listening

idolatry and tyranny

Have you not known?

In the Presbyterian Church, our constitution has two parts.  Part one is the Book of Confessions, and part two is the Book of Order—the guidelines for how we live together as the church.  It strives to bring “order” to our lives.  Of course, both are subservient to the holy scriptures.

Our Book of Order has a statement which calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05).  The book of Isaiah might go along with that.  The prophet speaks of idols created by workers, goldsmiths, and artisans (40:19-20).  It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.

Speaking of the latest features, I heard that the next generation of smartphones will allow you to smell the person you’re talking to.  So take a bath!  (And yes, I am suggesting that cell phones can become idols.)

Have you not heard?

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With whom, with what, can we compare God?  We constantly fail to get the message.  Hear the words of the prophet:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (v. 26).

We’re constantly discovering new galaxies; we’re constantly theorizing about other dimensions.  We’re constantly discovering planets around faraway stars.  Some of those planets are gas giants; some of them are earthlike, even in the “Goldilocks” category—not too hot, not too cold.

I’ve always been a fan of exploring space.  (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!)  We can see the revelation of God stretching back over 13 billion years.  The advancement of human knowledge is definitely worthy of celebration.  Even so, it’s also true that a healthy perspective means knowledge and humility go hand-in-hand.

So, what does this have to do with us right here and now?  How does the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny appear in us?  Hold that thought!

With chapter 40, we begin a new era in the book of Isaiah.  We move to the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon.

I’ve heard it said that the exile cured the Israelites of idolatry.  I think that’s a hasty conclusion.  As you see in our text, they still need to be reminded that the old Babylonian gods are powerless and represent something that really doesn’t exist.  Verse 18 asks, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?”  But certainly, those gods aren’t the only form of idolatry!

On that matter, George Knight said, “[We have] first to make [our] gods, or create [our] concepts, before [we] can bow down to them and worship them.”[1]

We devise all manner of concepts.  Even our concept of God can become an idol.  There are other things we conceptualize, which also can become idolatrous.  Our beliefs regarding life together are certainly in that category.  For example, so many of the posts on Facebook and other social media make claims that are taken out of context, are half-true, or are simply false.  Of course, we see this all over the place.

Sometimes we need to step back, take a deep breath, and ask if it’s really necessary that we put this out into the universe.  Still, sometimes getting tied to our idols is just too much fun!

If you think I’m kidding about idols being fun, think again.  In her book, From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Idols aid us, console us, and give us direction…”[2]  And yet, “The Bible is relentlessly anti-idolatrous.  And I don’t think it’s all out of some sort of prudish, narrow-minded…pagan-hating disapproval of certain rituals.  I think it’s an astounding revelation that however much idolatry seems to secure life, it actually diminishes it.  It doesn’t make life, it takes it.  It may provide stability and orientation, but it is giving our lives to what is not alive.  Idolatry is death.”

I like the way verses 19 and 20 answer the question about to what we can compare God.  There’s a mocking reply about a gold-covered figure with silver chains or someone getting sturdy wood and having an image carved that won’t tip over.  By the way, the Hebrew word for the fellow who chooses that wood means “to be impoverished.”[3]

Knight says, “With biting sarcasm [the prophet] suggests that if a man is too poor to rise to a gold-plated image, then he can be happy making do with a piece of wood, provided only that it does not fall over.”[4]  Hey, it’s okay if you can’t afford the top of the line.  You don’t need the latest features.  You don’t need the cell phone that lets you smell people!

If you hadn’t noticed, verses 18 and 25 ask similar questions.  “To whom then will you liken God?”  And also, “To whom then will you compare me?”  They both are answered by verses 21 and 28.  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

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There seems to be a bit of theological amnesia going on.

How often does that describe us?  When things are running smoothly, when the car is running well, when we have plenty of Granny Smith apples (okay, that’s me), we can say, “God is good, God is good all the time.”  However, when things fail to run smoothly, when the car breaks down, when we only have onions (again, that’s me), we can find ourselves saying, “Where are you, God?  What is happening?”

We might be like the psalmist who proclaimed, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; [but then] you hid your face; I was dismayed” (Ps 30:6-7).  We don’t know what happened for the psalmist to say God’s face was hidden, but I think we get the point.  We can forget the blessings of the past when the present seems grim, and when the future seems dark.  I don’t believe any of us are immune to that.

Indeed, there is a space for mourning.  There is a space for sadness.  The Bible is filled with notes of lamentation.  It is honest.

We hear verse 27: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?”  Is this a voice of faith or faithlessness?  Here’s a question: would it make sense for a truly faithless person to bother calling out to God in the first place?

Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering, “He’s covered idolatry.  What about tyranny?  How is that a human tendency?”  Good questions.

The prophet says God “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (v. 23).  Another translation speaks of “princes” as “dictators.”[5]  We might not be dictators of a nation, but we can be dictators in other ways.  Has anyone ever had a boss who behaved like a dictator?  If you haven’t, consider that a blessing from God.

We can have our own inner tyrant.

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Political affiliation can become idolatrous and tyrannous.  Wouldn’t it wonderful if we avoided the insults and the giving of childish nicknames?  We might expect behavior like that in middle school.  It’s quite another thing when full grown adults engage in that infantile behavior.

And it’s not just politics.  We really do it with religion.  Sometimes it gets really nasty, such as labeling others as “dog people” or “cat people.”

Labeling can actually be a form of judging.  We assign worth­­ to people.  We can sum up their whole lives.  As Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:1-2).  We get what we give.

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  There’s something else about a tyrant.  A tyrant doesn’t want to be told.  Tyrants don’t want to hear.  Tyrants assume they already know.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

My inner tyrant would have me close my ears and tell me I know all I need to know.  My puny god idol raises its head.  Sometimes, though, that tyrant works in the opposite way.  Our inner tyrant can bully us and tell us there’s no point in hearing.  We don’t know anything; we are not capable of knowing anything.

But that’s where the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, steps in.  The one who does not faint or grow weary; the one whose understanding is unsearchable arrives on the scene.  Trying the carry the world on your shoulders will wear you out.  (Do you believe me?)  However, the Lord empowers; the Lord strengthens.  “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted” (v. 30).

Your days of forced labor are over, O you exiles returning home.  Be rid of the idolatry and tyranny that have been your taskmasters.  You need not enslave each other.  The good news is that Jesus casts out demons, be they literal demons or the demons of besetting sin­­—the demons of continual letdown.

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Idolatry and tyranny can’t stand it when we wait for the Lord.  They demand to be heard.  When we ignore their voices—and they will be there to rant and rave—we open ourselves to the leading of the Spirit.  The promise of waiting for the Lord is that we will fly like an eagle.  We will run like a gazelle.  We will take the long walk and remain strong.

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 38.

[2] Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2008), 21.

[3] סׇכַן, sakan

[4] Knight, 39.

[5] Knight, 39.


calming the chaos

It was the evening of New Year’s Day.  There was a pitter patter of shower outside.  I decided to go for a walk; I wanted to hear what the rain would say to me.  Upon stepping outside, I realized the droplets were being outvoted by pellets.  A slushy crust was coalescing beneath my feet.  That’s okay, since the ice is making its voice heard, I’ll lend an ear.  So off I went into the night.

Actually, I did not lend an ear.  I was too busy thinking about my determination to listen to whatever precepts the precipitation presented.  Is there a word for me to receive?  It’s difficult to be aware if you’re trying to be aware that you are aware.  You wind up only hearing yourself.

In any event, it was a pleasant walk.

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It seems fitting that we would have that kind of weather on the evening of the first day of the year.  I say it seems fitting, in that our reading from the Hebrew scriptures for today, the Baptism of the Lord, is from Genesis—the first five verses of the book.  (You know: “In the beginning,” water, baptism, even if it’s a baptism of sleet.)

At his baptism, as the water flowed down his body, Jesus did hear a voice.  It was a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11).

There are two creation stories in Genesis.  The “macro” story is in chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, the creation of the world.  The “micro” story is the rest of chapter 2, focusing on the creation of the human race.  We’re in the “macro” story and looking at the first day of creation.

With each of the days of creation, we have the repeated statement, “God said.”  God speaks, and something appears, something happens.  God speaks the word in creating.  Over and again, we are told God saw that it was good.  It is the word pervading all of creation, permeating all of the cosmos.

The gospel of John borrows from this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).

Summing up each day of creation is the statement, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day,” and the second day, and the third day, and so on (v. 5).

I want to include a side note.  I imagine you’ve heard it said the Bible isn’t a scientific textbook, or words to that effect.  If we read these words as though they were lab notes from a science experiment, we will miss the wonderful and beautiful truth these words really convey.

2 gnFor example, on the third day of creation, plants appear.  It’s not until the fourth day that the sun, moon, and stars appear.  To force these images into that system of logic is completely alien to how the ancients perceived it.  Obviously, they knew plants could not precede the sun!  Actually, to force these images into that system of logic is alien to how we ourselves use art and poetry.

Today being the Baptism of the Lord, I would like to focus on the first two verses, which are the reason this text was assigned to this day in the first place.  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

The earth was a formless void.  The Hebrew word for “formless” (תֹּהוּ, tohu) also means “confusion” or “chaos.”  It was a nothingness of chaos.  The word for “void” (בֹּהוּ, bohu) also means “emptiness.”  It was an emptiness without form—an emptiness without shape.  The earth was a real “fixer upper.”

Some might say 2020 was a nothingness of chaos.

What we see is God bringing order to what is the ultimate picture of disorder.  (If it’s possible to have a picture of disorder.)  God is setting boundaries.  “God [separates] the light from the darkness” (v. 4).  In the days following, we see other things being separated, being distinguished.

Sometimes my dear wife Banu will prepare a dish with ingredients carefully portioned into distinct layers.  She often shows me how to eat it, sometimes using a fork to demonstrate.  I am reminded to not mix them together, so as not to deprive, or to diminish, the individual flavor of each element.  I am not to mess up the texture of the various components.  I am forbidden to bring disorder to order.

(Please understand: I’ve never been one to take a utensil and clumsily stir the contents of my plate around until I’m left with a blob-like specimen with the consistency of thick paste.  Furthermore, I’ve never been one to then say, “Hey, it’s all going to the same place anyway.”)

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Perhaps my favorite of the prophets is Jeremiah.  The Bible tells us more about him as a person than any of the other prophets.  And he has quite a story.  I mention him because, in a startling passage, he uses the word bohu (4:23-26).

“I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.”  The earth is again described as “void.”  He continues.

“I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.  I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.  I looked, [he’s doing a lot of looking!] and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.”

Walter Brueggemann comments on Jeremiah’s looking.[1]

“The fourfold ‘I looked’ is a staggering study of creation run amok, creation reverted to chaos…  [E]ach time the poet looks at the world, he sees more and more of creation being nullified, regressing to the murky condition of Gen. 1:2…”  God’s covenant with Israel “held to the [astonishing] notion that human conduct matters for the well-being of creation.  Working from that notion, the picture of this poem is grim.  Since there has been no obedience, there will be no viable creation.  Disobedience finally leads to chaos for the entire creation.”

Lest we think that’s an exaggeration, our own disobedience in tending the garden is leading to a twenty-first century version of chaos for creation.  We too often ignore God’s covenant, now expressed in the living Word, Jesus Christ, in our dealings with each other.  We foment disorder in each other’s lives.

As I’ve said before, sometimes events happen during the week that simply must be addressed.  The horror at the Capitol building on Wednesday is definitely in that category.  We witnessed a mob storm the building in an effort to disrupt the proceedings of a joint session of Congress.  For a while, the rioters had their way.  Officers were attacked, weapons were carried, windows were smashed, offices were ransacked, and worst of all, there was loss of life: four protesters and one police officer.  To use the Hebrew word, it was tohu.  It was disorder.  It was chaos.  It was an obscenity.

I posted something on Facebook that evening.  This was it: “This morning, aware that today is the Epiphany of the Lord, I wrote in my journal, ‘May the Lord shine today!’  No darkness, no violence, no thuggery can withstand that glory.  ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’”

Epiphany celebrates the light of Christ shining to all the Gentiles, to all the nations.  The visit of the Magi illustrates it.  When they asked about the one who was born king of the Jews, the powers-that-be in Jerusalem were terrified.  They feared the light shining into their darkness.

We are called to work for justice.  Jesus was all about that.  What happened on Wednesday had nothing to do with justice.  We didn’t see a Spirit-led struggle for justice.  Those folks were not guided by the Holy Spirit, and neither were the ones who urged them on, who planted the idea.

Our “God is a God not of disorder [not of chaos] but of peace” (1 Co 14:33).

I’ve been talking about creation as a process of setting boundaries, of bringing order to disorder.  Light is separated from darkness.  The sky is separated from the ocean.  The land is separated from the sea.

Are there broken boundaries in need of restoration?  Does order need to be brought to disorder?  Are there any things that need to be separated?

It’s important to take notice of something.  When God sets boundaries, it is indeed a creative act.  It isn’t a destructive one.  The boundaries are healthy boundaries.  They are boundaries that protect.  They are not boundaries that harmfully isolate.

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So, back to the beginning.  We are nine days removed from New Year’s Day.  Moving into 2021, what word is there for us?  “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  The fresh breeze of the Spirit brings order to chaos; it brings harmony to havoc.

As for me, the story of my nocturnal walk reinforces a lesson I need to heed over and over.  I could do with some restoration of boundaries, so that I can rightly discern the Word from the many words bubbling up in my mind.

So again, do you have any boundaries that need to be restored?  Is there any chaos that needs to be calmed, that needs to be set in order?

Thanks be to God, who speaks the word that creates, and who speaks the word into our lives to calm the storm.

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 59.


good guys and bad guys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why begin with these stark portrayals?  Hold that thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] Revised English Bible

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

[4] Strecker, 262.

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


wordless words

Sometimes, events happen that simply must be addressed in a sermon.  Unfortunately, this is one of those times.  When the president and first lady tested positive for the coronavirus, that pushed its way to the front.  It’s a tragedy when anyone contracts Covid-19.  It has happened tens of millions of times worldwide.  Over one million people have died.

I don’t think I’m going too far when I say 2020 has been a year unlike any other for every human being alive on planet Earth.  (I know we’ve said that for various years in the past—but this time, it’s really true!)

Aside from the global pandemic, which is way more than enough, demonstrations have spread across America, the political landscape has been incredibly volatile, the ice caps continue melting, the oceans are getting warmer, but guess what?  The Spirit of God is moving.

And I trust the Spirit of God was moving me when I wrote this sermon.

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In July, I started noticing something else about 2020.  I began a frequent ritual of gazing into the night sky.  From our vantage point, Jupiter and Saturn have been doing a nocturnal dance since early this year and will continue to do so for the rest of 2020.  The two largest planets in our solar system have recently begun sharing the sky with our neighbor, Mars.  I often like to await the appearance of Jupiter as the sky gradually darkens.  It becomes visible well before any stars.

Seeing those planets has been a gift.  They are my cosmic friends!  I have been reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, our problems—as genuinely serious as they are—still are part of a vast intergalactic tapestry.  Contemplating such matters has become almost a spiritual discipline.  It has been therapeutic.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”  So says the beginning of Psalm 19.

That psalm is one of my favorites.  It would seem I’m not alone in that.  It has been celebrated down through the ages for its poetic beauty.  A prominent writer in the 20th century also had great admiration for it.  That would be C. S. Lewis, professor at Oxford and author of numerous books, including The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity.  A professed atheist, he came to Christ, partly due to his conversations with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Lewis’ praise for the psalm has been widely quoted.  “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter,” he wrote, “and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”[1]  I wish he had said how he really felt!

2 psHe spoke of how the psalmist describes “the sun, the bridal joyousness of its rising, the unimaginable speed of its daily voyage from east to west…  The key phrase on which the whole poem depends is ‘there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.’  It pierces everywhere with its strong, clean ardor.”

He’s really passionate about this psalm!

Psalm 19, which displays the eternal word of God, is laid out in three sections.  The first part, verses 1 to 6, is an exaltation of the majesty of creation.  Verses 7 to 11 glorify the written word, with the benefits thereof: it is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, true, and righteous.

It revives the soul.  It makes wise the simple.  It rejoices the heart.  It enlightens the eyes.  Its beauty puts gold to shame.  And how does it taste?  Sweeter than honey, child!  Psalm 119 agrees.  “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (v. 103).

We end with verses 12 to 14 with a prayer of repentance and protection—and that includes protection from oneself.  You did know we can be our own worst enemy?  The psalm ends with words that might be familiar.  “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  (More about that one later.)

So there’s a lot in this psalm, but I want to focus on something I know I need help with—silence.

I started with speaking about admiring my friends, those radiant beauties in the night sky.  I think of how long it’s taken their light to reach me.  (Minutes?  Over an hour?)  I can’t hear them, but they proclaim the work and word of God.

Verse 3 speaks, “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.”  Recall the line from our call to worship: “Without a word being spoken, all creation bears witness to the goodness of the Lord.”  Their voice is not heard, and yet, “their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (v. 4).

Maybe if I would just shut up, I could hear their silent statements, their wordless words.  Maybe if I weren’t too busy thinking about what I could say about them, I could listen, and my soul would be enriched.  I could pass that blessing along to others.  But no, I have to focus all my attention on myself.

3 ps

Sometimes my dog joins me on these nightly sojourns.  After a little play time, he will lie down and occupy himself with chewing on a stick, or he’ll walk around, sniffing stuff.  He doesn’t say much.  I could take a lesson from him.

I want to revisit that final verse: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, etc.”  The word translated as “meditation” is an interesting one.[2]  It carries the meaning of a “murmuring sound.”  It’s compared to the sound of a harp when struck.  There’s that lingering sound as it begins fading to silence.  It’s not like a drum, something percussive, something rat-a-tat.  It’s smooth.

Another translation speaks of “the whispering of my heart.”[3]  It is as loud as a whisper.

We’re reminded of the prophet Elijah when he is on the run from the wrath of Jezebel, wife of King Ahab.  Elijah has presided over the killing of the prophets of Baal.  Jezebel is not happy, and she gives orders to her hitmen.  That’s when Elijah hits the road.

In the desert, the word of the Lord comes to him.  It isn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.  It isn’t in any of the sound and fury.  It is in sheer silence, a small still voice.  It is “a light murmuring sound” (1 Kg 19:12, NJB).

We tend to be quite uncomfortable with silence.  We can notice that in worship.  Moments of silence can seem to go on and on.

There’s another thing I want to mention in this psalm.  Verse 13 says, “Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.  Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.”

The poet wants protection from the insolent, the arrogant ones.  The plea is to be shielded from the harm they would do.  However, as before, the Hebrew word (אֵל, el) can have another nuance.  It also refers to “proud thoughts.”  It can also mean inner insolence.  I wonder if that isn’t the meaning that better applies to most of us.

You know, I have my opinions.  (And of course, they are always the correct ones.)  But at the end of the day, they pale in comparison with Jupiter and Saturn and Mars, who keep doing their thing.  The noise we humans make doesn’t affect them at all.  And my opinions pale in colossal fashion in comparison with the one who says in Isaiah, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:9).  Period.

4 ps

Our proud thoughts affect the way we treat others.  They affect the way we treat planet Earth.

Besides being World Communion Sunday, today is also the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  He is considered the patron saint of ecology.  He was noted for befriending the animals!

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing prayer walking.  Last Monday, I considered something with which St. Francis would be an excellent guide.  I reflected on how we called to tread lightly on the earth.  Indeed, walking on God’s good creation can be an act of prayer in itself.  Think of it.  We easily disregard that.  We pave over everything.  Our bombs and weapons of war kill more than just humans.  Lord only knows how many plants and animals we kill.  We dump poison and plastic on land and in the sea.  We foul the atmosphere.

We destroy ourselves, and in doing so, we defile the presence of God within us.  We grieve the Holy Spirit.

As I move toward my conclusion, I’m not going to tell you to do anything.  Just turn off the noise.  Open yourself to the word, however it appears.  When we befriend silence, we can better hear the word of the Lord; we can better hear those wordless words.  Let that sweetness fill you up.  “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).

 

[1] reiterations.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/c-s-lewis-on-psalm-19/

from Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harper One, 1958), pp. 73-74.

[2] הׅגָּיוׄן, higgayon

[3] New Jerusalem Bible


recollection in secret

When I was a student at Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida, there was a room on the top floor of the main building, the one housing the administrative offices.  The room was arranged for small chapel services.  This was in addition to the main chapel building in the center of campus.  It was also used as a prayer room; students would go there in the evening.

1 ps

It was a place of quiet prayer, a place of quiet reflection.  There was none of the quite vocal prayer lifted up during the regular worship services.  There was none of the shouting in the Spirit, none of the speaking in tongues.  At least, that’s how it was supposed to be.

One night, I went up there to pray.  There were about four or five students scattered throughout the room.  Not too long after I arrived, a guy and his girlfriend appeared, and they also started praying.  It did not remain quiet for very long.  The fellow began confessing his sin; actually, he began confessing their sin.  If he wanted to disturb everyone else in the room, he got his wish.

He began loudly asking the Lord for forgiveness.  He loudly asked forgiveness for the sin they had committed together.  He did that several times.  His girlfriend didn’t utter a peep.  (I wonder if he told her beforehand what he planned to do.)  My guess is that she would have chosen to be anywhere in the world than beside this man doing the praying for her.  And regarding the volume, I suppose he felt if he didn’t come clean at elevated decibels the Lord wouldn’t hear.  If I didn’t know better, I would say he was putting on a display in order to boast!

Would that fall into the category—as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount—of those loving “to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others,” even for the purpose of bragging? (Mt 6:5).  “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”

One lesson our friend could learn from this experience would be the value of secrecy.  I’m not speaking of the secrecy which is opposed to keeping confidence.  Sometimes we confuse the two.  In that scenario, keeping confidence is a way of building trust.  Keeping confidence is not intended to do harm.  It is meant to protect.

2 ps

Secrecy, if we think of it that way, is used as a means of control.  It’s a way of exclusion.  It destroys trust.  It’s a way of saying in a petulant manner, “I know something that you don’t!”  That’s not what I’m talking about.

The secrecy I’m talking about is the kind Jesus valued.  For example, several times he told others to not disclose certain things about him.  Here’s a case in point.  In Mark 1, after healing a leper, he said to him, “‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’  But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country” (vv. 44-45).

In Luke 8, Jesus restores to life the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue.  We’re told, “he took her by the hand and called out, ‘Child, get up!’  Her spirit returned, and she got up at once.  Then he directed them to give her something to eat.  Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened” (vv. 54-56).

There have been all kinds of theories to explain his desire for secrecy, (which I won’t get into now), but it’s safe to say Jesus wasn’t looking for public acclaim.  He wasn’t interested in putting on a show; he wasn’t interested in self-promotion.  I imagine if anyone could be justified in displaying himself—at least, according to our usual standards—he would be the one.

3 psThat’s my main point concerning the fellow in the prayer room that night.  I’m speaking of secrecy as a spiritual discipline.  Whatever his motivations, he disturbed others who were trying to pray, and he exposed his poor girlfriend!

Completing Jesus’ thought from the Sermon on the Mount, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:6).

The desire for holy secrecy (and “holy” seems to be a good adjective) flows quite nicely into the prayer of recollection.  “Recollect” comes from Latin, “gather again.”  We speak of “gathering our thoughts.”  We might think of the prayer of recollection as gathering again our souls—gathering again who we are.  It is a prayer of discernment.  It is a prayer of listening.

In Psalm 131, the speaker adopts the position of humility, not one of display.  “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me” (v. 1).  Does this mean the psalmist has no desire to learn?  Is this a refusal to grow?

There are again a number of viewpoints on the matter, but it’s entirely possible this is someone who has learned from mistakes made.  Perhaps the heart and eyes lifted up have been done in a sort of defiance.  It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been done in an arrogant or flagrant way but simply in a way of overstepping proper bounds, indeed, being occupied “with things too great and too marvelous.”  Maybe a sort of “recollection” needs to happen!

Something we can take away from this verse is learning that the most important thing is not to learn how to get ahead.  The most important thing is to simply learn how to be human, to be who we were created to be.

4 psI fear that too often we focus on the strictly technical side of things.  In doing so, we miss the big picture.  A recent article by Ryan Holiday proclaimed, “Why You Should Study Philosophy.”[1]  He admits the convoluted and tedious way it’s usually presented.  But it’s really not that complicated.  He quotes Martha Nussbaum who said, “To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control.”  That’s the basic starting point for those ancient fellows, like Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius.  “An ability to trust certain things beyond your control.”

Hmm, I wonder who that sounds like?

That’s an image we see continued in verse 2.  It is the heart of this short, little psalm.  “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”  Some people see this coming from the perspective of a mother.  It’s possible that in this case, the psalmist is a woman.

There’s been a little disagreement on the Hebrew, and we have some interesting views.  One version says, “No; I submit myself, I account myself lowly, as a weaned child clinging to its mother” (New English Bible).  Another one reads, “No, I hold myself in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms, like a little child, so I keep myself” (New Jerusalem Bible).

We’re here with the prayer of recollection.  We’re here with the prayer of humble listening.

That orientation of listening is important.  We often—maybe always—consider prayer to come from us outward to God.  In our worship services, that’s usually the only kind of prayer we do.  We have an agenda; we have a to-do list for the Lord.  And of course, that isn’t anything bad.  We are to lift up our supplications, our intercessions, our thanksgivings to God.  But we do indeed remain shallow if we don’t listen, if we don’t wait on the Spirit.

Joan Chittister speaks of one of the Church Fathers, Abba Agathon who lived in the 4th century.  “Once upon a time,” she says, “the disciples asked Abba Agathon, ‘Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?’  Abba Agathon answered, ‘I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God.  For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey.  Whatever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest.  But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’”[2]

I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I lay aside my agenda and just shut up, it is very difficult.  Prayer is hard.  It is hard work.  I fear I too easily become lazy and simply give up.  Plunging into the depths of prayer, exploring the terrain, is the work of a lifetime.

5 ps

Laura Harring and Naomi Watts enter the silence (that is, “silencio”)

We enter the silence, and then everything happens.  Our thoughts bubble up from within.  “Yes, I have to make sure I do that today.”  “What’s that sound?  Let me go to the window and check it out.”  “I wish I had said that to So-and-So yesterday.”  But don’t be too hard on yourself.  When thoughts come—and come they will if you are human—don’t fret.  Look at them for a moment, and then set them aside; let them drift away.

It’s true; it’s easier for me to say this than to faithfully practice it.  But like I just said, it is the work of a lifetime.  (And by the way, I imagine some of you probably could teach me a lesson or two on prayer and waiting in silence.)

Our psalm ends with verse 3.  “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.”  The psalmist addresses the nation at large.  What up until now has been the yearning of an individual is brought to the entire community.  Everyone is called to the hope the psalmist is seeking.

We can think of our own community, our own country.  Still, I would like to bring it closer to home, to where we are right now, to our congregation.

A few years ago, Amy Johnson Frykholm wrote on practices regarding congregational discernment, group discernment.[3]  She notes that “few congregations apply silence and contemplation to matters of church business.”[4]  How about that?  Maybe we should start our next congregational meeting with a few minutes of silence!

She speaks of an experiment done with a congregation.  The group was given a particular focus, something on which to meditate.  She says, “Over about 30 minutes we were silent together, and then various people were offered opportunities to speak and to respond.  What emerged from the silence and the listening was something strikingly different from our normal conversation.  By punctuating our communication with silence, we were stripped of the desire to offer advice or jump in with stories from our own experience.  By staying intentionally silent between remarks, we found ourselves offering words and images that came up from another, seemingly deeper place.”[5]

One welcome discovery “was that the people showed more humility toward one another and seemed more open to the idea that the voice of God might come from someone else’s mouth.”[6]  (Imagine such a thing!)  Even shorter periods of time can produce rich fruit, even a few minutes.

Recollection in secret.  When we explore our spiritual gifts, that can serve as a foundation for them.  The psalmist is really onto something!

6 ps
Be open to God.  We hold ourselves in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms.

 

[1] forge.medium.com/why-you-should-study-philosophy-47c53fbc3205

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict:  Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 75.

[3] Amy Johnson Frykholm, “Out of Silence,” Christian Century 124:7 (3 April 2007), 34-38.

[4] Frykholm, 34.

[5] Frykholm, 34.

[6] Frykholm, 35.


listening in the light

On the mountain of the Transfiguration, seeing Jesus in glory, along with Moses and Elijah, Peter wants to set up camp.  He wants to capture the moment; he wants to stay, take this instant and freeze it.  That is his proposal.  But as Luke tells us, he doesn’t know what in the world he’s talking about.

Then a voice sounds from on high, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (v. 35).  Peter is basically told to shut his trap.  Or as the delightful Mt. T would put it, “Quit your jibba jabba!”

1 ps 99

In Psalm 99, the poet encourages anything but jibba jabba.  The whole world is exhorted to “praise [the Lord’s] great and awesome name” (v. 3).  If Peter, James, and John are struck by elation (and alarm) by their encounter on the mountain, the psalmist does one better when he proclaims, “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!  He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!” (v. 1).

Peter would like to stop time; he wants to preserve the experience.

We do that as well, sometimes in trivial ways.  Some of us (and I know I’m going to get in trouble for saying this) like to photograph the contents of our dinner plate.  But who am I to talk?  No doubt, I take too many pictures of my dog.  (Still, if I’m able to catch him yawning—with the sound he makes—I’m going to try to get that on video!  That would be an experience to preserve.)

Maybe you can understand what I’m trying to say.  We often want to freeze life, to take a timeout, for good or ill.  Life is calling our name, and we’re not always sure how to answer.  The psalmist invites us to enter in, to allow the transfiguration light to guide us.  The disciples would do well to heed what the psalmist says.  They need to listen.  That goes for us, too.

As with much of Hebrew poetry, Psalm 99 is well constructed.  Stan Mast, who teaches at Calvin Seminary, says something about it.  “It deliberately uses the Hebrew number of perfection and completeness, the number 7, mentioning the Lord seven times and using 7 pronouns to refer to that Lord.”[1]  And in three places, it points out that the Lord is holy.  (Three is also a key number.)

Structure in poetry can be important.  It imposes a certain discipline, even in limericks.

2 ps 99A few days ago, Banu and I were at Wegmans.  They had the tasting stations set up around the store.  The one at the deli had something called chicken epicurean sausage.  I was struck by the word “epicurean.”  It dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus.  Very roughly speaking, he taught that happiness is the greatest good in life.  He focused on simple pleasures.  Today, we think of an epicure as someone who likes the fine things, especially fine food and drink.  I told Banu it reminded me of an old limerick:

“An epicure dining at Crewe, / found quite a large mouse in his stew. / Said the waiter, ‘Don’t shout, / or wave it about, / or the rest will be wanting one too!’”

Admittedly, that’s not the best example of showing the discipline of structure!  Still, structure can mean being careful to transmit the message, and it helps in recalling it if there’s good rhyme and rhythm.  After all, it’s easier to remember something if you listen to the music!

Psalm 99 is broken into three sections, each of which has something to contribute to the whole.

Verses 1 to 3 praise the Lord for reigning worldwide—being king of the world!  Verses 4 and 5 praise the Lord for justice.  Verses 6 to 9 praise the Lord for entering into relationship.  Moses the lawgiver, and Aaron and Samuel, perhaps prototypes of priest and prophet, are highlighted.  Of course, the starting point throughout is the focus on Israel: in Zion, in Jacob, in the pillar of cloud—with each of them expressing a different stage in its history.

I won’t go into great detail, but I do find verses 4 and 5 especially interesting.  After the first section urges all nations to praise the Lord, we now get a sense of who this Lord is.  “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob” (v. 4).

What does justice mean here?  What is justice for this Lord?  The God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, is an ethical God.  By that, I mean this God cares about ethics; this God cares about how we behave.  This God is not like other gods, the blood drinking gods who lash out in blind fury if they don’t get their sacrifices.  As long as they are appeased, they don’t care what their worshippers do.  (Sometimes we treat our Lord the same way.  If we pay our dues, what we do doesn’t mean quite so much!)

3 ps 99

Reinforcing that idea is verse 5: “Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool.  Holy is he!”  We are called to worship a holy God.  Verse 9 agrees: “Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy.”  We are called to worship twice in Psalm 99.  We are called to listen to these words.

Stan Mast comments, “Unlike the gods of the nations who cannot hear or speak, God both hears the cries of his people and speaks in words they could hear.”  God speaks through visions and dreams and written words and through his servants, the prophets, and of course, through Jesus the Messiah.  God speaks through the still, small voice of prayer—the sound of silence.  We are called to listen, like those early disciples.

Listening is easier said than done.  Listening is hard work.  Prayer and meditation are hard work.

There’s a concept originating from Buddhism, but I think it applies to everyone.  It’s called “the monkey mind.”  It refers to a sense of restlessness, thoughts bouncing from one thing to the other, constant chattering.  It’s called “monkey mind” because it’s like monkeys swinging from one branch to another.  One thought leads to another and another and another.

4 ps 99Whenever we enter silence, it is inevitable that thoughts will surface.  “I need to do that today.”  “What’s that dog barking at?”  “I wish I could get that stupid song out of my head.”  Thoughts will come and go, but the trick is to not hold on to them.  Let them pass through.  I believe that, at least in some way, it’s expressed by St. Paul’s comment on “the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Ph 4:7).  We can hear the voice of transfiguration, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

I will not claim to be an expert practitioner of what I’m saying.  As I said, it takes work—and patience.

As I said a moment ago, the psalmist calls us to worship.  We are celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  (“Eucharist” comes from the Greek word which means “to give thanks” [ευχαριστεω, eucharisteō].  It appears all throughout the New Testament.)

Today being Transfiguration, it provides the theme.  Part of the service is the Great Thanksgiving.  It’s the prayer reciting the story of salvation, the history of salvation.  Here’s part of the prayer:

“You are holy, O God of majesty, / and blessed is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. / On a lonely mountain / his human body was transfigured by your divine splendor. / In his face, we have glimpsed your glory. / In his life, we see your love.”

Here’s a question: how does listening tie together worship and the justice the psalmist is talking about?  Does worship lead us to seek justice outside these walls?

Our friend Stan says, “This emphasis on justice and righteousness is something many North American Christians don’t appreciate as much as we should.  We praise God for his grace and mercy and love, not his righteousness and justice and judgment.”  He does say “many” Christians focus on God’s mercy and not God’s righteousness and judgment.  In reality, all of those things go together.  You can’t have one without the rest.

5 ps 99However, it’s definitely not “all” Christians who take that approach.  There are many who think of God’s judgment as someone wielding a sword preparing for execution, rather than someone making sure all is put right—all is restored to proper balance.

I’m sure none of you have ever encountered this: the one with a scowling disposition, harshly critical, the finger-wagging party pooper.

Still, the point is made.  We who live in warm houses, who have plenty of food to eat, who live in safety, too often can’t relate to those around the world and those here at home who do not have such things.

Listening to the voice from on high, listening to the voice within—that still, small voice of the Spirit—we are called to move into the light leading us into action.  We listen in the light; we listen to the one who is called the Beloved, the Chosen.  We are guided by the light shining in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

[1] cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/last-epiphany-c/?type=the_lectionary_psalms


love in the mirror

When I was a little boy, there was a time when I was afraid of mirrors.  Mind you, it wasn’t because I was afraid of my reflection, though I wasn’t in love with it, either!  No, my fear was based on the boogeyman of youthful imagination, the boogeyman of horror movies.  One reason I think horror movies are so scary to little kids is because they live so much in the moment, and they think—no, they know—those things in their nightmares really exist!

Anyway, after becoming familiar with vampires, besides drinking people’s blood, a quality I found especially creepy was their invisibility in the mirror.  Especially at night, I dreaded looking in the mirror.  A vampire could be standing right behind me.  And what really freaked me out was the thought of something tapping me on the shoulder.

1 jaBut I was also terrified that I would see something behind me.  It could be anything: some grim beast or somebody wielding a dagger.  Who knows what one’s mind can conjure up?

In today’s epistle reading, St. James has his own thoughts about mirrors.  His fear however, is not that people are afraid to look at them.  Rather, his concern is their power to deceive, or maybe it’s better to say, the power people have at self-deception.  Hold that thought; we’ll do more reflecting on mirrors in a few moments.

The epistle of James, in some respects, is unlike anything else in the New Testament.  It has characteristics similar to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.  That includes the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, many of the Psalms, and much of the book of Job.  Like those works, James has many lessons and words of wisdom.

(By the way, Jesus Christ is only referred to twice.  Only 3 John has less, where he isn’t mentioned at all.)

Our passage begins in verse 19: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  On that bit about “slow to speak,” the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard makes an embarrassing confession.

2 ja
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

“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 almost half the page] and wanted to shoot myself.”[1]

He knew he’d been behaving like a horse’s (fill in the blank).  Has anyone here ever felt like that?  I know I’m not the only one who’s had a moment of sane and sober self-reflection and thought, “I really wish I hadn’t said that”?  I sure made of fool of myself.

Speaking of being a fool, Father Richard Rohr (who I’ve mentioned before) outlines what he calls three gates through which the words of a wise person must pass.  This is basically his take on a saying from the Sufi tradition regarding speech: “Is it true?  Is it necessary?  Is it kind?”

So for him, “the first gate: Is what I’m saying really true?  If it’s not true, then, of course, don’t bother.

“The second gate: Is it loving?  Am I about to say something that will build up life and trust, or will it tear them down?

“The third gate (and probably the most difficult): Is what I am about to say really that necessary?  If it’s not, why clutter up the moment with more words and noise competing for space and attention?”[2]

Now those are words of wisdom.  Assuming the first gate has been successfully traversed (that is, are my words true?), we come to the second gate.  It might be true, but is it loving, is it life-enhancing?  It is possible to speak the truth, but in a way that is not helpful; in fact, it can be hurtful.

Our Book of Order begins with a section called “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity.”  Believe it or not, it has all kinds of good stuff.  Under the heading “Historic Principles of Church Order” is the lovely little paragraph on “Truth and Goodness” (F-3.0104).  It begins by saying, “truth is in order to goodness.”  That means even the truth must serve the good.  It must promote goodness.

3 jaAs just suggested, 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.  It isn’t God’s truth.

So we come to the third gate.  Even if it’s true and it’s loving, is it so important for me to throw in my two cent’s worth?  Do I (always) need to draw attention to myself?  Do I need to ruin the silence?  I suppose we need to decide if we are earnestly trying to be constructive or merely engaged in self-promotion.

There’s plenty to say about being “quick to listen,” but right now I want to be “slow to anger.”

There are many ways it can raise its hopping mad head, but there’s one I want to mention, infecting our culture.  Our beloved news networks, particularly the ones on cable, seem to enjoy generating plenty of heat, but not much light.  They don’t seem to be overly interested in actually educating their viewers.  Too often they seem interested in hammering home their viewpoints in red-faced rants.  “Where’s the outrage?”

It might help for everyone to take a deep breath, count to ten, and then think before we speak.  How’s that for being “quick to listen”?

Our friend James adds, “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (vv. 20-21).  There’s plenty to say about that, but as promised, I want to move on with our reflection on mirrors.  Please bear in mind, we need to carry all of that wisdom we just heard when we gaze into the mirror.

He talks about “the implanted word,” and it’s the word of which we need to be doers “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (v. 22).  Here’s where that self-deception I mentioned earlier comes into play.  A mirror, figuratively speaking, can show us the way we wish to see ourselves.  Looking into it, we can highlight some qualities in an unrealistic way.  (Unfortunately, it’s often true we can see ourselves as less than, as worse than, we truly are.  We can beat ourselves up.)

James’ call to be quick to listen must also be translated into action.  We can behold ourselves in the mirror and get a good look, and upon walking away, forget what we just saw.

There’s a reflection on these verses called, “Seeing Ourselves in the Mirror of the Word.”[3]  Our good friend, Kierkegaard—the one with the embarrassing story about the party—is quoted in it.  Stephen Evans, a professor at Baylor, is an expert on the Great Dane.  He says, “The fundamental purpose of God’s Word is to give us true self-knowledge; it is a real mirror, and when we look at ourselves properly in it we see ourselves as God wants us to see ourselves.”

4 ja

Inserting the world “properly” makes a big difference.  As just said, we can see ourselves for better or worse than we really are.  Perhaps seeing ourselves as better, as overinflating, means we have arrived; there’s nothing more to learn.  Seeing ourselves as worse might lead us to think there’s no point in trying; we’re going to fail anyway!

Continuing with his thought, “The assumption behind this is that the purpose of God’s revelation is for us to become transformed, to become the people God wants us to be, but this is impossible until we see ourselves as we really are.”  By the grace of God, we have a clear image of who we are—or at least, as clear an image as we mere mortals can have.  We aren’t left in the dark like those vampires.

Here’s verse 25: “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”  What is “the perfect law, the law of liberty”?  James says in chapter 2, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (v. 8).  The royal law, the perfect liberating law, is the law of love.  Love makes demands of us like none other.

It can be awfully easy to look into that mirror and say, “Okay, that’s who I am,” and then walk away and forget all about it.  But I know, nobody here has ever done that!

Still, if we hold to it, if we keep at it, we will be blessed in our doing.  I like the late Henri Nouwen’s take on blessing and being blessed.[4]  “To bless means to say good things.  We have to bless one another constantly.”

(That is “bless one another”—not “bless one another out”!  And as some folks say in the South, “Well, bless yo’ heart!”  Please note: that is not an affirmation!)

5 jaNouwen continues, “Parents need to bless their children, children their parents, husbands their wives, wives their husbands, friends their friends.  In our society, so full of curses, we must fill each place we enter with our blessings.”

What does that blessing look like?  James describes true religion, true faith.  We’re back to the bit about “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  Bridle your tongue; don’t deceive your heart.  Care for those in need.  What about caring for those who do not know the Lord?  Or maybe, do not know in a way that makes the Lord a reality in their lives?

So much requires change—not something we readily embrace.  Still, life is, by its very nature, change.  Something that doesn’t change is dead.  The law of liberty, the law of love, is reflected in that mirror held before us.  That calls us to change.  What happens after that?  As the chapter ends, again by the grace of God, we “keep [ourselves] unstained by the world” (v. 27).  We have a resource, a substance, to clean up the uncleanness we accept from the world around us.

The hymn, “What Can Wash Away My Sin?” does a pretty good job explaining it.  Here’s the refrain: “O, precious is the flow / That makes me white as snow; / No other fount I know, / Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”  Oddly enough, with the blood of Jesus we are washed white as snow!  Our stain is removed.

We are shown the mirror of the word, and we find love in the mirror.

 

[1] A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Robert Bretall (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), 7.

[2] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 341.

[3] www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/174976.pdf

[4] henrinouwen.org/meditation/blessing-one-another


not getting to know you (sorry, Julie Andrews)

Psalm 133 pictures what can happen if we are faithful to dialogue.  In a moment, we’ll look at what constitutes dialogue, which is a critical feature of hospitality.

I’ve long thought of this psalm as a rather odd—but beautiful—piece of poetry.  The first verse is simple enough, as the Good News Bible puts it: “How wonderful it is, how pleasant, for God’s people (literally, “brothers”) to live together in harmony!”

 

It’s those last two verses that might leave us scratching our heads.  When verse 2 compares this harmony to oil poured on Aaron’s head, so much that it runs down his beard onto his robe, our reaction may be one more of distaste (or even disgust) than anything else.  Picture this.  When Banu and I anoint someone with oil, we usually put a small amount on our finger, and then do something like making the sign of the cross on the forehead.

Here, according custom, an entire flask of oil is poured out on the head of Aaron the priest.  The anointing oil has a delightful smell, but my guess is not many of us would want to wind up like a greased pig!

2 ps 133The images in the psalm have several interpretations.[1]  Some literally see it as a celebration of “brothers” living together.  Others imagine “the fellowship of the Covenant community in Jerusalem.”  Some say the image of flowing down, whether it’s the oil running down Aaron’s beard—or the water flowing from Mount Hermon in the north to Zion in the south—pictures Israel and Judah coming back together.  And there are other ideas.  So there’s been a bit of debate as to what all of this means.

And on the matter of debate, it’s important to know the difference between that and dialogue.  With debate, we’re already convinced we’re right, and we’re trying to persuade others to see things our way.  It’s like a courtroom scenario, with opposing lawyers making their case.  Or it’s like the news channels doing more commentary than actual journalism!

Dialogue is quite different.  A couple of decades ago, Leonard Swidler developed “The Dialogue Decalogue” (“The Ten Commandments of Dialogue”).  They’ve been updated and renamed “Dialogue Principles.”  You can see them at the Dialogue Institute website.[2]

Here’s the first one: “The essential purpose of dialogue is to learn.”  Just as with the spiritual discipline of listening, dialogue meets its enemy in closed and narrow minds.  Those unwilling to learn need not apply!

In his book, Cultivating Christian Community, Thomas Hawkins says dialogue “involves a willingness to challenge our own thinking.  We remain open to examining our own assumptions, no matter how uncomfortable doing so may feel.”  Dialogue seeks “to open up and out toward a meaning larger than any single…viewpoint.”[3]

I’ve sometimes heard this criticism of dialogue: it requires you to waver on your beliefs.  The idea is you can’t take a firm stand for anything; you have to be wishy-washy.  However, faithful dialogue, far from asking people to surrender their beliefs, instead needs those who know what they believe.  There’s a huge difference between thinking for ourselves and refusing to entertain ideas that might call us to become bigger and more insightful persons.

An aspect of dialogue similar to this is spelled out in the ninth principle, the ninth commandment, if you will: “Participants in dialogue should have a healthy level of criticism toward their own traditions.”  It’s difficult to have meaningful interaction with people who think they have all the answers.

To put it differently, don’t be so self-assured that you’re unwilling to admit any uncertainty!  There have been times I’ve noticed this in myself.  Believe me, it’s not an endearing quality; I find it rather tedious.  Here’s one very good remedy: learn to laugh at yourself!  (And as I think I’ve mentioned before, it helps if you see within yourself plenty of material at which to laugh!)

A tricky part of dialogue is addressed by the fourth principle.  “One must compare only her/his ideals with their partner’s ideals and her/his practice with the partner’s practice, not one’s ideals with one’s partner’s practice.”  In other words, none of us is always a faithful model of what we profess.  We all fall short.  We don’t always practice what we preach.  If we point to someone else’s behavior when they don’t live up to their ideals—and then judge it on that basis—we should expect the same treatment.

I’ll mention one more of these principles of dialogue.  The fifth one says, “Each participant needs to describe her/himself.”  This aspect of dialogue is often ignored.  We can too easily make assumptions about each other.  We can see someone performing an action, maybe in support or in protest, and ascribe to them motives they simply do not have.

This past week, some of us had a quite charming dinner conversation on the PERC patio.[4]  We discussed a number of topics, such as the president, various policies, the way the news gets reported (including an overemphasis on bad news, as opposed to good news), various types of exercise, Gordon Ramsay, and so on.  By the way, if you’re wondering, things did not descend into a food fight!

4 ps 133

We could refer to each other as conservative, liberal, someone from another planet, and think we have them all summed up.  Maybe not so fast.

Related to this is the whole business of labeling.  Hawkins notes, “Labeling people denies the legitimacy of their opinions.  It makes further discussion unnecessary.  Name calling means our minds are made up.  We no longer see our opponents as worthy of respect.”  With an interesting conclusion, he says, “When we engage in name calling, we break one of the Ten Commandments.  We bear false witness against another person.”[5]  That’s a clear case of “not getting to know you”!

In Matthew 7, Jesus also weighs in on this.  Labeling others is a way of passing judgment on them.  We put ourselves in the position of God.  Jesus warns against this, saying “with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (v. 2).

Dialogue is about much more than the proper way to have conversations.  At the end of the day, dialogue is about our relationship with God.  It necessarily involves other people, because it’s a discipline essential to fostering Christian community.  But as Hawkins reminds us, “The practice of dialogue reminds us that we and our opinions are not at the center of community. Christ is.”[6]

Just as Christ is at the center of community, so Christ is at the center of dialogue.  What Jesus calls us to do can feel really uncomfortable; it can even feel dangerous.  It can almost feel like we’re betraying someone or something.  That’s why we might come up with all kinds of excuses to avoid dialogue.  We can tell ourselves about that certain person, “I’ve done all I can to understand them”—but in our heart of hearts, we know we really haven’t.

Are there any people—or any group of people—with whom we refuse to dialogue?  Can we imagine the possibilities for our lives, for our communities of faith, for our society, if we simply let go of the excuses?  Something that plagues our country, and the church, is our practice of only giving a hearing to those with whom we already agree.  We only listen to what reinforces our opinions.

In many ways Jesus fought against that impulse.  There’s something I’ve mentioned on occasion, and I did so again at our lovely dinner.  Notice the people he called to his inner circle.  Among people of various backgrounds, he included Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot.

Here’s the story about the tax collectors.  They are hated, not just because they collect taxes, but because of who they are working for.  They are employees of the empire, and what’s more, they gouge the people in doing their job.

If the tax collectors are collaborators with the Romans, the Zealots are at the other end of the spectrum.  They are revolutionaries who want to overthrow the government, to send the Romans packing.  The differences between Matthew and Simon make the differences between Republicans and Democrats seem nonexistent.  I think it’s safe to say Matthew and Simon do not have similar opinions.  Left to their own devices, they probably wouldn’t be interested in dialogue.  They would make poor models for the picture our psalmist is painting!

5 ps 133

Jesus isn’t interested in labels.  No matter what we call each other, Jesus is having none of that.  He died and rose from the grave for everyone.  He calls us to knock down the foolish walls we build.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.  That’s where the Lord ordains blessing, running down everywhere.

 

[1] A. A. Anderson, The New Century Bible Commentary, Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 885.

[2] dialogueinstitute.org/dialogue-principles

[3] Thomas Hawkins, Cultivating Christian Community (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2001), 48.

[4] www.percatthemansion.com

[5] Hawkins, 49.

[6] Hawkins, 52.


good guys and bad guys

When we’re kids, we tend to see life in absolute terms.  There are the good guys and the bad guys.  People are either pure good or pure evil.  It’s two dimensional and quite cartoonish.  As we get older, we realize people don’t simply wear white hats or black hats.  We see that the hats we wear are shaded in gradations of gray.

1 3 jnTo be sure, some are lighter shades, and some are darker shades.  And it seems like some folks change hats, depending on which way the wind blows.  But life becomes much more three dimensional than it was when we were young.  (And if you’re in tune with physics, it can have up to eleven dimensions!)

In the Third Letter of John, the author calls himself “the elder.”  The word in Greek is πρεσβυτερος (presbuteros), where we get our words “presbyter” and “Presbyterian.”  This is no doubt someone other than St. John the Apostle.  But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just call him “John.”  (Although, it would be just as fitting to call him “the presbyter.”)

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

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

What prompted the writing of this letter are a couple of things.  First is a desire to thank Gaius for his hospitality.  Some missionaries have come to John and told him how well Gaius treated them.  That really made his day!  “I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth,” John says, “namely how you walk in the truth.”  And if he hasn’t made his point, he follows with, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (vv. 3-4).

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

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

2 3 jn

Last week I asked, “Has anyone here ever been bullied?”  I mentioned a certain fellow in high school who, for some reason that escapes me, decided I would be a good person to harass.  He never openly challenged me to a fight, but I knew he would welcome any aggressive response on my part.  It would be a case of “make my day”!

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

John calls him out.  “So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us.”  Another version says, “nonsensical and spiteful charges.”[1]  Diotrephes spouts nonsense, but he’s not happy with that: “he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church” (v. 10).

This guy is a pain in John’s rear end!

All of this needs to be seen in context.  We have a glimpse of the early church as it’s moving out of the apostolic era.  This is at the end of the 1st century—maybe early 2nd century.  Churches are becoming more structured.  Offices like “presbyter” and “bishop” are emerging.  Some believe Diotrephes is a bishop.  And, not surprisingly, as things get more structured, there are more opportunities for power plays.

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

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

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

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

3 3 jnNow, going back to hearing the other side of the story, I want to take Diotrephes out of his context.  I want to use him as a model—a model of someone who doesn’t listen.  He doesn’t listen because he’s too busy pushing his own agenda.  He’s the one “who likes to put himself first.”  He spreads “false charges,” and prevents others from welcoming those he doesn’t like.  He’s the bad guy!

Within all of us lurks the spirit of “Diotrephes.”  It’s the part of us that wants to “imitate what is evil” and refuse to “imitate what is good” (v. 11).  It’s the part of us that hesitates “to support [our brothers and sisters], so that we may become co-workers with the truth” (v. 8).

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

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

Henri Nouwen told a story highlighting the difference in these two approaches.[2]  A friend of his had recently died, and someone sent to him a tape of the service.  At the funeral, one of the readings was the following story about a little river.

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

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

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

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

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

4 3 jn

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

“What counts in your life and mine are not successes but fruits.  The fruits of your life you might not see yourself.  The fruits of your life are born often in your pain and in your vulnerability and in your losses.  The fruits of your life come only after the plow has carved through your land.  God wants you to be fruitful.

“The question is not, ‘How much can I still do in the years that are left to me?’  The question is, ‘How can I prepare myself for total surrender, so my life can be fruitful?’”

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

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

As I prepare to conclude, I want to include one last quote.  This is from Madeleine L’Engle in her book, The Irrational Season.[3]  She speaks of how she betrays her Lord in her “strange love affair.”  She says, “Not only do I listen to wiles of the dragon, I become the dragon, and then I remember [Rainer Maria] Rilke’s words:[4]

“‘How should we be able to forget those ancient myths [that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths] about dragons that at the last [moment] turn into princesses…who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.’

“I know that when I am most monstrous, I am most in need of love.  When my temper flares out of bounds it is usually set off by something unimportant which is on top of a series of events over which I have no control, which have made me helpless, and thus caused me anguish and frustration.  I am not lovable when I am enraged, although it is when I most need love.”

5 3 jnIn Banu’s and my article for the May newsletter, we include these words: “Deal gently with each other.  Be forgiving—we all have heavy loads.”  That, more than any clever ideas any of us can concoct, shows the Spirit of the Lord in our midst.

Just like Madeleine, when our temper gets the best of us, we are, more than any other time, demonstrating our need for love.  Although at such times, we are far from easy to deal with!

I once did a devotional in which I mentioned Hazel Bryan, the young white woman who in 1957, shouted insults at Elizabeth Eckford, the young black woman walking toward the Little Rock high school which was being desegregated.  The two are pictured in one of the iconic photos of that era.  I asked the question, “What if the photo of that outburst is all she’s remembered for?”  Would that sum up her entire life?

(As it turns out, years later the two met and had a sense of reconciliation, although they didn’t exactly become best friends.)

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

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

6 3 jn

[1] Revised English Bible

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

[3] Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season (New York: HarperOne, 1977), 153.

[4] Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. M. D. Herter Norton, Letters to a Young Poet (New York: W. W. Norton), 69.


fasting just in time for Advent

In recent years, we have been reminded there are more obese people on planet Earth than those who are malnourished.  There are a number of reasons: love of fast food and of huge portions in general, lack of exercise, and oh, let’s go again with huge portions—at Thanksgiving dinner!

1 Is 58I’ve never thought of myself as particularly gluttonous, though I can’t claim I never over-indulge.  Still, if I had to name a single spiritual discipline I’ve been most reluctant to follow, it would probably be fasting.  At first glance, considering the note I mentioned at the beginning, it seems that I’m far from alone.  Still, as we continue, we’ll see how fasting is about more than abstaining from food.

Banu mentioned last week about the tradition of Advent, of how it’s about self-denial, waiting in expectation for the coming of the Lord.  With the madcap rush of the economically-driven invented holiday called Black Friday, we are encouraged—no, ordered—to jettison our sense of self-control.  It regrettably (or perhaps, fortunately) demonstrates our need for spiritual discipline.  It shows our need for spiritual disciplines, plural.

Here’s something about spiritual disciplines themselves.  They are practices, things we do.  They aren’t feelings or emotional states, although spiritual disciplines could possibly foster them.  No, spiritual disciplines, at least Christian spiritual disciplines, are to shape us into being more like Jesus, having the faith of Jesus.

And they are indeed practices, things we weave into our everyday lives.  Examples would be fasting (as mentioned), reading the Bible, prayer, worship, service, being accountable to someone loving and wise.  And there are plenty others.

I will confess I often have a problem with meditation.  I too often focus on the “monkey mind,” just jumping around.  I’m thinking about everything in the world.  “Wait, I need to write that down…  I need to fidget with that object on the table…  Hey, who’s that walking outside?”

One thing the disciplines are not is showtime!  They are not about self-promotion.  This isn’t something you post on Facebook.  If you encounter someone who says, “What has two thumbs and is becoming more Christlike every day?  This guy!” then clearly that poor soul is sadly mistaken.

2 Is 58

There’s a little bit about spiritual disciplines in general.  Now let’s get back to our feature story!

I think many of us have almost a fear of fasting.

I imagine we’ve all had our blood drawn to check medicine levels or whatever.  Sometimes that means fasting for 12 hours or maybe just skipping breakfast.  I remember one time going to the clinic to provide a sample, which required fasting after midnight.  The next morning, some of the people there were saying how they wanted to arrive at 8:30, as soon as the place opened, so they could hurry up and get something to eat.  Apparently, they were starving to death!

I don’t want to spend too long on the mechanics of fasting.  Suffice it to say that it doesn’t always mean consuming nothing whatsoever.  There are many different ways to fast.

In her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun says the purpose of fasting is “to let go of an appetite in order to seek God on matters of deep concern for others, myself, and the world.”[1]  Clearly, “an appetite” can refer to many different things.  As St. Paul says in Romans 13, we’re to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ [like a garment], and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (v. 14).

Here, the “flesh” is not simply our physical bodies.  It speaks of the tendency to use the gifts of God for purely selfish intent, to not care what happens to others or to the rest of creation.  The “flesh” is self-indulgence taken to extremes.

When we take self-indulgence and the temptation to self-promotion we just looked at, we find our scripture reading in Isaiah 58 deals with something like this.  This last part of the book of Isaiah is often dated a few years after the return from exile in Babylon.  The initial joy of the exiles has faded as they deal with opposition.  They’re confronted by those who were never sent into exile—and by those who have settled in the land since then.

Their faith is faltering.  And as we look through the scripture text, we can see evidence of the ways in which many of them have stumbled.  We can also see evidence of their attempts to make things right.

3 Is 58

Right off the bat, we know something’s up.  The prophet is told, “Shout out, do not hold back!…  Announce to my people their rebellion” (v. 1).  Apparently, they’re not living in a way that befits God’s people, even though “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness” (v. 2).

The people in our scripture reading say some things to God that might sound familiar.  “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (v. 3).  Where are you, God?  Why aren’t you paying attention?  Why don’t you help us?

The people are behaving as though fasting and other pious actions can compensate for injustice.  They think some acts of worship can cover up their crimes.

What have they been doing that’s so bad?  According to the scripture, “you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.  Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (vv. 3-4).  Eugene Peterson says, “The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground.”  The people are just going through the motions.  They’re not letting themselves be changed.

And here’s something else spiritual disciplines are not.  They are not magic.  There are no incantations to utter that will compel God into doing anything.  God is a God of love.  God is an ethical God, which means God cares about ethics.  It matters what we do; it matters how we live our lives.

This is the fast God chooses: “to loose the bonds of injustice…to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (v. 6).  Verse 9 has something I find especially interesting.  What’s disapproved of here is “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.”

The pointing of the finger.  We see this all the time.  We like to blame others; we try to avoid taking responsibility.  It becomes really obvious during political campaigns.  Advertisements flood the airwaves: ads which insult our intelligence and present the opposing candidate in the worst possible light.

I mean that literally.  You might hear a voiceover saying something like this: “Millions lack health care, but fat cat Joe Blow just doesn’t care!”  Meanwhile, the opponent is presented in a black and white still photograph, or worse, moving in slow motion.  That’s a neat trick.  You can make anyone look bad by showing them in slow motion, especially if they’re about to sneeze.  (I don’t know if anyone’s actually done that, but it would make the person look stupid.)

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Gesundheit!

And then when we switch to the candidate the ad is promoting, muted colors burst with the power of the rainbow, people are smiling, children are laughing, joyful music is heard—the kingdom has come!

Unfortunately, “the pointing of the finger” isn’t restricted to the political realm.  It is alive and well in the church.

“Fasting is an opportunity to lay down an appetite,” Calhoun says, “an appetite for food, for media, for shopping…  Fasting exposes how we try to keep empty hunger at bay and gain a sense of well-being by devouring creature comforts.”  Speaking of creature comforts, when the power goes out, I want it restored as soon as possible!

“Through self-denial we begin to recognize what controls us.  Our small denials of the self show us just how little taste we actually have for sacrifice or time with God.”[2]

I said earlier that I think many of us have a fear of fasting.  When we include these other appetites, it’s probably safe to say that we have a terror of fasting.  Americans in particular are afflicted with this terror.  Our entire civilization seems designed to keep us distracted.

Calhoun continues, “Skip the radio or TV for a day and become aware of how fidgety you are when you aren’t being amused or diverted.”[3]  I would say it’s become more of a challenge to avoid the internet or to stop fiddling with cell phones.

She asks a couple of questions.  “When you feel empty or restless, what do you do to try to fill the emptiness?  What does this tell you about your heart?”[4]

That’s some powerful stuff.  We all feel empty and restless, some more so than others.  What do we do about it?

When we fast from our appetites (and everyone has their own), we say to them, “I don’t need you!  I don’t have to be your slave!”  We begin to set ourselves free from our own chains, and we’re better able to show others how to be free from their chains.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, though this sermon really hasn’t been about that.  (Unless we consider Christ to be the ruler of our appetites!)

Do we really need to hear about fasting, just in time for Advent?  As I said earlier, the season of Advent has been a time of penitent reflection, of waiting for the Lord.  But you know the old saying, “No good things come to those who wait.”  (Hold on, do I have that right?)

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What are some things we need to fast from?  Can we fast from doing and allow ourselves to be?  Can we fast from busyness and allow ourselves to be silent, allow ourselves to listen?  How would that affect our relationships with each other and with God?

What does the prophet say?  “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” (v. 10).  Let’s have a proper fast, and let’s let the light shine.

 

[1] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook:  Practices That Transform Us (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2005), 218.

[2] Calhoun, 220.

[3] Calhoun, 220.

[4] Calhoun, 221.