggest a few ways.

Cultivating relationship with God

While it is possible that God will interrupt our lives when we are not looking for Him, I believe the ordinary and regular way that God speaks to us in the context of an ongoing intimate relationship with Him that is cultivated day after day.

In Scripture, we encounter strong relational metaphors for God and His people

  • Parent –child relationship (“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” – Hosea 1:1)
  • Spousal relationship (“‘In that day,’ declares the Lord, ‘you will call me “my husband”; you will no longer call me “my master”’” – Hosea 2:16)
  • Friend relationship (“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends” – John 15:15)

It is within this ongoing relationship with God that we learn to hear His voice.

And so, if we really want to hear the voice of God, we must do whatever it takes to draw near to God, to become familiar with who God is, to read Scripture and pray, to gather in worship and meet with others who are like-minded, so that we might build relationship with God and become more familiar and comfortable in His presence. The more we are with Him, the more likely we are to hear His voice. The less likely we are with Him, the less likely we are to hear His voice.

The words of the prophet Jeremiah have been helpful for me in this way:

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)

So of primary importance in hearing God is knowing God, and cultivating relationship with Him.

 

Learning to Listen

Second, I would suggest we need to learn how to listen for God. When you want to ride a bike, you have to learn how to do it. I still remember my parents and my older brother helping me learn to ride a bike with training wheels and eventually getting a new bike. I still remember teaching my own children how to ride a bike.

If we have to learn how to ride a bike, and we experience some bumps along the way, how much more should we expect that we need to learn how to hear God? Let me suggest four practices that I think will help us cultivate a listening relationship with God

  1. Read Scripture slowly and reflect upon it: If we want to hear from God, then the easiest place to begin is with the Bible. Since we know the Bible is trustworthy and authoritative, we can readily learn to know the character of God and the quality of His voice by reading the Bible. However, let me make one qualification about this. We need to not only read the Bible, but reflect upon the Bible. Many times we read the words of Scripture, but do not let them really trickle down into our lives. We need to slow down and prayerfully read Scripture, pondering the truths into our souls. The longest of the psalms, Psalm 119, is an extended reflection upon the power of the Scripture to shape, guide, correct, and enlighten our lives. We need to let it have its way in us. When reading Scripture, if we want to hear from God, we should read a passage, then take time to read it again, reflect upon it, and let it shape us. If you like to write, you may want to journal about it. If you are a verbal processor, you may want to talk with a good friend about what you are hearing. When we approach Scripture, we should ask, “what does this mean?” But the Scripture has not had its work in us until we ask the next question, “what is God speaking to me personally in this?”
  2. Take time in silence and solitude with God: Think about Peter in Acts 10. Three times God gives him a word with a vision about the inclusion of the Gentiles. Peter was on the roof in the middle of the day. He was undistracted by others and by the hustle & bustle of life so that he could be attentive to God. Without silence and solitude we will not hear the voice of God. It would be like every time you wanted to talk to your best friend or spouse you turned on the television, the radio, and the blender all at the same time. If you really want to have a conversation you need focus and attention. Few things help us with this more than silence and solitude with God.
  3. Talk with God through your day: The first two practices, reflective reading of Scripture and solitude/silence, must happen at a set time and in some place. But this third practice leads us to learn how to hear from God all times and all places. In his letter to the believers in Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul instructs them to “pray continually” or “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17, NIV and NASB). The life of hearing God must continue into our lives beyond set times and places. Some of the best guides on this are two men from vastly different times: Brother Lawrence, a 17th century French monk, and Frank Laubach, a 20th century missionary and worldwide ambassador for literacy. Both of these men learned how to cultivate everyday conversation with God, both speaking and hearing. I would encourage you to read their books, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God and Laubach’s Letters by a Modern Mystic and Games with Minutes. Hearing God does not mean we withdraw from life but that we engage in life with God. We can begin to converse with God in the midst of our activities, work , and other conversations. Let me use an example from my own life. Not too long ago, I was was in a long planning meeting with others, trying to work together to come toward a strategic plan for an initiative.  My first inclination, if I am honest, was to present my best thoughts and hear others’ thoughts so that we can figure this out together at a purely human level. Unintentionally, this was largely a work on the horizontal plane of human relationships and strategies. About two hours into the meeting, I began to realize that what we most needed was to hear from God. What was God speaking to me and to others in that meeting? What was it we most needed? I began to talk a little less, and listen a little more, both to God and to everyone there. I found the surging of my own desire to be heard and my own longing for people to hear and agree with my points began to settle down. I began to ask God, what it was He wanted to do. The heavens did not rip open and neither did an angel open the door to the meeting room, but I did sense that God was stirring us into a specific direction for the conclusion of that meeting and next steps. I sensed I could join in with God in that as I tried to listen to Him while engaging in the conversation. 
  4. Obey what you hear: Finally, let me urge us to the simple practice of obedience to what you hear. The reason God speaks to us is to draw us close relationally, but also to draw us deeper into the life He has for us. One important practice for us is to obey what we hear God speak. The Apostle James describes how important this is in his letter to the early church. He writes: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:22-25). When you hear God speak, obey it. If it is a dramatic thing, ask God for confirmation in His word, through wise counsel, or through your circumstances. But whatever you do, do not fail to do what God speaks into your life. The more we fail to obey, the less likely we are to hear God in our lives. First, we will stuff our ears and dull our hearts through disobedience. Second, He will not entrust us with a word, but will take it and give it to another. The word given is a word to be responded to. Hearing God means obeying God.

Now, one of the saddest moments of my young life in bike riding came shortly after I learned to ride and was given a new bike for my birthday. I was turning from the steep slope of our driveway to the sidewalk in front of our house, and I completely wiped out. The new bike had a few scrapes on it, as did my elbows and knees. Now, I had a decision at that moment: should I give up bike riding forever or should I dust myself off, get on the bike, and keep learning how to ride? Thankfully, I took the latter course, eventually, learning to ride smoothly. As time went on, I learned how to ride with no hands and do some simple tricks on my bike to impress my friends in grade school.

If we have to learn how to listen to God, should we not also expect that there will be bumps along the way? When those moments arise – when we don’t hear correctly, or we’re not sure if it’s us or God, or when we get confused in one way or another – we have a decision: will I give up on developing a conversational relationship with God or will I confess my confusion or failure and try to keep learning? I hope you’ll choose the latter route so that as God speaks to us His people, we will have ears to hear, and lives ready to walk with God wherever He calls us. We may not end up looking like Hosea or Jeremiah, but we will become more truly ourselves as we step more deeply into the adventure of life with God.