hymns

Independence Day theological reflections of one American

The wording of my title has been carefully chosen.  First of all, “Independence Day.”  It is the one day of the year in which we’re especially called to be grateful for the gift of nation.

1 indThen there’s the word “theological.”  That speaks to questions like: how is God involved in it?  Where is God to be found?  And they are “reflections.”  I don’t pretend this is some universal truth that applies to everyone.  I’m speaking from my own experience.

And indeed, this is the viewpoint of “one” American.  But though I am one, I am an “American.”  In some ways, it’s fitting that I am an American.  Having been adopted as an infant, I didn’t know who my genetic ancestors were.  That is, until February 2018, when my birth mother tracked me down.

In a similar way, America as a nation has no single clear understanding of its genetic makeup.  After all, what does an American look like?  What does an American sound like?  Our political history mainly ties us to England, but as a whole, Americans look to all parts of the world, not to mention those who were here before the Europeans ever showed up.

Increasingly, there are many countries which lack a single clear understanding of their genetic makeup, but my guess would be the United States best epitomizes that.

So there’s that.  But I do have a better reason for saying, “It’s fitting that I am an American.”  It’s because I love my country.  I love America.

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For the first ten years of my life, we were a military family.  My dad was posted to various naval bases around the country, from coast to coast to coast to coast.  (The Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific back to the Gulf and then to the Atlantic.)  Obviously, that meant plenty of moving around, guaranteeing that I saw a whole lot of this country.  Add to that my college experiences and the churches my wife Banu and I have served.  That adds a few more states.

Like most of us, I was taught at an early age God has blessed America.  And I believe that.  However, my young mind—not so good with nuance—made the assumption since God had blessed America, we were better than people from other countries!  (I’ve since learned that Banu was raised with a similar belief about Turkey—that’s there’s nothing more glorious than being a Turk!)

There is still within the spirit of America a conviction that people have human rights, they shouldn’t be tortured, the government shouldn’t tell them how to think, they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  That’s why it’s a shame when we don’t live up to those convictions.

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I realize that many say faith and politics should be kept separate.  (By the way, that’s a whole different animal from separation of church and state!)  When it comes to airing one’s political opinions from the pulpit—such as telling people who to vote for—I would tend to agree.  As Christians, we need to learn to think theologically, not just politically.  As I said earlier, “Where is God in this?  How do we think of God?”  That’s what the New Testament church does.

There is a question often asked during presidential election campaigns.  It is, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  Clearly, that would be asked by the challenger!  In my opinion, a better theological question would be, “Are your neighbors better off now than they were four years ago?”  I would love to see that reframing of the discussion.

The gospel is inherently political; it’s inescapable.  Words like “Lord” and “Savior,” in the first century, are political terms as well as spiritual terms.  “Lord” (κυριος, kurios) and “Savior” (σωτηρ, sōtēr) are titles attributed to the emperor.  Nero and Domitian, a couple of emperors with really big egos and serious self-esteem issues, are especially insistent about it.

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 a bumper sticker or post on Facebook.  They are saying “no” to the arrogance of empire.  They risk losing their jobs, their freedom, or something even worse.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Give…to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (22:21).  Render unto to Caesar…  I wonder, what does that mean for us, on our nation’s 247th birthday?

We see some Pharisees and Herodians sending representatives to Jesus.  Understanding the mindset of those two groups shows what a strange combination this is.  Pharisees were single-minded in their determination to uphold the law of God.  Despite the broad brush of being boogeymen we see in the New Testament, there was diversity among them.  Many were sympathetic to Jesus and to the church that arose in the book of Acts.

Herodians, as the name suggests, had a political nature, seeing in Herod the better path for the Jewish people.  To put it lightly, they and the Pharisees weren’t exactly BFFs.  We have put on full display the dynamic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”!

Matthew shows how disingenuous they are by their opening statement: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality” (v. 16).

I like the way Eugene Peterson put it in The Message: “Teacher, we know you have integrity, teach the way of God accurately, are indifferent to popular opinion, and don’t pander to your students.”

As we all know, flattery will get you everywhere.

The backdrop of our story is the payment of taxes to the Roman authorities.  Any loyal Jew, with any patriotic sensibility, considers being taxed by this foreign government reprehensible.  The enemies of Jesus have racked their brains, trying to come up with some way to get rid of this guy.  He’s drawing too much attention, and that can only spell trouble.

Somebody has one of those “aha!” moments, and says, “I got it!”  If Jesus teaches “the way of God,” let’s see what he says about the tax law.  If Jesus legitimizes paying taxes to Rome, he is in effect denying God’s sovereignty over the nation.

However, if Jesus says it’s not okay to pay the taxes, the Romans will step in and take care of him.  Either way, we win.

The characters trying to trick Jesus haven’t done their homework, or they might have guessed their plan won’t work.  Jesus is proactive, not reactive, about the job of reconciliation.  He is intentional. 

For example, among his disciples he’s included Simon the Zealot.  The Zealots are a group dead-set on following the Jewish law, and by “dead-set,” I mean violence is a doable option.  (You know, make my day!)  He’s also included Matthew the tax collector.  Tax collectors were especially hated because they helped finance the occupation.  So we have a revolutionary and a collaborator.  Not exactly birds of a feather.  Compared with them, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are a match made in heaven!

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Banu and I recently watched the TV show, The Chosen.  It is a series about Jesus and the people who met him.  It is very well done.  Not to give offense, but in my opinion, many Christian movies and shows have one-dimensional narratives and bad acting.  What we find in The Chosen is a show that creatively displays the stories we encounter in the gospels.

Season 3, episode 2 is called “Two by Two.”[1]  This is when Jesus sends the disciples out to preach the gospel, to heal, and to cast out evil spirits.  He pairs them up and indeed puts Simon and Matthew together.  There are some nervous and humorous exchanges.

In answering the question about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus elevates the discussion.  By changing the perspective, by reframing it, he gets to the heart of the matter.  He gives the perfect answer to their question, one that invites them to challenge their assumptions.  As we see, they are left speechless.

Approaching from a philosophical perspective, in her book At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell tells a story from 1946 Paris, right after the war.  Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Arthur Koestler were having a lively time at a Russian nightclub when “the question of friendship and political commitment came up.  Could you be friends with someone if you disagreed with them politically?  [I would add, theologically.]  Camus said you could.  Koestler said no: ‘Impossible!  Impossible!’  In a sentimental buzz of vodka [this was a Russian nightclub, after all], Beauvoir took Camus’ side: ‘It is possible; and we are the proof of it at this very moment, since, despite all our dissensions, we are so happy to be together.’”[2]

In an unfortunate development, “Sartre and Beauvoir eventually came to agree with Koestler… it was not possible to be friends with someone who held opposed political views.  ‘When people’s opinions are so different,’ said Sartre, ‘how can they even go to a film together?’”[3]  Friends, is that us?  Must our differences always result in our barely standing each other?  Don’t answer that question!

In these past few years, the specter of intolerance has spread all over our nation, sometimes beginning with elementary school.  By the time students get to college, there increasingly is the conviction that only approved ideas are correct.  The concept of critical thinking is being tossed out the window.  If one even dares to utter an opposing viewpoint, let alone actually agree with it, that person is castigated, intimidated, shamed.  They might even get cancelled!

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We are called, both as Americans and especially as Americans of faith, to expand our vision, to look outward, to be proactive about reconciliation—to take the first step in peacemaking.  We’re called “to form a more perfect union.”  (That is, a more complete union, a more perfected union.)

And again, as the church, St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:17-18).

Now, to recall my question from a few moments ago, how do we as Americans of faith live on the 247th birthday of our country?  There is quite a difference between being an American and an American of faith, just as there’s a vast difference between Caesar and Christ.

As Americans who are part of the body of Christ, we are called to actively celebrate the good and to challenge the bad, not only in our country, but in ourselves.  And in the church!  To say that each person is born with inalienable rights means respecting and honoring those who are different from us, in whatever way.

It also means not denying our identity in Jesus Christ.  It’s easier than we think to conceal the cross behind the flag—or to put the cross on the flag!  Remember, there is a difference between Christ and Caesar.  We mustn’t confuse the two as we rightfully remember, as we seek to be grateful to God for the gift of nation.

A hymn we all know is “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.”  “America, America, God shed his grace on thee.”  One of the lines has this proclamation.  “O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years / thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.”  Indeed, friends, we’re not quite there yet.

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[photo by David Mark on Pixabay]

I spoke of the first century church calling Jesus “Lord and Savior,” and how that carries a great deal of political weight.  Still, without the living Lord within, the political stuff is but a dry husk.  I pray these words can be more than words and that the living Word will empower us to be those who seek a better homeland, that is, a homeland infused with the light of heaven.

 

[1] www.imdb.com/title/tt23028036/?ref_=ttep_ep2

[2] Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café (New York: Other Press, 2016), Kindle edition, Chapter 11, section 2, paragraph 4

[3] Bakewell, 11.2.6


Shavuot, Pentecost, and the word of revolution

How about New York Cheesecake as part of a religious celebration?  When Christians celebrate Pentecost, that particular dessert rarely figures into the equation.  However, the observance of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot often has mouths savoring that delicious treat.

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[photo by Monika Grabkowska at Unsplash]

Can we imagine cheesecake as a holy food?  It puts a whole new spin on the psalm saying, “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (34:8).

Okay, backing up a bit…  Shavuot is the Hebrew word for “weeks.”  It is one of the three festivals in the Hebrew scriptures required for pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem.  The other two are Passover (or Pesach) and the Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot).

Shavuot was originally a harvest festival when the first of the crops sprouted, thus the term “firstfruits,” which were brought to the temple.  It was observed seven weeks and one day after Passover—fifty days.  In Greek, “Pentecost” means fifty.  For the church, Pentecost is today.  For Jews, Shavuot ended yesterday at sundown; it is celebrated for two days.  The timing difference is due to Shavuot being counted after Passover and Pentecost being counted after Easter.

When the Romans destroyed the temple in the year 70, there was nowhere to bring the firstfruits.  Consequently, the focus shifted to the revelation of Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai.  Other than the exodus from Egypt, this is the premier event giving identity to the Jewish people.  The giving of the word is the aspect I wish to make my focus.

Lacking any specific requirements, Shavuot is kept by special services, recognizing it as a day of rest, and among other events, enjoying holiday meals.  Dairy foods are highlighted, thus the mention of cheesecake!

Still, the divine encounter with Moses, associated with the day of Pentecost, is front and center.  That is given special attention.  One way of giving that attention is by pulling an all-nighter while engaged in the study of scripture.  Some might suggest having coffee and strong tea on hand!

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[As an aside, I have a story about strong tea—quite strong tea, which Turkish tea is.  Banu’s parents were visiting us from Istanbul when we lived in Jamestown (about 20 years ago now).  Turks drink a lot of tea, which is fine with me, because I love tea.  They use small glasses, which we had.  Then I got the smart idea of filling up a large mug.  Turkish tea, with its elevated volume of caffeine, has an even greater diuretic effect.  Suffice to say, I made a greater than usual amount of trips to the bathroom that evening.]

There is a legend saying God offered the Torah to 70 different nations, doing so in their own languages.  All refused to accept it.  However, when God approached Israel at Sinai, the word was welcomed.  In Exodus 19:8 we read, “The people all answered as one, ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’  Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.”

By the way, that puts a different spin on Israel being God’s “chosen” people.  They “chose” to follow the Torah.  (Perhaps the word is better translated as “instructions” or “teachings.”)

Naomi Wolf, who throughout her life has been a decidedly left-wing feminist (though doesn’t one have to be leftist to be a feminist!), has over the past couple of years, rediscovered her faith.  She speaks of the “Hebrew Bible [as] more about love and less about rules.  The rules are the guardrails for the love.  And God is always seeking out ordinary people—while clothed in his own Person.”[1]  I really like that definition of Torah: rules as guardrails for love.

In the New Testament, in Acts 2, we see Jews from many far-flung nations gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost.  We are told how the Holy Spirit rushed in like a violent wind with fire.  Descending upon them all, they spoke in tongues in their native languages, praising the Lord.

Incidentally, in verse 1 we hear, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”  Were they doing the all-night study?  Maybe they had some strong tea.

Pentecost is often considered to be the birthday of the church.  After the fire fell, the Spirit being poured out on all flesh, the number of believers began to increase exponentially.  Starting in Jerusalem, the church quickly spread out in all directions.

The legend of the nations refusing the word of the Lord was reversed.

Can we see, or better, can we hear those with their own languages understanding each other?  The nations represented did not all live in blissful accord with one other.  Understanding that, the Pax Romana, the “Roman peace” of the Empire imposed in a somewhat and imperfectly harmonious way a sense of stability and prosperity.

We often hear of the Roman Empire as the enemy of the church.  That wasn’t always the case, through it’s true there were some emperors who made a special effort at persecution.  Having said that, the Empire greatly aided in spreading the gospel.  There are many ways in which this happened, but I’ll limit myself to three.

First, the Romans had an impressive and well-maintained network of roads.  This aided people in their travels, including folks like the apostle Paul and his friends.

Secondly, the imperial economy enabled commerce from a vast expanse of territory on three continents.  There was a great exchange of peoples, with various nationalities, beliefs, social classes, whatever—but it made no difference, because the gospel of Jesus Christ appeals to all.

The last one I’ll mention deals with language, since that’s the theme we’ve been addressing.  In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great did his part in spreading Greek culture throughout the Middle East and into Egypt.  Of course, the local languages remained, but the Romans used Greek as the primary language in the eastern half of the empire.  When you want to carry a message, it helps if there’s a common tongue to express it!

3 dtCan we not say we see the Spirit of the Lord at work?  Can we imagine the Spirit giving birth to the word of revolution?

I’m not really speaking of revolution on a national scale.  Rather for each of us, it must start from within: a revolution within our minds, hearts, and spirits.

That is the promise and power of Shavuot, of Pentecost.

In Deuteronomy 26, we see instructions on how the firstfruits are to be handled.  With verses 5 to 9, we have a confession of faith, an affirmation of faith.  “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor” (v. 5).  The reference is to Jacob.  (By the way, Aram was a region encompassing Syria and northern modern-day Iraq.)

There follows a sketch of historical events.  The Israelites, having settled in Egypt, became numerous and the Egyptians in turn subjected them to slavery.  But the Lord heard their cry and delivered them.  They were brought into “a land flowing with milk and honey” (v. 9).  Acknowledging the goodness of God, the Israelites present before the Lord “the first of the fruit of the ground” (v. 10).

The passage ends at verse 11, “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”  We often see special provisions for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and so on.  However, here we see singled out “the aliens who reside among you.”

There is the reminder just as the Lord had mercy on the Israelites while aliens in Egypt, so they are to extend that same mercy to the aliens in their midst, to the sojourners among them.

That is a big part of the promise and power of Shavuot, of Pentecost: the word empowering us to reach out to all nations.

The empowering word is ultimately focused in the Living Word.

John 7 declares, “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me’” (v. 37).

3a dt“Come, Thou Fount of every blessing / Tune my heart to sing Thy grace / Streams of mercy, never ceasing / Call for songs of loudest praise.”

The festival referred to isn’t Pentecost, rather it is the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the three mentioned earlier requiring observation for those at all capable of making the trip to the temple.

Jesus continues, “let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (v. 38).  Which scripture is meant is a mystery.  It doesn’t appear in the Bible.  A number of suggestions have been made.  Perhaps the most likely is Exodus 17:6, where Moses strikes the rock and water comes gushing out.

[I mentioned this last month.  Due to their bitter thirst, the people threaten to stone Moses.  The Lord has Moses whack the stone.]

We are told, “Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive, for as yet there was no Spirit because Jesus was not yet glorified” (v. 39).  That doesn’t mean the Spirit did not exist, but instead the Spirit had not yet been given.  This is, so to speak, a pre-Pentecost statement.

Later in his gospel, John has the final conversation between Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus says, “When the Advocate [that is, the Helper or Comforter] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.  You also are to testify, because you have been with me from the beginning” (14:26-27).

The Spirit will speak the word on behalf of Jesus, on behalf of the Messiah.  We also are to speak the word.  We are to testify, to give witness, on behalf of Jesus.

Are we thirsty for the water of the Spirit?  We can be a well springing up with the Holy Spirit.

There is a word pointing to a reality beyond our imagining, beyond our usual frame of reference.  It bears an unveiling; it displays the debris.  It burns away the impurities.  We are given power to say no to squandering our lives and resources on meaningless consumption.  We are given courage to embrace a lifestyle not dictated by marketing trends or unhealthy spending habits.

It is the word come alive.  It is the word revealed at Sinai, the word spoken at Pentecost.  It is not simply the word to be read.  It is the word desiring to befriend us, to unleash our creativity.

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That is the word we desperately need when it calls our name.

 

[1] naomiwolf.substack.com/p/do-we-resemble-god


rock solid words

“This country’s going to hell in a handbasket.”  I’ve long wondered what a handbasket has to do with a trip to the infernal regions.  I’m not sure how that particular container became linked with shaking the hand of el Diablo.  I don’t suppose there’s anything particularly evil about handbaskets.  They frequently are taken on picnics, and there doesn’t seem to be anything especially sinister about picnics, unless a spot is chosen right next to an anthill!

(Side note: the world’s largest handbasket is the building in Newark, Ohio, former home of the Longaberger Basket Company.  In the late 90s, Banu had a Longaberger Basket party when we lived in Nebraska.  That’s when her love affair of the baskets began!)

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I tried to find out the origin of that phrase.  It seems to date back to the 1600s.  Another variation was “going to hell in a wheelbarrow.”  Apparently, that wasn’t quite as catchy, so “hell in a handbasket” it was.

I think it’s safe to say, one who utters that phrase is expressing a grim outlook.  The poet of Psalm 12 clearly shares that perspective.

“Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from the human race” (v. 1).  Everything has gone to hell in a handbasket.

There could be any number of reasons for that lamentation.  It might result from certain beliefs or attitudes or practices.

The psalmist (who traditionally is identified as David) wastes no time in uttering his complaint, his cause for concern.  In the place of the godly and faithful are those who “utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a deceitful heart they speak” (v. 2).  The genesis of so much wrongdoing lies in the words that come out of our mouth.

What are we to make of “flattering lips and a deceitful heart”?  Has anyone ever experienced that?  Have we ever been guilty of that?

What does the psalmist suggest as a remedy?  “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts” (v. 3).

I’m reminded of the song by R.E.M., “Shiny Happy People,” which came out in 1991.[1]  It was inspired by a propaganda poster distributed by the Chinese Communist Party two years after the Tiananmen Square uprising and massacre.  There is the iconic image of the lone protestor standing in front of a tank.  He came to be known as “Tank Man.”  The government wanted to promote the image of the population as “shiny, happy people holding hands.”

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It was indicative of a policy of flattering lips and deceitful heart portraying deadly events in an obscenely deceptive way.

One of the ironies of that song turned out to be its popularity.  People often enjoyed the shiny, happy tune, thinking it was about shiny, happy things—not realizing it was satire, dripping with sarcasm.  R.E.M. didn’t intend it as propaganda, but it worked very well as such!

Verse 4 continues the thought of flattering lips and boastful tongue with “those who say, ‘With our tongues we will prevail; our lips are our own—who is our master?’”

The Revised English Bible puts it, “They say, ‘By our tongues we shall prevail.  With words as our ally, who can master us?’”  With words as our ally.  What a delicious phrase.  In another translation, it reads “our weapon is our lips.”[2]

In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith, who is the central character, makes the statement, “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two equals four.  If that is granted all else will follow.”  By the way, I read his book in 1983.  I wanted to be sure I read it before the year arrived!

The Orwellian concept of language focuses on Newspeak, in which the government deliberately reduces words and the ability to express freedom of thought.  For example, “bad” becomes “ungood.”  “Very good” becomes “plusgood,” and “wonderful” becomes “doubleplusgood.”  Language becomes narrowed, as does awareness, even the ability to conceive.

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1984 gave us the helpful reminder, “Big brother is watching you.”  What a pleasant thought.

Would it be a surprise to know—to be “aware”—that we employ our own forms of Newspeak?  Of course in our case, the goal isn’t deletion of language but the deletion of trust.  That includes deletion of trust in definitions of words.

Once upon a time, a “vaccine” prevented, or almost certainly prevented, one from obtaining a disease and being able to spread it to others.  Sadly, that is no longer the case.  The word “appropriate” seems to have lost its contours.  Case in point would be drag shows held in schools, even elementary schools, being called appropriate.

With words as our ally.  Our weapon is our lips.

Moreso than any other, it is government who uses words to redefine the truth.  “The first casualty of war is the truth.”  So said the ancient Greek poet, Aeschylus.

In her article, “Acceptable Torture,” Karen Hunt comments, “It’s worse than that.  Truth has become the first casualty of everyday life.  The elites have manipulated, discredited, and denied the truth so convincingly that it has all but disappeared.”[3]

In a speech at Texas A&M University, a recent CIA director “jokingly asked his audience, ‘What’s the cadet motto of West Point?  You will not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those who do…  ‘We lied, we cheated, we stole,’ he continued, laughing as if he thought that was very funny and clever.  And the brainwashed audience laughed along with him.”  He then added, “It reminds you of the glory of the American experiment.”[4]

I honestly don’t know what that last comment is about.  Certainly it doesn’t mean he believes deception is glorious?  Or does he believe it epitomizes America?  Beats me.

Chapter 12 of Matthew’s gospel notes “every careless word,” or “every idle word” (v. 36).  We’ve just seen plenty of careless, idle words.

Words have power.  Besides “idle,” the Greek word (argos) also means “lazy.”  We too often don’t consider the impact our words carry.  Or maybe we do!  We might intend our words to hurt, calling each other stupid, ugly, worthless.  We utter curses rather than blessings.  Jesus tells us, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”  What is in us has a way of coming out.

Words have power.  That power can be wielded for good or ill.  That power can be filled with grace or filled with reproach.

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Words have power; they have energy.  We are to pronounce blessings and avoid curses, not because it’s nice, but because what comes out of us comes right back to us.  We clothe ourselves with whatever we produce.  If we emit positive energy, we are bathed in what is good and true and holy.  If we emit negative energy, we are bathed (maybe I should say defiled) in what is wrong and false and unholy.

There are some words of wisdom which state, “truth is in order to goodness.”  (It’s a nugget from our Presbyterian history, but I think it’s available to all!)  The truth must serve the good.  It must promote goodness.  It is possible to tell the truth with the purpose of crushing someone, beating them down.  The truth can be told with malevolent intent.  I call that “the devil’s truth.”  It’s meant, as I just said, to hurt and not to help.  To the extent it does that, it really isn’t the truth.

What stories do we tell about each other?  What stories do we tell about ourselves?  Are they stories of despair and discouragement?  Are they stories of acceptance and affirmation?

I’ve often wondered, how many wars have been started (both wars large and small) over a word misheard?  Once the word is out there, it’s out there.  It really is impossible to “take it back.”

There’s an illustration all of us will recognize.  What happens when we give a tube of toothpaste a little squeeze?  Here comes the toothpaste.  But what if we have a change of heart?  Well, we could return it from whence it came.  I have tried that, and to my amazement, I’ve never been successful.  It’s impossible to take the toothpaste back.

5In his journals, the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard makes an embarrassing confession.  “I have just returned from a party,” he says, “of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me—but I went away—and the dash should be as long as the earth’s orbit—[inserted in the text is a dash taking up half the line] and wanted to shoot myself.”[5]

Of course, none of us have ever spoken foolish words, whether accompanied by drink or not!  Idle words, indeed.  Having said that, even when we speak out of turn, our words can be transformed; they can be redeemed.

Far from words as our ally, from words that are idle, the psalmist paints a new picture.  “The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (v. 6).

All the impurity, all the duplicitous language is burned away.  The promises of the Lord—the words of the Lord—are rock solid to the ends of the earth.

“No more let sins and sorrows grow / Nor thorns infest the ground / He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found / Far as the curse is found.”

The Lord promises protection to all who seek it, because “on every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among the human race” (v. 8).  Another translation puts it, “The wicked parade about, and what is of little worth wins general esteem.”[6]  What is of little worth wins general esteem.  That’s almost as delicious as “with words as our ally.”

Where are you with your words?  What are you uttering?  What are you claiming?  What are you rejecting or owning?  Words have energy.  They indeed have power.  We either build with our words or destroy with our words.

In Deuteronomy 30 the Lord says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (v. 19).  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44).

That’s a tall order!  I don’t know if anyone ever really gets there, but it is a lofty goal.  If that’s the stratosphere, it makes it all the more doable here at ground level.  It makes it all the more likely that idle words are silenced.  It makes it all more likely that we see the faithful reappearing among the human race.  That includes the face in the mirror.

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There is a word which liberates.  It is the word—the word permeating the cosmos.  It is the word with all power.  It is the living word.  It is the word that defeats death, Jesus the Christ.  It is the word rising from the dead and letting us know that in the end, nothing has truly been wasted.

 

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

[2] Mitchell Dahood, Psalms 1 (1-50) (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 72.

[3] khmezek.substack.com/p/acceptable-torture?publication_id=258694&post_id=101510344&isFreemail=false

[4] www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPt-zXn05ac

[5] Søren Kierkegaard, A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Robert Bretall (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948), 7.

[6] Revised English Bible


the gift of repentance

I imagine we have occasionally come upon some characters dressed in unusual garb, professing to have a word from God.  They often are dressed in robes, crying out their appeals / commands.

I recall one such individual, who was poised on a traffic island in downtown Nashville.  He was wearing a sign bearing the message, “Repent in the raw.  Nudist Christians.”  If my recollection of the fellow is accurate, it seemed underneath the sign, he was wearing no shirt.  However, he did have on some pants.

Below the delightful invitation was a phone number.  I didn’t bother memorizing it.  I had no intention to follow up and get more information on his group.

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[photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash]

The nudist fellow aside, the call to repent is usually understood to be a stern warning.  It’s a demand to get your act together!  If you have ever encountered any of those oddballs on the sidewalks, it would be easy to get that idea.  Or maybe you’ve been in church with a wild-eyed preacher pointing and shouting, “Repent, ye sinners!”

The fellow in Matthew 3 could fit the bill.  “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (vv. 1-2).  He seems to be a rather formidable force, with a bit of fanatic thrown in, at least according to polite society.

“In those days” he appears.  No particular time period is intended.  We might think of life going on as normal, when suddenly this prophetic figure arises.  It happens in the wilderness—a region “off the grid,” so to speak.  The reason for repentance is due to the kingdom of heaven as drawing near, as being at hand.

It’s right here, within our grasp.  The pure of heart are graced, as the gospel later tells us, to “see God” (5:8).  The kingdom can be sensed in moments of awe.

We’re told John is prefigured by Isaiah with the message, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’” (v. 3).  By this time, those in the Jewish faith had come to see this as a messianic scripture, a reference to the end times when the Messiah will establish universal peace.  There’s a slightly different spin from Isaiah 40, which says, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Being in the desert, in the wilderness, is far from the structures erected by human ingenuity.  Having said that, the wilderness is less about outward structures than it is about inward ones.  The desert is a place of utter openness, of exposure that is complete vulnerability.

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[photo by Ahmad Ardity on Pixabay]

The clothing of John the Baptist has been an inspiration for those characters I mentioned earlier.  It’s not exactly what would be seen on the runways of fashion capitals around the world.

How about his menu, consisting of locusts and wild honey?  In Leviticus 11, which deals with ritually clean and unclean food, “locusts of every kind” are pronounced kosher (v. 22).

On a side note, locusts have been and are still eaten in many parts of the world.  They are rich in protein, and can be prepared in many different ways, including frying in olive oil, perhaps with a dusting of salt and spices.  They are a tasty and crunchy biblical food!  So accompanied with wild honey (as opposed to the product of domestic bees) we have a combination of savory and sweet.

3With verses 5 and 6, we see why John is at the Jordan.  He’s baptizing folks from near and far.  They are confessing their sins, heeding the call for repentance.

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor says of him, “When John waded into the water with people, he was cleaning them up for their audience with God, which he believed would take place very soon. He begged them to change their lives in preparation for that event, and he was not below scaring them half to death if that was what it took.”[1]

That especially applied to the Pharisees and Sadducees who approached him, who he referred to as a “brood of vipers” (v. 7).  John compares them to snakes fleeing a fire.  In doing so, he’s hardly saying their ministry and leadership are based on such noble and godly qualities like love and concern for the people.

He warns them against relying on their status as sons of Abraham.  Quit acting like big shots.  Demonstrate a conscientious desire to serve the Lord.

Taylor continues, saying John “offered to hose them down, if they were willing.  If they could come out of their comas long enough to see what was wrong and say so out loud, then he would wash it away for them, forever.  Or God would.  The same God who could make children of Abraham out of river rocks could make children of God out of them right there, if they were willing.  All they had to do was consent, repent, return to the Lord and they could start their lives all over again before they even dried off.”[2]

That was an amazing gift.  “The past would lose its power over them.  What they had done, what they had said, what they had made happen and what had happened to them would no longer run their lives.”

Too often we want to hold on to the past, even a past that was destructive and hurtful.  Have there been voices in our head telling us, “You’re dumb.  You’re ugly.  You’re worthless.  You’re an embarrassment”?  Or maybe we’ve inflicted that kind of pain on others, possibly without even intending to.

“As scary as John was,” says Taylor, “it was a pretty great offer.  No wonder people walked days to get to him.  No wonder they stood around even after their turns were over, just to hear him say it again and again.  ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’  What sounds like a threat to us sounded like a promise to them.  We hear guilt where they heard pardon, and at least part of the problem, I think, is our resistance to the whole notion of repentance.”[3]

Remember the wild-eyed guy I mentioned yelling, “Repent, ye sinners”?  As just noted, where we hear a threat, they hear a promise.  That goes to my title: the gift of repentance.  If that sounds counter-intuitive, please know there are scriptures in the Bible making that very point.  I could cite several, but I’ll just give one from both Old and New Testaments.

In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet speaks the word of the Lord to the people in exile in Babylon.  They are promised return and restoration.  “A new heart I will give you,” says the Lord, “and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26).  They are promised outer restoration (their nation), and inner restoration (their spirit).

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In the New Testament, Peter is describing to his fellow Jews how God directed him to go to the home of the Roman centurion, Cornelius.  Understand, Jews were forbidden to visit Gentiles—and certainly not to sit down and eat with them!  Peter said, “as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning,” that is, on the day of Pentecost (Ac 11:15).  How do they react?  “When they heard this, they were silenced.  And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life’” (v. 18).

The Gentiles received the gift of repentance.  Do we also not play a role in that?  Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Repentance leads to life.  The chains of death and darkness are shattered, torn asunder.  We are set free from the power of sin.  We are slaves no more.

However, having those shackles removed doesn’t mean we won’t be aching to put them on again.  Sometimes we don’t want to be healed.  Sometimes we like being stuck in the mud.  The hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” cries out the plea, “Take away the love of sinning; Alpha and Omega be.”  Poor wretched creatures that we are, we are prone to not only choosing sin, but loving it.

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We don’t want to give up the fun of spreading rumors or talking smack behind somebody’s back.  Why forego the enjoyment of berating the driver who cut us off in traffic?  Why is it called road rage when it’s such a thrill?  Why deprive ourselves of the pleasure found in getting revenge, which is a dish best served cold?

Worst of all, we too often refuse the love of God, who calls us to do the things—or calls us to love the ones—we would rather not do.  We might even notice our ignoring Ezekiel’s caution about hearts turning to stone.

Repentance is indeed a gift, but it also must be sought.  Without a desire to change, without a desire to know Jesus more deeply, there is no repentance.

John is baptizing, but he knows very well it’s not about him.  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 11).  Now he really sounds like that wild man from the wilderness.

If John the Baptist hoses you down, the one to come (a perfect image for Advent) sets you on fire.  Jesus is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  He wields a winnowing fork, throwing the wheat into the air and allowing the breeze to blow away the debris.

The chaff will be consumed by flame.  It takes up space but contributes very little.  It’s not terribly nutritious.  It provides some empty calories, so to speak.

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There is chaff within us to be burned away.  (I’m addressing this to myself more than to anyone.)  It can be quite painful; burning usually is!  As noted before, sometimes we don’t want to be healed.  We want to remain stuck.  We love our sin.  And to submit to it being wrenched away feels like we’re losing part of ourselves.  And guess what?  It’s true, and it needs to go.

Once we let that stuff go, we find a liberty we couldn’t imagine.  A burden is lifted.  Dare we look inside and have the courage to face it?

We are freed to love and serve whose advent is nigh, Jesus Christ, the one who comes to us.

 

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Journal for Preachers, “A Cure for Despair: Matthew 3:1-12,” 21:1 (Advent 1997), 16.

[2] Taylor, 16.

[3] Taylor, 17.


in with the old, out with the new

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity…

Against you, you alone, have I sinned…

You desire truth in the inward being…

Create in me a clean heart…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] Anderson, 398.

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

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

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


summer's almost gone

I realize that people tend to think of the Labor Day weekend as the end of summer, and from a tourist perspective, maybe that’s so.  Not to be picky, but it is at the autumnal equinox.

To the extent that people have feelings associated with the end of summer, they often tend to be of a wistful, melancholy variety—a longing for those warm breezes and carefree nights.  As a kid, I had those feelings, along with a certain dread at having to go back to school.  But I also looked forward to fall, because that’s football season!  Even now, the first days of cool weather remind me of the fun I had playing that game.  Every year, at some point in time, I catch a scent or a feeling that fall really has arrived.  (It hasn’t happened yet.)

I’m reminded of a song by the sixties group the Doors.  They had a song called “Summer’s Almost Gone.”[1]  (And to avoid disparaging the late Jim Morrison, I won’t sing this!)

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“Summer’s almost gone, / Summer’s almost gone, / Almost gone, yeah, it’s almost gone / Where will we be when the summer’s gone?”  There really is a tone of gloominess to it.  The song ends this way: “Summer’s almost gone, / Summer’s almost gone / We had some good times but they’re gone / The winter’s coming on, summer’s almost gone.”  (Actually, winter is my favorite season!)

Jeremiah 8 has an expression in which the people, realizing that summer is over, consider it an evil omen.  “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20).  Some say this refers to the drought mentioned in chapter 14.  Others see it as a saying that Jeremiah uses to sum up the mood of the people.  Maybe both are true.  One thing is sure: the impending invasion of the Babylonians has people wondering what to do.

We see the prophet’s torment because of all the disaster happening to the people.  Jeremiah utters his laments, his jeremiads.

“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick” (8:18).  “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (9:1).  That fits right in with Jeremiah’s nickname, “the weeping prophet.”

He truly loves his compatriots, even though they haven’t shown much love to him.  In return for his desperate hopes and prayers that they’ll listen to the truth, Jeremiah’s been given ample helpings of all kinds of abuse: mockery, beating, and imprisonment.  His words have been twisted to make him sound like the enemy of the people.

2There are those who would say that the prophet is a fool to get so worked up over the fate of this bunch.  After the way they treated him, they deserve all the pain coming their way!  Why should he care what happens to people who’ve made his life hell?  Besides, it’s not like his tears are going to do any good anyway.

"Jeremiah" by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

There are at least two responses to all this.  First, Jeremiah isn’t naïve.  He clearly knows the nature of the people he grieves, both the few who’ve been kind to him and the many who haven’t.  Continuing in chapter 9, we hear his cry: “O that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them!  For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors” (v. 2).

Jeremiah would like to have a place way out in the wilderness.  It would be nice to separate himself from all the villainous stuff going on.  He would like to get away from it all.  Get some peace and quiet.  Jeremiah needs to get a Land Rover or maybe an ATV.

Still, having said that, the prophet’s care—his sorrow—does accomplish something.  There is a certain wisdom gained.  We do learn from grief things we can’t learn in any other way.  I imagine that’s a class no one’s in a hurry to sign up for!  But if Jeremiah were to harden his heart—if he were to say goodbye to compassion—he would become less human.  That goes along with the call which came to him as a youngster: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord” (1:8).

What about us?  From whom do we need deliverance?  From whom do we need rescue?  Could it be ourselves?

Jeremiah wails, “For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am broken, I mourn, and horror has seized me” (8:21).  For their brokenness I am broken.

We are all familiar with twelve-step groups.  There are Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and others.  I have attended one AA meeting.  Our church in Jamestown hosted a group.  I asked permission to be there for the beginning of the meeting.  I made sure to leave before they started sharing personal stuff.

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I will confess I have a bit of a problem with the idea saying, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.”  I understand there are medical, psychological, even spiritual components involved.  It’s not something to take lightly.  But it seems to me if we always refer to ourselves as an alcoholic, we make it part of our identity.  There is a sense in which we can own a disease or an addiction.

I remember when I was in seminary taking a program called Clinical Pastoral Education.  It’s required for ordination as a Presbyterian minister.  For most people, it involves an internship as chaplain, usually in a hospital.  At our first meeting, we began with introductions.  One of our members was a lady who literally said, “I am cancer.”  (Not, “I have—or have had—cancer.”  Or, “I am a survivor of cancer.”)

Now that is a case of making a disease your identity.  She eventually gave us her actual name!

Without a doubt, we are all broken in various ways.  We sin, and we need a savior.  Nonetheless, if we take brokenness as our identity, the defining characteristic of who we are, does that mean we will remain broken?  Here’s an unsettling question: do we come to embrace our brokenness?  Do we begin to love it?

Jeremiah seems to recognize this.  He looks at those around him and concludes, “They all deceive their neighbors, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies; they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent” (9:5).  In the Revised English Bible, that last line reads, “deep in sin, they weary themselves going astray.”

They’ve basically said, “It’s hopeless; we’re too far gone.”  And that bit about teaching their tongues to speak lies can lead to a point where the moral compass is completely broken.  We lose the ability to discern right from wrong.  Thus we have verse 6: “Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit!  They refuse to know me, says the Lord.”

The New Jerusalem Bible puts a disturbing twist on it.  “You live in a world of bad faith!  Out of bad faith, they refuse to know me, Yahweh declares.”

A world of bad faith.

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Bryce Dallas Howard in a quirky take on social credit in the episode "Nosedive" on the series Black Mirror.

I would like to suggest one possible example of that is social credit.  For those who don’t know, social credit is a measurement of how good a citizen one is.  It originated in China with businesses and individuals scored on categories like charitable actions, care for the environment, proper online behavior, and many others.  There are some commendable aspects of social credit.  The problem comes with who determines what are positive and what are negative qualities—big tech, the government, our next door neighbor?

We see this system evolving in what have been democratic nations.

Libertarian writer Kristin Tate has commented on this.[2]  “The potential scope of the…social credit system under construction is enormous.  The same companies that can track your activities and give you corporate rewards for compliant behavior could utilize their powers to block transactions, add surcharges or restrict your use of products.  At what point does free speech—be it against biological males playing in girls’ sports, questioning vaccine side effects, or advocating for gun rights—make someone a target in this new system?”…

“Peer pressure, trendy movements, and the ability to comply with the new system with the click of a mouse combine all of the worst elements of dopamine-chasing Americans.  As it grows in breadth and power, what may be most surprising about our new social credit system won’t be collective fear of it, but rather how quickly most people will fall in line.”

It’s a short step, if we haven’t already reached it, for the power of public shaming to take hold.  We could be encouraged (or commanded) to report on each other, in the best tradition of totalitarian societies.  It is surveillance gone wild.  On the plus side, we can finally be excused for using our binoculars to spy on others.  After all, it’s our civic duty.

The prophet warns, “Beware of your neighbors, and put no trust in any of your kin, for all your kin are supplanters, and every neighbor goes around like a slanderer” (9:4).

We are wounded, and we wound each other.  How does one counteract slander, false reporting?  How often is a retraction issued which barely gets the coverage of the original sham story?

Our idols would kill us.  We discover these new shiny things, and they blind us in the glare.  The next thing you know, we have stumbled and fallen into a ditch—or off a bridge!

Still, there is healing.

On that matter, Jeremiah asks with dismay and disbelief, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?” (8:22).  Gilead was noted for its balm, produced by certain trees.  It was prized for its curative properties.  In the story of Joseph, his brothers sold him into slavery to a caravan traveling from Gilead.  Their destination was Egypt.  (I think we know the rest of the story.)  Among their cargo was the medicinal balm.

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There is the beloved hymn which affirms, “There is a balm in Gilead / to make the wounded whole / There is a balm in Gilead / to heal the sin-sick soul.”  That healing is found in our Lord Jesus Christ, the great physician.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, but salvation is at hand.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Fe0UcS2uFw

[2] thehill.com/opinion/finance/565860-coming-soon-americas-own-social-credit-system/


into the heart of truth

I suppose we’ve all heard someone say, at one time or another, “All paths lead to God,” or maybe we’ve said that.  Usually, that’s about different faiths, different religions, like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on.  In many ways, I do agree with that.

A few years ago, in a previous congregation Banu and I were serving we were talking about it in Sunday school.  Someone drew a picture of a mountain, with a number of trails leading up to the summit.  For him, it symbolized those paths leading to God.

I drew something different on the paper, an expressway with many lanes, explaining I see the life of faith as a continuous journey.  In the center of this road, I put Jesus Christ.  I said I see him as the pure, perfect expression of God’s vision for humanity.  He is flowing into the heart of truth.

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Then in the lanes on either side of the center, I said to the extent that we can know such a thing, I would place other expressions of faith that have varying degrees of truth and authenticity.  Way over on the shoulders would be groups like mind-control cults and twisted versions of faith.  Like drunk drivers, they’re on the verge of going off the road entirely, crashing and burning.

I need to emphasize the importance of having a sense of humor, as well as a sense of humility, in all of this.  We too often claim to know more than we do—or even, are able to know!

I would submit as one example of our need for humility the reason for today’s name, Trinity Sunday.  Understanding that the word “trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible, people have devised all kinds of explanations for the Holy Trinity.  That is, they’ve tried to explain how one is three and three is one.

Some explanations are better than others.  Some people talk about H2O, how it exists as ice, liquid, and water vapor.  Others talk about relationship, such as, “I am a son, a brother, and a husband.”  Really, no description does a very good job.  They tend to turn God into a problem which needs to be solved!

Trinity isn’t three as the answer to a math problem.  Trinity speaks about the nature of God.  God is a community.  You need at least three for there to be a community.  But this isn’t “community” the way we often think of it.  It isn’t a collection of individuals who just happen to be in the same place.

There’s a term called “perichoresis” (περιχώρησις).  It comes from two Greek words meaning “around” and “to contain” or “to rotate.”  It was used by ancient writers to describe how the Persons of the Trinity share the lives of each other, constantly interwoven in a vibrant intimacy of love, a dance of love.  They hold each other in a holy dance.  That is what’s happening within the heart of God.

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The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “I would believe only in a god who could dance.”[1]

I’m reminded of the chorus from the hymn, “Simple Gifts.”  It was a dancing song that a group known as the Shakers used to sing.  “When true simplicity is gained / To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed / To turn, turn will be our delight / ‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.”

This is a joyous love that is interwoven into creation itself.  God, who is love, sees of creation, “It is good.”  After the human race comes into being, God sees, “It is very good.”  When we get a glimpse of that, we realize the Holy Trinity is far from some dry, dusty doctrine.  We dive right into the heart of truth and get the invitation that says, “There’s a party going on!”

So, back to my point about speaking on matters of faith, it’s good to be humble in our pronouncements—and learn to just dance!

There is a little snippet from a passage in John’s gospel that goes on for four chapters.  Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure.  And at this point, he’s telling them about the work of the Holy Spirit.  To continue with that image of the dance, maybe we can see the Spirit as the music!

Still, we can sense a certain heaviness in the air.  We cannot escape the fact that this is a solemn occasion.  After all, this scripture comes after Judas has left to meet up with his co-conspirators.  There follows the ominous note: “And it was night” (13:30).  Jesus tells them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (v. 12).

They’re having enough trouble with what he’s been trying to teach.  Philip has already said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied,” to which Jesus says, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:8-9).

If they still aren’t getting it, what hope is there?  If traveling with Jesus—having seen how he lives—isn’t convincing enough, then what would do it?

I like the name Jesus gives the Holy Spirit: “the Spirit of truth” (v. 13).  The Spirit of God, the Spirit of holiness, is also the Spirit of truth.  We might contrast that with the spirit of error, the spirit of falsehood, the spirit of lies.

There’s another angle to this business of the Spirit guiding us into all the truth I really appreciate.  It’s the importance of valuing people who are located all along the theological spectrum: conservatives, liberals, and everyone else.  We could say the same thing about those all along the political spectrum, as well.

I have often had the experience of finding a greater level of agreement, of rapport, with those who say and believe different things than I do.  I’m talking about people who read the Bible differently from the way I do, or those who feel differently about politics, sometimes quite differently!

During these past couple of years, I have found myself, in more than one way, becoming increasingly alienated from those I once considered like-minded.  The word “alienated” might be a good description.  On certain topics, if you dare express a dissenting opinion, you might find yourself censored.  You might find yourself snarkily dismissed.

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One of the Historic Principles of Church Order, dating back to 1788, which is in our Presbyterian Book of Order, is entitled “Truth and Goodness.”[2]  It says that “truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’”

Saying that “truth is in order to goodness” means that the truth is the servant of what is good.  It is possible to make a statement which is factually verifiable—we can look at it and prove that it is so—and it still not be true, at least, not be true at the deepest levels.  There is a devilish way to present the truth.

If its mission is to harm, to hurt, to shame, then it really isn’t true because it isn’t God’s truth.  It isn’t spoken by the Spirit of truth.  The truth of God never humiliates us.  The devilish presentation of truth does not “promote holiness.”

Jesus says of the devil, “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44).

We might wonder, “Is there a way to know what is true?”  Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit “will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (vv. 13-15).

Jesus reminds them, and us, that the Spirit of truth “will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  The Spirit doesn’t act independently from who God is.  Remember what I said earlier about expressions of faith, like drunk drivers on the highway, who veer away from the character of Christ.  Remember about the nature of God, which is a self-giving community in an endless dance, a dance of love and generosity.

4 jn["Embraced" by Banu Moore]

The truth that the Spirit speaks does correct us—but never shames us, never ridicules us.  The Spirit gives us the courage to follow into the heart of truth.

With God as Trinity, we have the perfect model of community.  This is a community whose only truth is one that builds up and does not tear down.  It is truth that heals; it does not destroy.  There’s no awareness of being laughed at, only laughing with.  As our friends the Shakers remind us, “When true simplicity is gained / To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed / To turn, turn will be our delight / ‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.”

 

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 153.

[2] F-3.0104


bearing belief of enduring hope

There are several scripture texts that are popular at weddings, but one I believe is on the short list is chapter 13 of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  It fits what our hope would be of the newly married couple.

It is also good fodder for greeting cards.  Please note: when I say “fodder,” I’m not demeaning greeting cards, and I’m definitely not demeaning Paul’s chapter on love.  However, sometimes it gets reduced to a touchy-feely, cute teddy bear level.  That’s instead of the serious and even fierce declaration of the stratospherically high nature it embodies.

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At times it’s even scary.

Something else often ignored or overlooked is its location.  It is smack dab in the middle of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts.  In chapter 12, in trinitarian language, he tells us, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (vv. 4-6).  He speaks of, for example, gifts of healing, working of miracles, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues.  Paul finishes with the promise, “I will show you a still more excellent way” (v. 31).

Thus, we have chapter 13, which teaches us if the gifts are not used under the guidance of love, then they are worthless.

In chapter 14, Paul shows how the gifts are to be used in worship.  There is to be no putting oneself ahead of others, no strutting around and saying, “Look how spiritual I am.”  Since “God is a God not of disorder but of peace,” the apostle sums it all up with the reminder “all things should be done decently and in order” (vv. 33, 40).

This has been addressed to a church with all kinds of problems: splitting themselves up into competing factions, treating the poor with disrespect, chasing after the latest fads.

Consider the place where they live.  Corinth is a major crossroads in the Roman Empire.  It’s a prominent hub of commerce; people from many nations, speaking many languages, and many social backgrounds flow through it.  Corinth provides a market for a variety of goods and services—that is, goods and services of all kinds, appealing to appetites of varying levels of decorum.  On that last note, the city developed quite a reputation.

2 coThere was a verb that came into popular use: “to Corinthianize,” referring to all manner of carousing, or as the band Kiss put it, to “rock and roll all night and party every day.”  The church has reflected the culture around it, with both its honorable and its less than honorable qualities.

In retrospect, I hope we can see the apostle Paul’s message isn’t intended to address romantic love or warm fuzzies.  He is concerned about life in community.  How do we order it?  How do we fail and fall into disorder?  How does the love of the meek and mighty Spirit strengthen and counsel us to not tear each other apart but to build each other up?

This chapter is jam packed with lovely ingredients.  Paul begins by listing events one might find in the spiritual Olympics.  You can set a world record, but without love, you might as well be sitting on the bench.

Next, we have a laundry list detailing what love is and what love is not.  Love is kind; love is not rude.  Love is patient; love is not irritable.

There’s a German word “schadenfreude.”  It expresses the joy at someone else’s misfortune, the pleasure derived from someone else’s pain.  Love does not engage in schadenfreude.  When someone slips on a banana peel (literally or symbolically) love doesn’t laugh.

Verse 7 tells us love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  I’ll come back to that verse.

Moving on, we see that when all else ends, love never does.  “When the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (v. 10).

Paul presents us with this majestic observation, saying, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (v. 12).  The apostle Paul is a man whose life has been transformed by love.  He has gone from the schadenfreude of approving the stoning of Stephen, often considered to be the first martyr, to identifying with the frail: “Who is weak, and I am not weak?” (Ac 8:1, 2 Co 11:29).

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The chapter ends with his grand proclamation, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (v. 13).  That’s a note for this motley crew with their quarreling, nitpicking, shaming, shameless ways.  In other words, they’re behaving not unlike us.  (That is at least, in our worst moments!)

Now, back to verse 7, informing us that love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.

What does it mean to say love bears all things?  The word for “bears” (στεγω, stegō) also means “to cover, to keep secret, to hide the faults of others.”  One thing we’re basically talking about is keeping confidence—not going around blabbing.  If you get some dirt on someone, keep it to yourself.

There can be confusion between confidentiality and secrecy.  Sometimes a good faith attempt at keeping confidence can be misconstrued as dealing in secrets.  Here’s one good measure for telling the difference: confidentiality affords protection, secrecy causes damage.  While confidentiality respects, secrecy disrespects.

Love believes all things.[1]  Love places confidence in someone or something.  Love is willing to entrust, to look for the best, to give the benefit of a doubt.  On occasion, it can even be accused of being naïve.  We might suspect that someone is taking advantage of us, but we let it slide.  In the world’s eyes, we can appear foolish.

In chapter 6, Paul speaks of believers taking each other to court.  He goes as far as to put the questions, “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be defrauded?” (v. 7).  Those are awkward questions.

Love hopes all things.  The Greek word ελπιζω (elpizō) also carries the sense of expectation, an expectation with confidence.  This isn’t an empty hope.  It’s not a case of saying, “I wish it were so.”  It’s a strong and secure hope.  “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

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It’s a hope when everyone else has given up.

It’s a hope when all we want to do is fret.  Fretting attracts negative energy, bad mojo.  I have usually found that when I lapse into fretting, it turns out to be a waste of mental, emotional, and spiritual power.

Love endures all things.[2]  Love remains.  Love waits.  Love doesn’t flee.  Love doesn’t hit the road, Jack.  Love perseveres.  Love stands alongside.

Haven’t we all been in situations in which we know we should hang around, but all we want to do is just take off?  I admit I have done that.  Love has called to me.  Love has pleaded with me.  Love has begged me.  But instead, I said “no” to love.

These are less commands than they are descriptions.  That would be setting a very high bar indeed.  It would be quite a challenge even for those athletes in the spiritual Olympics!

Remember the location of this hymn to love.  It’s placed in the midst of Paul’s commentary on spiritual gifts.  This love, αγαπη (agapē), is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  We can’t summon this up by ourselves.  Having said that, it doesn’t mean we don’t try to put it into practice.

I want to revisit verse 12 where it says, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly.”  The old King James language has a poetic spin as it states, “now we see through a glass, darkly.”  I like how the Revised English Bible reads, “At present we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror.”  Puzzling reflections.

Even the sharpest of insights is barely visible from the world behind it.  In a time beyond time, that world, that realm, will be apparent.  Still, the gift of grace that is agapē gives us fleeting glimpses.

5 coLove, in its many facets, emanates from the Spirit.  It is a gift.  What do we do with this gift?  How can it transform us?  Would we like to be transformed?

I’ll give us all an assignment.  I definitely include myself in this challenge / opportunity / blessing.  Can we do our best to bear with each other, to believe in each other, to hope for each other, and yes, to endure each other?

Let’s learn to treasure the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit.

 

[1] “believes”: πιστευω, pisteuō

[2] “endures”: ύπομενω, hypomenō


wisdom be a lady tonight

I have a little story regarding my choice of scriptures.  On Christmas morning, I was about to read the Bible, and I had a thought about where to go.  Mind you, I don’t recommend this to anyone.  Still, I had the urge to just open the Bible and see what page presented itself.  Without paying any attention, I opened the book to a random spot and let my finger fall.

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Lo, and behold, it fell on Proverbs 7.  It’s the story of a woman sometimes called Dame Folly, or Madam Folly.  I reflected and thought, “This doesn’t seem very Christmassy.”  Immediately after that, in chapter 8, we have a portrait of Lady Wisdom, as she’s usually named.  Foolishness is followed by wisdom.  I read both chapters and concluded, “This might be something to follow up on.”

The opening chapters of the book of Proverbs present a father teaching his son about wisdom.  It’s the imparting of knowledge from parent to child.  (We could also see it, with some modifications, as involving mothers and daughters.)

A scenario is presented in which the father is looking out his window and watching the world go by.  He spots “a young man without sense” (v. 7).  He’s wandering through the streets, approaching a particular woman’s house.  I like the image used: “in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness” (v. 9).  Another version says, “at twilight, as the day faded, at dusk as the night grew dark” (Revised English Bible).  To borrow from Shakespeare, “something wicked this way comes.”

What was this young man without sense, this simple boy, doing hanging around in that neighborhood anyway?

When I was young, my mother often spoke pearls of wisdom to me.  One of them referred to doing something “accidentally on purpose.”  Accidentally on purpose.  That might apply to meeting a certain someone, maybe a potential boyfriend or girlfriend, “accidentally on purpose.”  Maybe someone could “accidentally on purpose” forget to attend a meeting they wanted to avoid.

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Could it be this young man “accidentally on purpose” wanted to encounter this enticing woman?  We hear the lines from the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, / Prone to leave the God I love.”  Well, if that was the young man’s wish, as the day faded, then his wish was granted.

Regarding Dame Folly herself, I won’t dwell too long on the less-than-delicate details.  Suffice it to say, she wears suggestive clothing and awaits her prey.  Upon spotting him, she “seizes him and kisses him” (v. 13).  She tells him she has just fulfilled her religious obligations, and she has everything prepared for him.  Best of all, she assures him, no one will catch them in the act.  Conveniently, her husband is away on a long trip.

Therefore, Dame Folly says, “Come, let us take our fill of love until morning; let us delight ourselves with love” (v. 18).  The other version I mentioned says, “Come!  Let us drown ourselves in pleasure, let us abandon ourselves to a night of love.”  “Abandon” is probably the right word.  The father instructs his son to not imitate him, because he “goes like an ox to the slaughter,” “like a bird rushing into a snare” (vv. 22-23).  He is a moth drawn to the flame.

The father concludes his story, “many are those she has laid low, and numerous are her victims.  Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death” (vv. 26-27).  Eugene Peterson put it in terms quite colorful in his paraphrase The Message: “She runs a halfway house to hell, fits you out with a shroud and a coffin.”

And that’s why it might be a good idea to bring your girlfriend home to meet mother and father!

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Now, let’s go from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Lady Wisdom is presented in ways almost parallel to Dame Folly.  They’re like twins whose paths in life have radically diverged.  They both make their appeals to all, especially to the simple.  The two sisters (if I may continue the metaphor), present what they have to offer.  Unlike her foolish counterpart, Lady Wisdom wishes not to entrap, but to enlighten.

She calls out, “O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it” (8:5).  The Hebrew word for “prudence” is עׇרְמׇה (`armah).  It has the connotations of “guile” or “craftiness.”  There’s a sense of “trickery”—but it’s a good trickery, one that doesn’t leave you…well, feeling foolish!

Lady Wisdom is able and willing to go where Dame Folly is unable and unwilling to go.  Folly—foolishness—can offer short-term excitement, a short-term sense of well-being.  Wisdom hangs in for the long haul.  Folly is a fair-weather friend.  Wisdom is there in both good times and bad.

“Wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her” (v. 11).  All that glitters is not gold.  (Thinking about my mom has me dispensing all sorts of sage knowledge.)  “I, wisdom, live with prudence” (v. 12).  There’s our Hebrew friend prudence again!  More than we might realize the Lord surprises us.  We think what we want turns out to be less than the best, even positively harmful, but the Lord tricks us (remember, tricks in a good way!)—the Lord amazes us and gives us something beyond belief.

So far, we’ve seen wisdom personified, as Lady Wisdom.  With verse 22, wisdom seems to almost leap off the page and be considered as a divine life form.  No longer personified, wisdom is something greater, though not necessarily female.

Here’s a quick word of explanation.  Hebrew, like Spanish for example, has masculine and feminine nouns.  The Hebrew word for “wisdom” (חׇכְמׇה, chakmah) is feminine.  That’s not the only consideration.  Some speak of the so-called masculine and feminine in God.  Some even imagine Lady Wisdom portrayed as a goddess.

She says of herself, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (vv. 22-23).  We get a story reminiscent of Genesis.  The word for “set up” (נׇסַךְ, nasak) literally means “poured out.”  That is, poured out, as in the pouring out of the Spirit.

She says she “was daily [the Lord’s] delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (vv. 30-31).  This is a picture of uninhibited, unrestrained joy.  It is the oblivious wonder of children, the abandonment to astonishment.

4 prDame Folly urges the young man to join her in drowning themselves in pleasure, in abandoning themselves to a night of love.  Of course, there’s no mention of consequences.  To modify the tourist slogan, “What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.”

At the end of the chapter, Lady Wisdom says, “Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.  For whoever finds me finds life.…  all who hate me love death” (vv. 34-36).  Whoever hangs around wisdom finds life.  How different are the ones who hang around Dame Folly.

Del Hungerford speaks quite literally of hanging around wisdom.  She says, “I’m standing in a clearing in a forest, looking up at the sky, watching clouds dance to the music in heaven.  Everything reacts to the worship, and I love to watch how it all responds.

“After a moment, I sense Wisdom next to me.  Together, we enjoy the activity in the atmosphere around us.  I think of teachings about getting to know Wisdom.”[1]

She really is listening to wisdom.  Earlier, I spoke of thinking about what we want.  Wisdom issues a warning.  “Remember, the motive is always known.  If the motive is incorrect and people are lazy or want it for selfish gain, it won’t do them any good.”[2]  Dame Folly whispers in our ears.  Something might be good, in and of itself, but it might not be good for us—at least, not at that time.

Wisdom continues, “Also, remember that for those constant requests ‘I must have…’  When they get what they ask for but their character doesn’t match, it will destroy them…  When people’s motives are not pure, too much of a good thing can have a very devastating effect…”

Ask yourself this question, ‘Do you want something because you’re trying to gain a position in the earthly realm, or are you trying to build relationship with YHVH [Yahweh] and then out of that relationship, you’re given responsibility?’”

She replied, “I think I’d rather have the second choice since relationship is most important.  When you understand true character, you know what to expect.”[3]

Along with Lady Wisdom, Jesus also speaks as the very voice of divine wisdom.  As wisdom incarnate, Jesus is humble, not “loud and wayward,” as is Dame Folly.  He presents a model of being teachable, heeding Lady Wisdom’s call to “take my instruction.”

The best teachers always practice the art of teachability.  Here’s one example among many that comes to mind: the professor of the one economics course I took in college did not seem to practice that art!  He would get visibly irritated if he had to answer more than one or two questions during a class period.  His philosophy was to just plow through the material, whether or not the students knew what in the world he was talking about.

It seems our culture increasingly is becoming one in which asking questions is discouraged.  A society like that is ruled by fear.  Honesty isn’t encouraged; compliance is.

The best teachers remain open to new ideas.  That’s especially evident in Jesus’ encounters with society’s outcasts.  I think Jesus not only gives benefit, but receives benefit, by his interaction with the poor and the unwanted.  He learns things that the high and mighty can never understand.

I asked, “What does wisdom look like?”  Consider this.  What positions have we rethought and changed our minds about in the last few years?  What does this say about us and our journey?  I can think of a couple of changes I made in the past year, although it wasn’t entirely of my own choosing.  At some level, the decision was made for me.  I think I just needed to say, “Yes.”

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Without going into all the details, I can say I’ve come to agree with those I once thought of as disagreeable and to disagree with those I once thought of as agreeable.  In a sense, I have repented—which doesn’t have to carry some dark, heavy weight of turning from evil to good.  It simply means “to turn” or to “change one’s mind.”[4]

Back to Hungerford’s encounter with Wisdom.  Wisdom wondered if she was concerned about gaining worldly position or developing a relationship with God.  As you recall, she preferred the relationship.

That is the call of wisdom; wisdom wants to know us.  “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me” (8:17).  Wisdom is calling for us.  Wisdom is calling our name.  We develop our relationship with wisdom.  We develop our relationship with the Lord.  It is a lifelong quest.  Out of that relationship, as noted, we are given responsibility.

We are responsible to each other.  We are to speak words that “are righteous,” with “nothing twisted or crooked in them” (v. 8).  Whether it’s accidentally on purpose or deliberately on purpose, we are called to lift each other up, to pray for each other and to be a help.

I will close with a prayer from the website, Missionaries of Prayer.  This is titled, “Ask for Wisdom.”[5]

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Holy Spirit, bring revelation to me on where I am stuck.  Show me the places where I need to leave.  Relationships that I need to leave.  Groups or movements that I need to leave.  Mindset that I need to leave behind.

I ask you now for a fresh start.  Give me wisdom to know the next step to take.  Where do I go from here?  How do I move forward?  Lord, I quiet my heart and listen for your still small voice as you guide me and lead me into a year of wholeness and peace, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

[1] Del Hungerford, Accessing the Kingdom Realms (CreateSpace Publishing, 2017), Kindle edition, Chapter 13, section 1, paragraphs 1-2.

[2] Hungerford, 13.1.9

[3] Hungerford, 13.1.10

[4] שׁוּב (shuv) Hebrew and μετανοια (metanoia) Greek, respectively

[5] www.missionariesofprayer.org/2022/01/prophetic-word-ask-for-wisdom/


flesh and blood

Banu and I are fans of vampire movies.  There are many I like, but my favorite is still probably one we saw in the theater when we were in seminary, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  I also very much like the Swedish movie, Let the Right One In.  Banu got me started watching the Twilight movies, which I grudgingly will say aren’t too bad!  However, I do have one big complaint with their contribution to the vampire mythos:  sunlight doesn’t hurt them.  Rather, it makes them sparkle!

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Why do I begin with vampires?  It’s directly related to one of our sacraments.  In the first century, as word gradually spread that the early church was eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, many non-Christians, Jews and Gentiles alike, were horrified.  Prohibitions against blood in the Hebrew scriptures go back as far as Genesis: “you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (9:4).  The blood is the life.

Some called the Christians cannibals.  And though the legend of the vampire goes back to ancient times, we can’t really pin that one on the early Christians.

Still, hearing this, one might be forgiven if there were some doubts: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  Those are the words of Jesus in John 6:54-56.  To the uninitiated, it probably would sound like cannibalistic or vampiric actions are in order!

This isn’t the only place where the gospel of John speaks quite insistently about the flesh and blood of Jesus.  Later, I’ll mention its role in the encounter with Pontius Pilate.  But right now, flesh and blood have a prominent role in today’s reading: the introduction to the gospel of John.

The introduction, like the book that follows it, is very different from the other gospels.  The other three don’t have the level of philosophical and theological reflection we find in John.  Many would say this gospel is the most beautiful at a poetic level.  (I would be in that category.)

These eighteen verses are packed with meaning.  I’ll only try to unpack a little of it!

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (v. 1).  Does that verse remind you of anything?  If it reminds you of the first verse of Genesis, then that is deliberate.  John wants to identify Jesus the Christ with the eternal living Word, the Word that transcends creation.

“All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”  That includes life, “and the life was the light of all people” (vv. 3-4).  Here’s some of that poetic beauty I spoke of.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (v. 5).  What does that mean?

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  The Greek word for “overcome,” καταλαμβανω (katalambanō), has several nuances.  It can mean “to grasp.”  In the physical sense, it would suggest “seizing” somebody or something.  In the mental sense, it refers to “understanding.”

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It can also have the sense of “detecting.”  In chapter 8, when some scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman “caught in adultery,” the same word is used.  In this case, she is both detected and seized!  (On a side note, we hear nothing about the man being detected and/or seized—nor about how word came to the scribes and Pharisees who detected her!)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  The darkness did not grasp it, or seize it, or understand it, or detect it.  More than that, the darkness is incapable of grasping or understanding the light!

We are told John the Baptist testified to the light.  “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”  John testified that the Word, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (vv. 8-9).

With verse 14, we have something of a summary of today’s reading.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  The Word became flesh and lived among us.  That’s how John portrays Christmas.  There’s no messing around with a baby in a manger.  Like I said earlier, there’s more of a philosophical and theological focus.

As I was doing research for this sermon, I came across an article with an eye-catching title by Jennifer Glancy, who teaches Bible at LeMoyne College in Syracuse.  The title was “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel.”[1]  This is where Pontius Pilate enters the picture.

In the article, she wonders, echoing Pilate in his interview of Jesus, “What is truth?”  Expanding on that, she asks, “Does truth dwell in flesh?”[2]  If verse 14 is correct and the eternal living Word has come to dwell in flesh, then it seems we have to say yes, truth does in fact dwell in flesh.

That is the assumption of the Roman Empire and its project of torture and crucifixion—that truth can be extracted from flesh and blood.  Indeed, that’s the assumption of all who torture, truth can be wrenched from the body.

Glancy speaks of three intentions of torture.[3]  There is “judicial” torture, in which the intent is to discover the truth.  (You know what I mean: “We have ways of making you talk!”)  Secondly, there is “penal” torture, torture used for punishment.

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Finally, there is “terroristic” torture, which is part of a campaign to send a message to the rest of the population.  You make an example out of somebody.  Add to this the element of humiliation.  People crucified by the Romans were stripped naked and mocked.

For those who would say this talk of terror and torture has no place in the Christmas story, I would remind us of Herod’s attempt to kill the Christ child.  His paranoia results in the massacre of numerous little boys.  Sadly, that kind of brutality has a very real-world feel to it.

In order to protect their young one from Herod, Joseph and Mary are forced to flee to Egypt.  They have to seek asylum; they’re fleeing political persecution.  In Jesus Christ, we worship one who has been a refugee.  We worship one who has been a victim of torture.  Still, even though darkness does its worst, it still can’t overcome the light.

Almost five centuries ago, Martin Luther expressed it well in verse: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us / We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us / The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him / His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure / One little word shall fell him.”  The Word became flesh and lived among us.

What does that mean for us?  Can we think of ways in which we see or experience the Word in flesh?  Are there ways in which we know there is truth in flesh, in this physical stuff?

The darkness could not grasp or seize the light; it couldn’t overcome it.  But the darkness did indeed grasp and seize the flesh of Jesus.

We all struggle with the darkness.  On struggling with darkness, Richard Rohr notes that it “can be experienced as pain and handicap.”  It can be “experienced by struggling with the riddles, dilemmas, and absurdities of life.”  Commenting on verse 5, he says, “Like physical light itself, true light must both include and overcome the darkness.”[4]

I pray—I hope!—we don’t literally engage in torture, but torture can have different meanings.  We torture each other in a multitude of ways.  I’m sure we can think of plenty of cases in which we find that to be true.  We torture ourselves, and we are tortured.  I think it’s safe to say Covid hasn’t always brought out the best in us.  We have shamed each other.  And there are consequences to all of this.  We are harmed as the body politic, and we are harmed as flesh and blood bodies.

Yet even though we surely know darkness can’t overcome the light, at some level—and in some ways we can’t quite put our fingers on—we turn away from the light.  Too often we hide in the dark.  We need to let the light, the light that enlightens everyone, penetrate our darkness.

That doesn’t happen by accident.  Responding to Christ’s call to eat his flesh and drink his blood is a matter of will.  As the early church father Ignatius of Antioch put it, “the Blood of Jesus Christ is love.”[5]  That’s what it takes to become aware of the body of Christ, be it in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist—or in the sacrament of everyday life.

The apostle Paul warns the Galatians when he says, “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” (5:14-15).  Remember what I said earlier about vampires and cannibals?

We are at the beginning of a new year.  No one knows what 2022 will bring.  Certainly, it will have its own joys and sorrows, its own life and death.  We as the church, the body of Christ, have our own unique calling.  Our world is divided; our bodies are torn apart.

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We can remain whole.  We can be made whole.  We are told that from the fullness of Christ “we have all received, grace upon grace” (v. 16).  That is our witness.  That is our testimony.  Instead of tearing flesh and spilling blood, we build each other up.  We nourish each other, knowing that the Word has come and dwells with us.

 

[1] Jennifer A. Glancy, “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel,” Biblical Interpretation 13:2 (2005).

[2] Glancy, 107.

[3] Glancy, 115.

[4] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago:  Loyola Press, 2010), 35.

[5] footnote in Archibald Robertson & Archibald Plummer, The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1914), 252.