enemy

can conflict be a gift-

After looking at my sermon title, I realize that it could lead to some unintended conclusions.  Raising the question as to whether or not conflict could be considered a “gift” might suggest that I enjoy conflict—even possibly that I seek it out.  I’m just itching for a fight!  I assure you, that is not the truth.

One day, Banu was looking through some old files.  She found a folder that contained some documents from when we were at seminary, when we were just beginning the ordination process.  We were in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and their Committee on Preparation for Ministry had us fill out some forms.

1There was one that asked about our challenges / weaknesses.  I wrote something along the lines of needing to be more assertive, especially in situations of conflict.  That was 1994.  All these years later, I think I would include that in the list.  I’ve made some progress in being more assertive and a less anxious presence in the midst of conflict, but I still have a ways to go.

So, no, I do not enjoy conflict.

It would seem from Matthew 5 that Jesus doesn’t either.  In fact, it looks like when presented with conflict, he simply wimps out!  Look at how our scripture begins.  Jesus tells the people, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (vv. 38-39).

The “eye for an eye” Jesus starts with is the lex talionis.  That’s Latin for the “law of retaliation.”

We often hear calls for law and order, for greater security, based on this idea—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  This one often finds its way into arguments for the death penalty.  It seems to provide for a very stern, no holds barred style of justice.  However, that’s only true if we take the principle of “an eye for an eye” completely out of context.

The late Francis Beare wrote, “The lex talionis was in its time a social advance of great magnitude; it put an end to the vendetta, the blood feud, which allowed unlimited retaliation for an injury done to a member of the family or tribe, so that an entire group could be wiped out before the demands for vengeance were satisfied.”[1]

To our 21st century ears, that law “sounds savage, but it was actually a softening of the primitive fierceness of the feud, which set no limits to the revenge” that could be taken.  The idea was, if you kill one of ours, we’ll kill two of yours—and then, doing the math, we can see how it would escalate.

2Still, Jesus doesn’t say limit revenge to “the same injury; Jesus declares that we must take no revenge at all.”  When he says, “Do not resist an evildoer,” he says don’t worry about getting payback (v. 39).

There’s one verse that isn’t so much a question of revenge.  Jesus tells his disciples, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42).  I wonder, would that include lending your car to someone who returns it with an empty gas tank?

It looks like everything Jesus says in our gospel text runs contrary to what we usually do.  (Or at least, we might do it with a great deal of hesitation!)  Why is that?  Is this ethic he lays out something that can actually be done?  Many people simply say “no.”  Many people say Jesus is exaggerating to make a point.  I’m not sure I’m totally on board with that!

In any event, I find the phrase in verse 39 especially interesting: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Again, there are many takes on what Jesus means by this, but I find the comments of Speed Leas, a consultant on congregational conflict, to be useful.

3“What that means to me,” he says, “is that when the battle has begun, I do not leave, nor do I attack.  I stay there.  I stay in range of getting hit again.  I take the risk of not destroying the other person or leaving the scene.”[2]  According to Leas, Jesus tells us to resist the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction.  You know what that is: the temptation, when faced with a conflict, to lash out, to take off, or to become paralyzed!

There’s something that tends to handcuff us when dealing with conflict.  This is true for all people, but I think it might be especially true for those in the church.  We tend to see conflict as inherently bad, something to always steer clear of.

Episcopal priest Caroline Westerhoff talks about this.  “Conflict is not just inevitable…  Instead it is part of the divine plan, a gift.”[3]   So here’s the question I raise in my sermon title—with a little emphasis on the bit about it being “a divine gift.”  How in the world can conflict be a gift?

According to Westerhoff, conflict is part of the creative process.  Almost any story or movie has an element of conflict.  There’s the protagonist and the antagonist.  Conflict is indeed inevitable; it’s built into creation itself.  Animals engage in conflict for food.  In a way, humans do, as well.  We certainly find ourselves in many different kinds of struggle.  A big part of the artistic process is struggling with ourselves and with God.  Westerhoff says that “newness cannot come without conflict.”[4]

As we all know, we have differences.  We look, think, act, smell, vote differently!  That’s how we’ve been created.  One of the main reasons for conflict is due to the fact that we’re not all alike.  We aren’t copies of each other.  We often try to impose a level of sameness on each other, but it’s a mistake.

If we can’t, or shouldn’t, avoid conflict—if it can’t be prevented—what we can and should do is to manage it.  We need to guide it, set boundaries around it.  (Recall what I said about the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye” being a boundary, a limit.)  We have to use conflict for constructive, and not destructive, purposes.

Westerhoff continues, “To manage conflict then would be to allow it, not suppress it; to open our doors and windows to its fresh wind.”[5]  I must say that I don’t often think of conflict as being a breath of fresh air!

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“Following this line of thought to its ultimate conclusion, violence and war becomes not conflict run amuck, conflict out of all bounds, but the final outcome of conflict quelled.  They result when we will not allow the other to be different, when we deny our life-giving dependence on the different one with all our might and means.”

Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

We recently had the mid-term elections.  There’s no debating that our country is divided.  That’s been true for a long time.  No matter your political orientation, no matter who you voted for, I think I’m safe in saying that there has been a narrative of not allowing the other to be different.  Sadly, there’s almost an assumption when someone from “the other side” makes a suggestion, it is automatically to be rejected.  There’s been a narrative of denying our life-giving dependence on the different one.

In that context, Jesus seems to wimp out again in verses 43 and 44.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Really, that sounds outrageous!

Far from wimping out, what Jesus proposes takes a great deal of courage.

In another congregation, I asked the session to read the book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke.[6]  (At the time, I mentioned that people are always anxious at some level, so this book would probably always work.)  He doesn’t exactly use the language of “loving the enemy,” though sometimes it might feel that way when we’re in the midst of conflict.

In the book’s Acknowledgements, he salutes “the unnamed congregational leaders and members who have influenced my thinking through their wisdom, counsel, and especially courageous action.  They deeply cared for their congregations in such a way that they were willing to risk the displeasure of others, even to the point of being demonized.”  Remember, these are church folk!  “They resisted giving in to the pressure of the moment if it meant forsaking their integrity.”[7]

Remember what I said at the beginning about recognizing my own need to keep working on being assertive in situations of conflict?  Friends, this is not easy.  That’s why we let things go for so long that we know in our heart of hearts need to be addressed.

One of those things is gossip.  Not long ago, I preached a sermon based on the grumblings against Moses in the desert.  It is sin.  We all are prone to gossip and grumbling, including (yes), myself!  When we put darkness—curses instead of blessings—out into the universe, it comes back to us.  Darkness is a heavy thing to carry around.  It infects us.

Twice in our scripture text, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…  But I say to you…”  In the midst of conflict, Jesus shows us the way forward.

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In the midst of conflict, it can feel like the walls are closing in.  We can feel tightness in our chest.  I have felt that myself.  We need to remember to breathe.  We need to remember that the Spirit is within us.  But we also need to remember to actually breathe!  There’s nothing like being still, taking some deep breaths, and getting oxygen into the lungs to help us regain some perspective.

Jesus closes by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).  That sounds like a tall order!  But this isn’t “perfect” in the sense of being flawless; this is “perfect” in the sense of being “perfected,” of being made whole.  Be complete.  That is the Lord’s desire for us.

We are fragmented, broken creatures.  We are not whole.  Still, in the strange and unwanted gift that is conflict, we come together.  Sometimes we come together by crashing into each other.  But thanks be to God, in all of that craziness and pain, the Spirit is there to lead us into new avenues of truth, replacing insult with blessing.

We need that now more than ever.

 

[1] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1981),158.

[2] Speed Leas, “The Basics of Conflict Management in Congregations,” Conflict Management in Congregations, ed. David Lott (Bethesda, MD: The Alban Institute, 2001), 30.

[3] Caroline Westerhoff, “Conflict: The Birthing of the New,” Conflict Management in Congregations, 56.

[4] Westerhoff, 56.

[5] Westerhoff, 57.

[6] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2006).

[7] Steinke, xv.


detours

One of the pure joys of a road trip is finding ourselves in the heart of a long line of traffic, particularly when we’re way out in the country.  It might be due to an accident or possibly construction work.  It’s especially fun when the line stretches as far as the eye can see.  If by chance an exit is coming up, we might be tempted to get off the highway and try to outflank the congestion.

We might whip out the atlas, that is, if we’re old school.  (When I was a kid, I developed a love with geography.  I spent many hours looking at atlases with places all over the world.)  Or we might simply listen to our friendly MapQuest voice giving directions.  “In 500 feet, turn right.”

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When my sister and I were young, sometimes my dad would say, “Do you want to go for a ride?”  I loved it when he asked that.  When the price of gasoline was negligible, a great way to spend the time would be simply wandering around in the car.  Of course, I would be the one who suggested taking detours, perhaps with a map poised in my lap—or just because I wanted to see “where that road goes.”

Usually, I had a pretty good idea where we would wind up, but if we happened to get lost, I would be the recipient of ire from the front seat.  Still, at least we found out where that road went.

Finding out where roads go means traveling.  1 Corinthians 16 involves plenty of that.  The apostle Paul spent a lot of time on the road.  The Corinthian church themselves were familiar with movement.  The city of Corinth was a hub of activity in the Roman Empire.  Folks were coming and going from every direction.

Paul is writing this from Ephesus, which is in modern-day Turkey.  It’s on the other side of the Aegean Sea.  He’s making his travel plans; he is putting in place his itinerary.

There are some things he would like for them to have in order before he arrives.  At the top of the list is the collection for the church in Jerusalem.  The Jerusalem church is poor.  The believers there are in financial need.  However, there are other factors in play besides the economic ones.

There is an acknowledgment that Jerusalem is the birthplace of the faith.  The Word went out from there.  It is, so to speak, the mother church.  With this “collection for the saints,” they are honoring that reality.

Paul asks the Corinthians to set aside some money when they gather “on the first day of every week,” when they come together for worship (v. 2).  He doesn’t want to show up with their being unprepared and having to scramble to get the funds in place.  It could be a bit embarrassing.

With this appeal for assistance, we might wonder about those with more modest resources.  Certainly, we all have various gifts and abilities.  There’s the often-mentioned itemized request for giving: time, talents, and treasure.  It frequently is the case that those with the least in material possessions do the most with their time and talents—possessions with even greater value.

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Is it safe to say, Paul’s words that “each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn” applies to us?  Can we do so, without asking questions like, “Are they deserving?  Are they one of us?”  Who among us hasn’t been the recipient of God’s grace?  Have we deserved the grace of God, and that in an overwhelming measure?  If we have deserved it, then it isn’t grace.

Verses 3 and 4 show Paul being quite scrupulous in avoiding the appearance of misconduct.  He wants them to select the couriers in charge of the money for the trip to Jerusalem.  He’s fine with sending them off with his blessing and letters of introduction.  Okay, if they want the apostle to come along for the ride, he’s willing to go.

Now it’s time for those travel plans mentioned earlier.  Being in Ephesus, Paul is almost directly across the sea from Corinth.  It would be a quick trip by water.  But he wants to go overland and visit Macedonia, which will take him in a giant loop around the Aegean.

Paul wants to take some time in Macedonia, and he wants to take some time with you, Corinthians.  Maybe you will still have the welcome mat out when winter arrives.  He doesn’t want this to be a flying visit.

Then we come to verses 8 and 9.  The apostle says, “I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.”  There are many adversaries.

So often, when we encounter opposition, we quickly conclude it is a sign God wants us to choose another path.  Where’s that detour?  Have we read the signs wrong?  Have we misinterpreted God’s will?  Serving the Lord shouldn’t be this darn hard.

On the other hand, sometimes we will keep beating our head against the wall.  We will engage in head banging.  And by head banging, I’m not talking about what lovers of heavy metal do when they’re cranking up the volume.  Sometimes—I’m not sure how often—we get punched in the face, and we might reply, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”  To borrow a thought from what Jesus says at the time of Paul’s conversion, we will kick against the goads, to our own distress (Acts 26:14).  Maybe it really is time for a detour!

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photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

It takes spiritually enlightened reason.  Both are necessary.  Still, it’s easy to minister to and share God’s love with those who are kind to us, those who are grateful.

Cannot an adversary become an ally?  A foe become a friend?

Note that the opposition is beyond, as Paul says, “a wide door for effective work.”  The word for “effective” is ἐνεργής (energēs), the source of our word “energy.”  Paul believes there is some good energy, some good vibes in play.

On a side note, the apostle wants to send some good energy to his friends in Corinth.  “Don’t give Timothy a hard time,” he writes.  That young man is Paul’s protégé.  Don’t give him grief because of his age.

He mentions Apollos, who is an eloquent preacher well known to the Corinthians.  Paul wanted him to come and visit them, but as he says, “he was not at all willing to come now” (v. 12).  There is an alternate reading: “it was not at all God’s will.”  So basically, Apollos will come when the time is right.

Lest they stray from the path, lest they detour, Paul delivers some concise directives: “Keep alert; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong” (v. 13).  It’s the third in that list I find especially interesting.  “Be courageous” in Greek is ανδριζεσθε (andrizesthe).  It literally means “be a man.”  I don’t suppose it would be a big surprise to hear “being a man” linked with “being courageous.”

If you’re wondering what the command to “be a man” has to do with the other half of the human race, don’t worry, I’ll get to it in a few moments!

New York Times columnist David Brooks published an article entitled, “Before Manliness Lost Its Virtue.”[1]  He uses as a starting point the ancient Greek concept of manliness.  “Greek manliness,” he says, “started from a different place than ours does now.  For the ancient Greeks, it would have been incomprehensible to count yourself an alpha male simply because you can run a trading floor or sell an apartment because you gilded a faucet handle.

“For them, real men defended or served their city, or performed some noble public service.  Braying after money was the opposite of manliness.  For the Greeks, that was just avariciousness, an activity that shrunk you down into a people-pleasing marketer or hollowed you out because you pursued hollow things.”

Brooks talks about certain traits the ancient Greeks considered indicative of a manly man: being courageous, assertive, competitive, demonstrating his prowess, being self-confident.  Nonetheless, there is something else about the manly man.  “[H]e is also touchy.  He is outraged if others do not grant him the honor that is his due…  They are hard to live with.  They are constantly picking fights and engaging in peacock displays.”

He does mention a corrective the Greeks had.  They “took manliness to the next level.  On top of the honor code, they gave us the concept of magnanimity…  The magnanimous leader possesses all the spirited traits described above, but uses his traits not just to puff himself up, but to create a just political order.”

Here’s where I get back to the question of what “being a man” says to women and children.  Clearly, the apostle is addressing the entire church.

He praises women who have served Christ and the church, sometimes at great personal risk.  Paul refers to Chloe as one of the church’s leaders (1:11).  And in another letter, he gives God thanks for Phoebe, a deacon, for Mary (one of several Marys, we don’t know which), the sisters Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and the beloved Persis, among others (Ro 16:1,6, 12).

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Iesha Evans in Baton Rouge on 9 July 2016

Keep alert; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.  It’s safe to say these women have demonstrated—they have lived—the four-fold directive of verse 13.

So, having said all of that, we immediately have this.  “Let all that you do be done in love” (v. 14).  Be a man.  Be courageous, but do it in love.  Maybe we can say, as we saw earlier, be magnanimous!

The last part of the chapter, with Paul’s greeting of various people in Corinth, is appropriate for All Saints Sunday.

Verse 20 calls for greeting one another “with a holy kiss.”  In cultures where kissing is a normal part of greeting, this isn’t such a strange thing.  The point is it’s supposed to be a “holy” kiss, not something else.

I have a quick story along those lines.  When Banu and I were in seminary, I took a worship class taught by a Presbyterian professor.  She gave us an assignment.  On Sunday, we were to attend a church with a worship service very different from the one we were used to.  There was an Armenian Orthodox church about a mile down the road, so I chose it for my assignment.

The entire service was in the Armenian language, except for the sermon and the prayer of confession, which were in English.  Included in their liturgy was the kiss of peace, the holy kiss.  The only other people in the pew where I was sitting was a family with a father, mother, and daughter.  She looked like she was about 20.  They started down the line, kissing each other on the cheek.  Then the daughter started moving toward me; I became a bit nervous.  She extended her hand, so a holy kiss turned into a holy handshake.  Potential drama averted!

“Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord” (v. 22).  We go from a holy kiss to a pronouncement of a curse.  Still, we might think of it as a self-imposed curse.  A rejection of love, let alone a rejection of the Lord’s love, in itself would mean accepting a curse.

However, right after that we end on a high note.  “Our Lord, come!”  That’s the word maranatha.  It also means, “our Lord is coming.”

So, to summarize, how are we supporting each other?  Regarding the church in Jerusalem, Paul was speaking first of money.  But as we saw, there are things more important than money.  (Amazingly enough!)  How are we doing with holding each other up?  How are we doing with holding those up in our community?

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Regarding Timothy, he reminds the Corinthians “he is doing the work of the Lord just as I am.”  How do we support those doing the work of the Lord in our midst?

And how are we doing in navigating the detours in serving the Lord?  How are we doing in discerning the detours, knowing which way to go?  Our Lord is much more than willing to lead us.  The Lord is ever more ready to hear than we are to pray.

What does all of this look like?  I can’t answer that for you.  We have to answer that question for ourselves.

So, we go through the detours of life, seeking our way home.  We hear the call, “Maranatha.”  Our Lord Jesus, come!  Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is coming.

 

[1] www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/opinion/scaramucci-mccain-masculinity-white-house.html


good grief

A few years ago, I preached on Psalm 137.  In that church, just like here, there was an anthem between the scripture readings; we didn’t read them all at once.  As a result, something happened there that also happened a few moments ago.  Immediately after reading verse 9, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” I said (I’ll admit, with a smile), “This is the word of the Lord.”  And the congregation responded, “Thanks be to God!”

Yes, happy are those who beat Babylonian babies against the rock!  Amen!  Hallelujah!

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Psalm 137 is in a group classified as “imprecatory” psalms, psalms in which curses are invoked, in which evil is invoked.  They are not to be repeated in polite company!  One of my favorite examples comes from Psalm 58.  “The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked” (v. 10).  And there’s a charming response: “People will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth’” (v. 11).

Psalms like today’s text also create an embarrassing, uneasy feeling.  Even as noteworthy a figure as C. S. Lewis suggested an alternative way to look at it.  He, in effect, spiritualized it.  He suggested seeing the Babylonian babies, not literally as children, but as temptations.  He said they’re “the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments.”  They “woo and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them, we feel we are being cruel to animals.”[1]

In other words, we shouldn’t think of them as actual babies, but as apparently harmless attractions—and not yielding to them would be like mistreating a little puppy!

I can understand the impulse that wants to soften the blow, to keep the raw emotion of our psalm at arm’s length.  It’s like the feeling we get when, in the presence of someone gripped with pain and anguish, we hear all kinds of utterances that seem vile and even blasphemous.

When Banu and I lived in Philadelphia, we both worked for a while at a nursing home, Broomall Presbyterian Village.  Banu was the chaplain, and I assisted the social services director, Pat.  When I wasn’t helping her with paperwork, she would just have me go and visit the residents.

There was a variety of them, from people who were completely lucid—but couldn’t move very well because of various conditions—to those with advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  There was a particular woman who was still somewhat active, and who also had a very active vocabulary!

More often than not, upon entering her room, you could anticipate being greeted with quite colorful language, and by that I mean expecting a stream of expletives.  “What the blankety-blank do you want?  Who the blank are you?”  (You may fill in those blanks as you wish.)  I would tell her that I was working with Pat, and I was simply there to visit her for whatever reason.  She might cut loose with another tirade.

Call me a masochist, but in a way, I actually looked forward to visiting her!

If it was evident that she really didn’t want me there, I would leave.  Other times, after the initial salvo, she would welcome a visit.  I wonder if that foul language was her way of dealing with the fear and pain, knowing she was slipping.  And miraculously, once in a while, she would actually smile when she saw me.

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Her demeanor made her a difficult person to deal with, to say the least.  In a similar way, the language in our psalm makes it difficult to deal with.

I believe I’ve only heard one sermon on this psalm.  It was when I was in my early twenties and not yet a Presbyterian.  My impression was the fellow preaching didn’t want to deal with the tough language in it.  He read the first verse, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”  As soon as he got to the phrase, “there we sat down,” he stopped and said, “That was their first mistake!”

He then launched into an entire sermon on the need to praise the Lord in all circumstances.  It seemed to me that message could be used for any number of scriptures.  It seemed he wasn’t really engaging with the word, and he wasn’t honoring those who had been exiled to Babylon.

As I’ve suggested, it is understandable if we’re reluctant to address the grief and pain in the psalm, especially because it involves curses!  I will be the first to admit that trying to reconcile this talk of curses and blood and vengeance with the God I know as the God of love—as the God of Jesus Christ—is not something I readily embrace.

Reed Lessing, teacher at Concordia University in St. Paul, explains to us the vengeance of God “arises out of a cultural milieu in which cursing was an integral part of life.  Ancient Near Eastern texts are filled with treaty curses, inscriptional curses, and incantations to undo curses.  Often these blessings and curses were employed to ensure a vassal’s loyalty to his sovereign.”[2]  It was a way of ensuring fidelity and devotion to one’s leader.  We see that in Deuteronomy 30.  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (v. 19).

Lessing adds that “it is out of this understanding that the imprecatory psalms are prayed.  When psalmists call down curses, it is because enemies have been disloyal to Yahweh’s covenant.”  When you live in a world where curses are as customary as the sun rising and setting, it doesn’t seem so unusual.

So, what good is Psalm 137 for us?  Why should we bother with this psalm and others like it?  We haven’t been sent into exile; we haven’t had to live like refugees.

Today’s psalm, to a large degree, is about identity.  When things are taken away from us, when we’re called to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” there can be a powerful temptation to just give up (v. 4).  We can forget who we are; we can lose our identity.  Clearly, we don’t have to go into a literal exile for that to happen.

Psalm 137, and others like it, provides a common language for grief.  Walter Bruggemann, in his article “Conversations among Exiles,” makes the observation, “From Israel the church can learn a better way to deal with grief and rage.”[3]  The Israelites had plenty of experience in that department.

He says that “the church can offer ways of speaking and acting that the dominant society regards as subversive, but without which we cannot for long stay human.  It can express sadness, rage, and loss as an alternative to the denial that inevitably breeds brutality.”  When we bottle things up, or pretend that they aren’t there, that stuff usually comes back with a vengeance!

The language of lament in the biblical tradition is a gift.  Bruggemann concludes that the church “can be a voice of holiness that counters the trivial commodity-centered world by the practice of disciplines that make communion possible.  It can be a voice of imaginative, neighborly transformation…  And it can express new…possibilities, rooted in the truth of God’s good news.”

We do have that common, shared language for grief.  Scriptures like today’s psalm provide it.  It is a language for grief that is holy, even with the curses.

There’s something tricky about grieving—we’re not always aware that we’re doing it.  Sometimes there can be an indefinable heaviness; sometimes there is no emotional content at all.  Sometimes we have to plunge beneath layers of anxiety and anger and rage and sadness.  Sometimes there may be the fear of the future.

It is important to recognize when we are grieving.

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The late Charles Schultz, through his cartoon “Peanuts,” employed plenty of theological and psychological concepts.  Linus, besides carrying his security blanket, was the biblical scholar.  His sister Lucy was the judgmental figure.  And poor Charlie Brown was the one who most frequently cried out, “Good grief!”  He probably didn’t realize it, but there is wisdom in the idea of “good grief.”  Or we can at least say: there is wisdom in recognizing our grief and working through it in a surprisingly good way.

When we aren’t aware of our grief, or when we aren’t able to name it, it can drive us in unhealthy ways.  We have major difficulty in finding some kind of resolution.

So, what can we say about those primal urges of fear and fury in our psalm?  By themselves, they’re neither good nor bad.  The question is, “Can we channel that stuff in constructive ways?”  Another way of looking at it would be: how do we take that stuff and honor Christ and Christ in each other?

I want to give one possible answer to that question by leaving us with a prayer request.  This comes from our missionary friends in France.  We can clearly see those urges of fear and fury at work.  In this case, those forces are definitely bad.  They are directed at servants of the Lord.

We are entreated, “Please pray for our brother ‘Gabriel’ and especially for his wife.  Gabriel escaped terrible persecution and mistreatment in his home country and has been seeking a means for his wife to join him.

“He sent us a message that his wife, who was in hiding, has been found by the extremist group of another faith which group was the source of his persecution.  She is now physically sick and emotionally at her ends.  Her captors are threatening her.

“Gabriel himself is very discouraged and depressed.  He is considering returning to his country, which would probably mean dire consequences, even death.

“Please pray for a miracle.”

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Can we honor Christ and Christ in each other?  We can join with our brothers and sisters in distress.  We all can sing the Lord’s song, even if it is in a foreign land.

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 136.

[2] concordiatheology.org/2011/02/on-suffering-the-bible-and-preaching-part-2

[3] www.religion-online.org/article/conversations-among-exiles/


what are you doing here?

Have you ever been so confused that you didn’t know up from down, black from white, in from out?  Have you ever forgotten someone’s name?  I’m sure we’ve all done that.  However, I’m not talking about someone we’ve only met once or twice.  I’m talking about someone we really know—a person whose name we ought to remember.  I’ll admit, that’s been me on more than one occasion!

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Now that is being confused.  We could think of other examples of confusion, unless we’re too confused to do so.

In 1 Kings 19, we catch someone in his own state of confusion, the prophet Elijah.  We’ll get to that later on.

Here’s a bit of the back-story.  Ahab is king, and Jezebel is his foreign wife.  Her father is a priest of the goddess Astarte.  Astarte, also known as Asherah, is the consort, the companion, of Baal.  At this time, the land is experiencing a terrible drought.  Elijah, the prophet of the Lord, says the rain will come only when he gives the word.  The priests of Baal can call on their god all they want.  Only the prophet of Yahweh can announce the end of this vicious drought.

In chapter 18, we have a quite bloody scene.  Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to see which god can burn up the sacrificial offering which has been laid out.  When fire from heaven descends and consumes the offering, Elijah is proven right.  In a moment that can only be called zealous, he has the other prophets put to death.

But before all the butchery, there is a note of humor!  While the prophets of Baal are crying out to their god, Elijah decides to be a comedian.  He says, “Cry aloud!  Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (v. 27).  Some translations, instead of “he has wandered away,”[1] have “he is relieving himself,” or he “is out sitting on the toilet”! (New Living Translation, Living Bible)

2 kg[not the same Baal, but maybe the point is made]

So basically, that is what’s been going on as we get to chapter 19.

The king lets the queen know what Elijah has done.  To say that Jezebel is displeased with Elijah would be an understatement.  She sends a messenger to tell the prophet, “You’re a dead man.”

So, on the heels of his greatest victory, Elijah takes to his heels!  He has defeated the prophets of Baal; the rains have returned at his word, but he is scared for his life.  He takes off, and not only does he take off; he leaves the country.  Elijah flees all the way to Beer-sheba, about one hundred miles away, in the southern kingdom of Judah.

Something to understand about Elijah is he is considered perhaps the foremost of the prophets.  For example, in the book of Malachi, his return is expected.  “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (4:5-6).  Receive his family counseling or else!

On the nights when the Passover seder is observed, a chair is always left empty for Elijah.

In the New Testament, Jesus says Elijah has come in the person of John the Baptist.  This is right after he has taken Peter, James, and John up the mountain where the Transfiguration occurs, and Moses and Elijah have had a little conversation with Jesus (Mt 17).

So Elijah winds up with some hefty credentials!

Very briefly, he leaves his servant in Beer-sheba, and strikes off alone into the wilderness where he finds “a solitary broom tree,” also known as a juniper tree (v. 4).  He lies down, ready to die.  An angel visits, giving him food and water, and lets him know he must continue his journey.  Elijah travels “forty days and forty nights,” symbolic in the Bible of a very long time (v. 8).

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He takes refuge in a cave at Mount Horeb, where Moses received the Ten Commandments.

“Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (v. 9).  Here’s his response.  It’s rather lengthy, and we’ll hear it again.  “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” (v. 10).

What are you doing here?

On the face of it, the answer seems obvious.  He just woke up; he had been asleep.  Of course, that’s not really the question.  Aside from the “here,” there’s the desire to know, “why are you here”?  Putting a finer point on it, we might see it as, “Why did you run from Jezebel?”  Why were you afraid?  Why did you fear?

Is it possible that the full weight of hearing a death sentence pronounced shook his resolve?  Does it make it more real?

The Lord tells Elijah to take his place on the mountain, as Moses did centuries earlier, because there’s about to be a divine visitation.  Where is the Lord?  A storm arrives, leaving destruction in its wake.  But no, the Lord isn’t there.  Then there’s an earthquake, shaking up the place, sending boulders loose.  After that, a raging fire breaks out, filling the sky with smoke.  Still, neither one is a sign of God’s presence.

After all the drama—after the blowing, shaking, and burning—there is an eerie stillness.  Remember if there’s anyone who can appreciate spectacle, it’s Elijah.  We are introduced to him just as he’s going to confront the king regarding the drought.  And of course, there’s the high drama when he faces the prophets of Baal.

As verse 12 puts it, there was “after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”  The King James Version has the familiar “after the fire a still small voice.”

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[photo by Kelly3339 on Pixabay]

“When Elijah heard it…”  He heard in the quiet of the hush.  He listened to the absence of sound.  Elijah…  Elijah…  Elijah!

“What are you doing here?”

I said earlier Elijah has his own state of confusion.  This, I would submit, is evidence of such.  I also would submit there’s a bit of speculation on my part!

What is Elijah’s response?  “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” (v. 14).  Wait, haven’t we heard that before?

Elijah repeats his previous answer verbatim.  (Here’s more speculation.)  It seems to be rehearsed.  Does he have nothing else to say?  Is he making excuses?  Could he be trying to prove his worth?  Is he trying to convince himself of something?  Is he trying to convince the Lord?

Thinking of Elijah’s repeated answer as a narrative as to where he is, I wonder if there’s a narrative I hold onto?  Do I have a story I repeat to deflect those kinds of questions and concerns?  Why am I here?  Why do I run, not necessarily from Jezebel, but from whatever?  Why do I fear?  Are there excuses I make?

However, more importantly, whose am I?  To whom do I belong?

In the collected Letters and Papers from Prison, there is a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer which he wrote about nine months before being executed by the Nazis.  He was killed mere weeks before his prison camp was liberated by the Allies.  Here are the final lines of the poem, titled “Who am I?”[2]

“Who am I?  This or the Other? / Am I one person today and tomorrow another? / Am I both at once?  A hypocrite before others, / And before myself a contemptible, woebegone weakling? / Or is something within me like a beaten army / Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

“Who am I?  They mock me, these lonely questions of mine, / Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.”

5 kgCan anyone relate to the thought, “Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?”  I think Elijah demonstrates that vividly.  In ways, I feel like I also display that quality.

And then, those final words.  “Who am I?  They mock me, these lonely questions of mine, / Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.”

The Lord answers Elijah.  The Lord gives him a mission.  He is to be a kingmaker: Hazael in Aram and Jehu in Israel.  As his protégé, he is to anoint Elisha.

To Elijah, the Lord affirms, you are my prophet.  You are my servant.  However, you aren’t the only faithful one.  Verse 18 says, “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”  That’s both a comfort and a correction.

The Lord uses the language of “kiss,” with all the intimacy and consequences it carries.  Every mouth that has not kissed Baal.  The faithful ones have not given themselves to this foreign god, this false god.  They have not pledged their allegiance.  They have not promised their hearts.

We should take note: in Hebrew thought, “heart” is not the seat of emotion.  It is not where we feel love, the way we reckon it.  It is the source of attention, choice, concern, imagination, understanding.  It is where we love God and love our neighbor.  Pledging ourselves to a false god, to an idol, interferes with all of that.  Indeed, it sends it in the wrong direction.

We have here a tale of rediscovery.  Despite his protests to the contrary, Elijah’s actions reveal he has forgotten he is a prophet of God.  He flees in disorder from victory already achieved.  Elijah is reminded who he is.  True to his nature as one with a flair for the dramatic, when he ascends from the earth, he does so in a chariot of fire.

So often, we forget who we are.  As the children of God, as the saved of our Lord Jesus Christ, as those sustained by the Holy Spirit—when we remember that and act on it—confusion is set aside.  Harmony and order are set in place.

Though we might flee in disorder from victory already achieved, Jesus makes us more than conquerors.

What are you doing here?

Whatever I am doing, whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.

 

[1] the word for “wander” is שִֺיג, sig

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 348.


the ravine of blackest shadow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.


confident despair

Right after mini-sabbatical, I am not going to begin with the calming waters of the Gulf and the sunshine, but rather, with a visit to King Jehoshaphat of Judah.  How about that?  Does that have you jumping with joy?  In 2 Chronicles 18, he was Jumping Jehoshaphat, as in jumping into Ahab’s ill-fated war.  In chapter 20, war is being forced upon him and his kingdom.  Moabites, Ammonites, and “some of the Meunites” are on the way.

Understanding that a multitude is approaching, one with bad intent, Jehoshaphat is rightly concerned.  No, he is rightly terrified.  He summons leaders from throughout the land and he lays it all out before them.

They look around.  They are few, but their enemies are many.  They don’t have the strength to stand against them.  What are they to do?

The king sees but one option.  Military might won’t save them.  The power of horse and sword will not avail.  Jehoshaphat calls the people to prayer.  As we’re told, “he set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (v. 3).

1 chWhat would happen if our political and military leaders resorted to spiritual methods of resolving differences?  What would nonbelievers say?  I suppose most would be grateful that a nonviolent way was followed.  Some might go along with “spiritual but not religious.”  What would certain fundamentalists say?  There might be those who would protest if their particular faith of whatever stripe weren’t named and promoted.

Still, many would say, “You’re dreaming.  How do you know the powers-that-be would agree if a spiritual or some other kind of conflict resolution were pursued?  And besides, we wouldn’t have a chance to try out our nifty new weapons.”

Fortunately, Jehoshaphat realizes something when he asks, “O Lord, God of our ancestors, are you not God in heaven?  Do you not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations?  In your hand are power and might, so that no one is able to withstand you” (v. 6).  We can’t even infect you with the latest virus!

He acknowledges how God has protected them in the past.  A sanctuary was built to honor the Lord.

He continues his prayer, “If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house, and before you, for your name is in this house, and cry to you in our distress, and you will hear and save” (v. 9).

In time, their admiration of the temple turned into idolatry.  It was believed that no harm could come to them, because it was the place where sacrifice was made to the Lord.  It was the dwelling place of their God.  The prophet Jeremiah tried to warn them when the Babylonians became a threat, but to say his message fell on deaf ears would be putting it mildly.

Still, that’s over two centuries in the future.

He ends his prayer by admitting their futility, “we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us.  We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (v. 12).

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We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.

In his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas tells us, “In May 1932, a few months before Hitler came to power,” Bonhoeffer preached a sermon using that verse as his scripture reading.[1]  “This text was on his mind a long time before and a long time since.”

Bonhoeffer came from a family that was well-to-do, one that was cultured.  His family held to the best of German tradition.  However, the emergence of the Nazis was seen by them as a disaster and as a disgrace for the nation.  They viewed the whole thing with disgust.

As time went by, and as the atrocities of Hitler became more blatant, Bonhoeffer began to wonder, if no other course were possible to remove this madman (all other avenues having failed), would violence be acceptable?  With much struggle and with much soul searching, he believed he received his answer from the Lord.  When confronting this level of evil, violent resistance was acceptable.  It might even be necessary.

We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.

So back to Jehoshaphat.  What happens next?  How is his prayer answered?  A fellow named Jahaziel steps forward with a word from God.  He relays this message: the Lord says not to be afraid of this great horde.  “The battle is not yours but God’s” (v. 15).  With that, they are all led in blessing and celebration.

The next morning, King Jehoshaphat appoints singers to march before the army and sing praises.  We have a military formation with worship leaders serving as the vanguard, leading the troops.  Singers and musicians going into battle isn’t strange, in and of itself.  Throughout the centuries, music has been used to stir up a fighting spirit.  In this case, it is the worship of the Lord, not an anthem to king and country.  (Or queen and country.)

Apparently, the strategy works.  They have employed some divinely inspired tactics!  We know that because their enemies all turn on each other.  This is the very definition of “friendly fire.”  And they give a brilliant performance of firing friendly, because not a single one of them survives!

When the people come to survey the situation, they see all the dead soldiers, but they also see plunder aplenty.  Livestock abounds, with items of all sorts, clothing of all array, and they come upon some really pricey stuff.  It is truly an embarrassment of riches.  Think of it as the world’s largest estate sale.  They’re hauling it off for the next three days.

After all that, they got together, and they “had church.”  They got to blessing the Lord so much that they changed the name of the place.  They called it the Valley of Beracah, that is, the Valley of Blessing!  They were talking about that worship service for a long time.

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It appears word got out about the fate of those Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites, because we’re told, “The fear of God came on all the kingdoms of the countries when they heard that the Lord had fought against the enemies of Israel.  And the realm of Jehoshaphat was quiet, for his God gave him rest all around” (vv. 29-30).

It seems that everyone got the memo: lay off Judah for a while, that is, unless you want to find yourself going after your neighbors—and your neighbors coming for you!

The Scottish minister Alexander MacLaren was born in 1826.  (Remember that date.  You’ll understand why shortly.)  He commented on Jehoshaphat’s prayer, saying it demonstrated “the confidence of despair” of he and his people.[2]  The confidence of despair—what a delightfully counter-intuitive insight!

They all know they are up against it, but “the very depth of despair sets them to climb to the height of trust.”  We know not what to do, but our eyes are upon you.  “Blessed is the desperation which catches at God’s hand; firm is the trust which leaps from despair!”

That blessed desperation formed much of church history in this part of the country.  In the early and mid-1800s, central and western New York experienced numerous revivals of faith.  The evangelist Charles Finney is credited with giving the region the name, “The Burned Over District.”  That is, burned over with the fire of the Spirit.

In 1826, Finney came to Auburn, New York.  This place was in the midst of a powerful revival.  He visited First Presbyterian Church, whose pastor was Rev. Dirck Lansing.  Finney tells this story:[3]

“Rev. Mr. Lansing had a large congregation, and a very intelligent one.  The revival soon took effect among the people and became powerful.  It was at that time that Dr. Steel of Auburn, who still resides there, was so greatly blessed in his soul as to become quite another man.  Dr. Steel was an elder in the Presbyterian church when I arrived there.  He was a very timid and doubting kind of Christian and had but little Christian efficiency because he had but very little faith.”  No doubt many of us can often identify with that, to one extent or another.

Finney continues, “He soon, however, became deeply convicted of sin, and descended into the depths of humiliation and distress, almost to despair.  He continued in this state for weeks, until one night in a prayer meeting he was quite overcome with feelings, and sunk down helpless on the floor.  Then God opened his eyes to the reality of his salvation in Christ…”

A few weeks later, Brother Steel came to Finney and spoke with enthusiastic emphasis, “‘Brother Finney, they have buried the Savior, but Christ is risen.’  He received such a wonderful baptism of the Holy Ghost, that he has been the rejoicing and the wonder of God’s people who have known him ever since.”

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There’s some of that confidence of despair!

We might be reminded of what John the Baptist said to the crowds who sought him out.  They asked, “What then should we do?”

There was a movie in 1982, The Year of Living Dangerously, with Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, and Linda Hunt.  Hunt won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Billy Kwan.  She was the first person to win an Oscar for playing a character of the opposite sex.

“The year of living dangerously” refers to the Indonesia of 1965.  President Sukarno is threatened by General Suharto during an attempted coup.  Mass killings are launched.  During the mayhem, Billy asks the question, “What then must we do?  We must give with love to whoever God has placed in our path.”

Adding a bit of levity, a saying might come to mind, a saying which goes back centuries, “Bloom where you are planted.”  It has been made popular today by the noted philosopher Mary Engelbreit.

Here’s one more note from our friend Rev. MacLaren, who speaks in poetic fashion.  “When the valley is filled with mist and swathed in evening gloom, it is the time to lift our gaze to the peaks that glow in perpetual sunshine.  Wise and happy shall we be if the sense of helplessness begets in us the energy of a desperate faith.”

Have any of us ever experienced that strange reality of confident despair?  I’m not talking about despair the way we usually think of it.  I’m not suggesting a situation when life seems to have lost all meaning.  I’m not referring to when we feel all hope is gone.  Our hope is found in the unshaking power and love of Jesus Christ.

I’m speaking of the confident despair Brother Steel passed through to find salvation and life in the Lord.  He displayed his own desperate faith.  I’m speaking of the confident despair of Billy Kwan during the mayhem and murder of his beloved Indonesia.

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[Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan in "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1982)]

MacLaren adds, “We are most likely to conquer if we lift up the voice of thanks for victory in advance, and go into the battle expecting to triumph, because we trust in God.”

When Jahaziel brought the word of God to Jehoshaphat, he had a decision.  He could have simply plunged his army into a useless battle and suffered a devastating defeat.  He could have surrendered.  Or he could do as he did—trust that the Lord was with them.  Trust that this was his answer to prayer.  Trust and see what the Lord will do.

The same is true with us.  Do we plunge headlong, come hell or high water?  Do we simply surrender?  Or do we give thanks, relying on the grace of God to see us through?  Are we willing to look despair in the face and say, “You will not defeat me”?

We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.

 

[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 538.

[2] biblehub.com/commentaries/2_chronicles/20-12.htm

[3] www.gospeltruth.net/memoirsrestored/memrest15.htm


Jonah, where is the love?

I said a couple of weeks ago that sometimes events happen during the week that must be addressed on Sunday.  Sometimes it works in reverse.  On Wednesday, Inauguration Day took place in an atmosphere of a, let’s say, rather argumentative transfer of power.  And look at who’s featured in today’s Old Testament reading.  It’s none other than that argumentative prophet, Jonah.  I don’t think he set out to be a curmudgeon, but that’s how he wound up.

1 jonI will connect the dots between Inauguration Day and Jonah in a few moments.

Those who know nothing else about him remember that he’s the guy who got swallowed by a fish.  (Or was it a whale?  Whales aren’t fish!)

Of the few memories I have from my brief attendance at Sunday school when I was a kid, one is of the story of Jonah.  (I didn’t start going to church in earnest until I was in my twenties.)

Our teacher, a nice old lady named Mrs. Williams, was fond of using those images that cling to a felt backboard.  Seeing the figures of the prophet and the whale floating on that two-dimensional sea of felt inspired all kinds of questions within me.  How could Jonah possibly survive inside that creature?  He was there for three days and three nights!  How could he breathe?  Why didn’t the animal’s digestive juices go to work on him?

It really doesn’t work to just talk about chapter 3 without telling the rest of the story.  And what a story it is!

The book of Jonah has plenty of satire.  There are numerous places where the humor breaks through.  If you want a story filled with zany and sarcastic images, this is the one for you.  The first word of the book in Hebrew (וַיְהׅי, vayehi) means “and it happened.”  Once upon a time.

The Lord wants Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn the people to turn from their wicked ways.  Something to understand about Nineveh is that it is a bitter enemy of Israel.  It might be the least likely place Jonah would want to visit.  He buys his ticket, but it’s for a ship sailing in the opposite direction.  It’s headed for Tarshish.  It’s thought to have been a city in modern-day Spain, at the other end of the Mediterranean.

So basically, God tells him to go to one place, and he heads off for the other side of the world.

I don’t suppose anyone can relate to Jonah, that is, sensing God would have us do something—and our really not wanting to.  It’s “really not wanting to” to the point of running away as far as possible.

Very briefly, a storm breaks out, and the sailors are doing their best to handle it.  While the tempest is raging, Jonah is down below snoozing; he’s taking a nap.  They wake him up, and he winds up telling the crew to throw him into the sea, and the storm will cease.  Jonah is ready to die.  Anything is better than setting foot in that horrible city.  Even spending time in a fishy gullet beats it!

Jesus speaks of the sign of Jonah (Mt 12:38-41).  He sees himself in Jonah’s three-day tour of the deep.  The ancient Hebrews spoke of Leviathan, the great sea monster dwelling in the watery depths.  Jonah prays, “out of the belly of Sheol I cried” (2:2).  This is a picture of death.  When that critter upchucks the prophet—that must have been a serious case of indigestion—Jonah, figuratively, goes from death to life.  And just as Jonah emerges from the grave, so does Jesus.

I’ll jump ahead to chapter 4, which is after we find out his message has done its job.

This is not what Jonah wanted.  He was hoping they’d shake his hand, say “nice sermon,” and then go right back to their deliciously evil stuff.  Unlike Abraham, who didn’t want Sodom destroyed, Jonah’s already got a spot in mind with a good view of the city.  He’ll set up his lawn chair, kick back, and get ready to watch the fire fall!  Okay Lord, smite them, O mighty smiter!

Unfortunately for Jonah, God has the best interests of the city in mind, and Nineveh is spared.  This is where we’re treated to some of that argumentative character I mentioned at the beginning.  In verse 1, the Hebrew word for “displeased” appears twice, and the word for “angry” (חׇרׇה, charah) literally means “hot,” “to burn.”  One might say Jonah is blazing with fury.

Here’s where I connect some of the dots between Inauguration Day and Jonah.  He would rather die than have things work out for the Ninevites.  Does that sound familiar?  When we watch the news networks, when we peruse social media, it seems like it would kill some people to say something good about “the others.”  I would rather die than give them a thumbs-up!

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As for Nineveh, things work out so well that when the king hears Jonah’s message, he not only repents but he also issues a decree.  “No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything.  They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.  Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.  All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (3:7-8).

Even the animals have to repent!

Maybe it’s clear by now that Jonah is a bundle of contradictions.  He senses his God-given duty, but he fights like the devil against it.  He sets off on the longest journey he possibly can and finds himself back at square one.  The thing that he believed would destroy him becomes the vehicle of his deliverance.  The message of the grace and forgiveness of the Lord becomes in him an occasion for anger and bigotry.

Jonah almost literally has to be dragged kicking and screaming to do his job.  He’s successful in his God-given task, and you better believe, he’s mad as a wet hen about it!  And yet Jesus sees in Jonah a lesson for others.  That’s the power of grace in action.

Maybe we can see in Jonah the contradictions in all of us.  Indeed, even as the book is drawing to a close, Jonah still has his priorities messed up.  He’s upset because the plant that gave him shade from the hot sun has dried up, but he couldn’t care less what happens to the people in the city.

There is another connection between Inauguration Day and Jonah, and it’s a contrast, thanks to Amanda Gorman.  At 22, she is the youngest poet in US history to appear at an inaugural event.  Her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” begins with these words: “When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? / The loss we carry. A sea we must wade. / We braved the belly of the beast.” [1]  Maybe Jonah can relate to that.

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["There is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it."]

She also references words from the prophet Micah.  Speaking of the vision of the Lord’s embrace of all peoples, we hear, “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken” (Mi 4:4).  Vines and fig trees are signs of prosperity.

What a contrast.  Micah speaks of hope and courage, and Jonah sits under a bush, stewing with anger!

Still, we hear the words of Jesus.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-44).  Inauguration Day was four days ago.  How are we doing with loving our enemies?  Must we regard each other as enemies?

(By the way, the last verse in that passage, verse 48, has created plenty of confusion.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The word “perfect” doesn’t mean “flawless.”  Rather, it means “complete.”  Jesus is saying we are to be completed, we are to be perfected.  In the same way, the US Constitution’s “a more perfect union” doesn’t mean a flawless union.  If that’s the case, Lord help us!)

Now, back to love!  Danielle Kingstrom speaks about love, saying, “Love is…not an easy phenomenon to engage.  It comes out of nowhere and rams into you like a semi-truck on the freeway.  It smashes all your senses and discombobulates your reason.  Of course, people are afraid of it!  It’s an explosion of accident and attention all at once.  What the heck do we do with energy like that when it surges?”[2]

Here’s a lesson for Jonah, and here’s a lesson for us.  She adds, “Love doesn’t have to decide what to ‘do’ about certain groups of people until love is face to face with the person.”  We can be face to face with people in a way that exudes disgust and disdain and dread.  So Jonah, where is the love?  (The Black-Eyed Peas asked that same question.)

“Love is like a mirror…  It shows you where you need to grow…  The thistles and thorns will stick us—it’s challenging to see a reflection of ourselves that we hadn’t expected.  But love is unexpected like that.”  It’s so easy to simply dismiss someone as lacking comprehension or lacking character.

And here’s a crazy thought: even if we hang on to those attitudes, even if we still look on them as enemies—even if we’re still not yet ready to make that step toward freedom—we come right back around to Jesus.  Love ‘em anyway!  Let’s take the actions, and refrain from the actions, that make life harder for them.  We don’t have to wait until bad stuff happens to us.  We can help each other walk a silver, if not a golden, path on this planet.

It’s like the question God poses to Jonah at the very end of the book.  “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (4:11).  I like the way the natural order is included in God’s concern.

Jonah doesn’t answer the question.  At least, we’re not told the answer.  What is our answer?

As we enter a new political landscape (and they do come and go), let’s learn a lesson from Jonah—and from Jesus.  When we love our enemies, we must first deal with the enemy within.  (I need to learn this as much as anyone else.)  To the extent we have division and fear inside ourselves, we project division and fear outside into the world.

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We need to realize that we are worth loving.  We need to realize that we are loved.  We are loved by our Lord, but to really experience it at the flesh and blood level, we need love face to face.  There are those who never see that.

Let’s love our neighbor and love our enemy.  Who knows?  We might find they’re one and the same!

 

[1] www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a35268337/amanda-gorman-the-hill-we-climb-poem-biden-inauguration/

[2] www.patheos.com/blogs/daniellekingstrom/2021/01/no-love-let-us-remember-that-we-know-love/


light, an epiphany

As we learn more about the frightening arsenal that was present at the Capitol building, in and around it, we realize what a “bullet” we dodged.  As horrendous as the loss of life was—and even one is a deplorable tragedy—it could have been much worse.  Many of the rioters were carrying firearms.  Someone even had several Molotov cocktails on hand!

The fact that the attack occurred on the day of the Epiphany of the Lord has not been lost on many.  Epiphany, meaning “manifestation” or “revelation,” is usually illustrated by the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.  It speaks of the light of Christ shown to the Gentiles, to all the nations.

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I have developed a new appreciation for Epiphany and the season of Epiphany.  I’m not speaking of magic, but the reality and power of that light, with the prayers of the people, had to have some salutary effect.

Is there a lesson to be learned?  Without a doubt, justice must be done, but if we stop there, we cheat ourselves.  Laying aside the violence at the Capitol (and the threats that continue), our country still suffers deep divisions.  Like it or not, we have to live with each other.

Does compassion have anything to say to us?  “Hold on now,” some might say, “how dare you suggest that?  These are enemies, despicable enemies.  And we know we’re right!”

Now look into a mirror.  What do you see?

Compassion is not weakness.  It is not surrender.  It does not ignore crimes.  It takes a great deal of strength.

(On a side note, here’s a question.  Does compassion correlate to anything physical?  Can it be measured?  There is an episode of Cosmos: Possible Worlds, “The Cosmic Connectome,” hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson that might touch on that.  At the 3:30 mark in the trailer there’s a hint of what the episode says about such things.)

One of my favorite poems on light was written by Brian Turner in his book, Here, Bullet.  He is a US veteran who served in Bosnia and Iraq.  Turner speaks of Ibn al-Haytham.  (His name was Latinized as Alhazen.)  One thousand years ago in present-day Iraq, he developed what would be called the scientific method.  His specialty?  The study of light.  The poem is titled “Alhazen of Basra.”

2 blog“If I could travel a thousand years back
to August 1004, to a small tent
where Alhazen has fallen asleep among books
about sunsets, shadows, and light itself,
I wouldnt ask whether light travels in a straight line,
or what governs the laws of refraction, or how
he discovered the bridgework of analytical geometry;
I would ask about the light within us,
what shines in the minds great repository
of dream, and whether hes studied the deep shadows
daylight brings, how light defines us.

We have much to learn from Epiphany light.


good guys and bad guys

When we’re little kids, we tend to see life in absolute terms, at least I did.  There are the good guys and the bad guys.  People are either pure good or pure evil.  It’s two dimensional and in my opinion, rather cartoonish.  As we get older, we realize it’s not simply a question of black and white, but shades of gray.

To be sure, some are lighter shades, and some are darker shades.  Life becomes much more three dimensional than it was when we were small.  (And if you’re in tune with physics, it can have up to eleven dimensions!)

It seems like we fall back into a childish view in every election season.  I love the way commercials are designed.  (That is, love in a sad way!)

1 3 jn

Here’s a template on how to make your opponent look like a jerk.  First of all, portray them in black and white images, or maybe use muted colors.  An ominous sound effect is a nice touch.  Make sure they are speaking in slow motion.  That really looks sinister.  Equally effective is taking their words out of context, so it seems like they’re agreeing to something terrible.

Also helpful is a voiceover going along the lines of, “If So-and-So is elected, this is what you can expect.”  In the background show a car engulfed in flames.  Perhaps use a distraught family who can’t pay their medical bills.

If your commercial includes the candidate you’re promoting, change to bright, shining colors.  Include happy and triumphant music, people smiling and hopeful.

I think that’s a sufficiently cartoonish way to produce a commercial.  It is also depressingly cynical.  Clearly, there will be policy differences, but if you could speak to the person alone—with no cameras, no listening, in complete confidence—I think you’d find no one honestly believes their opponent favors the horror show we’ve just seen.

Why begin with these stark portrayals?  Hold that thought.

The author of the Third Letter of John calls himself “the elder.”  The word in Greek is πρεσβυτερος (presbuteros), where we get our words “presbyter” and “Presbyterian.”  This is very likely someone other than St. John the Apostle.  But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just call him “John.”  (Although, we could also call him the “Presbyterian.”)

He praises Gaius and Demetrius, but he castigates a fellow named Diotrephes.  In verse 11, in a back-handed sort of way, he suggests he is “evil.”  If we were to read 3 John in a quick and superficial manner, we might think we’re getting one of those two dimensional renditions of human behavior.

2 3 jn

[This fellow with the dreamy green eyes wants to know.]

Certainly, there’s a lot more to it than that.  We shouldn’t think the conflict pictured here is just a question of clashing personalities.  Even though 3 John only has fifteen verses, there’s plenty going on below the surface.  There are issues of love, hospitality, and power.

What prompted the writing of this letter are a couple of things.  First, he wants to thank Gaius for his hospitality.  Some missionaries have come to John and told him how well Gaius treated them.  That really made his day!

Unfortunately, there’s something else that has compelled John to write the letter.  He feels the need to issue Gaius a warning.  As I just said, he alerts him about Diotrephes.  John’s relationship with Diotrephes has become, let’s say, “problematic.”  Gaius needs to keep his eye on him.

He says, “I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority” (v. 9).

Here’s a question. “Has anyone here ever been bullied?”  There was a certain fellow in high school who, for some reason that escaped me at the time, decided I would be a good person with whom to, let’s call it, display unfriendly behavior.  He never challenged me to a fight, but I knew he would welcome any aggressive responses.  It would be a case of “make my day”!

In retrospect, I understood he fit the profile of someone who was bullied at home, maybe by an older brother or a father.

It seems that Diotrephes might fit the profile of a bully.

Although, we’re told “bully” originally had a very different definition.  “‘If you called someone a bully in the sixteenth century, you were crushing hard on them.  The word bully was initially a term of endearment.  Bully comes from Dutch boel “lover” and evolved to mean sweetheart.  But it came to mean “blusterer” or “harasser of the weak” by the seventeenth century.’  So next time you get trolled, just tell your bully sweetheart that you love them too.”[1]

3 3 jn

In any event, John calls him out.  “So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us.”  Another version says, “nonsensical and spiteful charges.”[2]  Diotrephes spouts nonsense, but he’s not happy with that: “he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church” (v. 10).

“Are you going to do what I say and tell these people to hit the road?  If not, you might find yourself hitting the road!”

We need to see this in context.  This is at the end of the 1st century—maybe early 2nd century.  The church is becoming more structured.  Offices like “presbyter” and “bishop” are emerging.  Some believe Diotrephes is a bishop.[3]

It’s likely the conflict pictured here isn’t an isolated event.  It seems almost inevitable that when a movement enters into second and third generations, its nature begins to change.  Questions of authority arise.  Who has the right to do what?  Questions of identity arise.  Who are we?  Who are we not?

In verse 9, John gets to the business of naming names.  He does not say, “There’s a certain person I’m thinking of.”  No, it’s “Diotrephes, that low down dirty dog!”

This is where it might be helpful to hear Diotrephes’ side of the story.  It may or may not be convincing, but at least his voice would be heard.  And there are those who say he’s not completely out of line.[4]

In any event, this speaks to a problem with our own culture.  We have a tough time in listening.  We’re slow to listen and quick to speak.  We’re slow to listen and quick to judge; we’re quick to put labels on people.  It’s difficult for us to pray because we don’t want to listen.  We drown our spirits with noise.

Now, going back to hearing the other side of the story, I want to take Diotrephes out of his context.  I want to use him as a model—a model of someone who doesn’t listen.  He doesn’t listen because he’s too busy pushing his own agenda.  He’s the one “who likes to put himself first,” to shove people out of the way.  He spreads “false charges,” and keeps others from making friends with those he doesn’t like (vv. 9-10).  He actually is the bad guy!

Within all of us lurks the spirit of “Diotrephes.”  It’s the part of us that wants to “imitate what is evil” and refuse to “imitate what is good” (v. 11).  It’s the part of us that hesitates to support our sisters and brothers who want to work with the truth (see v. 8).

How do we support each other?  Obviously, there are lots of ways: with words of loving encouragement—and with words of loving correction.  We support each other with open hearts and with open wallets, to the extent we can.  We don’t give to the church simply to pay salaries and pay the bills.  We give because we love God.  And here’s a crazy thought.  We give in order to support ministry and mission beyond our walls.

The spirit of “Diotrephes” is portrayed as willful and pushy.  The spirit of “Gaius” is portrayed as open and unpretentious.

Henri Nouwen told a story highlighting the difference in these two approaches.[5]  A friend of his had recently died, and someone sent to him a tape of the service.  At the funeral, one of the readings was the following story about a little river.

“The little river said, ‘I can become a big river.’  It worked hard, but there was a big rock.  The river said, ‘I’m going to get around this rock.’  The little river pushed and pushed, and since it had a lot of strength, it got itself around the rock.

“Soon the river faced a big wall, and the river kept pushing this wall.  Eventually, the river made a canyon and carved a way through.  The growing river said, ‘I can do it.  I can push it.  I am not going to let down for anything.’

“Then there was an enormous forest.  The river said, ‘I’ll go ahead anyway and just force these trees down.’  And the river did.

“The river, now powerful, stood on the edge of an enormous desert with the sun beating down.  The river said, ‘I’m going to go through this desert.’  But the hot sand soon began to soak up the whole river.  The river said, ‘Oh, no.  I’m going to do it.  I’m going to get myself through this desert.’  But the river soon had drained into the sand until it was only a small mud pool.

“Then the river heard a voice from above: ‘Just surrender.  Let me lift you up.  Let me take over.’  The river said, ‘Here I am.’  The sun then lifted up the river and made the river into a huge cloud.  He carried the river right over the desert and let the cloud rain down and make the fields far away fruitful and rich.

4 3 jn

“There is a moment in our life when we stand before the desert and want to do it ourselves.  But there is the voice that comes, ‘Let go.  Surrender.  I will make you fruitful.  Yes, trust me.  Give yourself to me.’

Those are questions and words of wisdom that came to Nouwen as he mulled over this story.

We can see Diotrephes as the river when it wasn’t ready to listen and Gaius as the river when it’s receptive and wants to work with, rather than to work against.

So we all have the spirit of Gaius and the spirit of Diotrephes within us.  And Jesus Christ welcomes all of us, that is, everything within us.  We present our willfulness and pushiness to Christ, the one who welcomes those good guys and bad guys.

For those in our lives we deem as “good guys and bad guys,” as people of the new creation, we are called to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ep 4:32).

 

[1] medium.com/exploring-history/10-shocking-origins-of-some-common-words-489c0b987a76

[2] Revised English Bible

[3] Georg Strecker, The Johannine Letters (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986), 262.

[4] Strecker, 262.

[5] www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1995/spring/5l280.html


peace able

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

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

1 is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s all this with Jesse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 is

[Holy Darkness: Formless and Void]

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

 

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

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

 

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

[2] Houselander, 9.

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

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

[5] Brueggemann, 34.

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