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A Prayer for Sunday


Lord, teach me to be generous,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to look for any reward,
save that of knowing that I do your holy will.

(Attributed to Ignatius of Loyola,
but likely appeared much later,
perhaps inspired by his life and work)

The following prayer, however, was used by Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

A Prayer for Sunday

Lord,
In this bounded space of just a few days,
As I begin a process of temporary withdrawal
from the world of endless activity and pressing engagements;
As I begin, too, a withdrawal from the endless noise and distraction of the world,
and an addictive attachment to its bustling ‘importance’ and allurements—
ephemera at best;

In this liminal space of just a few days,
Still my heart and quiet my soul
And let my whole self be centred afresh and anew in you.
Open my heart to God—Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, and
Open my soul to all that is good and true and beautiful
in this world, my companions, and my neighbour.

Speak, Lord, and give me the hearing heart of a servant.
Amen.

Hiatus – and Rebirth

It has been a year since my last post.

I never intended to have a break really, and especially such a long break. But I was about to go on holiday last year with a lot to get done before the holiday, and then I went on holiday. I thought I would post during the holiday, since I wanted to get to 500 posts before the fourth anniversary of the blog. But instead I had a holiday!

This was probably a good choice, because once I returned to work, the load was heavy. My first semester was very hard, and my second while not so hard, still demanding. In addition to regular work at the Seminary, I wrote and presented five conference papers. I haven’t had time to get back to the blog, even though I thought of it several times, especially once semester one was over.

And now a year has passed. It has not at all been like the picture suggests, which is more a wish-dream! But perhaps the time has come to begin a regular practice of writing again. I will return to the focus that I had when I began the blog: simply to write, to gather and write my thoughts, to develop habits of regular writing, to write what may one day find its way into publication.

If anyone chooses to read what I write, that will be a blessing – for me at least, and perhaps to them!  But the main thing for me is once more to carve out a little space to write, and to do so for an audience of One.

A Prayer on Sunday

Girl at Prayer William Henry Hunt from Wikigallery.org

Creator Lord, who reconciled us to yourself by the death and resurrection of your Son, and made with us an eternal covenant; grant that we may show in our lives what we profess with our lips, to your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(An Australian Prayer Book, 60)

Luther@500

Last week Vose Seminary conducted a half-day Luther@500 Conference, around the theme of The Pastoral Luther. Although the event was only pulled together in the last couple of months, for much of the year I was keen to see the Seminary mark this anniversary of the Reformation.

For me, there were several highlights: first, the strength and quality of the four papers. Peter Elliott started proceedings with an historical account of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, and insight into the pastoral concerns that formed a significant motivation for Luther’s action. My paper on Luther’s pastoral theology followed, in which I examined two documents from Luther’s early career: a sermon entitled A Meditation on Christ’s Passion (1519) and his justly renowned The Freedom of a Christian (1520). I argued that Luther sought to free salvation from the model of human religious performance that prevailed in the late medieval period, and that he also viewed it as a salvation that frees. Matthew Bishop’s paper explored the phenomenon of depression, and analysed a number of Luther’s letters to the depressed in order to ascertain insights and principles to guide pastoral care in the present. While not everything from the sixteenth-century context is transferrable to the present, there is still much to learn from the one sometimes referred to as “Christianity’s most famous depressive.” Finally, Brian Harris explored several aspects of Luther’s leadership, noting first that there appears to be little written on this subject. He noted Luther’s character and courage, his strategic use of the latest technologies, his work ethic, and his popularising of the message. Brian also highlighted some less savoury aspects of Luther’s leadership, especially his rhetoric with respect to the Jews, which, while not out of character for the times, was out of character with Christ, and which also had devastating consequences in later centuries.

The second highlight was the ecumenical nature of the event. About forty people gathered for the conference, coming from a variety of denominations and backgrounds, and included ministers, students, and lay persons. I am grateful that the Seminary had and seized this opportunity to serve the church in a way for which it is uniquely qualified. I am grateful, too,  for Peter Elliott and Perth Bible College for joining us in this endeavour.

The third and perhaps most special highlight was having Matthew Bishop join us for the conference. Matthew is a Lutheran pastor in a local congregation. Not only did Matthew bring a great deal of knowledge of Luther, but also an ecumenical openness and warmth, together with a substantial pastoral integrity. His being a Lutheran also lent a certain authenticity to the gathering. To make new friends, and to see bridges of fellowship strengthened across denominational and institutional lines is a blessing indeed, and made this seminar well worthwhile, and not only for remembering Luther’s achievement.

The Shared Table

Yesterday I had the opportunity to preach at Living Grace church in Dianella. The passage was Matthew 9:9-13 – Matthew’s Party. My major point was to contrast the Pharisees’ ethic or spirituality of purity through separation with Jesus’ ethic or spirituality of redemptive engagement. In particular, Jesus’ table fellowship is understood as a sign of the kingdom in the same way as his miracles are. I used two citations in the sermon that I use also in classes. The first, from Luke Timothy Johnson, is a paraphrase: “The meals are where the magic is.” The second is from Walter Kasper’s Jesus the Christ, which includes the wonderful line, “the shared table is a shared life.” The Lord shares his life with us at the table. We are invited to extend his hospitality to others in similar fashion. The meals are where the magic happens.

In the east, even today, to share a meal with someone is a guarantee of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness; the shared table is a shared life. In Judaism fellowship at table had the special meaning of fellowship in the sight of God…every meal is a sign of the coming eschatological meal and eschatological fellowship with God. Thus, Jesus’ meals with publicans and sinners, too, are not only events on a social level, not only an expression of his unusual humanity and social generosity and his sympathy with those who were despised, but had an even deeper significance. They are an expression of the mission and message of Jesus, anticipatory meals, celebrations of feasts in the end time, in which the community of saints is already being represented. The inclusion of sinners in the community of salvation, achieved in table fellowship is the most meaningful expression of the message of the redeeming love of God…Jesus, in taking sinners into fellowship with him, takes them into fellowship with God. This means that he forgives sins (Kasper, Jesus the Christ, 101-102).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 5

Read 1 Samuel 5

Samuel disappears in chapters five and six, as do all the major characters in the story thus far. The scene shifts from Shiloh to Ashdod, and the main character in the story is now the Ark itself, which has been captured by the Philistines and installed in the temple of Dagon at Ashdod. The defeat of an enemy in the ancient world also signified the defeat of that enemy’s god. This is exemplified in the capture of the Ark; not only is Israel defeated, but their god has been captured. Bringing the Ark into the temple of Dagon is an act of celebration of Dagon’s triumph and supremacy over the god of Israel. The Ark becomes a trophy and symbol of Dagon’s power. Israel’s god was unable to defend its own people from the greater power of their opponents and their god.

In the Hebrew Bible Dagon is associated with the Philistines who perhaps adopted Dagan as their national deity soon after they arrived in Palestine early in the Iron Age (Tsumura, “Canaan, Canaanites” in DOTHB, 127). Dagan was a traditional god of Syria-Palestine, attested as early as the third millennium BCE. Although identified as a fish-god since the medieval period, more recent scholarship suggests his name has more to do with grain, and thus was perhaps a fertility deity associated with agriculture. He was in any case understood as a powerful god. Excavations at Ugarit have unearthed two temples in the city, one devoted to Baal, the other to Dagan. In the Ugarit pantheon, consisting of as many as 240 deities, Dagan was second to El and understood as father to Baal (see Curtis, “Canaanite Gods and Religions” DOTHB, 132-142). Philistine attachment to and trust in Dagon is seen in Judges 16:23-24 where the Philistines credit Dagon with their victory over Samson—although the story did not end well for the Philistines in that instance.

The commentators suggest that this passage is to be understood as humour (for Israelite readers at least)—black humour to be sure—the function of which is to mock the Philistines and their god. The opening scene pours scorn on the supposed power of Dagon, for the idol falls not once but twice before the Ark. After the first fall, Dagon must be helped back to his plinth; after the second, he is broken in pieces, his impotence plain for all to see. The story functions apologetically, to repudiate a possible interpretation concerning the capture of the Ark. Israel’s God has not been defeated by a greater power. Indeed the story demonstrates the livingness of Israel’s God compared to the lifelessness and impotence of Dagon. In the “Battle of the Gods” Dagon’s claims are slapped down and exposed as pretensions. The story also then, shows that the defeat of Israel, far from being the defeat of Yahweh, was the judgement of Yahweh upon his people as predicted by the anonymous man of God in chapter two. Further, it clearly indicates that Yahweh as the living God cannot be manipulated by his people, but retains his sovereign freedom.

Nor can the Philistines subject Israel’s God to their own will. Not only is Dagon assaulted, but the people of the Philistine cities also experience an outbreak of plague that seems coordinated to the presence of the Ark among them. The text itself is clear: “the hand of the Lord was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumours” (verse 6), with the result that many died (verse 12). Modern scholars wonder if the plague may have been a form of bubonic plague spread by a plague of mice (6:4-5).

Murphy, utilising the LXX’s rendition of 5:9, refers to the tumours as genital warts, or more colloquially, “bum-warts” (44). She uses this story to reflect on the character of miracles and divine power in conversation with John Henry Newman who suggests that the portrayal of the Ark-miracles in this chapter might be analogous to the somewhat wild and “romantic” nature of post-biblical miracles. Typically, those who defend the miracle accounts in scripture argue for the rationality of these miracles because they fit with what may be known of God from nature and morality. But not all biblical miracles fit that mould. Murphy finds little in this chapter’s account of miracles that conforms to reason, morality or beauty. But they are not on that account to be rejected. They are “divine punishments” that teach us that “the hand of God can appear at will and in the unlikeliest “Elishas” because it is not subject but sovereign” (46). The account challenges our perceptions of God, especially a god we would manipulate, contain, or set in a box. Murphy cites John Henry Newman to warn against such limitations on God, or interpretive strategies which make the biblical portrayal of God more amenable to our sensibilities. If I read her rightly, she wants to leave open the possibility that God will not conform to our demands of what we think God should be. In this respect God is sovereign, and as such, sovereignly free.

The supernatural glory might abide, and yet be manifold, variable, uncertain, inscrutable, uncontrollable, like the natural atmosphere; dispensing gleams, shadows, traces of Almighty Power, but giving no such clear and perfect vision of it as one might gaze upon and record distinctly in its details for controversial purposes. Thus we are told, “the wind bloweth where it listeth” (cited in Murphy, 46).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 4

Read 1 Samuel 4 

It seems that some years have passed since the “man of God” prophesied the Lord’s rejection of Eli’s house (2:27-36). Eli is now ninety-eight years of age, and almost blind. Until now the focus of the story has been on Shiloh, and on Samuel. Now the focus expands to take in national affairs, and Samuel disappears. Israel’s old enemies the Philistines, who had troubled Israel in the days of Samson, return once more to trouble them again. The chapter has two major parts. Verses 1-11 describe the Israel’s loss on the battlefield, while verses 12-22 describe the death of Eli.

In the early part of the chapter, the two armies face each other, and in an initial battle, Israel is defeated with a significant loss of life. After the battle the elders of Israel determine that God has allowed this defeat (GNB), or more directly, that the Lord himself has defeated Israel (NRSV, ESV). They therefore call for the ark of the covenant of the Lord so that God may be among them and save them from the Philistines. Despite the enthusiasm of the army, the plan fails, Israel is decisively defeated, the ark is captured and the two sons of Eli die in the battle, as prophesied by the man of God in 2:34.

The loss of 4000 soldiers in battle would an extraordinary loss. To lose 30,000 would be devastating to the nation as a whole. A whole generation of men—the loss of army, husbands, fathers, sons, farmers, etc. The magnitude of the slaughter is unimaginable, and such a massive defeat would decimate and impoverish the nation. Numbers in the Hebrew Bible are a problematic matter for biblical scholars, and a number of interpretations are suggested including, the numbers are to be understood literally, symbolically, as hyperbole, or re-translated since the Hebrew word ’elep can mean not only “thousand” but family or clan or tribal leader. Many scholars suggest the third option has the least problems and so is to be preferred. (And though I have said that a thousand times, no one believes me!) Nonetheless, even allowing for numeric inflation, this was a devastating loss for Israel, resulting in their being occupied by the Philistines for over twenty years. The Judges’ cycle of apostasy, oppression and deliverance is being repeated here.

A question arises as to whether the soldiers and the elders have a superstitious regard for the ark. Are they “taking the name of the Lord in vain,” as it were, presuming on God in a kind of civic religion that assumes “God” will give them victory no matter the condition of their ongoing relation with God? Evans takes this interpretation, and warns that symbols of the divine presence cannot be treated superstitiously as though we can manipulate God and gain our own ends (42). There is no doubt that this is a perennial issue in Christian spirituality. It seems that we are endlessly creative in devising means of “using” God to get what we want. We imagine that God’s power is an impersonal “force” that we can “tap into” and direct toward our advantage. Such forms of spirituality are more akin to magic and superstition than biblical faith.

Murphy takes a different view, arguing that “the elders had every reason to think that the ark is literally the presence of the Lord.” It was “a strategy of good faith, not superstition” (37). In Judges the conquest of the land is initiated by the priests carrying the ark across the Jordan. At Jericho, the ark led the people as they marched around the city. Yet in this case, there will be no victory, not because God now is impotent, but because of divine judgement: Hophni and Phineas accompany the ark. “The battle at Ebenezer is lost, not because of the elders’ supposing that the ark would automatically save them, but because of the impious behavior of Eli’s sons” (37).

This view finds implicit corroboration in the text itself. Four times in three verses (vv. 3-5) the ark is named the “ark of the covenant of the Lord.” While it is certainly true that the covenant of God with Israel provided many privileges, benefits and blessings to the people, it came also with obligations and responsibilities—obligations that Eli and his sons, at least, had forsaken. Eli had “scorned” God’s sacrifices and offerings, and honoured his sons above Yahweh (2:29). Though the sons accompanied the ark, they had violated their office, the people, the people’s sacrifices and worship, and so the covenant itself. Though they accompanied the ark, the blessing of the covenant would not accompany them.