Friday, December 28, 2012

The Handy Guide to New Testament Greek: A Book Review

Review of The Handy Guide to New Testament Greek: Grammar, Syntax and Diagramming By Douglas S. Huffman

Students who have experienced the value of learning NT Greek are also aware of the constant need of help and motivation for staying in it. The radar is always on, scanning for resources or techniques that will make things easier, simpler and more memorable. Learning any language involves staying familiar with the rules and vocabulary by which that language operates. Such steps are necessary in learning a language foreign to our own, due to it being enmeshed in an equally foreign worldview and culture.

Huffman’s book offers a great deal of help in keeping the Greek student familiar with these realities. It has the rare ability to combine simplicity with depth, thus promising to be a useful aid for years to come.

Size and Format – it is designed to be a nice companion to the common size of the Greek New Testament, making it appealing to keep them together. Further, it is full of charts and colorful text and diagrams that make it appealing to look at and not only useful.

Audience and Purpose – Huffman’s stated goal is to help 2nd year Greek students develop further in the language. This is important to realize, because without the guidance of a seasoned mentor the book will have limited value. Like a specialized carpentry tool, its full value cannot be appreciated until a master serves as a guide to its uses and limits.

Preachers and teachers will find the diagramming sections especially helpful in developing outlines for teaching the New Testament. Any help in connecting teaching outlines to the actual text are always sorely needed and greatly appreciated.

As for this writer, who seems to remain “perpetually rusty” in Greek, I have hope that this tool will help sharpen my skills and help provide the motivation necessary to get back into it. Thanks to Kregel Publishers for the complimentary copy of the book for review purposes.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Meditations

Some great quotes to fuel meditation for the season of Christmas:

Infinite and yet an infant.
Eternal and yet born of a woman.
Almighty, and yet nursing at a woman’s breast.
Supporting a universe, and yet needing to be carried in a mother’s arms.
Heir of all things, and yet the carpenter’s despised son.

—Charles Haddon Spurgeon

That man should be made in God’s image is a wonder,
but that God should be made in man’s image is a greater wonder.
That the Ancient of Days would be born.
That He who thunders in the heavens should cry in the cradle?

—Thomas Watson

Man’s Maker was made man
that the Bread might be hungry,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired from the journey;
that Strength might be made weak,
that Life might die.


And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
and we have seen his glory,
glory as of the only Son from the Father,
full of grace and truth.”
John 1:14)

HT: Justin Taylor

Christmas Eve Invocation

O Holy Night,
that deepening darkness above and around,
light-pierced and silence-shrouded,
out of which little children are called in
and seeking shepherds are sent out.

O night of nights,
you spread across heaven
and touch the earth,
surrounding God's people,
capturing us in a moment of time,
like a globe protects a flicker of Light.


Draw us in,
hold us together
while we wait for the birth of the Light of lights,
the One who will guide us into the world anew.

From Simply Wait: Cultivating Stillness in the Season of Advent, by Pamela C. Hawkins, (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2007), 104.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

God Is In The Manger

Fellow ragamuffins, I wanted to make you aware of a free resource available (through 12/31, I believe) from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Advent reflections titled, “God is in the Manger.”

Don’t be afraid to start an Advent devotional at such a late date; I started listening to the devotionals on my morning walks last week, and I can listen to 4-5 days worth in a 30 minute walk. Plus, his reflections go past Christmas into Epiphany.

He wrote these reflections near the end of his life while in prison, so weakness, poverty and suffering are constant themes. I’m finding it very encouraging and I hope you do too.

Finding God in the Hobbit: A Book Review

Hobbits are everywhere these days, it seems. Due, in large part, to the recent release of part 1 of Peter Jackson’s portrayal of the novel The Hobbit on the big screen. I have yet to see it, but I was given the opportunity to review a book related to the subject and would like to share my thoughts here. Tyndale House Publishers has graciously provided me a complimentary copy of this book.

Finding God in the Hobbit, by Jim Ware takes the reader on a devotional journey through the pages of Tolkien’s classic novel. Ware has unique insight in the writings of Tolkien and it shows in the insights of this book. Each chapter reflects on a particular scene from The Hobbit and points out universal truths that we can all benefit from.

I found this book a surprisingly welcome companion during the season of Advent. I can think of no better companion than a Hobbit as I make my way to the stable at Bethlehem. Hobbits are indeed the chief characters of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They have always fascinated me with their earthy childlikeness, simplicity of perspective and way of life. Bilbo Baggins would find himself far more at home in the Bethlehem stable than he would in the glorious Inn, where places were reserved, I’m sure, for the wealthy and powerful of this world. This has helped me own my humanity, my own earthy brokenness, which helps prepare the way to receive Christ in new and deeper ways.

The great strength of Tolkien’s writings (and Ware, his disciple) is that he tells stories in such an imaginative way that reader participation involves not only entering the world of middle earth but learning to see reality itself in terms of story. All good stories, in my opinion, will help us live our own stories more faithfully and truly. Ware’s thoughts on The Hobbit are a great help here. He seems like-minded to Tolkien, which makes him particularly qualified to serve as a guide through his writings.

Too many Christian interpretations of Tolkien (and Lewis) are sentimental in their attempt to force an allegorical interpretation. Some try to see Jesus in every character and circumstance. Tolkien never intended this, and I’m grateful to Mr. Ware for pointing this out. Ware comments, “Tolkien understood, as many of his readers and critics did not, that it is one thing to concoct an allegory and quite another to reflect universal principles and eternal realities in a timeless tale. . . . Through the ruse of an entertaining and imaginative tale, Tolkien drew back the veil of familiarity and boredom that covered my school day existence and revealed the world to me in a new light, as a land of perilous beauty and wondrous delight, a place gloriously haunted by the Presence of a Person ‘who is never absent and never named.’” (165, 168)

Ware further develops this point by quoting Tolkien’s Letters, “. . . each of us is an allegory, embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life.” (165).

Overall Ware’s book is a great read and I highly recommend it! His work reminds me of the words of another blogger, David Mathis, who said, “Finding Jesus in The Hobbit doesn’t mean shoe-horning Gandalf or Bilbo or anyone else into some Christ mold, but following the story, truly tracking its twists, feeling its angst, and knowing that the “turn” — the Great Unexpected Rescue just in the nick of time, the place where our souls are most stirred and relieved and satisfied — is tapping into something deep in us, some way in which God spring-loaded us for the Great Story and the extent to which he went to reclaim us. (12/13/12 Blog titled,
“How To Watch ‘The Hobbit’”

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

When Advent Fails

In an earlier blog, I noted the connection between Advent and Lent, and today I found another author doing the same thing (but saying it better!). Thomas McKenzie over at the Rabbit Room has written a wonderful blog titled “When Advent Fails.” I encourage you to read the entire thing, but here is my favorite part:

What happens when excitement and expectation ends in disappointment and calamity? What do you do when your Advent ends not in Christmas but in Good Friday? Expectations are not always fulfilled, hope is sometimes dashed. Sometimes this results in loss of life, as happened to my friends. Sometimes the loss is not as tragic, but no less real. Relationships end poorly, jobs fall through, dreams are not realized.

When someone is in the middle of their suffering, it is easy for an outsider to say “God is still with them.” That is true, and it is the message of Advent. Christ is with the suffering, the broken, the mourning. He knows what it means to endure horrific evil, and so he is the ultimate source of comfort and healing to the hurting.

At the same time, suffering does not always move quickly to hope. Sometimes hope is put on hold and mourning drags on. For those who are in the middle of their pain, God must be mediated in the silent affection of other human beings. Christ is incarnate in the tender compassion of the friend who says “I don’t understand it either” as he bursts into tears. The Christian who can set aside her need to control, her desire to “make it better,” and can sit in the awful pain of her friend becomes Jesus to that friend.

For those of you who are suffering right now, let me say a couple of things. Your pain is real and it has meaning. I encourage you to feel what you feel, to be as angry and sad and overwhelmed as you are. In the middle of your pain, please know that there is still hope for you because of Christ. I pray you will reveal your suffering to other people who can sit with you in the midst of it. I hope you will find some hope in this Advent, and in the Christ who has not given up on you.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Becoming Children Again

Advent Reading: Psalm 131

(ESV) O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore.

(The Message) God, I’m not trying to rule the roost,

   I don’t want to be king of the mountain.

I haven’t meddled where I have no business

   or fantasized grandiose plans.

I’ve kept my feet on the ground,

   I’ve cultivated a quiet heart.

Like a baby content in its mother’s arms,

   my soul is a baby content.

Wait, Israel, for God. Wait with hope.

   Hope now; hope always!

This Psalm provides a place for me to bring my thoughts on childlikeness and its relationship to Advent.

Have you noticed than in many of the great Christmas movies and TV Specials that it is children who get it and not the adults? Think of The Santa Clause, Elf, Polar Express, and Miracle on 34th Street to name a few of my favorites. In these stories, the children have not been “corrupted” by the complexities and troubles of adulthood and are able to see and enter into the “magic of Christmas” with relative ease. Of course, most of the time this has to do with belief in Santa Claus, which many Christians feel uncomfortable with. But I wonder if there is some value to that in the symbolic world in which children dwell, the world we feel pulled to every Christmas. Let’s remember that Narnia was a world ruled by deep magic as well as by children.

I’m not so sure we need to work so hard to separate the “magic of Santa Claus” from what God did in Jesus in Bethlehem. When C.S. Lewis received a letter from a concerned mother who was worried about her boy being more fond of Aslan than he was of Jesus, he replied that to be fond of Aslan is to be fond of Jesus. Lewis understood that the mixing of metaphors and reality in the imagination only serves to prepare one for the life of faith. Perhaps the same could be said (with certain qualifications, of course) about the “magic” of Christmas and of Santa Claus. This figure (with some historical basis in St. Nicholas) is the symbol of goodness and generosity, fueling children’s imaginations about having dreams fulfilled (sounds heavenly, doesn’t it?).

Christmas calls us to become children again. Perhaps this is also why Christmas is so painful for many of us - our most treasured dreams (for love, acceptance and fulfillment) were crushed when we were children. Speaking for myself, this season calls out to the wounded child in me to come to the stable and dream again of someone good enough and strong enough to make sense of my life and to take care of me; I am called to let go of my “grown up” despair and trust mystery again.

I’m trying, but it’s so difficult! To feel the awe and wonder of a child is in the same breath to feel the loss and abandonment of an orphan. The empty stable, waiting for the Christ child, is an apt “symbolic world” right now for me. It is where I go to converse with God in the dark. It is a womb groaning for birth; a tomb longing for resurrection.

Let me close this piece with the lyrics from one of my Advent companions, Jason Gray. It is from one of his new songs, “Children Again:”

We found one in a closet and one in a drawer

There’s no hiding place we won’t find anymore
We’d shake every present for any small clue
Of what lies beneath the words “from me to you”

But for every present left under a tree
There are things that we hoped for and never received
And the years and the yearning can make us forget
To be filled with wonder instead of regret

But Christmas is calling again
Leading us to Bethlehem

Where a child is waiting for you
When grown up dreams don’t come true
It sounds crazy, but a baby
Can make us all children again

When you want to forgive but the wound is so deep
And you ache for forgiveness for the secrets you keep
When the flower of your heart only feels like a thorn
And you long for the child that you were before

Christmas is calling again
Leading you to Bethlehem

Where a child is waiting for you
When grown up dreams don’t come true
It sounds crazy, but a baby
Can make us all children again

Afraid to be strangers
We circle the manger
And kneel down beside it again
But he wishes that we would crawl in

Where a child is waiting for you
When grown up dreams don’t come true
It sounds crazy, that a baby
Would ask for our hearts made of stone
And then give us a heart like his own
If we let him, he will begin
To make us all children again
We will be children again

God wrapped a gift that he hid in the world
Deep in the womb of an innocent girl
But when we were ready and on a dirt floor
Love found a way in and left open the door

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Something Hardly Noticeable

After a hard week of soul struggle, I don’t have much to write today. This reflection from Henri Nouwen for the second Sunday of Advent blessed me greatly, so I wanted to pass it along.

"A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him . . ." (Isa.11:1-2).

These words from last night's liturgy have stayed with me during the day. Our salvation comes from something small, tender, and vulnerable, something hardly noticeable. God, who is the Creator of the Universe, comes to us in smallness, weakness, and hiddenness.

I find this a hopeful message. Somehow, I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me and others of God's saving power; but over and over again I am reminded that spectacles, power plays, and big events are the ways of the world. Our temptation is to be distracted by them and made blind to the "shoot that shall sprout from the stump."

When I have no eyes for the small signs of God's presence - the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends - I will always remain tempted to despair.

The small child of Bethlehem, the unknown young man of Nazareth, the rejected preacher, the naked man on the cross, he asks for my full attention. The work of our salvation takes place in the midst of a world that continues to shout, scream, and overwhelm us with its claims and promises. But the promise is hidden in the shoot that sprouts from the stump, a shoot that hardly anyone notices.

iGracias! - A Latin American Journal (December 2, 1981) © Henri J.M. Nouwen. Published by HarperCollins. Reprinted with publisher's kind permission.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Practice Resurrection, a Book Review

My dear friend, Andy Hassler, a scholar of the heart and the Scriptures, has posted an online book review of Eugene Peterson’s work Practice Resurrection. I think any reader of this blog would appreciate and benefit from this review.

Here is my favorite excerpt:

Peterson argues that maturity happens only within the real, often harsh, conditions of life. To be sure, there are moments of great glory. But too often these are overemphasized, and the patient work of God in the present, the broken, the ordinary, and the mess of real life is underestimated and ignored. "The way to maturity is through the commonplace" (p. 182).

Monday, December 03, 2012

Advent Repentance

My advent reading today (day #2) was Mark 1:1-8.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
    As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
    “Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
        who will prepare your way,
    the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
        ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
        make his paths straight,’”
    John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
  (Mark 1:1-8 ESV)

My first thought was, “How is this part of Advent? How does this prepare me to receive the incarnate Jesus?” It quickly became clear to me (in a “duh!” moment) that it makes perfect sense. Repentance (symbolized by John’s baptism) clears away clutter and makes the path straight for Jesus. Obstacles are removed and space is created by repenting of those things that keep me opposed to grace.

For me, I am repenting (present tense because I’ll have to do it all Advent long) of an elusive self-hatred that has been tolerated and even cherished by my ragamuffin self for far too long (more on this later). I am also repenting of all my attempts to make life work and to make my life “make sense.”

This message of Advent repentance reminds me how much Advent has in common with Lent. It is a period of pregnant waiting for life to emerge out of death and barrenness (remember the conditions in Israel when Jesus came? things were bleak to say the least). Whether it’s the womb of Mary or the tomb of Golgotha, we wait in the midst of sorrow, loss and powerlessness for the Author of Life to speak resurrection, to speak life. Advent, like Lent, is not a time (predominantly) for joy and celebration, but reflection and lament. The season of Christmas (like Easter) is the time for celebrating.

For me, the image of the stable is increasingly becoming where I wait and try to give voice to the pains and sorrows that reside within me but have not yet been given a chance to express themselves. I imagine I arrive there a long while before Mary & Joseph are forced to rest there after being rejected at the inn (more on this later too). As I wait I let the dirty, smelly and earthy place fill my senses and shape my waiting into a place into which Jesus can come for me (not for the world, but for me specifically).

My self-hatred shows up in this scene as a berating Pharisee barring the entrance, constantly telling me I’m not worthy of God’s coming, that I’d better give up and just leave, because no one will ever love me. Again, this is where repentance comes in for me. By God’s grace, I need to kill this Pharisee/older brother/self-hatred that bars my entrance into my own humanity. If I can’t get past him, then I won’t be able to own my true humanity before God, I won’t be able to own who I really am (and am not) before God. If I can’t do that, I’ll miss the coming of Jesus entirely. God help me.