Friday, August 31, 2012

Pray Continually: Thoughts on Praying with the Church

I noted yesterday that I was posting some of the application material from my commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians. I am doing this to get some response from readers about the material. Thus, I thought I would continue that today by moving back a few verses in the chapter to 5:17 where Paul says:

“Pray continually”

The exhortation to “pray continually” is common to Paul’s writing and his life (Rom. 12:12; Eph 6:18; Col. 4:2; 2 Tim 1:3). Twice in this letter Paul tells them that he prays continually for them (1:2; 2:13) and he will request in 5:25 that the Thessalonians pray for the apostles. Some translations like the KJV and the NAS translate this verse as “pray without ceasing,” which could lead to the conclusion that one should never stop praying, that every waking moment should be devoted to some expression of prayer. But the word is better translated as “continually” or “constantly.” The sense of what Paul is saying here is that there is no restricted time or even place for prayer. Believers are in constant communion with God and therefore can be in constant communication with God and need not wait for a special hour or location. Moreover, in the context of community life, the exhortation to “pray continually” to a group that has experienced “severe suffering” (1:6) is a reminder that another function of community life is that they pray together regularly, not just as individuals, but as a community of believers.

I suspect that prayer is something with which many Christians struggle. I say this because it is for me. I have tried various ways of praying at various times of the day. Some have been successful, others not so much. Adding to my struggle is the guilt that has been handed to me over the years by well-meaning preachers, teachers and fellow believers who have made me feel ashamed because of the struggle. One memory that is seared into my brain is a time in summer youth camp. The preacher for the week told us that if “you don’t get on your knees and pray to God first thing in the morning then you are an idolater.” It is still so clear: “If the first thing you do is get a cup of coffee, then coffee is your god. If it is to take a shower, then that is your god.” I realize now how silly that is, but you can imagine the impact it had on a teenager wanting to live for God. If anything, this type of approach is more of a discouragement away from prayer than towards it. People need to be encouraged to pray and, as much as possible, to do it together. Using guilt will only discourage them more.

Paul seems to have realized the need to encourage the Thessalonians to pray together. The exhortations in 5:16-21 are given to the whole community in the context of worship. While Paul’s encouragement to pray, rejoice and give thanks certainly can be applied to us as individuals, it was given first to a group of people as they met together for worship. Prayer together is an important part of being a community. It helps to bring intimacy and identity to the community of believers. And it is something that should happen on a daily basis.

Corporate, daily prayer has a long, continuous history in the church. From the earliest days in Jerusalem believers have “joined together constantly in prayer” (Acts 1:14). The Didache, the late first early second century Christian document we introduced above, suggests that believers pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day (Did. 8.2-3). Around 150 A.D. Justin Martyr records in his First Apology that the Church gathered together on Sunday to hear from the scriptures and that before they partook of the Eucharist they first “all rise together and pray” (1 Apol. 67). In the late second early third century Hippolytus of Rome wrote in his Apostolic Tradition that Christians should pray every morning before they do any work. But if it is possible to go to the church to pray with other believers this is the better option (Trad. Ap.35).

As the church continued through history “fixed hours of prayer” were introduced whereby people could stop several times a day for a few minutes to utter a prayer. Today daily prayer based on this ancient model still exists among many Christian traditions. When I studied in Durham, England the Theology department was situated next to the cathedral. Three times a day people would gather for morning, noon and evening prayers. When you participate in something like the Morning or Evening Prayer service at Durham Cathedral you are participating in the ongoing cycle of prayer that goes back through history to the first century. The church has been praying continually since its earliest day. And when we take the time to stop and pray, whether in the church or at home alone, we are praying with the church and adding to the ongoing unbroken chain of prayer offered to God.

In our time it is not always easy for us to go to a church and pray with other believers. Indeed, it is not always easy to pray with our own family. But even though we may not pray in a church we can pray with the church. When we pray, whether alone or corporately and whether we realize it or not, we pray together with all the people of God. We are participating in the unbroken chain of prayer that extends back to the apostles themselves. But as I said in the beginning, prayer is a struggle for many. So while it may be encouraging to know that we are not alone when we pray, we still don’t always know how to pray. And we are not alone. 

In Luke 11:1the disciples asked Jesus “teach us how to pray” and Jesus responded by teaching them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer. I can’t think of a better place to start than with that prayer. Think about it. When you say that prayer you are uttering the very same prayer that was taught by Jesus to his first followers and has been used for more than 2000 years of church history in many languages, cultures and traditions. If there is anything that symbolizes the church’s commitment to “praying continually” it is that prayer. I would suggest that you start by saying the prayer in the morning and the evening of each day. In time as you develop habit and the rhythm you can begin to expand. Those who write on the practice of prayer often recommend that you use each line of the prayer as a launching pad to other prayers. In his book Sacramental Life David Desilva demonstrates how the Lord’s Prayer can help to reflect on who God is, on the kingdom of God, that God’s will be done, that our daily needs be met, that we be forgiven and that we learn to forgive others.  

Although some are naturally suspicious of prayers in books or of using “rote methods,” many who pray this way testify that their prayer life takes on a new focus and determination. Those who would like to participate in the practice of fixed-hour prayer can go to where they will find, according to time zone, the prayers that are being said at those hours around the world. This means that those on lunch at work, for instance, can use those prayers to pray with the church as they “pray continually.”

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Read this Letter: Thoughts on Reading Scripture Publicly

As some of you will know, I am writing a commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians this summer. A good portion of the commentary includes an application section. Today I thought I would share some thoughts from that section related to Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:27

“I charge you before the Lord to read this letter to everyone.”

Paul’s final request to “read this letter to everyone” seems to come from nowhere. It is almost as if Paul has taken the pen from the scribe’s hand and wrote the sentence himself. It’s possible he was concerned that some in the community might be excluded from hearing what he had to say to them, but nothing in the letter communicates that to us. At the very least, it indicates the way that Paul expected this letter to be read. Since most of us read the Bible quietly in isolation from others, we tend to think of Paul’s letters being read that way in the early church; as if they passed the letter around one to another and each read it for themselves in the privacy of their homes.

But Paul’s charge that they “read it to all the brothers and sisters” suggests that he expected it to be read to the whole church together as part of a gathering. Letters were not so much read as they were heard. Paul’s letter would have served as a sermon, read out loud, allowing him to “be there with them” even though he was absent. When read out loud Paul’s claim to have been separated from them “in person, not in thought” would have been much more impactful (2:17). At the same time, there would be plenty of opportunity once the letter was read for questions to be asked and clarifications made. I suspect that Timothy was well prepared to elaborate on anything that had be written in the letter.

Paul’s letters were most likely read a number of times over the years to the congregation to remind them of what he had said. At the same time, Scripture (i.e. the Old Testament) was also probably a part of the regular meeting. In 1 Timothy 4:13 we read “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” In a context where most people couldn’t read and no one owned a Bible, the public reading of Scripture was the way that early Christians were able to become familiar with what God had spoken through his messengers. Often combined with the reading of the Scripture was the words of the apostles as described by Justin Martyr:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. (1 Apol. 67)

Today the various Protestant denominations have different approaches as to how scripture is presented in the worship service. Some churches still practice reading from both the Old and New Testaments each Sunday. But since most people have their own Bible that they can read outside of the service, the focus tends to be on the exposition of Scripture rather than listening to Scripture. But there are some good reasons for recapturing the practice of reading scripture publicly. I cover three here.

 First, this is the way the Bible was intended to be read. When Moses received the Law from God he wrote it down and then read it to the people (Ex 24:3-4, 7). After the Law had been rediscovered under King Josiah it was read aloud to everyone (2 Kings 23:2).  When the exiles returned from Babylon Ezra read the Law to them (Neh 8:5). When Jesus stood up in the synagogue he read aloud from Isaiah (Luke 4:16-18). During the time of the apostles it was common practice to read aloud from the Scriptures (Acts 13:15-16; 15:21) and it was the practice that Paul commanded happen among the churches (1 Thess 5:27; 1 Tim 4:13). As evidenced by Justin Martyr’s testimony, it was a practice carried on in the early days of the church. Although reading Scripture quietly and alone is certainly a valid practice that we should encourage, the fact is that for thousands of years it was more often read aloud, together as a group.

Second, when we read Scripture publicly we participate in an ancient and ongoing practice of the church. Just as we can “pray with the church” (cf. 5:17), we can listen with the church. Listening to Scripture is a spiritual discipline that we can do as a community. It requires taking time out of the service to quiet ourselves and the sanctuary to listen to God’s word. When scripture is read aloud, without explanation or exposition, but simply read to be heard, it eliminates any need for a mediator between Scripture and the listener. The congregation is free to sit, listen and meditate on what God has to say. And at times it means that God may be saying very different things to different people all through the same scripture.

Third, public reading encourages biblical literacy. The modern church has the most access to the Scriptures at any other point in its history and yet is suffering from rampant ignorance when it comes to simple familiarity with the Bible. Reading Scripture publicly and systematically each Sunday can allow for a community to listen to the whole Bible read within a space of five to ten years. That is a long time. But when you consider that many Christians will never read the entire Bible in their life time, then five to ten years is a more than acceptable time frame.

Until Gutenberg invented the printing press the Bible was mostly heard rather than read. While I don’t think we should return to the days when no one had a Bible they could read on their own, I do think we should return to the tradition of the church when the Bible was heard, together as a community. 

Does your church practice reading scripture publicly? If so, how do you do it and how often? 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Indebted for God? Seminarians and the Debt Trap

The new academic year is beginning for colleges, universities and seminaries. As students prepare to take classes one ritual many of them will participate in is the walk to the financial aid office. There they will attempt to get scholarships and grants to help pay the ever increasing price of tuition. Many will end up with an application for student loan. 

Student loans have been a part of the US educational system for some time. We were all told that if we invested in a degree we would have a better shot at a higher paying job. And in some ways that was true. But over the last two decades student loans have increased substantially and the pundits are now warning that, like the dot-coms and housing, this is the next “bubble” to burst.

As a professor at a seminary I have been concerned about the rising level of debt. It is something that I have been aware of for some time. Students are taking out most or all of their tuition in loans and they are using some for living expenses. The result? They are leaving seminary with debt ranging between $35 to $40,000. The problem, however, is that 2011 statistics from the dept. of labor indicate that the average clergy salary is $44,140. DavidBriggs notes that some clergy are having to postpone starting families or are facing bankruptcy.

In other recent articles a former ORU student suggests that while seminary won’t solve your doctrinal problems it will increase your debt. In the WSJ Russell Moore suggests that denominations do more to help seminarians pay for their education. And fellow-blogger, Brian Leport, shares his own experience as a recent graduate as well as some sage advice.

As a professor who works at a seminary and went to seminary I have two perspectives on the situation. I realize that I am, by virtue of my position, part of the problem. One reason that tuition increases happen each year is because the expenses related to paying me go up. At the same time, it would be unfair to suggest that I am “well-off.” For instance, although the seminary is part of a university I am paid less than my colleagues in religious studies up the street. No sour grapes here, well maybe a little, but my point is I am not rolling in dough.

But I also have some observations/suggestions as I watch students come to class via a loan.

1.  Part of the student loan problem in seminary starts in undergrad. Many students come to seminary with $25,000 or more in debt. Again, this is a two edged sword. You took out loans to get the degree which you needed to go to seminary. Perhaps one answer is to take a break between degrees and work to pay down that debt. Students always seem to be in such a rush to finish. I understand that, but  taking 2, 3 or even 5 years to gain some maturity and financial freedom might not be a bad idea if you know you are going into a field that doesn’t pay all that well. Unless you plan on being a successful televangelist, chances are you won’t be very well-off.

2. Cut up the credit card! Too many people are using their cards to get the through. No, no, no. My wife worked in the business office when I was in grad school and she told me how students would come in with two and three cards trying to spread out their bill. Again, if you are going into ministry, credit card debt is not a good way to start.

3.  Work.  I know that many of my students work as well as school. I also know that it adds stress to life. But a few years of stress now can help prevent the increasing stress levels as interest climbs on your debts.

4. Only take the courses you can afford. This goes back to the “don’t be in such a rush” point. If I can beat my own drum here, I only ever took two courses per term in seminary. Why? That was all I could afford. I worked 30 hours a week during the academic year and full time during the summer. I scraped and saved to pay for my classes and was only ever able to take two at a time. The result? It took me 4 years longer to do a degree that should have only taken 2 ½ years. I was also able to concentrate more on those two classes and I left school debt free.

5.  Build a relationship with a church. Not everyone will be fortunate enough to have denominational backing to help pay for seminary. I think Russell Moore is correct when he suggests that churches need to do more to help future clergy prepare. But at the same time, it is unusual for a seminary grad to stay at their home church. But if you think you are called to seminary and your church is encouraging you, telling you what a wonderful minister you will make then why not ask what they can do to help. Perhaps they could pay for one or two classes a year? Perhaps there are other ways that they could support you that would help you avoid the debt trap. Lori and I were part of a wonderful church when I was in seminary and the congregation helped us both with finances and other means. They knew we weren’t going to stay, but they considered it an investment in the kingdom.

These are just a few observations. I realize that the impending debt crisis will not be solved by everyone getting a job. And the current economy only adds to it. But if you are considering seminary you might find some of my suggestions helpful. You might also learn from Brian Leport.

At the same time seminaries need to work harder to control costs. I am proud to say that Ashland Theological Seminary had a only a 2% tuition increase last year and this year we did not raise prices. We are doing what we can to solve the problem. I have had to drill some extra holes in my belt, but if it helps students to leave with less debt I am happy to do it. In the mean time, students need to think through how education is financed as they seek to fulfill their call.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Keener's Commentary on Acts 1:1-2:47

Yes, you read that correctly. The first volume of Craig Keener's four volume commentary on Acts is being released this week and the first volume covers only two chapters. This is a hefty volume too! It is 1088 pages in length of which 638 is introductory material covering the standard overview. My first question is this: Craig, how do you do it?

Many thanks to Craig and Baker books for sending me this advance copy. You can find it at Amazon and Baker. I will post a review in the future.

The Sea Returns to Ephesus

During my trip to Turkey in June I was given the change to visit the ancient city of Ephesus.
As a coastal city, Ephesus was an intersection for commerce and Roman administration. One constant problem, however, was that the city’s geography was subtly, and slowly changing. The river Cayster flowed into the harbor and with its unstoppable flow came a steady supply of debris carried from hundreds of miles away and deposited into the waiting harbor. The harbor was constantly in danger of being filled with silt. In spite of attempts to dredge the silt away, there were many who feared that the harbor would eventually move further away and leave the ships and docks of Ephesus pitched up on dry land. 

Such a prospect was not impossible. Almost three hundred years before, the people of Ephesus had moved their city from its old location. The marshes created by the silt from the river Cayster were the cause of malaria and many deaths among the inhabitants. According to Strabo, they were eventually forced to move to the city’s present location when the king flooded the old city by blocking the sewers (Strabo, Geography volume 1-7; 14.1.24). Eventually the river won out. That combined with a series of devastating earthquakes forced the people to abandon the city.

But Ephesus is about to be reconnected with the sea once again. A project started by Turkish Tourism plans to dig a canal from the sea to the old harbor of Ephesus. Tourists from, especially those from cruise ships, will be able to take a boat to Ephesus and enter it the way people did 2000 years ago when Paul was still there. Here is a bit of what the press release has to say.

Noting that the project was launched in 2012, the official said: “We are conducting the works within the scope of a common project and under the direction of the Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communications Ministry. The transportation from Ephesus Harbor to the Pamucak Coast [on the Aegean] will be possible with boats. Our aim is to revive history again. Recreation areas will be established with proper landscaping. We want to make the ancient city of Ephesus more attractive to tourists. The visitors will have a chance to live the experiences and ambiance of the old times.”
Ediz, however, said it was not currently possible to give any indication as to when the project would be completed. Although Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay recently announced that tourist numbers to Turkey as a whole through the first seven months of the year had declined close to 2 million on the back of regional tensions in Syria and Israel, visitor numbers to Ephesus continue to increase. 

You can read the whole article here