death and dying

season of death to season of life

A text in 1 Kings 2 comes from the synagogue Sabbath reading for yesterday the 7th.  It features Jacob’s final words to his sons and David’s final words to his son, Solomon.  As a meditation for the beginning of the new year, deathbed instructions might seem to be an unusual choice, to say the least.

I should add that the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah (that is, “head of the year”) falls at various times in September.  The current year on the Jewish calendar is 5783.

I imagine there were quite a few of us who were happy to pronounce the death sentence on 2020.  Some probably wanted to drive a stake through its heart to make sure the monster had been slain!

Still, taking into consideration the coming of Covid into the world, there is always much to celebrate about God’s good creation, which we’ll hear more about later.

David couches his closing wishes in terms of strength, courage, and faithfulness.  “Hear my words, beloved son, and you will follow the way of the Lord.  In pursuing them, you will guarantee that my lineage will continue through you.”  That’s no big responsibility.

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What follows is a list of names and how Solomon is to deal with each of them.  I’m reminded of how certain Roman emperors decided the fate of gladiators.  Thumbs up, and they lived.  Thumbs down, and that’s all she wrote.

(At least, that’s how the story goes!)

First on the list is Joab, one of David’s mighty commanders.  He retaliated “in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war” (v. 5).  Very briefly: Joab killed Abner and Amasa, two military leaders, and Absalom, David’s rebellious son.  This was despite David’s explicit instructions.  He made it clear that he did not want any of them to be slain.

Joab, known for his violent temperament, was unable to let go of blood vengeance, however justified it might have seemed.  David didn’t want to be seen responsible for “innocent blood.”  The verdict: “do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace” (v. 6).  Thumbs down.

However, Barzillai treated David honorably, so permit his sons to live in peace with you.  Thumbs up.

And then there is Shimei, who uttered a curse on David, but later tried to make nice.  David promised he would do no harm to him.  He wouldn’t touch a hair on his head but said nothing about how his offspring would treat Shimei while he visits the beauty parlor.  So, thumbs down.

I just said Joab was unable to let go of blood vengeance.  He dragged what happened in time of war into a time of peace.

Is he the only one who couldn’t let go?  Could not the king have behaved any differently?  Was he truly compelled to settle those scores?  I don’t know; perhaps by the standards of his time, it was to be expected.  Nevertheless, it seems like he could have acted in a nobler manner—perhaps in a spirit of royal largesse?

I doubt any of us have the blood of queens and kings flowing through our veins, but how often do we dwell in the past?  How often are we trapped by the past?

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We have now entered 2023.  On every New Year’s Day, I am reminded of the song by that name which was done by the band U2.  Bono sings, “All is quiet on New Year’s Day / A world in white gets underway.  I want to be with you / Be with you night and day.  Nothing changes on New Year’s Day / On New Year’s Day.”

Other people have their own memories or practices when January rolls around.  This year there is the realization of that song being released forty years ago.  Forty years ago!  In 1983, I was a freshman in college.  Tempus fugit.

In his masterpiece, The Sabbath (which reads almost like poetry), the beloved twentieth century rabbi Abraham Heschel suggests, “Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.”[1]  He isn’t saying time is evil, rather it’s our reaction to it.

“We know what to do with space,” Heschel comments, “but do not know what to do about time, except to make it subservient to space.  Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space.  As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face.”

It’s fascinating.  Genesis has God pronouncing aspects of creation—that is, space—as “good.”  Creation of earth and sea, plants and animals, are pronounced “good.”  “And God saw that it was good.”  Even after the creation of the human race, all is pronounced “very good.”

It is only the Sabbath—time—that is hallowed, pronounced holy.  The word in Hebrew has to do with being sanctified, being set apart.  It is set apart from all we can see.

3We so often want to grasp time, as if it were an object.  We want to stop it, or at least slow it down, and just take a breath.  We want that fire-breathing monster consuming every moment to be held at bay.  Time flies, like a dragon.

Are we indeed unwilling to let go?  Do we need to, so to speak, die to the past before we can truly live?

Today is the Baptism of the Lord.  We hear the story of another dying to the past.  We engage with a narrative of one passing through a portal.  The heavens themselves open up like a shower from on high, and there is a powerful proclamation of perpetual passion.

John offers a baptism for the forgiveness of sin.  He offers a baptism of repentance.  He questions Jesus when he comes to him for this ritual.  Wait, we’ve got this totally backward.  I’m supposed to be the forerunner for you.  You should be the one dunking me into the river!

He doesn’t need to do this for his own sake, but Jesus models moving from the death of sin.  He shows the way from the grave of the past to the life of the future.

A couple of decades later, regarding baptism, the apostle Paul establishes the connection, he develops the theology, between the dying of Jesus and his being raised from the grave by God to an indestructible life.

In his letter to the Roman church, Paul shares the glorious news, “We were buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life” (6:4).

In the letter to the Colossians, he says in similar words, “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12).

There are two key events of the Christian faith: Christmas and Easter.  Christmas, of course, tells the story of God becoming incarnate.  It is God becoming enfleshed as the baby of Bethlehem.

More to our point here is the story of Easter.  Jesus was dead, with no life whatsoever, dead as a doornail.  His mission had apparently ended in utter and complete failure.  Jesus was right when he spoke the words, “It is finished.”  It’s difficult to do worse than that.  We go from the bitter tears of defeat of Holy Saturday to the inexpressible and impossible euphoria of Easter Sunday.

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So again, here we are in 2023.  We have been focused on Covid.  In some ways, we have been focused on death.  We’ve had lockdowns.  Many small businesses have not survived.  So many children held out of school have seemingly fallen hopelessly behind.  Getting close to each other has been forbidden.  We have been told to not shake hands!

(Please note: I do understand the logic expressed here.)

The 20s have indeed gotten off to an alarming start.  One cause for concern is that over the past couple of years or so, we’ve become used to accepting ever increasing levels of control and surveillance from the government and from big tech.

By the grace of God, we are becoming ever more aware of our ability to recognize and challenge the lies.  Banu and I invite you to join us.  By the grace of God, death is being exposed.

In the movie, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Winona Ryder plays Mina and Gary Oldman plays Dracula.  In Mina, Dracula sees his centuries-dead wife, Elisabeth, as having returned.  In the scene in which Dracula pledges his eternal love for Mina, she pleads with him, “take me away from all this death.”  Of course, she’s putting that request to the wrong fellow!

We all have been so focused on death, I fear we might have forgotten how to live.

That is the meaning of baptism, however.  It is more than an emphasis on space, an emphasis on physicality.  It also deals with time.  It is the movement from a season of death to a season of life.  That is what it means to be saved.  Salvation is not a one-time reality.  Salvation is ongoing.  Salvation is what we look to in the future.

Still, salvation does require the element of choice.  It requires what the baptism of John models for those coming after, that is, repentance.  Repentance isn’t a furious escape from a hammer descending from above.  It is a turning around, an about face.  And it doesn’t happen once and for all time.  It also is a lifestyle—a lifestyle which is based in joy.

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Our focus on death requires repentance, salvation.  Joy is the defeat of death.  It is time to repent as a congregation, shake off the dust of death, and enter into a 2023 full of the life that God wants to show us.  Whatever we think is enough, God says I have more.  It is time for the remnant to rise from the dead and share in the promises of the Kingdom here and now.

 

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 5.


in with the old, out with the new

Psalm 51 has been called “one of the most moving prayers in the Old Testament.”[1]  It hits all the right notes.  There’s a full admission of guilt, acknowledgment that no pardon is deserved, and loving joy because God does forgive.  There’s an expressed awareness that “unless a radical change is wrought by God, the future will be but a repetition of the past.”  That’s why the psalmist “appeals to God for a clean heart and a new spirit.”[2]

This is the psalm which appears in the liturgy with Ash Wednesday, which by the way probably never makes the list on anyone’s favorite holidays.  There is a cruel and kind revelation about our very existence, who we are, down to the bone.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  There can be no pretensions.

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A key verse in our psalm is verse 14.  The psalmist seems to be on the precipice of some kind of horror, something to be dreaded.  “Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,” is the cry, “O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.”

Opinions differ as to what “bloodshed” here is all about.  Is it something the psalmist has done—or something feared yet to happen?  Is it a comment about the whole nation, something we frequently see in Old Testament prayers?  I would say there’s room for both.

Still, there is a painful, agonizing note sounded by an individual.  The caption of the psalm refers to it as King David’s plea for pardon after raping Bathsheba.  The prophet Nathan has confronted the king and exposed his guilt.  There’s nothing to say.  He has been caught red-handed, so to speak.

Lest we think we are free of the shedding of blood, reflect on this.  Even with inflation, have you ever thought of how so many items are priced so cheaply?   Consider the overwhelmingly vast number of goods coming from a single country.  We support that country, which commits plenty of bloodshed, both literally and figuratively.

Recall verse 1, how this whole thing gets kicked off: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.”  The Hebrew word for “abundant mercy” (or in the New Jerusalem Bible, “tenderness”) is רַחַם (raham).  It means “womb.”  O God, according to your compassion for your unborn child…

Recalling David’s violation of Bathsheba, the Lord can be seen (or is seen) as a female who has suffered that grievous harm—one who has been violated in that most violent way.

The king can’t undo the past; he knows a radically new way is called for.

As we recite the psalm on Ash Wednesday, we should note not all of the psalm is used.  We stop at verse 17.  Here are verses 16 and 17: “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.  The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

As we scroll through this poem, time and time again, we see calls for radical openness.  I encourage you to read every verse and then pause and reflect on it.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity…

Against you, you alone, have I sinned…

You desire truth in the inward being…

Create in me a clean heart…

Restore to me the joy of your salvation…  (I think the point is made.)

For that vision, for that reality to come alive, some radical change—as already mentioned—must come to pass.  That sounds great, but then here are verses 18 and 19.  These last two verses are often seen as having been added later, as a sort of appendix.

“Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem; then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”  We might ask, “Okay, so what’s the point?”  It sounds like a perfectly acceptable and necessary part of repentance.

I would suggest there is a chasm between these two verses and what has gone before.  I know not everyone agrees with me.  They might say I’m overstating the case, pretending I’m looking at the Grand Canyon, as opposed to a babbling brook.  And that’s fine.  But see for yourself.

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On the one hand, “For you have no delight in sacrifice…”  And on the other, “Then you will delight in right sacrifices…”

On the one hand, “If I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased…”  And on the other, “You will delight in burnt offerings…”

“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit.”

With those last two verses, there is a sense of “but then…  There’s nothing wrong with the way we served God in the past.”

At the Missionaries of Prayer website, there’s a post titled, “Prophetic Word—Why am I Attracted to This?”[3]

Why am I attracted to this?  That’s a question for each of us.

Why am I attracted to this?  Suggestions are offered.  Why am I attracted to this church…  this person…  this place?  What do I really want?

“You need to know the answer to this, for yourself.  Because this will help to make or break you.  Only you know the answer.”

This is hard.  It is deeply uncomfortable.  I want the safe.  I want the secure.  I want what verses 18 and 19 promise: the tried and true.  I don’t like being dangled over the cliff, held only by spirit, held only by the Spirit.  How badly I want to say, “In with the old, out with the new.”

Last week, we had a dinner in which a young woman invited many of her friends.  Some of them were sharing experiences they had with the Holy Spirit.  I appreciated a comment by another young woman who said she was asking her husband if they should leave.  With these other people uttering such profound insights (my words, not hers), she said she felt “shallow.”  She felt inadequate.  As I just suggested, I have had feelings like that.

The author of the article says, “We need to grow up.  Christianity is not comfortable.  Growth and change are not comfortable so if every now and then your pastor is not preaching a message that stretches you and causes you to think about your life or calls you to repentance, then something is wrong.  It means you’re only hearing the parts of the Bible that makes you feel good but there are large sections not being preached.  And that should bother you.”

And that should bother me.  As the apostle Paul said, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (1 Co 9:16).  That’s a stark warning.

God forbid I give you easy answers.  God forbid I don’t encourage painful and probing questions.

Adam Neder, professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, says, “If our way of talking about God leaves [us] unaware of the threat he poses to our lives, perhaps that is because we no longer perceive the threat he poses to our lives.”[4]  Can we see God as a threat to our lives?  What could that mean?

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I would suggest we often—or perhaps always—believe our lives are limited to the way we sleepwalk through life.  We don’t necessarily have to get into some deep philosophical discussion.  A trip to the grocery store can be quite revealing.  We see people rushing around, impatient, not smiling, without joy.  What would happen if we conducted an experiment?  What would happen if we decided to slow down?

The late Thomas Merton wrote, “Our ordinary waking life is a bare existence in which, most of the time, we seem to be absent from ourselves and from reality because we are involved in the vain preoccupations which dog the steps of every living [person].  But there are times when we seem suddenly to awake and discover the full meaning of our own present reality…  In the light of such an experience it is easy to see the futility of all the trifles that occupy our minds.  We recapture something of the calm and balance that ought always to be ours, and we understand that life is far too great a gift to be squandered on anything less than perfection.”[5]

Thank the Lord that God is a threat to that substitute for real life, our life hidden in Christ.  We fear the dangerous and delightful depth expressed by the worship chorus, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. / Cast me not away from Thy presence, O Lord / and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. / Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, / and renew a right spirit within me.”

At the beginning I used the quote, “unless a radical change is wrought by God, the future will be but a repetition of the past.”  The psalmist ready to move on.  There’s no looking back.  The past has involved David’s being a rapist and a murderer.  The threat God poses is seen and welcomed.  “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice” (v. 8).

To insert a New Testament perspective: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being!” (2 Co 5:17).

So, what now?  As the song says, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going, / And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing. / That’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it; / You spread His love to everyone; You want to pass it on.”  Pass it on.  “I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (v. 13).

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We aren’t made righteous in the eyes of God just for the fun of it.  If we have truly experienced it, our lives will be changed.  We won’t be able to do otherwise.  We need not feel inadequate, as did the young woman at our dinner.  We are made more than sufficient, more than conquerors.

 

[1] A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1992), 389.

[2] Anderson, 398.

[3] www.missionariesofprayer.org/2022/10/prophetic-word-why-am-i-attracted-to-this/

[4] Adam Neder, “Theology as a Way of Life,” Theology Matters 28:3 (Summer 2022), 4.

[5] Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951), 10.


the ravine of blackest shadow

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

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

1 ps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Blumhardt, 25.


rich in hope

When I think of hope, something that often comes to mind is a movie I once heard described as “a romantic movie for dudes,” The Shawshank Redemption.  Maybe that’s true.  What I can say is that it’s a film with great depth.

For those who’ve never seen it, The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of two men, played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, who portray characters locked up in Shawshank Prison in Maine.  Robbins’ character, Andy Dufresne, was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife.  Freeman plays Red, the man who can get you almost anything.

In one scene, we’re in the cafeteria when Andy, fresh out of solitary confinement, sits down with his friends.[1]  He was put there because he commandeered the public address system and played Mozart at full volume.  (By the way, the warden is a quite unpleasant and lawbreaking man.)  The guys ask Andy how he was—how he was able to keep going.  He speaks to them about music.

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He says to them, “That’s the beauty of music.  They can’t get that from you.  Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?”

Red replies, “I played a mean harmonica as a younger man.  Lost interest in it though.  Didn’t make much sense in here.”

Andy pursues the dialogue.  “Here’s where it makes the most sense.  You need it so you don’t forget.”

“Forget?”

“Forget that… there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone.  That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch.  That’s yours.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Hope.”

“Hope?  Let me tell you something, my friend,” he says while wagging his spoon at him.  “Hope is a dangerous thing.  Hope can drive a man insane.  It’s got no use on the inside.  [That is, prison.]  You’d better get used to that idea.”

“Like Brooks did?”  Andy’s referring to an old man who spent almost his entire life in Shawshank.  When he was released, he was lost.  He was sent from the only home he ever really had.  Fear overwhelmed him, and he committed suicide.  Brooks saw no hope.

Red slams down his spoon and walks away.

That’s not the final word on hope we get in the movie.  Stay tuned for something more “hopeful.”  Still, Red was onto something when he said hope can drive us insane.  Or was he?

In Romans 15, St. Paul does an examination of hope.  He begins by speaking of the so-called “strong” and “weak.”  Very briefly, the strong recognize many things that don’t endanger one’s faith, such as observing ritual dietary laws, or failing to do so.  The weak believe the strong are going astray with their carefree attitudes.  The strong look down on the weak, and the weak judge the strong.

By the way, I wonder which category Paul places himself in?  My guess would be the strong!  Still, here is his directive: “Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.  For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (vv. 2-3).  And here is his basis: “so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (v. 4).  That is our foundation; our hope isn’t subject to the wavering winds that would buffet us around.

Hope can save your life.

2 roThe psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote the book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  In it he speaks of his experiences while imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp.  While there, he noticed that the “loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.”  He gives as an example something that the camp’s chief doctor pointed out.  “The death rate in the week between Christmas, 1944, and New Year’s, 1945, increased in camp beyond all previous experience.”[2]

The doctor believed the explanation “was simply that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naive hope that they would be home again by Christmas.  As the time drew near and there was no encouraging news, the prisoners lost courage and disappointment overcame them.  This had a dangerous influence on their powers of resistance and a great number of them died.”  Their loss of hope was indeed fatal.

The loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.  It can deadly to others.  Those without hope are easy prey to fear.  Those who are fearful can be deadly to others.  Fear is contagious—much more contagious than Covid, or any other “contagion.”  The fear inside of us is highly transmissible.

Fortunately, there is an antidote to fear and hopelessness.  The apostle Paul says, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (v. 7).  He is speaking first of all about Jews and Gentiles, but the power of welcome spreads in all directions and in all ways.  It is impossible to welcome someone if you are afraid of them.  We often wind up putting up walls and erecting fortresses.

Or we just hide behind the curtains and pretend like we’re not at home.

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To his point about Jews and Gentiles welcoming each other, Paul quotes and paraphrases scriptures from the Old Testament.  He wants to demonstrate how Gentiles are encouraged, and indeed called, to worship the God of the Jews.  He shows how all of them (and us) are pointed toward the Messiah.  He alludes to Isaiah in verse 12 and uses this messianic interpretation: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

With verse 13, we come to the end of the passage.  It is Paul’s grand and glorious benediction; he pronounces this blessing.  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  There’s a buffet of tasty treats in that verse.

He speaks of the “God of hope.”  That’s the only place where Paul uses that particular name.  How do we serve the God of hope?  How do we hold on to the God of hope?

Here’s one quick example.  Since March, our church has had signs along South Street and MacDougall Street telling those passing by we’re open every Sunday at 10am.  Every now and then, I’ve wondered if it’s time to take the signs down.  They’ve been up long enough, haven’t they?

Of course, in recent weeks, some churches have taken steps back toward the lockdown we had for so long.

A few minutes ago, when talking about Viktor Frankl, I noted how the prisoners’ loss of hope was fatal.  In this past year and a half, we have learned too much about fatality, courtesy of Covid.  But there has been fatality of a deeper nature.  There has been a fatality to faith.  It goes beyond the extended lockdowns.

A shroud of depression and apprehension has descended upon us.  I spoke of fear and of the fearful.  We’re being fed a diet of fear and anger.

A few days ago, I was watching Zombieland: Double Tap, the sequel to Zombieland (neither of them being the work of art that The Shawshank Redemption is).  Banu and I remarked on how zombies are unable to think (and hope means nothing to them), yet they are ravenous.  They only live—so to speak—to eat.  They spread fear, and yet, they’re not even aware of doing that.

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[A living dead view of Schrodinger's Cat]

I think to myself and wonder, “Yikes!  How often do I imitate a zombie?  (Well, not to the point of devouring human beings, at least not in a literal sense!  It’s about being unthinking and oblivious to hope.)

Let’s get back to our signs.  With so many churches in a semi-lockdown mode, I think they are a statement of a defiant and holy hope.  We take sensible precautions, but we don’t give in to fear.

Here’s the rest of Paul’s benediction.  What is his desire of the God of hope?  What is his humble and confident expectation?  He prays that we are filled with all joy and peace in believing.  Filled with all joy and peace.  Fear is banished.  Despair is given its walking papers.  Hopelessness is sent packing.

However, this doesn’t happen all by itself.  It happens “in believing.”  In other words, we orient ourselves to that same humble and confident expectation the apostle demonstrates.  There are always the voices, both within and without, that would distract and would have us rest and rely on our own strength.  With belief, there is a sense of knowing, a strong awareness of trust.  Still, we might sometimes feel like the man in Mark 9 with a son in need of healing.  He cries to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (v. 24).

So what is the result?  Paul’s longing is “that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  The New Jerusalem Bible says, “so that in the power of the Holy Spirit, you may be rich in hope.”

I promised something hopeful from The Shawshank Redemption.  Skipping a lot of important details, Andy escapes from prison, and in the movie’s iconic scene, he raises his hands in the driving rain.  It reminds me of baptism.  Anyway, he has spoken to Red about a town in Mexico where he plans to go.  Years later, Red is released on parole.  He remembers the promise he made to Andy to go see him if and when he left Shawshank.

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We hear Morgan Freeman’s voiceover as Red takes a bus cross country.  “I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head.  I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.  I hope I can make it across the border.  I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.  I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.  I hope.”

Hope has saved Red.  Hope saves us; hope embraces us, as we welcome the Spirit—as the Spirit welcomes us.  Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us.  What would happen if we welcomed hope and allowed it to grab us?  Are we ready to be transformed by hope?  What would that look like?

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=15pqpVbhs0c

[2] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 4th ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 46.


tin foil hat not required

People being shamed.  People being ostracized.  People being made to feel fear.  It’s that last one with which I have especially become reacquainted.  My wife has reminded me of it.

She came of age in her home country, Turkey, during a time of political and military unrest.  She has spoken of going to school amid bodies lying dead by the road.  Rumbling tanks were not an uncommon sight.  Questions were put, “Are you on the left?  Are you on the right?”  It took many years for her to see a police officer without a sense of dread building inside.

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[photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash]

Living in a climate of fear takes its toll.  To be afraid of the police is destructive.  Not daring to speak your thoughts, as was the case with her father, shrinks one’s healthy participation in society—indeed, such a society becomes unhealthy.  It loses vitality.

Is it unreasonable to suggest that we today might possibly be taking steps in that direction?  Understand, I’m definitely not claiming we’re on the verge of transforming into a totalitarian police state!  Still, that language of shaming, ostracizing, exclusion being voiced, is occurring more often.  In this case, I am speaking of it directed at those who choose to forego Covid vaccinations.

2 blogTrust me, I am well aware there are some truly crazy batshit conspiracy theories floating around.  However, one need not be wearing a tin foil hat to have legitimate concerns.  (Going into all of them would require a lengthy discussion; I won’t do that here.)

There are, in my opinion, valid questions regarding the testing of the vaccines, the billions of dollars made by pharmaceutical companies (who are shielded from lawsuits), and the lack of investigations into numerous serious and lethal side effects.  This last point is instructive.  The hundreds, even thousands, of people who have reported these conditions usually have their claims dismissed as “anecdotal.”

My wife and I have had personal experience with several individuals whose health suffered a severe decline after receiving the vaccination.  Admittedly, I can’t say that with absolute certainty, but the timing of the jab and the apparent randomness of the afflictions are too convenient to ignore.

Then there is the matter of endangering the public.  I certainly understand that concern.  That opens up an array of factors, including the reporting of deaths as caused by Covid versus deaths of persons who simply had the virus—but died for other reasons.  We now have the prospect of herd immunity and what percentage of people is necessary to reach it.

3 blogThere are those who have medical reservations.  (I would count myself among those.)  I’m not one of so-called “anti-vaxxers.”  I don’t have a problem with vaccines in general.  I got my flu shot.  I’ve had more than one tetanus shot.  When there was a chance I was bitten by a bat, I didn’t hesitate to receive rabies vaccinations!

From a theological perspective, I must confess hesitation to put into my body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit, experimental chemicals whose long-term effects are largely unknown.

Returning to my original thought, I am disturbed by the spirit of mistrust and misgiving gaining traction among us.  The thought of our eyeing each other with suspicion troubles me.  An atmosphere of fear calls out our less noble qualities.  Whatever one’s viewpoint on the vaccines, is it possible for us to regard each other with a little more love and with a little less fear?


mourning to morning

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

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

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

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

What about the book of Lamentations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has been a long night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash]

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

 

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

[2] Rah, Introduction.1.13.

[3] Rah, Epilogue.2.1.

[4] Rah, 2.1.6.

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

[6] Wright, 60.


go to sleep, Dionysus

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of my brain surgery.  November 14, 1995 was a watershed moment in my life.  I came to think of that experience in terms of BC and AD: before cancer and after diagnosis.  Also, there was the traumatic event caused by radiation therapy.  I lost the hair on top of my head!  It began with a little piece falling out here and there when I combed my hair.  Then one day in the shower while washing it, a big hunk decided to say farewell.  That was when Banu and I decided to shave it all off.

A side effect of the cancer has been the influence on my brain itself.  I have found if I get really tired, I might have an episode in which I want to speak, but the words get hung up before I can get them out.  These episodes usually last from 5 to 20 seconds…  …but it sometimes feels like an eternity.

1 thMy doctors have said one way to combat this tiredness is to make sure I get enough sleep.  That sounds like good advice!  As a result, if I’m able to (after all, I do have meetings and other stuff to do), I’ll try to take a nap sometime in the afternoon.  At first, I was a little hesitant to admit it, but when one considers the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain and body, I think taking a nap is a good choice.  The Spanish, and other cultures around the world, have embraced the value of the siesta.

I’ve brought all of this up because the first part of our epistle reading in 1 Thessalonians speaks about slumbering, snoozing.  As a bit of preview, verse 11 is a bridge to the second part.  “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”  What kind of things are they doing and should continue to do?  Check out verses 12 to 22.  It’s quite the laundry list.

First, let’s return to getting shuteye.  Is the apostle Paul’s warning to “not fall asleep as others do, but [to] keep awake and be sober” just refer to physical sleep?  No doubt it includes that; it is possible to sleep one’s life away.  To use a common metaphor, one can wind up in the sleep of death.  (Actually, that’s pretty much guaranteed.)  Only one person has woken up from that sleep.  Only Jesus has awakened from a dirt nap!

This text is a grab bag of goodies.  I’ll have to leave some of the goodies in the bag.  It’s all framed within the theme of the coming of the Lord.  It’s an Advent theme before the season of Advent arrives.  The opening verses speak of “the day of the Lord [as coming] like a thief in the night” (v. 2).  Pay attention.  Pay attention to your life.  Don’t get caught napping—and this time, it really isn’t about physical sleep.

Thessalonica was a place where worship of Dionysus flourished.  He was the god of wine, agriculture, theater, and insanity, among other things.  (And according to the stories, Dionysus also rose from the dead.)  Still, it was his role as god of wine that guided his worshippers.  Their nighttime gatherings tended to be frenzied drunken orgies.  They just went mad.  When one worships the Lord of insanity, that seems fitting.  (Take note of the word “orgies.”  We’ll come back to it.)

The apostle counters with the life the Thessalonians have been called to.  “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (v. 8).  Paul tells them how to dress appropriately.  They are to clothe themselves with faith, love, and the hope of salvation.  They are not to be found in a state of undress, of a Dionysian nature.  And yes, “undress” is more than walking around physically disrobed.

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Why does he tell them that?  Why should they change their wardrobe?  He says, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 9).

That word “wrath” is an interesting one.  It might sound like God is ready to send a thunderbolt our way.  However, the wonderful truth of the gospel, the good news, is that God is not ticked off at us.  It’s true that God grieves the pain we inflict on each other, on creation, and on ourselves, but God’s essential nature is love.

The Greek word for “wrath” is ὀργή, orgē.  Guess what English word comes from it?  We think of “orgy” as a party with sexual abandon.  But the word orgē means anger, wrath, indignation.  The root idea is to swell up from within, like a fruit swelling with its juice.  Paul counsels the church to not go that route.  He doesn’t want them to stew in their own juices.

That word is used of Jesus himself.  In Mark 3, he is dealing with opposition to curing a man’s withered hand on the sabbath.  That’s the point; he shouldn’t be doing this on the sabbath.  Heal the guy some other time!  Jesus asks them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath?” (v. 4).  They don’t say a single word.

“He looked around at them with anger [with orgē]; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’  He stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (v. 5).  That had to make an impression!  Have their hard hearts been softened?  Apparently not, since we’re told they immediately went out to make plans on how to do him in.

(Please note: orgē doesn’t describe Jesus’ overall approach to life!  It was a flash, prompted by the injustice faced by the man in need of healing.  And it was commingled with grief.)

That’s not what Paul’s talking about when he tells the Thessalonians they haven’t been destined for wrath.  It’s something more expansive.  They haven’t been relinquished to that state of life.  They haven’t been left in that horrible, frightening condition which would shape them.  That’s a word for us, also.  We haven’t been abandoned to hating and being hated.  We haven’t been given over to the cynicism which so often pervades.

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Instead, we have been destined for salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.  The path of the god Dionysus, and Dionysus today, with its uncontrolled passion, its undisciplined hunger, is a life of slavery.  Salvation through Christ is liberation—it is freedom.

Having said all of that, there is grace.  Paul adds that the Lord “died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him” (v. 10).  There is provision for those still slumbering.  They haven’t been forsaken.  They are still pursued by the Hound of Heaven.  I, for one, am thankful the Hound is pursuing me!

On that note, the apostle congratulates them.  Continue to encourage one another and to build each other up.

This was probably Paul’s first letter, written in the early 50s.  He has already encouraged them, in that the expectation of the Lord’s return is very much in the forefront of their minds.  It has troubled them concerning those who have already died, those who have fallen asleep in the other way.  Paul assures them their dearly departed will also be with the Lord.

Back to that laundry list.  He wants them to pay special attention to some things.  Make sure you don’t forget these!  First, he reminds them to take care of those who “have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you”—those who would caution or advise you (v. 12).  Maybe Paul has been to places where that doesn’t happen!

Looking through that list, I want to pay special attention to verse 14: “And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.”  I’m especially interested in his call to “admonish the idlers.”  The NIV says “those who are idle.”  Is he telling them to reprimand those who just lounge around?

It’s not that such behavior—or rather, lack of behavior—should be commended, but the Greek word (ἄτακτος, ataktos) expresses something other than simply being idle.  “Idle” is not a very good translation.  The New Jerusalem Bible speaks of those who are “undisciplined.”  The term ataktos means “disorderly,” “out of ranks.”  It refers to soldiers who have broken formation, who have fallen out of line.

John Wesley speaks in these terms: “Warn the disorderly—Them that stand, as it were, out of their rank in the spiritual warfare.”[1]

The expectation of the Lord’s return can be portrayed in a way that inspires dread.  I once read a caption that proclaimed, “The good news is Jesus is coming back.  The bad news is he’s really ticked off.”  (“Ticked off” is a euphemism for what it really said.)  Maybe the point is made.  Paul indeed desires to reassure them, and by extension, us.  The spirit of Dionysus is still with us, and yet, as we await the Lord’s coming, we have not been consigned to wrath or disorder.  Maybe we should say, “Go to sleep, Dionysus.”  Go to sleep, you who would have us lose ourselves in the moment.

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Friends, let us raise our heads and welcome the Lord who brings clarity and freedom.  Who knows, we might have a BC and AD experience!  It might happen when we don’t expect it, like a thief in the night.

 

[1] www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/notes.i.xiv.vi.html


eulogize! mourn! move on!

Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions.  It is the stuff of legends and sagas.  Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds.  Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning.  As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected.  They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.

Upon their return, they would immediately be slain!  No one was to know the place of burial!

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Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One.  It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on occasion, her like) would never be seen again.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land.  The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).  There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land; we’ll look at that in a moment.

Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.  He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”  There’s no word on who actually dug the grave.  Maybe it was arranged by an earthquake!

2 dtNo one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship.  After all, that would be out of character for Moses.  In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3).  You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.

All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land.  Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7).  The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out.  Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13).  This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but he again whacks it with a club, releasing the water.

This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern.  One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable…  The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority.  Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.”[1]  That’s some sage advice for all of us.

To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down.  God isn’t saying, “You blew it!  Hit the road, Jack!”  After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  That’s some very high praise indeed!

I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition.  Timothy Simpson says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”[2]

As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training.  Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina.  Our second week was in Pittsburgh.  One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor.  This would be someone who had a long tenure.  His or her pastorate would often be considered one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.

Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past are not always good ones!  Sometimes they go the other way.

At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

3 dtWhat in the world could have been their motivation?  Maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test?  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is hardly a fresh approach to a dispute!

Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor.  Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.

A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.”  To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them.  It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.

When remembering a beloved leader, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.

2a dtLook at the way Moses is eulogized.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).  Now that’s what I call aging well!  At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man.  He was ripped.

But that’s not all.  “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…”  And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12).  The memory of Moses inspires more praise, even legendary praise.

If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn.  Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss.  It is an action; it’s something we actually do.  As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days.  That doesn’t mean they were crying 24/7, but that they had certain rituals.

We also have rituals of mourning.  Something we do at the national or state level is fly the flag at half-mast.  And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.

Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!

Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions.  That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose.  They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock.  It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.”  While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road.  He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him.  Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

But this also applies when someone beloved has left.  “People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

We must be able to say goodbye.

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Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death.  We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy.  And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.

In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24).  It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living.  And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”

Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on.  That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.

It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on.  Life goes on.”  And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning.  Everyone mourns in their own way and at their own pace.

Having said that, we do indeed move on.  Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure.  Look at what verse 9 says.  After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  The Israelites know it is time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community.  I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.”  This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader.  Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go.  This can apply to anyone in a position of leadership: pastors, politicians, even parents.

In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on.  (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!)  But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua.  The people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written.  This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.

5 dt

This play has a divine director, and in Joshua 3, we again hear the instructions regarding Moses’ understudy.  The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (v. 7).

What is Joshua’s first message after he takes the oath of office, so to speak?  (I want to get this out of the way!)  He tells the people their God “is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you” all the nations (v. 10).  If you read the rest of the book, you’ll see what that means is genocide, or at least, attempted genocide.  If you’re wondering how a loving God—no, a God who is love—could require such a thing, you’re not alone.

The truth is, that was not an uncommon form of warfare then, and sadly, it’s still with us.  A call of the Hebrew prophets was to no longer mimic the other nations, indeed, to be a light to them (Is 42:6, 49:6, 51:14).  It’s hard to be a light to someone you’re slaughtering.  We are capable of even the most heinous activity, and the most trivial activity, if we believe we’re serving God.

Moving on!  The Israelites face a bit of a hindrance in their journey: the Jordan River, which we’re told is at its yearly flood stage.  What are they to do?  Simple.  Now there are twelve priests bearing the ark of the covenant, which was built to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  As soon as they set foot in the river, the water will stop, and there will be dry land for everyone to cross over.  Easy-peasy.

We have echoes of Moses leading the people through the Red Sea, and here is Joshua following in his footsteps.  The nation faces a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

Put yourself in their shoes.  What are you thinking?  What are you feeling?  Are you overjoyed?  Are you supremely confident?  Or is there something else?  Are you anxious?  Are you terrified?  Do you feel abandoned?  Do you feel betrayed?  Do you feel rage?  Can we see ourselves as facing our own Jordan River, and with the river overflowing its banks?  This time of pandemic can seem uncrossable.

Banu and I have had those thoughts, those emotions.  It can feel like suffocation, or more appropriately, it can feel like drowning.  Seriously, what sane person can believe the river is going to make way for us, just so we can stroll to the other side?

I wonder, when will we be able to have people over for dinner?  What about Thanksgiving and Christmas?  What about Super Bowl parties?  (We like to have those; we even invite people who couldn’t care less about the game!  It’s just fun!)

We might find ourselves eulogizing.  We praise the way things were before.  Sure, they weren’t great, but they were better than this!  We mourn.  As I said earlier, it is important to mourn and to acknowledge that we are mourning, otherwise, it will be impossible to move on.  And so, are we ready to move on?

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It would be easy to just to settle down next to the river.  I think we could get used to life there.  Despite everything that’s happened, it could be worse.  As just noted, we all have our Jordan River; we have it as a congregation.  We have it as a nation, just like those ancient Israelites.  However, if we don’t plunge ahead, if we don’t take that first step into the racing river, if we don’t trust where God is leading, we become complacent.  We lose our joy.  The colors are not so vivid.  They become a gray wash.

There is the promise of God given by the prophet, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (Is 43:2).  We eulogize.  We mourn.  And by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we move on.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.


wordless words

Sometimes, events happen that simply must be addressed in a sermon.  Unfortunately, this is one of those times.  When the president and first lady tested positive for the coronavirus, that pushed its way to the front.  It’s a tragedy when anyone contracts Covid-19.  It has happened tens of millions of times worldwide.  Over one million people have died.

I don’t think I’m going too far when I say 2020 has been a year unlike any other for every human being alive on planet Earth.  (I know we’ve said that for various years in the past—but this time, it’s really true!)

Aside from the global pandemic, which is way more than enough, demonstrations have spread across America, the political landscape has been incredibly volatile, the ice caps continue melting, the oceans are getting warmer, but guess what?  The Spirit of God is moving.

And I trust the Spirit of God was moving me when I wrote this sermon.

1 ps

In July, I started noticing something else about 2020.  I began a frequent ritual of gazing into the night sky.  From our vantage point, Jupiter and Saturn have been doing a nocturnal dance since early this year and will continue to do so for the rest of 2020.  The two largest planets in our solar system have recently begun sharing the sky with our neighbor, Mars.  I often like to await the appearance of Jupiter as the sky gradually darkens.  It becomes visible well before any stars.

Seeing those planets has been a gift.  They are my cosmic friends!  I have been reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, our problems—as genuinely serious as they are—still are part of a vast intergalactic tapestry.  Contemplating such matters has become almost a spiritual discipline.  It has been therapeutic.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”  So says the beginning of Psalm 19.

That psalm is one of my favorites.  It would seem I’m not alone in that.  It has been celebrated down through the ages for its poetic beauty.  A prominent writer in the 20th century also had great admiration for it.  That would be C. S. Lewis, professor at Oxford and author of numerous books, including The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity.  A professed atheist, he came to Christ, partly due to his conversations with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Lewis’ praise for the psalm has been widely quoted.  “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter,” he wrote, “and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”[1]  I wish he had said how he really felt!

2 psHe spoke of how the psalmist describes “the sun, the bridal joyousness of its rising, the unimaginable speed of its daily voyage from east to west…  The key phrase on which the whole poem depends is ‘there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.’  It pierces everywhere with its strong, clean ardor.”

He’s really passionate about this psalm!

Psalm 19, which displays the eternal word of God, is laid out in three sections.  The first part, verses 1 to 6, is an exaltation of the majesty of creation.  Verses 7 to 11 glorify the written word, with the benefits thereof: it is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, true, and righteous.

It revives the soul.  It makes wise the simple.  It rejoices the heart.  It enlightens the eyes.  Its beauty puts gold to shame.  And how does it taste?  Sweeter than honey, child!  Psalm 119 agrees.  “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (v. 103).

We end with verses 12 to 14 with a prayer of repentance and protection—and that includes protection from oneself.  You did know we can be our own worst enemy?  The psalm ends with words that might be familiar.  “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  (More about that one later.)

So there’s a lot in this psalm, but I want to focus on something I know I need help with—silence.

I started with speaking about admiring my friends, those radiant beauties in the night sky.  I think of how long it’s taken their light to reach me.  (Minutes?  Over an hour?)  I can’t hear them, but they proclaim the work and word of God.

Verse 3 speaks, “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.”  Recall the line from our call to worship: “Without a word being spoken, all creation bears witness to the goodness of the Lord.”  Their voice is not heard, and yet, “their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (v. 4).

Maybe if I would just shut up, I could hear their silent statements, their wordless words.  Maybe if I weren’t too busy thinking about what I could say about them, I could listen, and my soul would be enriched.  I could pass that blessing along to others.  But no, I have to focus all my attention on myself.

3 ps

Sometimes my dog joins me on these nightly sojourns.  After a little play time, he will lie down and occupy himself with chewing on a stick, or he’ll walk around, sniffing stuff.  He doesn’t say much.  I could take a lesson from him.

I want to revisit that final verse: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, etc.”  The word translated as “meditation” is an interesting one.[2]  It carries the meaning of a “murmuring sound.”  It’s compared to the sound of a harp when struck.  There’s that lingering sound as it begins fading to silence.  It’s not like a drum, something percussive, something rat-a-tat.  It’s smooth.

Another translation speaks of “the whispering of my heart.”[3]  It is as loud as a whisper.

We’re reminded of the prophet Elijah when he is on the run from the wrath of Jezebel, wife of King Ahab.  Elijah has presided over the killing of the prophets of Baal.  Jezebel is not happy, and she gives orders to her hitmen.  That’s when Elijah hits the road.

In the desert, the word of the Lord comes to him.  It isn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.  It isn’t in any of the sound and fury.  It is in sheer silence, a small still voice.  It is “a light murmuring sound” (1 Kg 19:12, NJB).

We tend to be quite uncomfortable with silence.  We can notice that in worship.  Moments of silence can seem to go on and on.

There’s another thing I want to mention in this psalm.  Verse 13 says, “Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.  Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.”

The poet wants protection from the insolent, the arrogant ones.  The plea is to be shielded from the harm they would do.  However, as before, the Hebrew word (אֵל, el) can have another nuance.  It also refers to “proud thoughts.”  It can also mean inner insolence.  I wonder if that isn’t the meaning that better applies to most of us.

You know, I have my opinions.  (And of course, they are always the correct ones.)  But at the end of the day, they pale in comparison with Jupiter and Saturn and Mars, who keep doing their thing.  The noise we humans make doesn’t affect them at all.  And my opinions pale in colossal fashion in comparison with the one who says in Isaiah, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:9).  Period.

4 ps

Our proud thoughts affect the way we treat others.  They affect the way we treat planet Earth.

Besides being World Communion Sunday, today is also the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  He is considered the patron saint of ecology.  He was noted for befriending the animals!

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing prayer walking.  Last Monday, I considered something with which St. Francis would be an excellent guide.  I reflected on how we called to tread lightly on the earth.  Indeed, walking on God’s good creation can be an act of prayer in itself.  Think of it.  We easily disregard that.  We pave over everything.  Our bombs and weapons of war kill more than just humans.  Lord only knows how many plants and animals we kill.  We dump poison and plastic on land and in the sea.  We foul the atmosphere.

We destroy ourselves, and in doing so, we defile the presence of God within us.  We grieve the Holy Spirit.

As I move toward my conclusion, I’m not going to tell you to do anything.  Just turn off the noise.  Open yourself to the word, however it appears.  When we befriend silence, we can better hear the word of the Lord; we can better hear those wordless words.  Let that sweetness fill you up.  “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).

 

[1] reiterations.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/c-s-lewis-on-psalm-19/

from Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harper One, 1958), pp. 73-74.

[2] הׅגָּיוׄן, higgayon

[3] New Jerusalem Bible


memento mori

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

1 ps

"Transience of Life" by Daniel Kansky

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

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

His bid to defeat death has turned into rubble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give ear, all dwellers of this perishable planet!

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

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

3 ps

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

Of course, there’s always the vampire option!

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 ps

photo by Efren Baharona on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] חֶלֶד, cheled

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

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