Political Prayer Challenge

Hey all:

For the run-up to Election Day and in the season afterward, I am sharing this challenge with you all. (I created it, first and foremost, for my own congregation but I hope it might also prove fruitful to TF readers.) The challenge is self-explanatory. I offer some additional thoughts for each prayer below. May the Lord transform you as you and your communities dwell with Him in prayer.

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Rediscovering the Psalms: A Revival of the Bible’s Prayer Book

As an undergraduate at a low-church evangelical school, singing psalms was not on my radar. So, when Sons of Korah showed up to chapel and played an array of psaPlms that they had set to music, I was pleasantly surprised. At the time, I thought it was a neat, if quirky, way to honor the Bible’s role in our worship. Only later did I discover the church’s long history of praying the psalter through song and chant.

Nowadays, there’s a revival happening. The Psalms are being sung everywhere. And, thank goodness, there is a swell of new literature happening on the Psalms, too. In my mind, this may well be the most important development in American liturgical and congregational life that is currently happening. So, I thought I’d put together a list of resources for people growing interested in the Psalms, and specifically in singing the Psalms together.

Poor Bishop Hooper’s “Psalm 1”

Singing Resources: Artists & Publications to Help You Sing the Psalms

  • Poor Bishop Hooper: EveryPsalm – Jesse and Leah Roberts release one psalm set to music a week, intending to set every Psalm to music. They’re almost to Psalm 40 at the time of writing this blog. The songs I’ve listened to are outstanding, especially for reflective purposes. However, most of them would be singable in a congregational setting, if with a few slight adjustments. I listen to their Psalm 1 rendition regularly at the beginning of my day, getting the line “like trees by the river / with leaves that never wither” stuck in my head.
  • Sandra McCracken – Sandra McCracken, a Nashville-based songwriter, worked up a Psalms album some years ago. It is stunning. My church sings a couple songs from it. The songs challenge the congregation musically but once familiar they are incredibly catchy and singable. She also did a really nice conversation with Ellen Davis which appeared on the Road to Now Theology podcast. Dr. Davis is currently writing a book on the Psalms (with Makoto Fujimura during art for it!), so the conversation revolves around the Psalms, prayer, and music.
  • Wendell Kimbrough – Wendell Kimbrough has released a couple of albums fully made up of Psalms set to folksy, easy-to-sing songs. I cannot read or hear “O give thanks” without his melody dancing through my mind.
  • Seedbed Psalter – During Eastertide, my congregation used this incredibly accessible psalter to explore singing the psalms regularly. Julie and Timothy Tennent, of Asbury Seminary, set all of the Psalms into meters of familiar hymns. This makes it simple for congregants, who know songs like “Amazing Grace” or “Immortal, Invisible,” to begin singing the prayers of Scripture.

As for the burgeoning field of publications on the Psalms, I’m not even sure where to start. Jason Byassee offers reflections on five new books, each with their own unique contribution to the study of the psalter. I am also very eager for Ellen Davis and Makoto Fujimura’s book (though I’ve only come to know that it is underway because of Fujimura’s tweets). I imagine Jerome Creach’s book Discovering Psalms will be a gift to the church.

I still have much to learn but I am thankful that I do not have to learn on my own. After all, the Psalms are meant to be sang together.

Have resources or books to add? Comment below!

Willie Jennings on Education

Willie Jennings on Education

“There is nothing inherently good about gathering people together,” writes Willie James Jennings, a professor at Yale Divinity School, “but there is something inherently powerful.” His new book After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging names the distorted powers at work in Western theological education (and Western education more broadly). More than naming the distorted powers, he tries to describe a way, a vision, a hope for a theological education healed from this distortion.

Jennings has written a book the academy and the church need right now.

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Philippians 2:1-13: Year A, Proper 21

Hey there! I’ve had a handful of posts sitting neglected in the drafts folder, several of which are working out some of the questions I was wrestling with when I preached on Philippians 2:1-11 a week ago. I’m not ready to post them yet, but I did come upon some resources that seem like they might open up some ideas for fellow preachers taking up the epistle this Sunday.

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Hebrew for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving Biblical Hebrew

Hebrew for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving Biblical Hebrew

A confession. In my undergraduate studies, I only took one semester of Hebrew. The professor ruled. I enjoyed the language, scoring well on assignments and quizzes. But I found learning Greek and Hebrew simultaneously very hard. I didn’t need the credits from Hebrew to graduate, so I chose to do semester four of Greek (translating Ephesians!) instead of another semester of Hebrew. “I can always come back to it,” I told myself.

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Did Paul contemplate suicide?

Did Paul contemplate suicide while imprisoned? Listen again to Philippians 1:22-24: If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far;but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” It does, in fact, sound like Paul is contemplating an option: “Yet what shall I choose?” Life or death?

Several scholars have noted the striking resemblance between Paul’s own speech and ancient writings, which also describe death as a “gain.” These ancient writings consider death a gain because it sets the person free from worldly troubles. Moreover, other scholars have noted that Paul was not, in this imprisonment, facing “imminent execution.” In other words, death was an ultimatum Paul seems to have given himself. These two considerations combined suggest, according to some, that Paul must have been contemplating death by his own hand.

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The Dative Self: Philippians 1:12-21

Reflecting on the Pauline passages that warrant Kierkegaard’s “edifying negativity,” Philip Ziegler ruminates (in a footnote) on the idea of the “dative self.” He writes,

“I am minded to think that it should be possible to develop an account of Christian life conceived on the basis of the idea of the ‘dative self,’ i.e. from an account of how things come to appear when the human self is consistently understood on the grounds of its being displaced into the dative case by the divine subject and its agency (Christ for us, Christ in me, etc.).”

Ziegler is right about this. The Christian life is rightly understood in the dative case, with the Trinity as the sole subject. In Greek, as you may know, the dative case may function in three general ways: the true dative, locative dative, and the instrumental dative. Taking all three in hand, Ziegler’s suggestion may yield a threefold mantra summarizing Christian life as the “dative self,” with God as the subject:

  1. True Dative — God to me.
  2. Locative Dative — God in me.
  3. Instrumental — God through me.
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The Triune Story

The Triune Story

Kent tells me that John Webster once described another notable theologian as a swashbuckler, who swings into an orderly room, waves his sword around, before diving off the ship, leaving everyone else to wonder: “What just happened?” In a brilliantly insightful podcast with Lincoln Harvey, the same swashbuckling theologian is described as getting things wrong almost all the time, “but for all the right reasons.”

Who is this disruptive and, potentially, off-base theologian? None other than the late Robert Jenson.

I’ve not read enough Jenson to say he is almost always wrong. But I have read enough to admire the way he turns things about in ways unexpected and fresh, and with a determination never to let theology become less than it ought to be. This is on full display in the book reviewed below.

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Hearers & Doers: A Review

Hearers & Doers: A Review

How does a pastor help Christians become “fit for their purpose” as disciples, citizens of the Kingdom of God? This is the question that drives Kevin Vanhoozer’s recent book Hearers & Doers. The answer he offers is not more programs, more staff, or more lights and screens. Instead, he suggests a deeply Protestant “diet”: Scripture and doctrine.

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Preaching Through a Pandemic? Read These Four Books

Preaching Through a Pandemic? Read These Four Books

The last four months have undoubtedly raised new questions for pastors, questions about ministry in general, and the tasks of ministry in particular. One of the most pressing questions for me has been about preaching. In my specific context, we’re emerging from fully digital worship to a hybrid with outdoor, in-person worship, and a livestream for those who need to maintain social distancing. Another significant change is the need to include children as part of the hearers of my preaching since we are no longer offering children classes during the sermon. What should my preaching look like? How must I adapt to this new situation? How do I think about who I am preaching to? And what might I say to people in this strange season of life?

Fortunately, I am not facing these complicated questions on my own. Four books, kindly sent by their respective publishers for review, have provided wisdom for these odd times.

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The Cross and the Confederate Flag: Reflections on Symbols in the Church and America

The Cross and the Confederate Flag: Reflections on Symbols in the Church and America

Two Observations About Symbols in the Christian Community

Let’s talk about symbols. What are they? How do they attain their meaning? And what do they do to people? 

Christianity uses a great deal of symbolism in its private and communal worship. Crosses are displayed in and around Christian places of worship (except some churches who deem the symbol too off-putting for seekers). The ichthus, a simple fish outline, is a popular symbol for bumper stickers. Many ornate sanctuaries are highly symbolic, with engravings on altars and pulpits and colorful vestments. Animals, flowers, shapes, and lighting all communicate symbolically.

These symbols are incredibly useful in worship because symbols point to stories and events that give meaning to our faith. In our sanctuary, an illuminated cross is suspended high above the stage at the front of the sanctuary. Every time a congregant looks at that symbol, they either consciously or subconsciously, recall the twofold event of Christ’s death and resurrection. Our worship is only meaningful so long as we remember that particular story, which gives the symbol of the cross its meaning, and which in turn gives meaning to our worship and lives.

Here’s a fascinating thought experiment that may help one to realize the complexity of how symbols become meaningful. Try thinking about the cross as a symbol prior to Christ’s death and resurrection. Fleming Rutledge has explained how horrific, how brutal, how unrelenting death by crucifixion was. Prior to Christ’s death and resurrection, and years of celebrating that story, the cross was utterly irreligious. “The cross is ‘irreligious,’” Rutledge writes, “because no human being individually or human beings collectively would have projected their hopes, wishes, longings, and needs onto a crucified man” (The Crucifixion, p. 75). 

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Cultivating a shared Christian imagination

My latest review for Christian Century is live on their website. It’ll be out in print with the next edition. This time I’ve gotten a chance to read Garrett Green’s news book Imagining Theology.

The concept of imagination has been a focal point for me because it’s been a focal point for many of my teachers. I’d not read Green before, but he’s been working on this stuff for years. This book spans his career and, while I found some of his essays less compelling than others, I found his faithfulness and his creativity to be a great joy.

From the review: “Paul tells the Corinthians to be of the same imagination just before he de­scribes how God turns wisdom and foolishness inside out: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (NIV). Imagining Theology tells the story of one theologian who allows his imagination to be captured so that he may see the power of God at work in the world.”

Enjoy!