Blessing the Lord

Roger Mugs writes a good post about the importance of blessing the Lord, based on Psalm 102:1-2. He concludes:

… the East is a LONG ways from the West. There is nothing about the East that is ANYTHING like the West.

Our God removed our sins that far from us. So next time before a meal instead of “Good food, good meat, good God lets eat,” try a “God we bless you for your steadfast love, for your provision for this meal, for your great love for us, for dying on the cross for us. Bless you God!”

But what does it mean to bless the Lord? Clearly not what “bless” meant to the author of Hebrews 7:7. This was a real problem in the project I worked on, for translation of the Bible into a language without a long tradition of Christian terminology. There is a word meaning “pronounce a blessing”, but we could not use that of a lesser blessing a greater. There is one meaning “give abundantly to”, but that did not fit either. We could just say “praise”, like some modern English translations, but we wanted to avoid too much repetition and anyway this word does not fit everywhere.

Eventually we used in most places a word which is usually translated “applaud”, not necessarily in the sense of clapping hands, but would also include shouts like “Bravo!” But even that doesn’t really work in the case of blessing God for a meal.

And things became even more complicated in the case of blessing the bread, fish and wine at the feedings of the 5,000 and 4,000 and at the Last Supper. In these places the gospel writers made a careful distinction between two Greek words, one usually translated “give thanks” and the other “bless”. Now “give thanks” is clearly directed at God. In the context “bless” is probably to be understood in the same sense. Thus in Matthew 14:19 “he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves” (RSV) the implied object of “blessed” is probably God rather than the loaves, especially because Jewish prayers of thanksgiving for meals always start something like “Blessed are you, Lord our God …” (I note that in Mark 8:7 and Luke 9:16 a literal translation is “he blessed them”, i.e. the fish or loaves are the grammatical object, but this too can be understood as “he blessed God for them”; similarly also in 1 Corinthians 10:16.) So there is no concept here of blessing being associated with a material object. (Indeed Deuteronomy 28:4,5,8 are just about the only cases in the Bible of this kind of association, and caused a different translation problem.) In fact in our translation we could not use the regular “bless” or “applaud” words and had to render “he said the prayer of thanks”. I note that TNIV simply uses “give thanks” for both the Greek words, used almost synonymously.

By the way, we used a quite different word in cases like Matthew 5:3-11 and Psalm 1:1, representing different Greek and Hebrew words.

The lesson I take from this is that we need to unpack the meaning of a word like “bless”, which is quite different in different contexts, even if the same Hebrew and Greek words are used. We have to do this and then restate the concept in appropriate words if we want to communicate such things to people whose regular language is as far from Christian jargon as the East is from the West – which means plenty of people in the West as well as the majority in the East.

Yes, Roger is right, we need to bless God, applaud him, give him thanks for all the great things he has done for us. And as Jews as well as many Christians have understood, one of the best times to do this than before a meal.

No dream is impossible

A few days ago Doug tagged me with the Impossible Dream meme. Since then we have had our disagreements about the Dudley outpouring. But there are no hard feelings, so now I have more or less recovered and caught up from my tiring weekend I have some time for the meme.

The meme is a simple one: name your impossible dream. But this gives me a problem, because I don’t actually accept that any of my dreams are impossible. Unlike Eddie, I don’t have any sporting dreams, so it doesn’t matter to me that I am too old to fulfil them. I am probably also too old to serve in the police or the armed forces, or to train as an astronaut, but these have not really been my dreams. Well, doing a space walk would be cool, but maybe not impossible: in a few years time I probably could be a space tourist, at least inside the spaceship, if I chose to blow most of the capital value of my house on three minutes of weightlessness.

But most of the things I might even consider dreaming of are ones which would in principle be achievable for me, if I chose to put my efforts into fulfilling them – although I accept that for some of them I had better get on with it if I am not to be considered too old, or likely to die of old age first. For I have confidence, perhaps too much confidence, in my ability to do well in any area of non-physical activity which I choose to turn my hand to. What I don’t have confidence in is my continuing desire to persevere with any activity that I am not really committed to.

So, like Doug, I could dream of writing a definitive work of theology. And I would not accept that such a dream would be impossible. It’s just that I don’t have the commitment to such a dream to put myself through the years of advanced study which would be necessary first. Mind you, I am learning a lot from reading blogs etc, which, if focused more carefully, could well form the core of a useful book, perhaps more likely to be a cult classic than a definitive work.

So what do I dream of? I think I can honestly say that the dreams I have left these days are all for the extension of God’s kingdom – with just one exception, the dream of being happily married, which I believe is something God has given me to hold on to even through years of singleness and disappointment.

To say that all my dreams are for God’s kingdom may sound impossibly holy to some, but I mean it. The background for this is that I went through a period of depression during which basically I had no dreams at all, everything was shattered. I have come through this depression largely as a result of what God has been doing in my life. He did this in part by giving me new hope and new aims which are entirely for him. I was reminded today, by TC’s strange post with a reinterpretation which I don’t accept, of this verse which expresses where I am:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20 (TNIV)

While I don’t claim to be as advanced in this matter as the apostle Paul, there is a real sense in which I can say this with him. My old selfish life with its dreams has been “crucified”, put to death through years of depression, and the life that I now live is the life of Christ in me. Not perfectly so, of course, but to the extent that I can honestly say that, apart from marriage, the only dreams I have left are of playing a significant part in the work of God’s kingdom.

Now I don’t want to be another Billy Graham or Todd Bentley. I don’t really want to be an up front person, even though I sometimes dream of it. There is something of the frustrated leader in me, but that frustration would be satisfied by playing a significant part in the behind the scenes activities of a real revival or renewal of the church – as indeed seems to be beginning to happen. So I see in Lakeland and Dudley what may be the start of the fulfilment of my dream. Now this dream would be impossible to achieve by my own strength, by confidence in my own mental abilities, but with God nothing is impossible.

Well, what started as a not too serious answer to a meme has turned into a devotional self-examination. Not quite what Eddie and Doug had in mind. But I make no apologies for writing what I believe I need to write. However, I don’t want to pressurise anyone else into doing the same, so I won’t tag anyone else this time.

"Graft your goodness on this grumpy stump"

David Ker, the blogger formerly known as Lingamish, has been publishing a series of Cyber-Psalms, with the intention of completing a collection of 150. He has just got to number 33. Some of them have seemed to me weird, or just irrelevant. But his latest one seems to scratch just where I itch. Well, perhaps that is not a good idiom in the context of this what this poem, or prayer, is trying to say. Do read the whole thing, but it is this part which struck me most:

May those who bump into me
Be showered with fruit
Not pricked with thorns.
Graft your goodness on this grumpy stump.

Freedom and uselessness

A quote from Wally in this Dilbert cartoon:

Freedom is just another word for finding out you’re useless.

I have quite a lot of freedom and free time at the moment, as my Bible translation project winds down. But I’m glad to be finding out not that I am useless, but that God loves me and values me, not for being useful but for being his child. When he has something more for me to do, he will tell me. Until then I will simply wait in his loving arms. Well, things are sometimes easier said that done, but that is my intention.

What was so good about Friday?

I took a break from blogging on Good Friday – although my last post was after midnight on Thursday and so dated Friday. But others did not, and here I am linking to some of their posts relevant to the day.

My friend Lingamish, David Ker, was busy. First he posted a moving Cyber-Psalm, a poetic meditation on the tension between sadness and celebration on Good Friday. Then he posted on What’s so good about Friday?:

Is it a corruption of “God’s Friday” …? Is it good in the sense of having good effects for those who are redeemed by the sacrifice of God’s son?

Jim West (who has seen sense about the photo in his blog) takes up the same theme when he writes:

It certainly wasn’t a very ‘good’ day for Jesus …

Good Friday is good only for those who believe that Jesus’ suffering and death is somehow beneficial to them. …

‘Good’ Friday? Indeed. But to use the phrase is to confess something profound.

Thanks, Jim. You reminded me of these words I just read, written by J.I. Packer in 1958 and quoted by Paul Helm:

Heretical notions may occupy Christian men’s heads, leading to error of thought and practice and spiritual impoverishment; but these notions cannot control their hearts. As regenerate men, it is their nature to be better than the unscriptural parts of their creed would allow.

Sally of Eternal Echoes has also been busy, with four posts, of which this is the last. Today, Saturday, she has also posted this moving meditation for the day, in the character of Mary Magdalene, and the following from the President Of Methodist Conference’s Easter Message:

Our Easter faith is not death or resurrection, it is death and resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is not a reversal of death. It is much more than that. The risen Jesus is known by the scars of crucifixion. He is the Living One Who Died. But now he is alive forever. And, marvellously, he stands today with this needy world in the reality of death and the promise of new life. This ministry he shares with us, his Easter People Church, a people bearing the marks of both death and new life. A people who know and live out the profound truth that death and resurrection life both lie deep in the purposes of God, in whom all things will be well. Alleluia!

More theologically, Brant Pitre offers Thomas Aquinas’ perspective on
Five Reasons the Cross was the Most Suitable Way for Our Redemption. It is interesting that the great mediaeval theologian by no means limited himself to just one model of the atonement.

Today I have also discovered the new Biblical Coins blog, from which I have gleaned the interesting information that the 30 pieces of silver which Judas received was probably worth 40% of the 300 denarii (or a year’s wages, the TNIV rendering) which he wanted to steal from the proceeds of selling Mary’s jar of ointment (John 12:4-5). Sadly Bibles don’t usually make this relationship clear, although it would probably have been clear to the original readers.

Meanwhile John Meunier offers a more light-hearted piece: Teen-ager exegesis.

The gospel: free but not free

The title of Maggi Dawn’s post There’s nothing free about the gospel startled me for a minute. I know she’s a bit liberal, but surely she doesn’t believe in selling salvation? But when I read on, I realised that what she is writing is right on target:

while in one sense it’s true that the gospel is free, it’s also true that there is no gospel – no good news about salvation – without a high cost on either side of the spiritual encounter.

The good news of God cost Jesus everything: his safety, his family life, his reputation, and in the end his life.  And if it’s to become real in our lives, it’s going to cost us too, in commitment and in other ways too. …
There’s a paradox in the free gift of God and the grand scale of cost it will involve for us to accept the free gift and receive our own freedom. It’s free, but at the same time it will cost us everything.

Well said, Maggi. Especially at this season when we remember Jesus’ death, and the disciples’ unfaithfulness, we need to be reminded of the price that was paid for our salvation, and of the price we are expected to pay in response.

Why is Easter so early this year?

I am writing this primarily as an article for Baddow Life newspaper, for which I am one of the editorial team; hence the local references. I thank Liturgee for a comment on Lingamish’s blog which led me to an informative post on this subject. I have also made use of this Wikipedia article, this one and this one. Also a Google search found me interesting comments on this blog post.

Easter Sunday this year is unusually early, 23rd March. This causes difficulties especially for schools, and in fact this year Essex children will be back at school for four days after Easter and before their main spring holiday. At least it may mean that this year there are daffodils still in bloom to decorate our churches.

In fact Easter has not been this early since 1913. The earliest possible date is 22nd March, but the last time it was on that day was in 1818. These dates are determined by complex calculations which go back to the 6th century: Easter is the Sunday after the first full moon on or after 21st March, supposed to be the day of the spring equinox. This year the moon is full exactly on 21st March, and so Easter is on the following Sunday.

There have been many proposals to fix the date of Easter, which would certainly make things easier for schools. Parliament passed the Easter Act of 1928 to do just this, but it was never implemented. The Roman Catholic church has accepted in principle a fixed date if a consensus could be reached among churches, and the Church of England position seems similar. But at the moment no such consensus is likely.

One reason for this is because a fixed Easter would break the link with the Jewish feast of Passover or Pesach. The original events of the Easter season, the death and resurrection of Jesus, took place at this festival season. Passover is a celebration of the night when the Israelites fled from slavery in Egypt, which for obvious reasons was at full moon. Easter is similarly a celebration of how Jesus delivered us from slavery to sin and death, and it is important for some that the link to Passover is retained.

As the ancient Israelites used a lunar calendar, and modern Jews still do for religious purposes, Passover was always celebrated at full moon, the 14th day of the first lunar month Nisan. The Christian feast day is supposed to be on the nearest Sunday to this date. But in fact over the centuries the calculations have diverged, and so in some years, including this one, Passover is a whole month later than Easter.

Eastern Orthodox churches also often, including this year, celebrate Easter about a month later than western churches. This is mainly because they calculate the dates according to the old Julian calendar which is 13 days behind our Gregorian calendar.

This Easter, watch out for the full moon and remember how its light helped ancient slaves to escape from Egypt. Then remember that, as the psalmist wrote, God’s word to us in the Bible is “a lamp to my feet and a light for my path”. By this light we can follow the way which Jesus Christ has opened up, to escape from anything that enslaves us and find true freedom.

Following the Wild Goose

I just discovered an interesting post from Sally Coleman about Celtic Christianity. She manages to present this in a very attractive light. I’m not quite sure about how she uses it to build bridges to the pagan or neo-pagan community – but then I don’t think there are many of them around here, although there may be where Sally lives, nearly 100 miles north of me.

But I was especially struck by her picture of the Holy Spirit as a wild goose:

Continue reading

qaya thoughts

I have just started a second blog, qaya thoughts (rhymes with “higher thoughts”), which is intended as an online journal, of thoughts arising mostly from my times of prayer and Bible reading. I will not be taking as much care there as I try to here at Gentle Wisdom to present these thoughts carefully, logically and consistently.

Many of my qaya thoughts will be notes from my Bible reading. I have started this blog to coincide with starting to read through the Old Testament prophetic books, beginning with Isaiah. Please note that what I am writing there is not intended to be proper exegesis of the original meaning of the passage; rather it is how I believe the Holy Spirit is wanting to apply the passage to myself and to the church and the world today. In seeing this modern application of Isaiah as primarily to the church I am by no means ruling out its applicability to Israel both in Isaiah’s day and today, nor to the first or second coming of Jesus.

These thoughts, especially those which are more like contemporary prophecy, have mostly not been tested by others. And so I can give no assurance to readers that they are genuine messages from God, and not from other places such as my own imagination. But I offer them in the hope that at least some of them will be helpful.

My longer term intention is to host qaya thoughts on the same server as this blog, Gentle Wisdom. But there are some technical issues to be sorted out first. So I am temporarily hosting it at wordpress.com. The URL will probably change in due course (see also the UPDATE below).

Note that I also blog from time to time at Better Bibles Blog and at TNIV Truth.

UPDATE 5th October: updated with new URL for qaya thoughts, see this announcement.