Daniel Clendenin

subversive joy

Rarely does a scripture reading in a worship service last longer than a couple of minutes.  When it’s completed, we usually say something along the lines of, “This is the word of the Lord.”  The response is something like, “Thanks be to God.”

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How about a scripture reading that goes on for six hours?  We see that in Nehemiah 8.  And then when it’s finished, could we have our proclamation, “This is the word of the Lord”?  And how should the people respond?”  “Thanks be to God?”  Well, they don’t; they are crying their eyes out!

(Hold that thought.  We’ll get into it in a few moments.)

For many people, Nehemiah may not be one of the better-known figures in the Bible.  He and Ezra (who might be a tad better known than Nehemiah) were contemporaries.  Both lived as exiles in the 400s B.C.  They both made the trip back to Jerusalem about a century after the first group the Babylonians forced into exile.  Nehemiah came from east of Babylon, from Persia.  He was a political figure, serving as a governor.  Ezra was a scribe, so he was a spiritual / religious figure.

Very quickly, they heard of the sorry state of the Jews who had returned in previous years.  The walls around Jerusalem lay in ruins.

Nehemiah oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall, despite the opposition of many enemies of other nationalities.  They didn’t like the idea of these Jews moving into the neighborhood and setting up shop.  It’s like when you have company, and they just keep hanging around.  It’s ten o’clock, then eleven o’clock.  You’re yawning and saying, “Well, it’s getting late.”  Midnight is approaching, and they still haven’t left.  Finally, you say, “Listen, I don’t want to be rude, but I need to go to bed.”

The enemies of the Jews were much more than rude.  They launched a campaign of intimidation—and some of it was violent.  However, their efforts failed.  Long story short, skipping a lot of events: the temple had been rebuilt a few decades earlier, though it seemed a pale shadow of the original one.  And yes, the walls also were rebuilt.

Some people see this chapter as the beginning of the faith we now call Judaism.  When the people were sent into exile, they couldn’t worship the way they had done for centuries.  There was no temple; they could no longer conduct temple worship.  What could they do?  They began to focus on the scriptures, the word of God.  Synagogues were formed, and they’re still around!  Gathering around the word in the synagogue was a forerunner to believers in Christ gathering in the church.  Christians would gather around the word, both written and living—and we’re still doing it today!

I mentioned listening to this six-hour scripture reading, but how about the ones doing the reading?  We skipped over the liturgists, folks like Mattithiah and Shema, and our old friends Bani and Akkub and all the rest of the boys!  They serve as translators from the Hebrew text to the Aramaic language, which everyone spoke.  (Aramaic lasted for centuries.  It was the language of Jesus.)  They also explain the meaning, so that everyone can see how it applies to them.

I also mentioned the people’s reaction.

Anathea E. Portier-Young has said, “Nehemiah 8 is one of the few places where Scripture talks about Scripture as such, showing us what happens when a community comes together to hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted.”[1]  I wonder what our reaction would be?

2 ne She continues, “When they hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted, people weep because they hear their sins spoken out loud and they know they are not innocent, but guilty.”  They know they have fallen short.  When they hear the word applied to their lives, no one feels like celebrating.  No one is shouting, “Glory hallelujah!”  They are not delighted; they are dejected.

I wonder, have I done my job if my sermon reduces everyone here to tears?  (I suppose there could be more than one reason for that!)

So there’s a dark cloud of gloom.  These people have been beaten down, and it looks like it’s their own fault.

What do their leaders say to them?  It’s something they weren’t expecting.  “This day is holy to the Lord your God.”  Okay, it is holy, but we’re not sure what that means.  Where are you going with this?  Are we in trouble?  Is God about to lower the boom on us?  Then comes the rest: “do not mourn or weep” (v. 9).

We don’t understand.  We thought this would be a call for wailing and fasting, a time of deep lamentation.

But the good news is just getting started.  “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (v. 10).  That’s a lot to take in.  I wonder if they’re not like the psalmist, who sang to the heavens, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (Ps 126:1).  We were like those who dream.  There might be those who are still crying, but now, these are tears of joy—tears of euphoria.  Far from being commanded to fast, the command is to have a party!

This is how they are to respond to the word that has been spoken—to the word that has been preached.  In our churches, we have our own response to the word, which could include reciting an affirmation of faith, receiving an offering, celebrating the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, even making a public renewal of faith or a request for healing.

Likewise, the people in our text are also given actions in response: go, eat, drink, send portions to those in need.  Why should they do this?  Here we go again.  “[F]or this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Dan Clendenin tells us, “As the Scriptures often do, the story…offers a counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and subversive piece of advice: do not yield to the spirit of despair.  Do not default to gloom and doom.  Instead, choose the radical option of genuine joy.  Yes, eat the fat and drink the sweet wine.”[2]

I like the way he describes our default setting: gloom and doom.  As a nation, we are too often expected, we are too often told, to adopt that as our baseline.  That’s our starting point, our initial frame of reference.  Our news networks (I say “news” tongue-in-cheek) enjoy pointing at each other, almost like mirror images.  We are bombarded with “breaking news” and ordered to cry out, “Where is the outrage?”  The pundits angrily, childishly, and self-righteously assert that the other side won’t be happy until America is a smoking pile of rubbish.

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

In the face of all that, how can we have the audacity to be joyful?  As Clendenin says, “The opposite of joy is not sadness or sorrow but anxiety.”  We are an anxious people.  We stir each other up, and we seek answers in a variety of ways.

I understand medicine has its place.  I myself take anti-seizure medication.  Still, we go way overboard, and we spend a lot of money.  (Quick side point: some pharmaceutical companies have raked in billions of dollars during this past year and a half.)  Too often, we rely on drugs to give us an artificial sense of joy.  Maybe we can relate to the 1970s punk rock group the Ramones, who sang, “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

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[During a visit to Austin, Texas in April 1983, my friend Rich met the Ramones at a record store. When he asked Joey Ramone if he could pose with them for a photo, he replied, "I dunno."]

Joy is subversive.

Take the example of Jesus.  During his earthly life, his joy was something that could not be stripped from him.  He chose to not let it be taken.  Consider his exchange with Pontius Pilate, who told Jesus that his life was in his hands.  Jesus said in return that any power Pilate had was granted by his heavenly Father.  (See John 19:9-11.)

Those are not the words of an anxious man.

We see in the letter to the Hebrews that the cross, a method of execution reserved for the lowest of the low, was a sign of shame.  Jesus refused to wear the shame.  He disregarded it; he rejected it.  Even that horrific treatment could not tear away his joy.

How much less does it take for our joy to be snatched away?  The secret is found in the message to the people that “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

When I was in the Assemblies of God, we sometimes sang the worship chorus, “The Joy of the Lord is My Strength.”  There are many stanzas; each has one line sung three times and followed with “The joy of the Lord is my strength.”  You can just come up with your own lines.  One I remember in particular was, “If you want joy, you must ask for it,” or the more exuberant, “If you want joy, you must shout for it.”  Or, “If you want joy, clap your hands for it.”

I guess I don’t have to say we could sing about joy in ways a little less informal!

The point is, the joy of the Lord is very much a lifeline, a power source, a fountain of rejuvenating water.  But it’s more than something to request.

Portier-Young says, “The summons to joy is the great surprise of this passage and the summit toward which all its proclamation climbs.  This joy is so excessive its grammar refuses to contain it, for ‘the joy of the Lord’ can [truly] mean God’s own rejoicing over the people who have drawn near with attentive ear and heart.”

In other words, joy belongs to God’s very essence, aside from any request we might make for it.  The joy of the Lord as our strength is what gives us life.  We become immersed in joy.  We live in joy.

4 ne[photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash]

As suggested, there is much in our world today which desires to plunge us into anxiety, into dread, into constant nagging fears.  There are forces which employ shame and bullying.  Nonetheless, as he so frequently does in the scriptures, Jesus tells us, “Fear not.”

Likewise, when the congregation in Nehemiah hears the word of God, they are encouraged—they are ordered—to reject the shame, to reject the spirit of despair.  Their enemies are mighty.  There’s no question about that.  Still, they are to embrace a subversive joy.  We also are to do the same.  There is no room for the Holy Spirit and for the spirits of despair and anxiety to co-exist.  The joy of the Lord is our strength.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-nehemiah-81-3-5-6-8-10-2

[2] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070115JJ.shtml


how are we called?

“He was a coward.”  That was Banu’s comment on reflecting how Abram had Sarai pose as his sister.  That is, he had her pose as his sister in order to save his own neck.  Upon entering Egypt, he knew that the Pharaoh’s officials would want to take her, because she was a good-looking woman.

1 gn(I’ll use the names they were given a few years later, Abraham and Sarah.)

I will admit that it might be hard to argue with her assessment of Abraham’s decision.  (That is, his being a coward!)  We’ll look at what might have been behind his choice in a few moments.

Once again, and I mention this from time to time, the lectionary compilers tended to edit out embarrassing or troublesome verses.  The reading in Genesis for today ends at verse 4.  Showing one of the great figures of faith like Abraham treat his wife the way he does might not seem especially heroic.  But we need to pay attention to that stuff.  If God’s calling of Abraham is to have any real meaning for us, then we should see how that gets worked out in, say, our own messy and complicated lives.

Still, as I just said, we’ll be getting to the too-often deleted aspect of the story momentarily.

As for the commonly-agreed-upon heroic aspect of the story, it’s not for nothing that Abraham is given the title “Father” Abraham—that the faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam trace their history back to him.  The whole thing got started when, somehow, the Lord said to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (v. 1).

What precisely does that mean?  How did Abraham receive that call from God?  Was he hearing voices?  Did he have an exceptionally vivid dream?

Maybe it was a gradually growing awareness.  Some have suggested that Abraham grew disenchanted with the worship that was practiced in his homeland—worship of the sun and moon.  At some point, he couldn’t take it anymore, or perhaps, some people couldn’t take him anymore!

2 gnIn any event, as one writer tells us, “Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land was…no routine expedition of several hundred miles.  Instead, it was the start of an epic voyage in search of spiritual truths, a quest that was to constitute the central theme of all biblical history.  The all-important commencement is…‘Go forth.’”[1]

The part of the message that seals the deal is in verses 2 and 3: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”  Okay, not bad: God will bless me, and I will bless others.  Now those others get drawn into the picture.  “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

That last line can also be translated as “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

What can we make of all that blessing?  As Christians, we stand in that tradition, the blessing of the call of Abraham and Sarah.  It’s important to include Sarah; Abraham could not have done very much without her.  Apparently, one of those things would be using her to make sure he stayed alive while in Egypt!

Verses 2 and 3 promise the blessing of becoming a great nation—of being a conduit of blessing to all the families of the earth.  Being a blessing means several things, among them being a source of good will, a source of shalom, a source of light.

As for that business of the calling of Abraham having meaning for us, Dan Clendenin refers to what he calls “Abraham in Three Movements.”[2]

“God’s call upon Abraham’s life,” he says, “is a call that’s repeated to each one of us today.  It’s a call that subverts conventional wisdom, and so it can feel counter-intuitive, for it’s a call to move beyond three very human, powerful and deep-seated fears—fear of the unknown that we can’t control (ignorance), fear of others who are different from us (inclusion), and fear of powerlessness in the face of impossibilities (impotence).”

Whenever I’ve thought of God’s call to Abraham to “go forth,” I’ve usually had the first of those three in mind.  I’ve thought of the unknown, with whatever fear and foreboding go with it.  He and some close family members are launching out into foreign territory.  This involves a different culture, with unfamiliar customs.  This involves moving from one’s kin, which would leave one vulnerable in many ways.

Clendenin combines the fear of the unknown with fear of others who are different and fear of powerlessness.  He says that Abraham “had to leave not only his geographic place.  He had to leave behind his narrow-minded, small-minded, parochial vision, the tendency in all of us to exclude the strange and the stranger,” the tendency to exclude the alien.

3 gn Which of Abraham’s three “movements” speaks most to you: fear of the unknown, fear of those who are different, or fear of powerlessness?  Which of the three would most likely hold you back?  Is there one of those fears that you’ve seen someone else conquer that gave, or continues to give you respect for them?

This speaks to us not only as individuals, but also as a congregation.  The same “movements,” the same fears to confront, affects churches as well.  All of this goes into answering the question, “How are we called?”  We can emphasize different words in that question and come up with different nuances.

Now, as for that apparently less-honorable part of our story, in which Abraham portrays Sarah as his sister, things become a little fuzzy.

E. A. Speiser tells us, “In Hurrian society [Abram was from Haran] the bonds of marriage were strongest and most solemn when the wife had simultaneously the [legal] status of a sister, regardless of actual blood ties. This is why a man would sometimes marry a girl and adopt her at the same time as his sister, in two separate steps recorded in independent legal documents. Violations of such sistership arrangements were punished more severely than breaches of marriage contracts.”[3]

In other words, it’s going to be bad news if you touch my wife, but if you touch my sister, you’re in for a world of hurt!

In fact, Chana Weisberg argues that Abraham showed such respect for Sarah that the question could be asked, “Was Abraham the first feminist?”[4]

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I mention all this, though not mainly for judging Abraham’s quality of character.  Instead, I’m wondering if Abraham is being obedient or disobedient to God’s call.  More specifically, I’m wondering if adapting to culture constitutes part of what it means to be called.

Admittedly, it is difficult to compare moral codes.  We are separated, not only by the distance, but by the time—four thousand years.  Their world was quite different from ours.

There’s also the element of desperation.  As verse 10 tells us, after Abraham arrived at his destination, there was a famine.  He was forced to go “to Egypt to reside there as an alien [we’ve just heard that word], for the famine was severe in the land.”  He was a refugee, dependent upon the kindness of others.  Factors beyond his control influenced him, even compelled him.  Factors beyond our control can do the same thing to us.

Still, the question of culture is timeless.  In working out our calling, we always have to deal with the culture around us.  It’s inescapable; we are immersed in our culture and in our subcultures.  Fish in water don’t know they are wet.  (Don’t ask me how I know that.)  Culture shapes how we perceive the world.  That’s why it’s important to learn about other cultures; it helps us to be more objective about our own.  It helps us, as best we can, to stand outside of it and look through the eyes of others.

There is also church culture; there is also congregational culture.  In a congregational system, there are written rules on how to behave, on how things are done.  We have our congregational bylaws.  As Presbyterians, we have our Book of Order.  But there are probably hundreds of unwritten rules on how to behave, on how things are done.  One reason for that is because everyone brings their own culture, their own experiences, to the table.

Imagine a pond on a quiet day.  Now picture throwing a rock into that pond.  The ripples spread out in all directions.  If someone else throws a rock into the pond, the ripples intersect.  Now imagine all of us throwing rocks into that pond.  Ripples are bouncing around everywhere.  Those interactions lead to the unwritten rules.  Otherwise, there is chaos!  (Although, sometimes a little chaos can be a good thing!)

What names, what rules, does our culture give us?  I’m fond of being called a “consumer.”  According to our economic system, my calling is to “consume.”  Maybe it’s just me, but I find that to be more than a little unsettling.

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That makes it all the more important to get a handle on the question, “How are we called?”  And going a little further, like Abraham, how are we called to bless?

A few years ago, Banu and I were invited to stay a couple of days at a camp and conference center about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh.  We were asked to do some workshops while there.

I did one which was inspired by an instructor I had in Clinical Pastoral Education.  What that meant for me was a student chaplaincy at a hospital, the result of which was my discovery that I was not cut out to be a hospital chaplain!  Still, I’m glad I was required to do it, being mandatory for Presbyterian ordination.  It was a good experience.  I really liked our instructor, although at times he tended to have a bit of a potty mouth!

There was one thing he had us practice which I thought was especially valuable.  He would challenge us to not use “God talk.”  That is, to avoid language that, for example, referenced “God” or “salvation” or “faith.”  It really forced us to stretch ourselves, to dig deep, to say what we meant by those words.

You might find this impossible to believe, but there are people who have actually had bad experiences with church or with Christians.  “God talk” can be a trigger for all kinds of negative stuff.  And then, there are those who simply don’t know what we’re talking about.

So that was my challenge to the folks at camp: describe your faith without using “God talk.”  For instance, what does “Jesus saves” mean?

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

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

5 gnFor many of them, they just wanted to have a nice, relaxing weekend with their friends.  They didn’t need to be given this bit of uncomfortable work.  In my defense, this little exercise didn’t even take a half hour, but that was enough to tick them off.

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

I will freely admit, it is not easy for us church people to avoid using “God talk.”  It is not easy at all.  It’s not easy for me.  Again, it forces us to explain what we mean.  But it is well worth the effort; it is well worth practicing.  It helps us to speak with others with understanding and one hopes, with compassion.

In the end, this business of culture pays off well for Abraham (and dare I say, Sarah).  He entered Egypt without; he is leaving Egypt with—a lot!  The chapter closes, “Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had” (v. 20).  He’s on his way, following the call to “go forth.”  It’s central to how he is called.

How are we called?

 

[1] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 88.

[2] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20080211JJ.shtml

[3] Speiser, 92.

[4] www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/2235031/jewish/Was-Abraham-the-First-Feminist.htm


in the dark and light of that day

One of Banu’s observations (and complaints) about movies that take place in the future, especially those of an alleged post-apocalyptic nature, is that they tend to be too dark.  They’re too dark—not only in theme, but sometimes literally too dark.  There’s not enough light to see what’s going on!

Hollywood would have fun with Zephaniah.  Talk about dark!  There’s enough gloom and graphic violence to make Alien and Predator look like Beauty and the Beast!  Of course, the Hollywood definition of “apocalypse” seems to always focus on terror and torment, as opposed to the actual biblical sense, which is “revealing” or “uncovering.”

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With the prophet Zephaniah, we have a man who, in many ways, might seem to fit the misunderstanding of apocalypse as death and destruction.  There is good reason for that to be the case: his almost single-minded focus on the day of Yahweh, the day of the Lord.  He doesn’t invent the idea—it goes back centuries, maybe as far back as the so-called holy wars of Joshua.

The day of the Lord came to be seen as the moment when God would intervene on behalf of Israel, defeating all their enemies.  As the centuries went on, and bigger boys like the Assyrians and Babylonians started throwing their weight around, this was a day more and more people yearned for.

A century before Zephaniah, in a case of “be careful what you wish for,” the prophet Amos warns those “who desire the day of the Lord!  Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light” (5:18).  Don’t be so smug, Amos says.  Don’t assume that day will only be bad news for your enemies.  As corrupt as you are, do you think you’ll escape unscathed?

Eventually, the day of the Lord became infused with messianic expectation.  That’s one big reason why so many became disillusioned with Jesus.  They thought he would lead them in getting rid of the biggest boys yet, the Romans.

Zephaniah says some things that, to our ears, probably sound quite strange.  For example, in verse 8, the prophet criticizes government officials “and all who dress themselves in foreign attire,” “clothed with foreign apparel.”  [I guess he wouldn’t be impressed by Versace.]

Zephaniah doesn’t intend that to be a fashion statement.  He isn’t imitating the “Best and Worst Dressed” at the Oscars!  Elizabeth Achtemeier points out that “as a vassal [a puppet state] of Assyria, the leaders of Judah have accommodated their ways to those of a foreign culture…  Assyria’s ways have become Judah’s ways, and Assyria’s customs hers.”[1]

Verse 9 has something that sounds equally bizarre.  There is a promise to “punish all who leap over the threshold.”  Again, Zephaniah isn’t interested in auditions for “Dancing with the Stars.”  It’s about superstition concerning evil spirits who dwell in doorways and must be avoided.

3 zp (I wonder if that particular idea didn’t survive down through the ages with the practice of carrying a bride over the threshold!)

Anyway, with these comments, the prophet isn’t criticizing foreign ways simply because they are foreign.  The problem is that—as it seems every generation must learn—serving God isn’t just about following certain procedures in worship.

Zephaniah reminds the people that their God is an ethical God.  That is, serving their God requires that they chose between right and wrong, that how they treat each other makes all the difference.  That’s why he gets on their case about all the “violence and fraud” (v. 9).

One of these days, says the prophet, it’s all going to catch up with you.  It’s later than you think!  Verse 14 says: “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast.”  In verses 15 to 18, he reels off a laundry list of gruesome things on the way.  Verse 17 is especially lovely.  For those who “have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like refuse” (NKJV).  That last word[2] is literally translated as “dung.”

Nobody can accuse him of trying to sugar coat his message!

Still, as with other prophets, Zephaniah isn’t all doom and gloom.  The bad news is followed by good news.  The discipline of the Lord means a lead to restoration.  We hear in chapter 2: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath” (v. 3).

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There’s a common misperception about what’s called the wrath of God.  It’s not some “arbitrary outburst, like the unpredictable anger of a parent who lashes out at his children.”  Far from it, says Dan Clendenin.  “Divine judgment is equitable and even merciful in that, like a loving parent, it demonstrates that God has not given up on me, that [God] is not done with me.”[3]

With the day of the Lord, Zephaniah and the other prophets are doing something revolutionary.  Klaus Koch says, “For the first time [ever], human beings dared to make hope the foundation of their…theology.  The prophets therefore brought a futuristic turn into the thinking of following centuries.”[4]  People started to believe that God’s actions are by necessity pointing toward the future.

“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

And that fits perfectly into the Easter season.  We have gone from Good Friday, the crucifixion (when all hope is lost) to the resurrection (when hope against hope is reborn).  We have gone from dark to light.  It comes in the most unusual of ways.

In Terry Hershey’s book, Sanctuary: Creating a Space for Grace in Your Life, he tells a story of going to Atlanta for a meeting of Spiritual Directors International.

Having some spare time, he goes to get a haircut.  He engages in small talk with Sharon, the hairdresser.  It progresses a little further, and he talks about his father, who survived cancer.  She tells him that, like his father, she also is a cancer survivor.

4 zpHershey says he told her “I’m sorry.”  He asked, “‘When did you learn about the cancer, and what kind of treatment did you go through?’  ‘I had the whole nine yards.’  She laughs.  ‘Surgery.  And then more surgery and then chemo.’  We are quiet, except for the sound of scissors.  ‘It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,’ she adds…[5]

“‘It has made me softer,’ she tells me.  ‘And now, I love different.’”[6]

He concludes, “After the conference someone asked me, ‘What did you do there?’  Well, I got a haircut.  And I felt my heart soften just a little.”[7]

I imagine some of you have had similar experiences.  I mentioned during the discussion of the book that, with my own experience of cancer, I (humorously) divided my life into BC and AD: “before cancer” and “after diagnosis.”  And I think I can agree with Sharon to some extent.  It’s probably not the best thing that’s ever happened to me, but it is right up there.  It opened to me a new world of understanding about people with physical, mental, and emotional ailments.

It is indeed a question of going from the dark into the light.  Perhaps it’s having hope shape the future.

We’re so used to the idea of hope—be it hope fulfilled or hope denied—that we don’t understand what a leap in the evolution of human thought it is.  With the day of the Lord, and the messianic dream it inspired, people began to believe that the world itself could be transformed into something new.  And not only the world, but people themselves could be transformed.

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Is it possible we’ve forgotten how to have that hope—or possibly to recognize it when it knocks on our door?  How much are we like those poor souls Zephaniah speaks of?  You know, the confident and self-satisfied ones, “those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm’” (v. 12).

In The Message, Eugene Peterson put his own spin on verse 12.  On the day of the Lord, there’s a promise to “punish those who are sitting it out, fat and lazy, amusing themselves and taking it easy, Who think, ‘God doesn’t do anything, good or bad.  He isn’t involved, so neither are we.’”

Is there anything that we, in fact, might be too confident about?  What might the day of the Lord be calling us to?

Perhaps we all have our “day of wrath”… our “day of clouds and thick darkness”… our “day of trumpet blast and battle cry” (vv. 15-16).  Still, the day of the Lord calls us to not abandon hope.  Hope is calling our name and leading us on.  Though we travel through darkness and gloom, the glory of the sun will yet break forth.  Zephaniah ends his book on, well, a lighter note!

“On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.  The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (3:16-17).

The darkness of that day gives way to light.

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[1] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1986), 68.

[2] גּּלֶל (gelel)

[3] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20081110JJ.shtml

[4] Klaus Koch, The Prophets: The Assyrian Period (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1982), 163.

[5] Terry Hershey, Sanctuary: Creating a Space for Grace in Your Life (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2015), Kindle edition, Chapter 2, section 3, paragraph 7.

[6] Hershey, 2.3.10

[7] Hershey, 2.3.18


affluenza

During the time of the prophet Amos’ ministry, the mid 8th century B.C. (about 760-750), Jeroboam II is king of Israel. His reign has been long and prosperous. His army has reclaimed land in the north that had been conquered, and the economy is booming. Having said that, Jeroboam has come to the throne during a period when Israel is on borrowed time. There is a certain amount of luck involved.

To the east, the mighty Assyrians have had to halt their westward expansion. They’ve had their hands full, dealing with intrigues inside the empire and also fighting the Babylonians and the Elamites—areas near what we now call the Persian Gulf. But don’t count the Assyrians out: they’ll be back!

Amos identifies some idols that Israel worships, idols that will result in the nation’s days being numbered. What are these idols? Are they something as obvious as sculptures of wood and stone? Are they something more insidious, something more subtle?

Well, let’s hear what he has to say. In chapter 6, he speaks of woe to “those who are at ease in Zion,” to “those who feel secure on Mount Samaria,” to those who are “the notables of the first of the nations” (v. 1). So in verse 1, Amos begins the passage with “the first of the nations.” In verse 7, he ends it with “they shall now be the first to go into exile.” That’s when the Assyrians make their return!

“So you think you’re the first of all?” the prophet asks the rich and powerful. “Well, guess what? You will be the first!”

It’s in verses 4 to 6, however, that Amos really makes his point. “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (The term “Joseph” is sometimes used as a substitute for “Israel.”)

image from www.acting-man.com

This is a picture of those gripped by the disease of “affluenza.” (Not influenza—affluenza!) It’s been noted that these are people “who enjoy a life of luxury and ease, but who are indifferent to the sociological and political problems which are about to bring the roof down upon their heads.”1

Seven verbs are used to describe this affluent society. They lie (on beds of ivory)…they lounge…they eat meat (as opposed to the poor, who can’t afford it)…they sing…they improvise…they drink wine (not from goblets, but by the bowl full)…they anoint themselves (with expensive perfume). This picture of decadence should not be unfamiliar!

There is an eighth verb mentioned, something that the affluenza of Amos’ audience prevents. It’s in the final line of verse 6. They “are not grieved” about the ruin of their nation. Their lifestyle has blinded and hardened them to its ill effects.

So, what are the idols that Amos identifies? As I hinted earlier, they may not be things that immediately come to mind. There’s no golden calf, like back in the days of Aaron and Moses. Rather, things that have become idols for them are questions of national pride, military might, and economic prowess. That’s why the prophet is so critical of their worship. Their heart and soul isn’t in God; they really worship these things.

Chapter 7 features a confrontation between Amos and Amaziah, the priest. Amaziah serves as a kind of religious chief of staff for the king. And in his report to Jeroboam about Amos’ activities, he accuses him of treason. The prophet is painted as a conspirator, a subversive.

Amaziah gives him fair warning. He tells Amos that it’s time to hit the road. Go back home—or else. Verse 13 provides a revealing remark. Amos is cautioned to “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Without realizing it, Amaziah is admitting that he’s a spiritual sellout. He has allowed his relationship to the king to determine his message. He’s unable to speak truth to power, because he has so completely identified with power.

So, to the idols of national pride, military might, and economic prowess, we now add, as Daniel Clendenin puts it, “pimping religion for political empire.”2 I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say we can see these dynamics in America today. It’s safe to say we’ve done at least as much pimping with those idols than Israel ever did.

Bringing Cullen Murphy’s book, Are We Rome?, into the discussion, Clendenin says that America and the Roman Empire “both suffer from an exaggerated sense of exceptionalism.” That’s the idea that we’re a special case. We can get away with stuff no one else can.

Here’s but one example: just as the Romans spread their military throughout much of their known world, so have we. It’s hard to get an exact count, but a rough estimate would be almost 800 bases in over 70 countries and territories.3

I mention all this, not for the purpose of debating foreign policy, but to recognize what it does. In my humble opinion, it builds and defends a foundation for what is our greatest idol: affluenza. It’s a disease that infects all of us—a disease that leaves us restless, constantly urging us to consume, to buy more and more…stuff. It’s no wonder we can’t hear God! We’re too busy worrying, “How can I pay for the junk I already have? And for the junk I still want to get?”

I did say that affluenza infects all of us. Therefore, I have to ask the question: how does it infect me? This isn’t a disease with symptoms seen only in the purchase of items. It is a lifestyle. Do I insulate myself from people who make me feel uncomfortable with my privilege?

Do I too often join with the apostle Paul in saying, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15)? Do I too often take refuge in that thought? To all these things and more, I have to say, with some degree of embarrassment, “Yes, I do.”

Benedictine writer Joan Chittister observes, “We take things and hoard things and give things to control our little worlds and the things wind up controlling us. They clutter our space; they crimp our hearts; they sour our souls.”4

The remedy for affluenza is simplicity. That is, to unclutter, to untangle one’s life. “Benedictine simplicity” [however], Chittister adds, “is not a deprivation. It frees us for all of life’s surprises.” Simplicity frees us for all of life’s surprises.

Perhaps that’s one of the most seductive and sinister aspects of affluenza. It deludes us into thinking that we’re really living. It hides from us its ill effects on others and on the earth. We find ourselves unwilling to pursue the abundant life that Jesus Christ offers.

The process of choosing between the paths of, say, Amos and Amaziah is just that—a process. The choice between authentic faith and being a spiritual sellout isn’t made once and for all. It’s a continuous thing. And our Lord knows that.

As Anne Lamott puts it, “I don’t think much surprises him: this is how we make important changes—barely, poorly, slowly. And still, he raises his fist in triumph.”5

There are few changes more important for our own sake, and for the sake of the world, than dealing with the disease called affluenza. But with each bare, poor, and slow change we make—in the face of the powers of death—Jesus raises his fist in triumph.

1James Limburg, Hosea-Micah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 112.
2www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070709JJ.shtml
3www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/us-military-bases-around-the-world-119321
4Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 108.
5Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 46.