St. Paul

the ravine of blackest shadow

If there’s one part of the Bible that English-speaking people are familiar with, it’s today’s text from the Psalms.  Even in America, with our dwindling knowledge of the Bible, the 23rd psalm is something almost everyone has at least a passing awareness of.  But it isn’t from the translations done in recent centuries—it’s the King James Version.  (People often request this psalm for funerals.  For those services, that’s the only version I’ve ever used.)

One thing that really stands out is in verse 4: “Even though I walk in the darkest valley.”  That might be a better translation, but it’s not as dramatic as “the valley of the shadow of death.”  In my opinion—and I don’t think I’m alone on this—it’s not as powerful.  It’s not as artistic.  The phrase literally reads: “the ravine of blackest shadow.”  Friends, that’s pretty dark!

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Those considerations aside, we can see a sense of movement throughout the psalm.  That would be in keeping with the image of the shepherd guiding the sheep, moving through grassy meadows, by tranquil streams, and yes, through the darkest of valleys.

However, one doesn’t usually think of shepherds as preparing tables for their sheep, anointing their heads with oil, or pouring them cups that overflow.  And here’s a shot in the dark: sheep aren’t usually known for their desire to spend time in the house of the Lord!

A quick lesson in Hebrew might help.  Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, is written with all consonants.  The vowels consist of points—dots—that were added up to centuries later.  Clearly, a change in vowels makes a difference in the sound and meaning of words.  Change one letter, and we go from “sack” to “sock.”  Same consonants, different vowels.

Before printing presses came along in the 1500s, copies of the scriptures were done by hand.  Sometimes a copyist would receive a manuscript that was difficult to read.  A dot might be misplaced.  That could change the pronunciation and the meaning.  It’s possible that happened here.

The word translated “shepherd” in verse 1 is the Hebrew term רֺעׅי (ro`i).  With a slight vowel change, we wind up with the word רֵעַ (re`i), which means “companion” or “friend.”  In fact, it’s the same word used in Leviticus 19:18, which says to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  If Yahweh, the Lord, is our re`i—our companion, our friend, our neighbor—that puts loving our neighbor in a very different light.

We can see the 23rd psalm as a song of pilgrimage, of travel to the holy place.  We are on a journey, and we are not alone.  The Lord is our companion, and we need nothing else.  Whether by peaceful waters in pleasant meadows or in the loneliest, most terrifying abyss, God is with us.  And God—as shepherd, companion, or both—provides for us, even when those bent on our destruction are all around.

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So far, I’ve given an example of how Psalm 23 is used liturgically, in worship.  I used a funeral service as a case in point.  I just mentioned how it can be looked at academically.  Examining the Hebrew text can yield new ways of understanding the psalm.  But all that stuff isn’t enough.  We need more in order to learn how to live when we are in the darkest of ravines.

Again, on the point of funerals.  I recently met with daughters of a beloved woman who passed away a few days earlier.  She had celebrated her 97th birthday the previous month.  She had a special interest in music; a piano graced her living room.

She had been living in a retirement center when she needed help in daily tasks.  After a stay in the hospital, it was clear she wouldn’t be going back.  Arrangements were made for hospice care, and she would be returning to her home, after six years away. The daughters said she didn’t last long, but she was overjoyed to be back in her own house those final days.

I remember visiting her in the hospital, when she told me before going to sleep the night before, she wondered if she would wake up.  She said she was ready to go, even though she wasn’t ready to go.

Some people are graced to walk through the deepest shadow with a sense of wonder and profound gratitude.

What does it mean to live with the awareness that the Lord is our shepherd, our companion, and our host?  What does it mean to know that we do not want—that we do not lack?  And even more, what does all that mean if we’re in the presence of our enemies?  What response does it encourage or require?

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he comes from a different direction.  “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light” (5:8).  If living as “children of light” isn’t sufficiently clear, he goes on to say, “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (vv. 10-11).

Works of darkness are “unfruitful”; they aren’t creative.  They don’t accomplish anything worthwhile.  Works of darkness are the methods of control and force and manipulation we so often use.

Imagine, preparing a table in the presence of our enemies.  Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, who died in 2009, once said, “People enjoying such a feast would make themselves an easy target for their adversaries!”[1]  It would be like squirrels, happily crunching on seeds and nuts, completely unaware of the cat sneaking up behind them!

But that’s okay, he says, because “this is none other than an expression of the supreme wisdom and strength of God, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and whose weakness is stronger than human strength.”  In verse 4, when the psalmist says to God, “I fear no evil,” what reason is given?  I have security through advanced firepower?  Or, I have enough money to bribe anyone?

3 psOr maybe is it “for you are with me”?  Koyama adds, “God’s vulnerability is stronger than human invulnerability.  Through a banquet table—not guns and warplanes—God wills to transform us and our world.”

It’s indeed a blessing, a gift of grace, that none of us is dependent upon our own experience, our own devices—certainly not our own strength—to secure the friendship of God.  It’s been said that, as the psalmist finds out, God satisfies every need and transforms all circumstances.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (v. 6).  By the time we get to this final verse, we see that the psalmist is “no longer hunted down by…enemies, but…is literally pursued by the goodness of God.”[2]  (I’ll say more about that in a moment.)

Considering that this is a beloved psalm, most people probably don’t want to hear this.  But is it possible that when the psalmist speaks of having a fine meal while foes are nearby, it’s not just an expression of trust in God?  Could it also be a case of “who’s laughing now”?  There are plenty of prayers for revenge in the Psalms.  The Lord could be vindicating his servant.

And to be honest, “follow” is too weak a word.  The Hebrew word, רָדַף (radaf), is better translated as “pursue” or “chase.”  The same word is used after the Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, and we see the Egyptians “pursuing” the Israelites (Ex 14:9, 23).  It’s almost always used in a military context.  Someone is being hunted down.

One notable exception is in Psalm 34, where we are told, “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (v. 14).  I myself can relate to needing, and wanting, God’s goodness and mercy chasing after me.

I can think of times when I’ve been petty and spiteful.  I’ve enjoyed the blessings of God, knowing that others have gone wanting; they’ve gone lacking.  And I haven’t lifted a finger to help.  I can only speak for myself, but I want the goodness of God to keep chasing me, no matter where I try to hide.  I want to be the rabbit tracked by the hound of heaven.  I need that light to shine on me when I’m in death’s shadow.

Christoph Blumhardt was a German Lutheran theologian in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.  He has a fitting thought for the Easter season.  “Christ’s resurrection,” he says, “is not just something that happened in the past.  There is resurrection today just as much as there was back then, after Christ’s death.  Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order.”[3]

Here’s a question.  What does Blumhardt mean when he says there’s resurrection today, as surely as when Christ rose from the grave?  What about that?  What are some ways in which there is new life, where once there had been only death?

That leads to another question.  When he says, “Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order,” what is that?  What is an entirely different order?  I imagine that could be a lot of things, but let’s stick with what our treasured 23rd psalm gives us regarding traveling the dark path.

Blumhardt adds that “[o]ur task…is to demonstrate the power of the resurrection.”[4]  When we allow the power of Christ to have freedom within us, enemies are no longer feared or despised.  Evil is de-fanged, in whatever valley of death-shadow we find ourselves.  That may be brokenness in body or heart or spirit.  We also (amazingly!) find it within ourselves to reach out to those we once considered repellent.

Our friend Kosuke Koyama reminds us, “The table that God prepares for us culminates in the eucharistic table of the Lord,” the table of the Lord’s Supper.  “This sacrament is the ultimate symbol of God’s hospitality, demonstrated in full view of the enemy.”  I don’t care who we consider our enemy to be.  When we dine together at the table “prepared by the very life of God,” enemies become friends.

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When we come to the table of the Lord, we come as the one being chased by the goodness and mercy of God.  We dine with the risen Lord, who gives us the power to rise from the shadow of death.  We come to the table, trusting that in the journey of our life, God is our beloved, our companion, our shepherd.

 

[1] www.religion-online.org/article/you-prepare-a-table-for-me-psalms-23/

[2] A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1981), 199.

[3] Christoph Blumhardt, Jesus is the Victor (Farmington, PA: The Bruderhof Foundation, 2004), 23.

[4] Blumhardt, 25.


in religion, but not of religion

Presbyterians don’t emphasize this so much, but when I was in the Assemblies of God, I heard plenty of sermons that asked, “Have you had your Damascus road experience?”  Can you pinpoint a moment in your life in which you could say, “I once was lost, but now am found.  Here I am, Lord!”

The awakening of faith can be a very subjective thing.  It can be hard to pinpoint from the outside.  For many, it is a gradual growing awareness.  That is, if it happens at all.  But however it does happen, it is a gift.  Sometimes it is a gift delivered in a drastic fashion.

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For the Lord to get Paul’s attention, it took something quite drastic!  (By the way, I’m using the name “Paul,” since Saul was later known by that name.)

As we begin Acts 9 with his description, we’re actually picking up from a verse in chapter 8.  “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (v. 3).  And now, with verse 1: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”

There is a sadly comical aspect to this portrayal of Paul.  Honestly, doesn’t this guy have anything better to do?  He’s pictured like a brute beast, like a wild animal.  This guy has some major anger issues!  Like the bull in a china shop, he’s been doing some serious damage.

Paul has been hurting and terrorizing those whom, in the future, he will love dearly as his sisters and his brothers.  But as I say, that’s in the future!

There is one he is hurting most of all.  We’re told, “He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’  He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’  The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (vv. 4-5).  The risen and ascended Lord passionately identifies with his people.  Because of his great love, what hurts them brings him torment.

How different is Paul’s response from that of Ananias in verse 10.  Where Paul says, “Who are you, Lord?” Ananias says, “Here I am, Lord.”

It isn’t that Paul doesn’t understand the faith.  He is very well versed.  Later in Acts, he says that he has “belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee” (26:5).  He knows this stuff backwards and forwards!  He has the data, but he lacks the experience.  That is, he lacks the experience of God’s love.

For me, that’s something I really value from my time with the Assemblies of God.  For someone who lived too much in his head, the Pentecostals were a needed corrective.

At an interim ministry training event, a video was presented of the late Edwin Friedman, who was a rabbi and a therapist.  In the video, he is commenting on the fallacy of expertise.  He is talking about our emphasis on information and technique.  Or perhaps I should say the overemphasis on information and technique—the overemphasis on experts.  It’s possible to be paralyzed by continuously gathering information before we take any meaningful action.  Sometimes we need to learn to trust ourselves.

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[more words of wisdom from the late great Neil Peart--the drummer from Rush, if you didn't know]

Friedman speaks of the pursuit of data as a form of substance abuse.  I had never thought of it that way.  Too often, I have greatly abused that substance!  It can have the downside of making one indecisive.

Data and experience can be phrased, for lack of better terms, as head knowledge and heart knowledge, or spirit knowledge.

Graham Standish served as a Presbyterian pastor for many years.  He is now the executive director of a spiritual counseling center.  He published an article called “Shepherding SBNR Sheep: How to Create a Church for the Spiritual but Not Religious.”[1]

For devoted churchgoers, “spiritual but not religious” is often seen as those unwilling to make a commitment.  It actually has many connotations, clearly, some more positive than others.  Those who identify themselves that way often speak of their distrust of the church, of institutionalized religion, and so on.  Some perceive a lack of authenticity.  Some look at the church and see a bunch of phonies.  To what extent that perception meets reality is a different discussion.

Standish begins his article with a sort of confession.  Speaking of the time he was a pastor, he said, “I privately classify myself as being ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR).  I know it doesn’t make sense, but somehow it feels right.  No matter how long I’ve been the pastor of a church, I’ve always been more ‘in’ religion than ‘of’ religion.”  I imagine he would still classify himself as such.

It looks like he’s using the word “religion” to mean the data it contains.  He’s using it to express doctrinal content.  There’s nothing wrong with doctrine, in and of itself.  It’s necessary; it’s simply a body of teachings.  But if doctrine is separated from a loving experience of God, it can become deceptive and even dangerous.

I’ve never really considered myself to be religious.  I guess that’s a quality I share with our SBNR friends.  To me, being called “religious” is not necessarily a compliment.  In his zeal to imprison members of the early church, Paul is definitely religious.

Those who are in religion, but not of religion, “want to experience what’s true rather than be told what is true.”  Standish talks about one of his parishioners who said, “Most churches tell you what to think.  [Our church] encourages you to think.”

I should warn you.  When we encourage others to think, we may hear some stuff we would rather not hear.  In today’s passage, there are two fellows who hear stuff they don’t want to hear.  There’s Paul, hearing how he’s been horribly wrong, and he’s been persecuting his Lord.  And then there’s Ananias, who hears that it’s his job to welcome Paul.  (“Lord, you do know that he’s done some really bad stuff?”)

Standish addresses something we’re familiar with: asking people certain questions in order to join the church, “such as ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?’  There’s nothing wrong with expecting this, although it puts the SBNR in a quandary: do I say ‘yes,’ even if I don’t know quite what that means, or do I wait till I know what it means?  And what if I never know what that means?”  He says that “healthy relationships lead more people to an experience of the holy than does rational theologizing.”

Trying to convince people into faith by using a line of reasoning is often not the best approach.  And yes, arguing with, and shaming people doesn’t work so well in demonstrating the love of Jesus.   In our scripture, Ananias says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (v. 17).  Vision and the Spirit go together.

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Look at how our passage ends.  “For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (vv. 19-20).  So not only is Paul’s sight restored—not only do the blinders come off—but Paul finds his voice.  Paul, in effect, joins those who are in religion, but not of religion.  That’s what happens when we experience what the data is about.

I want to mention one more thing that’s in the article.  It deals with how open we are to those unfamiliar with our language, our jargon.  We should realize “that while Christian language and [expressions] help those within a religious tradition to speak a common language of faith, that…language also creates a barrier” for those who don’t understand it.  “In effect, it helps us if we are willing learn the language of other faiths, and to learn how to translate certain concepts into our own language.”

When I was in seminary, I had Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).  What that often entails is a student chaplaincy at a hospital, which is what I did.  One of the things our supervisor would often ask of us would be to express our faith without using “God talk.”  That is, don’t use religious words.  When you’re in a hospital, you’re dealing with the entire public, people from all backgrounds.

Another way of looking at it would be: can you talk about faith by focusing on the experience, rather than the data?

On the matter of God talk, there is something I have mentioned before.  It deals with an invitation Banu and I received to stay a couple of days at a camp and conference center about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh.  We were asked to do some workshops while there.

During one session, I issued that challenge to the folks at camp: describe your faith without using God talk.  For instance, what does “Jesus saves” mean?

Some of them gladly welcomed the test and gave it a good “faith” shot!  For others—not so much.  And when I started pushing them on it, some got irritated; it was even written on their faces.  Some of them let me know their displeasure.  They were not happy with me.

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I observed how reaching out to those outside the four walls might mean learning a different language.  I don’t know if they didn’t believe me or just didn’t care.  It does require change.  Do you know what we call something that doesn’t change?  Dead.  Life, by its very nature (even at the chemical level), requires change.  That’s a word for us, also.

My guess would be they just wanted to have a nice, relaxing weekend with their friends.  They didn’t need to be given this bit of uncomfortable work.  In my defense, this little exercise lasted maybe twenty minutes, but that was enough to tick them off.

(There is a nice postscript to this story.  That night, they broke out the board games.  Even the folks who got annoyed with me were happy when I joined in.  Playing games can be incredibly therapeutic!)

How can we talk about our own experience?  How can we tell our story?  We all have them, and none of them are any less valid than those of others.

The poster boy for a story of willingness to change is Saul, later known as Paul.  His decision to embrace change was a literal turn from death, at least, the death of others.  Verse 19 says, “For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus.”  These were the same people for which he begged permission to place under arrest and drag back to Jerusalem (where they would not be treated like honored guests).

We could make the argument that Paul himself was on the road to death.  Be careful with whom you ally yourself.  Choose life or choose death: blessing or curse.

Still, back to my previous question.  How about our experience?  Are we in religion?  Are we of religion?  Are there elements of both?  As I said earlier, can we talk about faith without using God talk?

Here are questions that go a bit deeper.  How are we when it comes to letting God work through us?  How are we at being a vessel of the Spirit?

Ananias laid hands on him and prayed.  “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.  Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength” (vv. 18-19).

Let us eat the food given by God which strengthens us on the way.

 

[1] alban.org/archive/shepherding-sbnr-sheep-how-to-create-a-church-for-the-spiritual-but-not-religious/


confessions of ruthless love

We’re all familiar with Murphy’s Law, aren’t we?  It basically states, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”  I did a little bit of research to find out who this Murphy actually was.  There is more than one candidate.  Many people suggest Capt. Edward Murphy, an engineer in the US Air Force.  After a technician had made a mistake in wiring, Murphy claimed, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”[1]

1 jr Others, like me, suspect an origin further back in history.  Understanding that Murphy is an Irish name, some say that the English pinned it on the Irish.  Of course, as a rule, the English have always held the Irish in the very highest regard, so it’s hard to believe they would do such a thing!

Whatever the case: if there’s anybody in the Bible who might possibly believe in Murphy’s Law, it would be the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah lives at a time when the Babylonian Empire is knocking at the door.  People are nervous.  They fear destruction and exile.  And at the same time, injustice is rampant throughout the country.  As the prophet of the Lord, Jeremiah is given the task of opposing idolatry and corruption—speaking truth to power.  As true prophets do, his job is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

Jeremiah does not have a happy life.  His social life is all but nonexistent.  Saying “yes” to God has meant for him dealing with name-calling and far worse: slander, beating, imprisonment.  After the Babylonians do invade, he’s labeled a traitor when he warns against fighting back.  Saying “yes” to God means that Jeremiah becomes public enemy number one.

One of the things I really love about this book is Jeremiah’s ruthless honesty about his calling and ministry.  In chapter 1, when he is called to be a prophet, we get a little taste of things to come when the Lord says, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (v. 8).  Jeremiah knows that trouble is in store for him.  It’s not for nothing that he has been called “the weeping prophet.”

There are several poems in the book that are often called the Confessions of Jeremiah.  We have a reading from the first and the last ones.  In these poems, he sounds a lot like Job.  More than with any other prophet, we see in Jeremiah a picture of his inner being.  At times, he verges on the depths of despair.

As our friend Murphy might say, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

Jeremiah feels like God has betrayed him, and he isn’t shy about letting God know it!  More than once, he decides that he’s had enough; he is not going to do this anymore.  Let somebody else do this job!  But he finds it impossible to stop.  Chapter 20, verse 9, has the perfect example of this.  “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

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“The Prophet Jeremiah” by Michelangelo

The Contemporary English Version puts it this way: “Sometimes I tell myself not to think about you, Lord, or even mention your name.  But your message burns in my heart and bones, and I cannot keep silent.”

That’s a confession that only someone who is in love can make!  Jeremiah loves the Lord, but he’s also mad and disappointed.

In chapter 11, we see something that would have anyone wondering what’s going on.  The people of his hometown issue him a warning: shut up or change your tune—or you won’t like what’s coming!  It’s been said that they’re “shamed to the depths that one of themselves should undermine the very foundations of the nation by what he said, and should make himself the most hated man in the country.  So they threaten to murder him.”[2]

Jeremiah laments that he is “like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (v. 19).  That’s one of the comparisons people make between him and Jesus.

And at the end of chapter 20, we see him cursing the day of his birth.  There’s a comparison with Job.  He even curses the man who brought glad tidings of his birth to his father!  That wasn’t good news!  Why didn’t he just kill me?  “Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (v. 18).

Of course, Jeremiah is far from alone in wanting to just call it quits.

A story is told about John Robertson, a 19th century minister in the Church of Scotland.  Having preached for forty years, he “decided one morning to resign.  He prayed: ‘O God, Thou didst commission me forty years ago, but I have blundered and failed and I want to resign this morning.’  But as he prayed and sobbed, he heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘John Robertson…‘tis true you have blundered and failed; but…I am not here for you to resign your commission but to re-sign your commission.’  He went on to new and greater things in his ministry.  And so did Jeremiah.”[3]

After everything falls apart—after everything crashes and burns—after the Babylonians destroy the temple—Jeremiah has a message of hope.  The exiles, one day, will return.  Rebuilding will happen.  Of course, if he had just quit (speaking of the prophet and John Robertson), he wouldn’t have been able to give that message of consolation.

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I want to change gears and look at the value of Jeremiah’s Confessions.  Actually, I should probably ask, “Do we think they have value?”  As expressions of lament, do they have value?  What is the value of lament?  What is the value of giving voice to our grief?

The Confessions are about stuff that happens to more than just one person.  They are about the community, the people of Israel.  And they’re also about us—all of us, in every time and place.  We haven’t gone through what the people in Jeremiah’s time do, but we also know what trauma and disaster are all about.

Clearly, the last two years have taught us a few things about that.

Some people say that we shouldn’t talk about the bad things that happen, certainly not in church.  I wonder, have they ever looked at a cross?

I’m sure none of you have ever experienced this, but sometimes when tragedy strikes, we can offer some unwanted explanations.  Stuff like, “God never gives us more than we can handle.”  Let’s ignore the fact that isn’t in the Bible—it’s an altering of something in 1 Corinthians about God giving us a way out of testing and temptation (10:13).  But aside from that, does that really help anyone?

This is among my favorite unhelpful explanations: when someone loses a loved one, especially if that person was young, I’ve sometimes heard that “God needed another angel in heaven.”  We should understand humans and angels are two completely different types of beings!  Aside from that, something far worse, in my opinion, is the funeral poem claiming, “God broke our hearts to prove to us He only takes the best.”  That seems to say nothing less than God is a monster.

Still, I think we can see that those types of remarks say more about the person uttering them than anything else.  When we’re at a loss for words, we too often offer things that are unhelpful and painful and stupid.  Maybe a better approach is simply to be present.

That leads us to the value of lament in the scriptures, with the example of Jeremiah’s Confessions.  Old Testament scholar Kathleen O’Connor says, “They give voice to profound fidelity because they keep communication with God alive in the midst of destruction and despair.”[4]

When it comes to reflecting on our fears and insecurities versus relying on God, I think it’s safe to choose the latter.  As a result, I think I like her advice better:

“Here is what to do in the pit of hopelessness.  Cling to God, even when God has slipped away from you.  Yell at the top of your collective lungs.  Hold tightly, mercilessly, and, with every ounce of strength, shout and scream at the deity…  Hold nothing back. Complain, protest, resist.  Reach into yourself to claim your experience and your capacity to see and name reality.  Rise up, ‘give God an account,’ and approach God ‘like a prince’ [or a princess] (Job 31:37).”[5]

The good news for Jeremiah is that he doesn’t remain in the pit of hopelessness.  His love of God is what sees him through.  It is precisely because he loves God that he’s able to say the things he does.  His honesty, joined with his love, is what honors that relationship.  It keeps the relationship alive.

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It might feel wrong to be angry with God, but that’s okay.  God already knows how we feel, and when something terrible happens, God is saddened even more than we are.  At the time, it might not seem that way, and that’s also okay.  We can be honest with God, and we also can make our confessions of ruthless love.

So it’s important to ask, for those of us here, how can we welcome expressions of lament?  How can we, as the apostle Paul advises, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep”? (Ro 12:15).  It is more than appropriate for the church to do that.  It’s a sure sign that we are on our way to becoming the beloved community.

The Confessions of Jeremiah, as opposed to Murphy’s Law, is a good and faithful road to follow.

 

[1] www.murphys-laws.com/murphy/murphy-true.html

[2] Klaus Koch, The Prophets: The Babylonian and Persian Periods (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 39.

[3] www.directionjournal.org/article/?168

[4] Kathleen O’Connor, “Lamenting Back to Life,” Interpretation 62:1 (Jan 2008), 42.

[5] O’Connor, 45.


on the road we have to travel

We are now well into the season of Lent.  The usual question is, “What are you giving up for Lent?”  I like the answer Banu gave.  “We need to dispossess ourselves of the possessions that possess us, so we can be possessed by God.”  As one who is not fond of clutter, I can think of plenty of possessions which, were they to disappear, would please me greatly.

Of course, possessions need not be material.  The most insidious possessions are the ones within.  They grab hold of our minds, emotions, and spirits.  They grab us and we grab them.  We are indeed possessed by our possessions.  We need to be exorcised!

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Psalm 142 presents the utterance, the cry, of one who has been dispossessed, though not by choice.  The psalmist laments the loss of security, the loss of freedom, the loss of joy.

According to the title of the psalm, we’re hearing from David when he was in the cave, hiding from King Saul.  Saul had become insanely jealous of David.  The people loved him; his son Jonathan loved him; the Lord blessed David’s actions.  Therefore, David must die!

In the Hebrew Bible, those titles are considered part of the psalm.  That’s why David is traditionally thought of as the author.  Still, whether or not we see David as the poet, the singer of the song, the psalmist gives voice to a grief resounding down through the ages.

A large percentage of the psalms are psalms of lament.  This is one of them.  “With my voice I cry to the Lord; with my voice I make supplication to the Lord / I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him” (vv. 1-2).

This is a psalm suitable for the season of Lent, even though it appears nowhere in the lectionary.  That’s the case with many of these psalms.  They tend to be omitted from the worship of the church.  (I’ll come back to that later.)

Psalm 142 is suitable, not because Lent is all about lamentation, moaning and groaning.  Rather, the Lenten journey focuses on repentance, reflection, and renewal.  And it is indeed a journey.  As we go through the psalm, we find ourselves in process, in transit.  The psalmist is also on a journey.  The psalmist is on the road, and it is a rocky road.  The psalm speaks to these things.

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[photo by John Salzarulo on Unsplash]

Our poet is walking the path, and with confidence says to the Lord, “When my spirit is faint, you know my way” (v. 3).  That’s a good thing, because here comes trouble.  “In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me.”  The New Jerusalem Bible says, “On the road I have to travel they have hidden a trap for me.”

Who are these would-be captors?  What are these would-be captors?  What traps, what snares, are lying in wait?

Those are good questions for us this season.  I suppose this could be said every year, but it seems like this is a Lent like none other.  We are emerging from a global pandemic, and traps a-plenty have been set.  Destruction and hardship have been left in its wake.

Wrestling with the effects of lockdowns, debates about masks, the wisdom of vaccine mandates, all that and more—it has taken a toll on our well-being.  It’s taken a toll on our sanity!  Families have been divided; they have turned on each other.  It’s sad but true that in too many cases, people who thought of each other as friends have been divided.  Discord has occurred.

I haven’t lost any friends, but I can say there are people I agree with who I didn’t think I would before Covid.  On the flip side, I have found myself disagreeing with those who I couldn’t imagine myself doing so before Covid.

Our psalm continues with David (or the David-like person) crying out, “Look on my right and see—there is no one who recognizes me.  All refuge is denied me, no one cares whether I live or die” (v. 4, NJB).  No one recognizes me.  No one cares whether I live or die.  This is the picture of dejection, the portrait of despair.  Maybe there’s a tiny touch of paranoia?

3 psHave you heard the saying, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you”?

The psalmist is encircled by enemies, surrounded by the sinister.  Our friend is nameless, and no one is offering a hand of greeting.

I wonder, could this also be a picture of abandonment by friends?  A question I know we’ve all heard is, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”  Abandonment by friends was poignantly and heartbreakingly demonstrated on the night we call Maundy Thursday.  The words from the liturgy: “On the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested” are played out.  When the disciples see the gang coming to take Jesus into custody, they make themselves scarce.

Have we ever stood back when a friend needed us?  Have we ever seen an injustice and not lift a finger?  It’s a terrible feeling if we dare allow ourselves to feel it.

Here’s another uncomfortable question.  We easily see those others as persecutors, but how about us?

I don’t if this exactly qualifies as persecution, but in my freshman year of college, I might be described as the “roommate from hell.”  Maybe that’s too strong a term; I never did anything bad to him.  Maybe I was just the roommate from heck!

I never really made an effort to get to know him.  I rarely asked him about himself or his family or anything personal.  He occasionally would offer an olive branch.  One night after he’d been out with his friends, he brought home a tamale for me.  (By the way, he was Mexican American.)  He was a really nice guy.  I’m sure we could have been good friends.

4 psOne morning really stands out for me.  It was a Saturday morning, and I was still in bed.  I awoke to the voices of his father, mother, and sister.  They were speaking Spanish, so I didn’t know what they were saying.  I figured if I pretended I was asleep, they would cut their visit short.  That did not happen.  They had to know I was awake.  I imagine they asked him, “What’s the deal with your roommate?”

They were there for about twenty minutes.  After some time had gone by, I was too embarrassed to act like I had just woken up.  All I had to do when I first heard them was to greet them and ask if I could have a minute or two to get dressed.  I must confess there was a bit of racism involved.

The story does have a happy ending.  Decades later, I connected with him on Facebook.  I profusely apologized for being such a complete jerk when we were roommates.  I even let him know that a few years later, I came to faith and the Lord had turned me around.  It turned out he hadn’t thought about very much about it.  He just thought I was quiet.

I said earlier that Lent is not all about lamentation, but it certainly has a large role.  It is okay—even necessary—to lament.

There is a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church located in Oakland, California named Dominique Gilliard.  He has written on the subject of lament.

“Somewhere along the way,” he says, “we modern Christians got lament wrong: we began thinking of it as optional instead of a required practice of the faith.”[1]  This goes with my earlier comment about lament being overlooked by the church.

He continues, speaking of its benefits, “When we lament, we confess our humanity and concede that we are too weak to combat the world’s powers, principalities and spiritual wickedness on our own.  When we lament, we declare that only God has the power to truly mend the world’s pain and brokenness.”

This is always true, but how much more we see that pain and brokenness today with war in Europe.  At the same time, we too easily disregard wars in Asia and Africa.

Gilliard comments on the power of lament.  “Lamentation prevents us from becoming numb and apathetic to the pain of our world and of those whom we shepherd.  Lamentation begets revelation.  It opens our eyes to death, injustice, and oppression we had not even noticed.  It opens our ears to the sounds of torture, anguish and weeping that are the white noise of our world. To live without lament is to live an unexamined life.”

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I like how he credits lament as begetting—as producing—revelation.  It opens our eyes and ears to the pain that is “the white noise of our world.”  It’s difficult for me to sleep without running a fan or something else generating white noise.  I need the white noise to drown other sounds out.

Something that gets drowned out by white noise are school shootings.  To be honest, I lose track of them.  It seems like there’s one every week somewhere in the country.

“To live without lament is to live an unexamined life.”  Before I read that in his article, I hadn’t thought of it that way.  (Maybe I need help in examining my life!)  Lament helps to make us fully human.  It puts us in touch with realities that deserve our attention.  It puts us in touch with people who deserve our attention.  The apostle Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Ro 12:15).

The psalmist begs for attention when calling upon God.  “Give heed to my cry, for I am brought very low.  Save me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me” (v. 6).  Here’s the final request: “Bring me out of prison, so that I may give thanks to your name” (v. 7).

So, as we’ve been on the road we have to travel, what is our prison?  What holds us?  What prevents us from giving and living in gratitude to God?  Dare to look deep within; I promise you will find something.  Going back to the beginning, that is the often-maddening question of Lent.  What will we give up?

I’ll repeat my original quote from Banu: “We need to dispossess ourselves of the possessions that possess us, so we can be possessed by God.”

The psalm ends on a powerful note of praise.  “The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.”  As we progress through Lent on the road we have to travel, if we yearn for freedom, the Lord will burst the bars of our self-constructed prisons.

 

[1] www.faithandleadership.com/dominique-d-gilliard-reclaiming-power-lament


remove your veil

I want to begin with a story about Ayn Rand, or rather, my time as an avid reader of her books.  This was mainly when I was a freshman in college.

First of all, let me give you an idea of who she was.  Ayn Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and moved to America as a young woman.  She died in 1982.

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She wrote books of fiction primarily.  She believed selfishness is a noble virtue.  We are not each other’s keeper.  It’s true only to the extent it serves our own self-interest.  The same can be said of charity.  Those receiving charity should be worthy of it.

Government should be as small as possible, for example, there should be no oversight for worker safety, protection of the environment, etc.  That is to be left solely in private hands, to business.  Also, reason alone gives direction for life.  No faith, no poetic insight, no feelings should be used.  To say she was no fan of the church is putting it mildly.

That is an admittedly very quick and, no doubt at some points, imprecise picture of her.  Having said that, as a semi-disciple of hers, I often found myself thinking, “What would Ayn Rand do?”  I was channeling my thoughts along paths she laid out.  I had fenced myself in.

To show how ridiculous I had become, one day I was with some friends, eating lunch in the cafeteria.  I had my copy of Atlas Shrugged, one of her best-known books.  Pushing the book over to one of my companions, I only half-jokingly asked him to “read us some scripture.”

I really wasn’t ascribing some divine origin to Rand’s work (which actually would have driven her nuts), but it does show how straitjacketed my thinking had turned out to be.  In a sense, I fell prey to what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (3:6).  He is referring specifically to the law of Moses (at least, how it was often interpreted), but it can also apply to any rigid, freedom-restricting rules to live by.

(By the way, my infatuation with the writing of Ayn Rand began to fade about a year later.  My conscience started bothering me!)

Regarding our scripture text, it’s known that Paul wrote several letters to the church in Corinth.  In 1 Corinthians, he mentions a letter he wrote previously (5:9).  Then we have the letter we call 1 Corinthians.  In 2 Corinthians, he speaks of a painful letter (2:3-4, 9, 7:8, 12).  He wanted to address some troublesome issues in the church.  The letter had a severe tone; he said he wrote “out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears” (2:4).  And now, we have the letter known to us as 2 Corinthians.

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We pick up Paul’s discussion right after he refers to the parade of “peddlers of God’s word” (2:17), preachers and teachers who have been performing with their dog and pony shows.  He asks if the folks in Corinth want him and his companions to present letters of recommendation.  Do they need someone to vouch for them?  They should have checked out those other characters.

Paul says, “I’ll tell you who vouches for us: the Spirit of God.”  He denies that they are “competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (3:5).  He says they can’t take credit for anything.  Everything is only due to God.

The apostle sets the stage with the glowing face of Moses, who had gone up the mountain to meet the Lord.  This was when Moses received the big ten, which were literally engraved in stone.  Being in the presence of God had an illuminating effect on Moses.  He was beaming!

I’ll wager none of us have had that experience.  We speak of someone lighting up a room when they enter.  This might be taking it too far.

The people would agree with that.  When Moses came down from the mountain, tablets in hand, he could tell by the reaction, the looks on people’s faces, that they were totally freaked out.  Moses still didn’t know why.  Was there something on his clothes?  Did he smell bad?

Eventually, he figured it out.  After he finished laying down the law, Moses took a veil and covered his face.  When he would go inside his tent, he would remove the veil.  If he had a message from the Lord, he would go outside and deliver it, and then to reduce the level of freaking out, he would replace the veil.  He would cover up his shining face.

Today is the Transfiguration of the Lord, when Jesus also made a trip up the mountain, and his entire body glowed.  Maybe we can see how this story of Moses is the Old Testament scripture for today.  Still, Paul speaks of the shining face of Moses as a glory, to be sure, but a glory that is fading.

Scott Hoezee, who teaches at Calvin Seminary, speaks to that point of a glory fading away.  “Great though the reception of the Law had been,” he says, “and wonderful though it was that Israel really was now a nation (in fulfillment of what God had promised in Genesis 12 to Abram), the fact is this was not the end of the line. This was not the end-all and be-all of God’s ultimate plans for this fallen creation.”[1]

Paul makes a rather stark statement about the law of Moses.  He labels it “the ministry of death” (v. 7).  It’s not that he hates the law.  It’s not like he’s saying to avoid it, or it will kill you.  In another place, he speaks glowingly of it.  He says, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Ro 7:12).

In fact, the word translated as “law” (תּוֺרׇה, torah) could be easily rendered as “direction” or “instruction.”  That fits right in with Paul’s description in Galatians as the law being a tutor or a schoolmaster, guiding us to Christ (Ga 3:24).

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He’s exaggerating to point out that the law is powerless to make us righteous.  It’s true: the people of Israel couldn’t bear to look at Moses’ face because it was so glorious.  Yet, the apostle asks, “how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?” (v. 8).

If the term “ministry of death” was stark, we can see Paul apparently piling it on in the next few verses.  His analysis, his perspective, of the people of Israel is “their minds were hardened.  Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside” (v. 14).  He goes even farther.  “Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (vv. 15-16).

It sounds like there is a Christian triumphalism going on.  Those poor foolish Jews—no, those bad Jews—need to be taken in hand.  Certainly, that’s one way this has been interpreted.  And when the Jewish people have been taken in hand, it has rarely been a tender hand!  So, I would be delinquent if I didn’t address how this passage has been misused through the centuries.

A veil lies over our minds if we fall into an anti-Jewish reading of the text.  It’s not unlike the veil I placed on my mind by blindly following the nonsense of Ayn Rand.  (With apologies to Ayn Rand fans!)

Back to Paul’s point in bringing this up, he had the perfect example of removing the veil, of having one’s eyes opened—himself!  On the road to Damascus, he literally saw the light.  His startling and dramatic language (some might say overly dramatic) is meant to highlight the awesomely dramatic difference between the law and Christ.

Our friend Scott Hoezee applies this to us.  “The only reason you keep looking to the Law as the source of your salvation is because your heart still has a veil over it—you’re not seeing clearly.”  Can we see how we allow Law to govern us?  We follow a method.  We have some strict and inflexible guidelines as we run through the maze of life, like rats in a lab.

God wants to unlock us.

We are reminded that “far from having to then turn back to our own sorry reflections in the mirror only to be reminded how far short we fall of the glory of God in our own lives—the glory of Christ is contagious!”  I want that contagion to infect me.  I don’t want my immune system to protect me from that contagious glory.

The apostle encourages us, saying, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (v. 18).

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“From one degree of glory to another.”  To experience ever-increasing glory: only unlocked and unveiled children of God can enjoy that privilege.  Only they can enjoy that grace.

A few moments ago, I said how I would be delinquent if I didn’t acknowledge the ways in which our scripture has been twisted to stir up hostility toward the Jewish people.  As I’ve sometimes noted, events happen that just can’t be ignored.  The Russian invasion of Ukraine with its sadness and horror is one of those events.

Paul has spoken of minds being veiled, minds being hardened.  He has spoken of the ministry of death.  I dare say those have been on vivid and terrifying display these past days.

Ultimately, however, what we have seen is a demonstration of cowardice.  Vladimir Putin’s choices are not an exhibition of strength of spirit, but rather a weakness of character.

Clearly, he isn’t alone on the world stage in choosing to follow a Law that enslaves, a letter that kills.  He isn’t alone in that among the entire human race.  I know none of us is plotting the invasion of another country!  Still, at some level, as said before, God wants to unlock us.  We are in need of that holy contagion; we need to be infected with the glory of Christ.  The Lord gives us the ability to be of service to each other, not of laying down oppressive rules, but of turning to Christ, who sets the captives free.

We can take heart, knowing that “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (v. 17).

 

[1] cepreaching.org/commentary/2016-02-01/2-corinthians-312-42/


there are trees, and then there are trees

Throughout the scriptures, one plant—the tree—is employed over and over again to illustrate, to teach, to make sure things take root.  We see that in Psalm 1 and in Jeremiah 17.  In those scriptures, we human beings are compared and contrasted with our woody friends.

I am far from a botanist.  The number of trees I can identify is not great.  A maple leaf adorns the flag of Canada.  Oaks shed acorns.  Pine trees produce those lovely needles.  As for palm trees, who doesn’t know what they look like?  Just think, the first church Banu and I served was in Nebraska, the home of Arbor Day!  (Arbor is “tree” in Latin.)

Regarding Arbor Day: in most states, it falls on the final Friday of April.  The Arbor Day Foundation website reports, “In the last 50 years, [we have] planted and distributed nearly 500 million trees in more than 50 countries around the world to fight global issues facing humankind.  And we’re just getting started.”[1]  That’s a hopeful reality.

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I have a love-hate relationship with black walnut trees.  Those of you who are familiar with them might have similar feelings.  They make excellent shade trees.  It’s really appreciated on those beastly hot summer days.  However, they have a dark side.  Their roots, leaves, and walnut husks contain the chemical juglone, which is toxic to many plants.  It gives the black walnut trees plenty of elbow room!  Plus, when they fall, those walnuts make a huge mess.

If I had to think of a particular tree to compare with humans, it just might be the black walnut.  Like us, they deal in blessings and curses.  (At least, to our way of thinking.)

Trees in general, though, share an important characteristic with us.  Professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard says they “communicate with each other in cooperative ways that hold lessons for humans.”[2]  They are linked to other trees “by an underground network of fungi that resembles the neural networks in the brain.”  They share information and even warn each other of danger, such as peril from predatory insects.

She says we have much to learn from trees.  I couldn’t agree more.

Moving on, I have often said, “This is one of my favorite psalms.”  The same can be said here.  Psalm number one, kicking off the book, gets things going the right way.  It presents the two ways, the two paths in life—that of the wicked and that of the righteous.

Put in those kinds of terms, it looks like everything is cut and dried; everything is locked in place.  Still, it’s been said, “This most wisdom-like of the Psalms is not claiming that there are no shades of gray in our commitment and walk of faith.  People are complex; life is not so simple.  Rather, this psalm strives to depict the two ways and their consequences for us in all their stark reality.  At any one moment we find ourselves moving in one direction or the other, moving toward an ultimate destination.”[3]

There is always the possibility and reality of correction, of choosing another path.  There is always the possibility of repentance, which as I’ve said before, means “turning back” or “changing one’s mind.”

Now, let’s see what those trees are up to.

Something to notice is that the psalmist and Jeremiah approach those trees from different directions.  The psalmist starts with blessing.  “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…  They are like trees planted by streams of water…” (vv. 1, 3).  However, the wicked “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (v. 4).

The prophet does the exact opposite.  He starts with doom and gloom, no doubt reflecting how his life has tended to go.  (He’s warned his people about their own wickedness.  Consequently, they have not been happy with him.)  “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength…  They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes” (vv. 5-6).

But then there’s a light in the darkness.  “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord” (v. 7).  And what is their blessing?  “They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream” (v. 8).  Sending out its roots.  Remember how we just learned about the trees, using their roots in that web of fungi, collaborating with each other in sharing life-giving information of an arboreal nature?

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However, there is something of consequence here.  As with the trees and their roots, so much goes on beneath the surface.  Can we see that among ourselves?  How much of blessing and cursing goes unnoticed?  What does it take for us to see past the obvious?  How often do we pray for the Lord to extend blessing, to extend shalom?  How often do we see random people and pray for their best?  I wonder how many times others see us and pray for goodness to envelop our lives?  I wonder how many times that has happened for me?

There is a sense of caring for these trees.  Again, in the psalm, the blessed ones “are like trees planted by streams of water.”  And again, the prophet speaks of “a tree planted by water.”  They haven’t simply appeared in what seems to be a lush environment; they have been planted.  They have been transplanted.  The loving, divine gardener is eager to see them flourish.  They’re given all they need.

The wicked are different.  They are left to fend for themselves.  The psalmist says they “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (v. 4).  They are “dust in the wind,” to borrow a phrase from the band Kansas.  Jeremiah declares they are “like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes” (17:6).  They will live in a land of salt.

Both the righteous and wicked will be exposed to drought.  The dry times are coming.  The shrub won’t see any relief.  It won’t see when the good comes.  It will wither away.  It will choke on salt.

The righteous, however, will survive—even thrive.  That tree has no fear of the heat.  Its leaves stay green; it continues to bear fruit.

3 jrWe all have our times of drought.  We all experience those hot summer days when we see water in the distance, but to discover it’s only a mirage.

Putting it a different way, Jesus says our “Father in heaven ‘makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’”  Rain is sent on the just and the unjust.

William Holladay tells us, “It is not a fair world: the signs and rewards of faith are motives for our gratitude when they are present, but we cannot always count on them.  It still makes a difference, Jeremiah says, whether one has a trust in Yahweh or not, even those who trust and those who do not trust may both lack water.”[4]

In case it hasn’t already become abundantly clear, there is very much the element of choice.

When Jeremiah speaks of the unjust as shrubs in the desert, he says, “They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.”  One translation doesn’t say they “shall live,” but “since” they live in the parched places.[5]  If you want to consign yourself to the great wastelands, you’re welcome to do so.

4 jrHow often do we insanely choose what kills us?  We often incorporate it into our lifestyles.  Do we eat too much?  Do we drink too much?  Do we spend too much time just sitting around?  Do we avoid exercise?  Do we buy too much?  Do we waste too much?  Do we hurt the environment?  Do we not love God and neighbor?

Don’t worry though, in verse 9, the good Doctor Jeremiah presents his diagnosis.  “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?”  Who indeed can understand it?

The word for “heart” is all-encompassing.  It includes the mind, the will, the heart, the understanding, the inner nature.  It is everything we are!  We can be some devious little critters.

And this all-encompassing heart is perverse.  The word in Hebrew ( אׇנַשׁ, `anash) is better translated as “weak” or “sick.”  The New English Bible says the heart is “desperately sick.”  It is the human condition.  We are desperately sick.  We need to be healed.

The apostle Paul has a similar thought.  “I do not understand my own actions,” he confesses, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Ro 7:15).  He cries out, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  He is a mystery to himself, as are we all.  Then Paul has a new awareness and celebrates, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv. 24-25).

Who can understand our innermost being?  It is the Lord.

That’s a good thing, because like a partridge hatching another bird’s eggs, so are we when we take what is not ours.  We become the opposite of those trees relaying blessing and health and life to each other.  We’re like the emerald ash borer.  We destroy the ash trees which are destined to be chopped down.

Do we deprive others of blessing?  And as I sometimes say, “What would that look like?”

I had a little help envisioning that.  I asked a friend for some reflections.  Depriving others of blessing is similar to cursing them.  It means not encouraging them to share their gifts and abilities.  It means ignoring them.  It could go as far as telling them they’re dumb or ugly or worthless.

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How different it is to bless and to be a blessing.  It is to lift the other up.  It is to affirm them in their hopes and dreams.  It is to discover the joy of the Lord together.

“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.”

 

[1] www.arborday.org

[2] www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/05/04/993430007/trees-talk-to-each-other-mother-tree-ecologist-hears-lessons-for-people-too

[3] www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-psalm-1-2

[4] William L. Holladay, Jeremiah 1 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 493.

[5] New Jerusalem Bible, Jeremiah 17:6


bearing belief of enduring hope

There are several scripture texts that are popular at weddings, but one I believe is on the short list is chapter 13 of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  It fits what our hope would be of the newly married couple.

It is also good fodder for greeting cards.  Please note: when I say “fodder,” I’m not demeaning greeting cards, and I’m definitely not demeaning Paul’s chapter on love.  However, sometimes it gets reduced to a touchy-feely, cute teddy bear level.  That’s instead of the serious and even fierce declaration of the stratospherically high nature it embodies.

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At times it’s even scary.

Something else often ignored or overlooked is its location.  It is smack dab in the middle of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts.  In chapter 12, in trinitarian language, he tells us, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (vv. 4-6).  He speaks of, for example, gifts of healing, working of miracles, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues.  Paul finishes with the promise, “I will show you a still more excellent way” (v. 31).

Thus, we have chapter 13, which teaches us if the gifts are not used under the guidance of love, then they are worthless.

In chapter 14, Paul shows how the gifts are to be used in worship.  There is to be no putting oneself ahead of others, no strutting around and saying, “Look how spiritual I am.”  Since “God is a God not of disorder but of peace,” the apostle sums it all up with the reminder “all things should be done decently and in order” (vv. 33, 40).

This has been addressed to a church with all kinds of problems: splitting themselves up into competing factions, treating the poor with disrespect, chasing after the latest fads.

Consider the place where they live.  Corinth is a major crossroads in the Roman Empire.  It’s a prominent hub of commerce; people from many nations, speaking many languages, and many social backgrounds flow through it.  Corinth provides a market for a variety of goods and services—that is, goods and services of all kinds, appealing to appetites of varying levels of decorum.  On that last note, the city developed quite a reputation.

2 coThere was a verb that came into popular use: “to Corinthianize,” referring to all manner of carousing, or as the band Kiss put it, to “rock and roll all night and party every day.”  The church has reflected the culture around it, with both its honorable and its less than honorable qualities.

In retrospect, I hope we can see the apostle Paul’s message isn’t intended to address romantic love or warm fuzzies.  He is concerned about life in community.  How do we order it?  How do we fail and fall into disorder?  How does the love of the meek and mighty Spirit strengthen and counsel us to not tear each other apart but to build each other up?

This chapter is jam packed with lovely ingredients.  Paul begins by listing events one might find in the spiritual Olympics.  You can set a world record, but without love, you might as well be sitting on the bench.

Next, we have a laundry list detailing what love is and what love is not.  Love is kind; love is not rude.  Love is patient; love is not irritable.

There’s a German word “schadenfreude.”  It expresses the joy at someone else’s misfortune, the pleasure derived from someone else’s pain.  Love does not engage in schadenfreude.  When someone slips on a banana peel (literally or symbolically) love doesn’t laugh.

Verse 7 tells us love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  I’ll come back to that verse.

Moving on, we see that when all else ends, love never does.  “When the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (v. 10).

Paul presents us with this majestic observation, saying, “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).  The apostle Paul is a man whose life has been transformed by love.  He has gone from the schadenfreude of approving the stoning of Stephen, often considered to be the first martyr, to identifying with the frail: “Who is weak, and I am not weak?” (Ac 8:1, 2 Co 11:29).

3 co

The chapter ends with his grand proclamation, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (v. 13).  That’s a note for this motley crew with their quarreling, nitpicking, shaming, shameless ways.  In other words, they’re behaving not unlike us.  (That is at least, in our worst moments!)

Now, back to verse 7, informing us that love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.

What does it mean to say love bears all things?  The word for “bears” (στεγω, stegō) also means “to cover, to keep secret, to hide the faults of others.”  One thing we’re basically talking about is keeping confidence—not going around blabbing.  If you get some dirt on someone, keep it to yourself.

There can be confusion between confidentiality and secrecy.  Sometimes a good faith attempt at keeping confidence can be misconstrued as dealing in secrets.  Here’s one good measure for telling the difference: confidentiality affords protection, secrecy causes damage.  While confidentiality respects, secrecy disrespects.

Love believes all things.[1]  Love places confidence in someone or something.  Love is willing to entrust, to look for the best, to give the benefit of a doubt.  On occasion, it can even be accused of being naïve.  We might suspect that someone is taking advantage of us, but we let it slide.  In the world’s eyes, we can appear foolish.

In chapter 6, Paul speaks of believers taking each other to court.  He goes as far as to put the questions, “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be defrauded?” (v. 7).  Those are awkward questions.

Love hopes all things.  The Greek word ελπιζω (elpizō) also carries the sense of expectation, an expectation with confidence.  This isn’t an empty hope.  It’s not a case of saying, “I wish it were so.”  It’s a strong and secure hope.  “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

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It’s a hope when everyone else has given up.

It’s a hope when all we want to do is fret.  Fretting attracts negative energy, bad mojo.  I have usually found that when I lapse into fretting, it turns out to be a waste of mental, emotional, and spiritual power.

Love endures all things.[2]  Love remains.  Love waits.  Love doesn’t flee.  Love doesn’t hit the road, Jack.  Love perseveres.  Love stands alongside.

Haven’t we all been in situations in which we know we should hang around, but all we want to do is just take off?  I admit I have done that.  Love has called to me.  Love has pleaded with me.  Love has begged me.  But instead, I said “no” to love.

These are less commands than they are descriptions.  That would be setting a very high bar indeed.  It would be quite a challenge even for those athletes in the spiritual Olympics!

Remember the location of this hymn to love.  It’s placed in the midst of Paul’s commentary on spiritual gifts.  This love, αγαπη (agapē), is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  We can’t summon this up by ourselves.  Having said that, it doesn’t mean we don’t try to put it into practice.

I want to revisit verse 12 where it says, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly.”  The old King James language has a poetic spin as it states, “now we see through a glass, darkly.”  I like how the Revised English Bible reads, “At present we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror.”  Puzzling reflections.

Even the sharpest of insights is barely visible from the world behind it.  In a time beyond time, that world, that realm, will be apparent.  Still, the gift of grace that is agapē gives us fleeting glimpses.

5 coLove, in its many facets, emanates from the Spirit.  It is a gift.  What do we do with this gift?  How can it transform us?  Would we like to be transformed?

I’ll give us all an assignment.  I definitely include myself in this challenge / opportunity / blessing.  Can we do our best to bear with each other, to believe in each other, to hope for each other, and yes, to endure each other?

Let’s learn to treasure the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit.

 

[1] “believes”: πιστευω, pisteuō

[2] “endures”: ύπομενω, hypomenō


flesh and blood

Banu and I are fans of vampire movies.  There are many I like, but my favorite is still probably one we saw in the theater when we were in seminary, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  I also very much like the Swedish movie, Let the Right One In.  Banu got me started watching the Twilight movies, which I grudgingly will say aren’t too bad!  However, I do have one big complaint with their contribution to the vampire mythos:  sunlight doesn’t hurt them.  Rather, it makes them sparkle!

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Why do I begin with vampires?  It’s directly related to one of our sacraments.  In the first century, as word gradually spread that the early church was eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, many non-Christians, Jews and Gentiles alike, were horrified.  Prohibitions against blood in the Hebrew scriptures go back as far as Genesis: “you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (9:4).  The blood is the life.

Some called the Christians cannibals.  And though the legend of the vampire goes back to ancient times, we can’t really pin that one on the early Christians.

Still, hearing this, one might be forgiven if there were some doubts: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  Those are the words of Jesus in John 6:54-56.  To the uninitiated, it probably would sound like cannibalistic or vampiric actions are in order!

This isn’t the only place where the gospel of John speaks quite insistently about the flesh and blood of Jesus.  Later, I’ll mention its role in the encounter with Pontius Pilate.  But right now, flesh and blood have a prominent role in today’s reading: the introduction to the gospel of John.

The introduction, like the book that follows it, is very different from the other gospels.  The other three don’t have the level of philosophical and theological reflection we find in John.  Many would say this gospel is the most beautiful at a poetic level.  (I would be in that category.)

These eighteen verses are packed with meaning.  I’ll only try to unpack a little of it!

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (v. 1).  Does that verse remind you of anything?  If it reminds you of the first verse of Genesis, then that is deliberate.  John wants to identify Jesus the Christ with the eternal living Word, the Word that transcends creation.

“All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”  That includes life, “and the life was the light of all people” (vv. 3-4).  Here’s some of that poetic beauty I spoke of.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (v. 5).  What does that mean?

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  The Greek word for “overcome,” καταλαμβανω (katalambanō), has several nuances.  It can mean “to grasp.”  In the physical sense, it would suggest “seizing” somebody or something.  In the mental sense, it refers to “understanding.”

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It can also have the sense of “detecting.”  In chapter 8, when some scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman “caught in adultery,” the same word is used.  In this case, she is both detected and seized!  (On a side note, we hear nothing about the man being detected and/or seized—nor about how word came to the scribes and Pharisees who detected her!)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  The darkness did not grasp it, or seize it, or understand it, or detect it.  More than that, the darkness is incapable of grasping or understanding the light!

We are told John the Baptist testified to the light.  “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”  John testified that the Word, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (vv. 8-9).

With verse 14, we have something of a summary of today’s reading.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  The Word became flesh and lived among us.  That’s how John portrays Christmas.  There’s no messing around with a baby in a manger.  Like I said earlier, there’s more of a philosophical and theological focus.

As I was doing research for this sermon, I came across an article with an eye-catching title by Jennifer Glancy, who teaches Bible at LeMoyne College in Syracuse.  The title was “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel.”[1]  This is where Pontius Pilate enters the picture.

In the article, she wonders, echoing Pilate in his interview of Jesus, “What is truth?”  Expanding on that, she asks, “Does truth dwell in flesh?”[2]  If verse 14 is correct and the eternal living Word has come to dwell in flesh, then it seems we have to say yes, truth does in fact dwell in flesh.

That is the assumption of the Roman Empire and its project of torture and crucifixion—that truth can be extracted from flesh and blood.  Indeed, that’s the assumption of all who torture, truth can be wrenched from the body.

Glancy speaks of three intentions of torture.[3]  There is “judicial” torture, in which the intent is to discover the truth.  (You know what I mean: “We have ways of making you talk!”)  Secondly, there is “penal” torture, torture used for punishment.

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Finally, there is “terroristic” torture, which is part of a campaign to send a message to the rest of the population.  You make an example out of somebody.  Add to this the element of humiliation.  People crucified by the Romans were stripped naked and mocked.

For those who would say this talk of terror and torture has no place in the Christmas story, I would remind us of Herod’s attempt to kill the Christ child.  His paranoia results in the massacre of numerous little boys.  Sadly, that kind of brutality has a very real-world feel to it.

In order to protect their young one from Herod, Joseph and Mary are forced to flee to Egypt.  They have to seek asylum; they’re fleeing political persecution.  In Jesus Christ, we worship one who has been a refugee.  We worship one who has been a victim of torture.  Still, even though darkness does its worst, it still can’t overcome the light.

Almost five centuries ago, Martin Luther expressed it well in verse: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us / We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us / The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him / His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure / One little word shall fell him.”  The Word became flesh and lived among us.

What does that mean for us?  Can we think of ways in which we see or experience the Word in flesh?  Are there ways in which we know there is truth in flesh, in this physical stuff?

The darkness could not grasp or seize the light; it couldn’t overcome it.  But the darkness did indeed grasp and seize the flesh of Jesus.

We all struggle with the darkness.  On struggling with darkness, Richard Rohr notes that it “can be experienced as pain and handicap.”  It can be “experienced by struggling with the riddles, dilemmas, and absurdities of life.”  Commenting on verse 5, he says, “Like physical light itself, true light must both include and overcome the darkness.”[4]

I pray—I hope!—we don’t literally engage in torture, but torture can have different meanings.  We torture each other in a multitude of ways.  I’m sure we can think of plenty of cases in which we find that to be true.  We torture ourselves, and we are tortured.  I think it’s safe to say Covid hasn’t always brought out the best in us.  We have shamed each other.  And there are consequences to all of this.  We are harmed as the body politic, and we are harmed as flesh and blood bodies.

Yet even though we surely know darkness can’t overcome the light, at some level—and in some ways we can’t quite put our fingers on—we turn away from the light.  Too often we hide in the dark.  We need to let the light, the light that enlightens everyone, penetrate our darkness.

That doesn’t happen by accident.  Responding to Christ’s call to eat his flesh and drink his blood is a matter of will.  As the early church father Ignatius of Antioch put it, “the Blood of Jesus Christ is love.”[5]  That’s what it takes to become aware of the body of Christ, be it in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist—or in the sacrament of everyday life.

The apostle Paul warns the Galatians when he says, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (5:14-15).  Remember what I said earlier about vampires and cannibals?

We are at the beginning of a new year.  No one knows what 2022 will bring.  Certainly, it will have its own joys and sorrows, its own life and death.  We as the church, the body of Christ, have our own unique calling.  Our world is divided; our bodies are torn apart.

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We can remain whole.  We can be made whole.  We are told that from the fullness of Christ “we have all received, grace upon grace” (v. 16).  That is our witness.  That is our testimony.  Instead of tearing flesh and spilling blood, we build each other up.  We nourish each other, knowing that the Word has come and dwells with us.

 

[1] Jennifer A. Glancy, “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel,” Biblical Interpretation 13:2 (2005).

[2] Glancy, 107.

[3] Glancy, 115.

[4] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago:  Loyola Press, 2010), 35.

[5] footnote in Archibald Robertson & Archibald Plummer, The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1914), 252.


be afraid. be very afraid

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

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

1[A scared chicken, courtesy of Doug Savage]

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can even be afraid of ourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[Something appearing on our wall, y'all]

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

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


rich in hope

When I think of hope, something that often comes to mind is a movie I once heard described as “a romantic movie for dudes,” The Shawshank Redemption.  Maybe that’s true.  What I can say is that it’s a film with great depth.

For those who’ve never seen it, The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of two men, played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, who portray characters locked up in Shawshank Prison in Maine.  Robbins’ character, Andy Dufresne, was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife.  Freeman plays Red, the man who can get you almost anything.

In one scene, we’re in the cafeteria when Andy, fresh out of solitary confinement, sits down with his friends.[1]  He was put there because he commandeered the public address system and played Mozart at full volume.  (By the way, the warden is a quite unpleasant and lawbreaking man.)  The guys ask Andy how he was—how he was able to keep going.  He speaks to them about music.

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He says to them, “That’s the beauty of music.  They can’t get that from you.  Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?”

Red replies, “I played a mean harmonica as a younger man.  Lost interest in it though.  Didn’t make much sense in here.”

Andy pursues the dialogue.  “Here’s where it makes the most sense.  You need it so you don’t forget.”

“Forget?”

“Forget that… there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone.  That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch.  That’s yours.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Hope.”

“Hope?  Let me tell you something, my friend,” he says while wagging his spoon at him.  “Hope is a dangerous thing.  Hope can drive a man insane.  It’s got no use on the inside.  [That is, prison.]  You’d better get used to that idea.”

“Like Brooks did?”  Andy’s referring to an old man who spent almost his entire life in Shawshank.  When he was released, he was lost.  He was sent from the only home he ever really had.  Fear overwhelmed him, and he committed suicide.  Brooks saw no hope.

Red slams down his spoon and walks away.

That’s not the final word on hope we get in the movie.  Stay tuned for something more “hopeful.”  Still, Red was onto something when he said hope can drive us insane.  Or was he?

In Romans 15, St. Paul does an examination of hope.  He begins by speaking of the so-called “strong” and “weak.”  Very briefly, the strong recognize many things that don’t endanger one’s faith, such as observing ritual dietary laws, or failing to do so.  The weak believe the strong are going astray with their carefree attitudes.  The strong look down on the weak, and the weak judge the strong.

By the way, I wonder which category Paul places himself in?  My guess would be the strong!  Still, here is his directive: “Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.  For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (vv. 2-3).  And here is his basis: “so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (v. 4).  That is our foundation; our hope isn’t subject to the wavering winds that would buffet us around.

Hope can save your life.

2 roThe psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote the book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  In it he speaks of his experiences while imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp.  While there, he noticed that the “loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.”  He gives as an example something that the camp’s chief doctor pointed out.  “The death rate in the week between Christmas, 1944, and New Year’s, 1945, increased in camp beyond all previous experience.”[2]

The doctor believed the explanation “was simply that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naive hope that they would be home again by Christmas.  As the time drew near and there was no encouraging news, the prisoners lost courage and disappointment overcame them.  This had a dangerous influence on their powers of resistance and a great number of them died.”  Their loss of hope was indeed fatal.

The loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.  It can deadly to others.  Those without hope are easy prey to fear.  Those who are fearful can be deadly to others.  Fear is contagious—much more contagious than Covid, or any other “contagion.”  The fear inside of us is highly transmissible.

Fortunately, there is an antidote to fear and hopelessness.  The apostle Paul says, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (v. 7).  He is speaking first of all about Jews and Gentiles, but the power of welcome spreads in all directions and in all ways.  It is impossible to welcome someone if you are afraid of them.  We often wind up putting up walls and erecting fortresses.

Or we just hide behind the curtains and pretend like we’re not at home.

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To his point about Jews and Gentiles welcoming each other, Paul quotes and paraphrases scriptures from the Old Testament.  He wants to demonstrate how Gentiles are encouraged, and indeed called, to worship the God of the Jews.  He shows how all of them (and us) are pointed toward the Messiah.  He alludes to Isaiah in verse 12 and uses this messianic interpretation: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

With verse 13, we come to the end of the passage.  It is Paul’s grand and glorious benediction; he pronounces this blessing.  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  There’s a buffet of tasty treats in that verse.

He speaks of the “God of hope.”  That’s the only place where Paul uses that particular name.  How do we serve the God of hope?  How do we hold on to the God of hope?

Here’s one quick example.  Since March, our church has had signs along South Street and MacDougall Street telling those passing by we’re open every Sunday at 10am.  Every now and then, I’ve wondered if it’s time to take the signs down.  They’ve been up long enough, haven’t they?

Of course, in recent weeks, some churches have taken steps back toward the lockdown we had for so long.

A few minutes ago, when talking about Viktor Frankl, I noted how the prisoners’ loss of hope was fatal.  In this past year and a half, we have learned too much about fatality, courtesy of Covid.  But there has been fatality of a deeper nature.  There has been a fatality to faith.  It goes beyond the extended lockdowns.

A shroud of depression and apprehension has descended upon us.  I spoke of fear and of the fearful.  We’re being fed a diet of fear and anger.

A few days ago, I was watching Zombieland: Double Tap, the sequel to Zombieland (neither of them being the work of art that The Shawshank Redemption is).  Banu and I remarked on how zombies are unable to think (and hope means nothing to them), yet they are ravenous.  They only live—so to speak—to eat.  They spread fear, and yet, they’re not even aware of doing that.

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[A living dead view of Schrodinger's Cat]

I think to myself and wonder, “Yikes!  How often do I imitate a zombie?  (Well, not to the point of devouring human beings, at least not in a literal sense!  It’s about being unthinking and oblivious to hope.)

Let’s get back to our signs.  With so many churches in a semi-lockdown mode, I think they are a statement of a defiant and holy hope.  We take sensible precautions, but we don’t give in to fear.

Here’s the rest of Paul’s benediction.  What is his desire of the God of hope?  What is his humble and confident expectation?  He prays that we are filled with all joy and peace in believing.  Filled with all joy and peace.  Fear is banished.  Despair is given its walking papers.  Hopelessness is sent packing.

However, this doesn’t happen all by itself.  It happens “in believing.”  In other words, we orient ourselves to that same humble and confident expectation the apostle demonstrates.  There are always the voices, both within and without, that would distract and would have us rest and rely on our own strength.  With belief, there is a sense of knowing, a strong awareness of trust.  Still, we might sometimes feel like the man in Mark 9 with a son in need of healing.  He cries to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (v. 24).

So what is the result?  Paul’s longing is “that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  The New Jerusalem Bible says, “so that in the power of the Holy Spirit, you may be rich in hope.”

I promised something hopeful from The Shawshank Redemption.  Skipping a lot of important details, Andy escapes from prison, and in the movie’s iconic scene, he raises his hands in the driving rain.  It reminds me of baptism.  Anyway, he has spoken to Red about a town in Mexico where he plans to go.  Years later, Red is released on parole.  He remembers the promise he made to Andy to go see him if and when he left Shawshank.

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We hear Morgan Freeman’s voiceover as Red takes a bus cross country.  “I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head.  I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.  I hope I can make it across the border.  I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.  I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.  I hope.”

Hope has saved Red.  Hope saves us; hope embraces us, as we welcome the Spirit—as the Spirit welcomes us.  Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us.  What would happen if we welcomed hope and allowed it to grab us?  Are we ready to be transformed by hope?  What would that look like?

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=15pqpVbhs0c

[2] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 4th ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 46.