You've reached the shared blog of Michael Mckay and Todd Frederick. Two friends who have worked together in ministry and labored in similar educational endeavors. Please join us as we consider the interaction of Christianity with modern culture...

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Warning in Worship

This past semester was a fantastic one for my academic career. My doctoral seminars directly related to one another, and have helped me to come to a research interest for my dissertation. Hopefully, the all elusive dissertation topic has been discovered! Part of the research was in Psalm 95.

NIV Psalm 95:
1 Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. 
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.  
3 For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods.  
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him.  
5 The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.  
6 Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;  
7 for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if you hear his voice,  
8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert,  
9 where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did.  
10 For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, "They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways."  
11 So I declared on oath in my anger, "They shall never enter my rest." 

Psalm 95 is an interesting psalm for several reasons: we do not know who wrote it, nor when it was written, nor any specific historical event wherein it was used. The Greek Old Testament has a caption which points to David as the author, and several scholars posit that the psalm was used somehow in the Temple worship or maybe by pilgrims coming to the Temple. Most scholarship divides the psalm in half at verse 7 (i.e. 1-7a and 7b-11), however this divides a sentence in half that should most likely be kept together.

I think the psalm should be divided into three parts based on the fact that there are three imperatives (i.e. commands) in the text which are placed at the front of each of their sentences for emphasis. These are the command to "Come!" in verse 1 and verse 6, and the command "Do not harden your hearts!" in verse 8.

The first command to "Come!" in verse 1 invites worshipers to the Temple. If pilgrims were singing this on their way to the Temple, then one can imagine them singing praises to God as the Creator God who is over all other gods.

The second command to "Come!" in verse 6 is a different Hebrew word from that used in verse 1 and can be translated as "Enter!" This seems to shift attention from moving to the Temple to entering inside the Temple and bowing down in worship. Now God is worshiped not only because of his authority as creator, but also because the worshipers are God's people. It is debatable that the period in the middle of verse 7 should be there. Most likely it should go at the end of the sentence and then the sentence should read, "For He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care, if today you hear to His voice." Hearing the voice of God is a round about way of saying "obeying" God's voice. Thus, the psalmist is saying that those who are God's flock are those who obey the voice of God.

The final command really changes the tone of the psalm by including a stern warning: "Do not harden your hearts..." The warning points to the events at Meribah and Massah where God provided water to Israel after they complained to Him. Moses was to strike the rock at the first one and then speak to the rock at the second one. However, he struck both times and was disqualified from entering the Promised Land of God - from entering into "rest". However, for the psalmist and his audience they are already in the Promised Land, so the "rest" here must be something different from conquering the Land.

We can save discussion of what "rest" refers to for another post. The central point I want to bring out here is the warning that accompanies worship. As God's people come to the Temple and enter the Temple, they are warned that going through the motions is no replacement for a tender heart which trusts God. Worship of God is incomplete if the heart is stubborn towards him, i.e. if it is "hard". How easy it is to slip into behaviorism and routine all the while having an independent heart. Hopefully the applications of this psalm to our own tendencies are easy to see. The warning is a great challenge to worship with the correct heart so that we will not forfeit opportunity to enter into God's rest.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Missed metaphors

Don’t you just hate using a metaphor and then having to explain it? Imagine a world where we took all metaphorical speech literally: “man, I’m beat.” Wait, who beat you? “That girl is a fish!” What! You’ve discovered a mermaid! “I feel like the dog’s breakfast.” You feel like small crunchy bits of kibble? That doesn’t make sense... Exactly. We use metaphors all the time to make speech interesting and communicate a literal truth using figurative language. The comic takes a metaphor and intentionally misses the meaning. The birth of a child refers to Jesus and the flesh and blood refers to communion, which is the ceremony that memorializes the meaning of his death. In communion, the participants eat a wafer of unleavened bread and drink a small cup of wine or grape juice. The elements of communion bring people into the symbolically dense world of the Bible, which not only refers to Jesus’ death, but also the Old Testament sacrifices which anticipate his death. To unpack all the meaning here would take, well, it would take the majority of the Bible. The comic ends with an allusion to cannibalism, which Christians also faced as early as the second century (100’s a.d.). I’m pretty sure that most Christians don’t practice cannibalism. 

               Personally, I think the comic is funny and illustrates a problem between Christianity and folks who live outside our shared assumptions and stories. How should a Christian connect with people who know little or nothing about Christianity? Our culture has its own language that we should not assume in our conversation with those folks who don’t share our view of the world. This happens often when we ‘evangelize’ people who are not familiar with Christianity.

               Perhaps the most egregious form of culturally insensitive evangelism is the drive-by. This is when a Christian meets a person for the sole purpose of presenting an opportunity to become a Christian (see: Jim Gaffigan, Beyond the Pale, Jesus). Within just a few minutes, a stranger gets hijacked and interrogated about their fundamental theological commitments. This happened to me as I ran into a convenience store to grab something. As I’m in the checkout line, a friendly gent asked how I was doing and I replied in a similar friendly manner. Immediately (and inconveniently), he jumped right to Jesus, probing my faith commitments. I was flabbergasted… and I’m a Christian! Imagine what someone outside Christianity would think about such an approach. In our time and culture it seems that such techniques create rather than solve problems. There are some folks who can do such a ministry and not seem like Amway salesmen, but I’m not one of them. I much prefer getting to know people and presenting the stories and metaphors of Christianity in a way that helps one make an informed and intelligent decision about Christianity. 

               You should certainly share the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but you must also present it in a way that the hearer understands and can make a clear decision about their faith. It does little good to ‘ask Jesus into your heart’ if you don’t know who He is and what He’s done for you.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The very small and the very large...

              For about the last two years, we’ve been doing church at home. Weird, right? Well, yes and no. It’s certainly different than a ‘big’ church. Our regular meetings include four to six adults and three to five children. We’ve spent our time walking slowly through the history of ancient Israel and are currently half-way through the book of John. There are things you can do in home church that you just can’t do in a formal church setting. If you’re running late, that’s fine, we won’t start without you. You can stop and ask a question, even one that’s not related to the topic at hand. You can answer your phone, it’s okay. We’ll wait. Your kids can go get something from the fridge if they’re hungry and of course they can eat it during the meeting. Would you like to stay for lunch? There’s plenty, and you really are a welcome guest. The dogs will sometimes be obnoxious and want some attention, but it’s a home and a church. Over the course of the past couple of years, we’ve been able to see growth in understanding, salvation and increasing trust in God and wonder at His Word. There are liabilities as well, because it’s certainly different than big church. 

               One big difference is the music. There isn’t really a music program to speak of in home church. We’ve done a little singing and my wife has tested her skills on the piano with us. In big church, there’s often a choir full of talented people. Another difference is anonymity. You can slip into and out of many churches without much more than a handshake and a nervous smile. You can’t be anonymous in a room with ten people. There are comforting rituals in big church that get a little lost in translation at home, particularly around the seasons of the Christian calendar. It’s hard to develop the mysteries of Easter (not the bunny) with folks who haven’t heard the full story yet. By God’s grace, this coming Easter will be the first time we can rehearse the story of our risen Lord as a redeemed community. Unlike big church, there’s no nursery (no need), nor are there special programs for children, though we often play games at the close of our meeting times together. 

               Which one is better? I suppose that’s a very subjective question. Some folks would strongly prefer the formality and services of a big church and I can respect that. On the other hand, our home church wasn’t born from a desire to be identical to the form of church, but to its substance. Any church succeeds by helping people grow in their relationship to God and to each other. We just do it quite a bit smaller. You’re always welcome to drop by… be forewarned, you won’t be able to stay anonymous.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Why it's a tragedy.

               I’m about three-quarters done with my first pleasure read of the winter break (The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse) and it brings out some really important ideas about how public conversation dances around the idea of God, without ever bringing Him into the discussion in a meaningful way.
               Everyone acknowledges that Sandy Hook is a national tragedy. The murder of innocent children is perhaps the most heinous, vicious and unforgivable act any person could ever do. Language stretches to encompass our pain and sadness; we all weep for the living faced with the sudden absence of their loved ones. While everyone acknowledges the wrongness of the murder of innocents, very few discuss why it’s such a crime.
               Every worldview has to give reasons for moral prescriptions. You may not steal. But… why? The modern secular conception of ethics relies on community standards or a vague notion of harm. It is wrong to harm another person. But what does harm mean? How is the harm principle applied? How can you define wrong in an ethical situation without recourse to God? These are important and difficult questions. It is wrong to steal from another person because it harms them, and harming another person is wrong. But what about usurious interest rates; isn’t that harmful? Or what about punitive taxation? We can readily agree that theft is wrong, but start poking at the rules and you need something bigger. The Christian worldview asserts that God sets the moral standards for humanity, and that the foundation for moral prescriptions is based on a fundamental fact of human creation: God created man in His image. Thus the violation of that image by theft, or even worse, by murder is a crime against man and against God.
               Look again at the tragedy of Sandy Hook. From a secular perspective, the crime is against humanity: we, the human race agree that the murder of innocents is wrong. From a theistic perspective, it’s a whole different situation: the murder of those innocent children is a crime against God Himself, because He made mankind in His image and He prohibits the violation of His image by illicit life-taking. This doesn’t diminish man, but raises him up to a level of honor and respect. It helps us define the tragedy of the murder of those innocent children, but it also helps us define the tragic lack of care for the killer, because he, too, is created in God’s image. Even though his acts were heinous, society has a responsibility to properly deal with people who are a danger to themselves or others because they are created in God’s image. This applies whether he was mentally ill and thus in need of treatment, or morally depraved and thus should be handled by incarceration or some combination of the two. We fall short as a society precisely because we have excluded God from our discussion of what’s wrong with our country, and, more importantly, why it’s wrong.

Friday, August 31, 2012

A little (more) time off

With the fall semester looming, we’ve taken a look at our various commitments and decided to put the blog on a temporary hiatus. This is Michael’s second year of Ph. D. work and my final year in the M. Div. program. As we’ve been doing over the past several months, we will probably drop by to post from time to time, but other projects simply demand our time and creativity at the moment. We are always available for directed questions through email or phone. Thanks!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Lexically annoyed

My wife clued me in to an online article worthy of comment. The article looks at two passages Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 in order to say that the Centurion was asking Jesus to heal his partner in a homosexual relationship. The article very badly misuses the Greek language in order to ‘prove’ that Jesus approved of the Centurion’s 'alternative lifestyle.' I don’t approve of homosexual practice, but it really grinds my corn when language gets abused to make anybody’s point. The article bases its conclusion, that Jesus approves of homosexual practice, on the use of the Greek word pais in the above passages.  The most egregious comment in the article states: “But pais does not mean ‘servant.’ It means ‘lover.” I call baloney.

Allow me to justify my calling of baloney on this interpretation. It’s basic semantic range time, people. 

Words have a ‘range’ of possible meanings. Consider the English word ‘trunk,’ and you’ll see a great example of a broad semantic range. It ‘means’ a lot of very different things: the back end of the car, the main axis of a tree, the nose of an elephant, a chest used to hold belongings while one travels, and so forth. The particular use of the word ‘trunk’ relies on the context in which the word occurs. Other words have a much narrower semantic range, like ‘George Washington.’ I realize it’s two words, but it refers to a single person, namely the first American president. 

The same thing is true of the ancient Greek language used to write the New Testament. In the present example, the word pais is being considered. The author of the article claims that it ‘means’ lover without any consideration of the word’s semantic range. There are several ways to proceed: I could survey the lexicons from the Classical and Koine periods (boring) to show the possible range of pais’ meanings: (male or female child, servant or slave). But someone could argue for bias in the lexicons, so the more interesting way to deal with this claim is to test the article’s claim by applying their meaning of the word to various New Testament contexts in which the word appears (not boring).

Example number one: Matthew 2:16 “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”
Here the word pais clearly refers to children two years old and under. These were obviously not homosexual partners. 

Example number two: "Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.”
Here the word pais is used in an Old Testament quote applied to the person of Jesus in his relationship with God the Father. 

 Imagine using the word 'trunk' in a similar way. If you say that trunk 'means' an elephant's nose, then confusion ensues every time you talk about the main woody axis of a tree, or when you direct your child to put his suitcase in the rear of a car. What will you pack your belongings in for a trip? A congested elephant takes up too much room, and I dare say that elephant snot is distasteful to cleanse from your laundry. Language has become absurd when semantic range is ignored.

There are other examples of pais in the New Testament, primarily in the Gospels and Acts, but you get the point. Words have a range of meaning. It may be possible that pais refers to a homosexual partner, but it is not necessarily so, unless information from the context leads to that interpretation. Of the 24 instances in the New Testament none refers to a homosexual partner and many references clearly refer to children. Thus the claim that pais means ‘lover’ is misinformed at best and intentionally misleading at worst.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


The Gospel of John is amazing. Not only for its revelation of the person of Jesus Christ, but also for its masterful literary composition. John plays with themes of light and darkness through the first half of the work, implicitly (and sometimes boldly) challenging the reader to make a choice: walk in the light or remain in darkness. 

‘Walking in the light’ has become a stock phrase for Christians that means the correct understanding of God and proper application of His principles to daily life. John introduces this theme in chapter one, but then plays with it in chapters three and four. In chapter three, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night and quite clearly doesn’t get it. He remains in darkness and ignorance. In chapter four, Jesus meets the Samaritan woman coming to the well to get water at high noon. Her responses indicate her growing understanding and as the conversation develops, she leaves her water bucket at the well and goes to tell her friends about Jesus! Her response indicates that she’s ‘walking in the light.’ 

Perhaps the most explicit contest comes when Jesus heals a blind man in John 9. The man was born blind and thus considered by many to be born in sin. His ‘inner light’ was quenched and he could not see. Jesus corrects this misunderstanding and sends the man to wash in the pool of Siloam. He returns able to see! The Pharisees (sort of like religious Grinches) are displeased and seek to explain away the miracle and discredit Jesus. The formerly blind man who is now ‘walking in the light,’ faces down the sighted Pharisees who choose to ‘walk in darkness’ and ignorance. As the chapter closes, the man worships Jesus. 

John also uses the feasts and festivals to play with the theme of light and darkness. There are three named feasts in the book of John: Passover, Tabernacles and Dedication. Passover climaxes in the death of Christ, but the other two feasts prominently feature… light. In the feast of Tabernacles the Court of the Women in the Temple was illuminated by a giant oil lamp and featured a water pouring ceremony which involved … the pool of Siloam. The feast of Dedication memorialized the cleansing of the Temple. Not only was the Temple illuminated, but light featured prominently in everyone’s homes. In a literal sense, people were ‘walking in the light,’ but the metaphorical sense depends upon an individual decision. John asks, ‘what about you?’ Are you, ‘walking in the light’ or stuck in darkness? It’s a fair question and the Gospel of John deserves a close reading!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Eat Mor Chikin

I find the Chick-Fil-A controversy interesting. If you’ve been living in a cabin in the woods for the past couple of weeks, the CEO Dan Cathey made a statement during an interview identifying his support for traditional marriage. Sensing a political opportunity, many sharks began circling to derive maximum benefit from a manufactured controversy. Mike Huckabee sponsored Chick-Fil-A appreciation day, when people who support: a. the right of a business owner to speak his mind or b. traditional marriage could come out to the restaurant and purchase a chicken sandwich. Some members of the gay community have decided to stage a kiss-in at Chick-Fil-A restaurants this Friday, where they go to the local restaurant and make out in public. 

What I find interesting is that some members of the homosexual community just don’t get it. When they do something in public which intentionally offends other people to make their point, they lose influence among people who otherwise wouldn’t care what they do privately. There’s a lesson for Christians here as well. If our message of Christ offends someone, we don’t change the message. If our behavior intentionally offends other people, we obscure the message and dishonor our God. 

Maybe one way to counteract the offensive ‘kiss-in’ is to ignore it and buy another chicken sammich. Maybe even buy one to pass along to a protester. Who knows what opportunities might come up.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The day I learned to hate drugs.

I appreciate the many nuanced discussions for and against the legalization of this and that. I’m all for a limited government and individual rights. Recent events in my life have caused me to reflect on why I absolutely hate drugs. My hatred is not an abstract opinion, but a visceral reaction that I can feel in my bones and my flesh. My hands ball themselves into fists at the thought of someone I love using drugs. My reaction revolves around what drugs have taken from me: my oldest brother was a drug addict. 

Jeff was thirteen years older than I am, so as he encountered the independence of his teen years, I showed up. Probably a little inconvenient and irrelevant, so I don’t have a lot of memories where we lived under the same roof. I do remember visiting him in prison, but I was too young to enter the facility. My little brother and I waited in the car while mom visited and then as we left, she pointed out his arm, waving from the confines of his cell. He was incarcerated for drugs. 

Later I would visit him at his home in Newport News. He had cleaned up, married and had a beautiful wife and daughter. The specter of addiction haunted him, and he would return to drugs again and again until finally, he was incarcerated again. Along the way his wife was unable to continue in the marriage and no one should fault her. Drugs changed my brother. He would lie and steal to get the one thing in life that he really wanted… more drugs. 

While he was in jail, he had cleaned up and my wife and I would visit frequently. As he was being released from his final jail sentence, I offered to let him come live with me and I found him a job. I was young and newly married with a little daughter of my own. Enwrapped in the struggles of a young couple it was doubly difficult to discover that soon after moving in with us Jeff had returned to drugs. He was no longer a welcome guest in our home and moved to a resident drug treatment ministry, but refused treatment. Within a short time, we learned that he had died. I don’t know all the details surrounding his death, but I remember very clearly going to the funeral home with my mom and arranging for his funeral. On the day of his funeral, I was so sick with grief that I couldn’t get out of bed, though I tried. This is the day I hated, and learned to hate with absolute, unqualified anger the use of drugs to get high. 

The greatest illusion that drugs create is that of control. The user believes that he or she can control the substance and use it to get high. Over time, the substance controls the user. You might point out exceptions to this by saying that so-and-so used (or uses) this or that and they’re fine. Goody for them. Every day of my life there’s someone missing because he thought controlled the drug which manipulated him, destroyed his relationships and left him dead at 37.