openness

do not break; do not extinguish

There’s a certain TV show from the 1970s that my mom and dad used to watch when I was a kid.  It was set in the 1870s: Kung Fu, starring David Carradine.

This was the premise of the show: we have someone with an American father and Chinese mother.  He is orphaned in China and raised by Shaolin priests.  After killing the Emperor’s nephew (who, by the way, just killed his teacher), he’s forced to flee the country.  He goes to the American west, in search of his brother.  As he travels, he opposes whatever injustice he encounters.  I always liked the way he spoke.  [very tranquilly]  “I am Caine.  I am called many names, but I have chosen ‘Caine.’”

I was reminded of Caine from Kung Fu because he has some qualities that are reflected in our reading from the book of Isaiah.  (I’ll elaborate in a moment.)  Caine’s life at the Shaolin temple has given him many skills.  In fighting his opponents, he does so with seemingly effortless action.  He presents the very image of a serene, almost pacifist, nature.

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Isaiah 42 begins with the Lord declaring, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (v. 1).

This is the first of the so-called “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah.  There are three others.  Who is this special Servant?  Some say it’s the people of Israel as a whole.  Others say it’s the prophet.  Still others, reflecting a Christian interpretation, say this special Servant is none other than the Messiah himself.  I imagine all of those elements are involved.

Regardless of the Servant’s identity, there are, as I already suggested, some characteristics that this one possesses.  When I was reflecting on this passage, I was especially drawn to verses 2, 3, and 4.  The image I got was one of quiet perseverance.  As I said, that’s what reminded me of Caine’s demeanor in Kung Fu.

Verse 2 says of the Servant, “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.”  This one doesn’t seem to be very confident.  How can you get your message across if you’re not out there promoting yourself?  Doing book tours?  Going on talk shows?  Telling people to visit your website?

For the past few years, according to many reports, the fastest growing church in the world is the church in Iran.  We’re told, “What’s fascinating right now is that the most powerful leaders in Iran are women, but it’s not in a bombastic…way…  In fact, they are the most gentle women.  They are leading this movement, going out in the highways and byways sharing with prostitutes, drug addicts, with everybody they come into contact with, and that takes courage.  They are courageous women.”[1]

I don’t think these women can be accused of not being confident!

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In verse 3 we learn that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”  I like the way Bill Long puts it:

“How do reeds become crushed…?  By the forces of nature and of people.  Reeds become smashed because of storms and diseases, because of people stomping over them…  We are reeds, subject to the forces of life that we cannot control and that sometimes descend on us with frightening speed and mercilessness.  And so, we live our lives in a crushed condition.”

However, the Servant in Isaiah will not break a bruised reed.  He (or she) treads lightly on the earth.  Again, I’m reminded of Caine in the show Kung Fu.  When he was finally able to walk down a long length of very fragile rice paper without tearing any of it—leaving no trace behind—only then was he prepared to leave the Shaolin temple and go out into the world.

And about that “dimly burning wick,” Long says that “we are here compared to a wick which is…about ready to go out because the candle has melted…  We may appear strong…but if we know ourselves well, we know that there are lots of forces at work within and without that make us terribly vulnerable to [being extinguished]…  But the Servant won’t crush; the servant won’t extinguish.”

Verse 4 has a nice turn of phrase.  “He will not grow faint or be crushed.”  So what that means is the Servant won’t crush the reed or snuff out the wick that’s growing faint.  And on the flip side, he himself won’t grow faint or be crushed.

And the Servant will keep at it “until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”  The word for “coastlands” literally means “islands” ( אׅי,’iy).  It refers to the ends of the earth.  That’s the kind of character we’re dealing with: not one who is feeble and fragile, but one who won’t get frustrated and quit!

I wonder, how do we compare?  That can be hard to answer for ourselves.  We can benefit from the insight of observers.  From time to time, my wife Banu has been willing to provide her observations to me.  And more often than not, I actually find them helpful!

This scripture reading about the Servant of the Lord is beneficial to us in one particular way, that is, when we ordain and install officers.

During that part of worship, we ask the questions for ordination and installation in the Book of Order, but maybe we could add something else.  Maybe something like: “Do you refuse to break a bruised reed or to extinguish a dimly burning wick?  If so, please say, ‘I do.’”  Maybe we could pose that to the congregation and add, “If so, please say, ‘We do.’”

If there’s any confusion, a phrase from the old Book of Order clears it up.  (It’s one I wish they hadn’t deleted.)  This is it: “Those duties which all Christians are bound to perform by the law of love are especially incumbent upon elders because of their calling to office and are to be fulfilled by them as official responsibilities” (G-6.0304a).  How do you like that?  It’s official.  If being a Christian isn’t enough for us to follow the law of love, being ordained as an elder is part of the job description!

Of course, it isn’t simply a job; it’s an adventure.  It’s a lifestyle.  That’s true for anyone, whether ordained or not, who would take the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah as a model or a pattern.  It’s a lifestyle for anyone who senses the call, as verse 7 puts it, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

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What does this calling to not break a bruised reed or to not extinguish a dimly burning wick look like?  As I’ve indicated, bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks are images of people who have been bruised and whose lights are fading away.  I have a few bruises myself, and sometimes my light burns rather dimly!  It’s been on the verge of going out altogether.

In answering that question about our calling to not break or extinguish each other, I’ll suggest something from a document approved by the General Assembly of the PC(USA) back in 1998, “Life Together in the Community of Faith: Standards of Ethical Conduct.”[2]  One of those standards refers to accepting the discipline of the church.

Accepting the “discipline of the church” might sound outdated or old-fashioned, like being chastised for playing cards.  It might even conjure up medieval images of being flogged or burned at the stake.  That’s not what I’m talking about!

Accepting the discipline of the church can be seen in a more basic way.  In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he gives what might be considered a manifesto of church discipline.  He deals with many issues in Corinth, such as people splitting up into factions and being disruptive in worship.  Church itself requires discipline—it requires the discipline of love.  And love requires that we discipline ourselves!

Indeed, the section of our Book of Order called “The Rules of Discipline” includes the reminder, “The power that Jesus Christ has vested in his Church, a power manifested in the exercise of church discipline, is one for building up the body of Christ, not for destroying it, for redeeming, not for punishing.” (D-1.0102).

The discipline of “church,” if done well, gradually turns us into loving and kind persons.  If we abandon that discipline, or approach it in an unhealthy fashion, we become ungrateful and cause injury.  Can we help each other in our discipline and affirm with the apostle Paul that our “God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (1 Co 14:33)?

I recently watched a movie about Christians living among radical Islamists.[3]  (I don’t necessarily agree with all of the theology in it, but that’s okay!)  There’s one scene which featured an American missionary.  His name wasn’t given; I’ll just call him John.  He was wondering how much he would be willing to give up.  How much deprivation and abuse would he take for the cause of Christ.  He asked, “What is my price?”

Regarding the discipline of church, maybe we’re back to those medieval images I just mentioned.  I have to ask myself, “What is my price?”

John speaks of a friend who is also a missionary.  Again, his name wasn’t given; I’ll call him Peter.  Peter has a wife and two young children.  He admits that he and his wife have wondered if it’s fair to have their kids in such a dangerous place.  Acknowledging the danger, when they first arrived, he and his wife made a video.  It was an unusual video—they forgave the men who killed them!  That’s really reflecting the nature of Christ.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  That is some serious church discipline.

As insane as it sounds to us, those who are determined to break and extinguish with the worst possible methods are also loved by God.  But again, we ourselves do that to each other in less horrific ways.

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[Jon Tyson at unsplash]

I want to close with a quote by Henri Nouwen on that very thing.  “A life of fifty, sixty, seventy, or a hundred years is just a little moment in which you can say, ‘Yes, I love you too’…

“That’s where ministry starts, because your freedom is anchored in claiming your belovedness.  That allows you to go into this world and touch people, heal them, speak with them, and make them aware that they are beloved, chosen, and blessed.  When you discover your belovedness by God, you see the belovedness of other people and call that forth.  It’s an incredible mystery of God’s love that the more you know how deeply you are loved, the more you will see how deeply your sisters and your brothers in the human family are loved.”

Friends, that is the discipline of love, the discipline of church, the way in which we fulfill our calling.

 

[1] godreports.com/2019/09/fastest-growing-church-has-no-buildings-no-central-leadership-and-is-mostly-led-by-women/

[2] www.pcusa.org/resource/standards-ethical-conduct

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ndf8RqgNVEY


blow away the vapor

Last Tuesday Banu and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.  On a similar occasion when we were in Jamestown over a decade ago, I commented in front of some parishioners, referring to her, “I don’t know what I did to deserve you.”  As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized they could be taken in more than one way!  Trust me—it was not a lament; it was not a statement of regret!

1 jr{Dr. Horace Russell sees a shoe lace that needs attention}

But yes, I don’t know what I did to deserve her.  I’m not always sure what I continue to do to deserve her.  You notice I said, “not always sure.”  There are times when I’m pretty confident (probably arrogant) in that regard!  Having said that, let’s turn our attention to a story in which there is no doubt whatsoever.

That story appears in Jeremiah 2.  It is a story of betrayal.  It is a story of a lover spurned.  It is a story of an unfaithful spouse.

The chapter begins, “The word of the Lord came to me [that is, Jeremiah], saying: Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord: I remember   the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (vv. 1-2).  The Lord is grieved at the straying of a beloved bride—one who followed, even in the wilderness.  This is the bride who on the wedding day, heard the words, “for richer, for poorer,” and held onto that bit about “for poorer”: but only for a little while!

This is indeed a story about abandonment.  It’s a story about abandoning one’s source of joy, be it a devoted loving partner, a devoted loving spouse.  More fundamentally, it’s a story about abandoning the source of joy that is one’s God.  That’s the unfortunate word the prophet brings.

(As a side note, this is probably one of the earliest messages of Jeremiah.  But its being in chapter 2 doesn’t mean a whole lot.  The book isn’t exactly in chronological order.  It’s almost like someone arranged it by taking the pages, tossing them up in the air, and then waiting for them to fall.)

Jeremiah addresses the whole country.  “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel” (v. 4).  This is the basic complaint: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” (v. 5).  That is the essence of the matter.  We become what we worship!

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The Lord asks, “Why did you go far from me?”  Why did you reject me?  The word for “reject” (רׇחַקוּ, raaq) can mean “become distant,” “remote,” “walk away”—pretend like you have cooties!

Remember, this is also a description of a loved one: becoming distant, becoming remote, becoming absent.

What happened when they became distant, when they walked away?  As we saw, they “went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves.”  That word “worthless” (הֶבֶל, hebel) is an interesting one.  For example, it appears numerous times in the book of Ecclesiastes.  (Here’s how it starts.)  “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity” (1:2).  The word has many nuances: vanity, futility, nothingness.  The primary meaning is “vapor” or “breath.”  “They went after vapor and became vapor themselves.”

Here’s how the New English Bible puts verse 5.  “What fault did your forefathers find in me, that they wandered far from me, pursuing empty phantoms and themselves becoming empty.”  I like that: pursuing empty phantoms.

(Last month, while talking about the “elemental spirits,” I noted that St. Paul calls them “only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17).  Don’t be awestruck by them; don’t fear them.  They’re only a shadow.  You know—don’t be scared of your shadow!)

In the same way, don’t go after those empty phantoms.  Don’t be awestruck by them; don’t fear them.  What are you—scared of ghosts?

The people have abandoned their one true love for something which doesn’t satisfy.  They’ve been seduced by someone who will not and cannot satisfy.  If this sounds insane to you, you’re probably right.  But then, there is much insanity within us, within all of us.

3 jr Bungishabaku Katho, a professor from the Democratic Republic of Congo, goes into how this could come about.  Referring to Jeremiah’s audience, he says, “Judah had grown accustomed to God: they were so at ease that God was taken for granted and ignored.  Yahweh was no longer the center of Judah’s life, and he was not called upon during the time of danger.  Instead, people chose to go after idols, which are ironically implied to be more helpful than Yahweh.”[1]

In her book From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Life, for most of us, is not full of clear paths and voices from heaven.  Idols help to make up for that deficiency.  Life is outrageous.  Idols help us know how to proceed.  So we form and fashion ideas, beliefs, rules to live by, ways of life, cultural codes.  Idols are understandings we cling to that end up taking the place of God.”[2]

Our idols aren’t so very different from those of Jeremiah’s era.  We have our own loves and devotions, things seemingly much more realistic and useful than God, things that just make more sense.  Of course, there are things to do to make sure stuff gets done!  But how often do we wander from the source of our life and light and love?  How often do we trust in vapor?

The prophet speaks of the people being “brought…into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.”  However, the land has been “defiled” and made “an abomination” (v. 7).  There are symbolic and spiritual ramifications—how idolatry has led the people astray.  It also has quite visible consequences—the destruction of the environment, the invasion of habitats, the eradication of species of animals and plants.  It includes how we have fared in being the stewards of God’s good creation.

(The devastation of the Amazon rain forest is a case in point of land being defiled and made an abomination.  Thinking of defiling, we have hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste in storage or buried underground: one more unwelcome gift our descendants will inherit from us!)

Jeremiah points in particular to those who should know better.  The priests, those who handle the law (the teachers), the rulers, and the prophets have all failed in their call to be faithful.

Our leaders often fail in their call to faithfulness.  We who are leaders, in whatever context, often fail in our call to faithfulness.  That being said, how much blame do we bear in perhaps allowing ourselves to be led astray?  How often do we follow with blind faith?  How often do we fail to actually investigate what our leaders tell us?  I understand very well there are things beyond our knowledge.  Ask me to describe abatement cost, generic securities, and tax-free spinoff, and I promise you will get a far from coherent answer.

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Verse 11 speaks of something that might hamper anyone.  “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?  But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.”  There’s the insanity again about exchanging the one true love, the one holy love, for a deception, for a counterfeit.

It can happen before we know it.  Am I so sure I have never changed my God for other gods?  We can be baptized into waters that become stagnant.  Our society has much to offer; it makes many promises.  Does a fish swimming in water know that it is wet?

Joan Chittister reflects, “No one lives in a tax-free world.  Life costs.  The values and kitsch and superficiality of it takes its toll on all of us.  No one walks through life unscathed.  It calls to us for our hearts and our minds and our very souls.  It calls to us to take life consciously, to put each trip, each turn of the motor, each trek to work in God’s hands.  Then, whatever happens there, we must remember to start over and start over and start over until, someday, we control life more than it controls us.”[3]

We become what we worship.

How do we see God?  Remember Debbie Blue’s comment: “Idols are understandings we cling to that end up taking the place of God.”  I’ve often said our concepts of God can become idols.

Do we see God as punitive?  Do we see God as petty?  Do we see God as a bully?  If so, then our God is an idol.  That is not the God of Jesus Christ.  If our God is a vengeful tyrant, then borrowing Jeremiah’s language about love and marriage, such a God is an abusive spouse.

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Our passage ends on an especially poignant note.  “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (vv. 12-13).

The heartbroken Lord reveals two crimes of which the people are guilty.  First, as we’ve seen, they have said no to the covenant, the bond of love.  Living water is fresh, running water.  It is not stagnant.  It doesn’t become the breeding ground of mosquitoes!  Algae doesn’t grow in it!  It doesn’t stink!  That cool, clear water doesn’t appeal to them.

Next, they have dug cisterns; they have dug wells.  Obviously, there’s nothing wrong in and of itself with digging cisterns.  We are dependent on falling rain to feed the streams and rivers.  We are dependent on ground water.  We can’t live without water!

However, that’s not the picture here.  The Lord is a never-failing fountain of running water.  God is an everlasting source of that precious liquid.  In this image, there’s no need to rely on the rain or the ground.  There’s no need to rely on the work of our own hands, but that’s what Jeremiah’s audience has chosen.

What’s worse, the cisterns are cracked.  They have become broken; the water is seeping out of them.

We might ask, “What’s the big deal about this living water, this running water, anyway?”  Jesus speaks of this in John’s gospel.  He says, “‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’  Now he said this about the Spirit” (Jn 7:37-39).

The living water is the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit can’t be held—not in a cistern, and certainly not in a cracked cistern!  It’s like trying the gather the wind with your hands.

Earlier I posed the question to myself about how often I exchange my God for those worthless gods, those idols.  How often do I trust in vapor, and then become vapor myself?  Well, I suppose the prophet would pose this question to me also.  How often do I try to grab, to hold onto the Spirit?  How often do I become content with past revelations, past experiences, of the Spirit—to the point I reject the living water and settle for stagnant water?  My guess is I might not be the only one who needs to hear that question.

Summer is nearing its end; fall is approaching.  I half-jokingly suggested to Banu we should take as a theme another scripture from Jeremiah: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20).  She didn’t agree.  Still, that might not be altogether out of place.  We may feel lost, but the promise of God remains.

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Forget about building those cisterns!  Allow the Spirit to blow away the vapor.  Let’s allow ourselves to regain and reaffirm our first and true love.

 

[1] Bungishabaku Katho, “Idolatry and the Peril of the Nation: Reading Jeremiah 2 in an African Context” Anglican Theological Review, 99:4 (Fall 2017), 722.

[2] Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.

[3] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 172.

[The painting is Jeremiah the Prophet by Marc Chagall.]


good guys and bad guys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 3 jn

[1] Revised English Bible

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

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

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


an offer you can’t refuse

Weddings can be strange things.

I’ve told Banu I almost prefer presiding at a funeral more than presiding at a wedding.  Of course, it depends on how demanding the family is.  Sometimes it seems like everybody and their Aunt Edna has an opinion on how things should go.  Sometimes it feels like crowd control.

1 Mt 22Our Book of Order has something to say about this.  “The marriage service shall be conducted in a manner appropriate to this covenant and to the forms of Reformed worship, under the direction of the minister of the Word and Sacrament and the supervision of the session” (W-4.0603).  And notice that it uses the word “marriage.”  Too often, there’s more focus on the wedding than on the marriage.

But I mention how weddings can be strange things.  Banu’s and my wedding might fit into that category.

We decided to make our vows in Turkish.  Our Old Testament professor, who we asked to preside, wrote them down so he could pronounce them properly.  Things were going fine until I said a particular line.  As soon as it came out of my mouth, I noticed Banu’s sister, who was sitting in the front row, begin to quietly laugh.  Afterwards, I was informed that my intended statement, “I promise to love you forever,” actually had the meaning, “I promise to explode.”  At least, that’s the way she explained to me.

(Hearing the story later, a friend of ours told me since I messed up the vow, I didn’t have to keep it.  Banu was not amused.)

When I’ve done weddings, I sometimes tell the couple it’s not a real wedding if something doesn’t go wrong!

In Matthew 22, Jesus speaks of a wedding that is extremely strange.  Actually, this is the wedding feast, so it’s not just the wedding; it’s the party that goes with it!  And calling it “strange” is a vast understatement.  In fact, the entire parable is worse than strange.  You can’t help but notice the violence and craziness.  One writer has called it “this bizarre little story.”[1]

You’ll notice this isn’t a case of wedding crashers.  It’s the exact opposite.  The invitations have been sent out, but nobody wants to come!

2 Mt 22

I like how the story gets started.  “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (v. 2).  This is a parable.  The Greek word (παραβολη, parabolē) means “comparison.”  The kingdom of heaven may be compared.  Some say it’s also an allegory, a figurative story.  It has things which represent something else, so it’s not a direct comparison.  Maybe that lessens the embarrassment of what follows!

The wedding day arrives, and the king sends the word.  We’re ready to start!  Still, as you heard, no one shows up.  So he sends some more servants, and they describe the delicious food on the menu.  Everything is ready—we even kept in mind the vegans and the gluten-free folks!

Even this doesn’t work.  They go back to their business, and some of the invitees grab the servants and give them a sound beating; some of them are even killed.

Lance Pape, professor at Brite Divinity School, says “things go completely off the rails…  [T]he weirdness and violence are just getting started.”[2]  The king goes ballistic.  He doesn’t send any more of his servants.  This time, he sends his soldiers!  And they lay waste to the town.

While the fires are burning, the king says, “Forget those ungrateful fools.  Just grab people at random and bring them to the banquet.  And you know, let’s do that before the food gets cold!”

Okay, what do we have so far?  All of this is being compared to the kingdom of heaven.  If the king is supposed to be God, what does that say?  Is it like The Godfather, where Marlon Brando as Don Corleone uses the phrase, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  Is God a kingpin in the mafia?

3 Mt 22If it seems things can’t get any crazier, hold on to your hats, because they do!  The king sees a guest without wedding garments, and he gets completely unhinged.  Now in fairness, it’s been pointed out in Middle Eastern cultures it was common for guests to be provided with proper attire.  Maybe that’s true, and it would suggest the unfortunate fellow was guilty of refusing the king’s gift.  Still, we might be forgiven for thinking there’s a tiny bit of overreaction on the king’s part.

Bind him hand and foot!  Toss him out into the dark!  Let him wail and grind his teeth while experiencing the pain and the loneliness!  As I said—just a tiny bit of overreaction.

Having said that, this is the way the story is often presented.

Lutheran pastor Janet Hunt suggests another way to approach it.[3]  A big part of it is asking if the God of Jesus Christ in any way resembles the king in our parable.  I ask that question as well.

She wonders if those who refuse the invitation do it “as a sign of protest.”  Is it beyond the realm of possibility that the king is a tyrant?  His actions might seem to suggest so.  Could it be the people don’t believe he is worthy of the title “king”?  Maybe his motivation to have a big crowd at the banquet is to prevent suffering shame in front of everyone, to boost his ego.

Hunt also speaks more directly about Jesus.

She says, “I cannot help but believe that Jesus was, in fact, more like those who would never have been among the first invited…but would have found himself in the second batch of invitees.”  Jesus isn’t a part of the fancy crowd who received the first batch of invitations.  He’s part of the rabble, the ordinary folk.  That would seem to go along with the upside-down, inside-out way Jesus tells stories and engages with people.

She continues, “Indeed, as this parable comes to its conclusion, I cannot help but wonder if Jesus is not the one without the wedding robe—the one who could not, would not pretend to honor a tyrant king by putting on that wedding robe—who in behalf of all of us was thrown into the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

6 Mt 22.jpg

Hunt admits she might be way off base.  She might be dead wrong.  But she does offer a thought.  “[I]sn’t it just as likely that the kingdom of heaven is more like any one of us who refuses to bow to the powers that be when innocents suffer than like a king who throws his power around and destroys those who would not do his will?”  Maybe that’s the comparison between the kingdom of heaven and the parable.  I’ll leave you to mull over it!

I would like to go back to the thought of refusing gifts.

We come to the end, verse 14.  “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  Many are called—many are invited to the party—but few are chosen.  Maybe they’re not willing to be chosen.  How many times have we been unwilling to be chosen?  I can think of way too many times I’ve been in that place!

I was baptized when I was 21.  It wasn’t until I was in college that I really opened myself up to matters of faith.  I made discoveries, but I too often wanted to control how they were made.  I even started going to church, though on an infrequent basis.  I knew I was being called to go deeper, to let go.  It was the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  But I didn’t want to be chosen; I didn’t want to go to that party.  I didn’t want to taste the food at that banquet.

Eventually I surrendered and submitted to the waters of baptism.  I RSVPed the Spirit and said, “Count me in!”  But that’s not the end of the story.  As the years have gone by, there are still parties I don’t want to attend.  There have been times when I have refused the king’s invitation.

Our friend Lance Pape chimes in.  “The doors of the kingdom community are thrown wide open, and the invitation extends literally to all.  But once you come in, there are standards.  You can’t go on acting like you are not at an extraordinary party.”  This party, this wedding feast, is serious business.

5 Mt 22

He says about the fellow without the wedding garment that “his problem is a failure to party.  The kingdom of heaven…is a banquet, after all, and you’ve got to put on your party dress and get with the program.  The kingdom music is playing, and it’s time to get up on the dance floor.”

In all honesty, I need to practice getting on the dance floor, but maybe learning to laugh at yourself and being a fool for Christ is the perfect first step in that dance.  There is plenty of sorrow and pain in the world, but accepting the invitation to the wedding banquet opens us to the joy of the Lord.

I would say that’s an offer you can’t refuse.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2204

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2204

[3] dancingwiththeword.com/the-wedding-banquet-turning-it-inside-out


gentle and humble in heart

There is a book by spiritual director Adele Ahlberg Calhoun called Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.[1]  In it, she lists 62 different disciplines.  (Spiritual disciplines are practices which promote spiritual growth.  Devotional reading of scripture and various forms of prayer are probably the most familiar ones.)  The discipline I want to address today is “teachability.”

How many of you recall the TV show from the 70s called Kung Fu, starring the late David Carradine?  I always liked the way he spoke.  “I am Caine.  I am called many names, but I have chosen ‘Caine.’”  When he fought, he did it with almost effortless action.  He was a serene warrior—even a pacifist warrior?

1 Pr

I remember a commercial he did for Yellowbook.com, a website version of the yellow pages.  (I’ll be honest, I did have to go to YouTube to refresh my memory!)[2]

Anyway, he’s approached by a would-be disciple who inquires of him, the master, the source of his wisdom.  The student is directed to the website, in which Carradine promises infinite information.  He then proceeds to meditate with the mantra, “Yellowbook dot commmmm.”

Wisdom is sometimes confused with information.  Thanks to the internet, the information available to us is exponentially greater than at any time in human history.  By the time this day is over, it will have vastly expanded again.  Does that mean we’re wiser than all the generations before us?  I don’t have to answer that question, do I?

If teachability isn’t simply the acquisition of information, then what is it?  Calhoun says it means being “a lifelong learner who is continually open to the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit,” and that might mean learning “from God no matter who the teacher or what the experience may be.”[3]  That last part can really be a problem.  God can speak to us—even through those we consider having nothing to learn from!

Teachability is not about what you know or don’t know.  It’s an attitude of the heart; it’s a readiness, an eagerness, to learn.  And it’s also a practice.  It’s something we can will ourselves to do and to be.

Mere possession of knowledge does not make someone wise.  We’ve all encountered people, so-called experts, who know a great deal (though usually not as much as they think they do!) and are anything but teachable.  We see this on the job, in school, in church, in the government, on television.  They’re not open to other ideas.  The Bible has a word for such people: they’re called “fools.”  And if we’re honest, I’m sure all of us have been fools.  I know I have!

While teachability is something to which we must be open, wisdom is not something we can just conjure up at will.  Fortunately, God, who gives truth, also gives wisdom to those who seek it.

In Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified in the form of a female who calls out, who raises her voice.  We read in verses 2 to 4: “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.’”

Being portrayed as female, the speaker here, not surprisingly, is often given the name Lady Wisdom.  Some of the women will no doubt think, “Of course, wisdom is female!  Can you seriously picture wisdom as a man?”

But she’s more than just a gift from God.  She is divine wisdom.  We’re reminded of how the gospel of John starts: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).  Before the creation of the universe, Lady Wisdom existed, or exists—it’s a timeless reality.  Verses 22 and 23 tell us, “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.”

Comparison is made between Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and Jesus in Matthew 11.[4]  Jesus is placed in what’s known as the wisdom tradition.  He’s also compared with Sirach, part of the apocrypha.  (Those are additional books that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches accept as scripture.)

Sirach, which was written two centuries before Jesus, says this: “Put your neck under her [that is, wisdom’s] yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.  See with your own eyes that I have labored but little and found for myself much serenity” (51:26-27).  The image of the yoke as binding oneself to wisdom well predates Jesus.

In our gospel text, Jesus speaks as the very voice of divine wisdom.  And he’s presented within a context of teachability—or at least, hoping for teachability!  In verse 15, he says, “Let anyone with ears listen!”  Just before today’s reading, he makes the rather surprising statement, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (v. 25).  It’s safe to say, Jesus has encountered plenty of so-called experts!

But as I was looking at this, the phrase that really captured my attention is in verse 29.  “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  His yoke—an instrument for holding two oxen together, or for torturing people—is described in verse 30 as “easy.”  The word in Greek is χρηστος (chrēstos), which also means “kind.”  Change one letter, and we have χριστος (christos), the word for “Christ.”  (To be honest, I’m not sure how meaningful that is!)

Still, Jesus makes a claim that sounds like a qualification for teaching.  After issuing the invitation to take his kind and easy yoke, he says this: “learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.”  Gentle and humble in heart.  He doesn’t say, “Learn from me, because I know better, because I know more than you do.”

3 Pr

We can learn from Jesus because he possesses wisdom.  And because he possesses wisdom, for that very reason, he is also teachable.

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

The best teachers remain open to new ideas.  And no matter how much they already know, they’re humble enough to admit that they always have much more to learn.

We too easily ignore the fact that Jesus was completely, totally human.  And as such, he had to learn.  In his encounters with other people, without question, there was a two way flow of information.  In Jesus, the one who teaches, and the one who is taught, are in perfect harmony.

That’s especially evident in his encounters with society’s outcasts.  As I mentioned earlier, Jesus thanks God for hiding certain truths from “the wise and the intelligent” (or so they think), and revealing them “to infants.”  The religious leaders and other notables are offended by his associating with these undesirables.

I think Jesus not only gives benefit, but receives benefit, by his interaction with the poor and the unwanted.  He learns things that the high and mighty can never understand.

In the call of Jesus to “learn” from him, he’s talking about more than knowledge gained by sitting in a classroom and taking notes.  The word used (μαθετε, mathete) literally means, “be discipled” by me—or be my apprentice.  That speaks of relationship, of walking together.  It speaks of bearing that kind and easy yoke together.  It does not mean being sent off to Yellowbook dot commmmm!

It’s been said that the call of Jesus “is not a call to heaviness, but a call to lightness of being.  It contrasts with the serious calls of those who interpret scripture as demand and [restriction].”[5]  And those stuffy souls with their long, frowning faces absolutely hate him for it.  They despise Jesus.  People like that are prisoners, trapped by their own inflexibility.

The more teachable we are, the more we are like Jesus: gentle and humble in heart.  The arrogant and proud aren’t interested in learning.  They only care about gathering information to bolster their own positions, their own preconceived notions.

Here’s a question.  How often do you find yourself talking with someone who doesn’t seem to be listening to you?  Far from thoughtfully considering what you’ve said, the other person seems to already be thinking of a reply—even while you’re still speaking!  How many here have gotten that impression?  How many here have been guilty of that offense?

The epistle of James offers this lesson in becoming more teachable: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak” (1:19).

I’ll leave you with a couple of questions Calhoun poses for us.  “What positions have you rethought and changed your mind about in the last few years?  What does this say about you and your journey?”[6]

This is bigger than social issues; this is bigger than politics.  This is about our willingness to let God change us, to not be attached to our own opinions.  Teachability is about transformation.  As the scripture says, those who find Lady Wisdom find life.  Those who hate her find death.  Choose life.  Follow Lady Wisdom; she is gentle and humble in heart.

 

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

[2] www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGjJz1PmuQ4

[3] Calhoun, 82.

[4] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1981), 267.

[5] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtPentecost4.html

[6] Calhoun, 83.


open

“People of Corinth, we have spoken frankly and opened our heart to you.  Any distress you feel is not on our side; the distress is in your own selves.  In fair exchange—I speak as though to children of mine—you must open your hearts too… Keep a place for us in your hearts.  We have not injured anyone, or ruined anyone, or taken advantage of anyone.  I am not saying this to condemn anybody; as I have already told you, you are in our hearts—so that together we live and together we die.” (2 Cor 6:11-13, 7:2-3, New Jerusalem Bible) 
 
This passage flows so smoothly.  The apostle Paul speaks of openness.  Inserted in the middle of it is 6:14-7:1, a warning about tying ourselves to the “untrustful,” the “unbelieving.”  By his own admission, Paul is not the world’s greatest speaker, but his writings are at times more than a little eloquent! 
 
It seems that while he repeatedly reassures the Corinthians of his good intentions and trustworthiness, Paul is also careful to warn his readers against being gullible.  It is possible to open one’s heart without being naïve.  The opposite temptation is to fall into the cynicism that hardens the spirit.