Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough | Influence Magazine


Note: The following column will appear in the March/April 2018 issue of Influence magazine. I wrote it prior to yesterday’s deadly shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Its purpose is to encourage local congregations to respond holistically to people’s needs when tragedy strikes their community.

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The deadliest mass shooting in the United States took place the night of October 1, 2017, when a gunman opened fire on concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, leaving 58 dead and 851 injured. In the aftermath of that shooting, people across America took to social media to offer “thoughts and prayers” for the victims. Their sentiment was heartfelt, but was it enough?

According to the Bible, the answer is no.

James 2:15–16 says, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

No good at all.

Similarly, 1 John 3:17 says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”

It can’t be. So, John exhorts us, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (verse 18).

Words are insufficient responses to a tragedy, crisis or need unless we pair them with deeds.

By the same token, however, deeds also are insufficient responses to a tragedy if we fail to pair them with words and prayers.

Why? Because we have minds as well as bodies. We need to know that our lives have meaning, that our pain has a purpose. According to the apostle Paul, being at “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” enables us to make sense of our suffering. We can “glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:1,3–4).

Consequently, an authentic Christian response to tragedy combines deeds and words, action and prayer, help and hope. It’s a both/and effort, not an either/or choice.

Let me close by suggesting three concrete needs victims have that your church should provide if — God forbid! — tragedy strikes your community.

First, victims need shelter, a safe place where their immediate physical and material needs are met. Providing shelter is a Matthew 25:34–36 ministry to the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and imprisoned.

Second, victims need shoulders to cry on, a community that affirms their emotional response to loss. Responding with empathy is a Romans 12:15 ministry: “Rejoice with those who rejoice,” Paul teaches us; “mourn with those who mourn” (emphasis added).

Third, victims need shepherds. Helping people find meaning in their suffering is a Psalm 23:2 ministry. It leads them to the “green pastures” and “quiet waters” of faith in God.

When tragedy hits, people’s immediate needs are for shelter and shoulders. Over the long term, though, as they mentally and emotionally process their experience, they increasingly need shepherds. Your church will do a great service to the community if it’s prepared to respond to people’s needs holistically in times of tragedy.

 

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Review of ‘A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible’ by Leland Ryken


 Literary-FormsLeland Ryken, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

In the introduction to this marvelous little book, Leland Ryken makes a distinction that helps explain why his book is necessary. Some people, he notes, argue that “the literary forms of the Bible are only the forms in which the content comes to us.” By contrast, he argues that the Bible’s literary forms are “the only form in which the content is expressed.” He concludes: “Without form, no content exists. Form is meaning. Meaning is embodied in form.”

If Ryken is correct—and I think he is—then we must pay attention to genres, literary techniques, motifs, archetypes and type scenes, figures of speech, rhetorical devices, stylistic traits, and formulas, for these literary forms are the vehicles by means of which biblical authors, inspired by God, expressed theological, historical, and moral content. Failure to understand the literary form correctly may result in a failure to understand the Bible correctly. We should not interpret a parable as a historical narrative, to cite an obvious example. If we do, we misunderstand both.

The handbook presents literary forms in alphabetical order, beginning with “ABUNDANCE, STORY OF” and ending with “WORSHIP PSALM.” For each form, Ryken provides both definition and example. Most of his entries are noncontroversial, though I think “PARABLE” might ruffle a few pastoral feathers, since it argues that parables are “usually allegorical,” in the sense that “numerous details in most of [Jesus’] parables stand for something else.” My guess is that readers will agree the substance of Ryken’s remarks, even if they chafe at his use of the words allegory and allegorical.

Ryken’s entries, “COMEDY” and “TRAGEDY,” point to architectonic truths about the literary form of the Bible considered as a whole. “It is a commonplace of literary criticism,” Ryken writes in the former entry, “that comedy rather than tragedy is the dominant form of the Bible and the Christian gospel.” Why? “The story begins with the creation of a perfect world. It descends into the tragedy of fallen human history. It ends with a new world of total happiness and victory over evil.” By contrast, as Ryken writes in the latter entry, “The materials for tragedy are everywhere present in the Bible, but the Bible is largely a collection of averted tragedies—potential tragedies that are avoided through human repentance and divine forgiveness.” The biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, and redemption encodes a comic worldview, a hopeful story with a happy ending. No wonder joy is the predominant response to the gospel whenever it is preached!

Those wishing to study the literary forms of the Bible in greater depth can turn to several other works by the same author, including: How to Read the Bible as Literature, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible, Ryken’s Bible Handbook, and Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, which he co-edited with James C. Wilhoit and Tremper Longman III.

Finally, on a personal note, I was a student of Ryken’s in his classes on British Literature and Milton at Wheaton College (Class of ’91). I enjoyed those classes thoroughly, despite the bullwhip. (Don’t ask!) And I continue to profit from his many writings on the literary qualities of the Bible.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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