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July 2020

it seems so irrational

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) has been applied to this strange new world of pandemic.  Do an internet search with her name and “pandemic” or “coronavirus,” and you’ll see what I mean.

1 blogQuick note: the five stages were never intended to follow each other in some chronological fashion.  They overlap, but I won’t go into detail on that.

It is important to understand that we are in fact grieving.  I think I can relate to all of the stages, some more so than others.  It hits me in so many ways.  It seems so irrational.  We’re not even supposed to shake hands!

We’re familiar, of course, with the refusal to wear protective masks, do physical distancing, sanitize stuff, and so on.  Again, I won’t claim to be immune to those impulses.  It seems so irrational!

We’re also familiar with the ways anger is played out.  For example, when asked to put on a mask while entering a store, many people simply walk by, berate the unfortunate employee making the request, and some even resort to violence.  People have even been killed.

2 blogAs with so many seemingly random aspects of our society, wearing a mask has become politicized.  I’m a fan of the NHL team Nashville Predators.  Do I wear a MAGA hat, or am I feeling the Bern?  (On a side note, another aspect of grief—one I share with millions of people around the world—is wondering if I will ever again be able to share an arena with thousands of cheering fans.)

3 blogThe root of anger is fear.  Too often, we don’t recognize how our fear expresses itself, whether we’re boiling over or just simmering.  (On a foolish side note, I remember the SNL skit with Cheri Oteri, “Simmer down now.”)

Perhaps we can relate to the prophet Jeremiah who wailed, who demanded of God: “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?  Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail” (15:18).  We might hurl invectives at the Almighty!  Would it surprise you to learn that God can never be the recipient of misplaced anger?  The Lord can take it all.  Hit me with your best shot.

Recognizing that we are in fact grieving helps in entering a healthy process.  Maybe it’s not as irrational as it might seem.


this was always the place

1 gnHave you ever been given a nickname regarding something you had absolutely no control over?  You know, like being called “freckle face.”  (Assuming, of course, you have a generous supply of freckles.)  How about addressing someone of petite stature?  “Shorty” would be a nickname completely unearned.  That would also be true if the name “Shorty” were used ironically, referring to someone seven feet tall!

Here’s another question.  Have you ever given someone else a name about something they couldn’t help?

A lot of that goes on in the Bible.  Consider the Old Testament reading in Genesis 28, the story of Jacob’s ladder.  We’re introduced to Jacob in chapter 25, just as he and his twin brother Esau are being born.  And what does he do to his elder brother?  He takes him by the heel!  Darn that infant.  Just for that, we’re going to call you Jacob.[1]  You know—the name that means one who supplants, the one who will shove you aside and take your place, the one who will grab your heels and try to trip you.

(I won’t go into detail now, but he does wind up tricking his brother into selling his birthright.  He tricks his father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, the one that should go to the elder son.  Esau is furious and is dead set on killing Jacob, so Jacob hits the road to go live with Uncle Laban, the brother of his mother Rebekah.)

Speaking of nicknames regarding something of which you have no control, my own name wends its way through history back to Jacob.  James, by way of the French (Jacques), back to the Latin (Iacomus), back to the Greek (Iakobos), and finally to the Hebrew (Jacob or Ya‘aqōv).  Am I a supplanter; do I scheme to take someone else’s place?

I guess I can take heart in that there have been, and still are, a ton of Jameses throughout time and space!

But let’s go back to that sneaky Jacob.  Pastor and writer Renita Weems says of him, “What makes Jacob’s story so incredibly engaging and kind of inspires the energy that we’re feeling now is that it is the first character in the Genesis story that provides us with so many different dimensions of a particular character.”[2]

She isn’t kidding.  Later on, Jacob wrestles with a man/angel all night long.  Eventually, the man throws in the towel, but not before getting in one last lick at Jacob’s hip!  Jacob is told, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (32:28).  His craftiness is rewarded.

2 gnWeems goes on, “I mean, here we finally have someone we have some adjectives we can use—deceptive, clever, shrewd, subtle, whatever.  Before Jacob, we’re finding mostly characters are pretty one dimensional.  They pretty much do what God says and may protest a little here and there, but in Genesis, this is, aha, someone who’s human, the first real, human person.”

When called upon, he can also do an incredible Hulk imitation, though without the green skin!  He comes upon some shepherds at a well which is covered with a large stone.  Removing it is a job for several men.  Jacob, upon seeing the beautiful Rachel approaching, walks over to the stone and picks that bad boy up!  I don’t know.  Does this display suitably impress Rachel?

Still, all of that is in the future.

I started by asking about nicknames, but the real focus here is something deeper and more inward.  Jacob has a dream.  We’re told he comes to “a certain place” and stays there for the night.  The Hebrew simply says, “the place.”  And at “the place,” he uses a stone for a pillow! (v. 11).  Who knows what kind of dreams that might prompt?

I don’t want to get into the mechanics of dreams.  There are numerous interpretations of what they might mean.  Some people remember their dreams on a nightly basis; some almost never remember them.  I think I’m somewhere in the middle.

There was a dream I had for many years.  If you’ll indulge me; I’ve told this story before.  It dealt with McDonald’s, where I worked when I wasn’t away at college.  In the dream, I would be at various locations.  I might be at home, or maybe I’d be driving my car.  And in the back of my mind was this nagging fear that I should be at work; I should be at McDonald’s.

In the dream, it was always the case that it had been days, even weeks, since I’d showed up for work.  I would have the feeling that I needed to go to the store and check the schedule.  Was I in fact supposed to be there?  But I don’t remember ever making that trip.  Instead, I would wake up and realize, with a great sense of relief, that I was now at seminary, or later on, that I was now pastor of a church.

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I haven’t had that nightmare (yes, nightmare) for a long time now.  Banu once told me that I was subconsciously expressing my fear of working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.  I believe there’s something to that!  At a deeper level, though, I think McDonald’s represented my sense of not moving forward.  It was a symbol of my needing to complete something.

All of us have had dreams, even recurring ones, that have had special importance.

Jacob has a dream that is exceptionally important—and quite vivid.  He dreams “that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (v. 12).  The word for “ladder” is better translated as “ramp” or “stairway.”  Jacob dreams of a “stairway to heaven,” to reference the old Led Zeppelin song.

The Lord meets him and identifies himself as the God of his fathers.  God gives him the promise given to Abraham and Isaac, that he will inherit the land and his offspring “shall be like the dust of the earth.”  Furthermore, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (v. 14).  God promises to be with him until these things are fulfilled.

(On a side note, it’s always the men who are given credit for the number of children.  The women are mysteriously absent.)

After that promise of amazing grace, Jacob wakes up and it dawns on him, “God is here, and I didn’t know it!”  Something is stirring inside him.  Whoa!  God is here, and I didn’t know it.  That something stirring inside him is fear.  It is reverence.

Remember what’s going on with Jacob.  He’s on the run; he’s literally running for his life.  Is it possible he has only himself to blame?  Maybe.  How many times have we been on the run, seemingly for our lives, only to realize that we are our own worst enemies?

We come to “the place,” just as Jacob does.  Where is that place for each of us?  Where is that place for us as a community, as the church?  Where is that place where we stop running?  Where is that place where it might take a dream, a vision of angels ascending and descending, to make us realize that God has been here the whole time?  This was always the place.  It is a time of awe, of holy fear.

What does the dream signify?  What does Jacob’s ladder mean?  Now we’re back to the multiple understandings I mentioned earlier.  That’s certainly true with this dream.  If you don’t believe me, do an internet search for “meaning of Jacob’s ladder,” or words to that effect.  I imagine you’ll find two or three takes on it.

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[Jacob's Dream by William Blake]

One that I find interesting and helpful comes from Ephraim of Sudlikov, a rabbi from eighteenth century Poland.  He speaks of the “ladder filled with upward and downward motion [as] a metaphor for the religious life of any human being here on earth.”[3]  Very briefly, when we feel a profound closeness to God, we are ascending the ladder.  When we feel a profound distance from God, we are descending the ladder.

Ephraim says there’s nothing wrong with this.  It is an integral part of the spiritual life.  It is who we are.  It shouldn’t be lost on us that “God shows this to Jacob precisely at a moment in which he is alone and afraid.  It is as if God seeks to reassure him: ‘This very sense of alienation and disconnection you feel may yet lead you to find Me in entirely new ways.’  Just as your spiritual life wanes, it may yet wax stronger than you yourself thought possible.  And the waxing may owe much to the waning.”

Jacob now realizes, “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (v. 17).

Jumping ahead a few centuries, John’s gospel presents Jesus telling Nathanael, “‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these.’ [By the way, in Hebrew thought, a fig tree was symbolic of prosperity.]  And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’” (1:50-51).  John links Jesus himself with the gate of heaven.

How does Jacob finally respond to all of this?  He builds a shrine and calls it “Bethel,” which means “house of God” (v. 19).  Then he makes a vow in response to God’s promise of free and amazing grace.  He’s still not quite ready to fully trust God.  If you do this…then I will do that…

Thomas Whartenby tells us, “The man who has always lived by his wits now seeks to strike a bargain.  To the God who made gracious and unconditional promises, Jacob makes a very guarded and conditional vow: If you deliver, I will serve.  It is easier to build sanctuaries than it is to live the life of faith.  Conditional discipleship is much easier than unconditional surrender.”[4]  Can we all agree to that?

Yet, despite all of Jacob’s duplicity, despite all of his scheming, God is faithful.  Like Jacob, we come to our “place.”  And too often, we would rather be anywhere in the world but there.  We would rather be on Jupiter or Saturn than there.[5]

5 gn

Still, it’s true, that is where God meets us—where God has been waiting to meet us.

 

[1] יַעֲקֹב (Ya‘aqōv)

[2] billmoyers.com/content/god-wrestling

[3] www.beliefnet.com/faiths/judaism/2000/12/the-ladder-to-heaven.aspx

[4] Thomas J. Whartenby, Jr., “Genesis 28:10-22,” Interpretation 45:4 (Oct 1991), 404.

[5] Since we’ve been able to see both of them at night recently!


because I can

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”  We’ve all heard that.  Translation: whatever trouble, whatever debauchery, you get into on a trip to Las Vegas, don’t worry; it stays there.  You won’t have to face the consequences when you leave town.  The hijinks that occurred will never be mentioned!  Never mind that Las Vegas is a city where actual families live.  (Though I would question the wisdom of building a metro area in the desert.)  It still has the nickname “Sin City.”

1 1 coI start with Las Vegas because it isn’t the only place in world history noted for its decadence.  Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are directed to a church in a city that could give Vegas some pointers.  Corinth is a major crossroads in the Roman Empire.  It’s a prominent hub of commerce; people from many nations, speaking many languages, and many social backgrounds flow through it.  Corinth provides a market for a variety of goods and services—that is, goods and services of all kinds, appealing to appetites of varying levels of decorum.

In fact, there was a verb that came into popular use: “to Corinthianize,” referring to engaging in promiscuity and immorality.

That is the city providing the background for Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church.  As I noted last month, this church has given him plenty of grief.  He’s had to get after them for being too lax, and then for being too strict.  They’ve split themselves up into competing factions; they’ve treated the poor with disrespect; they’ve chased after the latest fads; they’ve done these and many other things.  And as I said, to their credit, one thing they have not been is boring!  And that’s one thing you can say about the town they live in.  It is not boring—far from it.

That’s enough debauchery for right now, but rest assured, we will come back to it!

Here’s a very quick outline of 1 Corinthians.  The opening verses have the salutation, and then the first four chapters deal with divisions in the church.  Chapters 5 and 6 address a man and his stepmother (fill in the blank), church members dragging each other into court, and Corinthianizing.  In the middle part of the letter, chapters 7 to 10, Paul answers questions they have posed to him.  Chapters 11 to 14 are about order in worship.  Chapter 15 is about the resurrection, and chapter 16 is the conclusion.

I want to look at a passage in chapter 9 and a snippet from chapter 10.  This is in the section where Paul is fielding questions.  A common refrain among many of the Corinthians is, “Who do you think you are?”  Many folks have expressed uncertainty and/or hurled accusations regarding his role as apostle.  They are holding his feet to the fire.

Here’s where Paul wants to make a point.  He hasn’t exercised his full rights as an apostle.  He hasn’t asked for all he could.  Maybe given the, at times, problematic relationship, Paul wants to be as above reproach as possible.  He doesn’t want to give anyone an excuse to challenge his motives.  Still, in some peoples’ eyes, that will take some doing.

Imagine applying for a job.  One thing sure to be asked is, “Do you have any references?”  I think Paul has this one covered.  In verse 1 he asks, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”  Not everyone can make that claim.  It looks like Paul might be qualified for the position, at least as far as Jesus is concerned—assuming he gave Paul a good reference!

2 1 co

It’s important that Paul has his credentials in order.  His identity as an apostle is at stake.  And he needs credibility, especially since much of the discord hinges on people’s rights.

As noted before, Corinth is a cosmopolitan city, and the church reflects it.  Its members are primarily Gentiles, with the (as expected) background of pagan religions.  These would be Greek gods and whatever gods were imported by folks from near and far.

There was the question of eating food which had been sacrificed to pagan gods—to idols, as Paul would say.  Some of the food would be burned, but the leftover amount would go to local shopkeepers for sale.  Should Christian converts eat the food if they knew where it came from?  Paul says, “We know those gods don’t really exist.  But if someone who is still tempted to believe they’re real sees me eating the food, they might think, ‘Well, Paul’s joining in, so it must be okay!’”

The apostle is clear: I will not exercise my right to eat, if it means I will cause someone else to stumble.  It’s almost like serving wine in front of a recovering alcoholic.  (That would actually be a cruel thing to do!)

It’s a lesson he teaches them.  Basically, put yourself in the other person’s place.  “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them” (v. 19).  He gives examples.  “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews” (v. 20).  Likewise, “to those under the law…, to those outside the law…, to the weak…”  “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (v. 22).

3 1 co

Understand, this isn’t saying anything goes.  It’s a commitment to forego his right to do something if it means someone else will be hurt.  That’s a crucial point to make.

Here’s where we come back to the notorious reputation of Corinth.  They have a saying which Paul repeats in chapter 10: “All things are lawful.”  And they do mean “all things.”  In this case, anything does go!

Paul finishes the thought.  “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.  Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (vv. 23-24).  Paul includes the quote earlier in the letter, and here’s how he finishes there: “…but I will not be dominated by anything” (6:12).

Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it.  Actually, when you say, “because I can,” you might get more than you bargained for.  Our dear apostle warns you might become dominated by your choice; you might become its slave.  You might get addicted.

Still, even short of that, as Eugene Peterson reflected, “We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well” (10:24).

There was a question I used to hear when we were electing new officials.  It went along these lines: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  The implied suggestion would be “no.”  That sounds like a reasonable question.  However, I remember someone speaking of a truly Christian version.  “Are your neighbors better off than they were four years ago?”  I would love to hear that question asked.

This pandemically plagued planet has posed new problems.  For example, do we have the right to forego wearing masks in public?

There was a recent article in The Atlantic by Julia Marcus bearing the colorful title, “The Dudes Who Won’t Wear Masks.”[1]  The example given was former baseball player Aubrey Huff, who wrote on Twitter that he wouldn’t wear a mask inside any business, noting, “It’s unconstitutional to enforce.”  He also posted a video getting plenty of attention.

“In his video,” Marcus writes, “he appears to be wearing a seatbelt.  Yet unlike a seatbelt, which directly benefits the user, masks primarily protect everyone else, particularly people who are older or have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.  Huff seems to understand this; he just thinks those people should ‘stay the [blank] home.’”  It looks like if he had his way, those who are more vulnerable, including children, should have their freedom curtailed, their rights restricted.

He ends the video by proclaiming, “I would rather die from coronavirus than to live the rest of my life in fear and wearing a [blank] mask.”  I guess my response would be, “He has the right to do that.”

(On a side note, I wouldn’t say I’m living in fear by wearing a mask.  I won’t deny it is tedious, and I’m still not really used to seeing people in public wearing them.  But no, I don’t think my motivation in wearing a mask is driven by fear!)

4 1 co

“I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings” (9:23).  That’s what Paul the apostle says.  We squabble over our rights and close our eyes to the shining glory Jesus the Christ offers.  We fight over crumbs while a splendid banquet is set for us.

Our friend Mr. Huff would rather die from the virus than wear a mask.  Our friend the apostle Paul “would rather die than” insist on his rights.  Why?  So that “no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting!” (v. 15).  He isn’t boasting about himself; he has “no ground for boasting” (vv. 15-16).  He is boasting about our Lord, who has redeemed him, just as our Lord has redeemed us.

Because of that, we are held to a higher standard than those who don’t know the Lord—the standard of love.  And that is a rigorous standard.  It requires repentance, continual repentance, a continual changing of our minds.  It calls for our lives to be a witness to Christ, who puts others first.  At the end of the day, we find wearing a mask really isn’t such a sacrifice!

Why Lord, do you pour out blessings and meet us in these very difficult times?

“Because I can.”

 

[1] medium.com/the-atlantic/the-dudes-who-wont-wear-masks-be8df1a9ec41