Lent

to hell and back

The first church we served was in Nebraska.  We were in the Presbytery of Central Nebraska.  At one of the presbytery meetings, there was a lay pastor ready to be certified.  He was answering questions about his beliefs and his sense of calling, his faith journey.

One of the ministers asked him about his views on Jesus Christ’s descent into hell.  The fellow didn’t know what to say.  My guess would be that was the first time anyone had ever asked him about it.  I can understand that; no one has ever asked me about it!  As you might know, there’s a line in the Apostles’ Creed saying about Jesus, “he descended to the dead.”  That’s from the modern, ecumenical version.  The original, traditional reading says of Jesus, “he descended into hell.”

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I honestly don’t remember the pastor’s name, but he took the opportunity to speak of Jesus’ descending into hell as an image of his own life.  He spent about two minutes telling us of his trials and tribulations.  (If two minutes doesn’t seem like much, get a stopwatch and time it.)  I really didn’t know him very well, but from what I did know, I knew he wasn’t lying about his experiences.  Meanwhile the poor fellow, the prospective lay pastor, was still up there, waiting for him to finish!  (By the way, he was certified.)

It was one of the more interesting presbytery meetings I’ve been to.

The epistle reading in 1 Peter 3 has some verses that are often associated with the so-called “harrowing of hell,” that is, the plundering of hell.  The harrowing of hell is said to be what transpired on Holy Saturday, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Jesus visited hell and liberated the saints of old, and others.  There is no direct Biblical testimony to this, but it is based on a number of scriptures and the centuries-old witness of church tradition.  But let’s hold off on that visit for a few moments.

The lectionary reading actually begins with verse 18, even though the paragraph starts with verse 13.  Looking at it, I suppose I can see why that part was left out.  “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?  But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed…  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (vv. 13-14, 17).  “If suffering should be God’s will.”  Yikes!

Tucked away in the midst of that is this little gem: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (vv. 15-16).  Don’t get in people’s faces.  Don’t make them feel stupid.  Don’t be a jerk.  (That last sentence is from an alternate translation.)

Peter’s audience has had plenty of opportunities and/or demands to explain themselves.  They have had to deal with persecution.

Then there’s a transition to Christ, who “also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (v. 18).  He has set the example for them, and us, of underserved punishment and unjust treatment.

Then Peter’s thought takes a slight turn.  “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah” (vv. 18-20).

Who are these “spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey”?  There’s a curious story in Genesis 6.  There is mention of “the sons of God [who] saw that [the women] were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.  Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.’  The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them.  These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (vv. 2-4).

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[One image of Nephilim]

No one really knows who these sons of God and Nephilim were.  Theories abound about fallen angels, giants, unrighteous men.  Whatever the case, they were consigned into the prison Jesus visited.  In response, Jesus found them worthy of hearing his message of good news.

But then there was Noah, of whom he and his family “were saved through water.”  Peter says, “this prefigured [baptism, which] now saves you” (vv. 20-21).  The water of the flood, through which Noah and his family passed, prefigures, or foreshadows baptism.

So there’s water, but what about fire?  We’re back to the harrowing of hell, the plundering of hell!

The New Testament has three different words translated as “hell.”  So pick your favorite.  The first one, “Hades” (άδης), like “Sheol” in the Old Testament, is the land of the dead, the grave.

The second word, “Gehenna” (γέεννα), is the one associated with fire.  It goes back to the valley of Hinnom, where some Israelites burned human sacrifices to pagan gods.

The third word, “Tartarus” (ταρταρόω), is used only once—in 2 Peter 2:4.  In Greek mythology, Tartarus was said to be as far below Hades as the earth is below heaven.  Friends, that is a long way!

The word “hell” in the Apostles’ Creed (κάτω katō) means “down” or “below” and can be translated as he descended to “lower ones” or “those below.”  So it’s not a place; it’s people.

Some speak of a struggle with Satan.  Many have been really creative in describing how Jesus kicks open the gates of hell and demands the release of the captives.  One of my teachers had a dim view of this whole scenario.  He didn’t put much stock in portraying Jesus in a boxing match with the devil!

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Banu said that, after my surgery seeing me unconscious in the intensive care unit, with all kinds of lines hooked into me and a ventilator tube going down my throat, she could better appreciate Jesus’ descent into hell.  He came down to where she was.

(Actually, on occasion, that might be a good story for hospital chaplains to use when consoling those in the waiting room.)

C. S. Lewis said of the harrowing of hell, “It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending.  There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.”

We’re told, “Whatever hells we may find ourselves in, whether in this life or another, Jesus is there waiting for us—and He has the power to pull us out.  Hell’s days are numbered.  Indeed, the only thing that keeps us there is our refusal to accept God’s love—and we may genuinely hope this love will [at last] prove irresistible.”[1]

How much during this particular Lent is this a meaningful word?

On Ash Wednesday, I spoke of the ashes put on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality.  We are on this planet for a finite amount of time.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  I suggested perhaps this time we might not need to be reminded “we are dust.”  We’ve witnessed plenty of dust this past year.

It’s possible we might be in our own Hades, indeed our own Hell, and yet, hope is here.  The word of good news, of gospel, is being delivered.

As we end the chapter, the good news of resurrection breaks forth from down below into glorious majesty.  Christ “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him” (v. 22).  We speak of the triumphal procession of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  How can we not also speak of the triumphal procession of Christ freeing the captives and defeating the grave—literally plundering death of its ultimate power?  Who else has gone to hell and back?

Angels, authorities, and powers have been made subject to him.  This isn’t some abstract nicety.  I’m not sure how often we encounter actual angels, but authorities and powers are forces we run into every day.  We can think of visible authority, like government.  There is easily recognized power, like the power of knowledge.  (Teachers, would you agree with that?)

There are realities more elusive and unknown.  Many of them we choose.  With others, we allow ourselves to be chosen.  We obey the authorities of money, of fashion, of “what will the neighbors say?”  We choose the power of life and death in the multitude of ways they are expressed.

We build up, and we tear down.  We affirm, and we negate.  We help, and we hinder.  All of that stuff has been made subject, all has been made subordinate, to Christ.

So, what about this Lent?  Are we to give something up?  Should we give up that which keeps us from answering others with gentleness and reverence?  Should we give up that which keeps us from having a clear conscience?  Should we give up that which imprisons us?

Thanks be to God, we have one who goes before us, one who leads in procession for us, one who has gone to hell and back for us, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] godoftheodd.wordpress.com/2017/04/07/the-harrowing-of-hell-what-really-happens-between-good-friday-and-easter-sunday


come on down!

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”  So begins Isaiah 64, the Old Testament text for the 1st Sunday of Advent.  This chapter is a prayer of lament—a communal lament.  That’s not exactly how we think of Advent.  That is, if we think of it at all!

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[photo by Ruan Carlos on Unsplash]

Traditionally, the season of Advent is a time of penitence, much like the season of Lent.  It is a time to reflect, to repent, to reevaluate how we are living life.  It is a time to reconsider our life of faith in preparation for the coming of the Lord.  (Advent means “coming.”)  Certainly, those are concerns throughout the year, but in Advent, they are meant to especially come into focus.

Advent begins in late November or early December, smack dab in the midst of the holiday season!  Can’t you hear the well-wishers and jingles from every nook and cranny?  This is no time for sober self-examination.  It’s time to party.  (Please note: it is possible to have a genuine check-up and still be of good cheer!  Trust me, I’m no fan of sourpusses.)

Of course, this year the celebrations are muted.  A pandemic has a way of doing that.  And so, perhaps we can relate to the communal lament of the Jewish people returning from exile in Babylon.  (This part of the book deals with that time period.)  The initial joy at the homecoming has gradually faded.  Things aren’t working out as well as was expected.  The prophet recognizes the sin that has worked to overturn, to infect, the hopes of the people.

2 oI’m not saying Covid-19 resulted from sin!  Still, the way we’ve treated each other and the planet has been more than a little sinful.  Maybe Mother Earth is voicing her disapproval!

So can we relate to this image of Advent?  This isn’t the advent of gentle Jesus born in a barn.  This is the advent of the grand and glorious power from on high.  This is a desperate and disconsolate cry for deliverance.  A sincere plea for release from prison can only come from a heart of faith.  The prophet’s prayer acknowledges that “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Come to us, O Lord, feeble as we are.  Come to us, this Advent.


memento mori

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

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"Transience of Life" by Daniel Kansky

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

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

His bid to defeat death has turned into rubble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give ear, all dwellers of this perishable planet!

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

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

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

Of course, there’s always the vampire option!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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photo by Efren Baharona on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] חֶלֶד, cheled

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

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


prayer for Ordinary Time

It’s true, Ordinary Time is about the ordinals—
the 3rd, the 13th, the 23rd Sunday.
But we usually think of it as…
ordinary time.

It’s ordinary; it’s everyday.
It’s a placeholder in between times.
It’s in between Epiphany and Lent.
It’s between the light shining over the whole world
and the call to reflect, renew, and repent
(you know, do an about face).

It’s in between Pentecost and Advent.
It’s after the fire has fallen
and the Spirit has set the church on her course.
It’s before your Son arrives as the God-baby
and returns in glory and power.

But that’s not where most of life is lived.
We don’t spend much time in those grand, majestic moments.
No, we live in between.

In ordinary time.

That’s where life happens.

 

Ordinary


the fox and the hen

When I was in seminary, one of my professors was talking about sermons.  (I confess, I don’t remember who it was!)  He was commenting on how the usual approach many people have is to make three points.  (There’s a saying some people quote on occasion: “three points and a poem.”)  He said he doesn’t bother with three points; he has enough to do with one point!  He figured if he could deliver a sermon with at least one thing to take away from it, then he did his job.

Our gospel reading in Luke has neither one nor three points; it has two points!  They involve a fox and a hen.  There’s another saying along the lines of a fox guarding the hen house.  (My inspiration for the sermon title.)  That would be an unfortunate scenario for those living in the house!

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{Foxy, our dog from long ago--not the "fox"}

As we begin with verse 31, we hear, “At that very hour some Pharisees” show up and give Jesus a warning.  What’s going on right before this?  According to Luke, Jesus is going “through one town and village after another, teaching as he [makes] his way to Jerusalem” (v. 22).  His theme is, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able” (v. 24).

The stage is set.  The Pharisees accost him after he enters the city.  They tell him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Herod has been hearing things about him.  We’re told “he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen.  Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’  And he tried to see him” (9:7-9).  I’m sure he has nothing but good intentions!

This Herod, Herod Antipas, is the son of Herod the Great.  This is the Herod who ordered the massacre of the Holy Innocents, the slain little boys of Bethlehem, in his mad attempt to stamp out the young Jesus.

Herod Antipas first had John the Baptist arrested because he denounced his marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias (3:19-20).  That was a big no-no.  Later at his birthday party, when the daughter of Herodias was dancing, he drunkenly asked what she wanted.  After consulting with her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (Mt 14:6-8).

It appears that bloodlust runs in the family!

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We don’t know if the Pharisees are giving Jesus a good faith warning.  Are they sincerely concerned about his safety?  Or do they want him to get the heck out of Dodge because, to put it lightly, they just don’t like him?  Herod having put Jesus on his hit list would be a convenient excuse.  Either way, that should be enough for Jesus to heed their warning, “Hit the road, Jack.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work.  Jesus is undaunted.  He wants the Pharisees to give “that fox” a message.  Herod is a fox.  He is cunning and sly.  He’s one slippery devil.  He’s a sneaky one.  But calling someone a fox can also mean that they’re unimportant, not worth getting all hot and bothered.  It is not a compliment!

Jesus wants them to tell him he’s going to be “casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work” (v. 32).  I’m going to keep doing what I do.  Jesus refuses to be diverted, even though he probably knows this won’t end well.

The late Bruce Prewer said, “This is no pretty-boy Jesus, no sentimental dreamer.  Jesus knew the score.  He mourned the bloody death of cousin John.  But he was not going to be intimidated.  He was a man in charge of his own destiny.  A tough Jesus.  ‘Go tell that fox I will move on when I am ready.  Not before.’”[1]

I’m reminded of the apostle Paul in Philippi when he was unjustly arrested, beaten, and thrown in jail (Ac 16:35-40).  When the officials found out he was a Roman citizen, they were scared because they didn’t give him his due process.  As a citizen, he had rights they violated.  They sent word to have him released, but Paul demanded they come and tell him to his face.

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Maybe that’s enough about the fox.  Let’s move on to the hen!

In this section, Jesus begins by lamenting the history of Jerusalem—how it has seen the murder of so many prophets.  Here’s a little sample: Uriah (Jr 26:23), Zechariah (2 Ch 24:20-22), those killed by King Manasseh (2 Kg 21:16), and we could go on.  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “it’s not proper for a prophet to come to a bad end outside Jerusalem” (v. 33).

The heart of Jesus is broken.  He pours out his soul in sorrow.  He has longed to gather the people of Jerusalem; he has ached.  He has wanted to protect them under his wing.  Applying feminine imagery to himself, Jesus has wanted to be their mother hen.  To continue the metaphor, the people have been wayward chicks, refusing the care of mother.  This is a true picture of anguish.

A moment ago, I mentioned how I was reminded of the apostle Paul.  Now the prophet Jeremiah comes to mind.  He has been called “the weeping prophet.”

He cries out, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?  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!” (8:22-9:1).

Jesus finishes by telling the disobedient people “your house is left to you” (v. 35).  There’s the suggestion that it’s been left desolate, in a state of disorder.  Some say he’s referring to the Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans.

It’s a picture of abandonment.  That’s what happens to us when we choose, so to speak, to reject the protection of the mother hen.  We are left at the mercy of the fox.

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{"Jeremiah" by Michelangelo}

I don’t know about you, but to me this scripture passage sounds rather grim.  We have threats, a city with a dark side, warnings of destruction, and oh yes, murder.  It might not be the best bedtime reading!

Luke has one more nugget of misfortune.  He ends the chapter with a dire prediction by Jesus.  He says they won’t see him “until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”  This is the line from Psalm 118 which the crowds cry out as Jesus makes his entry into Jerusalem.  That verse chanted on the first Palm Sunday is part of our liturgy.  Luke is giving us a little preview of things to come.

Palm Sunday is a strange holiday.  It has so much praising, and if you didn’t know what would unfold in the coming days, it would be a time of genuine celebration.

Still, Jesus’ pronouncement is about more than Palm Sunday.  It’s about a more fundamental reality.  It goes back to the rejection of the Lord in general.  I trust I’m not overstating this, but there is a very real sense of not being able to see the Lord until and unless our lives say, “Blessed is the one.”

Regarding this scripture reading, as you see, this is one that is used during Lent.  I described it as grim.  Many folks think of Lent as grim.

Benedictine sister Joan Chittister has a different take on it.  “Lent is the time for trimming the soul,” she says, “and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod…  Lent is about exercising the control that enables us to say no to ourselves so that when life turns hard of its own accord, we have the spiritual stamina to say yes to its twists and turns with faith and with hope…  Lent is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”[2]

More than any one single theme, the Lenten journey is about repentance.  We all need to repent.  The need for repentance doesn’t mean we’re bad.  The word “repentance” in Greek (μετανοια, metanoia) means “a change of mind” or “a turning around.”  It’s a turning from death to life.

5 lk 13How does the image of the fox and the hen figure into that?  Earlier I said a fox guarding the hen house would be unfortunate—at least for the chickens!

Between the fox and the hen, the fox is clearly the strong one.  The hen is the weak one.  The hen is no match for the fox.  And yet, despite the determination (and the hunger) of the fox, the mother hen still defends her young as best she can.  The odds are seriously stacked against her.

The mother hen is the picture of weakness and sorrow.  It’s kind of like Jesus surveying Jerusalem.  He is helpless in the face of intransigence.

If he wanted to, Jesus could have chosen a different image to represent himself.  Instead of a mother hen, he could have been a dread warrior, wielding a battle axe—I dare you to defy me!  But that isn’t the way of Jesus.  Like Jesus, Lent calls us to lay down our arms, to be unguarded, vulnerable, to indeed, repent.  I’m not saying to forswear certain physical things during these forty days, but allowing ourselves to be unguarded, to be vulnerable, to lower our defenses—that really is a challenge.

Still, remember who our Lord is.  He reigns in weakness.  He is the lamb upon the throne.  (Sure, that’s the image we all have of a king: a helpless lamb on a throne!)  He upends our usual expectations.  He is the very picture of vulnerability.  He ignores the fox, be it Herod or anyone else.  He is the mother hen, willing to sacrifice himself (or herself?) to protect the baby chicks.

That is the challenge of Lent.  That is the reward of Lent.  If you haven’t already fully entered into the Lenten season, it isn’t too late.  Remember, it “is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C21lent2.htm

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 136.


remember

Memory is a funny thing.  No one is exactly sure how it works.  For centuries, philosophers and physicians, artists and scientists, have investigated and debated what it means to remember.  Does the mind retrieve memories like documents in a filing cabinet or bits of information in cyberspace?  Does the mind re-create memories; do we mentally relive the experience?  (That’s an unfortunate reality for those suffering with PTSD.)  Or is something completely different involved?

This business of memory has become more personal for me in these past years.  No doubt some of you have stories to tell about memory, or the loss thereof: that is, if you can remember them!  In my case, the story is about a potential loss of memory.

1 He 13During my treatment for the brain tumor discovered in November 1995, my doctors warned me about possible loss of short term memory.  Having one’s head cut open twice, and having one’s brain zapped with radiation, would likely have some detrimental effect!  Fortunately, my problems have been minor: like trying to identify certain actors.

Of course, memory is much more important to us than remembering a certain celebrity’s name.  In a very real sense, memory helps to define us.  Any of us who’ve known someone with amnesia, maybe an Alzheimer’s patient, understands what a tragedy the loss of memory is.  So much of such a person is gone.

It really isn’t much of an exaggeration to link memory with life.  Memory certainly has a crucial role in the life of faith.  For example, think of how we celebrate the Eucharist, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  We “do this,” as Jesus said, “in remembrance of [him].”  Still, there’s more involved than simply having a mental recollection of Jesus—but I’ll mention more about that later.  (If I don’t forget!)

In the epistle reading, the author of Hebrews is insistent on having the people remember certain things.  Chapter 13 begins with a stress on the importance of continuing to love one another and showing hospitality to strangers.  As a matter of fact, our writer indicates by receiving outsiders in a Christlike way, you may even be entertaining angels in human form.  (That’s something for all of us to consider the next time we get an unwanted knock at the door!)

Having established that love should guide our relationships, our author starts giving examples—examples that portray a love which you probably won’t find on a greeting card!

Verse 3 contains the first of two commands to “remember.”  “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”  It literally says, “as though you were in the body” or “as though you were in their body.”  Love can make some pretty serious demands!

We’re not sure who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, but there is one thing it seems safe to say: the letter is addressed to a church that has undergone persecution.  That makes it all the more important that they love one another, that they really care about what happens to each other.

In recent years, our own relationship with torture, both as Americans and as Christians, has been what we might call “conflicted.”  Of course, that’s something plenty of us would rather not remember!

The next three verses give more examples of what love looks like.  Marriage is to be “held in honor by all,” and “the love of money” is to be avoided (vv. 4-5).  The phrase “the love of money” is a single Greek word (αφιλαργρος, aphilarguros) which literally means “not a lover of silver,” or “not mercenary.”

2 He 13

It’s the word used in that famous verse in 1 Timothy, reminding us, in King James language, “For the love of money is the root of all evil” (6:10).[1]  So the moral of the story is: don’t be a heartless mercenary!  Don’t focus on wealth while your brothers and sisters are in danger.

Verse 7 contains the second of the two commands to “remember.”  “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”  If this is indeed a persecuted church, then their leaders paid a high price for their faith.  It seems that to “consider the outcome of their way of life” means to remember at least some of them were martyrs.

Earlier I promised to say more about the role of memory in celebrating the Lord’s Supper.  I’ll do that by mentioning one of the twentieth century’s most famous leaders of the persecuted church, the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero.  (By the way, the movie Romero, starring Raul Julia, is well worth watching.)  The remembrance of Romero is especially appropriate for today, the fifth Sunday in Lent; this was when he preached his final sermon.

In that sermon, which was broadcast on radio nationwide, he made a direct appeal to the military.  “In the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!”[2]

He got his response the very next day.  Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980, in the very act of celebrating the Eucharist.  While calling the people to remember the body and blood of Christ given for them, Romero himself became a martyr.

Jesus instructs his disciples to observe holy communion “in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19).  The word for “remembrance” is αναμνησις (anamnēsis).  As I’ve already indicated, this is more than what we today usually mean by remembering.  It’s “not a mental exercise but the making present of a past event.”  Maybe the idea of memory as re-creating or reliving the experience has something to say here.

“In the ancient church, the word anamnesis had the effect not so much of a memorial, as one would call to mind the dead, but rather of a performance,” of something happening right then and there.[3]

Jesus invites us to the table, not to reminisce about some long-ago event, but to quite literally “re-member” him.  We’re invited, and challenged, to be members of the body of Christ here and now.  And because, as verse 8 puts it, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” our invitation to the table involves us not only in the past and present, but points us to the future, to the full coming of the kingdom of God.

3 He 13
Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980)

In the collection of his writings entitled The Violence of Love, we hear these words of Oscar Romero: “The eucharist makes us look back to Calvary twenty centuries ago…

“But it also looks ahead to the future, to the…horizon that presents itself as a demanding ideal to all political systems, to all social struggles, to all those concerned for the earth.

“The church does not ignore the earth, but in the eucharist it says to all who work on earth: look beyond…

“That is why I say: all the blood, all the dead, all the mysteries of iniquity and sin, all the tortures, all those dungeons of our security forces, where unfortunately many persons slowly die, do not mean they are lost forever.”[4]

All this talk of torture and dungeons might have you wondering how we fit into the picture.  We don’t exactly fit the profile of a persecuted church.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t suffering among us.  Sometimes suffering is self-imposed, by the bad choices we make.  But at the end of the day, suffering is a part of life.

As we accept the invitation of Jesus, we have the honor of bringing that remembrance, that anamnesis, into every shadow, every hidden place in our world: as the scripture says, to love one another, to show hospitality to the stranger, to honor marriage, to not be mercenary in our dealings with money.

I want to conclude with a reflection by a man who was a prime example of what it means to remember Jesus.  He was abducted in May 1984 by terrorists in Lebanon and held for sixteen months, twelve of them in solitary confinement.  His name was Benjamin Weir; he died in 2016.  Weir and his wife Carol were serving as Presbyterian missionaries at the time.  Here is a meditation he wrote while in custody:[5]

“Sunday morning in captivity I awoke.
In my mind’s eye I could see Christians all waking and proceeding to places of worship.
There they gathered at the Lord’s Table.
My mind moved westward with the sun.
I envisioned people of various cultural backgrounds gathering.
I was part of this far-flung family, the very body of Christ.
I unwrapped my piece of bread held back from my previous meager meal
and began the Presbyterian order of worship.
When it came to sharing the cup I had no visible wine,
but this didn’t seem to matter.
I knew that others were taking the cup for me elsewhere at this universal table.
As others prayed for me, so I prayed for them.”

4 He 13
Rev. Benjamin Weir (1923-2016)

 

[1] Harold Attridge, Hebrews (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1989), 388.

[2] www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/francis-clears-way-romero-be-canonized-later-year-or-early-next

[3] William T. Cavanaugh, “Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed by It?” Theology Today 58:2 (July 2001):  182.

[4] Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Farmington, PA: Bruderhof Foundation, 2003), 153.

[5] covepcusa.blogspot.com/2017/01/


wait, every living creature?

When I was young, for a little while we went to church—a couple of years or so.  My Sunday school teacher had one of those billboards covered with felt material.  (The kind that images can stick to.)  She would use it illustrate the Bible stories for us students.

Of course, one of the favorites was always Noah’s ark.  There would be all manner of critters obediently marching to the giant boat.  Natural enemies would behave themselves, or rather, they would not behave as nature designed them.  The lion would not tear into the lamb.  The eagle would not swoop down and snatch the rabbit.

1 noah

We can think about how we first learn the story.  “Here come the animals, two by two.”  That sounds nice!  However, reading Genesis 7:2 gives us a slightly different take on it.  The Lord tells Noah, “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate.”  It’s about ritual purity.  So maybe it should go this way: “Here come the unclean animals, two by two.”

Anyway, that’s how we first learn the story.  But if we leave it there, we’re reduced to asking rather cartoonish questions.  How did every species find its way to the ark?  Where did they store enough drinking water for the entire time?  Did anyone take a bath?  (You get what I’m talking about.)

Obviously, no story in sacred scripture has such a limited meaning.  The central idea of this story is covenant.

Sometimes there’s confusion between a contract and a covenant.  With a contract, terms are spelled out.  If one party does not abide by the terms, the contract is broken, and sometimes penalties are levied, punishment is meted out!  In addition, we’re always warned about reading the fine print before we sign on the dotted line.  (But who actually spends half an hour with six-point type?)

However, a covenant is quite different.  This is an agreement entered into which oddly enough, is still in effect even if one party doesn’t observe it faithfully.  It’s a statement which says, “I will honor this, even if you don’t.”  It’s “for better or for worse,” though that “for worse” in a marriage covenant can finally reach the point where it’s unsustainable.

2 noah

In the Bible, God makes numerous covenants.  We’ll look at the one in our scripture reading in a few moments.  Here are a few notable ones:

In Genesis 15, a covenant is made with Abraham—and Sarah, though she doesn’t get proper credit (v. 18)!  One who has no children is promised a multitude of descendants.

In Exodus 19, God makes a covenant with the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai.  They are promised to be God’s “treasured possession out of all the peoples” (v. 5).

In Psalm 89, we see the covenant made with David, who receives the promise, “I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.”  What if his progeny—what if a king in the Davidic line—becomes unfaithful?  No matter, the Lord will still honor the covenant (vv. 3, 34).

And of course, we have the new covenant in Jesus Christ, which applies to us.  Even when we fail, and fail we do, the covenant stands.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.[1]  It makes sense that this would be one of the readings for Lent.  Consider the number forty.  It rained for forty days and forty nights, and the result was the great flood.  Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days.  Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years.  The number forty appears many times in the Bible.

Oh, and then there’s sin!  Sin a’ plenty.  We see the Israelites falling into sin in the wilderness.  They even long to go back to Egypt.  After all, they did have food to eat.  And talk about job security!  Sure there were chains, but who wants to fend for themselves in this terrible freedom of the desert?

Then we have Jesus in the desert.  What happens after he is baptized?  St. Mark tells us, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (1:12-13).  Jesus is weakened and vulnerable, in body, mind, and spirit.  Come on Jesus, just give him a try.  The devil has some interesting offers, and besides, nobody has to get hurt.  Sin is dangling before him, juicy tidbit it is—but Jesus doesn’t bite.

And now we have a story of universal sin.  “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gn 6:5).  Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts.  And what is the remedy?  Complete annihilation (well, with the exception of Noah and his family).  That doesn’t sound like a loving God, does it?

One way to come at this would be to realize in ancient times, many of the gods just didn’t like people!  They found them irritating, and they constantly demanded obedience, or they would lower the boom.  That was the environment of the ancient scriptural stories.  The difference here is that this God shows mercy and establishes the covenant—the one I mentioned earlier.

Still, the portrayal of a God who unleashes fury isn’t so strange as we might think.  Isn’t the image of a God who hurls lightning bolts still with us?  I think there’s something within the human psyche, regardless of belief system, theology, or life philosophy, that knows we have done, and sadly still do, wrong.  And so, there’s an expectation of punishment, which can lead to all kinds of scenarios.

Of course, we also have that new covenant.  We have the covenant which says in Christ we are forgiven.  Period.

If we can agree the flood wasn’t a historical event—if we can’t point to it on a calendar—I think we can still say it was, and is, a reality.  The flood is still with us, the flood of evil thoughts and evil doings!  However, we haven’t been destroyed.  “Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (9:11).  That’s the promise.

So here we go: “God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth’” (vv. 12-13).  The rainbow is the reminder.  “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (v. 16).

There is a covenant with every living creature.

3 noah

In ancient times, the rainbow was imagined as a bow, a divine weapon used to shoot the arrows of lightning bolts.  But now, the bow is being laid down in the clouds.  God is laying down the weapon.  We’re told God “will find a way of defeating evil without waging war.”[2]

Timothy Simpson wrote an article called, “The Politics of Saving Everybody.”[3]  If you think about it, this rainbow covenant is an extremely radical thing.  Think of it.  This is one of the stories told by those who say they are God’s chosen ones, the treasured possession out of all the peoples.  These are people who believe they’ve been set apart from the other nations.  They have special status.

At the same time, this story told by the Israelites has “the unmistakable notion that there is no living thing anywhere that will ever exist anywhere that is not covered under the scope of this covenant.”  No living thing anywhere that will ever exist anywhere.  That’s quite a sweeping statement.

I find his phrase interesting: the politics of saving everybody.  There are always political divisions.  There are always differences in how people want to accomplish certain things.  Still, maybe we can notice how, over the past couple of decades, divisions have gradually become hardened.  Too often people are questioning, not only the intelligence of those with whom they disagree, but also their character.  Not only are they wrong-headed, but wrong-hearted.  In the past couple of years, that seems to have dramatically escalated.

It can be a tricky proposition to recognize how the rainbow covenant applies to everyone and everything.

But then, that’s why this story is so perfect for Lent.  We are reminded by Joan Chittister, “Lent is the time for trimming the soul and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod.”[4]

God lays down the bow.  God buries the hatchet, so to speak.  Aren’t we called to scrape the sludge off our lives?  Aren’t we called to lay down our weapons?  To lay down the mistrust?  To lay down the hostility?  To tear down the walls we erect?  To stop praying for a flood to wipe out our enemies?  Isn’t that what this season of Lent is calling us to do?

I find Henri Nouwen’s prayer for Lent especially insightful.  “I know that Lent is going to be a very hard time for me.  The choice for your way has to be made every moment of my life.  I have to choose thoughts that are your thoughts, words that are your words, and actions that are your actions.  There are not times or places without choices.  And I know how deeply I resist choosing you.”[5]

It is difficult to accept God’s throwing down the bow, God’s extending the rainbow covenant to every living creature.  It is difficult to escape lazy either-or thinking, to reframe the discussion, to creatively imagine a third way or a fourth way.

When the flood comes, don’t worry.  God will not let it destroy you!

 

[1] Obviously, this sermon was posted well afterwards!

[2] www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2010-07-01

[3] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-saving-everybody-genesis-98-17

[4] Joan Chittister, Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 136.

[5] drsheltie.blogspot.com/2015/02/snowy-ashes.html


may our faces shine

When Banu and I lived in Philadelphia, she met through a mutual acquaintance another young woman from Istanbul, named Nilgün.  According to Banu, one time early on in their friendship, Nilgün made a comment about me to her.  She apparently said my face has nur.  That’s a Turkish word which means “light,” but it’s light in the sense of celestial or heavenly light.  I don’t have to tell you that was a gross exaggeration—no, a gross misunderstanding!

We do speak of people’s faces as shining, don’t we?  We think of someone’s face lighting up for a certain reason.  On this day, the Transfiguration of the Lord, we consider the appearance of actual nur, the true shining of heavenly light.  And we’ll consider what that means for us.

1 ex and mk
“Moses” by Michelangelo

Notice Michelangelo’s sculpture entitled “Moses.”  Is there anything about it that strikes you as odd?  Could it possibly be you never knew Moses had horns?

There’s a word in Hebrew, קׇרַן (qaran), appearing three times in the Old Testament reading in Exodus.  The word for “shining,” it means to “send out rays.”  However, it can also be translated “to display horns.”  It comes from a word that literally means “horn” ( קֶרֶן, qeren).

For centuries in western Europe, the version of the Bible most people read (at least, those who could read) was a Latin translation known as the Vulgate.  In this version, we have a different picture of Moses after he speaks with God.  Instead of “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone,” it says, “and he did not know that his face was horned” (v. 29).

Instead of Transfiguration, we get something we might expect on Halloween!  So, in his own way, the Italian master is paying his respects to the Moses of today’s scripture.

Horns or not, Moses is the first person in the Bible to be transfigured with the light of God.  This is after his second trip up Mount Sinai.  Remember what happens after his first encounter with God on the mountain—when he receives the Ten Commandments the first time?  There’s the incident with the Golden Calf.  The people get tired of waiting for Moses, and they pressure Aaron into devising some physical symbol of the divine they can see in worship.  Plus, they just want to have a really wild party!  Moses appeals to God to not wipe the people out, and he is summoned back up the mountain.

As we come to today’s reading, Moses is on the way back down the mountain, completely unaware he is literally beaming.  But the looks of terror on the faces of Aaron and the others clue him in that something strange is going on!  How is it that the face of Moses is shining?  The scripture says, “because he had been talking with God” (v. 29).

2 ex and mkEliezer Segal, teacher at the University of Calgary in Alberta, speaks of the Jewish legend which goes into a little more detail.  It says after God finished giving the Torah, “Moses wiped the pen on his forehead, and it was this ethereal ink stain that continued to radiate as he walked among the people.”[1]

He’s speaking of the way Moses gets actively involved in this second trip up the mountain.  Remember, he’s already interceded on behalf of the people.  Now, as opposed to the first time, it’s Moses, not the Lord, who provides the stone tablets and then writes on them.

Segal sees a lesson to be learned here, as he wonders, what is it that can make our faces radiate light?  He speaks of the spiritual energy flowing from the face of Moses and looks for a comparison.  He says it’s “not to be compared to fire, but to electrical power, which can exist only in the form of a current that flows continuously to and from its source.”

The connection is also made to us.  “Religious inspiration must also be a continual dialogue and struggle between the Creator and [we] creatures.  When that current is interrupted, or even if it fails to return to its source, then the energy has no use, and we find ourselves donning our figurative veils.”

In our epistle reading, St. Paul makes a similar connection.  He says, “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing” (2 Co 4:3).  It is veiled; the radiance of the gospel doesn’t shine through.  Those traveling the vale of tears who reject the light of life fall stricken by the wayside.

Of course, it’s our gospel reading (Mk 9:2-9) that tells the story of the Transfiguration of the Lord.  That’s why it’s on the calendar.  And for our Lord Jesus Christ, it’s not only his face, but his entire body radiating with the light of God.

3 ex and mkOn that fateful trip up the mountain, Peter suggests dwellings be built for Jesus, as well as for Moses and Elijah, who also appear with the glory of God.  In effect, Peter wants to hold on to the experience—he wants to trap that light.  He, not surprisingly (because wouldn’t we?), wants to capture the moment.  But the moment is gone.  And as the scripture says, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  He needs to be quiet and listen.  The power and energy of God can’t be treated as something static, like something engraved in stone!  Like love, it increases the more we give it away.

Like Peter, we’re often guilty of trying to trap the light.  How often do we avoid letting our own light shine?  How often do we avoid letting light shine onto the paths of others, so they can see for themselves?  And it’s not like there’s some false choice between living the life and saying the words—they go together.  If letting our light shine is our heart’s desire, the opportunities will arrive.  Actually, we won’t have to wait very long—opportunities abound.

It may be asked why Transfiguration is observed on the last Sunday before Lent.  Right before the Transfiguration story, Jesus has just predicted the passion, the suffering headed right for him.  That is, unless he keeps his mouth shut and stops being such a headache for the powers that be!

In the previous chapter, Jesus told the disciples he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’” (8:31-33).

The light of Transfiguration helps to illuminate the sometimes dark road of Lent.  And if it’s not exactly dark, Lent is still to be a time of reflection, of renewed repentance and reconsideration.

I think we all know that light is not an entirely benevolent force.  After all, it can cause us to go blind!  That’s something I’ve been aware of my whole life.  My eyes have always been sensitive to light.  Especially when I was a boy—and especially if someone were taking my picture in bright sunlight—it would be no time at all before I would start squinting.  During winter, I’m given a reminder of that when sunshine is reflected off a field of snow.  (I think I would make a great vampire!)

Still, much more than simply not being benevolent, light can be positively destructive.

4 ex and mkAs I said, we celebrate Transfiguration on the final Sunday before Lent.  Traditionally however, it was celebrated on August 6.  Tragically, the 20th century provided August 6 as the anniversary of another kind of light.  It, of course, was the day in 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, one of the most horrific events in human history.  Three days later, it was Nagasaki’s turn!  (On a bitter side note, the first atomic bomb test was actually nicknamed “Trinity”!)

Let’s return to light as a spiritual reality, not just a physical one.  Just as with the light from the sun, the light from God can also be blinding.  Exhibit A: the veil needed to cover the face of Moses!  Faulty, frail creatures that we are, we can only take so much light at a time.  We often resemble cockroaches, who when exposed to the light, scurry off into dark corners!

We are indeed exposed, uncovered by the light.  Our shadow side is revealed.  Our shadow side isn’t necessarily bad; it’s the stuff about us we suppress and repress.  It’s the stuff about ourselves we find embarrassing; it’s the stuff we want to hide.  But guess what?  Even as painful as it is, God wants to shine the light into those deep canyons.

If we believe what the psalmist says, it’s for our own good that we just go along with it.  Speaking of God, we hear “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Ps 139:12).  We can’t hide from God—we only hide from ourselves.

God is good.  God understands our weakness, and graciously provides a veil until we can handle more light.  God sends a cloud, as with the three disciples on the mount of transfiguration.  God lovingly protects us.

So in the end, we need not fear the light.  We can share in the transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We can trust the light that shines on the dark places in our lives—the places we are ashamed of.  We can help others, especially those who have plunged into darkness, to let their own light shine.  We don’t have to hold on to the light; we don’t have to hold on to mountaintop experiences.  Jesus says we are the light of the world.

5 ex and mk

May our faces shine.

 

[1] www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/Preaching/S980222_SunshinyFaces.html


gospel in the dark

How about Psalm 88 as a way to lift your spirits?  And then there’s John 11:35, “Jesus began to weep.”  Or as it’s more commonly rendered in the King James and other versions: “Jesus wept.”  After the scripture readings, saying, “This is the word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God,” might feel pretty strange!

There’s a song that is not in the blue hymnal which we use (The Presbyterian Hymnal), but it is in the older red hymnal (The Hymnbook).  It’s “Be Still, My Soul.”  It’s set to the wonderful tune, “Finlandia.”  The hymnal includes three verses, but it doesn’t have this one:

“Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart, / And all is darkened in the vale of tears, / Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart, / Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears. / Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay / From His own fullness all He takes away.”[1]

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart, and all is darkened in the vale of tears.  What a beautiful and haunting image: “the vale of tears,” the valley of tears.  It’s a somber description of our life in this mortal coil.  It’s omission from the hymnbook is a commentary on how we often reshape our singing and liturgy to avoid awkwardly acknowledging certain topics.

1 lamentStill, I think that song would be loved by those who are into Goth music!

There’s a prayer website called Sacred Space.  Among the things they post are thoughts for the week, things to help guide prayer.  I made a note of something that appeared some time ago.  It dealt with a topic that is one of those uncomfortable subjects: death.  (At least, in my experience, when I’ve gone to parties, it’s not often a topic of conversation!)

According to the prayer guide, “Of the many ways to die alone, the most comfortless and solitary is when family and friends conspire to deny the approach of death.  They may feel, ‘I couldn’t take away her hope.’  But without acceptance of the truth, they remove the possibility of spiritual companionship at the end.”[2]

We’re told that in his book, How We Die, Sherwin Nuland “remembers with regret how the family conspired to avoid the truth when his beloved Aunt Rose was dying.  ‘We knew—she knew—we knew she knew—she knew we knew—and none of us would talk about it when we were all together.  We kept up the charade to the end.  Aunt Rose was deprived, and so were we, of the coming together that should have been, when we might finally tell her what her life had given us.  In this sense, my Aunt Rose died alone.’”

I think there’s a parallel between how we often speak of death, and in a broader sense, of lamentation, expression of grief, in general.

2 lament

[The above image is from diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54142, “Angel of Grief.”]

That’s also seen in the worship of the church.  I just mentioned how we try to avoid those unpleasant realities in our hymns and liturgies.  The folks who put the lectionary together tended to leave out the problematic, uncomfortable verses.  Maybe you know what I’m talking about.  Stuff like, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” and “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (Ep 6:5, 1 Tm 2:12).  Admittedly, those need some big time work done to them!

Another good case is the story in 1 Kings 3, where it talks about Solomon’s dream, in which he asks God for wisdom (vv. 3-14).  God congratulates him for not asking that his enemies be killed or that he be made a wealthy man.

What conveniently gets skipped over is Solomon’s marriage to the Pharaoh’s daughter to form an alliance with Egypt.  My guess is that’s one of those awkward subjects!

In the same way, there are certain psalms that appear nowhere in our lectionary.  Hint: Psalm 88 is one of them.  After listening to that litany of doom and gloom, maybe we can see why it got left out.

Still, one of the most treasured psalms, Psalm 22, is filled with anguish.  Jesus on the cross screams out its beginning: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  But it does have notes of hope, and by the time we get to the end, the psalmist announces, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (vv. 30-31).

3 lamentSurely Psalm 88 follows the same path.  It’s in the Bible; shouldn’t it also wind up as praise?  Verse 1 says, “Lord God, my savior, I cry out all day, and at night I come before you” (GNB).  Surely by the time we’re finished, we’ve worked out some kind of resolution.

Here’s how it ends in the NRSV: “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (v. 18).  That doesn’t sound very much like praise.

I think some of the other translations sound even less like praise.  Here’s the NIV: “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.”  I think the New Jerusalem Bible is even gloomier: “You have deprived me of friends and companions, and all that I know is the dark.”

“All that I know is the dark.”  Friends, this is some serious lamentation!  We are looking at the only psalm without a single note of blessing.  It’s the only psalm in the Bible without one word of hope.

There’s something we need to realize about this ancient poet.  When we read these words from so long ago, we have to keep something in mind.  This is a person of faith.  This is not the work of someone engaged in ridiculing or mocking.  Psalm 88’s first three words in Hebrew are translated into English as “Yahweh [Lord], God of my salvation.”[3]

Even though our psalm has no breath of blessing, it is still praise.  It is dark praise, and that makes us uncomfortable.

4 lamentDominique Gilliard is a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church; he’s the executive pastor of New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland.  He wrote an article called “Reclaiming the Power of Lament.”[4]  It is a revelation.  It is a challenge.  And I think it’s a perfect meditation for the Lenten season.

“Somewhere along the way,” he says, “we modern Christians got lament wrong: we began thinking of it as optional instead of a required practice of the faith.”  That goes along with our reluctance to even mention it.  Still, scripture is filled to the brim with lamentation.  Here’s just a taste: the book of Lamentations (of course), the book of Job, a huge number of the Psalms, Paul’s grief about his thorn in the flesh, and again, Jesus’ weeping.

Gilliard speaks about tragedies in our nation.  Among others, he mentions Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston.  The hits just keep on coming—and that’s not counting disasters all over the world.  They just wash over us until we can’t keep track.  In response to that, he says, “Lamentation, however, forces us to slow down…  Lamentation prevents us from becoming numb and apathetic to the pain of our world…  Lamentation begets revelation…  It opens our ears to the sounds of torture, anguish and weeping that are the white noise of our world.”

Here’s something I find fascinating and challenging.  “To live without lament is to live an unexamined life.”  We lose touch with what makes us human.

5 lament

[A man in Ferguson, Missouri, holds on to a fence on August 15, 2014, at the site of a convenience store destroyed during rioting after the shooting death of Michael Brown by police.  Bigstock/Gino Santa Maria]

We don’t have to look very far for something to lament.  There is much in our lives to provide reason for mourning.  But we need not yield to despair.

Our friend Dominique hits on something.  “When faithfully engaged and authentically enacted, lamentation keeps us accountable to our baptismal vows.  It reminds us of our need for God, one another, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.”

Our baptismal vows!  When the sacrament is celebrated, we “as members of the church of Jesus Christ,” are asked to “promise to guide and nurture…by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging [those being baptized] to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church.”  We vow to be accountable to each other, to watch out for each other, as we walk the journey of faith.

Blest be the tie that binds.  “We share our mutual woes, / Our mutual burdens bear, / And often for each other flows / The sympathizing tear.”

And what about Jesus when he weeps?  Is he putting on a show?  Surely his understanding that he can raise Lazarus from the dead would prevent the need for tears.  Does he weep with empathy for Mary and Martha, because they are weeping?  Here’s my guess.  Even though he knows he will raise Lazarus, he still feels the pain himself.  After all, he is human!

If we also acknowledge that Jesus is the image, the icon, of God, that also says something.  Do we think of lamenting, of grieving, as weakness?  If so, so be it.  God laments.  At the end of the day, maybe that’s enough.  God’s weakness is greater than all the strength we can muster.  The weakness of God serves as a model for us.

Lent reminds us that we must pass through the valley of tears before we arrive at the resurrection.  We do not honor each other by ignoring the reality of lament.

In the book, Uncommon Gratitude, Joan Chittister says, “Darkness deserves gratitude.  It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight.”[5]

Think of the hymn, “Abide with Me.”  It’s listed in the section of our [Presbyterian] hymnal called “Evening Hymns.”  I imagine that’s due to the first lines.  “Abide with me: fast falls the eventide.  The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide!”  The hymn speaks of things in our lives which pass away.  But unlike our psalm, it ends on a strong note of praise and affirmation.

“Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; / Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies: / Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; / In life, in death, O Lord, / abide with me.”

As incredible as it is, deep in the depths of that darkness, there is gospel.  At the bottom of the bottomless pit, there is good news.  Even there (perhaps especially there), Christ reigns in victory.  There is gospel in the dark.

 

[1] library.timelesstruths.org/music/Be_Still_My_Soul

[2] sacredspace.ie (26 Sep-2 Oct 2010)

[3] יהוה אלהי ישועתי (salvation-of-me, God-of, Yahweh)

[4] www.faithandleadership.com/dominique-d-gilliard-reclaiming-power-lament

[5] www.friendsofsilence.net/quote/2012/10/darkness-deserves-gratitude


Lenten foolishness

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world?

There used to be a network called Current TV.  At the top of each hour, they had a brief show known as InfoMania, a quick feature of ridiculous things in the news.  It began with the chorus from the song, “Weight of the World,” by Pigeon John.[1]  (I was unfamiliar with him; I had to look it up!)  It’s a silly voice singing, “Sometimes I feel the weight of the world, and it’s so heavy and it’s bringing me down.”  For most people, that’s hardly a laughing matter.

There’s a book written by Christoph Blumhardt, Jesus is the Victor.[2]  He lived 1 Ps 32
Germany from 1842 to 1919, so among the problems of the world he witnessed was the growing drumbeat all over Europe to go to war.  It ended with the calamity that we call World War 1.

Here’s something from the first chapter: “Even if our age has become riddled with evil, even if death runs rampant on the earth, we will not accept these as final facts.  We must not sleepily say, ‘It is the Lord’s will.  What will be, will be.’”[3]

In the face of the immensity of problems—the immensity of sin—sometimes we can get paralyzed.  We can retreat into a bunker mentality.  We fall prey to fatalism, which is to say, “We have no control over what’s happening.  There’s no use in worrying about it.  It’s just our fate.”

Our medieval brothers and sisters had a name for this affliction, or something very similar to it.  It was one of the seven deadly sins.  It’s our old buddy, “sloth.”  In Latin, it’s acedia, and it literally means “absence of caring.”  It’s more a sin of omission than commission.  It’s a failure to use our gifts for the service of God and for each other.  Unfortunately, America can be seen as a vast wasteland of sloth.  We’ve been given so much, and yet…

In the chapter “He Conquers Sin,” we read how Blumhardt addresses the social and political conditions of his day.  “Apart from God,” he says, “we will not be able to do away with the discord in our hearts and the discord between us.  Sick in mind and body, we have no hope of creating a healthy world.  Inwardly and outwardly unclear and confused, torn by emotions and passions, we cannot form a society of truth and justice.”[4]

Unless we ourselves are transformed, how can we hope to transform our community and our world?  We would be in the position of Jesus in our gospel reading, when “the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Mt 4:8-9).

There’s a problem with that, though.  Something from within the creation (in this case, the devil—it could be a number of other things) can’t possibly bring about the change needed for a society of truth and justice.  It’s all part of the sickness.  Neither can the promises of politics or science or religion itself bring about a society of shalom.

So how can we break the cycle?  How do we welcome the power from outside of creation?  How can we find the healing for the sickness within ourselves and within our world?  Our psalmist seems to be onto something:

“While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.  Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (vv. 3-5).

2 Ps 32
Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt

He realizes that he doesn’t have within himself what he needs.  People have said that he has been sick, he has been in pain, he has unconfessed sin, and who knows what else.  He begins his meditation by acknowledging, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (v. 1).  The psalmist has felt liberation with openness to God.

So it becomes a question of opening ourselves to God.  That can be easier said than done.  In his book, Blumhardt says, “The greatest obstacle to the kingdom of God is us and our clever solutions.  Self-will leads so many people and so many nations to destruction.  Not even our Christian institutions are very helpful.  Too much pride has crept into them.”[5]  Pride?  What is he talking about?

I remember a time years ago, when I lived in Tennessee.  The youth pastor at our church was talking about a meeting he attended with fellow youth pastors.  He said they were all trying to outdo each other by talking about how fired up their youth groups were.  I told him he should have said, “So what?  Our group raised somebody from the dead!”

Thankfully, in our churches, we’re not infected by that vying for power and prestige!

Is it possible that we don’t want to give up “our clever solutions”?  And if that’s so, why would that be the case?  I wonder, could it be a question of control?  Maybe that’s part of it.

Our writer suggests something else.  “This is actually what Jesus demands of us:  Fight against your own selves!”[6]  Earlier I mentioned fatalism, paralysis, when facing the problems of the world, including those we see on a daily basis.  We may want to just throw in the towel.  We may not even want to hear how things could be better.  We don’t want to hear about it, because that might take away our excuses for not getting involved.

However, as we might expect, the psalmist has a word from the Lord to us on that point.  “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.  Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you” (vv. 8-9).

So I guess it’s up to us as to how stubborn, how boneheaded, we want to be!  And I might qualify for being at the top of that list.

I’ll include one more quote from our friend Christoph to emphasize this.  “Even when suffering under terrible evil, we don’t devote our energies to getting to the root of it.  Instead, we skim off the nearest misery from the surface of our distress and bring that to God, saying, ‘Help me here, and then I will be happy once more!’  As though that could help.”[7]

I can’t speak for anyone else here, but I know that I’ve taken that approach.  It’s the approach that seeks a bandage on the wound, a temporary solution.  It’s a mentality that doesn’t desire true healing.  It says, “Just patch me up and let me go!”

What would cause such reluctance to whole-heartedly give ourselves to what, and who, we claim to believe?  Is it possible we realize we would really need to make some lifestyle changes?

I’m reminded of something I read several years ago.  Glen Bengson, a Lutheran pastor from Ohio (now retired), and a member of Bread for the World, tells the story of a visit by a doctor from Tanzania.

He says he “once visited our area for ten weeks, going from one congregation to another.  He was astounded at our medical facilities, not to mention the general level of wealth in the United States.  Visiting an emergency room with each patient area equipped with oxygen outlets in the wall, he told how his hospital, with 200 beds, had only two oxygen tanks, and one always had to be on ready in the surgery unit.  He heard the litany ‘God bless America’ and was puzzled.  ‘God has already blessed you so much.  Do you want more?’”[8]

3 Ps 32

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.  People often speak of things they’re “giving up” for Lent.  And there’s no question that there are plenty of things that we would be wise to give up.  But Lent is about renewal, repentance, reforming.  What better time to re-examine our lifestyles than during the Lenten season?

Since we’re still at the beginning of Lent, I want to sound a theme that goes with Ash Wednesday.  In Matthew 6, Jesus warns about “practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (v. 1).  But earlier, in chapter 5, he says to “let your light shine before others” (v. 16).  What’s the difference?

I realize that there are plenty of ways to approach this, but here’s an idea.  There are many public displays of faith, be it leading prayer in a group, feeding the hungry, peacefully demonstrating, visiting the sick and the prisoner, whatever.  So if you’re hoping others will notice and think you’re spiritual, even if you are helping people, your motives are still messed up.

However, if you’re reluctant to live out your faith before others, that’s a different problem.  If you’re embarrassed and don’t want to look like a fool for Christ, then by all means, you need to do it!  This is the season for some Lenten foolishness!

4 Ps 32

And the more we get used to Lenten foolishness for Christ, the less imposing those problems of the world seem to be.  We take them in bite-sized amounts, which is really the only way things get done.  And we can sing along with the psalmist, “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart” (v. 11).

That’s a good song to sing, even if we feel foolish while doing it.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVg6LhXCev8

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

[3] Blumhardt, 2.

[4] Blumhardt, 6.

[5] Blumhardt, 7.

[6] Blumhardt, 7.

[7] Blumhardt, 9.

[8] www.bread.org/publications/hunger-for-the-word/excerpts.htm