torture

the testing of Job

Let me tell you something that happened one day when I was in high school.  We were sitting in class (I forget which), and the discussion somehow turned to the Bible.  One of my classmates voiced his problems with believing it.  Referring to Genesis, he demonstrated God gathering some dirt, and—presto!—a human being.  (To be honest, even then I had my doubts that it happened quite that way.)

Then he mentioned the book we’re looking at today.  “God tortured Job!” he said.  At the time, I felt the need to open my mouth and say something.  My very enlightening response was, “It was a test.”  That’s all I had.  Of course, that only seemed to confirm what he had just said.

1 jobDuring all of this, our teacher was looking a bit nervous.  I don’t suppose it had anything to do with his theological viewpoint.  I imagine he was visualizing a conversation with the principal of our public high school as to how our class turned into a Bible study!

The book of Job, admittedly, is a challenge.  It’s mainly a series of poems, with Job, his friends, Elihu, a young man who seems to appear out of nowhere, and the Lord taking turns at speaking.  The long section of poetry is bracketed, front and back, by passages of prose.  The introduction and the conclusion have been recognized as a sort of legend about a saintly man who loses, in sequence, his wealth, his children, and then his health.  This ancient story sets the stage for the book of Job as we have it.

Why do bad things happen to good people?  We’ve all asked that or heard that question.  The frequent unfairness of life inevitably occurs to every human being at some point, usually when we’re still young.  I say it’s inevitable; it can’t help but happen, because we’re created in the image of God.  Some of what that means is that we have an innate, an inborn, sense of right and wrong.  We have a sense of justice.

Why do bad things happen to good people?  And Job certainly fits into the category of “good people.”  That’s how the book begins.  Besides being extremely wealthy (indeed, the richest man in all the East), Job is described as a good man—more than that, as a righteous man, one who reveres God.

It seems that something more fundamental is going on than the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The book challenges a key notion of how God deals with the human race.  It calls into question something that the orthodox faith of the day held about divine reward and punishment, which was: the righteous prosper, the wicked suffer.  Period.  Case closed.

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There are plenty of scriptures saying that very thing.  Here’s just one example, from Psalm 32: “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord” (v. 10).

Don’t we all believe something like that?  You will reap what you sow.  What comes around goes around.  That’s what Job’s friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—keep telling him.  (By the way, there was a news report about an archaeological discovery.  A tablet was unearthed with an engraving of Zophar’s last name: apparently, it was Zogood.)

Our tendency is to feel that people ought to get just what they deserve.  That does seem to be the way of justice.  People should be praised or punished, based on what they’ve done.  That’s only fair.

Our scripture reading speaks to that.  I want us to notice something in the conversation between God and Satan.  In chapter 2, the Lord says that Job “still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason” (v. 3).  For no reason.

It can be hard to remember that sometimes…stuff happens.  Pain, disease—something suddenly going wrong with the car—can leave us feeling like all the forces of the cosmos are arrayed against us.  It’s not that God is ticked off at us; it’s that we live in a world with a lot of complicated things going on.  The more complicated a system is, the more there is to it that can go wrong.

(I’m especially fond of cars nowadays that are almost completely computer-run.  That’s good until it isn’t.  I like having a car with a stick shift.  I sometimes think of it as an anti-theft device, since there are lots of people who can’t drive stick!)

There’s something we should note about the character called “Satan.”  Actually, in the book of Job, this creature is known in Hebrew as הַשׇׂטׇן (ha-satan), “the satan,” which means “the accuser,” “the adversary.”  In legal terminology, he would be a prosecuting attorney.  Actually, given his stature, he would probably be the district attorney!

3 jobThe decision to capitalize the word gives the wrong impression.  (By the way, the Hebrew language doesn’t have upper and lower cases.)  At this point in time, “Satan” is not considered to be a name; it’s just a title.  To the early Hebrews, he fits a necessary role.  “The satan” isn’t really seen as evil.  After all, God approves his plans, which might seem to bring us back to my high school classmate.

This “satan” says something we should notice.  In chapter 1, Job loses his wealth and his children.  Still, verse 22 tells us, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.”  Now, in chapter 2, here’s what the Accuser says: “All that people have they will give to save their lives” (v. 4).  Thus, the attack on Job’s health.

“All that people have they will give to save their lives.”  Is that true?  In the story, Satan refers to Job’s wealth—and even to his children.  It’s an unflattering picture he paints of Job, and for that matter, of everyone.  What would we give to save our lives, to save our skins?  What is our price?  How about our integrity?  It’s hard to say what we would do until we’ve walked in Job’s shoes.

Job’s friends hear of the horrendous things that have happened to him, and wanting to comfort him, they set out together to go and see him.  That right there says something.  They choose to put themselves out and go to their suffering friend.

The scripture says, “When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him” (v. 12).  I, like others, have had the disconcerting experience of seeing those who’d been, so to speak, through the meat grinder—and at first, not recognizing them.

That really hits home for some of us.  Several years ago in a different church, we visited our hospitalized organist, and I thought we’d entered the wrong room.

Job’s friends go through the ritual of mourning, of grief.  They weep; they tear their robes; they throw dust in the air, and they sit down on the ground with Job.  No one says anything.  According to the text, this goes on for “seven days and seven nights,” a poetic way of describing the long time they keep a silent presence with him.

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Remember my “Zophar Zogood” attempt at a joke?  Well, let me say that for Job’s friends, it is “so far, so good”: at least, regarding their behavior.  They’re doing a very difficult thing.  They are being there with their friend in the midst of his pain.  Anyone who’s done that understands the difficulty—but also the love.  It isn’t until they open their mouths and start giving unwanted advice that Job’s friends earn the description “miserable comforters” (16:2).

Hearing them go on and on and on seems to help Job realize he’s now grown beyond the level of faith and understanding at which they’re stuck.  He’s been forced to do it!

Maybe some of us can relate to Job.  Maybe you find yourself in unfamiliar terrain, in which the supports of the past have failed.  Old certainties have turned out to be illusions.  (By the way, that’s not an entirely bad thing!)  Life has led you down paths that you never would have chosen.  The testing of Job is the testing of ourselves.

I want to finish with some words from Richard Rohr, who wrote a very interesting book, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections.[1]  He speaks to that lonely feeling when it seems like the whole world has tossed you out like trash.

5 job“When you are feeling abandoned,” he writes, “pick up Job’s book and speak Job’s prayers and know they have been prayed before and that we are part of a great history and we are all in this together.  There are no feelings we feel that others have not felt before.  At such times, in our prayer, we unite ourselves in solidarity with others who suffer and who have suffered before us.

“Often, that’s the only way out of self-pity and a preoccupation with our own feelings.  We have to choose solidarity and the ‘communion of the saints.’  There, we realize we are carrying the weight of our brothers and sisters, and they are carrying ours.”[2]

 

[1] Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996)

[2] Rohr, 94.


zero the hero

When I young, I was very interested in comic books, especially Marvel Comics.  I tended to like their superheroes better than those of the other main publisher, DC Comics.  Marvel placed (and still places) its characters in the real world.  It’s New York City, not Gotham City or Metropolis. 1 jr

Among my favorite comic books were Dr. Strange (the Sorcerer Supreme!) and the Incredible Hulk.  I admired him for his eloquence, his articulate way with words.  His favorite line was “Hulk smash!”

2 jrProbably my favorite character wasn’t a superhero at all.  He was kind of an anti-hero.  He lived in Cleveland, having become trapped on our Earth.  He was simply a duck, Howard the Duck, and he would continually be amazed at how we “hairless apes,” as he put it, ran things on this planet.  You see, on his Earth, ducks are the dominant species.

I really don’t know how deliberate this was, but is it possible that Marvel was making a statement about superheroes?  Is it necessary to be muscle-bound, or otherwise skill-laden?  Is it possible to be merely a duck?  Hold that thought!

3 jrIn the book of Jeremiah, we see something that we rarely do with the other Hebrew prophets.  We get a quite vivid view of the emotions of the man.  We see much of his psychological makeup.  That’s largely due to what’s called the confessions of Jeremiah.  There are five of them, located between chapters 11 and 20.[1]  These are the poems of the prophet in which he expresses his feelings of pain, of anger, and even his sense of betrayal by God.  These laments are borne of the abuses he’s been forced to endure.

We see yet another example of that unfair treatment in chapter 38.  If there is anyone in need of some heroic intervention, it’s definitely the prophet Jeremiah.

At this point in the book, the Babylonians are outside the walls of Jerusalem.  Jeremiah, who’s been warning about this for years, is seeing his words coming true.  Things are getting very grim.  Having taken position outside the city, the Babylonians have set up a blockade.  They’re cutting off supply lines, stopping shipments of food.  The situation will get so dire that some will resort to cannibalism.  They will eat their own young (19:9, Lm 2:20, 4:10).

Zedekiah, the final king of Judah, has sought Jeremiah for words of wisdom, but he doesn’t like what he hears.  Zedekiah’s biggest problem is that he’s afraid.  He does nothing to prevent his officials from arresting Jeremiah, who claim the prophet “ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city.”  They say he isn’t “seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm” (v. 4).

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Just how does Zedekiah respond?  How does this sound?  “Here he is; he is in your hands; for the king is powerless against you” (v. 5).  He thinks he’s saving his own skin, but he’s doing the exact opposite.  Jeremiah has tried to tell him, and everyone else, that this war is a lost cause.  Zedekiah can still come to terms with the Babylonians.

But fear can easily overwhelm reason.  The most dangerous people in the world are the fearful.  When people are afraid—when we are afraid—we become capable of stuff we otherwise would never do.  People who are afraid are easier to manipulate, because they aren’t thinking clearly.  They aren’t asking the right questions.  As we sometimes say, they check their brains at the door—or before entering the arena.

As for Jeremiah, he gets lowered into a cistern.  It would be bad enough if the bottom were dry, but listen to the way the Bible describes it: “Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mire, and Jeremiah sank in the mire” (v. 6).

Jeremiah is being buried alive.  He can’t find any solid foothold, which need it be said, has levels of meaning.

Fortunately for the prophet, there is someone willing to intervene on his behalf.  This one goes to Zedekiah and says, “My lord king, these men have acted wickedly in all they did to the prophet Jeremiah by throwing him into the cistern to die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city” (v. 9).  Some manuscripts even have him saying “you have acted wickedly”!

Who is this bold advocate?  Who dares to step forward this way?  Perhaps someone from the king’s family?  Not exactly.  He’s a fellow known to us as Ebed-melech.  But that really isn’t his name.  “Ebed-melech” (עֶבֶד־מֶלֶךְ) simply means “servant of the king.”  And what’s more, he’s a foreigner, an Ethiopian.  He’s a nobody, a zero—although truth be told, I might be overstating this “zero” bit.  He would have needed some influence to get an audience with Zedekiah.

What reaction does he provoke from the king?  Punishment?  Rebuke?  No, Zedekiah tells Ebed-melech to find some help…and get Jeremiah out of that well!  Sometimes we need to be asked—we need to be reminded—to do the right thing, to be the person we claim to be, to be the person we want to be.

Christine Pohl has written: “a friend of mine asked if there was anyone who consistently spoke truth into my life.”  She reminds us how important it is that “[e]ach of us [have] someone, or a small community, who will name what is going on and speak a word of truth to us when it is needed.”[2]

But more than being the one who reminds Zedekiah of his moral, and indeed his legal, duty, Ebed-melech is something else.  As I’ve indicated, he is the voice of Jeremiah when Jeremiah has no voice.  It’s hard to plead your case when you’re at the bottom of a muck-filled cistern.

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If for no other reason (and surely there is more than one), but if for no other reason than his showing compassion for Jeremiah, Ebed-melech’s actions should be considered heroic.  In my humble opinion, this zero is a hero.  And I’m far from alone in making that judgment.  Jewish legend even goes so far as to say that he’s among those who ascended to heaven.  That seems to be a pretty firm vote of confidence!

Actually, calling Ebed-melech a hero isn’t a tough call, given the message to him in chapter 39.  The prophet is told to go to Ebed-melech and reassure him of something.  The city is still going to be invaded and conquered.  Destruction is on the way.  But it won’t touch him.  And the people he’s angered by helping Jeremiah won’t touch him, either.

So what will happen?  “I will surely save you, and you shall not fall by the sword; but you shall have your life as a prize of war, because you have trusted in me, says the Lord” (v. 18).  Ebed-melech will survive the fighting with his own plunder, that plunder being his life.

He might not be a superhero, but he does a pretty good job as a duck!

Here’s a question.  “Who is the biggest zero of all time?”  (That is, if a zero can be called “big”!)  Who is it?  I would suggest Jesus.  Let me elaborate.  We have a peasant among a people under military occupation.  There are legitimate questions regarding his parentage.  He is an obscure man from an obscure town.  In fact, it was asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46).

The powers-that-be grow weary of his wandering around, spreading his dangerous teachings.  He is executed, though not in a way befitting a political prisoner, but as a common thug on a cross, along with two other thugs.  His followers disperse (with the exception of some of the women!)  The dream, just like Jesus, is dead—dead as a doornail.  A couple of his disciples, reflecting on this utter failure, said “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21).  We had hoped.

Of course, we know that’s not the end of the story.

Bringing this business of zero into our time, we should note that Jesus was a Middle Eastern Palestinian.  I wonder, between the two of us, who would be more likely to be “randomly” stopped and checked at the airport?

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That is the beauty of Jesus as zero.  He takes the lowest possible position.  (Mind you, I’m not suggesting that being a Middle Eastern Palestinian qualifies as being zero.)  Jesus takes utter defeat and transforms it, and perhaps you’ll agree that there’s no greater defeat than being dead!

I imagine some of us have felt like zero.  Some of us, if not all of us, have had the sense that we’re nothing, at least once in our lives.  I would daresay it’s happened many more times than that.   (I would call it part of the human condition.)

Maybe we’ve even felt like Jeremiah in that deep, dark hole.  Earlier I mentioned the anguish revealed by the prophet: he’s been the object of mockery, hatred, unjust imprisonment, torture, just to name some of his mistreatment.  Still, this is the perfect summation of his agony.  He’s been tossed into what must look like a bottomless pit.  There seems to be no way out.

As noted before, it would be bad enough if solid ground were at the bottom.  However, here he is (here we are) sinking in sludge, maybe even to the point of it closing overhead.  The walls are moving in.  One need not be claustrophobic for a sense of panic to take hold.  The light is beginning to fade.

Some might say this is well-deserved.  After all, why does he find himself in this predicament to begin with?  It was no accident.  Many say by spreading his message, he really didn’t want the best for his people.

How often have we seen this take place?  Have we been with Jeremiah in that deep, dark hole and been told, “That’s where you belong.”

Shelley Rambo, who’s written quite a bit on trauma, says “for many people who experience trauma, Christianity has offered judgment, not good news…  The sense that a person is at fault for what has happened to them is often threaded into Christian responses, sometimes unconsciously.”[3]

Have we ever been on the other side of that deep, dark hole and acted like a zero (though not in a good sense!)?  Have we ever shown impatience with someone in the midst of pain and suffering and said, “Okay, this has gone on long enough.  It’s time to move on!  That is, unless you enjoy this.”

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{Shelley Rambo}

Still, despite whatever suffering we endure—or whatever suffering we inflict—when hope has almost died, a servant of the king is there.  An ebed-melech shows up.  When we do speak the words of truth and get thrown into the mud, our ebed-melech stands next to us and defends us.

May the Lord raise in each of our lives an ebed-melech, a servant of the King Jesus, the One who became obedient to death and who brings us through the battle, giving us the power to rise from the dead.

 

[1] 11:18-12:6, 15:10-21, 17:14-18, 18:18-23, 20:7-18

[2] Christine Pohl, “Sin insulation,” Christian Century 118:24 (29 Aug-5 Sep 2001): 12.

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


warm up the celebration

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

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

What a party pooper.

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"I'm the party pooper"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[3] Calhoun, 26.

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


who do you think you are?

I want to begin with a question.  How many of you can think of someone from your past, maybe even early childhood, who for you is summed up by a certain image or incident?

1 mk{Is this fellow summed up by a single image?}

Let me give an example.  When I was in second grade, there was a kid in my class named Jon.  For some strange reason, he would turn his eyelids inside out.  The first time he did it, it scared me, and I started crying.  That was a mistake!  Once he saw that, he made a point of turning his eyelids inside out and then trying to get my attention.  I don’t recall crying anymore, but it still freaked me out.

And to this day, that’s the image I have of Jon.  He was the creepy kid who would turn his eyelids inside out.  Forever and ever, that is who he is!

It’s a common thing, really, to go from our memory and decide that we have them figured out.

In the gospel reading from Mark 6, Jesus goes back to his hometown and encounters something like this.  We’re told, “On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.  They said, ‘Where did this man get all this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hands!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’  And they took offense at him” (vv. 2-3).

Brian Stoffregen has said, “It is essentially their knowledge of Jesus that keeps them from really knowing and benefiting from [him].  Could this be a warning to all people who think that they know Jesus, but, in fact, may misunderstand and reject the real Jesus?”[1]

I think there’s more truth in this than we would like to admit.  We can possess plenty of Jesus “trinkets.”  We can be acquainted with Jesus.  In fact, we can know quite a bit about Jesus…without knowing Jesus.

2 mkThe people in Jesus’ hometown thought they knew him.  They remember when he was “knee high to a grasshopper”!  And this recent behavior has them confused.  Isn’t he the carpenter?  What’s he doing acting like a rabbi?  Who does he think he is?

The Greek word translated as “carpenter” is τεκτων (tektōn), but it has more than one meaning.  It can refer to any “artisan” or “craftsman.”  It can even mean “artist,” like a sculptor.  So we’re not entirely sure that Jesus was a carpenter, but it’s a pretty safe bet.

The point is, in the eyes of the local folks, he wasn’t staying in his place.  Jesus wasn’t sticking to what they always thought he would—or should—be!  “And they took offense at him.”  The word is σκανδαλιζω (skandalizō), which means they were scandalized by him.  But that’s putting it mildly.

In chapter 4 of his gospel, Luke does better than Mark in capturing anger at Jesus: “When they heard [him], all in the synagogue were filled with rage” (v. 28).  They go ballistic.  They’re so mad that they want to throw Jesus off a cliff, but he slips away before they can execute their plan (and him)!

Something else to notice is that Jesus is called “the son of Mary.”  In their culture, men carry the names of their fathers, such as “James son of Zebedee.”  Referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary” is a not-so-veiled way of saying that he is illegitimate.  We see a suggestion of it again in John 8:41.

It’s been noted that “the refusal—or inability—of Jesus’ neighbors to accept his status confirms what [we’ve seen so] far: the world’s standards of judgment appear to run headlong into God’s ways.  Jesus does not measure up.”[2]

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It’s not like Jesus is deliberately being stubborn.  He’s not doing things simply for shock value.  But he recognizes the unjust nature of so many of his culture’s traditions.  And that often includes the role of the family.  Jesus sees that “there is a higher priority than family power and obligation.”  William Loader has suggested, “Family power, meant to empower one to independent adulthood, frequently aborts the process, and becomes a source of oppression.”[3]

This surely is no surprise to any of you.  We all know people, and families, who have squashed the dreams and gifts of one of their own.  This can be done actively:  through ridicule or even abuse.  Or it can be done passively: through neglect or lack of encouragement.  Some of you might have firsthand experience with this.

Jesus has a very different take on family values.  In Mark 3, he asks, “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (vv. 33-35).

Our Lord models for us a new way of being a family.  (And I would say, a better way of being a family.)  It’s been said, “That may well mean leaving the natural family behind, a revolutionary thought—and a healthy one.”[4]  That’s what the church should be: a family at a deeper and more profound level than those tied to us by blood.  (But then, perhaps it’s the blood of Christ which ties us together!)

Verses 4 to 6 tell us that “Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.”  He was amazed, astonished, dumbfounded.

Their minds are already made up about him.  They prefer the picture they have in their heads, as opposed to the living Jesus.  That’s what they’re comfortable with.  They think they have him all figured out.  One of my favorite bands, King’s X, sang, “There is no room inside a box!”  That’s no place for Jesus—or for those who, in second grade, turned their eyelids inside out!

The late Bruce Prewer commented, “The low expectations from within one’s locality, not only underrate the gifts and possibilities of a ‘local,’ but can also actively inhibit the development of such gifts. Numerous people have been grossly restricted by the low expectations of those around them. Many have to go elsewhere to be truly be themselves.

4 mk

“As I see it, fostering low expectations is one of the devil’s most canny stratagems.”  Who do you think you are?

People with “low expectations can inhibit or constrict your enlarging identity in Christ.  They rarely notice your developing gifts, or give you gracious affirmation in your accomplishments.”[5]  They’re the ones who are sure to pour cold water on the things that make for life—the things that foster joy and hope.  Although, I suppose we all do that, at least on occasion.  But there are people who seem to be expert at it.

Sometimes, low expectations appear as wolves in sheep’s clothing.  They come to us cloaked as otherwise good and even noble considerations.  How many genuine promptings from God (not personal agendas) get buried amid concerns that we’ve never done it that way before…or we can’t afford it…or we should assign that to a committee and let them study it for the next few months?

“Be lofty in your expectations for yourselves and for other Christians, and be generous with yourself and with them when you stumble.  A stumble does not characterize your true future, but Jesus Christ does.”[6]

If it feels like I’m saying, “do more,” that’s not it.  It’s not enough to simply be busy.  Instead, what does God ask?  Mark tells us about the instructions Jesus gives to his disciples.  I like how Eugene Peterson paraphrased verse 12: “They preached with joyful urgency that life can be radically different.”  That’s his take on the message of repentance.

As I move towards my conclusion, I want to share with you something attributed to Nelson Mandela.  It actually appears in a work by Marianne Williamson.  Still, it sounds like something Mandela would have quoted!

5 mk

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” she writes.  “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It is not in just some of us; it is in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”[7]

So… who are you to tell someone that Jesus loves them?  Who are you to feed the hungry?  Who are you to speak against torture?  Who are you to visit the sick and those in jail?  Who are you to bring hope to the hopeless?  Who are you to tell people that their sin has been forgiven?  Who do you think you are?

You are a child of God, and so am I.

 

[1] www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark6x1.htm

[2] www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark6x1.htm

[3] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost7Ord14.html

[4] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost7Ord14.html

[5] www.bruceprewer.com/DocB/BSUNDAY14.htm

[6] www.bruceprewer.com/DocB/BSUNDAY14.htm

[7] marianne.com/a-return-to-love


why this is Maundy Thursday

In the mid-2000s, the Mel Gibson-directed film, The Passion of the Christ, appeared in theaters.

When it was released, many people had concerns about anti-Semitism, based on what some saw as a sympathetic portrayal of Pontius Pilate versus the Jewish leaders.  (I didn’t really see it that way.)

There were also concerns about the level of gore in the movie.  For me, the flogging scene is the worst.  By the time we get to the crucifixion, it seems mild in comparison.  Gibson said that he felt he needed to be quite graphic to do justice to the passion narratives.  We shouldn’t forget that this is the same Mel Gibson of Braveheart and The Patriot—other movies not recommended for children!

1 maundySome have wondered, looking at the movie as a work of art, how much of the message of Jesus comes through.  That is, amid all the violence that’s portrayed, how well does the film explain the extreme hatred directed at this poor man?  Just who is this Jesus?  I suppose it’s difficult for those of us who are familiar with the story to look at the movie that way, to remember that not everyone knows the story.

We don’t meet Gibson’s Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel, until the garden of Gethsemane.  By this time, the event that’s at the heart of Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper, has already happened.  Jesus has already washed his disciples’ feet in a display of servant leadership.  He has already pronounced the words, “this is my body…this is my blood.”  The Lord has already spoken to the disciples these words from our scripture reading: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (v. 34).

The meaning of “Maundy” is found in this statement.  Coming from the Latin mandatum, it means “mandate” or “commandment.”  Maundy Thursday is all about the new mandate given by Jesus:  love one another, just as he has loved us.  Just as he has loved us.  What could that possibly mean?

Let me tell you all about it, since I am an expert on love!  It really is a new way of loving.  The obligation to love one’s neighbor had long been part of the Jewish consciousness.  Check out Leviticus 19:18 as an example, that loving-your-neighbor-as-yourself stuff.

But the commandment of Jesus to love is “new.”  It’s new, not simply because Jesus expands the definition of “neighbor” to include the poor and the enemy—those who seemingly cannot or will not repay us.  It’s a new kind of love, not just a new degree of love.  Disciples of Jesus are told to love one another.  They are called to this new love because they are part of a new creation.

2 maundy

One way we see Jesus model this new command to love is by the way he selects his inner circle of disciples.  First of all, he violates the barriers that forbid the education of women by welcoming Mary Magdalene and the sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary.  When the church has embraced those barriers, it’s been a sad refusal to practice this new love of Jesus.

Jesus ignores cultural sensibilities by calling men who are laborers—fishermen—the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, James and John.  Later, in the book of Acts, after the healing of the “man lame from birth,” Peter and John are brought before the Sanhedrin.  The scripture says that “when they saw the boldness of [the two] and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus” (3:2, 4:13).  Now there’s a statement about the calling of all believers!

Jesus ignores political prejudice by including Matthew the tax collector, viewed as a collaborator with the Romans, along with Simon the Zealot.  The Zealots are revolutionaries who want to overthrow the Romans.  Compared with these two, the differences between Republicans and Democrats are nonexistent.

These are the people to whom Jesus gives his new command: love one another.  The church has at times, by the grace of God, been able to model this love.  In the late second century, Tertullian famously reported a saying among certain pagans about Christians, “See how they love one another, and how they are ready to die for one another!”

It is that very witness, that testimony, which Jesus predicts in verse 35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Rudolf Bultmann comments on the unusual nature of this new love.  He says that it “demonstrates the strangeness of the community within the world, and results in the world calling those who love, the disciples of Jesus.”[1]  A new creation within the old creation can’t help but seem strange!

He continues with this stipulation: “But the community itself fulfils its commission…only if its [love] remains the response to the love of Jesus…  It is not the effect it has on world history that legitimates the Christian faith, but its strangeness within the world.”[2]

3 maundy
Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), a fan of the “strangeness” of the Christian faith.

To boil this all down, Bultmann is saying that our success or failure is less important than our faithfulness to the new love that Jesus commands.  We shouldn’t be surprised if the love of Jesus leads us onto paths that the world disregards.  More important than credibility in the old creation is fidelity in the new creation.  Love, especially the love of Jesus Christ, has a logic all its own.

In Thomas Keating’s Lenten devotional, My Prayers Rise Like Incense, he says, “Love makes us vulnerable.  The love of another person (including God) reduces our defense mechanisms.  As soon as we trust somebody, we no longer have to be self-protective in their presence and our defenses diminish.  Then the faults and limitations that we have never seen or always tried to hide begin to emerge as clear as crystal…  Once we learn to accept failure, love grows.  We do not grow by thinking about it, but only through the experience of failure.”[3]

Friends, as a minister, as a fellow Christian, as a fellow human being: I can guarantee you one way in which we will never fail.  We will never, never fail!  By playing it safe; by not taking a step of faith—and by holding people’s failings against them.  We are called to something greater.

I’ll finish as I began: with The Passion of the Christ.  As I said, the movie begins in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The decision of Jesus to submit to arrest was a sign of faith in God.  It wasn’t something he was looking forward to.  But for me, as I watched the movie, it really was his courage that struck me.  Jesus knew his enemies were coming for him, and he knew that he would be treated brutally.  I picture myself in his place, and I suspect that the impulse to just take off would be too strong to resist.

But love gives us courage, even non-heroic, ordinary people like us.  That’s the antidote to cowardice!  And the new commandment to love—to love each other as Jesus loves us—gives each person here the courage to be a bigger person, to live a bigger life, than we have ever dreamed.  That is worth embracing and celebrating.  That is why this is Maundy Thursday.

4 maundy
a Battlestar Galactica Last Supper!

 

 

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1971), 527.

[2] Bultmann, 529.

[3] Thomas Keating, My Prayers Rise Like Incense (St. Louis:  Creative Communications for the Parish, 1999), 28.


remember

Memory is a funny thing.  No one is exactly sure how it works.  For centuries, philosophers and physicians, artists and scientists, have investigated and debated what it means to remember.  Does the mind retrieve memories like documents in a filing cabinet or bits of information in cyberspace?  Does the mind re-create memories; do we mentally relive the experience?  (That’s an unfortunate reality for those suffering with PTSD.)  Or is something completely different involved?

This business of memory has become more personal for me in these past years.  No doubt some of you have stories to tell about memory, or the loss thereof: that is, if you can remember them!  In my case, the story is about a potential loss of memory.

1 He 13During my treatment for the brain tumor discovered in November 1995, my doctors warned me about possible loss of short term memory.  Having one’s head cut open twice, and having one’s brain zapped with radiation, would likely have some detrimental effect!  Fortunately, my problems have been minor: like trying to identify certain actors.

Of course, memory is much more important to us than remembering a certain celebrity’s name.  In a very real sense, memory helps to define us.  Any of us who’ve known someone with amnesia, maybe an Alzheimer’s patient, understands what a tragedy the loss of memory is.  So much of such a person is gone.

It really isn’t much of an exaggeration to link memory with life.  Memory certainly has a crucial role in the life of faith.  For example, think of how we celebrate the Eucharist, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  We “do this,” as Jesus said, “in remembrance of [him].”  Still, there’s more involved than simply having a mental recollection of Jesus—but I’ll mention more about that later.  (If I don’t forget!)

In the epistle reading, the author of Hebrews is insistent on having the people remember certain things.  Chapter 13 begins with a stress on the importance of continuing to love one another and showing hospitality to strangers.  As a matter of fact, our writer indicates by receiving outsiders in a Christlike way, you may even be entertaining angels in human form.  (That’s something for all of us to consider the next time we get an unwanted knock at the door!)

Having established that love should guide our relationships, our author starts giving examples—examples that portray a love which you probably won’t find on a greeting card!

Verse 3 contains the first of two commands to “remember.”  “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”  It literally says, “as though you were in the body” or “as though you were in their body.”  Love can make some pretty serious demands!

We’re not sure who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, but there is one thing it seems safe to say: the letter is addressed to a church that has undergone persecution.  That makes it all the more important that they love one another, that they really care about what happens to each other.

In recent years, our own relationship with torture, both as Americans and as Christians, has been what we might call “conflicted.”  Of course, that’s something plenty of us would rather not remember!

The next three verses give more examples of what love looks like.  Marriage is to be “held in honor by all,” and “the love of money” is to be avoided (vv. 4-5).  The phrase “the love of money” is a single Greek word (αφιλαργρος, aphilarguros) which literally means “not a lover of silver,” or “not mercenary.”

2 He 13

It’s the word used in that famous verse in 1 Timothy, reminding us, in King James language, “For the love of money is the root of all evil” (6:10).[1]  So the moral of the story is: don’t be a heartless mercenary!  Don’t focus on wealth while your brothers and sisters are in danger.

Verse 7 contains the second of the two commands to “remember.”  “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”  If this is indeed a persecuted church, then their leaders paid a high price for their faith.  It seems that to “consider the outcome of their way of life” means to remember at least some of them were martyrs.

Earlier I promised to say more about the role of memory in celebrating the Lord’s Supper.  I’ll do that by mentioning one of the twentieth century’s most famous leaders of the persecuted church, the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero.  (By the way, the movie Romero, starring Raul Julia, is well worth watching.)  The remembrance of Romero is especially appropriate for today, the fifth Sunday in Lent; this was when he preached his final sermon.

In that sermon, which was broadcast on radio nationwide, he made a direct appeal to the military.  “In the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!”[2]

He got his response the very next day.  Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980, in the very act of celebrating the Eucharist.  While calling the people to remember the body and blood of Christ given for them, Romero himself became a martyr.

Jesus instructs his disciples to observe holy communion “in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19).  The word for “remembrance” is αναμνησις (anamnēsis).  As I’ve already indicated, this is more than what we today usually mean by remembering.  It’s “not a mental exercise but the making present of a past event.”  Maybe the idea of memory as re-creating or reliving the experience has something to say here.

“In the ancient church, the word anamnesis had the effect not so much of a memorial, as one would call to mind the dead, but rather of a performance,” of something happening right then and there.[3]

Jesus invites us to the table, not to reminisce about some long-ago event, but to quite literally “re-member” him.  We’re invited, and challenged, to be members of the body of Christ here and now.  And because, as verse 8 puts it, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” our invitation to the table involves us not only in the past and present, but points us to the future, to the full coming of the kingdom of God.

3 He 13
Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980)

In the collection of his writings entitled The Violence of Love, we hear these words of Oscar Romero: “The eucharist makes us look back to Calvary twenty centuries ago…

“But it also looks ahead to the future, to the…horizon that presents itself as a demanding ideal to all political systems, to all social struggles, to all those concerned for the earth.

“The church does not ignore the earth, but in the eucharist it says to all who work on earth: look beyond…

“That is why I say: all the blood, all the dead, all the mysteries of iniquity and sin, all the tortures, all those dungeons of our security forces, where unfortunately many persons slowly die, do not mean they are lost forever.”[4]

All this talk of torture and dungeons might have you wondering how we fit into the picture.  We don’t exactly fit the profile of a persecuted church.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t suffering among us.  Sometimes suffering is self-imposed, by the bad choices we make.  But at the end of the day, suffering is a part of life.

As we accept the invitation of Jesus, we have the honor of bringing that remembrance, that anamnesis, into every shadow, every hidden place in our world: as the scripture says, to love one another, to show hospitality to the stranger, to honor marriage, to not be mercenary in our dealings with money.

I want to conclude with a reflection by a man who was a prime example of what it means to remember Jesus.  He was abducted in May 1984 by terrorists in Lebanon and held for sixteen months, twelve of them in solitary confinement.  His name was Benjamin Weir; he died in 2016.  Weir and his wife Carol were serving as Presbyterian missionaries at the time.  Here is a meditation he wrote while in custody:[5]

“Sunday morning in captivity I awoke.
In my mind’s eye I could see Christians all waking and proceeding to places of worship.
There they gathered at the Lord’s Table.
My mind moved westward with the sun.
I envisioned people of various cultural backgrounds gathering.
I was part of this far-flung family, the very body of Christ.
I unwrapped my piece of bread held back from my previous meager meal
and began the Presbyterian order of worship.
When it came to sharing the cup I had no visible wine,
but this didn’t seem to matter.
I knew that others were taking the cup for me elsewhere at this universal table.
As others prayed for me, so I prayed for them.”

4 He 13
Rev. Benjamin Weir (1923-2016)

 

[1] Harold Attridge, Hebrews (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1989), 388.

[2] www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/francis-clears-way-romero-be-canonized-later-year-or-early-next

[3] William T. Cavanaugh, “Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed by It?” Theology Today 58:2 (July 2001):  182.

[4] Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Farmington, PA: Bruderhof Foundation, 2003), 153.

[5] covepcusa.blogspot.com/2017/01/


gospel in the dark

How about Psalm 88 as a way to lift your spirits?  And then there’s John 11:35, “Jesus began to weep.”  Or as it’s more commonly rendered in the King James and other versions: “Jesus wept.”  After the scripture readings, saying, “This is the word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God,” might feel pretty strange!

There’s a song that is not in the blue hymnal which we use (The Presbyterian Hymnal), but it is in the older red hymnal (The Hymnbook).  It’s “Be Still, My Soul.”  It’s set to the wonderful tune, “Finlandia.”  The hymnal includes three verses, but it doesn’t have this one:

“Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart, / And all is darkened in the vale of tears, / Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart, / Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears. / Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay / From His own fullness all He takes away.”[1]

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart, and all is darkened in the vale of tears.  What a beautiful and haunting image: “the vale of tears,” the valley of tears.  It’s a somber description of our life in this mortal coil.  It’s omission from the hymnbook is a commentary on how we often reshape our singing and liturgy to avoid awkwardly acknowledging certain topics.

1 lamentStill, I think that song would be loved by those who are into Goth music!

There’s a prayer website called Sacred Space.  Among the things they post are thoughts for the week, things to help guide prayer.  I made a note of something that appeared some time ago.  It dealt with a topic that is one of those uncomfortable subjects: death.  (At least, in my experience, when I’ve gone to parties, it’s not often a topic of conversation!)

According to the prayer guide, “Of the many ways to die alone, the most comfortless and solitary is when family and friends conspire to deny the approach of death.  They may feel, ‘I couldn’t take away her hope.’  But without acceptance of the truth, they remove the possibility of spiritual companionship at the end.”[2]

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

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

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[The above image is from diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54142, “Angel of Grief.”]

That’s also seen in the worship of the church.  I just mentioned how we try to avoid those unpleasant realities in our hymns and liturgies.  The folks who put the lectionary together tended to leave out the problematic, uncomfortable verses.  Maybe you know what I’m talking about.  Stuff like, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” and “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (Ep 6:5, 1 Tm 2:12).  Admittedly, those need some big time work done to them!

Another good case is the story in 1 Kings 3, where it talks about Solomon’s dream, in which he asks God for wisdom (vv. 3-14).  God congratulates him for not asking that his enemies be killed or that he be made a wealthy man.

What conveniently gets skipped over is Solomon’s marriage to the Pharaoh’s daughter to form an alliance with Egypt.  My guess is that’s one of those awkward subjects!

In the same way, there are certain psalms that appear nowhere in our lectionary.  Hint: Psalm 88 is one of them.  After listening to that litany of doom and gloom, maybe we can see why it got left out.

Still, one of the most treasured psalms, Psalm 22, is filled with anguish.  Jesus on the cross screams out its beginning: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  But it does have notes of hope, and by the time we get to the end, the psalmist announces, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (vv. 30-31).

3 lamentSurely Psalm 88 follows the same path.  It’s in the Bible; shouldn’t it also wind up as praise?  Verse 1 says, “Lord God, my savior, I cry out all day, and at night I come before you” (GNB).  Surely by the time we’re finished, we’ve worked out some kind of resolution.

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

I think some of the other translations sound even less like praise.  Here’s the NIV: “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.”  I think the New Jerusalem Bible is even gloomier: “You have deprived me of friends and companions, and all that I know is the dark.”

“All that I know is the dark.”  Friends, this is some serious lamentation!  We are looking at the only psalm without a single note of blessing.  It’s the only psalm in the Bible without one word of hope.

There’s something we need to realize about this ancient poet.  When we read these words from so long ago, we have to keep something in mind.  This is a person of faith.  This is not the work of someone engaged in ridiculing or mocking.  Psalm 88’s first three words in Hebrew are translated into English as “Yahweh [Lord], God of my salvation.”[3]

Even though our psalm has no breath of blessing, it is still praise.  It is dark praise, and that makes us uncomfortable.

4 lamentDominique Gilliard is a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church; he’s the executive pastor of New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland.  He wrote an article called “Reclaiming the Power of Lament.”[4]  It is a revelation.  It is a challenge.  And I think it’s a perfect meditation for the Lenten season.

“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.”  That goes along with our reluctance to even mention it.  Still, scripture is filled to the brim with lamentation.  Here’s just a taste: the book of Lamentations (of course), the book of Job, a huge number of the Psalms, Paul’s grief about his thorn in the flesh, and again, Jesus’ weeping.

Gilliard speaks about tragedies in our nation.  Among others, he mentions Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston.  The hits just keep on coming—and that’s not counting disasters all over the world.  They just wash over us until we can’t keep track.  In response to that, he says, “Lamentation, however, forces us to slow down…  Lamentation prevents us from becoming numb and apathetic to the pain of our world…  Lamentation begets revelation…  It opens our ears to the sounds of torture, anguish and weeping that are the white noise of our world.”

Here’s something I find fascinating and challenging.  “To live without lament is to live an unexamined life.”  We lose touch with what makes us human.

5 lament

[A man in Ferguson, Missouri, holds on to a fence on August 15, 2014, at the site of a convenience store destroyed during rioting after the shooting death of Michael Brown by police.  Bigstock/Gino Santa Maria]

We don’t have to look very far for something to lament.  There is much in our lives to provide reason for mourning.  But we need not yield to despair.

Our friend Dominique hits on something.  “When faithfully engaged and authentically enacted, lamentation keeps us accountable to our baptismal vows.  It reminds us of our need for God, one another, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.”

Our baptismal vows!  When the sacrament is celebrated, we “as members of the church of Jesus Christ,” are asked to “promise to guide and nurture…by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging [those being baptized] to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church.”  We vow to be accountable to each other, to watch out for each other, as we walk the journey of faith.

Blest be the tie that binds.  “We share our mutual woes, / Our mutual burdens bear, / And often for each other flows / The sympathizing tear.”

And what about Jesus when he weeps?  Is he putting on a show?  Surely his understanding that he can raise Lazarus from the dead would prevent the need for tears.  Does he weep with empathy for Mary and Martha, because they are weeping?  Here’s my guess.  Even though he knows he will raise Lazarus, he still feels the pain himself.  After all, he is human!

If we also acknowledge that Jesus is the image, the icon, of God, that also says something.  Do we think of lamenting, of grieving, as weakness?  If so, so be it.  God laments.  At the end of the day, maybe that’s enough.  God’s weakness is greater than all the strength we can muster.  The weakness of God serves as a model for us.

Lent reminds us that we must pass through the valley of tears before we arrive at the resurrection.  We do not honor each other by ignoring the reality of lament.

In the book, Uncommon Gratitude, Joan Chittister says, “Darkness deserves gratitude.  It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight.”[5]

Think of the hymn, “Abide with Me.”  It’s listed in the section of our [Presbyterian] hymnal called “Evening Hymns.”  I imagine that’s due to the first lines.  “Abide with me: fast falls the eventide.  The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide!”  The hymn speaks of things in our lives which pass away.  But unlike our psalm, it ends on a strong note of praise and affirmation.

“Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; / Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies: / Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; / In life, in death, O Lord, / abide with me.”

As incredible as it is, deep in the depths of that darkness, there is gospel.  At the bottom of the bottomless pit, there is good news.  Even there (perhaps especially there), Christ reigns in victory.  There is gospel in the dark.

 

[1] library.timelesstruths.org/music/Be_Still_My_Soul

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

[3] יהוה אלהי ישועתי (salvation-of-me, God-of, Yahweh)

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

[5] www.friendsofsilence.net/quote/2012/10/darkness-deserves-gratitude


tortured truth

Five years ago, the journal Biblical Interpretation published an essay by Jennifer A. Glancy [pictured left] with the eye-catching title, “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel.” I came across it while researching the gospel of John. In the article, she wonders, echoing Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” Continuing, she asks, “Does truth dwell in flesh?” (107)

The introduction to John’s gospel is filled with compelling ideas. Verse 14 of that first chapter serves as a bit of a summary: “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.” It is that combination of “flesh” and “truth,” as well as the passion overseen by Pilate, that prompts Glancy’s question, “Is it possible to embrace flesh as a locus of truth and still to condemn the practice of torture? Through my carnal reading of the Johannine passion narrative, I attempt to do so. I do not know if I succeed.” (109) I can’t help but appreciate her play on words—the Word becoming flesh, the incarnation, carnal.

I also appreciate Glancy’s stated humility, understanding the difficulty of her project. As to that project, she includes as a footnote to her title the statement, “July 10, 2004. I date this manuscript to situate it in a particular moment in the history of torture.” That phrase, “in the history of torture,” is especially appropriate, considering that tomorrow is Human Rights Day. Sadly, we have mirrored the imperial values of Roman law about torture, which meant “the infliction of anguish and agony on the body to elicit the truth.” (108)

We have our own law, or at least legal opinion, that guides our own attempts to wrench truth from flesh. For example, there’s the notorious August 2002 Justice Department memorandum arguing that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, has the authority to authorize torture (though in legalese, it’s not called that) in interrogations of suspected terrorists. Glancy remarks, “An Empire of torture recognizes no limits in its campaign to force truth from flesh.” (118) I wonder, is that us? Are we “an empire of torture”?

She speaks of three intentions of torture, which sometimes may overlap. There is “judicial” torture, in which the intent is to discover the truth. Secondly, there is “penal” torture, which is meant as punishment. Finally, there is “terroristic” torture, which “is part of an attempt to control the larger population to which the individual belongs.” (115) When we include the element of sexual humiliation (those crucified were naked), there are uncomfortable parallels with our own behavior in Iraq.

Does it matter that our torture is directed at the (suspected) terrorists? At the enemy? Aside from the stench of its blatant illegality and bankrupt political philosophy (despite whatever fig leaf of legality we devise), Christians should be the first to speak against torture. We worship the tortured one, one who identifies with the tortured.

Commenting on the strangeness of a resurrected body that retains wounds, Glancy uses almost mystical language. “Wounds tell the truth of flesh given for the life of the world, the indelible truth of flesh tortured, perhaps, simply, the truth of flesh…Skin demarcates the boundary of each self from the world, distinguishing what is me from what is not-me, what is you from what is not-you. Jesus’ open wounds blur what is Jesus and what is not-Jesus. Splinters stripe bloody flesh. Slivers of skin are pounded into a wooden beam. The ground is stained a ferrous red with fluid that hemorrhages from Jesus’ side. Jesus’ ‘spaces of absence’ gape open to expose his truth to the world.” (133-4, emphasis added)

Is it too much to hope that, in this new moment in the history of torture—Human Rights Day of 2010—we can repent of and investigate our own torturous practices and allow for some measure of justice?

[originally posted on 9 Dec 2010]


out of the shadows

 image from www.irct.orgOn this Sunday, the 26th, the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture will be observed.  (Or for short, the International Day against Torture.)

For the past decade, starting with 9-11, our country has had a relationship with torture that we can safely call “conflicted.”  It’s probably true that most countries have engaged in torture at some level.  But rarely are the practices that constitute torture stated as public policy.  And very rarely are they stated as public policy in a country that prides itself on being a beacon of human rights.

In his book, On the Threshold of Transformation, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr speaks of Jung’s concept of “shadow” as “where we put our qualities and traits that we deem unacceptable.” (194)  It’s our blind spot; it’s where we put stuff that we don’t want to deal with.

Cultures also have shadows.  Cultures of all kinds have them:  businesses, churches, even nations.  “Everything that seems unsuitable goes underground…Soon we forget the shadow’s existence, and we believe our public image.  When that happens, a group or nation is capable of doing great evil without recognizing it as evil.” (210)

Sometimes feelings of guilt hinder us from resolution.  We try to deny or redefine our actions.  However it happens, we can find ourselves acting with impunity.  We act as though we are a special case; we should be exempted from the penalty that, in any otherwise objective sense of the law, might justly be imposed.

In the particular case of our country, for two presidents in a row, it has been stated public policy to keep torture in the dark.  None of the architects of torture has been legally charged, and Obama’s refusal to even call for an investigation puts us in the category of being a nation of men, not laws.

Jesus has interesting words on the shadow, words that apply to all of us.  “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” (Luke 12:2-3) 

On the matter of cultural shadow, Rohr notes that “God sends prophets to make nations aware of their shadow side, which usually results in the prophets getting persecuted or killed.” (210)

[originally posted on 24 Jun 2011]


remembering to be aware

“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” (Hebrews 13:3)

The PC(USA) Office of Public Witness has teamed up with the National Religious Campaign against Torture (NRCAT) to encourage us to remember that June is Torture Awareness Month.  The annual focus in that regard is on the 26th, which is the International Day Against Torture.

One of the themes this year is on the terrible impact that prolonged solitary confinement has on prisoners in the US.  The NRCAT website reports that those in solitary “typically spend 23 hours per day in their cells and exercise alone for the remaining hour.  As a result, many experience paranoia, delusions, and other long-term mental harm.  Prolonged solitary confinement destroys prisoners’ minds, denies the opportunity for community, and violates the inherent, God-given dignity and worth of every person.”

In “confronting the culture of torture,” as the image taken from the Office of Public Witness’ blog says, we address a number of mentalities.  Among them would be one that responds to prisoners damaged by extended time in “the hole,” with the comment, “Too bad, that’s what you get!  You give up your rights when you go to prison.”

But that’s looking at it backwards.  No one deserves to be tortured.  When people are tortured, so is the God in whose image they are made.

[originally posted on 14 Jun 2012]