anarchy to order

“In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Jg 21:25).  That’s how the book of Judges ends.  That book covers a time period of about a century and a half—from the life of Joshua to the life of Samuel.  The judges were regional authorities.  Today we might call them local chieftains.  The book of Judges was written after the monarchy was in place.  So maybe there’s some bias; maybe the judges are pictured a tad unfairly.

“All the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  There was no king.  They were running wild!

Having said that, it is hard to dispute there was some spiritual anarchy.  That was the world in which Samuel was born.  Here’s one minor example.  I won’t go into detail, but the sons of Eli the priest engaged in graphic womanizing and ripping people off when they came to offer sacrifice.  In Eli’s defense, he did plead with them to stop being so wicked.  But that’s just one symptom of the “anarchy.”

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In 1 Samuel we have a story appearing often in the Bible.  There’s a woman advancing in years who still hasn’t borne a child.  It’s always pictured as the woman who can’t conceive.  We never hear about the man who is unable to father a child!  I wonder why that is.  Maybe in ancient times they weren’t aware such a thing is possible.  Then again…  But I’ll leave that for another day!

In any event, here, the woman is Hannah.  Long story short, she prays to the Lord; she becomes pregnant, and she follows up on her promise to dedicate young Samuel to God.  Afterward, she sings of song of praise which serves as the model for the Virgin Mary’s prayer in Luke 1.  That’s how we arrive at Eli’s taking Samuel under his wing.

Look at how chapter 3 begins.  “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.  The word of the Lord was rare[1] in those days; visions were not widespread” (v. 1).  There were few, if any, prophets bringing fresh words from the Lord.  Almost no one had any vision.  It was a drought of creativity.

That’s not the same thing as saying God did not want to reveal new things to the people.  When people are resistant—when we are resistant—there’s no place for the seed to germinate within us.  That is, it’s the figurative seed which bursts from the earth and becomes the plant that grows and flourishes.  It’s the new life signaling an end to the drought.

2 1 smSpeaking of loss of vision, here’s verse 2.  “At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room.”

Okay, I know the main point of the sentence is a physical condition.  Eli is now an old man, and he no longer has an eagle eye!  We could say he’s blind as a bat.  Still, coming right after that business of visions being few and far between, I think we can see more than a little bit of humor involved.  There’s probably more than a little bit of sarcastic humor involved, with a loss of vision also meaning a spiritual condition.

That theme continues in verse 3.  “The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.”

Again, the surface language is talking about an actual lamp which has used up almost all of its oil.  But I like that: the lamp of God had not yet gone out.  There’s still a flicker; there is still hope.  There are still those who welcome the word of the Lord; there are still those who yearn for vision.

By the way, we hear about the Ark of God, or the Ark of the Covenant.  It was said to contain holy objects, including the stone tablets with the 10 Commandments.  Oh, and just as importantly, it was the star attraction in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, which highlighted the face-melting of Nazis when they gazed into it.

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I’ll summarize the crazy story starting in verse 4.  It’s the story of a boy who keeps waking up in the night because he keeps hearing a voice.  And each time, he goes into Eli’s bedroom, who keeps telling him, “I didn’t say anything.  Now go back to bed, young man.  Goodness gracious, can’t a guy get some shut-eye?”

Finally, Eli realizes Samuel is hearing the Lord.  He tells him to listen, and what he hears isn’t very pleasant.  It’s all over for Eli and his worthless sons.  Their wickedness has come back to haunt them.  Eli demands the boy lay it out for him.  “So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.  Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him’” (v. 18).  Even in bitter failure Eli shows himself to be a man of deep faith.

We can see this as a baton being passed.  The sun is setting on Eli, but it is rising on Samuel.  This is more than a function of age.  It’s more than Eli being old and Samuel being young.  There are plenty of folks who’ve been on this planet for over 80 or 90 years and are still vibrant inside.  And there are some young ones who are already turning to dust inside.

This is about maturity.  This is about understanding gentleness is strength; wisdom begins with acknowledged ignorance; the first will be last, and the last will be first.  (Okay, I stole that from someone!)

This is a new word from the Lord; it is a new thing.  Young Samuel is infused with vision from God.

There’s an often-misunderstood verse from the book of Proverbs.  It comes from the King James Version, which despite much of its beauty, is after all, written in English from four hundred years ago.  It is said, “Where there is no vision the people perish” (28:19).  That’s been taken to mean many things, such as the vision leaders lay out for those being led.  It’s the vision we ourselves have.

Modern translations show the meaning of the Hebrew.  “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (NRSV).  So it really means “where there is no prophecy, no revelation, no vision from God.”  And what’s the result?  The people cast off restraint.  They are unruly.

[Rev. Steve Plank, former stated clerk of the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse, gave this translation during the August 2017 presbytery meeting: “Where there is no word from the Lord, empty chaos results.”]

As those final words from the book of Judges go, “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  What does this spiritual anarchy look like?

Again, it doesn’t mean people are running wild, with blood flowing in the streets.  It’s not the plot of a horror story, like that ridiculous movie The Purge, the premise of which says once a year, all crime is legal for a period of twelve hours.  No, it’s nothing so over-the-top as that!

One way I think we can see what this anarchy looks like is the sense of rootlessness.  It’s the sense of becoming untethered, unmoored.  It’s the sense of drifting, of having no firm grasp—nothing solid to hold on to.  All the people did what was right in their own eyes.

That also happens in the church.  There can be a sense of losing our bearing, not knowing which way to go.  At a lesser level, we can see anarchy in congregational meetings, in which it becomes a matter of crowd control.  That’s why our Book of Order specifically lists the topics to be discussed at such meetings.  It brings anarchy to order!

Back to the original point.  A lack of a genuine word from the Lord, a lack of vision, of revelation, affects our society at large.

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Many consider Martin Luther King, Jr., as having been a prophet.  Whether or not you would use that term, (I trust I’m safe in saying) he did speak a new word, a needed word, rooted in vision and revelation from God.  Like the prophets of old, his message comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.  It was, and remains, a word for both society and the church.

King ministered during a time of great transition in America—tumultuous transition.  I’ve spoken about transition on numerous occasions.  Transition is a big part of the job of interim pastor, if not the defining characteristic.  Transition is always charged with anxiety, in greater or lesser measure.  And it becomes all the more necessary to hear that rare and precious word and to receive the vision.

So how do lack of the word and lack of vision result in a drought of creativity, at least creativity that is worthy of the name?

Could it be we are cut off from the source of creation?  We can’t allow the creative Spirit of God to inspire us?  We are unable to imagine new things?

Perish the thought!  We need not look for the grand and glorious.  It begins with one.  Jesus was one, and the word spread.  With the young boy Samuel, a fresh wind of the Spirit blew into what was decaying.  There was a rejuvenation.  Anarchy was brought to order.

That is our challenge and our privilege—that we bring our own anarchy and present it to the one who takes what is crumbling and orders it into something wondrous and beautiful and yielding life eternal.

 

[1] יׇקׇר (yaqar), also means “precious”


water bonding

Have I ever mentioned that I like Star Trek?  Have I ever mentioned that I like all of the Star Trek series, as well as the movies?

I begin with Star Trek because at times I’ve told people that it has influenced my theology!  Let me explain what I mean by describing a certain episode.[1]

One of the characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation is Lieutenant Worf; he is a Klingon.  Klingons are a race, who in the original series in the ‘60s, were bitter enemies of humans.  However, by the time we get to this series, which aired in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the cold war was winding down.  And reflecting that, the Federation and the Klingon Empire had signed a peace treaty.

Anyway, Worf leads an away team to explore a planet.  One of the team members, an archaeologist, accidentally triggers a bomb from a war that ended centuries ago.  (It’s kind of like the way we use land mines.)  Sadly, the woman who is killed leaves a son who already, at a very young age, had lost his father.  The boy, Jeremy, is orphaned.

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As the mission leader, Worf feels responsible for the death of his mother.  Worf himself was orphaned at a young age.  He invites the boy to join him in a Klingon ceremony called the R’uustai, or in English, “the bonding.”  (It consists of lighting special candles and uttering certain Klingon words.)  In this way, their families will be joined, and each will become stronger.

Okay, are you still with me?  Watching that show, I realized how very important ritual is to the Klingons.  Ritual enables them to handle these difficult moments, these great transitions.  By inviting the young boy to join him in the R’uustai (as well as explaining its meaning), Worf helps Jeremy deal with his loss.  Jeremy is given a framework, a frame of reference.  It helps him begin the process of healing.

Ritual is important, not just for Klingons in a fictional universe, but also for humans in our universe.  It helps in many different aspects of life.  Weddings, funerals, graduations—these and many other occasions all involve ritual.  They involve us in words and deeds that carry meaning.  In these life transitions, we don’t have to start from scratch.  We have something to work with.

Still, I think we all can agree that various rituals have various levels of value.  Some rituals are good.  They communicate life and strength and courage.  Some rituals do the opposite; they are bad.  Some rituals reinforce fear and oppression and bigotry.  They should be fought against; they should be resisted.

This Sunday is Baptism of the Lord.  This year the gospel reading is from Mark.  Later on, we’ll look at Jesus’ participation with John in the ritual of baptism.  Baptism is the sacrament of entry into the church.  But before we get to all of that, I want to tell another story.

After Banu and I graduated from the seminary, the first church we served was in Nebraska.  One of the members was a lady in her seventies.  After we had been there for a little while, she asked us if we would baptize her.  But she didn’t want to do it the usual way, in a worship service.  She wanted what was basically a secret baptism, on a Saturday afternoon when no one would be around.

We explained that baptism isn’t a private matter.  It’s a joyful act of the church.  After the sermon, during the baptism, the congregation reaffirms their baptismal covenant.  For there to be a covenant, there has to be more than one person—more than one party involved.  When there’s a baptism, we promise each other things, in the sight of God.

My impression was her request came from a sense of embarrassment.  This lady had probably lived her entire life in the church, but without ever being baptized.  I tried to reassure her that’s okay; this is a cause for celebration.  She wasn’t persuaded, so Banu and I compromised.  Besides the presence of some of her family, we arranged for a couple of the session members (representing the congregation) to attend her baptism.  She was okay with that.

One thing I never found out, though, was how she was able to join the church to begin with.  “Have you been baptized?” is one of the first things to ask.

At any rate, I find interesting what I figured her underlying feelings were.  Somehow, it was communicated to her—probably many times and in some unintentional ways—that baptism is, in some way, a sign of merit.  It’s an accomplishment!  And if you haven’t undergone it, then there’s something wrong with you.  At some point in her life (and I admit this is speculation), raising the question of baptism became uncomfortable.

Again, I can’t say for sure that was part of her life story, but it does happen.  When it does happen, it turns baptism, and the entire Christian life, on its head.  It’s not an occasion for pride; it’s a matter of humble, loving gratitude.

UCC minister Bruce Epperly sounds like a fellow Star Trek fan when he says, “Sacraments create a field of force around us and our loved ones that enable God and us to become partners in creative transformation and personal and planetary healing.”[2]  Baptism is about love and healing.  It’s not about jockeying for position; it’s not about grandstanding.

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He continues, saying that “baptism is not an occasion for Christian superiority or exclusivism.  There is salvation—and revelation—outside the church.”  The mystical, invisible body of Christ is larger than the visible church.  “While sacraments awaken us to God’s love, they don’t define the scope of God’s love.”

Earlier, I spoke of the Klingon ritual of R’uustai.  I added that Lt. Worf explains its meaning to the boy Jeremy.  This enables him to benefit from it.  It becomes more than a series of actions involving candles and strange symbols; instead, the ritual becomes a way for him to experience a whole new dimension of life.  Losing his mother and becoming an orphan means the end of life as he’s known it.  The ritual of R’uustai offers the promise of new life.

New life is what the sacrament of baptism is all about.  But just as with the Klingon ritual, if there is no understanding and no intention of embracing that new life, then the waters of baptism do little more than simply get us wet.

Our Book of Order says this about baptism:

“The Reformed tradition understands Baptism to be a sign of God’s covenant…  Like circumcision, a sign of God’s gracious covenant with Israel, Baptism is a sign of God’s gracious covenant with the Church. In this new covenant of grace God washes us clean and makes us holy and whole” (W-3.0402).  That’s what I was saying earlier about it being the sacrament of entry into the church.

Sometimes people get an impression about baptism.  It may sound like, “Hey that’s a pretty good deal!  I can get baptized, and totally forget about it!”  Not exactly!  There’s still that bit about the covenant.  There’s still that bit about loving, healing relationships.  As we continue with the Book of Order, we also hear this:

“Baptism is the bond of unity in Jesus Christ. When we are baptized, we are made one with Christ, with one another, and with the Church of every time and place.  In Christ, barriers of race, status, and gender are overcome; we are called to seek reconciliation in the Church and world, in Jesus’ name.”

The body of Christ is one.  We are one!  Baptism is the bond of unity in Christ.  The community of the baptized is not bound together by nationality, gender, sexual orientation, political orientation, and all of the other junk we come up with.  Christ liberates us from that.

There is another reason for being baptized, but I hesitate to mention it, because it involves a concept that has too often been abused and distorted.  But here it is: we are baptized because we are obedient.  We obey our Lord, who says, as part of the Great Commission in Matthew 28, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (v. 19).

I hesitate to mention obedience, because it’s very easy to get the wrong idea about it.  Obeying the Lord isn’t the obedience demanded by one who’s just waiting to smack us down.  It isn’t blind or mindless obedience.  It’s the mutual, loving obedience of one whose eyes are wide open and has come to serve.

In our scripture text, Mark says that John is “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4).  (I said we would look at Jesus getting baptized.)  So why is Jesus baptized?  Does he need to be forgiven of sin?

In Matthew’s gospel, John is reluctant to baptize him.  He’s wondering about this, too.  “But Jesus [answers] him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness’” (3:15).  Or as the Revised English Bible puts it: “it is right for us to do all that God requires.”

Remember, “all that God requires” is not satisfying the whims of a bully or a tyrant.  It’s not dealing with one who says, “On your knees!  Kiss my boot!”  It is, however, working along with one who lovingly chooses us in bringing all creation to a glorious fulfillment.

Mark doesn’t explain why Jesus is baptized as directly as Matthew does.  He does tell us that “just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (vv. 10-11).

Baptism is a public identification with the people of God.  It is expressing solidarity!  Of course, Jesus’ identification—his bonding—with God’s people receives quite a dramatic display of acceptance.  The “heavens dividing” doesn’t occur every day!

At my own baptism, nothing quite so spectacular happened.  (At least, no one told me they heard voices coming from above!)  I can say I felt as if a weight had been lifted.  For a good bit of time, my mother told me I should be baptized.  At first, I resisted.  But when I made that public statement of joining with the people of God, by bonding in that ritual of water, everything changed.  I was a new person; I had embarked on a new life.

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There’s something that Matthew in the Great Commission, and Mark in today’s reading, tie with baptism.  Luke does the same in Acts 2.  On the day of Pentecost, after Peter tells the people about Jesus, they ask, “What should we do?”  His response?  “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38).

All of them link baptism with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is the greatest gift of God.  The Spirit is God, constantly being given to us—constantly being poured into us!  The Spirit is everything good and wonderful that we can imagine—and everything that we cannot imagine.

We are baptized once, but repentance is a lifelong journey.  We are called and invited, over and over again, to repent.  That means to have a change of mind, to turn around.

(Speaking of turning around, turn around right now.  Look at everyone here.  Do we welcome each other?  Have we locked horns with anyone?  Is there anyone we ignore?  The Spirit of God calls us and helps us in fanning the flames of holy love, and if need be, lighting the spark!)

John baptizes with water.  We baptize with water.  Jesus baptizes with the Spirit.  The Spirit is the one who makes that bonding in water effective.  The Spirit is the one who gives it power.  The Spirit is the one who takes a bunch of dripping wet people and fills them with faith, hope, and love.

[1] www.startrek.com/database_article/bonding-the

[2] oldsite.processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2012-01-08/baptism-jesusfirst-sunday-after-epiphany


light unexpected

“O God, we pray Thee for those who come after us, for our children, and the children of our friends, and for all the young lives that are marching up from the gates of birth…  We remember with a pang that these will live in the world we are making for them.  We are wasting the resources of the earth in our headlong greed, and they will suffer want…  We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it.

“…Grant us grace to leave the earth fairer than we found it; to build upon it cities of God in which the cry of needless pain shall cease; and to put the yoke of Christ upon our business life that it may serve and not destroy…”

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Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969)

Those are words from a prayer by Walter Rauschenbusch; they date back to 1910—over a century ago.  They’re in a book published in 1917, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Meaning of Faith.[1]  It was published during what came to be known as “the Great War” and “the war to end all wars.”

Human knowledge and technology during the latter part of the nineteenth century had reached new heights.  However, as we might know all too well, knowledge and wisdom rarely progress at the same rate.  The so-called “civilized” nations were plunged into what Fosdick calls “the most terrific war men ever waged, when faith is sorely tried and deeply needed.”[2]

So far, the twenty-first century has amply demonstrated that lack of wisdom in dealing with conflict, at the international level and elsewhere.  To the unknowns of this unfolding century, the impulse to respond with fear is always present.  The future can be seen as a void, filled with darkness.  We have to be cautious of morbid or despairing outlooks that expect disaster and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s like the “law of attraction,” which can go under various names.  It’s the idea that whatever we project into the world, the universe, the ether, is what we attract.  I’m reminded of the verse in Titus which goes, “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure” (1:15).

To this vision of darkness, we need something that’s light.  Literally.  Epiphany, which falls on Saturday this week, is all about light.  It’s all about the glory of God shining in Jesus Christ.  It’s all about the appearance, or manifestation, of Jesus to the Gentiles—to the world.  Our word, “epiphany,” comes from the Greek term επιφανεια (epiphaneia), which appears in several places, such as 2 Timothy 1:10, where we learn that “grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing [or through the epiphany] of our Savior Christ Jesus.”

Our gospel reading, the visit of the Magi, is the primary image of Epiphany.  The Magi were more than likely Zoroastrian priests, the ancient faith of Persia.  They’ve been called “wise men,” “kings,” “astrologers.”  But whatever you call them, they’re the first Gentiles in the Bible to see the Christ child.

They notice a star which they interpret to signify a special birth.  So off they go to Judea, asking questions about “the child who has been born king of the Jews” (v. 2).

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The guy currently claiming that title, Herod the Great, gets nervous when he hears about it.  (His campaign pledge was “vote for me, and I will bring you cruelty and paranoia.”)  Learning from the religious leaders the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, he wastes no time and sets up a secret meeting with the Magi.  Herod wants to know two things.  When did you first see the star?  Will you find the child and let me know where he is?  “After all, I want to pay my respects, too!”  (Wink, wink.)

The Magi, upon finding the young Jesus and offering their presents, have a dream telling them, “Don’t go back to Herod.”  So they leave for home, taking the bypass around Jerusalem!

Herod tries to stamp out the light that the Magi found.  Not simply a light in the sky, the light they found is the one who enlightens all of humanity.  The deeper we go into the epiphany of Jesus, the more wonders we find.

There’s another meaning to epiphany, which I imagine we know.  It has the sense of a sudden awareness of truth, a flash of understanding.  It’s when the light goes on.  Eureka!

I want to tell you a story.  It didn’t happen to me, but I think I can identify with John Artz, the one it happened to.  It’s the story of a personal epiphany.[3]

He says, “I suppose that most people never bother themselves with questions about the meaning of life.  I, on the other hand, can’t seem to think of much else.  One day as I was driving home, I filled the empty moments with musings about the possible meanings of life.  As the car bottomed in a dip and began to pounce over the next rise, I turned the wheel to the left and leaned into the turn to overcome the centrifugal force.

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“Then it came to me in a flash.  There were four principles basic to all aspects of life.  These four principles could be combined in various ways to explain everything—why we are here, what we should do, why we are the way we are—every nagging question I had ever pondered.

“It was an epiphany.  It was one of those two or three seconds in your life when it all makes sense.  When you are one with wisdom and understanding.  When there is no more asking, only doing.  I raced through examples in my mind to come up with something that these four principles did not explain, but I could find nothing.

“‘Well,’ I thought. ‘I’d better write these down before I forget them.’  I had had moments of insight before and knew how quickly they could evaporate.  I steered with my left hand and rummaged through the glove box with the other, looking for something to write with.  I looked through every cubby hole in the car but there was no pen to be found.  I looked around and realized that I was just minutes from home and that I could preserve the insight by just repeating it to myself for a few minutes.  Once in the door, I would head to my desk and jot down these ideas before they decayed.

“I pulled into the garage, turned off the ignition, pulled up the emergency brake, left the car and headed for the door.

4 epiphany“When I opened the door, the kids were fighting over a [video] game.  The cat was tormenting the fish.  And my wife started rattling off a list of everyone who had called and left messages.  Then she asked me what I wanted for dinner.  I chased the cat away from the fishbowl, tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement between the kids, and then turned to my wife and said, ‘What are the choices?’

“By the time I got to my office only a few minutes had passed, but the inspiration had disappeared like a dream upon waking.  It left a residue of that feeling of understanding, but nothing to hang that understanding on.

“Many times I have reenacted that car trip in my head trying to recall the four principles but the muse of understanding never returned: until yesterday.  As I drove home yesterday the insight returned—not the four principles, but the understanding.  The significance was never in the four principles, but in the story about them.”

For our friend, what were most important weren’t the particular ideas he came up with; it was the process itself.  It was the experience of having the light come on, of experiencing an epiphany.  Returning to the biblical understanding, what matters is experiencing the light—the glory—of God in Jesus Christ.  And when that happens, the principles, the insights, the vision—all of that comes with it.  We’re changed for the better.

Thinking again about the Magi, we know that they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod to report the location of Jesus.  Instead, as the scripture says, “they left for their own country by another road.”  I believe they did just that.  But I wonder if that statement isn’t true at another level.

These men had no idea what they would find when they set out on their journey.  The Magi were accustomed to associating with those in positions of power.  Surely the star they saw promised a change in regime, perhaps one who would bring even mighty Rome to its knees.

Who could know that the king of the Jews would turn out to be the humble child of a poor family—a family which soon found themselves fleeing their homeland, fearing their rulers, becoming refugees?  And who can say how meeting this family effected these wise men from the East?  Perhaps in leaving “for their own country by another road,” the Magi also were choosing another path in life.

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Epiphany reminds us that the light of Christ is for the entire world.  And it’s also an experience of light that’s deeper than the words we use to describe it.  Our words, our language, about God and Jesus and life in general give us a picture of reality.  We talk about things; we use names, but that’s not the same thing as actually meeting them, experiencing them.

The light sneaks up on us; it takes us unaware.  It’s such a joyful, shocking, unexpected source of grandeur.  The darkness of Fosdick’s warning loses its gloom.  Our poor, stumbling lives are radiantly exposed by something wondrous and holy. 

When we encounter the humble, holy child, we are changed—and we’re challenged.  We see, by the light of the Epiphany of the Lord, our own lack of humility; we see our own arrogance.  But thanks be to God, into the darkness that wants to enshroud us, Jesus says, “Let there be light!”

 

[1] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York:  Association Press, 1917), 60.

[2] Fosdick, vii.

[3] gwis2.circ.gwu.edu/~jartz/alter/stories/epiphany.html


God, are you with us?

Make a joyful noise.  I often say that to people who claim they can’t sing.  In the Psalms, we’re told several times to make a joyful noise.  Here’s a good example: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (98:4).  I like to sing, and I’m definitely on the side of making that joyful noise.

1 xmas eveSinging is a big part of today’s Old Testament and gospel readings.  We might say it carries the tune in a measured call and response.  But before we sing the praises of our scriptural poets, allow me to refrain, promising we will return to their melodic message.

“Melodic” is not a bad way to describe Isaiah 52.  “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (v. 7).  We need to look at the background to see what kind of message this is.

This part of the book is talking about the exiles who were sent to Babylon.  They are now returning, in what’s been called “the second exodus.”  And just in case it’s not clear, the word “exile” does not mean going on vacation.  You do not consult a travel agent when forced relocation is in store.  These people have known more than their share of violence and war.

But the tide has turned.  There has been a reversal of fortunes.  The prophet proclaims, “Listen!  Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion” (v. 8).  Their Lord is leading the way; their Lord is the vanguard.  And they need the Lord to go before them.  They need the strength and courage of the Lord, because they’re coming home to a real mess.  When the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem, they went hog wild.  They tore up the place, and worst of all, they destroyed the temple.  The folks who later moved into the city have no interest in rebuilding it.

Even so, anticipation and joy begin to appear.  “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (v. 9).

Episcopal priest David Grant Smith says, “Even the ruins themselves are singing about this new day being heralded by their return!”[1]  Even destruction and chaos are transformed by God into something wonderful and beautiful—into a work of art.

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Dirk Lange speaks of death being overcome by song.  “This joy [and] singing arises out of great anxiety—a battle has been engaged, death is confronted.”[2]  And looking to this time of year, he adds, “as we enter the twelve days of Christmas we are immediately reminded of death on the day after Christmas and the martyrdom of Stephen and then, a few days, the remembrance of the Holy Innocents, the murder of children [ordered by Herod].  It is in the midst of death that a song arises, rejoicing in a promise.”

We can see the Babylonian exile as a time of God leaving the people, so to speak.  The exiles would say God is not “with us” or “for us.”  God is not Immanuel.  God is far away.  Now, everything has changed.  Immanuel, “God with us,” “God for us,” has arrived.  That’s what the joyful ruckus in Luke 2 is all about.

Having said that, those shepherds probably wouldn’t use the word “joyful” when the angel appears.  “Scared out of their minds” might be a better description.  So it’s no doubt for the best when after announcing the arrival of the Messiah, the angel and celestial companions get things going.  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”—or “those of good will” (v. 14).

After our sheep-keeping colleagues have been properly reassured, they take off for Bethlehem to see what the angels were so excited about.  Upon seeing the holy family, with the promised one lying in a trough for barnyard animals, they are overcome with awe.  And then they leave, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (v. 20).

Still, I wonder, what’s the deal with all this singing?

Karl Barth, one of the 20th century’s most noted theologians, weighed in on this.  And he was no nonsense!

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“The church which does not sing is not the church.” (Karl Barth)

“The Christian church sings.  It is not a choral society.  Its singing is not a concert.  But from inner, material necessity it sings.  Singing is the highest form of human expression.”[3]  The Christian church sings.  And that applies to all kinds of singing.

As the old hymn goes: “My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation / I hear the sweet though far off hymn that hails a new creation: / Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing; / It finds an echo in my soul—How can I keep from singing?”

But Barth isn’t through, yet.  “What we can and must say quite confidently is that the church which does not sing is not the church.  And where...it does not really sing but sighs and mumbles spasmodically, shamefacedly and with an ill grace, it can be at best only a troubled community which is not sure of its cause and of whose ministry and witness there can be no great expectation.”

How can we keep from singing?

Last week’s sermon was based on the epistle reading in 1 Thessalonians, which begins, “Rejoice always” (5:16).  I invited the singing with me of Andy Williams’ “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”  I don’t think he was referring to the time of year when we’re sleepwalking through the stores, or maybe fighting our way through the stores.  (I’m not sure how often it gets to the point of people literally throwing punches or whacking each other on the head with televisions.)

No, it’s the time of year in which, more than ever, we ask, “God, are you with us?”  Are you for us?  Have you brought Immanuel?

Christmas is indeed a time of elation, but as we saw with Stephen and the Holy Innocents, the twelve days of Christmas also have had built into them agony.

Our friend David asks, “What devastation in our own lives is God inviting to sing?”  Remember the ruins of Jerusalem.  How on earth can we plumb the depths of our sorrow and shame and bring that to God, so that something wonderful can emerge and even be celebrated?

“What aspects of ourselves have been long in exile and are now being brought back home where we belong?”  What aspects of ourselves have been banished by others to a far country?  What aspects of ourselves have we rejected and said, “I never want to see you again”?

If God is able to take human form as the babe of Bethlehem, how much easier is it for God to reclaim what we have lost?  Be it from ruins or renewal, we can ask, “God, are you with us?”  And we hear the reply, “Make a joyful noise!”

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[1] processandfaith.org/lectionary-commentary/christmas-eve-christmas-day-2017

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1530

[3] www.rca.org/resources/theology-and-place-music-worship


rejoice always

I’ve noticed an annual occurrence in the days after Thanksgiving.  (Sometimes in the days after Halloween!)  A certain song begins to be heard in stores, to appear in TV commercials.  In the holly jolly verse of Andy Williams, here’s how it begins: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year / With the kids jingle belling / And everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer’ / It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

1 rejoiceHe goes on to reinforce his case: “It’s the hap- happiest season of all / With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings / When friends come to call / It’s the hap- happiest season of all.”

We are currently in the midst of those days that our friend Andy referred to as “the most wonderful time of the year.”  However, I don’t think he was singing about Advent.  And I’m quite certain that the last thing those commercials want to encourage is a sense of awareness, a sense of expectancy, a sense of watchfulness.  No, those commercials want us to sleepwalk through the stores—or maybe fight our way through the stores—and buy everything in sight.

A line from the song I find especially interesting is, “And everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer.’”  It sounds like a state of being that can be commanded.  Just flip a switch, and lo and behold, you’re cheerful!  I order you to be happy.

Today’s epistle reading begins, “Rejoice always” (v. 16).  It might be argued St. Paul is doing the same thing.  Even if you’re sick as a dog—even if your heart is heavy—even if you’re dying from embarrassment and want to hide from the world, let’s put a smile on that face!

The passage comes at the end of 1 Thessalonians.  It is a series of final instructions.  “Rejoice always” is followed by Paul’s direction to “pray without ceasing, [and to] give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (vv. 17-18).

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Always rejoice; always pray; always give thanks.  Just like that!  Some might say the apostle is being dismissive of people’s everyday reality.

If it is a matter of emotion, following the example of our song, being “of good cheer” in “the hap- happiest season of all,” then maybe he is being dismissive.  Maybe he is emotionally tone deaf.  And maybe we also do that, if we (ever so slightly) criticize people for having certain feelings—feelings we don’t think they should have, or we don’t want to deal with.

But I think there’s more to it than that.  I don’t think the apostle Paul is quite that shallow.

I’ll start by asking, “What does it mean to rejoice?”  Are we simply talking about an emotion?  Are we talking about a matter of feeling good, even feeling wonderful?  It’s safe to say rejoicing includes feelings, but we can’t ignore how verse 18 ends.  After telling the Thessalonians to always rejoice, always pray, and always give thanks, Paul adds “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  He doesn’t leave it at the level of emotion.  There’s something more.

Eugene Peterson, who I’ve mentioned before, is a retired Presbyterian minister who has written tons of books and has produced the paraphrase of the Bible called The MessageHe tells a story of joy (some would say, the lack thereof), during a worship service at a church he was visiting.[1]

He begins, “There was a couple in front of us with two bratty kids.  Two pews behind us there was another couple with their two bratty kids making a lot of noise.  This is mostly an older congregation.  So these people are set in their ways.  Their kids have been gone a long time.  And so it wasn’t a very nice service; it was just not very good worship.  But afterwards I saw half a dozen of these elderly people come up and put their arms around the mother, touch the kids, sympathize with her.  They could have been irritated.

“Now why do people go to a church like that when they can go to a church that has a nursery, is air conditioned, and all the rest?  Well, because they’re Lutherans.  They don’t mind being miserable!  Norwegian Lutherans!”

3 rejoiceHe continues, “And this same church recently welcomed a young woman with a baby and a three-year-old boy.  The children were baptized a few weeks ago.  But there was no man with her.  [She has] never married; each of the kids has a different father.  She shows up at church and wants her children baptized.  She’s a Christian and wants to follow in the Christian way.  So a couple from the church acted as godparents.  Now there are three or four couples in the church who every Sunday try to get together with her.

“Now, where is the ‘joy’ in that church?  These are dour Norwegians!  But there’s a lot of joy.  There’s an abundant life going, but it’s not abundant in the way a non-Christian would think.  I think there’s a lot more going on in churches like this; they’re just totally anticultural.  They’re full of joy and faithfulness and obedience and care.  But you sure wouldn’t know it by reading the literature of church growth.”

We’re dealing with stuff that has real depth; it isn’t superficial or trivial.  Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” is in the same category.

One of the hallmarks of Reformed theology is that life is to be led coram Deo.  In Latin, that means “before God.”  It speaks to the awareness of being in the presence of God—of being before the face of God.  As R. C. Sproul says, “To live all of life coram Deo is to live a life of integrity.  It is a life of wholeness that finds its unity and coherency in the majesty of God.”[2]

That is a life of praying without ceasing.  It’s not a question of repeatedly saying or thinking prayers.  When I went to the Assemblies of God college in Florida, I knew a guy who it seemed finished every other sentence by murmuring, “Praise God.”  Maybe that was how he interpreted “praying without ceasing.”  I thought there was something wrong with him mentally.

4 rejoiceA fourth-century hermit, one of the desert Christians, used to say, “Ceaseless prayer soon heals the mind.”[3]  Far from being the sign of a nervous tic, a twitch, praying without ceasing brings life and health.  It opens one up to a life of gratitude, which is third on Paul’s list.

He continues in rapid-fire succession with his instructions, which I’ll briefly skim.  Verse 19 says, “Do not quench the Spirit.”  That covers a lot.  Do not extinguish the inner flame.  “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (vv. 20-22).  Listen to those who speak the word from God, but also test it.  Don’t be foolish; don’t just fall for anything.

Right in the center of our scripture reading are verses 23 and 24.  “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

“The God of peace”: why use that description?  There are plenty of other names of God to choose from.  And why pray that the God of peace will “sanctify you entirely”?

Paul’s prayer is that his hearers be purified through and through.  When we are made holy—when we are made whole—in spirit and soul and body, then we are at peace.  But remember, this isn’t just about emotions!  And in the same way, this isn’t just about us as individuals.  Paul is speaking to the community.  This Word of God is for the community.

Sometimes people chant, “No justice, no peace!”  If there’s no justice, there can be no peace.  Here’s another one: “No justice, no joy!”

Today is Gaudete Sunday.  There’s some more Latin for you!  It means “rejoice.”  Today’s epistle reading begins with “Rejoice.”  The pink candle, which represents joy, comes from seeing Advent as a season of penitent reflection, preparing ourselves for the Lord.  The third Sunday means we’re almost there; let’s have a joyful pause.

Let’s go back to the question I asked earlier.  What does it mean to rejoice?  What if we don’t feel like rejoicing?  Remember, Paul and his friends had plenty of hardships.  Remember those stern Norwegians!  There’s a sense in which insisting on joy means holy and loving defiance.

It’s not about emotion; it’s about choice.  Verse 25 is well taken: “Beloved, pray for us.”  Pray for us!

How can we stay on that path of joy, prayer, and gratitude?  It happens by the grace of God through Christ in the Spirit of a loving, caring community.  (Or should I say: a rejoicing, praying, grateful community?)  Christian life, by definition, cannot be lived alone.

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We rejoice when we embrace.  We rejoice when we laugh together.  We rejoice when we weep. We rejoice when we come to the table.  We rejoice when, in holy and loving defiance, we proclaim God’s peaceable kingdom in the midst of an anxious and fearful world.  Rejoice in the Lord.  Rejoice always.

 

[1] bccisbroken.blogspot.com/2006/12/spirituality-for-all-wrong-reasons.html

[2] www.ligonier.org/blog/what-does-coram-deo-mean

[3] www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/92504.pdf


the desert

A few years ago, Spike Lee directed the movie, 25th Hour.  It stars Edward Norton as a guy convicted of selling drugs.  He has one day left before he goes to prison.  He has one day to say goodbye to his friends and to imagine what could have been—if he hadn’t gone down the path he chose.

At the end of the movie, his father, played by Brian Cox, is driving him to prison.  They’re going up the interstate, and they’re approaching an exit that would take them out west.  He doesn’t want his son to go to prison.  His father says to give him the word, and they’ll just take off.

1 desertIn a beautiful monologue, as they’re traveling across America with its vast array of scenery, his father lays out the alternative.  He tells his son he can still have another life.  Find some little town out west and just blend in.  And he talks about the landscape.

He says, “Every man, woman, and child alive should see the desert one time before they die.  Nothin’ at all for miles around.  Nothin’ but sand and rocks and cactus and blue sky.  Not a soul in sight.  No sirens.  No car alarms.  Nobody honkin’ atcha…  You find the silence out there; you find the peace.  You can find God.”

In the early church, in the 3rd through 5th centuries, people known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers went out into the wilderness.  They lived in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Arabia.  They also were seeking God.  They were fleeing the corruption of the cities, as well as a church that more and more identified with the state, the Roman Empire.  Christ and Caesar were becoming indistinguishable.  (We often have that problem today!)

Brian Cox’s character in 25th Hour would likely agree with the Desert Mothers and Fathers.  The desert is a place to flee the corruption and madness of civilization.  It is certainly a good place to find solitude.  Still, if the motivation is to simply escape the stench of society and of other people, then that is not a path of love.  It is a path of self-deception, and ultimately, a hatred of those we would flee.  And the terrible irony is if we don’t make an effort at peace, then we carry those people with us—and not in a good way.  It’s a burden.

Solitude need not only be found in the desert.  It can and should be found here in daily life, in times of withdrawal from the busy voices filling our lives to hearing God.  (But maybe escaping the stench of others still applies!  I’m including myself in the category of stinky!)

The desert is a place of contradiction.  God can be found there.  It can be a place of new life, of renewal.  But it is equally a place of death.  It is a place of thirst.  When moisture is at a premium, we shouldn’t expect to find lush gardens.  But it can also be a place of great beauty.

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The desert can be inhospitable, especially for those who do not respect it.  The desert is not a place for arrogance.

In his book, Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton speaks of those desert monastics, the desert wilderness, and the way we often treat the desert—to our peril.

Regarding the Desert Fathers and Mothers, he says that they “believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men [and women]…  The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone…  God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.”[1]

There is something supremely counter-cultural when looking at the desert this way.  It is a rejection of what we usually believe is important.

3 desertFor those who would indeed reject the comforts and gadgets that we become enamored with, it can in fact be a place to be alone with God.

Still, as Merton points out, there are other aspects.  “First, the desert is the country of madness.  Second, it is the refuge of the devil…  [Remember, the Holy Spirit sent Jesus into the desert, and he was tempted by the devil.]  Thirst drives [us] mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence—lost because he has [imprisoned] himself in it and closed out everything else.”[2]

I suppose there is a bit of madness, a bit of craziness involved in choosing to live in the wilderness—maybe a good kind of crazy, but still, a craziness that has to be held in check.

In Mark 1, we see someone who’s a bit of a madman, John the Baptist.  He’s been out in the wilderness, and his diet and appearance might be considered slightly crazy.  (Perhaps I’m speaking out of turn.  Do we have any connoisseurs of locusts and wild honey?)  Despite all of that, people are going out to him so that they can be baptized.

4 desertNotice what he says about the coming One, the One whose advent is near.  “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  John uses water, but the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and as Matthew and Luke add, with “fire” (Mt 3:11, Lk 3:16).  The Holy Spirit is often associated with fire, as on the day of Pentecost.

How appropriate it is, while in the desert, to speak of one who baptizes with the fire of the Spirit.

If we can summon and practice patience, we can hear the voice of the Spirit in those lonely places.

In Isaiah 40, the prophet speaks words of comfort.  In verse 3 we hear, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  The desert is indeed a place for listening.  But we have to be silent.

Verses 4 and 5 add, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”  According to the prophet, the desert is not only a place for listening, but for listening to good news.

Mark borrows words from Isaiah, agreeing that the desert is a place for listening—and listening to good news.  However, he adds a new dimension, a different perspective.  Here, it is word that Messiah is coming; the advent is near.

We need that word in the desert, because as I mentioned earlier, there is also the reality of human arrogance in the way we treat the desert.

In his book, Merton also talks about this.  With our technology, “the wilderness at last comes into its own.  [We] no longer need God, and [we] can live in the desert on [our] own resources.  [We] can build there [our] fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal and experimentation and vice.”[3]

In our desert southwest, with moisture at a premium, metro areas have been built.  And when we think of experimentation and vice, what better example of a metro area is there than Las Vegas!  And thinking of fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal, what better slogan is there than “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”?

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He goes on, “When [we] and [our] money and machines move out into the desert, and dwell there, not fighting the devil as Christ did, but believing in his promises of power and wealth, and adoring his angelic wisdom, then the desert itself moves everywhere.  Everywhere is desert.”[4]

I imagine you’ve figured out “desert” as a place of building those protected cities of withdrawal, of human arrogance, is not simply a literal desert.  It is the desert in our own lives.  At the same time, desert is the place where we listen for good news.  The desert is where we can find God.  As I said before, the desert is a place of contradiction.

What are the deserts in our lives?  Where are those places of contradiction?  Where do we need the crazy ones to bring us water—to plunge us into water—and bring good news?

The prophet comments on our fragility, saying, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass” (vv. 6-7).  And in one of the most powerful lines in the Old Testament (in my humble opinion), he declares, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (v. 8).

6 desertAs the rock band Kansas once sang, “All we do / Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see / Dust in the wind / All we are is dust in the wind.”  Even our plans are dust in the wind, or perhaps, sand being blown by the desert wind.

Desert experiences, be they uncertainty, abandonment, bereavement, whatever, can be barren and trying.  Even so, there is that voice in the wilderness, crying out to prepare the way of the Lord.  Even in the desert—or maybe, especially in the desert—the Spirit blows where it wills.  That Spirit of fire calls us to good news.  Even in the bleakest of places, the coming One welcomes us.

When we acknowledge and embrace and take joy in that, then the desert will bloom.

 

[1] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1958. eBook edition, 2011), Kindle edition, Chapter 1, section 2, paragraph 1.

[2] Merton, 1.2.3

[3] Merton, 1.2.5

[4] Merton, 1.2.6


revelation of gratitude

When I was at seminary, I took a worship class taught by one of the two Presbyterian professors at our American Baptist school.  Well, there was one other Presbyterian who came in from time to time and taught polity.  This was Banu’s pastor at the congregation where she did field education.

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Banu and I lived on the top floor in the front corner apartment.

In our class, when we got to the subject of Advent, besides discussing the Lord’s first advent as the baby of Bethlehem, we dealt with possibly the more meaningful aspect of Advent: the Lord’s second advent, the second coming of Christ, in power and glory.  “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King!”

It was pointed out that during the season of Advent, this is especially the time of year when we focus on our Lord’s return.  I made a comment about that.  I said when I was in the Assemblies of God, the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was almost a weekly theme!  It was mentioned almost every Sunday.

We Presbyterians, along with so many others who observe the liturgical year, can (and do) fail to give the proper attention to the Lord’s return, however we envision the return.  We can fail to join with St. Paul as he joyfully proclaims at the end of 1 Corinthians, “Maranatha” (16:22).  “The Lord is coming,” or it can also mean, “Lord, come!”

This talk of Jesus Christ coming again makes some people nervous.  And considering the gospel reading for today (Mark 13:24-37), that’s understandable.  Hearing stuff like, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” might be enough to give anyone pause, to put it lightly (v. 33).  “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (v. 37).  The eyes of your heart will get drowsy, so throw some spiritual cold water on yourself!

2 1co1But that need not be seen as a dire warning.  It is a reminder that something wonderful is about to happen.  Stay awake, or we’ll miss out.  It will be—and is—right before our eyes.  Can we see it?

That upbeat message seems to be on Paul’s mind as we begin today’s epistle reading.  “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3).  Wishing someone grace and peace is not a typical greeting if you’re about to deliver bad news!  That would be a sneaky way to set them up before lowering the boom.  Later on, he does address the numerous problems among them, but not yet.

Then he follows with another joyful declaration (v. 4).  “I give thanks to my God always for you.”  Why is he so thankful?  “[B]ecause of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.”  He’s about to burst with gratitude.  They’ve been given blessings galore: “in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind” (v. 5).  Speech and knowledge of every kind.  He’s definitely not soft pedaling it.

Do they see it?  Do they recognize it?  Sometimes it can be hard to understand what someone else sees in you.

As for myself, I used to be afraid of public speaking.  I would become visibly nervous, even terrified.  My chest would tighten up; I would forget to breathe!  But my Assemblies of God pastor apparently saw something in me.  He invited me to preach several times, and I struggled through it.  To be honest, sometimes I still get a bit nervous.

“Speech and knowledge of every kind.”

The apostle gives thanks for them.  The word for “give thanks” is ευχαριστεω (eucharisteō), and with a slight variation, “thanksgiving.”  It’s where we get our word, “Eucharist.”  It comes directly from the New Testament, where it’s used over 50 times.  We will act it out momentarily at the table, with a sacrament called “thanks.”  Thank you!

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Paul says, “the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you” (v. 6).  They are increasingly bearing witness to Christ; Christ is increasingly bearing witness through them.  They are receiving gifts from the Holy Spirit, some of which we might call supernatural and others we might call abilities.  Whatever the case, they are intended for service to others, not for display.

This is happening as they “wait of the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7).  The word for “revealing” is αποκαλυψις (apocalypsis), “uncovering,” “revelation.”  And yes, that’s the same word for the book of Revelation.  That word also appears numerous times in the New Testament.

Beginning in the 90s, a movement called the emerging, or emergent, church started taking shape.  Some see a difference in those terms; others do not.  I won’t go into great detail.  Suffice it to say it’s one expression of the church as we have moved into the 21st century and attempting to address its changing realities and philosophies.  It wants to recapture the ancient and embrace the future.  Examples would be using Jesus as a model for living and not simply an object for worship, inviting questions and not simply providing answers, and promoting peacemaking rather than relying on power.  Again, that’s a very quick thumbnail sketch.

It’s one expression of a new reformation, 500 years after the first one.  It represents a revolution, not only of church and denominational structures, but of consciousness itself.

When we were in Jamestown, a leader in the emerging church from London was in the United States.  He was invited to come and speak to us.  During the discussion, I made the observation that the emerging church movement was part of the Holy Spirit’s being poured out on all flesh, on all of humanity.  In Acts 2, St. Peter speaks of that on the day of Pentecost; he’s quoting the prophet Joel.  The outpouring of the Spirit is very definitely a key theme of the Assemblies of God, who I mentioned earlier.

But the speaker dismissed my comment, which I found extremely puzzling.  I wondered how he could fail to see the outpouring of the Spirit at work in all these changes in the church, changes he himself was espousing.  Still, I felt like he was accomplishing some great things.  And it’s entirely possible he didn’t catch what I was trying to say.

That particular fellow aside, we can see “the revealing, the ‘return’ of the Lord as the consummation of the Spirit being poured out on all “flesh,” on all of humanity.  It’s the final act, the crème de la crème, the end of the world as we know it—but in a good and wonderful way.  But we’re not there yet.  The Spirit is continuously being poured out on we frail and beloved humans.

And that has remarkable meaning.

I want to draw again on my time in the Assemblies of God.  After graduating from MTSU with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, I decided to go to one of their colleges: Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida.  In a class on the history of the Assemblies of God, I learned some fascinating things.

In 1906, the revival at Azusa Street in Los Angeles began.  The leader was a minister named William Joseph Seymour.  Out of this revival, the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal movements had their birth.  Those early Pentecostals firmly embraced pacifism.  (They were like the Quakers.)  When the US entered World War 1, their commitment was put to the test.  It’s never easy to be a pacifist, especially in America.  As the years went by, the commitment waned.  People become accommodated to the culture at large, and besides, no one likes being thought of as a traitor!

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William Joseph Seymour

And of course, they understood: women and men are equal.  How could the Spirit of God work otherwise?  Here’s a quote from Rev. Seymour: “We have no right to lay a straw in [a woman’s] way, but to be men of holiness, purity and virtue, to hold up the standard and encourage the woman in her work, and God will honor and bless us as never before.  It is the same Holy Spirit in the woman as in the man.”[1]  As the 20th century rolled along, even that vision started getting foggy.

Certainly, the Assemblies of God aren’t the only ones to waver.  We also have a handle on that!  But the apostle Paul assures his beloved friends in Corinth, and us, “[God] will…strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).

The day of our Lord has its origins in the Old Testament.  There, it is usually portrayed as a day of reckoning, with an ominous tone.  The prophet Joel says, “Alas for the day!  For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes” (1:15).  The prophet Amos throws in his two cents’ worth.  “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!  Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light” (5:18).

That does sound pretty stern.  But it’s not unlike what we saw earlier on the Advent of Jesus in the gospel of Mark.  Beware, keep alert.  Keep awake.

I like the song written by Curtis Mayfield in the 1960s, which was inspired by King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the gospel tradition: “People Get Ready.”  It’s been recorded by many artists since then (including Rod Stewart on vocals and Jeff Beck on guitar, and also, Ziggy Marley)!

“People, get ready / There’s a train a-coming / You don’t need no baggage / You just get on board / All you need is faith / To hear the diesels humming / Don’t need no ticket / You just thank the Lord.”

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The advent of Jesus Christ, the apocalypsis of Christ, is a revelation of gratitude.  Advent is meant to be a time of taking stock of our lives, not getting lost in the dizzying distractions pulling at us with promises of great deals on Christmas presents.  When we open our hearts in loving gratitude, we find “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9).

Maranatha.  The Lord is coming.  We wait for you, Lord, with thanksgiving.

 

[1] fullerstudio.fuller.edu/women-in-the-pentecostal-movement


fasting just in time for Advent

In recent years, we have been reminded there are more obese people on planet Earth than those who are malnourished.  There are a number of reasons: love of fast food and of huge portions in general, lack of exercise, and oh, let’s go again with huge portions—at Thanksgiving dinner!

1 Is 58I’ve never thought of myself as particularly gluttonous, though I can’t claim I never over-indulge.  Still, if I had to name a single spiritual discipline I’ve been most reluctant to follow, it would probably be fasting.  At first glance, considering the note I mentioned at the beginning, it seems that I’m far from alone.  Still, as we continue, we’ll see how fasting is about more than abstaining from food.

Banu mentioned last week about the tradition of Advent, of how it’s about self-denial, waiting in expectation for the coming of the Lord.  With the madcap rush of the economically-driven invented holiday called Black Friday, we are encouraged—no, ordered—to jettison our sense of self-control.  It regrettably (or perhaps, fortunately) demonstrates our need for spiritual discipline.  It shows our need for spiritual disciplines, plural.

Here’s something about spiritual disciplines themselves.  They are practices, things we do.  They aren’t feelings or emotional states, although spiritual disciplines could possibly foster them.  No, spiritual disciplines, at least Christian spiritual disciplines, are to shape us into being more like Jesus, having the faith of Jesus.

And they are indeed practices, things we weave into our everyday lives.  Examples would be fasting (as mentioned), reading the Bible, prayer, worship, service, being accountable to someone loving and wise.  And there are plenty others.

I will confess I often have a problem with meditation.  I too often focus on the “monkey mind,” just jumping around.  I’m thinking about everything in the world.  “Wait, I need to write that down…  I need to fidget with that object on the table…  Hey, who’s that walking outside?”

One thing the disciplines are not is showtime!  They are not about self-promotion.  This isn’t something you post on Facebook.  If you encounter someone who says, “What has two thumbs and is becoming more Christlike every day?  This guy!” then clearly that poor soul is sadly mistaken.

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There’s a little bit about spiritual disciplines in general.  Now let’s get back to our feature story!

I think many of us have almost a fear of fasting.

I imagine we’ve all had our blood drawn to check medicine levels or whatever.  Sometimes that means fasting for 12 hours or maybe just skipping breakfast.  I remember one time going to the clinic to provide a sample, which required fasting after midnight.  The next morning, some of the people there were saying how they wanted to arrive at 8:30, as soon as the place opened, so they could hurry up and get something to eat.  Apparently, they were starving to death!

I don’t want to spend too long on the mechanics of fasting.  Suffice it to say that it doesn’t always mean consuming nothing whatsoever.  There are many different ways to fast.

In her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun says the purpose of fasting is “to let go of an appetite in order to seek God on matters of deep concern for others, myself, and the world.”[1]  Clearly, “an appetite” can refer to many different things.  As St. Paul says in Romans 13, we’re to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ [like a garment], and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (v. 14).

Here, the “flesh” is not simply our physical bodies.  It speaks of the tendency to use the gifts of God for purely selfish intent, to not care what happens to others or to the rest of creation.  The “flesh” is self-indulgence taken to extremes.

When we take self-indulgence and the temptation to self-promotion we just looked at, we find our scripture reading in Isaiah 58 deals with something like this.  This last part of the book of Isaiah is often dated a few years after the return from exile in Babylon.  The initial joy of the exiles has faded as they deal with opposition.  They’re confronted by those who were never sent into exile—and by those who have settled in the land since then.

Their faith is faltering.  And as we look through the scripture text, we can see evidence of the ways in which many of them have stumbled.  We can also see evidence of their attempts to make things right.

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Right off the bat, we know something’s up.  The prophet is told, “Shout out, do not hold back!…  Announce to my people their rebellion” (v. 1).  Apparently, they’re not living in a way that befits God’s people, even though “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness” (v. 2).

The people in our scripture reading say some things to God that might sound familiar.  “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (v. 3).  Where are you, God?  Why aren’t you paying attention?  Why don’t you help us?

The people are behaving as though fasting and other pious actions can compensate for injustice.  They think some acts of worship can cover up their crimes.

What have they been doing that’s so bad?  According to the scripture, “you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.  Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (vv. 3-4).  Eugene Peterson says, “The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground.”  The people are just going through the motions.  They’re not letting themselves be changed.

And here’s something else spiritual disciplines are not.  They are not magic.  There are no incantations to utter that will compel God into doing anything.  God is a God of love.  God is an ethical God, which means God cares about ethics.  It matters what we do; it matters how we live our lives.

This is the fast God chooses: “to loose the bonds of injustice…to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (v. 6).  Verse 9 has something I find especially interesting.  What’s disapproved of here is “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.”

The pointing of the finger.  We see this all the time.  We like to blame others; we try to avoid taking responsibility.  It becomes really obvious during political campaigns.  Advertisements flood the airwaves: ads which insult our intelligence and present the opposing candidate in the worst possible light.

I mean that literally.  You might hear a voiceover saying something like this: “Millions lack health care, but fat cat Joe Blow just doesn’t care!”  Meanwhile, the opponent is presented in a black and white still photograph, or worse, moving in slow motion.  That’s a neat trick.  You can make anyone look bad by showing them in slow motion, especially if they’re about to sneeze.  (I don’t know if anyone’s actually done that, but it would make the person look stupid.)

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Gesundheit!

And then when we switch to the candidate the ad is promoting, muted colors burst with the power of the rainbow, people are smiling, children are laughing, joyful music is heard—the kingdom has come!

Unfortunately, “the pointing of the finger” isn’t restricted to the political realm.  It is alive and well in the church.

“Fasting is an opportunity to lay down an appetite,” Calhoun says, “an appetite for food, for media, for shopping…  Fasting exposes how we try to keep empty hunger at bay and gain a sense of well-being by devouring creature comforts.”  Speaking of creature comforts, when the power goes out, I want it restored as soon as possible!

“Through self-denial we begin to recognize what controls us.  Our small denials of the self show us just how little taste we actually have for sacrifice or time with God.”[2]

I said earlier that I think many of us have a fear of fasting.  When we include these other appetites, it’s probably safe to say that we have a terror of fasting.  Americans in particular are afflicted with this terror.  Our entire civilization seems designed to keep us distracted.

Calhoun continues, “Skip the radio or TV for a day and become aware of how fidgety you are when you aren’t being amused or diverted.”[3]  I would say it’s become more of a challenge to avoid the internet or to stop fiddling with cell phones.

She asks a couple of questions.  “When you feel empty or restless, what do you do to try to fill the emptiness?  What does this tell you about your heart?”[4]

That’s some powerful stuff.  We all feel empty and restless, some more so than others.  What do we do about it?

When we fast from our appetites (and everyone has their own), we say to them, “I don’t need you!  I don’t have to be your slave!”  We begin to set ourselves free from our own chains, and we’re better able to show others how to be free from their chains.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, though this sermon really hasn’t been about that.  (Unless we consider Christ to be the ruler of our appetites!)

Do we really need to hear about fasting, just in time for Advent?  As I said earlier, the season of Advent has been a time of penitent reflection, of waiting for the Lord.  But you know the old saying, “No good things come to those who wait.”  (Hold on, do I have that right?)

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What are some things we need to fast from?  Can we fast from doing and allow ourselves to be?  Can we fast from busyness and allow ourselves to be silent, allow ourselves to listen?  How would that affect our relationships with each other and with God?

What does the prophet say?  “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” (v. 10).  Let’s have a proper fast, and let’s let the light shine.

 

[1] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook:  Practices That Transform Us (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2005), 218.

[2] Calhoun, 220.

[3] Calhoun, 220.

[4] Calhoun, 221.


take each other off the menu

I’m sure we all have places we remember with a less than fond feeling.  Some people dread the dinner table on special occasions, like Thanksgiving, when lots of family and friends gather around.  There might be the family member who’s always itching for a fight about politics or religion—or the life choices of someone who is present.  Then there might be the one who simply makes inappropriate comments about anything under the sun!

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There is a place I remember with a less than fond feeling.  Actually, there are several, but one place in particular sticks out.  It was my junior high school cafeteria.  If there’s somewhere you learn about the social structure of a school, it is the lunchroom!  (That also goes for high school lunchrooms.)

You might find this shocking, but I was never among the popular kids in school.  On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the peak of popularity, I was usually at about 2 or 3.  On rare occasions, I might creep up to 4.  Fortunately, I was never one of the poor souls people made fun of; I was just there, not paid much attention.  It was difficult for me to be at ease in social situations.  I was plagued by shyness.  To put it bluntly, junior high was hell!

There was a curious thing I sometimes felt.  I sometimes felt like I wasn’t real.  Again, it’s not like I was picked on; it’s that I often felt like I was in my own little world.  People who are real don’t have so much trouble making friends, do they?  Privately, I knew I was real.  I was sure of it.  Within myself, I sensed there was nothing really wrong with me, although the outward evidence seemed to suggest the opposite.

But I imagine that’s enough of my sob story and irritating introspection!  I’m sure no one else has felt the way I did—and sometimes do.

Still, I’m fascinated by that sense of not being real, of existence being called into question.

2 Ga 5Earlier this month, Umair Haque wrote an article called, “The Rage in America’s Soul: The Dilemma of Nonexistence.”[1]  It’s a fascinating, insightful, and disturbing take on today’s society.

He sees the problem of “nonexistence” as flowing from, and a part of, the “rage” we have.  Haque has lived all over the world, and he’s noticed something he claims is unique to the US.  I have not lived all over the world, so maybe I’m not the best person to comment.  I don’t believe we’re the only country filled with rage, though perhaps we’ve learned to perfect it in our own way!

He says he “would like to gently confess: I have never seen a place with so much rage in its soul — not even an iota as much — as America.  If we are wise, we will ask, instead of becoming defensive, simply, why?”  As a people, as a nation, why are we filled with so much hate?

(And don’t worry, I’ll include the church, hearing reflections by St. Paul in a few moments!)

It seems when almost anything is reported on the news, the finger pointing soon commences.  Before the dust has settled, people are wondering, “Who’s to blame?”  And even more troubling, we too often see opposite groups as believing the others are not only mistaken—they don’t have the facts straight—but they’re morally wrong.  It’s not simply a matter of intelligence, but of character.  We can automatically assume that someone isn’t acting in good faith.  And sad to say, I have at times found myself falling prey to that temptation.  It is not a good thing!

In calling our rage as Americans a rage of “the soul,” Haque points to a number of things.  He says the rage is omnipresent.  “It does not come and go like the tides, but is more like a background hum of constant fury.”  One example that comes to mind is reading the comments to stories or posts on the internet.  The illogical and irrational venom people write makes me think all of us have taken crazy pills!

He also says it’s merciless.  “It is not merely the shout of a sulking child, but points to a kind of profound agony, one so deep, that there can be no possibility of forgiveness.”  We hold on to grudges with a vengeance.  There is a spiritual reality at work here.  If we haven’t experienced forgiveness, that is, forgiveness for something that really needs to be forgiven—then it’s almost impossible to extend forgiveness.  We have to feel the love.

That goes along with something in 1 Peter: “maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (4:8)!

The third thing Haque mentions is “the rage is murderous.  It doesn’t contain the anger of a scorned lover, but the exhilarating, dizzying fury of a killing field.  There is kind of pleasure, a satisfaction that seems to linger in it.”  There really is a dark delight, a twisted joy, in slaying the enemy, whether with weapon or word.  That’s especially true if we feel ordained by God in our enterprise.

When we view others through a lens of contempt and hatred, we don’t see them as simply human beings.  We don’t see the joys and hopes and fears that we have.  We don’t see them as real.  Haque continues, “The only thing that I know that can produce such rage is to not to be seen to exist at all, which is the first kind of murder that there is, really.”  In effect, we kill them.  We deny each other’s existence as the beloved of God, as those for whom Jesus Christ died.

3 Ga 5So there’s a good segue; I follow up on my promise to bring this to the church!

The apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is possibly the earliest one he wrote.  To put it lightly, he is befuddled at some of the stuff they’re doing and the peculiar things they believe.  He is “astonished;” he calls them “foolish”; he is “perplexed” (1:6, 3:1, 4:20).  And it would seem from the scripture reading in chapter 5, we don’t have to wonder why.

He begins the chapter by reminding the Galatians of their freedom in Christ.  He warns them against using their freedom to go back to slavery, as crazy as that sounds.

Now we see how the apostle tells them “you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence [literally, “the flesh”], but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (vv. 13-14).

A moment ago, I mentioned viewing others through a lens of contempt and hatred.  If we do that, it hampers our ability to see them as real.  It also twists our ability to know the truth.

In our Book of Order (F-3.0104), there’s a saying, “Truth is in order to goodness.”  Part of what that means is truth isn’t always a neutral concept: 2+2=4.  Truth is to be in service of the good.  There is a way of presenting the truth that tears down, that destroys.  There is an evil way of telling the truth—the devil’s truth.  It brings death, not life.  If we tell a truth in rage, if we have a malevolent purpose, if we want to do harm, it’s not really true!  It’s not God’s truth.

Unfortunately, it looks like the Galatian church is in danger of becoming infected with hate.  Paul wants to get ahead of that.  He warns them about using their freedom to indulge the flesh.  And here, the “flesh” is not simply our physical bodies.  It is the tendency to use the gifts of God for purely selfish intent, to not care what happens to others or to the rest of creation.  The “flesh” is self-indulgence.

The apostle gives them some advice, some Spirit-inspired advice.  “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15).  Take each other off the menu!

In recent years, zombies have become very popular.  That is, stories and movies and tv shows about them—not the zombies themselves!  Zombies go around eating people, but they don’t know why they do it.  After all, they are dead.  Some people see the fascination with zombies as a commentary on our society.  We mindlessly consume each other, and it’s reflected in art (if portrayals of zombies can be considered art).

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Richard Rohr says something interesting in a reflection on Thérèse of Lisieux, who died in her twenties at the end of the nineteenth century.[2]  She came to have the nickname “The Little Flower.”  She spoke of the “science of love.”

Rohr makes a reference to John the Baptist saying of Jesus, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29).  He says, “the sin of the world” is “ignorant killing, and as we see today, we are destroying the world through our ignorance.”

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The sin of the world is behaving like those zombies, who kill and have no idea what they’re doing.  The sin of the world is behaving like the devil, who was “a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44).  However, and there is a “however.”  “When we love, we do know what we are doing!”  We wake up.

Paul wants the Galatians to wake up from the drowsiness and the haziness of self-indulgence.  They need to see what they’re doing.  They’re eating each other alive.

Can we see any of this in the church today?  Can we see any of it in ourselves?  If we can, that’s okay, and here’s one example why.

I started by talking about places we remember with a less than fond feeling.  I put forth the supposition that one of them might be Thanksgiving dinner.  And I speculated one reason might be arguments over religion and politics.  Mind you, I enjoy talking about that stuff, but it’s important to do so without speaking the devil’s truth.

At its very best, the church embraces those with various viewpoints.  One thing I like to mention is Jesus’ inner circle.  It included Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot: a collaborator with the Romans and a revolutionary who wanted to overthrow the Romans.  (I wonder how their dinners went.)

We can have those different groups—conservative and liberal—rich and poor—popular kids and kids like me, in Christ, and do it with gratitude.  Live with thanksgiving.

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And thankfully, we have help in taking each other off the menu.  We have help in not submitting to the rage which would have us licking our chops and sharpening our knives.  We have the freedom in Christ to treat each other as real, as the beloved of God.  We have the freedom in Christ to taste and see that the Lord is good.

 

[1] umairhaque.com/the-rage-in-americas-soul-494a285cb633

[2] cac.org/therese-lisieux-part-2-2017-10-04


the enemy of Thanksgiving

Looking ahead to a special ecumenical service for Thanksgiving, I figured, “Well, at least I know what my theme is!”  For some people, the holiday of Thanksgiving is mainly about the history.  For others, it’s about the turkey, the pumpkin pie, the (fill in the blank).  And for some other very sad souls, it’s about football—especially the Dallas Cowboys!

Still, focusing on the theme of thanksgiving, of gratitude, while avoiding some of the clichés—it’s not as easy as it would seem at first.  I’ve found that sometimes the best way to understand something is to look at its opposite.  Having said that, thinking of the opposite of “thankful” as “unthankful,” and the opposite of “gratitude” as “ingratitude,” might not be much help after all!

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I want to bring up something we don’t often hear about in sermons or Sunday school, and that is, the seven deadly sins of the medieval church.  Can anyone name them?  We have envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath.  There’s one of them, sloth, that a lot of people think isn’t so bad.  But that would be a mistake!

The original Latin word for that specific deadly sin is “acedia.”  Over time, it became lost in the term “sloth.”  Most of us think of that as laziness. (Plus we have the image of those cute critters hanging from trees!)  It is laziness, but not simply the kind meaning you’re a couch potato.

Acedia literally means a “lack of care.”  In early monasticism, it was called the “noonday demon.”  It’s a condition of spiritual apathy, a state of sluggishness, in which the afflicted person is unwilling or unable to care about much of anything at all—at least, it ends up that way.

Fred Craddock, the well-known preacher in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), describes it this way.  Instead of mere laziness, he says it’s “the ability to look at a starving child…with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well it’s not my kid.’…Or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, ‘Well…that’s not my dad.’  It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.”[1]  I don’t care.  But it can manifest itself in ways other than some obvious lack of caring.

If we can rouse ourselves enough to study sloth, then I think we’re getting close to the opposite of gratitude.  In her book, Acedia and Me, Kathleen Norris goes into great detail at how she has seen the noonday demon at work in her own life.  As I read her book, I felt like some of my theories were being reinforced.  For a long time, I’ve believed that of the seven deadly sins, sloth is the deadliest!

Norris quotes Soren Kierkegaard from Either/Or.  It’s like a strange twist on Dr. Seuss.  “I do not care for anything.  I do not care to ride, for the exercise is too violent.  I do not care to walk, walking is too strenuous.  I do not care to lie down, for I should either have to remain lying, and I do not care to do that, or I should have to get up again, and I do not care to do that either…  I do not care at all.”[2]

Has anyone else ever felt that way?  It’s almost like all the color of life gets washed away, and all that’s left are blah shades of gray.

2 thanksThere’s a passage in Norris’ book that reminds me of a line from the movie The Usual Suspects.  It’s when Kevin Spacey says, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”  In the movie, he’s referring to the notorious criminal, Keyser Soze, but it’s clear he means more than that particular villain.  The quote ends, “And like that…he’s gone.”

This is what Norris wrote: “I am intrigued that over the course of the last sixteen hundred years we managed to lose the word acedia…  We are tempted to regard with reverence those dedicated souls who make themselves available ‘twenty-four/seven’ and regard silence as unproductive, solitude as irresponsible.  But when distraction becomes the norm, we are in danger of becoming immunized from feeling itself…  Is it possible that in twenty-first-century America, acedia has come into its own?  How can that be, when so few know its name?”[3]

Obviously, we don’t need to know the name of something for it to control us.  We can even forget that it exists.  Are we too “slothful” to identify and resist acedia?

In our scripture text, St. Paul urges Timothy “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone,” including those in authority (vv. 1-2).  None of those items are on Mr. Sloth’s “to-do” list.  None of those look very attractive to Ms. Acedia.

Something the apostle urges Timothy to do, as well as us, is to look outward.  No one can do the things in that list while constantly focusing inward.  It’s impossible to live a life of supplication, prayer, intercession, and thanksgiving that way.

Paul’s expressed desire in verse 2, that we “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity,” may lead some to say we should leave well enough alone.  Let the world outside take care of itself.  But guess what?  That’s another way acedia raises its slothful head!

Perhaps the greatest sin of sloth, the worst assault of acedia, is the effect on the imagination.  Its biggest crime is what it does to creativity.  As Norris says, “Acedia can flatten any place into a stark desert landscape and make hope a mirage.”  It can make our world “obscenely small.”[4]  That’s a compelling statement.  If we believe the lie that we have nothing to offer—that we aren’t creative—then the problems in life will start to feel too overwhelming.  We will lose our ability to care.

“To someone in the grip of acedia, the beauty of sunlight, and of life itself, can only reinforce a bitter ingratitude.”[5]

What’s the opposite of love?  Is it hate?  Could it be indifference?  As the saying goes, there’s a thin line between love and hate.  But where indifference resides—where the lack of caring reigns supreme—the vitality of life gets drained away.  And that is a sin.  And that is deadly.

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So, in a few days, pray for the gift of thanksgiving.  Ask for the grace of gratitude.  (Actually, that’s not a bad prayer every day!)  Let it lead you into the world “in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (vv. 3-4).

 

[1] Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008), 115.

[2] Norris, 16.

[3] Norris, 45-46.

[4] Norris, 39, 85.

[5] Norris, 202.