prayer

the sky is falling!

I’m using for my title a well-known phrase; it is, in fact, the frightened cry of a certain Chicken Little.  There are many variations to the story, but they all begin with an acorn—an acorn which comes plunging from far above and whacks Chicken Little (plop!) on the top of her head.  She panics, “The sky is falling!  I must go tell the king!”

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So off goes Chicken Little, encountering along the way such individuals as Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey—not to mention the infamous Foxy Loxy, who’s more than happy to help Chicken Little, while licking his chops at the sight of all those birds.

Luke 21 might have us thinking that Chicken Little was onto something.  The description of “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” sounds like everything’s coming apart.  This may be just me, but if you notice the paranoia that so often surrounds us, you’ll see that some people already think the sky is falling.  Maybe some of us feel that way!

We are well into Advent.  Advent is as much about the second coming of Jesus as it is about his first—as the baby in Bethlehem.  The idea of a returning messiah has appeared in various religions and mythologies all over the world.

For example, there was the Aztec belief that the god Quetzalcoatl would someday return to them.  When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, many thought their hope had been realized.  He had come from the east—from the sea—just as Quetzalcoatl was supposed to do, and it happened on the same date as Quetzalcoatl was to appear.  However, when the Spanish started killing the Aztecs, it became pretty clear that Cortés was not their savior!

I should add this story has now largely been considered a fabrication.  But it is a great story!

We’re looking at part of a passage that goes back to verse 5, as some folks are “ooh-ing and ah-ing” over how beautiful the temple is.  I don’t suppose many of us have ever been in a temple.  Banu and I have been inside the model of a temple.  There’s a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville—a really impressive structure—complete with a 42-foot-tall statue of the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena.

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In the scripture, Jesus proceeds to pour cold water on the admiration of the temple.  He tells those who are simply breathless over its beauty that “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 6).  Not one stone will be left upon another.  (Note to self: do not hire him as a tour guide!)

The first part of today’s reading, verses 25 to 28, actually may have people saying, “The sky is falling!”  Besides disturbances in the heavens, there’s a reference to what’s happening on earth.  Confusion will be caused “by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (v. 25).  The sea and the waves are symbols of chaos.  “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” (v. 26).  We’re looking at some scary stuff.

I suppose many generations could identify with this.  Case in point: in the mid-fourteenth century, a pandemic of bubonic and pneumonic plague (alias the Black Death) swept through Europe, killing about one-third of the population.  It was commonly believed the end of the world was at hand.

These last three years might have stirred up similar feelings.

Despite all of that, we aren’t to do imitations of Chicken Little.  Verse 28 says “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads.”  Stand up and raise your heads—even if it seems like the sky is falling.  Why are we to do that?  “Because your redemption is drawing near.”  That’s the response of the faithful: those who look for the Lord’s return, as opposed to those who pay no attention to such things.

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The second part of the passage, verses 29 to 33, is a parable taken from nature.  Besides the image of the fig tree, Luke includes “all the trees,” since his audience includes those not familiar with fig trees.  When they sprout leaves, summer is near.  In the same way, when the signs of the preceding verses appear, the kingdom of God is near.

Here’s a question.  Has there ever been a time when people did not see these things?  That would seem to suggest—and this can be found elsewhere in the New Testament—the kingdom of God is always at hand.  When we consider the kingdoms of Christ and Caesar, the difference in the two isn’t a matter of location.  Both are always with us.  Instead, it’s a difference in worldviews—a difference in vision.

The third part contains warnings.  They seem to question the way most of us live our lives.  Verse 34 says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”

In his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, Eugene Peterson put it this way:  “But be on your guard.  Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.”  What’s his deal?  He’s like Arnold Schwarzeneggar in Kindergarten Cop: “I’m the party pooper.”

Bruce Prewer spoke of those who, in effect, only recognize the first advent of Jesus by wanting to ignore the season of Advent and race ahead to Christmas. “If you don’t believe in the Final Coming of Christ,” he says, “then I suggest that you don’t really believe in the first coming of this True Child of God. They are inseparable as thunder and lightning…  If they are not inseparably linked in our faith, our Christmas activities are in danger of becoming a sentimental excursion into fantasy…

“Unless we see Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the One who will certainly come again, then Advent and Christmas can be a brief sentimental diversion; time out from the hard suffering and desperation of this world.  It may offer a bit of temporary escapism.  But mere tinselled sentiment will not provide a liberation for anxious souls who fear they are living in doomsday times.”[1]

The world doesn’t need the church to mimic its empty portrayal of Christmas.  The world needs the church to be the church.  What I mean is: the world needs the church to show that there is a better way.  Too often, it is the reverse!

One way to put these thoughts into a question—and if you haven’t figured this out by now—I like to ask questions.  Probably much more important than having the right answer is asking the right question.  So, what does it mean, in Advent 2022, to wait for the Lord?

Verse 36 gives the warning, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”  The New Jerusalem Bible renders that last phrase as “to hold your ground before the Son of Man.”  How do we hold our ground?

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the line must be drawn herrre!

What does it mean to be alert?  Or how about this: how do we look for the second advent of Jesus, even when the sky is falling?

There are probably as many different ways the sky can fall as there are people.  Disaster need not happen on a public scale, with many witnesses.  The sky can fall, as we all know, in our own lives.  That only underlines the need to encourage each other in the faith, to strive to see Christ in others.

The Bible says we are to pray for the strength to escape what causes us to say, “The sky is falling!”  We are to pray for the strength to stand before the Son of Man.

“The Son of Man”: in simple terms, it means “human being.”  To the extent that we imitate Christ, to the same extent we become human.  Christ is the new Adam—the human of the new creation.

That touches on a key aspect of Christmas itself.  There is the reality of incarnation, literally, “in the flesh.”  It is God being embodied, appearing as a human—that is, as the baby of Bethlehem.  The uncreated revealed as the created.  It imparts a limitless affirmation of who we are as humans.  The sanctification of matter, of physicality, presents us as children of God.

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the pillars of creation

Holding our ground before the Son of Man is an acknowledgment of, and celebration of, the great gift of being born as human, and what’s more, adoption into the family of God.  It’s a great gift even when we feel like the sky is falling.

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C01advt1.htm


detours

One of the pure joys of a road trip is finding ourselves in the heart of a long line of traffic, particularly when we’re way out in the country.  It might be due to an accident or possibly construction work.  It’s especially fun when the line stretches as far as the eye can see.  If by chance an exit is coming up, we might be tempted to get off the highway and try to outflank the congestion.

We might whip out the atlas, that is, if we’re old school.  (When I was a kid, I developed a love with geography.  I spent many hours looking at atlases with places all over the world.)  Or we might simply listen to our friendly MapQuest voice giving directions.  “In 500 feet, turn right.”

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When my sister and I were young, sometimes my dad would say, “Do you want to go for a ride?”  I loved it when he asked that.  When the price of gasoline was negligible, a great way to spend the time would be simply wandering around in the car.  Of course, I would be the one who suggested taking detours, perhaps with a map poised in my lap—or just because I wanted to see “where that road goes.”

Usually, I had a pretty good idea where we would wind up, but if we happened to get lost, I would be the recipient of ire from the front seat.  Still, at least we found out where that road went.

Finding out where roads go means traveling.  1 Corinthians 16 involves plenty of that.  The apostle Paul spent a lot of time on the road.  The Corinthian church themselves were familiar with movement.  The city of Corinth was a hub of activity in the Roman Empire.  Folks were coming and going from every direction.

Paul is writing this from Ephesus, which is in modern-day Turkey.  It’s on the other side of the Aegean Sea.  He’s making his travel plans; he is putting in place his itinerary.

There are some things he would like for them to have in order before he arrives.  At the top of the list is the collection for the church in Jerusalem.  The Jerusalem church is poor.  The believers there are in financial need.  However, there are other factors in play besides the economic ones.

There is an acknowledgment that Jerusalem is the birthplace of the faith.  The Word went out from there.  It is, so to speak, the mother church.  With this “collection for the saints,” they are honoring that reality.

Paul asks the Corinthians to set aside some money when they gather “on the first day of every week,” when they come together for worship (v. 2).  He doesn’t want to show up with their being unprepared and having to scramble to get the funds in place.  It could be a bit embarrassing.

With this appeal for assistance, we might wonder about those with more modest resources.  Certainly, we all have various gifts and abilities.  There’s the often-mentioned itemized request for giving: time, talents, and treasure.  It frequently is the case that those with the least in material possessions do the most with their time and talents—possessions with even greater value.

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Is it safe to say, Paul’s words that “each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn” applies to us?  Can we do so, without asking questions like, “Are they deserving?  Are they one of us?”  Who among us hasn’t been the recipient of God’s grace?  Have we deserved the grace of God, and that in an overwhelming measure?  If we have deserved it, then it isn’t grace.

Verses 3 and 4 show Paul being quite scrupulous in avoiding the appearance of misconduct.  He wants them to select the couriers in charge of the money for the trip to Jerusalem.  He’s fine with sending them off with his blessing and letters of introduction.  Okay, if they want the apostle to come along for the ride, he’s willing to go.

Now it’s time for those travel plans mentioned earlier.  Being in Ephesus, Paul is almost directly across the sea from Corinth.  It would be a quick trip by water.  But he wants to go overland and visit Macedonia, which will take him in a giant loop around the Aegean.

Paul wants to take some time in Macedonia, and he wants to take some time with you, Corinthians.  Maybe you will still have the welcome mat out when winter arrives.  He doesn’t want this to be a flying visit.

Then we come to verses 8 and 9.  The apostle says, “I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.”  There are many adversaries.

So often, when we encounter opposition, we quickly conclude it is a sign God wants us to choose another path.  Where’s that detour?  Have we read the signs wrong?  Have we misinterpreted God’s will?  Serving the Lord shouldn’t be this darn hard.

On the other hand, sometimes we will keep beating our head against the wall.  We will engage in head banging.  And by head banging, I’m not talking about what lovers of heavy metal do when they’re cranking up the volume.  Sometimes—I’m not sure how often—we get punched in the face, and we might reply, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”  To borrow a thought from what Jesus says at the time of Paul’s conversion, we will kick against the goads, to our own distress (Acts 26:14).  Maybe it really is time for a detour!

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photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

It takes spiritually enlightened reason.  Both are necessary.  Still, it’s easy to minister to and share God’s love with those who are kind to us, those who are grateful.

Cannot an adversary become an ally?  A foe become a friend?

Note that the opposition is beyond, as Paul says, “a wide door for effective work.”  The word for “effective” is ἐνεργής (energēs), the source of our word “energy.”  Paul believes there is some good energy, some good vibes in play.

On a side note, the apostle wants to send some good energy to his friends in Corinth.  “Don’t give Timothy a hard time,” he writes.  That young man is Paul’s protégé.  Don’t give him grief because of his age.

He mentions Apollos, who is an eloquent preacher well known to the Corinthians.  Paul wanted him to come and visit them, but as he says, “he was not at all willing to come now” (v. 12).  There is an alternate reading: “it was not at all God’s will.”  So basically, Apollos will come when the time is right.

Lest they stray from the path, lest they detour, Paul delivers some concise directives: “Keep alert; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong” (v. 13).  It’s the third in that list I find especially interesting.  “Be courageous” in Greek is ανδριζεσθε (andrizesthe).  It literally means “be a man.”  I don’t suppose it would be a big surprise to hear “being a man” linked with “being courageous.”

If you’re wondering what the command to “be a man” has to do with the other half of the human race, don’t worry, I’ll get to it in a few moments!

New York Times columnist David Brooks published an article entitled, “Before Manliness Lost Its Virtue.”[1]  He uses as a starting point the ancient Greek concept of manliness.  “Greek manliness,” he says, “started from a different place than ours does now.  For the ancient Greeks, it would have been incomprehensible to count yourself an alpha male simply because you can run a trading floor or sell an apartment because you gilded a faucet handle.

“For them, real men defended or served their city, or performed some noble public service.  Braying after money was the opposite of manliness.  For the Greeks, that was just avariciousness, an activity that shrunk you down into a people-pleasing marketer or hollowed you out because you pursued hollow things.”

Brooks talks about certain traits the ancient Greeks considered indicative of a manly man: being courageous, assertive, competitive, demonstrating his prowess, being self-confident.  Nonetheless, there is something else about the manly man.  “[H]e is also touchy.  He is outraged if others do not grant him the honor that is his due…  They are hard to live with.  They are constantly picking fights and engaging in peacock displays.”

He does mention a corrective the Greeks had.  They “took manliness to the next level.  On top of the honor code, they gave us the concept of magnanimity…  The magnanimous leader possesses all the spirited traits described above, but uses his traits not just to puff himself up, but to create a just political order.”

Here’s where I get back to the question of what “being a man” says to women and children.  Clearly, the apostle is addressing the entire church.

He praises women who have served Christ and the church, sometimes at great personal risk.  Paul refers to Chloe as one of the church’s leaders (1:11).  And in another letter, he gives God thanks for Phoebe, a deacon, for Mary (one of several Marys, we don’t know which), the sisters Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and the beloved Persis, among others (Ro 16:1,6, 12).

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Iesha Evans in Baton Rouge on 9 July 2016

Keep alert; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.  It’s safe to say these women have demonstrated—they have lived—the four-fold directive of verse 13.

So, having said all of that, we immediately have this.  “Let all that you do be done in love” (v. 14).  Be a man.  Be courageous, but do it in love.  Maybe we can say, as we saw earlier, be magnanimous!

The last part of the chapter, with Paul’s greeting of various people in Corinth, is appropriate for All Saints Sunday.

Verse 20 calls for greeting one another “with a holy kiss.”  In cultures where kissing is a normal part of greeting, this isn’t such a strange thing.  The point is it’s supposed to be a “holy” kiss, not something else.

I have a quick story along those lines.  When Banu and I were in seminary, I took a worship class taught by a Presbyterian professor.  She gave us an assignment.  On Sunday, we were to attend a church with a worship service very different from the one we were used to.  There was an Armenian Orthodox church about a mile down the road, so I chose it for my assignment.

The entire service was in the Armenian language, except for the sermon and the prayer of confession, which were in English.  Included in their liturgy was the kiss of peace, the holy kiss.  The only other people in the pew where I was sitting was a family with a father, mother, and daughter.  She looked like she was about 20.  They started down the line, kissing each other on the cheek.  Then the daughter started moving toward me; I became a bit nervous.  She extended her hand, so a holy kiss turned into a holy handshake.  Potential drama averted!

“Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord” (v. 22).  We go from a holy kiss to a pronouncement of a curse.  Still, we might think of it as a self-imposed curse.  A rejection of love, let alone a rejection of the Lord’s love, in itself would mean accepting a curse.

However, right after that we end on a high note.  “Our Lord, come!”  That’s the word maranatha.  It also means, “our Lord is coming.”

So, to summarize, how are we supporting each other?  Regarding the church in Jerusalem, Paul was speaking first of money.  But as we saw, there are things more important than money.  (Amazingly enough!)  How are we doing with holding each other up?  How are we doing with holding those up in our community?

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Regarding Timothy, he reminds the Corinthians “he is doing the work of the Lord just as I am.”  How do we support those doing the work of the Lord in our midst?

And how are we doing in navigating the detours in serving the Lord?  How are we doing in discerning the detours, knowing which way to go?  Our Lord is much more than willing to lead us.  The Lord is ever more ready to hear than we are to pray.

What does all of this look like?  I can’t answer that for you.  We have to answer that question for ourselves.

So, we go through the detours of life, seeking our way home.  We hear the call, “Maranatha.”  Our Lord Jesus, come!  Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is coming.

 

[1] www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/opinion/scaramucci-mccain-masculinity-white-house.html


in with the old, out with the new

Psalm 51 has been called “one of the most moving prayers in the Old Testament.”[1]  It hits all the right notes.  There’s a full admission of guilt, acknowledgment that no pardon is deserved, and loving joy because God does forgive.  There’s an expressed awareness that “unless a radical change is wrought by God, the future will be but a repetition of the past.”  That’s why the psalmist “appeals to God for a clean heart and a new spirit.”[2]

This is the psalm which appears in the liturgy with Ash Wednesday, which by the way probably never makes the list on anyone’s favorite holidays.  There is a cruel and kind revelation about our very existence, who we are, down to the bone.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  There can be no pretensions.

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A key verse in our psalm is verse 14.  The psalmist seems to be on the precipice of some kind of horror, something to be dreaded.  “Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,” is the cry, “O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.”

Opinions differ as to what “bloodshed” here is all about.  Is it something the psalmist has done—or something feared yet to happen?  Is it a comment about the whole nation, something we frequently see in Old Testament prayers?  I would say there’s room for both.

Still, there is a painful, agonizing note sounded by an individual.  The caption of the psalm refers to it as King David’s plea for pardon after raping Bathsheba.  The prophet Nathan has confronted the king and exposed his guilt.  There’s nothing to say.  He has been caught red-handed, so to speak.

Lest we think we are free of the shedding of blood, reflect on this.  Even with inflation, have you ever thought of how so many items are priced so cheaply?   Consider the overwhelmingly vast number of goods coming from a single country.  We support that country, which commits plenty of bloodshed, both literally and figuratively.

Recall verse 1, how this whole thing gets kicked off: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.”  The Hebrew word for “abundant mercy” (or in the New Jerusalem Bible, “tenderness”) is רַחַם (raham).  It means “womb.”  O God, according to your compassion for your unborn child…

Recalling David’s violation of Bathsheba, the Lord can be seen (or is seen) as a female who has suffered that grievous harm—one who has been violated in that most violent way.

The king can’t undo the past; he knows a radically new way is called for.

As we recite the psalm on Ash Wednesday, we should note not all of the psalm is used.  We stop at verse 17.  Here are verses 16 and 17: “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.  The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

As we scroll through this poem, time and time again, we see calls for radical openness.  I encourage you to read every verse and then pause and reflect on it.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity…

Against you, you alone, have I sinned…

You desire truth in the inward being…

Create in me a clean heart…

Restore to me the joy of your salvation…  (I think the point is made.)

For that vision, for that reality to come alive, some radical change—as already mentioned—must come to pass.  That sounds great, but then here are verses 18 and 19.  These last two verses are often seen as having been added later, as a sort of appendix.

“Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem; then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”  We might ask, “Okay, so what’s the point?”  It sounds like a perfectly acceptable and necessary part of repentance.

I would suggest there is a chasm between these two verses and what has gone before.  I know not everyone agrees with me.  They might say I’m overstating the case, pretending I’m looking at the Grand Canyon, as opposed to a babbling brook.  And that’s fine.  But see for yourself.

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On the one hand, “For you have no delight in sacrifice…”  And on the other, “Then you will delight in right sacrifices…”

On the one hand, “If I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased…”  And on the other, “You will delight in burnt offerings…”

“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit.”

With those last two verses, there is a sense of “but then…  There’s nothing wrong with the way we served God in the past.”

At the Missionaries of Prayer website, there’s a post titled, “Prophetic Word—Why am I Attracted to This?”[3]

Why am I attracted to this?  That’s a question for each of us.

Why am I attracted to this?  Suggestions are offered.  Why am I attracted to this church…  this person…  this place?  What do I really want?

“You need to know the answer to this, for yourself.  Because this will help to make or break you.  Only you know the answer.”

This is hard.  It is deeply uncomfortable.  I want the safe.  I want the secure.  I want what verses 18 and 19 promise: the tried and true.  I don’t like being dangled over the cliff, held only by spirit, held only by the Spirit.  How badly I want to say, “In with the old, out with the new.”

Last week, we had a dinner in which a young woman invited many of her friends.  Some of them were sharing experiences they had with the Holy Spirit.  I appreciated a comment by another young woman who said she was asking her husband if they should leave.  With these other people uttering such profound insights (my words, not hers), she said she felt “shallow.”  She felt inadequate.  As I just suggested, I have had feelings like that.

The author of the article says, “We need to grow up.  Christianity is not comfortable.  Growth and change are not comfortable so if every now and then your pastor is not preaching a message that stretches you and causes you to think about your life or calls you to repentance, then something is wrong.  It means you’re only hearing the parts of the Bible that makes you feel good but there are large sections not being preached.  And that should bother you.”

And that should bother me.  As the apostle Paul said, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (1 Co 9:16).  That’s a stark warning.

God forbid I give you easy answers.  God forbid I don’t encourage painful and probing questions.

Adam Neder, professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, says, “If our way of talking about God leaves [us] unaware of the threat he poses to our lives, perhaps that is because we no longer perceive the threat he poses to our lives.”[4]  Can we see God as a threat to our lives?  What could that mean?

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I would suggest we often—or perhaps always—believe our lives are limited to the way we sleepwalk through life.  We don’t necessarily have to get into some deep philosophical discussion.  A trip to the grocery store can be quite revealing.  We see people rushing around, impatient, not smiling, without joy.  What would happen if we conducted an experiment?  What would happen if we decided to slow down?

The late Thomas Merton wrote, “Our ordinary waking life is a bare existence in which, most of the time, we seem to be absent from ourselves and from reality because we are involved in the vain preoccupations which dog the steps of every living [person].  But there are times when we seem suddenly to awake and discover the full meaning of our own present reality…  In the light of such an experience it is easy to see the futility of all the trifles that occupy our minds.  We recapture something of the calm and balance that ought always to be ours, and we understand that life is far too great a gift to be squandered on anything less than perfection.”[5]

Thank the Lord that God is a threat to that substitute for real life, our life hidden in Christ.  We fear the dangerous and delightful depth expressed by the worship chorus, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. / Cast me not away from Thy presence, O Lord / and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. / Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, / and renew a right spirit within me.”

At the beginning I used the quote, “unless a radical change is wrought by God, the future will be but a repetition of the past.”  The psalmist ready to move on.  There’s no looking back.  The past has involved David’s being a rapist and a murderer.  The threat God poses is seen and welcomed.  “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice” (v. 8).

To insert a New Testament perspective: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being!” (2 Co 5:17).

So, what now?  As the song says, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going, / And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing. / That’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it; / You spread His love to everyone; You want to pass it on.”  Pass it on.  “I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (v. 13).

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We aren’t made righteous in the eyes of God just for the fun of it.  If we have truly experienced it, our lives will be changed.  We won’t be able to do otherwise.  We need not feel inadequate, as did the young woman at our dinner.  We are made more than sufficient, more than conquerors.

 

[1] A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1992), 389.

[2] Anderson, 398.

[3] www.missionariesofprayer.org/2022/10/prophetic-word-why-am-i-attracted-to-this/

[4] Adam Neder, “Theology as a Way of Life,” Theology Matters 28:3 (Summer 2022), 4.

[5] Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951), 10.


summer's almost gone

I realize that people tend to think of the Labor Day weekend as the end of summer, and from a tourist perspective, maybe that’s so.  Not to be picky, but it is at the autumnal equinox.

To the extent that people have feelings associated with the end of summer, they often tend to be of a wistful, melancholy variety—a longing for those warm breezes and carefree nights.  As a kid, I had those feelings, along with a certain dread at having to go back to school.  But I also looked forward to fall, because that’s football season!  Even now, the first days of cool weather remind me of the fun I had playing that game.  Every year, at some point in time, I catch a scent or a feeling that fall really has arrived.  (It hasn’t happened yet.)

I’m reminded of a song by the sixties group the Doors.  They had a song called “Summer’s Almost Gone.”[1]  (And to avoid disparaging the late Jim Morrison, I won’t sing this!)

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“Summer’s almost gone, / Summer’s almost gone, / Almost gone, yeah, it’s almost gone / Where will we be when the summer’s gone?”  There really is a tone of gloominess to it.  The song ends this way: “Summer’s almost gone, / Summer’s almost gone / We had some good times but they’re gone / The winter’s coming on, summer’s almost gone.”  (Actually, winter is my favorite season!)

Jeremiah 8 has an expression in which the people, realizing that summer is over, consider it an evil omen.  “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20).  Some say this refers to the drought mentioned in chapter 14.  Others see it as a saying that Jeremiah uses to sum up the mood of the people.  Maybe both are true.  One thing is sure: the impending invasion of the Babylonians has people wondering what to do.

We see the prophet’s torment because of all the disaster happening to the people.  Jeremiah utters his laments, his jeremiads.

“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick” (8:18).  “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (9:1).  That fits right in with Jeremiah’s nickname, “the weeping prophet.”

He truly loves his compatriots, even though they haven’t shown much love to him.  In return for his desperate hopes and prayers that they’ll listen to the truth, Jeremiah’s been given ample helpings of all kinds of abuse: mockery, beating, and imprisonment.  His words have been twisted to make him sound like the enemy of the people.

2There are those who would say that the prophet is a fool to get so worked up over the fate of this bunch.  After the way they treated him, they deserve all the pain coming their way!  Why should he care what happens to people who’ve made his life hell?  Besides, it’s not like his tears are going to do any good anyway.

"Jeremiah" by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

There are at least two responses to all this.  First, Jeremiah isn’t naïve.  He clearly knows the nature of the people he grieves, both the few who’ve been kind to him and the many who haven’t.  Continuing in chapter 9, we hear his cry: “O that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them!  For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors” (v. 2).

Jeremiah would like to have a place way out in the wilderness.  It would be nice to separate himself from all the villainous stuff going on.  He would like to get away from it all.  Get some peace and quiet.  Jeremiah needs to get a Land Rover or maybe an ATV.

Still, having said that, the prophet’s care—his sorrow—does accomplish something.  There is a certain wisdom gained.  We do learn from grief things we can’t learn in any other way.  I imagine that’s a class no one’s in a hurry to sign up for!  But if Jeremiah were to harden his heart—if he were to say goodbye to compassion—he would become less human.  That goes along with the call which came to him as a youngster: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord” (1:8).

What about us?  From whom do we need deliverance?  From whom do we need rescue?  Could it be ourselves?

Jeremiah wails, “For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am broken, I mourn, and horror has seized me” (8:21).  For their brokenness I am broken.

We are all familiar with twelve-step groups.  There are Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and others.  I have attended one AA meeting.  Our church in Jamestown hosted a group.  I asked permission to be there for the beginning of the meeting.  I made sure to leave before they started sharing personal stuff.

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I will confess I have a bit of a problem with the idea saying, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.”  I understand there are medical, psychological, even spiritual components involved.  It’s not something to take lightly.  But it seems to me if we always refer to ourselves as an alcoholic, we make it part of our identity.  There is a sense in which we can own a disease or an addiction.

I remember when I was in seminary taking a program called Clinical Pastoral Education.  It’s required for ordination as a Presbyterian minister.  For most people, it involves an internship as chaplain, usually in a hospital.  At our first meeting, we began with introductions.  One of our members was a lady who literally said, “I am cancer.”  (Not, “I have—or have had—cancer.”  Or, “I am a survivor of cancer.”)

Now that is a case of making a disease your identity.  She eventually gave us her actual name!

Without a doubt, we are all broken in various ways.  We sin, and we need a savior.  Nonetheless, if we take brokenness as our identity, the defining characteristic of who we are, does that mean we will remain broken?  Here’s an unsettling question: do we come to embrace our brokenness?  Do we begin to love it?

Jeremiah seems to recognize this.  He looks at those around him and concludes, “They all deceive their neighbors, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies; they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent” (9:5).  In the Revised English Bible, that last line reads, “deep in sin, they weary themselves going astray.”

They’ve basically said, “It’s hopeless; we’re too far gone.”  And that bit about teaching their tongues to speak lies can lead to a point where the moral compass is completely broken.  We lose the ability to discern right from wrong.  Thus we have verse 6: “Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit!  They refuse to know me, says the Lord.”

The New Jerusalem Bible puts a disturbing twist on it.  “You live in a world of bad faith!  Out of bad faith, they refuse to know me, Yahweh declares.”

A world of bad faith.

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Bryce Dallas Howard in a quirky take on social credit in the episode "Nosedive" on the series Black Mirror.

I would like to suggest one possible example of that is social credit.  For those who don’t know, social credit is a measurement of how good a citizen one is.  It originated in China with businesses and individuals scored on categories like charitable actions, care for the environment, proper online behavior, and many others.  There are some commendable aspects of social credit.  The problem comes with who determines what are positive and what are negative qualities—big tech, the government, our next door neighbor?

We see this system evolving in what have been democratic nations.

Libertarian writer Kristin Tate has commented on this.[2]  “The potential scope of the…social credit system under construction is enormous.  The same companies that can track your activities and give you corporate rewards for compliant behavior could utilize their powers to block transactions, add surcharges or restrict your use of products.  At what point does free speech—be it against biological males playing in girls’ sports, questioning vaccine side effects, or advocating for gun rights—make someone a target in this new system?”…

“Peer pressure, trendy movements, and the ability to comply with the new system with the click of a mouse combine all of the worst elements of dopamine-chasing Americans.  As it grows in breadth and power, what may be most surprising about our new social credit system won’t be collective fear of it, but rather how quickly most people will fall in line.”

It’s a short step, if we haven’t already reached it, for the power of public shaming to take hold.  We could be encouraged (or commanded) to report on each other, in the best tradition of totalitarian societies.  It is surveillance gone wild.  On the plus side, we can finally be excused for using our binoculars to spy on others.  After all, it’s our civic duty.

The prophet warns, “Beware of your neighbors, and put no trust in any of your kin, for all your kin are supplanters, and every neighbor goes around like a slanderer” (9:4).

We are wounded, and we wound each other.  How does one counteract slander, false reporting?  How often is a retraction issued which barely gets the coverage of the original sham story?

Our idols would kill us.  We discover these new shiny things, and they blind us in the glare.  The next thing you know, we have stumbled and fallen into a ditch—or off a bridge!

Still, there is healing.

On that matter, Jeremiah asks with dismay and disbelief, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?” (8:22).  Gilead was noted for its balm, produced by certain trees.  It was prized for its curative properties.  In the story of Joseph, his brothers sold him into slavery to a caravan traveling from Gilead.  Their destination was Egypt.  (I think we know the rest of the story.)  Among their cargo was the medicinal balm.

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There is the beloved hymn which affirms, “There is a balm in Gilead / to make the wounded whole / There is a balm in Gilead / to heal the sin-sick soul.”  That healing is found in our Lord Jesus Christ, the great physician.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, but salvation is at hand.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Fe0UcS2uFw

[2] thehill.com/opinion/finance/565860-coming-soon-americas-own-social-credit-system/


good grief

A few years ago, I preached on Psalm 137.  In that church, just like here, there was an anthem between the scripture readings; we didn’t read them all at once.  As a result, something happened there that also happened a few moments ago.  Immediately after reading verse 9, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” I said (I’ll admit, with a smile), “This is the word of the Lord.”  And the congregation responded, “Thanks be to God!”

Yes, happy are those who beat Babylonian babies against the rock!  Amen!  Hallelujah!

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Psalm 137 is in a group classified as “imprecatory” psalms, psalms in which curses are invoked, in which evil is invoked.  They are not to be repeated in polite company!  One of my favorite examples comes from Psalm 58.  “The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked” (v. 10).  And there’s a charming response: “People will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth’” (v. 11).

Psalms like today’s text also create an embarrassing, uneasy feeling.  Even as noteworthy a figure as C. S. Lewis suggested an alternative way to look at it.  He, in effect, spiritualized it.  He suggested seeing the Babylonian babies, not literally as children, but as temptations.  He said they’re “the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments.”  They “woo and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them, we feel we are being cruel to animals.”[1]

In other words, we shouldn’t think of them as actual babies, but as apparently harmless attractions—and not yielding to them would be like mistreating a little puppy!

I can understand the impulse that wants to soften the blow, to keep the raw emotion of our psalm at arm’s length.  It’s like the feeling we get when, in the presence of someone gripped with pain and anguish, we hear all kinds of utterances that seem vile and even blasphemous.

When Banu and I lived in Philadelphia, we both worked for a while at a nursing home, Broomall Presbyterian Village.  Banu was the chaplain, and I assisted the social services director, Pat.  When I wasn’t helping her with paperwork, she would just have me go and visit the residents.

There was a variety of them, from people who were completely lucid—but couldn’t move very well because of various conditions—to those with advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  There was a particular woman who was still somewhat active, and who also had a very active vocabulary!

More often than not, upon entering her room, you could anticipate being greeted with quite colorful language, and by that I mean expecting a stream of expletives.  “What the blankety-blank do you want?  Who the blank are you?”  (You may fill in those blanks as you wish.)  I would tell her that I was working with Pat, and I was simply there to visit her for whatever reason.  She might cut loose with another tirade.

Call me a masochist, but in a way, I actually looked forward to visiting her!

If it was evident that she really didn’t want me there, I would leave.  Other times, after the initial salvo, she would welcome a visit.  I wonder if that foul language was her way of dealing with the fear and pain, knowing she was slipping.  And miraculously, once in a while, she would actually smile when she saw me.

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Her demeanor made her a difficult person to deal with, to say the least.  In a similar way, the language in our psalm makes it difficult to deal with.

I believe I’ve only heard one sermon on this psalm.  It was when I was in my early twenties and not yet a Presbyterian.  My impression was the fellow preaching didn’t want to deal with the tough language in it.  He read the first verse, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”  As soon as he got to the phrase, “there we sat down,” he stopped and said, “That was their first mistake!”

He then launched into an entire sermon on the need to praise the Lord in all circumstances.  It seemed to me that message could be used for any number of scriptures.  It seemed he wasn’t really engaging with the word, and he wasn’t honoring those who had been exiled to Babylon.

As I’ve suggested, it is understandable if we’re reluctant to address the grief and pain in the psalm, especially because it involves curses!  I will be the first to admit that trying to reconcile this talk of curses and blood and vengeance with the God I know as the God of love—as the God of Jesus Christ—is not something I readily embrace.

Reed Lessing, teacher at Concordia University in St. Paul, explains to us the vengeance of God “arises out of a cultural milieu in which cursing was an integral part of life.  Ancient Near Eastern texts are filled with treaty curses, inscriptional curses, and incantations to undo curses.  Often these blessings and curses were employed to ensure a vassal’s loyalty to his sovereign.”[2]  It was a way of ensuring fidelity and devotion to one’s leader.  We see that in Deuteronomy 30.  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (v. 19).

Lessing adds that “it is out of this understanding that the imprecatory psalms are prayed.  When psalmists call down curses, it is because enemies have been disloyal to Yahweh’s covenant.”  When you live in a world where curses are as customary as the sun rising and setting, it doesn’t seem so unusual.

So, what good is Psalm 137 for us?  Why should we bother with this psalm and others like it?  We haven’t been sent into exile; we haven’t had to live like refugees.

Today’s psalm, to a large degree, is about identity.  When things are taken away from us, when we’re called to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” there can be a powerful temptation to just give up (v. 4).  We can forget who we are; we can lose our identity.  Clearly, we don’t have to go into a literal exile for that to happen.

Psalm 137, and others like it, provides a common language for grief.  Walter Bruggemann, in his article “Conversations among Exiles,” makes the observation, “From Israel the church can learn a better way to deal with grief and rage.”[3]  The Israelites had plenty of experience in that department.

He says that “the church can offer ways of speaking and acting that the dominant society regards as subversive, but without which we cannot for long stay human.  It can express sadness, rage, and loss as an alternative to the denial that inevitably breeds brutality.”  When we bottle things up, or pretend that they aren’t there, that stuff usually comes back with a vengeance!

The language of lament in the biblical tradition is a gift.  Bruggemann concludes that the church “can be a voice of holiness that counters the trivial commodity-centered world by the practice of disciplines that make communion possible.  It can be a voice of imaginative, neighborly transformation…  And it can express new…possibilities, rooted in the truth of God’s good news.”

We do have that common, shared language for grief.  Scriptures like today’s psalm provide it.  It is a language for grief that is holy, even with the curses.

There’s something tricky about grieving—we’re not always aware that we’re doing it.  Sometimes there can be an indefinable heaviness; sometimes there is no emotional content at all.  Sometimes we have to plunge beneath layers of anxiety and anger and rage and sadness.  Sometimes there may be the fear of the future.

It is important to recognize when we are grieving.

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The late Charles Schultz, through his cartoon “Peanuts,” employed plenty of theological and psychological concepts.  Linus, besides carrying his security blanket, was the biblical scholar.  His sister Lucy was the judgmental figure.  And poor Charlie Brown was the one who most frequently cried out, “Good grief!”  He probably didn’t realize it, but there is wisdom in the idea of “good grief.”  Or we can at least say: there is wisdom in recognizing our grief and working through it in a surprisingly good way.

When we aren’t aware of our grief, or when we aren’t able to name it, it can drive us in unhealthy ways.  We have major difficulty in finding some kind of resolution.

So, what can we say about those primal urges of fear and fury in our psalm?  By themselves, they’re neither good nor bad.  The question is, “Can we channel that stuff in constructive ways?”  Another way of looking at it would be: how do we take that stuff and honor Christ and Christ in each other?

I want to give one possible answer to that question by leaving us with a prayer request.  This comes from our missionary friends in France.  We can clearly see those urges of fear and fury at work.  In this case, those forces are definitely bad.  They are directed at servants of the Lord.

We are entreated, “Please pray for our brother ‘Gabriel’ and especially for his wife.  Gabriel escaped terrible persecution and mistreatment in his home country and has been seeking a means for his wife to join him.

“He sent us a message that his wife, who was in hiding, has been found by the extremist group of another faith which group was the source of his persecution.  She is now physically sick and emotionally at her ends.  Her captors are threatening her.

“Gabriel himself is very discouraged and depressed.  He is considering returning to his country, which would probably mean dire consequences, even death.

“Please pray for a miracle.”

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Can we honor Christ and Christ in each other?  We can join with our brothers and sisters in distress.  We all can sing the Lord’s song, even if it is in a foreign land.

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 136.

[2] concordiatheology.org/2011/02/on-suffering-the-bible-and-preaching-part-2

[3] www.religion-online.org/article/conversations-among-exiles/


table manners

Enriched flour (composed of wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid), soybean oil with TBHQ for freshness (by the way, TBHQ is tertiary butylhydroquinone), sugar, salt, leavening (which in turn contains sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, and monocalcium phosphate), high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, cornstarch, and soy lecithin.

Would anyone care to guess what this list is all about?  Well, it’s the list of ingredients on a box of Keebler Club Crackers.

In recent years, there has been increasing attention to the food that Americans eat, especially the highly processed food we consume.  There’s a witches’ brew of chemicals—some benign, some quite harmful—all mixed up in it, along with added salt and sugar.

Some time ago, I saw an interview with a retired lieutenant general who said the number one reason that people are refused admission to the armed forces is because they’re too overweight.  On a side note, he said something I had never heard before.  In the 1940s, one of the main reasons for Americans being refused admission was malnourishment.  The military considered it to be a question of national security, so it pushed for the free lunch program in public schools.

Maybe it will take the military to push the food industry, and all of us, to get our act together and quit eating so much junk food!  (Although, what can I say?  I do like cookies.)

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Throughout history, cultures have addressed the stuff we put into our bodies in a multitude of ways.  What one group of people rejects as vile and disgusting is considered by others to be a treat that is absolutely scrumptious!

Ancient Israelites and modern-day Jews provide a classic example of distinctions in food.  Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 go into some detail.

These laws regarding what is proper and improper, what is ritually clean and unclean, to eat—they’re just part of a whole vision of life.  Along with birth, death, sex, economics, and everything but the kitchen sink, instructions about food demonstrate the way the people of Israel, who are called to holiness, should live.  In fact, the last part of Leviticus, starting with chapter 17, is referred to as the Holiness Code.

But maybe you’re wondering, “What is all this talk about food?  To remind us to eat healthy?”  Okay, that’s part of it.  Still, what we consume helps to define us.  You know, you are what you eat?  It may be largely an accident of geography, but different cultures are associated with certain kinds of food.  Thinking of cuisine, what comes to mind when I say Chinese…or Mexican…or Turkish?

However, there are other factors when it comes to eating.  What we eat can reflect many values, be they religious, political, ecological, or whatever.

So what’s going on with Peter in Acts 11?  It looks like he’s behaving—and eating—the way he’s supposed to.  It looks like he’s doing his very best to avoid food that is ritually unclean.  He hasn’t defiled himself by eating improper stuff; he has kept kosher.  But then, he has a vision!  (More on that in a moment.)

In chapter 10, we’re told the story of Cornelius, who lives in Caesarea.  He’s what people refer to as a “God-fearer.”  God-fearers are Gentiles attracted by the Jewish faith and who live according to its principles.  The Bible calls Cornelius “devout”; he gives alms generously and observes the hours of prayer (v. 2).

During one of these times of prayer, an angel appears to him, telling him to send for Peter, who’s staying in Joppa, about 30 miles down the coast.  He has a message that Cornelius needs to hear.  It just so happens, as Peter re-tells the story in chapter 11, that while he’s been praying, Cornelius’ guys show up.  And he has quite a story of his own!

It seems that he’s had a vision of “something like a large sheet coming down from heaven,” which contains animals of all kinds (v. 5).  Peter sees critters with feet that run, wings that flap, and scales that are…just scaly!  (This is not a vegetarian friendly vision!)  The heavenly voice rings the dinner bell, and says, “Come and get it!”

As I suggested a moment ago, there are plenty of items on the menu that have Peter saying, “Thanks, but no thanks!”  Then we’re told this: “a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’  This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven” (vv. 9-10).  It came from heaven.  That’s an interesting origin for all of this unclean stuff!

When Peter’s Gentile visitors arrive and tell him about Cornelius, something clicks inside him: one of those “a-ha” moments.  And after he returns with them, as he is speaking, he says that “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning” (v. 15).

What has happened to Peter?  Dan Clendenin frames it like so, how “the purity laws lent themselves to a spiritual stratification or hierarchy between the ritually ‘clean’ who considered themselves close to God, and the ‘unclean’ who were shunned as impure sinners far from God.  Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people considered dirty, polluted, or contaminated.”[1]

So in case you haven’t figured this out by now, this isn’t about food; it’s about people.  Notice the language of verse 3; look at how Peter is confronted.  The Good News Bible puts it this way: “You were a guest in the home of uncircumcised Gentiles, and you even ate with them!”  Peter, what in the world were you thinking?

Clendenin goes on, “In word and in deed Jesus ignored, disregarded and perhaps even actively demolished these distinctions of ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status.  And as Peter learned in his encounter with Cornelius, Jesus asked him to do the same.”

Jesus is all about removing distinctions that cause damage.  It’s obvious that we do have differences and distinctions but encouraging the ones that crush human life are not to be tolerated.

On that note about differences, there’s the story about the student who is speaking with the rabbi.  “Teacher,” he says, “you have told us that we are all made in the image of God.”  “That’s right,” the rabbi responds.  The student asks, “Then why do people come in so many different colors, have so many different sizes, and have so many different customs?”  The rabbi answers, “Because we are all made in the image of God.”

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Just like anything that is alive, our identity continues to change—one would hope becoming bigger in heart and spirit.  Think about it.  Do we describe ourselves the same way as we did when we were children?  (I hope not!  I hope we’ve learned a few things!)  What about when we were teenagers?  And through adulthood, our identity continues to evolve.

That’s where the church is in Acts 11.  They have to decide if they will let themselves grow in identity—who they say they are, how they define themselves—or will they turn inward?  When Banu and I did interim pastor training, that was something we were called to encourage, discovering and renewing your identity, at the individual level and at the congregational level.  We forget who we are, and we forget that we need to continue moving.

Remember, this isn’t something that Peter has welcomed.  He has struggled against this expansion of his vision.  (It had to happen three times, which is always a good symbolic number.)  But despite his resistance, he realizes that this change in table manners is a good thing!

What about us?  Do we need a change in table manners?

Do we have any purity laws of our own, ones that crush human life?  Do we have any convenient rules we rely on to avoid the love-affirming, community-building, Holy Spirit-obeying way of life we know we should follow?  Are there any people, or groups of people, that we think of as unworthy—and we move heaven and earth to avoid?  (I include myself in this!)

I don’t know the answer to all those questions.  I suspect that, if we’re honest with ourselves, much of it is true.

“A second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’”  The New Testament church has to deal with this again:  “Who do we welcome to the table?”  That’s something I’ve been hearing from Banu in recent times: who is at my table?  That’s a good question for all of us.  Who is at our table?

What is it within us that seeks to exclude?  What is it that we regard with fear and loathing?  Who is it that we regard with fear and loathing?

Remember, as I said earlier, Jesus is all about removing distinctions that cause damage.  As I said in the story about the student and the rabbi, God creates us with differences and diversities; we just need to not encourage the ones that lead us away from love.

I want to finish with a Polynesian prayer of confession of sin.

“Lord, you have made us known to friends we did not know, and you have given us seats in homes which are not our own.  You have brought the distant near—and made brothers and sisters of strangers.  Forgive us, Lord… we did not introduce you.”

Thanks be to God, who is always willing to teach us table manners!

 

[1] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070430JJ.shtml


wisdom be a lady tonight

I have a little story regarding my choice of scriptures.  On Christmas morning, I was about to read the Bible, and I had a thought about where to go.  Mind you, I don’t recommend this to anyone.  Still, I had the urge to just open the Bible and see what page presented itself.  Without paying any attention, I opened the book to a random spot and let my finger fall.

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Lo, and behold, it fell on Proverbs 7.  It’s the story of a woman sometimes called Dame Folly, or Madam Folly.  I reflected and thought, “This doesn’t seem very Christmassy.”  Immediately after that, in chapter 8, we have a portrait of Lady Wisdom, as she’s usually named.  Foolishness is followed by wisdom.  I read both chapters and concluded, “This might be something to follow up on.”

The opening chapters of the book of Proverbs present a father teaching his son about wisdom.  It’s the imparting of knowledge from parent to child.  (We could also see it, with some modifications, as involving mothers and daughters.)

A scenario is presented in which the father is looking out his window and watching the world go by.  He spots “a young man without sense” (v. 7).  He’s wandering through the streets, approaching a particular woman’s house.  I like the image used: “in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness” (v. 9).  Another version says, “at twilight, as the day faded, at dusk as the night grew dark” (Revised English Bible).  To borrow from Shakespeare, “something wicked this way comes.”

What was this young man without sense, this simple boy, doing hanging around in that neighborhood anyway?

When I was young, my mother often spoke pearls of wisdom to me.  One of them referred to doing something “accidentally on purpose.”  Accidentally on purpose.  That might apply to meeting a certain someone, maybe a potential boyfriend or girlfriend, “accidentally on purpose.”  Maybe someone could “accidentally on purpose” forget to attend a meeting they wanted to avoid.

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Could it be this young man “accidentally on purpose” wanted to encounter this enticing woman?  We hear the lines from the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, / Prone to leave the God I love.”  Well, if that was the young man’s wish, as the day faded, then his wish was granted.

Regarding Dame Folly herself, I won’t dwell too long on the less-than-delicate details.  Suffice it to say, she wears suggestive clothing and awaits her prey.  Upon spotting him, she “seizes him and kisses him” (v. 13).  She tells him she has just fulfilled her religious obligations, and she has everything prepared for him.  Best of all, she assures him, no one will catch them in the act.  Conveniently, her husband is away on a long trip.

Therefore, Dame Folly says, “Come, let us take our fill of love until morning; let us delight ourselves with love” (v. 18).  The other version I mentioned says, “Come!  Let us drown ourselves in pleasure, let us abandon ourselves to a night of love.”  “Abandon” is probably the right word.  The father instructs his son to not imitate him, because he “goes like an ox to the slaughter,” “like a bird rushing into a snare” (vv. 22-23).  He is a moth drawn to the flame.

The father concludes his story, “many are those she has laid low, and numerous are her victims.  Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death” (vv. 26-27).  Eugene Peterson put it in terms quite colorful in his paraphrase The Message: “She runs a halfway house to hell, fits you out with a shroud and a coffin.”

And that’s why it might be a good idea to bring your girlfriend home to meet mother and father!

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Now, let’s go from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Lady Wisdom is presented in ways almost parallel to Dame Folly.  They’re like twins whose paths in life have radically diverged.  They both make their appeals to all, especially to the simple.  The two sisters (if I may continue the metaphor), present what they have to offer.  Unlike her foolish counterpart, Lady Wisdom wishes not to entrap, but to enlighten.

She calls out, “O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it” (8:5).  The Hebrew word for “prudence” is עׇרְמׇה (`armah).  It has the connotations of “guile” or “craftiness.”  There’s a sense of “trickery”—but it’s a good trickery, one that doesn’t leave you…well, feeling foolish!

Lady Wisdom is able and willing to go where Dame Folly is unable and unwilling to go.  Folly—foolishness—can offer short-term excitement, a short-term sense of well-being.  Wisdom hangs in for the long haul.  Folly is a fair-weather friend.  Wisdom is there in both good times and bad.

“Wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her” (v. 11).  All that glitters is not gold.  (Thinking about my mom has me dispensing all sorts of sage knowledge.)  “I, wisdom, live with prudence” (v. 12).  There’s our Hebrew friend prudence again!  More than we might realize the Lord surprises us.  We think what we want turns out to be less than the best, even positively harmful, but the Lord tricks us (remember, tricks in a good way!)—the Lord amazes us and gives us something beyond belief.

So far, we’ve seen wisdom personified, as Lady Wisdom.  With verse 22, wisdom seems to almost leap off the page and be considered as a divine life form.  No longer personified, wisdom is something greater, though not necessarily female.

Here’s a quick word of explanation.  Hebrew, like Spanish for example, has masculine and feminine nouns.  The Hebrew word for “wisdom” (חׇכְמׇה, chakmah) is feminine.  That’s not the only consideration.  Some speak of the so-called masculine and feminine in God.  Some even imagine Lady Wisdom portrayed as a goddess.

She says of herself, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (vv. 22-23).  We get a story reminiscent of Genesis.  The word for “set up” (נׇסַךְ, nasak) literally means “poured out.”  That is, poured out, as in the pouring out of the Spirit.

She says she “was daily [the Lord’s] delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (vv. 30-31).  This is a picture of uninhibited, unrestrained joy.  It is the oblivious wonder of children, the abandonment to astonishment.

4 prDame Folly urges the young man to join her in drowning themselves in pleasure, in abandoning themselves to a night of love.  Of course, there’s no mention of consequences.  To modify the tourist slogan, “What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.”

At the end of the chapter, Lady Wisdom says, “Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.  For whoever finds me finds life.…  all who hate me love death” (vv. 34-36).  Whoever hangs around wisdom finds life.  How different are the ones who hang around Dame Folly.

Del Hungerford speaks quite literally of hanging around wisdom.  She says, “I’m standing in a clearing in a forest, looking up at the sky, watching clouds dance to the music in heaven.  Everything reacts to the worship, and I love to watch how it all responds.

“After a moment, I sense Wisdom next to me.  Together, we enjoy the activity in the atmosphere around us.  I think of teachings about getting to know Wisdom.”[1]

She really is listening to wisdom.  Earlier, I spoke of thinking about what we want.  Wisdom issues a warning.  “Remember, the motive is always known.  If the motive is incorrect and people are lazy or want it for selfish gain, it won’t do them any good.”[2]  Dame Folly whispers in our ears.  Something might be good, in and of itself, but it might not be good for us—at least, not at that time.

Wisdom continues, “Also, remember that for those constant requests ‘I must have…’  When they get what they ask for but their character doesn’t match, it will destroy them…  When people’s motives are not pure, too much of a good thing can have a very devastating effect…”

Ask yourself this question, ‘Do you want something because you’re trying to gain a position in the earthly realm, or are you trying to build relationship with YHVH [Yahweh] and then out of that relationship, you’re given responsibility?’”

She replied, “I think I’d rather have the second choice since relationship is most important.  When you understand true character, you know what to expect.”[3]

Along with Lady Wisdom, Jesus also speaks as the very voice of divine wisdom.  As wisdom incarnate, Jesus is humble, not “loud and wayward,” as is Dame Folly.  He presents a model of being teachable, heeding Lady Wisdom’s call to “take my instruction.”

The best teachers always practice the art of teachability.  Here’s one example among many that comes to mind: 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 in the world he was talking about.

It seems our culture increasingly is becoming one in which asking questions is discouraged.  A society like that is ruled by fear.  Honesty isn’t encouraged; compliance is.

The best teachers remain open to new ideas.  That’s especially evident in Jesus’ encounters with society’s outcasts.  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.

I asked, “What does wisdom look like?”  Consider this.  What positions have we rethought and changed our minds about in the last few years?  What does this say about us and our journey?  I can think of a couple of changes I made in the past year, although it wasn’t entirely of my own choosing.  At some level, the decision was made for me.  I think I just needed to say, “Yes.”

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Without going into all the details, I can say I’ve come to agree with those I once thought of as disagreeable and to disagree with those I once thought of as agreeable.  In a sense, I have repented—which doesn’t have to carry some dark, heavy weight of turning from evil to good.  It simply means “to turn” or to “change one’s mind.”[4]

Back to Hungerford’s encounter with Wisdom.  Wisdom wondered if she was concerned about gaining worldly position or developing a relationship with God.  As you recall, she preferred the relationship.

That is the call of wisdom; wisdom wants to know us.  “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me” (8:17).  Wisdom is calling for us.  Wisdom is calling our name.  We develop our relationship with wisdom.  We develop our relationship with the Lord.  It is a lifelong quest.  Out of that relationship, as noted, we are given responsibility.

We are responsible to each other.  We are to speak words that “are righteous,” with “nothing twisted or crooked in them” (v. 8).  Whether it’s accidentally on purpose or deliberately on purpose, we are called to lift each other up, to pray for each other and to be a help.

I will close with a prayer from the website, Missionaries of Prayer.  This is titled, “Ask for Wisdom.”[5]

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Holy Spirit, bring revelation to me on where I am stuck.  Show me the places where I need to leave.  Relationships that I need to leave.  Groups or movements that I need to leave.  Mindset that I need to leave behind.

I ask you now for a fresh start.  Give me wisdom to know the next step to take.  Where do I go from here?  How do I move forward?  Lord, I quiet my heart and listen for your still small voice as you guide me and lead me into a year of wholeness and peace, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

[1] Del Hungerford, Accessing the Kingdom Realms (CreateSpace Publishing, 2017), Kindle edition, Chapter 13, section 1, paragraphs 1-2.

[2] Hungerford, 13.1.9

[3] Hungerford, 13.1.10

[4] שׁוּב (shuv) Hebrew and μετανοια (metanoia) Greek, respectively

[5] www.missionariesofprayer.org/2022/01/prophetic-word-ask-for-wisdom/


be afraid. be very afraid

The Fly, with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis is credited with the demand, “Be afraid.  Be very afraid.”  However, we can come up with numerous ways that command is laid upon us.  Unfortunately, being exposed to manufactured fear has become a way of life.

Are we familiar with the slogan regarding news broadcasts, “If it bleeds, it leads”?  The focus in the news tends to be on bad news.  And what poses as discussion is either interviewing people who already agree with the host or shouting at and interrupting those who don’t.  On occasion, good news finds its way into the mix.  Nonetheless, it seems that the directive, “lead with the bleed,” has been bumped up a notch or three in the past couple of years.  We are learning to fear each other.  We are being censored.  We are taught, like it or not, fear sells.  Panic is profitable, as in billions of dollars profitable.

1[A scared chicken, courtesy of Doug Savage]

Still, there are reasons for fear that are legitimate.  Fear jumping off your roof—especially if you have a three-story house.  Fear driving down the interstate with your eyes closed.  Fear walking up to your wife while she’s cooking and asking, “What is that stench?”

The psalm which is Isaiah 12 addresses a basic fear.  The first two verses tell us,

“You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. / Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

(Quick note: if you wonder what “in that day” means, see chapter 11, which speaks of the restoration of Israel.)

This is a fear pervading the prophet / psalmist’s outlook, one which is seen to be found in the God of all.  Some might prefer language such as “pervading life itself.”  An elemental anger—an inherent indignation—welling up from the divine is felt.  We might think the whole world is against us!

2However, there is a discovery of salvation.  The prophet Isaiah speaks of freedom from fear.  “I will trust and will not be afraid.”  Trust and fear don’t do very well in the presence of the other.  Fear is afraid of trust.  To be honest, fear is afraid of many things!

We can even be afraid of ourselves.

I remember one day when I was in college and visiting home for the weekend.  I was arguing with my mother—an argument, to my shame, that I started.  Quite simply, she was talking to me about the Lord.  It was a conversation I didn’t care to have, and I made it quite clear.

She responded in an overly emotional manner, and it irritated me.  It made me mad.  I stormed up the stairs to go to my room, and with each step, I became angrier and angrier.  I slammed the door to my room as hard as I could, causing a sound like a thunderclap.

I plopped down in my chair, shaking.  It terrified me that I was capable of such rage.  (And I don’t use that word lightly.)  I was scared.  Needless to say, I didn’t spend the night.  I immediately got in my car and drove back to school.  Fortunately, a few days later, we were reconciled.  Thanks be to God!

Looking back at my outburst that day, I would say that I was convicted by the Holy Spirit.  The Lord was reaching out to me, and I did my best to say “no.”

Verse 3 seems instructive at this point.  “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  With joy I drew water from the wells of salvation, though it didn’t happen then!

My experience of faith and college differed from what is so often the case.  If college does have any effect on a student’s faith, it’s usually that they lose it.  Of course, it can always be retrieved!  But for me, college is where I found my faith.  And this wasn’t a religious college; I was at a state university, MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University).

Recall my comment about divine anger welling up.  Following along with that image, the fresh water from those wells of salvation quenches the fire of fury.  Salvation brings the ultimate trust, and fear is banished.

That’s not the only time the book of Isaiah speaks of pure fresh water welling up: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (58:11).

There’s something about how that well water will be drawn.  There’s a certain state of mind, or state of being.  It will be drawn with joy.  Such is the promise of the prophet: with joy.  It won’t be a question of going through the motions, of following a formula, of following instructions on a box.  I mentioned how fear and trust have trouble co-existing.  With joy, that’s even more the case.  The force, the energy, pulsing at the heart of joy is the power of God.  We hear and feel the holy message, “Fear not.”

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Still, there is a fear many people have, and it is singing before others.  Maybe that’s a fear I would be better off having, at least, according to critiques I’ve received over the years.

However, to that point, there is a theological lesson we can learn from Isaiah.  Verse 5 tells us (no, encourages us, exhorts us) “Sing praises to the Lord”!  If we understand that when we’re singing, we are singing to God, we can be assured we aren’t being graded; we aren’t being critiqued, as I have been!  God is tone deaf in the best possible way.  God is the ultimate in being a forgiving audience.

More than once, the psalms say, “Make a joyful noise!”

There’s a joke along those lines.  Someone is being recruited to sing a solo, and they respond, “I’ll sing a solo.  I’ll sing so low you can’t hear me!”  (I didn’t say it was a good joke.)

Why is Isaiah 12 a text for Advent?  What does it have to do with the coming of Christ?

We always have to be careful when taking an Old Testament scripture and viewing it through New Testament eyes.  Still, this chapter works well for this time of year.  It speaks of hope and joy that the Holy One is in our midst.

The same is true of our epistle reading from Philippians 4.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (v. 4).  We are reminded that the Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice”!

There’s something about verse 5 I really like.  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.”  The Lord is near.  If that’s not an Advent theme, I don’t know what is.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.  The word translated as “gentleness” has many nuances.  The Greek word επιεικης (epieikēs) is powerful.  For example, it expresses what is suitable or fitting.  One described as επιεικης is patient and gentle.  Understand, this isn’t a gentleness born out of weakness.  It portrays one who possesses a loftiness of thought, one who is noble.

4I especially appreciate how it reads in the New English Bible: “Let your magnanimity be manifest to all.”  Be magnanimous.  Be great in character.  Avoid the pettiness, the vindictiveness that so easily infects.  Cultivate the willingness to laugh at oneself.  (Sadly, that’s no problem for me.)

Sometimes I’ve heard people say if they had the ability to do it all over again, they wouldn’t change anything about their life.  After all, it has led them to be the person they are.  Well, I would love to do some things over.  (The day of my meltdown would be one!)  There are many situations in which I wish I had been more… magnanimous.  In that way, we help each other disobey the command to be afraid, to be very afraid.

The apostle Paul counsels us, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (v. 6).  A life of anxiety hampers the desire and ability, not to pray, but to pray with thanksgiving, with gratitude.  There’s a big difference.  Paul says to thank God even while making our requests, our supplications.  One version says, “Be saturated in prayer” (The Passion Translation).

Then what happens?  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7).  The peace of God is superior to every frame of mind.

Trust, joy, gratitude—all of these send fear packing.  We can cultivate healthiness as a nation and as a church.  We too often fall sway under the politics of fear, which has its own sad spirituality.  Fundamentally, it’s a way of controlling the population.  A certain level of anxiety must be maintained for it to work.

Elsewhere, Paul cautions us, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Ga 5:14-15).  If we develop a taste for human flesh, we will never get enough.

Still, there is the holy word of peace, “Fear not.”  It might seem counter-intuitive, but there are ways in which we choose to be afraid.  Sometimes we move heaven and earth to get a sip of that bitter draft of dread.  We ignore Paul’s guidance to not worry, to not get all worked up.  We ignore Isaiah’s encouragement to shout aloud and sing for joy—to raise the roof!

When we do not ignore the prophet and the apostle, what we do is to face down fear.  We embrace a holy boldness.

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[Something appearing on our wall, y'all]

Can we agree to engage in a kind of rage?  Not the foolish, stupid rage that captured me on the day I spoke of.  No, can we agree to rage at all that would intimidate us, to fill us with fear?  Can we agree to a holy rage?  The peace of God isn’t passive; it flexes its muscles.  It is shalom, and shalom kicks fear in the hiney.

“Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”  Do not be afraid.


confident despair

Right after mini-sabbatical, I am not going to begin with the calming waters of the Gulf and the sunshine, but rather, with a visit to King Jehoshaphat of Judah.  How about that?  Does that have you jumping with joy?  In 2 Chronicles 18, he was Jumping Jehoshaphat, as in jumping into Ahab’s ill-fated war.  In chapter 20, war is being forced upon him and his kingdom.  Moabites, Ammonites, and “some of the Meunites” are on the way.

Understanding that a multitude is approaching, one with bad intent, Jehoshaphat is rightly concerned.  No, he is rightly terrified.  He summons leaders from throughout the land and he lays it all out before them.

They look around.  They are few, but their enemies are many.  They don’t have the strength to stand against them.  What are they to do?

The king sees but one option.  Military might won’t save them.  The power of horse and sword will not avail.  Jehoshaphat calls the people to prayer.  As we’re told, “he set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (v. 3).

1 chWhat would happen if our political and military leaders resorted to spiritual methods of resolving differences?  What would nonbelievers say?  I suppose most would be grateful that a nonviolent way was followed.  Some might go along with “spiritual but not religious.”  What would certain fundamentalists say?  There might be those who would protest if their particular faith of whatever stripe weren’t named and promoted.

Still, many would say, “You’re dreaming.  How do you know the powers-that-be would agree if a spiritual or some other kind of conflict resolution were pursued?  And besides, we wouldn’t have a chance to try out our nifty new weapons.”

Fortunately, Jehoshaphat realizes something when he asks, “O Lord, God of our ancestors, are you not God in heaven?  Do you not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations?  In your hand are power and might, so that no one is able to withstand you” (v. 6).  We can’t even infect you with the latest virus!

He acknowledges how God has protected them in the past.  A sanctuary was built to honor the Lord.

He continues his prayer, “If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house, and before you, for your name is in this house, and cry to you in our distress, and you will hear and save” (v. 9).

In time, their admiration of the temple turned into idolatry.  It was believed that no harm could come to them, because it was the place where sacrifice was made to the Lord.  It was the dwelling place of their God.  The prophet Jeremiah tried to warn them when the Babylonians became a threat, but to say his message fell on deaf ears would be putting it mildly.

Still, that’s over two centuries in the future.

He ends his prayer by admitting their futility, “we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us.  We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (v. 12).

2 ch

We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.

In his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas tells us, “In May 1932, a few months before Hitler came to power,” Bonhoeffer preached a sermon using that verse as his scripture reading.[1]  “This text was on his mind a long time before and a long time since.”

Bonhoeffer came from a family that was well-to-do, one that was cultured.  His family held to the best of German tradition.  However, the emergence of the Nazis was seen by them as a disaster and as a disgrace for the nation.  They viewed the whole thing with disgust.

As time went by, and as the atrocities of Hitler became more blatant, Bonhoeffer began to wonder, if no other course were possible to remove this madman (all other avenues having failed), would violence be acceptable?  With much struggle and with much soul searching, he believed he received his answer from the Lord.  When confronting this level of evil, violent resistance was acceptable.  It might even be necessary.

We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.

So back to Jehoshaphat.  What happens next?  How is his prayer answered?  A fellow named Jahaziel steps forward with a word from God.  He relays this message: the Lord says not to be afraid of this great horde.  “The battle is not yours but God’s” (v. 15).  With that, they are all led in blessing and celebration.

The next morning, King Jehoshaphat appoints singers to march before the army and sing praises.  We have a military formation with worship leaders serving as the vanguard, leading the troops.  Singers and musicians going into battle isn’t strange, in and of itself.  Throughout the centuries, music has been used to stir up a fighting spirit.  In this case, it is the worship of the Lord, not an anthem to king and country.  (Or queen and country.)

Apparently, the strategy works.  They have employed some divinely inspired tactics!  We know that because their enemies all turn on each other.  This is the very definition of “friendly fire.”  And they give a brilliant performance of firing friendly, because not a single one of them survives!

When the people come to survey the situation, they see all the dead soldiers, but they also see plunder aplenty.  Livestock abounds, with items of all sorts, clothing of all array, and they come upon some really pricey stuff.  It is truly an embarrassment of riches.  Think of it as the world’s largest estate sale.  They’re hauling it off for the next three days.

After all that, they got together, and they “had church.”  They got to blessing the Lord so much that they changed the name of the place.  They called it the Valley of Beracah, that is, the Valley of Blessing!  They were talking about that worship service for a long time.

3 ch

It appears word got out about the fate of those Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites, because we’re told, “The fear of God came on all the kingdoms of the countries when they heard that the Lord had fought against the enemies of Israel.  And the realm of Jehoshaphat was quiet, for his God gave him rest all around” (vv. 29-30).

It seems that everyone got the memo: lay off Judah for a while, that is, unless you want to find yourself going after your neighbors—and your neighbors coming for you!

The Scottish minister Alexander MacLaren was born in 1826.  (Remember that date.  You’ll understand why shortly.)  He commented on Jehoshaphat’s prayer, saying it demonstrated “the confidence of despair” of he and his people.[2]  The confidence of despair—what a delightfully counter-intuitive insight!

They all know they are up against it, but “the very depth of despair sets them to climb to the height of trust.”  We know not what to do, but our eyes are upon you.  “Blessed is the desperation which catches at God’s hand; firm is the trust which leaps from despair!”

That blessed desperation formed much of church history in this part of the country.  In the early and mid-1800s, central and western New York experienced numerous revivals of faith.  The evangelist Charles Finney is credited with giving the region the name, “The Burned Over District.”  That is, burned over with the fire of the Spirit.

In 1826, Finney came to Auburn, New York.  This place was in the midst of a powerful revival.  He visited First Presbyterian Church, whose pastor was Rev. Dirck Lansing.  Finney tells this story:[3]

“Rev. Mr. Lansing had a large congregation, and a very intelligent one.  The revival soon took effect among the people and became powerful.  It was at that time that Dr. Steel of Auburn, who still resides there, was so greatly blessed in his soul as to become quite another man.  Dr. Steel was an elder in the Presbyterian church when I arrived there.  He was a very timid and doubting kind of Christian and had but little Christian efficiency because he had but very little faith.”  No doubt many of us can often identify with that, to one extent or another.

Finney continues, “He soon, however, became deeply convicted of sin, and descended into the depths of humiliation and distress, almost to despair.  He continued in this state for weeks, until one night in a prayer meeting he was quite overcome with feelings, and sunk down helpless on the floor.  Then God opened his eyes to the reality of his salvation in Christ…”

A few weeks later, Brother Steel came to Finney and spoke with enthusiastic emphasis, “‘Brother Finney, they have buried the Savior, but Christ is risen.’  He received such a wonderful baptism of the Holy Ghost, that he has been the rejoicing and the wonder of God’s people who have known him ever since.”

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There’s some of that confidence of despair!

We might be reminded of what John the Baptist said to the crowds who sought him out.  They asked, “What then should we do?”

There was a movie in 1982, The Year of Living Dangerously, with Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, and Linda Hunt.  Hunt won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Billy Kwan.  She was the first person to win an Oscar for playing a character of the opposite sex.

“The year of living dangerously” refers to the Indonesia of 1965.  President Sukarno is threatened by General Suharto during an attempted coup.  Mass killings are launched.  During the mayhem, Billy asks the question, “What then must we do?  We must give with love to whoever God has placed in our path.”

Adding a bit of levity, a saying might come to mind, a saying which goes back centuries, “Bloom where you are planted.”  It has been made popular today by the noted philosopher Mary Engelbreit.

Here’s one more note from our friend Rev. MacLaren, who speaks in poetic fashion.  “When the valley is filled with mist and swathed in evening gloom, it is the time to lift our gaze to the peaks that glow in perpetual sunshine.  Wise and happy shall we be if the sense of helplessness begets in us the energy of a desperate faith.”

Have any of us ever experienced that strange reality of confident despair?  I’m not talking about despair the way we usually think of it.  I’m not suggesting a situation when life seems to have lost all meaning.  I’m not referring to when we feel all hope is gone.  Our hope is found in the unshaking power and love of Jesus Christ.

I’m speaking of the confident despair Brother Steel passed through to find salvation and life in the Lord.  He displayed his own desperate faith.  I’m speaking of the confident despair of Billy Kwan during the mayhem and murder of his beloved Indonesia.

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[Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan in "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1982)]

MacLaren adds, “We are most likely to conquer if we lift up the voice of thanks for victory in advance, and go into the battle expecting to triumph, because we trust in God.”

When Jahaziel brought the word of God to Jehoshaphat, he had a decision.  He could have simply plunged his army into a useless battle and suffered a devastating defeat.  He could have surrendered.  Or he could do as he did—trust that the Lord was with them.  Trust that this was his answer to prayer.  Trust and see what the Lord will do.

The same is true with us.  Do we plunge headlong, come hell or high water?  Do we simply surrender?  Or do we give thanks, relying on the grace of God to see us through?  Are we willing to look despair in the face and say, “You will not defeat me”?

We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.

 

[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 538.

[2] biblehub.com/commentaries/2_chronicles/20-12.htm

[3] www.gospeltruth.net/memoirsrestored/memrest15.htm


no contagion

I sometimes speak of particular psalms as works of art, that is, as real works of art!  Psalm 91 is certainly in that category.  It has so many rich and vivid images.  “You will not fear the terror of the night…  or the destruction that wastes at noonday…  You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.”  But we’ll get to all those in a few minutes!

1 psIt also has a personal connection for me.  Psalm 91 is my mom’s favorite.  She has spoken of how she sometimes inserts her name where the appropriate pronoun appears.  For example, “Ida will not fear the terror of the night.”  “The young lion and the serpent Ida will trample under foot.”  (Banu reminded me it is also her favorite, which she recites and does the same thing my mom does.)

I can speak of a quite intimate moment.  It happened when she was about to have surgery to implant a pacemaker.  Banu and I were in the hospital with her just before they were ready to roll her away and knock her out.  We prayed this psalm with her.  As you go through verse after verse, the promises of the Lord keep adding up, until we get to the end, “With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation” (v. 16).

This is a song, or a poem, of trust and confidence.  The writer is assured of victory, of obstacles overcome.  This assurance isn’t based on anything within herself or himself.  This assurance, this conviction, is based on living “in the shelter of the Most High, [abiding] in the shadow of the Almighty (v. 1).

The word “Almighty” comes from the Hebrew שַׁדַּי (shaday) Shaddai.

It’s like the Amy Grant song, which was written by Michael Card and John Thompson.  “El-Shaddai, El-Shaddai [“God Almighty”] / El-Elyon na Adonai [“God in the highest, Oh, Lord”] / Age to age, You’re still the same / By the power of the name.”  And of course, the song goes on.  There’s a good case of a psalm inspiring a work of art.

2 ps

Shaddai is the “self-sufficient one,” the “one who suffices.”  That’s a shelter impervious to the storms of life.  One who needs nothing else.

And yes, our psalmist, our poet, has seen some tough times.  There’s been the threat of being snared by the fowler—the danger of being trapped, like a bird rendered helpless.[1]  Who knows what snares, what traps, have lain in wait?  What has been escaped?

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

Who can speak of the “deadly pestilence”?  Our writer has been set free—has been protected—from that which would leave desolation in its wake.

We’re told by Gregg Braden the ancient rabbis held that “Psalm 91 protected the prophet Moses the second time he climbed to the top of Mount Sinai, which is when he received the Ten Commandments.  [He] was enveloped during his ascent by a mysterious cloud of unknown substance of unknown origin.  The cloud became so dense that he could no longer see ahead of him, nor could he be seen by those watching him from below the cloud…”[2]

“It’s during this time of uncertainty and fear that Moses composed and recited Psalm 91 for his protection.  For reasons that he attributed to the power of this prayer, Moses, in fact, was protected.”[3]  While it’s not likely Moses actually wrote the psalm, we can see how it was regarded to have served as a shield.

I spoke of rich and vivid images, including verses 5 and 6.  There is defense from dangers of night and day.  No “terror of the night,” no “arrow that flies by day” will bring harm.  In verse 6, we once again hear about pestilence.  The psalmist is told to not fear “the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.”

The destruction that wastes at noonday.  Many have seen that as a reference to “the noonday devil” or “noonday demon.”  Now that’s a colorful character.  Throughout the centuries of church history, it became associated with one of the seven deadly sins, the one known as sloth.  We might be tempted to laugh it off as mere laziness, but it is more than that.  It is the condition called acedia.  In Latin, it literally means “lack of care.”  It is a refusal to act on the demands of love.

Andrew Michel is a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  He says, “As an absence of care, acedia can seem harmless enough since it is not an observable…offense.  However, whenever there is an absence of care in the world, an absence of intentionality, then someone is left lacking—an elderly person unattended, a starving person unfed, a woman battered, a child uneducated, a life’s gifting uncelebrated.”[4]  It might seem the only person harmed is the one afflicted by it, but as we see, it spreads outward.  It is not a victimless crime!

3 ps“Therefore,” Michel continues, “acedia is difficult to notice because it [deals with] an absence.  Perhaps this is the reason it has been associated with the Psalmist’s noonday demon, who seems to terrorize his prey in the light of day, not fearing being seen or noticed.”[5]

I’ve taken some time with this, because “the destruction that wastes at noonday” doesn’t have to be something dramatic.  In fact, it can hide in the ordinary run of the day.  We get so busy with busy-ness that we demonstrate the prayer of confession of sin in which we ask forgiveness, not so much for “what we have done,” but “what we have left undone.”

But there’s good news!  As Michel contemplated studying acedia, he feared it “might turn into turn into a project in moralizing.  Yet, to my delight,” he realized, “as I have explored the richness of acedia, I have paradoxically discovered that the concept is refreshing and illuminating.  Rather than heaping judgment on a person, the recognition of acedia offers an invitation to abundant living.”[6]  The richness of acedia, the noonday devil: that sounds like a contradiction in terms!  Refreshing?  Illuminating?

Still, that is the hope the psalmist holds out.  Fear not.

The promises of deliverance continue.  Consider verses 9 and 10: “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.”  The word for “scourge” is נֶגַצ (nega`).  It has several nuances, but probably the best one here is “contagion.”  That could include the contagion of acedia, that noonday devil.

The promise here is that “contagion…shall not approach into your tent.”  It shall not rest in your home, because the Lord is in your home.  Something we’ve become familiar with in this past year and a half is indeed contagion.  It has swept through the land; it has swept through the world.  It has visited so many of us. I wonder, though, is there a difference between visiting and taking up residence?  Moving in?

4 psAssuming we take verse 10 literally, at some level, we have no control over being visited by the contagion of Covid, or any other contagion for that matter.  Of course, we take precautions, but there are no firm guarantees in this fallen, disease-infested world.  (I guess I’m scaring all the germophobes!)

Still, as I just suggested, maybe there’s a difference between having a visitor and having someone walk in unannounced, go to the fridge, grab a snack, plop down in your favorite chair, and put their feet up.

So unfortunately, we have become familiar with contagion.  It seems to have brought to the surface some disconcerting realities.

I’ve been reading a book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas.  Bonhoeffer, as you may or may not know, was a church leader in Germany during the time of the Nazis.  His best-known book was The Cost of Discipleship.  He was arrested for his anti-government activities, including participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler.  He was imprisoned for two years.  Bonhoeffer was executed just a matter of days before the surrender of the Nazis.

In the book, Metaxas quotes Bonhoeffer on his thoughts about what the war has revealed.  I would suggest in the place of the word “war,” we substitute the word “contagion.”  (It’s kind of like what Banu and my mother have done with Psalm 91, inserting their names in various places.)  Here are some of his reflections on the realities that World War 2 revealed:

5 ps“It is not war [contagion] that first brings death, not war that first invents the pains and torments of human bodies and souls…  It is not war that first makes our existence so utterly precarious and renders human beings powerless, forcing them to watch their desires and plans being thwarted and destroyed…  But war makes all of this, which existed already apart from it and before it, vast and unavoidable to us who would gladly prefer to overlook it all.”[7]

Does it seem like I’m overstating the effects of the pandemic by comparing it to war?  Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s by very much.  Maybe I’m alone in this, but I think these past months have revealed how crazy we make each other!  Lengthy traumatic experiences have a way of doing that.

Going along with Bonhoeffer, those realities and forces were already there.  The divisions, the shaming of each other, the recriminations…  Covid has given all that an elevated platform.  Especially with the forced lockdowns, it has exposed in detail the economic inequality, the imbalanced opportunities for education, the scourge (yes, the contagion) of domestic violence.

Hasn’t this talk of the noonday devil and contagion been fun?  Fortunately, there’s more to the story.

To those who love the Lord and know his name, these vows are made: “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them” (v. 15).  The word for “honor” כָּבַד (kabad) is the same word for “glorify.”  Imagine that: the Lord will glorify us!  Plagues and contagions might surround us.  That includes the self-imposed contagion of acedia, of sloth—the one that has us saying “no” to love, “no” to the Spirit.

6 ps

God is ever present, wanting so badly to glorify us.  Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ says, “No contagion will harm you.”  Glory be to God in the highest!

 

[1] also in Psalm 124:7

[2] Gregg Braden, The Wisdom Codes (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2020), Kindle edition, Chapter 1, section 2, paragraph 1.

[3] Braden, 1.2.2

[4] Andrew A. Michel, “In Pursuit of Sophia: A Pilgrimage with Depression and Acedia,” Acedia: Christian Reflection (Waco, TX: Baylor University, 2013), 29-30.

[5] Michel, 30.

[6] Michel, 29.

[7] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 373.