Book of Common Worship

watery welcome

The 3rd of August 1986.  The Assemblies of God church in Tennessee I used to attend.  Suddenly, I’m immersed in warm water; I’m being treated to a full body bath.  (Fortunately, my bladder is not overflowing!)  I’m being held by my pastor, who is intoning words about the Holy Trinity.  (At least, I trust he is.  I can’t hear him under water.)

1 lk 3In case you haven’t already figured it out, I’m describing my baptism.  I was 21.  There were two people before me: a boy probably 8 or 9 years old, and a woman roughly 40 years older than me.  The three of us participated in what we Presbyterians and many other churches refer to as the sacrament of baptism.  My old denomination calls it an ordinance.

Very briefly, an ordinance is a practice that demonstrates a believer’s faith.  A sacrament (in this case, baptism) is a practice, that through the means of the Holy Spirit, grants entry into the church universal.  Infants and young children are baptized with the understanding that God sends the Spirit, welcoming them into the covenant of the family of God.

Our Book of Order puts it this way: “Both believers and their children are included in God’s covenant love.  The baptism of believers witnesses to the truth that God’s gift of grace calls for our grateful response.  The baptism of our young children witnesses to the truth that God claims people in love even before they are able to respond in faith” (W-3.0402).  At some point in time, of course, they should respond in faith, however that happens.

And maybe that provides a good transition.  We are claimed in love.  Ultimately, that’s the most important reason to enter the waters of baptism.

As we read today’s gospel text, St. Luke’s version of the baptism of the Lord, it looks like love is completely off the table.  Earlier in chapter 3, John the Baptist unloads on the people approaching him.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (vv. 7-8).

I like how the recently deceased Eugene Peterson put it in his paraphrase The Message.  He had some fun with it.  “Brood of snakes!  What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river?  Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment?  It’s your life that must change, not your skin.”

2 lk 3Okay, so where’s the love?  Let’s back up a little more.

The story of the baptism is torn from its context.  At the beginning of the chapter, we see Luke, as he likes to do, giving a recitation of who is currently in the government.  Emperor Tiberius…Pontius Pilate…Herod, and so on.  He provides the political framework.  In response to John’s message, the crowds, the tax collectors, the soldiers all ask, “What should we do?”

Luke doesn’t go into this, but we learn from Matthew and Mark that John wore a garment of camel hair and a leather belt—dressed like prophets of old, especially Elijah.  He ate locusts and wild honey, which are nutritious, but being in the desert, not a wide variety of food is available.

In describing John, Mark Stenberg starts right there.[1]  “In Luke, John the Baptist is not some weird, crazy hick.  He is a political prisoner…  Not only did John the Baptist speak the truth about Herod’s wicked accumulation of money and power, he also was a direct threat to Herod’s economy.  He was teaching tax collectors and soldiers not to extort or bully the people.  He was teaching people to share their stuff.  All of this was too much of a threat to Herod, to his system.  So The Baptist is locked up.”

Herod doesn’t take kindly to John’s upsetting the apple cart, to his baptizing and making waves!

Luke gives a very specific reason for John’s arrest.  John the Baptist “proclaimed the good news to the people.  But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison” (vv. 18-20).  John told Herod marrying his brother’s wife was a no-no.  His criticism of Herod could have provided the pretext, the perfect excuse, to toss him into prison.

It might seem strange to have this note about Herod in the middle of the passage.  We’re talking about baptism before and after it.  What’s going on?

Some people say there’s no problem with the sequence of events.  John’s been baptizing and saying he’s not the Messiah; the Messiah is yet to come.  Herod throws him in jail.  So who baptizes Jesus?  Is John paroled and then arrested later on?  I don’t know if there are many people who go along with that.  The explanation commonly given is that the Holy Spirit baptizes Jesus, however that happens.

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Another viewpoint is Herod is inserted to show the result of John’s ministry—and that he refused to back down.  By extension, with our baptism and baptismal promises, we might find ourselves in trouble.  To be sure, it’s extremely unlikely we would get tossed in jail!  Still, there are places in the world where that happens.

Having said that, it’s simply a question of Luke not mentioning John’s name as the one who baptizes Jesus.  And this does matter.  Luke emphasizes the role of the Spirit in baptism.  All four gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—include the story, but they present it in different ways.  The one major commonality is the descent of the Holy Spirit, which is reflected in our theology of baptism.

We observe the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant.  It’s a time of remembering baptism and the promises made at baptism.  It’s a time for renewal.  Included in the prayer of thanksgiving are the lines, “We rejoice that you claimed us in our baptism, and that by your grace we are born anew.  By your Holy Spirit renew us, that we may be empowered to do your will and continue forever in the risen life of Christ.”[2]

That connection of the Spirit with baptism is especially made with the epistle reading in Acts 8.  We’re told that the apostles Peter and John laid their hands on baptized believers, and they received the Holy Spirit.  At least in this case, something visible must have happened, since an onlooker named Simon wanted to pay them for the power to do that himself.  There was some kind of sign, possibly (or probably) speaking in tongues.

Our scripture passage ends with all the people being baptized…  Jesus is baptized and is praying…  the heavens are opened…  the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove…  And then this: “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (v. 22).

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Father Richard Rohr

It’s that final bit I want to look at.  Last of all, there is a heavenly voice, claiming Jesus as the Son and the Beloved.  “With you I am well pleased.”

We have wonderful words of welcome and acceptance.  Earlier I said the best reason for baptism is being claimed in love.  (Where’s the love?  Here it is!)  It is the ultimate claim in love, the claim God extends to us.  It is the ultimate welcome and acceptance.

Regarding welcome, Richard Rohr speaks of what he calls “the first permission.”[3]  He wonders if we’ve ever met someone who didn’t seem comfortable in their own skin.  He suggests, “Maybe that person seemed to possess an inexpressible sadness, or was unusually apologetic, or was possibly surly and brittle.  Consider the possibility that, as a child, when that person first came into the world, he [or she] was not given the first permission—permission to exist.

“Many people have never been given this foundational permission—either spoken or unspoken.  No one ever held their face, looked in their eyes, and said, ‘Welcome to the world, dear little one.  I’m so happy you’re here, that you exist.  I love you.’”

The questions are posed to us: “Did I receive the first permission?  How have I given the first permission to others…?”  Has anyone (and how have they) expressed joy that we alive?  Can we look at the people around us and say, “I am glad that you are alive.  I welcome you!”?

I mentioned the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant.  There are pastoral dimensions to the reaffirmation.  It’s not just something we do because today is Baptism of the Lord.  We saw how God extends promise and welcome to us in baptism.

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posted by Katie Klosterman on Pinterest

There are also promises reaffirmed which we make to each other.  At a baptism, the congregation is asked if they “promise to guide and nurture…by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging [those to be baptized] to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church.”[4]  That’s no small thing.

Extending that watery welcome comes with a price.  If we welcome someone, it means we have to follow up on it.  Maybe that’s one reason why John the Baptist (in his cantankerous way) rebuked the people, calling them slithering snakes.  He wanted to let them know what baptism means.  It’s not a ritual to undergo to deflect public pressure.  It’s not something to just “do.”

Is there love involved in his ranting and raving?  One thing we can say is he doesn’t make it all about himself.  He isn’t boastful; he doesn’t take the credit where the credit is not due.  “I’m not the one you’re looking for,” he tells them.  “I’m just paving the way.”

So those promises are difficult.  In my own baptism, I knew I had walked through a door, but I hadn’t arrived.  I was just at the beginning.  Every day, we’re just at the beginning.  That also applies to those of us who were baptized as infants.  We are welcomed by God into the family.  Becoming aware of that when we’re older means learning that we’ve walked through that door.  The Spirit has led us, and we are always at the beginning of the adventure.  It’s a wondrous adventure, with the joys and sorrows that go with it.

With the ears to hear, we hear that voice extending those words of welcome and acceptance.

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[2] Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 470.

[3] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 58.

[4] Book of Common Worship, 406.

remove the shroud

The Lord “will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (vv. 7-8a).  I sometimes use that scripture from Isaiah 25 in funeral services.  I just love that imagery.  The Lord will rip the shroud of doom and despair off and tear it into little pieces.  (Or maybe it can be reworked and turned into fine clothing!)

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That picture of death and life is so fitting for today—that is, this very day and also these days.

We can compare that shroud to the funeral pall which is often placed on coffins.  On a side note, our Book of Common Worship says this about funerals, “When the body is present, the coffin should be closed before the service begins.  It may be covered with a white funeral pall.”[1]  That’s in the section called, “The Funeral: A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.”  For a Christian, oddly (or appropriately) enough, the ultimate focus isn’t on the departed, but on the risen One.  That’s the theology behind it.

And isn’t that the story of Easter itself?  It’s no longer the departed, but the resurrected.

Still, we need to back up.  We can’t have all of that shredding of shrouds without knowing where the deathly despair came from in the first place.  At the start of the chapter, the prophet is praising the Lord, saying, “you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt” (v. 2).  The Lord has come to their rescue.  The city symbolizing their enemies has been destroyed.  Throughout so much of the Old Testament, that city is Babylon.

In its day, Babylon was a true superpower.  It was unparalleled in economic and military might.  It was the icon of beauty.  It was the envy of all people, both near and far.  It was the city.  Reflecting on its collapse, one writer puts it this way: “The World Capital Falls.”[2]  Throughout history, many world capitals have risen and fallen.

2 easterThe tide turns in dramatic fashion.  Now “strong peoples will glorify [God]; cities of ruthless nations will fear [the Lord]” (v. 3).  Eugene Peterson puts it this way in The Message: “Superpowers will see it and honor you, brutal oppressors bow in worshipful reverence.”  The Lord has protected the poor from rain of tempest and reign of terror.

The scales are balanced, and all nations are invited to the mountain of God.  A dinner bell like none other is being rung.  Everyone receives the RSVP to the banquet of the ages.  Again, Peterson: “A feast of the finest foods, a feast with vintage wines, a feast of seven courses, a feast lavish with gourmet desserts” (v. 6).

And then, there’s the main event.  The shroud, the sheet, the veil that has blanketed the world with devastation and desolation is torn away.  Tears of anguish and agony are wiped away.  Death is forever defeated.  It is time for resurrection.  It’s time to remove the shroud.

Remember Jesus with Lazarus.  Jesus summons him to come out of the cave which is his tomb.  Amid the gasping of onlookers, Jesus directs them to the grave clothes of Lazarus.  He tells them, “Unbind him, and let him go” (Jn 11:44).  Remove the shroud.

Can we think of ways in which nations and populations today exist under that sheet, that blanket of gloom and darkness?  Can we think of veils that need to be removed?

How about we as individuals?  Can we imagine our own coverings, our own curtains that need to be pulled?

I asked Banu if she had a death shroud which needed to be removed.  She didn’t take very long in answering.  She said it was her need to control.  I wondered how that could be called death for her.  Her response was, “It raises my blood pressure!”  There are several layers of meaning in that!

What about me?  What death shroud do I need to have removed?  Probably quite a few!  One thing I definitely can put my finger on is my tendency to too often be indecisive.  I need more facts; I need to explore more avenues to follow.  It really can be a shroud, a veil, something that obscures.

I tell you, I know how to overcome it; although, I’m not sure how to proceed!

Half-joking aside, we can see the shroud, the veil covering the nations, as something that blinds faith.  It prevents us from seeing through the eyes of faith.  When we look upon our world, seeing through the eyes of faith doesn’t seem to make sense.  It seems like we’re believing in fairy tales.  We’re not dealing with the hard facts of the day.  And this resurrection business: it’s just a load of hogwash.  When someone or something is dead, it’s just dead.  Case closed.

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“Not so fast!” says St. Paul.

So we come to chapter 15 of his first letter to the Corinthians—the chapter on resurrection.  He issues a reminder to them.  And here it is.  “I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain” (vv. 1-2).

They, and we, can be blinded by faltering faith.

Having said that, I need to interject something.  It is normal to doubt.  The faith we are called to is not blind faith.  In Mark 12:30, Jesus tells us to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  To love God with all our mind can’t be done with a closed mind.  It is fine—and necessary—to ask questions.  It’s necessary to ask hard questions.

Now, having said that, Paul reminds the church how they stand in the gospel, in the good news.

I’m reminded of the old gospel song, “Standing on the Promises.”  Here’s the first verse: “Standing on the promises of Christ my King, / Thro’ eternal ages let His praises ring; / Glory in the highest, I will shout and sing, / Standing on the promises of God.”

And now the refrain: “Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior / Standing, standing, I’m standing on the promises of God.”

When we are standing, when we take our stand, we have a firm foundation.  We rely on the one who, as we saw earlier, protects in the midst of “rain of tempest and reign of terror.”

What is the promise in which they stand?  Paul hands on what he has received, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (vv. 4-5).  That is the gospel in miniature, the gospel in a nutshell.  He is encouraging them in a faith that brings light, that opens eyes, that removes the veil.

What is the death shroud the apostle needs to remove?  He doesn’t say it in so many words, but he does point out his need for self-effacement, his need to move past self-promotion.  And he seems to take that pretty seriously, because he refers to himself as “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle” (v. 9).

It’s really important for him to acknowledge his past, to not look for excuses or say someone else made him do it.  Paul admits he went ballistic in tormenting the church.  He “was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, [committing] them to prison” (Ac 8:3).  He was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (9:1).

He was on his way to Damascus to nab some more disciples on that fateful day when a light from heaven changed his life.  That light took away his vision for three days.  When the disciple Ananias prayed for him, the shroud was lifted.  Paul had been blind—blind in so many ways.

At the beginning, I mentioned the picture of death and life and how it’s fitting for today.  In many ways, we as a culture worship death.  We ignore calls for justice; we pollute God’s good creation; we choose war over peace; we hold grudges, choking the life we could share; we fail to give those struggling with their demons the good news that they are forgiven—they are forgiven by God, through Jesus Christ.  I’ll grant you, that’s not the most affirming laundry list we could come up with!

In the life of faith, the shroud of gloom and doom and death is lifted.  In his vision, Isaiah powerfully speaks of how it covers the whole earth, that is, until God rips it apart!  We think of how we as individuals fit in.  The apostle Paul demonstrates his own life from death.

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Then there is the crowning glory of Easter, its very meaning: the shroud of death which no longer binds Jesus.  The light of Easter chases away the darkness, and we are called to be Easter people.  Our prayer is, “Remove the shroud.”  So I ask again, what coverings, what death shrouds, do we need removed?  With the power of the resurrection, the deathless one, Jesus the Messiah, yanks that sucker off.


[1] Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 911.

[2] Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 13-39 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), 196.


Memory is a funny thing.  No one is exactly sure how it works.  For centuries, philosophers and physicians, artists and scientists, have investigated and debated what it means to remember.  Does the mind retrieve memories like documents in a filing cabinet or bits of information in cyberspace?  Does the mind re-create memories; do we mentally relive the experience?  (That’s an unfortunate reality for those suffering with PTSD.)  Or is something completely different involved?

This business of memory has become more personal for me in these past years.  No doubt some of you have stories to tell about memory, or the loss thereof: that is, if you can remember them!  In my case, the story is about a potential loss of memory.

1 He 13During my treatment for the brain tumor discovered in November 1995, my doctors warned me about possible loss of short term memory.  Having one’s head cut open twice, and having one’s brain zapped with radiation, would likely have some detrimental effect!  Fortunately, my problems have been minor: like trying to identify certain actors.

Of course, memory is much more important to us than remembering a certain celebrity’s name.  In a very real sense, memory helps to define us.  Any of us who’ve known someone with amnesia, maybe an Alzheimer’s patient, understands what a tragedy the loss of memory is.  So much of such a person is gone.

It really isn’t much of an exaggeration to link memory with life.  Memory certainly has a crucial role in the life of faith.  For example, think of how we celebrate the Eucharist, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  We “do this,” as Jesus said, “in remembrance of [him].”  Still, there’s more involved than simply having a mental recollection of Jesus—but I’ll mention more about that later.  (If I don’t forget!)

In the epistle reading, the author of Hebrews is insistent on having the people remember certain things.  Chapter 13 begins with a stress on the importance of continuing to love one another and showing hospitality to strangers.  As a matter of fact, our writer indicates by receiving outsiders in a Christlike way, you may even be entertaining angels in human form.  (That’s something for all of us to consider the next time we get an unwanted knock at the door!)

Having established that love should guide our relationships, our author starts giving examples—examples that portray a love which you probably won’t find on a greeting card!

Verse 3 contains the first of two commands to “remember.”  “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”  It literally says, “as though you were in the body” or “as though you were in their body.”  Love can make some pretty serious demands!

We’re not sure who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, but there is one thing it seems safe to say: the letter is addressed to a church that has undergone persecution.  That makes it all the more important that they love one another, that they really care about what happens to each other.

In recent years, our own relationship with torture, both as Americans and as Christians, has been what we might call “conflicted.”  Of course, that’s something plenty of us would rather not remember!

The next three verses give more examples of what love looks like.  Marriage is to be “held in honor by all,” and “the love of money” is to be avoided (vv. 4-5).  The phrase “the love of money” is a single Greek word (αφιλαργρος, aphilarguros) which literally means “not a lover of silver,” or “not mercenary.”

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It’s the word used in that famous verse in 1 Timothy, reminding us, in King James language, “For the love of money is the root of all evil” (6:10).[1]  So the moral of the story is: don’t be a heartless mercenary!  Don’t focus on wealth while your brothers and sisters are in danger.

Verse 7 contains the second of the two commands to “remember.”  “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”  If this is indeed a persecuted church, then their leaders paid a high price for their faith.  It seems that to “consider the outcome of their way of life” means to remember at least some of them were martyrs.

Earlier I promised to say more about the role of memory in celebrating the Lord’s Supper.  I’ll do that by mentioning one of the twentieth century’s most famous leaders of the persecuted church, the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero.  (By the way, the movie Romero, starring Raul Julia, is well worth watching.)  The remembrance of Romero is especially appropriate for today, the fifth Sunday in Lent; this was when he preached his final sermon.

In that sermon, which was broadcast on radio nationwide, he made a direct appeal to the military.  “In the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!”[2]

He got his response the very next day.  Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980, in the very act of celebrating the Eucharist.  While calling the people to remember the body and blood of Christ given for them, Romero himself became a martyr.

Jesus instructs his disciples to observe holy communion “in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19).  The word for “remembrance” is αναμνησις (anamnēsis).  As I’ve already indicated, this is more than what we today usually mean by remembering.  It’s “not a mental exercise but the making present of a past event.”  Maybe the idea of memory as re-creating or reliving the experience has something to say here.

“In the ancient church, the word anamnesis had the effect not so much of a memorial, as one would call to mind the dead, but rather of a performance,” of something happening right then and there.[3]

Jesus invites us to the table, not to reminisce about some long-ago event, but to quite literally “re-member” him.  We’re invited, and challenged, to be members of the body of Christ here and now.  And because, as verse 8 puts it, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” our invitation to the table involves us not only in the past and present, but points us to the future, to the full coming of the kingdom of God.

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Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980)

In the collection of his writings entitled The Violence of Love, we hear these words of Oscar Romero: “The eucharist makes us look back to Calvary twenty centuries ago…

“But it also looks ahead to the future, to the…horizon that presents itself as a demanding ideal to all political systems, to all social struggles, to all those concerned for the earth.

“The church does not ignore the earth, but in the eucharist it says to all who work on earth: look beyond…

“That is why I say: all the blood, all the dead, all the mysteries of iniquity and sin, all the tortures, all those dungeons of our security forces, where unfortunately many persons slowly die, do not mean they are lost forever.”[4]

All this talk of torture and dungeons might have you wondering how we fit into the picture.  We don’t exactly fit the profile of a persecuted church.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t suffering among us.  Sometimes suffering is self-imposed, by the bad choices we make.  But at the end of the day, suffering is a part of life.

As we accept the invitation of Jesus, we have the honor of bringing that remembrance, that anamnesis, into every shadow, every hidden place in our world: as the scripture says, to love one another, to show hospitality to the stranger, to honor marriage, to not be mercenary in our dealings with money.

I want to conclude with a reflection by a man who was a prime example of what it means to remember Jesus.  He was abducted in May 1984 by terrorists in Lebanon and held for sixteen months, twelve of them in solitary confinement.  His name was Benjamin Weir; he died in 2016.  Weir and his wife Carol were serving as Presbyterian missionaries at the time.  Here is a meditation he wrote while in custody:[5]

“Sunday morning in captivity I awoke.
In my mind’s eye I could see Christians all waking and proceeding to places of worship.
There they gathered at the Lord’s Table.
My mind moved westward with the sun.
I envisioned people of various cultural backgrounds gathering.
I was part of this far-flung family, the very body of Christ.
I unwrapped my piece of bread held back from my previous meager meal
and began the Presbyterian order of worship.
When it came to sharing the cup I had no visible wine,
but this didn’t seem to matter.
I knew that others were taking the cup for me elsewhere at this universal table.
As others prayed for me, so I prayed for them.”

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Rev. Benjamin Weir (1923-2016)


[1] Harold Attridge, Hebrews (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1989), 388.


[3] William T. Cavanaugh, “Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed by It?” Theology Today 58:2 (July 2001):  182.

[4] Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Farmington, PA: Bruderhof Foundation, 2003), 153.


ask the questions!

Today I’m using a reading from the book of Job, the beginning of chapter 38.  It actually appears in the lectionary in October, but I can’t wait!  I can almost hear you saying, “Job.  Oh goody!  That’s my favorite one in the Bible!”  It might seem strange, but I love the book of Job.  There are all kinds of good stuff to be found in it.

Obviously, in speaking of “good stuff,” I’m not talking about the numerous disasters that are visited upon our title character!

There is chapter after chapter of beautiful poetry.  The poetry is bracketed by prose narrative at the beginning and at the end.  This narrative is thought by many to come from an ancient legend—the story of a man who was wealthier than anyone else in the land.

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But more than that, he was “blameless”; he “turned away from evil” (1:1).  He was a good and righteous man.  In fact, he was so righteous he would offer sacrifices to God just in case his children had done something wrong!

Of course—just his luck—an argument breaks out in heaven, and the Lord points him out to the Accuser.  This creature is “the satan.”  He isn’t yet considered to be the evil Satan of later centuries.  A bet is made that Job can be forced to curse God.  (I don’t think I would want any part of that wager!)

He loses all of his wealth, then his children, and finally, he loses his health.  We are told “that his suffering [is] very great” (2:13).

Does he break?  Does he curse God?  According to the scriptures, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10).  Understand, there’s no comment on what must have been going through his head!  As we see in the poetic chapters, Job does have some questions.  He has plenty of questions—plenty of soul-baring, agonizing questions!

If the saying, “the patience of Job,” applies to the Job we meet in the prose section, it definitely does not apply to the one we meet in the poetry.  This Job is anything but patient!

Job still has some friends, though: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.  They have traveled a great distance to exercise what we might call the “ministry of presence,” albeit with mixed results.

(On a side note, understanding that some here in the congregation have an interest in science, I wonder if that reaches to archaeology?  I mention that because of some recent discoveries.  Among them was a surprisingly well-preserved fragment of pottery.  It seems to have belonged to Zophar himself.  Etched on it is Zophar’s second name.  Apparently, it was “Zogood.”)

Actually, for Job’s friends, it really is “so far, so good”: at least, regarding their behavior.  They’re doing a very difficult thing.  They’re actually being there with their friend in the midst of his pain.  Anyone who’s simply been with a suffering friend or family member knows that it isn’t fun.  It requires a sacrifice of self.

It isn’t until they open their mouths and start giving advice that Job calls them “miserable comforters” (16:2).

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar can’t understand how their decent and honorable friend is forced to undergo the tragedies that have come his way.  And they can’t understand how their decent and honorable friend is asking the questions they hear.  After all, everyone knows the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished.

“So Job, you must have done something wrong.  Why don’t you just repent?  All of this terrible stuff will go away!”  Job’s friends have to say that, because the way they look at God, and at life itself, is being challenged.  And they aren’t able, or willing, to question themselves.

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"When the Morning Stars Sang Together" by William Blake

Questions sometimes associated with the book of Job are, “What is the origin of evil?” or, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Why do bad things happen to good people?  We’ve all asked that question: maybe not with those exact words, but the unfairness of life inevitably occurs to every human being at some point, usually when we’re still quite young.  I say it’s inevitable; it can’t help but happen, because we’re created in the image of God.  And part of what that means is we have an innate, an inborn, sense of right and wrong.  We have a sense of justice.  How we act on it is an entirely different conversation.

If we approach the book of Job seeking the answer to that question—Why do bad things happen to good people?—we may come away feeling…unsatisfied.  We never see one secret formula or one explanation that solves the puzzle.  Instead, in today’s reading, what do we see when God begins to answer Job?

Things certainly are dramatic.  We see that “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind” (v. 1).  The whirlwind, the storm, the tempest—aside from any literal meaning in the text, all of those are pretty good descriptions of what Job’s life has become.

As I just suggested, the answer might be unsatisfying.  “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (vv. 2-3).  If I were Job, I don’t think I would like where this is going!  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding” (v. 4).

In his book on Job, Stephen Mitchell makes it sound even more abrupt.  “Who is this whose ignorant words smear my design with darkness?  Stand up now like a man; I will question you: please, instruct me.  Where were you when I planned the earth?  Tell me, if you are so wise.”[1]

Job is presented with questions to which he either can’t possibly know the answer, or the answer is obviously “no.”  Here’s a quick sample from later in the chapter: “Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (v. 19).  “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?” (v. 31).  “Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’?” (v. 35).

This goes on for four chapters.

Our poet seems determined to point out Job’s ignorance.  There seems to be a concerted effort on demonstrating this whole business of the unknown.

So, does that mean Job is wrong in asking the questions?

In the final chapter, here’s what the Lord says to Eliphaz: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7).  Eliphaz and his friends have positioned themselves as the defenders of orthodoxy.  They are the defenders of the faith, and there are some questions you just don’t ask!  Apparently, the Lord disagrees.

Could it be that questioning faith, provided it’s not done in an insincere, disingenuous way, is actually a good thing?  It must be so, that is, if we follow Jesus when he says in Mark 12 to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (v. 30).

Job asks some angry, demanding questions of God.  And his friends are horrified.  As I’ve suggested, if Job is the good, honest, even holy man they’ve known him to be, then something doesn’t compute.  Their worldview begins to collapse; it’s in a state of free fall.

What about us?  What about our questions?  Have we been trained to not ask the anguished, soul-searching questions?  Have we been told to not admit it, when honestly, we doubt some stuff, maybe a whole bunch of stuff?  Has that defender of orthodoxy told us that to do so is wrong?

In her book, The Psalms for Today, Beth LaNeel Tanner talks about this kind of thing.  These aren’t “the nice salutations contained in [our] Book of Common Worship…  [She’s a Presbyterian; that’s why she mentions it.]  How can we speak to God in such a disrespectful manner?”[2]

She continues, “To speak honestly and demand that God come and do something, speaks volumes about the relationship between the one praying and God.  If I dare to speak my fears and my greatest hurts, then I am also acknowledging the importance of this other to me and the power that this other has in my life…  It is praise not because it is polite or politically correct, but because it is brutally honest and open.”[3]

It is only the voice of faith that can ask those sacredly brutal questions.  I think a lot of us here are in that category.

Job is the role model: loss of wealth, loss of children, loss of health—loss of identity.  And loss of friends!  There are friends who no doubt mean well, but you just want to say, “Please keep your opinions to yourself.  I beg you.  I don’t want to be harsh, but please, shut up!”  Has anyone here ever felt that way—or sadly, been the one who needed to hear it?

Of course, questions need not be about suffering.  When we ask questions with sincerity and love, we can be accountable the way a community of faith should be.  We help to bear each other’s burdens.  That especially happens when we don’t have the answers.

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In fact, learning to ask the right question is often, if not usually, more important than having the right answer.  Too often, the church is ready to give answers, but less ready to ask questions—and much less ready to simply listen.  So I’ll pose some questions for us to consider, as we continue our journey together.

“What do you mean by that?”  That’s one I’ve posed to Banu many times.  I’m not trying to be obstinate or difficult; it’s just realizing the same word can mean different things to different people.  We too often use labels as shortcuts into thinking we really know what the other person believes.

“How do we fail?”  This brings us back to Job and his friends.  Do we fail with dignity?  Are we too defensive about our failures?

I’ll finish with a quote by Richard Rohr, in his reflection on Job.  “When we are feeling overwhelmed by our guilt, on those days we feel inadequate, when our littleness and brokenness seem too much to live with, when we may even get to hating ourselves, that is when we should get in touch with the humble Job within all of us.

“When you are feeling abandoned, pick up Job’s book and speak Job’s prayers and know they have been prayed before and that we are part of a great history and we are all in this together.  There are no feelings we feel that others have not felt before.  At such times, in our prayer, we unite ourselves in solidarity with others who suffer and who have suffered before us.”[4]

Don’t be afraid to ask the questions!


[1] Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job (New York:  HarperPerennial, 1992), 79.

[2] Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Psalms for Today (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 61.

[3] Tanner, 64.

[4] Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (New York:  Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996), 93-94.

anarchy to order

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

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

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

1 1 sm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

a road through the waters

I want to begin with a conclusion.  It’s the narration by director Robert Redford at the end of the movie, A River Runs Through It.  It tells the story of the early 20th century Montana Presbyterian minister / fly-fisherman played by Tom Skerritt.  And it’s a story about his sons, played by Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer, who inherit their father’s love of fly-fishing.  It’s Craig Sheffer’s character, Norman Maclean, who is speaking in the twilight years of his life, after so many family and friends have died, including his beloved wife, Jessie.

He says, “Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.  Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t.  But when I am alone in the half light of the canyon all existence seems to fade to a being with my soul, and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River, and a four count rhythm, and the hope that a fish will rise.


“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters.”

The whole movie is worth watching, just for that final scene.  It’s that final assertion—that confession—that Norman is “haunted by waters” which captivates me.  I must admit: I still haven’t figured out what that means, but it’s the mystery that draws me in.

And “mystery” seems to be a good word for today, with baptism being a sacrament.  That word, “sacrament,” comes from the Latin sacramentum, which translates the Greek μυστηριον (mystērion), “mystery.”  Be they the waters of the sea or the waters of baptism, there is more than a bit of mystery to them.  Who knows what goes on in those watery depths?

Speaking of being “haunted by waters,” what is a “mystery” to me is the, in my opinion, unfortunate bickering that sometimes goes on about the mode of baptism—that is, immersion, pouring, or sprinkling.  Those who are familiar with the NFL know that when a referee’s call is challenged, the instant replay must show conclusive evidence for the call to be reversed.

Well, when it comes to baptism, the scriptures just don’t have that conclusive evidence!  Several images are used for it.  We tend to ignore the fact that baptism is a gift from God.

As we turn to our psalm reading, notice that it doesn’t provide the stuff of lullabies.  We hear no soothing melodies as we drift off into blissful slumber.  No, in the 29th Psalm, we’re assaulted by the full fury of nature’s wrath, a raging storm.  Verse 3 roars, “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.”

So besides being plunged into the tempest, the verse also speaks of “the voice of the Lord,” which the psalmist compares to lightning.  This voice does works of power:  it “breaks the cedars of Lebanon,” “flashes forth flames of fire,” and “strips the forest bare” (vv. 5, 7, 9).  Seven times the psalmist sings about the mighty deeds of the voice.  For those reasons, one description of Psalm 29 is “the Psalm of Seven Thunders.”[1]


Having said all that, why does this psalm appear as a text for today, for the Baptism of the Lord?  It’s not like anybody’s getting baptized—unless, of course, you figure somebody had to be getting drenched by the storm we just heard about!  We can find a clue in St. Matthew’s gospel.  Just as in our psalm, we hear the voice of God—in this case, calling Jesus “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17).

Jesus receives a name, the Beloved, at his baptism.  Once upon a time, the naming of children was a ceremony that occurred at baptism.  The “christening” of a child reflected that connection with Jesus Christ.  These days, the naming of a child isn’t usually associated with that kind of ritual.

Today, as we reaffirm our baptismal covenant, I want us to consider something.  I don’t suppose the voice of God was heard by anyone at our baptism, but we nonetheless have received a name from God.  Revelation 2:17 tells us, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.  To everyone who conquers…I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”  There’s a promise that the name known only to God will be revealed—but it’s a confidential matter.

How appropriate that is!  In the vast sweep of history, the names of the overwhelming majority of the Lord’s servants are unknown.  They didn’t “make a name” for themselves, at least not a name that following generations remember.  And that’s true for us.  Maybe there are plenty of people who know our name today, but in times to come, only a tiny minority of us will be remembered by the world—at least, in the way we often think about it.

Through baptism—through following Jesus into the water and into a new name—we are set apart.  Retired UCC pastor Jack Good has said that baptism “sets each of us apart as a particular kind of person—one owned by God.  Those who have been baptized are called to live out the meaning of this remarkable reality.  The unbaptized also belong to God, but they have had no public opportunity to announce and celebrate that fact.”[2]

Following Jesus into baptism and living by the vows made at baptism means we want to hear the voice of God.  Rev. Good goes on, “Multiple forces will attempt to redefine the child after she leaves the baptismal font.  Commercial messages will attempt to convince her that she is owned by a great economic machine whose purpose is to make her a voracious consumer…  Government will attempt in myriad ways to establish its ultimate claim on our [offspring].”  It will convince the church to yield “its young men and women to Caesar to become cannon fodder in whatever adventures or misadventures Caesar contrives.”[3]

Reaffirming our baptismal covenant is one key way of reminding ourselves to whom we belong.  By yielding ourselves to Jesus Christ, we let the voice at the waters of baptism have the final say over the other voices we hear.  We say “no” to the voices that would fill us with anxiety—voices that say we can’t, we’ll fail, and to be honest, we shouldn’t even try.  Believe me; I have heard those voices myself!  But having faith in God helps us to recognize that those voices are telling lies.

Our hymn after the renewal of the baptismal covenant is “Out of Deep, Unordered Water.”  Listen to the second stanza: “Water on the human forehead, birthmark of the love of God, / Is the sign of death and rising; through the seas there runs a road. / There is water in the river bringing life to tree and plant. / Let creation praise its giver: there is water in the font.”

That line about creation praising its giver because there’s water in the font is certainly in the spirit of our psalm.  It’s a celebration that one of the most basic, and the most important, substance in all the earth—water—is used for such a noble and sacred purpose.

But I suppose it’s the line, “through the seas there runs a road,” that brings me back to where I began—back to the mystery of being “haunted by waters,” in which “a river runs through it.”  Friends, this journey we take through the waters, of heeding the voice that gives us a divine name, is about far more than we can think or imagine.


This is a case in which words fail.  We can speak of various meanings of baptism, various modes of baptism, but they fall silent before the simple majesty of the water itself.  We come through the water changed, reborn, a new creation.

If we truly embrace our rebirth, our being a new creation, then we will find ourselves being washed clean of our own agendas.  (Clearly, this doesn’t happen all at once!)

I put to myself the question, “How willing am I to be washed clean of my own agendas?”  How willing am I to experience, even a little bit, of traveling the road that runs through the seas, a road through the waters?  As I just said, this doesn’t happen all at once.  And it doesn’t happen once and for all.

During the reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant, that’s exactly what we do: we “reaffirm.”  We remind ourselves of what it means.  That’s why we are asked “once again to reject sin, to profess [our] faith in Christ Jesus, and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which we were baptized.”

The reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant isn’t something to do because it fits nicely on the liturgical calendar.  It is intended to bring us back to that moment when, in the waters of baptism, we state—as a community, not merely as individuals—that we joyfully accept the covenant with God in Jesus Christ.

There’s a funny thing about what that hymn says about the water of baptism.  It “is the sign of death and rising; through the seas there runs a road. / There is water in the river bringing life to tree and plant.”  That isn’t stagnant water; it’s water in motion, water that is flowing.  It’s not the breeding ground of mosquitoes!

In the Bible, flowing water is often called living water.  It’s moving; it’s animated.  It isn’t dead; it is water of resurrection.  How fitting that is when we think of our liturgy for the funeral service, or as our Book of Common Worship puts it, “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.”  There are a number of prayers that can be used.  One I really like to use includes this: “Especially we thank you for your servant [fill in the name], whose baptism is now complete in death.”  It’s such a powerful statement.  It expresses the sure hope of the covenant with the one who is always faithful.

We go full circle.  In baptism, we are buried with Christ and emerge as that new creation mentioned earlier.  And as a new creation, like that flowing water, we are called to move beyond our own stagnation, our own tired ways, our own prejudice and bigotry, in whatever form they appear.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.

As we go with the flow of the baptismal waters, as we travel that road through the waters, we join with the psalmist in joyful song:

“The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.  May the Lord give strength to his people!  May the Lord bless his people with peace!” (vv. 10-11).


[1] A. A. Anderson, Psalms 1-72 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1992), 233.

[2] Jack Good, “Naming names,” Christian Century 120:26 (27 Dec 03):  19.

[3] Good, 19.

losing to be found

By now, most of you know that Banu and I lived with my mom during almost all of 2015 and a little bit at the beginning of this year.  It was a learning experience for each of us.

The Nashville area was flooded in 2010.  That included my mom’s basement, which took an extremely long time to dry.  Her house contains many possessions, with a huge percentage of them in the basement.  So if you combine abundant moisture, very little light, and plenty of items, including carpets on the floor, what do you get?

My sister and her sons had already done some hauling out of moldy stuff and cleaning of walls.  But rest assured, there was still plenty for us to do.  Open space began appearing in the basement.  There was room to breathe.  The energies of feng shui became more harmonious.  However, the garage had hardly been touched.

Items disappeared, some under mysterious circumstances.

Rummaging dog

We were justly accused of clearing out some stuff which, truth be told, contained little mold.  But we did need some walkways!

Here’s to my main point.  There was a box of tapes and CDs, containing some of my mother’s beloved music, including the bluegrass and gospel musician, Doyle Lawson.  Amazingly, it had vanished.  The finger of blame was first turned toward my sister, who had no idea where it was.  After she successfully argued her case and being cleared of any wrongdoing, the eye was turned toward Banu and myself.

Intent on proving our innocence, Banu led my mother on a search of her bedroom, which also had a pretty good number of…artifacts.  Lo and behold, the long-sought box was discovered.  Not unlike the woman in our gospel text who was overjoyed to find her lost coin, so was my mom after discovering her own treasure.

So, speaking of things lost and found, of Luke 15 it’s been said, “If the Gospel of Luke comprised only this one chapter, it would still be precious beyond all estimate.”[1]  Very high praise!  Precious beyond all estimate, like something lost and found.

Here’s the scenario.  We see a motley crew gathering around to listen to Jesus.  This crew is featured by tax collectors and sinners, folks who are relegated to the category of undesirables.

This crowd hasn’t escaped the attention of some Pharisees and scribes.  They are simply indignant at the attention Jesus gives them.  They are grumbling.  One translation says that they are “murmuring their disapproval: ‘This fellow,’ they said, ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (v. 2, Revised English Bible).  If he wants to have any influence among the people that matter, this crap has to come to a screeching halt!

So, who are these tax collectors?  The disgust toward them goes well beyond the occasional (and perhaps frequent) irritation we might have about the IRS.  No, this is on a whole different scale.

These tax collectors are instrumental in funding the hated Roman government.  They could rightfully be called traitors.  It would be bad enough if it were simply a matter of helping keep the imperial machine going.  The Romans tell them how much they need to raise—so just get it done!  As you might guess, this tends to lead to corruption and extortion, to plundering the poor.

The Pharisees also despise them for the same reasons.  The New Testament usually gives the Pharisees a bad rap, but they really do want justice for the people.  They are no friends of the empire.  But they also have other reasons for looking down on the tax collectors.  These guys also violate religious obligations and spiritual sensibilities.

Now, how about these “sinners”?  As for them, Walter Bowie says they are “the general run of people: not notorious evildoers, but the careless and unconcerned about religious proprieties,” earning the disdain of “the sanctimonious.”[2]  The sinners aren’t necessarily bad people.  That label doesn’t mean they engage in, for example, slander or thievery.  Sometimes the rules are stacked against them.

But there’s something praiseworthy about these folks.  Unlike the elites, when the sinners are drawn to Jesus, they do so out of a felt need to seek more.  They’re done with pretending.  When they come to Jesus, they mean it.  When they ask him questions, they really want answers; they’re not doing it to be argumentative or to play games.

Jesus addresses that earnest desire by telling two parables.  And like the story about my mother, he uses examples from everyday life—things that people can relate to.

The first one is about a lost sheep.  He asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (v. 4).  At first glance, that might seem to be wrong way up.  Why risk the ninety-nine to search for the one?

Regardless of practicality, it does speak to the value of each individual.  Every single sheep is treasured.  Every single one of us is treasured.  Jesus says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (v. 7).  And yes, Pharisees, I’m looking at you.

Lost and found

The second parable is about the woman who loses a coin.  She’s desperate, and she turns her house upside-down until she finds it.  She’s searching; she’s tearing stuff apart.  And when she does find it, she calls everybody together and says, “Let’s have a party!  I found my coin!”  (And wouldn’t you know it?  She finds it in the last place she looked.)

Doesn’t it seem like a lot of trouble to find a single coin?

Again, this is where Jesus knows his audience.  That silver coin is half of the temple tax that was paid every year.  And for that woman, that coin would be a big chunk of whatever savings she might have had.  “To the poor, therefore, the loss of one coin could be a major calamity.”[3]  Jesus knows all about being poor.

And again, he brings his point home.  “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v. 10).  There is joy when someone comes to Jesus.

There’s a quote which I’ve heard attributed to St. Dominic, St. Francis, and St. Thomas Aquinas.  (Who knows, there may be others.)  As the story goes, one of them is visiting the Pope.  The Pope gestures at the treasures in the Vatican, and says, “We no longer have to say, ‘Silver and gold have I none’” (3:6).  He’s quoting St. Peter from the book of Acts.  The response to him is, “No, and neither can we say, ‘Rise up and walk.’”

If we depend on our possessions, if we become complacent, we lose our joy; we neglect our power in the Holy Spirit.  Our worship and prayer become lackluster.  Possessions don’t always have to be physical things.  They can be a feeling of safety, of comfort.  Do we become satisfied with our relatively stable well-being?  Are we unaware or indifferent to what has slipped away?  I have a sneaking fear that, too often, that might characterize me.

“[J]oy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life” (v. 10, Common English Bible).  Do we rejoice when a sinner, one just like us, comes to faith or has a recommitment of faith?  Does it move our hearts; does it stir our spirits?  Have we ourselves ever had such an experience?  Have we lost something precious?  Do we need to tear apart the house of our lives in order to find it?

“I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.”

Today is a day of “recovenanting.”  I’m not sure about the origin of that, but “covenant” is a word filled with meaning.  It’s not simply a contract; it also has the sense of something solemn, something sacred.  It’s about two parties entering into an agreement in which they make pledges to each other.  It isn’t businesslike.  It has the elements of artistry and beauty.

We might, and indeed do, fail to keep our side of the covenant.  But the covenant remains intact.  God is faithful; God keeps faith.  God does not break promises.  For that reason, our faithlessness does not nullify the covenant.

It might make sense to “recovenant” with each other, but with God, there’s no need to re-invent the wheel.  The covenant with God is one and everlasting, beginning with Adam, and extending through Noah, through Abraham, through David, to Jesus Christ.

In our baptism liturgy found in the Book of Common Worship, the language of covenant is front and center:

“Through baptism we enter the covenant God has established.  Within this covenant God gives us new life, guards us from evil, and nurtures us in love.  In embracing that covenant, we choose whom we will serve, by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.

“As God embraces you within the covenant, I ask you to reject sin, to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which we baptize.”

It’s a covenant in which we celebrate being lost and being found.  That’s the upside-down, inside-out, backwards-forwards way of Christ in which the first will be last and the last will be first.


This past week, the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek was observed.  The first episode was aired on September 8, 1966.  This enterprise has been fifty years of pushing the envelope in issues of ethnicity, gender, nationality, and ethics, among others.  (Though I think the recent J.J. Abrams movies have fallen a bit short in that regard!)  One of the best-loved characters has always been Spock, the Vulcan who quotes words of wisdom based on his philosophy of logic.  One of the Vulcan principles is that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

This business of risking the ninety-nine in order to find the one, according to that way of thinking, clearly doesn’t make sense.  It’s just foolish and irresponsible.

And this matter of tirelessly rummaging around to find a single coin might be deemed as much ado about nothing—similar to a woman who, amid her numerous possessions, is focused on finding her treasure trove of music.  (Though I suppose referring to it as a “treasure” might explain the concern!)

Yet, that is exactly how it is with God of the covenant in the kingdom of God.  God will not let us go.  God will pursue us relentlessly.  Because God’s love does not depend on what we have done or left undone, we can rest in the promise that those who are losing will always be found.


[1] Walter Russell Bowie, The Compassionate Christ (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 202.

[2] Bowie, 202.

[3] Bowie, 205.

living liturgically

“The offering of the body in prayer is at the heart of life and includes everything in our daily life.” (124) So writes Caryll Houselander. She speaks of it “giving the majesty of liturgical action.” She adds that we “carry this idea into the world…making life a liturgy.” When we live this way, we do so with liturgical power.

For the large majority of 2015, we worshipped with the Episcopalians. I’m grateful to have gotten better acquainted with the Episcopal Church and with its liturgy. I have come to admire the Book of Common Prayer. I love its beauty and the way I have been introduced to actually singing much of the service. That includes the Gloria in Excelsis (“Glory to God in the highest”). image from
In a number of ways, that worship has soaked into me. (I even make the sign of the cross!) A couple who invited us for dinner said they like the structure of the Episcopal service.

Still, seeing at a distance where you’ve come from lends a new perspective and appreciation. That’s been my experience as a Presbyterian. I told Banu that I have a newfound understanding and affection for our Book of Common Worship. That also applies to the Hymnal, which even has the Gloria in Excelsis as numbers 566 and 575. (That’s the “blue” 1990 version!)

And truth be told, I prefer the prayers of confession of sin and the prayers of the Great Thanksgiving, which accompany the Eucharist (or the Lord’s Supper). I like the variety in them, as they change with the seasons of the church year. The Presbyterian liturgy has a number of affirmations of faith, not just the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. I know that these things are true of some other church liturgies.

Having said all that, if these various aspects of worship do not result in our living liturgically—if we do not carry this beauty, majesty, and love into the world—we are, as St. Paul says, but “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”; we “gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:1, 3).

image from

Relying on the power of the Spirit which flows from the heart of the Trinity, we make life itself a liturgy.

dark praise

I believe that learning to ask the right question is often, if not usually, more important than having the right answer.  So with that in mind, “To be, or not to be:  that is the question.”  Shakespeare’s Hamlet is pondering the mystery of life itself.  He’s pondering the mystery of living and dying, and some would say, of taking one’s own life.

However we spin it, he’s talking about some pretty weighty stuff.  (Shakespeare’s characters tend to do that!)  He’s also talking about some stuff that we don’t easily address.  A lot of it is thought to be too dark and depressing, and we tread lightly—sometimes too lightly.

Among the things posted on the prayer website Sacred Space are thoughts for the week, things to help guide prayer.  One of the things that has appeared deals with a topic that is one of those uncomfortable subjects:  death.

According to the prayer guide, “Of the many ways to die alone, the most comfortless and solitary is when family and friends conspire to deny the approach of death.  They may feel, ‘I couldn’t take away her hope.’  But without acceptance of the truth, they remove the possibility of spiritual companionship at the end.”[1]

We’re told that in his book, How We Die, Sherwin Nuland “remembers with regret how the family conspired to avoid the truth when his beloved Aunt Rose was dying.  ‘We knew—she knew—we knew she knew—she knew we knew—and none of us would talk about it when we were all together.  We kept up the charade to the end.  Aunt Rose was deprived, and so were we, of the coming together that should have been, when we might finally tell her what her life had given us.  In this sense, my Aunt Rose died alone.’”

I think there’s a parallel between how we often speak of death, and in a broader sense, of lamentation, expression of grief, in general.

That’s also demonstrated in the worship of the church.  The compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary tend to exclude the “problematic” verses from scripture passages.  For example, there’s the reading from 1 Kings in which Solomon asks God for wisdom (3:3-14).  What gets skipped over (verses 1 and 2) is his marriage to the Pharaoh’s daughter to form an alliance with Egypt.  That might be controversial!

In the same way, there are certain psalms that appear nowhere in the lectionary for Sunday worship.  Hint:  Psalm 88 is one of them.  Listening to that litany of doom and gloom, we might well understand why it was omitted.  Saying, “The word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God!” might seem a bit awkward.

Beth Tanner’s book, The Psalms for Today, is a guide in studying the psalms.[2]  Her chapter, “Living in a Broken World,” focuses on Psalm 13, which also has some of that doom and gloom.

Tanner says about this psalm, “There are none of the nice salutations contained in the [Presbyterian] Book of Common Worship.  This prayer accuses God of ignoring the person praying.  How can prayer be so blunt?  How can we speak to God in such a disrespectful manner?”[3]

I began by mentioning how we’re hesitant to speak about certain things with each other.  I gave the illustration of the fellow’s Aunt Rose, and how spiritual companionship was denied.

But with the psalms, with prayer, with worship, we bring God into the equation.  There is an entire category of psalms that are psalms of lament.  These are cries for help, and yes, they can be very accusatory in nature.  Psalm 22 is perhaps the best-known psalm of lament, mainly because of its first line.  As he is dying on the cross, Jesus calls out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Psalm 22 begins on that agonizing note, but something happens as we journey through it.  By the time we reach the end, the psalm is positively joyful.  “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (vv. 30-31).

And what about Psalm 13?  It begins, “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?”  But its ending has a very different tone.  “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (vv. 5-6).  Again, we go from lament—even pointing the finger—to elated celebration.

Psalm 88

Surely Psalm 88 must follow the same path.  It’s in the Bible; shouldn’t it also wind up as praise?  Verse 1 says, “Lord God, my savior, I cry out all day, and at night I come before you” (Good News Bible).  Surely by the time we get to its conclusion, the psalmist has worked out some sort of resolution.

Here’s verse 18 in the NRSV:  “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.”  That doesn’t sound very much like praise.

Some other translations sound even less like praise.  Here’s the Good News Bible:  “You have made even my closest friends abandon me, and darkness is my only companion.”

Here’s the NIV:  “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.”  Perhaps the New Jerusalem Bible is the gloomiest:  “You have deprived me of friends and companions, and all that I know is the dark.”

“All that I know is the dark.”  This is some serious lamentation!  We are looking at the only psalm without a single note of blessing.

I feel compelled to ask a question that others have presented over the centuries.  How much danger is the psalmist actually in?  Is the psalmist really at death’s door?  Our prayer has all kinds of “deadly” sounding language.  Our writer speaks of being “like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave” (v. 5).  The question is posed, “Do you work wonders for the dead?  Do the shades rise up to praise you?” (v. 10).

We really don’t know what the situation is.  Maybe the psalmist is in mortal danger.  Still, what really matters is not the particular situation; what matters is that that is how the psalmist feels.  Our writer, our poet, is in distress.  This is a person who feels a sense of despair.

Let’s pick up on a theme from earlier:  prayer being blunt and apparently disrespectful.  Following with Beth Tanner, we need “to stop and think about how we pray and what that says about our relationship with God.  How have you been taught to pray?”[4]

My guess would be that most, if not all, of us have learned to pray, whether by teaching or by example, in a polite way.  Some of us have learned certain rules.  (In fairness, if some methodology assists you in prayer, then use it.  As long as we don’t become slaves to some format, exploring the depths of prayer is obviously a good thing!)

One method I would imagine none of us learned was the chaotic, soul-baring cries of the 88th psalm.

With a title like “Dark Praise,” it might be asked, “How is this praise?”  How can these angry, painful demands of God be considered praise?

Light in darkness

“To speak honestly and demand that God come and do something,” Tanner comments, “speaks volumes about the relationship between the one praying and God.  If I dare to speak my fears and my greatest hurts, then I am also acknowledging the importance of this other to me and the power that this other has in my life…  It is praise not because it is polite or politically correct, but because it is brutally honest and open.”[5]

This is analogous to relationships with other people.  Do we share our greatest fears and hurts with casual acquaintances?  Do we share them with a boss or a supervisor?  Do we present them with those kinds of demands?  (Not usually!)  But what about our closest friend—our closest loved one?

There’s something we need to realize about this ancient poet.  When we read these words from so long ago, we have to keep something in mind.  This is a person of faith.  This is not the work of one whose mission it is to ridicule or to defame.  Psalm 88’s first three words in Hebrew are translated into English as “Yahweh, God of my salvation.”

Even though the psalm contains no breath of blessing, this is still praise.  It is dark praise, and that makes us uncomfortable.

Mennonite pastor Isaac Villegas describes Psalm 88 in an interesting way.  He calls it “that member of the family nobody knows what to do with.  He’s at all the family reunions, and his name comes up in all the jovial stories, but nobody wants to get caught alone with him in the living room.  He’s awkward… irrational… strange.  So he sits there and everyone goes outside and explains why he’s so strange and how he fits into the whole family dynamic.  But nobody takes the time to really listen to strangeness and let him explain himself, and maybe change how everyone else views the family.”[6]

There can be a temptation to water down Psalm 88, to sand off the rough edges.  We want to force it into our predetermined ideas.  We might think, “For this to be scripture is just too outrageous!”  But what if we just accept the poet on his own terms?  Can we love her for who she is?  What if we just listened?  What would happen to us if we did?  Or maybe I should rephrase that:  what does happen to us when we do it?  What happens to us when we accept that joy also involves lamentation?

Deep in the depths of that darkness, there is gospel.  At the bottom of the bottomless pit, there is good news.  Even there (perhaps especially there), Christ reigns in victory.  When we honor that—when we honor the strangeness that is each other—then we have learned the secret of dark praise.

[1] (26 Sep-2 Oct 2010)

[2] Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Psalms for Today (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).

[3] Tanner, 61.

[4] Tanner, 59.

[5] Tanner, 64.