science

idolatry and tyranny

Have you not known?

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

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

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

Have you not heard?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can have our own inner tyrant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[3] סׇכַן, sakan

[4] Knight, 39.

[5] Knight, 39.


light, an epiphany

As we learn more about the frightening arsenal that was present at the Capitol building, in and around it, we realize what a “bullet” we dodged.  As horrendous as the loss of life was—and even one is a deplorable tragedy—it could have been much worse.  Many of the rioters were carrying firearms.  Someone even had several Molotov cocktails on hand!

The fact that the attack occurred on the day of the Epiphany of the Lord has not been lost on many.  Epiphany, meaning “manifestation” or “revelation,” is usually illustrated by the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.  It speaks of the light of Christ shown to the Gentiles, to all the nations.

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I have developed a new appreciation for Epiphany and the season of Epiphany.  I’m not speaking of magic, but the reality and power of that light, with the prayers of the people, had to have some salutary effect.

Is there a lesson to be learned?  Without a doubt, justice must be done, but if we stop there, we cheat ourselves.  Laying aside the violence at the Capitol (and the threats that continue), our country still suffers deep divisions.  Like it or not, we have to live with each other.

Does compassion have anything to say to us?  “Hold on now,” some might say, “how dare you suggest that?  These are enemies, despicable enemies.  And we know we’re right!”

Now look into a mirror.  What do you see?

Compassion is not weakness.  It is not surrender.  It does not ignore crimes.  It takes a great deal of strength.

(On a side note, here’s a question.  Does compassion correlate to anything physical?  Can it be measured?  There is an episode of Cosmos: Possible Worlds, “The Cosmic Connectome,” hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson that might touch on that.  At the 3:30 mark in the trailer there’s a hint of what the episode says about such things.)

One of my favorite poems on light was written by Brian Turner in his book, Here, Bullet.  He is a US veteran who served in Bosnia and Iraq.  Turner speaks of Ibn al-Haytham.  (His name was Latinized as Alhazen.)  One thousand years ago in present-day Iraq, he developed what would be called the scientific method.  His specialty?  The study of light.  The poem is titled “Alhazen of Basra.”

2 blog“If I could travel a thousand years back
to August 1004, to a small tent
where Alhazen has fallen asleep among books
about sunsets, shadows, and light itself,
I wouldnt ask whether light travels in a straight line,
or what governs the laws of refraction, or how
he discovered the bridgework of analytical geometry;
I would ask about the light within us,
what shines in the minds great repository
of dream, and whether hes studied the deep shadows
daylight brings, how light defines us.

We have much to learn from Epiphany light.


calming the chaos

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

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

In any event, it was a pleasant walk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some might say 2020 was a nothingness of chaos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


freed minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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


rich wounds, yet visible above

As you might have guessed, I have taken my title from the hymn, “Crown Him with Many Crowns.”  It’s part of the line, “Crown him with many crowns / Behold his hands and side / Rich wounds, yet visible above / In beauty glorified.”  That hymn isn’t usually sung on Easter, but there’s no law saying we can’t!

We’ll get to those rich wounds in a moment.

Our celebration of Easter this year is somewhat muted.  For many it is a great deal muted.  I’ve heard of some churches who plan to wait on celebrating Easter until they can return to their sanctuaries.  I suppose I would remind us that every Sunday, being the Lord’s Day, is a “little Easter.”  There are Christians all over the world who don’t have the luxury of a building on any Sunday.  My guess is they are celebrating the resurrection of our Lord today.

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[He Qi, "Easter Morning"]

And unfortunately, there are still some churches who are doing business as usual.  Of course, if they keep doing that, my prediction is they will very soon not be doing any business at all!

Having said all that, I am well aware of how we, and the rest of the human race, are exploring uncharted territory, to use a considerable understatement.

And sadly, the coronavirus has struck our church family.

If the planet Earth itself was ever in need of resurrection, this is the time.

Jesus is risen from the dead.  Matthew tells us, “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (28:1).  They were in for the surprise of their lives.

There is the utter disbelief of his friends, not to mention his enemies.  Seriously, it was just too insane.  Still, the women were quicker to accept it than the men were.  In his version, Luke tells us the men’s reaction to the women’s report.  “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24:11).

I don’t know about you, but I for one am glad that men disbelieving women is a thing of the past!

To quickly summarize Matthew 28: the women find the stone blocking the tomb has been rolled away.  The guards are quaking in their boots.  An angel tells the women to go and report what they saw, but on the way, Jesus appears to them.  When the priests hear the story, they engineer a coverup.  The disciples go to Galilee and meet the risen Jesus.  He gives them what has come to be known as the Great Commission.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (vv. 18-20).

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A scripture passage often used for funerals is 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s chapter on the resurrection.  A question that gets him started is this: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (v. 12).  Later he deals with the questions, “How are the dead raised?  With what kind of body do they come?” (v. 35).

How do we describe the resurrection body?  Paul says that “this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (v. 53).  I’ll be honest: that really doesn’t help me much!  I have trouble envisioning what that looks like.

Someone who could probably identify with that is Thomas, the so-called “doubting Thomas.”  He wasn’t there when the risen Jesus appeared to his friends.  They say he showed them his hands and side—the hands and side pierced with nail and spear.  He doesn’t believe them, but a week later he does.  Jesus again appears to them, and he shows Thomas that he is real.

Through the ages, people have painted Thomas, not so much as a bad guy, but one who needs a major faith adjustment!  Is it possible that the idea of a resurrected body (as difficult as that is to swallow) still bearing wounds is even more of a stretch?  Here’s where we return to that “rich wounds, yet visible above” business.

The resurrection body of Jesus, who defeated death and the grave, still has scars!  I find that remarkable.  At first thought, we might expect his body, risen from the dead, to be in immaculate condition.  Does God do things by half-measures?  Why not have complete healing?

Perhaps the resurrection body of Jesus models what it means to be scarred.  Maybe it was a way of showing the disciples that it really was him.  They weren’t encountering a ghost; they weren’t having a vision.  So his wounds were a method of identification.

But surely it was much more than that.  In fact, the scriptures give testimony to that.  In 1 Peter 2, we are told, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (v. 24).  By his wounds you have been healed.  Jesus heals by taking on our infirmity.

Back to the idea of an immaculate, a flawless body—God not employing half-measures.  What better way to identify with we humans, to be plunged into human flesh, than to honor it?  Jesus, more than anyone else, understood what it meant to be “the man of sorrows.”  By retaining the scars, Jesus honors the depth of what it means to be human.  After all, he was human!

There has been much discussion about getting back to normal (post pandemic) and how long it will take before it happens.  I don’t believe it will ever happen.  If we somehow pretend to go back to the way things were, we’ll be fooling ourselves.  These events are happening; there’s nothing we can do to change it.  The question will be if we learn from this—if we allow the Spirit to teach us.

Maybe you’ve seen images from around the world what the reduced use of pollution-causing activities has done.  I saw a report on how, in northern India, the reduction of pollution has enabled residents to see the Himalayas, 200 kilometers away (about 125 miles).[1]  Someone commented, “We can see the snow-covered mountains clearly from our roofs.  And not just that, stars are visible at night.  I have never seen anything like this in recent times.”

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And it’s only taken a worldwide disaster to get it done!

Shelly Rambo, who teaches at Boston University School of Theology, has written extensively on trauma.  Something she says about trauma is that it marks “a ‘new normal’ in that there is no possibility of the person returning to who they were before.  A radical break has occurred between the old self and the new one.”[2]  The challenge for one who’s undergone trauma is how to “[integrate] the experience into their life.”  That’s true for us all.  That’s true for us as the church.

We see many reactions to this unwelcome viral visitor, just as we do with other calamities.  One of the most common is one I think we all have had, in one way or another.  We believe God has sent the disease or the storm or the accident or whatever.  Is it God’s will?  Is it a test?  Is it a punishment?  Is it a cruel cosmic joke?

(For what it’s worth, I don’t believe any of those things.  However, I do believe we can choose to believe those things.)

Regardless of what we believe, perhaps the more important point is asking how that belief affects us.  How does it affect our behavior?  How does it affect our faith?  Rambo says we can see Jesus’ wounds as “not only as marks of death but as ways of marking life forward.”

Our scars do not define us.  We all bear scars, be they visible or invisible.

Yes, the scars can be visible.  They might be scars from accidents or surgery.  Maybe we’ve been harmed by others.  Maybe we have harmed ourselves.

And yes, the scars can be invisible.  They might be the result of a constant drumbeat of insults, of ridicule.  Maybe we’ve been rejected because of the way we were born.  Scars can be left—left because of self-deprecation, self-doubt, self-hatred.

4 mtBut that takes us back to the glorious nature of this day.  Rich wounds, yet visible above—in all the ways “above” can mean.  In beauty glorified.  Jesus Christ looks at us, and he sees in our wounds something beautiful.  Our scars are beautiful.

[Even this guy’s scars are beautiful?]

The good news of this Resurrection Day is that the Holy Spirit empowers us as we mark our life forward.  We testify today we as the body of Christ, though wounded we may be, are empowered to say the devil, the grave, that which would harm us, does not have the last word.  Our risen Lord journeys with us as we declare with a holy boldness:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”

“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Co 15:54-55, 57).

 

[1] www.sbs.com.au/language/english/audio/himalayas-visible-for-first-time-in-30-years-as-pollution-levels-in-india-drop

[2] www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/how-christian-theology-and-practice-are-being-shaped-trauma-studies


a corona confession

There are various moments when the coronavirus pandemic first entered our consciousness.  I was aware of the dreadful toll being paid by the Chinese and the Italians, but it still felt too distant, I say to my shame.  But then, on March 11, the NBA suspended its season.  I thought it might be a bit premature, but then the next day, the NHL followed suit.  I have become a big hockey fan, and that was the one the really struck me.  And oh my, what if the NFL delays or, as seems likely, cancels its season?

1 blogSuch were the trivial events that caught my attention.

Cancellations and closings of all manner became a new way of life.

In some small way, I have enjoyed the relative peace and quiet that exists, for example, when I take my dog for a walk.  For a moment, the introvert within me finds a sense of tranquility.

But the moment quickly passes.

I am reminded of the terrible hardships that have descended upon the world and upon my community.  I think of people being cooped up in their homes.  I think of people getting on each other’s nerves.  I think of children whose schooling has been disrupted.  I think of needed services that are largely unavailable.  I think of people losing their jobs.  I think of those for whom home is not a safe place.

Plus, there’s the constant annoyance of the continuous sanitizing of surfaces and avoidance of touching one’s face.  And oh yes, the 20 second ritual of washing one’s hands.  (Which is much easier if you have access to clean water.)

2 blogThere is the overall aggravation of not being able to meet in person.  It takes extra planning to get everyone set online.  And imagine the irritation—I’m being euphemistic—of visits being curtailed or even banned.  (I am a pastor, by the way.)  Regarding worship services, preaching to people, even in real time on the internet, is a weak substitute for the give and take that fosters the joy, creativity, and power of the Holy Spirit.  (Not to mention my often lame attempts at humor.)

My last sermon dealt with the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones in chapter 37.  “Can these bones live?”  I asked some questions.  What will come of our present exile, this new world we’ve been led to?  Will fear win the day?  Will hope win the day?  I think of science fiction / horror movies in which a biological or environmental disaster emerges and turns people into savage beasts.  But the Star Trek fan in me is encouraged by how the human race learns from past mistakes, past atrocities, and builds a new society of justice and peace—though not without its own problems, mind you!

3 blogEzekiel’s vision is more expansive than what Star Trek offers, I must say.  Our efforts alone do not suffice.  “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (vv. 13-14a).

The coronavirus doesn’t get the final say.


all the welkin rings

Psalm 148 is a song of praise, and it is an expansive one.  It’s about as expansive as you can get.  It includes the entire cosmos!  Verse 1 says, “Praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!”  The psalmist surveys everything within his understanding of the universe; the poet calls everything to praise the Lord.  (Special note: there could be other universes.)

1 psThere’s an interesting note about Charles Wesley, the hymn-writing younger brother of John Wesley.  We’re told that “the Christmas carol, ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ was originally written by Charles Wesley to read ‘Hark how all the welkin rings’…  The entire ‘welkin,’ the entire sky and heavens, ring with the chorus of praise that embraces all creatures in their joy that the Creator has entered into creaturehood with them, for the salvation of all.”[1]

There are some scientists who are beginning to take notice of this kind of stuff, though they wouldn’t use the poetic phrases of a Christmas carol.  In his book, Cosmic Jackpot, theoretical physicist Paul Davies deals with one of the biggest questions of all:  why is our universe able to support life—why is it friendly to life?[2]  In his terminology, there’s no guarantee that, after the big bang, the universe would expand in a way that would allow stars to form, with planets orbiting around them.  He goes into variations of what’s known as the anthropic principle.[3]

However for me, anyway, scientific ideas like that cast Christian ideas, like the second advent of Christ, and Christ as Alpha and Omega, in a new light.  They provide insights into psalms like the one we have today.

As I suggested, Psalm 148 is an all-encompassing psalm.  It begins with what is the most distant (“the heavens,” “the heights”), and gradually moves closer to home—to what is more familiar.  We eventually get to earth, where the forces of nature are called upon to praise the Lord.  Then a little closer, the mountains and trees—and animals, both wild and tame—hear the summons to praise.

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Finally, we get to the human race.  The high and the mighty, as well as the low and the humble are addressed.  Last of all, in verse 14, the “faithful,” “the people of Israel who are close to him” hear the call: “Praise the Lord!”

Something that got my attention is verse 7: “Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps.”  There’s a real sense of dread at what lies down below the surface of the sea.  In his translation, Gary Chamberlain uses the rather colorful phrase, “Ocean deeps and dragons.”[4]  This taps into the visceral fear of what dwells in the depths.

If we can call upon the heights to praise, that which we glory in, then we must also turn our attention to the depths, that which we fear and loathe.  That which dwells in the shadows—the darkness that we avoid—is called to come into the light to join in the work and privilege of praising God.

3 psWhat does it mean for all these to praise the Lord?  We can understand the call to humans.  What does it mean for the sun and moon?  What does it mean for fire and hail?  What does it mean for mountains and all hills?  What does it mean for little critters and flying birds?  What does it mean for our cats and dogs?  Are they able to praise the Lord?  Or is all of this a bunch of whimsical nonsense?

In some way, at some level, praising the Lord is bound up with understanding our place in the universe.  And more than understanding it—celebrating it, not working against it.  It seems that it is only we humans who are able to act against our own nature.  Rocks and rivers don’t have that ability.  Neither, it seems, do maples nor mice.

How do we find and celebrate our place in the universe?  How do we join in the cosmic dance of praise?  How do we take part as all the welkin rings?

A key aspect of that is stewardship.  We humans have the privilege and responsibility of being stewards of creation.  Sadly, for much of creation, our role as stewards has been a curse.  With our cruelty, pollution, and violence, it continues to be a curse.  If we humans were to suddenly disappear, I don’t think planet Earth and everything within it would miss us very much!

Stewardship is another of those expansive terms.  It encompasses a whole lot of stuff!  Too often in the church, the word is relegated to so-called “stewardship drives.”  (And on that point in particular, we often think of it as what we “have” to give, as opposed to what we “get” to give!)  In Genesis 2, God puts humans in charge of the garden.  It’s something we address throughout all of life.

Praising the Lord, joining in as all the welkin rings, is not about a mentality of scarcity.  It is very much a mentality of abundance.  Our Lord, who the psalmist calls all of creation to praise, is a Lord of abundance—even lavish abundance.  Our Lord is a Lord of mysterious abundance.

The scientist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, once made a comment I believe illustrates this, even though that was not his intention.  He said due to a glorious accident, we have become “the stewards of life’s continuity on earth.”  He agreed we are stewards of creation, although he didn’t use the word “creation.”[5]

It is a very good thing that we continue to learn, but at times I’m reminded of God’s responses to Job, after he has questioned the ways of God.  Job is asked things like, “Which is the way to the home of the Light, and where does darkness live?” (38:19, New Jerusalem Bible).  Or this: “Will lightning flashes come at your command and answer, ‘Here we are’?” (38:35).  There are always mysteries, things to discover!

One of the most wonderful discoveries is, as the psalmist says, how God “has raised up a horn for his people,” that is, raised up strength for the faithful (v. 14).  As we find our place in the universe, as we joyfully accept our call to be stewards, we receive strength from God and pass it to all those around.

Rachel Wheeler wrote an article titled, “Of Trash and Treasure: Implications of Zero Waste for the Spiritual Life.”  In it, she reminds us, “Everything…is designed for you to throw away when you are finished with it.  But where is ‘away’?  Of course, ‘away’ does not really exist.”[6]

She has an interesting take on Jesus’ feeding the multitude as it’s presented in John’s gospel.  “What do we make of Jesus feeding the five thousand when he is reported as instructing his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost”[7] (Jn. 6:12, NRSV)?  Other translations use the language of waste: ‘Let nothing be wasted,’[8] the implication being Jesus and his disciples gathered up what was left over, not just to indicate the generous nature of the miracle, providing more than enough for those gathered, but also to set an example for others.”[9]

My mom used to tell me, “Waste not; want not.”  What we throw away, we leave for others to deal with.

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Does all of this sound like it only has a tenuous connection for this Christ the King Sunday?  That might be true if we were dealing with just any king.  But this is a king—and a kingdom—like none other.  It’s a kingdom that is based, not on power, at least not power the way we usually envision it.  It is a peaceable kingdom, as envisioned in Isaiah 11.  The good news, the gospel, of that kingdom is good news for all of creation.  It is an expansive, all-encompassing gospel.  The Hebrew term shalom doesn’t simply refer to our ordinary word “peace.”  It is an expansive, all-encompassing peace.  It points to heaven on earth.  “For God so loved the world…”

A moment ago, I mentioned how Jesus desires that nothing go to waste.  Well, maybe there is one thing it’s good to waste—which is, to waste time.  I’m not talking about wasting time the way we typically think of it, as Pink Floyd once sang, “fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.”  No, this is wasting time with God.  Many would say, “Wasting time with God is not very ‘useful’; it’s not very ‘practical.’”  Still, I would say, “Do waste time with God.”  “Do pray.”  Do sit in silence.

As we truly praise the Lord, we draw closer to the King.  We show ourselves to be citizens of that realm.

“Hark how all the welkin rings / Glory to the newborn king.”  We discover our place as all the welkin rings.

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[1] oldsite.processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2007-12-30/1st-sunday-after-christmas

[2] Paul Davies, Cosmic Jackpot (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007).

[3] www.anthropic-principle.com

[4] Gary Chamberlain, The Psalms: A New Translation for Prayer and Worship (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1984), 181.

[5] Wim Kayzer, A Glorious Accident (New York: Freeman, 1997), 92.

[6] Rachel Wheeler, “Of Trash and Treasure: Implications of Zero Waste for the Spiritual Life,” Spiritus 19:1 (Spring 2019), 95.

[7] Greek word for “lost” (απολλυμι, apollumi) means “destroy” or “perish”

[8] Revised English Bible: “so that nothing is wasted”

[9] Wheeler, 97.


blow away the vapor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We become what we worship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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


empty

“The people who come after us are not going to care about how hard we tried.  They’re not going to care if we were nice people.  They’re not going to care if we signed petitions.  They’re not going to care if we voted Democrat, Republican, or Green…  They’re not going to care if we did a whole bunch of preaching, no matter how wonderful the sermons are…

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“What they’re going to care about is whether they can breathe the air and drink the water.  They’re going to care about whether the land can give them food that they can eat.”[1]

That’s from an interview with Derrick Jensen, author and ecological activist, conducted by Rev. Michael Dowd, who calls himself a “pro-future evangelist.”  (By the way, Dowd graduated from the same seminary Banu and I did, Eastern Baptist Seminary—now Palmer Seminary.)

The quote speaks to the efforts we engage in, which can be good and admirable endeavors.  We can excel in our labors; we can accomplish great things.  Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with that!  I myself have signed petitions.  I have voted.  I have preached!  Nevertheless, at the end of the day—a phrase I find with a disconcerting layer of meanings—the question is what we leave for the sake of our future sisters and brothers and for the sake of the earth.

The human race is conducting a chemistry experiment with our planet’s atmosphere.  How insane is that?  (As Jim Morrison of the Doors once sang, “People are strange.”)  We are altering the composition of our air.  We’re increasing the percentages of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases.

I won’t go on forever, but here’s another pleasant tidbit: our oceans are drowning in plastic.  Approximately one garbage truck load of plastic is dumped in the ocean every minute.[2]  It has a horrific effect on wildlife.  Plastic never really biodegrades; it just gets broken into smaller and smaller pieces.  A couple of faces in this rogues’ gallery are plastic bottles and plastic bags.

3 ph 2(Over the years, my wife and I have rationalized our use of plastic bags, saying we employ them as poop bags for our dogs.)

There is a passage from scripture which has prompted the way I’ve begun.  It is today’s epistle reading in Philippians 2.  Verses 6 to 11 contain some poetic language which the apostle Paul seems to have borrowed from an early hymn.  Verse 5 sets the stage: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

It sings of the willing humility—the setting aside of divine privilege—of Christ being born as Jesus, a human being.  Verse 7 speaks of the self-emptying necessary to do that.  Christ “emptied himself,” “made himself nothing.”  Nothing.  Nobody.  The Greek word for “the act of emptying” is κένωσις (kenōsis).  Christ underwent kenosis.  We are also called to undergo kenosis, not just for ourselves, but as suggested before, for the sake of all who come after us.

Imagine if the world’s population of 7 billion plus all lived our lifestyles.  What would happen to Mother Earth?  What in our lifestyles could do with being emptied?

What’s going on with the church in Philippi that requires “self-emptying”?

Let’s look at how the chapter starts.  “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy…”  Need I go any further?  “…make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (vv. 1-2).

Paul has a warm relationship with the Philippians; there is plenty of mutual love between them.  Still, there is a problem, and it pains him all the more.  He pleads, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (vv. 3-4).

A little background might be helpful.  When Paul and his friends were still in Asia, he had a vision in the night of a man from Macedonia asking him to come and help them.  They crossed over into Europe, and came to Philippi, where they encountered Lydia.  She was their first European convert (Ac 16:9-15).

Paul addresses this beloved church while in prison.  (Incidentally, the epistle to the Philippians, as well as those to the Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon are called the “prison epistles.”)

2 ph 2

Despite his travails, the apostle is filled with joy and hope.  He lets them know that.  In fact, in chapter 3, he tells them whatever his achievements, whatever his accomplishments, he has “come to regard [them] as loss because of Christ” (v. 7).  He says that for the “sake [of Christ] I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish” (v. 8).

That word “rubbish” in Greek (σκυβαλον, skubalon) is a quite lovely one.  It’s the word for “refuse,” for “garbage.”  It can also have a less fragrant connotation, referring to the excrement of animals.  (So we come full circle to the plastic bags we use as poop bags for our dog!)

Returning to the problem the apostle has with the Philippians, he laments the self-promotion that’s occurring among them.  Instead of being concerned about the interests of others, many are thinking only of themselves.  They are ignoring the effect they have on others.  (And that brings us back to ourselves, ignoring what we leave for future generations.)

With that in mind, he gives them a new song to sing: the kenosis hymn, the hymn of Christ emptying himself.

Something we should be aware of is the use of the word “you.”  It is always “you” as plural, not singular.  He is addressing the entire community.  Certainly, individuals can and should take a lesson from this.  Still, he has the whole church in mind.

Speaking of mind, how would we describe “the mind of Christ”?  What does it look like to have it together?  What self-emptying would be valuable for us?  As Dennis Bratcher puts it, “True servanthood empties self.”[3]

There’s a nice little meditation maybe we can relate to.  It deals with kenosis, emptying of self, and it has nothing to do with Greek words or lengthy theological discussions!  Valencia Jackson, minister in the AME Church, expounds on the “confessions of a shopaholic.”[4]

“I enjoy shopping,” she says.  “For me, shopping is therapeutic.  I like to call this type of therapy, ‘market therapy’ because I do not have to pay a licensed professional counselor…

“I enjoy shopping, but I have friends who love shopping a lot more than me.”  It looks like she’s about to “out” some people.  “They are shopaholics.  These friends know every time their favorite stores have sales.  They go and shop to their hearts’ content…  Many hide their purchases from their husbands.”

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(I can’t imagine such a thing.  But of course, if it’s hidden, how would I know?  In fairness, I am told, at least after the fact—or when the package arrives.)

Now, back to Jackson.  “They confess that they are shopaholics.  They seem unable to resist.”

We do accumulate.  We accumulate all manner of things.  Too often, we accumulate to bolster our ego.  We fear laying stuff aside.

When Christ emptied himself, what did that entail?  Not much really, just “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (vv. 7-8).  No big deal.

We’re told of something C.S. Lewis once wrote: “If you want to get the hang of the incarnation, just imagine how you’d feel if you woke up one morning to discover you had turned into a garden slug.”[5]  What about that bit about being obedient to the point of dying on a cross?  It should be noted that in the Roman Empire, crucifixion was considered to be the most degrading and humiliating form of execution.  It was reserved for the lowest of the low.

(So the eternal Second Person of the Trinity, by entering into flesh of the human named Jesus of Nazareth, gave up more than just a little bit.)

As suggested earlier, what would it look like for us here to have the mind of Christ, which leads to self-emptying for our own benefit and the benefit of everyone else?

During Holy Week, we’re inviting everyone to observe crossing thresholds.[6]  A threshold “can be a place, a moment, or a season in time.”  Our church’s website post, “Crossing the Threshold,” tells us, “During a threshold time, we have a sense of anticipation as what lies ahead for us is significant: we are aware God is preparing us—a deep work may be taking place in our life.”

It is that deep work which enables us to be unable.  It is that deep work which leads us to lay aside those things protecting our false ego.  It is that deep work which turns letting everything go to gaining all things.  It was that deep work that empowered Christ to lose power.

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It was after the ultimate humbling that he was highly exalted and given the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 

[1] Michael Dowd, “Christ as the Future Incarnate,” first published in Oneing, “The Universal Christ,” 8:1 (Spring 2019), 2.

[2] www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/10/every-minute-one-garbage-truck-of-plastic-is-dumped-into-our-oceans

[3] www.crivoice.org/kenosis.html

[4] Valencia Jackson, “Confessions of a Shopaholic: Philippians 2:1-11,” Review and Expositor 107, Winter 2010, 75.

[5] cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/palm-sunday-c/?type=lectionary_epistle

[6] www.auburnfirst.org/2019/04/crossing-the-threshold.html


building the earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

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

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 ps

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

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

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

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

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

6 ps

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Fosdick, 60.

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

[6] Moore, 25.

[7] Moore, 25.