Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Who are the meek?

This past weekend I taught on the third of the Beatitudes, which are located at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel. "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." (You can listen to the sermon here.) I knew going into this week of study that I would have to spend considerable time explaining what exactly "meek" meant to my congregation. I was not comforted when I cracked open one of my commentaries and read the following words:

“Meekness- is one of the most misunderstood words in the English language.”Life in the Spirit New Testament Commentary
, pg. 151

'Meek' is not really a word that we use in conversation today. I can't think of the last time my wife said to me, "I noticed you were acting meek tonight!" Likewise, I've never heard of someone causally saying, " Boy, did he act rather meek tonight." As far as I know, no one brings up 'meek-ness' on the list characteristics they hope to find in a spouse. It really is a word shrouded in obscurity and vagueness. Perhaps, the lack of clarity and popularity of the word is itself a clue to the meaning of 'meek'? 

I remember in Sunday School being taught as a child,"meekness is not weakness", but I don't recall being taught anything to what meek actually meant. I hope to solve that problem with this blog. 

Here is a 'sketch' from my study notes:

‘MEEK’- πραΰς (prä-ü’s)
gentle, kind, humble, benevolent, humane

(Matt 5.5, 11:29, 21.5; 1 Peter 3.4; Gal 5.23)

Meek (NIV, ESV, KJV)

The mild, patient, long-suffering (AMP)

Humble (CEB, CEV, ERV, GNT, NLT)

Gentle (NASB) 

Content with who you are (The Message) 

Greek Context:

Aristotle (384- 322 BCE) 

Meekness is not about powers forgone but powers controlled and exercised with discernment.”
- Aristotle

Xenophon (430- 354 BCE)

A wild stallion that has been tamed is meek-Xenophon (430-354 BCE)

Hebrew Context: 

"The promise stands out: “for they will inherit the earth [Land].” Clearly the promise evokes both the land promise in Genesis 12 and the promises to the oppressed and waiting in Psalm 37:11 (“the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity”); 37:22 (“those the LORD blesses will inherit the land”); and 37:34 (“he will exalt you to inherit the land”). The Qumran community prized Psalm 37.33 While it has been customary for Christians to see in the NIV’s word “earth” a synonym for “world” now or in the new heavens and earth, there is little likelihood that Jesus would have “world” in mind. We must wrap our minds around the Bible’s Story for the first-century Jew: those to whom Jesus spoke didn’t care two figs for owning Italy or Gaul. They simply wanted shalom in the Land of Israel." -Dr. Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount Commentary

1Do not fret because of those who are evil
    or be envious of those who do wrong;

2 for like the grass they will soon wither,
    like green plants they will soon die away.

3 Trust in the Lord and do good;
    dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.

4 Take delight in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart.

5 Commit your way to the Lord;
    trust in him and he will do this:

6 He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
    your vindication like the noonday sun.

7 Be still before the Lord
    and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
    when they carry out their wicked schemes.

8 Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
    do not fret—it leads only to evil.

9 For those who are evil will be destroyed,
    but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.

11 But the meek will inherit the land
    And will delight themselves in the abundance of peace.
The 'Meek person' of Psalm 37:1-11: 

  • “Trusts in the Lord” (v3) 
  • “Takes delight in the Lord” (v4)
  • “Commit their ways to the Lord” (v5) 
  • “Patiently trusts God alone for vindication” (v6-7, 9-10)
  • “Refrains from anger & wrath” (v8) 
  • "Inherit the land" (v9, 11) 
  • “Delights themselves in peace” (v11) 

I also spent the last week asking Christian scholars, leaders, bloggers and authors to 'tweet' me their definition of meek. Here is what they have to say about "meek-ness": 

Biblical meekness isn’t letting yourself be a doormat.  It is about loving someone so much that you completely forget yourself in the process."- Robert Martin of Abnormal Anabaptist

Michael Hardin

Meekness: a gentle non-coercive approach to relationships. - Michael Hardin of 

Dr. Scot McKnight

The “meek” are those who suffer and who have been humbled, and yet they do not seek revenge. They lovingly trust God and hope in God’s timing and God’s justice.” 
- Dr. Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount Commentary 

Dr. Brad Jersak
Meekness (synonym - gentleness) is 'strength under control for the purpose of goodness.'

- Dr. Brad Jersak, Westminster Theological Centre

Dr. N.T. Wright 

The word ‘meek’ is always a challenge. The usual answer is ‘like wild horse tamed’ – i.e. with all the energy and fire of the wild horse but now under wise control. This is to stop the word simply sounding ‘weak’ or wimpish.
  I suppose the word goes with others like ‘gentle’ (though that is more directly related to how someone behaves in relation to others) and ‘humble’ (though that is more to do with one’s belief about oneself). It is, as it were, half way between these two: it denotes a particular character but also the way that character behaves to others.
In its famous location in the Beatitudes, at the start of the Sermon on the Mount, it is one of the characteristics Jesus highlights not just for its own sake but one of the types of personality through whom God is starting to bring wise and healing order to his world. Here you could define it in terms of its opposites: the idea that the meek will inherit the earth is astonishing to most people in most cultures, who expect that it will be the pushy, the arrogant, the bossy, the power-brokers, the bullies who will grab the earth and inherit it for themselves. No, says Jesus; in God’s world things work the other way up. The word ‘meek’ stands at the heart of that claim. (I don’t do tweets, by the way… sorry!)

Thanks for reading...

Monday, 10 February 2014

Yoga: Can it be redeemed?

Reginald Rivett over at Christian Thought Sandbox posted a great blog today titled, "Can this be redeemed too?" In the blog, Reggie aptly draws an analogy about the evolution and acceptance of Rock n' Roll music in the church. There was a time when the church had hostility towards the genre of Rock n' Roll. There were many that declared it, "the devils music". There was a change with people like Larry Norman who asked, "Why should the devil have all the good music?" Reggie believes that it's people like Mr. Norman that paved the way for the church to not only have a less hostile attitude towards different genre's; but to redeem it as its own. 

Droff: A guitar player from Hillsong Church
I couldn't agree more. I think church music as a whole has improved with additions of many different musical genres. I must confess to a personal bias: I love rock n roll. A majority of the music in my iTunes library is rock or is in some way related to rock n roll. I also confess to spending considerable time playing electric guitar each week at church! 

Reggie then asks a critical question for which he named his blog post: "Can yoga be redeemed?" It's a great question that deserves some reflection. If rock n' roll can 'get saved', can we say the same about Yoga? This is the question that I am going to spend the remainder of this blog pondering about. 

This is definitely a heated issue for some in the church today. It's an issue that I have no personal investment in, as I have never done Yoga myself, but I do have friends and family that have participated in "Christian Yoga." I have had a few conversations over the years regarding this issue with those who oppose any Christian conception of Yoga. 

I tend to first ask: "Is stretching and physical exercise  wrong?", to which everyone has responded, "No".  

The next question I ask: Is prayerful meditation wrong?" The answer that I receive is "No". 

Then of course my counter question is, "Can I combine prayer and a variety exercises that include positions that are similar to Yoga?". You would think that the answer should logically be "Yes, you can", but I almost never receive that reply. 

What is fascinating to me is that the underlying issues that are brought up to tell me why I am or others are prevented from prayerful meditation and stretching. The biggest objection I have come across: Yoga originates from the East as a form of worship in Buddhism and Hinduism and is therefore inherently irredeemable. Pastor Mark Driscoll summarizes this objection, "Yoga is a religious philosophy that is in direct opposition to Christianity. Thus, in its true form, yoga cannot be simply received by any Christian in good conscious."[1]

Here is where I agree with Pastor Mark. If by Yoga, you mean blindly embrace all tenants of Hinduism, then of course that is antithetical to Christian practice. But from what I can tell those who practice "Christian Yoga" are not trying to promote an idolatrous  synergism. A Christian approach to Yoga is not Yoga "in its true form". It's also likely that your common Yoga class at the community centre is likely not Yoga in "its true form". Doireann Fristoe explains, 
Most Yoga currently practiced in [Western culture] only slightly resembles the original practice. In fact, most of what we call yoga in the West is not truly yoga at all—it is only asana, the physical postures, and pranayama, the breathing exercises. There are myriad schools of thought in modern yoga and to sum all of them up in a few paragraphs would do them no justice. Hinduism involves yoga; all yoga is not Hinduism.[2] 
Can we incorporate asana and pranayama into the Christian's practices of prayer, contemplation and meditation? Here even Driscoll gives us middle ground at the end of long article denouncing Yoga, "feel free in Christian liberty to stretch however you’d like, participate in exercise, calm your nerves through breathing, and even contemplate the Scriptures in silence. But do so in a way that does not identify with yoga and non-Christian mysticism."[3] It appears to me that the issue behind the issue is the inherent 'foreignness' of the term "yoga", which literally translates as 'yoke'. Call it "prayer & stretching" and everyone is okay with it. Call it 'Christian Yoga' or 'Holy Yoga' and there is a visceral gut reaction to the 'otherness' of the term despite the disassociation from any cultic practices and world views. 

 The second issue I have encountered: "Yoga's physical positions allow for the influence of the demonic." I am told that assuming the physical poses can allow demonic influence in your life. Objectors suggest that when you participate in Yoga, even Yoga that is based in Christian prayer and worship, you are unknowing worshiping demons and idols. 

I am critical of the claim that a Christians can unknowingly worship a demon (idol or 'god'). It seems like a bit of stretch too me. (excuse the pun) I don't think the Apostle Paul buys this claim either as evidenced in the first letter to the Corinthians. When asked about eating meat sacrificed to idols Paul says:
"So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live." -1 Corinthians 8:4-6 
Paul does not think eating meat that has been offered to an idol somehow defiles the Christian by consuming that meat. Paul believes this to be true because through Christ all things came and through Christ we live. (v6) God is Creator of the meat, not the idol god. So it appears that by thinking the meat is defiled might be giving credit where credit is not due. How is this connected to the Yoga discussion? Let me suggest that because our bodies came from God, and thereby any physical actions necessitated with having a body (i.e. eating, stretching, sitting, laying), I am in no danger of worshiping an idol. (I am of course not including actions done with the body, such as adultery or gluttony, within this category of normal human physicality.) A Christian who does a Yoga pose (like the downward facing dog) is no more in danger of worshiping an idol (demon/god) than a non-Christian is of worshiping YHWH by raising their hands upward in a yawn or of giving a gift at Christmas time. 

To sum up my answer: If I can eat meat (a physical action) that is sacrificed to idols and still be faithful to Christ; cannot I not also assume a yoga position (a physical action) in prayer and worship to Jesus without worry of unknowingly worshiping an idol? To say "No" seems to suggest a frightening perspective that Christ is NOT "through whom all things came"(v6). Worse, it seems to suggest the equivalent of 'spiritual cooties'- the idea that I might catch evil through accidental encounter. "Mere possession of idols or consumption of food sacrificed to them cannot be detrimental unless one adds acts of religious devotion to the mix." [4] So my answer is: Yes, we can redeem Yoga, the asana: the physical postures, and pranayama: the breathing exercises, and direct our worship, prayer, and meditation to the Triune God. 

BUT...(and this is important).
"Not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled."- 1 Corinthians 8:7
Paul understands that there are those who are weak in conscience. They are what Paul describes as those who are "weak in faith" in Romans 14-15. What is our reaction to those who do not agree with our assessment that Yoga can be redeemed? Paul goes on to tell us:
"Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall." 1 Corinthians 8:9-13
Paul teaches us that we need to: 

1. Be careful in the exercise our freedom. (v9) 
2. We should not encourage others to violate their conscience by our actions. (v10) 
3. Wounding and damaging someone's weak conscience is a sin against Christ. (v12)
4. We should be prepared to deny ourselves our freedoms in order to prevent a brother or sister from falling into sin. (v13)

So does this mean that we should jettison the idea of a "Christian Yoga" in order to risk offending others? Not quite.What Paul isn't saying is to watch out against offending people. Paul is telling us not to put a stumbling block in the path of the weak in faith. The question we need to ask is: Who are the weaker brothers and sisters? 

 "The key issue in applying verses 7-13 involves recognizing those who truly have weak consciences. Nothing in the context justifies an association of 'weaker brothers/sisters' with those who are merely offended by a particular practice, notwithstanding the misleading translation of verse 13 in the KJV ("if meat make my brother to offend"). Even less justified is the application of theses principals to the "professional weaker brother"- the Christians legalist eager to forbid morally neutral activities even though he or she would never personally indulge in those activities. Rather, the weaker brother or sister is the Christian who is likely to imitate a stronger believer in some morally neutral practice but feel guilty about doing so or, worse still, be led into that which is inherently sinful or destructive. The strong believer's freedom thus actually has damaging consequences for the spiritual growth and maturation of the weaker sibling. Jack Kuhatschek points out that an adequate analogy to 1 Corinthians 8 must have three elements: (a) a threat to Christian freedom; (b) a potential stumbling block; and (c) a Christian brother or sister who might actually be led into sin. 
 Application of verses 7-13 must also leave room for 10:25-30, in which Paul will stress the freedom of the "strong" more pointedly than he does here. If the strong should not hurt the weak, neither should the weak accuse the strong of sin. Romans 14:1-15:13, Paul's other major teaching passage on the topic, carefully balances these two commands. "[5]
To wrap this up: I think it is totally possible to redeem 'yoga'- the asana and pranayama -within a Christian spirituality and worldview. I also acknowledge that this is a "meat topic" - a morally neutral issue. There are those who by their consciences could never participate with any activity, even if 'redeemed' , that associates itself with the term 'yoga'. I get that and would never think of less of someone who holds that position. It might be better, as Driscoll suggests, for Christians to ditch the word "Yoga" altogether to avoid any confusion and controversy. As with all things in Christian ethics, our approach should be grounded in love for other above ourselves. I am with the Apostle Paul when he says:
 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.- 1 Corinthians 10:32-33

The last words I will give to Bruxy Cavey:

 Works Cited
4.Blomburg, Craig. The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, Location 3540 (e-version)
5. ibid