On the Need for Pals & Parchments

What keeps you going? What gets you through the rough days, the times of uncertainty, the questions that do not have easy answers?

Well, the answer for that is probably a bit different for each of us. This morning, I was reminded of two ways that help me face the challenges — and I was reminded of it as I read some scripture that rarely gets more than a passing glance.

In my last two posts, I discussed a “canon within the canon.” I firmly believe in that concept, while at the same time not wanting to overlook any scripture. This morning, I got that message, again, as I read the end of 2 Timothy. This letter, from Paul to his “son” Timothy, reaches a soaring conclusion with Paul’s words in 4:6-8, which include these words: I have fought the fight; I have finished the course; I have kept the faith. Those are tombstone words; you know, words you’d want on your tombstone. They are the kind of words that sum up a life. (And just as there is a canon, and a canon-within-the-canon — so there is life as a whole, and then there is the life we live that can be summed up with just a few words.)

The past couple of mornings, I have pondered these words from Paul — soaking them in, praying them — that I would continue to fight the good fight; that I will finish the course; that, when all is said and done, I’ll be found to have kept the faith.

And then I moved on, to the final words of 2 Timothy — verses 9-22 of chapter 4. They are kind of like an epilogue; an afterword. On the surface, they seem like words we can quickly scan to finish up the letter. And, in a way, we can. For they are full of greetings and final requests. Nothing exciting; nothing about them that feels canon-within-the-canon-y.

But, believing that all scripture is God-breathed, then there is no doubt they have the power to speak, perhaps in surprising ways. And as I read these verses, I hear Paul’s pathos, his human side, his pain. In verse 16, Paul has to stand up and defend himself, and he looks around, and there’s no one there. He’s alone. Some friends, like Demas, have deserted him. Others, like Titus, have been sent on to other ministries. But Paul’s need for encouragement comes through loud and clear.

And so, in this “afterword” to his letter, Paul begins by urging Timothy to quickly come to be with him (verse 9); he then repeats this sense of urgency with his last request of Timothy, telling him in verse 21 to hurry and get to Paul before winter. With winter, sea travel became treacherous, and so if Timothy doesn’t get moving, Paul will face a winter without him. As he writes these final thoughts, Paul makes it clear: this letter isn’t just about the encouragement that Timothy needs from Paul — it’s also about the encouragement that Paul needs from Timothy.

And there’s one more thing Paul tells Timothy: When you come, bring the books — and especially the parchments. An easy-to-miss line, but one that I think also describes something Paul needs. He longs for the encouraging words of Timothy, but he also needs the encouragement of words. One, for Paul, is life in person; the other is life on parchment. But both are necessary to help Paul fight the good fight; finish the race; keep the faith.

Perhaps this speaks to me because, like Paul, I am learning how much I need the encouragement of others — in person, and on paper. In a season of transition (for Paul, end of life; for me, end of a ministry), there is a need friends to sit with me, both in the flesh and in print. In other words, I am yet again reminded: I need pals, and I need parchment. I can’t fight the good fight, or finish the race, or keep the faith, without them.

So, that’s the word (at least to me), in an afterword.

(And I didn’t even get to commenting on Paul’s request in verse 11 that Mark come — for he is useful in ministering to me. This is the same Mark who went home early from a mission trip; see Acts 15:38. That’s yet another story, found in one of the “side paths” of scripture. But don’t take my word for it. Journey through scripture yourself — walking through its main paths, and its alley ways, too. There’s important stuff everywhere.)

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Conversations vs. Controversies

In my previous post, I wrote about the Canon with the Canon. If you haven’t read that post, read it before you jump into this one.

Ok, so you’ve read it, right? Cuz I’m going to move forward with that assumption. So, let’s go.

Just a few minutes ago, I read an article that looked at how the Christian Church, the Stone-Campbell tradition I am a part of, handles questions of what matters most. And the author made the point that, in the Church, we often handle difficult issues with one of two extremes: 1) we avoid conversation, or 2) we treat what should be conversations as controversies. In other words, we take what is non-essential, and we make it essential. And we then refuse to talk about it, or we choose to fight about it.

All of this reflects our choice of a Canon within the Canon. And if my CwtC is different than your CwtC, then we are likely to find ourselves in serious disagreement — and maybe even disunity.

One blog post won’t solve what 2000 years hasn’t been able to overcome. In fact, if the Church is any indication, our tendency is to move, not toward unity, but away from it. Tragic, yes. Inevitable, no. But reality nonetheless.

But I can’t help but wonder: what if we truly read all of scripture through a common lens? What if we refused to let non-essentials divide us — even when they infringe upon tightly-held traditions?

In the past week, I’ve seen this in at least three ways.

First: I preached at a church this past Sunday that has two different services. The first included only hymns, accompanied only by a keyboard, and led by a male minister. The second included only choruses, where the loudest instrument was definitely the electric guitar, and where the service was led by a lay female member of the church. After the 2nd service, the minister of that church told me that there’s an older guy who has been attending the louder and more contemporary service. It’s not my style, the man says, but he does it to worship with someone who does attend that service. In other words, whether he realizes it or not, he is choosing Ephesians 4.1-6 as a part of his CwtC. (By the way: In this post, I’m going to reference a number of scriptures. I’m not going to take the time to link each one. I figure you can do that for passages you don’t know. Go to biblegateway.com or biblehub.com. Or, you could go old school and pull out your Bible.)

Second example: a couple of days ago, I had lunch with 3 ministers. I have known two of them for years, and they are from the same church tradition as I am. The third I barely know, and is a Baptist. These 3 guys meet together every Tuesday for lunch, and then to work on their Sunday messages. As we talked, one of the Christian Church guys joked that his Baptist friend has to filter all of their studying through his Calvinist filter. That’s ok, he went on to describe. I do the same thing in reverse when it comes from him. All of this was shared with humor and the collegiality that comes from guys who, regardless of their views on TULIP, recognize that their view on the Rose of Sharon matters more. So, while they may have differing interpretations of John 6.44, all 3 of them stand firmly on John 14.6.

Third example: last night I was working for a friend who has a floor-demolition business. We were working overnight at a Target, and after we finished the job, we headed to a Waffle House for a 1:30am snack. On the way, one of the guys in the truck asked: Where did Cain get his wife? In my answer, I tried to focus on the essentials: The point of the Adam & Eve story, along with the Cain & Abel, isn’t to help us identify Mrs. Cain. Instead, the essential elements of those stories are that Adam & Eve didn’t love and obey God, and Cain didn’t take care of his brother — and we have been having the same problem ever since. Simply put, the point of Adam & Eve and their children is to describe the human condition: our fractured relationship with God, and with each other.

Which makes Matthew 22.34-40 such an essential passage. When Jesus is asked what the most important commandment is, he answers by pointing us to a response that is the opposite of, and undoes, the sin of the first family. And this tells me that Matthew 22.34-40 is a CwtC. In fact, isn’t that what Jesus is doing? Isn’t he answering the question by giving his own CwtC?

Why can’t we stand firmly where Jesus stood? Why can’t we all agree that Matthew 22.34-40 is a CwtC. And for that matter, Romans 3.23-24. And 1 Corinthians 15.3-4. And Galatians 3.28. And Philippians 2.12-13. And Colossians 3.17. And Hebrews 4.14-16. And 1 John 4.7.

And these CwtCs are prefigured, just as Jesus said, in Leviticus 19.18. At the same time, He remembers what He made us from (Psalm 103.14). But even so, our calling is to rise above our “dustiness” — as Micah 6.8 so clearly calls us to do.

I have no doubt that, until Jesus returns, the Church will have controversies where conversations should instead be had. I also understand that deciding what is essential is not so simple, and may never be so. But perhaps a good start can be had if we choose to plant our flag on essential passages — ones that point us with simple clarity to God’s love for us, and our responding love for God, and for every single person in our lives.

What’s your CwtC?

No matter what people tell you, they don’t live their lives by every word of the Bible. This is a related thought to my last two posts, but it’s also based on this reality: we all have scripture verses that stand out to us more than others. To go even further: we all have verses of scripture that we use to then help us understand the rest of scripture.

Actually, this isn’t a problem. In fact, instead of worrying about this, we see that some of the earliest interpreters of our Bible used this method — an approach known as “a canon within the canon” (my abbreviated version: CwtC). In other words, one can accept all of scripture as inspired, but recognize that not all of scripture points us to the essence of the Gospel. There’s a reason, we quote John 3.16, and not Job 3.16. One talks about the coming of the Child; the other asks, Why was I born as a child? One summarizes the Good News; the other, you might say, describes our despair.

All scripture is inspired, but not all scripture is inspirational. Yet, as I described in last week’s posts, we must learn from all of scripture. But benefitting from all of it is not the same as equating all of it. Thus, the early Church fathers came up with the phrase: “a canon within the canon.” The core truth within the truth. The essential within the important.

And even if you’re reading this and you disagree with that concept; or, you agree, but aren’t sure what it means for you; I’m here to tell you — you have a canon within the canon. You have scriptures that guide your interpretation of the others.

Some examples:

  • Do not judge, or you too will be judged (Matthew 7.1, NIV). Words of Jesus. Part of the Sermon on the Mount. Vital words. But for those who make these words their CwtC, may find themselves unable, or unwilling, to speak difficult truth to others. And hear it themselves.
  • No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day (John 6.44). Again, words of Jesus we are wise to heed. But those who make these words their CwtC may find themselves then saying that God chooses those He would draw to himself. And we can do nothing of ourselves, In the process, they then might overlook Jesus’ words in the very next verse.
  • Or, how about the words of 1 Timothy 2.12? I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. Anybody want to claim that as your CwtC? Well, some certainly do, at least in the area of church leadership and teaching. And certainly, there’s a lot to say about this verse (including my belief that there’s a lot more that Paul is addressing here than meets the eye). But even if we take this verse at face value, it’s amazing how very few then do the same thing with the words three verses earlier.

My point? Choose your Canon within the Canon carefully. For all of us who take scripture seriously have verses that we take as foundational to our understanding of the rest of scripture. And, whether you realize it or not, you will build your beliefs on your CwtC. So, be aware of your CwtC. Make sure it focuses on the essentials. Then, with the essentials firmly in mind, read all of scripture, which is then able to teach, rebuke, correct, and train you in righteousness — thoroughly equipping you for every good work (2 Timothy 3.16-17).

Next time: My essentials, and my CwtC