fear

Thomas, the skeptic

I often wonder how much of human history—especially the darker moments of history—can be attributed to misunderstanding.  A misheard word, a mistaken look, can lead to all manner of distress in our lives.  How many wars have been fought over a misinterpretation of something quite innocuous?  (Which also brings up the point of taking a deep breath and making sure we know what we’re doing, especially when contemplating violence.)

We humans are making it even easier to not trust our eyes and ears.  The falsification of images is becoming ever more elaborate and effective.  The falsification of reality is becoming ever more elaborate and effective.  One of the first major motion pictures to employ those techniques was Forrest Gump.  Imagine, Forrest Gump meeting JFK and LBJ (and a few other folks)!  We could the lament the technological trickery utilized for these counterfeit countenances, these fake faces, but the genie is out of the bottle.  Think of it, though: police can use sophisticated aging tools to track missing persons long lost.

Here’s a little game.  Can we distinguish between the faces of real people and those generated by computer?  Which are real and which are fake? (answers given below)

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Going back to my original thought, given how much more complex our ability for mimicry has become, how much more havoc can we create?  We are well aware of the mischievous purposes for which the internet can be used.  So often, we believe we are too intelligent and savvy to be taken in by bogus claims—disinformation and misinformation.  I won’t get into discussing the ease with which the powers-that-be resort to censorship by pressing those very issues.

Let’s look at one who historically has been derided by his insistence for independent verification of a claim pushed by his peers.  In John 20, St. Thomas, given the news of a resurrected Jesus, has his doubts, which later leads to the affixing of his nickname.  I would say his “unfortunate” nickname.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he says, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (v. 25).

Maybe we should first take a step backwards.  We hear that the disciples are huddled in fear behind locked doors.  It appears they have good reason to do so.  However, Thomas is conspicuous by his absence.  We don’t know what he’s been up to; maybe he just wasn’t as scared as the others.

It’s also possible there was a bit of recrimination going on.  It would only be natural for some finger pointing to occur.  In the aftermath of trauma—and this definitely was traumatic—there can be the temptation to lay blame.  Was it the fault of the priests and the Romans?  Was it Judas’ fault?  Those are pretty easy guesses.  However, perhaps something more was happening.  Did they look inward and see their own shortcomings?  There has been some denying going on, and not just by Peter.

Whatever the case, Thomas is with them the week after.  That is when he receives his desired second opinion—and it comes from the man himself.

Honestly, it’s hard to fault Thomas.  It’s not like the others really got it themselves.  For example, while taking Peter, James, and John down from the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  Of course, they knowingly agreed, understanding some things are better left unsaid.  No, I’m just kidding!  Rather, “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean” (Mark 9:9-10).

In other words, they didn’t have the foggiest idea what the heck Jesus was talking about.

2 jnCould we say Thomas wanted to do his own fact-checking?  Jesus agrees to it.  “Do you want to see my hands and side?  Well, here they are.  Check it out.”  Thomas is convinced.  Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29).  Is Jesus “blessing” Thomas out?

We should note that after Lazarus has died, Jesus plans to go to his home in Judea.  The disciples beg him not to, understanding he has enemies there ready to stone him if he shows his face.  Still, Jesus is determined.  It is Thomas who steps forward and tells the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16).  Thomas is ready and expects to lay down his life with, and for, Jesus.

Clinical social worker Jason Hobbs says, “Thomas was not simply looking for facts…the facts in the way that we think about fact…what is true and what is false…  Thomas needed to touch in order to believe.  He needed to touch something solid, not spirit, not feeling or emotion, but something real.”  He needed to “see” for himself.

I think it’s a good thing we have a record of Thomas’ doubt.  That gives reassurance for the rest of us who sometimes (and who often) doubt.  I don’t think Jesus is chewing Thomas out—or even expressing disappointment.  Let’s remember that it was the men who had trouble believing Jesus was back from the dead.  The female disciples, especially Mary Magdalene, had much less trouble.

On the question of having a record of his doubt, notice the bit at the end.  “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (vv. 30-31).  These words are directed to you, dear reader, just as Jesus said to Thomas, “so that you may come to believe.”

We might easily say “doubting Thomas” displays skepticism.  Mark Buchanan, professor at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta, has some comments on that very subject.  “Skepticism,” he says, “has an interesting etymology.  It means to look at a matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with great care and in minute detail.  On this definition, what the church needs is not less but more skepticism.”[1]

Buchanan continues, “I met a man who told me he didn’t believe the Bible because he was a skeptic.  I asked him if he had read the Bible.  ‘No, not really,’ he said ‘I told you, I’m a skeptic.  I don’t believe it.’  This is not skepticism.  This is its opposite—a refusal to investigate, to scrutinize, to ponder deeply.”

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Something to note about faith: true faith is not blind faith.  How often do we hear, “Faith is blind”?  On the contrary, genuine faith is not a mindless leap into the void—or a mindless leap into the path of an oncoming truck!  Faith has its own evidence.  Faith has its own eyes.  Faith does its own fact-checking.  In 1 John we are counseled to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1).

Buchanan gives Thomas credit.  “Thomas was a true skeptic.  He doubted, not to excuse his unbelief, but to establish robust belief.  He doubted so that his belief might be based on something more than rumor and wishful thinking.”  He makes his point by saying that “here is the real sign that Thomas is not some poseur, some mere academic trend-chaser: his seeing gives way, not just to belief, but to worship: ‘My Lord and my God!’”[2]

For Thomas, it isn’t a matter of theoretical argument, but rather it encompasses his whole being.

That becomes true for all of them.  Jesus comes to them, not to prove anything, but to comfort and strengthen.  First it is the distraught Mary Magdalene, weeping uncontrollably at his tomb.  She mistakes him for the gardener.  Jesus, still incognito, asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (v. 15).  Put your tears away.

In the midst of those disciples, dread forcing them to take cover, their Lord appears, twice proclaiming, “Peace be with you” (vv. 19, 21).  And in what many call a preview of Pentecost, he breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and adding, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (vv. 22-23).

How is that a word of comfort and strength?  What good does it do for these frightened folks to talk about forgiveness?  Would that be a word of comfort for us?  Remember earlier.  In times of distress, it’s only normal—and even expected—to thrash about, asking and crying out, “Why?”  What a gift it is to have and know the Spirit of God is with us.  There is that powerful word of knowing we are forgiven, and that we have the power of forgiving others.  Though Lord knows, it doesn’t happen overnight—if it happens at all!

Doubting Thomas.  One moment in his life earned him a nickname that has stuck through the centuries.  What have we been at our worst?  What have we been at our most embarrassing?  What have we been at the time we most want to take back?  (I can think of plenty more than one.)  Now, imagine that as forever being declared as the sum of who you are.  From now on, that is how you will be defined, how you will be identified.

4 jnHow often do we refuse to give the other person the benefit of the doubt?

Imagine if God decided to take us at our worst.  Actually, God does that very thing!  Nonetheless, in spite of everything, we learn with immense relief, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Ro 5:8).

Of that, it is okay to be skeptical!  It is okay to look at the matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with great care, to ponder deeply.  It is okay to take God seriously.  (Yes, it is okay!)  It is okay to join with Thomas the skeptic, and cry out, “My Lord and my God!”

 

[1] Mark Buchanan, Christianity Today, 44:4 (2000 Apr 3), 64.

[2] Buchanan, 67.

* for the faces on the left: fake, real, fake, fake


be afraid. be very afraid

The Fly, with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis is credited with the demand, “Be afraid.  Be very afraid.”  However, we can come up with numerous ways that command is laid upon us.  Unfortunately, being exposed to manufactured fear has become a way of life.

Are we familiar with the slogan regarding news broadcasts, “If it bleeds, it leads”?  The focus in the news tends to be on bad news.  And what poses as discussion is either interviewing people who already agree with the host or shouting at and interrupting those who don’t.  On occasion, good news finds its way into the mix.  Nonetheless, it seems that the directive, “lead with the bleed,” has been bumped up a notch or three in the past couple of years.  We are learning to fear each other.  We are being censored.  We are taught, like it or not, fear sells.  Panic is profitable, as in billions of dollars profitable.

1[A scared chicken, courtesy of Doug Savage]

Still, there are reasons for fear that are legitimate.  Fear jumping off your roof—especially if you have a three-story house.  Fear driving down the interstate with your eyes closed.  Fear walking up to your wife while she’s cooking and asking, “What is that stench?”

The psalm which is Isaiah 12 addresses a basic fear.  The first two verses tell us,

“You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. / Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

(Quick note: if you wonder what “in that day” means, see chapter 11, which speaks of the restoration of Israel.)

This is a fear pervading the prophet / psalmist’s outlook, one which is seen to be found in the God of all.  Some might prefer language such as “pervading life itself.”  An elemental anger—an inherent indignation—welling up from the divine is felt.  We might think the whole world is against us!

2However, there is a discovery of salvation.  The prophet Isaiah speaks of freedom from fear.  “I will trust and will not be afraid.”  Trust and fear don’t do very well in the presence of the other.  Fear is afraid of trust.  To be honest, fear is afraid of many things!

We can even be afraid of ourselves.

I remember one day when I was in college and visiting home for the weekend.  I was arguing with my mother—an argument, to my shame, that I started.  Quite simply, she was talking to me about the Lord.  It was a conversation I didn’t care to have, and I made it quite clear.

She responded in an overly emotional manner, and it irritated me.  It made me mad.  I stormed up the stairs to go to my room, and with each step, I became angrier and angrier.  I slammed the door to my room as hard as I could, causing a sound like a thunderclap.

I plopped down in my chair, shaking.  It terrified me that I was capable of such rage.  (And I don’t use that word lightly.)  I was scared.  Needless to say, I didn’t spend the night.  I immediately got in my car and drove back to school.  Fortunately, a few days later, we were reconciled.  Thanks be to God!

Looking back at my outburst that day, I would say that I was convicted by the Holy Spirit.  The Lord was reaching out to me, and I did my best to say “no.”

Verse 3 seems instructive at this point.  “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  With joy I drew water from the wells of salvation, though it didn’t happen then!

My experience of faith and college differed from what is so often the case.  If college does have any effect on a student’s faith, it’s usually that they lose it.  Of course, it can always be retrieved!  But for me, college is where I found my faith.  And this wasn’t a religious college; I was at a state university, MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University).

Recall my comment about divine anger welling up.  Following along with that image, the fresh water from those wells of salvation quenches the fire of fury.  Salvation brings the ultimate trust, and fear is banished.

That’s not the only time the book of Isaiah speaks of pure fresh water welling up: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (58:11).

There’s something about how that well water will be drawn.  There’s a certain state of mind, or state of being.  It will be drawn with joy.  Such is the promise of the prophet: with joy.  It won’t be a question of going through the motions, of following a formula, of following instructions on a box.  I mentioned how fear and trust have trouble co-existing.  With joy, that’s even more the case.  The force, the energy, pulsing at the heart of joy is the power of God.  We hear and feel the holy message, “Fear not.”

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Still, there is a fear many people have, and it is singing before others.  Maybe that’s a fear I would be better off having, at least, according to critiques I’ve received over the years.

However, to that point, there is a theological lesson we can learn from Isaiah.  Verse 5 tells us (no, encourages us, exhorts us) “Sing praises to the Lord”!  If we understand that when we’re singing, we are singing to God, we can be assured we aren’t being graded; we aren’t being critiqued, as I have been!  God is tone deaf in the best possible way.  God is the ultimate in being a forgiving audience.

More than once, the psalms say, “Make a joyful noise!”

There’s a joke along those lines.  Someone is being recruited to sing a solo, and they respond, “I’ll sing a solo.  I’ll sing so low you can’t hear me!”  (I didn’t say it was a good joke.)

Why is Isaiah 12 a text for Advent?  What does it have to do with the coming of Christ?

We always have to be careful when taking an Old Testament scripture and viewing it through New Testament eyes.  Still, this chapter works well for this time of year.  It speaks of hope and joy that the Holy One is in our midst.

The same is true of our epistle reading from Philippians 4.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (v. 4).  We are reminded that the Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice”!

There’s something about verse 5 I really like.  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.”  The Lord is near.  If that’s not an Advent theme, I don’t know what is.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.  The word translated as “gentleness” has many nuances.  The Greek word επιεικης (epieikēs) is powerful.  For example, it expresses what is suitable or fitting.  One described as επιεικης is patient and gentle.  Understand, this isn’t a gentleness born out of weakness.  It portrays one who possesses a loftiness of thought, one who is noble.

4I especially appreciate how it reads in the New English Bible: “Let your magnanimity be manifest to all.”  Be magnanimous.  Be great in character.  Avoid the pettiness, the vindictiveness that so easily infects.  Cultivate the willingness to laugh at oneself.  (Sadly, that’s no problem for me.)

Sometimes I’ve heard people say if they had the ability to do it all over again, they wouldn’t change anything about their life.  After all, it has led them to be the person they are.  Well, I would love to do some things over.  (The day of my meltdown would be one!)  There are many situations in which I wish I had been more… magnanimous.  In that way, we help each other disobey the command to be afraid, to be very afraid.

The apostle Paul counsels us, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (v. 6).  A life of anxiety hampers the desire and ability, not to pray, but to pray with thanksgiving, with gratitude.  There’s a big difference.  Paul says to thank God even while making our requests, our supplications.  One version says, “Be saturated in prayer” (The Passion Translation).

Then what happens?  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7).  The peace of God is superior to every frame of mind.

Trust, joy, gratitude—all of these send fear packing.  We can cultivate healthiness as a nation and as a church.  We too often fall sway under the politics of fear, which has its own sad spirituality.  Fundamentally, it’s a way of controlling the population.  A certain level of anxiety must be maintained for it to work.

Elsewhere, Paul cautions us, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Ga 5:14-15).  If we develop a taste for human flesh, we will never get enough.

Still, there is the holy word of peace, “Fear not.”  It might seem counter-intuitive, but there are ways in which we choose to be afraid.  Sometimes we move heaven and earth to get a sip of that bitter draft of dread.  We ignore Paul’s guidance to not worry, to not get all worked up.  We ignore Isaiah’s encouragement to shout aloud and sing for joy—to raise the roof!

When we do not ignore the prophet and the apostle, what we do is to face down fear.  We embrace a holy boldness.

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[Something appearing on our wall, y'all]

Can we agree to engage in a kind of rage?  Not the foolish, stupid rage that captured me on the day I spoke of.  No, can we agree to rage at all that would intimidate us, to fill us with fear?  Can we agree to a holy rage?  The peace of God isn’t passive; it flexes its muscles.  It is shalom, and shalom kicks fear in the hiney.

“Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”  Do not be afraid.


rich in hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Forget?”

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

“What’re you talking about?”

“Hope.”

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

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

Red slams down his spoon and walks away.

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

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

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

Hope can save your life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[A living dead view of Schrodinger's Cat]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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


tin foil hat not required

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

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

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[photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


love conquers, fear abandons

Is it better to be loved or to be feared?  That’s a question addressed by Niccolo Machiavelli in his 16th century book, The Prince.  He deals with other issues, but that’s the one which is considered to be the most intriguing, the one which is the most discussed.  According to Machiavelli, if a political leader is able to be both loved and feared, that is best, but the two don’t easily go together, if at all.

1 1 jnThe problem with being loved is that people will eventually take advantage of you.  Perhaps Machiavelli is sadly accurate in his assessment of human nature when he says if a leader shows too much compassion, the people will want more and more.  They will begin to throw off restraint.  Thus, the need for a firm hand.  Being feared is safer.  If people know they better toe the line or else face, let’s say, unpleasant consequences, it’s an effective way to maintain order and to eliminate dissent.  It’s the rather cynical, “you’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelet” approach to life.

On the other hand, it’s important to not take it too far.  Excessive fear can turn into hatred, which can lead to open rebellion.  For one in authority, that spells danger.  Actually, that spells danger for those not in government.  It’s not good for those in business, in the school system, in the church!

Unfortunately, I think we know what rebellion in the church can look like!

Is it better to be loved or to be feared?  Some might say the opposite of love is hate.  We’re told love and hate cannot co-exist.  However, I might respond with the reality of a love-hate relationship.  Love and hate, as emotions, are powerful and passionate.  However, there is a thin line between them.

The epistle reading in 1 John suggests the opposite of love is fear.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (4:18).

2 1 jn[photo by Luis Machado on Unsplash]

Let me expand on my original question, “Is it better to be loved or to be feared?”  I would say those who want to be feared are filled with fear themselves.  They sense an insecurity within, an inner dread, perhaps a feeling of worthlessness, and they feel the solution is to command respect, twisted though it may be, which is produced—which is created—by the fear from others.  Is it out of line to suggest that all the weapons we invent, especially the really powerful ones, demonstrate not how strong we are, but how scared we are?

Let me quickly add I’m not saying everyone who is filled with fear demands to be feared.  That is not at all the case.  In one way or another, we all deal with fear.  At the same time, those who desire to be feared are at heart seeking love; they seek affirmation.  We have been created for love by the one who is love.  As we read in verse 16, “God is love.”

If God is love, then why are we so fearful?  Here’s an interesting example.  Whenever angels appear in the scriptures, they are not the cute, warm, and fuzzy creatures we like to imagine.  They are fierce, and yet they often say something along the lines of, “Fear not.”  In fact, that’s one of Jesus’ favorite lines.

“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment” (v. 17).  Love has been perfected.  The Greek word (τελειοω, teleioō) has the meaning of “has been completed,” “has been accomplished.”

Fear has to do with punishment.  We might want to avoid punishment, or at least lessen it, if we throw ourselves on the mercy of the court.

3 1 jn

With that in mind, I have a little story from when I was a small boy, maybe four or five years old.  If I did something I knew I shouldn’t have done, on occasion I would rat myself out to my mother.  I would confess my crime.  I figured if I came forward before my misdeed had been discovered, I would gain leniency.  And it always worked!

There were times, though, when my transgression went undetected.  I got away with it, or so I thought.

One day when we were living in California, the door to our garage was locked.  I didn’t have the key, so I came up with the idea of getting a stick and pushing it into the lock.  I imagined the wood molding itself to the inside of the doorknob, thus becoming its own key.  When I turned the stick, it broke loose, leaving the lock filled with wood.

I don’t remember if it was my mom or dad who later wanted to get into the garage.  Lo and behold, something was blocking the key!  Upon interrogation, I decided to pin it on my sister.  Despite her protestations of innocence, she received an undeserved spanking.

I don’t recall if it was months or years later, I finally admitted she had not committed the crime.  By then, the statute of limitations had expired.  I was spared punishment.  (For many years after that, my mom would remind me of my false testimony.  Of course, my sister had known the truth all along.)

Fear has to do with punishment.  Dare we say we have a guilty conscience?  But if love is perfected, we have boldness on the day of judgment.

4 1 jn Rudolf Bultmann, one of the noted German theologians of the twentieth century, said of the human race, “the eschatological hour is first of all an hour of dismay.”[1]  The word “eschatological” refers to the end times, the end of the world as we know it.  When the bell tolls, so to speak, it is an hour of dismay.  It is a time of alarm.  The reason for that is because we know we haven’t been perfected; our love isn’t complete.  We have fallen short.  Love is perfected because of Christ.

Chapter 4 ends by telling us we can’t claim to love God if we don’t love our brothers and sisters—indeed, if we actually hate them.  By framing my sister, I was not showing hatred, but I certainly was not showing love either!

Fear is suspicious.  Fear keeps us from opening our hearts to each other.  Fear keeps us stuck in the way things are.  It robs us of creativity, to imagine other possibilities.

We can sense that in the ways John uses the word “world.”  In Greek, it is the word κοσμος (kosmos), where we get our word “cosmos.”  One way he uses “world” is by speaking of God’s good creation, our material planet and everything that praises the Lord.

However, “world” can have a sinister meaning.  It’s the world as under the sway of “the evil one” (5:19).  Michael Rhodes says, “John tells us all is not well in God’s good world…  The kosmos has become a battlefield, and all humanity is caught up in the conflict.”[2]  It’s the place where fear reigns over love.

I’m reminded of Al Pacino from the movie Scarface, when his character, Tony Montana is asked by his partner what he expects: “The world, chico, and everything in it.”  In designing a cheesy statue that fits a wannabe dictator’s dreams, he takes inspiration from a blimp he happens to see that says, “The world is yours.”[3]

5 1 jn

Do I need to say, he wasn’t a guy noted for spreading the love around?

Fortunately for us, God isn’t content with leaving the world as it is.  Rhodes tells us, “For John, the world is finally and fully the world that God so loved that he sent his only Son as a ‘Savior of the kosmos’ (4:14).  In Jesus, the Creator has returned to reclaim what is his—a rescue operation that has required him to ‘destroy the works of the devil.’”  He envisions an action movie!

“To be a disciple, then, is to find oneself transferred from the kosmos under the control of the devil and into the realm of the God who is Light.”[4]

If one is under control of the devil, it is difficult, to put it lightly, to be a disciple of the Lord.  Now it has become “a glorious possibility for us as those born again by the Spirit of God.”

He tells us something I think we’re all going to love.  As the church, “because every child of God began life in enmity to God under the influence of the demonic, such a community is also always intrinsically missional.  The doors of the church are always open to any and all of the devil’s children who are willing to come in and be reborn.”[5]

Again I ask, “Is it better to be loved or to be feared?”

The word “world” (kosmos) has another meaning, which is “system.”  As before, it can have a positive connotation, but John is here using it in a negative sense.  It is the system as trapping us, working against the Spirit of God.  It is the system as robbing us of our freedom, quenching the liberating Spirit.

Bultmann says this: “Again and again the world seems to conquer, and again and again the disciple wavers and seeks refuge in his native haunts, in the world, leaving Jesus alone…  In fact he is not abandoning [Jesus] to the world, but by imagining him to be so abandoned and by despairing of him he is rather abandoning himself.”[6]

Let’s ask ourselves: how often do we abandon ourselves?  How often are we conquered by the world?

6 1 jnStill, all is not lost, “for whatever is born of God conquers the world.  And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” (v. 4).  On a side note, you already know the Greek word that “conquer” and “victory” come from: νικη (nikē), which we pronounce like the shoe, Nike.

The conquering—the overcoming—goes on, because “in [Jesus] the Father is at work, the Father with whom he is one, and therefore…in his apparent defeat he is in fact the conqueror.”[7]  One of my favorite scriptures in the entire Bible comes in the gospel of John, when Jesus is about to leave the upper room and go into the dark, to face betrayal and arrest.  He tells the disciples, “In the world you face persecution.  But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (16:33).  His defeat sure doesn’t look like victory.

7 1 jn

[photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash]

So we have the joyful question, “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (v. 5).  Believing that Jesus is the Son of God means many things.  Jesus as Son of God brings freedom, not compulsion.  Jesus as Son of God means clarity, not confusion.  Jesus as Son of God is indeed courage facing persecution.  Jesus as Son of God is light in the dark.

 

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 592.

[2] Michael J. Rhodes, “(Becoming) Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Discipleship as Gift and Task in 1 John,” Word & World 41:1 (Winter 2021), 24.

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAlTJ8gPJ3M

[4] Rhodes, 25.

[5] Rhodes, 33.

[6] Bultmann, 592.

[7] Bultmann, 592.


memento mori

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

1 ps

"Transience of Life" by Daniel Kansky

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

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

His bid to defeat death has turned into rubble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give ear, all dwellers of this perishable planet!

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

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

3 ps

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

Of course, there’s always the vampire option!

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 ps

photo by Efren Baharona on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] חֶלֶד, cheled

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

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


presence among us

I want to begin with a confession.  I think I might be improving in this particular regard, but I still have a long way to go.  I too often feel like I need to air my opinions, especially on controversial subjects.  I fear I am far from alone in that.  Go to Facebook or scroll down through the comments on almost any article, and you’ll see what I mean.  Watch what passes for news in our country.

We love to fight.  We prefer heat over light.

And it’s in the church—sometimes it feels like the church has turned fighting into a fine art.  We ask, “How can you be a Christian and think that?  How can you be a Christian and support him or her?”

1 mt

When we recently spent a year in Tennessee, Banu and I worshipped with two different Episcopal Churches. (Not that their being Episcopal Churches had anything to do with it.  I love the Episcopal Church!)  I’m pretty certain we sat in someone’s “spot” once or twice.  Nobody made an issue of it, but I wonder if anybody was thinking about it, perhaps plotting some ever so slight retribution!

I’m trying to give an example of what Jesus references in Matthew 18 when he speaks of the offenses, the sins, that go on in the church.  When I mentioned this before, I jokingly said some might consider this to be a matter of life and death.  Due to this coronavirus craziness, that has taken on a nature which is quite disconcerting, bordering on the truth!

Jesus starts this off by saying, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (v. 15).  (The NRSV has “member of the church” instead of “brother” or “sister.”)

Going first to the person alone says and requires a number of things.  One thing it requires is a certain level of maturity.  Being willing to lovingly confront, to face them alone in person, rather than talking about them behind their back—or spreading gossip—means you’re willing to “own” your complaint, to take responsibility for it.  You’re not playing the game of reporting what anonymous “others” have said.

That’s a good example of being unwilling to “own” your complaint, a refusal to accept responsibility.

Going first to the person alone suggests you don’t want to shame the person.  It says you have a greater desire for reconciliation than proving you’re right.  If we meet with them alone, there’s less chance of an automatic defense reaction—especially if the person doesn’t want to lose face in front of his or her crowd.  Actually, that could wind up being dangerous, depending on how prone to violence the crowd might be!

The late Wayne Oates, a congregational consultant, said when we go to the person first, we “[g]ive the person the benefit of the doubt by saying, ‘I don’t know whether this is accurate or not, but is it true that you said or did this?’…  Give ‘the offender’ an opportunity to say it in [his or] her own words.”[1]

2 mtI want to include a disclaimer about a private meeting.  In cases where people have been abused or threatened, it is never a wise course of action.  That’s when others should be called in.  It is likely a case in which other people are necessary.  It’s important to let them be witnesses, or even be advocates on behalf of the abused party.

So, with that in mind, sometimes lovingly going to the person first doesn’t always work.  “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.  But if you are not listened to…”  That’s where verse 16, with its call to bring one or two wise people with you, comes into play.  You notice I added “wise.”  It’s important that these others know how to keep confidence—that they’re not going to go and blab to somebody else.

Confidentiality and secrecy aren’t the same things.  Sometimes there’s confusion about that.  Among the differences between the two is confidentiality maintains the other person’s integrity and helps build relationship.  Secrecy works against both of those.  Confidentiality honors and builds respect; secrecy dishonors and destroys respect.

Oates points out an additional aspect of this second level of going to the person.  “By bringing in one or two others, you can check your own behavior with the wisdom of other Christians.”[2]  It’s extremely important to hold ourselves accountable.  Engaging in self-deception is easier than we think.

On a related issue, sometimes we need to check our sense of humor.  Understand, I’m not talking about a really serious matter.  Still, being able to laugh at oneself can take the sting out of an intended slight.  It takes away all the fun of insulting someone if they don’t get offended!  (I know, I know—I remember how I started the sermon.)

Back to the main point.  What if a meeting with one or two others present doesn’t work?  What if there is no peaceful resolution?

Jesus says, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17).

This whole matter of correction by the church obviously is a tricky business.  It can take many forms, some helpful and some absolutely horrific.  In our own Book of Order, the section called “The Rules of Discipline” takes that on.  It says church discipline “should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath” (D-1.0102).

It’s not something to rush into.  We’re told it “remains the duty of every church member to try (prayerfully and seriously) to bring about an adjustment or settlement of the quarrel [or] complaint.”  We should “avoid formal proceedings…unless, after prayerful deliberation, they are determined to be necessary to preserve the purity and purposes of the church” (D-1.0103).

It’s the duty of every church member prayerfully and seriously!  That’s a high bar.

However, what’s the deal with considering someone to be like “a Gentile and a tax collector”?  That seems a bit harsh.  Some have tried to soften the blow by focusing on Jesus’ commandment to love, and not indulging in such offensive behavior.  It’s been pointed out that what is meant is such a person should “be regarded as outside the community.”[3]  It’s a decision made by the person themself.

3 mt

Having said that, we should be careful about watering down Jesus’ words.  Sometimes they should hit us in the face like a bucket of cold…water!

Then he gets into the subject of binding and loosing.  There have been all kinds of meanings attached to this.  Some traditions speak of “binding the devil” or “binding Satan.”  One day in class at the Assemblies of God college I attended, a fellow student said that very thing—we can bind the devil.  Our professor stopped and said, “Then do it.  Bind the devil.”  There was an embarrassing silence.  I guess he wanted us to figure out what binding the devil actually meant.

Binding and loosing really refers to a practice of the rabbis.  Basically, they would “bind” the law, a scripture, if it fit, if it applied to a certain situation.  They would “loose” the scripture if they decided it didn’t apply.

The passage ends with verse 20, with the well-known words: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The verse is almost always used in the contexts of worship and prayer, and it is appropriate for that.  However, that is not how it is used here.  The “two or three gathered in my name” appears in the context of discipline.  The presence among us is about confronting or challenging.

They are words of wisdom, based on the requirement in Deuteronomy 19: “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing….  Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained” (v. 15).  The concern is to avoid relying on a false witness.

When Jesus says, “I am there among them,” he’s drawing on a rabbinic principle, which holds “two that sit together and are [studying] words of Torah have the Shekinah [the glory of God] among them.”[4]  Jesus is the glory of God.  Jesus is the presence, the glory of God among us when we gather in his name—when we gather in his authority.

As already said about correction by the church, considering the presence of Jesus in discipline can be tricky.  And understand, “discipline” is far more than simply enforcing rules.  It is about training, getting into shape.  Discipline can be intimidating.

Karen Chamis, who is our presbytery’s Resource Presbyter, notes the fear that would hinder us from helping each other on the path.[5]

“Fear keeps us from being who we are called to be,” she says, “and if that isn’t bad enough, there are those in this world who will use our fear against us.”  She speaks of those who thrive on intimidation.  “It’s fear that keeps bullies in power, and conflict under the floorboards where it can do the most harm.  Fear is what keeps us from doing what we know is right, and true and just.

4 mt

[photo by Bram on Unsplash]

“And so, we steer clear of fierce conversations.  We allow bullies to control what direction we will paddle.  We permit bad behavior, because we fear retribution…  We forget who we are.  We forget Whose we are…because we belong to the fear and not to the Love.”

That presence among us is present in worship.  It is present in prayer.  It is present in discipline.  And today we are reminded that the presence of Christ is present in sacrament.  It is present where love is unleashed, and to borrow a word from Chamis, it is “fierce.”  Maybe that’s why love itself, in its unbridled power, can be very intimidating!

“Where two or three are gathered…”  The presence in worship, in prayer, in discipline, in sacrament—the presence of Christ means fear has been defeated by love.  We are given the courage and grace to help each other walk the path, even if means correcting each other—in love.

Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Wayne E. Oates, The Care of Troublesome People (Alban Institute, 1994), 5.

[2] Oates, 6.

[3] W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1971), 220.

[4] sacred-texts.com/jud/sjf/sjf05.htm

[5] cayugasyracuse.org/index.php/blog/e-newsletter-presbytery-matters-september-3-2020/


fear the poor

When I was a little kid, the epistle of James held a special attraction for me.  (Can you possibly guess why?)  Please understand, the fact that I found it interesting doesn’t mean that I really knew what it was about.  I didn’t understand it any more than I did the rest of the Bible.

If we have to think of a term that sums up James’ message—or a category that we might use—it would be “wisdom.”  Other books in that category are Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  James is a fount of wisdom.  In chapter 1 he counsels us, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (v. 5).

1 jaToo frequently, I find myself in that category: “lacking in wisdom.”  I need help in choosing wisely.  In Biblical thinking, wisdom is more than a measure of intelligence; it also involves character.  It’s a question of what someone values, where someone’s heart is leading them.  In that regard, it also involves courage.

I imagine we all can think of cases in which even a Ph.D. education fails to include some common sense, as well as a decent, compassionate spirit.  And on the flip side, there are those who cannot read or write, but who have an understanding and perception that just astonishes.  These are people who are truly centered.  They use the wisdom that comes from the God who created them.

James isn’t very impressed with those who believe something in theory, but never put it into practice.  I’ll confess that that’s one of my struggles.  Sometimes I have a great idea but translating that into meaningful action is a totally different thing!  (Banu often helps me in that regard!)

A good example can be seen in James 2.  I like the way the Revised English Bible puts it.  Here’s how it begins (vv. 1-4):

“My friends, you believe in our Lord Jesus Christ who reigns in glory and you must always be impartial.  For instance, two visitors may enter your meeting, one a well-dressed man with gold rings, and the other a poor man in grimy clothes.  Suppose you pay special attention to the well-dressed man and say to him, ‘Please take this seat,’ while to the poor man you say, ‘You stand over there, or sit here on the floor by my footstool,’ do you not see that you are discriminating among your members and judging by wrong standards?”

We’re presented with the age-old problem of favoritism of the rich over the poor, as well as judging the book by its cover.  We may say, “Of course, everyone should be treated equally.  Who would disagree with that?”  But when we’re put to the test, a whole other thing might be the result.

Other religious traditions have similar stories.  Here’s one from 15th century Japan:[1]

“Once upon a time, the Zen masters teach, wealthy donors invited Master Ikkyu to a banquet.  The Master arrived there dressed in beggar’s robes.  His host, not recognizing him in this garb, hustled him away: ‘We cannot have you here at the doorstep.  We are expecting the famous Master Ikkyu any moment.’  The Master went home, changed into his ceremonial robe of purple brocade, and again presented himself at his host’s doorstep where he was received with great respect and ushered into the banquet room.  There, he took off his stiff robe, sat it upright at the dinner table and said, ‘I presume that it is my robe you have invited since when I first arrived without it a little while ago, you showed me away.’”

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[Ikkyu, 1394-1481]

No one is eager to admit to being apprehensive when confronted by someone in shabby clothes.

Still, it’s a role we play all the time.  I know I have played it too often.  When we lived in Jamestown, there was a certain lady I noticed walking through our neighborhood.  Even in warm weather, even hot weather, she would be dressed in a winter coat—and it was a grungy winter coat.  She looked “different”; she was the kind of person we’re “supposed” to avoid.

One time, as I was walking our dog, he noticed her and went right up to her.  She was very kind to him (and to me), and I wondered why I hadn’t bothered to speak to her before.  To my great shame, I must say I had made some pre-judgments concerning her.  Maybe I thought she would respond in some crazy fashion, or that she would ask me for money.  What a horrible thing that would be!

No, what our society tells us to do is to avert our eyes, to turn away from the poorest of the poor.  (When I say “us,” I’m especially referring to us proper, middle-class types.)  But when we give in to that temptation, we behave like the people James addresses in his letter.  What’s going on with that?  What’s behind the reluctance to engage with the poor?

Why do we too often suffer from aporophobia, fear and loathing of the poor?  (The Greek words for “poor” and “fear.”)

I’m reminded of a story that’s been told about Mother Teresa.  I don’t know how accurate it is, but it does reflect the way she lived her life.  Apparently, one day she was washing the wounds of a leper.  Someone who was watching said to her, “‘I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.’  To which Mother Teresa replied, ‘Neither would I.’”[2]

3 jaSometimes I think that hesitation is similar to the reluctance we often feel in facing our own mortality.  (I don’t know about you, but in the dinner parties I’ve attended, death is rarely one of the topics for the evening’s conversation!)  Poverty reminds us of our limitations.  And we should be aware that poverty is about more than the lack of money, the lack of wealth.

The late Henri Nouwen did a good job of describing it:[3]

“When we are not afraid to confess our own poverty, we will be able to be with other people in theirs.  The Christ who lives in our own poverty recognizes the Christ who lives in other people’s.  Just as we are inclined to ignore our own poverty, we are inclined to ignore others’.  We prefer not to see people who are destitute, we do not like to look at people who are deformed or disabled, we avoid talking about people’s pains and sorrows, we stay away from brokenness, helplessness, and neediness.”

We all have a place of poverty.  We all are poor in some way.  To be honest, we are poor in many ways.  But it can be difficult to see it or to admit it.

Nouwen continues, “By this avoidance we might lose touch with the people through whom God is manifested to us.  But when we have discovered God in our own poverty, we will lose our fear of the poor and go to them to meet God.”

I find that last thought to be really compelling.  When we discover God in our own poverty, we lose our fear of the poor—and that is where we find God.  This seems to be so upside down, but God is rarely found in our successes.  There is too much of “us” in the way.

I’m talking about the God of Jesus Christ, whose life, by any reasonable accounting, wound up as a complete failure.  He was executed in a way reserved for the most despicable, most contemptible of criminals.  His disciples fled (that is, his male disciples fled.)  He was dead.

We fear the poor, because they represent all the stuff that we don’t want.  It sounds so backward, but that’s often the way that wisdom works.  The stuff that we try to deny and hide is where God longs to be found.  We’re asked in verse 5: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith,” and furthermore, “to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?”

James gives the scenario of finding out that someone is in need.  Speaking fine words like, “Go in peace!  Stay warm!  Make sure you get plenty to eat!”—but not taking steps to make that happen—is useless.  We can look at that from a different angle.  We can ask, “If our church were to disappear, would the community miss us?  Would our community be worse if we weren’t here?”

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Especially now, is the community missing us?  How are we reaching out to those who are alone, lonely, disabled, missing human touch?  How will we be “the community” in this new normal?  I shared last week that it’s said we cannot go home again.  How can we create a new home—new sanctuary, both physically and virtually?  How can we present our poverty to result in an abundance of riches?

Even the smallest of steps—the most bumbling and clumsiest of steps—if it is done with the blessing of God, accomplishes far more than we can ask or imagine.

 

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 163.

[2] www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=10216

[3] henrinouwen.org/meditation/meeting-god-poor


it seems so irrational

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) has been applied to this strange new world of pandemic.  Do an internet search with her name and “pandemic” or “coronavirus,” and you’ll see what I mean.

1 blogQuick note: the five stages were never intended to follow each other in some chronological fashion.  They overlap, but I won’t go into detail on that.

It is important to understand that we are in fact grieving.  I think I can relate to all of the stages, some more so than others.  It hits me in so many ways.  It seems so irrational.  We’re not even supposed to shake hands!

We’re familiar, of course, with the refusal to wear protective masks, do physical distancing, sanitize stuff, and so on.  Again, I won’t claim to be immune to those impulses.  It seems so irrational!

We’re also familiar with the ways anger is played out.  For example, when asked to put on a mask while entering a store, many people simply walk by, berate the unfortunate employee making the request, and some even resort to violence.  People have even been killed.

2 blogAs with so many seemingly random aspects of our society, wearing a mask has become politicized.  I’m a fan of the NHL team Nashville Predators.  Do I wear a MAGA hat, or am I feeling the Bern?  (On a side note, another aspect of grief—one I share with millions of people around the world—is wondering if I will ever again be able to share an arena with thousands of cheering fans.)

3 blogThe root of anger is fear.  Too often, we don’t recognize how our fear expresses itself, whether we’re boiling over or just simmering.  (On a foolish side note, I remember the SNL skit with Cheri Oteri, “Simmer down now.”)

Perhaps we can relate to the prophet Jeremiah who wailed, who demanded of God: “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?  Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail” (15:18).  We might hurl invectives at the Almighty!  Would it surprise you to learn that God can never be the recipient of misplaced anger?  The Lord can take it all.  Hit me with your best shot.

Recognizing that we are in fact grieving helps in entering a healthy process.  Maybe it’s not as irrational as it might seem.


this was always the place

1 gnHave you ever been given a nickname regarding something you had absolutely no control over?  You know, like being called “freckle face.”  (Assuming, of course, you have a generous supply of freckles.)  How about addressing someone of petite stature?  “Shorty” would be a nickname completely unearned.  That would also be true if the name “Shorty” were used ironically, referring to someone seven feet tall!

Here’s another question.  Have you ever given someone else a name about something they couldn’t help?

A lot of that goes on in the Bible.  Consider the Old Testament reading in Genesis 28, the story of Jacob’s ladder.  We’re introduced to Jacob in chapter 25, just as he and his twin brother Esau are being born.  And what does he do to his elder brother?  He takes him by the heel!  Darn that infant.  Just for that, we’re going to call you Jacob.[1]  You know—the name that means one who supplants, the one who will shove you aside and take your place, the one who will grab your heels and try to trip you.

(I won’t go into detail now, but he does wind up tricking his brother into selling his birthright.  He tricks his father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, the one that should go to the elder son.  Esau is furious and is dead set on killing Jacob, so Jacob hits the road to go live with Uncle Laban, the brother of his mother Rebekah.)

Speaking of nicknames regarding something of which you have no control, my own name wends its way through history back to Jacob.  James, by way of the French (Jacques), back to the Latin (Iacomus), back to the Greek (Iakobos), and finally to the Hebrew (Jacob or Ya‘aqōv).  Am I a supplanter; do I scheme to take someone else’s place?

I guess I can take heart in that there have been, and still are, a ton of Jameses throughout time and space!

But let’s go back to that sneaky Jacob.  Pastor and writer Renita Weems says of him, “What makes Jacob’s story so incredibly engaging and kind of inspires the energy that we’re feeling now is that it is the first character in the Genesis story that provides us with so many different dimensions of a particular character.”[2]

She isn’t kidding.  Later on, Jacob wrestles with a man/angel all night long.  Eventually, the man throws in the towel, but not before getting in one last lick at Jacob’s hip!  Jacob is told, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (32:28).  His craftiness is rewarded.

2 gnWeems goes on, “I mean, here we finally have someone we have some adjectives we can use—deceptive, clever, shrewd, subtle, whatever.  Before Jacob, we’re finding mostly characters are pretty one dimensional.  They pretty much do what God says and may protest a little here and there, but in Genesis, this is, aha, someone who’s human, the first real, human person.”

When called upon, he can also do an incredible Hulk imitation, though without the green skin!  He comes upon some shepherds at a well which is covered with a large stone.  Removing it is a job for several men.  Jacob, upon seeing the beautiful Rachel approaching, walks over to the stone and picks that bad boy up!  I don’t know.  Does this display suitably impress Rachel?

Still, all of that is in the future.

I started by asking about nicknames, but the real focus here is something deeper and more inward.  Jacob has a dream.  We’re told he comes to “a certain place” and stays there for the night.  The Hebrew simply says, “the place.”  And at “the place,” he uses a stone for a pillow! (v. 11).  Who knows what kind of dreams that might prompt?

I don’t want to get into the mechanics of dreams.  There are numerous interpretations of what they might mean.  Some people remember their dreams on a nightly basis; some almost never remember them.  I think I’m somewhere in the middle.

There was a dream I had for many years.  If you’ll indulge me; I’ve told this story before.  It dealt with McDonald’s, where I worked when I wasn’t away at college.  In the dream, I would be at various locations.  I might be at home, or maybe I’d be driving my car.  And in the back of my mind was this nagging fear that I should be at work; I should be at McDonald’s.

In the dream, it was always the case that it had been days, even weeks, since I’d showed up for work.  I would have the feeling that I needed to go to the store and check the schedule.  Was I in fact supposed to be there?  But I don’t remember ever making that trip.  Instead, I would wake up and realize, with a great sense of relief, that I was now at seminary, or later on, that I was now pastor of a church.

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I haven’t had that nightmare (yes, nightmare) for a long time now.  Banu once told me that I was subconsciously expressing my fear of working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.  I believe there’s something to that!  At a deeper level, though, I think McDonald’s represented my sense of not moving forward.  It was a symbol of my needing to complete something.

All of us have had dreams, even recurring ones, that have had special importance.

Jacob has a dream that is exceptionally important—and quite vivid.  He dreams “that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (v. 12).  The word for “ladder” is better translated as “ramp” or “stairway.”  Jacob dreams of a “stairway to heaven,” to reference the old Led Zeppelin song.

The Lord meets him and identifies himself as the God of his fathers.  God gives him the promise given to Abraham and Isaac, that he will inherit the land and his offspring “shall be like the dust of the earth.”  Furthermore, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (v. 14).  God promises to be with him until these things are fulfilled.

(On a side note, it’s always the men who are given credit for the number of children.  The women are mysteriously absent.)

After that promise of amazing grace, Jacob wakes up and it dawns on him, “God is here, and I didn’t know it!”  Something is stirring inside him.  Whoa!  God is here, and I didn’t know it.  That something stirring inside him is fear.  It is reverence.

Remember what’s going on with Jacob.  He’s on the run; he’s literally running for his life.  Is it possible he has only himself to blame?  Maybe.  How many times have we been on the run, seemingly for our lives, only to realize that we are our own worst enemies?

We come to “the place,” just as Jacob does.  Where is that place for each of us?  Where is that place for us as a community, as the church?  Where is that place where we stop running?  Where is that place where it might take a dream, a vision of angels ascending and descending, to make us realize that God has been here the whole time?  This was always the place.  It is a time of awe, of holy fear.

What does the dream signify?  What does Jacob’s ladder mean?  Now we’re back to the multiple understandings I mentioned earlier.  That’s certainly true with this dream.  If you don’t believe me, do an internet search for “meaning of Jacob’s ladder,” or words to that effect.  I imagine you’ll find two or three takes on it.

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[Jacob's Dream by William Blake]

One that I find interesting and helpful comes from Ephraim of Sudlikov, a rabbi from eighteenth century Poland.  He speaks of the “ladder filled with upward and downward motion [as] a metaphor for the religious life of any human being here on earth.”[3]  Very briefly, when we feel a profound closeness to God, we are ascending the ladder.  When we feel a profound distance from God, we are descending the ladder.

Ephraim says there’s nothing wrong with this.  It is an integral part of the spiritual life.  It is who we are.  It shouldn’t be lost on us that “God shows this to Jacob precisely at a moment in which he is alone and afraid.  It is as if God seeks to reassure him: ‘This very sense of alienation and disconnection you feel may yet lead you to find Me in entirely new ways.’  Just as your spiritual life wanes, it may yet wax stronger than you yourself thought possible.  And the waxing may owe much to the waning.”

Jacob now realizes, “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (v. 17).

Jumping ahead a few centuries, John’s gospel presents Jesus telling Nathanael, “‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these.’ [By the way, in Hebrew thought, a fig tree was symbolic of prosperity.]  And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’” (1:50-51).  John links Jesus himself with the gate of heaven.

How does Jacob finally respond to all of this?  He builds a shrine and calls it “Bethel,” which means “house of God” (v. 19).  Then he makes a vow in response to God’s promise of free and amazing grace.  He’s still not quite ready to fully trust God.  If you do this…then I will do that…

Thomas Whartenby tells us, “The man who has always lived by his wits now seeks to strike a bargain.  To the God who made gracious and unconditional promises, Jacob makes a very guarded and conditional vow: If you deliver, I will serve.  It is easier to build sanctuaries than it is to live the life of faith.  Conditional discipleship is much easier than unconditional surrender.”[4]  Can we all agree to that?

Yet, despite all of Jacob’s duplicity, despite all of his scheming, God is faithful.  Like Jacob, we come to our “place.”  And too often, we would rather be anywhere in the world but there.  We would rather be on Jupiter or Saturn than there.[5]

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Still, it’s true, that is where God meets us—where God has been waiting to meet us.

 

[1] יַעֲקֹב (Ya‘aqōv)

[2] billmoyers.com/content/god-wrestling

[3] www.beliefnet.com/faiths/judaism/2000/12/the-ladder-to-heaven.aspx

[4] Thomas J. Whartenby, Jr., “Genesis 28:10-22,” Interpretation 45:4 (Oct 1991), 404.

[5] Since we’ve been able to see both of them at night recently!