On Reading Lamentations

September 3, 2014

There is always reason to weep.

We don’t have to look too far into our world—whether through social media, television, or newsprint—to find reason to weep. Yet, too often we—especially the church—ignore, hide our eyes, or look past the pain in order to escape into fantasy, denial, or hope. We rarely sit in our grief and lament.

Lamentations appears in the Hebrew Bible as a testimony to the value of lament. The whole book is a series of laments, a total of five. Responding to the devastation of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. (described in 2 Kings 25 and Jeremiah 52), the heart-felt cries of sorrow and pain fill the air and ascend to the God of Israel.

However, though focused on a specific moment in Israel’s history, Jewish tradition has recited these poems every year on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av). This annual fast day remembers the day when the Exodus generation was told they would not enter the promised land, the day when the first and second temples were destroyed, the day when the Romans finally defeated the last Jewish rebellion against the Empire in 135 C.E., and the day when the Romans plowed under Jerusalem to rebuild it as a pagan city. Tisha B’Av is the saddest day in the Jewish year, and it symbolizes all the tragedies that have fallen the Jewish people.

Tisha B’Av is Israel’s day of mourning. There is no eating, drinking, or sex on that day. Normally every day is filled with God’s good gifts of creation. Even amidst our daily encounters with hebel (what Ecclesiastes calls the absurdities of life), people eat, drink, and enjoy their spouses (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:7-10). But not on this day! On this day, the day when Lamentations is read, there is no joy. It is a day of lament.

Lamentations, to use the title of Leslie C. Allen’s book, is a “liturgy of grief.” These five laments express the pain of tragedy, call believers to an introspective faith, and accept God’s work among them. The laments help believers walk through their grief. It does not ignore or suppress the pain. On the contrary, it voices it. The community neither walks around nor backs away from the grief. Instead, they walk through it.

Lamentations appears in the Hebrew Bible as a communal lament where the people of God remember their story, express their grief, and appeal to their God. Tisha B’Av provides Judaism with a rhythm that incorporates grief into their faith and thereby integrates their experiences of real pain with authentic faith. Sorrow is expressed rather than suppressed.

The historic liturgies of the church have used Lamentations during Holy Week in the light of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (Tenebrae Services). The laments express the sorrow for sin and grieve death. The Christian Church, then, has adopted this resource within the Hebrew Bible to provide a rhythm of sorrow, repentance, and humility within its own calendar. Lamentations is incorporated into the climax of Lent as Holy Week moves toward Easter.

We read Lamentations, then, to (1) learn to lament, (2) to practice lament, and (3) to move through lament into God’s mercy.

Lamentations is actually five laments; each chapter is its own self-contained lament. We do not know who wrote them (they are anonymous), though an ancient (as early as the Septuagint translation) and strong tradition attributes them to Jeremiah. Whoever the author, they have functioned as significant communal laments for the people of God.

  1. Lament One is a poem where the first letter of each tricolon (three lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses, which is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet).
  2. Lament Two is also a poem where the first letter of each tricolon (three lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses).
  3. Lament Three is a poem where the first letter of each colon (represented as verses) within the tricolon begins with the same letter of the alphabet and the tricolons form an acrostic (therefore, sixty-six verses).
  4. Lament Four is a poem where the first letter of each bicolon (two lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses).
  5. Lament Five is a poem formed by a series of twenty-two bicolons but there is no acrostic pattern.

While the relationship between these five poems will require our attention in coming blogs, it seems rather obvious that the central poem (Lament Three) is the pinnacle of the book. There are several stylistic as well as theological reasons for such a judgment. It is appears at the center in a unique poetic form, and it reminds Israel of God’s everlasting mercy. Consequently, we might picture Lamentations as a rising crescendo in the first two chapters that is climaxed in the third and with a descending decrescendo in the last two chapters.

In this view, Lamentations begins with lament as the book opens with the word ‘ekah (how?)—as does 2:1 and 4:1. Indeed, this is the Hebrew title of the book (“Lamentations” comes through the Latin Vulgate.). But the book ends with a prayer to Yahweh, “Restore us to yourself” (5:21-22). Between the laments and the prayer is the bold assertion—and probably the most well-known line in Lamentations—“the steadfast love of Yahweh never ceases” (3:22) and the confession “Yahweh is my portion” (3:24).

Lamentations, then, has the classic elements of lament itself. There is (1) complaint, including a description of the horrible circumstances under which people suffer. There is (2) petition, which appeals to Yahweh to transform the situation. But there is also (3) praise, which comes in the form of confident confession and hope.

Lament is not simply wallowing in one’s sorrow as if it is a function of self-pity alone. It includes that as well as other forms of complaint. But it is much more. It is also petition and praise.

Lament moves us through the grief toward a confident hope in God. It takes time, and it takes practice, that is, it takes the practice of lament itself. We must take the time to talk it out with God and in community.

Lamentations provides a resource for the people of God to voice their hurts, offer their petitions, and express their faith.


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 3)

August 22, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first and second blogs in this series are here and here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Have You Not Read the Scriptures?

“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”  Matthew 12:7

Shank reads Scripture with the goal of getting it “right” in order to be saved. One must be baptized for the “right reason,” and one must be faithful to the “true [right] church.” We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right. So, if you don’t get it absolutely and precisely “right”—in teaching and practice—then one is lost and “headed for eternal destruction.”

The Right Baptism and Right Church

What must we get right? Here is Shank’s list, at least as it appears in the book:

  • Baptism is absolutely necessary
  • Baptism for the right reason is absolutely necessary
  • Faithful to the true church of Christ
  • A right name
  • The right organization (autonomous congregationalism)
  • Right leadership (when qualified: elders, deacons, and evangelists)
  • The right “articles of worship” in the assembly
  • Weekly Lord’s Supper and only on Sunday
  • Weekly free will offerings and only on Sunday (no tithing)
  • A cappella singing
  • Teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel through hearing, believing, repenting, confessing and being baptized.

These are teachings and practices within churches of Christ that have a long history of discussion. I will not take the time to deal with each one in the list in this short blog, though they are important and deserve attention (and I have done some of that in the ebook). Rather, I am more concerned about what lies underneath, that is, the assumptions that shape this way of reading the Bible.

But, first, there are at least two problems with the list itself. Notice (1) what is missing from this list. When Randall seeks to identify the “true church of Christ,” there is nothing about the ministry and mission of the church but only the form and procedures of the church. The list says nothing about what the church does outside the building, how it ministers to the poor, or what the mission of the church is. That is not to say that Shank does not have opinions about these points—I would assume he does and sometimes they come out in marginal ways in the book, but his book defines the nature of what it means to talk about the church in an evangelistic tract. His purpose is polemical—to convince denominationalists that their denominations are wrong. Consequently, it is not ultimately about the fullness of the church of God and its mission in the world, but rather about specific items that, in effect, defend the teaching and practice of the “churches of Christ” (the ones with that name on their signs) in contrast to the denominations.

(2) I also have a problem with the function of this list. Is every one of these necessary in order to have a faithful church? Must one be a member of a group of Jesus-followers who practice Christianity in precise conformity to this list in order to be “faithful to the church”?

If we answer “Yes,” then it is rather strange that the New Testament does not have this list somewhere present within its pages as a list? If this is a prescribed list, then where is the list of prescriptions within the pages of the New Testament?

If we answer “Yes,” then are we an unfaithful church if we are missing any one of these items or fail to do them perfectly? Is this also true if a congregation does not minister to the poor, fails to speak out against injustice in the world, refuses to fully integrate, etc., etc. How perfect does a congregation need to be in order to be “faithful,” and how well must a congregation comply with this list in order to be “faithful”?

Such a list does not appear in the New Testament, and Paul, for example, does not engage congregations through his letters in ways that assume a kind of perfectionism or an assumption of prescribed list of forms that identify the true church of Christ. Instead, he calls us to transformed living, encouraging assemblies that conform to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, living together in love, and a missional orientation to the world. Paul points us to the heart of Jesus rather than to the forms of a legal code.

Consequently, Shank’s evangelistic tract reads quite differently from the New Testament itself. While Shank’s book is filled with prescribed, perfectionistic legal technical lists about how to “do church,” there are no such lists in the New Testament, and what lists there are encourage transformed living (e.g., Galatians 5:22; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

Legal Approach to Scripture

Shank, in effect, uses the Bible to discover the law codes embedded within the story and finds them even where there are no codified prescriptions in the text. Narratives are turned into legal prescriptions. This seems reasonable to Shank because his primary question is, “What does the Bible require us to do?” So, he searches for the requirements and finds them in narratives and letters in order to construct a pattern for the church. And, surprisingly (if indeed the Bible is intended to provide such a pattern), this pattern is nowhere simply and/or fully stated. It has to be pieced together like a puzzle, and we have to find the pieces scattered throughout the Bible. We must connect the dots through inference, assumptions, and expectations of what we think the Bible is supposed to tell us.

Shank expects a pattern and therefore searches till he finds one even if he has to piece it together with examples and inferences. He has to fill in the blanks with more than explicit statements. And where the pieces (specific commands) are missing, we infer their presence (by example or inference). In effect, he finds it because Randall followed an interpretative model (coupled with assumptions) that constructed the pattern for him without questioning the exegesis (interpretation) of the texts utilized and without recognizing his assumptions about how he is reading the Bible.

This is a major concern with Muscle and A Shovel. It reads the Bible with a central concern to discover something it expects to find, and the book assumes that the way to find it is to piece together scattered prescriptions (and non-explicit [even unstated] prescriptions like examples and inferences) in order to construct a pattern that is not explicitly there.

There is a better way to read the story of God in Scripture.

Here lies a fundamental difference between how Shank reads the Bible and how I read it. For Shank, the fundamental question the Bible answers is, “What does God require of me?” For me, the fundamental question is, “What is the story into which God invites me?” The former is a legal question, but the latter is a missional one. The former wants to know what is legal or illegal. The latter wants to know the divine mission and how we might participate in it.

Muscle and a Shovel misses the central story of Scripture. Shank reads the Bible with a legal concern operating at the heart of his hermeneutic. This obscures the missional nature of Scripture itself. There is little to nothing in Muscle and a Shovel that gives us much hint about the grand narrative of Scripture—a loving God who created and nurtured the world for the sake of loving fellowship, who chose Israel as a light among the nations, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth to redeem the sin, pain, and hurt of this world, and who poured out the Holy Spirit to sanctify and empower a community that they might be dedicated to good works. As an evangelistic tract, it does not tell the story of the gospel. Rather, it converts people to a church pattern, the data for which is mined out of Scripture, abstracted from its original historical context, and then used to construct something that does not exist in Scripture, that is, a specific legal blueprint for how to do church. It converts people to a plan (a church pattern) rather than to Jesus.

When Paul called Titus to teach sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), that healthy teaching included an ethical life, an understanding of what God has done in Christ, the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, and the hope of eternal life (Titus 2:2-3:8). It did not include the specifics of a church pattern as outlined in Shank’s book. Rather, telling the gospel story (much like Paul summarizes in Titus 3:3-8) is how one builds communities of faith who are dedicated to good works. I don’t think Muscle and A Shovel followed that pattern, that is, the book does not follow the example of Paul in teaching the great truths of the Christian faith.

The hermeneutical (how we read) shift from “shaped by a story” (regulated by the gospel story narrated in the ministry and life of Jesus, anticipated by Israel, and lived out in the early church) rather than “codified in the prescriptions” (rulebook) is a huge one for many people. The former permits contextualization while the latter is rigid replication. The latter often thrives in fear (did we get that right?) or arrogance (we got it right!) while the former stimulates incarnational, missional practice (how might we embody the story in our context?).

When we read Scripture though the lens of a legal, perfectionistic lens, we have to get it right in order to be saved. We have to be baptized for the “right reason,” and we have to be faithful to the right church. We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right.

When we read Scripture through the lens of a missional God, the story unfolds as the divine pursuit of a people whom God transforms into the image of God for the sake of mission to the world. That story is more about direction than it is perfection, and God accepts and welcomes imperfect seekers.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

When I finished reading Shank’s book, I was neither angry nor enthused. I was sad.

Over my forty-plus years of preaching and teaching I have slowly shifted from reading Scripture as a legal textbook designed to provide a specific pattern to reading Scripture as a story in we participate by imitating God. Rather than servile slaves whose obedience is rewarded and disobedience is punished based on keeping the technicalities of the law, we are God’s partners in the divine mission who are enabled by the power of God to participate in the unfolding story of God. 

The fundamental problem with Muscle and a Shovel is that it exalts sacrifice over mercy (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7). It assumes that humanity was made for rituals (baptism, church patterns, etc.) rather than rituals made for humanity. It prioritizes “sacrifice” (ritual patterns) over “mercy” (transformation).

In other words, Muscle and a Shovel makes the same mistake that the Pharisees made. It does not understand that God desires mercy over sacrifice, that is, God embraces the heart that seeks mercy over the heart that exalts rituals—even prescribed ones!—over seeking, trusting hearts.

May God have mercy!

 

 


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 2)

August 21, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first blog in this series is here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here. In my first post, I described the purpose of Shank’s book and the ways in which I appreciate its effort. However, I have some serious concerns about the book which I will now address in two posts. A full review of 21,000 words is available here.]

Gracious Speech

Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.”   Colossians 4:5-6

Kindness to All

How Shank describes “denominational” leaders and churches is polarizing and disrespectful. This is a significant problem.

It sets up a not-so-subtle contrast—even if true—between “the denominations” and “the truth” that is emotional in character. The portrayal of denominational leaders as unhelpful and greedy, for example, contrasts with Randall and real truth-seekers. Denominational leaders are dismissed categorically. This plays well emotionally in some quarters, but it is an unfounded generalization.

Denominational leaders do not come off very well in this book. They are “arrogant Pastors” (8:1115), and Michael’s Baptist Pastor, in particular, is “condescending” (8:1083), “pompous” (9:1149, 28:4778), greedy (23:3694), and “lives off our donations while [he] parks his fat a__ in that fancy chair that we pay for” (8:1095). “Denominational preachers seem to love and crave the glory that is of men more than the glory that is of God” (28:4752). They are nothing but “false teachers” (30:5063) who pervert the gospel (40:6543-45) and thus are anathema (cursed) by God. Pastors, or “denominational preachers,” are “religious experts” (24:3858), “high-paid, well educated, professional clergyman” (24:3884) who “no longer endure sound doctrine” (28:4747) and demand others “call them by a spiritual title [Reverend] with a word that’s used in the [KJV] Bible exclusively for God’s name” (28:4744). This language judges motives, sincerity, and their love for God.

As such, the narrative implies a personal, character-driven, question: Who will you believe? Would you believe Michael’s pastor who “responded in a condescending tone that conveyed an unspoken message which told me I was stupid for wasting his precious time with such a rudimentary and trivial question” (8:1084) or Randall who was “encouraging, meek, respectful, and it was evident that he really loved God” (5:853)? The narrative sets us up so that if we believe the denominational preachers, then we have chosen the “bad” character in the narrative over the hero in the story. This is nothing more than an emotional appeal based on broad generalizations and narrow experiences.

Denominational churches don’t come off well either. While I could go point-by-point with repeated misunderstandings and caricatures of denominational teachings (including Michael’s historical errors, which abound in the book–see my book review for some details), I will note only how Michael assesses the “Community Churches.” His critique is particularly harsh based on a visit to a Bible class in an unidentified community church. From this experience (and a few others) he provides a sweeping characterization of community churches. They are “no brain, no backbone, all fluff” and they stand “for almost nothing” (20:3222). Recognizing his attitude “wasn’t exactly Christian,” he regarded the community church folk as “a bunch of idiots” (21:3267). The “Community Church crowd” is “sweaty-palmed, weak-kneed, rosy-cheeked, wishy-washy, feel-good, stand-for-nothing, ineffectual, spineless, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-just-get-along garbage” (21:3293). They “accept everything except true Bible unity,” and the community he visited “needed psychiatric help” (22:3547).

The language is unkind and lacks gentleness. Michael’s rants sound more like extreme political rhetoric (whether left or right) than something that belongs in an evangelistic tract proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Scripture calls us to a different sort of engagement with people than what is reflected in these attitudes expressed by Michael (and some stated by Randall). Hear the word of God:

“Remind them…to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Titus 3:1-2

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3:17

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, apt to teach, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” 2 Timothy 2:24-25

I leave it to the reader to judge whether Shank’s book reflects the values expressed by the above Scriptures.

The book does not listen well. Denominational preachers and churches are summarily dismissed as inept and ignorant. The narrative oozes with disrespect for others, and there is no extended attempt to listen to them, their views, or give them a fair hearing. Counter-arguments are rarely advanced, and nuances are overlooked. Denominational preachers and churches are caricatured rather than heard. It is insulting rather than spiritually forming.

Jesus calls us to be, like God, “kind to the ungrateful and evil” (Luke 6:35) and to live with mercy toward others (Luke 10:37) because “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

The book’s language appeals to emotion, prejudice (towards education, ministerial profession, etc.), and class-envy.

Honest Hearts

Honesty is a key word in Michael’s story. It appears, in some form, thirty-four times. It is the undertow of the book. Honesty is the key virtue in reading the Bible correctly. And, of course, honesty is a godly virtue.

At the same time, the way honesty appears within Michael’s story is condescending and lacks humility. Since Michael was honest, and if everyone else is as honest as he was and as diligent as he was, then everyone would come to the same conclusion that he did. In other words, people are only truly honest and sufficiently diligent if they agree with Michael.

Michael sometimes recognizes that there are many honest people among the denominations. To his credit, he acknowledges that there are good, honest, and sincere people in various denominations (17:2532, 24:3804) though “blind guides” lead them (24:3861). But—and this is the significant point—they are misguided, deceived, or satisfied with their present circumstances to the extent that they will not question received traditions. In other words, denominational people (especially leaders) won’t deal honestly with the text or its context. “They won’t reason together honestly,” Michael opines, “They won’t sincerely listen” (5:815). Such judgments of motives are unkind, and Michael has no way of knowing whether they are actually true or not.

It is almost as if when one disagrees with Michael, they are insincere and dishonest. Is that really a fair characterization? Is that the standard of honesty? Is one dishonest because they disagree or thinks that a text should be interpreted differently than Michael interprets it?

Michael believes that his particular understanding of the “gospel is so simple that every person of sound mind and accountable age can understand it and obey if they choose to,” and this will happen if “honest-hearted people” read the Bible for themselves. In other words, if you are honest and your use your muscle and shovel (show due diligence), you will agree with Michael. And if you don’t agree with Michael, then you—assuming you are of “sound mind and of accountable age”—are dishonest, lazy (including apathy and other similar vices), or, more ominously, rebellious and unwilling to listen to the truth.

Randall, in fact, says: “Mr. Mike, there is no rational spiritually honest person in the world who can refute God’s plan of salvation” (that is, the way Randall construes that “plan;” 35:5782). And, Michael counsels, “if you are honest with yourself and with God you’ll flee from man-made denominations” (38:6165). “No honest individual after studying” the Bible could do otherwise (39:6375).

Listen to how Michael summarizes this point near the end of the book (39:6279)

Denominationalists refuse to accept the entirety of God’s plan of redemption for mankind. They ignore the elements that they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept.

However, when honest, sincere, good-hearted, moral, Truth-seeking people research the entirety of the Scriptures, they consistently and unanimously find God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is [and then we have the five steps of salvation listed, JMH; my emphasis]

So, if one does not come to the same conclusion as Michael, then they lack one of the virtues listed. They are dishonest rather than “honest,” or they are insincere rather than “sincere,” or they are malevolent rather than “good-hearted,” or immoral rather than “moral,” or apathetic rather than “Truth-seeking,” or perhaps they were too lazy or apathetic to research it sufficiently. But if anyone has these moral virtues along with a due exercise of muscle and a shovel, then they will join with everyone else who has those virtues because it is consistent and unanimous in the lives of good-hearted, honest, moral and sincere people. In summary, if you don’t agree with Michael, you are either “ignorant or dishonest with God’s Word” (39:6366).

I think that is an unfair account of life. It lacks humility and kindness. In other words, it loudly declares to fellow-believers in Jesus, “I know I’m right, and if you disagree with me, then there is something wrong with you! There is something wrong with your heart!”

May God have mercy!

 


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 1)

August 11, 2014

 [Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Obeying the Gospel

In 2011, Michael Shank published the story of his own conversion. He describes how he was convicted by his encounter with the word of God when an African American co-worker named Randall led him through Scripture. Previously, Michael was a church-going Baptist whose sincerity was authentic and whose life was decent and moral but less than thoroughly dedicated. In other words, Michael was “Christian” in mostly a nominal sense (4:582-596).

He was awakened from his apathetic slumbers when Randall, in the light of 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, asked, “have you obeyed the gospel of our Lord?” (3:449). Michael soon learned, through Randall’s gentle questioning, that “saying the Sinner’s Prayer is not obeying the gospel of Christ” (3:478). This set Michael on a quest, mostly under Randall’s tutelage, to “know what the gospel was and how people obeyed it” (3:484).

Searching raised many questions for Michael, which Randall addressed. They discussed baptism, how the church is organized (pastors, elders, bishops, deacons), what kind of music a church should use (instrumental?), denominationalism, Calvinism, unity, and tithing as well as other questions. Michael wanted to know the truth—he asked religious leaders, read his Bible, researched at the library, and studied with Randall.

In the end, Michael and his wife Jonetta were baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ in Nashville, TN.

The book is an evangelistic narrative. Michael Shank came to the conclusion that though he was “saved” at the age of eight in a Baptist church and was immersed at the age of thirteen in a Baptist congregation, he had not really obeyed the gospel. He only obeyed the gospel when he was baptized on March 15, 1988 at 1:15am (38:6004).

Not only an evangelistic narrative, the book is an extended evangelistic tract. Towards the end of the book, Michael invites his readers to obey the gospel:

            “Friend, if you’ve read this book in its entirety you have been taught of God” (38:6103).

            “Someone gave you this book for a reason….Will you obey the gospel of Jesus Christ or will you reject it?” (38:6112, 6121)

Chapter Thirty-Nine, after a brief history of the Sinner’s Prayer, outlines “God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is” (39:6278ff): hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.

Michael portrays his own conversion story as an objective search for truth in the Scriptures. His final chapter (Forty) begins with this appeal

            Please let me point out something that I hope is completely apparent. I’ve used no personal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. I’ve merely shared my story and revealed the Scriptures of God just as it happened.

            Here’s the hard part. Will you accept the simple, plain, straight-forward teaching of God’s Word (40:6502)?

Consequently, Michael encourages everyone “to get out your shovel and dig. Read the Word for yourself. See whether the things I’ve shared with you in this book are really so” (40:6560). It takes “muscle and a shovel” to discover for oneself what the Bible teaches. It takes some persistent willingness (muscle) and honesty (shovel) to dig deep enough—to work hard enough—to discover the “Truth.” “It takes a heart that is willing to dig. It takes an honest heart (Luke 8:15) that is willing to lay aside preconceived ideas” (24:3846).

What Did Michael Find When He Dug Deep?

The “Truth” Michael discovered was essentially “proper scriptural baptism,” and how this ushered him into “the true church of Christ,” which is the body of Christ (26:4246). This is the basic message of the book, that is, it is “about the gospel and the church of our Lord” (22:3562). Baptism is the moment God saves because it is the moment we reenact the gospel; it is the “split second in time” when sins are washed away (38:6075).

This is a critical discovery for Michael. Since it is the gospel that saves and baptism is the reenactment of that gospel, God saves in baptism because of what God does in baptism. Consequently, Michael emphatically states, “The argument that men and women can be saved before baptism is a lie. It originates from the father of lies who was a murderer from the beginning and in whom is no truth” (21:3453, emphasis in original).

Baptism is only biblical if the believer submits to it for the “right reason.” Specifically, Randall said, “If you get into the water of baptism thinking that your sins are forgiven before you get into the water, you’re not being baptized for the right reason. That’s not Bible baptism” (35:5677). The “right reason” is to be baptized for (in order to receive) the remission of sins in accordance with Acts 2:38 (21:3360). So, Michael reasoned, “if I got into the water thinking I had no sins, I was not baptized for the remission of sins. I wasn’t baptized like those in the Bible were baptized. It wasn’t biblical” (36:5872).

God adds the baptized to the church, the body of Christ. What group is that on the contemporary scene? What are the criteria for identifying the “church of Christ”? “The way you identify the true church of Christ today is” by what “it teaches and how it practices” (26:4247).

Randall has a rather long list and it is a particular sort of list (a summary begins at 32:5380). Here is the list—“Plain Bible teaching with no human opinions” (25:4194):

  • biblical name or descriptor (25:4136)
  • non-denominational (25:4172)
  • autonomous congregationalism (25:4180)
  • governed by elders, served by deacons, and headed by Christ (25:4180, 27:4464)
  • “five articles of worship” on the first day of every week, including the Lord’s Supper, prayer, singing, giving and preaching (26:4251)
  • the Lord’s supper every first day and exclusively on Sunday (26:4281)
  • singing without instrumental accompaniment (26:4361)
  • free will offerings without the regulation of tithing (27:4349)
  • teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel (30:4960).

The church of Christ practices and believes only what is prescribed in the Bible. It is the New Testament church because, guided by the New Testament alone, it neither adds nor subtracts from what is prescribed there.

In essence, Muscle and a Shovel is about how to obey the gospel and what constitutes the true church of Christ. According to Shank, one must be immersed in water for the right reason (for the remission of sins) and be “faithful to the [right] church” (25:4005) in order to have eternal life.

This explains one of Randall’s earlier statements, which startled Michael, and—no doubt—astounds others. Nevertheless, it is the clear import of what Randall taught Michael.

“Mr. Mike,” [Randall] said meekly, “from my understanding of God’s Word, if you’re a member of a denomination, whether it be Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Mormon, any church that Jesus Christ did not establish and buy with His blood, there’s no question that you’re headed toward eternal destruction” (6:941).

What I Appreciate

I value a non-denominational approach to Christianity, a high view of the independence and importance of the local congregation, the government of the congregation by wise, experienced, and godly elders, weekly communion at the table of the Lord, and an emphasis on congregational generosity rather than imposed financial programs.

I also value believer’s baptism. I appreciate how baptism is given more significance than the “Sinner’s Prayer.” Indeed, I have argued, as Michael also ultimately concludes, that baptism is the sinner’s prayer (cf. my 2004 Down in the River to Pray with Greg Taylor, p. 197).

I welcome the reports of baptisms that arise from the reading of Muscle and a Shovel, and I rejoice when anyone is immersed in obedience to God out of an authentic trust in Jesus as Redeemer.

What I most appreciate about the book is how Randall serves as a model for us.

In fact, Shank says this is one of the major reasons for publishing the book. He wanted to encourage us: “Will you become a Randall?” (40:6736). When he reviewed the notebook that he rediscovered in 2008, he knew “Randall’s attitude, approach, love, sincerity, persistence, scriptural ability, compassion, faithfulness, and desire to save the lost was a story that needed to be told” (40:6652).

One of the most encouraging aspects of the book is how everyone is called to read the Bible for themselves without a slavish dependence upon creeds, Pastors, or traditions. Everyone must pick up the shovel and dig; pick up the Bible and study it. Everyone must take responsibility for their own spiritual journey, including whether and how they read the Bible.

Another formative aspect of the story was its inter-generational and multiracial nature. Randall is African American, and Michael is Caucasian; Randall was in his mid-thirties, and Michael was twenty; Michael served in a higher capacity in the company for which they both worked. Michael was baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ, which is, arguably, the “mother” of all African American churches of Christ. Marshall Keeble called this Nashville (TN) congregation home, and Alexander Campbell (African American), S. W. Womack, G. P. Bower, and Keeble planted it in 1896. The Jackson Street church has long honored God in many ways, especially in their support of evangelism and a passion for the lost. So, this is a beautiful testimony to how two men can study together, love each other, and embrace each other in the Lord despite their social, economic, generational, and ethnic differences. It truly embodies Colossians 3:11—what matters is a renewed image of God, not our economic, social, or ethnic status.

The relationship between Michael and Randall illustrates how one person can lead another into deeper discipleship. Michael saw the testimony of Randall’s life, and Randall loved Michael enough to speak into his life. The fruit of this relationship is the heart of the story.

In my next two blogs, I will address some of the book’s serious deficiencies.


Nashville Cherry Street Christian Church Burned (1857)

July 4, 2014

This is the report in Nashville’s Republican Banner (April 9, 1857), page 3.

Destructive Fire!

 CHURCH BURNED!–LOSS $25,000

The cry of fire was raised yesterday morning between 5 and 6 o’clock, by the discovery of flames issuing from a small Carpenter Shop in South Field, near the Depot of the Tenn. & Ala. R. R., which was entirely consumed. The shop and contents, valued at about $1200, were owned by Hartley & Atkinson, and the loss is to them a heavy one. There was a large amount of work in the shop just got out. This fire was the work of incendiaries.

About an hour after the above, and before the Engines had returned to their quarters, the alarm was again given, and flames were discovered issuing from the cupola of the Christian Church on Cherry Street. In a few moments the entire cupola and tall steeple, which were of wood, were enveloped in a flame. In the meantime the flames seemed to be making headway in the interior of the Church, and presently the roof fell in. The steeple continued to burn, until there was nothing left of it but the framework, when it fell with a crash into the Church. The falling of the walls followed immediately, and in a very short time the whole edifice was consumed.

The Christian Church was a new edifice, and one of the most convenient, and the handsomest of the kind, in the interior especially in the city. It was built at a cost of $20,000. There was no insurance, underwriters having refused, we understand, to take a risk upon it on account of the fact that attempts have been made to burn it heretofore.

It is the general and confidential opinion that it was set on fire. The only other way to account for its burning is that it caught from the fire which was discovered an hour previous. But it is believed from observations taken that the fire commenced inside. One of the watchmen informs us that he was passing there in the morning and heard a roaring inside but did not suspect the cause. We hear it reported that two men were seen emerging from the Church about daylight, in the morning, but this report is not authenticated.


Peace and Inheritance (Joshua 13-21)

July 2, 2014

Inheritance (or, possession) occurs fifty times in the book of Joshua, and everyone of them, except for five (11:23; 23:4; 24:28,30,32), occur in chapters 12-21. Further, the verb “to possess or inherit” occurs nine times in Joshua, eight times in Joshua 13-21. So, fifty-three of the fifty-nine occurrences of this word group occur in Joshua 13-21 That is a fairly solid clue to the book’s major emphasis in its second half (and all but two occurrences are found in Joshua 13-24).

The first half of Joshua narrates the entrance of Israel into the land of Canaan and the successful northern and southern military campaigns that secured the land for Israel (at least much of it). The final line of chapter eleven signals the end of the “conquest” (at least in terms of major offensives): “And the land had rest from war.” Chapter twelve recounts the victories.

The last verse of Joshua 11, however, also introduces us to the major theme of Joshua 13-21.

So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.

Two ideas in this conclusion to the first half of Joshua are particularly significant for the theology of Joshua in the second half of the book, and they are intertwined.

First, “the land had rest from war” (also Joshua 14:15). This theme extends into Judges both positively (3:11, 30; 5:31; 8:28) and negatively (18:7, 18). In the former, God gives Israel “rest” through liberating them from oppressors. In the latter, the Danites slaughter a peaceful, quiet (“rest”) town for their own selfish ends; they seize what does not belong to their “inheritance.”

“Rest” appears in the Chronicler’s history. It is what God gives to Israel when they seek Yahweh (cf 2 Chronicles 14:1, 5-6; 20:30; 23:21). In those days of “rest,” there was “no war” (2 Chronicles 14:5).

“Rest” reappears in the prophets as part of the promises of God. The righteous will rest, but the wicked will not (Isaiah 14:7; 30:15; 32:17; 57:20). Ultimately, God’s people will find rest in the land once again without fear (Jeremiah 30:10; 46:27). Both Isaiah and Micah see a time when the nations will learn war no more, the earth will be at peace, and no one will be afraid (Isaiah 2; Micah 4).

The “rest” that God intended for Israel in Canaan is also the rest that God intends for all nations. God created the heavens and the earth for peace rather than war; it was for “rest” rather than chaos. God created and rested; God created and dwelt with humanity. The heavens and the earth are God’s home (Isaiah 66:1-2), and it is given to humanity as a “rest.” Chaos, sin, and the rule of the principalities and powers subvert God’s intent, but there yet remains a “rest” for the people of God (Hebrews 4:4, 8, 10).

Second, God gave the “land for an inheritance to Israel.” Joshua 11:23 is the first time the noun appears in Joshua. The land is Israel’s inheritance (cf. Numbers 34:2; Deuteronomy 4:21, 38; 15:4; 19:10; 20:16; 21:23; 24:4; 25:19; 26:1; Psalm 105:11; 136:21-22), just as Israel itself is God’s own “inheritance” (possession; Deuteronomy 4:20; 9:26, 29; 1 Samuel 10:1; 1 Kings 8:51-53). God gives Israel (God’s own inheritance) an inheritance.

Joshua 14:2-3 summarizes the division of the land:

Their inheritance was by lot, as the Lord had commanded Moses for the nine and one-half tribes. For Moses had given an inheritance to the two and one-half tribes beyond the Jordan; but to the Levites he gave no inheritance among them.

 Joshua 19 is peppered with this line:  “This is the inheritance of the tribe….” Forty-five times in Joshua 13-21 the writer, by the use of this term, stresses the theological meaning of this moment. Israel’s possession of the land is an inheritance from Yahweh.

This language has both creational and eschatological meaning.  God’s gift of the land to Israel is analogous to God’s creation of the earth. God gave the cosmos to Adam and Eve, and “placed” (rested; Genesis 2:15) them in the Garden to serve and protect it (which is a priestly task). Adam and Eve were priests in God’s temple, God’s home. This was God’s inheritance for humanity. God created humanity so that it might reign with God within the creation–to live within the creation as God’s partner in the cosmos.

This is eschatological as well since the new heaven and new earth are what God creates as an inheritance for redeemed humanity. What Israel inherited in the book of Joshua is a type of the inheritance that God will give to humanity. A day is coming when not only Israel is the “heritage” of God, but also Egypt and Assyria are God’s people and the work of God’s hands (Isaiah 19:25). A day is coming when the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).

God gives the land, and God gives rest. At the same time, Israel was an active agent in the process by which the land came to rest from its wars. Israel defeated many kings (Joshua 12), but there was yet much of the land that Israel had not yet taken possession of (Joshua 13). Israel was engaged in a process of clearing the land; a process of eliminating (subduing) the chaos (Joshua 18:1).

Just as God placed humanity in the Garden and they were told to subdue the chaos in the rest of the earth (Genesis 1:28), so God’s people (like Israel before them) are given the task of subduing the chaos. Within the story of Jesus and the church, this task is not a violent one but rather the pursuit of peace and righteousness. The church “subdues” the chaos (including sin and unrighteousness) through redemptive suffering rather than violent revolution. Through that pursuit “rest” for all nations will emerge as God renews all things through Jesus.

Our kingdom task is to subdue the chaos through practicing peace. God promises to renew the earth and create a anew heaven and new earth where righteousness and peace dwell (2 Peter 3:13).

In this way, God will fulfill the promise to Abraham. The land Abraham was promised was but a reflection of the promise to humanity in creation itself. Abraham, according to Paul, was mad the “heir of the cosmos” (Romans 4:13).  In Abraham’s seed, in the Messiah, we have become the heirs of Abraham (Galatians 3:29). We are the heirs of the cosmos, and in the new heaven and new earth we shall inherit the earth and enter into God’s rest.

***This is the substance of a lecture given at Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration 2014***

Below is the handout I gave to the class:

Joshua 13-21
John Mark Hicks
Summer Celebration 2014
Lipscomb University

Claiming the Inheritance (Joshua 13-21)

Brief Outline of Joshua (adapted from David Malick)

I. The Book of War
A. Preparation for Conquest (1:1-5:15).
B. The Prosecution of the War (6:1-11:23).
C. Battle Report (12:1-24).

II. The Book of Inheritance.
A. East of Jordan Inheritance (13:1-33).
B. Caleb’s Inheritance (14:1-14).
C. West of Jordan Inheritance (15:1-19:48).
1. Judah (15:1-63).
2. Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh (16:1-17:18).
3. The Sanctuary (18:1)
4. Remaining Tribes (18:2-19:48).
D. Joshua’s Inheritance (19:49-51).
E. Cities for Justice and Ministry (20:1-21:42)

III. Epilogue: Covenant Life in the Land (22-24).

Key Texts

Joshua 11:23 — So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.

Joshua 18:1 — Then the whole congregation of the Israelites assembled at Shiloh, and set up the tent of meeting there. The land lay subdued before them.

Joshua 21:43-45 — Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to their ancestors that he would give them; and having taken possession of it, they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their ancestors; not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.

The Inheritance

Verb: Josh 1:6; 13:32; 14:1; 16:4; 17:6; 19:9, 49, 51 = nine occurrences.
Noun: Josh 11:23; 13:6-8, 14, 23, 28, 33; 14:2-3, 9, 13-14, 20; 16:5, 8; 17:4, 6, 14; 18:2, 4, 7, 20, 28; 19:1-2, 8-10, 16, 23, 31, 39, 41, 48-49, 51; 21:3; 23:4; 24:8, 30, 32 = fifty occurrences

Rest

One Word Group: Josh 1:13, 15; 3:13; 4:3, 8; 6:23; 21:44; 22:4; 23:1 [Gen 2:15; 8:4; Exod 16:23-24; 20:11; 33:14; Deut 3:20; 5:14; 25:19; Isa 14:7].
Another Word Group: Josh 11:23; 14:15 [cf. Isa 14:7; Jer 30:10].

Josh 1:13 — ‘The LORD your God is providing you a place of rest, and will give you this land.’

The Sanctuary – Renewed “Garden of Eden” (Joel 2:3; Ezek 36:35)

The whole congregation assembled (or, the whole assembly gathered, LXX)

“Whole congregation” (Exod 12:3, 47; 16:1-2, 9-10; 17:1; 35:1, 4, 20; Lev 4:13; 19:2; Num 1:2; 8:9, 20; 13:26; 14:7; 15:25-26; 16:5-6, 11, 16, 41; 25:6; 26:2; 27:20; Josh 22:12, 16, 18, 20; 1 Kgs 8:5; 2 Chr 5:6).

“Assembled” (Ex. 32:1; 35:1; Lev 8:3; Num 1:18; 8:9; 10:7; 16:3, 19, 42; 20:2, 8, 10; Deut 4:10; 31:12, 28; Josh 22:12; 1 Kgs 8:1; 2 Chr 13:3; 28:1; 2 Chr 5:2; 20:26).

Tent of Meeting

Exodus language for the Tabernacle (Exod 27:21; 28:43; 29:4; 29:10, 30, 32, 42, 44; 30:16, 18, 20, 26, 36; 31:7; 33:7; 35:21; 38:8, 30, 32, 40; 40:2, 6, 12, 22, 24, 26, 29, 32, 34). 135 usages of 146 are in the Pentateuch.
Only usages in Joshua are in reference to Shiloh (18:1; 19:51).

Land Subdued

“Subdued” is the language of Genesis 1:28 (word only occurs 13x in OT)
Subdued land/nations (Num 32:22, 29; 2 Sam 8:11; 1 Chr 22:18)
Language of God’s grace (Micah 7:19; Zech 9:15)

Theological Perspectives

1. Israel was God’s third act of new creation—a renewed people.
2. God intended Israel to rest with God, become a light to the nations, and claim the whole earth as God’s dwelling place.
3. God intends to fill the whole earth with God’s rest, and God’s people are the instruments of that peace in the world.
4. We have been grafted into Israel, we are the heirs of Abraham in Christ, and the earth is our inheritance.


Stepping into God’s Future (Joshua 3:1-17)

June 30, 2014

[An audio version of this is available here.]

Contemporary visitors to Palestine rarely, if ever, find the Jordan River imposing. It seems relatively shallow, not very wide, and quite calm.  Wading across does not seem like much of a problem–except that it would take one from the modern state of Israel into the modern state of Jordan or vice versa. The ramifications of that move might not be very pleasant. Today, the Jordan River itself poses no threat and prompts no fear.

So, why did Israel linger three days at Jordan’s shore? Why were they intimidated by this river? And why is crossing the river such a big deal in the book of Joshua? In Joshua 3-4, the crossing is referenced twenty-one times! The Jordan River is mentioned seventy times in Joshua with twenty-eight of them in Joshua 3-4. It functions as a critical and significant moment in the story of Joshua.

Further, the songs and prophets of Israel regarded it as one of Yahweh’s great redemptive feats. In Micah 6:5, the movement from Shittim (east side of the Jordan) to Gilgal (west side of the Jordan) is one of the mighty acts of God! This moment in the history of Israel parallels the crossing of the Sea itself.

For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over,  so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, and so that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” (Joshua 4:23-24.)

The ancient river was very different from the one we now see.  Today, the river runs low because its water is used as a resource by the states of Israel and Jordan for drinking and crop irrigation. The flow of water has become so limited that the Dead Sea is drying up.

However, in the ancient world the Jordan River was intimidating. John Beck has assembled an impressive collection of evidence to demonstrate this (JETS 48.4 [2005] 689-99). Since there were no bridges until the Roman era, people crossed the Jordan in the dry season when they could wade across at points where tributaries flowed into the river  because silt builds up there or they floated across on animal skins or bundles of reeds. Israel, on the plains of Moab, probably crossed where the Wadi Qilt meets the river near the head of the Dead Sea.

However, when Joshua stood at the Jordan River, it was at flood stage. It was Spring (March-April) towards the end of the rainy season (Joshua 4:19). Coupled with the melting snows of Mount Hermon, the Jordan River became a formidable obstacle. Beck estimates that the water would have been 10-12 feet deep and as much as one hundred and forty feet wide. In those conditions, the Jordan’s “violent current” endangered lives. In fact, ancient Christian travelogues warned pilgrims that the current was strong, and occasionally pilgrims drowned in the Jordan. A thirteenth century letter complained that the Jordan was practically impassable. One nineteenth century explorer, William Lynch, related his harrowing experience on a riverboat where he feared for his life.

The crossing was so difficult and treacherous that the Greek general Bacchides refused to pursue the Jewish leader Jonathan across the river (1 Maccabees 9:48) while the Pereans decided to battle the Romans on the west bank of the river rather than cross it (Josephus, Wars, IV.7.5). Jonathan escaped but the Pereans were slaughtered.

Just as Assyrian generals listed river crossings as “renowned acts” in their reports, this crossing secures Joshua’s position as the successor of Moses. “That day,” Joshua 4:14 says, “the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel.” More importantly, like at the Red Sea, Yahweh defeated the waters and redeemed Israel, and as a result Israel learned to “fear” the Lord (Exodus 14:31; Joshua 4:24).

But this is not the whole story. The imposing physical character of the Jordan creates a dramatic moment, like at the Sea, where Yahweh rescues Israel, but there is more.

J. Michael Thigpen points to the contest between Yahweh and Baal at the river (Trinity Journal 27ns [Fall 2006] 245-254). The Jordan River crossing demonstrates that Yahweh is a “living God” who is the “Lord of all the earth” (Joshua 3:10, 13). This is a polemic against Baal.

The Baal Epic was discovered in the 1930s at Ugarit. It dates from some time in the 1300s B.C (roughly the same era the Joshua account portrays). It tells the story of the god Baal, the Canaanite storm god, who was responsible for the fertility of the land and the seasons of rain. At one point in the story, Baal battles the god Yamm (sea) who is also called Nahar (river). Baal defeats Yamm (who represents both sea and river) and is hailed as king. He is given the title “Lord of all the earth.”

As Yahweh’s people approach the Jordan River at flood stage, they face the might of Canaan’s god.  Baal, after all, brings the rains, ensures the harvest, and the flood is a sign of Baal’s mighty power. The river Jordan was not only intimidating because of its natural obstructions, but more importantly it terrorized Israel because it was associated with the reign of Baal.  It is a sign that, as the Baal Epic describes Baal, that “mightiest Baal lives.” Baal rules Canaan.

When Yahweh creates dry land for the crossing, Yahweh defeats Baal. Just as he defeated the waters of chaos and the gods of Egypt at the Red Sea, so here Yahweh defeats “mighty Baal” so that “all the peoples of the earth” might know that Yahweh is the “Lord of all the earth.”

Israel steps into the water and experiences the power of Yahweh who holds back the waters so that they might cross into a new land, their inheritance. The crossing of the Jordan, then, is not only a defeat of chaotic waters (as in creation itself) but also the defeat of a competing power (Baal). At the Jordan, Yahweh exercises power over both chaos and other powers. God redeems Israel from the powers and secures their safe passage into their inheritance.

Israel crosses the Jordan to become a nation that will light up the world for other nations. They are to become a new Eden in God’s creation. They are to model life with God and how people live together in peace, joy, and righteousness. They enter Canaan commissioned by God to realize God’s kingdom on the earth. But, as we know (and as we well know in our own lives), they failed to fully realize that mission.

The biblical story invites us to see Israel’s Jordan River crossing as our own. This is not simply the history of Israel, it is the story into which we plunge as well. It is the story of Jesus.

We remember how Jesus passed through these waters in his own baptism. John the Baptizer immersed in these same waters–probably even in the same vicinity–where Israel crossed into the new land. For Jesus to step into those waters was to step toward the cross; the shadow of the cross hung over the waters of Jesus’s baptism. It was the moment when he embraced his future suffering for the sake of the future of the world.

Jesus, through his own baptism, experienced God’s redemptive love and heralded a new Exodus and a new inheritance for the whole world.  We follow Jesus into that same water. We, too, have stepped into the water in order to proclaim the one true, living God who defeats the powers that enslave and oppose us. Through our baptism we become God’s new creation and herald the coming of the new heavens and new earth, our own inheritance. Entering the waters of baptism is to take up our own cross, and consequently we must count the cost.

Jesus, through Jordan’s waters, entered into a new world, the world of the kingdom of God. Jesus embraced the ministry of the kingdom in order to bring the reign of God into the world so that the will of God might be done on earth as it is in heaven. We who have followed Jesus into the water also embrace this new world, the kingdom of God. We become the instruments of that kingdom. We, like Israel, embrace the mission of God in the world. We follow Jesus into the ministry of the kingdom for the renewal of God’s good creation and the transformation of the world. We are people who have stepped into the water with Israel, with Jesus, to embrace the newness of the Kingdom of God

The Jordan also represents something else in the story of God. It is where the people of God receive their inheritance.  Israel inherited the land by promise, and we who are also Abraham’s children share in that promise. God appointed Abraham the “heir of the cosmos” (Romans 4:13).

Like Israel, we stand on the Jordan’s stormy banks. We crossed the Sea in our baptism and we have journeyed through the wilderness of life nourished by the bread and wine. We now face those stormy banks; we face death itself.  Like the Jordan in front of Israel, it is imposing and threatening. But we step into the water with confidence and boldness. We pass through the waters of death in order to embrace the promised inheritance. We pass through the waters where we rest from our labors (Hebrews 4:1-13).

When Israel looked across that water, they saw an imposing current and the walled city of Jericho. It looked inhospitable. It engendered terror, uncertainty, and anxiety. There was no one on the other side to assure them or quiet their fears.

However, this is not true with us. We look across the Jordan and we see the resurrected Jesus enthroned at the right hand of God and holding the keys to Death and Hades. We step into God’s future and trust that God reigns in the world.

We no longer fear. We are not afraid to step into the water. We look forward to the new heavens and new earth (1 Peter 3:13). Neither the depths of its waters nor the gods that claim its power hinder our approach.

We step into the water because of the one who beckons us from the other side. We step into the water because of the one who has cleared a path for us. We step into the water because it has become dry ground. Death (water) has become life (a dry path to our inheritance).

***This is the substance of a keynote address at Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration on June 30, 2014 in Nashville, TN***


Groaning, Weakness, and the Holy Spirit

June 28, 2014

The Holy Spirit groans with us and for us. We are not alone in our weaknesses.

See my new post at Wineskins.org. http://wp.me/p4a1Ft-oN


In Memoriam: The Obituary of David Lipscomb (1917)

May 26, 2014

The death of David Lipscomb was front page news in Nashville, Tennessee. This article appeared in the Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville American (November 12, 1917, p. 1).

DAVID LIPSCOMB, NOTED PREACHER AND EDITOR, DIES

End Comes to Founder of Nashville Bible School at Age of 86 Years

by Wayne W. Burton.

Silencing an evangelist’s voice familiar in Tennessee a half century ago and stilling an editor’s pen that made a record of not one failure to contribute weekly to the press for a period of forty-five years, death came at 11 o’clock last night to David Lipscomb, founder of the Nashville Bible school, teacher, preacher and author, editor of the Gospel Advocate for a period of fifty-one years, and perhaps the most widely known representatives of the Church of Christ of his day. The end came at his home on the Nashville Bible school campus, from general infirmity and old age.

The end came not unexpected. The venerable evangelist passed his eighty-sixth milestone January 21 of this year, and during the past several months of a general decline in health thousands in many states who have long known him through his writings and through the press had been led to realize that the end was not far away. Several months ago, for a period, his death was momentarily expected. But he rallied again, and soon again was in his chair reading his Bible from two to five hours a day, which those about him say has been his practice, and perhaps not an over-estimated reading average for him over a half century. Wednesday night he suffered a relapse, attended by effects scarcely other than a continued deep sleep. From this sleep he never awoke.

Elder Lipscomb is survived by his wife, who was Miss Margaret Zellner of Maury county, and to whom he was married July 23, 1862. Their only child died in infancy. One half brother, John Lipscomb of Franklin county, and two half sisters, Mrs. L. J. Woods of Franklin county and Mrs. Ellen Gardner of Winchester, also survive him. His only full brother was William Lipscomb, well-known Christian church evangelist who died in 1908. Granville Lipscomb, another prominent minister of the same church, who died in 1909, was a half brother. The deceased was a half brother also to Horace G. Lipscomb of the Lipscomb Hardware company, who died a few years ago.

He was an uncle of A. B. Lipscomb, pastor of the Russell Street Church of Christ, and managing editor of the Gospel Advocate, and of Horace S. Lipscomb, assitant principle of the Nashville high school.

Elder Lipscomb, until only a few years ago, led an unusually active life. As early as the spring of 1909, however, he suffered a severe attack from colds, followed by a general breakdown. From this time the decline was gradual, hastened by some two or three paralytic strokes. Often on Sundays, however, as long as strength permitted, he preached somewhere in the city, usually at the Bible school chapel or Third and College church, though he did so sitting in a chair. Soon his waning powers limited his strength of voice to sermons of fifteen to twenty minutes, and for a year or more past he made no pulpit effort, being confined to his home. On the first day of each week, however, though not strong enough to meet with the congregation, he observed the communion service with his family at home, as he taught the church should observe the institution each Sunday, emulating the practice of the New Testament churches.

Founds Churches; Active in Missionary Work

Aside from the Bible School, Elder Lipscomb was one of the founders of the Gospel Advocate, and of the Fanning Orphan school, and mainly through his pioneer efforts were established nearly one-half of the thirty-odd congregations of the Christian church of this city. A complete list from his early work to the present shows fifty-odd congregations through his own efforts. Most of these were in Middle Tennessee. For many years he had been a moving spirit in the work of the Nashville Christian church congregations toward sustaining several missionaries and certain publication work in and around Tokio [sic], Japan, and other points in the foreign missionary field.

In the 50s, when he came to Nashville, there were only three congregations of the Disciples in Davidson county, one being on Church street at the present site of the Vendome theater; another at the Fanning Orphan school, then Franklin college, and another at Owen’s chapel. In South Nashville Elder Lipscomb preached, first to an audience of five, resulting in the establishment of the Third and College church, of which he was the senior Elder to the time of his death. He preached in the army barracks in North Nashville, resulting in the establishment of the Eighth Avenue church. He started the work that resulted in the establishment of the Woodland street congregation, in the late 70s; also that of Foster street, that of old Line street an that of Reid avenue. He was one of the few of the old guard remaining who remembered the preaching of Alexander Campbell, in the building at the present site of the Vendome theater, and that of President James A. Garfield, in later years, at the same place. From this building the congregation moved to the present Vine Street church. In his early work Elder Lipscomb was associated with Elder F. M. Carmack, father of Senator E. W. Carmack; J. W. McGarvey and other distinguished leaders in the work of reformation as inaugurated by the Campbells, Barton W. Stone, and others.

Was Profound Writer; Plea for Christian Unity

Widely known in many states, Elder Lipscomb’s prominence and influence was attained, not through official position in the church, the Disciples having no general church organization, and hence no official church position with further power and authority than that of the elder and deacon of the local congregation. Elder Lipscomb, in fact, especially emphasized this doctrine, of the organic independence of several congregations, urging congregational organizations with elders and deacons after the pattern of the New Testament congregations, but urging against general or denominational organizations with power to write creeds of church government or for overhead control of the congregation, separating the congregations into denominations. He urged a strict adherence to the practice and worship, as well to form of organization, of the New Testament churches, opposing instrumental music in connection with the worship. This was his plea of Christian unity, and on this point, as well as on other tenets of the Disciples, he was regarded throughout the north and the south, for some years, as perhaps the strongest authority, or at least had written more along these controverted points than any other living man.

Sketch of Life of Elder Lipscomb

David Lipscomb was born in Franklin county, Tennessee, January 21, 1831, and was a son of Granville Lipscomb, who had removed to Tennessee from Virginia in 1826. In young Lipscomb’s early life the family removed to Illinois, but returned to Franklin county a year or two later. The father held strong convictions against slavery, adn upon going to Illinois freed his own slaves at his own expense. Young Lipscomb attended school a while in Virginia, going to and from the state a number of times on horseback.

In 1846 he entered Franklin college under the presidency of Tolbert Fanning, for whom the Fanning Orphan school was named. He graduated in 1849. He then entered farming and business life, going to Georgia for awhile, where he managed a large plantation. He returned to Franklin county and later to Nashville.

During the war of the sixties he emphasized his view against the right of Christians to go to war, and in behalf of those who adhered to the belief, he negotiated with Jefferson Davis, president of the confederacy, and the federal government, obtaining relief on such grounds from army service as had been granted to Quakers.

In 1866 Elder Lipscomb, associated with Tolbert Fanning, revived the publication of the Gospel Advocate, which had been established ten years before, but suspended during the war. In 1870 Elder E. G. Sewell became associate editor, so remaining to this day. Elder Lipscomb has contributed freely to other religious journals, including the Christian Leader of Cincinnati, and is author of a  number of volumes. Among the volumes are his commentaries on acts of the Apostles, John’s Gospel and the epistles of Jude, Peter and John, in separate volumes, “Queries and Answers” and “Salvation From Sin,” the last two being compiled from his writings by J. W. Shepherd, and his “Civil Government–Its Origin, Mission and Destiny and the Christian’s Religion to It.”

A quarter of a century ago, associated with James A. Harding, E. A. Elam, William Anderson and others, Elder Lipscomb founded the Nashville Bible, his purpose in view being to establish an educational institution in which the Bible, along with the other literary branches, should be used as a textbook and a daily study by every pupil. To this he donated the greater part, of all that he had, including a site of sixty acres, and in the school he taught for twenty years, refusing any monetary consideration whatever. The establishment of other similar schools followed, carrying out the Bible textbook idea, one at Bowling Green, Ky., one at Odessa, Mo., another at Berry, Ala., and several others in Texas, Oklahoma and Canada. How well this feature succeeded, from a literary point of viewpoint is attested to by the fact that all the state educational institutions now give the pupil full credit on this feature, as well as others, of the Bible school work.

Early Life and “Call” to Ministry

Until well along in manhood Elder Lipscomb had not entered the ministry, nor had he seriously thought of doing so. But the story runs this way: There were few preachers and fewer churches. An eminent evangelist of the day well known to Lipscomb and one of the most popular pulpit orators of the south had labored extensively with the Tennessee congregations. This evangelist adopted views extremely radical, however, according to the Brotherhood, losing his doctrinal bearings and making “shipwreck of the faith.” The result under the existing conditions was widespread confusion and general discouragement among the congregations. Lipscomb had greatly admired the brilliant but erratic preacher, but now needly recognized the need of the congregations for teaching and encouragement. If the treasure was committed to “earthen vessels,” he reasoned, now was the time to defend it. This realization of such duties devolving upon him, he accepted as his “call” to preach to them and rally them to more effective work. From the work he never retired. Had the evangelist not made this misstep, Elder Lipscomb said, I might never have preached–a score of others might not. And thus in every apparent calamity he reasoned that some good may somehow result, overbalancing its ill effects.

Story of His First Sermon

A trace of Elder Lipscomb’s optimism and perseverance of later years might be observed in a story told of his first sermon. The place was a schoolhouse near McMinnville. The appointment had been made; the time came; the young preacher had his text ready. He had his sermon ready–he thought. In the audience was an elderly evangelist, Elder Stroud: thrilled with feelings of anxiety for the young man as great as the parent feels for son or daughter at the graudation address. The young preacher found the text, and read it.  It didn’t connect, however, with the prepared sermon. It would not do to stop, so there was nothing to do but keep on reading. The chapter was finished, and still nothing led to the sermon. The young preacher then said, “Brother Stroud, will you please preach the sermon today.” Elder Stroud arose to the pulpit. He was discouraged. He tried, but the sting of disappointment and sympathy for the young preacher was having its effect. It was too much; the speaker was overcome, and as confused as young Lipscomb had been, he left the pulpit, calling on the third man to finish the day’s sermon. En route home from the church Elder Stroud and young Lipscomb had ridden some miles before approaching the delicate subject.  The former, still discouraged at Lipscomb’s failure–not thinking of his own–sympathetically said, “Brother Lipscomb, don’t be discouraged at today’s results.”

“I’ll try not to be,” the young preacher replied, “but I must confess that it is a little discouraging to see one become so confused and have to leave the pulpit who has been preaching as long as you have.”

First Acquaintance with E. G. Sewell

It was early in the 50’s that the two men first met each other, who were destined to labor in such fellowship, in a common cause, for so many years to come, down to an old age for both–David Lipscomb and E. G. Sewell. They were about the same age–Elder Sewell a few months older. Elder Sewell had commenced preaching; Elder Lipscomb had not. Their first acquaintance was formed at a business meeting of a country congregation, near McMinnville, the meeting having been called to discuss some plans for the ensuring year. Elder Sewell had been attending school at Burrett college. Later, when he entered Franklin college, the two became further acquainted, both stopping often with William Lipscomb, one of the pillars of the college. Within a few years the two were associate editors on the Advocate, associates in the evangelistic field and co-laborers together in a new history of church development in Nashville and throughout Middle Tennessee.

Highly Charitable; Lipscomb, the Man

A single trait in Elder Lipscomb’s character that left upon every associate its indelible impression was his man-to-man attitude and personal frankness. As in manner he was composed and sedate, his conversation was earnest, direct and business-like. He was little inclined to the humorous; his conversation directed along other lines of sober and earnest thought. His straight-forward attitude of openhearted frankness begat the confidence that every word came from the heart. The man’s judgment he addressed; never his self-pride. Though ever ready to commend for a good dead done he did so on the ground that the doer of the act appreciated more its real worth than the more compliment paid. He never sought to praise unduly or magnify another’s virtues. He was too true to the man himself for that; too full of that sane, sober, openhearted frankness of man-to-man friendship.

Another trait in Elder Lipscomb’s character which along would have ranked him among men was his gentle firmness and indomitable courage of convictions. In preaching or writing upon any subject, or in any course he saw to be right, he was absolutely immovable at the hand of criticism or the wave of popular sentiment, while against the tidal wave of criticism, solitary and alone, if need be, he moved on, unswerving and undisturbed. He was cool, though aggressive. Though aggressive he was considerate and kind, and though considerate he was uncompromising. He was plain and direct without harshness, yet charitable and gentle without weakness. While liberal and kind-hearted–even tenderhearted, yet he sought not to allow the more even tenor of his way to restrain him from the advocacy of the right or from combatting error from the course he saw to be good.

Another trait of Elder Lipscomb in a marked degree, strong and contagious to those coming in contact with him, was his optimism. He was persevering and untiring, and in the face of discouraging consequences or even failure maintained an attitude of cheerful indifference. At apparent failure of any task undertaken he yet maintained aspirations of hope, or either took courage in the fact that his full duty was done in the undertaking.

Elder Lipscomb was among the men who are truly charitable. He delighted in helping the worthy needy and poor, standing ever ready to contribute of his means or his personal service. His largest single donation was that of sixty acres as a home for the Bible school. He contributed freely also to the Fanning Orphan School, and to church missionary work, home and foreign.

Elder Lipscomb was not oratorical, but impressivo and clear. The former he never sought to be; the latter needed not the effort. His bearing in the pulpit was as gentle and considerate as it was frank and unreserved, and as natural as the sunshine. His diction was clear and his motive to clearly establish his position with the arguments at hand. Further than this he relied on the merits of his cause and the honesty and intelligence of the mind addressed. For those who came in contact with him it appeared as but natural to say that he was among all men the most tolerant. To those who differed from him whether in private conversation or public controversy, he was ever charitable and never unpleasantly combative. Years ago, with denominations of other religious views, he engaged in many public oral religious debates and it was ever said of him by those who differed from him that he was ever kind and considerate. “See how much you can find to agree on,” he said, “and not how widely you can differ.” He possessed absolutely not a semblance of that blustering, bull-dozing, dominating, domineering air of driving or forcing an opinion on others.

Another characteristic highly marked in the  man was his unpretentious manner of doing things. He was bold, but retiring and unassuming. In his daily walk and manner there was never the least discernible effort on his part to appear striking or spectacular, and not the least indication of any susceptibility to praise or flatter in any form. In his entire nature was absolutely not a trace of anything that could have been interpreted as a desire for “vain glory.”

To him the realization of a good deed done was more than the more praises of men. Others he treated as on the same plane; flattery he knew not the use of, nor appeared he in the least susceptible to it. He sought no notoriety and never tried to inflate his undertakings by advertising. He cared not for front page position; he rather shrunk from publicity. Even previous publication of his biographical sketches did violence to his feelings.

Elder Lipscomb never despised the day of small things. He never counted the day lost that accomplished a good deed, whether toward the strong and the wealthy or the man of lowly station. In all his work, religious, editorial and otherwise, his paramount purpose was the upbuilding of the church and the furtherance of the gospel which he maintained as the only promised “power of God unto salvation,” and more to him than all else was the welfare of the cause for which eh gave his greatest labors. He loved to associate with the poor, and much, if not the greater part, of his preaching was to small audiences in destitute places. He preferred the quiet, unassuming walk, and his life was free and far from ostentation in any form. There was no desire for the outward show, no attempt at pomp, nod display, no form of ostentation in the life of David Lipscomb.

The funeral of Elder Lipscomb will be held from the South College Street Church of Christ this afternoon at 3:30 o’clock. The services will be conducted by Elders C. A. Moore, E. G. Sewell, J. C. McQuiddy and E. A. Elam.

The following nephews and friends will serve as pallbearers: David C. Lipscomb, Horace S. Lipscomb, H. Leo Boles, John E. Dunn, Sam H. Hall of Atlanta and John T. Lewis of Birmingham. Internment will be at Mt. Olivet.

 


Joel 3:18-21 — The Lord Dwells in Zion

May 24, 2014

Joel begins with lament over the famine and drought as Yahweh’s army threatens Jerusalem with desolation, but it ends with abundance and water-filled ravines as Egypt and Edom become a wilderness. This reversal happens because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”

“In that day,” Joel announces, the fortunes of Israel are reversed. “That day” links Joel 3:18 with Joel 2:28 and 3:1. “That day” is an eschatological day. It may have some historical referent as Judah experiences renewal on occasion, but the picture is apocalyptic. The vision here is similar to Ezekiel’s new temple (Ezekiel 47) and Zechariah’s apocalyptic vision of Jerusalem (Zechariah 13:1; 14:1-8). “That day” is the day of new creation when “all flesh” is saturated with the Spirit of God; this is the day that has been in Joel’s “mind’s eye” since Joel 2:18. It is the day when God makes all things new.

That day includes both judgment and blessing.

Egypt and Edom, two traditional enemies of Israel like Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia (Joel 3:4), are judged. Egypt, with its Nile-based culture, and Edom will become a “desolation” or a “desolate wilderness” (both words derive from the same Hebrew root).  Joel previously used this language to contrast a desolate wilderness with the Garden of Eden (2:3). In other words, Egypt’s desolation is their uncreation, and consequently, like the northern army in Joel 2:20, Egypt is driven into “a parched and desolate land.” It is a land without water, without the Nile.

The lands surrounding Israel–north (Tyre, Sidon), southwest (Philisia), south (Egypt), and southeast (Edom)–will experience the “uncreation” that followed the exile from Eden in Genesis 3. God will set things right; Yahweh will execute justice on the earth. These nations had shed “innocent blood” and violently mistreated Israel, and consequently they will become like a people exiled from the Garden of Eden, that is, exiled from the presence of Yahweh.

That day is also a day of blessing. The wadis which thirst for water on the east side of Jerusalem will flow with water.  The rainwater that sometimes filled these wadis (or ravines) ultimately flowed into the Dead Sea, and they contained water only when it rained. That is why the vegetation along these wadis is sparse and includes only plants and trees that can survive without much water. Joel describes these wadis as the “Wadi of the Acacias” (or Shittim). Acacia trees grow in dry places. God promises, however, that even the dry places will be filled with water.

This water will flow from the temple of God, just like in the visions of Ezekiel and Zechariah. Israel will no longer depend on rain, but rather a river will flow from the throne of God. At present there is no river in Jerusalem; it is wholly dependent upon rain. But this vision, where water flows from God’s dwelling place, assures Israel that there will be no more dry places in Israel and no more fear of droughts. The once dry stream beds will flow with water from God’s presence.

The water God supplies will generate prosperity.  Just as the drought brought famine, so a plenteous water supply will bring abundance. The mountains, with their growing vines, will drip with “sweet wine,” and the hills, where the cattle graze, will “flow with milk.” The harvests will return and the animals will rejoice. No more drought, and therefore no more famine. Never again will Jerusalem suffer. God will provide because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”

This is vision is dear to the heart of Christians as well. We know it through John’s vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22.

When the new heavens and new earth appear, the new Jerusalem will descend upon the new earth. Within that city is a Garden where the tree of life grows by a river that flows from the throne of God and the Lamb. There is no temple there because the city is itself the temple. This is where God and the Lamb dwell.

There is no more chaos, no more night, no more threatening waters or armies, and there is no more death. God is the light of the city, and we will see God face-to-face.

On that day, the land will rejoice, and the animals will rejoice, and the people of God will serve their God because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”