An Inspired Thought for Your Friday

Ever since I learned last semester that some early Christian texts were thought by the church fathers to be inspired yet not canonical, it’s caused me to think about how we should use that word.

Inspired. All Scripture is inspired by God, or God-breathed, as the author of 2 Timothy writes. A lot of ink, and perhaps some blood, has been spilled defending various definitions of that word. And even though the author was only speaking of the Hebrew Bible – plus apocryphal books such as Enoch, if Jude’s citation of it means anything – it makes sense to extend it to the New Testament scriptures, as well.

But if early Christians made a distinction between was canonical and inspirational, then that seems like it would open the door for us to recognize the inspiration of God in the words and writings all through history. Important ancient works such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache, which some did consider canonical; liturgical writings such as the Book of Common Prayer; and more modern-day texts, such as Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail – these all carry the breath of God, even if they’re not part of the sacred canon.

And perhaps this can include even writings – and, in our culture, speeches – we would not consider specifically Christian in scope. God is the God of all humanity, including human communication, and just as the Bible describes him speaking through the mouths of pagans like Balaam (or even non-humans, such as Balaam’s donkey), perhaps today he inspires others to give us the word we need to hear from him.

All of that is a really long introduction to the video I posted above of plane-crash survivor Ric Elias (h/t Shawn Smucker). What Elias has to say is short, but it is no less important for that – and to the extent his words improve the way we treat others, well, I’m willing to say Elias had a little divine help, whether he realized it or not. Have a great weekend, everyone.

John Chrysostom: Ahead of His Time – and Ours

This might be John Chrysostom week here on the blog, but if I have to read a whole book about him, I may as well take you along for the ride.

Chrysostom was by no means a liberal, at least not as defined by our modern context. He frequently called his Antioch congregation to forsake the customs of the secular culture and embrace a separation that recalled more the radical teachings of Jesus and Paul than the compromising practicality that arose in subsequent centuries. Consider his description of dancing:

For where there is dancing, the devil is also there. For God did not give us feet for this purpose, but for us to walk with discipline: not for us to disgrace ourselves, not for us to leap like camels. [159]

Any quotes from or summaries of Chrysostom’s sermons come from Jaclyn Maxwell’s Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity: John Chrysostom and His Congregation in Antioch.

Even more entertaining, Chrysostom’s decision to go after fancy shoes. As Maxwell notes,

Chrysostom promotes a very puritanical Christian aesthetic in this section, condemning paintings and decorations, and especially the gaudy shoes some of the sandal-makers were producing. Weaving was fine, but not when it was too fancy, because shoes decorated so elaborately caused men to become irresponsible and effeminate. The audience’s reaction to this condemnation was evident in Chrysostom’s defense of himself:

“I know that to many I seem to be concerned with petty matters, meddling in other people’s affairs. I shall not stop on account of this. For the cause of all evil is this: that these sins seem to be petty and because of this they are ignored. And you say, ‘What sin can be more worthless than this, of having a decorated and shining sandal fitted on one’s foot, if it even seems right to call it a sin?'”

Either Chrysostom had heard his audience’s opinions, or he merely expected that the average Christian considered fancy shoes to be a very negligible sin, or maybe not a sin at all. The preacher even expected the congregation to be angry at him for denouncing these shoes. He later explained that their refusal to acknowledge that wearing fancy shoes was immoral had forced him to expound upon the subject. The possession of such shoes was cruel, not only because unnecessary luxury was sinful, but also because they were wasting money that could have been given as alms to the poor. [153-54]

So that’s a long way of saying Chrysostom was not particularly liberal. Yet he was ahead of his time, at least in a couple of key areas, where he remains a voice the church could use today.

One of those areas, as discussed previously and glimpsed above, is his overriding concern with the poor and how Christians should sacrifice much to help them. The other is rather surprising, given the excerpts quoted above.

John Chrysostom was rather liberal when it comes to sex.

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John Chrysostom and the 47 Percent

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it – that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

This week for class, we had to read Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity, by Jaclyn Maxwell, a book summarizing the many preserved sermons of John Chrysostom, the famed fourth-century preacher from Antioch, and using them as a way to describe how early Christian preachers attempted to “Christianize” their congregations.

One thing that stood out is that the Christian mandate to care for the poor has never been particularly well received – or easy to carry out. And whether we’re in fourth-century Antioch or 21st-century America, the demonization of the poor to relieve our own consciences is an ever-present temptation.

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Summit, Day 1: The Toxic Process

It’s Summit here on campus, which means three days of lectures and classes about pretty much any Bible-related topic you can imagine. The organizers have done a better job recently – certainly better than when I was an undergrad – of making the event more interesting to students and younger attendees, and as a result some real superstars of Christianity (oxymoron?) have been on stage, or soon will be. People like Shane Claiborne last year and Rachel Held Evans and alumnus Max Lucado this year.

Yesterday, however, it was Barron Jones’ turn. Jones preaches is a former minister (see correction in the comments) at Laurel Street Church of Christ in San Antonio, and he had some thought-provoking comments on the nature of the church and its involvement with politics.

“The church has formed an unholy and ungodly alliance with Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We are the fools who go along for the ride.”

For those on the right, he launched a volley of inflammatory comments:

“Some of you white people are afraid the president is a black man,” he said. “And you say, ‘Oh no, I just don’t like his politics.’ Please. That’s like saying, ‘I have two black friends, so there’s no way I can be racist. I’ve been to a black church once.'”

“The dead babies are dead, and unfortunately it’s legal to kill them in this country, but the dead babies are gone. What are you going to do for the live ones? … I see a lot more excitement in our churches for hiring preachers and paving parking lots than feeding orphans. What if the church shut up about abortion and every Christian family adopted a foster child in the name of Jesus Christ?”

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Suffering, Love and Children

This sermon by Randy Harris has been making the rounds. I loved it when I first heard it last month, and when Mike Cope reposted it, I was reminded of what struck me the most about Randy’s message.

Harris tackles the age-old question of why we suffer, and he tells the story of being asked by somebody that if God truly loves us and is all-knowing, why didn’t he simply create us in heaven? We’ve all heard – and asked – similar questions before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an answer like the one Harris gives:

I would ask the question, and this is the kind of question you’d expect a single guy to ask: Why do people keep having children? Because let me give you my informal observation: Children create more anxiety and pain and suffering in your life than anything you can imagine! …

The reason people keep having children, though they often disappoint them – the reason that people keep having children, though they know that the possibilities are they can get sick and die – the reason people keep having children is because they believe love is worth the risk.

And I really believe that when God in heaven – who in his very nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is love – looked down and decided to create, he knew, as every parent does, that this could go badly wrong. But he believed that love was such a wonderful, deep, marvelous thing it was worth the risk. That he would risk anything for the sake of love.

And then he created a world where we could learn to do it. He didn’t just drop us in heaven because we don’t know how to do this yet. He created a world where we can learn to love, and all of us know that the deepest, most profound experiences of love that we have are not just when things are going well. It’s in moments of pain and tragedy.

I have no doubt that at the end, when we reach that heavenly point, God will say, “OK. Now you get it. This is what it means to love.”

As a parent, this really spoke to me. Not a day goes by when I don’t worry in some way about my children – either about something happening to them or something happening to me or my wife. I know at least two sets of parents with young children battling cancer, and a friend whose sister-in-law just died in a car wreck, leaving behind a young boy. Often, thinking about them or my own family leads to unsettling questions about the nature, sovereignty and goodness of God.

I’m not sure we will ever have a good answer to the question of suffering. Its existence is the single most troubling part of believing in a loving, omnipotent God. But Randy’s answer is the closest I’ve seen anyone get to achieving a satisfactory response.