Wednesday, August 26, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

…ἵνα μὴ λυπῆσθε καθὼς καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ οἱ μὴ ἔχοντες ἐλπίδα.

I’ve been scarce on the ol’ blogosphere lately because I’ve been taking a Greek refresher course at my alma mater (GRTS). You see, a good seminary will teach you to read and interpret the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in its original Greek, but ask any pastor and he'll tell you that it begins to fade quickly. As with any knowledge, if you don’t use it, you start to lose it. Well, I do use my Greek regularly (in preparing lessons and sermons from the New Testament), but I still jumped at the chance for the review, the instruction, and the opportunity to ask questions and interact with a professor for whom reading Greek is as natural as ordering a pizza. And as an added bonus: I’m the only one who signed up for the class, so it’s basically three weeks of private tutoring with a professor who’s been helping to form my theology and hermeneutic for more than a dozen years. Yeah, you won’t hear me complaining.

The class has been phenomenal so far, although it began on a decidedly sad note, as I received a message that a friend of mine (one of my parishioners) had died. I had known going in that, with the class running three weeks, this was a real possibility. As it turns out, I got all of 45 minutes into the first period before getting the bad news. And in the back of my mind, I had been prepared to feel a little bit silly should this come to pass. After all, here I was seventy miles away in a classroom, studying verb paradigms and discussing the different uses of the infinitival construction while there was “real ministry” work to be done at home, right now. I mean, if it had been a seminar on ministering to hurting people or something, then the news of my friend’s death would have just reinforced the need. But… biblical Greek?

And yet I did not feel silly or ashamed to be poring over the minutiae of God’s Word in its original language. It didn’t seem irrelevant to the “real ministry” of comforting or disconnected from “real life” where people lose jobs, homes, and loved ones. Quite the opposite.

Granted, it sometimes feels like pastoral ministry requires a random combination of skills. Engineers learn to master math, physics, drafting, etc.: all things that make sense together and overlap to some degree. But ministers-in-training learn the history of the church, philosophy and theology, how to read Greek and Hebrew, how to counsel people, how to carry out a legal function at a wedding and a ceremonial function at a funeral, missions, homiletics, as a well as the administrative aspects of “running” a church. It sometimes seems a little random, like a crane operator who is also required to play a sonata on the piano every hour, cook Russian food, and teach algebra. What has one to do with the others? Is there a connection between studying koine Greek (a dead language) and carrying out ministry “where the rubber meets the road?”

Back to the first day of class. I called my friend’s son, feeling quite useless all these miles away; offered my condolences (and offered to drive back to Lansing, which he assured me was unnecessary); prayed with him over the phone; and set up a time the following day to get together. Then I trudged back into class, not exactly wanting to jump right into third declension nouns.

Now, understand that I don't put much stake in “feeling close to God,” but let me tell you… as my professor and I used the rest of that class period to translate 1 John together, I could feel His presence. Those who speak often about “feeling close to” our Creator seem to have such experiences in the woods or at significant pilgrimage sites. But here I was in a seminary classroom (not an old Gothic structure with ivy growing up the walls, mind you, but a non-descript 1960s building, whose classrooms were revamped in the ‘90s with white boards and digital projectors)—two guys looking at the Greek text on a laptop computer, me plodding my way through this ancient language and Professor Smith throwing me a rope whenever I got stuck. And that’s where I felt close to God.

And why not? On one hand, as Luther taught, we always find God where we’d least expect Him. Who expects to see Him sleeping in a food trough? Or running a small business in a Galilean town with a bad reputation? Or hanging naked on a cross, dying as a common criminal? But at the same time, this is exactly where we know we’ll find our God revealed: in His revealed Word. And He’s there whether we “feel him” or not, whether it seems relevant to “real life” at the moment or not. Sadly, many people today have decided that because they don’t “feel close to God” in a church meeting, in the reading and preaching of the Word, in the bread and wine of communion, that they should look elsewhere until they find that warm fuzzy they’re chasing. To them, the words of this old Book—full of genealogies, doctrinal excurses, and violent stories—seem about as relevant to life with God today as cooking Russian food is to operating a crane. But they’re missing something vital.

On those days when you’re going about life, brushing your teeth, watching television, or sitting in class, and a call comes in that gives your faith a good rattling—you’ve lost a loved one, a job, or something else dear to you—it’s suddenly very relevant. Those who have not rooted themselves in the Word of God because it seemed disconnected from life—when times get tough, they cling to clichés. I’ve seen many times how someone who has no biblical foundation will grasp at straws when the bottom falls out of his or her life, looking to some poem or saying that was on a pamphlet in the funeral home at the last viewing they attended (most of which are more rooted in pagan Greek philosophy than anything biblical) or a pithy truism they remember from a card or a plaque, for comfort. Oh, how empty that must be! That’s when a plodding, unrelenting study of God’s Word comes into play, both for the one grieving and the one ministering.

Certainly, knowledge of Hebrew and Greek does not somehow make one more holy or more acceptable to God (far from it!), but study of God’s revealed Word, hiding it in our hearts, meditating on it day and night is the way we receive God’s revelation. It’s the main way he teaches us, molds us, instructs us, and comforts us.

And I thank God that, when I called my friend’s son to pray with him, he was not clinging to some feel-good truism or Gnostic poem. No, he was broken for sadness, but rooted firmly in the Scriptures as he is, he did not mourn as one who has no hope. For him (as for me), God’s Word is a lamp unto his feet and a light unto his path.

I pray that it is for you as well.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

3 reader comments:

E. said...

Excellent article. It fits so well with last Sunday's sermon. I love it when God does that--it helps to reinforce the teaching.

Val said...

Nice article. The only problem, is that now I'm craving some plof and pelmeni.

Anonymous said...

Zach, thanks so much not just for the kind words about the class and yours truly, but also the perspective on ministry and Scripture. Like you, I have grown tired of old, meaningless cliches and folk theologies, and long for solid interaction with Scripture that truly gives hope, based on a clear word from God Himself. I pray that your ministry will continue to grow, and if I have had just a very tiny part in making that happen, then to God be all the glory.

Andy Smith