Friday, July 27, 2012

Paul and the Pastoral Practice of Writing Letters

I have been working on 1 Thessalonians 1 all week for a commentary I am writing. As I was writing the application section I was struck by the fact that one aspect of Paul’s ministry was letter writing. The following are some thoughts about the pastoral practice of writing letters. I would be interested in hearing what others have to say. Do you write letters as a pastor? If so, what is their purpose? If not, why not?

Letter writing is a lost art form. It is unusual to get a typed, let alone handwritten, letter anymore. In the electronic age we rarely take the time to sit down, pull our thoughts together and put them down with pen and paper. Instead we have become experts at sending strings of abbreviations through the air via email and text or we post them on social media. But what is lost is a sense of history, of story. 

One way that historians are able to access the past is through letters. It is common to read a biography on a famous person that has a substantial amount of information gleaned from letters that they wrote and received. It is the same with much of the New Testament. All of Paul’s letters represent his personal contact and communication with members of the communities he founded. Because of Paul’s letters we know the story of the Thessalonian church.

Traditionally 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus are those letters which we designate as the “Pastoral Epistles.” But this is misleading since all of Paul’s letters are by their very nature pastoral letters. They reveal the heart of a pastor for people. Paul wrote to keep in contact with those he cared for even when he couldn’t be there. He used letters as a way to maintain fellowship with them. And even though they weren’t written to us they have enduring value to us.

It’s easy to underestimate the value of letter writing for pastoral ministry in the electronic age.  But when a pastor takes time to write a letter (even if via email) to a person under their care it creates a connection. I asked a pastor friend of mine, now retired, to share his thoughts/experiences of writing letters as a pastor. Here’s what he said:

I wrote a lot of personal notes to people during my years as pastor as one of several ways that I used to acknowledge and encourage people. Rarely did I use a hand written communication for instruction or correction as Paul did. My letter writing as a pastor was much more relational and rarely confrontational. I'd scan the newspaper every day for any pictures of church people, clip the article, and send it with a brief personal hand written note, and thank them for their involvement as a follower of Christ in the life of the community. I also wrote notes to encourage people in their ministry and their walk with the Lord. In the late 1990s the Holy Spirit prompted me to write an "I'm praying for you" message over a period of time to every family in the church. I designed a postcard that I called a Prayer-a-gram. I wrote a personal hand written prayer message on each card saying that I was praying for them and their family, and as a part of my prayer I was praying for them the dynamic biblical prayer of Eph. 3:16-21. I also asked them to pray that prayer for me. I tried to write about ten cards a day. When I had the cards for the day done and ready to mail, I'd lay my hands on the cards and pray that Ephesians prayer over the people the cards represented. Many, many people thanked me for the prayer cards, and quite a few said that it came at "just the right time" in their lives. Several people have kept those cards in their Bibles for years.

Pastors are busy people and asking them to take time to sit-down and write ten letters a day might be asking a lot. But I do think it is a practice worth making room for. We forget sometimes that the point of church is not the buildings and the programs, but the people who live and worship together in the context of community. Although technology may alter how we do it today, a note from a pastor provides an opportunity to remind the recipient of the work of God in their lives. It is a chance to strengthen their relationship with the church and, as in the ministry of my pastor friend, those letters often become part of the Christian’s story and connection with both the pastor and the community. We adopt many pastoral practices from things we read and observe in the New Testament. The practice of letter writing is one that might be worth reviving.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sticks and Stones may break my bones: The magical properties of words in antiquity

There is an old saying "sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me." Every child is taught this at some point while growing up. And they usually discover at some point that it is false. Words do hurt and sometimes they leave lasting scars.

The ancients were also aware of the power of words and they used them in magical practices, sometimes to inflict pain. Bible History Daily has a short piece this week on the power of words in ancient magic. What does this have to do with the Bible? Well this for one: 
In the Hebrew Bible there are clear indications that writing was often thought to have tangible, even magical, properties. In Numbers 5:11-28, a woman accused of adultery is made to consume “the water of bitterness,” a cloudy concoction infused with the washed-off ink from the words of a written curse. If the woman is innocent, the curse will have no effect; if she is guilty, the curse will cause her thighs to waste away and her belly to swell. In a similar vein, when Ezekiel accepts his prophetic mission from God during a dreamlike trance, he eats a scroll inscribed with the words of the divine message (Ezekiel 2:9-3:11). Having ingested the words, Ezekiel and God’s message become one.

The author goes on to explain.
The magical properties of writing meant that written words, once they came into being, were active and sometimes even unstable forces that could be manipulated, both for good and for ill. Numerous short dedicatory inscriptions found in Iron Age Israel and elsewhere make requests for divine blessing and protection,* many having only the author’s name, what is requested and the name of the deity. As Biblical scholar Susan Niditch has said, it is as if the act of writing the prayer “[brought] the God-presence into a sort of material reality,” thus allowing the words to become infused with “visceral power.”
The first line of the last quote sounds like what some modern preachers say about the "spoken word." But I won't name names here.

Read the full article here. 

HT: Jim Davila 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

My God is bigger than your god! Pete Enns on reading the Old Testament

Lat week I linked to some posts in which Peter Enns and others looked at the violence in the Old Testament and tried to explain how we deal with these narratives in our modern world. Did God really say "Kill them all!"? 

Today Pete has a post in which he provides a good analogy for understanding the story. Instead of reading and interpreting the Bible as God tell his story Pete suggests that we read it as God letting his children tell his story. Here are a couple of points from his post. 

The Bible is what happens when God allows his children to tell his story–which means the biblical writers told the story from their point of view, with their limitations, within the cultural context in which they wrote.
 When children tell the story of their father or mother, parents are typically delighted by how much they get and the childlike way that they see the world. But they are also well aware that children miss a lot when they tell the story, and invariably refract the complexities of family life through their own youthful vision.
 It’s not a perfect analogy, I know, but roll with it: Think of how young boys talk in the schoolyard about how great their father is. They are ways of telling the story to make sure everyone knows they have the best dad around.
 When God lets his children tell the story, the way that story is told is deeply and thoroughly influenced by the “rules of the schoolyard”; in the case of the Old Testament that means ancient tribal societies that valued in their people and in their gods such things as taking land, vanquishing (i.e., killing or enslaving) their foes, and generally bragging about who has the best gods and the best kings.

Pete acknowledges that as with any good analogy, if you push it too far it doesn't work. But I think he has found a good way to explain it. I have often explained the Bible to my student as a record of humanity's attempts to know and understand God, which means it is not always perfect and is often very human.

Read Pete's post here and let him know you stopped by from the Biblical World. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

My Country tis of Thee . . . Sweet Land of Violence

Yet another report of senseless violence has moved front and center in our newspapers. A man kills twelve and injures dozens more. This is tragic, unthinkable. And yet, I think I am somehow becoming desensitized to it. I hear the report, shake my head and think “what is wrong with people!?” At the same time, I go on with my day not really all that aware of what is going on. More violence in the USA and in many ways, just another day.

I think back over the years to the ones I can remember off the top of my head.

  • A man in a McDonalds kills several people
  • A postal worker kills several co-workers and gives us a new phrase.
  • Two young men kill students and a teacher in Columbine High school, Colorado
  • A sniper in Washington D.C. kills people as they commute.
  • A man in Atlanta kills several co-workers in an E-trading office.
  • A student at Virginia Tech kills several students
  • A man in a Colorado church kills several people
  • A young man kills students in Chardon High School, Ohio

These are just the ones I can remember without doing any internet searches. And it doesn’t include those killings that are done be premeditated murderers, serial killers, or terrorism. While all killing is senseless, these are the one that truly boggle the mind.

This post is not about gun control. It is not about why we need more laws that will stop this senseless killing. While I think there needs to be some smarter laws, I am not sure that would solve the problem. There are other countries in the world that also allow their citizens to own guns, but often without the tragic results that we see in the USA.

No, I am not sure that taking away guns, knives or any other object that could be a possible weapon is going to give the USA relief from the scourge of senseless death. The problem, I fear, is closer to our heart.

We are a violent nation. We are a people who are killing ourselves at a rate not found in other countries. And it is a part of our culture. From the movies we produce to the video games we play, we are steeped in violence. I think it is time we admit that violence seems to be part of our national DNA.

What I wonder, though, is how does the church speak out against this violence? Where are the national religious leaders who have so much to say about the culture of our nation? Where is the cry for finding ways to solving this problem? Where are those who will stand up, as happened in the past, and say enough! Where are the voices always so quick to speak out against abortion and sexual immorality? 

Where is the call for a national self-examination, a change of heart? 

The politicians are not going to do it.

Or perhaps the problem is that the church has failed to hear John’s warning in Revelation 17:3-6. We have become so comfortable living in Babylon that we don’t realize that she is becoming drunk on our blood. The violence, I fear, will one day consume us all.