Archive for March, 2015
Title: Daniel: A Commentary
Series: The Old Testament Library
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book. I was in no way compensated or asked to write a positive review of the commentary. I'm not even allowed to keep the book after I have finished reviewing it.]
My interest in reading and review this book is from not purely personal enjoyment of reading commentaries. Soon I will teaching the book of Daniel to undergraduates at a small Bible College near where I live. In a sense, it was somewhat providential that I came across this book at NetGalley and was offered the opportunity to read and review it.
But this is a different sort of review than I normally do here at the blog where I normally review made for the masses books printed quickly and on cheap paper. This is the kind of book that requires a slow reading and deep thinking–and there is no doubt that this was not an easy book to read. The author digs deeply into the text and draws conclusions about the text of Daniel based on this deep reading, based on historical evidence, and based on a plethora of critical commentaries that have been available throughout the years. Newsom also gives us a detailed account of recent archaeological evidence which she depends upon greatly for her interpretive framework. I wondered, often, about her interaction with this evidence because I have read other commentaries on Daniel, by notably 'conservative' scholars, who seem to interpret some of this evidence quite differently. And where those conservative scholars have made a habit of 'explaining away' evidence from extra-biblical texts that might appear contradictory to Daniel's text or thinking about different ways this evidence might be interpreted, Newsom takes them, and their contradictions, more or less at face-value. In other words, for Newsom there is very little Daniel has to offer in the way of historical accuracy. It is the extra-biblical writings which hold the key to interpreting the history of the time periods Daniel purports to be writing about not the Book of Daniel itself.
Thus the commentary does not engender any trust or confidence in the book of Daniel as an historical document even if the book might inspire some courage to readers who are looking for a stand your ground theodicy. Newsom interprets Daniel from a looking backward point of view and not from a looking forward point of view. That is, there is no predictive prophecy in Daniel only a state of the moment, retroactive courage builder for those undergoing persecution at the hands of people like Antiochus Epiphanes. Of course, there is a sense in which all of us are looking back now, but Newsom's allegiance to a late date for the writing of Daniel significantly affects her interpretation of the book as a whole (there are plenty of reputable scholars who adhere to an early date for Daniel and come away with similar ideas as Newsom; not all, but some.) This, to me, was the most disappointing aspect of the book. In my mind, I cannot see how fictional stories, with fictional characters, in fictional situations will ever do anything to inspire faithfulness and courage in real, living, and breathing people. I'm sure someone could challenge this idea, so I'm not staking my life on it.
On the other hand, this is the sort of book that challenges my belief that, to an extent (and although I hold to a traditionally 'conservative' point of view when it comes to Scripture), it doesn't really matter how a book came together or who wrote it but that what really matters is that we have a book and we interpret that book we have as a whole. There were times when Newsom blew my mind and I believed, for just the smallest of moments, that she and I were going to click and hit it off theologically. For example, when Newsom was writing about the first chapter of Daniel, I confess that I was nearly in whole-hearted agreement. Her point that the early narratives of Daniel (1-4) focus more on the 'Gentile king' (i.e., Nebudchadnezzar) is, I think, dead on the mark. She rightly sees this as an 'encounter between the power of the Most High and of the Gentile kings' that will eventually 'establish that it is the God of the Jews who is in control of history and who delegates and eventually takes back sovereignty over the earth' (p. 33). Putting this chapter (and most of the book) into a firmly theological position is a brilliant move on her part and, in my opinion, is the best way to interpret the chapter. When I read the book of Daniel, this is how I see the whole book and it seems to me that Newsom does a fine job, over and over again, of bringing this point to the surface. This is unlike much of what we hear preached from Daniel in the pulpit.
There are small features within each chapter that some will find disturbing if they approach the book from a wholly 'conservative' point of view (not that Newsom is writing from a wholly 'liberal' point of view; although, perhaps a case can be made for that too.) What I mean is this: there will be disagreements over interpretive matters, dating matters, and authorship. This commentary is written with a massive amount of source criticism at its disposal and the author never blinks at this. I have noted above that this is a challenge for me personally. There is, to be sure, some value to source criticism, but I am of the school of thought that believes we should interpret the book we have without being too terribly concerned about how it was cobbled together. I think some readers will have a difficult time with some of the conclusions Newsom arrives at given this interpretive framework and will dismiss the work quickly.
I like the format of the book. There is a lengthy introduction to the book of Daniel outlining important points one would typically find in a commentary–authorship, historical setting, genre, etc. Each chapter of Daniel then receives a treatment–brief introductory remarks, translation and textual notes, overview and outline, comments. Each chapter then concludes with a review of the 'History of Reception' by Brennan W. Breed. I found Breed's contribution to the book both unique and exciting. Often we readers, preachers, and teachers forget about the lengthy history of reception of the books of the Bible–especially the Old Testament books. We tend to forget that we are not interpreting in a vacuum, as isolated individuals who are encountering these books for the first time. Rather, as Breed's contributions make clear, we are a part of a long history of historians, preachers, and teachers who belong to a wider circle–a wider circle of saints and sinners, Jews and Gentiles, alike who have taken these books into themselves and used and abused them. Breed's contributions show the beauty and ugliness of how the Biblical books have been used throughout history and it is a welcome, refreshing contribution to the world of Biblical commentary.
The commentary also made use of plenty of graphics–pictures of historically significant archaeological evidence, charts, and paintings. These are helpful contributions and, in my opinion, do not unnecessarily disrupt the flow of the text. There is no want for depth of scholarship: there are six full pages of abbreviations of the various sources (journals, etc.) Newsom has consulted in one way or another in preparing to write the commentary. There is also a lengthy bibliography at the front of the book. Interestingly, the most recent commentary referenced is Beckwith's 2012 commentary from IVP Academic Press. Beyond that, many of the commentaries are from the 1900's and a few are from the 1800's. She also lists many, many significant monographs and articles related to the book of Daniel (if I counted correctly, 32 pages worth).
What is unfortunate, is that this is not a book designed for mass appeal. It is a sad reality that many preachers and teachers in our local churches simply have no use for the sort of commentary that Newsom has given us–and this is probably due to her overwhelming reliance on source criticism (as opposed to this being a book written by a prophet guided by the Holy Spirit) and Newsom's flat out denial of anything historically 'true' about the book of Daniel. This will cause many to ignore the work and what it has to offer. I prefer to mine books for anything that is useful; there is much useful in the book despite what some will label as flaws. The presence of such things leads more 'conservative' preachers to dismiss out of hand books like this. Or maybe it is due to a certain lackadaisical attitude that local preachers have towards doing the hard work of theology and preaching. (If you want to verify my point, go to any sermon clearinghouse on the internet and read what many preachers have written. Or get a book like The Daniel Plan to see how Scripture is misused on a frequent basis.) For example, it's much easier to look at Daniel 1 and think it is all about how Daniel and friends made a stand against the king by becoming vegetarians. It is much more difficult to follow Newsom's point that chapter one is merely the introduction to a long confrontation between the God of Israel and the gods of Babylon–what Newsom later calls 'the Eschatological Class of Sovereignties' (211). This really gets me worked up because, frankly, so many people spend so much time trying to figure out all the times and dates and identities in Daniel 7-12 that they miss the bigger picture of a great God prevailing while all the kings of earth continue rising and falling. It's a trees and forest kind of thing. I think Daniel is best viewed as a forest.
My objections noted, this is a carefully written commentary. It takes into consideration a wide range of evidence, sources, and interacts enough with the story arc of the Bible that we are wise to pay attention. And because Newsom is willing and able to cut out and through all the baby-talk about Daniel, I think she has given us a brilliantly written commentary that has dug deep enough to get to the main theological points of Daniel. We may disagree about dating and composition and her considerable disregard for Jesus in the book is troubling (given the nature and length of the book, Jesus is scarcely mentioned, let alone is he the lens of her hermeneutical framework), but at the end of the book, I found myself more in agreement with her at select points of interpretation than in disagreement. That Daniel is not just a book of courage stories, or Sunday School myths ('Dare to be a Daniel' kind of stuff) but is a deeply theological book discussing the nature of God's sovereignty and the destiny of the righteous is evident throughout.There is a lot to consider and I am hopeful more folks will interact with her work (I am sure someone else will interact with her interpretation of the archaeological evidence. I never cease to be amazed at how one person sees such evidence and comes away with distrust of the Biblical books and someone else sees the same evidence and comes away with more trust.)
The book needs an afterward because Breed's conclusion is utterly disappointing.
This is a book I think more preachers ought to read. If anything, it demonstrates there is no widespread consensus on how to interpret Daniel, but that there is room for different ideas within the circle of those who read, preach, interpret, and teach it. And that at the end of the day, God is sovereign and his plans will not be thwarted by the kings of this earth.
Probably the most significant change that took place within the last year is that I changed schools, changed classrooms, changed students, and moved. So the past seven months or so have been spent getting to know an entirely new population of students: teaching years 1-3 were spent in an MD classroom with a variety of students—students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down syndrome, Cognitive disability, and one with a rare disorder called Smith-Magenis Syndrome. There were a few others students with varying disabilities too and the age range was vast: 2nd grade through 7th grade.
Then, on a whim, I applied to the Educational Service Center in my home county. I noticed an open position on their website and sent off a resume the next day. I was called back about a month later—at the last moment when I had already given up hope of being called—and the director conducted a pre-interview question and answer type conversation (i.e., a phone interview) and asked if I was interested in a high school position. It wasn’t my first choice, but I was interested in moving back near my family so I agreed. Then I waited…and waited…and waited. No call.
Then one day, in July 2014, I received a call from the director and was asked if I was still interested in a position with the county. Funnily enough, I was in my classroom tutoring a student when the call came because I had just told my principal a day or two before that I had given up hope and would be back next school year. She was gracious when I eventually broke the news of my impending departure.
Anyhow, I said I was still interested and I was told that an elementary position had become available and would I be available for an interview—in like two days! The rest is history. I scheduled my second interview. Passed. Then went on to a third interview with the building principal. Passed. Had a background check. Passed. Reference check. Passed. I was hired and within the next thirty days packed a house, rented another, resigned my position, rented and loaded a U-Haul, moved, and began the long process that moved me from a mixed age MD unit in a rural community to a strictly elementary (K-2) ED unit in an urban area near my hometown.
Moving from a solidly district school classroom to a county run classroom is a strange thing that required all sorts of adjustments both mentally and professionally. Although I am housed in a regular elementary school building, accountable to the building principal, and can fully participate in all building-wide activities I am not—nor are my students—officially attached to the school or the district itself. I work for the county (not the local school district), my students come from all over the county (I have eight students from five different school districts), and I see my official principal very infrequently (yet she’s always only a phone call away, so this is no criticism, and the building principal is always available to us also).
One of the great challenges I have had to master is the art of communication. Since my students are drawn from five different school districts, I have to communicate with no less than five different special education directors. I also have to communicate with several administrative people at the county level—for attendance, for classroom needs, for payroll, and much more besides. I had to learn how to negotiate scheduling issues when writing IEPs in order that all parents, therapists, district representatives, and ESC representatives can be present—people coming from all over the county. I also have to contend with five different bus schedules—no small feat when it comes to the writing of daily report cards, packing of backpacks, and actually getting children out the door.
Another significant change is that I also have three adults in my room besides myself. Thus I am also managing the work and break schedules of three other adults. Add into this mix managing the therapy schedules for eight different children who at varying times attend occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy. Finally, throw into this dough the specials schedules also: art, physical education, library, and music and making certain that the paraprofessionals are where they are to be.
Wow, that’s a lot to contend with now that I think about it. But let’s not stop there. Let’s also consider that I am still finishing my residency (I am a year three working on my Resident Educator Summative Assessment) and anyone from Ohio knows what a pain that is, that I am still required to go through the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (which requires 2 formal and 2 informal observations, the writing of Student Learning Objectives, and more), and that this year I had to learn a new aspect of education in Ohio (because my students are not cognitively disabled, they are not eligible for the Alternate Assessment which means they must be prepared for regular state testing by third grade): RIMPs—Reading Improvement Monitoring Plans for the wonderful 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee.
Make it better: KRA—Kindergarten Readiness Assessment; First Grade Diagnostic Assessment; Second Grade Diagnostic Assessment. Parent-Teacher conferences.
Really, this year has been an amazing, whirlwind of adventure and learning because besides everything I have just mentioned, there is the daily pressure of patiently working with students who have an emotional and/or behavioral disability, writing lesson plans (for 8 different children in three different grade levels!), managing IEPs, communicating with parents (and home districts), breakfast, lunch, behavior intervention plans, math, language arts, science, social studies, data collection, progress reports, report cards…and we have three months left in the school year.
It never ends, and there’s never enough time.
I am not writing any of this because I am looking for sympathy or because I want anyone not to go into teaching. On the contrary, I think this is reality—not just for me, but for every single special education teacher who goes to work every single day and lives on the island I like to call ‘where is my professional support team here in the school?’ I was talking about this one day with the music teacher and the physical education teacher and we all agreed: if you teach specials or special education, you often teach on an island. Not many people understand what we do every single day in the special education classroom; specials teachers come close, but only to an extent. Being a special education teacher or an intervention specialist is a lot of work, and I think it might be easy for the young teacher to get overwhelmed in those early years if they do not have the proper supporting staff from administration all the way down to classroom paraprofessionals to mentor teacher during residency.
As I said, this is reality. We have to work very hard to participate with the general education teachers—they have their own unique problems to deal with so I’m not disparaging them—so that our students can be included as often as possible in school wide events and activities. I work with a great group of teachers who have graciously allowed me to integrate some of my students into their classrooms for short periods each week. This is reality: if you are preparing to be a special education teacher, these are the things you do each day—and let’s not even get started on supplies, funding (I recently learned of the joys of www.donorschoose.org; you can contribute to my current project by visiting www.donorschoose.org/jerry.hillyer), and simple things like printer ink, paper, glue sticks, and curriculum).
And there is the ongoing, constant need to create new learning tasks for your TEACCH bins or for IEP objectives, or for Dr. Seuss week. (Thank God for Teachers Pay Teachers and Teacher’s Notebook!!)
The reality is that in a sense special education teachers have to work hard(er) to make certain our students are getting everything they deserve each day. It’s not easy work, and we do it for reasons we often cannot define or place a finger upon. We do it because we look deep into our students and we see potential that might otherwise go unnoticed or be overlooked because of behaviors. We do what we do because we want our students to have hope and because we want our students to have the confidence they so obviously lack. We do so because our students are special and not typical. We do what we do because we often think to ourselves that we might have done better ourselves if these classes had existed when we were school children and struggled with large groups, not enough attention, and lack of confidence.
This is reality. I have quite a few teacher friends in other areas of life—church, acquaintances, and elsewhere—and sometimes they say things to me like, “I am thankful for you; for what you do. I could never do it. You must be special to work with those kids.” Sometimes it is kind of embarrassing when they say it because I think, “Nah, I was trained well. Anyone can do it if they are trained well.” Then other times I think, “You know what, maybe I am good at what I do. Maybe I do it because I can, because someone else cannot.”
It’s not a bragging thing, it’s a truth thing; a reality thing. You are in the place you are right now because you can do it, because someone else cannot do it. You have the gift(s) to help your students realize their potential every single day. Surround yourself with solid people, work hard every day, and most of all love your kiddos. Not everyone can do what you do; not everyone will.
[I wrote this a few years ago for a blog I have long since deleted. I don't recall what exactly was going on that particular day, but for some reason, at that point in my life, God's sovereignty and my free will were on my mind. Lately, I have been studying the book of Daniel with my Bible school class at church and when I 'accidentally' stumbled on this short post in an old file on my laptop, I thought maybe revisiting it would be a good idea. Here it is in its original form with only spelling corrected.–JLH]
Luke chapters 1 through 3 are instructive if one ever starts feeling like their life has run amuck or gotten out of control or that God has somehow loosed his grip on the events of this world. Looking around daily and seeing and hearing about wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes and suchlike, it is easy to think that God has, somehow or other, forgotten about us.
Or at least given us too much of our desired freedom.
So this morning I had to pray it all over again: God I’m sick of being free. It’s a daily struggle: the desire for freedom, the need for control. I grew up in a tradition that has emphasized freedom and free will. And, frankly, I don’t know that I have heard five sermons about God’s sovereignty, in my life, from preachers in my denomination. That’s a terrible way to grow up, that is, thinking that I have it all under control—that I have to make all the decisions, that I have to be so cunning and wise, that I have to figure out a way to get through this or that sticky situation.
It’s a terrible way to live thinking that, as I have done for the better part of 40 years, my life is dependent upon my freedom. The older I get, the less concerned I am with my own freedom and free will. The older I get, the more I want God to be as Sovereign as some believe. But I continue to kick against the goads of God’s sovereignty and probably because I want his sovereignty to be more than a theological proposition: I want it to be as real as I see it in Luke 1, 2, and 3. The older I get, the more suspicious I grow of my competence, of my uniquely human freedom.
I have other reasons, but one line in particular in Luke 1 caught my attention this morning: “For no word from God will ever fail” (Luke 1:37) In Greek it says it is ‘impossible’ for God’s word to fail. So when I think back on all that God has said, all that is written in the Bible that he said, and all the promises he has made—and the fact that the book of Hebrews says it is impossible for God to lie—I think to myself: I should be trusting God’s word far more than I should be trusting my own ingenuity and intellectual prowess.
I know we all say we trust God’s word, but experience has taught me that we don’t trust it nearly as much as we’d like to believe we do. We still find ways to scheme and plan and devise and concoct ways to survive and get ahead. We all say we trust God because we believe that’s what good Christian folks do. Practically speaking, however, I’m willing to bet that there are far more atheists sitting in pews on Sunday mornings that we are willing to admit. (I have firsthand experience of those atheists and I have, at various times in life, been included in their number.)
So it is impossible for God’s word to fail.
What’s amazing about Luke 1, 2, and 3 is that all these things took place while the kings of the earth slept. In chapter 1:5, ‘the time of Herod king of Judea…’; in chapter 2:1, ‘In those days Caesar Augustus…’; in chapter 3:1, ‘In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius, Annas and Caiaphas…’ All these things took place right under their noses. They ruled, often forcefully (see 3:19-20), violently, ignorantly and with little regard for anything but their taxes (see 2:1-3). And while they did, prophets spoke (see 2:25ff, 2:36ff, 3:4ff, 1:46ff, 1:67ff.), angels announced (1:11ff, 1:26ff), and the host of heaven sang (2;13-14).
While these rulers ruled God was moving quietly in the backwaters of the House of Bread and in the lives of small, unnoticeable people. While these rulers ruled God was bringing about the promises of his word (notice how many times in chapters 1-3 we are told about Abraham and David, for example). While these rulers slept at night, God was stirring in the hearts of women who couldn’t get pregnant and young girls who wouldn’t get pregnant. While these rulers ruled, God was undoing their rule, waking up the world, subverting the world’s economy, and announcing to all who would listen that it was time for the true king of this world to be born.
God was sovereignly moving, putting all the pieces into place, getting all the right people onto the earth—the fullness of time had come upon the world and the world didn’t even notice: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
It’s kind of amusing that all things were going along rather well until John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, cousin of Jesus, started making speeches about these rulers. When John started subverting their rule, their authority, their sovereignty—then things started getting out of control for them.
So we see God moving. We see God acting. We see God challenging the status quo of this world. The rulers of this world oppress and control. The rulers of this world believe they are the power. Luke 1, 2, and 3 teaches us otherwise. Those poor saps had no idea what even hit them. As I get older, I find myself submitting to God’s sovereignty more and more. I find myself relying on my own strength more and more. I find myself choosing to love him precisely because he is in control and less and less because I feel like I need to demonstrate my own self-sovereignty. You know what I mean, I hope. It’s that attitude that wakes up saying, “I am the master of my life. I am in control. I will worship God because I can.”
I’m done with that sort of life. I want to wake up each day to the God who kept the world from free falling into the sun and who kept Betelgeuse from exploding. I want to wake up to the God whose mercies are new every day. I want to wake up, even now, to the God who takes this world—yes this world, run into the ground by political agendas and want for power—and shakes it, bringing it into continual alignment with his purposes and his will. I’m reminded of a song by Rich Mullins:
From the place where morning gathers
You can look sometimes forever 'til you see
What time may never know
What time may never know
How the Lord takes by its corners this old world
And shakes us forward and shakes us free
To run wild with the hope
To run wild with the hope
I cannot run wild with hope that I feel like I have created or mustered up because I have schemed my way to safety. I can run wild with a hope that God has in his wisdom crafted out of the circumstances of hurt and disappointment. I can run wild with the hope that the God who shakes this old world has created and given us in Jesus even while the kings of this earth rule. I can run wild with the hope created by God who subverts this world by sending a baby to grow and live in this world and change it from the inside.
[Note: I wrote this for Easter Sunday, 2007. The week before, while preaching the sermon, I had suffered a massive attack of a kidney stone. It completely incapacitate me. I was in so much pain I was unable to finish the sermon and the rest of the week I merely laid around on the couch unable to do anything. I was going through some files tonight and came across it. It seems I am still learning this lesson.]
You see, I learned this past week that the world can in fact go on without me. I knew that intellectually—I’m not so completely full of myself to think otherwise—but practically, in the real world, I think there are times when I am certain that if I don’t go to my office to work, or show up at the cafeteria to monitor, or travel here or travel there, or go to this meeting, or carry my guitar, or a song, or a Bible, or go to a Scout meeting, or a Soccer meeting, or do all the jobs for little league that no one else will do, that the world will simply fall to pieces. But wonder of wonders, I can lay on the couch for four days and the world did not stop, explode, or disintegrate. Life goes on in spite of my best efforts. I felt helpless, quite, and I was perhaps a bit disjointed that the world did not stop because I had to. But it did not. Last week, I had to learn to be helpless. It’s not a fun way to be or an easy lesson to learn. I don’t like being helpless and I like even less being a burden: But isn’t ‘burden’ the best description of us there is? I had to learn this week to be helpless and accept being a burden.
And isn’t that just the point of the cross? Well of course, tell us about the Resurrection, you bloomin' idiot! Today is Resurrection Sunday, not Good Friday. Even, more, isn’t that quite the point of resurrection? Isn’t it there, in the twin and singular event of the greatest tragedy the world could perpetuate, that we most learn about helplessness? Isn’t it there we become children all over again? Isn’t it there that our legs are broken beneath us and we unlearn how to walk and forever crawl? But how can that ever mean anything if we do not, in fact, learn helplessness, learn that the world doesn’t need us, learn that it is in Christ and not us that the world holds together, learn that it is Christ who is the Author and Perfector of our Faith, learn that He is the Trailblazer, learn that He is the One who has promised to finish in us what He has started?
Helplessness! Pshaw! I’m not about being helpless. I’m about self-sufficiency. I’m the alpha male! I’m about working it all out without doctors, without pills, without my wife, without you, and sadly, too sometimes, without God. It’s a hopeless confession to make and, once again, I am ashamed that I have to admit it. But it’s true. It pains me to confess it but confess it I must. I’m about as anti-doctor as it gets and yet in this last week I have spent more of my money on doctors and pills for myself than I have in the last five, maybe 10 years of my life. Making up ground I suppose, catching up on lost time I suppose. I scoff at the notion that I need help, that I cannot get done what needs to be done, that I need anyone’s help at all. This past week disabused me of any such notion. No, on the contrary, I am helpless. And if I am that helpless when it comes to myself and work, then how helpless must I be when it comes to my salvation? If ‘God did not spare his own Son’ speaks of the foundation of my salvation, then how helpless must I truly be?
In this Kingdom of God it is necessary that we learn to be helpless. It’s a dirty word, to be sure. And I don’t like saying it. But when you are on the floor crying like a baby from a pain that you know you cannot control and you are calling out to God for mercy, when this happens, you begin to realize that there is more wrong than you alone, you at all, can handle. It is then that you raise your eyes to heaven, dew drenched as you are, like Nebuchadnezzar, and you ask for God to do for you what you know you cannot do yourself. Helplessness helps us to learn that holy fear that apart from God’s grace we are simply doomed. Helplessness is our pass to enter in and partake of the death of Christ. Become like little children he said. Become helpless.
Become dead because the only way to be resurrected is to first be dead.
I waited all day. All day it was cloudy, foggy, rainy and just plain miserable. I waited and waited–hoping against hope that the sun would come out and burn away the dreariness of the day. And at last, it happened. The sun came out, the mist faded away, and the day became clear.
It was a glorious thing and after the sun came out the day only seemed to get better.
Spent the evening at the church. Talked to an old friend who was one my youth sponsors when I was a younger man–he and his wife were a blessing to my family when I was learning how not to be an idiot and again when my wife was sick. Back at home, I was told by my wife that the son of some friends of ours had died. He was 45. I had the privilege of baptizing his parents when I was still a preacher. I am sad for them. Very sad.
In Bible study, we spent some time talking about God's Word, the 'importance of learning and keeping God's teaching.' It was an interesting study of Proverbs 3:1-7.
My son, do not forget my teaching,
but keep my commands in your heart,
2 for they will prolong your life many years
and bring you peace and prosperity.
3 Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Then you will win favor and a good name
in the sight of God and man.
5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
6 in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and shun evil.
There's a part of me that thinks Solomon, or whoever wrote this, was reflection on the words found in Deuteronomy–especially that first sentence where he admonishes his son to 'not forget his teaching.' I agree with the teacher tonight that Solomon, or whoever wrote this, was thinking about the Scripture, the Law. In Deuteronomy, it was the king's task to do this very thing: "When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of the law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees" (Deuteronomy 17:18-19).
In an interesting twist, Solomon forgot nearly everything the Lord said the king was not to do, but I suspect he may well have done this thing: I suspect he did make a copy of the Law. I suspect that much of what is written in Proverbs is a reflection on that Law that he read and copied. I could be wrong and I have no proof, but I have a suspicion. These seven verses in Proverbs 3 kind of reek of Deuteronomy 17 and other chapters.
I like the lesson we had tonight because it spoke to some of the things that I too believe about the church and the Scripture. I think as a church (generally, not specifically) we do not do enough corporate reading of Scripture and I'd like to see that change. Maybe. We were warned by the prophet that a time would come when there would be a famine in the land for the word of God (Amos 8:11-12).
What I was thinking about, though, was this passage in Proverbs. It could be that it's merely an English phenomenon that the word 'heart' appears in three strategic places in these seven verses, or maybe not. I don't have time right now to dig deeper, so let's assume that the word 'heart' really is there in Hebrew. If it is, then here's the progression of the verses:
3:1: "…keep my commands in your heart…"
3:3: "…let love and faithfulness never leave you, bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart."
3:5: "Trust in the Lord with all of your heart…"
There's a lot I could say here, but I want to just say this much: maybe the path to being able to trust in the Lord with all of our heart and leaning not on our own understanding begins by keeping the word of God close to our hearts, by keeping love and faithfulness close to the heart as well. Maybe we can trust God more when we know God better and that we know God better when we spend more time with him–in his word and by drawing near to him in love and faithfulness. Maybe the key is to replace our own understanding with an understanding that is far superior in every way.
Whatever else might be said, there is a connection here in these three verses between the Word of God, the Love of God, and Trusting God–and not just trusting, but being able to trust. I think the connection is easy to see. When we go through dark times in life, it seems to me that those who know God best are those who are able to walk through the valleys without fear or without losing hope. The people who have spent the most time walking with God through his Word are those who, it seems to me, practice love and faithfulness the most. And isn't it interesting that those who do these things are the very ones who never blink when the valley is dark and the mists of March cloud the day?
I'm not perfect by any stretch of the word. I have failed more than I care to remember–and many of my failures are indelibly etched into my brain. Sometimes these failures cause doubts and fears and even worse days than mere days. There is way through, at least I have found it so, and that is by being in the Word of God and walking with God constantly. There is a way to have those failures erased and that is by allowing the Word of God to cover over them, to rebuild our hearts cell by cell, to scratch out the sorrow and bitterness and once again be clothed with love and faith.
It's a rough thought I have written tonight. I might need to think about it some more, but there's a kernel here for all of us. There's a reason why God gave us the Bible. It's not a riddle book. It's not merely a story book. It's not rules and law and this or that. It is God speaking to us, telling us about himself and who he is, and what he is about, and his hopes and dreams for us. I don't understand it all and I don't try to. But for those who have ears to hear, Jesus said, let them hear. Sometimes the best we can do is just to listen to what God is saying and learn just a little about him that might help us through a dark time that is even less understood than the God we don't understand.
Read. Write. Trust.
Sounds like a perfect recipe to me.
Title: Luna's Red Hat
Author: Emmi Smid
Emmi Smid on Twitter
Publisher: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Special contribution from bereavement specialist: Dr. Riet Fiddelaers-Jaspers (Website is in Dutch)
[Disclaimer: I was provided with an ARC courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my review of this book. I was not compensated in any way nor was I asked to write a favorable review. Cover image is the property of the publisher.]
Around the same time as I received my permission to access this book (the morning of March 2, 2015) I was looking at a story on the internet about a school teacher in a California high school who had committed suicide. Last year the world was stunned when beloved actor Robin Williams was found dead of suicide. It seems scarcely a day goes by that we don't hear about the suicide of someone. But we typically only hear about the famous people or the 'fantastic' suicides–like a school teacher who is found in her classroom by her students.
What we often fail to take into consideration is that suicide more often affects 'everyday' families and the little people who make up those families. Except within our own communities, we hardly ever hear about suicides that affect families and children in small towns all around our nation every day. A US News story from October 2014 reported that the suicide rates in the US are at a 25 year high at nearly 13 suicides per 100,000 persons. These are frightening statistics and should give us pause as we consider what factors have led to such confounding numbers of people taking their own lives.
As a teacher, I am thankful that I have yet to find it necessary to have this conversation with any of my students or their parents. When I was a church pastor, I did have to have this conversation with one of my congregants after her son committed suicide. I also conducted the funeral which was among the most difficult I ever conducted.
As a parent, a teacher, and a former church pastor, I have often wondered what resources are available to help adults help children work through the difficulties of suicide. I have seen small pamphlets in funeral homes, but nothing of the caliber of this 36-page picture book. I'll say it right up front: I loved this book. Absolutely loved it.
Luna's Red Hat is a wonderful book and frankly, if I may say so, it's not just a children's book. I found the book warm and comforting. It wasn't preachy or overbearing, but gentle and touching. In fact, the book invited me in with its soft brushstrokes in the art and the honest dialogue between Luna and her dad. It's not thick and syrupy, but light and honest. It does not in any way come off as cheesy or fake, but rather genuine and meaningful.
I have reviewed quite a few children's books, I have read even more, and one thing that always bothers me about many (if not most) of the children's books I read is that the dad is often portrayed as a dupe or as absent or as just plain lousy. I will say this about Luna's Red Hat the author did a fantastic presentation of the father character in this book. The father doesn't have all the answers, but he is not stupid. He is not absent, but he is not overbearing. He is mature, yet can also be silly. He is wise, but he doesn't talk too much. He gives his daughter space to vent her emotions and to give words to her feelings. He comforts her in her grief and yet he also helps her keep her life's momentum.
I very much like that the father in this book is portrayed positively. This alone would make me recommend this book.
Finally, I am sucker for a children's story with good artwork. The story can be pretty terrible and yet have good artwork and I will be a fan–maybe because the students I work with in special education tend to spend a lot more time looking at pictures than they do at words. In this book, however, I got both. The artwork is excellent. The colors are soft and inviting when they need to convey a certain emotion, and strong and dark when they need to convey another emotion. At times the author wrapped the text into the picture so as to convey an extra sense of the turmoil Luna is experiencing. I think this is an excellent idea and it works well for this book.
Other attention to detail is important too: flowers that droop to match the mood of the characters, a small tear rolling down a cheek, the sadness in the mother's face. All of this works together to give a strong emotion to the book–an emotion that I believe captures well what a person in Luna's situation might well experience.
The story is deep, but the text is not complicated. The artwork is simply excellent. The topic is a difficult one, yes, but the author handles the subject matter with a deft hand and a sensitive heart. I believe this is a book that needs to have a wide audience and should be on hand for such an occasion as one might have to endure as a teacher or a parent or a pastor. Sometimes we simply do not have the words to give voice to our feelings. This is a book I believe that lends its voice to help grief stricken parents and children alike navigate through the troubled waters of the suicide of someone close.
There is also a two page guide at the end of the book from a professional grief counselor (links are provided above). There are some helpful words for parents and other professionals. In my opinion, while it is helpful, it's probably not necessary. It neither adds to nor detracts from the book's content. The story stands well enough on its own.
This is a book I will be purchasing for my classroom. It probably won't just 'sit on the shelf', but it will be handy if I ever, God-forbid, need it.
Very highly recommended. It is simply a beautiful book.
Along with other reading I am doing in the Bible, for example, just today I finished reading the book we call Isaiah, I am reading the Psalms and the Proverbs. I'm not sure I remember exactly where I picked up on the idea, but when I read the Psalms and the Proverbs I do so like this: five Psalms per day, 1 chapter of Proverbs per day. This enables me to read both books entirely in 30 days. This is a good practice for anyone, at any time, but it's an especially helpful practice during Lent given that we have 40 days to work with. So even if one gets behind a day or two, the books can still be completed in a relatively good amount of time.
Personally, I think the book of Psalms is likely the book that persuades me of the veracity of the Christian claim. Perhaps that sounds strange given that New Testament books speak directly to and announce rather loudly those claims; perhaps even speak primarily those claims. It's true. I don't deny that. At another level, however, there is the working mind and all of us, regardless of who we are, have a mind that functions in different ways. For example, as a man my mind is, according to some theories, supposed to connect with and be moved by a sort of raw masculinity, a blood and guts kind of appreciation for dirt and adventure. To an extent, I suppose I am. I love watching Rambo and Terminator movies for example. But if I told you I watched them for reasons other than the violence and blood you'd probably call me a liar.
But I do.
I watch Rambo, at least First Blood, because it is a redemption story and it moves me. Emotionally. I watch Terminator movies because they evoke in me a sense of hopelessness that only finds solace in someone outside the film. I do not watch any film for the sake of mere bloodsport or violence–which is why traditional horror films do nothing for me at all: there is simply no emotion. Jason Vorhees killed to kill and we never saw any emotion. Same with Michael Myers. At least Freddy Krueger had the scars to prove his emotion. Funny how the killers in these horror films always have to have their faces rearranged, isn't it?
I watch movies for the story they tell and because in movies I am permitted to experience the full sway of my emotions without repercussion from anyone. Truth? I still cry at the end of Return of the Jedi when Luke throws away his light saber and chooses certain death over unlimited power and during the last scene of Return of the King when the king bows before the hobbits of the Shire and at the end of The Shawshank Redemption when Andy and Red share a hug on a beach. Hope. And don't get me started on The Sound of Music. That film wipes me out with each note they sing.
There are many other movies that do the same thing to me. It's not sentimentalism and since I don't watch cheap romance films, I am scarcely moved by simple boy-gets-girl or girl-gets-boy stories. I am moved by love–raw, uncontrollable, undeniable, sometimes angry and proven love in movies. I get that from heroes who die for those they love. I get that from characters who make hard choices in the face of evil or have to take matters of justice into their own hands and wrestle with that decision frequently. I get that from justice being done and the world being set to rights. I get that when dragons are slain and color returns the gray void. It's like seeing Dorothy open her door for the first time in Oz and seeing color–which is a scene, perhaps more than any other in The Wizard of Oz, that moves me.
I connect with those people and the story they tell. I connect with the emotions they share–and some actors are far better at it than others which is why I gravitate towards their films rather frequently. I have even seen Tom Cruise emote in a way that moves me.
So, the Psalms. The Psalms are like little films to me. Each one tells a story and yet each one is part of a fabric woven together to form part of a greater quilt. And the Psalms are nothing if not raw expressions of emotion and love. As a man, I'm not supposed to be in tune with my emotions, but I promise you there are times when the Psalms have made me weep. Each Psalm is a script in a movie and there are heroes and goats; there are gods and men; there are women and men; there are props and animals; there is a soundtrack; there is a back story. Not all of them feature each element yet some have all of these elements.
I love the Psalms because the Psalms are raw emotion. There is virtually no emotion the Psalms avoid. There is no scenario the Psalms haven't explored. There is drama in the Psalms–in every one of them. And for some reason, I like it.
I like that these men who wrote the Psalms were not afraid to let that emotion pour out in a very public way to God. Whoever put the book of Psalms together was a pure genius because they understood that YHWH invented emotions. And the writers of the Psalms–whether they knew they were writing Scripture or not is beside the point–understood that God was not afraid of their anger, their fear, their sadness, their joy, their anxiety, their boredom, their bloodthirsty-ness, their hunger, their tears, their uncertainty, their loneliness, their exhaustion, their guilt, their sin, their shame, their love, their hate, their hurt, their shame, their exaltation, their indifference, and much more besides. And for this reason, I connect deeply with the Psalms. Jesus did too given that he quoted from them even as he hung on the cross. In these drama filled, emotion laden scripts Jesus found a voice for his own emotion: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22)
The Psalms are a roller coaster of emotional outpouring. We can relate to the Psalms because these are all the things we feel and experience everyday of our lives and the Psalms tell us that we can pour out all these things on God, that he hears, that he (eventually) answers, and that at the very heart of things: God cares about his covenant people; deeply. Deeply enough that there is scarcely a word we can utter that offends him. The message of the Psalms: Pour it out and if you don't have your own words, pilfer from these 150 poems.
And for this same reason, in my mind, the Psalms more than anything else persuade me of the truth claims of Scripture: because of their raw honesty and their childlike expression of this honesty. The Psalms are not out to 'prove' anything even if the Psalms happen to demonstrate many things. The Psalms' only objective, and of course I recognize that the Psalms are doing more than this, is to lay out this deep yearning and longing that finds no resolution here on earth or among people. They take us to the very heights of the world to the very depths of hell, they leave us with unanswered prayers, they leave us weeping on couches and suffering bouts of insomnia.
What I like about the Psalms is that for all their perfection and beauty they teach us that the world we live in is not perfect, is not always beautiful, that life is not always predictable, and that YHWH is not a cosmic vending machine who is at our beck and call. Sometimes he waits….off in the distance…maybe just to see if we have the nerve to cry out to him and trust him while we wait. He cares; yes, deeply. Yet ultimately even the Psalms tell us a story with a greater plot–a story in which we are characters who play a vital role. In his short book A Case for the Psalms, NT Wright wrote:
In the same way, the story the Psalms tell is the story Jesus came to complete. It is the story of the creator God taking his power and reigning, ruling on earth as in heaven, delighting the whole creation by sorting out its messes and muddles, its injuries and injustices, once and for all. It is also the story of malevolent enemies prowling around, of people whispering lies and setting traps, and of sleepless nights and bottles full of tears. (31)
I like the Psalms because they allow me to drink deeply of the emotions of others and to pour out my emotions. They are a place where my masculinity is not called into question when my emotions are on full sleeve display. I know of a congregation or two where the preacher was not allowed to be so emotional. I distinctly recall him being told to 'fake it' because it's not 'professional' to be emotive. It's not professional to weep openly or to express deep grief and sorrow and hurt. I think congregations like this bore God. Most preachers are accused of being liars; this one was accused of being honest. I think these are also congregations where preachers are constantly on edge because the congregation constantly wants him to subdue his emotions–imagine telling Jeremiah, the weeping prophet to stifle his emotions.
I also think these congregations are the ones who pour salt into the wounds of the preachers or twist the knife in his back a little harder and deeper. These are the congregations who have no clue how to come alongside one who is suffering and just sit and mourn or laugh or sing. These are congregations who are very unfamiliar with the man who 'took up our sorrows', the man acquainted with suffering and grief, the man who cried out to God in desperation, and wept openly at a funeral.
I suspect that congregations like this should spend more time reading the Psalms. Or the Bible in general. They should become acquainted with the people who poured out such emotion before God. They should become acquainted with Jesus who affirmed them.