hate

go to sleep, Dionysus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


to know me is to love me

How many of you have ever played “truth or dare”?  (That might serve as a question for “truth”!)

Let’s first start with “dare.”  Depending on who you’re playing with, it might require setting some guidelines, such as not daring someone to do something illegal—well, at least not too illegal.  In addition, if members of the opposite sex are present, that also might require some guidelines!

Now, for “truth.”  When we played, anything was fair game.  Anything.  Someone might begin with “truth,” but after being forced to answer the question, from then on, the selection would be “dare.”  That might seem a little less risky.  You know, we don’t want to give out too much information.  Sometimes there’s a fear of exposure.  We don’t want a light shined on just anything!

There are other examples of not wanting to be known too well.

Sometimes it might involve a child, who upon discovering the door to the garage locked, decides to take a piece of wood and jam it into the lock, hoping the substitute key would do the trick.  It might involve the sister of the child being blamed for the misdeed and suffering the sanction of being spanked.  It might involve the guilty child finally coming clean well after the fact and suffering no retribution, since by that time it’s but a distant memory.  By then, it’s okay to be known too well.

1 ps 139
Beth LaNeel Turner

Of course, that doesn’t sum it all up, but there is the basic thought of being known to an uncomfortable level.

In Beth Tanner’s The Psalms for Today, she states, “A psalm is a whole thought, even if it is lengthy.”[1]  So if we go along with that, Psalm 139 would be no different.

In fact, we can see that whole thought in a nutshell right in verse 1.  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.”  Period.  Another version says, “Lord, you have examined me and you know me” (Revised English Bible).  The Hebrew word (חׇקַר, chaqar) for “search” can also mean “investigate” or “explore.”  The psalmist is saying, “Lord, you’ve done a pretty thorough job in taking inventory of me.  I think it’s safe to say: you know me, warts and all!”  The rest of the psalm is taken up with unpacking, or laying out, that verse.

There isn’t any one way to divide up the poem, but I’ll lay it out in unequal sections.

The first eighteen verses look at being known by the Lord in different ways.  The next four verses take a decidedly different turn.  We are treated to a startling searching and knowing of a vile nature (to say the very least).  The final two verses serve to encapsulate all that has gone before.  The psalmist finally makes a request of God, a plea of protection.

I won’t go through these in exhaustive detail; I’ll deal with them in a selective fashion.  And of course, I don’t have the final word on this!

Verses 2 to 4 deal with thoughts and words.  The poet says to God, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.”  Even before speaking, “before a word is on my tongue,” Lord, you already know what I’m going to say! (vv. 2, 4).  There’s no point in playing the game, “Guess what number I’m thinking of.”

Verses 5 to 10 show the utter futility in trying to hide from the Lord: even if the psalmist “[takes] the wings of the morning and [settles] at the farthest limits of the sea” (v. 9).  If you remember the story of Jonah, the disobedient prophet, he was told to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent.  However, since Nineveh was an enemy of Israel, he wanted God to destroy them.  So he booked passage on a ship bound for Tarshish, at the other end of the Mediterranean, basically, the end of the world.  But God found him anyway.

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Please understand, we don’t have to see the poet being upset that the Lord’s knowledge is everywhere!

Then we come to verses 11 and 12.  Not even the darkness provides cover.  I imagine we can see this in different ways.  The psalmist could either be grateful or grieved that “the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to [the Lord]” (v. 12).  We’re not sure about our writer’s intent; we need some light shed on the matter.  When we deny knowledge to someone, we indeed keep them in the dark.

Something these verses speak to is the matter of secrecy.  Secrets are tricky little boogers.  On the one hand, it’s definitely necessary to keep plenty of things secret.  Giving out too much information (like we saw earlier) can do tons of damage.  In addition, it can just be an annoyance.

On the other hand, secrets can be harmful, even deadly.  Secrets have a way of infiltrating themselves into systems: systems of family, of congregations, of the workplace, whatever.  There can be a dark secret, never exposed to the light, which can take up residence and thrive.  It can even pass from one generation to the next and continue down the line.

Still, darkness is not always bad.  Madeleine L’Engle wrote about this in her book The Irrational Season.  “When we deny our wholeness, when we repress part of ourselves, when we are afraid of our own darkness, then the dark turns against us, turns on us, becomes evil.  Just as the intellect when it is not informed by the heart becomes vicious, so the intuition, the subconscious, when it is forcibly held below the surface, becomes wild, and until we look at it and call it by name, our own name, it can devour us.”[2]

3 ps 139I’m reminded of Jesus in Mark 5 when he encountered a man possessed by unclean spirits.  Jesus asked for a name, and the reply was, “My name is Legion; for we are many” (v. 9).  Jesus rendered them powerless and the man was delivered from them.  They were no longer able to devour him.

Whatever dwells in the dark needs to be named.  It needs to be brought to light.  It needs to be “searched”; it needs to be “known.”  But it also needs to be searched and known by God.  If we’re doing this by ourselves, we can do a lot of damage!

Moving on, I said I wouldn’t go into great detail, so I’ll say about verses 13 to 16 that the psalmist is fascinated and celebrates being “wonderfully made” (v. 14).  Being known by the Lord to the very core of one’s being is an occasion for praise.  Verses 17 and 18 speak of the impossibility of fully grasping the mind of God.

And so, we come to verses 19 to 22, and all I can say is, “Here we go!”  The psalmist does an imitation of my dog when he shows his teeth.  At such times, he is not in a charitable mood.  It’s time for growling, much like the language we hear our friend using.

“O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me” (v. 19).  What on earth has happened to this psalm?  We’ve gone from acknowledging and celebrating the all-knowing and ever-present God to a call for vengeance to be exacted.

Eric Peels, Old Testament professor in the Netherlands, talks about it.  “Among the offensive passages from the Old Testament with prayers for the downfall of the adversaries [these verses are] unique.  Nowhere else is the hatred against enemies expressed so directly and wholeheartedly…  If Psalm 139 had ended with…verse 18 it would have been one of the most beautiful songs in the Book of Psalms.”[3]

(And just in case you were wondering, the lectionary reading does indeed end at verse 18!)

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So what do we make of it?  What do we make of the abrupt transition to “I hate them with perfect hatred”? (v. 22).  In Hebrew, it’s literally “with complete hatred I hate them.”  Our friend Eric continues, “By hating God’s enemies the poet relates to God’s own hatred of the wicked and his curse on them.  By completely taking a stand for God the poet chooses a world of blessing and goodness, of truth and justice.”[4]

God’s enemies are my enemies.  True enough, but this isn’t about any actual feelings of fury, either on God’s or the psalmist’s part.  It’s about choosing a life of integrity or iniquity.

Having said that, there’s the danger of reversing the order into “my enemies are God’s enemies.”  (But that never happens, does it?)

So now we come to the end of the psalm.  Verses 23 and 24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”  We’re back to “search me” and “know me,” but now it’s a request; it’s a plea.  As said before, our writer is taking all we’ve heard and putting it before the Lord.

Spare me from wickedness and all the madness that comes with it.  Something like, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  The psalmist is truly at peace with being known well by God.  It is life itself.  No matter what secrets the psalmist has, no matter what enemies, confidence in the love of God is boldly affirmed and cherished.

That’s true for us.  No matter what secrets we have, no matter what enemies we have, we have confidence in the love of God.  That love has especially been revealed through our Lord Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The all-knowing and ever-present God is love.  Without a doubt, we can say “to know God is to love God.”  That love is imparted to us, and so each of us can say “to know me is to love me.”

Wouldn’t that work well with either truth or dare?

 

[1] Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Psalms for Today (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 13.

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season (New York: HarperOne, 1977), 213.

[3] Eric Peels, “‘I Hate Them with Perfect Hatred’ (Psalm 139:21-22),” Tyndale Bulletin 59:1 (2008): 35-36.

[4] Peels, 47.


take each other off the menu

I’m sure we all have places we remember with a less than fond feeling.  Some people dread the dinner table on special occasions, like Thanksgiving, when lots of family and friends gather around.  There might be the family member who’s always itching for a fight about politics or religion—or the life choices of someone who is present.  Then there might be the one who simply makes inappropriate comments about anything under the sun!

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There is a place I remember with a less than fond feeling.  Actually, there are several, but one place in particular sticks out.  It was my junior high school cafeteria.  If there’s somewhere you learn about the social structure of a school, it is the lunchroom!  (That also goes for high school lunchrooms.)

You might find this shocking, but I was never among the popular kids in school.  On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the peak of popularity, I was usually at about 2 or 3.  On rare occasions, I might creep up to 4.  Fortunately, I was never one of the poor souls people made fun of; I was just there, not paid much attention.  It was difficult for me to be at ease in social situations.  I was plagued by shyness.  To put it bluntly, junior high was hell!

There was a curious thing I sometimes felt.  I sometimes felt like I wasn’t real.  Again, it’s not like I was picked on; it’s that I often felt like I was in my own little world.  People who are real don’t have so much trouble making friends, do they?  Privately, I knew I was real.  I was sure of it.  Within myself, I sensed there was nothing really wrong with me, although the outward evidence seemed to suggest the opposite.

But I imagine that’s enough of my sob story and irritating introspection!  I’m sure no one else has felt the way I did—and sometimes do.

Still, I’m fascinated by that sense of not being real, of existence being called into question.

2 Ga 5Earlier this month, Umair Haque wrote an article called, “The Rage in America’s Soul: The Dilemma of Nonexistence.”[1]  It’s a fascinating, insightful, and disturbing take on today’s society.

He sees the problem of “nonexistence” as flowing from, and a part of, the “rage” we have.  Haque has lived all over the world, and he’s noticed something he claims is unique to the US.  I have not lived all over the world, so maybe I’m not the best person to comment.  I don’t believe we’re the only country filled with rage, though perhaps we’ve learned to perfect it in our own way!

He says he “would like to gently confess: I have never seen a place with so much rage in its soul — not even an iota as much — as America.  If we are wise, we will ask, instead of becoming defensive, simply, why?”  As a people, as a nation, why are we filled with so much hate?

(And don’t worry, I’ll include the church, hearing reflections by St. Paul in a few moments!)

It seems when almost anything is reported on the news, the finger pointing soon commences.  Before the dust has settled, people are wondering, “Who’s to blame?”  And even more troubling, we too often see opposite groups as believing the others are not only mistaken—they don’t have the facts straight—but they’re morally wrong.  It’s not simply a matter of intelligence, but of character.  We can automatically assume that someone isn’t acting in good faith.  And sad to say, I have at times found myself falling prey to that temptation.  It is not a good thing!

In calling our rage as Americans a rage of “the soul,” Haque points to a number of things.  He says the rage is omnipresent.  “It does not come and go like the tides, but is more like a background hum of constant fury.”  One example that comes to mind is reading the comments to stories or posts on the internet.  The illogical and irrational venom people write makes me think all of us have taken crazy pills!

He also says it’s merciless.  “It is not merely the shout of a sulking child, but points to a kind of profound agony, one so deep, that there can be no possibility of forgiveness.”  We hold on to grudges with a vengeance.  There is a spiritual reality at work here.  If we haven’t experienced forgiveness, that is, forgiveness for something that really needs to be forgiven—then it’s almost impossible to extend forgiveness.  We have to feel the love.

That goes along with something in 1 Peter: “maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (4:8)!

The third thing Haque mentions is “the rage is murderous.  It doesn’t contain the anger of a scorned lover, but the exhilarating, dizzying fury of a killing field.  There is kind of pleasure, a satisfaction that seems to linger in it.”  There really is a dark delight, a twisted joy, in slaying the enemy, whether with weapon or word.  That’s especially true if we feel ordained by God in our enterprise.

When we view others through a lens of contempt and hatred, we don’t see them as simply human beings.  We don’t see the joys and hopes and fears that we have.  We don’t see them as real.  Haque continues, “The only thing that I know that can produce such rage is to not to be seen to exist at all, which is the first kind of murder that there is, really.”  In effect, we kill them.  We deny each other’s existence as the beloved of God, as those for whom Jesus Christ died.

3 Ga 5So there’s a good segue; I follow up on my promise to bring this to the church!

The apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is possibly the earliest one he wrote.  To put it lightly, he is befuddled at some of the stuff they’re doing and the peculiar things they believe.  He is “astonished;” he calls them “foolish”; he is “perplexed” (1:6, 3:1, 4:20).  And it would seem from the scripture reading in chapter 5, we don’t have to wonder why.

He begins the chapter by reminding the Galatians of their freedom in Christ.  He warns them against using their freedom to go back to slavery, as crazy as that sounds.

Now we see how the apostle tells them “you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence [literally, “the flesh”], but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (vv. 13-14).

A moment ago, I mentioned viewing others through a lens of contempt and hatred.  If we do that, it hampers our ability to see them as real.  It also twists our ability to know the truth.

In our Book of Order (F-3.0104), there’s a saying, “Truth is in order to goodness.”  Part of what that means is truth isn’t always a neutral concept: 2+2=4.  Truth is to be in service of the good.  There is a way of presenting the truth that tears down, that destroys.  There is an evil way of telling the truth—the devil’s truth.  It brings death, not life.  If we tell a truth in rage, if we have a malevolent purpose, if we want to do harm, it’s not really true!  It’s not God’s truth.

Unfortunately, it looks like the Galatian church is in danger of becoming infected with hate.  Paul wants to get ahead of that.  He warns them about using their freedom to indulge the flesh.  And here, the “flesh” is not simply our physical bodies.  It is the tendency to use the gifts of God for purely selfish intent, to not care what happens to others or to the rest of creation.  The “flesh” is self-indulgence.

The apostle gives them some advice, some Spirit-inspired advice.  “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15).  Take each other off the menu!

In recent years, zombies have become very popular.  That is, stories and movies and tv shows about them—not the zombies themselves!  Zombies go around eating people, but they don’t know why they do it.  After all, they are dead.  Some people see the fascination with zombies as a commentary on our society.  We mindlessly consume each other, and it’s reflected in art (if portrayals of zombies can be considered art).

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Richard Rohr says something interesting in a reflection on Thérèse of Lisieux, who died in her twenties at the end of the nineteenth century.[2]  She came to have the nickname “The Little Flower.”  She spoke of the “science of love.”

Rohr makes a reference to John the Baptist saying of Jesus, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29).  He says, “the sin of the world” is “ignorant killing, and as we see today, we are destroying the world through our ignorance.”

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The sin of the world is behaving like those zombies, who kill and have no idea what they’re doing.  The sin of the world is behaving like the devil, who was “a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44).  However, and there is a “however.”  “When we love, we do know what we are doing!”  We wake up.

Paul wants the Galatians to wake up from the drowsiness and the haziness of self-indulgence.  They need to see what they’re doing.  They’re eating each other alive.

Can we see any of this in the church today?  Can we see any of it in ourselves?  If we can, that’s okay, and here’s one example why.

I started by talking about places we remember with a less than fond feeling.  I put forth the supposition that one of them might be Thanksgiving dinner.  And I speculated one reason might be arguments over religion and politics.  Mind you, I enjoy talking about that stuff, but it’s important to do so without speaking the devil’s truth.

At its very best, the church embraces those with various viewpoints.  One thing I like to mention is Jesus’ inner circle.  It included Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot: a collaborator with the Romans and a revolutionary who wanted to overthrow the Romans.  (I wonder how their dinners went.)

We can have those different groups—conservative and liberal—rich and poor—popular kids and kids like me, in Christ, and do it with gratitude.  Live with thanksgiving.

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And thankfully, we have help in taking each other off the menu.  We have help in not submitting to the rage which would have us licking our chops and sharpening our knives.  We have the freedom in Christ to treat each other as real, as the beloved of God.  We have the freedom in Christ to taste and see that the Lord is good.

 

[1] umairhaque.com/the-rage-in-americas-soul-494a285cb633

[2] cac.org/therese-lisieux-part-2-2017-10-04


live well and prosper

“Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / for I had wandered off from the straight path…

“How I entered there I cannot truly say, / I had become so sleepy at the moment / when I first strayed, leaving the path of truth.”

These are some of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno.[1]  Its setting is the evening of Good Friday, in the year 1300.  Having been born in 1265, Dante writes himself into the story at the age of 35, which according to medieval and Biblical thinking, is half the human lifespan of 70 years.  So Dante realizes, in the midst of his life, he is lost in sin; he has wandered from the straight path.

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What’s worse, he doesn’t know how he wound up in that dark place.  As he says, “I had become so sleepy at the moment when I first strayed, leaving the path of truth.”  All he knows is that he, like a little child, is terrified at being lost in the deep forest.

This really is a picture of all of us.  Dante is clear to say, “Midway along the journey of our life,” not just “my life.”  We all, if we are to find our way out of the deep darkness of sin and evil, must wake up.  We have to arise from our slumber and learn how to live life.

I mention Dante’s Inferno because it reminds me of today’s Psalm, number one, which has the image of the two paths.  These are the two ways of the human race, the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked.  If Dante gives us the picture of a path to follow, the psalmist reminds us that we come to forks in the road.  We continually have to decide which way to go, which path to follow.

Something else about the first Psalm, possibly the most important thing, is it is the introduction to the book of Psalms.  It serves as an entrance into the world of praise and wisdom we find in the book.  This psalm sets us up for the journey of a lifetime!

And we should admit this journey isn’t quite as black-and-white as a quick reading of the psalm might suggest.  The difference between the righteous and the wicked isn’t always so easy to figure out.  Real life, as I think we all know, is more complicated.

Maybe you’ve heard the example of “is it ever okay to tell a lie?”  Imagine living in Nazi Germany, and you’re harboring Jewish neighbors in your attic.  When the officers come banging on your door and ask, “Are there any Jews inside?” should you lie to them?

It’s been said, “This most wisdom-like of the Psalms is not claiming that there are no shades of gray in our…walk of faith.  People are complex; life is not so simple.  Rather, this psalm strives to depict the two ways and their consequences for us…  At any one moment we find ourselves moving in one direction or the other, moving toward an ultimate destination.”[2]

So, what about these two paths, these two ways?  And what are the consequences of following each?

2 Ps 1Here’s how the psalm begins: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers.”  At the very beginning, we’re pictured within the idea of community and the idea of learning.  Who do we listen to?

The epistle of James also taps into the wisdom tradition.  It says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1).  We have to pay attention to what we say, how we influence other people.  Why is that?  Because, as James reminds us, “all of us make many mistakes” (v. 2).

I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “And none of us is perfectly qualified.  We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths.”

But the psalm isn’t just about what we say; it’s about how we live: taking the path, sitting in the seat.  To “take the path that sinners tread” is about one’s daily walk.  In this case, it would be the opposite of walking with God.

To “sit in the seat of scoffers” doesn’t involve selecting furniture.  It’s not about going to Raymour and Flanigan.  It does involve siding with the cynics, who have an insincere attitude about life.  They don’t listen to sound wisdom.  If they do listen, they listen only to themselves.

In a country as divided as ours, that can be a problem.  Too often, we self-select the voices we listen to.  And isn’t it interesting?  It’s usually the voices we already agree with!  I find it fascinating (and depressing) how the exact same action—or the exact same statement—is presented, depending on whether it’s Fox News Channel reporting it or MSNBC.  It can feel like we’re living in parallel universes!

The psalmist suggests something else: delighting in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night (v. 2).

What do we meditate on?  What goes through our minds?  Maybe jingles from commercials?

Retired quarterback Peyton Manning has done a million ads, it seems.  But I’m thinking of one in particular.

We see him at practice, calling signals to start the play, “Sixty Omaha, set, hut.”

Afterwards, he’s sitting in ice water, lamenting, “Losing feeling in my toes.”

Cut to his kitchen at home, with his mouth watering, “Chicken parm, you taste so good.”

Finally, he’s on the couch, turning on the TV, just in time to hear a female voice proclaiming, “Nationwide is on your side.”

I have a hunch that jingle is not quite as beneficial and life-enhancing as meditating on the word of the Lord.

But what about the ones who do meditate on those life-enhancing matters?  How are they described?  “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.  In all that they do, they prosper” (v. 3).  We might say they live long and prosper.  The psalmist maybe does one better.  They live well and prosper.

Still, I like that phrase: “In all that they do, they prosper.”  In all that they do—that does seem a bit difficult to measure!  Perhaps it’s more a frame of reference, or an approach to life.  When we have that point of view, we can see prosperity where others do not.

But what about the others?  What about those who do not delight and meditate on God’s word and wisdom?  What about those who, unlike Dante, are fine with remaining lost in the deep, dark forest?  Verse 4 says they “are like chaff that the wind drives away.”  Their plans come to nothing.  They don’t try to align themselves with God; they don’t seek God in prayer.  They listen only to themselves.  (Like we saw before.)

What do the ways of prosperity and cynicism look like?

3 Ps 1

Recent events in Charlottesville give a stark vision of a cynical view of life.  The enduring legacy of America’s original sin of slavery continues to appear.  I think we can agree that neo-Nazis, the KKK, and white nationalists represent an over-the-top and cartoonishly violent philosophy.  They don’t present garden variety racism.

But I have to question myself.  How much of that is in me?  Growing up in America, how much of that has seeped into me?  No less a person than the apostle Paul lamented, “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Ro 7:15).

Here’s another question I pose to myself.  In what ways do I benefit from white privilege?  Am I willing to admit it exists?  What does that look like?

Again, Paul says, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv. 24-25).

Our psalmist presents us with a vision of what can be, and dare I say, what shall be!  It is the reality of life lived in God’s kingdom, which is already here, but not fully revealed.  It is the kingdom Jesus says “has come near,” the kingdom that “is at hand” (Mk 1:15).  The kingdom is revealed whenever we act as God would act.

The kingdom is revealed when we love someone enough to help them find the path they should travel.

Richard Rohr speaks about hope.  He speaks of a hope he has—a hope for us.  It’s a hope about living in the kingdom.

He says, “I hope you’ve met at least one ‘Kingdom person’ in your life”.[3]  His hope that we’ve met “at least one” such person suggests that it might be a rare occasion, or maybe that we too rarely allow those kingdom qualities to be seen in ourselves.

4 Ps 1

He goes on, “They are surrendered and trustful people.  You sense that their life is okay at the core.  They have given control to Another and are at peace, which paradoxically allows them to calmly be in control.  A Kingdom person lives for what matters, for life in its deepest and lasting sense.”

Maybe I can end my sermon on that note.  As the psalmist expresses his fond and confident hope that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,” so may the Lord watch over our way (v. 6).

Live well and prosper!

[1] Mark Musa, trans. (New York:  Penguin, 1984), 67.

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=5/20/2012&tab=5

[3] conta.cc/ITinm3          [Daily Meditation for 22 Sep 2012]


the state of the union, imho

I checked, and the title of my sermon this time last year was “Independence Day Theological Reflections of One American.”  Quite a mouthful.  This year, “The State of the Union” is a bit shorter.  And if delivering a “state of the union” address means I’m getting too big for my britches, I do add “in my humble opinion.”

1 independence

Right away, I freely admit hearing the prophet Jeremiah chew people out at the temple and hearing Jesus telling us to love our enemies is not your typical Independence Day sermon.  However, I do have an explanation.  But we’ll get back to it in a few moments!

I can’t resist tossing something in about paying your taxes.  Did you know it’s a spiritual discipline?  Well, sort of.  In Romans 13, St. Paul says, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (v. 7).  And that, coming from a guy who knew all about being persecuted by the government!

So there is that political dimension, which makes sense.  Words like “Lord” (κυριος, kurios) and “Savior” (σωτηρ, sōtēr), in the first century, are not just theological, but they’re also political.  The terms “Lord” and “Savior” are titles attributed to the emperor of Rome.  Nero and Domitian, a couple of emperors with really big egos and serious self-esteem issues (which are qualities bullies possess), are especially insistent about it.  They crave adoration with a vengeance.

2 independence

When the early Christians call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” they are well aware of what they’re doing.  For them, it isn’t an empty phrase.  It’s not something to put on Facebook and hope that you’ll get plenty of “likes.”  They are saying “no” to the arrogance of empire.  They risk losing their jobs, their freedom, or something even worse.

Neither the northern kingdom of Israel nor the southern kingdom of Judah had empires.  Still, like most countries, they had their own brands of patriotism.  Banu has told me on several occasions when she was growing up she was taught, “There’s nothing more glorious than being a Turk!”

Jeremiah faces a situation in which the temple is being used as a tool of the state.  It has been co-opted by patriotism gone wild.  The temple has been turned into an idol.  The threat of the Babylonians, who have been gobbling up countries right and left, has the people of Judah fearing for their lives.  And that’s understandable.  But in times of fear, even paranoia, the temptation to grab easy answers can be almost irresistible.

That is what’s going on here.  There is a belief that God will not allow Jerusalem and the temple to be destroyed.  In the midst of uncertainly, while the winds are howling, there’s a safe haven in the storm—and it’s the symbol of national pride and where the priests do business.

Unfortunately, as the prophet points out, if your conduct is criminal, if you disregard the distressed, if you neglect the needy, the temple won’t protect you.  But talk like that flies in the face of the official line.  Jeremiah is tired of the propaganda, the empty slogans, and he makes fun of them.  “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (v. 4).

3 independenceAnd he’s saying all of this at the temple of the Lord!  The prophet calls out the political and religious powers-that-be, and he does it in plain sight.  (Or as my mom told me when I was a kid, “Before God and everybody!”)  He issues his protest, “Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail” (v. 8).

As you might expect, Jeremiah is labeled a traitor, and all kinds of bad stuff happens to him—but we can leave that for another day.

Distinguishing between patriotism and idolatry can be a tricky thing.  Love of country is part of the love of God’s good creation, though caution is warranted, lest it divide us.  Loving the gift of God is right and praiseworthy.  Still, too often we love the gift more than the Giver.

We might put some questions to the fellows we just looked at.  Do we go along with Paul and pay taxes, even if they’re used for an evil purpose?  The Romans ruled with an iron fist.  Of course, Jesus also paid taxes, and he wound up getting the death penalty.

What about Jeremiah?  Is he a whistleblower, or is he endangering the country?  Is he a precursor to Edward Snowden—though not many people would call Snowden a prophet!

I think there are more questions than answers when we look at this stuff, but questions are a good thing.

I just said distinguishing between patriotism and idolatry can be tricky.  For those of us who would maintain that Christ and Caesar are not the same thing, we do have to tread carefully.  An Independence Day sermon can be tricky!  Choosing to do one can be tricky.  Talk about treading carefully.

Something that came to mind this past week was an experience in 1991, just as the first Gulf War was beginning.  My pastor made it quite clear he was in favor of the war.  I was not, but that’s really not my point here.  The Sunday after the war started, I knew it would be the theme for worship.  And I knew I would be miserable, so I attended church elsewhere.  At the big Methodist church in town, the war was mentioned in prayer, but that was it.

I went back to my church during the week, and the red, white, and blue bunting that adorned the stage was still there.  I thought it looked more like an election campaign headquarters than a church.  Recognizing the difference between Christ and Caesar can indeed be difficult.

4 independence

The apostle Paul says paying taxes is an act of faithfulness.  At the same time, the prophet Jeremiah speaks truth to power.  Now, here comes Jesus, with his call to love our enemies.

Melissa Bane Sevier has interesting thoughts on the matter.[1]  She notices how Jesus expands on loving our enemies, especially in verses 46 and 47.  “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

5 independenceShe says, “I can say I love someone while not really liking that person, right?  Avoiding them helps with the illusion that I don’t hate them, and if I don’t hate them, I must love them.”  That must be it!  Problem solved.

Still, she continues, “Avoidance doesn’t seem to be an option with Jesus.  I am required to greet all people, whether I love/like them or not.  And if I only love/like the people who love/like me, I’m not being the person I need to be.  That’s more difficult than I thought.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but I believe she is speaking to me.  I believe Jesus is speaking to me.  And it is something I recognize.

I’m no fan of the big cable news networks.  They’re more interested in entertainment than journalism, in my humble opinion.  That’s a reflection of our society and its dualistic, simplistic view of reality.  It’s us and them, winners and losers, black and white.  To be honest, it’s too often a reflection of the church.

Greeting those with whom I disagree is more than not getting into an argument.  It actually involves engaging with them, even if it seems so tiresome!

6 independenceSevier notes, “Praying for them is so much more difficult than not-hating them.  Not-hate is passive; prayer is far more active.”  And it’s not simply praying for their hearts to change.  I’ve been guilty of that one!  When we pray for our enemies, it’s most of all, our heart that changes.  Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Your enemy is your best teacher”?

She concludes, “Praying won’t make me less convinced of the rightness of justice, but it will help me see the person on the other side as a real person, not as someone I want to defeat…

“For the next week, I’m going to choose one public figure a day—one who I think is really wrong-headed…and pray for that person.  I expect I will be changed.  Not in my convictions, but in my humanity.”

Imagine the state of the union if that were our measure of faithfulness.

Imagine the state of the union among us if that were our measure of faithfulness.

7 independence

[1] melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/praying-for-enemies


the dark side of Christmas

Newtown, Connecticut (14 Dec 2012).  Bethlehem, Judea (Matthew 2:16).  Christmas has not yet arrived.  Still, our proximity to it prompts an observation.  The dark, and usually overlooked, reality is that the Christmas story carries within it the slaughter of little children.  Two weeks from yesterday, we observe the feast of the Holy Innocents.

Pointing out the reality of the massacre of young ones doesn’t explain or excuse it.  How could anything?  But what it does do is to show how Jesus was born into a world with the same hatred and insanity that still plague us.  Our challenge is to work for the “peace on earth” that the angels proclaim—to ask for and use that courage.

[originally posted on 15 Dec 2012]