08 February 2016

Cædmon's Sick Rhymes

Editor's Note: The following selection is excerpted from Bede the Venerable's Historia Ecclesiastica et Hiphoppia Gentis Anglorum. Regrettably, this is the only extant source in which Cædmon's phat rhymes are preserved. My Latin is not very good, so please excuse the minor liberties I have taken with the translation.

Now in a certain monastery there lived a brother who had the divine gift of busting rhymes pertaining to religion and virtue. Thus, whatever divine mysteries he learned from scholars, within a moderate time, he laid down a phat beat and spat sick lines pertaining thereto. And all his hearers agreed that his rhymes were the busiest of all those in England, sweet and well-made as they were.

Likewise, after Cædmon came many who tried to throw down lines as he did, but lo, they were all haters and imitators, and none came close to matching his mad flowing skills, since the Almighty had poured out upon him the dopest of rhymes. And he therefore could not make songs that were deceitful or wack, but only straight-up cash money ones that did glorify his homeboy JC.

Until he reached old age, Cædmon was firmly established in a worldly life, and had no mad rhymes to boast of. It would happen that at banquets, after some 40s had been consumed and there was occasion for joy, the DJ would lay down some beats and the homies would take turns freestyling. And when the mic approached Cædmon, he would arise from the feast and return unto his home in shame, for lo, his game was weak.

And this he did on a certain occasion, when he left the banquet hall and went out unto the animal stables, as it had been assigned to him to watch the herd that night. After, at the appropriate time, he had fallen asleep, a sunbright brother did appear unto him and demand, "Cædmon, spit some rhymes at me."

Cædmon hung his head and mumbled, "Nah, dawg. I ain't got those skillz. That's why I'm here instead of at the party."

The bright visitor did respond, "Aight, I know that, homes. But you gotta spit me some rhymes."

Cædmon said, "Well, what you wanna hear about?"

The man said, "Sing about the first creation."

So Cædmon grooved unto his visitor's beatboxing and did begin flowing:

Nu we sculon herigean     heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte     ond his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder,     swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,     or onstealde.
He ærest sceop      eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,     halig scyppend;
þa middangeard     moncynnes weard,
ece drihten,     æfter teode
firum foldan,     frea ælmihtig.
And when he arose from his sleep, he did find that the song remained in his memory. Moreover, when he cranked up his boombox, he found that he was able to flow, and yea, verily his rhymes were sick.

In the morning, he came unto the town-reeve, who was his alderman. He made known to him the gift that he had been given, whereupon the alderman led him unto the abbess and declared the same to her.

Then the abbess called all of the most learned scholars and commanded that Cædmon tell of his vision and lay down his phat rhymes in their presence so that they might determine the source of his inspiration.

And it was seen by all even as it was: That God himself had endowed the man with a heavenly gift. And so they spoke to him and told holy stories and divine words of knowledge. Then, they bade the DJ to begin spinning some wicked beats to that Cædmon might spit some mad dope rhymes. And lo, they perceived that his rhymes were the phattest in the land, and must clearly come from the hand of the Lord himself.

Commentary on John 1:6-8

 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

-John 1:6-8 (NASB)

Here, we meet one of the central characters of John's gospel: John the Baptist. The evangelist's introduction of him is stripped-down, simple, and straightforward -- surprisingly so, in fact. 

If it had been up to me to introduce the baptizer, I would have been tempted to give a list of his qualifications: 

1. He was the founder and lead minister of a large and exciting ministry on the banks of the Jordan, baptizing folks and calling them to repentance. Jews of every background and theological bent flocked to hear him preach, and even Roman soldiers attended to get his advice on godly living. 

2. He led a simple, holy life in the desert, devoting himself to God's service and the preaching of the truth.

3. Like Jesus, he had made some very powerful political and religious enemies.

4. As a pre-born baby, he leapt at the very (also pre-born) presence of Jesus, who, by the way, was also his cousin. 

5. He was born miraculously to aged parents who, like Abram and Sarai, had long ago resigned themselves to being barren. His birth, like that of Jesus, was foretold by an angel. Also like Jesus, John's very name came straight from God's messenger.

But John the Evangelist mentions none of these things. For him, the baptizer's primary importance was as a witness sent from God to testify about Jesus. His purpose, like the evangelist's, was to bring people to belief in Christ. 

The spareness of John the Baptist's introduction holds a vital reminder: In God's economy, human ideas about importance, accomplishment, and renown are of little use. What matters to God is that whether we are faithful in what He has called us to do. Though John was a remarkable man for all the reasons listed above, his most important function was to testify concerning the divine Light, the everlasting Word. 

And testify he did! As we'll see later on, John testified without fear or regard for men's reactions. He was so committed to his calling that he preached himself right into a prison cell... and then into the ground. 

One other noteworthy thing about these verses: The evangelist makes it very clear that John himself is not the light. In other words, he is not the protagonist in this story. Rather, he's merely a supporting character. Perhaps the evangelist feels a need to mention this because the baptizer is a larger-than-life figure. After all, he's very recognizable, iconic, and clearly filled with God's power. Another possible reason for mentioning this could be simple narrative clarity. Perhaps the evangelist is simply avoiding any possibility of confusion for his readers.

Regardless of why the evangelist mentions this, though, we now have a new character on the stage: John, the first of many witnesses to the truth and the power of the Word made flesh. 

02 January 2016

Jesus Wept... But Why?

The Scene: A RURAL FIELD just outside the town of BETHANY.

The Cast:
JESUS, a popular teacher who has fallen out of favor with the religious and political authorities.
His loyal DISCIPLES, who fear for JESUS's life more than he does.
MARTHA, a calculating, practical-minded woman whose brother LAZARUS has just died.
MARY, the less practical sister of MARTHA and LAZARUS, given to grand gestures and occasional hysterics.
A variety of MOURNERS (LAZARUS was popular, and also fairly rich, which probably helped with the popularity).

The Background:
A week or so ago, LAZARUS came down with a mysterious disease. After he took a turn for the worse, MARY and MARTHA dispatched messengers to JESUS, saying, "He whom you love is sick." JESUS got the news, predicted that it wouldn't end in LAZARUS's death, waited two days, and then set out for BETHANY.

Fast-forward to now: MARTHA meets JESUS outside of town and tells him LAZARUS has been dead for four days. The first words out of her mouth are: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."

After some confusing talk about the coming resurrection, MARTHA sends MARY out to see JESUS. MARY collapses dramatically at JESUS's feet, wailing up a storm. She manages to choke out, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." The MOURNERS come along with her, and they add to the storm that she is a-weeping up.

Then, the funniest thing happens: JESUS weeps right along with them. This causes some of the MOURNERS to remark, "See how He loved him!" But some of them also say, "Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?"

The reason I call this a funny thing is that JESUS had very, very little reason to weep. Quite the opposite, in fact -- I would have expected him to comfort the weepers, to offer them hope, to try to shush them. Because -- SPOILER ALERT -- JESUS is going to raise LAZARUS up from the dead.

My question, then, is why? Why the tears and the mourning and the anguish? What purpose does any of that serve? It's not making LAZARUS any less dead, that's for sure.

But let's back up a step and look at this a little more methodically and a little less theatrically...

Reasons Jesus Didn't Need to Weep

1.) He had already predicted the outcome:
  • This sickness won't end in death (11:4a)
    • Spoken to his disciples. Just think, by the way, of how they must have felt when they got there and found out Lazarus had already died before Jesus had even said this. Disappointment? Disillusionment? Deception? Betrayal?
    • He ends up being right -- it won't end in death. But it will go through there.
  • Lazarus has fallen asleep; I'm going to wake him up (11:11-14)
    • Of course, the disciples don't get it. "Hey, that's good news! If he's sleeping, that will help him rest up and get better!" 
    • Wrong, boys.
  • Your brother will rise again (11:23)
    • Like the disciples, Martha misunderstands this. She thinks Jesus is slinging platitudes. "Yes, I know that he will come back to life... when the resurrection comes and everybody does." 
    • Wrong, Martha. I am the Resurrection. 
2.) He knew God had something good in mind:
  • This will be for God's glory (11:4b)
  • Jesus delayed His coming on purpose (11:5-7)
    • He did this at the Father's leading, of course -- see also John 5:19-21
    • My opinion: God did this to ensure Lazarus was good and dead. After four days, there's no possibility that people will think of this as a mere swoon or deathbed recovery.
  • Jesus had faith in God's plan and timing despite other people's opinions of it:
    • You're going too soon (11:8, 14-6)
    • You didn't come soon enough (11:21, 32, 37)
3.) He knew he had the power and the prerogative to bring Lazarus back. He knew that:
  • This is why God allowed the sickness to occur (11:4)
  • This was why he was being called back to Bethany (11:11-15)
  • He himself was the resurrection and the life, not only for Lazarus, but for all who would be raised up on the last day (11:23-27)
  • God would hear his request and honor it, because the Father was where this whole plan came from in the first place (11:41-42)
If ever there were excellent reasons not to weep, these are. We often weep from lack of control or power over a situation, overwhelming despair, or utter hopelessness. But Jesus had none of these motivations. He knew the outcome would be powerful, glorious -- the very best best-case scenario imaginable. He knew he would grapple with the grave itself and come out on top. 

And yet, there's verse 35, in black and white: Jesus wept. 

So why would the almighty maker, the life-source, the conqueror of death, the victorious one, the winner, succumb to tears right before the moment of his greatest triumph yet?

Here are a few possible answers:

1.) He missed Lazarus and was sad that he had died. This isn't too far-fetched -- it's actually what the people observing the scene thought, too! "See how he loved him!" (v. 36). And well they might think this. When our loved ones die, we lose something of ourselves. Of course, one could also argue that Jesus knew it wasn't for keeps, so this seems to be a less likely motivation than some others.

2.) He saw Mary and the other mourners weeping and was deeply moved and troubled in spirit. I cheated a little bit on this one -- it's from verse 33. So this is actually as close to a "right" answer as I'm going to get, I think. It's right there in the Bible, so I believe it's true. The problem is that this answer doesn't really get to the heart of the matter: Why was Jesus moved? Why was he troubled in spirit? It approaches an answer to this question, but never really arrives there.

From here on out, the answers are a little more speculative, so proceed at your own risk...

3.) I'd argue that Jesus was moved because he was very empathetic. He saw the sorrow of his good friends, and because they mourned, he did, too. I'm reminded of Romans 12:15:  "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep." The weeping of our friends can bring great healing. In my greatest moment of grief, I went off by myself because I couldn't bear to be around everyone else. Then, a godly man came and found me in my hiding place. He could have offered me platitudes, scriptures, or words of wisdom. Instead, he only offered me a big hug and his tears. I can't tell you how much it meant to me to know he was sharing my mourning. I also suspect I wouldn't have been nearly as comforted by any words he could have said in that moment. I think Jesus knew this, too: Sometimes loving people means simply crying alongside them.

4.) My next idea actually comes from my good friend Mike, who I was discussing this passage with this week. (So if you disagree, I'll be glad to give you his number so you can give him a piece of your mind.) Mike's idea is this: Jesus was human. Too often, we put Christ's deity so high in our minds that we forget he shared our infirmities, too. He shared our emotional nature. Sometimes, he was overcome by feelings he had no control over. Of course, he never allowed his emotions to be a conduit or an excuse for sin, but he was subject to their influence nonetheless. To overlook Jesus's uncontrollable emotions would be to deny his nature as Emmanuel, God with us.

5.) Perhaps Jesus was mourning over something bigger than the immediate situation. More than anyone else, Jesus knew the whole picture. He had seen heaven's holiness. He had seen mankind's bliss in the garden of Eden. And he had seen the horrible consequences of sin. He had seen pain, sickness, and misery beyond all reckoning. He had seen the ravages of lust, and murder, and death. What if Jesus was weeping over death's very existence? What if he wept because, even though he knew he would bring Lazarus back, his good friend still had to taste the bitter cup that Jesus himself would soon drink? And so many countless others would taste it, too. Seems like a pretty good reason to cry, if you ask me.

Regardless of why Jesus wept, we can take several important lessons from this passage.

1.) Crying isn't a sin. Too often, we try to pave over pain with words like, "Well, everything happens for a reason!" or "The joy of the Lord is my strength!" We try to pretend things are all right when they are most definitely not all right. Through his own weeping, Jesus gave you and me permission to weep. Now, it's also true that our tribulations are a cause for rejoicing (see Romans 5:3 and James 1:2). But that doesn't mean you have to be all smiley about them right away. It does mean that God will inevitably transform them into a something glorious, which is great news. But it's OK not to feel that at the time. (What we must avoid is the temptation to unnaturally prolong our weeping and misery. Our flesh sometimes likes to hold onto pain long after healing should have begun.)

2.) Crying with others can be a service of love. Again, remember Paul's exhortation to the Romans: Weep with those who weep. This doesn't mean to have a never-ending pity party. It does mean that we ought to work to cultivate empathy -- the ability to see and feel things from someone else's point of view. Again, we do this in an effort to love and serve one another as our Savior loves and serves us.

3.) Don't assume you know what's going on in God's plan. Like Martha, the disciples, and the mourners, we don't know what's going on with God's plans. We might think he intends to do one thing, when his actual plan involves something completely incompatible with that thing. Sometimes, Lazarus dies.

4.) Don't assume you know what's going on in people's hearts. If I'd been there, I'd have been tempted to say, "Hey, now, Jesus. It's OK. Martha was right -- Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection. I know you loved him; I did, too. Let's just celebrate the things we loved about him, OK?" Or even, "Well, Jesus, everything happens for a reason!" I suspect this sort of comfort wouldn't have been a blessing to the weeping savior.

5.) Don't mistake an intellectual answer for an antidote to sorrow. Jesus had literally all the answers in this situation. If ever there were a place and time for explaining away sadness, this was it, and he was the man for the job. But it wasn't, and he didn't. He did offer explanations to Martha, because she wanted and needed them (though it's not clear that she really understood them). To Mary, though, he offered only his tears... and, then, after the tears, her heart's desire.

Well, I'm afraid I probably haven't given a very satisfactory answer to why Jesus wept. But I have arrived at one very definite conclusion: I want to get better at weeping like him.

23 December 2015

Discipleship: Knowing the Word

Note: This is part of my series on Discipleship and Disciplines. You might want to read from the beginning if you haven't already.

Remember that in John 8:31, Jesus says, "If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine." So, then, as I've mentioned before, the first step to discipleship is to know His word. Otherwise, how would it be possible to continue in it?

If you're anything like me, though, "know the word" seems a little bit abstract or poorly defined. What does that look like on a day-to-day basis? How can I have any sort of confidence that I've accomplished this first step?

Here are a few suggestions that I've found helpful in my spiritual walk:

1. Read the Bible. Seriously, read it. The whole thing. Repeatedly. Get to know it like you know an old friend. This certainly doesn't have to happen overnight, but it does have to happen.

So work on it every day. Set an attainable goal and stick to it: Ten verses, a chapter, two chapters, ten chapters -- whatever you can reasonably accomplish every day. Make a habit of it, and don't bite off more than you can chew. If you start losing the meaning amongst all the words, quit for the day. It's not the end of the world if you don't hit your targeted number of verses. Simply taking the time to read is a victory in itself.

When you're reading, go for quality over quantity. Be sure that you understand who's talking, what's happening, why things are going on, and how each piece fits into the bigger picture. If you can only do by reading one verse per day, then only read one verse per day. If you're having trouble understanding, consider investing in a study Bible with commentary footnotes. (Charles Ryrie and John MacArthur have both written pretty solid ones.) There are also a lot of online commentaries and study aids to provide cultural, historical, and doctrinal context.

Bottom line: It's OK not to be a mega awesome superstar Bible-reader; all you need to be is a Bible-reader.

2. Think About the Bible. Grab one or two details from your daily reading and chew on them throughout the day, like a cow chewing her cud. Meditate on what you've read. Think about how -- or even whether -- it applies to your life or the lives of your friends, acquaintances, or loved ones.

As you read through, remember that not everything in the Bible reflects God's attitudes and thoughts about the world. Sometimes the text reflects the viewpoints, assumptions, and actions of other people in the narrative. These won't always align with the way God sees things. Also remember that throughout history, God has dealt in many different ways with nations and people, though His nature and purposes haven't changed.

3. Memorize the Bible. We'll talk more about memorization later, in our discussion of spiritual disciplines, but know that memorizing verses is one of the best ways to let God's word start changing your heart.

Are you struggling with a particular sin? Memorize a whole slough of verses dealing with that sin, and its opposite virtue. Psalm 119:11 says, "Your word I have treasured in my heart, / That I may not sin against You."

Are you feeling discouraged or depressed? Memorize a Psalm that talks about God's faithfulness, salvation, and love.

Basically, you can't go wrong with memorizing Scripture. It takes time, but that time definitely isn't wasted.

4. Ask for Help. First and foremost, ask God to show you what He wants you to see in your daily readings. Ask Him to help you understand it, too. The really good news here is that God already has a mechanism in place to make that happen. Jesus promised his followers that "the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name ... will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you" (John 14:26).

God wants you to be good at reading, understanding, and thinking about the Bible. That's one of the reasons He sent the Holy Spirit. He loves to teach you; ask God to open your mind and heart to His teaching.

In addition to the Holy Spirit, ask other followers of Christ to help you know Christ's word better. Get involved in a structured Bible study, Sunday School class, small group, or all of the above. And it's vital to be part of a local church that believes and teaches the Bible. There's a reason that Paul commands the Ephesians to speak to one another in Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19): We are always stronger when we engage in a community of encouragement.

Another great thing to do is seek out a Bible study partner. Talk through your readings one-on-one with them. Memorize passages of Scripture together. Keep them accountable, and expect them to do the same for you.

Discipleship: Off With the Old and On With the New

Note: This is part of my series on Discipleship and Disciplines. You might want to read from the beginning if you haven't already.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds his readers that they should no longer walk in darkness, but rather:
that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Ephesians 4:22-24).
 This is what it looks like to belong to Jesus, for those who have heard His word and been taught in Him (v. 21). The key to understanding this command is in verse 23, where Paul instructs the Ephesians to "be renewed in the spirit of your mind." This is no superficial remodel; we're demolishing this sucker with a wrecking ball and creating something completely different. It is much more than a mere resolution to be a better person.

Throughout the next two chapters, Paul gives many examples of how this principle looks in real life:
  • Lay aside falsehood; speak truth
  • Don't allow sinful anger to control you; reconcile quickly
  • Stop stealing; work hard so you'll have possessions to share
  • Don't use unwholesome words; build each other up
  • Put aside bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice; be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving
  • Don't produce the fruit of darkness and disobedience (immorality, impurity, greed, filthiness, silly talk, coarse jesting); produce fruit of the light (goodness, righteousness, truth, thanksgiving)
  • Don't do dark deeds; expose them
  • Don't walk as unwise men; walk as wise
  • Don't be foolish; understand God's will
  • Don't get drunk with wine; be filled with the Spirit, encouraging each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
This behavior model is not based on suppression or impulse control; it's centered around replacement. The old, destructive, disobedient behaviors are displaced and choked out by the new, Christ-breathed ones. And the driving force is not our own will or desire; it is God's undefeatable power and our faithful acceptance of it.

Throughout our examination of these truths, it's vital to keep in mind that this is the same God, and the same plan, that are first introduced in Ephesians 1 and 2. In other words, Ephesians 4-6 are accomplished by the same One who called us out of darkness into light through His power (not through our own efforts). He prepared these good works beforehand so that we would walk in them. Thus, they are more of a birthright than a duty. They are what we were always meant to do.

And we know that if God has ordained us to walk in good works, He will certainly provide us with the means to do so. So we can relax: God is in charge, and He will give us the power we need. As Isaiah said, "The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish these things."