Ten Commandments

no contagion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] also in Psalm 124:7

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

[3] Braden, 1.2.2

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

[5] Michel, 30.

[6] Michel, 29.

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


have mercy, I'm purifying

On Interstate 71, as you travel through Ohio between Columbus and Cincinnati, you encounter an interesting billboard.  You see signs like this in other parts of the country, as well.  I remember when we lived in Corning.  Approaching from the east on I-86, there was another interesting sign.  (I presume it’s still there.)  Perched on a hill, it proclaimed, “Jesus is the answer.”  Banu and I once wondered, “I guess that would depend on the question.”

If you haven’t already figured this out, the sign on I-71 involves religion.  On one side, we’re asked, “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?”  Not to put too fine a point on it, I hope that no one, pondering that question to the point of distraction, crashed their car and wound up meeting their Maker!  The other side of the billboard has a list of the Ten Commandments.

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Besides appearing on billboards around the country, we also see the Ten Commandments posted on all manner of things.  But I wonder about that.  Why do we see the Ten Commandments so frequently in public places, but not the Beatitudes of Jesus?  At least, I’ve never seen them.  If I’m correct, why would it be we so rarely see them posted in public?

Is it possible that we’re more comfortable with rules to follow?  That is, with “do”s and “don’t”s?  It should be pointed out, there are levels of meaning in the Ten Commandments.  We do an injustice to them when we reduce to them to a “how to” manual.  They truly present another vision of reality, one that actually is freedom.

Still, it seems like we can more easily get our head around instructions.  Too often it’s, “Please, just tell me what to do!”  I’ve often heard people speak of the entire Bible as rules to live by.

With the Beatitudes of Jesus, we have something very different.  They aren’t instructions; Jesus isn’t telling us what to do.  They aren’t commands; they’re descriptions.  He’s giving us a series of people with qualities who have a blessed life.  (“Blessed” is what the word “beatitude” means.)

If Jesus isn’t laying down the law with the Beatitudes, but rather describing who is blessed, what do we make of them?  Let’s take a look.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v. 5).  Really?  The meek will inherit the earth?  That’s not what the action movies tell us.  Is Batman meek?  Is James Bond meek?  What does our economy say?  Here’s the next shiny, pretty thing.  Grab it before somebody else does!  Yeah, inherit the earth.  It’s more likely that the meek will inherit jack squat!

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“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (v. 9).  Well that sounds very nice and good, but when the times get tough, we tend to put our trust in bombs and bullets.

And don’t get me started on “those who are persecuted” (v. 10).  Let’s be honest: isn’t it better to be the one calling the shots?

It’s been pointed out that we might prefer some other beatitudes:[1]

“Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.

“Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.

“Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”

So as we move through the Beatitudes of Jesus, they pretty much go against what we ordinarily would consider to be blessed.

There are nine of these “blessed”s.  I’ll just focus on two: numbers 5 and 6, that is, verses 7 and 8.  “Blessed are the merciful,” and “blessed are the pure in heart.”

Someone whose reflections I have found helpful and enlightening is Cynthia Bourgeault.  She calls herself “a modern-day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader.”[2]

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  She says Jesus is speaking “to the idea of flow.”[3]  She notes “there’s an exchange going on here: we give mercy and we receive mercy.  And this is not coincidental, for the root of the word ‘mercy’ comes from the old Etruscan merc, which also gives us ‘commerce’ and ‘merchant.’  It’s all about exchange.”

We often think of mercy in the context of something we do not do.  We “have mercy” on someone if we don’t punish them.  We are merciful if we refrain from bringing down the hammer on their heads.  And we usually think of God in the same terms.  We pray, “Lord have mercy,” and “have mercy upon us.”

Sometimes it’s an expression of surprise, even a pleasant surprise.  “Lawd, have mercy!”

Still, as we’ve been told, “there’s an exchange going on here: we give mercy and we receive mercy.”  There are acts of mercy.  In this idea of flow, “mercy is not something God has so much as it’s something that God is.”  Mercy is part of God’s very being.  And by extension, when we participate in God’s mercy, it becomes part of who we are.

Bourgeault continues, “Exchange is the very nature of divine life—of consciousness itself, according to modern neurological science—and all things share in the divine life through participation in this dance of giving and receiving.”  We are connected; we are connected by mercy.  When we refuse mercy, we become separated.  We build a wall.  We cut off the flow of life.  We become hardened.  Jesus would have us melt the ice.

Mercy is closely related to forgiveness.  They both have a sense of self-effacement.  They both have a sense of deference.  They both have a sense of respect.

I’ll revisit something I mentioned a couple of weeks ago: political campaigns.  Election Day is upon us.  Can you believe that political differences have brought friendships to ruin?  Imagine.  “I thought we were friends!”  And it’s especially fun when faith enters the arena.  “How can you call yourself a Christian and support that guy?”  (Or support that gal!)  Remember, when the election is over, we still have to live with each other.

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Karen Chamis, our Resource Presbyter, has written about this.[4]  Here’s how a discussion might go: “You can’t vote for A and say you love me.”  “I can vote for A and love you because I’m capable of doing both.”  “No, you can’t vote for A, because what A stands for threatens my existence.”

“One party walks away from the friendship shaking their head at how narrow-minded the other is, and the other walks away wondering if they were ever actually seen by this person in the first place…

“Regardless of what the [election] result is, we’ve changed as a nation and there are things we can’t unsee.  We have work to do as the church, not in pretending the divisions don’t exist and worshipping (again) at the idol of niceness, but in building the kin-dom.”

We will all need to engage in a program of forgiving.  We will all need a refresher course in showing mercy.  With God’s help, we can be mercy.  Since this is All Saints’ Day, we’re reminded of that great cloud of witnesses cheering us on—not to mention the saints alive here and now.

Showing mercy, being mercy, flows right into the next beatitude.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  That’s a blessing like none other: they will see God.

What is purity of heart?  Too often, it has been limited to discussions of being virtuous, of being moral—especially sexually moral.  There is another place in which this purity is addressed.  James 4 says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (v. 8).  You can see the focus here.  A pure heart, a clean heart, is not divided.  It is single.

The New Jerusalem Bible puts it in this light: “The nearer you go to God, the nearer God will come to you.  Clean your hands, you sinners, and clear your minds, you waverers.”  More so than any other epistle, St. James’ has the theme of teaching wisdom.  Clearing one’s mind, avoiding wavering, is a sign of wisdom.  There is a flow that can be detected.

Maybe you will notice how “heart” and “mind” are used interchangeably.  The heart is not simply emotion, and the mind is not simply intellect.  There is a unity of wisdom.

When a heart is purified, there is a burning away of chaff, of debris, of residue.  There is a focus on what is clear, what is lucid, what is holy.  Too often, our minds, our hearts—at least, it’s true with mine—run to and fro in a helter-skelter fashion.  There is a sense of being torn.  Sometimes, it can be paralyzing.

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Again, here’s Cynthia Bourgeault.  “This Beatitude is not about sexual abstinence; it’s about cleansing the lens of perception.”[5]  I’m reminded of a line from the poet William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”[6]

Perhaps that is what it means to see God.  Can we see God in others?  Can we see God in those folks with whom we disagree, indeed, even strongly disagree?  I remember someone I knew years ago when I attended the Assemblies of God college in Florida.  He reflected on his approach when dealing with somebody who didn’t like him.  He brought to mind that “Jesus Christ died for him.”  That might be helpful.

Showing mercy, being mercy, frees the way for clearing our minds, for purifying our hearts.  We need that among us, more than we know.

Have mercy, I’m purifying.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2203

[2] cynthiabourgeault.org

[3] cac.org/be-merciful-2017-04-19

[4] karenchamis.blog/2020/10/28/scruples

[5] cac.org/be-whole-hearted-2017-04-20

[6] from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”


time to grow up?

“Into my heart, into my heart, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus; / Come in today, come in to stay, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”  This chorus is popular with the young ones.  (Or so I’ve been told!)  It expresses the fond and dear desire for Jesus to take up residence within us.

The gospel of John and the book of Revelation each call Jesus the Word (Jn 1:14, Rv 19:13).  Jesus is the Word of God.  Not pushing the metaphor too far, but we can see Jesus as the word who enters into us and dwells in our heart, as the request in the chorus goes.

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[photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash]

Someone who knows about the word being consumed is the prophet Jeremiah.  I’ll get back to that in a moment.  First, I have a story to tell.

Jeremiah was born and received his call to be a prophet during the time that Josiah was king.  Josiah was a good king; it was important for him to be faithful to Yahweh, the Lord.

It just so happens that some of his officials were doing spring cleaning in the temple.  They were digging through some knick-knacks and thingamajigs.  We’ve all done that.  One of them stumbled upon a scroll that caught his eye.  Upon examining it, he announced, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord” (2 Kg 22:8).  They brought it to Josiah, and it was read to him.  (On a side note, it’s believed that the book made up much of what we call Deuteronomy, but that’s a story for another time!)

The king was alarmed, because they hadn’t been doing what was written in it.  So they sought the counsel of Huldah the prophetess.  She said, “You’re right, boys, we’ve really screwed up.  We’ve got to our act together, or we’re in for some bad times.”  After hearing that, Josiah instituted a program of ridding the land of all the pagan altars and pagan priests.  That was the world Jeremiah grew up in.  Now back to eating the word.

When he was called as a young man, Jeremiah reports, “the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’” (1:9-10).  We’ll hear more about that later.

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Jeremiah’s life was ery hard—in fact, it was horrible.  We see in the book several times when he bitterly complained to the Lord about his fate.  One time he even accused the Lord of tricking him, of deceiving him, and he said, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (15:16).  The word of the Lord entered his heart, only to prove to be the source of great misfortune.

Jeremiah had such a crummy life because he was the bearer of bad news.  The Babylonians are on the way, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  We might as well get used to it.  What we can do is to return to the Lord.  (King Josiah’s efforts proved to be unsuccessful.)

Long story short, the prophet was considered an enemy of the state, and he was treated accordingly.  He was ruining the morale of the troops.  He was ridiculed, beaten, tortured, imprisoned.

But finally, Jeremiah has some good news.  After all the mayhem, the land will be restored.  It will be livable for both humans and animals.  And in a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s call, the Lord “will watch over them to build and to plant” (v. 28).  Nonetheless, in the process of rebuilding and replanting, there are some things that have to go.

This is going back a few years, back to the 1970s.  There was a TV show my parents liked to watch, The Flip Wilson Show.  He portrayed a character that turned out to be the one most people liked, Geraldine.  Probably her best-known line was, “The devil made me do it!”

2 jrWhat a great line.  You can absolve yourself—you can forgive yourself—of any deed if you can pin the blame on anything or anyone else, including the devil!

In Jeremiah’s time, there’s a saying the people use that falls into the category of “things that have to go.”  “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (v. 29).  I can’t say I’ve ever eaten sour grapes, but I have bitten into lemons on many occasions.  (When I was a kid and we were at a restaurant, I liked to take the lemon slice in a glass of water and eat it.)

What kind of face do you make when you eat something sour?  One way of describing it is having your teeth set on edge.

The point of the saying is, “We aren’t to blame for our actions.  We had no choice; we’re paying for the sins of our parents and those who came before them.”  If they can’t say, “The devil made me do it,” they still have a good excuse.  They can still shift the blame from themselves.

However, in some sense, they are not altogether wrong.  If we think of a family system, there are things we inherit—certain behaviors, ways of looking at the world.  That can be for better or worse.  Maybe we come from a background in which we were encouraged, we were nurtured, we were allowed to dream.  Problems were dealt with in more or less constructive ways.  It doesn’t mean everything was perfect by any measure.  We are imperfect, incomplete humans, but on the whole, there were primarily positive things to pass on.

Sometimes things don’t go so well.  If our background is one in which violence, abuse (of whatever kind), and pessimism pervaded, we can learn that’s just how life goes.  Though, the negative stuff doesn’t have to be that severe.  There can be unresolved grief, ways in which reality isn’t dealt with, harmful secrets.  So in that sense, our background really can affect our behavior.

But the prophet says, “That’s not good enough!”  “But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge” (v. 30).  You can’t use that excuse forever.  You are responsible for your own actions.  You have to pay the piper!  That can sound pretty harsh, but the good news is they aren’t left to work it out for themselves.  The good news begins in verse 31.

A whole new world opens up.  A grace not yet known is promised.  “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”  “The days are surely coming.”  There is wide disagreement as to what that precisely means.  One thing seems clear, though: a new covenant will emerge from destruction and exile.  By the way, this is the only place in the entire Old Testament where the term “new covenant” appears.

As Christians, we obviously see Jesus as the fulfillment, the embodiment, of the new covenant, the new testament.  Still, we shouldn’t jump ahead.  We need to see what that meant to Jeremiah and the people of his time.  The message continues, “It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord” (v. 32).

Something we often do is to regard the Ten Commandments, for example, as a list of rules to obey.  There’s much more going on.  It’s not simply a bunch of “dos” and “don’ts.”  It is a vision of the blessed life, a life lived in the harmony of shalom.  Faithfulness to the Lord looks like this.  That’s the message of the prophets.  It comes from the heart.  But we need help in that!  We need help in persevering.

3 jrSo here we go: “this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (v. 33).

I will write it on their hearts.  The late Bruce Prewer referred to that as “divine graffiti.”[1]  What will this divine graffiti accomplish?  “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (v. 34).  With God’s word written on their hearts, they will not need to teach other to know the Lord.

It will be from the least to the greatest.  Everyone’s invited!  Here’s how Eugene Peterson put it in his paraphrase, The Message: “They will no longer go around setting up schools to teach each other about God.  They’ll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow.”

This is the heart of Jeremiah’s vision.  When God’s word is written on the heart, everyone will understand.

Now, depending on their disposition, there’s a class of people who might not welcome such an arrangement.  They might think it’s a raw deal.  David Rhymer calls this a “dangerous exercise of prophetic imagination.”[2]  Why should it be called dangerous?

Have you ever had a teacher who did not want their position questioned or presented with another viewpoint?  Maybe it was someone whose ego was too bound up in his or her work?  Maybe we could say they were too big for their britches!

4 jrI once had a history professor who invited students to ask him about the subject matter, claiming, “I know all.”  Admittedly, he was saying it with a bit of humor, but it was clear he felt he would not have any trouble answering any question.  One student was wondering about something, and it was obvious our teacher didn’t know the answer.  He fumbled a bit and responded, “Well, it would have been such-and-such.”  He was basically guessing.  (Having said all that, I really came to like the guy!)

Getting back to the text, the religious leaders might simply reject out of hand Jeremiah’s word, his assertion of what one day shall be.  It’s their job to read and interpret God’s word, and it’s the people’s job to “simply listen and do as they were told without question.”[3]

Their job is to sit down and shut up.

When God’s word is written on our hearts, everyone is treated with care and respect.  Everyone is treated as the sisters and brothers we truly are.  Everyone is valued.  As the prophet Joel reports of the Lord, “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (2:28-29).

When the Spirit fills our hearts, our petty divisions are erased.  No longer will be build walls.  Going along with verses 35 to 37, with all of those cosmic promises, it will last until the end of time!

So, to recap: following the disaster, the people are promised a new day, but they can’t blame their forebears for their hard times.  It’s true; those who’ve gone before might have set the stage in ways that are difficult, even catastrophic.  Still, it has to be said, there comes a point when it’s time to grow up.  When that happens, the promise is there will be the grace to see it through.  Actually, there is the grace like never before, as said earlier, one not yet known.

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When the Lord writes on our hearts, we are forgiven, now and forever.

“Into my heart, into my heart, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus; / Come in today, come in to stay, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”  It might sound trite and cute, but there is immense depth.  The next step is ours.

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C58sun29.htm

[2] David Rhymer, “Jeremiah 31:31-34,” Interpretation 59:3 (July 2005), 295.

[3] Rhymer, 295.


reflect on Sabbath

In his book, Sacred Necessities, Terry Hershey tells a rather quirky little story.[1]  It involves a man going on a journey.  It’s a journey on which he encounters the unexpected.  And it is, as they say, much to his chagrin.  Here’s how Hershey tells the story:

“An American traveler planned a long safari to Africa.  He was a compulsive man, loaded down with maps, timetables, and agendas.  [Workers] had been engaged from a local tribe to carry the cumbersome load of supplies, luggage, and ‘essential stuff.’

“On the first morning, they all awoke very early and traveled very fast and very far.  On the second morning, they all awoke very early and traveled very fast and very far.  On the third morning, they all awoke very early and traveled very fast and very far.  And the American seemed pleased.  On the fourth morning, the jungle tribesmen refused to move.  They simply sat by a tree.  The American became incensed.  ‘This is a waste of valuable time.  Can someone tell me what is going on here?’

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“The translator answered, ‘They are waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.’”

Do you ever feel that way?  Do you ever find yourself waiting for your soul to catch up with your body?

Or do you find yourself relating to the traveler who is on a schedule?  “We’ve got things to do and places to go…hey, we can fit another bag in there…and what’s wrong with these lazy people…don’t they know time is money…I’m not doing this for my health…”

Maybe that’s the point.  Maybe you should be doing it for your health!

Our scripture text in Exodus 20, the first version of the Ten Commandments (the second one is in Deuteronomy 5), covers a lot of ground: living a life in which the Lord, Yahweh, is one’s God, not misusing the Lord’s name, and then, there’s a collection which basically deals with loving one’s neighbor.

But it’s the fourth commandment I want to focus on: the call to remember the Sabbath—to reflect on Sabbath, or perhaps, on the Sabbath to engage in reflection.

Speaking of reflection, Walter Brueggemann has a reflection of his own in his very interesting book, Sabbath as Resistance (the subtitle is Saying No to the Culture of Now).  He shows how Sabbath really is a counter-cultural thing.

He shares a story from his youth:[2]

“When I was growing up in rural Saline County, Missouri,” he says, “‘Mr. G.,’ our town grocer, and his wife always sat up front in church.  Every Sunday, during the last five minutes of the sermon by the pastor (my father), Mr. G. and his wife would rather ceremoniously walk the long aisle to the back of the church and leave.  They did not mind the distraction of their maneuver to everyone else at worship.  The reason they left is that the other church in town, the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, got out of service thirty minutes earlier than we [did].  As a kid, I often wondered how often Mr. G. had looked at his watch during the service to be sure he left on time to receive Lutheran trade and Lutheran money.  I did not know the phrase at the time, but Mr. G. was ‘multitasking.’  He was worshiping, even while he kept an eye on the clock for the sake of trade and profit.”

2 sabbathBrueggemann says multitasking is “poisonous,” because it leads to “a divided self, with full attention given to nothing.”[3]  If we’re distracted by many things, it is difficult to keep the Sabbath holy.  But what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy?  It partly involves how we treat others, and like the fellow who needs his soul to catch up with his body, how we treat ourselves.

Look at the way our chapter begins.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (v. 2).  That sets the stage.  Everything following is set within the context of the exodus from Egypt, being set free from slavery.  And that applies to the Sabbath.  “The God who rests is the God who emancipates from slavery and…from the work system of Egypt.”[4]

Have you ever watched a dog chasing its own tail?  Our dog chases his tail, especially when he gets upset and throws a temper tantrum.  He spins round and round in a circle.

If you recall, earlier in the book of Exodus, the economic system the Pharaoh develops is a circle, a vicious circle.  Here’s what I mean.  The Israelites are forced to make bricks.  And they are driven to produce more, which in turn, raises expectations and quotas are increased, which then means the work force has to put in even more hours (and if you do get vacation time, stay in touch with the office).

Does that sound familiar?  It seems the ancient Egyptians aren’t the only ones chasing their own tails!

3 sabbathSpeaking of Sabbath and working, I want to tell another story.  I heard this from someone when I was at seminary.

It seems there was a pastor who refused to buy the Sunday newspaper.  He could not abide supporting something made on the Lord’s day.  He wanted nothing to do with it.  However, someone told him the Sunday paper was actually printed on Saturday.  He had a sense of relief.  He had permission to buy the newspaper.

Although, I never heard if he then refused to buy the Monday paper!

Now I want to bring this Sabbath stuff to a more personal level.  And when I say “personal,” I am including myself.  I have to ask myself, “Do I remember the Sabbath, and do I keep it holy?”  I go back to my earlier question, “What does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy?”  What does it mean to sanctify it, to set it apart?

Throughout the Ten Commandments, the only time the word “holy” appears is in reference to the Sabbath.  It’s not even used for God.

With the Sabbath, we’re not dealing with sacred space.  With the Sabbath, we’re dealing with sacred time.

I’m fascinated by time.  I spoke earlier about dogs.  I’ve often wondered how dogs perceive the passage of time—especially when we go somewhere and our dog Aidan is left all by himself.  We humans perceive it all too well.  Time is a precious commodity.  It is precious because we are aware that our lives have a finite amount of it.  It will run out, and we know it!

In 1951, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel published the now classic book The Sabbath, a true masterpiece.  It’s short, but it’s filled with rich and wonderful and sometimes stark imagery.

Listen to how he describes time: “Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.”[6]

Still, the Sabbath redeems time.  Heschel says, “He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil.  He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life.”[7]

4 sabbathIn soaring language, he says, “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.”  The Sabbath is “architecture of time,” “holiness in time,” and most of all, “a palace in time.”[8]

I wonder about myself.  Do I regard the Sabbath as a palace in time?  Or am I embezzling my own life?

The Sabbath is not about laying down rules and regulations.  Jesus understands that.  In Luke 6, faced with some scribes and Pharisees who insist on dotting every “i” and crossing every “t,” he asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (v. 9).  He changes the focus; he changes the conversation.  He has us look at it in a different and unexpected way.

Still, the Sabbath does make demands on us.  God loves us so much that we are called to imitate God—to rest and to build a world in which others can rest.  We are reminded that, around the globe, there are too many who have no time to rest.  There are children who have no time to rest.

We’re reminded, “Christian practices—whether hospitality, forgiveness, testimony, or keeping Sabbath—impose rhythms that make demands on us, that break us out of zones of comfort and familiarity, and that enlarge our hearts.”[9]  The Lord commands and invites us to enlarge our hearts.

As I prepare to close, I want to include one more quote.  This is from Joan Chittister, the well-known Benedictine sister in Erie, Pennsylvania.  She speaks about the verse in Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God” (v. 10).

She says that verse “is more than the simple observation that everyone needs to let go a little, to get rested enough to work harder next week, to change pace from the hectic and the chaotic.  It is far beyond the fact that everyone needs a vacation.  Oh no, it is much more than that.  What [it] teaches us is the simple truth that a soul without a sense of Sabbath is an agitated soul.”[10]  What about that?  A soul without a sense of Sabbath is an agitated soul.

I fear that, even in the church, there are way too many agitated souls.  What kind of damage does that do?  What kind of damage do we do to each other?  What kind of damage do we do to ourselves?

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So today, I would like for all of us to rest and reflect on Sabbath.  I would like for us to take the time to let our souls catch up with our bodies.  I would like for us to thank the Lord for the wonderful gift of the palace in time.

 

[1] Terry Hershey, Sacred Necessities (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2005), 68-69.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014), Kindle edition, Chapter 5, section 1, paragraph 1

[3] Brueggemann, 5.4.1

[4] Brueggemann, 1.1.2

[5] Brueggemann, 1.1.3

[6] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York:  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1951), 5.

[7] Heschel, 13.

[8] Heschel, 8, 15.

[9] David F. White, “Keeping Sabbath,” Windows: Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Fall 2014): 12.

[10] www.huffingtonpost.com/sister-joan-chittister-osb/the-sabbath-making-someth_b_643716.html


bless you out

On Interstate 71, as you travel through Ohio (I believe it’s between Columbus and Cincinnati), you encounter an interesting billboard.  You see signs like this in other parts of the country, as well.  I remember when we lived in Corning.  As you approach from the east, you see a sign on the hill that says, “Jesus is the answer.”  Banu and I wondered, “I guess that would depend on the question.”

1-billboard

If you haven’t already figured this out, the sign on I-71 involves religion.  On one side, we’re asked, “If you were to die today, where would you spend eternity?”  I hope that no one, pondering that question to the point of distraction, has crashed their car and wound up meeting their Maker!

The other side of the billboard has a list of the Ten Commandments, abbreviated of course.  There isn’t room for the verses in their entirety.

Besides appearing on billboards around the country, we also see the Ten Commandments posted on all manner of things.  But I wonder about that.  Why do we see the Ten Commandments so frequently in public places, but not the Beatitudes of Jesus?  At least, I’ve never seen them.  I imagine that none of you have ever—or rarely ever—seen them posted in public.  Why is that?

Is it possible that we’re more comfortable with rules to follow?  That is, with “do”s and “don’t”s?  It should be pointed out, there are levels of meaning in the Ten Commandments.  We do a terrible injustice to them when we reduce to them to a “how to” manual.  They truly present another vision of reality, one that actually is freedom.

Still, it seems like we can more easily get our head around instructions.  Please, just tell me what to do!  I’ve often heard people speak of the entire Bible as rules to live by.

With the Beatitudes of Jesus, we have something very different.  They aren’t instructions; Jesus isn’t telling us what to do.  They aren’t commands; they’re descriptions.  He’s giving us a series of people with qualities that he considers to be blessed.  (“Blessed” is what the word “beatitude” means.)

Still, if you go through that list, they pretty much go against what we ordinarily would consider to be blessed.

Going back to how the Ten Commandments are so often seen in public places, but not the Beatitudes, Matthew draws a parallel between the two.  Who goes up the mountain and winds up laying down the law?  Who goes up the mountain and winds up declaring who is blessed?  It’s not an accident that Matthew draws parallels between Moses and Jesus.  He constantly has Jesus taking quotes from the law and re-imagining them, letting them shine with new light.

Some have noticed how Matthew structures his gospel into five parts, matching the five books of Moses.  He says on four occasions, “when Jesus had finished saying these things,” marking the end of a discourse.  That way, he divides his gospel into five sections.[1]

If Jesus isn’t laying down the law with the Beatitudes, but rather describing who is blessed, what do we make of them?  Let’s take a look.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v. 5).  Seriously?  The meek will inherit the earth?  That’s not what the action movies tell us.  Is Batman meek?  Is James Bond meek?  For you fans of the TV show Scandal, is Olivia Pope meek?  What does our economy say?  Are we advised to be meek?  Here’s the next shiny, pretty thing.  Grab it before somebody else does!  Yeah, inherit the earth.  It’s more likely that the meek will inherit jack squat!

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“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (v. 9).  Well that sounds very nice and good, but when the times get tough, we tend to put our trust in bombs and bullets.

And don’t get me started on “those who are persecuted” (v. 10).  Let’s be honest:  isn’t it better to be the one holding the levers of power?

It’s been pointed out that we might prefer some other beatitudes:[2]

“Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.

“Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.

“Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”  (You do realize that’s in the Bible!  I believe it’s in the book of Hezekiah.)

What is it that Jesus is trying to tell us?

Lance Pape, a professor of homiletics (that is, preaching) at Brite Divinity School, offers some ideas.  As opposed to how we usually behave, or better, how our society trains us to behave, “the Beatitudes stand as a daring act of protest against the current order.  Jesus cannot very well insist that we be poor in spirit, but he can show us how to look upon such people with new eyes, and so gain entrance to a new world.”

That “new world” is “the kingdom of heaven,” and it’s not simply a matter of something after we die, but we also experience it right now.  In chapter 4, Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” or, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v. 17).  So it’s here, but not yet fully arrived.

He continues, “The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed and embodied is precisely a new way of seeing, a new way of naming, and so a new way of being.”  It is a different way of understanding, of learning, of knowing truth.

When I was young, I picked up from my mother that “blessing someone out,” was definitely not wishing them well!  However, Jesus has a way of turning things inside out, and so when he says he wants to “bless you out,” that is a good thing!

On a couple of occasions, I’ve mentioned a book by Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.  In chapter 8, “Rocking the Emotional Boat,” he brings up two different kinds of problems, two different kinds of knowing:  technical and adaptive.  I’ll do a spoiler alert and let you know why I mention this.  Towards the end of his discussion, Steinke says that “Jesus challenged the routine and regimentation of the established order.  Prophets deal with ‘adaptive work.’”[3]

Technical and adaptive problems require different kinds of solutions.

Here’s an example.  Imagine that there’s a dangerous intersection.  Numerous accidents have happened there.  There has been all kind of damage, and worst of all, people have been killed.  What is the answer?  One idea would be to put up a traffic light.  This is an example of a technical problem.

He goes on, “When we are dealing with technical problems, we use know-how and follow a set of procedures.”  With technical problems, “People already know what to do and how to do it…  Problems are not trivial, but solutions are within a person’s abilities.  Solutions are not necessarily easy, but expertise and knowledge are available.”[4]  (Like the expertise and knowledge to put up a traffic light.)

Let’s look at a different example.  Several years ago, on the show Mad TV, there was a skit involving Bob Newhart as a therapist.  He was visited by a woman who said she lived in fear of being buried alive in a box.  She was afraid of going through tunnels and being in elevators; she was terribly claustrophobic.  What is the answer?  Should she avoid taking the elevator?  Should she avoid getting into a box, for fear that someone will bury her alive?  Perhaps: but would that solve the problem of her claustrophobia?

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In the skit, Bob Newhart wasn’t very helpful.  He said he had two words to cure her fear.  Two words were all she needed: “Stop it!”  Stop being afraid.  Whenever she would try to explain, he kept responding, “Stop it!”  At last, after she described some other problems that bothered her, he said that he had ten words for her.  These ten words would resolve her problems.  Maybe she could write them down.  Here they are: “Stop it, or I’ll bury you alive in a box!”

That is an example of an adaptive problem.

Steinke says that adaptive problems “involve challenges to deeply held values and well-entrenched attitudes.  They require new learning.”  We must learn to adapt.  With adaptive problems, “People’s hearts and minds need to change, not only their likes and dislikes.  Problems surface that no existing technical expertise can solve…  Problem solving involves new experiments, uncertainty, and loss.”[5]

In the skit, Bob Newhart treats his client as though she has a technical problem.  He assumes that she knows what to do and how to do it.  But she has an adaptive problem, and truth be told, so does he!

Bringing this back to Jesus, he talks about the encounter Jesus has with the rich young man (Mt 19:16-30).  This fellow says that he’s observed all the commandments.  Jesus comes back “with the challenge to sell all he possessed and give the profits to the poor…  This…didn’t square off with any commandment he knew.  Jesus also healed on the Sabbath.  He openly challenged the fixed law, because he could imagine that love superceded code.  He encouraged those who were offended to use their imagination.”[6]

With the Beatitudes, we are drawn into a world in which we’re asked to use our imagination.  It’s a way of seeing that doesn’t involve technical problems, in which we already have the know-how to fix them.  Rather, it’s a way of seeing which involves adaptive problems, in which we have to challenge our assumptions.  We are called to adapt, to step out of our comfort zone—something we usually do not want to do.  We often fight with everything we’ve got to avoid it.  Or maybe we put it off—until tomorrow!

We are called to use our imagination.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, of those who have gone before.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, of those in the Beatitudes.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, in those who are ignored and unloved.  As Henri Nouwen says, “The most honored parts of the body are not the head or the hands, which lead and control.  The most important parts are the least presentable parts…  Paul says, ‘It is the parts of the body which we consider least dignified, that we surround with the greatest dignity’ (1 Corinthians 12:23).”[7]

We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, in those we do not like, in those who rub us the wrong way, even in those who disgust us.  Talk about adaptive problems!  Bob Newhart in the skit as a therapist isn’t the only one to treat adaptive problems as though they were technical problems.  As I suggested earlier, we also do that.

I chair our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  We want to make the Committee and the Leadership Team, of which I’m also a part, more representative of people in the presbytery—and that includes young people of high school age and those in their early 20s.  This requires changing bylaws and standing rules.  It’s important to make sure we have proper guidelines in doing the job.  But that technical fix isn’t enough.  We have to change our behavior, and by God’s grace, we’re making steps in that direction.

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The same is true with congregational policies.  They also are important; they help us to be on the same page.  They help guide us.  But we also hear the words of Jesus.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (v. 7).  No policy, no instruction, can force us to be merciful.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (v. 8).  No bylaw, no standing rule, can force us into purity of heart.

This backwards, upside down vision of the Beatitudes isn’t the result of legislation or compulsion.  It comes from open hearts, open minds, open eyes.

This interim time is a gift for all of us.  It is a blessed time—even if sometimes it feels like one of those blessings we would rather not have!  But we are called once again to be a blessing to each other.  We are called to be a Beatitude to each other.  We are called to bless each other out!

 

[1] 7:28, 11:1, 19:1, 26:1

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2203

[3] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006), 133.

[4] Steinke, 127.

[5] Steinke, 127.

[6] Steinke, 133.

[7] wp.henrinouwen.org/daily_meditation_blog/?p=3313