Bow your heavens… Psalm 144:5 (ESV) #1mwESV

So this is my first day into “One Month with the ESV” (#1mwESV). This morning’s reading was from Psalm 144, where David praises the Lord for his protection and provision, and calls out to this glorious Lord for continued intervention, for enemies still remain.

I was struck by the wording in Psalm 144:5

Bow your heavens, O Lord, and come down! Touch the mountains so that they smoke!

I stopped at the word ‘bow‘ … I wondered what it might mean for God to ‘bow’ the heavens? In English, we have ‘bow’ as in ribbon, ‘bow’ as in showing deference, ‘bow’ as in bow and arrow, ‘bow’ as used with a violin, ‘bow’ as in bend under pressure, and ‘bow’ as in the piece of timber is bowed, or legs might be bowed if you’re talking about a classic moseying cowdude. Maybe it’s me, but I had to really process this, as none of the meanings really made sense in the Psalm’s context.

I turned to the Hebrew, and found that the root verb meant ‘to stretch, spread, lengthen, bend down, turn, turn aside, enlarge’ – with many of those contexts relevant to the image of a nomadic tent. I get that the ancients saw the heavens as a tent, a blue canopy stretched above the earth (see Isaiah 40:22, 54:2), but it still did not make a lot of sense as to why ‘bow’ would be such a good translation in Ps 144:5.

The NIV2011 has ‘part your heavens, Lord, and come down…’ which made a little more sense on first reading. It carries the idea that, with the heavens being seen as a tent, if someone (like the Lord) was going to leave the tent and intervene for King David, the natural thing to do would be to part the tent flaps. You would not expect someone to talk about ‘bowing the flaps’, or ‘bending the flaps’. You would more naturally talk about ‘parting the tent flaps’.

It looks like the ESV has carried a more traditional translation here. ‘Bow’ is found in the NASB, the RSV, and the KJV.


I also noticed Psalm 106:7

Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wondrous works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.” (Psalm 106:7, ESV)

“Steadfast love” is an excellent translation of the Hebrew HSD (Hesed) alerting the reader to the ‘covenant faithfulness of the Lord. The Hebrew word is a linguistic signpost, often missed in English translations. Take the NIV for example, where this rich word is rendered ‘kindness’. It’s not a bad translation, but when Hesed refers to the Lord’s love and faithfulness to his covenant obligations, as Richard Laird Harris maintains (TWOT), it’s very helpful to have a consistent translation.

The ESV’s ‘steadfast love’ is really helpful here, and the NIV’s varied translations of the word tend to obscure the rich meaning of our Lord’s covenant love for his people.

One month with the ESV…

In May the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia decided to adopt the English Standard Version (ESV) as a preferred translation of the Scriptures.

At the time I did not think it was such a great decision. I am no New Testament scholar, so I find it hard to engage with the discussion at that level. I am a preacher, however, and I have the weighty responsibility of opening the Scriptures weekly and exposing its message to God’s people. I have an interest in making that process as clean, efficient and as accessible as I can. My prior use of the ESV had indicated that it was slightly more difficult to use in a public setting than my preferred translation (the 2011 version of the NIV). So I was inclined to stick with the NIV2011.

Even so, I respect the solid work of the CRCA’s Bible Translation Committee, and I recognise the ESV as having an edge in the accuracy department. This is because it is a more ‘word for word’ translation, while the NIV is more ‘thought for thought’. This may in part explain why in my view the NIV works better in a public setting. If it’s easier to follow, people will engage with it more readily. On the other hand, with the ESV being a more ‘word for word’ translation it may carry a closer understanding of the original languages.

The other impression I have of the ESV is that, for reasons unknown to me, the translators have sometimes opted for what appear to be somewhat archaic English. For something that purports to be contemporary English, I don’t get this. I don’t want to go into examples of this now, but may draw attention to some of these cases as time goes on.

It has occurred to me that my dislike for the ESV is more subjective than anything, arising out of the fact that I have been reading the NIV for the last 40 years. Maybe I like it more because I am so used to its form and cadence.

So I decided to use the ESV in my private reading and study for a whole month – starting tomorrow. I typically read from the Revised Common Lectionary – Daily Readings (RCL), which give plenty of variety as to genre and and style. I use the RCL with Logos Bible Software.  From time to time I will write a short blog about my experiences. If you are reading the RCL, you might like to read and well and contribute to the discussion. It can be helpful to share our thoughts.

Thanks for journeying with me.

Church Health & the Challenge for Leaders

Striving for church health has some very challenging implications. In future posts I’ll look at the implications for the church as the body of Christ, and following that how striving for how we engage with the world around us. Make no mistake: the call to church health is not for the faint hearted. It is as demanding and unrelenting as it is a path toward maturity and spiritual formation.

What I want to mention now is the implication for leadership. There are lots of things that work toward church health, but if leadership is not fully supportive of and engaged in the pursuit of Scripture’s call to church health, nothing else the church does will be sustainable.

At this point the sobering reality is that for churches in my own denomination, NCD results show the area we consistently struggle in is this very area: leadership and discipleship. Is it that we don’t want to do it? Or we are not interested? Or we just don’t know how? Unsure. Maybe it’s more something that we’ve never really been skilled to do. Some will look back with longing eyes to the good old days of full on catechism process, where children commenced catechism classes at age 12 or 13 and finished at about age 18, hopefully with a profession of faith. I acknowledge that this system created some reasonable depth in understanding our confessional perspective. I also acknowledge that where this is no longer practised there has been little else to grow an appreciation for our reformed confessional heritage. An additional and more serious complication is there have been few systematic examples of intentional, coherent and effective discipleship processes.

The call to church health is not for the faint hearted. It is demanding and unrelenting

There is little sense in belting ourselves around the head because of this. What we need to do is recognise how we pull up short, and then do better. Fellow elders and pastors: this is where we must shoulder God’s call. Paul expresses it this way: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” (Colossians 1:28–29, NIV)

Paul was consumed with the goal of bringing the church to maturity in Christ. He placed this call before the leaders of the church in Collosse. Presenting everyone mature in Christ was the focus of every proclamation, admonition and teaching. This was the ‘heavy lifting’ ministry of heavy lifting which consumed all his energy.

Big question: is this the focus of your ministry? Are these the goals you are striving for as a pastor or as an elder? Is this the focus of your church council? Is this what the people in your church would say is the priority of your leadership?

This is such a humbling call, friends. I am so far from this goal, and the shortcomings I mentioned above are clearly there in the congregation I serve. What we are doing is making some changes this coming year. It might seem a cop out to just talk about ‘plans’ at this point. We all know what really matters is whether plans get implemented, and whether that implementation yields desired outcomes. In the next post I’ll go through some of our specific plans for 2014. For now, I’m praying our ongoing discussion and collaboration will help us become better builders of discipling culture. It would be tremendous if we could do this work together.


Q: what are your suggestions for building a better discipling culture? Leave a comment and become part of the discussion.

How can I help my church to be more healthy?

Health Alert

It is surprising how often we talk about what God wants our churches to do. Every leadership meeting, every regional council, every Synod – we all discuss what God would have us do.

Implementation is where we tend to fall down. That may be true, but the question of your own personal resolve and desire is more basic. So, let me ask: Do you really want your church to be a more healthy place? Do you really want to grow? If so, the question really becomes one of how to bring growth and health about.

There are no easy answers here. No pat formulas.

When it comes to personal health there are some basic rules to follow: don’t smoke, maintain a healthy diet, exercise regularly, don’t barrack for Collingwood, etc. When it comes to specifics, however, what I need to do to become healthy might be very different to what you need to do.

It’s the same with church growth and health. There are general things every church should be mindful of. Here, tools like NCD can be really helpful, and Jack de Vries can help you with all of that. But once we get past that general picture, specific strategies will vary a lot.

Some think you can just copy what has worked well in some other context into their own. I am not convinced. For a start, I am not ‘him’. My church is not their church. Their local community is not mine. Maybe that other church would even do it differently now. So, be careful about bolting someone else’s program or strategy onto your own context. This rarely works.

So, back to the question: what are some of the general things to keep in mind about growing disciples and church health? First: God brings his church to health one life at a time. One personal context of change and transformation after another. Programs and things have their place, but the better strategies always focus on people. Nothing changes until people start to change. 

 

God brings his church to health one life at a time

 

Which brings us to a second question: how do people change? How will Gospel transformation start to be seen more and more? Answer: one decision at a time. Obviously, this needs to start in our own heart. There’s no point in expecting other people to change, to grow, to follow and obey if I am not interested in doing that myself. 

Some think this focus on personal decision and desire displaces God’s sovereignty. I think this is crazy logic. Here’s why: when it comes to obedience and growing as a Christian, God’s sovereignty rarely operates outside of human responsibility.

What I mean is that you can pray for growth and to be more like Christ all you like, but if you do not get out off the couch and do something, you will never change. People who are always waiting for God to make them grow or to change them on the inside, who are not prepared to do anything about it, are just being lazy. Lazy Christians and lukewarm churches do nothing to show the glorious wonder of God’s transforming grace before his watching world. The light of his word, and his recreative work through his Son is too often hidden under the bucket of human indifference.

So your response, your obedience, your desire for your church to be more healthy is critical. Every time you decide to do something to honour Jesus, every time you decide to turn you back on sin and its chaos, every time you decide to respond with compassion, every time you obey God’s word and follow his call, every time you put the needs of others before your own, Gospel transformation becomes more visible. People see it. The church sees it. The watching world sees it. And in the end it brings glory to God (see 1 Pet 2:12).

This last thought has enormous implications for churches and individual Christians, but I’ll have to leave that for another time.

For now, I want us to embrace that thought that change and growth is not only God’s expectation, the normal way he brings people to growth is though his Spirit drawing people to change their behaviour and their attitudes one person, one decision at a time.