A Word in Edgewise

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A Few Days in Austin

Most of the collaboration on The Voice took place by means of technology: through email, Internet, SKYPE, and cell phones.  In some cases the work was personal, that is, people knew and worked closely with their reviewers and commentators. In other cases the work was anonymous.  It is standard practice, for example, in scholarly work for a person’s book or article to be reviewed anonymously, meaning both the writers and reviewers do not know the identity of the person offering the review.  This process ensures that a person’s feelings—positively or negatively—about another does not affect the quality of the review.  I understood the need for those checks and balances.The Voice of Hebrews cover

But there were a few remarkable occasions when writers and scholars actually sat down together, face-to-face, to work through a translation.

One of my favorite times working on The Voice project took place in Austin, TX.  Greg Garrett, a noted novelist, was working on the translation of the book of Hebrews, so I drove over to spend a few days with him. It was summer so he had arranged for us to work in empty classrooms at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, an institution where he was writer-in-residence.  The staff of the school graciously allowed me to stay in one of the dorm rooms—on The Voice discount of course.

Over the next few days Greg and I shared meals, swopped stories, and settled down over the Greek text of the letter to the Hebrews.  I watched carefully and listened closely as Greg, a gifted writer, worked through the challenging prose of the New Testament’s most sophisticated and difficult-to-translate books.  We plotted the argument and puzzled over the best way to communicate to our modern audience the way our anonymous Jewish author went about persuading his Jewish audience about the superiority of God’s new covenant.  I remember watching Greg count out the syllables, the rhythm, of the prose.  I learned from watching Greg that well crafted prose has a rhythm; meter is not restricted to poetry.  I had never thought of it before, but working with Greg convinced me it was true. 

Scholars are often strong left-brained people; this means they are good on the technicalities.  A translator might say, “this word is a Greek adverbial concessive participle and its referent is thus-and-so” or “this syllable is a pronominal suffix on the Hebrew root and its antecedent is x-y-z.”  Scholars can do that sort of thing all day long.  But gifted writers, poets, and artists are often strong right-brained people.  They are better equipped than technical scholars at capturing the beauty of a phrase or finding the right word to resolve the rhythm of a poem.  This is why I’m fond of saying about The Voice, “Finally, a Bible for both sides of your brain!”

I remember leaving Austin on the last day a bit sad. Greg and I had run out of time, and we had not been able to translate through all 13 chapters of this tough letter.  We would have to go back to our respective lives to complete it, in between other duties.  I was sad too that more of my Voice-related experience had been so isolated.  Translation is often a solitary experience—the nature of the discipline demands it be so—even if you are working in a “collaborative environment.”  As I started the car and headed for home, I was grateful for Greg’s talent and friendship.  When I look back, those were good days.



Tolkien, Jackson, and Paul

I saw the movie “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” the night of my birthday.    We entered a theater in Houston, sat at small tables, and waiters took our orders during the previews.  When the food arrived, the previews were over and in a few minutes the theater lights dimmed and for the next 2 ½ hours we were transported to Middle Earth.the hobbit unexpected journey

The Hobbit is a wonderful movie. I’d recommend it.  Here is the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDnYMbYB-nU

The movie is a typical Peter Jackson film.  The action is well paced.  There are ample battles and tense moments throughout. Yet even during some of the battle scenes, Jackson manages to inject bits of humor to break the tension. I often wonder what Tolkien would think if we could bring him into our time to see how Jackson and others have interpreted him.

There is a wonderful bit of dialogue near the end of the movie that, for me, echoes the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians.  Throughout the movie there is pushback from the road- weary dwarves trying to make it back to their home.  They wonder aloud why Gandalf the Grey, skillfully played by Ian McKellan, has invited this hobbit from the shire–this creature who craves his books and armchair and avoids adventures at all cost—to join the band of battle-hardened dwarves on this quest to try and reclaim their home.

When you see the movie, listen for the echo.  Here is what Paul said:

Look carefully at your call, brothers and sisters.  By human standards, not many of you are deemed to be wise. Not many are considered powerful.  Not many of you come from royalty, right?  But celebrate this: God selected the world’s foolish to bring shame upon those who think they are wise; likewise, He selected the world’s weak to bring disgrace upon those who think they are strong.  God selected the common and the castoff, whatever lacks status, so He could invalidate the claims of those who think those things are significant. (1 Corinthians 1:26-18, The Voice)

For me and I’m sure many others, The Hobbit  and Lord of the Rings trilogy is a great story that reflects the reality Paul celebrates in his letter.  No one would ever consider the hobbits adventure-worthy creatures. They are not wise.  They are not powerful.  Royal blood does not flow in their hobbit veins.  They are the foolish and the weak. Yet they are chosen, indeed destined, for greatness in a story which sees good triumph over evil in Middle Earth. Yet evil, true evil, is not defeated easily.  It takes great sacrifice to overcome the powers that rule the darkness. Tolkien understood Paul.  I’m sure of it.  He understood the central Christian convictions that ought to animate more of our literature and films.

You are dust

Easter comes early this year: March 31, 2013.  A long time ago it was decided to set the date of Easter as the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (or the first day of spring).  The decision was a long and complicated one, but a key factor was this: since Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples on a Sunday, then Easter should be on a Sunday.  Other proposals had it so Easter could fall on any day of the week.  The church, in its wisdom, decided instead to have Easter fall every year on Sunday.  In a real sense, every Sunday is a little Easter.ash-wednesday

But Easter is such a profound holy day on the church’s calendar that our spiritual ancestors decided to preface it with a season of preparation marked by prayer, fasting, and spiritual reflection.  So the season of Lent was created to make the transition from more ordinary time to the day of resurrection.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday—this year celebrated on February 13, 2013—and ends on Holy Saturday, the day prior to Easter.  On Ash Wednesday Christians gather to remember a sobering fact: we are dust and to dust we will return.  This year I will stand in line—or as my British friends prefer to say, “I will queue up . . . “—and have someone make the sign of the cross on my forehead in ash and they will say: “You are dust and to dust shall you return.”

Ash Wednesday means different things to different people, I suppose, but at a very basic level the ritual we gather and perform is designed to remind us that we are not immortal, that these bodies we coddle, clothe, decorate, protect, nurture, feed, and insure will go the way of the earth.  The first man (Hebrew, Adam) was made of the dust (Hebrew, Adamah).  The Adam came from the Adamah.  That is what we are. That is who we are.  On my best day.  On my worst day.  I am dust, and on another day not of my choosing I will return to the dust.

Yet, there is another reality, the resurrection.  Listen to what Paul wrote (Philippians 3:20-21, The Voice):

But we are citizens of heaven, exiles on earth awaiting eagerly for a Liberator, our Lord Jesus the Anointed, to come and transform these humble, earthly [read . . . dust] bodies into the form of His glorious body by the same power that brings all things under His control.

All of us dust-men and dust-women down here on earth really belong to another kingdom.  Right now, we wait, hope, and long for the world to come.  It is our true home.  When the resurrected Jesus returns, resurrection will become our reality  just as it is for Jesus.  On that day we will exchange these mortal bodies for glorious ones.

Ash Wednesday and Easter are two sides of an important, very human, deeply spiritual reality.

We enter the season with this confession: “I am dust . . . “

We arrive at the pinnacle of our holy day with this confession: “Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.”


The Power of Contentment

I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade, but I’m afraid I’m about to.  I recall a professor of mine saying repeatedly, “I don’t want to piously believe something that is not true.”  I wonder how much of what we think or believe is just not true, regardless of how passionately we believe it.  Case in point: Philippians 4:13.  Like many of you I memorized it from the King James Version: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Superman 2

For many people Philippians 4:13 has been one of their favorite verses from the Bible.  They quote it consistently as they are facing some obstacle. Some take it almost as proof of nearly super-hero status.  I CAN DO ALL THINGS.

Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound.  Who disguised as mild-manner Joe Christian fights the unending battle for truth, social justice, and the Christian way.  .  . (with apologies to Superman)

The problem is this.  When I began to read the Scriptures in the original Greek I realized something: the word “do” is not there.  It has been supplied by the translators.  But is it the right word?  It’s a bit complicated but a good Greek lexicon, grammar, or commentary can help you begin to sort it out. The Greek verb which is there is “I am able.”  But the verb typically takes an infinitive complement, that is, an infinitive to complete the idea.  Like this: “I am able TO SING;” “I am able TO MAKE sloppy joes.”  So if there is no infinitive to complete the idea, what do you do?  Well you look to the context.  The context supplies the verbal idea.  Walk up to someone and say: “I can.” And they will say, “You can what?”  The “what”  is the contextual idea.  So read carefully the verses before 4:13.  What are they about?

I am not saying this because I am in need.  I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances.  I know how to survive in tight situations, and I know how to enjoy having plenty.  In fact, I have learned how to face any circumstances: fed or hungry, with or without.

Now here is another way to translate the text:

 I can be content in any and every situation through Christ who empowers me.

Paul was not talking about the power TO DO anything.  He was celebrating the fact that he had learned TO BE CONTENT regardless of the situation.

Now I realize that may not have the appeal of saying I CAN DO ALL THINGS.  But again: do you want to piously believe something that is not true?  Can you really do all things?  If you could, then wouldn’t you be God.

Think for a moment about the power of contentment.

 True contentment is the result of a heart committed to the risen Lord.  Think of all the sins, pain, and brokenness that come from coveting [the opposite of contentment].  Adultery, murder, stealing, and lying can all be traced directly to a prior condition where hearts and minds are frustrated and discontent.

Notice that Paul says contentment doesn’t come naturally; it is learned.  The normal, natural state of humanity is discontent and quiet desperation.  It takes a powerful, spiritual presence to transform anxiety into joyous satisfaction.  Ironically, it may be the shackles more than his freedom that schools Paul in the art of contentment. Despite the chains, Paul discovers this beautiful state of inner peace through the power of Jesus residing in him.

There is power in contentment. It is the power of shalom at work in your life.  It will not be long until the next round of worry, anxiety, discontent, and frustration hits you.

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