art

we dreamed, and it was joy

Sometimes I will try to go to sleep.  Please note, I said “try.”  This might be taking a nap or going to bed at night.  There are those times with an in-between level of awareness in which you’re not sure if you slept or not.  At least, I have found that to be true with myself.  Did I really make the plunge, or did I remain up in the waking world?  If I have memory of a dream, then I know I was actually asleep.

Dreams themselves can be funny things.  They can be crazy things, as I’m sure you all know.  Throughout history, people have interpreted dreams in all manner of ways.  People have derived messages and gained insights from them.  That goes for me, too.  I know I’m not alone in this, but I have had dreams which provided answers to some problems I had been mulling over.  More than once, I have had ideas for a sermon come to me in the night, sometimes entire paragraphs.

1 ps

The greatest dreams, in my opinion, are the ones impossible to put into words.  They don’t demean themselves into petty things like solving problems.  They’re too good for that.  They’re too sublime.  They’re too majestic.  They fire the imagination.  They are works of art.

Psalm 126 is one of those works of art.  It is one of my favorite psalms—and I love a lot of the psalms.

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (v. 1).  That first part can also read, “When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion.”  What an awesome image.  “We were like those who dream.”  It had to be a dream!  These were people who had been exiled to Babylon.  They had been forcibly removed from their homes and sent marching on that long trail of tears.  The world as they knew it had ended.  And yet…

I love the Hebrew word for “dream”: חָלַם, chalam.  It’s dreaming while asleep (last night, I dreamed I had the face of a horse).  It’s dreaming for something in life (I’ve always dreamed of going to Alaska).  It’s dreaming as a prophet (thus says the Lord).

I should add that prophets are not fortune tellers.  Nine times out of ten (maybe more than that) their prophetic dreams are about the current situation the people face, rather than predicting the future.  Having said that, we benefit from the messages they have given.  We need them!  And there are indeed foreshadowings of the Messiah.  The New Testament has one or two, here and there.

The word chalam has another definition.  It also means to be strong, to be robust.  It refers to infants and livestock if they’re fat and plump.  Poor bony creatures do not qualify as chalam.  The Revised English Bible captures this nuance of “those who dream,” by saying “we were like people renewed in health.”  Is it safe to say those who dream are healthy?  Those who do not dream are unhealthy?  They are not strong?  They are not robust?

According to the psalmist, they need not worry about that, as we see in verse 2.  “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”  They can’t control themselves.  Their amazing reversal of fortunes demands response.  “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

2 ps[Here is a joyful person!]

The word for “shouts of joy” is רׅנָּה, rinnah.  It also appears in verses 5 and 6.  It can also mean “singing” and “rejoicing.”  What is their response to what the Lord has done for them?  What is their response to be like those who dream?  It’s singing; it’s joyful singing!

The Jews who have returned from exile can only ask, “How can we keep from singing?”  It’s like the hymn which poses the question, “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock, I’m clinging / Since love prevails in heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?”[1]

The psalmist does something interesting.  It is affirmed, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”  And then there’s a transition.  Acknowledging what’s been done, a request is added, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb” (vv. 3-4).  (That’s the desert in southern Israel.)  We’re moving from the past to looking to the future.

Lord, we ask you to make the streams flow in the desert.  This isn’t the time to let us down!  Don’t let our dreams turn to dust.  We just got our singing voices warmed up!  We were making beautiful music.

Still, maybe the psalmist understands the score.  “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy” (v. 5).

What’s the deal with introducing this language of sowing and reaping?  Maybe there is an understanding that joy must be grounded.  Joy can’t simply be “just a dream.”  It should be noted joy is not a mere emotion.  It is a deep spiritual reality, even when we don’t feel elated.  Quite clearly, there’s no guarantee that sowing the seeds will produce a good crop.  Maybe the ground will not be receptive.  Is it rocky?  Is it sandy?  Is it scorched by the sun, dry as a bone?

The image of sowing and reaping is a universal one, common to people throughout time.  Jesus tells a story which begins, “Listen!  A sower went out to sow” (Mk 4:1).  How receptive are we to receiving that seed which is the word?  Is our ground barren, rocky, filled with thorns?  Do we need to benefit from that fresh water in the desert?

Or will our efforts end in tears?

Henri Nouwen speaks of the joy that emerges from sorrow.[2]  “Joys are hidden in sorrows!  I know this from my own times of depression.  I know it from living with people with mental handicaps.”  He refers to his time after leaving his position as professor at Harvard Divinity School to live with the folks at L’Arche Daybreak in Ontario, a community for adults with intellectual disabilities.

“I know it from looking into the eyes of patients, and from being with the poorest of the poor.  We keep forgetting this truth and become overwhelmed by our own darkness.  We easily lose sight of our joys and speak of our sorrows as the only reality there is.”

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[Some friendly folks at L'Arche Daybreak]

It really is too easy to focus on the negative.  One way I notice this is when we take prayer requests.  I think you will agree with me in saying the concerns usually outweigh the joys.  We too readily overlook the blessings and celebrations in life.  Please understand me.  In absolutely no way am I suggesting we overlook or dismiss the very real struggles and sorrows among us.  We all have burdens to bear, some much more than others.

I have a copy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  There is a section devoted to Evening Prayer.  There’s one in particular I frequently visit before going to sleep.  (Yes, we’re back to sleep!)

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.” (page 124)

I especially appreciate the request to “shield the joyous.”  I find depths of meaning in that.  Is it a plea for protection, lest the joyous too easily fall?  Does it refer to the prayer’s concern for the sorrows immediately preceding the joy?  Is it a shelter for the joyous prophetic dream of justice and peace?  I imagine it is those and many other levels of awareness.

The psalmist concludes, “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (v. 6).  That’s the story of bringing in the sheaves.[3]  “Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, / Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; / When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, / We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

How has our harvest been?  How have our crops fared?  Is our livestock chalam?   Can we carry our sheaves with joy?

The psalmist would have us be dreamers.  During this Advent, I think we are especially called to be dreamers.  Howard Wallace reminds us that, in our call to be dreamers, we would be like “those whose lives are shaped not by the limits of our experiences but by the hidden reality of what God has already declared will be.  It also leaves us with a tremendous sense of joy in ‘coming home’ as the Lord comes to us in the midst of the tears of this earthly experience.”[4]

It’s not hard to see us in our own exile, of sorts.  We might be weeping for a season.  And yet…  God gives us the promise of the advent, the coming, of our Lord Jesus Christ, who leads us through the desert of our journey.

We dreamed, and it was joy.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=VLPP3XmYxXg

[2] henrinouwen.org/meditation/joys-are-hidden-in-sorrows

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7yMUIezLSE

[4] hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/AdventB/Advent3BIsa61Ps126.html


memento mori

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

1 ps

"Transience of Life" by Daniel Kansky

That is the poem “Ozymandias,” by the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived in the early nineteenth century.

This Ozymandias was a fellow who wanted his name to live forever.  By virtue of this massive monument, he wanted to defy the grave.  I wonder how that worked out?  The traveler tells the poet of a “colossal Wreck.”  Long ago, the head fell off.  “Half sunk a shattered visage lies.”  The face has been smashed.  There is a proud boast: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  However, who is there to look on his works?  “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

His bid to defeat death has turned into rubble.

Having led or helped lead two funerals in just over a week, and one the week before, I’ve been thinking about death recently.  Actually, I’ve been reminded how everything returns to its fundamental parts.  The chair you’re sitting on has crumbled into nothingness—it’s just a question of when it happens.  It’s true of your house.  It’s true of planet Earth itself.  In about seven billion years, our sun will expand out to Earth’s orbit.  (Not exactly the day after tomorrow, but we’ll get there.)  Bye-bye, Mother Earth!

2 psMemento mori.  That’s Latin for “remember death,” as in “remember your death.”  It’s a reminder that we are not immortal.  Lest we think memento mori is a walk on the morbid side, here’s something else to remember: we have an entire season in the church calendar that emphasizes the same thing—Lent.  Our Ash Wednesday liturgy directs us to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  There are plenty of people who don’t like Lent because they think it’s too much of a downer.  I’ve even heard ministers say they feel the same way.

There’s a line in a prayer from our funeral liturgy that has helped remind me of such things these past few days.  “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.  And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live.”  It is a joyful affirmation that we will be with the Lord.

Memento mori comes from the time of the ancient Romans.  We’re told, “It was the custom of Roman triumphs, for example, for a slave to stand behind the triumphant general in his victory parade, and tell him ‘memento mori’—remember, in your hour of glory, that you are destined for the dust.”[1]

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The one who dies with the most toys wins”?  Well, here’s another one.  “You can’t take it with you!”

That seems to be the message of Psalm 49.  We already get that in verse 1, as the psalmist proclaims, “Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world.”  It’s a message for everyone on planet Earth.  The Hebrew word used here for “world” is interesting.[2]  It only appears five times in the entire Old Testament.  It means “world,” but with the sense of a short period of time.  It means “transient” or “fleeting.”  It’s the perfect word, considering the theme of the psalm.

Give ear, all dwellers of this perishable planet!

There’s quite a bit in Psalm 49, but we don’t have time to go into all of it.  I’ll just mention a few points.  I want to take a tip from Ozymandias and “those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches,” as verse 6 puts it.

That’s some shaky ground.  We’re told we can find security in money or gold or real estate or whatever.  Considering the fires and floods and famine and whatever the coronavirus is up to, I think security might better be found in drinkable water.

3 ps

The psalmist continues: “Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.  For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice, that one should live on forever and never see the grave” (vv. 7-9).  Well, tell that to the researchers who say death is something we can delay indefinitely.  There are some folks who say a lifetime of 150 years isn’t too far down the road.  And then there are already some people who’ve had themselves cryogenically frozen.  The hope is they can be thawed sometime in the future.

Of course, there’s always the vampire option!

Keeping my promise to hit only a few points, I want to jump to verse 16.  “Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.”  We can become intimidated in the presence of those with great affluence.  Verse 18 reminds us, “you are praised when you do well for yourself.”  (Remember the show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?  Robin Leach would engage in what could almost be called televised drooling.)

Nurse practitioner Vincent LaBarca notes, “Life pulls us into painful directions and our impulse is to fight.  But resistance is futile.  (I don’t know if he’s a Star Trek fan, but that’s the warning from the Borg.  You will be assimilated.)  Like swimming against a riptide, we inevitably wear ourselves out and drown.  If, however, we relax and allow the tide to take us, we are safely guided back to shore.”[3]

Verses 12 and 20 have always been the ones to catch my attention.  It is a repeated thought.  “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.”  We humans cannot hang on very long to our splendor.  I like the way Eugene Peterson put it in The Message: “We aren’t immortal.  We don’t last long.  Like our dogs, we age and weaken.  And die.”

I suppose if our measure of life is pomp and splendor, we might very well end up like an animal, even a beloved doggie.  I don’t believe their deaths are meaningless, but one thing we can do which they can’t is to consciously prepare for our passing.

Henri Nouwen spoke of a “grateful death.”[4]  “The way we die,” he said, “has a deep and lasting effect on those who stay alive.  It will be easier for our family and friends to remember us with joy and peace if we have said a grateful good-bye than if we die with bitter and disillusioned hearts.  The greatest gift we can offer our families and friends is the gift of gratitude.  Gratitude sets them free to continue their lives without bitterness or self-recrimination.”

I had a professor at seminary who shared four statements that help in the very things I just mentioned.  “Please forgive me.”  “I forgive you.”  “Thank you.”  “I love you.”  That works both ways, for the one passing and for those left behind.  No regrets.

4 ps

photo by Efren Baharona on Unsplash

I was fortunate and truly blessed to have that kind of ending with my father.  Banu and I lived in Jamestown at the time.  My dad had been hospitalized several times, but this time, there was more a sense of finality to it.  I got a call from my sister, telling me I needed to come home.  I flew to Nashville the next day.  My brother-in-law picked me up at the airport and drove directly to the hospital.

My mom and sister, and my mom’s pastor, were in the waiting room.  They had already said their goodbyes.  So I went into the ICU and stood next to my dad’s bed.  His eyes were closed.  I held his hand and told him that I loved him.  He didn’t last much longer.  I think he willed himself to hang on until I arrived.  My dad passed away at five in the afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to set.  He was welcomed with its orange-red rays.  It was like something from a movie.

It puts a little different spin on the promise of the one who said, “I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved” (Jn 10:9).

I don’t need to tell you we’re constantly surrounded by death.  We are routinely reminded of the Covid count.  In some quarters, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to inspire fear.  However, our risen Lord says, “Fear not.”  Instead of fear, he inspires us with holy boldness. Memento mori is a fierce and wonderful embrace of life.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] medium.com/@julesevans/the-memento-mori-f588311adce0

[2] חֶלֶד, cheled

[3] medium.com/illumination/an-existentialist-and-a-christian-walk-into-a-bar-91f713d5e5f0

[4] henrinouwen.org/meditation/a-grateful-death


going home

“You can’t go home again.”  We’ve all heard that one.  You can’t go home again.  Why not?  I go home on a regular basis.  (By regular, I mean at least once per year.)  Home for me is Tennessee.  (That is, it’s my second home.  My first home is wherever Banu is!)  Tennessee is where my mom and sister live.  Home includes both space and time.  Every time I return, things have changed.  There are new stores and restaurants.  Some stores and restaurants Banu and I liked have disappeared.  (A couple of examples include the breakfast place, “The Egg and I,” and a lovely gyro place owned by an Egyptian family.  We do miss that place—and them.)

Of course, who knows how long it will be before we can enjoy sitting in a restaurant?

1 gn

More fundamentally, “you can’t go home again,” refers to memories: of people, of events, of good times and bad times.  For some people, home never really felt like home.

Regarding not being able to go home again, think of Jesus in Matthew 13.  He goes back to Nazareth and is teaching in the synagogue.  There’s no problem with that, right?  Wrong.  The people look at each other; they look at him.  Where is he getting all this stuff?  Son, we know your family.  You weren’t raised to be some kind of philosopher.  The scripture says, “And they took offense at him” (v. 57).

Jesus couldn’t go home again.

In Genesis 32, we see another fellow trying to make his way home: Jacob.  He has left his Uncle Laban, and not on the best of terms.  Let’s go back many years, and briefly sum up.  Jacob leaves home in a hurry because his brother Esau sees red and wants him dead.  Jacob has been up to his trickery.

(And if you recall, along the way he has his vision of a stairway to heaven!)

As he approaches Laban’s place, he sees Rachel, who we’re told is really good-looking.  There’s also her older sister, Leah, who apparently is not quite as good-looking.  Laban says, “Work for me for seven years, and you can marry Rachel.”  Seven years go by and Laban says, “Oh, I just remembered.  The older sister has to get married first.”  Seven more years go by.  (I wonder how Jacob’s relationship with his father-in-law has fared!)

In time, Jacob figures out how to arrange for his goats to breed and become stronger, while Laban’s goats are the weaker ones.  He’s back to his shenanigans; maybe he feels justified this time.  Anyway, Jacob is found out, so he takes his family and possessions and hits the road.

There’s one little obstacle between Jacob and his destination—Esau, his aggrieved brother.

My obstacles in going home have been along the lines of road construction, a traffic accident, or bad weather.  I can’t claim to have ever had a family member blocking the path.  (That’s a claim I wouldn’t want to make!)  And I must confess, as I’ve gotten a bit older, stops at rest areas have become more frequent, as Banu will testify.

2 gnAs I said, it’s been many years since he last laid eyes on his brother.  Jacob wonders, “What will he do when he sees me?  How will he feel?”  Jacob decides to err on the side of “furious.”  He sends some of his guys ahead to take Esau’s temperature, so to speak.  When they return, they tell Jacob that Esau is on his way—and incidentally, he has 400 men with him.

We’re told that Jacob “took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had” (vv. 22-23).  He has everyone go first, including his beloved Rachel.  I wonder how she felt being used as a human shield.

{"Rachel: Noir Bible" by James C. Lewis}

Jacob has sent everything and everyone away.  He is all alone.  He is all alone in the darkness of night.  I imagine we can relate to that.  I’m sure there have been nights in which it seemed like dawn would never arrive.  We’re left with our thoughts, our fears, our hopes.  And we are struggling.

For Jacob, that struggling is quite literally true.  He is wrestling with a mysterious man all night long.  Who is this man?

Nancy deClaissé-Walford, who teaches at Mercer University, has some suggestions.  “Theories abound concerning the identity of ‘the man’ with whom Jacob wrestled.  Was the man God? Was it Esau?  Or was it Jacob’s own inner being wrestling with itself?”[1]  She favors that last one.  Maybe there are hints of all three.  Maybe it was his fear of Esau—I don’t believe it was the man himself.  There was certainly that inner struggle, that inner conflict.

It was all wrapped up in Jacob’s wrestling match with God at the Jabbok stream.  It might be helpful to know that the Hebrew words for “Jabbok” (יַבֺּק, Yabboq) and “wrestle” (אׇבַק, ’abaq) sound very much alike.  We have a showdown at Wrestle River.

So what happens when dawn finally comes?  Jacob’s combatant hasn’t been able to pin him.  But before the match can end with the ringing of the bell, he gets one more whack at Jacob.  He sucker punches him in the hip socket, and it’s put out of joint.  Consequently, Jacob walks with a limp.  It sounds like Jacob needs hip replacement surgery!  Still, he is hanging on to his opponent, and he’s demanding a blessing.

After that long night of struggle, that long night of inner struggle, Jacob is still hanging on.  We’re told, “Jacob wrestled and received a new blessing (not one obtained by trickery, but this time by honest struggle).”[2]  Jacob is given a new name.  Says the man, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (v. 28).

Jacob has held on.  He hasn’t let go until he receives his blessing.  That takes stamina.  That takes determination.  That takes a stubborn resolve.

Terence Fretheim has an interesting take.  “God may encounter people in conflictual times by taking the very form of the anticipated difficulty.”  I find this interesting.  [quoting Walter Brueggemann[3]]  “‘In the night, the divine antagonist tends to take on the features of others with whom we struggle in the day.’”[4]

I’ve heard it said that dreams prepare us for similar events in the waking hours.  They prepare us for life.  (I’m not sure how I feel about that.  I imagine I’m not alone in wanting to avoid a lot of the stuff that happens in dreams.)

Of course, this is about more than dreams.  He continues, “Having been through such a time with God provides a gracious rehearsal for the actual life circumstance.  To refuse to engage with God in that struggling moment denies oneself a God-given resource.”

It’s said, “The only way out is through.”  Encounters with God, and by virtue of the Holy Spirit within, encounters with oneself, can be annoying, fearful, painful—and yet, not without a certain joy and revelation of love and grace.

3 gn

Jacob has traveled that path and made the awesome discovery: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (v. 30).

Still, there is that limp!  He has been injured, and he will carry that injury, that scar.  Nevertheless, that dislocated hip is a sign of grace.  It is when we are weak that we are strong.  That area of vulnerability, whatever it is, is where God can especially work in our lives.

Last spring, I spoke of my surgery to remove a brain tumor, and I spoke of the scar left behind.  What I didn’t mention were the changes that experience made.  I came to new insights and understandings of people who suffer mental problems.  (Actually, for me, that wasn’t too much of a stretch!)

The steroids I was taking gave me a glimpse of those with wild mood swings.  (I’ve never been accused of that.)  Here’s one quick example.  One year when we lived at the seminary, people were decorating for Christmas.  I was upstairs in our apartment, watching Star Trek.  Banu, who was with two of our female friends, called and asked me to come down and help them hang a decoration.  As I descended the stairs, I became angrier and angrier.  How dare they take me away from Star Trek?

I noticed they had a ladder poised at the spot.  Any of them could have easily climbed up and attached the decoration.  They didn’t need me to do it.  I gave them the silent treatment.  It was clear how incensed I was.  Later on, I apologized for my unwarranted behavior, explaining about the steroids.  One of them replied, “Now you know how PMS feels.”

Understand, I’m not saying God gave me the brain tumor, but it could be seen as my own wrestling match.  I still carry that limp.  It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would learn anything.

4 gn

One way in which we all are going home is the return to our church sanctuary.  There are precautions to take, based on New York state guidelines, the CDC, and no doubt most of all, our calling to love one another—to love our neighbor.

As we go home, how have we been struck on the hip socket?  How are we limping?

We are limping, but as I said a moment ago, it is a gift of grace, as strange as that might sound.  In this time of pandemic, we hold on for the blessing.  We hold on for the blessing of the earth, for the blessing of the suffering, for the blessing that rights the wrongs.  If there were anyone who understood holding on for the blessing, while bearing scars, it was Jesus.  Even now, Jesus as the risen and ascended Christ, holds onto us.  He travels with us as we go home.

 

[1] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, “Genesis 32:22-32: A Lonely Struggle and an Undeserved Blessing,” Review and Expositor 111:1 (2014), 75.

[2] deClaissé-Walford, 75.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 267.

[4] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 569.


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]

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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!


rich wounds, yet visible above

As you might have guessed, I have taken my title from the hymn, “Crown Him with Many Crowns.”  It’s part of the line, “Crown him with many crowns / Behold his hands and side / Rich wounds, yet visible above / In beauty glorified.”  That hymn isn’t usually sung on Easter, but there’s no law saying we can’t!

We’ll get to those rich wounds in a moment.

Our celebration of Easter this year is somewhat muted.  For many it is a great deal muted.  I’ve heard of some churches who plan to wait on celebrating Easter until they can return to their sanctuaries.  I suppose I would remind us that every Sunday, being the Lord’s Day, is a “little Easter.”  There are Christians all over the world who don’t have the luxury of a building on any Sunday.  My guess is they are celebrating the resurrection of our Lord today.

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[He Qi, "Easter Morning"]

And unfortunately, there are still some churches who are doing business as usual.  Of course, if they keep doing that, my prediction is they will very soon not be doing any business at all!

Having said all that, I am well aware of how we, and the rest of the human race, are exploring uncharted territory, to use a considerable understatement.

And sadly, the coronavirus has struck our church family.

If the planet Earth itself was ever in need of resurrection, this is the time.

Jesus is risen from the dead.  Matthew tells us, “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (28:1).  They were in for the surprise of their lives.

There is the utter disbelief of his friends, not to mention his enemies.  Seriously, it was just too insane.  Still, the women were quicker to accept it than the men were.  In his version, Luke tells us the men’s reaction to the women’s report.  “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24:11).

I don’t know about you, but I for one am glad that men disbelieving women is a thing of the past!

To quickly summarize Matthew 28: the women find the stone blocking the tomb has been rolled away.  The guards are quaking in their boots.  An angel tells the women to go and report what they saw, but on the way, Jesus appears to them.  When the priests hear the story, they engineer a coverup.  The disciples go to Galilee and meet the risen Jesus.  He gives them what has come to be known as the Great Commission.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (vv. 18-20).

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A scripture passage often used for funerals is 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s chapter on the resurrection.  A question that gets him started is this: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (v. 12).  Later he deals with the questions, “How are the dead raised?  With what kind of body do they come?” (v. 35).

How do we describe the resurrection body?  Paul says that “this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (v. 53).  I’ll be honest: that really doesn’t help me much!  I have trouble envisioning what that looks like.

Someone who could probably identify with that is Thomas, the so-called “doubting Thomas.”  He wasn’t there when the risen Jesus appeared to his friends.  They say he showed them his hands and side—the hands and side pierced with nail and spear.  He doesn’t believe them, but a week later he does.  Jesus again appears to them, and he shows Thomas that he is real.

Through the ages, people have painted Thomas, not so much as a bad guy, but one who needs a major faith adjustment!  Is it possible that the idea of a resurrected body (as difficult as that is to swallow) still bearing wounds is even more of a stretch?  Here’s where we return to that “rich wounds, yet visible above” business.

The resurrection body of Jesus, who defeated death and the grave, still has scars!  I find that remarkable.  At first thought, we might expect his body, risen from the dead, to be in immaculate condition.  Does God do things by half-measures?  Why not have complete healing?

Perhaps the resurrection body of Jesus models what it means to be scarred.  Maybe it was a way of showing the disciples that it really was him.  They weren’t encountering a ghost; they weren’t having a vision.  So his wounds were a method of identification.

But surely it was much more than that.  In fact, the scriptures give testimony to that.  In 1 Peter 2, we are told, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (v. 24).  By his wounds you have been healed.  Jesus heals by taking on our infirmity.

Back to the idea of an immaculate, a flawless body—God not employing half-measures.  What better way to identify with we humans, to be plunged into human flesh, than to honor it?  Jesus, more than anyone else, understood what it meant to be “the man of sorrows.”  By retaining the scars, Jesus honors the depth of what it means to be human.  After all, he was human!

There has been much discussion about getting back to normal (post pandemic) and how long it will take before it happens.  I don’t believe it will ever happen.  If we somehow pretend to go back to the way things were, we’ll be fooling ourselves.  These events are happening; there’s nothing we can do to change it.  The question will be if we learn from this—if we allow the Spirit to teach us.

Maybe you’ve seen images from around the world what the reduced use of pollution-causing activities has done.  I saw a report on how, in northern India, the reduction of pollution has enabled residents to see the Himalayas, 200 kilometers away (about 125 miles).[1]  Someone commented, “We can see the snow-covered mountains clearly from our roofs.  And not just that, stars are visible at night.  I have never seen anything like this in recent times.”

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And it’s only taken a worldwide disaster to get it done!

Shelly Rambo, who teaches at Boston University School of Theology, has written extensively on trauma.  Something she says about trauma is that it marks “a ‘new normal’ in that there is no possibility of the person returning to who they were before.  A radical break has occurred between the old self and the new one.”[2]  The challenge for one who’s undergone trauma is how to “[integrate] the experience into their life.”  That’s true for us all.  That’s true for us as the church.

We see many reactions to this unwelcome viral visitor, just as we do with other calamities.  One of the most common is one I think we all have had, in one way or another.  We believe God has sent the disease or the storm or the accident or whatever.  Is it God’s will?  Is it a test?  Is it a punishment?  Is it a cruel cosmic joke?

(For what it’s worth, I don’t believe any of those things.  However, I do believe we can choose to believe those things.)

Regardless of what we believe, perhaps the more important point is asking how that belief affects us.  How does it affect our behavior?  How does it affect our faith?  Rambo says we can see Jesus’ wounds as “not only as marks of death but as ways of marking life forward.”

Our scars do not define us.  We all bear scars, be they visible or invisible.

Yes, the scars can be visible.  They might be scars from accidents or surgery.  Maybe we’ve been harmed by others.  Maybe we have harmed ourselves.

And yes, the scars can be invisible.  They might be the result of a constant drumbeat of insults, of ridicule.  Maybe we’ve been rejected because of the way we were born.  Scars can be left—left because of self-deprecation, self-doubt, self-hatred.

4 mtBut that takes us back to the glorious nature of this day.  Rich wounds, yet visible above—in all the ways “above” can mean.  In beauty glorified.  Jesus Christ looks at us, and he sees in our wounds something beautiful.  Our scars are beautiful.

[Even this guy’s scars are beautiful?]

The good news of this Resurrection Day is that the Holy Spirit empowers us as we mark our life forward.  We testify today we as the body of Christ, though wounded we may be, are empowered to say the devil, the grave, that which would harm us, does not have the last word.  Our risen Lord journeys with us as we declare with a holy boldness:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”

“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Co 15:54-55, 57).

 

[1] www.sbs.com.au/language/english/audio/himalayas-visible-for-first-time-in-30-years-as-pollution-levels-in-india-drop

[2] www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/how-christian-theology-and-practice-are-being-shaped-trauma-studies


we are not dead

Ezekiel is one of those prophets with whom most people never become familiar.  He seems too remote, too odd.  What can we say about a book that starts with a vision in which the prophet sees images of creatures flashing like lightning, with wheels all around?  Some people swear he saw a spaceship.

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And he often behaves in ways that are just flat-out weird.  He builds a model of Jerusalem and then smashes it to bits.  He shaves his head and beard and then publicly burns the hairs.  Ezekiel doesn’t lend himself very well to Sunday school.

Still, he does have an admiring audience.  People come to listen to him.  However, as the Lord says, “To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it” (33:32).

There isn’t much about this book that is familiar, with the exception of today’s scripture reading.  We’ve been helped by the old spiritual which tells us, “Ezekiel cried, ‘Dem dry bones!’”  Do you know this one?  “The toe bone connected to the foot bone / The foot bone connected to the heel bone / The heel bone connected to the ankle bone…”  I think I can stop there; you probably don’t want to hear me connect all the bones.

At the start of chapter 37, Ezekiel has a vision in which he finds himself in a valley filled with bones, and indeed, they are not connected.  They’re strewn all over the place.  He examines them and finds that they’re completely dry.  These folks died a long time ago.  The Lord asks Ezekiel, “can these bones live?”  What kind of answer can he give?  It doesn’t look like anything alive could emerge from that dismal scene.  Still, he knows not to limit the power of his God.  All he can say is, “You know, Lord.”

To really understand Ezekiel, we need to take a step back and look at his world.  He lived through one of the true turning points of Biblical and world history.  The Babylonian Empire has become a superpower, and by the year 597 (B.C.), after sweeping through most of the Middle East, the Babylonians are ready to conquer Judah.  People who might be considered a threat are deported.  Ezekiel is part of the first group of exiles.  Thus, Ezekiel comes to live in Babylon.

For about eight years, Jerusalem has been occupied by the Babylonians, but they’ve refrained from destroying the city.  But then the Judahites try teaming up with the Egyptians to fight back.  That doesn’t work, and the Babylonians lose their patience.

As a result, the unthinkable happens.  The temple is destroyed.  It’s difficult for us today to understand the crushing blow that was.  They couldn’t imagine the temple being destroyed.  There’s no way God would allow it.  They had a trust in the building—a superstitious trust, as it turned out.  They trusted in a building, but they didn’t trust God.  They constantly broke the covenant with the Lord.  They served other gods.  They oppressed the poor.  They were corrupt.

And so we arrive in the valley of dry bones.

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There’s a Hebrew word that appears over and over throughout today’s reading: רוּחַ (ruah).  It’s translated by three words that best capture its meaning: breath, wind, or spirit.

We see in Ezekiel’s vision the creative use of the word.  First he’s commanded to prophesy to the bones, as our little song puts it, he’s to say to “dem dry bones…hear the word of the Lord.”  Suddenly the bones reassemble, with sinews, flesh, and skin reappearing.  Still, the bodies are dead.  Then the Lord tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, to call out to the wind, to speak to the spirit.  It’s only then that ruah enters the bodies, and they come to life.

The exiles, defeated and taken captive far from their homeland, truly were dispirited.  They felt they were as dead as those dry bones.  With the news of the temple’s destruction, Ezekiel’s job has changed.  He’s been calling for repentance; now he must offer hope.

When the people felt that all was lost, that their enemies had vanquished them, the prophet came to them and told them of the promise of the ruah of the Lord, of the Spirit of God, which would revive them, which would bring them back to life.

So what does this vision of hope given to a group of exiles 25 centuries ago in Babylon say to us here today?

We might feel like our nation, our world, has become a collection of dry bones.  We might feel that way about ourselves.

Do we need to be brought back to life, like Lazarus?

We’re like the exiles, in a way.  We have been forced; we have been taken to a place we never would have chosen.  We have been exiled to a strange new world.

We’ve all had our own experiences with the virus.  Some have had truly dreadful experiences.  Others—not so much.  I have this feeling that there’s something out there, and it has ill intent.  I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.  Wouldn’t be nice if we could actually see the virus?  That would make things much easier!

Still, we’re here.  The crowds asked John the Baptist after his message of repentance, “What then should we do?” (Lk 3:10).  What should we do?  Let me ask the question from a different angle.  What opportunities await us?

Remember what I said regarding the news that the temple had been destroyed.  The prophet had been calling for repentance.  Now it was a time for hope.

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[photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash]

Well, the temple has been destroyed.  We’re in the valley of dry bones.  Ezekiel’s vision is about a promise of return from exile.  It will be a second exodus.  What can these bones do, given a new life?  The breath, the wind, the spirit of God is still blowing.  We have the opportunity—we have the option—of allowing that wind to carry us to a new way of being.  Or maybe it’s a question of regaining what we’ve possibly allowed to lapse.

What are we doing to stay healthy?  What are we doing to stay healthy mentally?  What are we doing to help others stay healthy?  What are we doing to spread the love?  Friends, we are not dead.  As the Song of Solomon puts it, “love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave” (8:6).  Or as Eugene Peterson’s The Message reads, “Love is invincible facing danger and death.  Passion laughs at the terrors of hell.”

Here’s another question.  How will we emerge from this?  Will fear win the day?  So much of what we see in the media, in my opinion, borders on sensationalism.  Sometimes it seems like the goal is to inspire fear, to inspire panic, rather than level-headed caution.  I feel like some people would almost welcome mobs who are setting fires and smashing windows.

So that’s one option.  Here’s another.  Will we learn from this?  Will we work together?  Will we learn to care for each other?  I don’t expect heaven on earth, but maybe some heavenly spirit can take hold.  There is an opening for a deeper and more vibrant faith.

“And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (vv. 13-14).


shining in the dark

The introduction to the gospel of John is no mundane matter.  Every verse is packed (maybe we could say over-packed) with meaning.  Notice how it starts: “In the beginning was the Word.”  We’re off on a cosmic adventure.  There are all kinds of jaw-dropping, mind-blowing stuff.

Gail O’Day talks about the “cosmic, transtemporal dimension of the Prologue.”[1]  It goes beyond time itself!

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{Alexander Andrews, unsplash.com/@alex_andrews}

“All things came into being through him [that is, the Word], and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (vv. 3-4).

As the Christmas season gives way to the Epiphany of the Lord, it does so bathed in, and in preparation for, light.  Light is powerful, and there are those who say it must be infused with even more power.

Thomas Hoffman feels that way.  He offers comments in Caryll Houselander’s book, A Child in Winter.  Houselander was an English artist, writer, and mystic who, as the introduction to the book puts it, “comforted and challenged the English-speaking world through the ravages of World War II and the London Blitz.”[2]  A Child in Winter is a book of her devotionals covering Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

Hoffman speaks of light as coming “pretty inexpensively and maybe even too conveniently to us.”  We have ready access to light, thanks to the power grid, batteries, cell phones, and so on.

He says, “We have grown accustomed to [this] being a season of light, but let’s agree to make this…a season of fire.  Be consumed by the energy that dwells and is growing within.  Let it burn in you.  Let God use fire to purify the cosmos through you.”[3]  It truly is a cosmic adventure!

2 jnI really like verse 5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Hang on to that thought; I’ll be coming back to it.

Very quickly, here are some other highlights in John’s introduction.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (v. 6).  He came as a witness to the light.  “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (v. 8).

“The true light, which enlightens everyone…was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (vv. 9-10).

Then there’s the grand statement of incarnation: “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (v. 14).  It’s the over-arching meaning of Christmas.  In the human being called Jesus, “we have seen [the Word’s] glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…  From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (vv. 14, 16).  Or as the New Jerusalem Bible puts it, “one gift replacing another.”

We can see incarnation as something that transcends even Jesus; we can see it including the whole universe.  Without the Word not one thing came into being.

Let’s go back to verse 5.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  What is that all about?  The word for “overcome” in Greek (καταλαμβάνω, katalambanō) has a variety of connotations.  It can mean “to grasp,” “to seize by force.”  Were darkness and light in a wrestling match, and darkness went down for the count?

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It can also mean “to comprehend” or “to understand.”  We use our English word “grasp” in both physical and mental ways.

The darkness wasn’t able to grab the light.  The darkness wasn’t able to understand it.  I wonder, “What does it mean to not grasp the light, to not grasp the Word?”  “What does it mean to not comprehend it?”

I have a little story, though it’s not the most dramatic of stories.  It deals with something from my childhood.

For a couple of years when my sister and I were in elementary school, my mom took us to church.  (Long story short: this was an independent church, similar to a Baptist church.  Our attendance started to get a bit spotty, gradually moving to once a month, then not at all.  Years later, however, we did return to church!)

Anyway, back to my original thought.  There were times during the worship services when I would watch the pastor closely while he was preaching.  I was fascinated.  I couldn’t understand where he was getting all this stuff.  Was he reading the same Bible I was?  I read the same words…and nothing.  I was dumbfounded.  I couldn’t grasp it.  I’m not trying to equate myself with “darkness,” although it’s safe to say I was in the dark.

As I said before, this might not seem like a dramatic or remarkable story, and maybe we could just write it off because I was young, but it left a vivid impression on me.  And in some small way, there was a sense in me that I would be called to do what he was doing—preaching the Word.  I wanted no part of that, thank you very much!  But God has a way of taking our saying “no” and turning it into “yes.”  So maybe there was a hint of darkness not being able to defeat, to grasp, to comprehend the light.

We have a thought similar to darkness not overcoming the light in verse 10.  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”

4 jnMusa Dube, a theologian from Botswana, offers her thoughts.  “Those who fail to believe or recognise the Word have missed a chance to know and associate with forces of power, forces of creation.”[4]  She doesn’t pull any punches.  The unbelieving “deny themselves grace and the knowledge of God, which can only be received from the Word.  In sum, those who do not believe or recognise the Word, identify with death, failure, powerlessness and ignorance.”

Today is Epiphany Sunday, and we are reminded of the visit of the wise men.  They came, following the light.  Too often, we end the story with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  But that’s not the end of the story.  The sandman visits them and tells them to take a detour on the way home.  (I wonder, did they have a collective dream, or did one have the dream and tell the others about it?)

Herod wanted them to come back and let him know the address of this young king of the Jews.  After all, he insisted, he wanted to pay his respects.

When Herod hears the wise men took off, he’s furious and sends his goons to commit mass murder.  However, Joseph and Mary make a night-time escape and flee to Egypt.  The word used for “flee” is φευγω (pheugō), to take refuge.  It’s where we get our word “refugee.”

The Holy Family flees darkness.  Through Herod, darkness attacks light.  Darkness would overcome light.  However, light is shining in the dark.

And the story continues; it continues with us.  How comfortable are we knowing and associating with, as Dube says, forces of power and forces of creation?  (Don’t answer too quickly!)  How often do we identify with—how often do we relate to—death, failure, powerlessness, and ignorance?

I know I have my work to do.

We can take a clue from Thomas Hoffman.  Be consumed by the energy that’s growing within.  Let it burn.  Let’s let God use fire to purify the cosmos through us, to purify everything and everyone around us.  That fire is the fire of the Spirit.  We can’t really welcome the Word in our own strength.  We can mentally agree with a doctrine of the Word—we can mentally assent—but that alone won’t purify or revolutionize us.  To unleash the Word in us is the power of the Holy Spirit.

Again, I know I have my work to do!

5 jnFrom his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace, one gift replacing another.  Don’t be satisfied with gifts received in the past; yearn and pursue even greater gifts from God.  Let us remind ourselves, as I do, God yearns to complete our deepest joy—and give even deeper joy, a joy of shining in the dark.

How is that for a promise as we enter this new year—this new decade? 

 

{Tim Umphreys, unsplash.com/@timumphreys}

 

[1] Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9: Luke/John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995)

[2] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 1.

[3] Houselander, 61.

[4] Musa W. Dube, “Batswaka: Which Traveler are You (John 1:1-18)?”, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 108 (November 2000), 81.


peace able

On Thanksgiving (while watching my beloved Dallas Cowboys put in another lackluster performance—this time against the Bills!), a Target commercial was aired several times with the wonderful news that Black Friday would start at 5pm.  Mind you, this was on Thanksgiving.  Banu and I were surmising how lucky those employees were to have the privilege of working on a holiday in order to make their corporate overlords a few more dollars.  (Well, in all honesty, she said nothing about “corporate overlords.”)

But then there was more good news: twelve hours later, many employees had the privilege of opening their doors at 5am.  Banu wondered who would get up that early just to go shopping!

1 is

Of course, that’s not the worst of it.  Maybe you saw some advertisements proclaiming Black Friday sales running throughout the entire month of November?  We invented a holiday dedicated purely to the acquisition of money (going from “in the red” to “in the black”), and predictably as these things go, it metastasized.

(Still, Black Friday has darker meanings.  For example, there were the crazed crowds in 1950s Philadelphia who came into the city for the Army-Navy game on Saturday and did some shopping the day before.  Many of them took advantage of the commotion and helped themselves to a “five finger discount,” to the extreme annoyance of the Philly cops.)

I asked Banu about her first reaction to Black Friday, and she described it as “suffocating” and “a black hole.”

Why do I start with Black Friday, since it has come and gone?  It seems to me that it symbolizes the way we think of Advent—if we think of it at all.  We too often fill our lives with that which really isn’t very important.  Indeed, the very mention of Advent often elicits yawns and sometimes, actual irritation.

(There have been times in our ministry when, in the context of worship and other events, Banu and I have had—I’ll say—“snarky” questions posed to us, such as, “Is this Advent-y enough?”)

Here’s something from A Child in Winter, a book of devotionals by Caryll Houselander.  It covers Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.  Houselander was an English artist, writer, and mystic who, as the introduction to the book puts it, “comforted and challenged the English-speaking world through the ravages of World War II and the London Blitz.”[1]

She speaks of those who fill up their lives with “trivial details.”[2]  She says, “They dread space, for they want material things crowded together, so that there will always be something to lean on for support.  They dread silence, because they do not want to hear their own pulses beating out the seconds of their life, and to know that each beat is another knock on the door of death.”  (Yikes!  There’s a pleasant thought.)

2 is

I wonder how often we fit that description.  We too often dread the things that make for peace.  We run hither and thither (if not with our bodies, then at least with our minds).  With all of our scurrying, we ignore—we are unaware of—the luminous holiness all around.  Trust me; I am directing this to myself more than to anyone else.

The prophet Isaiah knows a little something about people scurrying around, turning from the things that make for peace.  He is active during the last part of the 8th century BC.  At this time, the Assyrian Empire is gobbling up much of the Middle East.  The northern kingdom of Israel gets gobbled; the folks in the southern kingdom of Judah are nervous.  They don’t want to be gobbled!

The way chapter 11 begins doesn’t seem to let us know of these things, that is, Assyria and its ambitions.  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (v. 1).  This business of stumps and branches and trees goes back to chapter 10, where God tells his people, “do not be afraid of the Assyrians when they beat you with a rod” (v. 24).

The chapter ends on this note: “Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low.  He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall” (vv. 33-34).  So there’s part of the background with Isaiah and the Assyrians.

Why get into this stuff about a shoot, a tiny little stalk, emerging from a seemingly dead hunk of wood?

When I was a teenager, my dad chopped down a tree in our yard.  It was a hedge apple tree.  If you’re familiar with those trees, you know the hedge apples they produce wind up being the size of softballs.  You don’t want someone throwing them at you!

3 isAnyway, I thought the stump that was left would behave like most stumps—just sit there and do nothing.  However, within a couple of weeks, I noticed a little green sprig appearing just inside the bark.  Soon, there were other sprigs, and they continued to grow.  Eventually they became stalks, and in time, the stalks developed into little bushes.  In a matter of months, the bushes had intertwined and kept reaching skyward, well over my twice my height by then.

If I was surprised by the way new life emerged from that stump, imagine the surprise generated by Isaiah’s poem.  The biggest part of the surprise is that the shoot comes from the stump of Jesse.  That is Jesse, mind you, the father of David—the David who would be king.

In the following verses, we see that this shoot, this branch, will be a ruler like none other.  This ruler will possess and exercise wisdom like none other.  Here’s a thumbnail sketch of this leader’s qualities (vv. 2-5): “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him…  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord…  with righteousness he shall judge the poor…  Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist.”  All of that sounds like expectations of a David-ish nature!

So what’s all this with Jesse?

Walter Brueggemann talks about this.  “David’s family and dynasty run out in failure, no king, no future, no royal possibility, only a stump.  But, says the poet [and prophet Isaiah], the stump will produce a shoot, a shoot of new life that was not expected… the new David, the new possibility of shalom,” a new kingdom, a peaceable kingdom.[3]

4 isBasically, the Davidic line has all but died.  The lofty goals have not materialized.  So let’s start from scratch, so to speak.  Let’s go back to Jesse.  And for the sake of fairness, let’s include David’s mother, who unfortunately, the scriptures leave unnamed.  However, Jewish tradition says her name was Nitzevet.[4]

This new David, this new sovereign, will reign in an era of harmony and serenity.  What does it look like, this peaceable kingdom?

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”  Everything in creation “will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (vv. 6, 9).

Here’s Brueggemann again: “The old enmities, the old appetites of the food chain, the old assumptions of the survival of the meanest, all of that is subverted.  The wild will not stay vicious, because the coming one, marked by righteousness and justice, will overrule raw power in the interest of new possibility.”[5]

As Christians, we see the coming one as the true messianic figure, the ultimate Son of David, Jesus the Christ.  That’s what the Advent season is all about.  Advent means “coming,” and so we celebrate the one who has come, the one yet to come, and the one who is always coming, who is always arriving, in our lives right now.

As for Isaiah, his message is one of assuring the people.  But it is an assurance that will cost.  “We must repent,” he says, “to turn around, and to hold on.  The Assyrians are threatening.  But stand fast.  The peaceable kingdom is on the way.  We will have to wait in the darkness before the light arrives.”

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[Holy Darkness: Formless and Void]

We have a similar message during Advent.  Our enemies might not be an invading empire, but we do have enemies, nonetheless.  Perhaps it’s largely true that our enemies are within, the struggles we face—the struggles in which we engage.  As noted before, we don’t like that uncomfortable space, that uncomfortable silence.  We want to jump right over it, to get it in our rear-view mirror.  But that’s not what Advent is about!

“This is the intention of Advent,” says Jonas Ellison.  “It’s a sacred stillness in the darkness before the triumphant joy of Christmas.  It’s where we sit in the ‘blueness’ apparent in this oft broken world and human experience.  When we grow up, we become more attuned with the suffering in the world—and in our own lives.  We can’t override this.  When we do, it festers.  Advent is the season [in which] we sit calmly in the darkness as we await the light.”[6]

He mentions growing up.  (“When we grow up.”)  That fits with the title of his article, “Advent Makes Christmas Something that Kids Can Mature Into.”  Ellison wonders about an idea I imagine we’ve all heard, that “Christmas is for kids.”  He reflects on the surface-level and theologically shallow way we so often celebrate the season.  Please don’t get the wrong idea—he treasures and finds joy in the festivities and gifts and mistletoe.  (Okay, I added the “mistletoe”!)

Yet, he dreams for his daughter.  “I hope to give my daughter a meaning of Christmas that she can mature into as she grows older and experiences the weight, depth, and density of life.”  (I’m intrigued by that term “density of life.”)  He continues, “I pray that Christmas isn’t an extended time of consumerism in order to attempt to cover up her wounds wrought from this oft broken human experience.  I pray she can sit in the darkness with herself knowing she’s not alone.  Knowing that others are sitting in that very same place and God is embracing us all even before the ‘light’ comes.”

We don’t like to wait—especially waiting in the darkness, even if it is holy darkness.  The massive weight of our society and economy shout, “Why wait?”  It’s hard for Advent to compete with that.  There’s a tidal wave that would prevent us from pausing long enough to do the “Advent” thing of reflecting, and as Isaiah would hope for, of repenting.  That means to stop, to look around, and to set ourselves on the path of active expectation.  (Or perhaps more to the point, to allow ourselves to be set on the path of active expectation.)  “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13).

“On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

“Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

 

[Here is the artist’s description of his work, “Holy Darkness: Formless and Void”]

This sculpture is number 1 of 3 in the חשך קדוש series and is based off of the phrase תהו ובהו (prounounced tōhū vābōhū) - which is translated as "formless and void" in Genesis 1.  "תהו ובהו" is written on both side walls of the drawing in a mixture of acrylic paint and gel medium, with the name יהוה (the Divine Name of God in the Hebrew Bible generally vocalized as Adonai or HaShem) written in blue on the back wall.  The very simple statement that the sculpture makes is "Even in the formless and void places of life, God is still there." The sculpture is meant to give the sense of being under water, with a bit of light coming through the surface of the 'water' from above.

 

[1] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 1.

[2] Houselander, 9.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “The Poem: Subversion and Summons,” Journal for Preachers 35:1 (Advent 2011), 33.

[4] www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/280331/jewish/Nitzevet-Mother-of-David.htm

[5] Brueggemann, 34.

[6] medium.com/graceincarnate/advent-makes-christmas-something-that-kids-can-mature-into-cd5b5503687e


all the welkin rings

Psalm 148 is a song of praise, and it is an expansive one.  It’s about as expansive as you can get.  It includes the entire cosmos!  Verse 1 says, “Praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!”  The psalmist surveys everything within his understanding of the universe; the poet calls everything to praise the Lord.  (Special note: there could be other universes.)

1 psThere’s an interesting note about Charles Wesley, the hymn-writing younger brother of John Wesley.  We’re told that “the Christmas carol, ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ was originally written by Charles Wesley to read ‘Hark how all the welkin rings’…  The entire ‘welkin,’ the entire sky and heavens, ring with the chorus of praise that embraces all creatures in their joy that the Creator has entered into creaturehood with them, for the salvation of all.”[1]

There are some scientists who are beginning to take notice of this kind of stuff, though they wouldn’t use the poetic phrases of a Christmas carol.  In his book, Cosmic Jackpot, theoretical physicist Paul Davies deals with one of the biggest questions of all:  why is our universe able to support life—why is it friendly to life?[2]  In his terminology, there’s no guarantee that, after the big bang, the universe would expand in a way that would allow stars to form, with planets orbiting around them.  He goes into variations of what’s known as the anthropic principle.[3]

However for me, anyway, scientific ideas like that cast Christian ideas, like the second advent of Christ, and Christ as Alpha and Omega, in a new light.  They provide insights into psalms like the one we have today.

As I suggested, Psalm 148 is an all-encompassing psalm.  It begins with what is the most distant (“the heavens,” “the heights”), and gradually moves closer to home—to what is more familiar.  We eventually get to earth, where the forces of nature are called upon to praise the Lord.  Then a little closer, the mountains and trees—and animals, both wild and tame—hear the summons to praise.

2 ps

Finally, we get to the human race.  The high and the mighty, as well as the low and the humble are addressed.  Last of all, in verse 14, the “faithful,” “the people of Israel who are close to him” hear the call: “Praise the Lord!”

Something that got my attention is verse 7: “Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps.”  There’s a real sense of dread at what lies down below the surface of the sea.  In his translation, Gary Chamberlain uses the rather colorful phrase, “Ocean deeps and dragons.”[4]  This taps into the visceral fear of what dwells in the depths.

If we can call upon the heights to praise, that which we glory in, then we must also turn our attention to the depths, that which we fear and loathe.  That which dwells in the shadows—the darkness that we avoid—is called to come into the light to join in the work and privilege of praising God.

3 psWhat does it mean for all these to praise the Lord?  We can understand the call to humans.  What does it mean for the sun and moon?  What does it mean for fire and hail?  What does it mean for mountains and all hills?  What does it mean for little critters and flying birds?  What does it mean for our cats and dogs?  Are they able to praise the Lord?  Or is all of this a bunch of whimsical nonsense?

In some way, at some level, praising the Lord is bound up with understanding our place in the universe.  And more than understanding it—celebrating it, not working against it.  It seems that it is only we humans who are able to act against our own nature.  Rocks and rivers don’t have that ability.  Neither, it seems, do maples nor mice.

How do we find and celebrate our place in the universe?  How do we join in the cosmic dance of praise?  How do we take part as all the welkin rings?

A key aspect of that is stewardship.  We humans have the privilege and responsibility of being stewards of creation.  Sadly, for much of creation, our role as stewards has been a curse.  With our cruelty, pollution, and violence, it continues to be a curse.  If we humans were to suddenly disappear, I don’t think planet Earth and everything within it would miss us very much!

Stewardship is another of those expansive terms.  It encompasses a whole lot of stuff!  Too often in the church, the word is relegated to so-called “stewardship drives.”  (And on that point in particular, we often think of it as what we “have” to give, as opposed to what we “get” to give!)  In Genesis 2, God puts humans in charge of the garden.  It’s something we address throughout all of life.

Praising the Lord, joining in as all the welkin rings, is not about a mentality of scarcity.  It is very much a mentality of abundance.  Our Lord, who the psalmist calls all of creation to praise, is a Lord of abundance—even lavish abundance.  Our Lord is a Lord of mysterious abundance.

The scientist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, once made a comment I believe illustrates this, even though that was not his intention.  He said due to a glorious accident, we have become “the stewards of life’s continuity on earth.”  He agreed we are stewards of creation, although he didn’t use the word “creation.”[5]

It is a very good thing that we continue to learn, but at times I’m reminded of God’s responses to Job, after he has questioned the ways of God.  Job is asked things like, “Which is the way to the home of the Light, and where does darkness live?” (38:19, New Jerusalem Bible).  Or this: “Will lightning flashes come at your command and answer, ‘Here we are’?” (38:35).  There are always mysteries, things to discover!

One of the most wonderful discoveries is, as the psalmist says, how God “has raised up a horn for his people,” that is, raised up strength for the faithful (v. 14).  As we find our place in the universe, as we joyfully accept our call to be stewards, we receive strength from God and pass it to all those around.

Rachel Wheeler wrote an article titled, “Of Trash and Treasure: Implications of Zero Waste for the Spiritual Life.”  In it, she reminds us, “Everything…is designed for you to throw away when you are finished with it.  But where is ‘away’?  Of course, ‘away’ does not really exist.”[6]

She has an interesting take on Jesus’ feeding the multitude as it’s presented in John’s gospel.  “What do we make of Jesus feeding the five thousand when he is reported as instructing his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost”[7] (Jn. 6:12, NRSV)?  Other translations use the language of waste: ‘Let nothing be wasted,’[8] the implication being Jesus and his disciples gathered up what was left over, not just to indicate the generous nature of the miracle, providing more than enough for those gathered, but also to set an example for others.”[9]

My mom used to tell me, “Waste not; want not.”  What we throw away, we leave for others to deal with.

4 ps

Does all of this sound like it only has a tenuous connection for this Christ the King Sunday?  That might be true if we were dealing with just any king.  But this is a king—and a kingdom—like none other.  It’s a kingdom that is based, not on power, at least not power the way we usually envision it.  It is a peaceable kingdom, as envisioned in Isaiah 11.  The good news, the gospel, of that kingdom is good news for all of creation.  It is an expansive, all-encompassing gospel.  The Hebrew term shalom doesn’t simply refer to our ordinary word “peace.”  It is an expansive, all-encompassing peace.  It points to heaven on earth.  “For God so loved the world…”

A moment ago, I mentioned how Jesus desires that nothing go to waste.  Well, maybe there is one thing it’s good to waste—which is, to waste time.  I’m not talking about wasting time the way we typically think of it, as Pink Floyd once sang, “fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.”  No, this is wasting time with God.  Many would say, “Wasting time with God is not very ‘useful’; it’s not very ‘practical.’”  Still, I would say, “Do waste time with God.”  “Do pray.”  Do sit in silence.

As we truly praise the Lord, we draw closer to the King.  We show ourselves to be citizens of that realm.

“Hark how all the welkin rings / Glory to the newborn king.”  We discover our place as all the welkin rings.

5 ps

[1] oldsite.processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2007-12-30/1st-sunday-after-christmas

[2] Paul Davies, Cosmic Jackpot (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007).

[3] www.anthropic-principle.com

[4] Gary Chamberlain, The Psalms: A New Translation for Prayer and Worship (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1984), 181.

[5] Wim Kayzer, A Glorious Accident (New York: Freeman, 1997), 92.

[6] Rachel Wheeler, “Of Trash and Treasure: Implications of Zero Waste for the Spiritual Life,” Spiritus 19:1 (Spring 2019), 95.

[7] Greek word for “lost” (απολλυμι, apollumi) means “destroy” or “perish”

[8] Revised English Bible: “so that nothing is wasted”

[9] Wheeler, 97.


recollection in secret

When I was a student at Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida, there was a room on the top floor of the main building, the one housing the administrative offices.  The room was arranged for small chapel services.  This was in addition to the main chapel building in the center of campus.  It was also used as a prayer room; students would go there in the evening.

1 ps

It was a place of quiet prayer, a place of quiet reflection.  There was none of the quite vocal prayer lifted up during the regular worship services.  There was none of the shouting in the Spirit, none of the speaking in tongues.  At least, that’s how it was supposed to be.

One night, I went up there to pray.  There were about four or five students scattered throughout the room.  Not too long after I arrived, a guy and his girlfriend appeared, and they also started praying.  It did not remain quiet for very long.  The fellow began confessing his sin; actually, he began confessing their sin.  If he wanted to disturb everyone else in the room, he got his wish.

He began loudly asking the Lord for forgiveness.  He loudly asked forgiveness for the sin they had committed together.  He did that several times.  His girlfriend didn’t utter a peep.  (I wonder if he told her beforehand what he planned to do.)  My guess is that she would have chosen to be anywhere in the world than beside this man doing the praying for her.  And regarding the volume, I suppose he felt if he didn’t come clean at elevated decibels the Lord wouldn’t hear.  If I didn’t know better, I would say he was putting on a display in order to boast!

Would that fall into the category—as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount—of those loving “to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others,” even for the purpose of bragging? (Mt 6:5).  “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”

One lesson our friend could learn from this experience would be the value of secrecy.  I’m not speaking of the secrecy which is opposed to keeping confidence.  Sometimes we confuse the two.  In that scenario, keeping confidence is a way of building trust.  Keeping confidence is not intended to do harm.  It is meant to protect.

2 ps

Secrecy, if we think of it that way, is used as a means of control.  It’s a way of exclusion.  It destroys trust.  It’s a way of saying in a petulant manner, “I know something that you don’t!”  That’s not what I’m talking about.

The secrecy I’m talking about is the kind Jesus valued.  For example, several times he told others to not disclose certain things about him.  Here’s a case in point.  In Mark 1, after healing a leper, he said to him, “‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’  But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country” (vv. 44-45).

In Luke 8, Jesus restores to life the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue.  We’re told, “he took her by the hand and called out, ‘Child, get up!’  Her spirit returned, and she got up at once.  Then he directed them to give her something to eat.  Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened” (vv. 54-56).

There have been all kinds of theories to explain his desire for secrecy, (which I won’t get into now), but it’s safe to say Jesus wasn’t looking for public acclaim.  He wasn’t interested in putting on a show; he wasn’t interested in self-promotion.  I imagine if anyone could be justified in displaying himself—at least, according to our usual standards—he would be the one.

3 psThat’s my main point concerning the fellow in the prayer room that night.  I’m speaking of secrecy as a spiritual discipline.  Whatever his motivations, he disturbed others who were trying to pray, and he exposed his poor girlfriend!

Completing Jesus’ thought from the Sermon on the Mount, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:6).

The desire for holy secrecy (and “holy” seems to be a good adjective) flows quite nicely into the prayer of recollection.  “Recollect” comes from Latin, “gather again.”  We speak of “gathering our thoughts.”  We might think of the prayer of recollection as gathering again our souls—gathering again who we are.  It is a prayer of discernment.  It is a prayer of listening.

In Psalm 131, the speaker adopts the position of humility, not one of display.  “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me” (v. 1).  Does this mean the psalmist has no desire to learn?  Is this a refusal to grow?

There are again a number of viewpoints on the matter, but it’s entirely possible this is someone who has learned from mistakes made.  Perhaps the heart and eyes lifted up have been done in a sort of defiance.  It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been done in an arrogant or flagrant way but simply in a way of overstepping proper bounds, indeed, being occupied “with things too great and too marvelous.”  Maybe a sort of “recollection” needs to happen!

Something we can take away from this verse is learning that the most important thing is not to learn how to get ahead.  The most important thing is to simply learn how to be human, to be who we were created to be.

4 psI fear that too often we focus on the strictly technical side of things.  In doing so, we miss the big picture.  A recent article by Ryan Holiday proclaimed, “Why You Should Study Philosophy.”[1]  He admits the convoluted and tedious way it’s usually presented.  But it’s really not that complicated.  He quotes Martha Nussbaum who said, “To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control.”  That’s the basic starting point for those ancient fellows, like Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius.  “An ability to trust certain things beyond your control.”

Hmm, I wonder who that sounds like?

That’s an image we see continued in verse 2.  It is the heart of this short, little psalm.  “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”  Some people see this coming from the perspective of a mother.  It’s possible that in this case, the psalmist is a woman.

There’s been a little disagreement on the Hebrew, and we have some interesting views.  One version says, “No; I submit myself, I account myself lowly, as a weaned child clinging to its mother” (New English Bible).  Another one reads, “No, I hold myself in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms, like a little child, so I keep myself” (New Jerusalem Bible).

We’re here with the prayer of recollection.  We’re here with the prayer of humble listening.

That orientation of listening is important.  We often—maybe always—consider prayer to come from us outward to God.  In our worship services, that’s usually the only kind of prayer we do.  We have an agenda; we have a to-do list for the Lord.  And of course, that isn’t anything bad.  We are to lift up our supplications, our intercessions, our thanksgivings to God.  But we do indeed remain shallow if we don’t listen, if we don’t wait on the Spirit.

Joan Chittister speaks of one of the Church Fathers, Abba Agathon who lived in the 4th century.  “Once upon a time,” she says, “the disciples asked Abba Agathon, ‘Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?’  Abba Agathon answered, ‘I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God.  For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey.  Whatever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest.  But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’”[2]

I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I lay aside my agenda and just shut up, it is very difficult.  Prayer is hard.  It is hard work.  I fear I too easily become lazy and simply give up.  Plunging into the depths of prayer, exploring the terrain, is the work of a lifetime.

5 ps

Laura Harring and Naomi Watts enter the silence (that is, “silencio”)

We enter the silence, and then everything happens.  Our thoughts bubble up from within.  “Yes, I have to make sure I do that today.”  “What’s that sound?  Let me go to the window and check it out.”  “I wish I had said that to So-and-So yesterday.”  But don’t be too hard on yourself.  When thoughts come—and come they will if you are human—don’t fret.  Look at them for a moment, and then set them aside; let them drift away.

It’s true; it’s easier for me to say this than to faithfully practice it.  But like I just said, it is the work of a lifetime.  (And by the way, I imagine some of you probably could teach me a lesson or two on prayer and waiting in silence.)

Our psalm ends with verse 3.  “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.”  The psalmist addresses the nation at large.  What up until now has been the yearning of an individual is brought to the entire community.  Everyone is called to the hope the psalmist is seeking.

We can think of our own community, our own country.  Still, I would like to bring it closer to home, to where we are right now, to our congregation.

A few years ago, Amy Johnson Frykholm wrote on practices regarding congregational discernment, group discernment.[3]  She notes that “few congregations apply silence and contemplation to matters of church business.”[4]  How about that?  Maybe we should start our next congregational meeting with a few minutes of silence!

She speaks of an experiment done with a congregation.  The group was given a particular focus, something on which to meditate.  She says, “Over about 30 minutes we were silent together, and then various people were offered opportunities to speak and to respond.  What emerged from the silence and the listening was something strikingly different from our normal conversation.  By punctuating our communication with silence, we were stripped of the desire to offer advice or jump in with stories from our own experience.  By staying intentionally silent between remarks, we found ourselves offering words and images that came up from another, seemingly deeper place.”[5]

One welcome discovery “was that the people showed more humility toward one another and seemed more open to the idea that the voice of God might come from someone else’s mouth.”[6]  (Imagine such a thing!)  Even shorter periods of time can produce rich fruit, even a few minutes.

Recollection in secret.  When we explore our spiritual gifts, that can serve as a foundation for them.  The psalmist is really onto something!

6 ps
Be open to God.  We hold ourselves in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms.

 

[1] forge.medium.com/why-you-should-study-philosophy-47c53fbc3205

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict:  Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 75.

[3] Amy Johnson Frykholm, “Out of Silence,” Christian Century 124:7 (3 April 2007), 34-38.

[4] Frykholm, 34.

[5] Frykholm, 34.

[6] Frykholm, 35.