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love conquers, fear abandons

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 1 jn[photo by Luis Machado on Unsplash]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash]

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Rhodes, 25.

[5] Rhodes, 33.

[6] Bultmann, 592.

[7] Bultmann, 592.


freed minds

One of my favorite science fiction movies came out in 1999: The Matrix.  For those who don’t know, The Matrix stars Keanu Reeves.  His character’s name is Thomas Anderson, who by day has a job as a computer programmer.  At night, he is a computer hacker who calls himself Neo.  The movie also stars Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, a legendary hacker who the government has branded a terrorist.

Morpheus contacts Neo, and a meeting is set up.[1]  During a captivating conversation, Morpheus tells him, “What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it.  You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world.  You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”  The entire world, everything, is an elaborate computer program, the matrix.

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(On a side note, there are some physicists who speculate that our whole universe might be something like a computer program, possibly being run by others.)

Neo undergoes a procedure, and he wakes up to the real world, a desolate wasteland.  To make a long story short, Morpheus teaches Neo how to fight within the program.  He does this because he believes that Neo can liberate everyone from the matrix; he believes he is a kind of messiah.

As they’re sparring, Morpheus shouts at Neo, “What are you waiting for?  You’re faster than this.  Don’t think you are, know you are.  Come on.  Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”  They go back to fighting, and Neo stops his fist just before he hits Morpheus in the face.  “I know what you’re trying to do,” says Neo.  Morpheus responds, “I’m trying to free your mind, Neo.  But I can only show you the door.  You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

Free your mind.  Free your spirit.  I believe that’s a message the apostle Paul is giving the Galatians.  Or maybe the better way of putting it is, “God has freed your mind.  Accept that freedom.  Don’t go back to being a slave.”

Our scripture reading is part of a longer passage that goes back to chapter 3.  There, Paul speaks of the law of Moses as a kind of mentor, a supervisor.  But he also talks about Abraham, who lived hundreds of years before the law was handed down by Moses.  His faith, the faith of Abraham, was based on God’s promise that he would father a nation.  His faith wasn’t based on the law.

2 ga The law and the promise do not contradict each other, but with faith, in particular the faith of Christ, the law is transcended.  Old categories become meaningless.  As the apostle says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:28-29).

So with chapter 4, he carries that thought of the law being a supervisor or a disciplinarian by saying that with faith, we grow up.  We become adults.  Paul compares inheritors, while they’re still children, as basically equal to slaves.  They are still under tight restrictions.

There’s something dramatic that happens, something befitting the Christmas season.  Paul says that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (v. 4).  One might say that’s a verse pregnant with meaning!

Like any other squalling baby, Jesus emerges from the womb of a woman.  And he is born into a family that faithfully observes the Jewish law.

This happens in “the fullness of time.”  That’s when the time, the hour, had finally arrived; it was just the right time.  What does that mean?  In part, we can think of the Jewish faith and culture, with the steadily growing hope and expectation that the Messiah is about to arrive.  That helps explain the bitter disappointment when their would-be Messiah is killed, and the nation is still being ruled by foreigners.

Still, there is something known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, with its many beneficial qualities.

For example, it enabled the Roman Empire to build a network of roads.  The Roman peace made travel on those highways much safer.  It’s easier to run an empire if you can put down those pesky local rebellions, as well as offering security against criminal elements.  Another benefit was the flourishing of architecture and the arts.

3 gaThe ease of travel made possible the spread of the Greek language, which served as a common tongue throughout the Mediterranean.  The translation of the scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) into Greek helped spread the faith of the Jews, the faith in which Jesus was raised, into many different countries.

The work of human beings, the arc of history, usually serves a greater purpose than what we might imagine.  Behind it and through it emerges the fullness of time.

In this fullness of time, the Son has arrived to redeem us, to buy us back, to set us free.  We are now adopted as children of God.  There is no greater freedom.  As with Abraham and Sarah—as with the Galatian church—we have been set free because of the promise of God, not because we’ve been able to obey the law.

But there’s a problem with all of this.  Paul sees it in the Galatians, and honestly, it’s also a problem with us.  There’s something in us that wants to reject freedom.  There’s something in us that doesn’t want our minds to be free—that doesn’t want our spirits to be free.

Let me give you another example from The Matrix.  One of the characters is named Cypher.  He’s tired of life in the real world, with the running and hiding from the machines that maintain the matrix.  He’s tired of its blandness; he longs for the life he used to have—like what we too often have—even though it’s an illusion.

There’s a scene in which he’s sitting in a restaurant with one of the agents: computer programs in human form who are guardians within the matrix.  Cypher is eating a juicy steak.  He admits that the steak isn’t real, but he likes it.  He wants to have his memory wiped and be put back into the matrix.  Cypher wants to reject his freedom and go back to when he was enslaved—provided he doesn’t know he’s a slave.

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How appropriate for a guy whose name means “zero”!

So remember, the problem with the Galatians is that there are those among them who still insist they must observe the law, to unwittingly return to slavery.  It applies to both Jewish and Gentile Christians.  They want to go back to what they’ve known.  There is a comfort in hanging on to what gives you the feeling of control.  I certainly understand it!  Freedom can be a scary thing.

The apostle Paul sees even more at stake.  By rejecting their freedom in Christ, they actually are choosing idolatry.  He tells them, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (v. 8).  He’s having trouble understanding what they’re up to.

He continues, “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits?” (v. 9).  The word for “elemental spirits” is στοιχεια (stoicheia), which has several definitions.  In this case, he’s probably speaking of the rules imposed by those old gods.  Paul is truly exasperated.  He says, “I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted” (v. 11).  He wonders if he’s just been frittering away his time.

Last month, while speaking of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, I noted he congratulates them on how they encourage one other.  How about the Galatians?  They must have an especially praiseworthy attribute.  If they do, the apostle doesn’t mention it.  He has already said, “You foolish Galatians!” (3:1).  Some translations are even harsher.  “You stupid Galatians!  You must have been bewitched.” (Revised English Bible).  Has somebody put you under a spell?  Are you taking crazy pills?

And remember what they want to be enslaved to: “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits,” “those powerless and bankrupt elements.” (New Jerusalem Bible)  They’re playing the role of Cypher from The Matrix!

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I wonder, how often do we reject our scary freedom?  How often do we choose those powerless and bankrupt elements?  What are these pitiful, worthless things which we place on the altars of our hearts?  How can those who “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God,” choose slavery to what is nothing?

We so often imitate the Israelites who, having fled the chains of Egypt, berate Moses and long to return (Nu 14:4).

Richard Rohr comments on this business of serving what is nothing.[2]  “Less than a block from where I used to live in downtown Albuquerque, there is a sidewalk where the homeless often sit against the wall to catch the winter sun.  Once I saw fresh graffiti chalked clearly on the pavement in front of the homeless.  It said, ‘I watch how foolishly man guards his nothing—thereby keeping us out.  Truly God is hated here.’”

So again I wonder, what are the nothings to which we so desperately cling?  How do we forget our status as adopted children of God and turn back to slavery?

Soon after being chosen as pope, Francis addressed the Vatican Curia, their governing body.  He listed fifteen diseases that he had noticed among them.[3]  (In doing so, Francis showed himself to be a frank pope.)

One disease is “Spiritual Alzheimer’s”: “a progressive decline of spiritual faculties…, living in a state of absolute dependence on one’s own often imaginary views.  We see this in those who have lost their recollection of their encounter with the Lord…in those who build walls around themselves and who increasingly transform into slaves to the idols they have sculpted with their own hands.”  Francis sees in the Vatican leadership this same forgetfulness of God and turning to slavery that we just looked at.

If we reject the loving freedom of God and turn back to idols, we will inevitably do harm to each other.

Those in Christ have been set free.  To explore that freedom, there are always new doors to open.  But like freedom, opening those doors can be scary.  We might want to stay where we are, circle the wagons, and hold on to what we already know, or perhaps, what we think we know.  We might want to stay behind the walls we’ve built, and not walk through the door into new territory.

We are on the verge of a new year—2021.

Recently during our prayer time, I shared some reflections of gratitude sent by readers of the New York Times.  They were asked to submit a statement of six words, expressing what they were thankful for from this past year.  Over ten thousand replies were received.  Many caught my eye, but here are three I mentioned: “There’s really more kindness than hate.”  “Thankful for sweet potato pie, y’all.”  “I am thankful to be thankful.”

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{a scene from Antwone Fisher of gratitude and welcome (the video's aspect ratio might be off)}

A freed mind, a liberated mind, is a grateful mind—it is a grateful spirit.  Having said that, I must also confess there is absolutely no doubt that this past year has brought way more than its share of heartbreak and sorrow.  People all over the globe can attest to that.  We here can attest to that.  Still, as the prophet says, “The people [we who have been] walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Is 9:2).

That is the subtle strength, the peaceful power, of Christmas.  This season is teaching us lessons.  Christ lives within us.  In what fullness of time do we now find ourselves?  May it be a time in which we welcome each other—and the Christ within us—as we together walk into that new freedom.

 

[1] www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[2] https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Daily-Meditations--How-Foolishly-We-Guard-Our--Nothing-----Ecumenism----July-8--2013.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=zXdIB1uvLD4

[3] www.washingtonpost.com/news/world/wp/2014/12/22/the-15-ailments-of-the-vatican-curia-according-to-pope-francis/


death shall have no dominion

“And death shall have no dominion. / Dead men naked they shall be one / With the man in the wind and the west moon; / When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, / They shall have stars at elbow and foot; / Though they go mad they shall be sane, / Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; / Though lovers be lost love shall not; / And death shall have no dominion.”

1 roThat is the first stanza of Dylan Thomas’ poem “And Death Shall Have no Dominion.”  As you might have guessed, it was inspired by Romans 6:9: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”

Thomas speaks of bones being picked clean, sinking through the sea and rising again, lovers lost but not love itself.  After everything is said and done, death shall have no dominion.

(That poem has appeared in many places, such as in Steven Soderberg’s remake of the movie Solaris.  In one scene, we hear George Clooney reciting that same first stanza.  It was also featured in the show, Beauty and the Beast, starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Pearlman.)

We will revisit death’s having no dominion in a few minutes.

Chapter 6 begins, “What then are we to say?”  St. Paul’s asking a question about something, so let’s check out chapter 5.  Very, very briefly, he’s been talking about Adam and Christ.  Through Adam, sin entered the world.  Through Christ, grace has been extended.  And this isn’t a tiny drop of grace.  We read in 5:20, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”  There is a superabundance of grace.  We are awash in grace.

So how do we answer Paul’s question?  “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (v. 1).  Hey, that sounds like a plan!  Let’s pour on the sin, knowing a tsunami of grace is on the way.  If a little bit do good, a whole lot do better!  I imagine Paul would think about it for a moment, and say, “No way, José.”

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"Look, there's a tsunami!"  "That's nice. Who has the suntan lotion?"

Instead, the apostle asks, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (vv. 2-3).

Baptized into his death.  That is a serious way of looking at it.  And it’s also a quite visual way of “looking” at it.  That’s especially true for those of us who were baptized by immersion—going into the grave and being raised back to life.  Accordingly, I have a story of my own baptism.

On the evening of the 3rd of August in 1985, I had what I might call a mystical experience.  I was in college at the time.  I had been meditating on Isaiah 55:8-9.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I began to feel like I was being plunged into an ocean of love.  I was being baptized in love.  It was, as you might gather, a very powerful experience!

At the time, I did not go to church.  My mother, however, had begun attending an Assemblies of God church.  I told her I had this encounter with the Lord, and she said I needed to be baptized.  I really didn’t see the point in it.  What would it serve?  Didn’t God accept me as I am?  Her basic response was it was necessary to make that public profession of faith.

I eventually started attending church, though on a very sporadic basis.  Still, as the months went by, I began to sense baptism was for me.

So on a Sunday evening, the 3rd of August 1986, one year to the night I had my revelation of love, I stepped into the baptismal of the church, with its heated water.  There were two others who went before me: a boy about ten years old and an elderly woman, who upon being raised out of the water by our pastor, began speaking in tongues.

Then it was my turn.  Later on, after the service was over, I told my mother it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from me.  I could breathe.

[Someone is holding the shirt he wore during his baptism.]

3 roSo as I suggested a moment ago, I can relate to this business of dying with Christ and being raised back to life.  “We too might walk in newness of life” (v. 4).

“Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again.”

Paul says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6).

(By the way, if we read that bit about “our old self” being crucified with him in the King James language of “our old man,” the unfortunate question might be put to us, “Has your old man been crucified?”  We might wonder if they’re talking about a husband or a father.)

In any event, according to the apostle, we are no longer enslaved to sin.  We are not under its power.  We need not submit to its power.  But if we are really honest, sometimes we like that power!  When we’re presented with blessing and cursing, life and death, too often we go with the latter.  After all, in the hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” we sing the prayer, “Take away the love of sinning.”

I’m not sure when it happens, but at some point early in life, we discover manipulating people can be fun!

Something of which Paul assures us is “whoever has died is freed from sin” (v. 7).  That’s a good thing when what we’re considering is this matter of being crucified with Christ.  Of course, whoever dies is freed from a whole lot of stuff!

Paul continues, “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again” (vv. 8-9).  And he finishes that thought in grand fashion: “death no longer has dominion over him.”

“And death shall have no dominion.”  If we have died to sin, what could that mean?

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Israel Kamudzandu, who teaches at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, comments, “Christians must always remind themselves that our old self, our culture, our rights, our private spaces, and the desires of our flesh were crucified with Jesus Christ. Our daily living must demonstrate our newfound and grace-filled status in Christ.”[1]

Being from Zimbabwe, he puts it on a global scale.  “Sin is like a foreign domination in that it dehumanizes and reduces one to a victim position and some people die as victims because no one is there to rescue them…”

I guess the sentiment expressed by death having no dominion is especially meaningful for us in our strange new world.  It is especially poignant.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke of how we’ve been given a reset button.  What do we do with it?  Are there new lessons to be learned?  Are there old lessons that need to be re-learned?  The coronavirus has given us a sort of pause, so maybe we can use it to reflect on all that life is.  Quite immediately for us, it is our own life.  How do we embrace life and reject death?

In times like these, time is something that can take on a sense of sameness, of uniformity, maybe even of monotony.  Schedules can go out the window.  For the past few weeks, I have felt like Friday was Saturday.  I’m not really sure why.  One thing I can say is that when I realize it is indeed Friday, I’m relieved I didn’t lose a day!

We can embrace life by keeping our minds active, keeping them challenged.  Take this time to learn a new language; develop your artistic side; read good books; do some writing; do more writing.  (I think I’m preaching to myself on that one.)

Is it too far-fetched to say, by not stretching ourselves, we’re embracing death?  Paul says to us, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11).  We are called to claim our identity.  As those who have been buried with Christ and raised to new life, we are called to be ourselves.  I find that difficult, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Why is it so hard to be ourselves?

“And death shall have no dominion.”  Following from that, what does have dominion is shalom (שׁלוֺם).  The Hebrew term shalom means far more than what our paltry English word “peace” entails.  It is absolute well-being, perfect harmony, Heaven on Earth!  Shalom reaches to God, embraces the neighbor, permeates our politics, cares for creation.  We find shalom within ourselves.  If we take the pause I mentioned a moment ago, if we’re willing to listen, we hear that silent voice coming from within.

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We are called to lay aside the foolish facade the world imposes on us.  We learn to stop the incessant posturing, the soul-draining competition that leads to death.  We kill our spirits struggling to prove that we’re good enough, that we’re worthy, that we deserve love.  The one who has defeated death says, “I don’t care about that stuff!  I offer grace abundant, grace superabundant.”

The power of sin, the power of death, would plunge us into the water and hold us down.  We wouldn’t be able to resurface; we wouldn’t be able to see clearly.  We wouldn’t be able to see, even in those we are told to fear and loathe, the face of Jesus Christ.  We wouldn’t be able to see that his grace abounds.

Death shall have no dominion.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2052


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.


secret life

I watched for the third time The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), loosely based on James Thurber’s story.  It is a truly wonderful movie.  There’s so much in it to like, but I’ll focus on Ben Stiller’s and Kristen Wiig’s jobs at Life magazine as it’s about to meet its end.

1 mitty I had an intensely emotional encounter with an iconic photo in Life.  While in college on a visit back home in the 80s, I was digging through a box of my parents’ issues of the magazine.  I came across one from 1972 which featured the horrific image of Kim Phuc, the shrieking young Vietnamese girl running with napalm burning her skin.

The agony of the little girl gripped my heart, and I was moved to bitter tears.  I was reminded again of the insane uselessness of the war.  I wasn’t ready for the waves of sadness I felt.  Understand, I don’t blame the soldiers who were sucked into a war the politicians masterminded.  It was a bloody waste of lives for everyone—not to mention the environmental destruction that was left in its wake.

But back to the movie!  It’s a high moment (in my humble opinion) in the careers of Stiller and Wiig, even if the film is overlooked by the “experts.”  The movie has such an understated sense of humor.

2 mitty

There are moments of awesome beauty.  Stiller tracks down Sean Penn as Sean O’Connell, an almost-legendary photographer.  He wants to know what happened to a particular negative of a shot he took.  He winds up in the Himalayas, where Penn is stalking a snow leopard.  The two wait in silence as the cat reveals itself.  He doesn’t take the picture.  He says to Stiller, “Sometimes I don’t.  If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera.  I just want to stay in it.”  He says, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

Maybe that would be a good tag line for the movie!

Oh, and how can you not like Patton Oswalt as the eHarmony guy?


the divine dance

The forms of water: ice, liquid, vapor.  A self-description (for me, anyway): son, brother, husband.  And does anyone know about 3-in-1 oil?

These are some of the ways the Holy Trinity has been described.  To be honest, they aren’t really helpful, and in my humble opinion, they’re actually quite boring.  They don’t present the Trinity in a way that is living, vital, and exciting.  As our call to worship puts it, “The Trinity is not a definition of God but a cry of faith from the heart of the Christian experience.”

1 pr 8Please don’t misunderstand me.  I believe theology is vitally important.  For example, you might have your suspicions if I were to say the barking of my dog is a prophetic message from God.  I would dare say that’s not very good theology.  If dogs do indeed hear from God, they would likely be giving each other the message.

Too often, when Trinity Sunday rolls around, we have descriptions that sound like they’ve come from a dry, dusty, tedious textbook.  Here’s an example: the Trinity can be explained as holding that, while God is one, God is also three Persons (or hypostases, to use the Greek).  The Persons are distinct, yet one in essence or nature.

There is also the question regarding the Holy Spirit.  Does the Spirit proceed from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son?  Both options appear in the Nicene Creed.  There have been debates about that down through the centuries.

“God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!”  (It does sound good when we sing it.)

Trinity Sunday need not be a time of arcane philosophical argument.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  Trinity Sunday is a time for celebration!

We see a bit of celebration in the Old Testament reading in Proverbs 8.  The book of Proverbs is concerned with wisdom.  There are many chapters containing aphorisms, words of wisdom: that is, proverbs!  The first nine chapters consist of speeches which celebrate wisdom.

Wisdom is not portrayed as just some worthy ideal; wisdom is personified.  Wisdom is personified as female.[1]  She’s commonly referred to as Lady Wisdom.  Here are a couple quick examples.  In chapter 1, we see that “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice” (v. 20).  In chapter 3, we hear this parental advice: “My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments…  Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.  She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her” (vv.1, 13-15).

(I imagine the women present might say, “Well, I could have told you that.”)

And so we come to chapter 8, where Lady Wisdom speaks for herself.  Here’s how she’s introduced: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?  On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: ‘To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live’” (vv. 1-4).

She’s overlooking the city and roaming through it, extending her invitation.  This invitation is not just to individuals, but by traveling through the public square, she is addressing society at large.  Conduct your affairs and carry out political policy that is indeed wise and compassionate.

2 pr 8

It’s at this point I need to stop and deliver some bad news.  It’s not only Lady Wisdom proclaiming her message; she has a counterpart.  She also is a woman, but she’s like her evil twin.  Let me share some quotes from chapter 9 to illustrate.

“Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars…  She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, ‘You that are simple, turn in here!’  To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.  Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight’” (vv. 1, 3-6).  So speaks Lady Wisdom.

However, here is the one known as Dame (or Madam) Folly.  Can we see any parallels?  “She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the high places of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, ‘You who are simple, turn in here!’  And to those without sense she says, ‘Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’  But they do not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol” [that is, the grave] (vv. 14-18).

They both have prominent positions, and they both call out to the simple.  Their advice has a marked difference.  Lady Wisdom inspires; Dame Folly seduces.  As we see, wisdom—prudence—is life.  Folly (imprudence)—foolishness—is death.  It can be quite easy to confuse the two.  I’ve pointed this out because we will hear from these two later on.

The second half of the chapter deals with Lady Wisdom’s role in creation.  Is it possible to see a similarity to the mother who gives birth?

She says, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (vv. 22-23).  Lady Wisdom talks about the various elements in creation.  I won’t go through all of them.

Of special interest are verses 30 and 31.  Wisdom, like the Holy Trinity, is not something dry and tedious.  Wisdom is an absolute delight!  Remember: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

3 pr 8When we lived in Nebraska, Banu and I got our first dog from parishioners who raised Shetland Sheepdogs.  His name was Duncan.  Banu had spoken of her love for ballroom dancing.  One time when I was playing with Duncan, inspiration struck.  It was time to dance!  I stood him up on his hind legs and started walking him back and forth.  I praised his choreographic ability, singing, “You dance divinely.”  It turns out he was not interested in dancing, but he was interested in breaking free.  (Maybe he simply wasn’t interested in dancing with me!)

In later years, I invited our next dog, Aidan, to the delightful exercise.  He also was uninterested.  Our current dog, Ronan (the one whose barking I doubted is a message from God), is bigger and stronger than our Shelties were.  I haven’t had much luck in dancing with him either.

Why bring up this business of dancing?

At the time of creation, Lady Wisdom says, “I was beside [God], like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always” (v. 30).  There is a pure joy in creation.  It is woven into its very fabric.  Most of us only have glimpses of it now and then.

There’s a lovely word that draws our attention.  It’s the one translated as “master worker” or “architect.”[2]  It has also been translated as “little child.”  We’re back to “all work and no play.”  (Maybe we can borrow a tune from Snow White, “Whistle While You Work.”)  Maybe that fits better with her being the Lord’s delight, with rejoicing before him.  Maybe rejoicing in creation, delighting in the human race, means the unguarded, cheerful play of children.  There is the euphoria of the divine dance!

At this point, you might wonder, “What does this have to do with the Holy Trinity?”  Please bear with me; I’m going to mention one more fancy word, and it’s from the Greek: perichoresis.  It comes from two words that, as Danielle Shroyer puts it, “means to make space around…[referring] to the way in which someone or something makes space around itself for others.”[3]

Applying that to God, perichoresis describes “the divine dance of the three Persons of the Trinity.  Father, Son and Holy Spirit make room for each other, move in and through one another, dance with one another.”

They make room for each other.  They don’t presume.  They don’t insist on being noticed.  They aren’t concerned with self-promotion.  They don’t get offended.  They celebrate the gift that is each other.  All of this takes place in a never-ending circle of joy.

Look at how the chapter ends.  Here’s where we get back to Lady Wisdom and her evil twin!  Lady Wisdom says, “whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord; but those who miss me [and choose Dame Folly] injure themselves; all who hate me love death” (vv. 35-36).  Death comes in many different ways.

4 pr 8
[A bride-to-be who doesn't care about photographic appearance.]

It can come in the death of relationships.  Remember the very spirit of the Trinity.  We have the perfect model, the very definition, of giving of self.  We have the perfect picture of self-effacement.  We have the perfect example of not caring how one’s photograph looks!  I’ve commented to Banu that no one posts photos of themselves on Facebook which portray them in an unflattering way.  (At least, I haven’t seen one yet.)

Last Monday at the PERC, there was a workshop on poverty.  At one point, the presenter asked the pastors in attendance, “What would you like your church to do?”  One person gave an answer regarding the call of the gospel to address societal injustice.  I’m not unsympathetic with that.  It’s hard to read the gospels and miss Jesus’ burning concern for peace and justice.  He is unrelenting, and that goes to the very heart of the good news.

In retrospect, that answer reminds me of something I said earlier about Trinity Sunday.  It felt more like a definition than a cry of faith from the heart of the Christian experience.  “What would you like your church to do?” was the question.  What immediately came to mind was, “Come alive with the fire of the Spirit.”

I think I owe all of you an apology.  I thought about it, but I didn’t say it.  I wonder what would have happened if I had tossed that into the discussion.  I’ve done stuff like that in the past, that is, bringing the Spirit into the mix, and it didn’t seem like anything came of it.  Still, as Jesus says in John 3, “The wind [the spirit] blows where it chooses” (v. 8).  It’s not up to me!

5 pr 8

Regardless of my foolishness, if and when we come alive with the fire of the Spirit, we will be heeding Lady Wisdom when she says, “Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors” (v. 34).

We are given the invitation by Lady Wisdom and our Lord.  Enter into the divine dance.

 

[1] חָכְמָה (chokmah), grammatically female

[2] אָמוֹן (’amon)

[3] danielleshroyer.com/the-word-perichoresis


more than yes

I’ve sometimes said something that even I think is strange.  It has to do with being sick.  It’s happened when I’ve heard people talk about weight loss as a result of an illness.  Understand, I’m not referring to serious, life-threatening weight loss; I’m not talking about wasting away.  It’s just a question of taking off some pounds.  I’ve remarked (jokingly) a good way to trim the fat is to get sick.  Although, I add, it’s not the preferred method!

Another quirky comment deals with an almost abnormal (okay, let’s call it abnormal) satisfaction.  It’s possible in a weird way to enjoy being sick, or at least, not to hate it too much.  Again, I’m not talking about anything severe or really painful.  It’s simply that when one is under the weather, it’s possible to appreciate the days off.  And depending on how big a baby one is, it’s nice if you have someone to wait on you.  (Not that I would know anything about that!)

1 jn 5Of course, there can be many problems with that, aside from being unnecessarily needy on said person!  One big problem would be getting used to being sick or injured.  A problem would be allowing it to define us.  You know, being the survivor of brain cancer who takes anti-seizure medication, whose condition is exacerbated by lack of sleep.  (Again, not that I would know anything about that!)

[Speaking of brain cancer survivors, there’s a woman named Joan Reilly who has her own quirky story.  She had the same kind of cancer as mine, oligodendroglioma.  Part of her story is told in her dry-wit cartoon, “What My Brain Tumor Taught Me about Anxiety.”[1]]

Considering the questionable appreciation of—or reliance on—sickness, there’s a fellow some might say is the embodiment of it.  But first, we need to set the stage.

The gospel reading in John 5 begins by saying, “After this.”  We’re starting right after Jesus has healed the son of a royal official, a son who was at death’s door.  Now we see Jesus entering Jerusalem, during “a festival of the Jews” (v. 1).  It’s not clear which festival is intended.

I want to digress for a moment on something that has led to oppression and death: which is the use of the word “Jews” in the gospel of John.  Without going into great detail, the context of John’s gospel is very important.  “Jews” can refer to the Jewish officials, and/or possibly to the Jewish people who were at that time persecuting the church.

A grievous misunderstanding of the word’s use has had a horrific effect down through the centuries.  Christians have inflicted all manner of cruelty against Jews.  It’s even led to the hateful nickname, “Christ killers.”  Friends, that is not the way to read the gospel according to St. John!

Moving on, we come to a pool known for its healing qualities called Beth-zatha, or Bethesda.  (Of course, we know Bethesda, Maryland as the home of the Walter Reed Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health.)  This pool attracts people with all manner of illnesses.  One wonders if there aren’t those with an entrepreneurial spirit traveling though the villages selling containers filled with the therapeutic elixir of Bethesda!

2 jn 5What is the source of the water’s power?  Legend has it that an angel now and then goes and stirs up the water, and the first one in gets healed.  Anyway, that’s what part of verse 3 and all of verse 4 say.  But there’s almost universal consensus those words were added on later.

Okay, the stage is set.  The first actor, Jesus, is already present.  The other actor, a poor soul who we’re told has been sick for thirty-eight years, is found lying on the ground among some other unfortunate ones.  Thirty-eight years is a massive chunk of someone’s life.  When you figure in life expectancy in those days, it’s likely this fellow has known nothing but sickness.

When Jesus sees the man, he asks him a question that, on the face of it, seems to have an obvious answer.  It’s almost like asking, “Is the sky blue?”  He makes the inquiry, “Do you want to be made well?”  Do you no longer want to be sick?  Are you tired of lying around here?

We might expect the sick man to respond, “Yes, yes, yes!”  What does he say?  He begins, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.”  And because of that, “while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me” (v. 7).  It’s not the straight answer we might imagine.  And as you might also imagine, there have been quite a few takes on his reply.

A common viewpoint goes back to what I said earlier about a reliance (and even appreciation, if possible?) on being sick.

Raymond Brown is somewhat less than charitable in his assessment.  He notes about the man, “His crotchety grumbling about the ‘whippersnappers’ who outrace him to the water betrays a chronic inability to seize opportunity, a trait reflected again in his oblique response to Jesus’ offer of a cure.”[2]  He says our poor fellow demonstrates a quality of “real dullness.”

Without hurling insults at the sick man, can we get a sense of him saying something like, “Can I think about it and get back to you?  I’m not sure I’m ready to make that commitment yet.”

I think I can understand his reluctance.  He’s lived with this illness for a very long time.  As I suggested earlier, is it possible he’s let it define him?

In this congregation, we are blessed to have several people who, in one way or another, have experience in the medical field.  Maybe I’m the only one who’s ever heard this, but I have heard comments (not very positive ones!) about people being referred to as “the appendectomy in room 203,” or “the head trauma in 315.”  Again, I don’t know if anyone here has encountered that.  I’m sure it’s a necessary shorthand, so to speak.  It would be a bit of a mouthful to say, “James Moore, the fellow in 203 who had an appendectomy.”  But maybe we can see just a tiny example of being identified with one’s ailment.

So maybe our friend at Bethesda has in some way become comfortable with his condition.  Now he has the opportunity to leave his comfort zone.

3 jn 5

I wonder, how often has Jesus asked me to leave my comfort zone?  How many times have I said, “Can I think about it and get back to you?  I’m not sure I’m ready to make that commitment yet.”  How many times have all of us decided against leaving our comfort zone?  I suppose there’s a good reason for it to be called our “comfort zone”!

Leaving our comfort zone forces us to move forward and be responsible in a way like never before.

In his article, “Courage to be Whole,” Kyle Childress includes the quote, “if it is hell to be guilty, it’s certainly scarier to be responsible—response-able—able to respond to God’s call, able to respond to the word and love of Jesus.”[3]  I’ve found it’s easy to talk about something, but not as easy to actually do it.

He adds, “We know that to get up and follow Jesus will involve us in people’s lives in ways we’re not sure we want, because to be whole means to be re-membered, re-connected with God and with God’s people and God’s creation.  No more isolation.  No more living my own private life where no one bothers me.  To be whole means to get off of the couch and get involved.”

So far, we’ve looked at the fellow as reluctant to receive healing.  Still, as I said, there’s more than one way to consider his answer to Jesus.  Remember, he says, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool.”  I have no one.  Is that his plaintive cry?

Brian Stoffregen speaks of an alternate idea of healing.  It has to do with cultural and social connection.  “The man in our text has no one to put him in the water when it is stirring.  He has no friends.  He has no family.  There is no one to help him.”[4]  It looks like he’s been shunted aside, basically forgotten.  For him, healing would not only be physical, but it would help restore those social connections without which one might exist, but not really live.

It’s somewhat analogous to people who live on the street.  When we lived in Philadelphia, it was a not uncommon event to encounter them.  Even here in Auburn, there are more homeless people than we might imagine.

After all that, what does Jesus do?  He says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (v. 8).  And that’s what the sick man does.  Jesus simply tells the man what to do.

It’s been about twenty years since the movie, The Matrix, came out.  For those who’ve never seen the movie, very quickly it’s about a computer hacker named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) who learns about the nature of his reality, which is that he’s living in an illusion generated by sentient and malicious computer programs.  A group of people led by Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) help him break free of the illusion and see the world as it really is.

4 jn 5

They teach him to live in the real world, part of which involves training in various fighting techniques.  They do this in a simulation.  Neo is not making any progress.  An exasperated Morpheus scolds him, “What are you waiting for?  You’re faster than this.  Don’t think you are, know you are.  Come on.  Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”

I mention this because sometimes we get trapped in our thinking.  (Actually, it’s much more than “sometimes.”)  I wonder if something like that is going on with Jesus and the sick man.  What are you waiting for?  Jesus wants to cut through the man’s explanations—and even his misfortunes—and just tell him, and show him, what to do.  Jesus lets him know he needs more than yes.  Just do it.  (And again, am I saying something without actually doing it?)

At the end of verse 9, a new paragraph begins with the words, “Now that day was a sabbath.”  We’re moving on to the story at large, which is Jesus’ violation of the sabbath rules.  That is, the rules the religious leaders follow and teach the people.  The point isn’t his healing of the man but his command to take his mat and carry it.  Carrying his mat on the sabbath constitutes working on the sabbath.  It is forbidden!

Verse 10 says, “the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’”  (Remember what I said earlier about the use of the word “Jews.”)

With their use of the understanding of sabbath they would hinder the man.  They would hinder him from experiencing God, from experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit.  Elsewhere, Jesus says, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27).  The sabbath was made for us; we were not made for the sabbath.

I wonder: what rules, what guidelines do we have—what do we impose—that hinders others (and ourselves) from fully experiencing God?  What walls do we build in the attempt to prevent the saving and empowering grace of Jesus Christ from reaching certain others?  How often do we mimic the prophet Jonah’s attitude toward the people of Nineveh, saying, “I don’t want them forgiven!”

We are nearing the end of the Easter season.  Is there anything in us that has died and needs resurrection?  Or at least, is there anything in us that needs healing?  I think I’m safe in saying yes to both of those.  But we are not alone.  We have a Lord who directs us—who carries us, if need be—into those stirring, healing waters.

5 jn 5

And guess what?  That healing doesn’t come to us all by our lonesome.  It comes in the connection that is community.  It comes in the connection that is this congregation.  It comes in the connection that sends us beyond these walls.  It comes in the connection that bids us to “go forth in peace,” to be the peace and to share the peace.  It bids us “to love and serve the Lord,” to love our neighbor more than any rules that would hinder.  We serve the Lord, who reminds us there’s plenty of water in the healing, life-giving pool.

 

[1] medium.com/spiralbound/what-my-brain-tumor-taught-me-about-anxiety-513113356d68

[2] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, I-XII (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 209.

[3] www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2010/05/courage-to-be-whole

[4] www.crossmarks.com/brian/john5x1.htm


in the dark and light of that day

One of Banu’s observations (and complaints) about movies that take place in the future, especially those of an alleged post-apocalyptic nature, is that they tend to be too dark.  They’re too dark—not only in theme, but sometimes literally too dark.  There’s not enough light to see what’s going on!

Hollywood would have fun with Zephaniah.  Talk about dark!  There’s enough gloom and graphic violence to make Alien and Predator look like Beauty and the Beast!  Of course, the Hollywood definition of “apocalypse” seems to always focus on terror and torment, as opposed to the actual biblical sense, which is “revealing” or “uncovering.”

1 zp

With the prophet Zephaniah, we have a man who, in many ways, might seem to fit the misunderstanding of apocalypse as death and destruction.  There is good reason for that to be the case: his almost single-minded focus on the day of Yahweh, the day of the Lord.  He doesn’t invent the idea—it goes back centuries, maybe as far back as the so-called holy wars of Joshua.

The day of the Lord came to be seen as the moment when God would intervene on behalf of Israel, defeating all their enemies.  As the centuries went on, and bigger boys like the Assyrians and Babylonians started throwing their weight around, this was a day more and more people yearned for.

A century before Zephaniah, in a case of “be careful what you wish for,” the prophet Amos warns those “who desire the day of the Lord!  Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light” (5:18).  Don’t be so smug, Amos says.  Don’t assume that day will only be bad news for your enemies.  As corrupt as you are, do you think you’ll escape unscathed?

Eventually, the day of the Lord became infused with messianic expectation.  That’s one big reason why so many became disillusioned with Jesus.  They thought he would lead them in getting rid of the biggest boys yet, the Romans.

Zephaniah says some things that, to our ears, probably sound quite strange.  For example, in verse 8, the prophet criticizes government officials “and all who dress themselves in foreign attire,” “clothed with foreign apparel.”  [I guess he wouldn’t be impressed by Versace.]

Zephaniah doesn’t intend that to be a fashion statement.  He isn’t imitating the “Best and Worst Dressed” at the Oscars!  Elizabeth Achtemeier points out that “as a vassal [a puppet state] of Assyria, the leaders of Judah have accommodated their ways to those of a foreign culture…  Assyria’s ways have become Judah’s ways, and Assyria’s customs hers.”[1]

Verse 9 has something that sounds equally bizarre.  There is a promise to “punish all who leap over the threshold.”  Again, Zephaniah isn’t interested in auditions for “Dancing with the Stars.”  It’s about superstition concerning evil spirits who dwell in doorways and must be avoided.

3 zp (I wonder if that particular idea didn’t survive down through the ages with the practice of carrying a bride over the threshold!)

Anyway, with these comments, the prophet isn’t criticizing foreign ways simply because they are foreign.  The problem is that—as it seems every generation must learn—serving God isn’t just about following certain procedures in worship.

Zephaniah reminds the people that their God is an ethical God.  That is, serving their God requires that they chose between right and wrong, that how they treat each other makes all the difference.  That’s why he gets on their case about all the “violence and fraud” (v. 9).

One of these days, says the prophet, it’s all going to catch up with you.  It’s later than you think!  Verse 14 says: “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast.”  In verses 15 to 18, he reels off a laundry list of gruesome things on the way.  Verse 17 is especially lovely.  For those who “have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like refuse” (NKJV).  That last word[2] is literally translated as “dung.”

Nobody can accuse him of trying to sugar coat his message!

Still, as with other prophets, Zephaniah isn’t all doom and gloom.  The bad news is followed by good news.  The discipline of the Lord means a lead to restoration.  We hear in chapter 2: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath” (v. 3).

2 zp

There’s a common misperception about what’s called the wrath of God.  It’s not some “arbitrary outburst, like the unpredictable anger of a parent who lashes out at his children.”  Far from it, says Dan Clendenin.  “Divine judgment is equitable and even merciful in that, like a loving parent, it demonstrates that God has not given up on me, that [God] is not done with me.”[3]

With the day of the Lord, Zephaniah and the other prophets are doing something revolutionary.  Klaus Koch says, “For the first time [ever], human beings dared to make hope the foundation of their…theology.  The prophets therefore brought a futuristic turn into the thinking of following centuries.”[4]  People started to believe that God’s actions are by necessity pointing toward the future.

“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

And that fits perfectly into the Easter season.  We have gone from Good Friday, the crucifixion (when all hope is lost) to the resurrection (when hope against hope is reborn).  We have gone from dark to light.  It comes in the most unusual of ways.

In Terry Hershey’s book, Sanctuary: Creating a Space for Grace in Your Life, he tells a story of going to Atlanta for a meeting of Spiritual Directors International.

Having some spare time, he goes to get a haircut.  He engages in small talk with Sharon, the hairdresser.  It progresses a little further, and he talks about his father, who survived cancer.  She tells him that, like his father, she also is a cancer survivor.

4 zpHershey says he told her “I’m sorry.”  He asked, “‘When did you learn about the cancer, and what kind of treatment did you go through?’  ‘I had the whole nine yards.’  She laughs.  ‘Surgery.  And then more surgery and then chemo.’  We are quiet, except for the sound of scissors.  ‘It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,’ she adds…[5]

“‘It has made me softer,’ she tells me.  ‘And now, I love different.’”[6]

He concludes, “After the conference someone asked me, ‘What did you do there?’  Well, I got a haircut.  And I felt my heart soften just a little.”[7]

I imagine some of you have had similar experiences.  I mentioned during the discussion of the book that, with my own experience of cancer, I (humorously) divided my life into BC and AD: “before cancer” and “after diagnosis.”  And I think I can agree with Sharon to some extent.  It’s probably not the best thing that’s ever happened to me, but it is right up there.  It opened to me a new world of understanding about people with physical, mental, and emotional ailments.

It is indeed a question of going from the dark into the light.  Perhaps it’s having hope shape the future.

We’re so used to the idea of hope—be it hope fulfilled or hope denied—that we don’t understand what a leap in the evolution of human thought it is.  With the day of the Lord, and the messianic dream it inspired, people began to believe that the world itself could be transformed into something new.  And not only the world, but people themselves could be transformed.

5 zp

Is it possible we’ve forgotten how to have that hope—or possibly to recognize it when it knocks on our door?  How much are we like those poor souls Zephaniah speaks of?  You know, the confident and self-satisfied ones, “those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm’” (v. 12).

In The Message, Eugene Peterson put his own spin on verse 12.  On the day of the Lord, there’s a promise to “punish those who are sitting it out, fat and lazy, amusing themselves and taking it easy, Who think, ‘God doesn’t do anything, good or bad.  He isn’t involved, so neither are we.’”

Is there anything that we, in fact, might be too confident about?  What might the day of the Lord be calling us to?

Perhaps we all have our “day of wrath”… our “day of clouds and thick darkness”… our “day of trumpet blast and battle cry” (vv. 15-16).  Still, the day of the Lord calls us to not abandon hope.  Hope is calling our name and leading us on.  Though we travel through darkness and gloom, the glory of the sun will yet break forth.  Zephaniah ends his book on, well, a lighter note!

“On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.  The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (3:16-17).

The darkness of that day gives way to light.

6 zp

[1] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1986), 68.

[2] גּּלֶל (gelel)

[3] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20081110JJ.shtml

[4] Klaus Koch, The Prophets: The Assyrian Period (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1982), 163.

[5] Terry Hershey, Sanctuary: Creating a Space for Grace in Your Life (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2015), Kindle edition, Chapter 2, section 3, paragraph 7.

[6] Hershey, 2.3.10

[7] Hershey, 2.3.18


building the earth

I want to begin by talking about mammals.  “The story of mammals is one of self-destruction.  They first arose roughly 200 million years ago, and after eons spent scurrying in the shadow of the dinosaurs, they finally cut loose and evolved into a breathtaking variety of shapes and sizes, including the largest creatures to ever exist.  And after all that, it took barely 100,000 years for one relatively young member of the group—us—to bring everything crashing down.”[1]

That’s how Ed Yong’s article in last month’s The Atlantic begins.  From the time of the early proto-humans, we have hunted, invaded habitat, and polluted the environment.  One key point in the article is how we have affected evolutionary history.  Taking into account the mammals we’ve eradicated, and those nearing extinction, it is estimated it would take 3 to 7 million years of evolution for their replacement.  Evolution is very slow; destruction is pretty quick!

1 ps

I jokingly made a comment about the article when I posted it on Facebook.  I said, “If human beings vanished from the face of the earth, it would a good thing for our fellow animals!”

Fortunately, there’s one group doing their best to make sure that doesn’t happen.

There are some folks in what’s known as the Quiverfull movement.  In a nutshell, they don’t believe in contraception.  Some are even opposed to the rhythm method.  On the contrary, they believe God wants us to procreate as much as possible.  It’s like the TV show from a few years ago, 19 and Counting.

So why do I mention the Quiverfull movement and their determination to propagate the species?  It just so happens that their inspiration is Psalm 127.  Speaking of children, in particular sons, we read, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth.  Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them” (vv. 4-5).  Thus the name!  This is taken as, if not exactly a command from God, then at least a very firm recommendation.

Whether or not you agree with the Quiverfull philosophy, I would say their talk of arrows misses the mark.

2 psVerse 1 establishes the context of the psalm; it sets the stage.  “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.  Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.”

Backing up for just a moment, Psalm 127 is part of a group of psalms called “The Songs of Ascents.”  They run from Psalm 120 to 134.  It’s commonly thought these were songs sung by pilgrims making their way up to Jerusalem.  (I’ve never been to Jerusalem, but those who have can probably attest to the higher elevation the city occupies—thus the idea of “ascent.”)

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

The dearly-departed Eugene Peterson, author of the paraphrase of the Bible, The Message (and about a thousand other books), in 1980 wrote A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  It deals with the Songs of Ascents.  Perhaps those who are familiar with Peterson’s work can agree with me that, whatever he wrote, he spoke with the heart and soul of a poet.

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

In his chapter on Psalm 127, he begins with his own take on building and guarding.  He says, “The greatest work project of the ancient world is a story of disaster.  The unexcelled organization and enormous energy that were concentrated in building the Tower of Babel resulted in such shattered community and garbled communication that civilization is still trying to recover.  Effort, even if the effort is religious (perhaps especially when the effort is religious), does not in itself justify anything.”[2]

The story in Genesis 11 is one of frantic anxiety.  It’s one of human desperation and despair.  It’s one of human arrogance and hubris.  “The whole world” as the story goes, said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (vv. 1, 4).  They thought their technology would save them.  They wanted to build a city; they wanted to guard their culture from ruin.

That’s not the only time we humans have done that.  Today is the 100th anniversary of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  In 1918, the armistice was signed, ceasing the fighting of what came to be called World War 1.  It was, as our call to worship puts it, the “day when the guns once fell silent.”

3 psHuman knowledge and technology during the late nineteenth century had reached new heights.  However, as it was sadly discovered, knowledge and wisdom often progress at different rates.  The so-called “civilized” nations were plunged into what Harry Emerson Fosdick called “the most terrific war men ever waged, when faith is sorely tried and deeply needed.”[3]

This was yet another time of human hubris, when we engaged in “the war to end all wars.”  In the midst of it, he quoted Walter Rauschenbusch, “O God, we pray Thee for those who come after us, for our children, and the children of our friends, and for all the young lives that are marching up from the gates of birth…  We remember with a pang that these will live in the world we are making for them…  We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it…

“Grant us grace to leave the earth fairer than we found it; to build upon it cities of God in which the cry of needless pain shall cease; and to put the yoke of Christ upon our business life that it may serve and not destroy.”[4]

He takes note of our building cities, “building the house,” building the earth, so to speak, but it must have the blessing of God.  When we build the earth while ignoring God, it leaves a horrible legacy to our children, those young ones we looked at earlier.  “We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it.”

We can knock ourselves out in doing this building.  Verse 2 says, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.”  “In vain”: that’s the third time we’ve heard that!  So many are sleep-deprived, working anxiously.  I don’t imagine this is a big surprise, but America is the most sleep-deprived nation in the world—Japan is a close second.  Roughly one-third of us get less than 7 hours of sleep each night.  It takes its toll on our health.

When I was a kid, my parents used to listen to country music.  I was never a fan.  But I remember a song by Hoyt Axton: “Boney Fingers.”  Here’s the chorus: “Work your fingers to the bone, What do you get? / Boney fingers, boney fingers.”  And we lose that sleep I was just talking about.

4 ps

 

Remember the last line of verse 2: “he gives sleep to his beloved.”  There’s an alternate reading which says, “he provides for his beloved during sleep.”

With all this talk of sleep, some might say, “Why bother with work—and certainly working hard?”  God will take care of it.  However, the psalm isn’t advocating being lazy.  St. Paul had an argument with some of the Thessalonians, complaining that “we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work” (3:11).

And so we come to verse 3.  “Sons [children] are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.”  Children are a gift from God.  They are created without working our fingers to the bone.  Building the house isn’t simply about a physical structure.  Building the house also means family, lineage.  For example, the house of David figures greatly in the Old Testament.

Rickie Dale Moore says, “How deeply the world view of this psalm makes this connection can be seen in the fact that the Hebrew words for ‘build’ (banah), ‘house’ (bayith), ‘daughters’ (banoth), and ‘sons’ (banim), all come from the same Hebrew root (bnh).”[5]

This brings us to the final line of the psalm.  We already saw the first part of verse 5: “Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them” (that is, sons).  Here’s how it ends: “He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.”  “The gate” represents a place where justice is meted out, a tribunal.  If someone has many sons to back him up—well, let’s say there’s a better chance of being treated fairly!

Our psalm begins with the “threat of a cursed life of vanity.”  By the time we get to the end, there’s “the promise of a blessed life.”  Our friend Rickie Dale says, “The blessed life, here, finally consists in nothing other than the plenitude of one’s children, and what’s more, the blessedness is secured and protected by nothing other than the children themselves!”[6]

That might sound like someone without children is cursed.  (If so, then my wife and I are in that category!)  Translating that into the understanding most of us share, it doesn’t have to be our own children.  It’s the children of our society, the children of our world.

5 ps

There was a movie starring Clive Owen called Children of Men.  It’s set about twenty years into the future.  For some unknown reason, women all over the planet have become infertile; nobody’s having babies.  The youngest person in the world is 18 years old.  A notable line of one of the characters goes, “As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in.  Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.”  Eventually, a young woman does get pregnant, so all is not lost!

In a very real way, it is the hope of children that saves us.  They are how we build the house; they are how we build the earth.  So, to rephrase as Moore does, “Unless the Lord builds the world; Then for its builders, all is vanity.”[7]

What goes into building the house?  What goes into building our culture, building our lives?

In Mark 12:38-44, the high and mighty are giving donations in a prideful way.  It’s a reaffirmation of the respect they believe they deserve.  They have plenty of money in the bank; their investments have paid off well.  The poor widow isn’t trying to impress anyone.  She can’t impress anyone.  She gives—not for show—but from a heart of love.  She gives her all, and Jesus commends her to his disciples.

We are called to build with love.  We are called to build the earth with love.  Part of that means not wiping out hundreds of thousands and even millions of years of evolution of our companions—whether they stride, soar, or swim.

6 ps

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

We are called, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone, to be joined together—to be built—into a holy temple in the Lord (Ep 2:20-21).

 

[1] www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/10/mammals-will-need-millions-years-recover-us/573031

[2] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 20th anniversary ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 105.

[3] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York:  Association Press, 1917), vii.

[4] Fosdick, 60.

[5] Moore, Rickie Dale, “Futile Labor vs Fertile Labor: Observing the Sabbath in Psalm 127,” The Living Pulpit, (April-June) 1998: 24.

[6] Moore, 25.

[7] Moore, 25.


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