Robert and Elizabeth exchanged over five hundred letters before their kindred passion for words and writing blossomed into a love for one another. Nearly a year after Elizabeth received Robert’s introductory letter, the two met in person and began courting. But Elizabeth’s father vehemently disapproved of their relationship. Undaunted, Robert proposed and the couple eloped to Italy to be married. In Italy their love for one another and for writing grew. So was born one of the world’s greatest love stories between two of the world’s greatest poets.
God too has engaged in a letter writing campaign to his beloved, you and me.
Eugene C. Scott joins Mike in writing A Daily Bible Conversation twice a week.
TODAY’S READING (click here to view today’s reading online)
1 Timothy 3:1-16
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INSIGHTS AND EXPLANATIONS
1 Timothy 3:1-16: This list of leadership qualifications is intriguing and not as easy to apply as we may wish. Often biblical interpreters focus on certain aspects but not on others. Based on this passage many churches insist elders and deacons must be male, married, but not divorced. But they are less stringent about leaders not being lovers of money, managing their families and having children who treat them with respect. And how do we measure how much temperance and self-control one must possess in order to qualify for leadership?
Is this an exhaustive and absolute list? If so, not many of us qualify, male or not. Or is it more of a measuring stick, something to which we call our leaders to and as leaders we ourselves aspire to?
THE WORD MADE FRESH
These four passages vary vastly. Jeremiah is poetic, otherworldly and prophetic: “‘The days are coming when I will plant the house of Israel,’ declares the Lord.” 1 Timothy is propositional and directive: “Now an overseer must be above reproach.” Today’s Psalm is lyrical and personal “May my prayer come before you; turn you ear to my cry.” Our Proverb is practical but highly interpretive: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food.”
These important interpretive differences aside, what is the thread that runs through all of Scripture that we often miss? Like the letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, this book we call the Bible is filled with God’s love in history, stories, commands, and letters communicating his love for us.
Sweet, rhythmic words drew Elizabeth and Robert to one another. Today their letters and poetry are classics of English literature. Even most school children can quote the first line of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem defining her love for Robert Browning: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” God asked the question first.
But there is one man Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words could not touch–her father. After Elizabeth and Robert eloped, her father never spoke to her again. Still Elizabeth never gave up her hope for reconciliation or her belief in the power of words. She wrote her father nearly every week for ten years. He never replied. How could her father ignore a love communicated so powerfully that the rest of the world considers even these letters classics? He never read a single word Elizabeth wrote him! In a large box, after ten years, he returned to her each letter unopened.
And so a love that moved thousands never affected one she held so dear.
And so it is with God! God gave us a book filled with love stories, love songs, and love poems. Through the rhythm of human history God wrote his poem to us. Every page of this book is filled with the record of Gods desperate desire to win our hearts. In one story God compares his heart sickness over our broken relationship with him to that of a husband whose wife sells herself again and again to the highest bidder. In Isaiah God compares himself to a mother who will nurse us and dandle us on her knee. “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you,” God croons. Through Jeremiah God sings, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” In the New Testament Jesus stands over Jerusalem lamenting, “I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” And the Apostle Paul prefigures Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s How Do I Love Thee? poem by wishing we could “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”
But just like with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her father, much of this letter goes unread or, at least, misunderstood. Despite millions of Bibles being sold each year (it is still the number one best seller of all time) and hotels hiding Bibles in bedside drawers and scholars and scoffers arguing over its message, few of us have read and understood God’s love letter to us. A comedienne on The Prairie Home Companion radio show warned listeners not to use the maps in the backs of their Bibles when traveling in Israel–because they’re out of date.
And therein lies the problem. We often use the Bible as God never intended. It is not a hammer to pummel those who disagree with us. It is not a proof text for our personal choices. It is not a science textbook or a batch of outlandish myths. The Bible is a series of stories of a Lover’s pursuit. We will never get the message leaving the letter unread. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in her poem Aurora Leigh:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
Have you read any good love letters lately?
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