spiritual formation / gifts

warm up the celebration

It might seem strange to use Matthew 24 as one of the readings for World Communion Sunday.  This snippet of scripture portrays wars, famines, earthquakes, torture, betrayal, people being led astray.  What kind of communion is that?  Actually, this might be a good description of our world!

This comes right after Jesus’ disciples are “oohing” and “ahhing” at the beauty of the temple.  In his gospel, Luke adds “how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God” (21:5).  So how does Jesus respond to his starry-eyed friends?  He asks, “You see all these, do you not?  Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 2).

What a party pooper.

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"I'm the party pooper"

But he wasn’t wrong.  In the year 70, fed up with the constant rebellion of the Jews, the Romans rolled in and destroyed the temple.

(Here’s a quick note.  Actually, anything we humans build will eventually disappear.  This building we’re in right now will eventually crumble to the ground.  We are in a doomed structure!  And that word “structure” has one than one meaning.)

Still, the reason I picked this passage for today comes in verse 12: “And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.”  Back when I started reading the Bible in earnest—when I became a Christian while in college—that really jumped out at me.  It still really speaks to me.  The love of many will grow cold.  Love growing cold—that’s not a very pleasant thought!

It’s not a very lovely thought for World Communion Sunday, is it?  In some ways, it might be true of us today.  Love is growing cold.

Having said that, it’s also true that actual witch hunts rarely happen anymore.  People are not routinely burned at the stake.  And then there are stories from the 1600s of Presbyterians and others in their dealings with Baptists, who do not believe in infant baptism.  They decided to help the Baptists and grant their wish.  Since Baptists believed they needed to be baptized again, they were bound with heavy stones and tossed into the river.  Here’s your baptism!  (Still, I cannot confirm the accuracy of those reports!)

2 lmIn any case, there are some things one hopes we have left behind.  One hopes we aren’t put to the test if our civilization were to come crashing down!

A time when people were put to such a test was when the Babylonians invaded Judea.  The nation was under military occupation, with hundreds and thousands sent into forced deportation—the Babylonian exile.  The invaders destroyed the original temple, as the Romans did the second temple centuries later.

According to the book of Lamentations, during the siege of Jerusalem, food began to run out.  Apparently, some even resorted to cannibalism.[1]

The part of the book we usually focus on is in chapter 3, verses 19 to 24.  We do see the author acknowledging the dire straits.  “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!  My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me” (vv. 19-20).  The grim reality is recognized.  “But this I call to mind.”  We’re turning a corner.  There’s a light in the darkness.  “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (vv. 21-22).  Even in the depths of despair, hope is still alive.

In verse 23—the mercies of the Lord “are new every morning; great is your faithfulness”—we have the inspiration of that great hymn of the church.  And for those who didn’t know the Biblical origin of “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” here it is.  It comes from a time when civilized society has collapsed.  Even when we humans screw up on a colossal scale, God is still faithful.

(Who knows?  If our civilization collapses, maybe some wise person will be inspired and pen lyrics to encourage those who come after.)

3 lmOur poet proclaims, “‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (v. 24).  Unfortunately, the struggle continues.  A few verses later, he says, “When all the prisoners in a country are crushed underfoot, when human rights are overridden in defiance of the Most High, when someone is cheated of justice, does not the Lord see it?” (vv. 34-36, New Jerusalem Bible).  Lord, what are you going to do?

As the hymn says, “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, / Blessings all mine and ten thousand beside!”  Seizing that hope keeps our love from growing cold.

A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the spiritual disciplines of the prayer of recollection and of secrecy.  (Again, that’s not the secrecy as opposed to keeping confidence.  It’s the secrecy Jesus displays by telling people to not turn him into a spectacle.  He heals and then tells the people to not broadcast it all over the place.)  I gave as another example of secrecy the over-the-top behavior of the guy praying very loudly, confessing his sin, in a quiet time and a quiet place.

In her work Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Calhoun speaks of the discipline of celebration.[2]  It’s the discipline of abandoning oneself to joy, of giving in to the spirit of gratitude and love, of just letting go.  That covers a lot of ground; it has many different aspects, but there is something she says I readily understand.[3]

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One of them is “taking yourself less seriously.”  Some of us have more trouble in that than others!  I’ve often thought a key quality of our bearing the image of God is a sense of humor.  We humans didn’t invent humor.  Where can humor come from but a source of infinite joy and good will?

Did you know that humor is a powerful weapon?  Brian Doyle in The Thorny Grace of It speaks to this point.[4]

“Humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies wailing into the darkness.  What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you.  It advances the universe two inches.  If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep and war is a memory and violence is a joke no one tells, having forgotten the words.  You and I know this is possible.  It is what [Jesus] said could happen if we loved well.”

Cynicism and mockery can’t appreciate the pure, uninhibited appeal of genuine and authentic humor.  There’s an easiness of spirit, without which we can become brittle.  When we’re brittle, we don’t have flexibility.  When we’re brittle, our sense of humor becomes twisted.  We laugh at the expense of others.  We sometimes give them nicknames, and they aren’t friendly nicknames.  We can become vulgar.  We can’t laugh at ourselves.

There’s something else that goes along with love growing cold.  The discipline of celebration entails gratitude.  When love grows cold, we have the “celebration” of ingratitude.  In our country, we seem to have taken the celebration of ingratitude to new levels.  For instance, many of our so-called “reality” TV shows extol the virtues (or should we say, the vices) of it.

5 lmIngratitude and love have a hard time co-existing.

The apostle Paul has his own take on love.  “Love is patient,” he says, “love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

A friend of mine years ago said he sometimes would put his name in the place of “love” in this passage.  It was a lesson he needed to learn again and again.  Let me try.

James is patient; James is kind; James is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  He does not insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

James’ love has not grown cold.  That can be a high bar to set!

A posture of love that is kept warm by the Holy Spirit enables the discovery and cultivation of gifts from that same Spirit.

I began with the comment that using the reading from Matthew 24 (with the “love growing cold” business) might seem to be a strange one for World Communion Sunday.  But why not?  If there’s one place where love is meant to be warmed, it is at the table of Holy Communion.  This is where “celebration” of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, and joyful, life-affirming humor is to be found.  And surely the entire world is where it needs to happen.

The apostle says, “when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (v. 10).  That word “complete” (τελειος, teleios) is also translated as “perfect”—not perfect as in flawless, but as in finished.  We are not yet complete: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (v. 12).

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What awaits us is awareness of the infinite bursting heart of love gazing into our very being, burning away the coldness and resounding through all the worlds with fierce, irresistible euphoria.  Paul is fully known—nothing is hidden—and yet is loved all the more.

Those cold hearts, overcome and warmed with the spirit of celebration, is the foundation for all of the spiritual gifts.  We are empowered by the Spirit and sent forth into a world that is dying for communion.

 

[1] “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people.” (4:10)

[2] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 26-28.

[3] Calhoun, 26.

[4] www.loyolapress.com/products/books/spirituality-inspiration/the-thorny-grace-of-it


recollection in secret

When I was a student at Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida, there was a room on the top floor of the main building, the one housing the administrative offices.  The room was arranged for small chapel services.  This was in addition to the main chapel building in the center of campus.  It was also used as a prayer room; students would go there in the evening.

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It was a place of quiet prayer, a place of quiet reflection.  There was none of the quite vocal prayer lifted up during the regular worship services.  There was none of the shouting in the Spirit, none of the speaking in tongues.  At least, that’s how it was supposed to be.

One night, I went up there to pray.  There were about four or five students scattered throughout the room.  Not too long after I arrived, a guy and his girlfriend appeared, and they also started praying.  It did not remain quiet for very long.  The fellow began confessing his sin; actually, he began confessing their sin.  If he wanted to disturb everyone else in the room, he got his wish.

He began loudly asking the Lord for forgiveness.  He loudly asked forgiveness for the sin they had committed together.  He did that several times.  His girlfriend didn’t utter a peep.  (I wonder if he told her beforehand what he planned to do.)  My guess is that she would have chosen to be anywhere in the world than beside this man doing the praying for her.  And regarding the volume, I suppose he felt if he didn’t come clean at elevated decibels the Lord wouldn’t hear.  If I didn’t know better, I would say he was putting on a display in order to boast!

Would that fall into the category—as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount—of those loving “to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others,” even for the purpose of bragging? (Mt 6:5).  “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”

One lesson our friend could learn from this experience would be the value of secrecy.  I’m not speaking of the secrecy which is opposed to keeping confidence.  Sometimes we confuse the two.  In that scenario, keeping confidence is a way of building trust.  Keeping confidence is not intended to do harm.  It is meant to protect.

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Secrecy, if we think of it that way, is used as a means of control.  It’s a way of exclusion.  It destroys trust.  It’s a way of saying in a petulant manner, “I know something that you don’t!”  That’s not what I’m talking about.

The secrecy I’m talking about is the kind Jesus valued.  For example, several times he told others to not disclose certain things about him.  Here’s a case in point.  In Mark 1, after healing a leper, he said to him, “‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’  But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country” (vv. 44-45).

In Luke 8, Jesus restores to life the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue.  We’re told, “he took her by the hand and called out, ‘Child, get up!’  Her spirit returned, and she got up at once.  Then he directed them to give her something to eat.  Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened” (vv. 54-56).

There have been all kinds of theories to explain his desire for secrecy, (which I won’t get into now), but it’s safe to say Jesus wasn’t looking for public acclaim.  He wasn’t interested in putting on a show; he wasn’t interested in self-promotion.  I imagine if anyone could be justified in displaying himself—at least, according to our usual standards—he would be the one.

3 psThat’s my main point concerning the fellow in the prayer room that night.  I’m speaking of secrecy as a spiritual discipline.  Whatever his motivations, he disturbed others who were trying to pray, and he exposed his poor girlfriend!

Completing Jesus’ thought from the Sermon on the Mount, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:6).

The desire for holy secrecy (and “holy” seems to be a good adjective) flows quite nicely into the prayer of recollection.  “Recollect” comes from Latin, “gather again.”  We speak of “gathering our thoughts.”  We might think of the prayer of recollection as gathering again our souls—gathering again who we are.  It is a prayer of discernment.  It is a prayer of listening.

In Psalm 131, the speaker adopts the position of humility, not one of display.  “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me” (v. 1).  Does this mean the psalmist has no desire to learn?  Is this a refusal to grow?

There are again a number of viewpoints on the matter, but it’s entirely possible this is someone who has learned from mistakes made.  Perhaps the heart and eyes lifted up have been done in a sort of defiance.  It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been done in an arrogant or flagrant way but simply in a way of overstepping proper bounds, indeed, being occupied “with things too great and too marvelous.”  Maybe a sort of “recollection” needs to happen!

Something we can take away from this verse is learning that the most important thing is not to learn how to get ahead.  The most important thing is to simply learn how to be human, to be who we were created to be.

4 psI fear that too often we focus on the strictly technical side of things.  In doing so, we miss the big picture.  A recent article by Ryan Holiday proclaimed, “Why You Should Study Philosophy.”[1]  He admits the convoluted and tedious way it’s usually presented.  But it’s really not that complicated.  He quotes Martha Nussbaum who said, “To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control.”  That’s the basic starting point for those ancient fellows, like Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius.  “An ability to trust certain things beyond your control.”

Hmm, I wonder who that sounds like?

That’s an image we see continued in verse 2.  It is the heart of this short, little psalm.  “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”  Some people see this coming from the perspective of a mother.  It’s possible that in this case, the psalmist is a woman.

There’s been a little disagreement on the Hebrew, and we have some interesting views.  One version says, “No; I submit myself, I account myself lowly, as a weaned child clinging to its mother” (New English Bible).  Another one reads, “No, I hold myself in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms, like a little child, so I keep myself” (New Jerusalem Bible).

We’re here with the prayer of recollection.  We’re here with the prayer of humble listening.

That orientation of listening is important.  We often—maybe always—consider prayer to come from us outward to God.  In our worship services, that’s usually the only kind of prayer we do.  We have an agenda; we have a to-do list for the Lord.  And of course, that isn’t anything bad.  We are to lift up our supplications, our intercessions, our thanksgivings to God.  But we do indeed remain shallow if we don’t listen, if we don’t wait on the Spirit.

Joan Chittister speaks of one of the Church Fathers, Abba Agathon who lived in the 4th century.  “Once upon a time,” she says, “the disciples asked Abba Agathon, ‘Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?’  Abba Agathon answered, ‘I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God.  For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey.  Whatever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest.  But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’”[2]

I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I lay aside my agenda and just shut up, it is very difficult.  Prayer is hard.  It is hard work.  I fear I too easily become lazy and simply give up.  Plunging into the depths of prayer, exploring the terrain, is the work of a lifetime.

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Laura Harring and Naomi Watts enter the silence (that is, “silencio”)

We enter the silence, and then everything happens.  Our thoughts bubble up from within.  “Yes, I have to make sure I do that today.”  “What’s that sound?  Let me go to the window and check it out.”  “I wish I had said that to So-and-So yesterday.”  But don’t be too hard on yourself.  When thoughts come—and come they will if you are human—don’t fret.  Look at them for a moment, and then set them aside; let them drift away.

It’s true; it’s easier for me to say this than to faithfully practice it.  But like I just said, it is the work of a lifetime.  (And by the way, I imagine some of you probably could teach me a lesson or two on prayer and waiting in silence.)

Our psalm ends with verse 3.  “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.”  The psalmist addresses the nation at large.  What up until now has been the yearning of an individual is brought to the entire community.  Everyone is called to the hope the psalmist is seeking.

We can think of our own community, our own country.  Still, I would like to bring it closer to home, to where we are right now, to our congregation.

A few years ago, Amy Johnson Frykholm wrote on practices regarding congregational discernment, group discernment.[3]  She notes that “few congregations apply silence and contemplation to matters of church business.”[4]  How about that?  Maybe we should start our next congregational meeting with a few minutes of silence!

She speaks of an experiment done with a congregation.  The group was given a particular focus, something on which to meditate.  She says, “Over about 30 minutes we were silent together, and then various people were offered opportunities to speak and to respond.  What emerged from the silence and the listening was something strikingly different from our normal conversation.  By punctuating our communication with silence, we were stripped of the desire to offer advice or jump in with stories from our own experience.  By staying intentionally silent between remarks, we found ourselves offering words and images that came up from another, seemingly deeper place.”[5]

One welcome discovery “was that the people showed more humility toward one another and seemed more open to the idea that the voice of God might come from someone else’s mouth.”[6]  (Imagine such a thing!)  Even shorter periods of time can produce rich fruit, even a few minutes.

Recollection in secret.  When we explore our spiritual gifts, that can serve as a foundation for them.  The psalmist is really onto something!

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Be open to God.  We hold ourselves in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms.

 

[1] forge.medium.com/why-you-should-study-philosophy-47c53fbc3205

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict:  Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 75.

[3] Amy Johnson Frykholm, “Out of Silence,” Christian Century 124:7 (3 April 2007), 34-38.

[4] Frykholm, 34.

[5] Frykholm, 34.

[6] Frykholm, 35.


blest be the tie (with surgery, perhaps)

“Blest be the tie that binds / Our hearts in Christian love: / The fellowship of kindred minds / Is like to that above.”  That, of course, is the first line of a hymn beloved by many.  It’s been noted that the author, Rev. John Fawcett, penned the words after refusing to move from his small town parish in England to pastor a church in London.  The tears of love and grief from his parishioners compelled him to stay.[1]  That is fellowship in action.[2]

1 blestIn the New Testament, “the fellowship of kindred minds” is marked by the Greek word κοινωνια (koinōnia).  Often translated as “fellowship” or “communion,” koinōnia literally means “partnership.”  It has to do with “sharing.”  Paul uses the word in Romans 15, where he praises the churches who’ve “been pleased to share (κοινωνιαν, koinōnian) their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (v. 26).

Discussion of the letter to Philemon has frequently focused, not on fellowship, but on two other themes.  The first is the question of slavery.  From reading the epistle, we see that a slave named Onesimus has run away from (and possibly robbed) his master, Philemon.

It appears that Onesimus has somehow encountered Paul while the apostle is in prison.  It’s through that contact with Paul that the runaway slave has come to Christ.  Some people feel that Paul, by not demanding that Onesimus be freed, is going along with slavery.  Others say that Paul’s emphasis on him as “more than a slave, a beloved brother” shows that the apostle wants to undermine the practice of slavery.

That’s one theme.  Another has focused on why Paul would want Onesimus to be set free.  Paul admits, in verse 13, “I wanted to keep him with me” so that he could be of assistance.  And in verse 20, using a play on words, understanding that the name Onesimus (Ονησιμος) means “useful” or “beneficial,” he asks Philemon, “let me have this benefit (ονηαιμν, onaimēn) from you.”

Actually, Paul’s use of the word “love” in the letter is almost a play on words.  Philemon means “one who kisses” or “one who loves.”  The difference is that Paul is saying αγαπη (agape).  His friend’s name is based on φιλεω (phileō), another word for love.

So, back to the question of freeing his slave!  Paul doesn’t make any demands on Philemon.  Well, not exactly.  It seems that Paul has led both master and slave to Christ, as he reminds him in verse 19:  “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.”  This is a great line!  Paul just happens to slip that in there.

In his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, Eugene Peterson is less delicate.  “I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?”

In any event, it looks like he does as Paul asks.  For one thing, the early church probably wouldn’t have retained the letter and considered it to be scripture if Philemon had simply ignored it.  Also, history records in the early second century a bishop of Ephesus named Onesimus.[3]   It’s possible, if not probable, that this is the same former slave who went on to become a leader of the church in his own right.

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Having said all that, we need to look at Paul’s prayer before he makes his request.  In verse 6, Paul prays “that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.”  The sharing of your faith.  This is the word koinōnia.

Paul is praying that the sharing of Philemon’s faith may become “effective.”  The NIV uses the word “active.”  The Greek term is ενεργης (energēs):  the source for our English word “energy.”  So Paul is praying that the sharing of his friend’s faith will be energized when he realizes all the good that is possible in Christ.  No one can accuse Paul of having modest expectations!

Notice, before he even gets into the whole business of Onesimus the slave and what he wants done with him, Paul presents Philemon with this grand vision of what could be, of what could happen.  Before he gets caught up in the details, Paul prays that his partner will see the many possibilities that await them in Christ.

The use of the word “partner” is deliberate.  In verse 17, he says, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”  Again, that’s the word koinōnia.

Eldon Koch comments on this.  “The slave also becomes a partner by virtue of the fellowship.  Both master and slave experience the mighty transforming power of the fellowship which is characterized by faith in Christ.  The slave lost his slavishness, and the master lost his despotism.  In Christ they are partners.”[4]  They enjoy koinōnia.

Still, it’s one thing to hear this and agree with it, but it’s quite another thing to actually put it into practice.  We might understand the need for trust and confidence in our relationships, the need for actual community to develop, but find it very difficult to see it accomplished.

Why would it be so complicated to enter into the koinōnia that we might see as so important?  Often, it’s a question of what we’ve experienced in life.

In November 1995, when my wife Banu and I were at seminary, I had surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor.  In March 1996, I had another seizure, which required another surgery.  The problem was a staph infection.  Upon returning home, I had an IV course of antibiotics that lasted for four weeks.

With two brain surgeries, CAT and MRI scans, radiation therapy, chemotherapy (which I had only recently begun), and the other medications, Banu and I were running up huge medical bills.  It didn’t take very long until our student health insurance was used up.  We signed up with the state medical assistance, which provided some help, but not nearly enough.

Here’s where the comment about what we’ve experienced in life enters in.  Banu and I received donations from people there at school, from our churches, and there were unexpected things.  Bags of groceries would be left at our door.  On a number of occasions, people and churches who we didn’t even know—and we had never heard of—sent us money.

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They were gifts from God.  In no way at all do I dismiss the help from the insurance company, the state welfare program, and our friends and family.  I definitely recognize them as God’s gift.  But there’s also no question that the support from strangers and anonymous sources provided, and still provides, a special sort of sharing.  It’s a unique kind of koinōnia.

Can we see that in Paul’s letter to Philemon?  It’s deeper than a request about a runaway slave.  As he says to him, “I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother” (v. 7).  He speaks of a love that shines beneath the surface of life, despite whatever chaos and crap that comes our way.  That is the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.

Christian community is making ourselves vulnerable for this love to shine among us.  Koinōnia is not simply being nice or cute.  It’s a partnership that speaks the truth and invites and empowers others to do the same.  As Koch says, it goes beyond a generic, fuzzy love of everyone to “a powerful exercise of fellowship to demonstrate that love in particular cases,” such as Paul, who challenges his friend—and his friend, who defies custom to welcome his slave as a brother.[5]

Koinōnia is the tie that inspires us to say, “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.”

 

[1] Handbook to the Hymnal, ed. William Chalmers Covert (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1935), 363.

[2] I’m including portions of my sermon “Koinōnia”

[3] M. E. Lyman, “Onesimus,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3 (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1962), 602.

[4] Eldon Koch, “A Cameo of Koinonia,” Interpretation 17:2 (April 1963):  185.

[5] Koch, 184.


revelation of gratitude

When I was at seminary, I took a worship class taught by one of the two Presbyterian professors at our American Baptist school.  Well, there was one other Presbyterian who came in from time to time and taught polity.  This was Banu’s pastor at the congregation where she did field education.

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Banu and I lived on the top floor in the front corner apartment.

In our class, when we got to the subject of Advent, besides discussing the Lord’s first advent as the baby of Bethlehem, we dealt with possibly the more meaningful aspect of Advent: the Lord’s second advent, the second coming of Christ, in power and glory.  “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King!”

It was pointed out that during the season of Advent, this is especially the time of year when we focus on our Lord’s return.  I made a comment about that.  I said when I was in the Assemblies of God, the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was almost a weekly theme!  It was mentioned almost every Sunday.

We Presbyterians, along with so many others who observe the liturgical year, can (and do) fail to give the proper attention to the Lord’s return, however we envision the return.  We can fail to join with St. Paul as he joyfully proclaims at the end of 1 Corinthians, “Maranatha” (16:22).  “The Lord is coming,” or it can also mean, “Lord, come!”

This talk of Jesus Christ coming again makes some people nervous.  And considering the gospel reading for today (Mark 13:24-37), that’s understandable.  Hearing stuff like, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” might be enough to give anyone pause, to put it lightly (v. 33).  “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (v. 37).  The eyes of your heart will get drowsy, so throw some spiritual cold water on yourself!

2 1co1But that need not be seen as a dire warning.  It is a reminder that something wonderful is about to happen.  Stay awake, or we’ll miss out.  It will be—and is—right before our eyes.  Can we see it?

That upbeat message seems to be on Paul’s mind as we begin today’s epistle reading.  “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3).  Wishing someone grace and peace is not a typical greeting if you’re about to deliver bad news!  That would be a sneaky way to set them up before lowering the boom.  Later on, he does address the numerous problems among them, but not yet.

Then he follows with another joyful declaration (v. 4).  “I give thanks to my God always for you.”  Why is he so thankful?  “[B]ecause of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.”  He’s about to burst with gratitude.  They’ve been given blessings galore: “in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind” (v. 5).  Speech and knowledge of every kind.  He’s definitely not soft pedaling it.

Do they see it?  Do they recognize it?  Sometimes it can be hard to understand what someone else sees in you.

As for myself, I used to be afraid of public speaking.  I would become visibly nervous, even terrified.  My chest would tighten up; I would forget to breathe!  But my Assemblies of God pastor apparently saw something in me.  He invited me to preach several times, and I struggled through it.  To be honest, sometimes I still get a bit nervous.

“Speech and knowledge of every kind.”

The apostle gives thanks for them.  The word for “give thanks” is ευχαριστεω (eucharisteō), and with a slight variation, “thanksgiving.”  It’s where we get our word, “Eucharist.”  It comes directly from the New Testament, where it’s used over 50 times.  We will act it out momentarily at the table, with a sacrament called “thanks.”  Thank you!

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Paul says, “the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you” (v. 6).  They are increasingly bearing witness to Christ; Christ is increasingly bearing witness through them.  They are receiving gifts from the Holy Spirit, some of which we might call supernatural and others we might call abilities.  Whatever the case, they are intended for service to others, not for display.

This is happening as they “wait of the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7).  The word for “revealing” is αποκαλυψις (apocalypsis), “uncovering,” “revelation.”  And yes, that’s the same word for the book of Revelation.  That word also appears numerous times in the New Testament.

Beginning in the 90s, a movement called the emerging, or emergent, church started taking shape.  Some see a difference in those terms; others do not.  I won’t go into great detail.  Suffice it to say it’s one expression of the church as we have moved into the 21st century and attempting to address its changing realities and philosophies.  It wants to recapture the ancient and embrace the future.  Examples would be using Jesus as a model for living and not simply an object for worship, inviting questions and not simply providing answers, and promoting peacemaking rather than relying on power.  Again, that’s a very quick thumbnail sketch.

It’s one expression of a new reformation, 500 years after the first one.  It represents a revolution, not only of church and denominational structures, but of consciousness itself.

When we were in Jamestown, a leader in the emerging church from London was in the United States.  He was invited to come and speak to us.  During the discussion, I made the observation that the emerging church movement was part of the Holy Spirit’s being poured out on all flesh, on all of humanity.  In Acts 2, St. Peter speaks of that on the day of Pentecost; he’s quoting the prophet Joel.  The outpouring of the Spirit is very definitely a key theme of the Assemblies of God, who I mentioned earlier.

But the speaker dismissed my comment, which I found extremely puzzling.  I wondered how he could fail to see the outpouring of the Spirit at work in all these changes in the church, changes he himself was espousing.  Still, I felt like he was accomplishing some great things.  And it’s entirely possible he didn’t catch what I was trying to say.

That particular fellow aside, we can see “the revealing, the ‘return’ of the Lord as the consummation of the Spirit being poured out on all “flesh,” on all of humanity.  It’s the final act, the crème de la crème, the end of the world as we know it—but in a good and wonderful way.  But we’re not there yet.  The Spirit is continuously being poured out on we frail and beloved humans.

And that has remarkable meaning.

I want to draw again on my time in the Assemblies of God.  After graduating from MTSU with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, I decided to go to one of their colleges: Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida.  In a class on the history of the Assemblies of God, I learned some fascinating things.

In 1906, the revival at Azusa Street in Los Angeles began.  The leader was a minister named William Joseph Seymour.  Out of this revival, the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal movements had their birth.  Those early Pentecostals firmly embraced pacifism.  (They were like the Quakers.)  When the US entered World War 1, their commitment was put to the test.  It’s never easy to be a pacifist, especially in America.  As the years went by, the commitment waned.  People become accommodated to the culture at large, and besides, no one likes being thought of as a traitor!

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William Joseph Seymour

And of course, they understood: women and men are equal.  How could the Spirit of God work otherwise?  Here’s a quote from Rev. Seymour: “We have no right to lay a straw in [a woman’s] way, but to be men of holiness, purity and virtue, to hold up the standard and encourage the woman in her work, and God will honor and bless us as never before.  It is the same Holy Spirit in the woman as in the man.”[1]  As the 20th century rolled along, even that vision started getting foggy.

Certainly, the Assemblies of God aren’t the only ones to waver.  We also have a handle on that!  But the apostle Paul assures his beloved friends in Corinth, and us, “[God] will…strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).

The day of our Lord has its origins in the Old Testament.  There, it is usually portrayed as a day of reckoning, with an ominous tone.  The prophet Joel says, “Alas for the day!  For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes” (1:15).  The prophet Amos throws in his two cents’ worth.  “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!  Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light” (5:18).

That does sound pretty stern.  But it’s not unlike what we saw earlier on the Advent of Jesus in the gospel of Mark.  Beware, keep alert.  Keep awake.

I like the song written by Curtis Mayfield in the 1960s, which was inspired by King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the gospel tradition: “People Get Ready.”  It’s been recorded by many artists since then (including Rod Stewart on vocals and Jeff Beck on guitar, and also, Ziggy Marley)!

“People, get ready / There’s a train a-coming / You don’t need no baggage / You just get on board / All you need is faith / To hear the diesels humming / Don’t need no ticket / You just thank the Lord.”

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The advent of Jesus Christ, the apocalypsis of Christ, is a revelation of gratitude.  Advent is meant to be a time of taking stock of our lives, not getting lost in the dizzying distractions pulling at us with promises of great deals on Christmas presents.  When we open our hearts in loving gratitude, we find “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9).

Maranatha.  The Lord is coming.  We wait for you, Lord, with thanksgiving.

 

[1] fullerstudio.fuller.edu/women-in-the-pentecostal-movement


test the spirits

“Deus vult!”  “God wills it!”  That was the cry of the first Crusaders in the late 11th century.  What began with more or less noble intentions as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (which, by the way, had been under Muslim control for several centuries), quickly descended into a military campaign.  Conquest, not coexistence, became the goal.

I think I’m safe in saying that none of us have participated in a bloody crusade, at least not knowingly.  None of us have gotten it in our head that that was our mission from God.  Still, all of us have gotten it in our heads, at least on occasion (and frequently, more often than that), an idea that turned out to be ill-conceived.

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In the first letter of John there is a warning to his readers to beware of that.  “Beloved,” he says, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (v. 1).  False prophets abound, but we need not believe a false prophet to get a crazy idea in our head—an idea we think is from God!

Let me give you an example.  This was about my proposed plans for life.

In my final semester at Middle Tennessee State University, I got the idea in my head that I should quit school and go to California.

My major was Political Science, but with my exploration of faith—Christianity, and to a lesser extent, Buddhism and Zen—I began to see myself as a seeker of truth, wandering the Earth.  Combining that with my great love of music, I decided that I should return to the land of my first memories of life, San Diego, and get a job in a record store.  I even went to the school library, looked through a San Diego telephone book (this was before the internet), and I found a store near the ocean.

So I made a phone call to my mom and told her what God was leading me to do!  She didn’t have very much to say.  She didn’t ask me, “What in the world are you thinking?”  She simply suggested that I go ahead and finish out the semester, since I was so close to graduating anyway, and then see what I thought.  If God really wanted me to make this major change in my life, waiting a few more weeks wouldn’t hurt.  That turned out to be some pretty good advice.

After a couple of days had gone by, it occurred to me God really did not want me to run off to San Diego!  Who would have thought it?

The author of 1 John says to “test the spirits.”  What are “the spirits”?  Are they supernatural beings?  Are they powers and forces in culture and society?  Are they emotional states of being?  Are they all of those and maybe something else?

The final day of this month, the 31st, is the feast day for St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius was a military officer in 16th century Spain.  As a young man, he was a wild one.  He was a gambler, and kept himself well-groomed, because he loved the ladies.  While fighting the French in the north of Spain, a cannon ball, passing between his legs, tore open the left calf and broke the right shin.  (If that cannon ball were a few inches higher, well, forget the ladies!)  Ignatius endured many painful months of recovery.

While bedridden, he requested some of his favorite reading, stories of knights and chivalry.  They weren’t available, so what were brought to him were stories of Christ and the saints.  He experienced his conversion while reading those books.  Ignatius decided to use the energy he formerly devoted to warfare to the cause of Christ.  He founded the order known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

Ignatius wrote a book entitled, The Spiritual Exercises.  In it, he includes a section on “Discerning the Spirits.”  His use of the word “spirits” reflects a concept that today we might call “inclinations.”  One of his main ideas is the difference between what he calls “consolation” and “desolation.”

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It’s been noted that, for Ignatius, “consolation means love of God and our fellow human beings.  It is a genuine relationship that moves and fulfills.  It is faith, hope, and [love] and ‘every interior joy which calls and attracts one toward heavenly things.’”[1]  Desolation is the opposite.  It is “darkness of soul, confusion of spirit, attraction to what is base and worldly, restlessness caused by many disturbances and temptations which lead to lack of faith, hope, or love.”[2]

That note about “confusion of spirit” might describe me when I was pitching the idea to my mother about quitting school and taking off for California.

It is not a good idea to make a major decision while in a state of desolation.  It’s not a good idea to do that while in a state of crisis.  That state of crisis might include great anxiety, despair, or a very strong feeling of being rushed into something.  I’m not sure how aware she was of this, but with her word of caution, my mother was utilizing an Ignatian principle!

There are a number of ways to “discern” or “test the spirits.”  Is it the Holy Spirit, or some other spirit?  Kirsteen Kim provides some examples.[3]  The first one is what we see in our scripture text: “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (v. 2).  That one’s really important; we’ll come back to it.

The second way she mentions is to ask, “Does it demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit?”  Thinking of Galatians 5, we ask things like: does it help us to be more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, more patient, better able to exercise self-control?  Does it help us to be more Christ-like?

Another way of testing the spirits would be the presence of charismatic gifts, like healing and speaking in tongues.  Still, in 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul points out that these gifts must be exercised in a spirit of love.  There can be a temptation to say, “Look at me!  Aren’t I spiritual?”  Other gifts of the Holy Spirit may include empowerment to teach, to give, to exercise compassion (Ro 12:7-8).  In reality, there are numerous gifts of the Spirit.

The final thing Kim mentions is the Spirit leads us to be concerned about the downtrodden, however that appears.  The Spirit wants us to seek justice.  In Luke 4, the Spirit leads Jesus to announce “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” “recovery of sight to the blind,” and letting “the oppressed go free” (v. 18).

But what’s going on with that business regarding a spirit from God confessing Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?

At one level, it simply means that Jesus lived as a flesh and blood human being.  It means that Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, was embodied just like you and me.  He wasn’t just a spiritual being, without physical substance.

The thought that follows in verse 3 is that “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (v. 3).  There’s an alternate reading that says “every spirit that does away with Jesus [or “dissolves Jesus”] is not from God.”

3 1 JnHere’s another meaning: if Jesus were not incarnate, in the flesh, our faith in Christ need not be in the flesh.  We would do away, or dissolve, Jesus.  It would be enough to go through life thinking or wishing something were so, but without doing anything in the body—without taking action in the real world.

Again, some words of wisdom from my mother apply.  At one time or another, I expressed my belief that praying for someone or some situation was enough.  It was now in the hands of Jesus.  But my mom asked what was I going to do about it.  That’s a good and often uncomfortable question.  I said, “I’ve prayed.  Isn’t God all powerful?”  Her response was that by now acting on it would “give my prayer wings.”

I realize there are times when things really are out of our control.  Sometimes there are forces at work we can’t help.  At those times, it really is in the hands of God.  But prayer is also about changing us; it’s also about changing our vision towards the world.

Notice how verse 3 ends.  A spirit that does not confess Jesus “is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.”  The spirit of the antichrist: a word which, by the way, does not appear in the book of Revelation.  What is this antichrist?

Here’s one answer.  It’s the spirit that says we need not live as though we belonged to Christ.  It’s enough to have the idea, but don’t dare put it into practice!  The spirit of antichrist says that faith should be a strictly private matter.  Just keep it to yourself.  Hide your light.

Johannes Baptist Metz has an interesting take on this.  “Satan wants the Incarnation to be an empty show, where God dresses up in human costume but doesn’t really commit totally to the role.  The devil wants to make the Incarnation a piece of mythology, a divine puppet show.”[4]  I like that.  A divine puppet show.  Again, it’s about not living our faith in the flesh.

Here’s a question.  What do we make of verse 6?  “We are from God.  Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us.  From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

If we take the time to test the spirits, if we take the time—with God’s help—to listen to the Holy Spirit, then we can develop the capacity to know the difference between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

Even so, we are not infallible; we make mistakes.  And we should be ready, we should allow ourselves, to be surprised.  We should allow ourselves to be surprised by what, and who, we once would have rejected out of hand.  Returning to my original image, we can go on our own crusade, but without love, we’re just being self-righteous.

So, what is love?  That has been asked by many people.  That includes Haddaway, in his 1990s dance song, “What is Love (Baby Don’t Hurt Me),” a song that inspired a popular skit on Saturday Night Live.

Is love just a dreamy, sentimental state?

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, once quoted, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.  Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all.  [People] will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last too long but is soon over, with [everyone] looking and applauding as though on the stage.”[5]

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“The devil wants to make the Incarnation a divine puppet show." —Johannes Baptist Metz

(Maybe even a stage with a puppet show?)

Love can be a harsh and dreadful thing.  It can be painful, because it takes time.  It isn’t just one and done.  And as our friend Dorothy suggests, love can mean taking actions and making decisions for the sake of Christ which might not be popular with others.

So, as our scripture ends, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God,” that involves testing the spirits.  “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

Imagine that.  Loving our neighbor, loving each other and giving ourselves to each other means loving God, giving ourselves to God.

How can we act as though Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?  Is there something you have tested and know is from the Holy Spirit?  What are we waiting for?  The love of God does the heavy lifting.  That’s when we can truly say, “Deus vult!”  “God wills it!”

 

[1] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 56.

[2] in Susan Rakoczy, “Transforming the Tradition of Discernment,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 139 (March 2011): 96.

[3] Kirsteen Kim, “How Will We Know When the Holy Spirit Comes?” Evangelical Review of Theology 33:1 (January 2009): 95.

[4] Johannes Baptist Metz, Poverty of Spirit, Inclusive Language Version (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998), 11.

[5] Rakoczy, 107.


spirit to forgive

I want to begin with a story about something that happened almost thirty years ago.  This was when I was a student at Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida.  That’s an Assemblies of God school.  For two semesters, I was part of a street ministry team that traveled to Tampa on Friday nights.

Our “parish,” so to speak, was a quarter-mile strip along Kennedy Boulevard.  Our “parishioners” were the street people who lived, and passed through, the area.  In those days, I don’t think it was the best part of town.

On my very first night, the very first person I approached was a gentleman clad in shabby-looking clothing.  He appeared to be in his fifties.  Not knowing what else to say, I told him, “Jesus loves you.”  As soon as he heard that, he began crying and telling me how he had lost his family and his career.  I don’t remember if it was because of drinking or gambling or something else, but he recited a litany of his mistakes.

1 pentecostWhen he had finished listing his failures, he asked me if I would forgive him.  At the time, I was thinking, “It’s not my job to forgive him.  I need to direct him to Christ.”  So I told the man Jesus forgives anyone and anything.  But that didn’t work.  It seemed like he needed to hear the words, so again he asked me, “Do you forgive me?”  I relented and said, “I forgive you.”  And with that, he shuffled away into the Tampa night.

Why do I begin with this story of speaking and hearing words of forgiveness?  One might ask, “Is this a theme for Pentecost?”  It’s not even about the Day of Pentecost!  I begin with this story on forgiveness because Jesus makes it a theme in our gospel reading from St. John—which is the gospel text.

I should say some people refer to the event in our gospel text as a “pre-Pentecost” Pentecost.  Already, on the evening of the day of his resurrection, on the evening of Easter, Jesus is giving his disciples the Holy Spirit.

I don’t know about anyone else, but if you picture this, to me it seems kind of strange.  “Receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 22).  That’s what he says, but first, he breathes on them.  (Blow!)  Really?  Is that what it takes?

Actually, it doesn’t say he “blew” on them, but he “breathed on them.”  This is the posture of one who is not reactive, but responsive.  Being in a reactive posture or mode means coming from a place of defensiveness, a lack of listening and learning.  Being in a responsive mode means the opposite.  It is a place of openness, a place of listening and a curiosity which wants to learn.

There are many other things that could be said, but in a physical posture, it means remembering to breathe, paying attention to one’s breath.  (Breathe.)  When we remember to do that, it’s amazing how it helps us to be calm and patient and reflective.  (But it is something I find myself continually needing to practice.)

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The Hebrew word רוח (rua), which means “breath,” “spirit,” or “wind,” was a familiar idea.  John surely would have known about it.  Earlier in his gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (3:8).  So I suppose it does make sense for Jesus to use his breath in granting the Spirit to his disciples!

But we need to back up and see what’s going on, since this is the evening of Easter.  Our scripture text ends before we get to the part about St. Thomas and his questions of believing all this resurrection stuff.  Verse 19 says, “the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities” (Good News Bible).  Jesus suddenly appears out of nowhere and says, “Peace be with you.”  He shows them the now-glorified wounds in his hands and side.  He is not a ghost!

We’re told the disciples have been hiding from the authorities.  No doubt, they’re fearing for their lives.  Before Jesus appears to them, with his words of shalom, they’re thinking about what happened to him.  Still, Craig Barnes, who is president of Princeton Seminary, thinks there’s more to it.  If one understands the human psyche, it seems to be an unavoidable conclusion.

Barnes speaks about, not only fear, but shame.  “Like the disciples,” he says, “we try to hide when we’re ashamed.”[1]  It’s a defense mechanism; it’s almost instinct.  It may seem like a good strategy for a little while.  But, as Barnes says, “Nothing is more crippling to our souls than working at hiding shame.  We lock up more and more doors, sealing off more and more rooms of the heart to prevent our true selves from being discovered.  We think we are keeping the world out, but in fact we are keeping ourselves locked in.”

The disciples are ashamed because, when Jesus needed them the most, they turned around and took off.  They carry a horrible burden of guilt.

But thank God, that isn’t the end of it.  “At the center of the gospel is the proclamation that Jesus Christ has come looking for us.  According to John’s text, he walks right through the locked door to find us.  He shows us his wounds from the cross, which are the marks of our forgiveness.”

With verse 23, we come to what I said earlier may be an unexpected theme for Pentecost: speaking and hearing words of forgiveness, or more directly, forgiving and refusing to forgive.  Right after Jesus tells the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he adds, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

3 pentecostJesus entrusts the disciples with a great deal of authority.  It isn’t something they have, in and of themselves, but as the community gathered in his name.  As the community—as the church—they have the authority to offer forgiveness of sin.  We do something similar to that every week with our prayer of confession and assurance of pardon.

Jesus is speaking about something very powerful.  On the one hand, if we forgive someone, they are forgiven.  In Matthew 18, Peter has a little chat with Jesus about that (v. 21).  On the other hand, if we retain the sins of any, they are retained.  The Good News Bible says, “if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

The Greek has an even stronger force.  First of all, the word for “to forgive” (αφιημι, aphiēmi) also means “to send off,” “to let go.”  I think anytime we’re able, by the grace of God to forgive, we can feel what it means “to let go.”  It’s a burden we’re glad to be rid of.

On the flip side, there’s an equally strong force.  The words “retain” and “not forgive” don’t quite capture it.  The Revised English Bible says that “if you pronounce them unforgiven, unforgiven they remain.”  The Greek word for “retain” (κρατεω, krateō) also means “to hold,” “to seize.”  It comes from the word (κρατος, kratos) that means “strength” or “power.”  It takes a lot of strength to hold on to that stuff.  You wear yourself out.

According to the New Testament, we are a “holy” and “royal priesthood” (1 Pe 2:5, 9).  One of the key roles of a priest is to declare the forgiveness of sins.  We’re told “we disciples are not called to produce forgiveness.  We’re called to be the priest pronouncing that which has been produced on the cross.  We’re called to open the locks and throw open the door, and walk back into the world as a priest who is unafraid.  The only alternative is to live in shrinking prisons of hurt.”[2]

I imagine most of us have sometimes heard it said forgiving also means forgetting.  In order to forgive, we have to forget.  I would humbly have to disagree.  I don’t believe we are called to display amnesia.  I don’t believe we are called to have the attention span of gnats.  That doesn’t improve the character of either party.  That doesn’t help us deal with life.

At this point, I need to interject something.  When someone has been the victim of abuse or assault, forgiveness is a very tricky thing.  Telling someone, “It’s your Christian duty to forgive,” only adds another layer of abuse.  Forgiveness often takes a very long time to come, if it happens at all.  Sometimes the scars are too overwhelming.  I just mentioned the grace of God.  When grace can break through the hurt, it is a wondrous thing.

Moving on, there’s a concept known as “the shadow.”  It’s described as “the place we put all the suppressed and repressed parts of our lives.”[3]  The shadow isn’t evil.  Rather, it’s the stuff about us we want to keep hidden from the world, and even from ourselves.  It’s the stuff we find embarrassing and shameful.

As Richard Rohr says, “Suppressing what we don’t want to deal with is like trying to hold a basketball underwater while going on with life as usual…  What we suppress—the shadow aspect of life—ambushes us sooner or later.  We don’t know why we’re depressed or angry, why everyone and everything is out to get us.”[4]

One big sign of some major repression is the lack of a healthy sense of humor.  Can we laugh at ourselves?  (That might be an unfair question.  Not everyone has the treasure trove I possess which is needed to laugh at oneself!)

Rohr continues, “People who are overly stern and moralistic usually have a significant, repressed shadow.  They walk through life shaking a judgmental finger in disapproval—and they disapprove of just about everything!  They’re often incapable of easy enjoyment.”[5]

I fully believe humor is one of the greatest gifts of the Holy Spirit.  I say that because I can recall a time when I had no genuine, joyful sense of humor.  Was I a jerk who thought humor consisted of snide comments and sarcastic remarks at someone else’s expense?  Yes.  I was a living example of having “no patience, no forgiveness, no mercy, but only harsh judgments.  No gospel.”[6]  No good news.  (Sad to say, sometimes I still fall into that trap!)

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Looking at our text, one sign we’re open to the Holy Spirit is how willing and able we are to forgive.  Both are important.  There must be both the willingness and the ability.  Remember, just as the disciples find out in their encounter with Jesus, the ability to forgive is a gift.  But the willingness must also be present.  We need to have a spirit to forgive.

In 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul tells us “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (3:17).  That is the deep meaning of Pentecost.  The Spirit of God brings freedom; the Spirit of God liberates.  As people of the Spirit, we reclaim our identity when we send out—when we unleash—the forgiveness of Christ.

When we allow that Spirit to run free in the world, who knows what dangerous and wonderful things will happen?  Why don’t we find out?

 

[1] www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3138

[2] www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3138

[3] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 129.

[4] Rohr, 196.

[5] Rohr, 197.

[6] Rohr, 198.


gifted to be partners

“Where are you in your walk with the Lord?”  “How has God been guiding you?”  “Have sensitive are you to the leading of the Spirit?”  Throughout my life as a Christian, I’ve been asked those questions, or something like that.  Sometimes they really bug me.  (Well, a little bit more than “sometimes.”)  I often have trouble coming up with a coherent and honest answer.  But I need those questions.

Those questions probably aren’t meant to be answered too quickly.  Those questions need meditation and reflection and prayer.  But then, we have to act on them.

An extension of those questions might be, “How are you using your spiritual gifts?”  Spiritual gifts?  I’m not sure I have any.  Our Book of Order, drawing inspiration from St. Paul, says, “the Holy Spirit has graced each member with particular gifts for strengthening the body of Christ for mission” (W-2.5002).

Spiritual gifts aren’t for us alone; they are primarily for increasing life to the body of Christ.  1
They enhance communion; they enhance fellowship; they enhance sharing.  God “has called [us] to be partners with…Jesus Christ” (v. 9, NJB).  All those terms are different meanings of the Greek word κοινωνια (koinōnia).

So after all of that, we can say that we have been gifted to be partners.  We have spiritual gifts, and they are meant for koinōnia.  But hold that thought; we’ll get back to it!

The epistle lesson is the introduction to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.  We see he’s joined by Sosthenes, who he calls “our brother” (v. 1).  We’re not sure who he is.  Maybe the apostle is dictating his letter to him.

It looks like Paul’s laying out what he wants to accomplish in the letter.  He tells the church in Corinth how he sees them (he’s thankful for them)—and even better, how they could be.  He encourages them, warts and all.  Immediately after the introduction, he dives into it.  In verse 10, he appeals to them “that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

The first thing he mentions are divisions.  This doesn’t mean to think the same thoughts.  It doesn’t mean to have the same opinions.  We have brains.  We aren’t supposed to shut them off in service to some totalitarian ideal.  In biblical terminology, we aren’t supposed to serve idols.

Paul’s argument is with divisiveness, to use a term familiar to us.  That is, the thriving on division.  Divisiveness is not the same as division, which simply happens because we have those brains I just mentioned.  Divisiveness is, to be honest, a sinful refusal to look beyond differences.  It’s the refusal to acknowledge, “I don’t have to agree with you to love you.”

The divisiveness that encourages division is, sadly, no stranger to us.

Last month, the TV show Face the Nation had an interview with comedian Stephen Colbert.  He’s the host of CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  (Just in case you hadn’t figured that out!)  John Dickerson spoke with him in reflection on 2016.[1]

Dickerson asked him, “What was the good news in 2016?”  Colbert hesitated a moment, and then mentioned their Thanksgiving dinner.  Then he altered the question a bit.  He said just before saying grace, he asked himself what he was thankful for.  He spoke of family and friends and dear ones who have passed away.

2

Then Colbert spoke of people he does not agree with.  He said “they make me think about what I do.  They question my beliefs.  And an unquestioned belief is almost vestigial.  It doesn’t motivate you in any way.  It doesn’t serve you in any way if you don’t question it, because a belief is a filter.  You have to run things through it, you know, so you know how you see the world.  It’s a lens; it’s not a prop.”

He speaks of the tendency to engage in divisiveness.  He says “divisiveness is a vice.  But like a lot of vices, super seductive.  And so you indulge in it until it bites you, and then you go oh, darn—oh, darn, the wages of sin is death.  And it makes you question having indulged in the vice.  And I think that political divisiveness is a vice; picking sides is a vice rather than picking ideas.”

He speaks specifically of political divisiveness, but it can apply to anything.  And Paul wants all of us to be aware of that.

We can see that sentiment in verse 2 when he addresses the Corinthians, those called to be saints, “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”  Another translation says, “along with all who invoke the name of our Lord Jesus Christ wherever they may be—their Lord as well as ours” (REB).  Wherever they may be.  Whoever they may be.  We have the same Lord.

A few moments ago, I said that we have been gifted to be partners.  But these aren’t partners in the sense of, “Hey buddy!  Hey pal!  Hey amigo!”  Or if you’re addressing a woman, “Hey amiga!”

There’s an almost sinister force at work in creating divisions.  That’s what Stephen Colbert was hinting at.  And for partnership in the sense of koinōnia to exist and to flourish, spiritual giftedness is needed.

Paul tells the Corinthian church “in every way you have been enriched in [Christ]…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift” (vv. 5, 7).  As a church, we are not lacking in any spiritual gift.  It might not seem like it; we might look around and say, “Woe is us!  What can we do?”  Sometimes we might not even want to hear about that multitude of gifts, but the Spirit is here, waiting for us to ask.

Again, here’s a case in which Paul is giving a preview of his plan.  He talks about spiritual gifts in chapters 12 to 14.

The apostle begins this long passage by going to the doctor’s office.  He performs a physical examination of the body.  I mean the body of Christ and the gifts of each part which function for the benefit of all.  It’s what keep us healthy.  He concludes with what we might call the charismatic gifts, such as speaking in tongues and prophesying.

By the way, our Book of Order says in a section called “Expressing Prayer” (W-5.4002), “One may pray in tongues as a personal and private discipline.”  So we at least acknowledge the personal and private part!

Those two sections bracket chapter 13, which speaks of the greatest gift, love.  He doesn’t mean something gooey or romantic or warm and fuzzy.  This isn’t the sole domain of wedding services!  Read through that chapter; he covers all of life.  All spiritual gifts converge in love.  It never ends; it has absolutely no limit.  We never grasp the entirety of love in this life.

2a

Paul doesn’t talk about spiritual gifts in a vacuum.  He links them to waiting for “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  He speaks about being “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 7-8).  He’s drawing on references in the Old Testament to the “day of the Lord,” which is both warning and blessing.

The prophet Amos chastises the people for their hypocrisy in worship.  They pay special attention in making sure the worship service is done properly, but they fail to use that diligence in seeking justice.  They love lies, but hate the truth.  “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!” Amos says, “Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light” (5:18).  They have chosen darkness, and that’s what they’ll get.  I think that qualifies as a warning!

The book of Isaiah is another place where we see the day of the Lord.  “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” says the prophet, “because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (61:1-2).

In the midst of all that blessing, “the day of vengeance of our God” seems quite out of place.  Something to bear in mind is that God’s vengeance, God’s justice, is not the way we usually think of those words.  God’s vision is about restoration; our vision is about retribution.  Aside from that, the word for “vengeance,” נקם (naqam), can also mean “deliverance.”[2]  So there’s the blessing!

Getting back to Paul, he says spiritual gifts are to be exercised with a view toward the coming of the Lord, that is the Lord Jesus Christ.  That is the perspective the church has as its orientation.  Jesus is magnetic north on our compass.

Our scripture reading ends, “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9).  We are called into koinōnia with Christ.  As I said earlier, that word also means “partnership” or “communion.”  That’s a deep partnership, not a shallow one in which we never get past small talk.  What does it mean to have that deep partnership, true communion, with the Lord?

Well, look around.  Loving God also means loving our neighbor.  The way we treat each other, the way we treat all of creation—plants, animals, the earth itself—is how we treat the Lord.

If we use our giftedness to be partners, then we will respect each other.  We will honor each other.  In Romans 12, Paul says to “outdo one another in showing honor” (v. 10).  Now that’s setting a really high bar!  We are to compete with each other in showing love.

And revisiting Stephen Colbert’s comments, that means showing love, even when we strongly disagree.  In the book of Proverbs we read, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another” (27:17).  In other words, let’s get out of our bubbles.  Don’t simply listen to people who tell us what we want to hear.  We actually can learn from, and love, people who are different!

Today is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The official holiday is tomorrow.  If there is someone who loved people who were different, people with whom he passionately disagreed, it would be hard to find a better example than King.  He demonstrated the giftedness of partnering.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he speaks to his critics who are concerned about “outsiders coming in.”[3]  He writes, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.  I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

3

Unfortunately, it is also true that King was more puzzled and disappointed by white moderates than outright segregationists.  Of those who would claim to be in fellowship with him, he said too many “have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”

We don’t have stained glass windows, so that can’t be us!

He later says, “In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church.  But be assured that my tears have been tears of love.  There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.  Yes, I love the church.  How could I do otherwise?…  But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before.  If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity.”

I think that’s always a danger.  And I certainly don’t exclude myself from this.  We can claim to be open, welcoming, affirming.  Admittedly, it’s easy to welcome those with whom we agree.  We can either explicitly or implicitly reject and be divisive.  But what pain we cause each other!  And what pain we cause our Lord.  When we reject and divide, we deny God’s faithfulness, and we reject our calling into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Still, God is faithful.  As we open ourselves to God and to the gifts that are in store, to our amazement we make discoveries.  What once seemed unlikely, or even impossible, now begins to happen.  We find that we are loved, and that enables us to extend love.  We find that we are forgiven, and that enables us to extend forgiveness.  We find that God actually likes us, and that enables us to……  Well, maybe I’m jumping the gun on saying that we can like everyone!

But we find ourselves making progress in our call to be partners in Christ.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] www.cbsnews.com/news/face-the-nation-transcript-december-25-2016-colbert-correspondents-panel

[2] John L. McKenzie, Second Isaiah (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 179.

[3] www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html


spiritual formation in a distant land

In recent years, more and more attention has been paid to spiritual formation, especially by laypeople. An abundance of books, speakers, seminars, and retreats have been directed toward it. Though it might be dismissed by some as trendy or a fad, spiritual formation has been practiced for centuries.

And just what, you may ask, is spiritual formation? Good question! The term “spiritual formation” might sound like some obscure, mysterious rite of passage. However, at some level, spiritual formation is simply a fact of life. Just as our bodies are formed as we grow up, so our spirits are given form.

In his book, Renovation of the Heart, Christian philosopher Dallas Willard says that spiritual formation is “the process by which the human spirit or will is given a definite ‘form’ or character. It is a process that happens to everyone. The most despicable as well as the most admirable of persons have had a spiritual formation. Terrorists as well as saints are the outcome of spiritual formation. Their spirits or hearts have been formed. Period.” (19)

That’s the kind of formation that simply happens. But just as there’s a difference between the formation of a body that belongs to a coach potato and a body that belongs to one who understands exercise, there’s also a difference in the realm of the spirit. Willard describes a distinctively Christian spiritual formation as “the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.” (22) That’s not a bad definition.

But giving definitions of words usually isn’t the best way to make a point. Stories grab our attention more easily than do definitions. So here’s a story from my own experience.

Banu and I were ordained in February 1997 at Overbrook Presbyterian in Philadelphia. My pastor* gave me this charge at the end of the service: tell your story of being in a distant land. Using that image from the parable of the prodigal son, he was talking about several things.

At the time, I wore a bandana on my head; it covered a rather visible scar. It was a mute witness to my experience of brain cancer. I had been on a journey, almost a year and a half long at that point, which included seizure, diagnosis, surgery, radiation therapy, another seizure, another surgery, then seven cycles of chemotherapy.

Along the way, plenty of CAT and MRI scans, a port temporarily implanted in my chest for antibiotics, needles and more needles, and did I happen to mention…needles? To my pastor, that constituted “being in a distant land.”

He was also referring to the spiritual journey I had taken, at least, the parts of it that he knew. Coming from an Assemblies of God church in Tennessee to an American Baptist seminary in Philadelphia to the PC(USA) church across the street—and knowing that I had worshipped and worked with Christians of many different stripes besides that—that also constituted “being in a distant land.”

I must confess, though, I’ve often discounted my pastor’s charge to me. I’ve included parts of my story from time to time, but probably not in the deliberate way he intended.

Destination unknown

Still, as I’ve sometimes told people who are hesitant to speak about God and faith: it’s not a bad idea to start with what the Lord has done in your life.

It’s also true that many of the greatest works of all time have been life stories—biographies and autobiographies. A good example of the latter is Thomas Merton’s journal, The Sign of Jonas. It covers his first few years in the Abbey of Gethsemani, the monastery in Kentucky where he lived. That book picks up where The Seven Storey Mountain leaves off. In it, Merton reflects on this business of telling one’s own story.

“The man who began this journal is dead,” he says, “just as the man who finished The Seven Storey Mountain when this journal began was also dead, and what is more the man who was the central figure in The Seven Storey Mountain was dead over and over. And now that all these men are dead…I think I will have ended up by forgetting them… Consequently, The Seven Storey Mountain is the work of a man I never even heard of. And this journal is getting to be the production of somebody to whom I have never had the dishonor of an introduction.” (328)

I especially like that last line, when he refers to himself in his current work as someone to whom he’s “never had the dishonor of an introduction.” I think I know what he’s talking about. I look back at stuff I wrote in the past—more than that, I look back at who I was—and I wonder, “Who was that guy?” Talk about “being in a distant land.” That’s one place I never want to see again! (Still, from time to time, I revisit it.)

Thomas Merton says such things, because he knows that he must die, so that Christ can live in him. But there’s absolutely no hint of self-hatred here; that would mean hating God’s good creation. Rather, it’s humility that teaches him his own unworthiness to the same extent that he promotes himself. But to the extent that Christ shines through him, he has a message that will endure for generations. And that’s true for all of us.

He speaks of this pretty clearly in a prayer. “You have made my soul for Your peace and Your silence, but it is lacerated by the noise of my activity and my desires.” And speaking of his own body and spirit, he says, “I do not possess my house in silence…

“I am content that these pages show me to be what I am—noisy, full of the racket of my imperfections and passions, and the wide open wounds left by my sins. Full of my own emptiness. Yet, ruined as my house is, You live there!” (47) There aren’t many places in which my story parallels Merton’s, but this is one of them!

My house is indeed ruined, but still, God lives there.

For Christian spiritual formation to happen there does need to be that kind of honest self-evaluation. According to our friend Dallas Willard, the appeal of such a course in life “is totally obvious to any thoughtful person. But,” he says, “we are rarely thoughtful.” (The Divine Conspiracy, 325)

He quotes the poet A. E. Houseman in saying, “‘We think by fits and starts.’ Thus a part of the call of God to us has always been to think. Indeed the call of Jesus to ‘repent’ is nothing but a call to think about how we have been thinking.” The Greek word for repentance is metanoia—literally, a change of mind.

The point is, spiritual formation involves both mind and body. Where the mind leads, the body will follow.

The apostle Paul, in chapter 4 of his letter to the Ephesians, shows this mind-body connection. Verse 25 says “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Paul calls them to put away “falsehood.” In Greek, the term is pseudos; Paul says to put away “the lie.”

What is “the lie”?

In the New Testament, “the lie” encompasses all of life. It is a life in which we deceive and are deceived. It is a life which is not authentic. It is a refusal to be authentic. It is a refusal to be ourselves. It is a life in which we rely on advertisements and political slogans to tell us who we are. (That’s part of “the lie.”)

But before I get too far away from my underlying theme of story, let me bring our collective story into view. In one way or another, we all have been in distant lands.

How do we cooperate with the Spirit in the process of Christian spiritual formation? How can we use our minds differently? Certainly daily prayer and reflective reading of the scriptures can transform our thinking. How can we use our bodies differently? Other spiritual disciplines, like fasting, silence, and pursuing justice, can liberate us from false and damaging desires. We can be free to recognize “the lie,” and say no to it, over and over.

I want revisit my former pastor who got me started on this story of being in a distant land. In one of the church newsletters, he shared some thoughts from his own story—his visit, so to speak, to a distant land. I think it speaks well to our own story here.

He says, “Have I grown so accustomed to retreat that I fear victory, so familiar with the role of victim that I know not how to play any other?… Does my sense of inadequacy [so excuse] me from responsibility that I now can enjoy criticizing others without even having to try? How Lord, shall I dare to think of myself as powerful, and responsible?

“For anyone who has heard, however dimly, the claims of Easter, these are questions which must be answered. Jesus Christ becomes a crisis to all who are witnesses. He stands in the path of our retreat, requiring we say who he is.

“Take, then, the victory of Christ as your victory over all that makes you afraid. Have you feared the test result; dare now to take the test you so much feared. Have you feared the answer; dare now to ask the question whose answer you have so long feared…

“Take then the light of Christ as your light to show you the way. Have you hesitated to rise and to walk on to the next job, the new home, the new school, the new relationship because you could not see the way; dare now to walk on. Because you now dare to see death, you can begin to look forward to life.”

Intentional formation of our spirits leads us to dare life in a new way. We will travel to distant lands, where the road might be strange and dark. Still, the sure hope we have in Jesus is that our hand will be held, and our path will be lit, even if it’s only a couple of steps at a time! We don’t get the whole map, as much as we might think we want it.

This is the challenging task of spiritual formation—allowing ourselves to be the experiment in the laboratory of the Spirit. In this laboratory, the end result is one where each and every day, we are transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.

What was once a distant land, once a far country, slowly becomes more familiar. Thanks be to God.

[The photo is by Felix Rioux]

*Rev. David K. McMillan, whose permission I did not request to use his charge. But being the wonderful pastor he was, I hope he wouldn’t mind!


dark praise

I believe that learning to ask the right question is often, if not usually, more important than having the right answer.  So with that in mind, “To be, or not to be:  that is the question.”  Shakespeare’s Hamlet is pondering the mystery of life itself.  He’s pondering the mystery of living and dying, and some would say, of taking one’s own life.

However we spin it, he’s talking about some pretty weighty stuff.  (Shakespeare’s characters tend to do that!)  He’s also talking about some stuff that we don’t easily address.  A lot of it is thought to be too dark and depressing, and we tread lightly—sometimes too lightly.

Among the things posted on the prayer website Sacred Space are thoughts for the week, things to help guide prayer.  One of the things that has appeared deals with a topic that is one of those uncomfortable subjects:  death.

According to the prayer guide, “Of the many ways to die alone, the most comfortless and solitary is when family and friends conspire to deny the approach of death.  They may feel, ‘I couldn’t take away her hope.’  But without acceptance of the truth, they remove the possibility of spiritual companionship at the end.”[1]

We’re told that in his book, How We Die, Sherwin Nuland “remembers with regret how the family conspired to avoid the truth when his beloved Aunt Rose was dying.  ‘We knew—she knew—we knew she knew—she knew we knew—and none of us would talk about it when we were all together.  We kept up the charade to the end.  Aunt Rose was deprived, and so were we, of the coming together that should have been, when we might finally tell her what her life had given us.  In this sense, my Aunt Rose died alone.’”

I think there’s a parallel between how we often speak of death, and in a broader sense, of lamentation, expression of grief, in general.

That’s also demonstrated in the worship of the church.  The compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary tend to exclude the “problematic” verses from scripture passages.  For example, there’s the reading from 1 Kings in which Solomon asks God for wisdom (3:3-14).  What gets skipped over (verses 1 and 2) is his marriage to the Pharaoh’s daughter to form an alliance with Egypt.  That might be controversial!

In the same way, there are certain psalms that appear nowhere in the lectionary for Sunday worship.  Hint:  Psalm 88 is one of them.  Listening to that litany of doom and gloom, we might well understand why it was omitted.  Saying, “The word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God!” might seem a bit awkward.

Beth Tanner’s book, The Psalms for Today, is a guide in studying the psalms.[2]  Her chapter, “Living in a Broken World,” focuses on Psalm 13, which also has some of that doom and gloom.

Tanner says about this psalm, “There are none of the nice salutations contained in the [Presbyterian] Book of Common Worship.  This prayer accuses God of ignoring the person praying.  How can prayer be so blunt?  How can we speak to God in such a disrespectful manner?”[3]

I began by mentioning how we’re hesitant to speak about certain things with each other.  I gave the illustration of the fellow’s Aunt Rose, and how spiritual companionship was denied.

But with the psalms, with prayer, with worship, we bring God into the equation.  There is an entire category of psalms that are psalms of lament.  These are cries for help, and yes, they can be very accusatory in nature.  Psalm 22 is perhaps the best-known psalm of lament, mainly because of its first line.  As he is dying on the cross, Jesus calls out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Psalm 22 begins on that agonizing note, but something happens as we journey through it.  By the time we reach the end, the psalm is positively joyful.  “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (vv. 30-31).

And what about Psalm 13?  It begins, “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?”  But its ending has a very different tone.  “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (vv. 5-6).  Again, we go from lament—even pointing the finger—to elated celebration.

Psalm 88

Surely Psalm 88 must follow the same path.  It’s in the Bible; shouldn’t it also wind up as praise?  Verse 1 says, “Lord God, my savior, I cry out all day, and at night I come before you” (Good News Bible).  Surely by the time we get to its conclusion, the psalmist has worked out some sort of resolution.

Here’s verse 18 in the NRSV:  “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.”  That doesn’t sound very much like praise.

Some other translations sound even less like praise.  Here’s the Good News Bible:  “You have made even my closest friends abandon me, and darkness is my only companion.”

Here’s the NIV:  “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.”  Perhaps the New Jerusalem Bible is the gloomiest:  “You have deprived me of friends and companions, and all that I know is the dark.”

“All that I know is the dark.”  This is some serious lamentation!  We are looking at the only psalm without a single note of blessing.

I feel compelled to ask a question that others have presented over the centuries.  How much danger is the psalmist actually in?  Is the psalmist really at death’s door?  Our prayer has all kinds of “deadly” sounding language.  Our writer speaks of being “like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave” (v. 5).  The question is posed, “Do you work wonders for the dead?  Do the shades rise up to praise you?” (v. 10).

We really don’t know what the situation is.  Maybe the psalmist is in mortal danger.  Still, what really matters is not the particular situation; what matters is that that is how the psalmist feels.  Our writer, our poet, is in distress.  This is a person who feels a sense of despair.

Let’s pick up on a theme from earlier:  prayer being blunt and apparently disrespectful.  Following with Beth Tanner, we need “to stop and think about how we pray and what that says about our relationship with God.  How have you been taught to pray?”[4]

My guess would be that most, if not all, of us have learned to pray, whether by teaching or by example, in a polite way.  Some of us have learned certain rules.  (In fairness, if some methodology assists you in prayer, then use it.  As long as we don’t become slaves to some format, exploring the depths of prayer is obviously a good thing!)

One method I would imagine none of us learned was the chaotic, soul-baring cries of the 88th psalm.

With a title like “Dark Praise,” it might be asked, “How is this praise?”  How can these angry, painful demands of God be considered praise?

Light in darkness

“To speak honestly and demand that God come and do something,” Tanner comments, “speaks volumes about the relationship between the one praying and God.  If I dare to speak my fears and my greatest hurts, then I am also acknowledging the importance of this other to me and the power that this other has in my life…  It is praise not because it is polite or politically correct, but because it is brutally honest and open.”[5]

This is analogous to relationships with other people.  Do we share our greatest fears and hurts with casual acquaintances?  Do we share them with a boss or a supervisor?  Do we present them with those kinds of demands?  (Not usually!)  But what about our closest friend—our closest loved one?

There’s something we need to realize about this ancient poet.  When we read these words from so long ago, we have to keep something in mind.  This is a person of faith.  This is not the work of one whose mission it is to ridicule or to defame.  Psalm 88’s first three words in Hebrew are translated into English as “Yahweh, God of my salvation.”

Even though the psalm contains no breath of blessing, this is still praise.  It is dark praise, and that makes us uncomfortable.

Mennonite pastor Isaac Villegas describes Psalm 88 in an interesting way.  He calls it “that member of the family nobody knows what to do with.  He’s at all the family reunions, and his name comes up in all the jovial stories, but nobody wants to get caught alone with him in the living room.  He’s awkward… irrational… strange.  So he sits there and everyone goes outside and explains why he’s so strange and how he fits into the whole family dynamic.  But nobody takes the time to really listen to strangeness and let him explain himself, and maybe change how everyone else views the family.”[6]

There can be a temptation to water down Psalm 88, to sand off the rough edges.  We want to force it into our predetermined ideas.  We might think, “For this to be scripture is just too outrageous!”  But what if we just accept the poet on his own terms?  Can we love her for who she is?  What if we just listened?  What would happen to us if we did?  Or maybe I should rephrase that:  what does happen to us when we do it?  What happens to us when we accept that joy also involves lamentation?

Deep in the depths of that darkness, there is gospel.  At the bottom of the bottomless pit, there is good news.  Even there (perhaps especially there), Christ reigns in victory.  When we honor that—when we honor the strangeness that is each other—then we have learned the secret of dark praise.


[1] sacredspace.ie (26 Sep-2 Oct 2010)

[2] Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Psalms for Today (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).

[3] Tanner, 61.

[4] Tanner, 59.

[5] Tanner, 64.