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Entries in Seminary Notes (118)

Tuesday
Nov072017

Looking like monastics

I am deep in literature about Medieval women and mystics at the moment as I research for a term paper in Church history. At the same time, in our class readings last week we looked at the Desert Fathers. Some of those saying were just simple common sense, but others reveal a real desire to live a life of self-denial and humility. One of the sayings caught my attention:

A hermit said, 'This is the life of a monk; work, obedience, meditation, not to judge others, not to speak evil, not to murmur. For it is written "You who love God, hate the thing that is evil" (Ps. 97:10). This is monastic life: not to live with the wicked, not to see evil, not to be inquisitive, not to be curious, not to listen to gossip, not to use the hands for taking, but for giving; not to be proud in heart or bad in thought, not to fill the belly, in everything to judge wisely. This is the life of a true monk.

Some of those are very worthy aspirations. I'm all for hating evil and avoiding gossip. I'm against pride in my heart and bad thoughts. But I did raise my eyebrows at the admonition not to be curious or inquisitive. That attitude was not confined to the Desert Fathers. In some of the reading regarding women that I've done, I have discovered the reality of a premium put on the spirit above the intellect, despite the fact that many of the notable women of the Middle Ages were well-educated. For example, Hadewijch, a 13th century monastic woman was herself educated, but she did not believe that reason was the clearest path to God, and placed value on the spirit above the intellect.

The sentiment that a developed intellect interferes with our spirituality is alive and well. On more than one occasion, when women find out I'm in seminary (and even before then, when I said I liked to read theology) I've been met with the comment, "Well, I just really depend on the Spirit to teach me." 

I see some similarities between monastic women of the Middle Ages and groups of women today in the principle of separating ourselves. I saw it alive and well in homeschooling circles when my kids were younger. I've come across it with other women who will vigorously reject the use of a commentary in a Bible study because they want the Spirit to teach them. This notion of a simple life, free from the interferences of the secular world is promoted as the higher spiritual life.

I occasionally feel like my own curiosity and inquisitiveness is looked upon by other women as one of those weaknesses that must be tolerated, sort of like being the one in the crowd with the irritating, loud laugh; probably not something to be encouraged too much.

In reality, it's not the curiosity itself that is the problem; it's the content. Women are expected and encouraged to be curious, but perhaps not about theology. I don't understand why some women are curious about what movie stars wore on the red carpet at the Academy Awards. I am not curious about the lives and happenings of celebrities, but many women are. Curiosity isn't necessarily bad; it's just that there is an expectation of what we should be curious about. 

Men and women who went into monasteries were often looked upon as being elite Christians. I wonder sometimes if we think that by separating ourselves we are demonstrating a superior spirituality. I have yet to be convinced that shunning learning makes me more spiritual.

Thursday
Oct052017

It's all about the endings

He spoke the word.

Who is doing the speaking? If you're an English speaker, you know that it is "he" who is doing the speaking. That's the subject of the sentence. Generally, in English, the subject precedes the action of the verb. Now, if you're Yoda, you could say, "The word, he spoke," but you're taking a chance if you copy Yoda because someone could conclude that we're actually saying something like "The word which he spoke." Word order is really important in English. English is not an inflected language.

Koine Greek is an inflected language. That means word order doesn't matter. Αυτος ειπεν λογον, "he spoke the word" can also be written ειπεν λογον α­­υτος or we could move the words around again. What tells me what is the subject of the sentence is the ending of the word, in the case of "he," the pronoun αυτος, with its -ος ending indicates that the word is in the nominative case, and hence, the subject of the sentence. The word λογον with its -ον ending tells me that it is in the accusative case and that means in this sentence, it is the direct object, or the receiver of the action.

These endings are crucial for understanding what all the grammatical components of the sentence are. And what is more interesting is that when it comes to prepositions, the meaning can change, depending on what the ending of the noun is. Adjectives also have different endings, and the way one tells which adjective goes with which noun is the ending of the word. These endings are something students must learn. Once we learn what the endings are, it's just a matter of recognizing them in context. When we do translations in my Greek class, it's like putting puzzle pieces together. I've never been good at number puzzles, but so far, I'm good at this kind of puzzle. It does take time, though, and one has to be careful and pay attendion, because even the absence or prescence of an accent can make a difference in meaning.

This is probably mind-numbingly boring to most people, but it is fascinating to me to see how words work. And it is a great reminder to me that paying attending to little details as we learn to read Scripture is really important. Maybe you don't have any aspirations to learn Koine Greek, but if you're a Christian and you want to grow, you'll want to open your Bible up. It requires time and attending to read in English, too. Just why did the author use that particular word? What modifies what? Where is the main verb? Why did the writer draw that conclusion?

We are fast learning to become skimmers rather than readers. If you consume a diet of mostly online content, unless you're reading academic journals and abstracts, you can get by on skimming. But is skimming really the best approach to Bible reading? The art of reading slow needs to be preserved. Slower reading means more reflection, and that's a good thing.

Monday
Sep252017

Empty Nesters Love Greek

I love my Greek class. I knew I would, and I hope it stays that way. Even though we are not required to necessarily know why the language works as it does (we are only there to learn how to read it), I want to know the why's. I want to have a better understanding of the language in general. Theory and practice go together.

Not everyone needs to learn Greek. Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for it. I recognize that for Bible study students, it isn't necessary. We have good English translations. Yet, having an understanding of the original language, especially if we are teachers, can only be a good thing. No, knowing Koine Greek does not make one more holy or more godly. You can know Koine Greek like a champ and yet be a total boor. But when one is teaching, and especially if one is expecting others to take her seriously, Greek isn't a bad use of her time. And the bonus is that our prof promises that knowing Greek will have an impact on our devotional life.

There are a lot of things that women can do when the nest empties; valuable things and not so valuable things. I want to do the valuable things. We all have our areas of strength. The point is to stay active and productive. I did not have a career to return to when my kids grew up, and for that I am thankful. I am glad my heart was not divided between my kids and a career. Some people may think that makes me "just a housewife," and hopelessly out of touch. Perhaps that is true, but I know that today, I have the time and opportunity to learn Koine Greek, and that's exciting. To know the original languages of the Bible is exciting to me. I'd rather be doing this than hanging around in a board room in a meeting or navigating the dog-eat-dog world of an office environment.

I have met my share of blank stares from others when saying I attend seminary. Saying I'm taking Greek is even more entertaining. There is often suspicion. Why would I need that? Am I involved in a theological coup? Some look at me as if I've just said that I like to kick puppies and kittens. I can't change someone's opinion of a woman learning Greek. I trust that, ultimately, I will be a better student of the Bible and a better teacher.

There are many ways now to learn biblical languages. Many seminaries offer online classes for students who want to learn. Bill Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek is very user friendly, and one can benefit from the online resources he provides at his website. We can all claim we are too busy. But if we look at how we spend our time, there may be way to make time. Cut back on television watching or social media time. Get up a little earlier every day. If you want to be inspired for learning Greek, check out Bill Mounce's Greek for the Rest of Us.

I won't say that having my children leave home and become independent has been easy. It's been five years since our last one left home, and I'm still adjusting. Adult kids have their own lives and are in the process of establishing their independence. They don't need us as much. Empty hours can be a bad thing. Why not fill it with something? For me, seminary is helping fill those hours. And Greek is contributing in a particularly exciting way. 

Wednesday
Sep202017

The appeal of Augustine

Augustine said some pretty wonky things, but he said much that I can totally understand and agree with. One of those things is how he confronted his own sin. Even after his conversion, Augustine wrestled with temptations. One of them was the praise of men. As a trained rhetorician, he would have sought the approval of men. After his conversion, he talks about the remaining struggle:

. . . there is a third kind of temptation which, I fear, has not passed from me. Can it ever pass from me in all this life? It is the desire to be feared or loved by other men, simply for the pleasure that it gives me, though in such pleasure there is no true joy. It means only a life of misery and despicable vainglory . . .  This is why the enemy of our true happiness persists in his attacks upon me, for he knows that when men hold certain offices in human society, it is necessasry that they should be loved and feared by other men. He sets his traps about me, baiting them with tributes of applause, in the hope that in my eagerness to listen I may be caught off my guard. He wants me to divorce my joy from the truth and place it in man's duplicity. He wants me to enjoy being loved and feared by others, not for your sake, but in your place. 


But we, O Lord, are your little flock. Keep us as your own. Spread your wings and let us shelter beneath them. Let us glory in you alone. If we are loved or feared by others, let it be for your sake. No man who seeks the praise of other men can be defended by men when you call him to account. Men cannot save him when you condemn. (Confessions, X.36).

The praise of men is something we can all get caught up in without even realizing it. Yet how often do we admit such a temptation? How often do I consider the approval of others a trap? 

I love how Augustine ends this discussion: by throwing himself upon the truth he knows, that we are his flock.

Tuesday
Sep192017

Because he doesn't want me to grow

On my first day of seminary, I woke up and did not want to go. Despite wanting this for a long time, and despite the fact that I had support from my husband and closest friends, I cried, because I did not want to go. Even as I drove that morning, my stomach was in knots. My first seminary class occurred right in the middle of the worst part of my first really bad bout with anxiety.

I've always tended toward being anxious, but this was much worse than what I'd known before. There were many physical symptoms, and it was simply beyond me. I made it through that class and only through God was I able to get the work done. The class was on writing Bible study curriculum, and one of the studies I wrote had to do with what Scripture said about being anxious, so it was therapeutic. 

I don't know if I'm much wiser than I was two years ago, but I am on the other side of that time. I am not a fool, and I know that I cannot be complacent. I must recognize what triggers my anxiety and deal accordingly with it. Interestingly enough, in the past couple of weeks, I have felt the weight of burdens encroaching on my heart; the kinds of things that can trigger anxiety. And it's the beginning of another semester of school.

Two years ago, a very good friend who understands anxiety well, shared with me that she really believed that Satan does not want me in seminary. He does not want me to have a theological education or growing in the things of God. I thought about that recently when I was studying my Greek vocabulary and my mind began to wander to things I cannot change. I have to learn is how to shut the door on things that are simply going to drag me down.

I've always wanted to fix everything. It bothers me to leave things unresolved. I don't like arguments festering. I want resolution now! That isn't always possible. Sitting and waiting is difficult. We feel powerless; or, rather, we confront our powerlessness. Shutting the door on things goes against what I really want to do. That is probably a good thing. As I sat at my desk, allowing myself to be distracted, I had to mentally picture myself shutting a door to the burdens that I can't resolve. I don't pretend they're not there, and I do have to acknowledge them, but not every day, and definitely not when I have other things to do.

I think Satan wants me to open the door to that closet more often, because then I can start to feel hopeless and discouraged. Then I can start to blame others for things that have happened, or I can blame myself, and make it seem as if I'm the centre of everything. Yes, he wants me to do that because that distracts me from simply trusting God. Fortunately, learning Greek is very methodical and demands memorization. Translating sentences, even the small ones we're beginning with this week, is like solving a puzzle, and that re-focuses me. I will stay in seminary if only to keep my mind from wandering to places where it ought not go. If I'm still having trouble concentrating after Greek is done, I'll just take Hebrew.

God's ultimate goal for me is to be conformed to the image of his son. Burdens have a way of making that happen or they can be a way of ensuring that it doesn't. We don't often talk about Satan in the church these days. But he's real, and he likes it when we're weak. I feel like it's no co-incidence that these burdens are plaguing me now. I must remember the truth: greater is he who is in me than he who is in the world.