Saturday, January 31, 2009


The picture at the top is the famous portrait of Daniel Boone at the end of his life in Missouri painted by Chester Harding from Boston in 1819. The second picture is the famous one of Boone leading men through the Cumberland gap and Boone's Trace, the path he hacked through the wilderness to get to Kentucky. Notice no coonskin cap (a later invention of Hollywood and TV, if you remember Fess Parker). I have been enjoying reading Robert Morgan's (a Tar Heel alum)fantastic, thorough, and careful biography of Boone, simply entitled "Boone. A Biography" (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008). I relate to ole Dan'el because we both lived for long period in N.C. and Kentucky. The book inspired the following....


Moving, departing, going on ahead
Quitting, exiting, leaving it for dead
Forward, motion, progress in a line
Known for the movement, what you’ve left behind.

Straight as, an arrow, now the border bound
Face like a flint set, never looking ‘round
Heading, for horizon, always gathering speed
Horse and a saddle, all the things you need.

Go west, frontiersman, search for better land
Survey, explore, compass in your hand
Scratch the itch, the urge, for going yet again
Never returning, where you once had been.

Facing the sunset, heading now due west
Get there by sundown, or just do your best
Camping out, sleeping rough, now a daily deed
Finding the bluegrass, settling with all speed.

Marksman, surveyor, friend of Indians too
Tar Heel, Kentuckian, knew just what to do.
Boon to humanity, and all those he met
A Genuine American, few have equaled yet.

Quaker, hunter, lover of the land
Mason, commander, rifle in his hand.
Trapper, trader, family man and then,
Pull up stakes, and do it all again.

Born in Penn’s woods, died a patriarch,
Missouri the last frontier, but bluegrass in his heart,
Many came after, without succeeding him
Ole Dan’el the original, shan’t be seen again.

Jan. 31 2009

Tales from Frostbite Falls-- Part Seven-- Windham Hill Inn

So as I have been saying its just me and the big dogs and a cat up here on top of the Green mountain above Grafton. It should make for a truly interesting Super Bowl Party-- "So what did you think of that last great catch by Fitzgerald Boo and Ben (the dogs' names)?" Response: "Woof" "How about You-- Clio (the cat on my lap?" "Purrrrrfect". (I think I'll sing 'Who Let the Dogs Out' about now).

Yesterday was a decent weather day so I went up to Rutland some 40 miles north to the Norman Rockwell Museum. I was not disappointed. It is the one which opened not long before he died (there is also a good one in Stockbridge Mass.). What is interesting is that he used local Vermonters (he lived for decades in Arlington Vt.) as his models, for his many drawings. I had no idea he had done so many Magazine covers, including famous Boy's Life ones (the Scout magazine I took when I was in Scouting). He did a bunch of Presidential portraits, and Astronaut portraits in the 60s-- some stunning ones of the moon landing Apollo days. He also did a rock album cover in 1968-- Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. I will post a bunch of pictures when I get home from the trip and can download them from the camera.

Last night I went to a truly magical place-- the Windham Hill Inn, one of the few 5 star Inns anywhere in the U.S., never mind New England. You can see a picture of it above complete with its current 40 inches of snow. In case you do not remember, this is really where Windham Hill Music got its start. Will Akerman was a handy man who actually helped rebuild the place and get it open for business in the 70s, and Windham Hill Music was born. This Inn is just above Townsend and one of Akerman's early recorded songs for his own label was the Townsend Shuffle. Windham Hill music featured the ethereal-- lots of echoing pianists (George Winston, Scott Cossu, Liz Story, and the more mainstream and still going Jim Brickman), and acoustic guitarists (the fantastic late lamented Michael Hedges, Akerman himself, Bela Fleck from Lexington Ky. and others), and some wonderful if quirky groups like Shadowfax (their The Odd get Even CD is terrific). The genre of the label was pure music, acoustic and nature music without artifice and lots of synthesizers in the age of over-sythensized and over disco-ed everything. Try their wonderful 4 Cd sampler or their 2 CD sampled called Sanctuary. You will not be disappointed if you need something to mellow you out.

Well the Inn has turn into a fancy shmancy B+B, and not cheap either. Their evening 3 course meal is $60 plus tax and tip. That does not count beverages and desserts. It was however a treat to celebrate the finishing of the Doxa book on worship as well as the two volumes of Indelible Image. What did I have-- I had a roasted mushroom cap with prosciutto in it (yum) a smoked duck and seafood (salmon, mussels, scallops etc) salad, and pork tenderloin on yummy black risotto and cabbage. It was excellent and the portions allowed for a doggy bag (and with 2 150 dogs hanging on me, I could use it. A good time was had by all. If you're going to buy a Windham Hill CD and you have to choose one, try Michael Hedges amazing live CD-- Live on the Double Planet. If you are a guitarist like me or just a music lover, its a treat.

Yours until the Vermont Maple Syrup stops dripping,


Thursday, January 29, 2009


Growing up my favorite magazine, other than sports was The Saturday Evening Post, for one reason. The amazing paintings and drawing of a true New England original--- Norman Rockell (1911-78). For decades Rockwell drew the covers for this magazine, and often they were bought just for the covers. Above you will see five of his famous religious paintings. I especially like the Easter Morning one. There is now a museum for Rockwell's work in Rutland (he used to live in Arlington, as well as several places in Massachusetts (Stockbridge), though he was born in NYC. Rockwell had a wry wit which comes through in so many of his paintings, and his new realism inspired many other artists, perhaps most obviously Andrew Wyeth.

I must also at this point report the very sad news of the passing of John Updike (1932-Jan. 27 2009) of Ipswich, Mass. this week. He was a remarkable writer early on for the New Yorker and then later in his many novels and short stories, mostly about New England. He was also a practicing Christian, a theme in various of his novels almost as frequently as the theme of sex. He won the Pulitzer twice for two of his famous Rabbit novels (Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest I believe). I've read most of them and they very accurately chronicle certain aspects of life in the 60s-80s. Readers of this blog may well remember the review of his exciting last novel--- The Terrorist. I learned a lot about writing from reading Updike. As a small tribute below I offer his famous poem on resurrection.


Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.


Two recent books have begun to cause a lot of stir in the guild of Biblical studies, one as an attempt to suggest a change in direction in seminary curriculum, the other more of an apologia for the nature and importance of historical criticism as a means of getting at the meaning of the Bible. The former of these is by a Yale (and former Duke) Professor of NT Dale B. Martin (Pedagogy of the Bible. An Analysis and Proposal, Louisville: Westminster/J. Knox, 2008), the latter by an Oxford Professor of OT John Barton (The Nature of Biblical Criticism, (Louisville: Westminster/J. Knox, 2007). Both are written by seasoned scholars whose previous writings have been well received. Martin tends to be more of an agent provocateur in some respects, Barton more of a defender of scholarly rigor and each book has its own merits and demerits. There is some overlap between the two books, but in some fundamental ways they are at odds with one another especially when it comes to the issue of ‘meaning’ which will be the focus of this critique and review. Martin is weary of the hegemony of the historical critical method as the method which is taught at seminaries and divinities schools as the fundamental tool for getting at the meaning of the Biblical text. He is of course right that there are other ways to read the Biblical text ranging from pre- or even anti-critical readings to what some now call post-critical readings of the text. But in his survey of American seminaries he came to the, for him, gloomy, conclusion that the hegemony of historical criticism has by no means been eclipsed or deposed, whatever his desideratum may be.

There is in fact a good reason for this in fact. Most scholars, and indeed most people of faith believe that in fact contextual study (the historical, literary, rhetorical, social etc. contexts) of the Bible is crucial to its understanding. As I like to put it—a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean. An overwhelming majority of them also believe that Biblical texts have meaning and it is important not to read our own meanings back into the text willy nilly.

Now this last assertion may seem non-controversial to you, but if so, you haven’t been listening to literary theorists and Derrida fans much in the last two or three decades. Nor have you realized or assessed the considerable impact of folk like Stanley Fish (late of Duke) on such discussions. But Martin has decidedly felt the impact of such discussions and when it comes to the issue of meaning, he has come to agree with Fish and others on a variety of subjects. The following are a series of quotations from his recent book:

Martin say “one of my favorite slogans [is]: Texts don’t have meaning; people mean with texts.” (p. 31)

“I am convinced that the emphasis on the differences between exegesis and eisegesis currently does more harm than good in teaching students about biblical interpretation. It reinforces a notion about texts and meaning that is false in itself….It reinforces the commonsensical but mistaken idea that texts simply have meaning as a property within themselves, that texts dispense their meaning themselves, or that texts may constrain interpretations of themselves.” (pp. 29-30).

“All readings of texts are in fact the making of meaning.” (p. 30).

“[T]extual meaning is something created by human beings practicing rather complicated socially learned skills we call ‘reading’. The most famous advocate of these ideas was Stanley Fish.’ (p. 31).

“[R]eaders make sense of texts; texts do not dispense their meaning, nor is meaning dependent on authorial intention.” (p. 32)

Now there are serious epistemic and semantic and indeed even theological reasons for rejecting this whole approach to the issue of meaning, but it will be well to say a couple of things about Stanley Fish and how he came to his conclusions. He is not in fact a historian or indeed a student of ancient historical texts, rather he is someone whose expertise is in modern literature, and perhaps to a lesser degree modern art. He is deeply indebted to folks like Foucault and Derrida and his agenda is in part to deconstruct the whole approach to reality known as modernism or the legacy of the Enlightenment, or even the scientific method which assumes that there is an objective world out there which can be known and distinguished from the knowing subject.

Martin in fact in his book makes the signal mistake of suggesting that abstract art or even more abstract poetry provides a clue as to how meaning happens and where it comes from--- namely from the eyes of the beholder or the reading subject (see. pp. 32-34). Now at one level he is right--- we are not blank blackboards on which texts write their meanings. No, to one degree or another we are active readers of texts and we bring our own knowledge, hopes, fears, expectations, faith or lack there of to the reading of the Biblical text (or any other text for that matter). We need to be aware of this fact, but it does not in fact provide the key to understand where the meaning of texts comes from. It is a factor to be taken into account, and indeed often to be corrected for. Why?

Well at one level it has to do with respect. I do not have the right to make the Biblical writers or Shakespeare or any other writer say whatever I please. I don’t have the right to read my own agendas into their texts. I did not produce them, and they are not mine. I cannot make a claim on them as if I was the one who encoded the meaning into them in the first place.

And this brings up a crucial point. The very reason I would be agreeing with John Barton and not Dale on various matters pertaining to meaning is because I want to know what those Biblical authors inspired by God are trying to tell me. I am not merely interested in finding out the multiple ways I can use the Bible as an inkblot to create my own meanings in life. In fact it is important to make a threefold distinction between: 1) meaning (something the text has); 2) significance (something the text may have for me, but which is grounded in the plain sense of the text if I am reading it right); 3) application, which is a further step removed.

Let’s listen now briefly to what John Barton says about these same matters.
Barton is a defender of the importance of what he calls Biblical criticism (read historical criticism, by which of course he does not mean being critical of the Bible, but rather reading it with a keen and discerning eye in order to get at its meaning). In quoting and following W.H. Schmidt he says:

"A text is an assertion of a human person, transmitted in writing—a person who can no longer defend himself against misunderstanding. Who can step forward as his advocate if not historical criticism? Criticism tries, as well as it is able, to preserve the rights of the text, and in its name to counter misinterpretations. Indeed, there is no other possible way of allowing a text, as the word of another person, the freedom to speak for itself.” (p. 72).

Barton then does not believe ancient texts like the Bible are like modern abstract art or poetry. They have a latent or inherent meaning, and we need tools to find out what it is--- one such important tool is historical criticism. Why? Barton goes on to explain…

“[B]iblical criticism has always taken for granted that the meaning a text has is connected with its origins in a particular historical and cultural setting—what some would call its ‘original’ sense… This is most obvious at the level of language. Words are not constant in their meaning across time. To take a simple example in the novels of Trollope we often find a female character saying that a male friend ‘made love to her the whole evening.’ It is crucial in understanding Trollope to realize that in his day this expression meant showing a romantic or sexual interest in someone, not having sexual intercourse with them. Otherwise, we would get a very distorted idea of what happened in Victorian drawing rooms.” (p. 80). In other words, every responsible interpreter of any text has a duty to take into account the lexical system and range of meanings that were in fact possible at that time, in that place, in that text. This is just as true of interpreting Biblical texts as it is in interpreting Trollope.

Barton goes on to give the excellent example of Ps. 102.12 where the psalmist speaks of God reigning ‘for ever’ (le’ olam).Later Jews and Christians have often taken the psalmist to be referring to the eternality of God, and his existence outside the constraints of time, however that is not what the psalmist had in mind. What he means is that God’s reign will know no end However long time endures, God will still be reigning. In other words the text speaks to God’s ongoing rule not his ontological nature or eternality. We might well entirely miss this if we did not do contextual study of the Psalm verse in question.

Barton goes on to make a further crucial point. The meaning of a text does NOT change across time while of course its interpretation may well do so. “It is not that the text changes its meaning, but that meaning is differently evaluated,, appropriated, or weighed.” (p. 84).. Meaning is historically conditioned. The object of studying the Bible in context is not to determine what it used to mean, but rather what it always has meant. For example, Barton takes the famous phrase ‘by the skin of my teeth’ found in Job. The fact that it is still a familiar idiomatic phrase today and is used differently than it was used in the book of Job does not after all determine the original or plain sense meaning of that text which its author gave it. “It is not that Job means A but it now means B; rather Job means A, but I am using the words that occur in Job to mean B.” (p. 84).

Exactly. The meaning of the text is one thing, its modern uses or the significances we find in it another. Barton points to a helpful distinction made by Umberto Eco between interpreting a text and using it, arguing that use is of course a free-for-all, but that to interpret one needs to attend to the cultural and linguistic background against which the work is written. (p. 85 n. 28). This is right and is a guiding principle for historical criticism.

Against Martin and his kin Barton says forthrightly “what the text meant is what it still means. The fact that it can be used as a vehicle for many other meanings does not undermine this.” (p. 86). Barton goes on to stress that the logically prior activity to preaching, teaching or applying the Bible in any way is finding out what it means. This is exactly right.

‘Meaning before application’ (p. 103) should be our watchword as he urges. “[E]xegesis and application must be separated in the interest of two freedoms: the freedom of the text from the concerns of the interpreter and the freedom of the interpreter to ask questions not envisioned by the text,” (p. 103).

Barton is also right to stress that not only do words only have meaning in contexts (consider for example the word ‘row’ which can be a verb or a noun depending on the context), but even more importantly one has to attend to the larger genre of literature in which a sentence or paragraph occurs. In other words, one needs to interpret any document, and especially the Bible carefully taking into account is literary genre.

The task of a Biblical scholar, says Barton, is to act as a tour guide of the text helping us see the parameters of what the text does or could mean within its original contexts, before assessing its applicability in our own contexts. “Exegete’s guided tours of the text will involve noticing many blooms that are not part of its literal content, but also being able to distinguish them from the weeds that come from their own imaginations.” (p. 116). Sometimes we need tour guides more than others, but in the case of the Bible we especially need them because of its sheer volume of use and familiarity. Let me illustrate the problem.

Forty years ago I was driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the beautiful N.C. mountains when the clutch blew out and as the Bible says, ‘my countenance fell” because of course there are no gas stations anywhere on the Blue Ridge. My friend Doug and I got a push off an exit ramp from another car, into a gas station, but alas, he was unable to fix the thing. We decided to hitch hike the three hours back to High Point, and then I would have to tell my father the bad news. So, we stuck out our thumbs, and pretty quickly a very elderly couple picked us up in a black 1948 Plymouth. My friend Doug (who is now a lawyer in N.C.) decided to make conversation with the driver. He asked what he thought of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and all those beautiful pictures sent back of the revolving earth. The man’s reaction was instanteous—‘That’s all fake’ he said “Everyone knows the world is not round and does not revolve. That was just a liberal Hollywood trick.”
Doug, perhaps not recognizing invincible ignorance when he first saw, badgered the man--- “Why do you think that?” I kept whispering ‘Shut up Doug, we need this right to North Wilksboro.” The man’s answer was plain and simple---
“It says in the book of Revelations (you always know you are in trouble when someone calls the last book of the Bible Revelations plural) that the angels will stand on the four corners of the earth. Earth can’t be round if its got four corners, now can it?” The man took this to be invincible logic which settled the matter altogether.

What was wrong with the man’s reasoning? It was not that he took the Bible seriously. It was that he had made a major genre and category mistake in interpretation. He had taken a figurative utterance in an apocalyptic prophecy to be a literal cosmological description of the earth. In fact, by doing so, he had violated John’s intended meaning in that text. John was trying to say that the angels would come from all major points on the compass. He was not doing cosmology but suggesting comprehensive coverage. But of course our driver was innocent entirely of such learning about the genre and character of the book of Revelation, and therefore ironically, he violated the very meaning and spirit of the text all the while trying to uphold its truth! This often happens in fundamentalism.
No text deserves more respect or the absolute best efforts of the interpreter than the sacred text of the Bible. Its meaning makes a mark, indeed a claim on us, and can be life changing.

As I have argued in The Living Wrd of God we do not honor the Bible if we naively think we can just open it up and always understand it without serious study of it in its various contexts. That involves at least three major fallacies: 1) the assumption that modern and ancient cultures, modern and ancient languages, modern and ancient meanings are not different in any significant way; 2) it assumes that just because the Bible may be perspicuous or clear that it will therefore be clear to me without effort or study--- the Psalmist who wrote Psalm 119 knew this was false, and simply a lazy approach to God’s Word. ‘Study to find yourself approved' and don't forget you have a fallen intellect; 3) it assumes that just because I have the Holy Spirit in my life to help me understand God’s Word that I am obviously on the same wavelength and listening perfectly to the Spirit’s illumination. I don’t need any outside help.

What is interesting to me is that none of the Biblical writers thought this way. They knew study and good teachers were critical, and even after Easter study was crucial. Notice how Luke begins his Gospel by says he had to consult various of the eyewitnesses and original preachers of the Word to get the story of Jesus straight. I put it to you this way—if even the inspired writers of the NT knew they needed to do their homework to understand the Christ event and the Bible, it follows that so do we.

Biblical or Historical Criticism is not the enemy of a high view of Scripture, indeed it is a very useful aid in getting at the meaning of the Biblical text. And I agree with Barton that Job One is to find out—what the text says and means. Job Two is then to ask--- ‘In what sense is this meaning true?” Take again the example from above with the ‘flat lander’ and the book of Revelation. Angels on the four corners speaks a truth, but what sort of truth—is it meant to be a literal description of the shape of the earth? No, it is not but you would not know this unless you had studied early Jewish apocalyptic literature and were sensitive to its literary signals. Or take another example, When the Bible reports a particular person (say King David) telling a lie, in what sense is this report--- true? Not in the sense that he wasn’t lying, but rather in the sense that it gave an accurate or truthful report of the lie.

Job Three after Job One and Two is to assess the significance and possible application of the Biblical text for yourself, or your congregation etc. And of course sometimes ‘significance happens’, but I would stress that a significance of a text for me is not the same as the meaning of the text. I grow weary of the self-centered phrase ‘this is what the text means to me’. You are not the meaning maker of the text, nor do you have a right to decide what the text means for you. The text means what it always has meant. It is your job to understand it, embrace it, submit to it as a Word from God and seek to apply it. And no amount of anti-intellectualism can get you out of your obligation to study it contextually. But back to significance.

In August of 1979, my wife was put into Durham hospital three weeks before our first child was due, with elevated blood pressure. Now you have to realize that my wife is a biologist. She did not want the ‘knock em out and drag em out method of delivery’. She wanted ‘au naturel’ and so there was no little angst that came over her when she was told on August 13th they were going to have to induce her. Her problem was she knew as much about the dangers and biological processes once that drug went into her and the baby as the doctors did. On that evening I tried to cheer her up, but it was difficult because we were reading through the Bible together, and were stuck in the middle of the doom and gloom chapters of Ezekiel who was addressing his fellow exiles and trying to give them some hope. But in the midst of all that doom and gloom about coming judgment, there were these words we read that night--- “and I will multiply your kindred, and I will keep you safe, and you will come home soon”. Well, a light went on in my brain and I felt led to say—“Well honey, things are going to be o.k. That baby is going to come all by itself.” She looked incredulous and said “You really think so?” I said I did. I went home that night and simply paced the floor waiting for the call to come saying the baby was on the way. Sure enough, there was a knock on my door about 4, and in about six more hours, Christy was born.

Now I knew perfectly well that those verses in Ezekiel were not written as a prophecy about me and my wife. They were literally intended to tell the Israelites they would get back to Jerusalem one take and thrive once more. But through the serendipity of experience God used the text to show us how he was working in that situation, and so those verses took on a significance for us (not a new meaning, a significance) as God himself applied those words to our lives. And we are ever so glad he did! It helped us trust God and be ready for the coming of Christy.

There is much more I could say along these lines but let me sum up--- 1) Biblical texts have meanings; 2) we need help to understand them; 3) historical criticism is not the bogeyman, it is a good Sherlock Holmsian process that helps us understand the meaning of these texts; 4) we should not listen to those who suggest ‘meaning is in the eye of the behold’ or in the ‘act’ of the reader’, if by ‘meaning’ we mean the plain Biblical sense of the text, not what I would like to find in there; 5) historical criticism is in many ways the best hedge against misunderstanding and misinterpreting the text, and we should be glad for that if we care about the truth of the Word God, and desire to handle it prayerfully and carefully.

The Word of God is indeed like a two edge sword which cults both ways—you can either use it to cut people to ribbons, or to do the necessary surgery on them so their hearts will open and they will receive the Good News. LET THE READER UNDERSTAND THE INSPIRED MEANING OF THE BIBLICAL TEXT. It should be the goal of all who seek to interpret it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


The thing about love, if it is the genuine article and not some pale imitation of it, is that when one is in love one becomes profoundly humbled by the whole experience. One's defects, which previously one had ignored or overlooked oir only sporadically attended to, now become glaringly obvious. Now the lover desperately wants to become his or her best self for the sake of the beloved. In addition to that quest, there is this profound sense of being unworthy-- unworthy of such unconditional love coming one's way, and so a sort of quiet desperation sets in that one is: 1) either dreaming, but does not want to wake up or; 2) one is going to wake up and discover one has lost the beloved. The thing about real love that comes from above is that it is profoundly self-sacrificial, all the while making one profoundly self-conscious and aware. It is as if one's senses have all been heightened or gone on full alert. Even the smallest gesture, the simplest touch, a fleeting smile, the most mundane words of encouragement become magnified into something almost epic or heroic. In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet the advice of the Friar to the loving couple to "love moderately for long love doth so" falls entirely on deaf ears. Not even the dramatic metaphor of such intense love being like when gunpowder meets flame and so "the two kiss, and are consumed" does not ward them off.

But is this real love, or just 'infatuation' with another? If it is real love it is hard to imagine it happened very much prior to marriage in the Biblical cultures where marriages were arranged, dating and courting did not happen, and one was barely pubescent when one got engaged. Today of course we have just the opposite. People have extended periods of dating, courting, even living together, and still cannot make up their minds! Too often they think they are in love, when in fact they are just in heat and letting the hormones do the talking and walking.

We, with our impoverished English language have trouble distinguishing love from lust, love from like, love from mere physical attraction. The Greek by contrast used eros of the physical sort of attraction and activity, philos of brotherly or sisterly love, which was often seen as the deepest and most profound in antiquity (see e.g. the non-gay fraternal love of David and Jonathan), storge of family or clan love, and of course agape, which could be used of a variety of sorts of love, either divine or fraternal normally.

Of course one of the major problems in our culture is the mistaking of feelings for love. Obviously love and loving does involve feelings, but it is not defined or delimited by them. When my wife has a migraine headache and yet still pulls off making a wonderful dinner for me and guests, this is certainly 'love' but it does not describe how she was feeling just then. Feelings are notoriously bad guides to what is true, or even whether one is in love or not, not least because feelings are conditioned by: 1) the state of one's health; 2) circumstances of the moment; 3) how tired one is; 4) one's age; 5) the social conventions of one's culture; 6) whether or not one has had a normal upbringing or was abused, and this is only a brief list. Feelings are the icing on the cake, but when it comes to real love, they are by no means the cake. In fact, those who define love mainly on the basis of feelings ("the thrill is gone....."), take the cake! Below you will find a sermon I preached at the National Cathedral some time ago. Reflect on these things..... BW3

( JOHN 15.9-17; 1 JOHN 5.1-5)
Preached at the National Cathedral May 21rst 2006


Our’s is an affective age. So much is this the case that even the best of counselors often begin their therapy sessions with the question---- ‘How do you feel about......?’ or ‘How does that make you feel?’ Feelings are assumed to be the touchstone, the talisman as it were, of what is really going on in a human life, what really matters. This is so, in spite of the fact that we all know that feelings can be tremendously deceptive.
In the earliest days of aviation in America, planes regularly crashed. One of the puzzles was why pilots, when they went into a cloud would often come out of it in a spin and then crash. One pilot who survived such a crash was interviewed by a major reporter and he explained that when he went into the cloud his inner ear, indeed all his inner feelings gave him the impression that the plane was not upright or level, and that he needed to bank to the right to be parallel to the ground once more. In fact this inner sense of his, this strong feeling deep inside him was all wrong, and it was precisely responding to this feeling which led him to bank in such a way that he went into a spin and crashed. Thereafter, altimeters and other gauges were installed in the planes so the pilots could fly even through clouds on a level plane without getting the urge to bank in some precipitous way leading to a crash. Human feelings, even profound ones, are often no good guides to what is true or what is good or even what is helpful.
Ah but what about the feeling we call love? Love is the subject of the majority of popular songs which may just prove we are love-lorn, or ‘lookin’ for love in all the wrong places’. Surely that love feeling is more true, a better barometer and guide to life? Sadly, it often is not so. We could all name persons who have spent, or misspent their lives following their feelings and their deep desire to be loved, and the result has been one train wreck of a relationship after another. In light of this, one has to ask---- is the Bible really commanding us to live our lives based on our feelings, even our deepest feelings? Even more profoundly, is Jesus really insisting we do so in one of our Scriptures for today? In fact, as we will now discover, he is not. Love in the Biblical sense, while it certainly involves feelings is nevertheless not all about feelings, indeed it is not primarily about feelings. And then too, the love which is being talked about here has a Christological shape, orientation, direction, and source. Jesus is the source, exemplar, director, and object of this love. It is not just any kind of love that is referred to here.

Have you noticed that in the Bible we are frequently commanded to love? It should have struck us as odd that love is commanded, if we are used to associating love with mere feelings. Jesus says that love of God and of others is the greatest commandment. He even commands us to love our enemies, which surely does not mean love them to death by killing them. But is he really ordering our feelings to march in lockstep in a particular direction? Have you ever said to your children---- “I demand that for the next three minutes you will feel happy and cheerful!” That’s rather like that wonderful starfish in ‘Finding Nemo’ commanding itself “Go to a happy place, go to a happy place, go to a happy place” while the aquarium is being thumped right where the starfish is attached by a mean little girl. If you have tried such an experiment of commanding others feelings or even your own doubtless you have discovered it is an exercise in futility not fertility. Feelings cannot be commanded. They come and they go and they are subject to the vicissitudes of life, affected and prompted by a thousand different factors— whether or not we are healthy, whether we are hungry, whether we are sleepy and a host of other factors.
So here is where I tell you that in the Bible love is normally an action word. It refers to a decision of the will that then leads to an action. Most often it refers to an activity, not a feeling at all. This is why for example in the Christian marriage ritual the bride and groom to be are asked when it comes to professing their love to say “I do” and “I do”, and “I will” and “I will”. They are not asked to say “I feel like it” and “I feel like it”. This should have given us a clue that love is not mainly about feelings, from a Biblical point of view. In fact in Jesus’ own words for this morning he tells us— “greater love has no one than he lay down his life for his friends”. That’s love in action, love as a self-sacrificial deed. There are of course lesser loves, but Jesus is not speaking of those in this text.
Too often we get real love mixed up with lust, or even just plain desire or loneliness. Young people often say “we’re in love” but alas all too often they are simply “in heat”. In fact the English lexicon is tremendously impoverished when it comes to love. Greek has no less than four or five different words for love— one for physical love (eros), one for family love (storge), one for brotherly or sisterly love (philadelphos), and one for divine love— agape. And the love that is being commanded in the NT is almost always ‘agape’. But now you may be saying— how in the world can Jesus command us to love as God loves? Its hard enough to love like the best of humans, how can we be commanded to love as God does? Isn’t that a bridge too far? Should we all be singing now the theme from Man of La Mancha— “To dream the impossible dream...” Is this command the stuff of fairy tales? The task becomes all the more daunting when we realize that God’s love for us is so vast.
There is an old hymn written by a man whose last name is Lehman. He was a man who lived before modern psychology and its medications, and seems to have been bi-polar or manic depressive. There were times of lucidity and times he would lose his grip on reality. Not surprisingly, living in the early 20th century he was institutionalized. Now the man was both a musician and a devout Christian. Despite his institutionalization he wrote some wonderful joyful hymns, and the most famous of which has a story behind it. The most memorable verse of this hymn was the last thing Mr. Lehman ever wrote, for it was found scrawled on the padded wall of his cell, in which he was found dead. It reads as follows:
“The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can tell; it goes beyond the highest star and reaches lowest hell…Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies a parchment made, were every stalk on earth a quill and every man a scribe by trade, to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry. Nor could the scroll contain the whole if stretched across the sky.” Should we then despair of ever loving like God loves, or as God has commanded us to love?

In fact the answer is no. St. Augustine gives us the clue when he says to God “give what you command Lord, and command whatsoever you will.” The capacity to make the decision of the will, to put love into motion, and even to make the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of one’s life for others is in fact a gift from God. St. Paul puts it this way when he says that if anyone is in Christ “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Rom. 5.5). So let us talk about God’s love for a moment.
Victor Furnish, one of the great NT scholars of our era has put the matter in this fashion— ‘God’s love is not like a heat-seeking missile which is triggered by something inherently attractive in the target, the object of love’. Indeed not, God loves us when we are unlovely, indeed in some respects seemingly unloveable. God loves us whether we love God back or not. God’s love is unconditional, in the sense that it is given freely, and not because of anything we have said or done or felt. Indeed, God’s love is often given in spite of what we have said or done or felt. It is pure grace— God’s unmerited favor, God’s undeserved, unearned benefit freely and lavishly poured out by God into our lives. The key then is that for human beings to love as God and Jesus have commanded us, they must first be open to receiving that love from God. Paul says it is a matter of believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and receiving the gift of love by means of God’s Spirit who comes to indwell the believer.
Ah ha, you may say— “I knew it---so there is a catch. I must first believe, before I can receive, I must first trust before I can have such love.” Its not really a catch though. God is not requiring of you some herculean effort or any sort of quid pro quo. Its just that you must unclinch your fists, and open your hands if you are to catch what he keeps throwing in your direction. No love has ever been received, even of the purely mortal sort without there first being some trust, some openness, some vulnerability involved. You cannot be loved unless you allow yourself to be loved, and that involves a modicum of trust. But oh what a wonderous thing it is when you allow yourself to be transformed by God’s love. Then indeed you are capable of even truly and totally self-sacrificial love. You want proof? I have time for just three brief examples ----- my wife Ann, Jim Elliot and Albrecht Durer.
My wife, unfortunately is afflicted with periodic migraine headaches, even the sort which leads to loss of vision for a while in one eye. When my wife has one of those headaches they are not accompanied by warm mushy feelings. But when she gets up and prepares a nice meal even in the midst of having such a headache, that, my friends, is love, even though she is feeling horrible. That is love in action, and in this case it is truly and freely given IN SPITE OF HOW SHE FEELS. It involves willing and doing, not, in this case warm mushy feelings.
Jim Elliot was a missionary to the Waodani Indians in South America. It was a dangerous undertaking. In fact on one furlough he was interviewed by a reporter who asked why he was dealing with such a violent tribe, especially since they seemed so hostile to him and his message. He replied “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” He was talking about giving up his own life for these Indians, showing them the love of God in Christ, knowing that even if they took his mortal life, he could not lose the everlasting life God had given him as the ultimately gift of divine love. Shortly after offering this word of wisdom to the reporter, Jim Elliot was martyred by the Waodani Indians. Several decades later, and in fact only a couple of years ago at a Franklin Graham Crusade one of my good friends was present in Florida when one of the chiefs of the Auca tribe gave his testimony. He said “Formerly, I lived badly badly. But now I live for Jesus, for Jesus sent Jim, and he laid down his life for me. ‘Greater love hath no one, than he lay down his life....’

Finally I must tell you a truly ultimate love story, the story of Albrecht and Albert Durer.

Back in the fifteenth century, in a tiny village near Nuremberg, lived a
family with eighteen children. Eighteen! In order merely to keep food on
the table for this mob, the father and head of the household, a goldsmith
by profession, worked almost eighteen hours a day at his trade and any
other paying chore he could find in the neighborhood. Despite their
seemingly hopeless condition, two of the elder children, Albrecht and
Albert, had a dream. They both wanted to pursue their talent for art, but
they knew full well that their father would never be financially able to
send either of them to Nuremberg to study at the Academy. After many long
discussions at night in their crowded bed, the two boys finally worked out
a pact. They would toss a coin. The loser would go down into the nearby
mines and, with his earnings, support his brother while he attended the
academy. Then, when that brother who won the toss completed his studies,
in four years, he would support the other brother at the academy, either
with sales of his artwork or, if necessary, also by laboring in the mines.
They tossed a coin on a Sunday morning after church. Albrecht Durer won
the toss and went off to Nuremberg.
Albert went down into the dangerous mines and, for the next four years,
financed his brother, whose work at the academy was almost an immediate
sensation. Albrecht's etchings, his woodcuts, and his oils were far better
than those of most of his professors, and by the time he graduated, he was
beginning to earn considerable fees for his commissioned works. When the
young artist returned to his village, the Durer family held a festive
dinner on their lawn to celebrate Albrecht's triumphant homecoming. After
a long and memorable meal, punctuated with music and laughter, Albrecht
rose from his honored position at the head of the table to drink a toast
to his beloved brother for the years of sacrifice that had enabled
Albrecht to fulfill his ambition. His closing words were, “And now,
Albert, blessed brother of mine, now it is your turn. Now you can go to
Nuremberg to pursue your dream, and I will take care of you.”
All heads turned in eager expectation to the far end of the table where
Albert sat, tears streaming down his pale face, shaking his lowered head
from side to side while he sobbed and repeated over and over, “No… no” Finally, Albert rose and wiped the tears from his cheeks. He
glanced down the long table at the faces he loved, and then, holding his
hands close to his right cheek, he said softly, “No, brother. I cannot go
to Nuremberg. It is too late for me. Look ... look what four years in the
mines have done to my hands! The bones in every finger have been smashed
at least once, and lately I have been suffering from arthritis so badly in
my right hand that I cannot even hold a glass to return your toast, much
less make delicate lines on parchment or canvas with a pen or a brush. No,
brother... for me it is too late.”
More than 450 years have passed. By now, Albrecht Durer's hundreds of
masterful portraits, pen and silver-point sketches, watercolors,
charcoals, woodcuts, and copper engravings hang in every great museum in
the world, but the odds are great that you, like most people, are familiar
with only one of Albrecht Durer's works. More than merely being familiar
with it, you very well may have a reproduction hanging in your home or
office. One day, to pay homage to Albert for all that he had sacrificed,
Albrecht Durer painstakingly drew his brother's abused hands with palms
together and thin fingers stretched skyward. He called his powerful
drawing simply “Hands,” but the entire world almost immediately opened
their hearts to his great masterpiece and renamed his tribute of love “The
Praying Hands.” These were the hands of genuine, painful, suffering love, the same sort of hands we see on the Christ with arms outstretched to the world while on the cross and words saying “Father forgive them they know not what they do.”
You see, in the end Biblical love is all about action, not talk. When it talks about love its all about self-sacrifice not self-aggrandizement or self-fulfillment, though if you love in this sacrificial way one by-product is you indeed will be fulfilled, in fact you will be filled up to the full with God’s love, as God has an endless supply. In the end it’s all about love’s labor’s won, not lost. It is this sort of love which makes the world go round, and indeed makes life worth living. It is this sort of love which is both given and then commanded by God. And best of all, God long ago sent his one and only Son so that we might have love and have it in abundance. Jesus lived and died not merely to make real love possible, but to make it abundantly available to whosoever will believe on Him unto everlasting life.

If you ask what the heart of the Christian faith is the answer is beguilingly simple—it is the religion of the heart. It is all about God’s love for us in Christ which can so transform us that we become what we admire--- “God is love” says our text for this morning (notice it does not say “love is God”). But we too like Christ can become love in person, if we will allow ourselves to be filled with that divine love and so become incandescent in thought word, and deed.


Tales from Frostbite Falls-- Part Six-- BLIZZARD!

There is snow, and then there is serious snow. I'm talkin' blizzard here (and not the kind available at Dairy Queen). Thank God for 4 wheel drive trucks is all I can say or else I would never have gotten home over the mountain from Townsend where I went to the dentist this morning.

When I awoke this morning, there had already been 4-5 inches of light snow, but by Noon we already had another 5-6 inches, and they are talking 14 today and another 6 tomorrow. Now where I come from, that would be seen as a whole winter's snow, the storm of the century. Around here in Grafton in the Green Mountains, not so much. They are not much impressed.... yet. So I thought I would give a handy dandy guide to be able to tell when you are or have had a blizzard.


1) frozen beef is not just what is in the frig (see above)

2) the snowplows give up and go home

3) the dogs no longer want to go outside and chase the birds from the bird feeder

4) when the level of snow on top of your car is in fact taller than you (see above)

5) when all the schools in your part of Vermont are closed.

6) when the local grocery store decides it must close early.

7) when the heat runs constantly in the house.

8) when its easier to slide off your roof to get out of the house than to go out a downstairs door.

9) when old Joe, who is 88 says, "I've not seen one like this in a while"

10) when there is now more food in your fridge than there is left at the Village Store

11) when its already dark by 3 p.m. cause it's snowing so hard.

12) when your love for the beauty of the snow finally gives way to the realization that you have about four days of shoveling to do, just to get out of your house and driveway.

13) when there is not enough coffee in the world to keep you warm.

14) when the phone's go out.

15) when no one drives up or down your road for over 24 hours.

16) when the cabin fever gets so bad that even week old brussel sprouts and canned peas start looking good.

P.S. It's not that big of a deal to be snowed in, even if you lose power if you have good wood and kindling and a good fire place. You can still be warm, and eat, and read good books, and for a writer like myself, that's way more important than TV. But if I still have power tonight, I think I'll watch the new episode of LOST. If you are on top of a mountain and snowed in and there's no way out, it isn't much different than being on an island for a while. And maybe those Demon Deacons of Wake will beat those ole Blue Devils tonight as well :)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009



The icicles hung on the eaves outside
But the adams were gone on retreat
The caretaker said ‘only God is inside
And there’s nothing here you can eat’.

The chapel was silent, oppressively still
The cross hung above the enclosure
Hard benches on the nave’s narrow sides
And next to them more than one crozier.

Not a voice in the room, not a bird in the air
The winter wind outside kept blowing
The caretaker said ‘only God is inside’
But if so, why wasn’t he showing?

A widow quite wizened and left all alone
Entered as if on cat’s feet,
Slipping right past me and kneeling right down
She entreated while being discrete.

After time had slipped by, she quietly left
A sweet smile creased her old face
In a voice barely audible, pointing within
“Surely God’s inside this place’

Sun rose Easter morning, casting its pall
The mourners raced to the tomb
The stone was rolled back, no body within
And nothing relieved their gloom.

Yes the tomb it was empty, God didn’t abide
But the angels had a strange story
‘He’s left the building, so fear thee not’
But they fled, struck dumb by the glory.

Does absence of presence, or presence of absence
Really prove he rose and abides?
Or was it encounter with Jesus himself,
The outsider who now dwells inside?

The bells tolled twice, calling to prayer
The sky was Carolina blue
‘Inasmuch as he did it for the widow this day
He’ll do it again for you’.

I put on my jacket and braced for the cold,
The caretaker smiled as I passed,
“I told you that God only dwells inside
And I guess you believe me at last.”

Jan. 27th 2009 Weston Vermont

Monday, January 26, 2009


(at the Revolutionary War Cemetery)

The calm after the storm,
The clarity after reflection
The acceptance of unchangeable things
Like winter followed by spring.

Peace, in the face of war
Satisfaction, without more
The acceptance of frustrating things
Hard hearts, heads, truths.

Of this demanding demeanor
Francis did reassure
Irresistible, immovable stones
Are best left alone.

But wisdom to know the difference
Between terminal and temporary
Between aging and lack of condition
Between religion and superstition

Somewhere a song is playing
I barely can hear the tune
An anthem about a wholeness
Past understanding, more than just new.

A quiet quick resignation
That God know much better than I
How long to spin out life’s thread
A time for birth, and a time to die.

I see a star at its rising,
An orange moon just going down,
I count myself blessed just to see it
Though my father’s in the ground.

Far more than a sort of ceasing
Serenity is about releasing
Persons into his hands
Futures into his plans.

I hear a quiet whisper
Within my heart of hearts
And leave here with assurance
Of fresh fellowship, fresh starts.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
Even men of iron will rust
And our metal will be tested
Does it read—‘in God we trust’?

BW3 Jan 24, 2009 (Grafton, Vermont)

Sunday, January 25, 2009


O.K. so what do you do when its below 0 and you have cabin fever? Well, you get in the truck and head to other warm buildings where there is food and company. I did this twice in the last two days seeking out both terrestial and celestial food and company.

What you see above at the top is the Inn at Saxton's River and St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Chester Vt, both really warm places, but also really cool-- if you catch my drift. I went on Saturday night to the Inn for supper and absolutely was not disappointed. The locals had commended it to me, and they were right. After getting reacquainted with Mr. Adams Winter warmer, I then had some good ole New England Clam Chowder (to be pronounced CHOW-DUH) with bacon and potatoes in it which really hit the spot. Picture me by a warm Victorian fireplace in a nice big overstuffed chair overstuffing myself. The chowduh was followed by the main course which was bacon-wrapped scallops (a personal favorite). If you're coming to New England and you don't eat seafood you are missing the best of the native cuisine, and that's a fact. This was scrumptious and it came with another personal favorite from the old South-- sweet potatoe fries, cooked just right and light. Then this temptress of a waitress waved various earhly delights known as desserts in front of me, and since I felt I deserved my just desserts since I had spent the day slaving away over a hot laptop, I chose something I had not consumed in 20 years--- a hot fudge sundae. And there was no fudging with this sundae-- it was a delight. Feeling like a stuffed turkey thereafter, I waddled out to the truck and drove the seven miles back home to Grafton, where a cup of incredible Obsidian coffee awaited me (kudos to Caribou).

This morning when I awoke, it was naught minus 5 degrees but crystal clear blue sky and no wind. I figured this was coming last night when I notice a zillion stars out including a huge Venus or Mars or some such planet. Remember when you used to go camping away from the city lights, and you'd look up at night and see all of the heavenly host, instead just the bright ones you'd see in town? Well, up on the moutain overlooking Grafton is like that--- nearer my God to thee.

I was determined to go to church this morning, and St. Luke's Episcopal pastored by the rector the right Rev. H. Paul Brannock-Wanter is a splendid little Evangelical Episcopal Church where the Gospel is duly preached and the sacrament properly administered each Sunday. I was there with some 30 other souls who were huddling together trying not to be God's frozen people, and so singing lustily and praying fervently, and in general enjoying the time to be together in the Lord's presence. The sermon was based of course on the lectionary texts which included Jonah 3.1-5,10 and Mk. 1.14-20.

The lectionary is of course a good news and bad news thing. Sometimes there is an obvious connection between the texts for a given Sunday, sometimes not so much. But this Sunday there was an obvious connection as the minister made apparent in the theme of repentance-- Jonah preaching to Nineveh, a pagan city (perhaps the only time in the OT God really ordered a Jewish prophet to do this) and the call in Mk. 1 to repentance as the Kingdom was at hand.

I was struck by the way the service began. Rev. Paul admonished us all to be in holy silence before the Lord, and prepare our hearts for worship. This is as it should be, as I am writing in my new book on worship--- "let all mortal flesh keep silence, and ponder nothing earthly minded". There needs to be a sense of the sacred as we come into the Lord's presence and we should not do it haphazardly or ill-prepared.

As with all normal Episcopal services we got the full service service--- complete with liturgy, prayers, the creed, the sermon, four Scriptures, offering, lots of hymns (I only knew one of them), and the full Eucharist. It was an embarassment of riches, as they say. There was plenty to savor, and of course one especially came to savor the saviour who was present with us. I shall certainly go back here next Sunday. Sometime this week I hope as well to go and visit Weston Priory, a holy place tucked back in the hills near Weston, where prayers and praise, 'ora et labora' have been going on and going up to God for many years.

The story of St. Luke's is interesting. First built about 1868 after the Civil War it was built as a deliberate response to the rampantly growing and spreading Unitarianism in New England. Accordingly, this church emphasizes the Trinity both in its architecture and in its liturgy. In the sanctuary it has Trinitarian crosses and the big huge O's in the rafters as symbols of the eternal Trinity. It also has Trinitarian themes in its rose window and above the altar, and has a beautiful old Victorian organ with painted pipes. Unfortunately, it was too cold to meet in the sanctuary so instead we gathered in the basement below where it was wonderfully warm.

Remember the cry of the old prospectors as they explored the hills-- 'there's gold in them thar hills!" Well, it kind of feels like that here in the Green Mountains of Vermont. There is of course the stunning beauty of God's general revelation in creation, but there is also God's special revelation in the small gatherings of the saints here and there. But then, when you have villages of only 300 or so souls, its bound to be a small gathering of souls isn't it? And that is just fine, since Jesus said he would drop in 'wherever two or more are gathered...' You don't need to be in a mega-church to meet our Mega-God.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Yep that's an alpaca, as in alpaca sweater. There's an alpaca farmer here in Grafton, and Lord knows you need sweaters around here. I guess for the alpaca there isn't much difference between being in the mountains of Chile, or being here, where it is equally chilly, if you get my drift. The alpaca farm is just down Townsend Road from the Vermont Cheddar factory. They do know how to make some extra sharp cheddar which will flavor up your bland spaghetti quick!

Today was a goregeous day, getting all the way up to 20 (heat wave!!!) so I got in the truck, sans the dogs, and headed over the mountain to Chester-- a beautiful little village which kind of encapsulates various of the virtues of beautiful Vermont.

For one thing there are NO SHOPPING CENTERS AND NO MALLS--- HORRAY! This is surely a glimpse of heaven where there will be no such commercial enterprises at all. Vermonters in their little villages have steadfastly refused to let the Walmarts of the world come in and put all the Mom and Pop businesses out of business. Good for them. Coming to Vermont is like returning to my childhood in the Old South. Everyone knows everyone and supports each other. Joe the barber supports Sam the butcher, who supports Susie the baker, who support Larry the mechanic and so on. Instead of ANY fast food restuarants we have inns, and little cafes-- like the Moon Dog Cafe (a health food place, complete with dog mooning over his owner), or the Pizza Stone where they make oven-fired hand-tossed whatever topping pizza (did I mention Vermont cheddar), and of course a country story, a post office, a local hardware store. Not only are there are no shopping malls, or shopping mall sized churches. Instead you go for the Eucharist and Homily at a little Epsicopal Church called St. Johns, and meet all your local brothers and sisters.

For another thing Vermonters would like to keep the Green Mountains Green, so they are very environmentally conscious. The big article in the Chester paper this morning was about the carbon footprint contest in the local schools. The school that could reduce its carbon footprint the most, wins a $5,000 scholarship prize.
Good for them.

Despite what you may have heard about some New Englanders, these village folk tend to be quite friendly and chatty and helpful. I was in the Country Crafts store and when I told the lady I was writing a book on worship, she went on and on about how we need more of that, and pointed in the direction of the Priory. The atmosphere around here in the winter, unless your up in Killington or somewhere moguling down a snowy mountain is quite relaxed and friendly. The postmaster boxed up all my books for me this morning and helped me get a load sent off back home-- the box and the tape were free.

Then there is the issue of driving. On all Vermont roads, except the interstates or really major ones, the speed limit is 50--- and they mean business! They want you to mosey around these mountains, not careen around them and drive off a cliff. The pace of life is blissfully slower. When you ask when the mailman or the snowplow guy is coming the answer is the same one my grandfather used to give-- 'directly' which is rather like St. Mark's 'immediately' (euthus), which means 'after a while'.

Then there are the dogs. Vermonters love their animals, big or small. This morning I watched some huge Clydesdales in a snow pasture not at all bothered by the weather and munching on frozen apples. No worries mate. Cold, what cold?

I also love all the artisans and musicians, being one myself. Windham Hill Inn is nearby where all that traditional instruments magic begun with Will Akermann and Windham Hill Records. I love the smell of the leather shops, the sound of the Celtic music store, the feel of the alpaca sweaters, the taste of the cheddar cheese.

The danger of coming to Vermont for any extended period of time is you will complete unwind.... and not be able to wind yourself up again. Coming unwound however is so much better for you than coming unglued :) This is truly a right brained state if there ever was one.

Well, its back to writing, and speaking of writing, here is a little ditty from Robert Hass, a native Vermonter who is a poet and won the Pulitizer Prize---

"It must be a gift of evolution that humans
Can't sustain wonder. We'd never have have gotten up
From our knees if we could."

Here's to sustaining the wonder of Vermont. I wonder how long it will last.


Monday, January 19, 2009


(Revolutionary War graveyard in Grafton Vt.)

I have just been informed by my friend from Turkey, Mel Chiftchi, that I was named businessman of the year, with numerous awards to follow. Here is the link you must check out---

I should have seen this coming since I was once named businessman of the year in Kentucky for running my coffee shop Solomon's Porch into debt. Turned out that Senator Tom Delay (later censured), had gotten me this award and invited me to the White House in order to ask me to make donations to his campaigns and the Republican National Committee. I didn't go, as it was a scam. But I am sure my Turkish friend Mel must have better information on me that Senator Delay, so watch this video without delay! BW3

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Its snowing again, and it has zoomed up to a sweltering 12 degrees, with prospects of even reach 18 F. The picture above gives the general impression. It's a house just down the road from here. I awoke this morning to another 2 inches or so, and its not letting up at all. Looks like I won't make church over in Chester, but I am in a sanctuary of sorts anyway, praising my Maker for the beauty.

There's something peaceful about snow. Something gentle when it floats slowly down in huge flakes, each one different. There's something reassuring and pristine about snow, with its purity coming down from above. When you are snowed in, in a warm house, and drinking good coffee, well, you have a sense of tranquility and sanctuary. Its as though the world is a peace with you and you with the world, and nothing can harm you here. It led to the following reflection


Purity came down from above
Silently, painfully slow
'Though your sins be as red as scarlet
I'll wash them white as snow'.

A gift of unfailing love
That chills one to the bone
Sinking in crevasses deep,
Not leaving unturned one stone.

A pure and pentrating cold
Wind piercing between soul and spirit
As if the entire person was needing
To experience, to feel, and to hear it.

Was needing a complete cleansing
A making of all things new
Not just an external makeover
But an internal spring-cleaning too.

I stood and watched the cold beauty
And felt it with some alarm
I wrapped my mantle around me
To shield myself from harm.

But a still small voice whispered
In the silence, I could barely hear
'Open up your heart and being
And let me wash you clear'

I feared I'd be God's frozen person
I feared an unalterable change
I feared no one would know me
I feared I'd be judged strange.

But the snow it just kept falling
An ensign of his constant grace
I unbuttoned my woolen jacket
The flakes fell full on my face.

Purity came down from above
And I chose to let it in
And that has made all the difference,
And yes, I would do it again.

BW3 Jan. 18th 2009 (Grafton, Vermont)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tales from Frostbite Falls-- Part 2

There are many covered bridges in Vermont, and the one in this picture is in Grafton where I am rapidly becoming one of God's frozen people. But its always nice to remember the beautiful view when one is here in the summer and looking through the telescope of the covered bridge.

But just to thaw out ya'lls brains a bit, I am giving you a preview of coming attractions-- here is a sample chapter from Vol. 2 (which I am working on now) of my Indelible Image book, offering a theology and ethic of the whole NT.

Enjoy, and Interact,



Even drama is too static an understanding of theological ethics. Ethics cannot be simply about rehearsing and repeating the same script and story over and over again, albeit on a fresh stage with new players…The Bible is not so much a script that the church learns and performs as it is a training school that shapes the habits and practices of a community.—Samuel Wells

Ethics is theological: Ethics is not about using power, restoring former glory, or fulfilling individual freedom: it is about imitating God, following Christ, being formed by the Spirit to become friends with God. --- Samuel Wells


It is sad but true to say that NT ethics has been the step-child of NT studies throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. There are a variety of reasons for this in the scholarly world. One is the disparaging remarks made about NT ethics by various highly influential NT scholars. When you complain that what we have in large portions of the NT is ‘bourgeois’ ethics (e.g. in the Pastoral Epistles), or an ethical miscellany cobbled together from Greco-Roman and Jewish ethics, or a baptizing of various forms of the status quo, the contempt for what is being urged in the NT is not far beneath the surface of the discourse.
But there is another reason why NT ethics has suffered both abuse and neglect and it is theological. In some forms of Reformed theology, ethics is frankly an after-thought. Reformed theology is all about God’s sovereignty, and grace and divine salvation, and there is an allergic reaction to the notion that the ethics of the NT might have something to do with theology, might have something to do with human salvation, because of course ethics is almost exclusively about human behavior, not God’s behavior. Even when a Reformed scholar emphasizes ethics as an essential act of gratitude in response to grace, he has failed to do justice to the inherent and necessary connection between theology and ethics in the NT. For example, salvation has to do with both theology and ethics in the NT. And there is a crucial epistemological issue to consider—how exactly can you ‘know’ a truth in the Biblical sense without living into and out of that truth? In the Bible, understanding often comes from doing or experiencing. Belief and behavior are not meant to be separated from one another into hermetically sealed off containers. The obedience which flows from faith is also the obedience which reassures, strengths and more fully forms faith.

And there is a third issue as well. Modern Christian scholars are overwhelmingly non-Jewish in background—whether we are talking about Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox scholars. As such, they do not reflect the orientation and ethos of early Judaism, unlike the way most NT writers do. By this I mean that early Judaism was primarily about orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. It was overwhelmingly about behavior—whether ritualized or simply moral behavior. It was seeking to answer the question—How may we live faithfully and appropriately in response to God? It is of course true that the NT is more theological in character than many other early Jewish documents, but it is not true that ethics is just an after-thought in this NT literature. Indeed, it is often at the heart of what is going on in many if not most of the NT documents.

For example, as theological in character as Galatians is, the function of all the verbage is to prevent a certain kind of behavior the audience is considering--- namely getting oneself circumcised and keeping the Mosaic Law. Or to take another example, the sermon called Hebrews has long exhortation sections interspersed between the textual exposition sections of the discourse, the exposition leading to the punch line of exhortation. The author is trying to prevent the audience from going AWOL, or committing apostasy. This is also the agenda of several other NT documents including 1 John and Revelation. Had we been paying more attention to the imperatives in the NT all along we would have realized that ethics is just the logical implication, and real life working out of the theology in a person’s or community’s life.

And this brings us to another crucial preliminary observation. It is not merely that the imperative is built or based on the indicative, though that is true. It is that the imperative presupposes the work of the living God within the very inner being of the community and its individuals, such that God is commanding what he is already enabling by the divine saving action in the audience’s midst.
Ethics is not merely the response of a grateful heart to what God has done for someone or for a community. Ethics is the necessary outworking of what God has worked in the community and its individual members. Ethics is not an optional added extra if one wishes to be saved to the uttermost. Neither is ethics is not an optional added extra if one wishes to please God. Nor is ethics merely the fruit that a good tree bears. Christian Ethics does indeed have to do with human behavior, the chosen behavior of a person saved and empowered by grace to respond to God’s commands and emulate the behavior of exemplars like Christ and his apostles. There is then a middle term between the action of God and the ethical response of God’s child or community, and that is the experience of God’s action within the community and its individuals, an experience wrought by the Holy Spirit. We will say more about this as the chapter develops.


The Bible is replete with reminders that “without vision the people perish”, and this is especially the case when it comes to ethical or moral vision. Believing, in the sense of notional assent to a set of ideas, somehow seems to come much easier than behaving, or understanding how one ought to behave. And just so we are clear about the order of things when it comes to theology and ethics, it is of course true that the NT writers believe that “obedience is a consequence [and gift] of salvation, not its condition. The Holy Spirit is not a theological abstraction but the manifestation of God’s presence in the community, making everything new. Those who respond to the Gospel have entered the sphere of the Spirit’s power, where they find themselves changed and empowered for obedience.” Indeed one can say that the Spirit is characterized as a sort of GPS device, giving guidance and direction on the fly, such that even a figure like James can say “it seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 15). The Spirit not merely empowers, energized, enables the believer, the Spirit leads the believer into all truth, and into ‘the paths of righteousness for his name sake’.

What is too seldom noted about the shared moral vision of the NT writers (and note that I do not say visions) is that it is grounded in the first instance in story and experience--- the story of Christ himself, and the experience of Christ by means of the work of the Spirit. The construction of a Christian ethic is not an abstract intellectual exercise, it is rather a response to the work of God in the midst of God’s people. And what they are most responding to is Christ and his story as it has impacted them. Let’s take an example.

Consider for example what is going on in Romans 12.9-21 and 13.8-10. Scholars have often noted echoes of the Sermon on the Mount in this material, including echoes of the Beatitudes. Paul has imbibed and embodied this teaching and has made it his own, and is prepared to reapply it to a different situation. And we note his stress on how love is the fulfilling of the Law, even of various of the ten commandments. This of course is not an independent reflection on the OT Law but one that reflects a variety of things Jesus said, including about what was the greatest of the commandments. What is especially interesting however is the phrase ‘the other law’ in Rom. 13.8. What other law? This seems likely to be a reference to the Law of Christ, which Paul elsewhere refers to in 1 Cor. 9 and Gal. 6, a law which, as it turns out is composed of three elements: 1) emulating the pattern of Christ’s life; 2) the obedience of faith which includes obeying Christ’s teachings (including his reaffirmation of some OT teachings) as reapplied to the Christian community, and 3) obeying the new apostolic teaching which amplifies and expands upon the example and teaching of Christ. Now all of this presupposes and is grounded in the story of Christ. It presupposes the audience is already well familiar with that story and with the essential teachings of Jesus as well such that even with a new audience which Paul has not addressed before, as is the case with the audience in Rome, Paul does not have to engage in the hard sell even when commanding non-violence and no retaliation, two of the stand out or distinctive planks in the ethical platform of the historical Jesus. This is remarkable and it shows what we have already stressed.

The early Christian community was a small, rather closely knit and socially linked community across the Empire. It shared a considerable amount of common teaching of both an ethical and theological sort. This is part of what made a Christian community in any given locale recognizably different from other faith communities. The unity of the ethics in the NT is not a contrived unity, something modern scholars produce miraculously like pulling a rabbit out of a hat by demonstrating the compatibility and coherence of the NT ethics as a modern exercise. On the contrary, the unity arises out of the coherence of these communities when it comes to the shared ideological and narratological framework in which they did their theologizing and ethicizing.

There was much these communities had in common and indeed took largely for granted, so great was the impact crater of the Christ event (person, works and teachings) on so many of them. We honestly do not absolutely need focal images to unite NT ethics, though they can be helpful to some degree. There is a focal person behind it all as both the exemplar and provider of examples, as both the teacher and the teaching. At the end of the day NT ethics is about the imitation of Christ, in various of the possible meanings of that phrase.

This is why the metaphor of walking is so crucial not just in early Jewish ethics in general but in the NT in particular. Walking presupposes one is going somewhere. Walking presupposes one has a sense of direction, a roadmap, a guide. Walking assumes that there is a plot or plan or a course to follow. And when the Christian begins walking, he is supposed to be following in the footsteps of Christ—taking up his own cross, denying himself, and following Jesus. This is the heart of the matter, and the rest is an amplification and commentary on that journey.
Now a journey of course involves drama, but a journey is no play or play acting. It involves not only following the map and directions provided, it often involves improvisation, upon which more will be said later. The life of Jesus is seen as the map, and the Law of Christ the directions as to how to follow it. There are many things in the day to day walk not shown on the map, and many things not referred to in the directions which a person is given. Life is more detailed and involved than a map or set of directions can show or account for. Unlike a drama which has a climax perhaps and an end, a journey has a goal, and that goal as is clearly stated by both Jesus, Paul and other NT figures is not heaven but the Kingdom of God here on earth.

Inheriting, entering, obtaining that Dominion is the goal. It is what Jesus taught us to pray for, and what we seek to obtain in due course. Indeed, it is said to be the inheritance of Christ’s followers, not surprisingly since they are children of a King who will rule there forever. John Updike put it this way--- “This kingdom is the hope and pain of Christianity; it is attained against the grain through the denial of instinct and social wisdom and through faith in the unseen [see Heb. 11]. Using natural metaphors as effortlessly as an author quoting his own works, Jesus disclaims Nature and its rules of survival. Nature’s way, obvious and broad, leads to death; this other way is narrow and difficult: ‘Come in by the narrow gate….’ Christ’s preaching threatens men, the virtuous even more than the wicked, with a radical transformation of values whereby the rich and pious are damned and harlots and tax collectors are rather more acceptable…Two worlds are colliding, amazement prevails.”

Jesus set out a vision of this journey’s end called Kingdom in his beatitudes, a vision expounded on in many ways in the NT, and most beautifully in the end of the book of Revelation where we are told about how the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, with the vision of the descending heavenly city and the merger of heaven and earth when Christ returns, the dead are raised, justice is done, and everlasting peace and salvation is established upon the earth in the new creation.

The beatitudes are eschatological blessings for believers, which is to say things that will apply when one reaches the kingdom goal and the kingdom of God comes on earth as it is in heaven. And here’s the good news—the Dominion will be theirs, they will inherit the earth, they will be comforted, they will be filled with righteousness, they will be shown mercy, and most of all—they will see God and be called children of God, being like Him (cf. 1 Cor. 13.12; Rev. 21). Their present condition however seems to be the opposite of all this. They are poor in spirit, they are mourning, meek, persecuted, and yet they are in a blessed moral condition because they are pure in heart, merciful, indeed even peacemakers. As Mt 5.12 suggests while the reward will be great in the Kingdom, the travail on the journey may be great. It will be a rough ride into the Kingdom, and not like a roller coaster where the course is pre-ordained and one is strapped into the seat so that reaching the goal is inevitable. Why not? Because the human behavior of the disciples affects the outcome for them of course. Ethics is not just about attitude or gratitude, as it turns out, it is about a necessary walking in the right direction, having heard the clarion call of Jesus to “walk this way”. And of course, the clearer the image we have of Jesus and his character in our mind’s eye, the more clearly we may be able to discern how to emulate his character and behavior.

It is likely that Jesus’ own moral vision of how one must be and behave in order to enter the Dominion is derived from his own call narrative of sorts—the one he exegetes his own ministry in the light of--- Isaiah 61.1-4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. H sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives and release for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of the vengeance of God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion, to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. …Instead of their shame my people will receive a double portion and instead of disgrace they will rejoice in their inheritance.”

Jesus’ ministry was the inauguration of the Kingdom on earth, the divine saving reign of God upon the earth, where God’s will is at last done for one and all. But as the beatitudes make very clear as for entering, obtaining or inheriting all that is promised, that lies still in the future. So the disciples of Jesus live between the times. They live between the beginning and the consummation of the Dominion of God upon the earth. The journey has begun, but it is nowhere near done.
But there is a further element to Jesus’ recitation of Isaiah 61, and his proclamation that it was being fulfilled in the audience’s hearing, that requires notice and reflection. This text alludes to what will happen in the year of Jubilee, the year that debts are forgiven, the year that land is allowed to go fallow, the year that slaves were set free or allowed to return to their point or family of origin. In other words, it was a season when the usual rules of the road, indeed the very laws of Moses, did not apply in various cases. It is not a surprise that Jesus would use such language to characterize the inbreaking of the divine saving reign or Dominion of God if he wanted to stress the element of newness and discontinuity with the way things had previously been done so far as behavior and praxis was concerned. Jesus’ ministry inaugurates the eschatological ‘year of Jubilee’.

Let us reflect on Lev. 25 for a moment. Basically this is a text proclaiming a sabbatical year for the land and for the people of the land. The land itself is keeping a sort of Sabbath in the Jubilee year, and this was meant as a reminder to God’s people that they did not own the land, but rather it belonged to God whilst they were actually just sojourners and foreigners in the land, however long they may have lived there. The Jubilee year was the fiftieth year after seven cycles of seven years. It was however not just a year of rest for the land, it was a year of redemption or emancipation for slaves as well as for houses (people could get their homes back after they had been sold out from under them), and emancipation for all sorts of people from debts as well. Redemption and pardon characterized this year. This script of Jubilee is in part the source of Jesus’ moral vision, as Luke 4 tells the tale. Among other things it explains: 1) why Jesus thought healing was especially appropriate on the Sabbath—it was the right day to give people ‘rest’ from what ails them; 2) it explains why as well Jesus pronounced the remission of debts and forgiveness of sins; 3) it explains why Jesus went about setting captives free, for example the demon possessed; 4) even more interesting is the close analogy between the celebration of the feast of Pentecost and the Jubilee celebration, because Pentecost was the celebration after seven weeks of harvest.

Suddenly we can see a connection between Jesus’ inaugural sermon and what happened in Acts 2 and the inaugural sermon there by Peter. In Luke 4 Jesus says that the Spirit has fallen on him and empowered and inspired him to proclaim the year of Jubilee and to begin to enact it. In Acts 2, Peter proclaims that the Spirit has now fallen on the whole community of Jesus’ followers and they must now go forth and continue and emulate the ministry of Christ. The pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh is seen as the clearest sign that the eschatological age is now in full swing. And the ethical import of this can hardly be missed. Now the disciples are empowered not only for mission but for obedience to God, for walking in a holy way that is pleasing to the Lord for they are filled with God’s Holy Spirit. The ethics of the Kingdom now becomes a live possibility for them, not just a utopian dream that only Jesus could live out. They are pilgrims empowered to pray, praise, proclaim, and walk as Jesus walked heading for the Kingdom goal.

When Paul wants to talk about what is needed for the journey into the Dominion, having exhorted them about fulfilling the new law by means of loving, he says “And do this understanding the present time…so let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, [not in nighttime behavior] Rather clothe yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not thing about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Rom. 13.11-14). I submit that in order to be able to exhort a congregation you have never visited to “clothe yourself with the Lord” they must already know what that looks like, they must know what that means. The author and the audience must share the same road map and set of directions when it comes to walking in the light and reaching the Kingdom goal and Paul must be counting on the Holy Spirit to illumine and empower such a venture. In short, they must already share the same moral vision.

If we ask who cast this new moral vision focused on a Kingdom goal, the answer is of course Jesus, from the very beginning of his ministry when he spoke about the Kingdom being at hand (Mk. 1.15). The King has come, but his followers still await the consummation of his kingdom. In the meantime they are not on a crusade, but rather on a pilgrimage to the holy city, sharing with those they meet along the way about what is coming and what has already come of the Christ events. Failure to walk in the light, failure to put on one’s protective under armor before traveling can lead to not reaching the goal.

Reading a moral map, and understanding and following directions carefully of course requires moral discernment. Indeed it requires having the mind of Christ and thinking as he thought, and bearing in mind his own pilgrimage. This is why Paul first says “have this mind in yourself that was also in Christ Jesus” and then proceeds to retell the story of the V pattern of Christ’s career in Phil. 2.5-11. He does this in order to encourage the audience to also take a self-sacrificial approach to life. Always before the audience is held up an image of self-sacrificial love and its rewards and benefits.

Jesus of course insisted on close listening with two good ears to understand his moral teaching, but Paul insists that the renewal of the mind is also necessary “so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12.2).

You might well say, but we have a huge quantity of commandments already in God’s Word, why do we need a process of moral discernment? Isn’t it just about obeying the script of the Scripture? Well actually no, NT ethics is not just about that, not least because so many of the decisions a Christian must make along the journey do not have a direct analog in the directions in the New Testament. Indeed, most of life’s mundane decisions are not scripted or ordered in the New Testament. This is why improvisation is necessary, and moral discernment is required in many situations in life, even in the case of the most sheltered of Christian lives.

It needs to be said at this time that one’s assessment of the moral vision of the NT is certainly affected by how one views the relationship of the NT to the OT, or more particularly the relationship of the new covenant to all previous Biblical covenants. Frankly, it is perfectly clear from a close reading of the Sermon on the Mount and the ethical teachings of Paul that the new covenant is certainly not just a renewal of one or more old covenants, not even the Mosaic one. Indeed, there are various provisions of the NT, such as the call for no oaths, the eschewing of violence altogether, the practice of non-resistance, the loving of enemies, the declaring obsolete of the notion that one can be defiled by some food that enters one’s mouth, and so on, that make impossible the notion that the new covenant is just the new and improved version of an older covenant. When the eschatological kingdom comes, we cease to study war any more, and there are other things which fall into abeyance as well. A Christian approach to war cannot appeal to the various pieces of legislation or moral examples found in the Old Testament, unless one or another of them is found renewed or reaffirmed by some NT writer or Jesus.
Thus NT ethics, on a variety of subjects will overlap with OT ethics, in some cases will dismiss or intensify some provision of OT ethics, and in some cases will simply replace it with a very different ethic an OT ethical principle or practice. Some allowable oaths are replaced by no oaths at all. Some forms of food laws are replaced by no required food laws per se. Some Sabbath requirements are replaced by no Sabbath observance being required of any Christian. Some use of violence is replaced by no use of violence by Christians to resolve their problems. The new covenant is just that—a new covenant, not just the old covenant part deux. And no, it is not just certain ritual practices that are said to be obsolete or replaced, it’s also some of the ethical principles which are replaced and seen as outmoded, now that the Kingdom is coming with observation. Jesus was a moral vision caster, and some of the vision he cast was indeed something new altogether.


Unfortunately, besides the neglect or disparagement of NT ethics, one of the other negative things that has happened to NT ethical material is the de-contexualizing of the material and the failure to see its usual ad hoc nature. All too often it has been treated rather flatly or uniformly. These things ought not to be. NT ethics is just as much a word on target for certain Christian audiences as the theologizing we find in these same documents. And in fact, when we have material that is repeated in more than one document, for example like the household codes, we begin to discover that there are trajectories of change in some of this material, just as there are levels of discourse. Let me explain what I mean by these two concepts (levels of discourse and trajectories of change) as they are in fact intertwined.
If a person has any sensibility about wanting to make an effective communication with a particular audience and persuade them of something, especially if the issue here is exhortation and application, then that person must: 1) understand the nature of the relationship between the author and the audience; 2) be able to gauge the level and character of his communication so it will be not merely understood but received as persuasive, and 3) speak to the place that the conversation has been able to develop thus far. For example, if we were to compare what Paul says in Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon about slavery a reasonably clear trajectory of change can be mapped out which not incidentally or accidentally parallels the level of discourse Paul is offering in the given document.

Colossians, not unlike Romans, is what can be called first order discourse, and that effects the ethical remarks in these letters just as much as their theologizing. First order discourse is what one is able and willing to say to an audience the first time one addresses them and begins the dialogue. An effective rhetorician will start with the audience where they are, and in the course of a dialogue and discussion try and move the audience to where the speaker thinks they ought to be. Not everything can be and should be attempted or discussed in one’s opening salvo, and this is particularly the case when one wants an audience to change their long accepted and deeply ingrained behavior patterns.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written to a congregation that Paul did not convert, and apparently had not yet even visited. It appears to have been one of Paul’s co-workers who planted the church in Colossae.

Paul addresses his audience knowing that there already exists in Colossae, and amongst the church members there, a patriarchal cultural structure and also a domination system called slavery. His interest is in household management within Christian homes, particularly as it affects Christian congregations, not in general. In his opening salvo, Paul starts with the household structure in which women, slaves and minors are in a decidedly inferior and subordinate position in the household compared to the male head of the household, and he begins to bring to bear Christian ethical concerns to these pre-existing relationships, thus ameliorating already at the outset some of the harsher dimensions of those fallen relationships. Paul is bold, but he is not stupid. He doesn’t try to push the conversation further than the traffic will bear in an opening conversation.

Thus in Col. 3-4 Paul talks about household relationships being lived out in ways that are more pleasing to the Lord or fitting in the Lord. When Paul turns to exhorting the head of the household, which is unusual in ancient discussions of household management, Paul restricts the power and way of relating to the subordinate members of the family—the husband must love the wife and not be harsh with them, he must not embitter his children so that they get discouraged, and most of all he must treat his slaves as persons, giving them what is right and fair (even though in Roman law slaves were ‘living property’, by which I mean they really had no rights). Herein we see only the beginning of the process of putting the leaven of the Gospel into these fallen situations.

The next level of discourse, second order moral discourse, can be seen in Ephesians, a circular homily that went to the church in Ephesus, and probably to the Colossians and other nearby Pauline churches. Here Paul is able to push the envelope a bit further than we find in Colossians. For example, at the introduction to the household code in Ephesians, at Ephes. 5.21 Paul exhorts all Christians to submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.

Suddenly, it is not just the normally subordinate persons in that society who are doing the submitting—wives, children, and slaves. Now even the men are submitting as well to their fellow Christians and serving them. This self-sacrificial and serving ethic is of course something Jesus himself enunciated—he did not come to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for the many (Mk. 10.44-45). Paul takes up this theme in Phil. 2.5-11 by showing how the very coming of the Son into the world was an example of stripping himself of prerogatives and taking on the very form and approach of a slave—serving others. Instead of domineering and causing others to submit, Jesus stepped down and served others, setting his followers an example of freely chosen submission and service of others.

But it is not just in the introduction to the household code in Ephes. 5-6 that we find that the trajectory of change has moved on further from Colossians. It is also in other remarks. The husband is not merely to love the wife, he is to love her in the same self-sacrificial way Christ loved the church and gave up his very life for her. In regard to the husband’s relationship with his children he is charged with the task of bringing them up in the Christian faith and ethical practices. This task is not left for the wife to do in Ephesians. Most remarkable Paul in Ephes. 6.9 says to the slave owner “treat your slaves in the same manner”. In the same manner as what? In the same manner as the slaves are to serve their masters, wholeheartedly, serving as though they were serving the Lord himself. In other words, the master must serve and treat with respect his servants and do it whole-heartedly! And then we also have the warning not to threaten or abuse the slaves backed with the sanction that the masters themselves have a Master in heaven who is all seeing and all knowing. Most remarkably, Paul spends more time exhorting the head of the household than the rest of the household combined, attenuating his power, Christianizing his thinking, restricting his privileges, calling him to love and self-sacrificially serve. This goes well beyond Greco-Roman household management advice.

Finally if we turn to Philemon, here we have what can be called third order moral discourse—the sort of discourse one could and would have with an intimate. Here one no longer needs to hold anything in reserve—one can speak frankly, and Paul does. He calls for Philemon to: 1) manumit his wayward runaway slave rather than punishing him; 2) he insists that he treat Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a brother in Christ”; and 3) he urges he must treat and receive him as he would treat the apostle himself!

And just in case Philemon had not figured out that Paul was as serious as a heart attack about what he was urging, he reminds Philemon that he owes him his very spiritual life, and that he hopes to come to him soon (to make sure he follows through on what Paul is now persuading him to do). Here indeed we see how far the ethical discussion of slavery could and would go in an early Christian Pauline context. Paul is not afraid of implying that treating someone as a brother is incompatible with having someone as a slave. This comports with what Paul says in 1 Cor. 7 where he suggests that if a slave is offered his freedom he should take it. As the levels of moral discourse progress from initial discussion to talking with an intimate you can see the trajectory of change enunciated over time when the same person is treating the same subject with some portion of the same audience (Philemon was part of the church in Colossae it appears). It is unfortunate we do not have more examples of all three levels of discourse offered on the same or a similar subject to the same audience at various points in their relationship.
But what this example tells us is something important—especially with ethical remarks we need to ask not merely about the position taken but also about the direction of the remarks. Where are these remarks heading? Do they stand out from the usual advice of that social world, and if so, in what way? In what way can they be seen as examples, if they can, of attempts to bring about change in the status quo? The same sort of question can be asked when one compares the teaching of Jesus to other early Jewish teachers in a variety of subjects. When you do so, you discover that while Jesus is conventional in some regards, clearly enough in various of his ethical teachings he is moving well beyond and challenging the existing status quo. But one will only see and know this if one does his homework and studies Jesus in his proper social context. These are the sorts of questions we need to ask of the ethical texts found in the NT.


Leaving aside for a moment the obvious direct commandments of the NT which order behavior in both general and specific ways, there are many indications that we also have help in forming the Christian conscience and faculty of moral discernment so that one can make moral judgments for oneself or so that a community can collectively make such judgments, particularly in matters for which there is no specific teaching or commandment in the NT. Let us consider for a moment the discussion in a couple of Pauline texts—Rom. 14.5-6 and 1 Cor. 8-10.

Rom. 14.5-6 is remarkable on any showing as a pronouncement for a former Pharisee. Formerly a strict Sabbitarian and follower of ritual purity codes (see Phil. 3.6), now Paul says “some consider one day more sacred than another; others consider every day alike. Each one should be persuaded in their own minds. Those who regard one day as special do so to the Lord. Those who eat meat do so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and those who abstain do so to the Lord and give thanks to God.” This discussion of course should be compared to the more lengthy one in 1 Cor. 8-10 about eating meat sacrificed to idols and going to Temple feasts. But here the context is about the divisions between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome over such issues as the Sabbath and food. Paul says to them all, that about such things “each should be persuaded in their own minds”.

As we might say, it is a matter of individual conscience, and as Paul was to more clearly stress in 1 Cor. 8-10 whatever a person cannot do in good conscience is sin, at least for them—a violation of their faith and conscience. Clearly enough, Paul does not think that keeping the food laws, or keeping the Sabbath is required of the followers of Jesus any more. The eschatological age has broken in, and new occasions teach new duties. What is also remarkable about this discussion in both these Pauline texts is that while Paul largely agrees with the Gentiles that observing such food laws and Sabbatarian practice is no longer required of the followers of Jesus, even the Jewish ones, he nonetheless seeks to protect those whom he calls the weaker (in conscience) brothers and sisters—those who in his view have too many scruples about food and Sabbath and the like.

In 1 Cor. 8-10 Paul is trying to raise the consciousness of the self-centered more elite Gentile Christians in Corinth that they have an obligation not to cause their Jewish brothers and sisters with more scruples to stumble about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. The conscience of the other, however overly scrupulous it might be, must not be violated by trying to cajole them into eating something they do not feel comfortable eating. Paul views the overly scrupulous conscience as a weaker conscience, not a stronger one, but out of love he does not want the weaker in faith to be led into sin.

In this circumstance, what is and isn’t Christian ethical behavior, depends on how sensitive one’s own conscience is about such matters. And one gets the sense that there are many such matters Paul would consider ‘things indifferent’ or adiaphora, in themselves—what one wears, eats, when one observes a holy day. They become ethically charged matters when questions like the following are asked: 1) If I do X, will it cause my brother or sister to stumble?; 2) Am I standing on my own rights and conscience without discerning the effects of my actions on those who are not equally convinced about this form of behavior?; 3) What sort of behavior in this matter builds up the body of Christ and what sort rips it asunder? In other words, in these kinds of matters the ethic of love for the other, especially within the body of Christ, and the need to do good to and honor the other becomes the principle guide as to what is and is not ethical behavior in such situations where a difference of opinion and conscience exists over a matter that is actually ‘adiaphora’, now that the Dominion is breaking into the human sphere.

At the very heart of the ethic of Jesus, and of his followers who wrote NT books was of course the ethic of love—whole-hearted love of God, and love of neighbor as self, but also love of enemy as well. Love, according to Rom. 13.8, is the one debt constantly owed by the believer to others. Now what is interesting about all the emphasis on love in so many places in the NT (cf. Mt. 5-7; John 3; Rom. 12-13; 1 John 4-5 etc.) is that love has a concrete face, and it is fleshed out by quite specific enjoinders and commandments of various sorts. Love is not just allowed to be some sort of fuzzy guiding principle that each person is allowed to define on their own terms.

While there is plenty of room for moral discernment in the Christian ethic, there are in fact so many imperatives in the NT that make clear what love ought to look like, even tough love with the recalcitrant (see 1 Cor. 5) that we do not hear the modern refrain in the NT—“what is the loving thing to do?”, as if this question could be asked while ignoring things like the vice list in 1 Cor. 6.9-10 which tells us what sort of behaviors, if persisted in, will keep even Christians out of the Kingdom, or while ignoring the commandments from the Big Ten that are reiterated in Rom. 13.9-10. As Paul says in that context, the essence of the Ten Commandments so far as it involves interpersonal behavior is that “love does no wrong to the neighbor” and the ten commandments show more specifically what sort of things count as wrongs.

What we should discern from all of this is that there are both ethical principles and ethical practices, and forms of behavior that are considered right or wrong in all situations, and then there are other forms of behavior that become right or wrong depending on their effect on the neighbor or the fellow member of the body of Christ. One cannot simply look at the map or re-read the directions in all cases. One needs an indwelling GPS device, a sense of moral direction in the many instances where there is no commandment specified in the new covenant. And this calls for a sense of and a knack for proper and holy ethical improvisation, which requires more explanation at this juncture.

Mention improvisation and most people will think of something like spontaneous free-form musical experimentation such as one finds in jazz, or the like. This is clearly not what Samuel Wells has in mind in his recent book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. As Wells says, ethics presupposes a context and an understanding of context presupposes narrative. Whose story are we supposed to be living out of and into? We have already seen in our last section of this discussion that it is clear enough that Paul is encouraging his converts to do some improvising so that the weaker brother or sister does not have their conscience violated and so that the building up of the community and the love of the other is the goal of all actions.

Wells reasons that the Christian story is drama, and therefore that ethics is a form of performance of the drama. In this he sounds remarkably like Kevin Vanhoozer, only Vanhoozer is speaking about doctrine. The problem I have with both of them, is that drama is the wrong analogy and so performance is not what behaving ethically is all about. It’s all about pilgrimage not performance, odyssey or journey not a drama. It’s more like Pilgrim’s Progress, than Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. The Christian life is not a play, and we are not performing a pre-ordained part or script.

Wells recognizes some of the problems with this model of ethics as performance of a script. He lists the following problems: 1) a script might be assumed to provide a comprehensive version of life in which all questions and eventualities are covered. Clearly enough, this is not what we have in the NT when it comes to ethics, as anyone who has argued about the issue of abortion on the basis of NT principles rather than specific commandments has to admit; 2) the notion of performance of a script gives the impression that the Bible includes or encompasses the whole of the church’s story and how it should be lived out. If it only were true! But in fact as Acts 28 reminds us, we have been plopped down in the city of humankind with no resolution to the story yet in sight. We are all still waiting on Godot, or in this case Jesus to come back and resolve various matters. It is for this very reason that I have used the analogy with the roadmap (or even treasure map) and its directions when thinking of the NT and ethics.

A roadmap even with attendant directions is not like a full script of a drama where every entrance and exit, every speech and action is pre-scripted. Wells also rightly points out that a script suggests that there was a time when God’s people did get it right, a golden age so to speak, and we should simply retrace their steps. This ignores the many tales of failure, sin, loss, tragedy that we have in the Bible, and more to the point often such tales are told about people who in their better moments are ethical paradigms—for example in the case of Peter. Then too a script and performance model of Christian ethics risks the danger of no genuine engagement with the world, no clear response in the present to unexpected twists and turns in life. To this I would add that the drama/script /performance model has a sense of artificiality to it. A play, is after all about acting, not so much about being. But Christian ethics is certainly not about acting or pretending to be something or someone one is not. It is rather about walking, walking as yourself with your own name, in a particular direction, following the map, the directions, and yes the internal GPS device.

And this brings us to Wells’ helpful concept of improvisation. ‘When improvisers are trained to work in the theater, they are schooled in a tradition so thoroughly that they learn to act from habit in ways that are appropriate to the circumstance. This is exactly the goal of theological ethics.” So then we are talking about the ingrained habits of the heart, providing a natural tracking device or guidance system when the road forward is covered with underbrush or it is not clear which turn to take. Wells goes on to ward off misconceptions of his term improvisation. “One misapprehension is that improvisation is about being original.” No-- improvisation presumes a detailed knowledge of the situation and the circumstances and an ability to react to the unexpected in an appropriate manner—or to use a drama term, to act in character rather than out of character.

Now it is interesting that the author of Hebrews who uses the pilgrimage model at length when describing the Christian life and provides a long list of examples of folks in the hall of faith in Heb.11 that one should consider and reflect on, nonetheless finishes that hall by telling the audience that Jesus is the pioneer and perfector or trailblazer and finisher of faith, and therefore the Christian is said to be one who must be “looking to Jesus” and following him and the trail he blazed into glory. He is finally the ultimate paradigm of what faith and faithfulness looks like, and he, as the lead runner, is the one we should be trotting along behind, and on the same right track as well.

This model of Christian ethics is something rather different than the drama/script/performance model. The improvisation that Wells is rightly talking about does not involve being original, or clever, or witty, necessarily, it involves faithfully reacting to situations and circumstance that while unexpected are actually not uncommon, and calls for improvisation within the parameters of good Christian character. Think for the moment of the analogy of a runner running a long distance race with a crowded field of runners. He is constantly bumped and jostled, knocked off balance or slightly off course by the regular jockeying for position, the attempts to pass slower runners and so on. Thus, the runner must develop coping skills to keep his balance, to avoid stepping on someone else’s foot and so turn an ankle, to avoid falling, or running outside the lines. The Christian ethical journey or race is much the same and fortunately many have gone before showing us the way, particularly the ultimate trailblazer Jesus. Improv in a race is to a great extent watching others successfully navigate around obstacles and following their examples.

It is not an accident that Paul tells his Corinthian converts that no temptation has overcome them that is not common to humanity, and that with such trials God can provide an adequate means of escape. Their journey is no more arduous than that of the wilderness wandering generation, but also no less perilous (1 Cor. 10). Improvisation is not merely for the elite who are clever, it is for every Christian, if they would but embrace it. When the map and the directions do not specify—what does one do? The answer is faithful and in character improvisation. As cliché as it might sound, it involves asking WWJD--What would Jesus do, for we are indeed living out of and emulating his story, his journey, his pilgrimage from gall to glory, from disgrace to grace, from death to resurrection. I short, NT ethics involves living out of the very heart of the NT thought world—the narrative of and about Jesus, which of course includes his words as well as his deeds.

Wells is also right that the sort of improvisation he is talking about is not the isolated performance of a gifted individual—say a Robin Williams type improvising in spontaneous stream of consciousness. It is more like the ensemble playing of a group of jazz musicians who inwardly know where the boundaries are, when to rise and fall, when to speed up and slow down, when to play sharps and when flats, when to be loud and when soft, and they know this because of years of inter-active playing with other improvisers. One is not creating a response to life de novo, or by oneself, but in community as a fellow traveler with all the other travelers singing the pilgrimage songs, the songs of Zion with one another and in harmony. Harmonizing requires listening intently to the other improvisers and fitting in. It requires restraint of one’s own natural individualistic self expression and creativity. It requires channeling one’s efforts and energies in the same direction the others are going.

What I would add to Wells’ reflections is that what allows one to successfully improvise in unexpected situations such that the improvisation can be called in accord with Christian ethics is that one has first internalized deeply the Scriptures, especially the story of Jesus, such that the almost instinctive reaction will flow right out of and in accord with the story one has internalized and seeks to live by, the map and directions one has memorized and seeks to follow.

But alas, true improvisation becomes difficult and dangerous, and not for beginners if they are Biblically illiterate. If you have not carefully studied the map, learned its contours, looked at the examples of those who have traveled this way before you, including especially Jesus, and read and re-read the directions so that you don’t need to keep looking them up, then you are not ready for prime time, you are not ready for ‘Night at the Improv’. You are not prepared for the unexpected crisis that comes along the way. In short, especially younger Christians need the community of faith to model how to do the improvisation. Let me illustrate what I mean.

9-11-01 caused a lot of people to come unglued, including many Christians, and indeed even many ministers. One minister out on the West Coast really came out with a tirade the following Sunday. He got into the pulpit and said words to the effect of “I am an American first, and a Christian second, bomb them back into the stone age”. When he was called on this by more than one parishioner after the fact, he did not listen, but suggested they were perhaps not patriotic enough. Now what is most interesting about this is: 1) this minister certainly never paused to ask “What would Jesus do in this situation?” My hunch is that he would be right there at Ground Zero running into buildings and rescuing people, binding up the wounds, and helping the healing process, not figuring out the co-ordinates and trajectories involved in a successful retaliation; 2) a crisis will reveal what your real values are, what your real internal GPS tracking device is, what your real default mode is. For this minister it wasn’t Christianity which he had most deeply internalized, it was nationalism; 3) accordingly, his ethical advice that he gave his congregation, besides being a direct violation of texts like Rom. 12.17-20, was in fact unethical. Love had given way to hate, unrighteous anger had fueled his response, and he sounded nothing like Jesus in the pulpit on that day. Indeed, he had simply revealed his own idolatry. His problem in all likelihood was not that he did not know what the NT says about revenge. It is that he had not embodied and internalized it and let it change his natural inclinations. So when he sought to improvise on the spot of a crisis, his improvisation was un-Christian unfortunately. We will have more to say about good and bad improvisation later.

It is time at this juncture to stop the ground clearing exercises and get down to cases. The point I wish to make as we conclude this particular chapter is simply this-- NT ethics is not a mundane subject, and the ethics we find in the NT are not a mere rehashing of conventional ethics whether Jewish or Greco-Roman. Borrowing there is, and influences can be detected, but there is no influence more dominating in the NT than that of Jesus and his own ethic, and we can see this in witnesses as diverse as the reflections on suffering love in 1 Peter or the reflections on how to live in community wisely in James or the ethic of love enunciated by Paul or the elder in 1 John at length.

Just as Jesus’ teaching needed to be considered when one discusses NT theology, so too Jesus’ teaching needs to be considered when discussing NT ethics. At least four writers, the four Evangelists, all thought that the ethics of Jesus was relevant to the Christians they addressed. As it turns out, they were not alone—the other NT writers thought so as well to one degree or another. Even a remarkable work like Revelation, which has so much to say about future judgment and Christ’s role in it, uses all its thunder and lightning as a way of reinforcing that his Christian audiences need to be prepared not to retaliate, need to be prepared for martyrdom, need to get back to their first love, need to leave justice and vindication in the hands of the One who can unseal the seals.