A Travelogue of the Interior

faith questions


A “perverted attack”? A difference of opinion? Or a hill to die on?

A funny thing happened the other day.

OK, maybe not so funny, but it happened.

I wrote a post ruminating on what might be an underlying dynamic contributing to the sex abuse climate extant in the conservative evangelical church at the moment. My post got re-posted at the David C Cook Facebook page and folks started to comment, some positive (agreeing or furthering the discussion) some negative (disagreeing or trying to shut it down altogether). One comment in particular called me out with this:

I have never seen such a perverted attack on the complementarian view of gender and the biblical view of marriage.”

Negative comments don’t bother me. I worked professionally in high tech for 15 years and was on the receiving end of many a negative comment — usually from men because this was high tech 20 years ago and high tech was all men — and can I just say, I love men! I love men for lots of reasons, but one reason that has to be at the top of my list of “Reasons Men Are Awesome” is that they tend to be (and yes, I am making a sweeping generalization) direct, confrontational, emotional-in-the-moment, and volcanic, meaning they blow up, say their peace (or is it piece?) and when its all over, they readjust their clothing, smooth down their hair and quite innocently ask if you want to grab a sandwich. As If Nothing Happened.  Because nothing did. We disagreed, argued about it, moved on. No meta-communicating about the process, no grudges, no social punishment. Just sandwiches.

But, as usual, I digress.

I am quite sure the fellow commenting about my perversion and attack on the Bible loves Jesus as much as I do, submits to God’s word as much as I do, and was contending for the gospel as best he can. And so I got to thinking, what is he reacting to? Why the volcanic blow up (offers of sandwiches notwithstanding).  And I think at least part of what’s happening here is that he’s picturing complementarian theology at one end of a fairly broad spectrum, and I was addressing it at the other.

Here’s where it gets sticky and I ask for help, and friends, this is a genuine inquiry. I’m not trying to advance an agenda, I am trying to understand something and need some help from thoughtful people no matter where on the issue they land today.

Is it fair to put complementarian theology on a spectrum from uber-conservative (let’s say Christian Patriarchy) to fairly liberal? What would exemplify the progressive endpoint of the spectrum? Conversely, does egalitarian theology also exist on a spectrum? If so, what might its end points be?

I and others toy with comparing the current debate about women’s roles in the home and church to the centuries-past debate about slavery, where the Bible was used on both sides of the divide toward dramatically different ends. Ultimately, the liberal/progressive reading of Scripture won.

The thing is, in hindsight, trying to make a Biblical case for a spectrum of possibility concerning enslaving Africans (from the uber-conservative “God approves of African slavery because Ham” to the arguably more progressive end, “benign imperialism in the form of compassionate slavery can be good”) is horribly offensive and so clearly an egregious use of Scripture that I can hardly stomach it.

But here I am, asking if the idea that women are subordinate to men by virtue of a Divine edict of beneficent hierarchy, can be put on a spectrum and patiently waited out while the debates rage and the dust settles.

In other words, is there a Biblically-meaningful difference between The Gospel Coalition vs Christians for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood vs the Christian Patriarchs?

I like to think that had I been a contemporary of famed William Wilberforce, I would not have needed a trip to the slave boats to become an abolitionist, I would not have been someone who politely conceded there are “differences of interpretation and we all mean well,” and turned away while African men, women and children were abused in the name of God. I tend to see the call for women’s full equality in church and home in the same terms. I don’t see nuance, I admit that.

That said, I am also quite aware that using slavery as an exemplar leads to conclusions of this kind.  So I ask, what alternate/other/better/more useful metaphors, historical or otherwise, can we employ in our pursuit of a robust theology of gender?



How does a Christian magazine end up posting a letter defending statutory rape?

A week ago, the Christianity Today (CT) imprint, Leadership Journal (LJ), published a letter written by a man in jail for statutory rape of a teenage girl in his youth group.

It was published as a cautionary tale for pastors and other (male) church leaders lest they too “fall into sin” which, in this case, was positioned as an extra-marital affair between consenting adults. Only at the end of the letter does the reader learn with horror that the female participant was in middle school when the abuse began.

Within hours of the article being posted, a huge — and I mean huge — backlash walloped CT and the Journal, and after an appalling 5 days (the editors’ first instinct was simply to delete all negative comments), the letter was replaced with a genuinely awesome apology and retraction (it is included in the link above) demonstrating that finally, after countless emails, blog posts, comments and tweets, the publishers understood just how warped their point of view was that allowed them to publish a rape apologia couched in Christian vernacular and supported with Bible stories.

A number of bloggers have written about the ordeal — some of them sexual abuse survivors themselves, others who have grasped the consequence of gender discrimination in the church and the ways in which warped theology contributes to a climate wherein abuse thrives. One blogger in particular caught my attention and it is to her ideas that I wish to add.

She unmasks the nuance that had the predator/prey relationship been between an adult male and a teenage boy, CT and LJ would never have published the letter. It would have been so obviously despicable, unrepentant and narcissistic. The same holds true had the rapist been an adult female pastor, teacher or coach and her victim a teenage girl (or boy). We are crystal clear in these scenarios that these are not “extramarital affairs” or “consensual relationships.” We are crystal clear that one person is a target of sexual deviance and the other a predator who manipulates others for their own gratification.

So why — how — did the editors at CT/LJ miss this?  Why could they not see the same dynamic in this situation?

Surely a part of the answer is that in many Christian circles, a relationship between a dominant male and a submissive female is normative. It is proffered as the ideal model for marriage and the operating model for church governance.

When I was growing up, I picked up the message that the “ideal” Christian wife was younger than her husband, less educated, less professionally accomplished, embraced her calling to be submissive, and above all desired to be shaped by her husband’s wishes, ideas and leadership. The “ideal” Christian husband was the exact opposite: he was older than his wife, well-educated, had professional or pastoral aspirations and above all desired to be the spiritual authority and leader in his home. Authentic partnership and mutual submission were nowhere in the story line, although looking back I find it funny how few of us actually lived out this leader/follower narrative. Either we were terrible church-goers or God was particularly merciful. I’m thinking it was a combination of both.

Lest you think this mentality has gone the way of all flesh, look no further than the embarrassingly popular Duck Dynasty patriarch and his encouraging of child marriage to see this idea alive and well. The clear message from Phil is that a man should marry a girl — 14, 15, 16 tops — so that he can mold her into a well-trained, subservient wife. Her humanity and the giftedness and calling of God on her life are irrelevant at best, and more likely simply non-existent. She exists solely for him, the argument goes, because Genesis says so. He is entitled to her.

(As an aside, are you aware that the Duck Dynasty patriarchs are putting out a Bible? Yep. Thomas Nelson is publishing a new King James version with commentary from Phil and his son Alan. Words fail). DC FF Bible

As sex scandals continue to rock the conservative evangelical world, comparisons are being made to the Catholic abuse scandal of years past. I am convinced that part of the reason we all reacted so vehemently to the news of widespread sexual abuse of altar boys by priests was precisely because we could all understand deep in our bones just how powerless, how un-equal, how un-consenting these boys were. We didn’t have to be told that a teenage boy does not willingly, naturally become a sexual submissive to an adult male for the purpose of that man’s pleasure. But we have to be told this very thing when a man’s victim is a girl. Especially if she is a teenager.

So here’s where it hurts: we could see the horror of male clergy abuse of boys clearly because it violated our worldview, wherein boys are agents in their lives and have full and unfettered rights to their bodies. When they are made powerless (we even have a word for that: emasculated) we can see straight away that something is horribly, egregiously wrong.

But girls, in this worldview, are powerless by design, by divine edict. Their bodies belong to their male protectors, the men who are entitled to them. It is their God-given role to be powerless, to require male leadership in order to thrive, and so when girls are victimized, we don’t recognize it as such. At first blush it looks normal, maybe slightly off but only slightly. The man was a little too old for her. She was maybe a little too young. Things will even out eventually. 

(Interestingly, there is no equivalent word for what happens to a girl or woman when she is robbed of agency or power — linguistic relativity would argue that this is both a reflection and a cause of female powerlessness).

I am not the only person to wonder if this horrible rape-apology letter would not have been published had there been women on the CT/LJ editorial board. Strong, opinionated, educated women, women who were viewed by their male peers as equals, whose voices were weighted equally in shaping editorial decisions.

For me, this week-long decent into a necessary yet excruciating discussion of sexual abuse in the Church that I love so much has reminded me again why I am a proponent of women’s full equality in marriage and church. The Bible I read says God made men and women to complement each other (no, I am not a “complementarian”). We are not the same. We see differently, experience differently. We are shaped by different forces in our culture, by our biology and the ways we were nurtured. Equality does not imply sameness. To the contrary, it is our difference that is our strength. We need each other — in marriage, in friendship, in church governance, in ministry.

In our equality, in our diversity, as peers, in partnership, we bear God’s image and accomplish God’s first, formative call on our shared humanity:

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.


I Am Probably Wrong

I am probably wrong — if not in entirety, then at least in some portion, about everything that matters to me.


About who God is.

About how to read the Bible.

About what it means for Jesus to be a human being.

About politics — and history too while I’m at it, and oh heck, eschatology too.

About raising my daughters and the assumptions and decisions I make for them.

About your motivations and the ways your wounds have shaped you.

About my own story and how I’ve made sense of it.

About your story too and how I judge it.

About All Those People and what I “discern” about them.

About what is actually happening in the world, and even about how the world actually came to be.

About …

About …

About …

I have this experience, all the time if I’m honest, where I am Trying So Hard to get it right, whatever “it” is — and it is usually more than one thing. And deep down I know I’m getting it wrong. I know I don’t have all the facts, all the information, the circumstances are too complex, the possible outcomes infinite and unpredictable. I am overwhelmed with the imagined voices and faces of the witnesses that have gone before me who understood God, the Scriptures, the world and their place in it differently than I do. I see myself in contrast as small and hanging on for dear life, shaped in mysterious ways by my affluence, my education, my family, my historical moment, my personality, my church, my DNA.

And I picture myself finally, in that first moment, just after my last living breath, standing there before God and realizing all at once how wrong I was about all sorts of things that mattered, how I didn’t see clearly and how dim that mirror really was as I stared into it all the while thinking I had it all figured out.

But in that same moment — last living breath, first eternal breath — recognizing Jesus.

Recognizing Jesus because I have known him all my life, imperfectly for sure, but I know the sound of his voice when he speaks my name, the cadence of his speech when he describes what he sees, the marks on his hands and feet and forehead.

In the face of the overwhelming complexity of modern, or really post-modern life, I sometimes think, why, really, am I a Christian? Is it because I believe the Bible, prayed the sinners prayer and had a conversion experience? Is it because I grew up in a Christian home and an evangelical community instead of a Muslim family and Islamic community or some other religious or secular equivalent? Is it because I am afraid to walk away from ancient religious beliefs or too delusional to see the truth of our material existence? I have friends who would — who have — pointed to every one of these possibilities as the cause celebre of my faith.

This is why: I am a Christian because of the unbelievable grace of God who loves me, knowing fully well my human frame, knowing fully well I cannot, will not Get It Right. I am a Christian because God did everything I could not do, moving heaven and earth to make a way for me to belong, once again with Him. And as if that were not enough, God then condescends to accompany me on my journey even now in this liminal space of a now-and-not-yet Kingdom. Here, faith and doubt open up the widest road possible, a journey of shadows as well as light.

I find it breathtaking that in the midst of my deepest doubts, awash in the most excruciating tensions of daily life, the Person I most want to talk about it all with … is God.




Reblogging from Mimi Haddad– The Bait & Switch of Complementarians

This is so good I am reblogging it, originally posted at Christians for Biblical Equality.

Love this most of all:bait-and-switch

Please do not tell girls or women that they share equally in God’s image; that they are equal at the foot of the cross; that they are equal in the kingdom of God, that they should cultivate their minds equally, unless you are prepared to give them equal authority to use the gifts God has given them. To do otherwise is to bait girls and women with the truth of Scripture as it points to their inheritance in Christ, and then to switch—to deny them the opportunities to walk in newness of life—in using their God-given gifts with equality authority. To advocate for the education of females based on the aims of Christian discipleship is inseparable from God’s aims for men and women created in God’s image—where both shared authority in Eden (Genesis 1:26- 28); and as recreated in the image of Christ who extends equal authority to his disciples, both male and female (John 20:18-23).

Read the full post here: http://blog.cbeinternational.org/2014/05/the-bait-switch-of-complementarians/

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Reblogged: “Me ‘n NT” by Bronwyn Lea


But life conspired against me and instead of spending an evening learning about the Psalms from the inimitable N.T. Wright (“Tom” when he’s being a man of the people), I spent the evening pushing my kids to do the homework they Simply Cannot Do Anymore. OMG, when is this school year going to end? WHEN!!??

Anyway, the next best thing to actually being there? Getting this recap on the evening by my new and fabulous friend, blogger Bronwyn Lea. Give it a read and see what Tom Wright had to say at his San Francisco presentation on the Psalms.

Me ‘n NT.

Thanks Bron for the write up!



God’s Got Your Back?


I love the “Keep Calm” meme but this particular instance has Got To Go.

I keep seeing and hearing this. It shows up in Facebook posts and on Christian radio, in Internet memes and bromides of every sort.

This little saying, “God’s Got Your Back” is meant to encourage us by reminding us that God is concerned with the circumstances of our lives, and while life looks to be spinning out of control, God is there in the background, sovereign and everything, and is going to make everything work out OK (we usually spiritualize this by quoting Romans 8:28). You can rest, dear Christian, because your happy ending is just around the corner and if you have faith to see that, you will also have peace and can relax knowing that Everything Is Going To Be OK.

Because Jesus.

It really would be nice if shutting our eyes to the realities of life somehow caused our faith to thrive. It really would be nice. But it doesn’t.

I might be the voice of one crying in the wilderness here but in my right-now-more-angry-than-humble-point-of-view, this is horrible theology.

God does not have your back. God doesn’t have mine either.

Try telling Job “God’s got your back” as he sits there in the ashes, scraping at boils with a potshard and staring at the shrouded bodies of his ten dead children. Were they lined up in a neat row from youngest to oldest or do their bodies lie crumpled at the scene of the crime?

Try telling David “God’s got your back” as he takes the humiliating descent from Jerusalem into a wilderness of his own making, the messianic throne hanging in the balance, while his favorite son, Absalom, rapes ten women on a rooftop as a way of proving to David he has been dethroned.

While you are at it, how about saying it to the women on the rooftop, the nameless ones, the ones we would today call sex trafficking victims. Did God have their backs? Did anyone?

Want a more immediate example? How about the 230 Nigerian school girls stolen from school by the worst sort of cowards, men petrified by the idea of an educated, empowered female? Look these schoolgirls in the eyes as they endure rape and torture, as their rapes are negated by the “virtue” of marriage (that is so profane I can barely type it), as they watch powerlessly while their friends and sisters are emotionally, sexually and physically abused — look them in the eye and tell them God’s got their back.

I hate this saying because it smacks of faith in faith, not faith in God, a God who does not answer us with explanation or even necessarily with provision but with theophany, with Presence.

I hate this saying because it only really works with our first world problems. As those brave Nigerian girls remind me, their lives cannot be reduced to a bromide and if not theirs, then not mine either. This is a desecration of all that is holy, a denial of the tension of life in God, a shutting our eyes to what is real in the world and to what is God’s part in it all.

I hate this saying because we don’t have a beat on what God is up to. We are merely projecting our wishful thinking and calling it Christian faith. Nope. We simply don’t know looking forward at people’s experiences whether they are going to come through unscathed or whether they will be wounded for life. We cannot know if the illness will lead to life or to death, if the child will thrive or be crushed beneath the weight of disability. We pray. We hope. We come alongside the ones who weep and we weep too. But for the love of God, we don’t tell them God’s got their back.

I hate this saying because it trivializes suffering, and friends, God does not trivialize human suffering. To the contrary, God so honors suffering that He shows up in the midst of it to bear witness, to absorb our grief and pain and confusion into His very own self and hold it there, to hold time eternally still so we can take all the time in the world and in our lives to process our grief. We wish God would just intervene, end the suffering, punish the evildoers. Someday God will. I believe that. I do.

Lastly, I hate this saying because it relieves us of duty. I mean, really, if God’s got your back, I don’t really have to, now do I? But we are the body of Christ on Earth. It is our job to have each others’ backs. To stand against evil even if it costs us our lives. To take our place alongside our brothers, our sisters, and defend them from all manner of arrows, those slung by outrageous fortune as much as those that originate in the pit of hell.

There is so much more to be said on this topic, so many nuances and angles to this idea of God having our backs. We didn’t even touch on the way this idea centers our theology on us (personal salvation and sanctification) rather than on God’s Kingdom agenda, that shalom pervade earth as it does in heaven, and our role in that epic story.

Maybe that’s a post for another day.







Servant-Leadership is Unbiblical

[Today’s guest post is by my long-time friend, Tim Fall, who blogs at http://timfall.wordpress.com/. I hung out with Tim when I was a student at UC Davis in the late 80s, and then we lost touch for too many years. About a year ago, I kept seeing this guy, “Tim” commenting on all the sites and blogs I was visiting, and I really liked what he had to say.  I finally decided to figure out who he was, and to my surprise, it was my old friend, and I am delighted to have him here today. Here’s his take on “servant leadership.”]



Tim Fall, blogger, judge, husband, dad — a genuinely awesome guy!

Servant leader? The Bible talks of servant servants – that is, servants who serve other servants.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:33-35.)

When I read or hear someone speak of servant-leadership it usually comes across more as an emphasis on the fact the person is the leader, and less of an elevation of a humble servant. Jesus’ teaching in Mark 9 focuses on the latter while his disciples were arguing about the former.

That’s why I am convinced that servant-leadership is unbiblical. Servant-servanthood is what Jesus taught:

  • Stoop down to meet someone else’s need, like Jesus did when he washed his friends’ feet. (John 13:12-17.)
  • Give yourself up for others, just as Jesus gave himself as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28.)
  • Refrain from using your own power to overcome adversaries, even as Jesus did when he allowed himself to be arrested. (Matthew 26:52-54.)

This is what true servanthood looks like. It looks like Jesus.

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Les Mis at Easter

This past Saturday, in the throes of preparing for Easter Sunday, the girls and I met up with some school friends for front row seats of Les Miserables, put on by the Pinewood Performing Arts program. 1525194_713789328632871_1784591407_nIt was a phenomenal production and if you live in the Bay Area and are looking for a great evening, I encourage you to get tickets. This is one talented and passionate group of students!

I have been a Les Mis lover since my senior year at Monta Vista High School, when Mr. Keep played the debut recording of the London musical during our AP Humanities class while we read along to Victor Hugo’s unabridged masterpiece. The written story is mind-blowing, a brilliant study of the nuances of law and grace and the gray spaces between our self-serving definitions of right and wrong. The musical adds a breathtaking and layered interpretation, and despite knowing every word of the entire performance, I still get chills up my spine whenever I hear its iconic opening measures. A few summers ago I sat in my living room with tears quite literally pouring out of my eyes as Alfie Boe sang Bring Him Home in honor of the 25th anniversary of the production. In fact, just wait a minute … I’m going to YouTube right now to watch it and then there’s this one, where all four of the Valjean’s sing the song together and Alfie makes what might be the most stirring key change in the history of key changes. Chills, I tell you. Chills.

Saturday evening, squeezed along with a few dozen other people into the tiny Pinewood theatre, as this familiar and beloved story unfolded for me once again on stage, God arrived.


The cast of Les Miserables, Pinewood School, 4/19/2014

I know I just lost some of you, and that’s OK.

But you see, if you recall from my post last week, Easter came out of nowhere for me this year. I ran headlong into Good Friday with barely a thought about the crucifixion. The weeks leading up to this most sacred of liturgical events had, for me, been thoroughly secular and I was struggling to carve out time and space for intentional reflection. I felt like a failure — as a parent who couldn’t seem to incorporate meaningful spiritual discipline into my daughter’s lives, and as a follower of Jesus, who couldn’t seem to carve out even the most rudimentary time and emotional space for journeying from cross to grave with the One I call Lord, Savior and Friend.

Then two young men step in and out of the light — one Valjean and the other Javert. One sings of grace, the other of Law. One sings of mercy, the other duty. Their voices flow seamlessly from solo to duet to antiphony, at times harmonious and then discordant. I listen to each word, knowing full well the end of the story. I know the last words on Valjean’s lips will be a humble prayer to God for salvation. I know Javert will take his final breath in searing, confused pain as he throws himself from a great height into a watery grave.

This movement from law to grace, this is what captivates me in the theatre that night. How hard it is, especially for those of us who have a religious heritage. We want the rules to matter. We want to be righteous in our own eyes. “Those who follow the paths of the righteous shall have their reward,” Javert sings, and we believe it deep in our bones. We want life to work this way, because we, like Javert, are sure God is on our side, and in that deluded state we heap judgment upon ourselves because we heap it upon others. God have mercy on us all.

Awash in the music, God lifted my head to see myself there in that antiphony. The entire guilt trip I had been living under for the weeks leading to this sacred Easter weekend, every moment of condemnation I felt, every self-chastisement to do more and do better was law. I was Javert, clinging to my bedrock beliefs about what God wanted from me and why.

The thing is, there are only two ways out of a life saturated in law — grace or death. Javert chooses death, because choosing grace would require him to willingly dismantle his entire understanding of God and the way the world worked. I know people, Jesus followers and Jesus haters both, who would rather die than hold in their own two hands the idea that they are wrong and always have been wrong — about God, about themselves, about what matters, about what it means to follow Jesus.

This journey from law to grace — it is perhaps the hardest one any of us take. To learn to open our hands to receive. To discover we have nothing to offer God, not because we are worthless sinners but because there is simply nothing we can put in our hands that matters more to God than our very human selves– not our talents or gifts, not our effort or grit, not our theology or our highfalutin convictions, not our money or time or intentions. Nothing.

You know what was wrong with me this Easter? I kept thinking I had to do the right religious things in order to receive from God. Intellectually, I know better, but deep in my core still the law lurks. “Do more. Be better. Work harder. Figure it out.”

To get through to me, God used what was readily available — in this instance, a 19th century story about the French Revolution, re-imagined for 20th century musical theater and then further revised for high school students, to remind me to live in the grace by which I have been saved.

As grace abounds, the law recedes, and faith takes flight.

It was a blessed Easter after all.












What a Jesus Feminist Looks Like

If you haven’t read Sarah Bessey, you are in for a treat. You can find her at http://sarahbessey.com/.biopicjan2014.jpg

I’m unabashedly re-blogging her blog post today because it is spectacular. It made tears run down my cheeks and made me sit taller in my chair to see these women of Haiti who preach and cook, who serve and lead, who carry the weight of a nation on their heads. I love the fire in their eyes and the smiles — oh, the smiles! So unashamed and unposed.





From the Rabbi: “Going to Heaven on a Preposition!”

For all you Bible lovers out there, here’s a taste from the rabbi of what deep exegesis of the Hebrew Psalms yields.  I am so appreciative of pastors and teachers like Brian and Bruce and many others who labor to present as neutrally as possible the original Hebrew of the Bible so the rest of us can engage with far fewer layers of cultural interpretation and inference.  Here’s Brian:


Dr. Bruce Waltke, my mentor for almost four decades, sends me his unpublished translations and exegesis of psalms, one by one, for which I then create Power Point slides and reformat his exegesis to make it more accessible for his students. IMG_4343_2I have felt so privileged to slowly digest the inspired poetry of the Hebrew poets under the clarity and beauty of Waltke’s magnifying lens. When giving a definition of a Hebrew word, Bruce has a way of summarizing fifty years of scholarship into a concise sentence. There is no scholar I know who matches his clarity, precision, faithfulness to the text, and remains faithful to Davidic authorship and the historical superscripts. But Bruce’s greatest gift to the church is his humility that is born out of his supreme love and devotion to Christ.

Last summer I found myself deeply moved by the way he handled a difficult phrase, a mere preposition, that stumped most translators in Psalm 7:10.

The first line consists of just two nouns and one preposition. מגני על אלהים

Literally: my shield / upon / God

magenni       ‘al        elohim

The second line is more straightforward:   מושיע ישרי לב  

who saves/ the upright of/ heart

moshia             yishrey             lev

Translators have difficulty knowing what to do with the preposition ‘al (עַל) in the first line:

NASB & ESV: My shield is with God
TNIV: My shield is God Most High
JPS: I look to God to shield me
NRSV: God is my shield

Bruce is the only scholar who seems able to penetrate the Gordian knot and unravels the difficulty. He translates it:

God takes it upon himself to be my shield,

the one who saves the upright of heart.

He explains,

“The preposition (עַל)‘al “upon” requires an appropriate verb of motion, such as “take.” The preposition marks a burden or duty that the subject feels with pathos as “upon” him. Some English versions emend the text to ‘ali (“O most high God”), but the final yodh is missing, unlike ‘ali in verse 8. The circumlocution God takes it upon himself to be (על אלהים, literally “is upon God”) aims to unravel a terse use of the preposition עַל (“upon”), which has no one word equivalent in English. “With,” found in many English versions, misses the thought. עַל ‘al here signifies that God feels the burden to be David’s shield.

My shield (מגני magenni) is a round, light shield, made of wood or wicker and covered with thick leather rubbed with oil (cf. Isa 21:5) to preserve it and to make it glisten. It is carried by the light infantry to ward off the enemy’s sword, spear or arrows; it is frequently employed to describe God’s presence in warding off a foe’s attack (Ps 18:2, 30, 35).[1]

I was reading these lines three summers ago, when Emily and I spent a week on the coast north of San Francisco in a home perched on a hilltop with stunning panoramas of the ocean. But needless to say, what I gleaned from a mere preposition was just as breathtaking as the vistas that assaulted our senses each morning.

“God takes it upon himself to be my shield,

the one who saves the upright in heart.”

With this new lens I began to think back on my life and considered all the times I have been protected from evil’s lures, attacks, or consequences solely because God took the initiative to be my shield. God chose to protect me long before I knew I would be in danger, and even at times when I chose to go my own way headlong into temptation, he set up roadblocks and barriers. And even if I chose to ignore the signs, and fell prey to the ugly consequences of sin and death, he became a “hiding place for me,” and the “rush of great waters (of judgment)” (Ps 32:6) did not reach me.

In appreciation for Bruce’s labors in the text, I wrote him – “Bruce, I went to heaven on a mere preposition!” He wrote back, “I did too.” Think of that. A mere preposition can transport us to heaven under the wings of God’s protective care. May his word bless you, as it did me.

“God takes it upon himself to be (write your name) shield,

the one who saves the upright of heart.”

[1] Bruce K. Waltke, James M. Houston and Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Lament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming).