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Let the Church be a Thermostat, not a Thermometer

October 22, 2016



Tomorrow our church’s adult Sunday school class will discuss white privilege and Martin Luther King’s compelling “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I think I’ve marked up at least 50% of the words in his moving piece of writing. Here’s one section that stood out:

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

King continues:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?

Reading and preaching through the Old Testament lectionary (prophets!) has been reminding me of the dual proclamation of the prophets: both God’s hope (which I prefer to think about and preach on) and God’s judgment on those who practice injustice and sin (not as easy to talk about; no less true). Rev. Dr. King was a prophet in the tradition of Joel, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the rest. Of course the church today is not immune from God’s judgment for too easily capitulating to a non-Christlike status quo.

Also intriguing is the idea, as Joel has it in tomorrow’s reading, that all believers have not only the Holy Spirit, but also the charge of prophesying and proclaiming the truth of the God who judges with justice, in whom we can put our hope. All of God’s people are called to the prophetic office!

The Joy of Analogue: Outlining the Book of Joel for Preaching

October 19, 2016

One essential step in my sermon preparation process is reading the book of which the preaching passage is a part. I find it a discipline to hold off on reading commentaries and sit with the text itself. This is easier with a short book like Joel, from which this Sunday’s Old Testament lectionary reading comes.

I find myself more focused to read through and outline the book in analogue fashion. Here’s what it looked like for me yesterday morning:




(Having fine writing implements like a fountain pen and nice paper helps!) I have since transferred my book outline to MindNode, from which I’ll continue my sermon planning. Starting device-free is important (and really enjoyable) for me.

Here’s my two-page provisional outline of the book of Joel, complete with a misspelling of “devastation”:





American Football LP2: Fallen Leaves Return to Their Roots

October 18, 2016

AF_2016_LP_Jacket_PRINT.inddSeventeen years is a long time to wait for new music from a band you love. Fortunately, none of us (not even the band) knew we were waiting that long. In 2014 American Football reunited, after putting out 12 of the most enduring tracks of my college years.

In some ways the success or failure of this album was much like this year’s Vice Presidential debate: the players really just had to show up and not seriously mess things up.

American Football Track List in iTunes.png

The album begins with the fading in of one, then two, then three interlocking guitar parts. Mike Kinsella’s, “Where are we now?” invites the listeners to consider their place in life since the last American Football record. “Both home alone… in the same house” shows the movement of the yearning-for-love teenage emo kid to a now married but still yearning adult. The house on this album cover is the same as that on their first full-length record. This time, though, as the cover suggests, listeners get a closer look at what’s going on inside: “Would you even know, babe, if I wasn’t home… if I wasn’t afraid to say what I mean?”

As the full band enters into this powerful opening waltz, the lyrics go on, “We’ve been here before.” Or as a Chinese proverb I recently discovered puts it, “Fallen leaves return to their roots.” These guys are back to their roots of making smart, intricate, and gorgeous music. But the vocals are stronger (and mixed louder), there is a bass now, the guitar tones are more varied, the drumming is just about perfect, and the production is what you’d expect if these guys had made major label status.

There’s a sense in which LP2 sounds exactly as I hoped it would—but couldn’t have possibly imagined. The second track’s familiar arpeggios, string bends, polyrhythms, and harmonics could have just as easily appeared on the first record. But I don’t think even a die-hard American Football fan could have seen the pummeling drum and bass intro of “Give Me the Gun” coming. That rhythm section, that never existed in the band’s first bass-less incarnation, makes this album more than just an old band making a new record.



Photo credit: Shervin Lainez


To pre-empt those who will bemoan how much this record “sounds like Owen” (especially with the acoustic guitar intro of “Home is Where the Haunt Is”), I offer three thoughts.

  1. Mike Kinsella is one, undivided person, so for his work on other projects (Owen) not to influence this band (American Football) would be impossible.
  2. Steve Holmes’s guitar work (not to mention Lamos and cousin Kinsella on rhythm) fill out the songs in a way that set it apart from just about anything Owen–even with full band–has created.
  3. Band members shared the songwriting process, trading off who offered the first seed of any given song.

There is, however, one unfortunate carry-over from Owen to American Football: a few raunchy lyrics that don’t find a place amid the transcendent beauty of the music this band creates. It’s not singing about sex I’m opposed to, but I cringe at lyrics like: “Dead eyes, and a mouth that can’t be clean / I can only imagine where that dirty mouth is / It’s not on me.” And, “I’m down for whatever / the uglier the better.”

So maybe Kinsella is speaking to himself when he sings later, “Why such vulgarity?” Or is it his interlocutor? I’ve had the same question since the second record Owen released. It’s a real mismatch with the gorgeousness of the music throughout the record, and something that was never in play with American Football. Kinsella does better with lines like, “Oh, how I wish that I were me / the man that you first met and married.”

The final track, “Everyone is Dressed Up,” is as much an instant classic as the album’s first song. The 6/8 time signature and return of Steve Lamos’s trumpet are a fitting end to this album, as are the poignant lyrics, “Our love will surely be forgotten by history and scholars alike.” The song is marred only by the final line of, “Everybody knows that the best way to describe the ocean to a blind man / is to push him in,” which, besides being unnecessarily demeaning (what is this, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed?), sounds like it might have been the final pre-deadline lyric of the album. The final track and album needed a more convincing ending, worthy of all the goodness that preceded it.

The nine tracks (the same number as the first LP) clock in at 37 minutes. After about five listens I found myself already wanting LP3! I hope the band stays together. They’re as in sync as ever, and the addition of Nate Kinsella’s bass rarely feels out of place, with the drumming of Steve Lamos being better than ever. Mike Kinsella and Steve Holmes might be my favorite pairing of guitarists, too—they haven’t missed a beat.

Get started on this album as soon as you can: the trifecta of the first three tracks are pure bliss. Despite a few shortcomings, LP2 was worth the wait.

American Football’s LP2 releases this Friday, October 21.


Purchase info: iTunes / Amazon / Polyvinyl



Thanks to the powers-that-be for the advance release download of this fine album, so I could write a review.

Accordance 12 is Coming….

October 13, 2016
Image from

Image from (not an Accordance 12 image)


From David Lang at the Accordance blog:

Pssssttt! I’m going to let you in on a little secret. We’ve been hard at work on Accordance 12, a major upgrade to the Accordance application with a host of new features you’ll soon be wondering how you ever got along without. We’re not ready to tell you about the big stuff just yet, but here’s a sneak peek at one of the many minor enhancements you can look forward to in version 12.

Read more here.

The Freedom Simply to Begin (First Draft Co.)

October 12, 2016

When creating something—whether writing, sketching, jotting lyrics, or laying out a plan for a new project—getting started is often half the battle. To feel the freedom simply to begin—to make a first draft—makes the work possible.

Any writing teacher or art instructor will tell you that good creative work begins not with a finished product, but with a draft. That may seem obvious, but lots of folks involved in creative pursuits forget that the first goal of putting something down to paper should be, well, to put something down to paper. It need not be a finished product; in fact, in all but the rarest bursts of inspiration, it’s the working over the initial insight or burst of effort that leads to a refined or compelling outcome. As Ernest Hemingway put it, in a dictum variously attributed to others, “Easy writing makes hard reading.” It’s the constant, if not obsessive commitment to drafting and revising and redrafting that leads to strong work.

That’s one reason I like the name of the company that produces this journal, which suggests that what happens in the pages of its product will be a starting place, a beginning. “We started First Draft Co. with a passion to build tools and experiences that inspire creativity,” the web site announces.




The blank book provided for this review looks impressive from first glance. But it also has a solid feel. The hardcover boards, covered with library buckram, give heft, and make the book feel like more than a sketchpad or casual notebook. The satiny place ribbon also conveys something classy and useful, making it easy to resume work once the journal has been put away.




The pages are blank—no lines or dots—leaving the creator ultimate freedom. The elastic cloth band holds the pages and cover together. Slipping it off takes a couple of seconds but that need to perform a ritual act allows for a moment or two or reflection, allowing a pause for gathering one’s thoughts, perhaps one’s scattered presence for the promising task at hand.




Some specs:

  • 104 gsm bright white paper (fountain pen-friendly, smooth, makes for a top-notch writing experience)
  • Smyth Sewn binding (yes! lays flat easily)
  • sustainably sourced paper
  • 224 pages (you won’t need a new one any time soon)
  •  5.5” by 8.25”
  • Made in the U.S.A.

You can find the First Draft Co. notebook (together with the Blackwing pencils and gorgeous desk gear they offer) here.


–Reviewed by author and guest blogger Timothy Jones



Thanks to the kind folks at First Draft Co. for the notebook for review, provided without any expectation as to the content of this write-up.

Jonah: Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Text

September 28, 2016


A couple of Advents ago I preached on Jonah. There is no lack of good resources on the book, even ones that treat the Hebrew text itself. But the Baylor handbook offers a somewhat unique perspective, analyzing the words and phrases of the Hebrew text, as well as reading it through a discourse analysis lens:

This approach begins by observing that within Biblical Hebrew texts a number of types or “discourses” can be identified. Each type has a particular function that is readily evident. Narrative discourse relates the events of a story (Gen 8). Predictive discourse speaks of an event in advance of its occurrence (I Sam 10:2s7). Hortatory discourse is meant to exhort someone to act in a particular manner (Job 2:9). Procedural discourse tells someone either how to do something or how something was done (Gen 27:1-4). And expository/descriptive discourse is meant to explain something or make a statement (2 Sam 12:7). (3)

The Jonah handbook is short and compact. The formatting is easy to follow. First there is an English translation, passage-by-passage. Then the Hebrew text is reprinted verse-by-verse (making this an all-in-one-place reading aid). After that is “an analysis of that clause as a whole, with comments related to the function of the clause, its discourse type, and related syntactic matters” (9). Finally, there are word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase comments.

Overall, I appreciated the handbook: I read it cover to cover. The grammatical comments are helpful at multiple turns. For example, here is the text of Jonah 3:8

וְיִתְכַּסּ֣וּ שַׂקִּ֗ים הָֽאָדָם֙ וְהַבְּהֵמָ֔ה וְיִקְרְא֥וּ אֶל־אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּחָזְקָ֑ה וְיָשֻׁ֗בוּ אִ֚ישׁ מִדַּרְכּ֣וֹ הָֽרָעָ֔ה וּמִן־הֶחָמָ֖ס אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּכַפֵּיהֶֽם

For וּמִן־הֶחָמָ֖ס, W. Dennis Tucker, Jr. writes:

When a preposition governs more than one object, the preposition will typically be repeated before each object. The waw copulative + מִן signals the continuation of the prepositional phrase.

Here’s a representative comment using discourse analysis, coming at Jonah 3:10:

A qatal in a dependent clause provides background information in the relative past (i.e., past in comparison to the mainline). This is often expressed in translation through the use of a pluperfect (Longacre, 82).

These two paragraphs from Jonah 1:5 give a good sense of the depth and utility of the comments:

The target audience is the student who is “making the move from introductory grammar to biblical text” (1). Given that, a surprising number of terms (irrealis, factitive, prosopopeia, diegetic, and more) go unlisted in the 28-term Glossary. And the discourse analysis is too much at times, as in this difficult paragraph:

Typically in narrative discourse, the negation of any verb is understood as irrealis scene setting and appears at the lowest level on the discourse profile scheme. The negation of a verb stops the forward progress of the narrative by indicating what is not the case. Longacre, however, has suggested that in certain contexts a negation may be termed a “momentous negation” because it is critical in advancing the narrative line forward (82). In these rare occurrences, the verb form is understood as a second-rank construction (similar to the X + qatal), in effect actually serving to move the narrative along. The events and dialog in chapter 4 are predicated, in part, on the momentous negation that occurs at the end of 3:10. The object of the verb is absent due to ellipsis.

Typos in the book are surprisingly frequent, especially occurring in the English translations. The book sets out to provide lexical forms for every verb in Jonah but omits them in a number of instances, leaving the reader without needed help at times. And the Malachi handbook has a “word chart” which I have hoped to see in other volumes, but haven’t. (Baylor published the Malachi volume after Jonah.)

On the plus side, Tucker commented more than I expected on the style of the author of Jonah—this helped me better understand the Hebrew in context. And there are more comments with exegetical and even preaching payoff than one might expect from a series that the editors intend to serve as a sort of prequel to a commentary.

If you’re reading through Jonah in Hebrew, will you want this handbook? Despite what I see as some shortcomings, yes. The best commentary on Jonah is probably this one, which covers Hebrew well, but in its transliterated form. So if you’re going to go deep with the Hebrew of Jonah, Tucker’s handbook is a nice companion—and much of his discourse analysis is clear, even if the reader needs to reference his introductory comments (and external sources) a few times along the way.

The handbook is available through Amazon (here) and the publisher (here).



Thanks to Baylor University Press for the review copy—sent to me with no expectation as to my reivew’s content.

How I’m Keeping Greek and Hebrew Fresh

September 26, 2016

I’ve been practicing reading Greek fairly regularly all year. Hebrew had fallen a bit by the wayside until recently. As of the last two weeks, however, I think I’ve got a good rhythm now for keeping both fresh.

I know I’m not the only pastor who finds it a challenge to not lose the heard-earned results of semesters and years of Greek and Hebrew in the classroom.

Here’s what I’ve been doing:


1. Reading through the Greek New Testament, roughly a chapter a day.


To become more fluent in reading, there’s no substitute for… you know… reading. I just got through 2 Corinthians, which I think might be the most difficult book in the New Testament—in both Greek and English!


2. Working through the Baylor Handbooks.


Baylor’s got two solid series in progress: Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (BHGNT) and Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible (BHHB).



These are books to read cover to cover, especially when you want to move from “rapid reading” to more detailed analysis of the text. I just finished Jonah and have started in on †Rod Decker’s Mark. You can see more about the series in my reviews of Luke and Malachi (here and here).


3. Reading my preaching passage in the original language, maybe even making my own translation.


Mark 1 in GreekI just preached through Ephesians. I translated much of it as I studied the text—either typing it out or doing it in my head. Especially with Paul’s longer sentences and more involved lines of thought in the first three chapters, this was challenging, but also essential in my grasping the text.

Now with the Old Testament lectionary readings in view (hello, prophets!), I’ll have a chance to reactivate my Hebrew reading.

If you (a) preach somewhat regularly and (b) want to make use of your Greek and Hebrew, why not combine the two endeavors? Both your preaching and your languages will be the better for it.

(NB: I teach a Webinar on this very topic, with more dates TBA. Here’s the handout.)

There’s also an invaluable chapter in Baker Academic’s Preaching the Old Testament called “Keeping Your Hebrew Healthy.”


4. Reading Greek with another person.


I’m really fortunate to have a reading partner for #1 above, reading through the GNT. This is an immense help and likely deserves its own post. Just remember that skill-building often happens best in community.


5. Learning to enjoy reading Greek and Hebrew.


Lack of proficiency for me is a great way to not enjoy a task; conversely, the more I read, the more comfortable I am with the text (Galatians was almost easy after 2 Corinthians!). Reading the Bible in its first languages also forces me to slow down and carefully consider what I’m reading. Greek and Hebrew reading fit well into devotional practices. (Great book on this, by the way, here: Using and Enjoying Biblical Greek: Reading the New Testament with Fluency and Devotion).


How about you? If you’ve been keeping your Greek and Hebrew active, what’s been helpful? What pitfalls are you facing? What other resources should I and others like me be using?

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