The Surprising Word that Won the Spelling Bee

The National Spelling Bee, which began in Louisville in 1925, held its 91st competition last month. The Bee begins with 11 million kids, age 15 and under — all vying to get a spot in the national championship in the Washington DC area. (Apparently, there’s no minimum age; last year, a 5-year-old made it through the preliminary rounds. This year, an 8-year-old was among the 519 who made it to the finals — though I gotta ask: What’s he been doin’ the past 3 years?)

But what’s most fascinating to me is the word that won it all. With the championship on the line, what did Karthik Nemmani have to spell in order to wear the crown? Koinonia.

Koinonia is a term that is best-known for appearing in, of all places, the Bible. And specifically, it’s most quoted reference is Acts 2.42 — a description of what the first believers of Jesus committed themselves to practice. Included in the mix is “the koinonia” — a word that usually is translated “fellowship.”

Now, when we use the word ‘fellowship’ in church, it’s usually as an adjective. As in: Let’s gather in the Fellowship Hall for a fellowship meal sponsored by the Fellowship Class. All good things, for sure; but even better because they point to the deeper meaning of the word koinonia.

Koinonia is sharing; a coming together. It’s a bond; it’s having something in common. It’s unity, oneness, participation. It’s where our lives come together in such a way that something happens that’s indispensable; essential; life-changing. 

In fact, a form of the word koinonia appears in Acts 2.44 and 4.32,  both of which describe how the early Christians shared their possessions in common. So, I think it’s appropriate to say that koinonia is where we come together to meet each other’s needs as the family — because we have already come together to be family, in Christ.

Koinonia, then, is not just the pinnacle of the Spelling Bee; it’s the pinnacle of the Christian life. Koinonia is what we share with Jesus (1 Corinthians 1.9), and, as a result, what we then share with each other (described in Philippians 2.1-4, and then powerfully illustrated by the description of Jesus in verses 5-11).

Koinonia is giving ourselves so completely to Christ and to each other that whatever comes — whether it’s suffering in this life, glory in the next, or anything in between — we share it with Jesus, and with each other.

But koinonia doesn’t stop there. We see this at the end of Acts 2, in verse 47, where the first believers were praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Or, at least that’s how the NIV reads. But in this place, I think the King James does a better job, when it says: “they had favor with all the people.”

The idea here, I think, is that the earliest believers lived in such a way that the grace they experienced — the koinonia that they shared — went out from them toward all the people. Church wasn’t just about them, but about taking this wonderful fellowship and unity and purpose out there — to the temple, in the homes, and out where people were.

In his book, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter tells of a woman who worked in a grocery store checkout lane. Her “sphere of influence” was only a few feet, but everyday she greeted customers with warmth, remembering their names and asking about their families. She would end their brief interactions by saying that she was going to pray for their families.

Over time, this began to cause problems … because people wanted to get in her lane, resulting in long lines. They would wait, though, because she encouraged them. When she died, years after she had retired, the church was packed — as people came to share how this woman had blessed them in her checkout lane.

That’s what koinonia looks like — when we take it out there, where we live. And there are a bunch of ways to do that. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Look Up: Notice people around you. Start by considering who else is seeking to follow Jesus where you live, where you work, where you go to school, where you work out or play cards or golf, and connect with them. (Perhaps, if you don’t find it too hokey, you can call these folks your “Koinonia Krew.”)
  • Look Around: Notice those around you who could use some encouragement, some love, a glimpse of grace. Be available to them. Enlist your Koinonia Krew to join you in praying for, and blessing, these folks.
  • Put Down Your Phone: How many times have you seen people in public not engaging with those right in front of them because they are staring at a screen? How many times have you been that person?
  • Pick Up Your Phone. But wait, Jeff, didn’t you just say….? Yes, but in this case, maybe you need to pick up your phone and reach out to someone who needs to receive a word of encouragement, or forgiveness, or just a simple text that you are thinking about them.
  • Go Outside: Go out in your neighborhood, or in a community space — and see who you run into. Last night my son and I were outside throwing a baseball, when I noticed 6 skunk crossing our street. I don’t remember the last time I saw a skunk (alive, anyway), and here there were at least 6 skittering across the road. (I saw “at least 6” because I sure wasn’t going to get close enough to do a head count.) Anyway, that led to a conversation with the neighbor across the street — someone I barely knew. Who knew skunks on a street could be the source of a refreshing scent — in this case, a whiff of koinonia?
  • Take a Moment: At least once a day, ask someone: How are you doing? Then stop, and really listen.

The point: you can go take the koinonia we share out there, every day, everywhere you go. You don’t need a formal church program, a big budget, a ministry staff, or be a part of a ministry staff to go and love people. You simply need to be grounded in the reality that you are connected to Jesus and to his people — and then go live it out.

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.

Why the OT, part 2

In my last post, I discussed how important it is for the Church to read and learn from the Old Testament. This time, I want to say more about how we actually go about doing that.

First thing to keep in mind as you read the OT: it is first. As I described in the previous post, the OT is the first part of a multi-act drama. As with a two-act play, just as we can’t understand act 2 without act 1 — so it is with the Bible. At the same time, we no longer live in act 1.

If there is one key point to keep in mind as you read the OT — whether you are considering OT law or OT history; whether it’s wisdom literature or prophetic pronouncement — it is absolutely essential to remember that you are reading about a time you don’t inhabit.

The good news about this reality is that the work of God has now moved beyond a small patch of land in the Mediterranean world. It means that how they lived, and what they did, must be seen through the lens of what God has done in the New Testament, what God is doing now throughout the world, and what God intends to do for all eternity for all creation. In other words, Act 1 of God’s work must always be seen through the prism of Acts 2, 3, and 4. And living in Act 3 — as we are — we continue to learn from Act 1, while recognizing that much of it is no longer determinative of how we live.

Which leads me to the next thing to keep in mind: when reading the OT, keep in mind that there is a difference between principle and practice. Or, to say it another way: the OT is full of important truths that are still true today, but they are truths that we live out differently today.

This idea is especially seen in a chapter like Leviticus 19, which is full of commands and prescriptions. Some are clear, and clearly apply still today: Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not pervert justice (verses 11 & 15; all references are from NIV).

Others are less so: When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field… (verse 9). Or: Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight (verse 13). Do not … put tattoo marks on yourselves (verse 28).

I don’t have a field. No one is lying on my porch overnight, waiting for me to pay them. And I’m too much of a wimp, and too cheap, to get a tattoo (to say nothing of what that tattoo will one day look like when my skin is saggy, and seventy years old). But if I take seriously the view that all scripture is useful for instruction (and I do), how do passages like these instruct us?

This is where the “principle vs. practice” idea comes in. Simply put, there is a principle behind each of these commands that is bigger than the practice. To put it another way: the heart of God can be seen in the command, even if the call to action is not the same.

In regard to the field: clearly God is concerned about the poor and the needy. And I should be too, whether it’s with the extra from my field, or my pantry, or my bank account. As for the hired hand: clearly God cares that those who are dependent on their day-to-day wages are treated honestly and paid justly. And anywhere I can help with that — whether it’s in how I tip the single mom who waits on me at Cracker Barrel, or the babysitter who watches my kids, or refugees or immigrants I encounter — I am called to do what is right, following the principles outlined in Leviticus 19.

But what about tattoos? Leviticus 19.28 seems pretty clear: no tattoos. But, once again, it’s helpful to ask: What’s the principle at work here? We see that when we take a wider view — where verse 26 talks about sorcery and divination, verse 27 addresses interesting haircuts, and the first part of verse 28 deals with the cutting of the body on behalf of the dead. When we look at the broader context, it seems clear that in these verses God is forbidding actions that align with some of the pagan practices of the people around them. So, in that day, tattoos must have been a mark of pagan involvement and commitment — perhaps something similar to how circumcision marked a boy as Jewish.

And so, the principle seems clear: don’t mark your body in a way that aligns you with pagan religious practices. These practices also affected haircuts and body markings. The principle behind these practices continues to hold true today, and it should cause all of us to consider what our body, and what we put on our body, demonstrate about our beliefs and our commitments. And so, today, many folks mark their skin to indicate what matters to them. Some even get tattoos to show others their allegiance to Jesus (or, perhaps, Mom, or their wife, or, somewhat embarrassingly, their ex-girlfriend).

And so, if I’m serious about following the principle of Leviticus 19.28, it might mean that in practice I do have a tattoo, but I refuse to engrave myself with a symbol that can be construed to be opposed to the work of God in my life. For that matter, I will also refrain from wearing a certain piece of clothing or an article of jewelry that would indicate my commitment to any principle other than the redeeming work of Jesus.

But how do we know? How do we determine what is good, and what is harmful? How do we determine what practices demonstrate the principle of God’s leadership in our lives? A great guide is actually found in the words in verse 2, which frame the commands in Leviticus 19: Be holy, because I the Lord your God, am holy.

This is the key to understanding Leviticus 19, all of the OT — and, for that matter, the NT and the whole of the Christian life. Be holy. That is: Be set apart. Live like God. Let your life and your actions and every part of you show others that you belong to Jesus. Let his Spirit be your guide — leading you, shaping you, loving others through you.

Or: Love God, love others. For, as Jesus himself taught us, this is the whole point of the law. This is the principle that every practice should be built on.