Zachary Bright

The Wonder of it All


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Jack’s DOGmatic Reflections

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the Word of God is more precious tha gold

O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.
— Psalm 34:8 (NRSV)

…if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
— 1 Peter 2:3 (NRSV)

How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
— Psalm 119:103 (NRSV)

More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
— Psalm 19:10 (NRSV)

Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog (BSD), is an avid bibliophile, a lover of books. We had been scanning the horizon, looking for the arrival of our book order, when one day my wife Terry, brought in at the end of the day, a ripped-up package, that contained a book. Apparently, the mail-person had chucked our book order over the fence, and on to the lawn, which as far as Jack was concerned, placed the projectile clearly in his “wheelhouse”, on the BSD’s “plate”, so to speak. Doubtless, the damage to the package came from the Bible Study Dog’s attempts to drag the package to safety, knowing that the timed sprinkler would come on and damage our long-anticipated book order. But just to show you the respect that Jack has for books, the book itself was totally undamaged.

I buy most of my books on my Kindle; it’s cheaper and it saves room. Sometimes though, only a hard copy will do, or maybe the book is not out as an ebook yet. Jack, however, prefers the hard copy; I think the way he put it was, “something you can sink your teeth into.” The Bible Study Dog is nothing, if not earnest, in his participation in my theological studies.

Recently, Jack has been interested in drawing together, in a meaningful whole, his scattered biblical insights. Hence his interest in theology, the study of God, who for the BSD, is often revealed through Jack’s relationship with me. I am trying to exercise some of the care of creation that God assigned to humankind (Genesis 1:26-28), through my life with Jack Lewis. Also, I have a little sign that someone gave me, that reads: “I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.”

The Bible Study Dog especially enjoys the theology that draws on biblical theology, historical theology, and God’s revelation of himself in creation and redemption, DOGmatic Theology. This is for at least two reasons: 1) the word “dog” in the title, helps Jack feel included; and 2) the size of many dogmatics volumes are impressive. Just looking at some of the dogmatics books on the shelves behind me: “Church Dogmatics” (I have seven of them), by Karl Barth; “Systematic Theology”, two volumes (1997), by Robert W. Jenson; “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”, two volumes, by John Calvin; The “Christian Foundations” series, seven volumes, by Donald G. Bloesch; four volumes so far by Michael Horton; five volumes by Emil Bruner; several single volume Presbyterian theologies; and more. My favorite right now is probably the Jenson volumes.

As so often, the BSD has an important insight. Even though culinary interests are not in view, we do taste (in a spiritual way) the reality of God and the wonder of the Word (Bible). From this I take two understandings: 1) encounter with God in worship or Word can be a pleasure, even greater then physical pleasure; and 2) we don’t eat physical food just once a week or once a month, but we eat every day. Daily feeding on the Word, and worshiping our Creator-Redeemer, help us to grow spiritually, to grow to be more like Jesus.

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The Gift of Light

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This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. – 1 John 1:5, ESV

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined. – Isaiah 9:2, ESV

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12, ESV

Winter is almost upon us, but already the nights seem longer, darker and colder. It’s dark here in California by 5 p.m. Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog (BSD) is adjusting to survive the Winter: his fur has become thick and luxurious again, and on mornings that are warm enough, Jack goes outside to capture whatever sunshine he can in his coal black fur. Terry resists turning on the heater, so at night, the Bible Study Dog sleeps wedged between my right leg and the recliner chair arm, with a faux Native American blanket covering both of us (did you know that normal temperature for dogs is a few degrees higher than for humans?). Jack Lewis is a social dog and he likes to cuddle. The BSD is sweet this time of year, except when he’s not, like when he feels neglected as I work in my office, and he lets loose with an ear-splitting, frantic howl, that I have called his “social misery howl.” I have tried to discuss this behavior rationally with the Bible Study Dog, with very limited success. Usually, he just stares at my moving lips or into my pleading eyes, seeking to discern what sort of human behavior this is. The most successful technique so far is for me to stop up my ears, until Jack realizes his supplications are hopeless. Though the other day when I stopped up my ears, I heard Jack mutter as he retreated, “Yeah, that’s real mature!”

I’ve been thinking about how light, especially candle light, is prominent for both Jews and Christians at this time of year. Perhaps you have held a little white candle while singing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve or when caroling at a nursing home or from door to door. In the Latino/a culture in which I served as a pastor for many years, there is a tradition called Las Posadas. The carolers go from door to door re-enacting the search of Joseph and Mary for lodging. At the final stop, refreshments are served, including a Mexican variety of hot chocolate (it’s an acquired taste). And every time I walked in the procession, I was almost unimaginably cold.

For Christians who follow the Church Year, the last Lord’s Day of the Year is “Christ the King,” followed by four Sundays of Advent, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the Season of Christmas, and then Epiphany (remembering the Gentiles, and the Star that led them to the place to worship the Messiah). Each Lord’s Day in Advent a new candle is lit on the Advent Wreath. Last Sunday, November 29th, was the first Sunday of Advent and the Hope candle was lit. Each Sunday an additional candle is lit, along with all the previous candles. The white Christ candle is placed in the center of the wreath and is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. A family may also light the Advent candles at home.

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On the First Sunday of Advent these words might be read:

We light this candle as a sign of the coming light of Christ.
Advent means coming.
We are preparing ourselves for the days

when the nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, Isaiah 2:4
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

The next Sunday two candles are lighted, the above is read, and Isaiah 11:6 is added. You get the idea: the third Sunday, Isaiah 35:1 is added; the fourth Sunday, Isaiah 7:14b is added. And then on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, this text is added:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Isaiah 9:2
those who lived in a land of deep darkness,
on them light has shined.

Each candle lighting is concluded with these words:
Let us walk in the light of the Lord.

The Jewish observance of Hanukkah is also celebrated with candles, a festival of lights. The background of Hanukkah takes us back to the 2nd century, BCE, when Judah was under occupation and oppression by the Greeks. The Greek Emperor, Antioches Epiphanies IV, even desecrated the temple in Jerusalem. A family of priests (one son was called Maccabee) revolted in about 165 BCE, and sought to take back, and reconsecrate or rededicate the temple (the word, ‘hanukkah’, may be translated as ‘dedicate’ or ‘rededicate’). Under siege by the Greco-Syrian army, the priests found a small amount of oil (they thought a day’s worth) to light the temple. However, the oil lasted for eight nights! Thus Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights and an additional candle of the Menorah is lit on each night: there are nine candles, one of them to light the other candles. The first biblical mention of a “Feast of Dedication,” is in John 10:22, when Yeshua stood in the Portico of Solomon of the temple. Hanukkah began on the evening of December 6th this year.

Hanukkah remembers and celebrates the LORD’s provision for Israel and his faithfulness to his promises. It is also an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the Missio Dei (Mission of God) in the world. But what I’m interested in now is the place of light in YHWH’s salvation of humankind.

In the Bible, both the Tanakh and Brit Hadashah, ‘light’ is sometimes used literally, as that by which we see the material world, avoid obstacles, etc. It is also used metaphorically as knowledge, wisdom, the holiness of God (1 John), the glory of YHWH (shekinah), candor, openness, the witness of disciples (“city on a hill”) and divine guidance.

The Living God exults in light, as a material reality, a spiritual reality and as a metaphor, from the Garden (Eden) to the City (New Jerusalem). From “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:4) to the pillar of fire that the LORD used so that Israel “…might travel by day and by night” (Ex. 13:21) to the Promised Land, from “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6) to the star that showed the wise men where the Christ child was, from “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12a) to “…the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk…” (Rev. 21:23-24a) and light crackles from God’s fingertips and lightens our darkness.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have come to a turbulent patch of mixed metaphors, rapidly changing metaphors and changing definitions; stay seated, keep your hands inside, and do not attempt any sudden movements until we have finished. Let’s make several observations about light.

1) When you don’t have it, you wish you did. If you have gone back-packing or attended retreats, camps or conferences, you were instructed to bring a flashlight. We still keep flashlights and candles available for the occasional blackout here in Southern California.

2) Often light appears brighter against a dark background. The main reason we cannot see many stars is the ambient light from cities and towns. If you want to see a panoramic array of stars and constellations, go to the desert, far from any light (you will need to backpack). However, the drop in temperature at night may leave you shivering so that you can’t focus. Anyone with eyes to see, knows that we live in a morally and spiritually dark time. As an adolescent, I was inspired by these words from the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, “Long Time Gone” (1970): “You know the darkest hour is always just before the dawn; And it appears to be a long time before the dawn…” And these words of St. Paul: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…” (Philippians 2:14-15, ESV) Rejoice sisters and brothers! This is our time to shine!

3) People who want to hide what they are doing, run from light (like cockroaches I’m told), and seek the darkness. This is all of us at some time. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5, ESV) “And this is the judgement: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (John 3:19, ESV) This explains a lot about us, our cultures and our society.

4) Yeshua is the greatest light in our world, and we may walk in his light and not stumble. “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12, ESV)

5) Yeshua’s disciples, his Light Workers, if you will, are called to be lights & witnesses for others. Yeshua: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16,ESV) Enough said.

6) The most joyful and free way to live is to walk in the light, to live in candor and openness before God and to live in candor and openness with our sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ. “This is his message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5-7, ESV) What would it mean to walk in freedom without guilt? Think about not having to keep your story straight. Imagine a world with complete trust between members of the Body of Christ. My dad called this living with “roof off and walls down.” Or alternatively, keeping short accounts with both God and others.

So much more could be written about light! But I hope you will catch the joy I have in the Light of the World and in the festivals of lights that Jews and Christians walk among at this time of year. These words from alternative Christian rocker Miss Angie’s song, “I Love Light” (1999) keep going through my mind: “I love light, I love light ways; You never fail…”

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD. – Isaiah 2:5, ESV

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The Gift of Memory

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“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” – Deuteronomy 6:4-9, ESV

…but his delight is in the law [Heb., ‘torah’ = instruction, teaching] of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. – Psalm 1:2-3, ESV

I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word. – Psalm 119:11, 16, ESV

My son, do not forget my teaching,
but let your heart keep my commandments,
for length of days and years of life
and peace they will add to you. – Proverbs 3:1-2, ESV

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart… – Ephesians 5:18-19, ESV

Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog (BSD), seems to be experimenting with a new (for him) form of prayer. Jack has become a master of the prayer of persistent asking, after the model of the widow seeking justice from the corrupt judge (Luke 18:1-6). Like the widow wearing down the resistance of the judge, who feared neither God nor man, caring not a rip for anyone but himself, but who finally gave justice as he foresaw that the woman would keep coming until she wore him down, the Bible Study Dog is a past master of the prayer of harassment.

But a few nights ago I awoke, at 2 a.m., to find the BSD sitting quietly by the door, ready to go out and do his business. He made no sound; he wasn’t eager. He just stared at me; Jack was experimenting with the prayer of waiting. Doubtless, the Bible Study Dog was thinking of Bible verses like, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is in him.” (Psalm 62:5, ESV) Or verses like:

To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
till he has mercy upon us. – Psalm 123:1-2, ESV

I take the prayer of waiting to be not only a patient, trusting waiting for God’s answer; but also, like a good waiter or waitress in a restaurant, an attentive, watchful attempt to anticipate and fulfill each of God’s directives to us. So, satisfied with the results of his experiment, Jack Lewis quietly slipped out into the dark.

This same week, I was scheduled to have a minor out-patient surgery in a nearby hospital. It seems that a screw in my foot from a previous surgery, was being ejected by my body. The surgeon proposed just taking, the now unnecessary screw, out. I could be heard joking, for a few days, that I had a screw loose. The puzzled looks on people’s faces showed that they were unsure whether I meant a figurative screw in my head. Unfortunately, that screw will be loose until Yeshua comes and makes all things new!

I wondered what I should take to read in the hospital while I waited through the surgical preparation. I decided that I would take a few of my scripture memory cards; I would still be able to occupy my mind when I couldn’t hold my Kindle in my hands.

Memory is necessary to any defined way of life, if only to continue on the path one has chosen, and not wander repeatedly off the path or into dead ends or cul de sacs or dangerous obstacles. When I was young, I would hike in a National Forest on a path for a half-hour sometimes, until the path would dead end at a cliff or a steep rock face; I had somehow been diverted into a deer path! In primarily oral cultures, the people of God in the Ancient world, both Jews and Christians, were dependent on memory to stay on the path that God laid out for them.

The people of God are repeatedly called to exercise memory, which in turn requires the practice of memorization, especially of Bible texts (but also ideas, events, connections, songs, etc.). In the verses at the beginning, we see that God called families to talk about the Torah in everyday life, in the midst of all activities, and not only when a priest read and interpreted it. We also see that the godly meditate, chew on, look on the various aspects of the Word of God “day and night.” They are called to “not forget” the teaching and the commandments. They have “stored up your word” in their hearts that they might not sin. Christians are called to “singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart”, which surely involves memory. When Christians receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ we are called to remember his sacrificial death for us. Many calls to remember who we are now in Christ can be found in the New Testament Letters. Among the results of memorizing and meditating on Scripture, the texts above refer to a vigorous life, a long life, fortification against sin, prosperity, and peace.

To summarize: no way of life without memory, so therefore no Christian way of life without memory; not much memory without memorization, therefore to really flourish as a Christian one must do some memorization. Let me add that the Holy Spirit usually works in our lives through the Word, “the Sword of the Spirit.” The more Word of God we have in our hearts and minds, the more the Spirit has to work with in us. Ultimately, we are seeking to re-describe our world in terms of the stories, words, and categories of the Bible, that is, a biblical worldview.

Today, many Christians move through life expecting that whatever of Christian understanding sticks to them from worship, devotions, corporate Bible study and fellowship with Christians, is all they need. What doesn’t stick, what is forgotten? Oh well… Many years ago, I counseled a severely depressed young woman, after she had already been through two psychologists in our congregation, and who knows how many state counselors. After months, I was at my wits’ end, sometimes looking longingly at the door or doodling nooses on my notepad. Then I gave her worksheets about what God thought of her (love, forgiveness, acceptance, beautiful, etc.). She had to look up Bible verses and fill in the blanks. The next week she came back and she was better! Then a few weeks later, she came back completely overwhelmed by life. I explored with her what had happened to her during the week: she had been prayed for after a worship service. I gave her more worksheets and she came back better again. Eventually, I discerned that when someone prayed with the woman, she expected that God would instantly heal her, without the necessity of remembering Bible verses. So forgetting what she had known from the Bible, she would become vulnerable to depression again. I know that this is not the experience of everyone, and I have nothing against praying with each other, but don’t many of us expect to grow in Christian knowledge, wisdom, and maturity without effort?

When I lived under my father’s roof, my dad would ask the family to memorize chosen Bible texts, often quite long texts. Off and on through the years, we would recite our assigned verses to Dad at the breakfast table or during evening devotions. Sometimes I would memorize by just looking at the text and repeating it aloud, adding a phrase when the earlier phrases were memorized. Sometimes I would make note cards, that I could refer to frequently during the day. This memory activity, was not something we could be disciplined about if we slacked off; it was a friendly competition. Under my dad’s direction, I memorized Romans 4-8; John 1, 14-17; Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians; Psalm 1; Psalm 23; Galatians 5:16-25; 1 Corinthians 13, and parts of chapters 1 and 2: parts of 1 John; Hebrews 12; parts of Colossians; Philippians 2:1-11; parts of Revelation 1-3; and probably some other texts that I have forgotten.

I studied German in Jr. High and High School, but it was not taught with a good method; today I am not fluent in German. I studied French at two colleges, and eventually became fairly fluent in French. I made memory flash cards and I wrote out paradigms frequently. Before an exam, I would meet with a study group, and write out vocabulary and grammar on one page as we talked; during the exam, when necessary, I could remember where something was on the study page. In seminary, New Testament Greek was learned in the same way. Biblical Hebrew was not so easy, but I still recognize a lot of it. As a pastor for twenty-some years, I memorized certain passages of the Bible like Colossians 3:1-17, in The Message translation, and Romans 12:1-2, that could be used as charges to the congregation. I also memorized Bible passages each week for the sermon. I wanted to have a flow and a precision when I spoke. Am I writing about this in order to boast? No, well maybe I am; but mainly I’m writing about my experience for two reasons: 1) to show that this is how memorization is done, and 2), to show that the more you do it, the more you can do it.

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