St. Peter

have you not known? have you not heard?

Have you not known?

Our Book of Order, when it calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05), agrees with Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah, if you like).  An idol is the creation of workers, goldsmiths, and artisans, as the prophet tells us (40:19-20).  It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.

I heard that the next generation of smartphones will allow you to smell the person you’re talking to.  So take a bath!  (And yes, I am suggesting that cell phones can become idols.  By the way, how many of us have turned off our phones, or at least, set them on vibrate?)

Have you not heard?

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

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

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

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve always been a fan of exploring space.  (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!)  Still, going from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, we have to be careful about overestimating the worth of our own efforts, our own accomplishments.

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

There’s something I read in Doug Pagitt’s book, Flipped.  (I imagine he’ll say a couple more things about it this afternoon!)  It’s something I’ve used as a devotional.

About halfway through the book, he brings up the story of the poor widow.[1]  Jesus points out that the wealthy are contributing to the temple fund out of their abundance, money they won’t even miss.  However this widow, with her two coins, is putting a major dent in her finances.  The moral of the story, the way it’s often presented, is that we should praise and imitate the widow; she’s making a big sacrifice for God.

Our friend Doug speaks about a visitor to their church while they were having a discussion about this story.  I love the line this fellow comes up with.  “I think you have that story totally wrong.”  Well!  Would I be mistaken in saying that somebody needs to do a flip?

But it’s true.  The system of the temple, with the religious and political structure that go with it, can be a beast.  It can chew you up and spit you out.

2 isaiahDear friends, I have to tell you: we are the system!  We are part of the religious and political structure.  I must confess (and I’m likely not alone in this) that I’m not fond of being part of the system.  I think that feeling was especially heightened in college when I started reading those revolutionary and counter-cultural authors.  And it was also in college that I started reading the scriptures, and for the first time in my life, I really began to understand them.  Talk about revolutionary and counter-cultural!

Still, being part of the system is neither good nor bad.  The system is how things operate; it is how things happen.  It occurs to me I might rephrase what I just said.  The system actually is a good thing.  Think of the ecosystem.  It’s how life operates.  I think that’s a good thing!

The question is, what do we do with the system?  Do we make it into a beast?  Does it turn us into beasts?  Do we give in to cynicism?

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” (v. 27).  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, giving power to the faint, strengthening the powerless.  Isn’t that amazing?  We don’t have to be beasts!

Therefore, if we have a God who makes such promises, who follows through on those promises, what is our response?

My wife Banu and I have been in this presbytery for a little over a year, so in that time, we’ve gotten a pretty decent lay of the land.  Part of the lay of the land is rather obvious: we are a presbytery in transition.  It’s a transition in structure; it’s a transition in terms of several folks retiring.  And regarding structure, the Leadership Team is an expression of that transition.

Because of all of that, we are in a special position.  This is something you learn as interim pastors.  Transition presents us with new opportunities.  We are given permission (as if we don’t already have it!) to try new things.  Unfortunately, sometimes when presented with new opportunities, we are too quick to say “no.”  We try to find ways it won’t work.  We try to find ways to get out of doing it ourselves.  (Or could it be I’m the only one here who’s ever done that?)

In Acts 2, St. Peter, drawing on the wisdom of the prophet Joel, says, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (v. 17).

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.

3 isaiah

I wonder, do we quench the Spirit that has been poured out on all flesh?  Do we as a presbytery do that?  Do we idolize our system and make it an agent of tyranny?  I understand: we don’t throw people into an iron maiden or have them drawn and quartered!  Even so, does tyranny reveal itself among us by ignoring prophets, averting our eyes from visions, and disregarding the dreamers?  I don’t know.  Maybe.

In our opening prayer, we asked God, “Be with members of our presbytery.  Help us to welcome new things you are doing in the world, and to respect old things you keep and use.  Save us from empty slogans or senseless controversy.”

Empty slogans and senseless controversy?  What’s wrong with them?  They’re so much fun!  They make us feel like we’re getting stuff done.

Again, we have to heed the warning about idolatry and tyranny.  That’s our challenge as a presbytery.  That’s our challenge as congregations.  That’s our challenge as Christians.  That’s our challenge as those in Christ, those who love Christ.  Is our love sufficient?  I don’t think so; it always falls short.

4 isaiah

But here’s the good news.  We are promised that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (v. 31).

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?


[1] Doug Pagitt, Flipped (Convergent Books: 2015), 97-102.

living in exile

Banu and I were ordained in February 1997.  Both of our pastors, just before the benediction, gave us a charge.  Banu’s pastor charged her “to fail.”  He wasn’t wishing ill on her, rather, he wanted her to take risks that would probably end in failure.  Still, keep pressing on.  That’s advice I need to remember.

Using imagery from the parable of the prodigal son, my pastor charged me to tell my story of being in a “distant land,” a “far country.”  He might have thought of several things, like my worshipping with Christians of many different stripes.  (One example would be going from the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal church, to going to the Presbyterian Church.)  But his main meaning of being in a “far country” was my experience with brain cancer.

1 exile

The charge to fail from Banu’s pastor also has that sense of exile, of not belonging.  His church was in an inner-city neighborhood of Philadelphia.  The streets around the church were not in good shape.  There were even what you might call ditches.  He spoke of a pansy that he saw growing in one of those ditches.  That pansy didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be there, but we might think it was in exile, a place where it didn’t belong.

We can see that sense of exile, of being in a far country, in our epistle reading in 1 Peter.

In the very first verse of our letter, Peter calls his audience “exiles.”  The Greek word (παροικια, paroikia) can also mean “sojourning” or “living in a strange land.”  For them, being exiles, being refugees, is something they can relate to.  For us, it’s no doubt less likely.  But it is possible.  It’s more likely we would at least feel that way.  Have you ever been—or are you now—in a far country?  Can you see yourself as an exile or as a refugee?  In this season of Easter, can we see ourselves as resurrection people?

I want us to think about that.  If we can’t imagine or feel the need to live another way, then it will be pretty difficult to in fact live any other way!  If we have no longing to live more deeply, more fully, then in a sense, we’re already dead.  We need to be resurrected!

Peter picks up the theme of exile in verse 17.  “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.”

There are Christians in this country who actually claim the identity of exile.  It isn’t such a stretch for them to see themselves as living in a strange land.  That’s “strange” as in “foreign,” but I suppose “strange” as in “weird,” would also apply!  I imagine all of us could testify to times when we’ve felt like we’re living in a strange land!

2 exile
the chapel at Emmaus Community in Victoria, BC

When I speak of Christians who claim the identity of exile, I’m thinking especially of those who might be called neomonastics, the “new” monastics.  From every tradition and denomination, these are Christians who really do put into practice the idea of “blessed be the tie that binds.”  They don’t live in monasteries, but as communities of faith, they make a commitment to follow Christ in a particular way, which I’ll get to in a few moments.  They do this as communities, not just as a collection of individuals.

They take Peter quite seriously when he says in verse 22, “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.”  That last line in the Good News Bible says to “love one another earnestly with all your heart.”  How about Eugene Peterson’s The Message?  It’s “love one another as if your lives depended on it.”  The original word (εκτενως, ektenōs) means “intensely.”

Kyle Childress, a long-time Baptist pastor in Nacogdoches, Texas, tells an interesting, and sobering, story.[1]  In September 2005, a month after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi, Hurricane Rita slammed into East Texas.  There was plenty of destruction, but their church building avoided the worst of it.  They were able to house some evacuees from Houston, as well as some of their own church members.

During the day, people would be cleaning up from the hurricane.  At day’s end, they gathered at the church, eating delicious meals—then playing games, having conversations, and getting ready for bed.  It was, as Rev. Childress says, “a good time of sharing life in Christ” (p. 33).  Now, here’s the story he tells.

“After most of the people from Houston had left town,” he says, “I went down to put gas in my car.  By this time, the lines were short and I waited behind a man and his wife in their one-ton pickup with a dual-wheel rear-end.  Guns were hanging prominently in the truck as they got out.  She glared at everyone and kept the door open on the truck with the guns in easy reach, while he proceeded to fill up his two twenty-two-gallon tanks on the pickup and then fill up his many gas cans and two fifty-five-gallon drums in the back-end.  I watched them, gave them a wide berth, and I felt a shiver.  I was not only looking at American society in microcosm, I was also witnessing what the Church is up against.  Here was an apocalyptic moment, when our society’s pretense, politeness, and orderliness were blown aside.  Clearly, this couple believed they were on their own; they did not need anyone or want anyone to interfere with their individual lives, and they were going to make sure they got what they wanted or needed, by any means, including the use of violence.  Meanwhile, down the street was a church full of people who believed that the good life was found in sharing a common life in Jesus Christ” (34).

When Childress speaks of that “common life in Jesus Christ,” he isn’t referring to something that happens by accident.  He isn’t talking about something that just comes up out of nowhere.  He’s talking about a rule of life.  A rule of life is something that people agree together to follow.

He continues, “Since it is rare to see local congregations share such a common life, and most church members have no idea such a life exists, much less is desirable, it is imperative that we look around for other glimpses and models of what a common life might look like.  One of those places is among the communities of the New Monasticism movement.  As a local church pastor I am interested in what the new monastics might teach us” (34).

He’s not proposing that his local Baptist congregation become a neomonastic community, but he’s convinced there are things to learn from them.

A rule of life isn’t so much a set of beliefs; it isn’t so much a confession or a creed.  It’s about how we behave in the world.  Probably the best-known rule of life is the Rule of Benedict.  This goes back to the early sixth century.  Saint Benedict is known as the father of western monasticism.  He wrote his Rule to govern life within the monastery, but it has principles that can be applied in every walk of life.

One good example of this is in chapter 53.  Benedict says, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.”  That’s the spiritual foundation for Christian hospitality that extends throughout the Rule, and for that matter, throughout life itself.

3 exileWhat a revolutionary, and counter-cultural, thought.  Imagine if we welcomed every visitor as Christ!  Imagine if we welcomed each other as Christ!

There isn’t any one single way to arrange a rule of life.  At the institutional level, our Presbyterian Book of Order does that in some respect, at least in how we govern ourselves.  It’s a way of helping us follow processes that are laid out.  It’s a way of making sure that we’re all on the same page, so to speak!

Childress notes, “Whenever there is conflict or misunderstanding—and living in close proximity to others, there always is conflict—the rule is part of the conversation among the members.  Over time the rule is often clarified or modified…  What is essential is that the rule is used in service to sharing their common life in Christ and not as a form of domination” (36).

This is an extremely important point.  If we are to follow Peter’s mandate to “love one another deeply from the heart,” the way we go about it cannot be “a form of domination.”

This might be a shock to you, but there are churches which seek to control and coerce their members!

To embrace a common life in Christ, the American church has to resist that “lone wolf” mentality that is so much a part of our culture.  One last quote from Childress: “If our people are going to live the Christ-like life, then they had better do it as a body or else they will never make it.  Lone individuals trying to live faithfully cannot stand against sin, death, the Powers, and the overwhelming pressure of society.  Church members, as individuals, are easy pickings for the Powers of Death; they will separate us, isolate us, dismember us, pick us off one at a time, and grind us down into the dust” (39).

That is an awesome statement, and I couldn’t agree more with it.

What are the “Powers of Death” he refers to?  What are the forces that kill us inside and turn us against each other?  What are the things that distress the Spirit of Christ, and bring suffering?  These are some of the “Powers of Death.”

Sometimes events happen, and we are compelled to say something about it, because it’s right there in our faces.  I remember when we all heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed.  I guess like most people, I did feel a sense of relief when I heard the news.

4 exileHowever, my real preference would have been for him to be captured and then put on trial before the entire world.  Still, I have to say that I didn’t shed any tears because he was dead.

But when I saw the images of people dancing in the street, having parties, I was saddened.  On 9-11, the terrorists were doing the exact same thing.  Imitating that kind of behavior is, in my opinion, probably the very least Christian thing we could do.  It is the most un-Christlike way to go.  I would dare say that we could see the “Powers of Death” at work.

Admittedly, it’s a difficult thing to apply Jesus’ call to love our enemies when the enemy is a mass-murderer.  It’s difficult to know what that would look like.  Still, if we would be people who love Jesus, we need to learn to love what Jesus loves.

Verse 23 says, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”  The powers of death, the forces that have us living in exile (whether we realize it or not), can do nothing when faced with the living and enduring word of God.

It’s kind of like the old country gospel song, “This World is not My Home.”  “This world is not my home; I’m just a passing through / My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue / The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door / And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

We are living as refugees in our homeland, but we also need to remember what Psalm 24 says: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (v. 1).

One thing that is sure; we belong to the kingdom of God and its exhibition to the world.  That’s paraphrased from the Great Ends of the Church in our Book of Order (F-1.0304).  When we commit ourselves to follow the one who leads us out of exile, we automatically invite others to join the journey.

“‘The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’  That word is the good news that was announced to you” (vv. 24-25).

That’s the good news.  When we fail, and fail we will, in that far country, in the place of our exile, the Lord fails with us, only to raise us up.

5 exile

After all, even in a ditch a pansy will grow.



(“Ties that Bind: Sharing a Common Rule of Life”)

we saw it (heard it) for ourselves

I’m a fan of Star Trek—of all of the TV series and the movies.  But I’m not one of those characters who wear Vulcan ears or try to speak the Klingon language!  One of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is the one called “Transfigurations.”  (What a coincidence!  Today just happens to be Transfiguration!)

For those who don’t know, and especially for those who don’t care, I’ll try to be brief in my description!

1 transfigurationsThe crew of the Enterprise discovers in the wreckage of a ship a seriously wounded alien.  (They’ve never encountered his species.)  It turns out that he has amnesia, so they refer to him as “John Doe.”

“John” makes astonishing progress in recovering from his injuries.  But there’s something else about him.  His body is undergoing transformation at the molecular level; every now and then, he convulses in pain.  Still, one wouldn’t know it by his behavior.  John has a comforting, peaceful presence; it endears him to everyone he meets.  And John has power.  He demonstrates his ability to heal—and even to bring somebody back from the dead!  (Does this sound familiar?)

Slowly, John regains his memory.  When he’s told by Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) that they’ve figured out the location of his home world—and plan to return him there, he says that he can’t go back.  But he still doesn’t know why.  He only knows that he was trying to escape from his planet.  He believes that he’s on some kind of mission.

Eventually, we find out what it is.  The Enterprise is stopped by a ship from his home planet, the captain of which demands that John be turned over to him.  The man is furious at John, but more than that, he’s afraid of him.  He claims that John is a fugitive, sentenced to death for subversive activities.  When Picard dares to question this other captain, the Enterprise is hit with a field that paralyzes everyone on board—they can’t even breathe.

John touches a wall and sends a wave of light throughout the ship, healing the entire crew.  In that moment, he attains perfect clarity.  He now knows who he is and why his leaders are terrified of him.  He explains that his species is on the verge of a wondrous transformation.  That’s why he had to flee—to have time to let the process run its course.

And then, before everyone’s eyes, John is transfigured.  His entire body begins to glow with intense light, until he is transformed into a being of energy.  He says there is now nothing anyone can do to prevent him from returning to his people and telling them that they, too, can embrace the transformation.  No one can stop him from letting them know that they, too, can be transfigured.

The story of this transfiguration is a fictional one.  (By the way, I think the plural title “Transfigurations” speaks to how all those witnessing John’s transformation are also changed.)

There is, of course, another transfiguration which is mentioned in St. Peter’s Second Letter.

A quick note on that: this letter was written after Peter’s death.  There’s a reference in chapter 3 to the letters of Paul, which are now being gathered together and beginning to have the authority of scripture.  The deaths of Peter and Paul were pretty close together in time.  There’s no attempt by the author to trick anyone.  Writing in the name of someone else was a common practice in those days.  It was a way to honor revered teachers, to speak in their voice.

2 transfiguration

Now, back to the transfiguration of Jesus.  As we see in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain (17:1-9).  And then, before their eyes, he begins to shine like the sun; he radiates with the glory of God.  He is joined by the epic figures of the Old Testament: Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah, the prophet among prophets.

Second Peter is addressed to an audience which is plagued by disbelief and mistrust.  The years are going by, and the Lord hasn’t returned.  Prophecies and predictions are spreading around.  People are gathering followers and saying, “Listen to me!  God has let me in on the secret.”  We might even say they’re promoting conspiracy theories.

Isn’t it great that we don’t have to deal with that foolishness today?  Hold that thought!

Our author says, “Ignore those false prophets, those silver-tongued, slippery devils.”  Instead, he says, “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty” (1:16).

I like how the Revised English Bible puts it.  “It was not on tales, however cleverly concocted, that we relied…”  It wasn’t even on tales as cleverly concocted as Star Trek!  Another version says “any sophisticated myths.”[1]

Maybe that’s ironic, since we might consider ourselves today too sophisticated to believe such a ridiculous story.

The late Dwight Peterson, who taught at Eastern University, deals with what we just saw, our writer’s concern to establish the reality of the apostles’ experience and to not simply dismiss it as fantasy.

He says, “His appeal to the Transfiguration is an attempt to root the eschatological expectations of the church in the eyewitness (and ear-witness) experience of those who were present at the Transfiguration.  They saw Jesus ‘receive honor and glory from God’ that day, and they heard the authoritative voice from heaven: ‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.’”[2]  They saw the majesty with their own eyes, and they heard the voice with their own ears.

This letter is presented as Peter’s last will and testament.  Right before today’s reading, we see in verses 13 to 15: “I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.  And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.”

There’s an effort to reassure the church that even when Peter is dead and gone, his message will continue as a firm foundation.

3 alternative facts

The false prophets are presenting a competing version of reality.  To refer to them as “false prophets” and “false teachers,” as he does at the beginning of chapter 2, is definitely putting a negative spin on things!  This is a picture our author (or artist) paints of people who are, not simply mistaken, but have an intent to deceive.  I’m not sure all of them have such motives, but nowadays we have become familiar with the term “alternative facts.”  It’s kind of like the movie The Matrix (1999), in which the human race is dealing with parallel realities, and the truth depends on whether or not you’re aware of the other reality.

Fortunately for the early church, they aren’t held hostage to alternative facts.  Second Peter exposes the alternative gospel that is being disseminated.  The writer bases his argument on “the prophetic message” (v. 19).  Another version says, “All this confirms for us the message of the prophets,” that is, the true prophets, adding, “to which you will do well to attend” (REB).

He wants them to pay attention; it will serve them well.  It will serve as “a lamp shining in a dark place” (v. 19).  Hold on to this reality; hold on to this gospel “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”—“until day breaks and the morning star rises to illuminate your minds” (REB).

The glory of transfiguration shines into our sophisticated, sarcastic, and jaded darkness.  The temptation to be cynical these days might possibly be the greatest any of us have experienced.  For those, while yawning, say they’ve seen it all—maybe for us, if we say the same thing—that light of transfiguration, the radiance of the morning star, will glow ever more brightly and show us the new thing that God is doing.  That is, it will happen if we throw open the shutters.  That revelation cannot be denied.

Like the story in Star Trek with the transfiguration of John Doe, it happens before everyone’s eyes, including the frightened captain who would have him killed.

That prophetic message is true, because it isn’t based on “human will, but [on] men and women moved by the Holy Spirit [who] spoke from God” (v. 21).

4 transfiguration

We are on the doorstep of Lent, a time of reflection, repentance, and even lament.  Too often, our eyes are closed.  We turn away from the light.  What transfiguration needs to happen in our lives?  Or perhaps better, to what transfiguration do we need to bear witness?  To what do we need to testify?  There are those who would convince us of alternative facts, false prophecy, a fake gospel, fake good news.

The good news for us is that we can say, “We saw it for ourselves.  We heard it for ourselves.”  We have been eyewitnesses of his majesty.


[1] Bo Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 156.


confusing cooperation

Recently, I returned from a conflict mediation training event hosted by the Synod of the Northeast of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I won’t pretend to give you a synopsis of the entire week—partly because my brain is still trying to decode the stuff that was fed into it.

But I do want to introduce a little of the stuff we did in today’s sermon.  I want to use the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11, with its confusion of languages, and the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, with its speaking in tongues, as an arena of conflict (and perhaps conflict resolution).

One thing we did I would like to mention was looking at how we manage differences.  That is, a little more strongly, how do we deal with disagreements?

Of course, there are plenty of ways to look at it.  One was a self-assessment that deals with several scenarios of different, and often competing, viewpoints.  It looks at the way we typically deal with those situations.

Very quickly, the inventory has four categories.  One is Accommodating / Harmonizing.  This approach values peace and harmony above all else.  Being sociable is very important.  Concern for the feelings of other people is high on the list.  A motto for this one might be, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Another one is Achieving / Directing.  These are the go-getters, the ones who take the initiative and dive in.  These are the risk takers.  This one’s motto could be “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Then we have Affiliating / Perfecting.  This one puts a great emphasis on relationship.  Being team oriented is very important.  A pursuit of excellence is highly valued.  This might be a fitting motto: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well!”

Finally, there is Analyzing / Preserving.  This approach values gathering information.  Very important is a chance to think things through and not be pressured to make a snap decision.  “Look before you leap!” might be appropriate here.

This is the category I scored the highest in.  I think it speaks to the comment I made earlier about my brain trying to decode what was put into it.  (Give me a break.  I haven’t had enough time!)  One problem with this approach is “analysis paralysis.”  (Hey, I first got to get this stuff worked out!)

In reality, we use all of these approaches when dealing with differences, when dealing with conflict.  It’s just that we’re built—we are hardwired—to favor one or two over the others.  We have to stretch ourselves to operate in ways we would rather not.  Some people are better at stretching themselves than others.  I really have to work at it.  I can stubbornly insist on my own way, even if God is calling me to be more.

As today’s prayer of confession says (it being Pentecost), “We confess that we hold back the force of your Spirit among us.”  That easily becomes my prayer!

image from

There’s a certain group of people who are holding back the force of God’s spirit among themselves.  These guys are the builders of the tower of Babel.

Some see this mythical story as explaining how the human race developed many different languages.  That’s part of the mix at the surface level, but there’s so much more to it.  As today’s declaration of forgiveness says, “God confused the language of all the earth to keep the people from idolatry.”

Genesis 11 begins, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.”  One language and the same words.  That goes beyond the sounds that come out of our mouths.  More importantly, that also can apply to various viewpoints, to different ways of looking at the world.  If everyone speaks the same words, the difficulties of disagreement are ignored, even repressed.  The danger of groupthink sets in.  People are “encouraged” to think the same way, to have their values dictated to them.  That becomes an idol.

What actually happens in the story?

The people migrate to the land of Shinar, which is in modern-day Iraq.  A decision is made to build bricks and use them to construct a city.  They begin work on a tower.  It’s probably what was known as a ziggurat, which looked like a pyramid.  Last week, in my sermon on Revelation, I mentioned “a palace that was a city”—the joyful grandeur of what a city can and should be, looking to the New Jerusalem that descends to earth.

Maybe that’s what these people are about: getting into the palace building business.

So things are going along; deadlines are being met.  The chamber of commerce is rolling out the red carpet for tourism and hosting conventions.  But hold on a minute!  With verse 5, things take a sudden turn.

“The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.  And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’  So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city” (vv. 5-8).

What is the deal?  Why is God being such a party pooper?  Why is the Lord throwing a monkey wrench into the works?  “This is just the start.  Nothing can stop them now!”  It sounds like God is scared!

A few moments ago, I mentioned the idea that having one language and the same words has turned into an idol.  But does that necessarily have to be the case?  What’s wrong with everyone understanding each other?  Doesn’t that help foster unity?

It looks like motivation makes a big difference.  What is driving them?  Look at verse 4.  “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.”  Let us make a name for ourselves, otherwise…  That’s not the prelude to a confident affirmation of faith!  It’s not God who is scared; it’s the people.

They are motivated by fear and distrust.  They fear and distrust God, and even if they don’t want to admit it, they fear and distrust each other.  Fear and distrust is what shapes their society and culture.  Of course, fear and distrust begin within ourselves.  We are in conflict within ourselves.  Without reconciliation, we project that outward into the world around us.

Having said that, can we see the Lord’s act of confusing the people’s language and scattering them throughout the earth as something other than punishment?  Can we see this as an act of love and grace?

Old Testament professor Nancy deClaissé-Walford says, “God scatters humankind so that they might fill the earth, but fill the earth with different voices, different cultures, different life experiences.”[1]  God is no enemy of diversity, no enemy of difference!

On that point, let me tell you a little story.  Once upon a time, a student approached the rabbi and said, “Teacher, I have a question.”  “Go ahead,” said the rabbi.  The student said, “You have taught us that we all are created in the image of God.”  The rabbi replied, “That is correct.”  “Then why,” responded the student, “do we come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors and languages?”  The rabbi said, “Because we all are created in the image of God.”

Remember the story of creation.  God creates the universe by making a difference!  Light and darkness, day and night, earth and sea, and so on.

Our friend Nancy continues, “Look around us; consider our world.  We’ve done a pretty good job of fulfilling the creation command.  But we have also, over the millennia, done a very good job of creating our own towers—towers of isolation.  It is easier to be around ‘our own kind,’ those who speak our language, share our history, act and react as we do.  But our towers are no different from the tower of our ancestors in the faith.”

Like those builders in Genesis 11, we also often act as though our differences and disagreements are somehow a flaw in God’s design.  We act as though conflict is not normal.

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One of the first things we did at the mediation training was to look at this idea of conflict.  The presenter asked us what images come to mind when we hear the word “conflict.”  I think all of the answers pictured conflict as something undesirable, even sinful.  My response was “red faces.”

Conflict is normal.  Without conflict, life itself is impossible.  Without conflict, there wouldn’t be a food chain.  Without conflict, human innovation would be close to nonexistent.  So it’s not a question of conflict being good or bad, it’s what we do with it, how we deal with it.  That partly goes back to those categories I mentioned earlier—the ones with the different mottos.

Here’s a good one on conflict: what is God saying to us in the midst of it?  Admittedly, that’s a tough one to keep in mind when anxiety kicks in.  Let’s not forget: Jesus engaged in plenty of conflict!

Looking back at God’s scattering the people and confusing their language, this is being done to save them from themselves.  This “tower with its top in the heavens” is the perfect example of human technology gone adrift.  Here, it’s a rejection of the joyous, divinely created diversity that is there, if we have the eyes to see it.

Looking ahead to the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, we see another case of confusion of language.  But there’s something different here.  Instead of people making a name for themselves, we have people inspired by the Holy Spirit, praising the name above all names.

We have folks from all over the Roman Empire, and places to the east, who have no earthly idea what the others are saying.  It looks nuts.  Some of those watching all of this decide, “There’s no other way to explain it.  All of these people are drunk as a skunk.”  That’s the cue for St. Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ, to explain that this was the vision of Joel the prophet.

Some confusing cooperation is going on.

Just as with the tower of Babel, at the surface level, the Pentecost event is focused on the confusion of languages.  But the meaning is deeper.  Even if we don’t understand each other at the surface level, there can be unity of spirit.  And in this case, that’s Spirit, as in Holy Spirit.

What does this mean for our disagreements today?  What does this mean for our own arenas of conflict?  Can we not find that what we have in common with enemies, however we define that, is far greater than our differences?

Peter talks about the Spirit being poured out on all manner of people, all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors and languages.  Creation itself is in turmoil.  But those who call on the name of the Lord find salvation.  They find liberation and reconciliation during conflict.

The faithful people of God, sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ, are called to listen beyond the confusion of tongues.  We need not build towers to make a name for ourselves.

On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit doesn’t diminish the diversity among the nationalities, the ethnic groups.  Those groups include both friends and foes.  Instead, the Spirit works through and with them.  Remember the student and the rabbi!  God is the author of difference, diversity, and dare we say, of conflict.

One more note from deClaissé-Walford.  “Diversity, differences between me and you, between us and the members of our families, between us and others in our faith communities is something to be welcomed, honored and celebrated…  If we do not, cannot, will not acknowledge our differences and live and work together in our diversity, then we commit the same sin of fear as the original ‘tower builders.’”[2]

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The Spirit who tumbled the tower builders’ plans is the same Spirit who on Pentecost orchestrated the clamor of confusion into a concert of cooperation.  That same Spirit is here to bring composure within the conflict in our own lives.

[1] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, “God Came Down…and God Scattered: Acts of Punishment or Acts of Grace?” Review and Expositor 103 (Spring 2006): 413.

[2] deClaissé-Walford, 414.

crafting a new way

Would you believe that one of the key ministries mentioned in the book of Acts is a prayer shawl ministry? Well, not precisely shawls, but something close to it. It’s mentioned in chapter 9, all because of the woman who excelled in making “tunics and other clothing” (v. 39). In any event, those who are involved in ministries like prayer shawls have a noble heritage!

Luke, the author of Acts, includes plenty of “local color” in his writing. That applies to Tabitha, whose work leaves everyone positively glowing!

She lives in Joppa (modern day Tel Aviv), and she is called “a disciple” (v. 36). It’s the only time in the New Testament that the Greek word for “female disciple” is used (mathētria).

We’re introduced to her while Peter is in nearby Lydda. It’s about ten miles away. While visiting there, he presides over the healing of Aeneas, a man who has been paralyzed for eight years. Sadly, while people there are celebrating and turning to the Lord, Tabitha falls ill and dies. The disciples in Joppa, knowing that Peter is close by, send for him.

Luke makes a point of giving us her name, which means “gazelle,” in both Aramaic (Tabitha), and in Greek (Dorcas). Maybe that’s because he’s the only New Testament writer who is a Gentile. He has a perspective on bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile that many others do not. And it’s also likely that Tabitha herself has lived a life that has bridged that gap.

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In her ministry, “devoted to good works and acts of charity,” she no doubt had the opportunity to work with people of various backgrounds. This doubly named woman, Eric Barreto suggests, is “herself a cultural hybrid of sorts.… That is, she is at home both in the comfortable cultural confines of her faith but also in the different cultures that surround her.”

In other words, she has taken the time to expand her identity. She can relate to more people. And she has done this in a loving way. And that’s why, as we see in verse 39, after Peter arrives, “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”

As we’re looking at this story, I also want us to keep in mind something that runs throughout the book of Acts. It is a list of the developmental tasks of the congregation during a time of transition. The early years of the church, which we see in Acts, were most definitely times of transition! Of course, this is only a rough comparison to what a congregation in interim times tries to achieve.

I’ll go through these very briefly.

* The first one is coming to terms with history, or celebrating the history. In a way, Peter does this on the day of Pentecost when he talks about where they’ve been and where they’re going. He uses the prophet Joel’s words about the Lord pouring out the Spirit to help him out.

* The next one is discovering a new identity. That goes along with the reality that change is happening anyway. We see this with the welcoming of the Gentiles and recognizing how, quite literally, people are speaking different languages. Today’s scripture, with Luke the Gentile, telling the story of Tabitha / Dorcas is a very good example of that.

* We also have the allowing and empowering of new leadership. In chapter 6, the church saw the wisdom of appointing deacons to assist the apostles in the work. And again, in today’s story, we have another hint of the rising profile of women in the early church. Making room for new leadership is especially important in terms of injecting new blood into the system, and also for giving a voice to those who previously were voiceless.

* The next one doesn’t fit quite so easily, since there weren’t exactly denominations then—though that doesn’t mean there weren’t groups of like-minded believers. We have a sort of reconnecting with the denomination, with the wider church, when Paul goes to Athens and appeals to the Greeks with the broader faith traditions. (But admittedly, that might be shoehorning that one in!)

* The final developmental task of the congregation can be seen in committing to new directions of ministry, looking to the future. I give the example of the early missionary enterprises. We might see a hint of new direction of ministry in today’s story. So let’s return and see what Peter’s up to.

We’re told in verse 40 that “Peter put all of [the widows] outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.” Some people notice a similarity between that and Jesus’ raising the daughter of Jairus: “‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’” (Mk 5:41). Tabitha…Talitha…perhaps?

In the lectionary, this text is read during the Easter season. On that note, John Holbert says that “wherever the power of death is overcome by the power of resurrected life, we see again the power of God alive in God’s world.” In raising Tabitha, Peter is showing—and he himself is being shown—how the Lord is crafting a new way.

I use that word “crafting” quite deliberately. It speaks to the sense of art and beauty we see in the book of Acts. Besides the creativity and sharing of Tabitha’s work that earned her so much love, we also meet Lydia in chapter 16. She is a dealer in purple cloth, something that is both colorful and lucrative. Lydia is a model of hospitality.

And what about the day of Pentecost, when the disciples are speaking in tongues? They’re not out there asking traffic directions; they’re singing the praises of God! And one language just isn’t enough!

The Acts of the Apostles, according to some people, should be called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” That wouldn’t be a bad name! The Spirit is evident in what the young church is doing, in both success and failure. The Spirit is certainly evident in the raising of Tabitha, but perhaps even more importantly for us, the Spirit is evident in the beauty that was her life.

When we welcome the Spirit in crafting a new way, the result is not only beautiful, but it’s also practical!

Aside from the drama and spectacle (raising the dead, speaking in tongues, etc.), the real power of the Spirit is seen in the halting, stumbling efforts that this community of people from different backgrounds demonstrates in their life together. Jürgen Moltmann calls them “the Pentecost community,” and he says they “always have ‘more than enough.’”

Why is that? “Because the power of the resurrection and the Spirit of fellowship have liberated them from the fear of death and from anxiety about life. If God is for us, if God is in our midst, between each and all of us, then there is no longer any want, in any sector of life. People share everything and share in everything, divide and confide all that they have. That is the message of the Pentecost community in Jerusalem, which made so many rich. And that is their message to us as well.” (131)

One of the amazing things about the Spirit is that there is always more than enough. Can we trust that? Can we trust the call and receive the courage it takes to be Pentecost people? Too often, we operate from a mentality of scarcity, and it affects everything we do. We miss out on largesse of Spirit, generosity of spirit.

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I think Luke makes a point about this at the end of our passage. I like the way he closes the chapter. After Tabitha is raised, just as in Lydda, celebrations begin. Hear verse 42: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”

Then, seemingly out of the blue, Luke tosses this in about Peter: “Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner” (v. 43). What’s going on with that? Why should we be interested in his lodging accommodations? Maybe we can see a bit of that new direction of ministry I mentioned earlier.

As a tanner, one who makes leather, Simon is engaged in an unclean line of work. That’s “unclean” in a literal sense—handling dead animals all day tends to make one dirty and stinky. But it’s also “unclean” in a ritual sense. According to Leviticus 11, contact with a dead animal requires ritual cleansing (vv. 39-40). But if that’s your job, you’re never going to be clean, at least as far as the priests are concerned.

So what might seem to be Luke’s casually throwing in a random comment turns out to be anything but random. Peter, quite knowingly, is staying in an unclean place. Luke is foreshadowing the story of Cornelius the centurion, who we see in chapters 10 and 11.

Peter should be disgusted by Simon the tanner, with his filthy, stinky job. But Peter sees Simon as more than a tanner; he recognizes him as a brother in Christ. It hasn’t been an easy transition. To move beyond what he’s been taught his entire life doesn’t come without effort and difficulty.

(And it’s while he’s staying at Simon’s house that he has the vision of unclean, non-kosher food, which leads him to Cornelius the Gentile, the Roman centurion. Entering his home is also a ritual no-no.)

Peter and his friends, including the risen Tabitha, are allowing the Holy Spirit to craft a new way for them. In addition, they are allowing the Holy Spirit to craft them into something beautiful.

Even though they are trying to follow where the Spirit leads, it is still quite unsettling to stay with the process and not rush through it. Sometimes, staying with the process can seem tedious, maybe even painful.

Still, if we think of the Spirit as the master artist, and ourselves as the ones being crafted, it’s probably not a good idea to rush the job. When we hinder, or even abort, the movement of the Spirit in our lives, we rob ourselves, as well as the world around us, of the full expression of what we can be.

During intentional interim times (with both of the words “intentional” and “interim” being important), our prayer is to work towards paying attention to the movement of the Spirit. We want an environment in which the wondrous promises of God will continue to be realized. As I indicated, at times the journey of transition is arduous; its tasks may seem tiresome, but the Spirit is indeed crafting a new way.

[originally posted on 21 April 2013]

driving or leading?

The apostle Paul, in many circles, has never had the best of reputations. Some have a very low opinion of him, portraying him, among other things, as insecure, paranoid, sexist, homophobic, and basically, an all-around grouch! Not at all a pleasant fellow. Some of the stuff he writes could easily lead to that conclusion. (At the same time, we also should be mindful of how cultural biases and misunderstandings influence us.)

Having said that, let’s take a quick look at what’s going on in the churches in Galatia. This might help to explain Paul’s “exuberant” approach.

A group known to posterity as the Judaizers finds fault with Paul’s message. They are concerned that he’s being too fast and loose with the gospel. For the life of them, they don’t understand why this guy is casting off so much of the faith of his people. He doesn’t even require circumcision!

And aside from Paul’s teaching, who does he think he is, anyway? James and Peter and the rest of the apostles in Jerusalem have rock-solid credentials. They were with Jesus himself! Meanwhile, this character was wreaking havoc and mayhem among the brothers and sisters. What kind of training is that?

That, very quickly, is the situation that Paul finds. Many, if not most, in the Galatian church are accepting the teaching that would require Gentiles to observe the Jewish law. And for the guys, you have a special treat. Get ready for snip, snip, snip!

It’s been observed, “Paul is mad about what had happened in Galatia.” I would venture that’s an understatement, but happily, it provides a nice segue to some of those forceful words he uses.

In chapter 1, right after he says hello to his readers, he’s already on their case. “I am astonished,” Paul says, “that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (v. 6). He simply cannot believe how gullible they are, listening to these smooth talkers.

At the beginning of chapter 3, Paul doesn’t bother with sparing anyone’s feelings. “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” The Contemporary English Version displays even less tact: “You stupid Galatians! I told you exactly how Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross. Has someone now put an evil spell on you?” What’s wrong with you? Are you taking crazy pills?

In chapter 4, the apostle again shows his exasperation. “I am afraid I have wasted my time working with you” (v. 11, CEV).

But for me, the best of the worst comes in chapter 5, as he’s discussing those who insist on circumcision. Paul laments, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (v. 12). The Jerusalem Bible is even more cutting: “Tell those who are disturbing you I would like to see the knife slip.” One might say that, in his criticism, the apostle Paul is being quite sharp!

I’ve gone to the trouble of providing these quotes to give a little better picture of his personality. Quotes like these would be ammunition for those who focus on Paul’s bad side. They would likely say that he’s guilty of driving the people; he’s guilty of shoving them. I would say that it’s possible to recognize his flaws (at times, he seems to employ manipulation) and still say that Paul provides a good example of leading the people.

Other than Jesus, even more than Mary or Peter, the New Testament figure whose personality is best revealed is the apostle Paul. We learn more about who he is, and that’s important. As a result of his calling on the road to Damascus, he helps personify the changes during this interim time as the church is discovering its own identity. It’s becoming less a branch of Judaism—and becoming something else.

What will that something else be?

I’m interested by the image of the caterpillar turning into a butterfly. There’s a point in time when the caterpillar in its cocoon can no longer be recognized as a caterpillar. At the same time, it’s not yet a butterfly. It’s in some kind of transitional state. It is gelatinous goo that has the promise of becoming a butterfly. But right now, it sure doesn’t look like it!

That’s us. In many different ways, we are constantly in transitional states. In our own lives, we are transitioning from one thing into another. In verse 17, after his Damascus road experience, when Paul speaks of going “at once into Arabia,” he is neither caterpillar nor butterfly; he is that gelatinous goo. He needs to do some work in figuring out what he’s called to become, or at any rate, what path to follow.

And as I’ve suggested, it’s the same way with the church, both in Paul’s time and in ours. We also are that gelatinous goo, with the promise of becoming something wonderful. As a congregation, it’s easier to recognize those transition times, those interim times. One example is when a congregation is between pastors. Still, that’s what life is all about, constantly transitioning—constantly being that gelatinous goo, in one way or another.

What drives Paul’s concern for the Galatians is just that: what are they becoming? That’s why he goes ballistic. It’s very important for him to establish the origin of his message—where did he get this stuff? As I said earlier, his credentials are being questioned. If his credibility can be ruined, then it’s easier for the ideas of the Judaizers to take hold.

For that reason, Paul insists “that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (vv. 11-12). If anyone wants to trout out pedigrees, Paul can play that game too.

He declares, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (v. 14). I studied under some top-notch rabbis, so don’t lecture me about observing the law and getting circumcised. I know this stuff better than you!

An aspect of who Paul is—something we shouldn’t ignore—is that he has turned away from violence. (It’s easy to miss that with his talk of castration!) His rejection of violence is a message badly needed in our own time, as people continue to hurt each other in the name of God. And this also speaks to the point about seeing him, not as driving others, but as leading them.

He freely admits what he has done. When Paul speaks of his “earlier life in Judaism,” he confesses that he “was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it” (v. 13). That word “violently” in Greek is the word hyperbolē, our English word “hyperbole.” He admits that he was exaggerating; he was going overboard in his efforts.

Yet how different is the way he ends the chapter! Speaking of the churches in Judea: “they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me” (vv. 23-24). What an image of repentance—that is, turning around.

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Paul is in agony because of what he sees in Galatia. He sees dear sisters and brothers turning from their freedom in Christ and submitting to rules and regulations that the gospel has eradicated. Paul sees the gelatinous goo that they are and realizes they are developing in a way that is unhealthy. He wants to help them establish a different church culture.

The apostle yearns for a church culture in which freedom is embraced and the stumbling blocks put in each other’s way are discarded.

Do you know what we notice when we work on building a church culture in which we seek the peace and freedom of Christ? One thing we notice is that we’re not worrying so much about trivial stuff. We notice that life is too short and too precious to waste time on such stuff.

Again, we see Paul’s desperate desire that the Galatians not miss out—that they don’t blow the opportunities they have. But this has what might be an unexpected twist.

In his book, The Hidden Lives of Congregations, Israel Galindo says, “Perhaps the most challenging idea about congregational leadership [and this applies to both clergy and lay leadership] is that it is not that good pastoral leaders have healthy congregations; rather, healthy congregations possess and enable good pastoral leadership…

“In other words, [it’s] less about the individual personality of the [leader],” even one as admittedly provocative and controversial as the apostle Paul, “and more about the ability of the congregation to accommodate and foster the leadership functions it needs.”

So in the case of Paul, he’s not going to be in Galatia for the rest of his life. The church there has the joyful task of figuring out who they are, as well as who is best suited to lead them. When we are able to claim our own identity, it helps us from being driven—as opposed to being led.

Claiming our identity is related to following our passions. What is it that we really love? Following our passions does come with a caution, however. Sometimes our passions can lead us off course, as is the case with the Judaizers. Their passion prevents them from embracing the future into which God is calling everyone.

In chapter 5, Paul sums it up well. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (v. 1).

Having said all of that, what are our passions? How is God calling us to do church? What is the church culture we want to work on that will help enable good pastoral leadership? All of that goes into this wonderful gift of interim time, of being that gelatinous goo, in which the promise is right at our fingertips.

[originally posted on 9 June 2013]


“The expensive people are those who, because they are not simple, make complicated demands—people to whom we cannot respond spontaneously and simply, without anxiety.  They need not be abnormal to exact these complicated responses; it is enough that they should be untruthful or touchy or hypersensitive or that they have an exaggerated idea of their own importance or that they have a pose.” (24)  [My emphasis.]  This is from A Child in Winter, selections from the writings of Caryll Houselander, with Thomas Hoffman doing the editing and providing commentary.

Expensive people.  As you might guess, Houselander isn’t limiting this to those with extravagant tastes.  They aren’t simply those who turn their nose up at a Honda Fit and insist on something like a BMW 7 Series.  Nor are they those who praise to the high heavens a chocolatey, nutty microbrew, while dismissing anything with the word “Budweiser” on it as rancid swill.  (Okay, maybe I have to go along with that one!)

Expensive people are those who maintain a façade, an outer image, who lack a genuine sense of humor; they have a rigid, defensive posture.  Taking oneself too seriously often results in setting artificial standards for others—and for oneself.  Houselander observes, “In time, our relationship with them becomes unreal.”

Still, maybe that description of unreality is closer to home than we would like.  I fear that too often the mirror shows us someone who is unreal.  I wonder: might this be an extreme version of what St. Paul calls the “old self”?  (Romans 6:6 and Ephesians 4:22, among other places).  It’s this appearance of the illusory self that we struggle mightily to preserve.

She goes on, “The individual who is simple, who accepts themselves as they are, makes only a minimum demand on others in their relations with them…  This is an example of the truth that whatever sanctifies our own soul does, at the same time, benefit everyone who comes into our life.” (25)

There is within all of us—and some endearing souls humbly excel at giving free rein to it—a place of lightness and bliss and divine foolishness.  In this place, there is no need to pose.  In this place, we aren’t a weight around the necks of others.  In this place, our opinions need not carry the day.

Moving, not posing, through life is just fine!

(The image is by French photographer Zacharie Gaudrillot-Roy.)

[originally posted on 5 Dec 2015]

must we sing the song of Lamech?


Our Bible study will be taking on the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35.  It’s quite a colorful story!  It features a king releasing a slave from his debt, that slave then grabbing his fellow indebted slave by the throat, and last but not least, God being pictured as a vengeful torturer.
(Of course, the amount owed by the slave to the king, ten thousand talents, should clue us in that the details of the story are fantastically exaggerated.  One denarius was the usual wage for a day’s labor.  With one talent equaling ten thousand denarii, ten thousand talents would equal one hundred million days of labor!)
The parable is introduced by Peter’s question to Jesus regarding how often he should forgive a brother or sister (vv. 21-22).  “As many as seven times?” he asks.  Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
I’ll avoid the temptation to go off on a tangent about our embrace of hateful, unforgiving practices and policies.  Often quoted in justifying those practices and policies is the principle of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”  This is the lex talionis, the “law of retaliation” (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20, Deuteronomy 19:21).  However, this wasn’t intended as a command to commit violence; it was meant to limit violence.  It was designed to keep blood feuds from spiraling out of control.
An example of vengeance gone wild is shown in the song of Lamech (Genesis 4:23-24).  We see that “Lamech said to his wives:  ‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:  I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.  If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.’” 
Seventy-seven.  Why is that number familiar?  Jesus quite deliberately turns the song of Lamech on its head.  In so doing, he turns plenty of our practices and policies on their head.  Can we think of ways in which we want revenge?  Can we think of ways in which we hold grudges?