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May 2022

the ravine of blackest shadow

If there’s one part of the Bible that English-speaking people are familiar with, it’s today’s text from the Psalms.  Even in America, with our dwindling knowledge of the Bible, the 23rd psalm is something almost everyone has at least a passing awareness of.  But it isn’t from the translations done in recent centuries—it’s the King James Version.  (People often request this psalm for funerals.  For those services, that’s the only version I’ve ever used.)

One thing that really stands out is in verse 4: “Even though I walk in the darkest valley.”  That might be a better translation, but it’s not as dramatic as “the valley of the shadow of death.”  In my opinion—and I don’t think I’m alone on this—it’s not as powerful.  It’s not as artistic.  The phrase literally reads: “the ravine of blackest shadow.”  Friends, that’s pretty dark!

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Those considerations aside, we can see a sense of movement throughout the psalm.  That would be in keeping with the image of the shepherd guiding the sheep, moving through grassy meadows, by tranquil streams, and yes, through the darkest of valleys.

However, one doesn’t usually think of shepherds as preparing tables for their sheep, anointing their heads with oil, or pouring them cups that overflow.  And here’s a shot in the dark: sheep aren’t usually known for their desire to spend time in the house of the Lord!

A quick lesson in Hebrew might help.  Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, is written with all consonants.  The vowels consist of points—dots—that were added up to centuries later.  Clearly, a change in vowels makes a difference in the sound and meaning of words.  Change one letter, and we go from “sack” to “sock.”  Same consonants, different vowels.

Before printing presses came along in the 1500s, copies of the scriptures were done by hand.  Sometimes a copyist would receive a manuscript that was difficult to read.  A dot might be misplaced.  That could change the pronunciation and the meaning.  It’s possible that happened here.

The word translated “shepherd” in verse 1 is the Hebrew term רֺעׅי (ro`i).  With a slight vowel change, we wind up with the word רֵעַ (re`i), which means “companion” or “friend.”  In fact, it’s the same word used in Leviticus 19:18, which says to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  If Yahweh, the Lord, is our re`i—our companion, our friend, our neighbor—that puts loving our neighbor in a very different light.

We can see the 23rd psalm as a song of pilgrimage, of travel to the holy place.  We are on a journey, and we are not alone.  The Lord is our companion, and we need nothing else.  Whether by peaceful waters in pleasant meadows or in the loneliest, most terrifying abyss, God is with us.  And God—as shepherd, companion, or both—provides for us, even when those bent on our destruction are all around.

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So far, I’ve given an example of how Psalm 23 is used liturgically, in worship.  I used a funeral service as a case in point.  I just mentioned how it can be looked at academically.  Examining the Hebrew text can yield new ways of understanding the psalm.  But all that stuff isn’t enough.  We need more in order to learn how to live when we are in the darkest of ravines.

Again, on the point of funerals.  I recently met with daughters of a beloved woman who passed away a few days earlier.  She had celebrated her 97th birthday the previous month.  She had a special interest in music; a piano graced her living room.

She had been living in a retirement center when she needed help in daily tasks.  After a stay in the hospital, it was clear she wouldn’t be going back.  Arrangements were made for hospice care, and she would be returning to her home, after six years away. The daughters said she didn’t last long, but she was overjoyed to be back in her own house those final days.

I remember visiting her in the hospital, when she told me before going to sleep the night before, she wondered if she would wake up.  She said she was ready to go, even though she wasn’t ready to go.

Some people are graced to walk through the deepest shadow with a sense of wonder and profound gratitude.

What does it mean to live with the awareness that the Lord is our shepherd, our companion, and our host?  What does it mean to know that we do not want—that we do not lack?  And even more, what does all that mean if we’re in the presence of our enemies?  What response does it encourage or require?

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he comes from a different direction.  “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light” (5:8).  If living as “children of light” isn’t sufficiently clear, he goes on to say, “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (vv. 10-11).

Works of darkness are “unfruitful”; they aren’t creative.  They don’t accomplish anything worthwhile.  Works of darkness are the methods of control and force and manipulation we so often use.

Imagine, preparing a table in the presence of our enemies.  Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, who died in 2009, once said, “People enjoying such a feast would make themselves an easy target for their adversaries!”[1]  It would be like squirrels, happily crunching on seeds and nuts, completely unaware of the cat sneaking up behind them!

But that’s okay, he says, because “this is none other than an expression of the supreme wisdom and strength of God, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and whose weakness is stronger than human strength.”  In verse 4, when the psalmist says to God, “I fear no evil,” what reason is given?  I have security through advanced firepower?  Or, I have enough money to bribe anyone?

3 psOr maybe is it “for you are with me”?  Koyama adds, “God’s vulnerability is stronger than human invulnerability.  Through a banquet table—not guns and warplanes—God wills to transform us and our world.”

It’s indeed a blessing, a gift of grace, that none of us is dependent upon our own experience, our own devices—certainly not our own strength—to secure the friendship of God.  It’s been said that, as the psalmist finds out, God satisfies every need and transforms all circumstances.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (v. 6).  By the time we get to this final verse, we see that the psalmist is “no longer hunted down by…enemies, but…is literally pursued by the goodness of God.”[2]  (I’ll say more about that in a moment.)

Considering that this is a beloved psalm, most people probably don’t want to hear this.  But is it possible that when the psalmist speaks of having a fine meal while foes are nearby, it’s not just an expression of trust in God?  Could it also be a case of “who’s laughing now”?  There are plenty of prayers for revenge in the Psalms.  The Lord could be vindicating his servant.

And to be honest, “follow” is too weak a word.  The Hebrew word, רָדַף (radaf), is better translated as “pursue” or “chase.”  The same word is used after the Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, and we see the Egyptians “pursuing” the Israelites (Ex 14:9, 23).  It’s almost always used in a military context.  Someone is being hunted down.

One notable exception is in Psalm 34, where we are told, “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (v. 14).  I myself can relate to needing, and wanting, God’s goodness and mercy chasing after me.

I can think of times when I’ve been petty and spiteful.  I’ve enjoyed the blessings of God, knowing that others have gone wanting; they’ve gone lacking.  And I haven’t lifted a finger to help.  I can only speak for myself, but I want the goodness of God to keep chasing me, no matter where I try to hide.  I want to be the rabbit tracked by the hound of heaven.  I need that light to shine on me when I’m in death’s shadow.

Christoph Blumhardt was a German Lutheran theologian in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.  He has a fitting thought for the Easter season.  “Christ’s resurrection,” he says, “is not just something that happened in the past.  There is resurrection today just as much as there was back then, after Christ’s death.  Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order.”[3]

Here’s a question.  What does Blumhardt mean when he says there’s resurrection today, as surely as when Christ rose from the grave?  What about that?  What are some ways in which there is new life, where once there had been only death?

That leads to another question.  When he says, “Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order,” what is that?  What is an entirely different order?  I imagine that could be a lot of things, but let’s stick with what our treasured 23rd psalm gives us regarding traveling the dark path.

Blumhardt adds that “[o]ur task…is to demonstrate the power of the resurrection.”[4]  When we allow the power of Christ to have freedom within us, enemies are no longer feared or despised.  Evil is de-fanged, in whatever valley of death-shadow we find ourselves.  That may be brokenness in body or heart or spirit.  We also (amazingly!) find it within ourselves to reach out to those we once considered repellent.

Our friend Kosuke Koyama reminds us, “The table that God prepares for us culminates in the eucharistic table of the Lord,” the table of the Lord’s Supper.  “This sacrament is the ultimate symbol of God’s hospitality, demonstrated in full view of the enemy.”  I don’t care who we consider our enemy to be.  When we dine together at the table “prepared by the very life of God,” enemies become friends.

4 ps

When we come to the table of the Lord, we come as the one being chased by the goodness and mercy of God.  We dine with the risen Lord, who gives us the power to rise from the shadow of death.  We come to the table, trusting that in the journey of our life, God is our beloved, our companion, our shepherd.

 

[1] www.religion-online.org/article/you-prepare-a-table-for-me-psalms-23/

[2] A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1981), 199.

[3] Christoph Blumhardt, Jesus is the Victor (Farmington, PA: The Bruderhof Foundation, 2004), 23.

[4] Blumhardt, 25.


in religion, but not of religion

Presbyterians don’t emphasize this so much, but when I was in the Assemblies of God, I heard plenty of sermons that asked, “Have you had your Damascus road experience?”  Can you pinpoint a moment in your life in which you could say, “I once was lost, but now am found.  Here I am, Lord!”

The awakening of faith can be a very subjective thing.  It can be hard to pinpoint from the outside.  For many, it is a gradual growing awareness.  That is, if it happens at all.  But however it does happen, it is a gift.  Sometimes it is a gift delivered in a drastic fashion.

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For the Lord to get Paul’s attention, it took something quite drastic!  (By the way, I’m using the name “Paul,” since Saul was later known by that name.)

As we begin Acts 9 with his description, we’re actually picking up from a verse in chapter 8.  “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (v. 3).  And now, with verse 1: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”

There is a sadly comical aspect to this portrayal of Paul.  Honestly, doesn’t this guy have anything better to do?  He’s pictured like a brute beast, like a wild animal.  This guy has some major anger issues!  Like the bull in a china shop, he’s been doing some serious damage.

Paul has been hurting and terrorizing those whom, in the future, he will love dearly as his sisters and his brothers.  But as I say, that’s in the future!

There is one he is hurting most of all.  We’re told, “He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’  He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’  The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (vv. 4-5).  The risen and ascended Lord passionately identifies with his people.  Because of his great love, what hurts them brings him torment.

How different is Paul’s response from that of Ananias in verse 10.  Where Paul says, “Who are you, Lord?” Ananias says, “Here I am, Lord.”

It isn’t that Paul doesn’t understand the faith.  He is very well versed.  Later in Acts, he says that he has “belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee” (26:5).  He knows this stuff backwards and forwards!  He has the data, but he lacks the experience.  That is, he lacks the experience of God’s love.

For me, that’s something I really value from my time with the Assemblies of God.  For someone who lived too much in his head, the Pentecostals were a needed corrective.

At an interim ministry training event, a video was presented of the late Edwin Friedman, who was a rabbi and a therapist.  In the video, he is commenting on the fallacy of expertise.  He is talking about our emphasis on information and technique.  Or perhaps I should say the overemphasis on information and technique—the overemphasis on experts.  It’s possible to be paralyzed by continuously gathering information before we take any meaningful action.  Sometimes we need to learn to trust ourselves.

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[more words of wisdom from the late great Neil Peart--the drummer from Rush, if you didn't know]

Friedman speaks of the pursuit of data as a form of substance abuse.  I had never thought of it that way.  Too often, I have greatly abused that substance!  It can have the downside of making one indecisive.

Data and experience can be phrased, for lack of better terms, as head knowledge and heart knowledge, or spirit knowledge.

Graham Standish served as a Presbyterian pastor for many years.  He is now the executive director of a spiritual counseling center.  He published an article called “Shepherding SBNR Sheep: How to Create a Church for the Spiritual but Not Religious.”[1]

For devoted churchgoers, “spiritual but not religious” is often seen as those unwilling to make a commitment.  It actually has many connotations, clearly, some more positive than others.  Those who identify themselves that way often speak of their distrust of the church, of institutionalized religion, and so on.  Some perceive a lack of authenticity.  Some look at the church and see a bunch of phonies.  To what extent that perception meets reality is a different discussion.

Standish begins his article with a sort of confession.  Speaking of the time he was a pastor, he said, “I privately classify myself as being ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR).  I know it doesn’t make sense, but somehow it feels right.  No matter how long I’ve been the pastor of a church, I’ve always been more ‘in’ religion than ‘of’ religion.”  I imagine he would still classify himself as such.

It looks like he’s using the word “religion” to mean the data it contains.  He’s using it to express doctrinal content.  There’s nothing wrong with doctrine, in and of itself.  It’s necessary; it’s simply a body of teachings.  But if doctrine is separated from a loving experience of God, it can become deceptive and even dangerous.

I’ve never really considered myself to be religious.  I guess that’s a quality I share with our SBNR friends.  To me, being called “religious” is not necessarily a compliment.  In his zeal to imprison members of the early church, Paul is definitely religious.

Those who are in religion, but not of religion, “want to experience what’s true rather than be told what is true.”  Standish talks about one of his parishioners who said, “Most churches tell you what to think.  [Our church] encourages you to think.”

I should warn you.  When we encourage others to think, we may hear some stuff we would rather not hear.  In today’s passage, there are two fellows who hear stuff they don’t want to hear.  There’s Paul, hearing how he’s been horribly wrong, and he’s been persecuting his Lord.  And then there’s Ananias, who hears that it’s his job to welcome Paul.  (“Lord, you do know that he’s done some really bad stuff?”)

Standish addresses something we’re familiar with: asking people certain questions in order to join the church, “such as ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?’  There’s nothing wrong with expecting this, although it puts the SBNR in a quandary: do I say ‘yes,’ even if I don’t know quite what that means, or do I wait till I know what it means?  And what if I never know what that means?”  He says that “healthy relationships lead more people to an experience of the holy than does rational theologizing.”

Trying to convince people into faith by using a line of reasoning is often not the best approach.  And yes, arguing with, and shaming people doesn’t work so well in demonstrating the love of Jesus.   In our scripture, Ananias says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (v. 17).  Vision and the Spirit go together.

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Look at how our passage ends.  “For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (vv. 19-20).  So not only is Paul’s sight restored—not only do the blinders come off—but Paul finds his voice.  Paul, in effect, joins those who are in religion, but not of religion.  That’s what happens when we experience what the data is about.

I want to mention one more thing that’s in the article.  It deals with how open we are to those unfamiliar with our language, our jargon.  We should realize “that while Christian language and [expressions] help those within a religious tradition to speak a common language of faith, that…language also creates a barrier” for those who don’t understand it.  “In effect, it helps us if we are willing learn the language of other faiths, and to learn how to translate certain concepts into our own language.”

When I was in seminary, I had Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).  What that often entails is a student chaplaincy at a hospital, which is what I did.  One of the things our supervisor would often ask of us would be to express our faith without using “God talk.”  That is, don’t use religious words.  When you’re in a hospital, you’re dealing with the entire public, people from all backgrounds.

Another way of looking at it would be: can you talk about faith by focusing on the experience, rather than the data?

On the matter of God talk, there is something I have mentioned before.  It deals with an invitation Banu and I received to stay a couple of days at a camp and conference center about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh.  We were asked to do some workshops while there.

During one session, I issued that challenge to the folks at camp: describe your faith without using God talk.  For instance, what does “Jesus saves” mean?

Some of them gladly welcomed the test and gave it a good “faith” shot!  For others—not so much.  And when I started pushing them on it, some got irritated; it was even written on their faces.  Some of them let me know their displeasure.  They were not happy with me.

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I observed how reaching out to those outside the four walls might mean learning a different language.  I don’t know if they didn’t believe me or just didn’t care.  It does require change.  Do you know what we call something that doesn’t change?  Dead.  Life, by its very nature (even at the chemical level), requires change.  That’s a word for us, also.

My guess would be they just wanted to have a nice, relaxing weekend with their friends.  They didn’t need to be given this bit of uncomfortable work.  In my defense, this little exercise lasted maybe twenty minutes, but that was enough to tick them off.

(There is a nice postscript to this story.  That night, they broke out the board games.  Even the folks who got annoyed with me were happy when I joined in.  Playing games can be incredibly therapeutic!)

How can we talk about our own experience?  How can we tell our story?  We all have them, and none of them are any less valid than those of others.

The poster boy for a story of willingness to change is Saul, later known as Paul.  His decision to embrace change was a literal turn from death, at least, the death of others.  Verse 19 says, “For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus.”  These were the same people for which he begged permission to place under arrest and drag back to Jerusalem (where they would not be treated like honored guests).

We could make the argument that Paul himself was on the road to death.  Be careful with whom you ally yourself.  Choose life or choose death: blessing or curse.

Still, back to my previous question.  How about our experience?  Are we in religion?  Are we of religion?  Are there elements of both?  As I said earlier, can we talk about faith without using God talk?

Here are questions that go a bit deeper.  How are we when it comes to letting God work through us?  How are we at being a vessel of the Spirit?

Ananias laid hands on him and prayed.  “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.  Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength” (vv. 18-19).

Let us eat the food given by God which strengthens us on the way.

 

[1] alban.org/archive/shepherding-sbnr-sheep-how-to-create-a-church-for-the-spiritual-but-not-religious/