Dear Pastor

Old BibleDear Pastor,

Last week I wrote to Youth Pastors asking them to encourage kids to bring their Bibles to church—and to use them there! Not because it makes them look holy, or just because it’s a good habit, but to help them learn to read, know, and understand God’s Word. I acknowledged the changing technologies (from scrolls to books to smart phones) and the changing cultures (from oral to visual and, some say, a return to oral).

Now, thanks to one of those Youth Pastors, it’s time to put in a request to you: encourage us to bring and use our Bibles at church; help us as adults also learn to read, use, know, and appreciate God’s Word. This idea isn’t mine; one of my former pastors put it in my mind when he stood in front of the church and announced that we would no longer be projecting the day’s Scripture reading, for just those purposes: to help train us. Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Don’t put the main Bible passage on the screen. Instead, ask people to use their own Bible, whether print or electronic. Make sure there is enough light for people to read by. Verses read during the message may be projected, but not the whole text.
  • Have Bibles available in the sanctuary. If you don’t have Bibles in the seats, be sure they are readily available at the entrance doors. For a while, you may even offer a Bible to each person entering, along with the bulletin or other printed materials. Well before you are ready to read the passage, ask if anyone needs a Bible, and have ushers ready to pass them out. Oh, and be sure they are all the same translation and format (see next point).
  • Announce the passage at least twice. Make sure the reference is in the bulletin and put it on the screen.
  • Help us find the passage. Tell us the page number in the available Bibles, but also give some hints on finding it in our own Bibles (e.g., table of contents, general location, major books before or after the passage, etc.). Give us time, too! You may even print a QR code in the bulletin, linking to the passage in an online Bible such as www.biblegateway.com. (QR codes are easy to generate and can be used to link to just about any website. But be sure to test it each week, or you might end up with some surprises.)
  • Give a Bible to anyone who wants one, no questions asked! This should be the first priority in your annual budget, or at least a non-negotiable. They don’t have to be high-quality leather Bibles; inexpensive paperbacks are fine. But be generous with God’s Word!

One last thought: Ask everyone to stand up when reading the main passage. In this we follow the example of the people of Israel, who stood in honor of God’s Word when Ezra opened the Book of the Law (see Nehemiah 8).

If God’s Word is worth proclaiming each Sunday, and worth teaching our kids, then it’s certainly worth these simple steps. And you just may convince me, too, Pastor, that knowing and listening to God is even more important than listening to you!

5.25.15

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery

marble whitecaps undulating on seas of green
each cross, each star, an etchéd mem’ry
	of some fallen one
heroes all, though none would deign
	to claim the title
we’ve given them today

they trained for war yet prayed for peace
	and wrestled freedom from tyranny’s grasp
while longing for home and love and life
	and one more day with son or wife

for us they fought, who never knew
	the battles’ fears and weapons’ fury
for us who now too oft forget
	the price our precious freedoms carry

they fought in wars not understood
	in fields and jungles, skies and seas
in desert sands, on snowy peaks
	in skirmish lines or unmanned planes
through rifle sights or satellites
	with bayonets and house-to-house
in blood-filled trench or concrete bunker

while some returned to ticker tape
	or ship’s first kiss
		or great surprise
still others came in flag-draped box
	or not at all—
		interred at deep
			or buried ‘neath some foreign soil

today we stand beside the sea
	of marble white and fescued green
unable now to fully grasp
	the weight of sacrifices past
the names unknown to but a few
	rememb’ring what we never knew
		and cannot know…
we honor them no less


Poem and Photo Copyright 2015 by Randall J. Ehle. All rights reserved.

Dear Youth Pastor…

Dear Youth Pastor,

Every Sunday morning as we are about to walk out the door to go to church, I ask my kids, “Do you have your Bibles?” More often than not, the answer is, “No, we don’t need them. The words are always up on the screen.” And every time I hear that answer, I get sad.

Lest you think I am just a disgruntled old man clinging desperately to the twentieth century… well, maybe there’s a little truth in that. But this isn’t primarily about expecting or even just encouraging kids to have one of those old-school, black leather-bound, gilt-edged, words-of-Christ-in-red Bible-thumper Bibles… though there’s something to be said for those, too (even if a few details are changed, like the cover and the gold edges). It’s about training kids—discipling (matheteuo) them—to read, know, use, honor, and love God’s Word. 

I know that times are changing. I’m sure that Gutenberg’s mother was upset after he invented the printing press, because “no no one will bring their scrolls to the cathedral anymore. And just how do you expect someone to carry that big book-thing with them, anyway?” (Have you seen a Gutenberg Bible? The thing is gargantuan!) Yes, I am old-school enough that I’d like my kids to know their way around an actual printed and bound Bible. I’d also like them to be able to tell time on one of those ancient watches with hour hands and minute hands, and to do long division with a pencil on paper. But just like calculators and timepieces have evolved, so has how we interact with Scripture. The Bible app on my smart phone helps me track down Nahum in a pinch, but I can still find most passages quicker in my paper Bible. Word searches are far easier on my phone, too, versus the fifteen-pound Exhaustive Concordance I bought in my twenties; so is comparing mulitple translations. 

I also recognize that we are living in a world far more reliant on audio and video than when I was a kid. In fact, some scholars suggest the West is again becoming a predominantly oral culture. If that’s true, then we as pastors have much to learn from missiologists who work in other oral cultures. We will need to learn, for example, about “Bible storying” and how to apply orality concepts to our Western churches. It’s not just about literacy, either—whether someone can read; it’s about how people learn, take in information, and engage with that information. 

But we’re not there yet. We still live in a rich and highly literate nation; reading and education are still highly valued in most segments of our society. And if we (the church) are about discipling—training—young men and women to be mature followers of Jesus Christ who are equipped to disciple others, then surely a part of that training ought to be familiarity with, comfort with, and knowledge of the Word that has been passed down for the better part of two millennia. 

So next Sunday try something different. Turn off the projector, hand out some Bibles, and say, “let’s all turn to __________. Need some help? Here’s how to find it….” Then tell the kids to bring their own Bible the following week, and offer to give them one if they don’t have one. (Better yet, sell them one for $5 or two memorized verses!) It’s not your job to teach my kids to know the Bible, but you can certainly help me in the task.

Of Canes and Cancers

Many years ago I had the privilege of meeting the late Dr. Vernon Grounds, then Chancellor Emeritus of Denver Seminary. I never knew him well; my introduction came while the then-80-year-old theologian and scholar was in the middle of making himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! But the few things I learned about him told me he was a very interesting man whom it would have been fun to know. For all his learning and influence in the world of today’s Christian leaders, my own takeaway from Dr. Grounds has nothing to do with theology. Instead, it is all about canes.

When I met with the Chancellor in his office, it wasn’t his personal library of some 25,00 volumes that caught my attention, but the dozens of canes from around the world hanging on his walls. Intrigued by this unique collection, I asked Dr. Grounds about it. Although I don’t recall the exact story, it began with one walking stick picked up as a souvenir during a trip. After that humble beginning, friends and co-workers began returning from their own travel adventures with a cane or walking stick to add to Dr. Grounds’ growing collection. Eventually the canes outgrew the stand by his office door and were hung on the wall. As I picture the scene in my mind, the collection adorned the upper third of the high-ceilinged office wall behind his desk.

I have been a collector since I was a child; in less-gracious times, my mother called me a packrat, but I prefer how Gallup’s Strengths Finder assessment describes it: I have the signature theme of Input. On my family’s first ski trip to Austria when I was fourteen—just a few months after we had moved to Germany—I bought my first cane, intended to display small souvenir shields from the places I would visit during our time in Europe. I picked up a dozen or so of the shields over the next few years living in Germany and later in England, and continued to collect them after returning to the the U.S. Today that cane is covered with reminders from Austria, Germany, France, Switzerland, England, and Wales; as well as California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. As it filled, I began to add not more shields, but more canes.

I bought my second walking stick—a beautifully and intricately carved piece of mahogany (I think) inlaid with copper—when I went to Ethiopia for the first time. When I went into a shop and told the shopkeeper what I was looking for, he joked that “walking sticks are for old men going to church!” In the post-9/11 world I was not allowed to carry the cane home on the plane with me, so it joined the other luggage in the vast underbelly of the aircraft…where some of the carving broke.

My next cane was from my parents’ trip to North Africa, then I bought one in Liberia, then a long hiatus before I found one that may prove to have more significance than any other. The irony is that it was purchased not on some adventurous trip to a distant country, but in a souvenir shop at, of all places, Disneyland! But the significance of that particular outing was great.

In late summer 2013, my wife’s younger sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her battle has been long and hard. Days of tremendous struggle have been followed by reports of miraculous progress…only to be followed again by the cloud of a tumor that continued to spread in spite of every possible form of treatment. In late March, 2015, we learned that the treatments were not working and there was no other viable options. The news ripped into our family’s hearts. For me, it brought back too-vivid memories from decades earlier, when my brother’s battle with cancer reached a similar point.

Exhausted by the nearly two year fight to save her life for her childrens’ sake, my sister-in-law decided that the battle now was to live—really live—with her children as best she could, while she could. And so the next day (35 years to the day after my brother’s battle ended), the whole family—three sisters, their husbands, and seven kids—went to Disneyland! While the kids rode as many rides as they could, the adults spent as much time talking as possible, laughing at times, crying at times. And as we walked mindlessly through one of the many gift shops I saw it: a cane, nicely carved and beautifully painted. I picked it up to look closer and was surprised to find a label proclaiming that it was hand-carved in Africa. Maybe I just want to believe that and maybe it really was made there; in either case, the design and the price were both right, and now I have in my collection a walking stick that will forever be a reminder of my dear sister-in-law, her love for her husband and kids, and their love for the Magic Kingdom.

Jeaneen Blackinton Davis died peacefully on April 27, 2015, slipping from her cancer-stricken body into the eternally-healing arms of her savior, Jesus.

Death Is Dead

jesus statue kneeling

Though death is dead
        to death he wages war
Each death a vict'ry
        in this lovers' quarrel
'tween sin and death—
        two partners in the fight
to steal mens' lives
        and lay them in the grave
 
Yes death is dead
       but still death carries pain
As one much-loved
       slips out beyond our grasp
And leaves a hole
       that never shall be filled
Though life and time
       for us yet linger on
 
Yes death is dead
        and sin's defeated, too
That much made known
        one Resurrection Day
When One who died
        for sin lay buried in the ground
And three days on
        no longer to be found
 
Yes death is dead
       and life is sweeter far
When lived with hope
       of life beyond the grave
A life for Him 
       who buried death itself
To give us life
       eternally with Him


[Written in honor of my sister-in-law, Jeaneen Blackinton Davis, as she fought a brain tumor that finally stole her life on April 27, 2015.]

The Steadfast Love of the Lord Endures Forever

Photo copyright 2014-2015 by Randall J. Ehle. All rights reserved.

Photo copyright 2014-2015 by Randall J. Ehle. All rights reserved.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”

So begins Psalm 136…and then continues for twenty-six verses with the same refrain: “for his steadfast love endures forever.” This was never one of my favorite psalms. I always thought it was too choppy and repetitive, not flowing well in my prose-centered, Western mind. The only words that stood out to me were those repeated lines. Okay, I get it already. “The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.” Next psalm. Or do I get it? I never took the time to analyze the psalm because it’s a song—emotional, not intellectual. Shouldn’t poems and songs simply float into our minds, their meanings gently wafting into our subconscious with hardly a notice from us? Or, as Archibald MacLeish penned, “A poem should not mean | But be” (Ars Poetica).

Only when I took the time to read between those obnoxious, repetitive lines in Psalm 136 did I notice what this psalm is doing. It is not merely a call to gratitude, though it is that. The first three verses and the last all begin with, “Give thanks to….” Give thanks to the Lord, the God of gods, the Lord of lords, the God of heaven. He is the object of our gratitude, the Source of all we have and are. He is above everything we worship or serve, like money and security and family and even health; yet He is at the same time a personal God with a personal name (Yahweh or YHWH, also written as LORD). Give thanks. A good and needed reminder. But there is more.

It is also not simply a mantra of God’s love, though it is most certainly that. His steadfast love endures forever. We Westerners—and certainly we Christians—are not accustomed to mantras. These repeated words used as aids in meditation stem from the Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism; since we have lost the art (and meaning) of meditation, we run from anything that resembles it. (Don’t get me started on Christmas trees and Hallowe’en.) Yet repetition runs throughout Scripture and church history, and we do well to employ it in our communion with God.

Between the exhortation to gratitude and the mantra of God’s steadfast love, Psalm 136 simply tells a story: God’s story. Israel’s story. Our story. Each line is a reminder of who God is or what He has done: He made the sun, moon, and stars (verses 7-9); He rescued Israel from Egypt (10-16); He led them to victory in battle (17-20) and gave them a homeland (21-22); He remembers and watches over His people (23-25). And at every step of creation, salvation, destination—at the very core of who God is and what He does—is His steadfast love.

It’s easy to breeze right through the Psalm and miss its depths and richness, to let the repeating words slip across the tongue without ever digesting them. But don’t. Instead, sit and soak in this Psalm as in a hot tub, basking in its truths and comforts, remembering God’s presence and activity…and His steadfast love. And someday—some quiet, rainy day with a cup of coffee by your side and a pen and journal in hand—write out your own story, then go back and insert this lines between each event:

“…for the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.”

 

Why You Shouldn’t Go To Seminary

I have just started writing for a couple blogs, published by Logos Bible Software, which are geared toward current and prospective seminary students. My first post was just posted at best-seminary.com and, ironically, is titled, “Why You Shouldn’t Go To Seminary.” Now I need to hurry and finish a follow-up piece that will be titled, “Why You Should Go To Seminary”—before Logos decides they don’t want me writing anymore!

What I’m Reading: Under the Unpredictable Plant


Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, by Eugene Peterson, is the third in a series of three books on the work of pastors in North America. (The other two titles are Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity and Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, which sit on my bookshelf waiting to be read.)

If I had to choose a pastor after whom to model my ministry, it would be Eugene Peterson. He seems so much more concerned about his congregation’s toward maturity in Christ than about its growth in size. His writing is theological, sometimes philosophical, often eminently practical. Best of all, he offers no programs to sell, no models to follow; only sound, Biblical counsel.

In Under the Unpredictable Plant, Peterson uses the story of Jonah to help clarify the pastoral vocation in the midst of a culture that calls (and tempts) pastors to “religious careerism.” He uses Tarshish, Jonah’s destination of choice, as representing an exotic and far-away city where Jonah dreamed of doing big things for God (just not in God’s presence). Pastors today are similarly tempted by the culture to run to the next big, exciting church where they might do great things for God…and then get invited to speak at a conference or two. Ninevah, on the other hand, represents the heart of what God calls pastors to do: faithfully proclaim His message of love and grace to messy people.

Throughout his books, Peterson weaves pieces of his own story: growing up in a home with a Pentecostal preacher mother and a butcher father; childhood encounters with rough-edged farmers; struggling to make the language of the Bible real for an adult Sunday School class (the genesis—no pun intended—of his contemporary-English Bible translation, The Message). These personal stories bring Peterson’s philosophy and theology to life.

I would love to meet Eugene Peterson. I am almost jealous of a pastor friend who, with his wife, got to spend several days in Peterson’s home as a gift from his church! In fact, when looking into seminaries several years ago, Regent University in British Columbia was high on my list, precisely because that’s where Peterson was serving at the time. For now, though, I am content to be mentored vicariously through his books.

Unless you become like little children…

She prays her childlike prayers and I correct, seeking to bring maturity to her childlike faith. After all, she’s twelve, and I am old. And, I fear, ignorant.

She asks God to help her aunt not be sick; I ask Him to heal. She asks God to help China get more Bibles; I challenge her to buy Bibles for China. She asks God to help her have a good day at school tomorrow; I pray that she would bring Him glory in whatever comes her way. She asks God to do what He wants; I ask Him for what I want.

What am I doing, trying to make my little girl grow up? I should be asking her to teach me to pray!

“A little child will lead them.” Familiar words. Convicting words. Are they really in the Bible, or merely a slogan that sounds good? My old, mature, needs-to-know self searches: yes, there they are, in Isaiah 11:6. Then Jesus’ words come to my old, mature mind: “Unless you become like little children, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 18:3)

Tonight, Abba, help me; help me learn from my little girl.

Looking for Normal in the Shadow of Death

Shadow of DeathA week ago I wrote here that I would post each Wednesday about a book I’m reading. Here it is Wednesday, and although I tried, I can’t. You see, last Wednesday—my first non-holiday, weekday off work in…I don’t know how long—I was hit with some fairly devastating news. Life and death news. And in a cruel twist of irony, I had just journaled that morning about another life and death: my brother’s. You see, last Wednesday was the eve of the 35th anniversary of my brother’s death by the cold hand of cancer. He was three months and four days shy of his 18th birthday; I was 16. Rick died the Wednesday before Palm Sunday. Last Wednesday was the Wednesday before Palm Sunday.

Holy Week—what Christians call the week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, the last week of Jesus’ life—is a time of joy and anticipation, celebrating the resurrection of the one we believe conquered death, sin, and Satan. The joy is interrupted for about thirty-six somber hours as we remember His brutal and senseless death at the hands of jealous religious leaders and a gutless Roman puppet governor, but it returns with the first rays of the sun on Easter morning as we cheerfully share the greeting, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!”

I don’t recall a thing about Holy Week 1980. I certainly don’t recall much joy, but I know the somber hours of mourning lingered far beyond a mere day-and-a-half as Rick’s death cast a long, dark shadow that even Jesus’ resurrection couldn’t seem to erase.

Now here I am again in the middle of Holy Week, and the shadow of another death darkens the days. Not a death-in-the-past this time, but the expectation of one that will come too soon, too young; a death I anticipate and dread, that I strive to hold off, pray against, fight against, beg God to forestall. Yet in the midst of the foreboding shadow of death, life goes on. I go to work with unknowing coworkers. My kids go to school with blissfully ignorant classmates. On the freeway, at the gas station, in the grocery store…even at church I cross paths with people who don’t see the shadow, whose own lives may be bright with the joy of new birth or darker even than my own. And each day I seek a sense of normalcy.

This week, especially, I want to know the celebration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry. I want to join in on His last Passover meal with His best friends. I want to feel the weight of Peter’s denial and the long, piercing thorns of the “crown” pressed into Jesus’ scalp. I want to wake up on Easter morning and wholeheartedly proclaim, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” Instead, I am voicing the same accusation both Martha and Mary leveled at Jesus when Lazarus died: “Lord, if you had only been here….”

And Jesus wept. And I weep. And our tears flow together. And maybe that, for now, is the most normal thing about the shadow of death: Jesus is present with me, weeping with me.