Reading letters as letters

While on a trip to Europe with my wife in the summer of 2012, I attended a conference on Galatians at the University of St. Andrews. To begin the conference, the attendees were taken on a walking tour of the town. We walked past the famous golf course, and toured some of the oldest buildings on campus. At the end of the tour, we were all corralled into a room that seemed just a bit too small for a group of roughly one hundred of us. Once we were all standing in the room — and I do mean standing — one of the doctoral students was instructed to read Galatians aloud.

The next half-hour or so was spent listening to St. Paul’s first-century pastoral epistle to the Galatian churches. As we listened, I became increasingly aware that I stood in a long line of Christians who have heard Galatians read aloud. I felt, perhaps for the first time in my life, that I was receiving the Word of God. I was not discovering it on my own, and I was not mining it for information or answers to my ethical dilemmas. I was simply listening to two-thousand-year-old words written to someone else that somehow seemed to be speaking directly to me.

I will most likely never return to that room, and because of how surprised I was by the experience itself, I will likely never be able to recreate what I felt that day. But the environment of that specific room with those specific people was only part of what made the moment so special for me. This was also the first time I heard Galatians in a single setting. As much as I had studied Galatians, and had even been required to translate portions of it from its original language in the classroom, I had never read it in its entirety all at once. Your experience may be different than mine here — and hopefully it is — but I had never really considered that I should read Galatians all at once, the way I would read any other letter.

Letters are fascinating to read, especially when we recognize that they are letters and treat them as such. Imagine finding a hand-written letter in your attic from your dad to your mom on the day they found out that they were expecting you.

Dear Love of Mine,

I can not begin to tell you how amazing you looked this morning as you shared the big news with me. Today is the beginning of a new phase in our life together. I love you, I will always love you, and I love the child growing inside of you even now.

Yours until death do us part,

Dave

Reading this letter has the potential to be a very special moment in your life, an opportunity to look back in time at the love shared between your parents before you took all of their free time and sanity away from them.

But what would happen if we were lazy readers who failed to take the genre of the document we are holding into account? Or what if we knew that we were reading a letter, but didn’t take the time to discover who wrote it, to whom it was addressed, when it was originally written, or what context surrounded its writing? And perhaps most awkwardly of all scenarios, what if we read a sentence or two from the middle of the letter and assumed that it was meant specifically for us?

In other words, how strange would it be for us to read this attic letter the same way that, unfortunately, many of us read the Bible?

Part of a renewed vision for discipleship in the modern church must include doing the hard work of training God’s people to apply the best part of their minds to our daily reading of Scripture. We must work towards bucking the trend of the “verse a day” mentality and work towards a reading ethic that commits to receiving Scripture in its proper context.

Paying attention to genre is a great place to start. The New Testament is overwhelmingly comprised of letters; simply reading these New Testament letters the way we would read any other letter — in its entirety, over and over again — paves the way to a better understanding of the messages they contain. If we commit to reading Scripture in this way, the beauty and relevance of its many splendid parts will shine through again and again.

More wow, please.

Kids are refreshingly honest.

Today Rowan was in awe of this wind-up robot. When it started to walk, Rowan let out a precious “Wooooow!”

Every time.

But then came the best Rowan line of the evening: “More wow, please.”

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world. … These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” [CSL]

Yes, Rowan. More wow, please.

Common Prayer

Common as in communal, not ordinary or humdrum or boring. Prayers of the community. Prayers of “the great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us and, by God’s grace, who will come after us. Borrowed words from Scripture and from Saints long gone spoken in moments when our own words fail us.

Tonight was one of many chaplain shifts that relied heavily on these rites. The Holy Spirit works instantaneously in a thousand different ways. But the Holy Spirit also works slowly and steadily over the course of many centuries to give the church gifts like these prayers.

Sermon: The Power of Mundane Prayer

Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, TX. August 13, 2017

Sermon: The (Risen) Lord is my Shepherd

Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, TX. May 7, 2017

Sermon: The Enchantment of Holy Week

Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, TX. April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday

 

Week 4: Christianity & Judaism (Diognetus 3 & 4)

Diognetus 3 

3:1  And next I suppose that you are especially anxious to hear why Christians do not worship in the same way as the Jews. 2 The Jews indeed, insofar as they abstain from the kind of worship described above, rightly claim to worship the one God of the universe and to think of him as Master; but insofar as they offer this worship to him in the same way as those already described, they are altogether mistaken. 3 For whereas the Greeks provide an example of their stupidity by offering things to senseless and deaf images, the Jews, thinking that they are offering these things to God as if he were in need of them, could rightly consider it folly rather than worship. 4 For the one who made the heaven and the earth and all that is in them, and provides us all with what we need, cannot himself need any of the things that he himself provides to those who imagine that they are giving to him. 5 In any case, those who imagine that they are offering sacrifices to him by means of blood and fat and whole burnt offerings and are honoring him with these tokens of respect do not seem to me to be the least bit different from those who show the same respect to deaf images: the latter make offerings to things unable to receive the honor, while the former think they offer something to the one who is in need of nothing.

Diognetus 4

4:1 But with regard to their qualms about meats, and superstition concerning the sabbath, and pride in circumcision, and hypocrisy about fasting and new moons, I doubt that you need to learn from me that they are ridiculous and not worth discussing. 2 For is it not unlawful to accept some of the things created by God for human use as created good but to refuse others as useless and superfluous? 3 And is it not impious to slander God by alleging that he forbids us to do any good thing on the sabbath day? 4 And is it not also ridiculous to take pride in the mutilation of the flesh as a sign of election, as though they were especially beloved by God because of this? 5 And as for the way they watch the stars and the moon so as to observe months and days, and to make distinctions between the changing seasons ordained by God, making some into feasts and others into times of mourning according to their own inclinations, who would regard this as an example of godliness and not much more of a lack of understanding? 6 So then, I think you have been sufficiently instructed to realize that the Christians are right to keep their distance from the common silliness and deception and fussiness and pride of the Jews. But as for the mystery of the Christian’s own religion, do not expect to be able to learn this from a human being.

Questions as you Read and Annotate

What in these readings surprised you?

What Jewish practices mentioned above, although often done with wrong motivation, would be helpful to imitate as Christians?

Apply the Goldilocks Test to this week’s reading: Was the author’s argument against Judaism too strong, too weak, or just right?

Book of Common Prayer: Introduction

What is a Prayer Book?

A collection of prayers and services to be used by God’s people throughout the year and throughout one’s life. A Prayer Book may include a simple collection of prayers (Valley of Vision, etc) or it may contain all approved worship services, prayers, and other ministries for a particular Christian Tradition.

Examples of ancient Prayer Books:

  • Psalms (Songs of Ascent – Psalms 115-136)
  • Church Manuals (Didache, Hippolytus, etc)

Common Prayer?

Before the BCP, the wealthy and literate might be able to afford personal Prayer Books (mostly in Latin) that included daily readings and prayers.

The BCP, first created in 1549, was intended to be a Common Prayer Book for English-speaking Christians.

What does Common mean in this context?

  • Common as in “available to everyday folk”
  • Common as in “universal”
  • Common as in vernacular (Originally: English. Today: over 200 languages)

The Book of Common Prayer

The official Prayer Book for the Anglican Communion, locally adapted in each Province.

Latest American version: 1979 (1549 oldest, 1662 seen as most “authoritative.”)

Gems from the BCP

  • Daily Office (Morning | Noon | Evening | Compline), p.37-147 (Click here to download a Guide to Morning Prayer)
  • Lectionary (Reading Plan), p.936
  • Prayers for Various Occasions, p.814
  • Collects (prayers for specific days/seasons of the year), p.158
  • Catechism (an outline of the faith), p.845
  • Historical Documents of the Church, p.864
  • Services
    • Thanksgiving for the Adoption or Birth of a Child, p.439
    • Confession (Reconciliation of a Penitent), p.447
    •  Ministration for the Sick, p.453
    • Ministration at the Time of Death, p.462

Tips & Tricks

  • Rite I refers to Traditional language (thee, thou)
  • Rite II refers to Contemporary language (you, your)
  • Bookmarks, bookmarks, bookmarks
  • Online (searchable) version: bcponline.org

Three Questions (Diognetus 1)

Summary

In the opening chapter of the letter, we learn that Diognetus has three “clear and careful” questions about the Christian faith.

  1. What do Christians believe about God and how do they worship Him?
  2. What is the nature of the heartfelt love they have for one another? (We will soon find that this question could also be phrased “How do Christians interact among themselves and within the wider world?”)
  3. If Christianity is true, why would God have waited so long to introduce it to the world?

Notes on the Reading

Who is Diognetus?

There are some throughout history who have held that the intended recipient of this letter was none other than Diognetus, the tutor of Marcus Aurelius. Whether this is the case or not is difficult to determine historically. What we do know is that Diognetus at least represents somebody within the Roman empire who is curious about the Christian faith.

Disregard the World? Despise death?

Though we will learn more about what the author of this letter means by these two phrases, it is worth highlighting the nuances of two Greek words used by the author.

The word translated as “disregard” means literally to overlook someone or something. To disregard the world appears to mean to intentionally overlook the ways of the world (i.e. those ways of living that are in contrast with the Christian faith) as viable ways of living.

The word translated as “despise” means to look down on something because it has little value or power.

Prayer for Speakers and Listeners

The author ends this opening chapter by asking God to allow him to speak in a way that benefits those who are listening. He also asks God to allow his audience to hear him in a way that leaves the speaker without regrets. These are two good prayers to keep in mind for those who speak and those who listen.

Discussion Questions

  1. What three questions do you think Diognetus would have about our faith if he were alive today?
  2. If you were responsible for answering these questions, what percentage of the letter would you devote to answering each question?

Reading for next week: Diognetus 2 and Acts 17:22-31

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What is the Epistle to Diognetus and Why Should I Read It?

What is the Epistle to Diognetus?

The Epistle to Diognetus is an ancient (probably 2nd or 3rd century) letter written by an anonymous Christian to someone in the Roman Empire who has questions about Christianity.

Why is now a good time to study this anonymous Christian letter?

Regardless of what outcome you expected or hoped for in the 2016 Election, you likely noticed the same thing I did along the way: we Christians need to think better about how our faith should drive our interaction in a pluralistic society. Put in biblical language: how should Christians today be in the world but not of the world. The Epistle to Diognetus was written, in part, to answer this very question.

Throughout Diognetus we see glimpses of an early Christian community living within the Roman Empire in a way that is inspiring and worthy of emulation.

(You can read more about how I read this letter with my Senior Theology class at Coram Deo Academy in the days following the election.)

Why study an ancient text (vs. modern)?

It is easy to assume that all modern industries and cultural spheres are operating at the “state of the art.” We often assume that the way we do things now is the best they have ever been done.

In some areas, this is likely true. Automobiles are safer, more reliable, and more efficient than ever before. Space exploration is beginning to bridge the gap between science and science fiction. But is everything at the state of the art? What about education? What about our ability to think well and speak clearly about things that really matter? What about Christian political theology?

We are studying an ancient text because some problems are so big they require the wisdom of those who have come before us.

Why study an extra-biblical text (vs. something from the Bible)?

We can never really exhaust the beauty and relevancy of the Christian Scriptures. So why would we spend a semester studying an ancient Christian epistle and not a New Testament epistle?

New Testament epistles were written to a specific audience for a specific purpose, and we simply do not have a New Testament epistle whose purpose matches that of the Epistle to Diognetus.

The Epistle to Diognetus relies heavily upon and only makes sense in light of the Christian Scriptures. Most weeks we will actually read a passage of Diognetus along side a passage of Scripture.

For Next Week: Read, and annotate, the opening chapter of Diognetus.

Click here to download the Handout and reading for next week here, or view below.

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