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April 2021

mourning to morning

“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (vv. 5, 11).

These beautiful, elegant verses from Psalm 30 often adorn little knick-knacks and more serious pieces of art.  They are truly inspiring lines of poetry.

1 ps

"Angel of Grief" sculpted by William Wetmore Story (left), a happy woman (right)

“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?” (v. 9).  How about that one?  Is it poetry?  Sure it is, but how likely are we to see it on a coffee mug—or as a decoration on someone’s tee shirt?  Probably not so much!

What about the book of Lamentations?

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (vv. 22-23).  This is truly majestic stuff!  I imagine there are some people who don’t realize it comes from this book.  Of course, it’s the inspiration for one of the most beloved hymns of the church, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

There’s a worship chorus many of us have learned, those who are familiar with some of the music of the Maranatha Singers: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; / his mercies never come to an end. / They are new every morning, new every morning; / great is thy faithfulness, O Lord, / great is thy faithfulness.”

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!  How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (v. 1).

That’s how Lamentations begins.  I wonder, what are the chances of those lines embellishing a plaque mounted on a wall in your house?  Compared with “great is thy faithfulness,” what are the odds of that appearing on the welcome mat at your front door?  Probably not so much!

As you can see, celebration and lament often go together.  We’re good with the celebration, but how about the lament?  About 40 percent of the psalms are psalms of lament.  Lament is shot through the books of Job and of course, Lamentations.  Psalm 22 appears on the lips of Jesus on the cross.  (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)  Lament appears throughout the scriptures.

Given the weight the Bible puts on lament, it would seem our worship would include at least a tiny bit more of it.  Our hymns scarcely mention it.  Churches that do lament better are the traditionally black churches.  No doubt, they’ve experienced much more of it.

2 psHere’s a question I’ve asked myself: how can we include lament—how can we include it in song—without getting morbid?  Is there such a thing as a liturgical Debbie Downer?

Psalm 30 portrays the other side of the danger, of the misfortune.  It is used as one of the psalms in the Easter season.  It speaks of life from death.  Aside from the little goody we’ve already seen, “What profit is there in my death,” we have verse 3: “O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”

Sheol is the land of the grave.  It is the underworld.  It is the land of the dead; it’s like Hades in Greek thought.  Not much happens in Sheol.  It’s a gloomy, gray place.  All the restaurants are closed.  All the musical instruments have been confiscated.  There’s nothing to read, nothing to watch, no fun whatsoever.  And as we see in verse 9, addressed to the Lord, “Will the dust praise you?  Will it tell of your faithfulness?”  The worship of God is absent.

Sheol is the land of the grave.  As such, it can include death in many forms: whatever is destructive, whatever is harmful, whatever is shameful.  As for the psalmist, what is presented is recovery from a serious illness.  Indeed, it’s an illness that first appeared to be terminal.

It has been a long night.

I’m sure we can relate to this in a literal way.  There are those nights that seem to never end.  Maybe we’ve even looked to the east, wondering when the sky would begin to show signs of light.  Perhaps we’ve been sick in body.  Perhaps we’ve been sick in heart.

Finally, here comes the dawn.  Maybe we’re still sick, but a sense of relief takes hold.  We’ve made it through the night!  Hallelujah.

“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  “You have turned my mourning into dancing.”

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It’s been a hard road, as verses 6 and 7 tell us.  “As for me,” according to our poet, “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.”

I like the way the New Jerusalem Bible puts it.  “Carefree, I used to think, ‘Nothing can ever shake me!’  Your favour, Yahweh, set me on impregnable heights, but you turned away your face and I was terrified.”  In Biblical thought, when God’s face is turned away, favor, special privilege, is suspended—if not canceled altogether.  Who can say what that would mean for any single person?  For that matter, who can say what that would mean for any single group?

The other night, while we were talking about the virus, Banu wondered about the next thing we’re supposed to be afraid of!

We must admit that for many, favor and special privilege are too often absent.

In 1996, Pastor Soong-Chan Rah and his wife Sue started a church in inner-city Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It is the Central Square neighborhood, positioned between Harvard and MIT.  The students called it “Central Scare.”  That is, “the scary urban neighborhood into which you dare not venture.”[1]

After the church had been going for a little while, Rah was planning a sermon series, but he wondered, “What should I use?”  He considered the gospel of Mark, Paul’s letter to the Romans, or even Revelation, with God’s vision of the heavenly city.  Eventually, he decided to go with the book of Lamentations.  It’s safe to say the church growth gurus rarely suggest that one!

He felt the need to meet the people where they were.  Instead of glossing over their suffering, he wanted to address it.  He wanted to give them the language for it.  He didn’t want the “rah-rah,” exuberance to be the only word that was heard.

The status quo—the way things are now—isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration.  In many ways, the status quo is a cause for mourning, a cause for grief.

In his book, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, Rah comments, “Christian communities arising from celebration do not want their lives changed, because their lives are in a good place.  Tax rates should remain low.  Home prices and stocks should continue to rise unabated, while interest rates should remain low to borrow more money to feed a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.”[2]

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The book of Lamentations pictures a city and temple that have been destroyed and a people who have been forcibly relocated by a mighty empire.  Jerusalem, who “was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal” (v. 1).  She’s had to exchange her fine garments for a burlap sack.

“Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations and finds no resting place” (v. 3).  They have no place to call their own.

There is something we already incorporate into our worship that has a resemblance to lament.  It’s when we join in our prayer of confession.  When we confess our sin, we admit the wrong in our action and in our inaction.  We do this at the corporate and at the personal levels, that is, as a body and as individuals.  One would presume—one would hope—that at least a smidgen of lamentation goes with it!

As for lament itself, it also is expressed for all of us and for each of us.  Are we to take responsibility, to follow up on lament?  Is it enough to simply “feel bad” when it’s within our power to act?  I would suggest that St. James’ maxim of “faith without works is dead” would apply (2:14-26).

How about when we have little or no control over the situation?

Rev. Rah describes the book of Lamentations in several ways, including that of a funeral dirge.  Already in chapter 1 we see references to widowhood (v. 1), young girls grieving (v. 4), priests and elders perishing (v. 19), and a note that “in the house it is like death” (v. 20).

“Lamentations 1 depicts the reality of death and suffering that leads to the appropriate response of lament.  The city of Jerusalem has died, and Lamentations 1 initiates a funeral dirge in response.”[3]  Jerusalem is a dead body.  It must be acknowledged and mourned.  It must be honored.  “The funeral dirge is a reality check for those who witness suffering and allows mourning that is essential for dealing with death.”[4]

When we mourn, we remember.  Christopher Wright says, “Part of the horror of human suffering is to be unheard, forgotten, and nameless.  Lamentations is a summons to remember.”[5]  It “forces us to listen to every mood that the deepest suffering causes, whether we approve or not.  We are called not to judge, but to witness.  Not to speak, but to listen.”[6]

When Job’s friends heard of his misfortune, they traveled great distances to be with him.  They were true friends, being with him in his pain.  They were witnesses.  Of course, when he began venting his “every mood that the deepest suffering causes,” they began to judge!

Earlier, I expressed the concern about being morbid, being a Debbie Downer.  With that in mind, can we see the power of lament?  Can we see how it helps us to be real?  Can we see how it enables us to honor and care for each other?  Can we see how, through a meandering, circuitous route, lament leads to joy?

Clearly, not everyone has experienced the same degree of sorrow; not everyone has had the same amount of misfortune.  However, I think there’s something we all have in common—something we’ve all gone through.  And that is, the pain of growing up.  The feelings of rejection, of awkwardness, of embarrassment—that’s all part of the package.

For those who are still kids, I can tell you, “Hang on; you will get through it.  It might not seem like it, but you will make it.”  Of course, even as adults we still deal with that stuff, but one hopes we become better able to handle it and learn the lessons it provides.

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[photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash]

The remembrance and witness that come with mourning and lament do indeed impart power.  They lead us in the path of Jesus, a man acquainted with sorrows.  He walks with us through those never-ending nights.  And finally, here comes the dawn.  Our mourning gives way to morning.

 

[1] Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), Kindle edition, Introduction, section 1, paragraph 1.

[2] Rah, Introduction.1.13.

[3] Rah, Epilogue.2.1.

[4] Rah, 2.1.6.

[5] Christopher J. H. Wright, “Lamentations: A Book for Today,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39:2 (Apr 2015), 59.

[6] Wright, 60.


embezzling the Spirit

The scripture reading in Acts 4 and 5 presents what many people have often described as an early look at Christian communism.  Before anyone gets too excited, understand I’m not talking about the tyrannical political system we became familiar with in the 20th century.  I know that “communism” is a word that raises a red flag.  (Yes, a “red” flag!)

1 acWe see language like “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions” and “everything they owned was held in common” (v. 32).  Chapter 2 has similar descriptions of the community.  “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (vv. 44-45).

That actually sounds communist.  That is, it sounds commune-ist, as in living in a commune.

We’re not talking about any element of force here.  There isn’t any government mandate; there isn’t anything done at the point of a sword.  Rather, “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.”  This is a community bound by love.  It looks like it’s taking care of everyone.  “There was not a needy person among them” (v. 34).

I would like to make a couple of side comments on all of this.  I do have respect for folks who choose to live communally.  (Understand, that excludes cults and brainwashing and places where people are held against their will!)  Many communes demonstrate a life with a healthy perspective on putting people before property.

Having said that, I’m not sure the early church in Jerusalem really was a commune.

Questions of commune set aside, building community is not easy.  Sometimes people speak of it in romanticized terms, but community involves characters of all sorts: crabby and gabby, serious and delirious, careless and cautious.  It seems inevitable there will be those who give and give and give and apparently don’t get much in return.  And then there are those who live by the motto, “It is more blessed to receive than to give.”

As they say, it takes all kinds.

At the center of it all are the apostles.  They’ve been acting as a sort of clearinghouse for the dispersal of funds.  They didn’t get that job because of any economic training they received.  They didn’t take any extension courses.  Instead, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (v. 33).

2 acThat word “power” in Greek is δυναμις (dunamis).  It’s where we get our word “dynamite.”  Does anyone remember the 70s TV show Good Times?  It included the Evans family elder son, J. J., who often proclaimed he was “Kid Dyn-O-Mite!”  I don’t suppose any of the apostles would claim that title for themselves!

They use that great power in giving testimony, in giving witness, to the resurrection of the Lord.  (“Resurrection” makes this a fitting theme for the Easter season.)  Something about resurrection is that it’s not a one-time thing.  Resurrection is ongoing.  These early disciples, the Jerusalem church, demonstrate resurrection power.  The Holy Spirit is moving among them.  As we see, “great grace” was upon the community.

As we might know about community, there are those who simply get it.  They know what goes into building it, and they’re willing to step up and take part.

Everyone is important in the eyes of the Lord, but there are those whose presence, and whose absence, is especially felt.

One such person in that early church is a Cypriot named Joseph.  We’re told he is a Levite, a member of the priestly tribe of Levi who traditionally would help with ceremonial duties.  He has made a really good impression, because he has been given the nickname, “Barnabas,” “son of encouragement.”  He’s the guy who will help you when you’re feeling down.  He’s the one who will reassure you.  “You can do it!”  He is the encourager.  (That sounds like the name of a superhero—the Encourager.  He’s the one who’s in your corner.)

3 ac

[photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash]

Barnabas plays no small role in the book of Acts.  If this were a movie, we could say his agent did a good job in getting him the part.

After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul (later known as Paul) goes to Jerusalem, but the disciples there don’t trust him (9:26-28).  They know about his past, how he persecuted the church.  But Barnabas steps forward and vouches for him.  “This guy is okay.  He’s the real deal.”

In chapter 11, news has come regarding the church in Antioch: the number of believers is said to be growing quickly.  They want someone to check it out.  Here’s how the scripture reads: “News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.  And a great many people were brought to the Lord” (vv. 22-24).  He also accompanies Paul on his first missionary trip.

I really like that.  Barnabas is known to be a good man, filled with the Spirit and faith.  He is a good man.  I don’t know what more can be said.  It’s hard to beat being called a good man.  True to his reputation, he sells a piece of land and brings the money to the apostles.  He wants to contribute to the cause and help those in need.  Thus endeth chapter four, and we move to chapter five.

4 acBut then…  You know Bonnie and Clyde?  Well, they ain’t got nuttin’ on Ananias and Sapphira!  Unfortunately, this part of the story does not end well.

We start off on a good note.  Just like Barnabas, they sell a piece of property and bring the profits to the apostles.  They’ve done their fair share in helping the community.  However, there is a problem.  The two decide to hold back some of the money, even though they said there would be more.  One of the meanings for the word translated “kept back” (νοσφιζω, nosphizō) is “embezzle.”

Peter knows something is up—maybe it was divine inspiration, or maybe he simply did the math.  He confronts Ananias, letting him know he could have given whatever amount he and his wife chose.  It was up to them.  He asks a rather blunt question: “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?” (v. 3).  He lets him have it.  “You haven’t lied to me.  You haven’t lied to us mere mortals.  No, my dear fellow, you’ve lied to God!”

What follows next has been the subject of controversy down through the centuries.  Ananias keels over and falls down dead.  Did Peter intend this?  Did he in some way cause it to happen?  If so, does the punishment really fit the crime?  It does seem to be a bit of an overreaction.  Peter’s ethics are called into question.

There have been numerous explanations about this.  Don’t worry, I won’t attempt to go into all of them.  Some say the pair have broken an oath to God and to their fellow believers, in that they agreed to pool their resources—without embezzlement!  Such oaths often included self-curses if they were broken.  “May God strike me down if…”

Others say Peter plays the role of prophet.  His words pierce Ananias into his very soul.  Others say when Ananias’ craftiness is exposed, he simply has heart failure!  So, there’s no great mystery.

Whatever the case, Peter seems to be a bit fuzzy on notifying the next of kin!  He arranges a hasty burial for Ananias without his wife’s knowledge.  (By the way, the name Sapphira is where we get our word “sapphire.”)  She shows up three hours later, and Peter gives her a chance to tell the truth.  A similar exchange happens, and she’s buried next to her husband.  On the bright side, at least Ananias and Sapphira are together forever!

Our passage ends, “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (v. 11).  I would think so.

5 ac

My earlier comment on Bonnie and Clyde notwithstanding, we should be cautious on how we judge Ananias and Sapphira.  As the noted 20th century British theologian F. F. Bruce said, “be careful: the temptation to seek a higher reputation than is our due for generosity or some other virtue is not so uncommon that we can afford to adopt a self-righteous attitude towards poor Ananias [and Sapphira].  Let us rather take warning from [their] example.”[1]  Their story is a cautionary tale.

What can we learn from this?  Is it as simple as Barnabas choosing love and Ananias and Sapphira choosing fear?  Did they go with safety and security over the apparent uncertainty that comes with genuine openheartedness?  Did they put their trust in material possessions to provide security?

Can we imagine another culture teaching that—one with which we might be quite familiar?

I’ve heard it said one good way to defeat the power of money and possessions over us is to give them away.

Luke is the author of Acts.  In his gospel, he tells the story of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus about eternal life.  He says he has kept all the commandments.  Jesus responds, “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (18:22).  I don’t think Jesus was laying down a law for everyone and for all time.  He told him what he needed to hear.  Jesus recognized the grip the young man’s wealth had on him.

That can apply in a different way, and it regards our possessions after we have shuffled off this mortal coil.  Including the church in your will is a meaningful and needed way to benefit those who remain and those who come after.  It is yet another way of worshipping the Lord.  It is yet another way of giving to the community, indeed, the community united by the Holy Spirit.

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[photo by Alex Martinez on Unsplash]

Aside from matters of material possessions, we can see how Ananias and Sapphira chose to hold back.  Don’t we also do that, to one extent or another, in one way or another?  Are we not too often guilty of embezzling the Spirit?  And yet, thanks be to God, even when we hold back from the Lord, if we remain open to the Spirit, God is gracious.  There is always opportunity for service—and for the love that conquers fear.

 

[1] F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 113-114.