Month: December 2011

Voting at age 17

On January 21, 1980 I attended the Iowa caucus in Ames where I lived with my family.  I was a senior in high school, and since my birthday wasn’t until March, I was only 17.  However, since I was going to be old enough to vote in the general election in November, I could attend the caucus. (Iowa is one of 19 states to allow primary/caucus voting in this situation.)  Although, even in those 19 states, only a small minority turn 18 during that window for a presidential election (Iowa’s window was bigger than most states since it comes early), so it felt like a unique opportunity.  I got to “vote” at age 17.

I went to the Democratic caucus, which should have been boring since Jimmy Carter was the incumbent, and typically a sitting president runs unopposed within their own party (like Obama this year).  But in 1980, Carter wasn’t popular so Ted Kennedy was running against him for the Democratic nomination.

It’s not an efficient process.  It took an entire evening.  But it was an opportunity to discuss issues and politics with my neighbors (my parents were at the Republican caucus).  After you’ve done it a few times, it’s easy to take voting for granted, but it’s important and an honor that much of the world doesn’t have.

That night, I joined the delegates for Carter.  Carter beat Kennedy in Iowa and eventually won the nomination, but he lost to Reagan in the national election.

Four years later (1984), Carter was speaking at a prayer breakfast near Stanford where I was a grad student and he invited anyone interested to join him for a run through the hills.  I wasn’t at the breakfast, but one of my housemates was and he grabbed me and said, “Let’s go run with Jimmy!  Let’s go run with Jimmy!”  I ran with Jimmy and shook his hand afterwards.  He’s a great man who’s done a lot to bless a lot of people.

Do you remember the first time you voted?  How old were you?  Who’d you vote for? 

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The plans God has for me? (Jeremiah 29 Part II)

What do theologians, Bible teachers and Carrie Underwood all have in common?   They all love to rip a Bible verse out of context to support whatever they are trying to say.   (To read what I said about Carrie, Soul Surfer and Jeremiah 29, click here.)

When I teach seminary students to teach the Bible, I brainwash them with the phrase, “Context, Context, Context.”  To understand a verse, one needs to read and study the context.

Why quote texts out of context?  At best, people are lazy.  At worst, they are deceptive.  Like I said two posts ago, Jeremiah 29:11 may be the biblical verse most frequently taken out of context.  (Don’t do it in my presence.  I can’t be held responsible for my actions.)

Tragically, the context of Jeremiah 29 makes verse 11 more powerful.  Ripping out of context makes it bland.

Jeremiah 29 is a letter where God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah to the exiles living in Babylon, almost 600 years before Jesus’ birth.  The recipients of the letter had just lived through a horror far worse than 9/11.  Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian army just marched through Judah, killing and capturing tens of thousands of people, ripping them from their homes to deport them to Babylon where they’d be slaves.  The recipients of Jeremiah’s letter were devastated, angry at Babylon and bitter at God for allowing it.

Into this context, the words, “I know the plans I have for you, says YHWH, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope” are outrageous, almost insensitive to the pain people are feeling.  They feel like lamenting, and yet God tells them to hope.

We don’t need to be exiles living in Babylon to faithfully appropriate Jeremiah 29:11.  But let’s remember at least two things about the whole chapter when we quote verse 11.  First, it was written to people in incredible pain, more than most of us will ever experience.  They were mourning death, a move, and a transition to enslavement all at once.  And yet into that context, God can still speak words of hope.  That’s amazing.

Second, they aren’t plans for “me” but plans for “us”.  The “you” in 29:11 is plural (“you all”, or “youse guys” if you’re from Philly), which should be obvious since it was a letter written to a community.  Yes, they’d lost almost everything, but they still had their community, which is how God often blesses us.

While Jeremiah 29:11 is a good verse, it’s not even the best verse in the chapter.  That comes in part III (click here).

How does understanding the context help us understand other verses frequently ripped out of their contexts?  (Can you name the city in the image?)

Did God sneeze? (Psalm 119:12)

Blessed are you, O LORD;
teach me your statutes
 (Psa. 119:12 NRSV).

Why does the psalmist bless God?  Did God sneeze?  (If God sneezed would you say, “God bless God”?)

Yeah, we don’t really understand blessing very well today if we think only think blessing follows sneezing.  Blessing is huge in the Bible.  It’s the first thing God does to the freshly created humans (Gen. 1:28) and what God is going to do through Abraham’s descendents to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3).

So, God blesses us, but how do we bless God?  Throughout the psalms, the people are called to bless YHWH because of how he has blessed them(Psa. 28:6; 31:21; 41:13; 68:19; 144:1).  The primary way the people are called to bless God is through praise (Psa. 106:48; 135:21).

One way the psalmist here blesses God is that he writes an acrostic song 176 verses long singing the praises of God’s word.  Specifically in this verse, the psalmist asks God to be his Torah-teacher. (The Hebrew word “blessed” in 119:12 is barak, here as a passive participle, so this fourth verse of the Bet section begins appropriately with Bet.)

How do you bless God?