Strive To Improve

When does something begin? How will it end?

T.S. Eliot famously began his poem East Coker with, “In my beginning is my end.” The conclusion declared, “In my end is my beginning.”

Ascension Sunday – for June 5, 2011

“In the first book Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning…” (Acts 1:1)

As a child cheerfully attending Sunday school each week, I wasn’t told the same person wrote Luke and Acts. Until seminary, probably during a bleary-eyed moment in a New Testament class, I didn’t realize Luke’s end transitioned into Acts’ beginning. Luke highlighted Jesus’ life and work. Acts revealed what followed for his disciples and their post-resurrection ministry. Part 1. Part 2. Jesus’ birth “in the east” was bookended by Paul’s preaching “in the west.”

A long, long ways from the last catch...

Then why doesn’t Luke’s end and Acts’ beginning match? Both depict Jesus’ final moments with the disciples and yet contain oddly different versions. Writing the last words of a first book to parallel the opening words of the follow-up seem a simple task. Perhaps I’m influenced by the silly “reality shows” I spend too much time viewing. In programs like THE BIGGEST LOSER I weary of the hype about a contestant’s weight loss or gain that’s interrupted by endless commercials. When the show returns, the last scene is repeated. Grrrr! There’s no need—in spite of the mindless, endless ads—for a rehash. Just show me the weight loss!

But Luke’s finish and Acts’ start, with only the Gospel of John and no commercials between them, are not in agreement.

I understand why agreement can be difficult because choices are always being made by scholars to decide—based on the available manuscripts—which words should be included or excluded. A perfect example comes from the end of Luke in the Revised Standard Version (RSV) Bible given as a birthday present forty-five years ago by my parents. I still occasionally use it. In the RSV, Luke 24:51-53 reads:

(51) While he blessed them, he parted from them. (52) And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, (53) and were continually in the temple blessing God.

In my updated, more modern New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)—the Bible I currently use for personal study—Luke concludes . . .

(51) While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. (52) And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; (53) and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Well! The NRSV’s italicized words are different! In my birthday present Bible, the RSV has footnotes explaining, “other ancient authorities ADD” the italicized words. In the NRSV, those italicized words are footnoted with, “other ancient authorities LACK” these words. And that’s merely Luke’s add & lack ending, from only two different translations of the Bible. Reading the Good Word ain’t for the fainthearted, or those who like “easy” beginnings or endings! Continue reading →

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E is for . . .


How dare I believe a particular date and time in my insignificant life could represent the Biblical end of the world! But, alas, I do think that. Indeed, I believe everyone has or will experience an EOTW event. A divorce. An addiction overwhelming you. A failure in a job. Your world ends . . . but not God’s love for you. Or, to paraphrase Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman’s words, God greets us where we yearn for the future . . . and where your world can begin again and again and again. I actually think God’s more committed to inviting us to the beginning of the world. So, in the end–the beginning!–put me down for a B-O-T-W rather than a E-O-T-W faith choice.

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The apostle Paul’s like a friend I wish would leave after the first day of a weekend’s visit and yet I miss him when he’s gone.

When I read Paul’s speech about the Athenians worshipping “an unknown god,” (Acts 17:22-31), I admire him. I think of Acts as creative history, biased and bold, cheerleading the emergence of Christianity. Maybe Paul’s declarations never occurred or were embellished. No way to know for sure.

The 6th Sunday of Easter – for May 29, 2011

“I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” (Acts 17:23)

Still, I sense Acts 17 is at least a glimmer of Paul, of the “friend” I miss when I haven’t seen him in a long time. I don’t think that because Paul’s speech to the Athenians conforms to my bias about Christianity. Just the opposite; the words unsettle and challenge me.

In the New Testament books* scholars are confident the apostle personally scribed, Paul—again, for me—just as easily inspires as irks.

Because of Paul’s very real apocalyptic beliefs, followers of Jesus since the first century possessed scriptural ammunition for demanding others repent before an impending judgment day. I won’t quote the apostle from where he proclaims the end. Find those verses on your own! Indeed, it’ll be real easy because—as I write these words in mid-May, 2011—there are road billboards and Internet postings announcing the end-of-the-world on May 21, 2011. Even staid National Public Radio aired a segment on May 21 as I wrote the first draft of this essay. So, batten the hatches, tighten your seatbelts, and prepare for the last, worst, holier-than-thou rumble. Blame some of these dire, dreary warnings on Paul.

There’s more. As someone who supports gay rights—oops, I really mean human rights and equality for all—I’d prefer Paul never again wipe his sandals on my doormat or press the ringer by the little ceramic sign at my front door that says “Welcome.” Paul’s minimal mention of what is now called homosexuality (a word invented 1,800 years after Paul’s death) created maximum pain for Christian community. Coupled with Paul’s wishy-washy comments about marriage (read chapter seven in I Corinthians and see if you understand his meandering position), I’d never trust Paul for advice on romance, relationships or sexual orientation.

And yet my pal Paul has written words so brilliant I can’t imagine Christian faith without them. Just one, predictable example . . .

Though not currently serving a church, I have a wedding and memorial service on my calendar. In both of those very different celebrations of faith, I could confidently read Paul’s declaration about love in I Corinthians 13. My singular concern would be that the attendees have heard “love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude” too many times to actually pay attention. When I read Paul’s “Love Chapter,” I usually invite people to listen as if for the first time. The first time . . .  as they witness the precious love of two friends about to be married, or as they mourn a companion who personified trust and compassion for them. Is I Corinthians 13 over used? Yes. Could I read it every day and be blessed to the core of my faith? Yes.

Which is why, when Paul stands beside my ceramic “Welcome” sign, I invite him in and offer a mug of Peet’s French roast. Let’s talk! Continue reading →

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