Monthly Archives: July 2006

Personal-Maybe… Privatized? Nope.

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A while ago (probably more than a year) I was pleasantly intrigued by a reflection by Kyle Potter entitled “Antithesis 2: Jesus Christ is Not My Personal Lord and Savior. Or Yours.” Rather than being a thoughtless screed against evangelical or pietistic thought or language as some might assume by the title, Kyle is pointing out a very real danger in using a particular terminology without fully embracing the meaning behind it. Indeed, he may well be pointing out a draw-back to a particular sort of Christian apologetic in contemporary American culture. His thoughts were brought back to mind by a series of Sunday School lessons Bill and I have been presenting on evangelism and the discussions surrounding them. Here’s how Kyle started out:

I have a personal computer. I have a friend who works as a personal trainer. Executives (and some pastors!) have personal assistants. Some people have personal shoppers. In the Old Testament narratives, pagans had personal gods, called “household gods,” a.k.a. idols. Folks loved to steal them from one another (See these passages and ask yourself what I’m trying to do).

The clear connotation of the word “personal” as we normally apply it to people and things is that those things serve our own individual needs as we understand them and wish to have those needs met. We would even refer to them as my personal ________.

And in terms of the biblical narrative, it is a grave thing to refer to the living God with such language.

{Read it all}

I was reminded of Kyle’s post by a few things. One was a comment by a committed member of our parish regarding evangelism. The issue, as he put it, was not a reluctance to evangelize but rather the fact that everyone they spent the degree of time with that they would want in order to approach evangelism was already Christian. The other was a comment related to me by Fr. Bill, relating to something a friend of his had said to his daughter a few years before: “Our Lord paid a very public price for your private faith…” The first incident illustrates just how much we’ve all imbibed the cultural proclivity to “keep private things private,” including our faith. I’m not being critical of our parishioner here, just reflecting on the fact that his comment became a point of conviction for me and, I believe, the way our culture encourages us to look at our faith. For instance, why would a Christian be reluctant to share their faith with a fellow Christian? Certainly there could be ways of doing this that would be offensive, i.e. presenting one’s own faith as superior and/or denigrating the other person’s belief, not accepting their statement of faith in Christ at face value etc.. But in general, it seems to me that the same testimony we give in the course of evangelism of the unbeliever is, in the context of a relationship with a fellow Christian, simple exhortation. The fact that we find it so difficult to share our faith, not only in the course of evangelism directed at strangers who may sometimes get offended, but also in the midst of our relationships with our fellow Christians… the fact that we are sometimes reluctant to share our faith with our fellow Christians for fear of rejection or anger shows that we have bought into the great lie of our age: the privatization of religion.

The dangers of this privatization go beyond a simple neglect of evangelism or fraternal exhortation, and extend into our human tendency to want to control God, a troubling tendency to think of God as a sort of divine Jack-in-the-box for whom specific actions on our part results in specific reactions on his. This is of course, exactly backwards–God is never on the defensive with us, he is never truly responding to us, the initiative is always his–there are simply times when we forget this. Given these problems, it would be helpful for us to reflect on the words of the Apostle: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Rom 1:16 ESV)

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Leander Harding on the Moral inversion in the western church…

Leander Harding offers a very interesting piece analyzing the current state of the Church and society through the lens of the theory of “moral inversion”

All of the established churches of the West have within them an element, and very often the dominant element, which combines this sense of moral passion and skepticism about traditional theology. There is enough residual Christian commitment to dampen the tendency to create an exact replica of the calamitous examples of moral inversion in recent European history. (Polanyi thought that Americans and the English in any event were saved from the worst aspects of moral inversion by their tendency not to take theories too seriously and by their pragmatism.) Nonetheless, to the degree that this combination of moral passion and epistemological pessimism infect the Western churches, there will be a tendency to be romantic about ideologies of moral inversion in the culture and there will be a tendency to echo the dynamic of moral inversion in church life. This explains what appears to be a real contempt for traditional Christian ethics, the constant accusations of hypocrisy against traditionalists, the demand for release from what are seen as oppressive doctrines and just because they are traditional, in favor of the “facts” of personal experience, even if this threatens the destruction of the institution. The dynamic of moral inversion also explains the increasing tendency toward the arbitrary use of authority to enforce conformity to the new teaching. The concept of moral inversion helps me understand the at first sight baffling combination of an insistence on personal freedom and the increasingly draconian use of canon law and the levers of ecclesiastical power in stifling dissent. As Lady Scott said; “When such skepticism demanded total individual freedom, the logical outcome was total state control, since there could be no other way for totally free and skeptical individuals to combine.”

{read it all}

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I’m no Expert, but I know who Jesus is: Sermon for Proper 10B, Trinity Church, Winchester

Text: Amos 7:7-15; Mark 6:7-13

Theme: Our Authority is from God in Jesus Christ

Subject: Authority

Title: I’m no expert, but I do know who Jesus Christ is.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “authority” and “expertise” lately. It seems like authority is a big question in our society—who has it, how can I get it, how do I get other people to recognize that I have it.

That last part seems more important than the others most of the time.

It is more important that somebody thinks I know what I’m talking about than it is that I actually know what I’m talking about. In fact, that’s one thing you learn in college… to talk in such a way that you seem to know what you’re saying when in fact you have no idea either about what you’re supposed to be talking about or about what you are actually saying. But here’s the catch—lots of people go to college these days…and we’re getting better at figuring out when somebody doesn’t really have a clue.

So we invented graduate school—a place where you can go and learn how to talk about something, or nothing, in a language completely other than English so that you can fool people into believing you’re an expert.

The more unintelligible you are, the more you must know… the more “authority” you must have.

…I’m not just picking on the academic community because we do the same thing in our everyday lives.

A comedian I once saw talked about how he got by at his family gatherings with his dad and uncles who were sports fanatics. He said he would pick one good player’s name from a pro team, like the Titans, and when conversation would die down he would look around and just say “that Vince Young…” and shake his head and let the conversation get rolling again, all the while everyone assumed that he knew what he was talking about, whether it was good or bad. We do things like that…

We live like we’re in one of those commercials… you know the ones… “Thank you for delivering my baby Dr…” “Oh, I’m not a Dr… but I did stay at a Holiday Inn express last night.”

People want short cuts to authority…

Ways that we can do something, or get the benefits of doing something without the work that goes with it.

But even though I think we all want to look like we’re experts, we tend to want other, real experts to tell us what to do and/or assure us that what we’re already doing is alright. I think that’s why news casts so often come equipped with talking heads these days… experts to share their wisdom with the rest of us.

And none of us wants out Doctor or dentist to be in the practice of pretending to know what they’re talking about.

The scriptures have their own take on authority and where it comes from, and few stories could exemplify that better than our Old Testament and Gospel lessons today.

By the time of our Old Testament lesson the Kingdom of Israel had been divided, with the Northern Kingdom being known as Israel or Samaria and the Southern Kingdom known as Judah. Historically we know that the Northern Kingdom was the more powerful of the two kingdoms, and the more involved in the politics of the region. Because of this, it tended to trust in its military strength and be more open to outside influences.

This sets up the tension we see in the Old Testament prophetic writings where we see people sent out from Judah, the southern kingdom, to warn their brothers and sisters in the north.

This was the case with the prophet Amos who is sent to Samaria to the Northern Kingdom of Israel to proclaim the coming judgement of the Lord. God tells Amos to prophesy saying:

“See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by;

the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,

and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,

and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

In other words, God is measuring Israel, testing them with the plumb line and seeing how far they’ve strayed. Amos has prayed for Israel twice and the Lord has relented, but he will not relent a third time, and so Amos is told to prophesy their destruction.

It’s not a surprise that those in authority in the Northern Kingdom don’t like what they hear Amos saying, and so the priest Amaziah, someone with the appropriate credentials, an expert with authority, talks to the king about it and then goes to Amos and tells him to leave the country.

And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

It’s interesting to me that the priest, when telling Amos never to prophesy again in Israel, uses the words he does when describing the shrine at Bethel. “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

What Amaziah said may technically have been true… Bethel was recognized by the king, and it was a temple of the kingdom—they didn’t have separation of church and state after all… but isn’t it interesting that it is those things that are important to Amaziah, and evidently to Jeroboam as well.

that it is a sanctuary of the King’s… never once is God mentioned. You could say that Amaziah and Jeraboam were testifying against themselves, justifying God’s judgement.

As if to accentuate the fact that they had given up on God and instead focused on human authority and power, Amos tells the priest, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, `Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

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The Best Systematic Theologian of the 20th Century

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Several days ago Anna highlighted a contest that was going on over at a blog entitled “God in a Shrinking Universe” for best systematic theologian of the 20th Century. Well, the results are in and the winner is Lutheran theologian, Jurgen Moltmann who defeated Roman Catholic Hans Urs Von Balthasar in the final round with RC Karl Rahner coming in with the bronze. For reasons I’m not entirely familiar with, Karl Barth was not in the contest (though there is a “for fun” run off between Barth and Moltmann going on now.) It’s interesting that while Moltmann won the face off, Von Balthasar’s theology was thought to be more likely to stand the test of time and be more influential in the future. That could be because people have not quite begun to digest his work, whereas Moltmann has been at the fore much longer than Von Balthasar. In part, that could be due to the nature of their writing–There’s no doubt that Moltmann has done much for the study and appreciation of political theology and eschatology. Von Balthasar on the other hand, in his dramatics and focus on aesthetics is someone whose work is not as appreciable in part because I don’t believe we are ready to talk about Beauty and Truth again on a wide scale yet. David Hart seems to have forwarded that dialogue in his book “The Beauty Of The Infinite: The Aesthetics Of Christian Truth” Be that as it may, I thought it would be appropriate to include a selection from each man’s work:

First, from the runner-up, from his book “Heart of the World” :

A Wound Has Blossomed

Hans Urs Von Balthasar

Go away from me! I am a sinful man. But why am I still speaking with you? The breath from my mouth reaches you like a poison and defiles you. Go away and dissolve this impossible bond. There was a time when I was a sinner like other sinners, a time when I could still snatch up the gift of your grace, the gift of my remorse, as the beggar catches the copper penny thrown into his round hat. With it I could buy myself bread and soup: I could live because of you. I could taste the bliss of remorse. I could chew the bitter herb of contrition as a benefit of your grace. Grace-filled bitterness sweetened the bitterness of my guilt. But today–what to do? Into what hole can I crawl so that you will no longer see me, so that I will no longer importune you? I have sinned right to your face, and the mouth which touched your lips–your divine lips–a thousand times has kissed the lips of the world and said: “I do not know him.” I do not know this man. If I knew him I would not have been able to betray him thus–without hesitation, so naturally. And if I perhaps did know him, then i certainly did not love him. For love cannot betray in such a way; it cannot turn away like that, with the most innocent of faces. Love cannot forget love. That I was able to forsake you like that after all that had happened between us proves only one thing: that I was not worthy of your love and that I myself never really possessed love. It is neither arrogance nor humility, but quite simply the truth, that now makes me say to you: “I’ve had enough.” I do not want any further ray of your purity to stray into my hell. It is a beautiful thing when love condescends to what is base, but it is unbearable when love becomes base with the base. (p 145-146)

And from Moltmann’s “Coming of God: Christian Eschatology”:

What Christ accomplished in his dying and rising is proclaimed to all human beings through his gospel and will be revealed to everyone and everything at his appearance. What was suffered in the depths of the cross and overcome through suffering will be manifest through his parousia in glory. This inner connection between cross and parousia was already perceived by Johann Christoph Blumhardt when, in the Good Friday sermon he preached in Mottlingen in 1872, he proclaimed a ‘general pardon': ‘What the Lord Jesus endured there [i.e., on Golgotha] will be revealed again. For just because of this the Savior has also acquired rights over this darkness, so that just here, here on this cross, the prospect is opened up for us that one day the point will be reached when every knee must bow, in heaven and on the earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father… Good Friday proclaims a general pardon to the whole world, and this general pardon is still to be revealed, for it was not for nothing that Jesus hung on the cross… We are moving towards a general pardon, and it will soon come! Anyone who is unable to think this greatest thing of all knows nothing about a Good Friday.’

To make Christ’s death on the cross the foundation for universal salvation and ‘the restoration of all things’ is to surmount the old dispute between the universal theology of grace and the particularist theology of faith. The all-reconciling power of love is not what Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’. It is grace through and through, and grace is always and only free and for nothing. But it is born out of the profound suffering of God and it the costliest thing that God can give: himself in his Son, who has become our Brother, and who draws us through our hells. It is costliest grace. (p 254)

It’s hard to compare this selection of Von Balthasar with that of Moltmann. Both are beautiful for different reasons, yet I think they are getting at the same truth: the complete love and unmerrited Grace of Jesus Christ for us, even in our dirty and sinful state.

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Paul Owens from Reformed Catholicism on 5 questions he asks himself these days.

1. How was I ever dumb enough to believe that I should be suspicious of the “true conversion” of Roman Catholics, just because they did not articulate the mechanisms of justification in the same way as I was taught in Bible college? How could I mistake justification by faith alone in Christ alone (the NT doctrine), with justification by faith IN my faith alone in Christ alone (the popular pseudo-Reformed doctrine today)?

2. How did I ever get duped into thinking that men who obsessively promote a religion which revolves around the five points of Calvinism could be mistaken for being oracles of sound Christian orthodoxy? Why did I not have the discernment to recognize that people who center upon theological minutiae, and make them the substance of the Faith, are not speaking for the Good Shepherd?

3. How did I get the idea that salvation was a matter of my personal decision to accept Christ as my Lord and Savior, wherever, whenever and however I might so choose (by God’s sovereign grace of course), apart from the Church’s decision to receive me into her bosom through the grace of baptism? How on earth did I ever accept those goofy evangelical attempts to explain away the plain meaning of verses like Acts 2:38 and 22:16, and 1 Peter 3:21? Sola Scriptura my foot!

{Read it all}

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Have you been Inoculated against the Gospel? Sermon for Proper 9b (July 9th, 2006) At Trinity Church, Winchester

Jesus Preaching

{Note: This sermon was written in bullet format… some of it had to be filled in to be posted here, and the format may be a bit strange when translated to the net. At any rate, here it is}





Two summers ago I had the opportunity to hear Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini of the Episcopal Church in Rwanda speak. He told the story of what he had faced in that country since taking office. Archbishop Kolini is in the unique position of being appointed to head a church in a nation recovering from one of the most heinous genocides, mass murders, in history. And while I’m sure he was never guilty of preaching anything less than Jesus Christ, and him crucified, as Paul put it, He spoke of how he had been forced to “repent of his easy gospel” by the things he had seen there. When he started visiting his churches he said he was shocked one Sunday to be attacked (I don’t know if he meant verbally or physically) by the retired priests at this parish who was from another ethnic group. After this experience he thought “if this is the sort of anger this priest has, no wonder we had the genocide.” After this experience he began preaching a focused message to his priests and people. One of the things he highlights is the fact that before the genocide, over 98% of Rwandans self-identified as Christian and they would have called Rwanda a Christian nation.

How are close to a million people murdered in a supposedly “Christian” country??

How do people who claim to know who Jesus is, do things like this??

The people of Rwanda weren’t new to the faith… they were inheritors of a growing tradition of Christian profession in that country. Ever since a great movement known as the East African Revival had swept through that part of Africa in the 19th century like a wildfire, these people had been coming to know Jesus–had been hearing the message of salvation.

And then, in a matter of 100 days, it all went up in smoke

And the evidence of their profession became something other than hearts turned toward Jesus and lives transformed by the Love of God in the Gospel.?

It could be seen instead in broken hearts and lives ended, in ashes and in bodies through the streets.?

What had happened to their faith??

You might remember another “Christian nation..” this one an inheritor of over 1000 years of Christianity…

A history filled with the names of saints

With art and architecture created for the glory of God

Germany even after the first world war was a center of European culture and would have been considered the theological capital of the world… even today, people who want to get doctorates in theology are usually required to have a reading knowledge of German.

But then there was the second world war, and the Holocaust, in which upwards of six million people were killed.

How did this happen in a Christian country?

What happened to their faith??

One of my favorite theologians said something that might shed some light on that question. “Religious studies professors are like taxidermists” he said… “they want to kill religion so they can study it…”

Unfortunately, I don’t think religious studies professors are alone in “killing faith”…

I think we all do it…

What happened to their faith? They killed it. Their faith was dead and so, it resulted in death…?

Their faith was dead because they thought they knew who Jesus was…They believed they knew what he was telling them to do.

They knew Jesus so well in fact that there were no surprises for them… they knew a Jesus who would never tell them to do anything they didn’t want to do or hadn’t decided to do already…?

How easy it is to fall into that trap… the trap of believing we know God… that we know Jesus, so well, only to discover we haven’t been looking up at God, we’ve been looking down at a mirror.?

We learn to make God in our image rather than allowing him to remake us in his.

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From the Prophet Malachi

I was struck tonight while reading Malachi, by its relevance to the current situation in the Episcopal Church. I had several insights as I was reading that call for further exposition, but that will have to wait until later. At the moment, I wanted to draw your attention to the core selection that speaks to our predicament in Malachi 2:1-9:

“And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and you shall be taken away with it. So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may stand, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him. It was a covenant of fear, and he feared me. He stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction.”



In a stark juxtapostion, I was reading the collected poems of George Herbert+ when I came across the poem Aaron, which I had been struck by before, but not as deeply. Here’s the text:

AARON.

HOLINESS on the head,

Light and perfection on the breast,

Harmonious bells below raising the dead

To lead them unto life and rest.

Thus are true Aarons drest.*

Profaneness in my head,

Defects and darkness in my breast,

A noise of passions ringing me for dead

Unto a place where is no rest :

Poor priest ! thus am I drest.

Only another head

I have another heart and breast,

Another music, making live, not dead,

Without whom I could have no rest :

In Him I am well drest.

Christ is my only head,

My alone only heart and breast,

My only music, striking me e’en dead ;

That to the old man I may rest,

And be in Him new drest.

So holy in my Head,

Perfect and light in my dear Breast,

My doctrine tuned by Christ (who is not dead,

But lives in me while I do rest),

Come, people ; Aaron’s drest.

{thanks to the Luminarium for the text}

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What’s all that about Islam and “Peace?”

After reading this, I think I can faintly recall someone at some point arguing that Islam was a religion of peace as opposed to those nasty Christian Crusaders. But, you know, in the scope of history and in the context in which they were carried out, the Crusades weren’t all that extreme–indeed, they began as a reaction to Muslim expantionism. Be that as it may, the era of such Christian militarism is behind us, and save for the possible exception of some cults and fringe fundamentalists groups that can hardly be considered Christian, things like this are unheard of within Christian culture*…not so in the modern Muslim world, from North Africa to Jordan to Turkey to Pakistan… honor killings are all the rage among certain groups of Muslims. Hat tip to Fr. WB.

They call them the “virgin suicides.”

Every few weeks in this Kurdish area of southeast Anatolia, which is poor, rural and deeply influenced by conservative Islam, a young woman tries to take her life. Others have been stoned to death, strangled, shot or buried alive. Their offenses ranged from stealing a glance at a boy to wearing a short skirt, wanting to go to the movies, being raped by a stranger or relative, or having consensual sex.

Hoping to join the European Union, Turkey has tightened the punishments for “honor crimes.” But rather than such deaths being stopped, lives are being ended by a different means. Parents are trying to spare their sons from the harsh punishments associated with killing their sisters by pressing the daughters to take their own lives instead.

Women’s groups here say the evidence suggests that a growing number of “dishonored” girls are being locked in a room for days with rat poison, a pistol or a rope, and told by their families that the only thing resting between their disgrace and redemption is death.

{read it all}

*of course, there are other horrible and abusive things that happen all over the US and other predominantly Christian countries as well…some of the psychological abuse is certainly similar, and the pressure to not talk about abuse and/or incest is certainly just as high… but the whole business of honor killing (or pressuring someone into an honor suicide) is sickening. Not only that, but they could be coming to a country or neighborhood near you, as it has in the UK, Denmark and Germany:

This week, for the very first time, a court in Europe sentenced nine members of the same family for the honour killing of a female relative. Honour killings, where a woman is murdered for the shame that she is said to have brought on her family, are a growing phenomenon in Western Europe. In December 2005 Nazir Afzal, a spokesman of Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service stated that the United Kingdom has had “at least a dozen honour killings” between 2004 and 2005. British police are investigating more than 100 cases of women who died under mysterious circumstances. Germany was shocked last year by the murder of Hatin Surucu, a young Turkish woman who was killed by three brothers because she was “a whore who lived like a German.” A German women’s organization states that “There are no concrete statistics available, but unofficial estimates [of honour killings] are considered to be high. We get calls from women caught in difficult situations almost every two weeks.”

{read it all}

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The Joys of a Small Town: A Home with a Story.

our house

This morning I went to a local nursing home/ assisted living facility in order to distribute communion to some of the residents there, some of whom are members of our parish and others who are Episcopalians and friends of Episcopalians from else where. The service itself was great fun, I’ve always enjoyed interacting and talking with older people–especially those in care facilities because they seem to appreciate the conversation so much. As I was getting ready to leave, I met an elderly gentleman who had overheard me mention my hometown to another resident. This sparked a conversation that eventually led us to conclude that Anna and I are actually living in the same home where he and his family lived for 12 years. There had been one owner and at least two occupants between us, so some things had certainly changed, but we had fun describing certain characteristics and quirks to one another as we determined that this was in fact the same house. As our conversation continued I gained a glimpse of a past that had heretofore been shrouded in mystery and time. I shared memories with this man–many good, one tragic–about the house I now call home with my wife, and it was a joy.

And, as if this experience wasn’t enough in itself, Anna and I had an appointment with an accountant (I’m discovering the joys of clergy taxes) during which we discovered that he knew exactly where we lived, referring to it as “the old ____ place” using the name of the man I only met this morning. It turns out that our accountant used to play in the yard of our house with the children of the elderly man I met at the assisted living center. As we left the accountant’s office Anna made the comment that she thought she’d just been sold on the benefits of small town living…I think I’ve been too–how many places have such memories? What have we lost with them?

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This is bizarre…

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Something very odd just happened. I was having a conversation with Anna and the verse from Matthew’s gospel that begins “from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence…” came up… I made reference to it and finished it “and the violent bear it away…” Anna asked me what version that was and I replied that I thought it was the King James/Authorized version, but when I looked the KJV said “the violent take it by force.” So, i set about looking to see what version i remembered and lo and behold it turned out to be the way that the Douay Rheims translates that passage. Now, I’ve never in my life owned a DR version of the Bible, and I can’t say i recall reading very much of it… I wonder how that got stuck in my head…

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