Four Lessons from Psalm 133

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
Psalm 133

1) God’s People Are Called to Live in True Community

“Born-Again” christians aren’t orphans – we are a part of a transtemporal and multinational community.

2) True Community is Good & Pleasant

The Christian life involves sacrifice and is only possible when you have a strong, faithful support system.

3) True Community Mediates God’s Presence & Creates a Transformed Life

Individuals are bad at creating and sustaining change. Christ-likeness develops over time and in the context of a close-knit community.

4) True Community is the Cornerstone of God’s Eternal Plan

Our Triune God, perfect community in himself, is drawing us (not as individuals, but as brothers and sisters) into his family for an eternity of joy.

Cultivating Identity: Americans and the Church

Are we better at making loyal Americans or committed Christians? As a local pastor and a high-school teacher, this is a question that regularly haunts me. The answer seems obvious: we live and contribute to a socio-religious system that is highly effective at churning out people committed to the American nation-state yet much less effective at creating Christians who feel a deep and abiding sense of loyalty to the global and historic Christian community.

I think this task – instilling an instinct of identity and belonging to the Christian community – is one of the most important roles of the church. This is a particularly acute need in a post-Christendom society which is increasingly confused over the relationship between national and religious loyalties. The scriptures are clear: Christians have been adopted into a new family, united into the corporate body of Christ, and have had their citizenship transferred into a new Kingdom. The church is an alternative polis which exists as an outpost of Resurrection amidst a world of Death.

How might we go about fostering this sense of identity among our church members and youth? Here are a few modest suggestions:

#1 – Teach church history, recognizing its importance for our community.
History is extremely important for creating a sense of identity and loyalty, which is why we almost universally teach it to our youth. However, there is an alarming disconnect between many Christians and the basic history of their community. Here is a prediction: an 18 year-old who graduates high school with many years of training in US History and almost none in church history will be a more loyal American than Christian.

#2 – Give more honor towards those called to ministry or missionary work.
This contradicts the Protestant emphasis on the “priesthood of the believers” and call to minister in the workplace (both truths which I support), but I believe we lack a proper respect for those who enter into ministry or the mission field. Those who choose to sacrifice their lives for the nation (entering into military service, etc) are seen as heroes, while those who choose to enter the ministry or mission field are often met with skepticism and caution (“but you won’t make any money” … “I guess he/she couldn’t hold down a real job”). 

#3 –  Shift the emphasis of our language about conversion from the individual to the social.
Our language of conversion is individualistic, focused on beliefs, and future-orientated, when it should be social, focused on a new lifestyle (discipleship), and celebrating the present reality of the Kingdom. Instead of asking people to convert by agreeing to a few propositions or deciding their preferred destination for the afterlife, let’s call people to take their place in God’s story and join His community. (See this recent post from Michelle Mikeska: Evangelicals and the Moment of Conversion)

#4 – Follow and appreciate the liturgical calendar.
Calendars, like history, are also highly effective at creating an integrated society. Churches and families who follow the rhythms of the liturgical calendar (Advent, Lent, etc) and celebrate/remember the feast days of the Saints will find themselves more connected to the historical and global Christian community.

Do you agree or disagree? Are there any other practices which might be helpful in cultivating a sense of identity and belonging to the Christian community?

Read the Bible Like a Texan, Y’all

We’ve tried to tell y’all for a long time: everything is better in Texas… even the Bible.

In fact, in recent months I’ve repeatedly found myself giving the following advice:

to read the Bible faithfully, read it like a Texan.

Why, you ask, would anyone ever want to do that?  Because a deficiency in the English language, combined with an already-present tendency towards individualism, has created an unhealthy distortion of the Christian faith.  Luckily, Texans have already solved this problem with one of our favorite words: y’all.

You see, English has a pronoun problem.  The original languages of the Bible had specific forms for “you plural” (second person plural pronouns), but unfortunately modern English lacks such a distinction.  This is why many regions (not only Texas!) have attempted to fix this shortcoming in their own unique ways.  In fact, the New York Times recently came out with a fun interactive quiz on geographical dialects: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk.

The result is that many times the word “you” in our English translations is not actually meant to refer to an individual, but to a local community of believers.  Texan John Dryer attracted attention this past summer for creating a “Texas Bible (plugin)” which converts all the instances of “you – plural” in the Bible into “y’all” (see the graphic below).  Dryer even did the math, concluding that “there are at least 4,720 verses (2,698 in the Hebrew Bible and 2,022 in the Greek) with you plural translated as English “you” which could lead a reader to think it is directed at him or her personally rather than the Church as a community.”

This becomes a problem for the many English readers of the Bible who have been trained in the radical individualism so common to Western culture.  For many, the idea that it might be vitally important to belong to a Christian community is simply incoherent.  Nicholas Perrin once correctly observed that far too many Christians see the church as an informal gathering of Jesus’ mutual Facebook friends – there is little that connects them beyond the coincidence that they happen to have a relationship with the same person.  But this “Jesus and Me” faith is nowhere to be found in the Scriptures, a truth which is better grasped when we pay closer attention to the use of plural pronouns.

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 is a great example: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”  At first glance, these verses seem to be emphasizing the individuality of the Christian faith.  I am where God dwells.  I am filled with the Holy Spirit.  But a translation sensitive to the original languages would note that these are plural pronouns that should read: “Don’t you all know that you all (plural) are God’s temple (singular) and that God’s Spirit dwells in you all (plural)… For God’s temple (singular) is holy, and you all (plural) are that temple (singular).”

This significantly impacts how we should interpret this verse.  As Richards & O’Brien point out in Chapter 4 (Captain of My Soul: Individualism and Collectivism) of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible:

“We typically understand the singulars and plurals in this verse backwards.  In the original Greek, the you is plural and temple is singular.  Paul is saying, “All of you together are a singular temple for the Holy Spirit.”  God doesn’t have millions of little temples scattered around.  Together we make the dwelling for the Spirit.”

It is a local community of believers where God is found and where His Spirit is available to experience.  We might not like it or understand it, but apparently the Church is God’s plan to mediate his power and presence to the world.  Frankly, it’s remarkable that Paul is so confident about this truth as he writes specifically to the Corinthian church.  The church in Corinth was “Church-Gone-Wild XXX”  – they were immersed in factions, debauchery, and sexual immorality.  Yet, warts and all, their community was where God had chosen to dwell in a powerful and immediate way.   What if we dared to believe that the same is true of our local faith-families?  You might not have always read the Bible as a Texan, but hopefully you’ll start as soon as you can.