Abuse and Hermeneutics

Note: If this article hits too close to home—stop reading and call your counselor or pastor now.

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Wow! What a combination! How can either of these be related? I have considered this for the past few weeks and hope to make some sense in the connection between the two topics.

Abuse

As a pastor, I have found the issue of abuse is real. As an environment is created for trust and safety, then stories about abuse begin to trickle out. Stories of pain, fear, uncertainty, shame, guilt, etc.

Abuse is serious and more prevalent than many pastors and churches think. Denial does not work, does not address the issues, does not help those abused, does not give the abusers help either. It is a systemic problem in the church.

One theme continued to come up in these discussions:

“Why don’t the churches and spiritual leaders acknowledge this problem?”

“Where is there support in the church for abuse victims?”

“Why don’t most people in the church believe me about abuse?”

These questions stayed in my mind over the past few months. As a starting point, in our own church we pray for those who have been abused and for the abusers. But these questions are deeper than even that. “Why don’t people understand?” I have taught Hermeneutics in our seminary the past five years, and in fact, I am teaching it this quarter. And that led me to a startling revelation. Is this question (and solution) really a problem of hermeneutics?

Hermeneutics

In general terms, hermeneutics is “principles of interpretation.” How do we interpret what is written, spoken, seen. In everyday living we unconsciously use some kind principles of interpreting each of these. In specific terms as a Bible teacher, we use this to refer to principles of interpretation applied to the Biblical texts.

There many approaches to Biblical hermeneutics. The one I have found the most helpful over the past 35 years is one presented by Dr. James Voelz in his book What Does This Mean? (Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World), and also his video and audio lectures in iTunesU.

I will not cover everything in the book, but one specific aspect of his approach is key in Biblical interpretation, and now critical in interpreting abuse. One of the challenges of interpretation is asking the question: “What does this mean?” Voelz notes that the word “mean” is used in three different ways (Voelz uses the term “levels” to separate the three):

1. What is the sense of the text?

2. What is the significance of the text?

3. What is the implication of the text?

Consider one example Voelz addresses: Luke 7:14-15

And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother.

Level 1 interpretation: 

Taking the words at face value as marks on the page. So: Jesus healed a dead young man and gave him back to his mother.

Level 2: interpretation: 

This significance of this event (action) is provided in the following verse by what the people surmise what had happened.

Fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited His people!” (Luke 7:16)

Scripture does not often provide a level 2 interpretation. And sometimes what is recorded as level 2 is wrong—no, not that Scripture is wrong, but that someone’s interpretation of an event is wrong, i.e. when the Jewish leaders claim that Jesus is demon possessed (John 8:48).

Level 3 interpretation: 

What is the implication of Luke including this event? In other words, at this point we are looking at the author to see what it tells us about the author’s motive, audience, etc. This is by far the hardest aspect of interpreting a text, and there are few resources to help.

Note how confusing this could be if people in a conversation claim “This is what the text means” and they use a different “level” to give an answer. Thus, I think Voelz gives us a helpful map through this confusion as we look at the Biblical text via the three levels. He also shows that this can be used to interpret actions as well as words.

Understanding Abuse using Hermeneutics

The light came on for me when I put together that Voelz’s three levels not only applies in Biblical interpretation but in all interpretation. That is, we also interpret events/actions that happen in everyday life. And this brings us back to abuse.

So I began asking how to interpret abuse? For the sake of illustration I am presenting a hypothetical case that involves a man physically abusing a woman. This can equally apply to sexual abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, etc. Also, abuse is not limited to men as abusers.

By using three levels we can begin to sort out not only what happened (level 1) but also how to interpret the actions (level 2) and how to interpret the “author” (abuser) (level 3).

Level 1: 

The man hits a woman repeatedly. Level 1 seems relatively simple, but we are isolating one event. As the abuse continues then each Level changes. But in public the abuse is not “evident.”

Level 2: 

There are really three responses to interpreting what happened: abuser, abused, outsider.

For the abuser: “She just wouldn’t listen to me. I wanted her attention.”

For the abused: “I love him and trying to do what he says.”

For the outsider: “Look how his wife tries to please him.” (the outsider never sees the effects of abuse, at least initially, so only interprets what they see her do in public, namely trying to appease him.)

Level 3: 

There are also three responses to interpreting what happened: abuser, abused, outsider.

For the abuser: “What is wrong with her?” (the abused tells something about her but the evaluation/interpetation is controlled by the abuser)

For the abused: “What am I doing wrong that I can’t please him?” (the abuser tells something about herself but from the abuser’s perspective, guilt, shame play a major role here)

For the outsider: “That couple looks so happy, what a model of love for others.”

Notice that each level illustrates different interpretations depending on the role each plays in the “action of abuse” and the one who controls the narrative interpretation at each level.

The deadly part of this cycle is that the abuser controls the interpretation at all three levels for himself and her. And typically the abuser knows how to say and do things to bring the abused wife back to him. Thus, it is now at least understandable why it takes a woman who is physically abused to leave the man seven times before she finally does leave for good—if she lives long enough.

So what?

So much more can be explored in this topic. But this may help set the tone for understanding what happened and the consequences of interpreting at each level.

Where does the church fit into this? In one sense the church is the “outsider” in the above scenario. Notice what happens then. The abuser controls level 1 (he will abuse at will). He controls at level 2 (changing the interpretation as time goes on), and he will always blame the one abused (level 3). The narrative the church accepts (level 2) is also controlled by the abuser. And at level 3, the church hears about the abused, but only as interpreted by the abuser  (“the fault lies with her”).

What happens if the abused woman begins to speak out, to identify what happened (level 1), what is the significance of what happened (level 2), and to tell about the abuser (level 3)? Ironically, she is seen as not truthful because she is attacking a person (level 3) and not the situation (level 1) and therefore “she doesn’t really get what happened” (level 2). It’s almost as if she is abused once again when she is met with anger, hostility, etc. because “she is disturbing this fine relationship.” Her pain, experience, value as a person is challenged at the very time that she needs genuine support.

This is already a longer post than I usually write. But there is so much more to write about. My goal in this post is to give the church some insight into abuse and begin to interpret abuse in all three levels and see where the pitfalls exist for the church and especially church leaders. My hope is that this will generate open discussion about this church problem.

And ultimately my hope is that the church begins to deal with abuse and provide love, care, and help for the abused, the abuser, and all family members involved.

Let’s go back to those questions from the abused:

“Why don’t the church and spiritual leaders acknowledge this problem?”

“Where is there support in the church for abuse victims?”

“Why don’t most people in the church believe me about abuse?”

Are we listening to the questions? Are we interpreting in light of what the abuser is saying, and the abused is afraid to say anything to contradict that? Now we have something to think about and come to grips with in the church. Abuse is real—the pain, fear, guilt, shame, anger, frustration are real. The Gospel is specifically there for this situation.

I have discussed this understanding of abuse with other people, and they find it helpful. May you find it to be so, too.

Psalm 34:18 (MEV)

The LORD is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the contrite of spirit.

Ps 147:3 (MEV)

He heals the broken in heart, and binds up their wounds.

Isa 61:1 (MEV)

The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor;
He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

Luke 4:17-18 (MEV)

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. When He had unrolled the scroll, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
because He has anointed Me
to preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted,
to preach deliverance to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed;

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All promises were fulfilled in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). Now those promises continue in the Church‘s life and proclamation of Jesus Christ. May it be so in the Church today.

Conference-itis Really?

Conference-itis — What is it?

This post has been brewing for several years. All critiques and questions in the post have arisen from my own struggles, questions, concerns. In other words, if these comments feel a little uncomfortable, I understand, I have been there, too.

What is conference-itis? There are many conferences, from the church body conferences to the wild and woolly conferences (many times bizarre, but catching international attention).

But the focus of this post is not on those kinds of conferences. Rather, I use the term in reference to independent groups springing up within the more conservative churches, that has also been attracting some Lutherans. The conferences have become the next great thing in the church. And to attend or speak at a conference is the badge certifying that “I have made it.” Conference-itis affects the person who thinks this is the “real deal” in church.

A little background on me. I write as one who has served, and is currently serving as a pastor, and in the last 8 years also serving as a seminary president. I attended more than my share of these kinds of conferences from the mid 1980s to the present, several times speaking at such conferences—I was suffering from conference-itis. In the mid 1990s I began to ask myself questions about the conferences, the speakers, and my own role. I now attend far fewer conferences.

Why am I going to the conference?

Several conferences I attended were very helpful for me. They opened my eyes in terms of pastoral care, teaching, and preaching. They served to assess my own ministry. Yet after a few I learned that other conferences were not helping, but in fact, distracting me. Then my question changed to: “Why am I going to this?”

Yes, fellowship with others was good. But at a two day conference where I met 100-200 or more people I soon realized that almost none of them would be ongoing friends. Not because I didn’t want to, but I was serving a congregation of 250+ with Preschool (75) and Parents’ Day Out (125), etc. In other words, any time I dedicated to conference attendees beyond the initial conference was time away from caring for those I was called to serve as pastor.

Yes, learning goes on at conferences. I have gained significant insights over the past 29 years. But I had to ask myself: How is this helping me improve as a pastor serving people? The insights showed that many conferences were not helpful, and so I attended fewer—the conferences were being filtered through that questioning lens.

It was an eye-opener when after attending one conference that all 70 pastors were so enthusiastic about the ideas presented. Some rushed home to begin the “new ministry approach” the first month. I remember one pastor was so excited about small group ministry that he started eleven groups within three months of returning from the conference. Yet at the conference everyone was strongly urged to start small—with one group. Within five years that pastor had no groups in the church. And worse, he provided no support to group leaders at any stage.

Others of us took time and assessed whether it would work in the congregations we were serving. We also took time to plan further out than six months—more like 10 years. It has been 23 years since I went to that conference. The congregation I served at the time started with one group, eventually growing to seven groups when I left. But even more—long after I left the congregation the groups have continued to grow in number and size to this day.

What is the purpose of the conference?

Over the last 25 years I have begun asking this question repeatedly (to myself). Will the purpose of this conference help me serve as pastor? If a member of my congregation attends, how will this conference help that person grow in the faith and serve in the community into which he or she is living/serving?

In the mid 1980s I assumed that every conference would benefit me and every member. But the reality is that many conferences are not so much designed to build up and support the existing congregations and members. They may serve other needs and purposes, which is fine. But I needed to clearly think about this and the implications for the congregation. So, my question became “What is the purpose of this conference?”

It breaks my heart to even write this: In some conferences I have seen where the local ministry is portrayed as “not sufficient.” In other words, the conference itself becomes more important than the congregation. As a Lutheran, I understand that the congregation is a group of believers in Christ gathered around Word and Sacrament. And when a conference moves away from that focus, then I have even more serious concerns.

Even at Lutheran conferences, I have heard comments about Word and Sacrament being essential, but then the speaker(s) totally ignoring those tools, rather intimating that the local congregation might be lacking in some way—which only this conference can fix. The conference becomes an “encouraging community” to get the “real deal” at the conference, not the real deal in Word and Sacrament with brothers and sisters who are my community.

So, I ask myself as a pastor, is this conference helping me serve God’s people? Or is that only a hook to get me there, to be “encouraged” by others wanting “something more”?

Those are tough questions, perhaps making some of us very uneasy. If so, I am glad that is happening, because we need to be brutally honest about all this. If not, then we are slipping into the mindset that “something out there” is needed beyond what God gives and provides in the congregation.

What about those who lead the conference?

One of my filters now includes this question: “What is going on in the congregation of this speaker?” This is not just a congregation-size issue. A pastor may serve a mega-church, but have little hands on experience with ministry in this specific area. The name is well known, but what exactly is he providing in real world experience that will benefit other pastors? If the speaker serves as pastor of a small congregation that has not grown beyond more than a large small group (not an oxymoron), then what does he offer at the conference?

If he is an author, is that the reason he is speaking? That he might generate more sales from his insights? Are those insights, true insights or just a repackaging of something else?

How is his presentation? I don’t care to be entertained. I don’t need speakers who publicly push the boundaries of language. Is he sarcastic, snide, rude? That doesn’t edify anyone—Ephesians 4:29. Will that language help me care for the cancer patient, the new widower, the parents of a runaway in the congregation. If the speaker critiques someone, does he critique the false teaching or does he ridicule the person?

Is the speaker showing by his knowledge of the Bible that he knows ministry inside and out, from failure and success? Or is he offering his own mix of what works with a little from the Bible, a little from the business world, and a little “common sense?” Is he willing to admit the limits of his knowledge and experience? Or is he presenting as if this “new thing,” better than the Bible, is the only way to go?

These are very difficult, challenging questions. But as I have learned over the decades, if I don’t ask the questions, then I am letting someone else dictate what I should be doing in ministry, with me becoming a shallow imitation of someone who may or may not be working for the good of the kingdom.

What are alternatives?

At that point, we need to see whether the time and money to attend any conference really is worth it to the pastor and congregation. Maybe that two day conference (that eats up four days when travel is included; effectively amounting to 60 working hours) might yield to an alternative that will help the congregation. Perhaps it might benefit the congregation more if the pastor took those 60 hours over the next two weeks to study Greek and Hebrew texts, gaining insights into the Scriptures. Then he can deepen the Bible studies that he teaches locally and faithfully preach each week. Each pastor has to ask himself that question.

I have been mentoring pastors for 25 years, and in the last eight years visiting pastors and seminary students. I ask them all the same question: “What are you reading?” Sometimes I will get responses about the latest best seller by Rev. Dr. ______, or just throwing out a last name, intimating that I should know who he/she is and be pleased they are up to date. Now, I have no problem with people reading books, I’ve been known to read 5,000+.

But when I ask the question about “what are you reading?” I am specifically asking: “What are you reading in the Bible?” As pastors the best preparation for service is to be in God’s Word. By this I also do not include commentaries, although commentaries are good they cannot replace reading the Scriptures.

 The reading of the Bible:

1. Read the Bible: (i.e., a consistent reading through the Bible). Many resources are available for anyone to begin and continue reading the Bible. In hermeneutical terms, we are expanding the matrix of understanding the Bible, always with Christ as the key to the matrix. (John 5:39; Luke 24:44-46; etc.). As a pastor, we can easily make it a goal to read the entire Bible in one year.

2. Mediative reading: To complement #1, this approach takes more time, a slower pace. It is often best to read aloud the text. As the mouth articulates the text, the text forms in the mind, in the heart, and begins a process of drawing one closer to God. Psalm 1:1-2 illustrates this process.

3. Detailed Study: For the pastor, this means taking out the Hebrew and Greek texts and working through a section of a text. Often people hear this encouragement and want to start but tackle too much at one time. If you are rusty, then I suggest working through a book (like John’s Gospel) and translate one verse a day. You may have to frequently look up words in a lexicon when you start. But you are doing one verse. Soon you will discover that you don’t have to look up some words, because they have become familiar to you, and you can do 2-3 verses each day.

For those who are not trained in the languages, detailed study can still be done. Compare translations (different approaches is good: so NAS and NLT or NKJV and GW make good combinations). Where they differ, there is probably something going on in the text that needs more attention. As you study, notice structural words (connectors like “therefore” [Romans 12:1] or repetiton of patterns [Ps. 42:5, 11; 43:5]). Can these patterns help us understand the thought progression of the author, etc.?

Attend Bible studies that the pastor leads. Ask your pastor questions (Acts 17:11). If he doesn’t know, then ask him if he could help you research the text.

Are all conferences to be avoided?

Not at all. I think pastor conferences within a church body can be very beneficial. In The AALC we have an annual Fall Pastors’ Conference that has become a refreshing, enjoyable, and helpful environment for my service in the congregation.

My plea (for myself, first) is that I examine the purpose of any conference. Will this help me in my service in the congregation? Or will it direct my attention elsewhere? Sadly some conferences do that. So I have declined to attend.

Finally I ask: Am I called by God to serve as conference speaker? Is this more important than my call as a pastor to a congregation? Then look at where am I in serving a congregation. Will speaking at this conference also assist me,a s well as others in serving God’s people?

Finally, the really personal questions: Do I crave the applause of the “audience”? Am I in a popularity contest? Who has the largest audience? Who is receiving attention? Is my ego being stroked by the accolades?

Again, the questions are mine—and they have revealed much about my own heart. This has been a long process and rethinking issues, and stopping to consider what I found so “fashionable” at the time that I wanted to pursue it. In repentance I seek God’s mercy. Not for others, but for myself.

I have directed this series of questions at myself since the mid 1990s. In discussions with other pastors, I have found they too have had concerns but didn’t quite know how to address the topic. Thus, my post is for my benefit, my friends’ benefit, and anyone else struggling with the pressure to “be at this conference!”

I am slowly recovering from conference-itis. It is freeing to do so.

Maundy Thursday reflection

Psalm 24 was my Psalm reading this morning. How appropriate this came on Maundy Thursday. The Psalm is really two parts.

Psalm 24 (NIV)

1    The earth is the LORD’S, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
2 for he founded it on the seas
and established it on the waters.
3 Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD?
Who may stand in his holy place?
4 The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol
or swear by a false god.
5 They will receive blessing from the LORD
and vindication from God their Savior.
6 Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek your face, God of Jacob.

Who may ascend, indeed! A perfect description of the Messiah who stands in the holy place, whose hands are clean and whose heart is pure.

As we prepare to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we see His perfect fulfillment of everything the Father expected from the crown of creation, humans. He now enters our presence to give of Himself for us.

7 Lift up your heads, you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
8 Who is this King of glory?
The LORD strong and mighty,
the LORD mighty in battle.
9 Lift up your heads, you gates;
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is he, this King of glory?
The LORD Almighty—
he is the King of glory.

He fought the perfect fight against sin, temptation, death and the devil:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15 NAS)

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:54-57 NIV)

the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil 1has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:8 NIV).

Ultimately, Jesus had taken both active and passive demands upon Himself, then gives us everything that He fulfilled perfectly. In the Lord’s Supper, He gives His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Thus the bread and wine are not just symbols, but they give what Jesus said they give.

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the testament, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28)

He gives us His perfect righteousness, the righteousness God demanded of us is now ours by faith. Tonight we receive all those gifts, reassuring, comforting, forgiving, renewing us as we live in this world.

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21 NIV)

He gives us His perfect righteousness, the righteousness God demanded of us is now ours by faith. Tonight we receive all those gifts: reassuring, comforting, forgiving, renewing us as we live in this world.

Indeed,

Lift up your heads, you gates;
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.

Psalm 7:6 translation

In daily readings through the Bible, I also include the Psalm related to the day in multiples of 30 (7, 37, 67, etc.); so reading one Psalm a day I can cover the entire Psalmody in five months (days with 31 days I read Psalm 119). Yesterday (03/07) I read Psalm 7, and came across an unusual expression. Try reading aloud and see how it sounds, then ask others to listen (only).

Arise, O LORD, in your anger;
lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies;
awake for me; you have appointed a judgment. (Ps. 7:6 ESV)

Surprisingly HCSB and NAB have the same:

awake for me; You have ordained a judgment. (HCSB)

Wake to judge as you have decreed. (NAB)

It is the last line that caught my attention, because it is awkward at best. It doesn’t even make sense in context, and seems incomplete at best (filling too many gaps required). English style does not lend itself to such a translation. So I checked some other translations of that last line:

And arouse Yourself for me; You have appointed judgment. (NAS)

Rise up for me to the judgment You have commanded! (NKJV)

awake, O my God; you have appointed a judgment. (NRSV)

Wake up for my sake and execute the judgment you have decreed for them! (NET)

Awake, my God; decree justice. (NIV 2011)

Wake up, my God, and bring justice!  (NLT)

Wake up, my God. You have already pronounced judgment. (GW)

Awake, my God, you demand judgement. (NJB)

My God who ordered justice to be done, awake. (REB)

Notice that several still use “awake” or “wake up” but add the intended recipient, i.e. God, which makes it a little easier to understand. I checked other uses of the Hebrew word (עור) and found most of them provide better translations in both ESV and HCSB.

This is not a major issue, but for readability and oral comprehension, I think a rewrite for ESV and HCSB is needed.

Abuse, Christians, and…

Many want to deny, hide their heads, or walk away when the topic of abuse arises. But such silence only gives abuse an open door. I wrote about this four years ago on this blog. It might be best to read that post first:

especially-for-men-in-the-church

Thankfully some have begun to bring light to the dark recesses of abuse. Consider

Natalie Greenfield

Danni Moss

And there are more.

Lisa on this issue

My good friend, Lisa Cooper, tweeted these statements about abuse this morning on Twitter. They are so pertinent to the Christian Church. Here are Lisa’s own words about this:

Because of this whole #FreeKesha thing (which I have been tweeting about in brief this morning), I feel the need to make a few comments:

1) There are SO MANY MORE women who have been abused than you will ever hear or know about. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

2) For all of us involved in the church, this is a REAL thing that we need to talk about, and a real ministry opportunity.

3) Caring about our neighbor means helping them through abuse, rape, and all of the other horrible sins that have been committed against them.

4) This is not a conservative/liberal issue. Because I care about my neighbor, I care if they have been sinned against. This is so important!

5) When talking about purity prior to marriage, tread lightly because ¼ women have been sexually abused. Most cases aren’t reported. This does not make them “damaged goods” or “unworthy of marriage.”

6) As people who represent Christ, we should be at the forefront offering support to those who have been abused, not the ones questioning.

Watch for more from Lisa and Angela in a podcast in the near future.

What Does This Mean?

For the church in general, let’s be aware of this significant problem confronting the Church. There are many hurting people in our midst and in our community. They need love, help, and hope. Ultimately that is what Jesus offers to all of us. As the Gospel has been proclaimed and taught here, some came to me to explain what they thought would be a critical move in caring for the abused. They didn’t need my permission, but I was delighted and supported their ideas.

Our congregation  located not far from a well traveled interstate. Those who had approached me wanted to do something that they saw was lacking. They made laminated signs with emergency numbers for abuse victims. They took them to every business to post in the women’s restrooms. All but one place allowed them to post. The women who worked at many places were so appreciative, some in tears. We were addressing something that no one wanted to hear or see, but many on the other side welcomed this as one sign that someone cared. And our members have become not only sensitive to this issue, they have provided ministry to victims.

Pastors and seminarians: let’s not let silence and ignorance about abuse become our mode of operating. Any abuse does not reflect the Christian faith. Become aware of all that is involved. Lovingly and patiently minister and care for those abused, for their families and friends. Let the Church be a community of refuge and love.

Paul provides some great encouragement for the Church.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. (2 Cor. 1:3-7 NAS)

Notice that: 10 times the word “comfort” is used. We are not “comfortable Christians.”

We are comforted Christians who comfort others with the comfort we receive from Christ.

Righteousness and Temptation

Our midweek Lenten service focuses on the tempations of Jesus in Matthew. The background of the temptation goes all the way back to Genesis 3:1–21. There Satan tempted Eve and Adam to rebel against God and His perfect creation. Likewise, Israel failed in meeting the temptations in the wilderness.

The sad reality is that because of Eve and Adam’s sin, we all have that heritage of sinning, submitting to the temptations of this world. Jesus takes on the human nature, not as corrupted by Eve and Adam, but as originally intended in creation. At His baptism Jesus begins to fulfill all righteousness (Matt. 3:15) now specifically by facing the temptations of unrighteousness. And the Holy Spirit who descended on Jesus is the One who leads (“drove Him” Mark 1:12) Him into the wilderness to be tempted (Matthew 4:1–11).

Jesus does this so that He can face the temptations of being human, very real temptations. But instead of giving in to them, Jesus conquers the temptations. Tonight we look more closely at how He did that and the implications for our own struggles with temptation.

Matthew 4:1-11 (NKJV)

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”

But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ”

Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written:

“He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and,
‘In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ”

Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God.’ ”

Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ”

Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.

Thus, God’s plan of saving humans is not left to humans’ futile attempts. Rather salvation will be accomplished by Jesus, true God and true Man, who overcomes temptation for us. Not only does Jesus die for our sins (passive obedience), He also lives the perfect life for us (active obedience). And both are credited to our account which faith receives (Gen. 15:6; Romans 3:21–26, 2 Cor. 5:21, etc.)

From C. F. W. Walther

Lord Jesus, how great is Your love toward us who have deserved nothing but wrath! Because we have come short of the glory of God, You, the Lawgiver Himself, put Yourself under the Law, fulfilling it perfectly in our stead, to procure for us the righteousness that avails before God.

With our sins we called down upon ourselves the temporal and eternal punishments of the just and holy God. But You humbled Yourself unto death, even death on the cross; by suffering and dying for us, You bore our punishment to purchase for us grace and pardon for all our sins (Philippians 2:8; Isaiah 53:4)

O Lord Jesus, Who truly “first loved us” (1 John 4:19), indeed unto death, grant us grace not to remain indifferent to such love, but let Your love kindle within us true love for You, so that we will love You not merely “in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18)

Hear us for Your blessed name’s sake. Amen

[For the Life of the Church – C.F.W. Walther, CPH, 2011; thanks Lynda, for sending this]

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If you are in Frazier Park tonight, come to the soup supper at 6 PM and worship at 7 PM.

Lectionary, Liturgy, Preaching

Over the past three years several pastors and congregations have expressed interest in my use of the Narrative Lectionary. This post gives some background on reasons for using, and the challenges and delights of using it.

Introduction

My life has been lived with the liturgy and the lectionaries (systems of Bible readings selected for each Sunday in the year). Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I worshiped in a church that used The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH, 1941) and the one year lectionary.

One Year Lectionary sample from CPH
One Year Lectionary sample from CPH

The 1970s were a time of transition (I was in the Navy). By 1982 when I began seminary and began preaching every third weekend, I was introduced to Lutheran Worship (LW, 1982) and the three year lectionary. That has been my worship life—until 2012. It was in January of that year that my lectionary life changed.

Exploring Options

I began serving my current congregation (in southern California) in August 2011. It didn’t take long to discover that this area was not the typical Midwest, church-life saturated community. The unchurched rate of the area is about 98%, and many who were coming into the church had little to no background in the Bible and Bible history.

In late 2011 I was preparing the Epiphany season (2012) readings and sermons. It dawned on me that the sequence of the readings would not necessarily connect to people. Here are the OT readings for that time period with the Sunday, and then the general time period of each reading:

Epiphany 1 Is 42:1–7 (7th century BC)
Epiphany 2 1 Sam 3:1–10 (12th century BC)
Epiphany 3 Jonah 3:1–5, 10 (8th century)
Epiphany 4 Deut 18:15–20 (15th century BC)
Epiphany 5 Is 40:21–31 (7th century BC)
Epiphany 6 2 Ki 5:1–14 10th century BC)
Epiphany 7 2 Ki 2:1–12 (10th century BC)

Granted, the Gospel readings are in sequence for Mark’s Gospel during that time frame. But if preaching on the Old Testament during that season, then the out-of-order sequence becomes not only noticeable but confusing. And throughout the year, the Gospel readings are not consistent in terms of sequence.

I considered alternative lectionaries such as: the Eisenach Selections, the Thomasius Selections, the Synodical Conference Selections (1912), and the Soll Selections. (Sermon Texts. Ernst Wendland, Editor. (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1984) The Soll Selections is unique in that it offers two Gospel readings for each Sunday. Each of these offer variations of the standard lectionaries, and each might be worth examining for lectionary use. But they still have the same problem with out-of-sequence readings particularly in the Old Testament.

It was at that point that I wondered whether there was something more helpful for our congregation. In my exploration I came across something called the Narrative Lectionary (NL). On the web site, the NL was introduced this way: “The narrative lectionary is a four-year cycle of readings. On the Sundays from September through May each year the texts follow the sweep of the biblical story, from Creation through the early Christian church.”

Why the Narrative Lectionary?

The NL seemed to be a possible answer to the dilemma I noted in the other lectionaries. So why the Narrative Lectionary? The short answer is simply: Because knowledge of the biblical story is crucial to a maturing Christian faith. But most Christian preaching assumes that worshipers already know the basic biblical story—and thus most Christian preaching does not seek to equip people to know the biblical story. The NL seeks to be one part of an approach that seeks to equip people to know God’s story—to discover God’s story and to find in that story the love of God in Christ for all, especially the reader/hearer.

Premise of Narrative Lectionary

A lectionary is a set of readings from the Bible for each Sunday of the church year. Lectionaries have been used since the time of the early church. Most, if not all, Lutheran congregations have been using either the one year lectionary or a three year lectionary. These lectionaries cover quite a bit of the Bible. However, most, if not all lectionaries used over the past 1600 years assumed a church and Bible knowledge. What happens if most people coming into the church have no such background? The NL is an experiment to help congregations with that very question.

The NL is a four year series of Scripture readings for Christian worship, which moves through the overarching biblical story in a nine-month period. The series starts in September and ends in May. The summer allows a variety of topical preaching, or even sections of the readings not covered during the year. At the same time, the narrative lectionary respects the traditional Christian church year, with its principal festivals and seasons — Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

Fall: NL moves chronologically through the Old Testament story—beginning in Genesis around the start of September and culminating with the promise of the Messiah during December (Advent).

Winter: NL moves in order through one Gospel—tracing the story of Jesus in canonical order from birth, through ministry, passion, and culminating with the story of the resurrection at Easter. There are four years to the cycle, so NL covers all four Gospels. Thus, year 4 focuses on the Gospel According to John. In other lectionaries, John is relegated to a few readings to fill in gaps in Mark.

Spring: NL engages part of the story of the early church, as told in Acts and other New Testament writings.

Summer: This is not provided by the developers of the Narrative Lectionary. So pastors have some options. One summer I preached on additional texts in the Gospel for that year. Another summer I preached on two short New Testament books.

What makes the Narrative Lectionary different?

This lectionary is not simply a series of stories; rather, it is a series of stories that provide an understanding of and appreciation for the broader biblical story. The NL differs from other lectionaries in several ways.

1. The NL seeks to tell the biblical story in historical sequence that is also in basic canonical order, in a nine-month cycle. It moves rapidly through the biblical narrative, in canonical order. The Old Testament segment covers the sweep of history in 16 weeks. Thus, with four years, the theme for the 16 weeks remains the same, but readings vary within that theme. Let’s look at Week 1, with the Creation theme:

Year 1 (Matthew) Gen 6:16-22; 9:8-15
Year 2 (Mark) Gen 2:4b-25
Year 3 (Luke) Gen 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8
Year 4 (John) Gen 1:1-2:4a

Thus, the Creation theme is explored in four ways. Week 2 focuses on Abraham, Week 3 on Jacob and Joseph, etc.

2. By the very nature of NL, the primary focus is on narrative passages. The exceptions would be prophetic writings toward the end of the Old Testament segment.

3. The NL focuses on one reading each week. While only one reading is provided, we have three readings plus a Psalm (see below, Filling the Gaps), but the main reading and sermon will focus on that pivotal text provided in the basic structure NL.

4. Because the NL is shaped this way, one concern had been the church calendar. Thankfully the basic church calendar is not abandoned — the birth of Christ Jesus is still celebrated at Christmas, the resurrection of Christ is still celebrated at Easter. The time of Advent is kept by focusing on the promise of the Messiah. Appropriate readings have been chosen for church commemorations, such as Reformation, All Saints, Ash Wednesday, and Holy Week.

Filling Gaps in NL

As I began seriously exploring the Narrative Lectionary, I noticed some gaps in what was provided on the web site. Is one reading sufficient for a liturgical, lectionary program? I didn’t think so. Likewise, there was no support work that would complement the liturgical text. Thus, about six months prior to beginning the NL, I spent time filling those gaps.

One reading per Sunday provided

Filling the first gap, the use of only one reading per Sunday, required considerable time to go through each week and supplement the one main reading with the “missing readings.” The year we began in the congregation was actually year 3 in the NL cycle. So for the first Sunday in September the Old Testament reading (theme: Creation) was Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8. I added the Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel readings (Psalm 130, Romans 5:12–19, Luke 11:1–4) that fit with that theme. (Sample is not complete, but for illustration purposes)Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.45.42

I have done that for every Sunday since September 9, 2012. I usually plan these at least six months ahead. For instance, I completed the post-Easter readings through the end of August about February 1. So I have years 3 and 4 completed. As we begin year 1 in the fall of 2014, I have already prepared several of those additional readings.

Is it a lot of work? Yes. But there is an added benefit to me as pastor. I find that it helps me in long term planning, as well as preparation for each Sunday. Even more, I knew the full set of texts so well, because I had read every reading several times to make sure they fit together for each Sunday. On occasion as part of my sermon preparation I have added or changed a reading in the week or two prior to the actual reading.

Prayer of the Day

I should note that the Narrative Lectionary website now offers Prayers of the Day to match the NL. However, when I began I did not find any of the prayers. Therefore, because the Sunday themes in NL did not match the one year or three year series, I began writing a Prayer of the Day for each Sunday to match that specific theme. That was a challenge for me, but I plunged ahead. Early in the process of preparing for introduction of the LN, Pastor Hank Simon (LCMS) contacted me about using the NL. In the conversation, we agreed that I would supply him with the additional readings, and we would share writing the Prayer of the Day for each. What a blessing he has been in this specific phase of NL implementation. My prayer writing (and prayer life) has been enriched because of his thoughtful, clear, appropriate prayers. Our congregation has been blessed by his work as well.Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.46.33

In our congregation we have one person who has been a prayer partner. This last fall I asked the person to consider helping me write some of the prayers. The person agreed and has written one quarter’s worth of prayers. I proof-read each prayer, making suggestions, but leaving the general thrust of the prayer in place. This has been of great benefit to me, the congregation, and this person. As we finish the full four year cycle in in the spring of 2016 (we started with year 3), we may revise some of the early prayers. In that case, we now have three other individuals in the congregation who have demonstrated a deep prayer life and who love to write. My goal would be to incorporate them into the reviews and rewritings of the prayers.

Introducing NL

Serving as a pastor over the years I have been aware of the importance of preparing a congregation for any change in worship. Depending on the changes, it might take a few weeks or a few months to prepare. In the case of the NL, I looked at six months as the time necessary to implement the transition to using NL.

The first step of preparation was to go to the Elders and then the Church Council and explain the use of lectionaries, and the most common lectionaries in use (three year and one year). In these two meetings I helped the leaders realize the gaps in our peoples’ knowledge of the overall Biblical history, and then the difficulties of the reading sequences in the three year and one year lectionaries filling that gap. The entire leadership, Elders and Council, were 100% committed to moving toward using the Narrative Lectionary. It was at this same time I began preparing the additional texts to be included each week.

In the three months prior to beginning the NL I would include a bulletin insert that explained the purpose of the NL and its application in our congregation. At regular intervals during the summer I announced the NL that would begin the Sunday after Labor Day. During the last month we included a bulletin insert with the Fall themes for each Sunday.

Introductory Powerpoint for NL
Introductory Powerpoint for NL

The first Sunday I introduced the topics by means of a timeline (on Powerpoint). Each week I added a new theme. That way the worshipers had a reference to previous weeks’ themes. Again the purpose was to give that unfolding salvation history according to a basic timeline. This visual orientation was more critical in the Old Testament segment, given the vast time periods covered and the multiple Old Testaments books used. In the Gospel segment (Christmas to Easter), each week’s reading came from the Gospel, strictly in canonical order, although not every passage of every Gospel was covered. If the Epistles were used as the primary teaching, then a simple New Testament timeline could be used.

Complementary Resources

As I considered using the Narrative Lectionary, I realized that it could only be part of the solution to providing a Biblical framework for understanding the texts. Back in 1989 I was one of the 70 pastors who introduced LifeLight into the LCMS. About the same time I was developing similar Bible studies for my own congregations. By 1991 I had completed development of an 11 week Old Testament Survey class and an 11 week New Testament Survey class. I have taught these in several congregations over the years. So I decided to use these study guides to complement the NL.Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.50.32

The same week we began using the NL, we began the Old Testament Survey class. I taught it on Wednesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday morning. Although I had not checked how the Survey course would match the NL readings, as it turned out, the sequence fit very well together. Although the Survey course finished the week before Thanksgiving, it was a blessing for all who participated. The combination of the Survey and NL gave the needed historical and canonical framework for better understanding.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.50.54

After Christmas I began two sessions of the New Testament Survey. The correlation with NL wasn’t as tight as the Old Testament because the Survey covered all the New Testament, whereas the NL covered only the Gospel According to Luke. Nevertheless, the Survey was useful for all participants.
I plan to offer the two survey classes about every third or fourth year. This will catch up new people in the congregation and provide a useful review for those who have taken the courses in prior years.

Reflections on Narrative Lectionary

After 3 ½ years of using the NL, my overall assessment is that it is well worth exploring for any pastor or congregation. For congregations, I definitely think it offers people new to the Christian faith a good framework for following the Biblical story; this is particularly important in the fall season with 16 weeks with the Old Testament themes. And for those who have been Christian for years, this is either a good review for them, or even the first time they have been able to follow the Biblical narrative.

For preaching purposes, I especially liked the opportunity to preach through John’s Gospel. The one year and three year series offer relatively few pericopes from John. Because most of John’s Gospel is “new” for preaching, it allowed me to explore the Gospel in a refreshing way. In the Synoptic Gospels the introductions tied together the historical sequences leading up to the current text. But for John’s Gospel my introductions each week focused more on relating the thematic structure of the Gospel to the current pericope.

To me, the use of four readings (OT, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel) in a liturgical service is strongly recommended. I was disappointed that NL did not really offer anything for that aside from one or two verses in the Gospels to correspond to the Old Testament readings. My initial thought was I can choose additional readings as I go forward. That sounded nice at the beginning, but once I got into the use of NL, at times I was a little overwhelmed (timewise, as I have another position besides pastor) with choosing additional readings. I should note, too, that because of the length of a few readings, I have on occasion omitted either the Old Testament (non-fall period) or the Epistle reading. This happens only about once or twice in a quarter’s worth of pericopes.

Over the past 25 years I have always worked out a grid for planning sermons at least three months ahead. This is even more crucial for the NL. So, it is now April and I am beginning to add readings for the Fall season, Year 1. At the same time, I have benefited from this detail work of finding readings. Once I finish Years 1 and 2 I will have four readings for all four years of the NL. That will make the next cycle easier for planning and preparation. So also with the Prayers of the Day.

One thing that I will pursue in the coming years is to perhaps reach out to other pastors who use NL. I would like to connect with them, perhaps meeting once a month for an exegetical and homiletical exchange and discussion. Since I teach seminary classes using live video, that might be an appropriate venue. The closest Lutheran church is about 50 miles away, so face-to-face meetings would not be practical. But I do think this would benefit me as well as the other pastors.

In summary I find the switch to and the use of Narrative Lectionary to be a very positive benefit to me and to the congregation. At the same time, I have gained an even greater appreciation for the historic one-year lectionary and for the three-year lectionary.

As for the future, I am looking at what to do this summer. Do we continue the Narrative Lectionary? Or do we use the one year lectionary or the three year lectionary? I will decide by Easter 2016.