wisdom

time

Sometimes there’s a thought that comes to me.  I wonder about the particular piece of space I’m occupying—that my body itself is taking up—and I wonder who and what else has been there.  For example, in the space where I am standing, who or what was here at this time yesterday?  Last year?  A century ago?  A millennium ago?  A million years ago?  A billion years ago?

If we go back in time for almost any spot of land in this area, we might find that prior to the arrival of the Europeans, there was a member of the Cayuga Nation.  (And that might still be the case!)  Further back in time, we might encounter a woolly mammoth.  Keep going back, and we’ll find ourselves under a thick layer of ice.  Go even further back in time, and we might be face to face with a dinosaur.

Then I think of the opposite.  I think of the future, after I’m dead and gone.  Who will occupy my spot on the earth?  Maybe you can see where I’m going with this.  Trapped in time as we are, we only have freedom to move around in space.  To my knowledge, no one has been able to travel through time!

In his classic work, The Sabbath, Abraham Heschel reflects on my opening thought.  He sees it as speaking to the very heart of Jewish spirituality.  And I would say it applies to Christian spirituality, as well.  “Every one of us occupies a portion of space,” Heschel observes.  “The portion of space which my body occupies is taken up by myself in exclusion of anyone else.  Yet, no one possesses time...  This very moment belongs to all [the living] as it belongs to me.  We share time, we own space.  Through my ownership of space, I am a rival of all other beings; through my living in time, I am a contemporary of all other beings.”[1]

Among other matters, this has to do with our stewardship of creation.  That

includes our stewardship—our care for—the things of space (materials, objects, money).  It also includes our stewardship of time, our care for it.  Creation includes both space and time.

There are scriptures on the Sabbath which bear witness to this two-sided approach.  The Genesis story has God finishing the work of creation on the seventh day.  After making the birds and the bees and the fishies in the deep blue sea, how does God finish creation?  By bringing something else into existence: rest.  It is on the seventh day that God creates the Sabbath; God creates peace.  The other days of creation are pronounced “good.”  Only the seventh day is pronounced hallowed; only the Sabbath is declared to be holy.

That’s important because, to the best of our knowledge, prior to the Jewish emphasis on Sabbath, holiness had always been associated with certain places: such as a sacred mountain or forest.  Even within Judaism, there was the temple.  The Hebrew prophets would often rail against a narrow focus on the temple.

But with the Sabbath, we have holiness located in time itself.  Heschel speaks of building a “palace in time.”[2]  So, when we speak of “wasting time,” we speak of wasting something precious.  When we speak of “killing time,” we speak of killing something sacred.

This focus on holy space, as opposed to holy time, can take a serious toll.  Space has limits on accessibility; time is something everyone shares.  A perfect example of this is the Arab-Israeli struggle.  There’s only so much room in the country, and certainly in Jerusalem.  This has happened, and continues to happen, all over the world.  There’s no shortage of disputes about finite pieces of land.  We need only consider the expansion across the continent of our own country.

But when the Sabbath arrives, it’s the Sabbath everywhere.

Still, regarding the Sabbath, even if it is a foretaste of the world to come, as Rabbi Heschel believes, the seventh day “needs the companionship of all other days.”[3]  It isn’t treated as holy if the other six days are spent in activities that contradict it.  The same could be said in a Christian sense, about the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day.

In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he encourages them to remember that though “once you were darkness, now in the Lord you are light” (v. 8).  If we behave no differently than people who are clueless as to what it means to be a Christian, we are indeed hiding our light!

The apostle wants his hearers to live wisely, “making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (v. 16).  Because the days are evil.  The New Jerusalem Bible reads, “for it is a wicked age.”

It would make sense to understand that verse as referring to a certain time, to particular days, as being evil.  It seems that Paul is warning the church about the times in which it lives.  But it seems it’s also possible to take that line, “because the days are evil,” in a more general sense.  Could it also be a comment about time itself?

Heschel says, “Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space.  As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face.  Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.”[4]

Unfortunately, we flee to the realm of space—to the realm of possessions.  We sense time slipping away, like sand through the hourglass, and by getting…stuff, we try to fill the hole that our apprehension, our anxiety. has dug.  Americans are great at this!  We work to get more and more money so that we can buy more and more things—and the more things we have, the more we have to take care of.  Which means there’s more to fix, or simply replace, and that means more to go into the trash.  Really, it’s not a wise use of space or time!

When Paul advises his audience to make the most of the time, he literally says “redeem the time.”[5]  While we lack the power to redeem ourselves or anyone else, we do have the power to redeem the time that’s been given to us.  Time need not be the slick treacherous monster.  It can be appreciated for what it is: a gift from God.  Instead of wasting or killing it, we can treat it as part of God’s good (even holy) creation.

I realize that it’s one thing to say all that; it’s another to live it.  Kristen Johnson Ingram, a preacher in the Episcopal Church, asks the question, “How do I treat the gift of sacramental time?  Is my desk an altar, is our dinner table a Eucharist, is this house a temple?” she wonders.[6]

“Not always.  This morning my husband and I argued about the trash.  We were not wide awake while we juggled wastebaskets and sacks and tried to organize the recycling boxes, and he swore at me.  In fact, he used a short, unpleasant obscenity that made my cheeks get hot and my already irregular heartbeat go into a second of frenzy.”

She continues, “I wanted to have back the moment before he cursed; I wanted the earlier time returned to me.  Instead of waiting to see if the sands would run backward, I made a fuss, saying loudly that I did not deserve that language and he had no right to use it.  We quarreled for a moment, and then it was too late to snatch back the time.  I microwaved a bowl of oatmeal and ate it with no pleasure, gulped a cup of coffee seasoned with rancor.  I smacked time and sent it yipping away.”

Does this sound familiar?  I know I’m not the only one here to wish I could have the moment back—or even to relive the entire day.  I think of times when I’ve been guided by folly and not wisdom, and I cringe.  And then there are the times when placed at a crossroads, and I refused to choose.  I refused to redeem the gift of time given to me by God.  So what conclusion does Ingram reach?

“We did not stay mad,” she says. “I came into my office and started writing and I could hear the news from his radio in the next room.  We called out our opinions about the freak storm and the situation in the Middle East.  I remembered to dash into the utility room to take meat from the freezer so I could make my famous pot roast of pork with cilantro and orange for dinner.  He did some laundry.  There was no permanent damage.

“Or was there?  We can never have the time back…  God holds out the sacrament of time and sometimes I turn away to partake of something else.  Today my husband and I committed an egregious sin—and this was only an eighteen-second skirmish.”[7]

Too often, our time together results less in holiness and more in strife.

I began by mentioning all that has come before in the place I occupy on the earth, as well as all that will follow.  We are set within the stream of time and are therefore in relationship with the past and the future.

We are told to redeem time.  Our power for such is a pale shadow of the one who redeems it all.  The Lord Jesus Christ redeems all of time, not simply the sliver we call the present.  Jesus is Lord over all—all of creation, all of time.  Nothing can separate us from his all-embracing love: “nor things present, nor things to come…” (Ro 8:38).

Let’s hear again Abraham Heschel as he expresses the glorious truth, “One must be overawed by the marvel of time to be ready to perceive the presence of eternity in a single moment.  One must live and act as if the fate of all of time would depend on a single moment.”[8]

God creates the Sabbath; God pronounces rest.  Jesus is our Sabbath rest.  Jesus as the Christ encapsulates all of eternity in a single moment, in the wink of an eye.

We cease our struggling.  We cease our running.  We cease our pointless bearing of burdens.  We cease imposing them on others, and we cease accepting them from others.  We cease shaming others and trying to bend themselves to our will.  We cease our foolish resistance.

How will you honor and enjoy Sabbath?  How will you redeem time?

 

[1] Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 99.

[2] Heschel, 15.

[3] Heschel, 89.

[4] Heschel, 5.

[5] “redeem” is εξαγοράζω (exagorazō)

[6] Kristen Johnson Ingram, “The Sacrament of Time,” Weavings 14:1 (Jan-Feb 1999): 29.

[7] Ingram, 30.

[8] Heschel, 76.


versions of reality

Cosmology.  Cosmology is the study of the origin, evolution, and future of the cosmos.  Cosmologists are the ones involved in doing that studying.  And surprise!  They don’t all agree with each other.  Just like humans in any other field, they have their own starting points and their own approaches.

Some cosmologists speculate about multiple universes—a multiverse.  The idea about multiple universes, parallel universes, might still feel more like science fiction.  That’s no doubt due to the fact that it’s pretty hard to test it scientifically, at least, given our current level of understanding!

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There might be many multiverses, maybe an infinite number of them.  There might be versions of us in other universes.  Our universe could be the size of an atom in a much larger universe.  And on the flip side, there could universes floating all around us at the subatomic level.  Some cosmologists suggest our universe could be a program in a computer—or a dream some being too vast for us to imagine is having right now!

What made me think about this business of multiple universes was something I read by Walter Brueggemann about our Old Testament reading in Jeremiah.  (I’ll be honest: I never thought that I would link the prophet Jeremiah with theories about a multiverse!)

Our scripture text is part of a longer passage that runs from verses 9 to 40.  Jeremiah is criticizing the false prophets who are leading the people astray.  According to Brueggemann, “Jeremiah lived [among] a variety of competing ‘truth claims,’ each of which purported to be a disclosure of Yahweh’s will.”[1]  They all have their ideas about what God wants and how the world works.

He continues, “In these verses [against the other prophets] he makes his clearest argument for his version of reality, and makes it against the ‘truth versions’ of others whom he dismisses as false.”[2]  Jeremiah makes his clearest argument for his version of reality, thus my sermon title.

In studying the universe, cosmologists must continually examine and refine their versions of reality—some of which prove to be more real than others.  Jeremiah and the prophets who oppose him also present their versions of reality.  The question is, “Which better reflects the word of the Lord?  Who actually has heard from God?  Who has paid attention to God?”

And to bring this to us, we also have our own versions of reality.  We need to constantly examine and refine our versions.

So let’s see what Jeremiah is up against.

Jeremiah is living at a time in which his country, Judah, is gradually feeling the fingers of Babylon get tighter and tighter around their throat.

Ever since he was called by God to be a prophet, Jeremiah has had an unpopular message.  It’s not one that he’s been eager to give.  Basically, this is his message: don’t think that you’ll escape the Babylonians.  You might tell each other that we’ll get out of this smelling like a rose, but your actions have you stinking to high heaven!

We could look at the political and military aspects of this, how tiny Judah is on the highway between Babylon and the juicy prize of Egypt, like roadkill, but that’s not Jeremiah’s concern.  He’s concerned about the idolatry, the injustice, the wickedness he sees all around.  He’s concerned about the arrogance of his people, the arrogance of the leadership.

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That arrogance is based in a version of reality saying it is impossible for Judah to be conquered.  It’s especially impossible for Jerusalem, the capital, to be conquered.  It’s impossible because that is where the temple is located.  Forget about it.  The temple simply cannot be destroyed, because God won’t allow it.

In chapter 7, Jeremiah goes to the gate of the temple and preaches what’s known as the “temple sermon,” one of his most shocking and outrageous acts.  He boldly proclaims, “Do not trust in these deceptive words.”  What is it he calls “deceptive”?  It’s something that seemingly every faithful, loyal person would agree with: “This is the temple of the Lord” (v. 4).  That’s what he says is deceptive.

The Revised English Bible has even stronger language.  “This slogan of yours is a lie; put no trust in it.”

It’s not that Jeremiah disrespects the temple or doubts it is the house of the Lord.  What upsets him is the way people superstitiously believe no harm can come to them.  They do this while ignoring the wishes of the one they supposedly worship in the temple.

Brueggemann says, “Jeremiah, against the other prophets, announced the end of Judah’s ‘known world.’  The prophets who opposed him tried in various ways to soften the massive judgment he anticipated.  Despite their protestations, that world did end as Jeremiah had announced.”[3]

[And unlike R.E.M. in their song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”[4] those prophets did not feel fine.]

A week ago at the University of Michigan Medical School, as part of the graduation festivities, they held what’s known as the White Coat Ceremony.  [sorry, my mistake, it is not part of graduation!]  The highlight is a speech given by a faculty member selected by students and peers.  This year it was Dr. Kristin Collier.[5]  Several students walked out due to her pro-life views.  The reporting in the news of the event mainly focused on the controversy but ignored her eloquent words of wit and wisdom.

She didn’t use the term, but Dr. Collier spoke of versions of reality.  A couple of times, she jokingly said maybe she should have gone to business school!  She celebrated the humanities—anthropology, sociology, philosophy, theology, and others—as helping us ask “the big questions,” as she put it, about life itself, with all the gratitude and grief it carries.

She emphasized the danger of treating ourselves and patients like machines.  Beware of “seeing your patients as just a bag of blood and bones or human life as just molecules in motion.”  Dr. Collier said, “You are not technicians taking care of complex machines, but human beings taking care of other human beings.”[6]

She referred to Aristotle’s vision of types of knowledge, one of which is techne.  We get our words “technical” and “technician” from it.  She noted, “Traditional medical education often doesn’t teach health as shalom but health as techne.”  I will admit, her using the word shalom took me by surprise.

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(On a side note, I afterwards discovered she had become a Christian, baptized many years after her husband.)

Collier said medical education too often emphasizes the technical aspects, rather than recognizing the patient as a human being, with all that includes.

Technology is well and good and vitally important, but shalom is the all-expansive blessing of peace and well-being pervading creation.  To recognize and to treat each other with holiness—that’s quite a version of reality!

Today’s scripture is less about Jeremiah’s woes than it is about the way the prophets bless what God does not bless.  Think about it: these are people who represent God.  That’s a lot of authority that can be used in either a good way or a bad way.  In their own way, they emphasize the technology of prophecy severed from the shalom which is its heart.

Verse 30 shows us just one way in which they’re being dishonest.  “See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who steal my words from one another.”  They’re engaging in a sort of divine plagiarism.  They’re using their computers to copy and paste—and pretend they heard it straight from God!  (By the way, I will let you know if I’m quoting somebody, as I did with Kristin Collier!)

But this is about more than a violation of copyright.  More is going on here.  And it goes to the heart of what it means to hear from God—and to pay attention to God.  It deals with our version of reality, as well as our willingness to let it be scrutinized by others.

In saying the prophets steal words from each other, we might suspect they’re locked into one way of thinking.  The true word of the Lord is too challenging for them.  It takes their version of reality and just blows it wide open.  But that’s a good and wonderful thing.  We need our versions of reality to be blown wide open!

Do you know why?  I like my version of reality.  I’m comfortable with my version of reality; I don’t want anyone messing with it!  There is within me the temptation to go with inertia, to go with the flow.  It feels safe and easy.

At the same time, I know the Lord loves me too much—the Lord loves all of us too much—to leave us where we are.  The question is asked, “Is not my word like fire…and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (v. 29).  Let the fire burn away the impurities; let the hammer chisel away the rough edges.

How does the word blow our version of reality wide open?  It certainly helps when we allow the Spirit the freedom to use the word in our lives.  There’s no better way to break out of a narrow-minded, marching-in-lockstep approach.  We need the Spirit to empower the word to lead us from our comfort zone (being safe and certain) and lead us into a new version of reality (being courageous and questioning).

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In Luke 12 someone comes to Jesus, wanting to triangulate him into a family spat over inheritance.  Jesus presents a different version of reality.  Are we possessed by our possessions?  Do not lose yourself, do not lose your way, over something empty and useless.

Jesus pushes us to ask questions.  We can’t grow without them.  Be careful, there are forces that would constrain us, narrow our focus, tell us lies.  Some of them choose us, and there are others we choose.  Let’s keep our versions of reality open.

Is not my word like fire?  Is not my word like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1998), 208.

[2] Brueggemann, 208.

[3] Brueggemann, 209.

[4] www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0GFRcFm-aY

[5] www.youtube.com/watch?v=JE5wAvhr87w  (her speech begins at the 1:46 mark)

[6] www.commonsense.news/p/the-message-americas-future-doctors


the ravine of blackest shadow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Blumhardt, 25.


there are trees, and then there are trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] www.arborday.org

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

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

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

[5] New Jerusalem Bible, Jeremiah 17:6


wisdom be a lady tonight

I have a little story regarding my choice of scriptures.  On Christmas morning, I was about to read the Bible, and I had a thought about where to go.  Mind you, I don’t recommend this to anyone.  Still, I had the urge to just open the Bible and see what page presented itself.  Without paying any attention, I opened the book to a random spot and let my finger fall.

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Lo, and behold, it fell on Proverbs 7.  It’s the story of a woman sometimes called Dame Folly, or Madam Folly.  I reflected and thought, “This doesn’t seem very Christmassy.”  Immediately after that, in chapter 8, we have a portrait of Lady Wisdom, as she’s usually named.  Foolishness is followed by wisdom.  I read both chapters and concluded, “This might be something to follow up on.”

The opening chapters of the book of Proverbs present a father teaching his son about wisdom.  It’s the imparting of knowledge from parent to child.  (We could also see it, with some modifications, as involving mothers and daughters.)

A scenario is presented in which the father is looking out his window and watching the world go by.  He spots “a young man without sense” (v. 7).  He’s wandering through the streets, approaching a particular woman’s house.  I like the image used: “in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness” (v. 9).  Another version says, “at twilight, as the day faded, at dusk as the night grew dark” (Revised English Bible).  To borrow from Shakespeare, “something wicked this way comes.”

What was this young man without sense, this simple boy, doing hanging around in that neighborhood anyway?

When I was young, my mother often spoke pearls of wisdom to me.  One of them referred to doing something “accidentally on purpose.”  Accidentally on purpose.  That might apply to meeting a certain someone, maybe a potential boyfriend or girlfriend, “accidentally on purpose.”  Maybe someone could “accidentally on purpose” forget to attend a meeting they wanted to avoid.

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Could it be this young man “accidentally on purpose” wanted to encounter this enticing woman?  We hear the lines from the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, / Prone to leave the God I love.”  Well, if that was the young man’s wish, as the day faded, then his wish was granted.

Regarding Dame Folly herself, I won’t dwell too long on the less-than-delicate details.  Suffice it to say, she wears suggestive clothing and awaits her prey.  Upon spotting him, she “seizes him and kisses him” (v. 13).  She tells him she has just fulfilled her religious obligations, and she has everything prepared for him.  Best of all, she assures him, no one will catch them in the act.  Conveniently, her husband is away on a long trip.

Therefore, Dame Folly says, “Come, let us take our fill of love until morning; let us delight ourselves with love” (v. 18).  The other version I mentioned says, “Come!  Let us drown ourselves in pleasure, let us abandon ourselves to a night of love.”  “Abandon” is probably the right word.  The father instructs his son to not imitate him, because he “goes like an ox to the slaughter,” “like a bird rushing into a snare” (vv. 22-23).  He is a moth drawn to the flame.

The father concludes his story, “many are those she has laid low, and numerous are her victims.  Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death” (vv. 26-27).  Eugene Peterson put it in terms quite colorful in his paraphrase The Message: “She runs a halfway house to hell, fits you out with a shroud and a coffin.”

And that’s why it might be a good idea to bring your girlfriend home to meet mother and father!

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Now, let’s go from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Lady Wisdom is presented in ways almost parallel to Dame Folly.  They’re like twins whose paths in life have radically diverged.  They both make their appeals to all, especially to the simple.  The two sisters (if I may continue the metaphor), present what they have to offer.  Unlike her foolish counterpart, Lady Wisdom wishes not to entrap, but to enlighten.

She calls out, “O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it” (8:5).  The Hebrew word for “prudence” is עׇרְמׇה (`armah).  It has the connotations of “guile” or “craftiness.”  There’s a sense of “trickery”—but it’s a good trickery, one that doesn’t leave you…well, feeling foolish!

Lady Wisdom is able and willing to go where Dame Folly is unable and unwilling to go.  Folly—foolishness—can offer short-term excitement, a short-term sense of well-being.  Wisdom hangs in for the long haul.  Folly is a fair-weather friend.  Wisdom is there in both good times and bad.

“Wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her” (v. 11).  All that glitters is not gold.  (Thinking about my mom has me dispensing all sorts of sage knowledge.)  “I, wisdom, live with prudence” (v. 12).  There’s our Hebrew friend prudence again!  More than we might realize the Lord surprises us.  We think what we want turns out to be less than the best, even positively harmful, but the Lord tricks us (remember, tricks in a good way!)—the Lord amazes us and gives us something beyond belief.

So far, we’ve seen wisdom personified, as Lady Wisdom.  With verse 22, wisdom seems to almost leap off the page and be considered as a divine life form.  No longer personified, wisdom is something greater, though not necessarily female.

Here’s a quick word of explanation.  Hebrew, like Spanish for example, has masculine and feminine nouns.  The Hebrew word for “wisdom” (חׇכְמׇה, chakmah) is feminine.  That’s not the only consideration.  Some speak of the so-called masculine and feminine in God.  Some even imagine Lady Wisdom portrayed as a goddess.

She says of herself, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (vv. 22-23).  We get a story reminiscent of Genesis.  The word for “set up” (נׇסַךְ, nasak) literally means “poured out.”  That is, poured out, as in the pouring out of the Spirit.

She says she “was daily [the Lord’s] delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (vv. 30-31).  This is a picture of uninhibited, unrestrained joy.  It is the oblivious wonder of children, the abandonment to astonishment.

4 prDame Folly urges the young man to join her in drowning themselves in pleasure, in abandoning themselves to a night of love.  Of course, there’s no mention of consequences.  To modify the tourist slogan, “What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.”

At the end of the chapter, Lady Wisdom says, “Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.  For whoever finds me finds life.…  all who hate me love death” (vv. 34-36).  Whoever hangs around wisdom finds life.  How different are the ones who hang around Dame Folly.

Del Hungerford speaks quite literally of hanging around wisdom.  She says, “I’m standing in a clearing in a forest, looking up at the sky, watching clouds dance to the music in heaven.  Everything reacts to the worship, and I love to watch how it all responds.

“After a moment, I sense Wisdom next to me.  Together, we enjoy the activity in the atmosphere around us.  I think of teachings about getting to know Wisdom.”[1]

She really is listening to wisdom.  Earlier, I spoke of thinking about what we want.  Wisdom issues a warning.  “Remember, the motive is always known.  If the motive is incorrect and people are lazy or want it for selfish gain, it won’t do them any good.”[2]  Dame Folly whispers in our ears.  Something might be good, in and of itself, but it might not be good for us—at least, not at that time.

Wisdom continues, “Also, remember that for those constant requests ‘I must have…’  When they get what they ask for but their character doesn’t match, it will destroy them…  When people’s motives are not pure, too much of a good thing can have a very devastating effect…”

Ask yourself this question, ‘Do you want something because you’re trying to gain a position in the earthly realm, or are you trying to build relationship with YHVH [Yahweh] and then out of that relationship, you’re given responsibility?’”

She replied, “I think I’d rather have the second choice since relationship is most important.  When you understand true character, you know what to expect.”[3]

Along with Lady Wisdom, Jesus also speaks as the very voice of divine wisdom.  As wisdom incarnate, Jesus is humble, not “loud and wayward,” as is Dame Folly.  He presents a model of being teachable, heeding Lady Wisdom’s call to “take my instruction.”

The best teachers always practice the art of teachability.  Here’s one example among many that comes to mind: the professor of the one economics course I took in college did not seem to practice that art!  He would get visibly irritated if he had to answer more than one or two questions during a class period.  His philosophy was to just plow through the material, whether or not the students knew what in the world he was talking about.

It seems our culture increasingly is becoming one in which asking questions is discouraged.  A society like that is ruled by fear.  Honesty isn’t encouraged; compliance is.

The best teachers remain open to new ideas.  That’s especially evident in Jesus’ encounters with society’s outcasts.  I think Jesus not only gives benefit, but receives benefit, by his interaction with the poor and the unwanted.  He learns things that the high and mighty can never understand.

I asked, “What does wisdom look like?”  Consider this.  What positions have we rethought and changed our minds about in the last few years?  What does this say about us and our journey?  I can think of a couple of changes I made in the past year, although it wasn’t entirely of my own choosing.  At some level, the decision was made for me.  I think I just needed to say, “Yes.”

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Without going into all the details, I can say I’ve come to agree with those I once thought of as disagreeable and to disagree with those I once thought of as agreeable.  In a sense, I have repented—which doesn’t have to carry some dark, heavy weight of turning from evil to good.  It simply means “to turn” or to “change one’s mind.”[4]

Back to Hungerford’s encounter with Wisdom.  Wisdom wondered if she was concerned about gaining worldly position or developing a relationship with God.  As you recall, she preferred the relationship.

That is the call of wisdom; wisdom wants to know us.  “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me” (8:17).  Wisdom is calling for us.  Wisdom is calling our name.  We develop our relationship with wisdom.  We develop our relationship with the Lord.  It is a lifelong quest.  Out of that relationship, as noted, we are given responsibility.

We are responsible to each other.  We are to speak words that “are righteous,” with “nothing twisted or crooked in them” (v. 8).  Whether it’s accidentally on purpose or deliberately on purpose, we are called to lift each other up, to pray for each other and to be a help.

I will close with a prayer from the website, Missionaries of Prayer.  This is titled, “Ask for Wisdom.”[5]

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Holy Spirit, bring revelation to me on where I am stuck.  Show me the places where I need to leave.  Relationships that I need to leave.  Groups or movements that I need to leave.  Mindset that I need to leave behind.

I ask you now for a fresh start.  Give me wisdom to know the next step to take.  Where do I go from here?  How do I move forward?  Lord, I quiet my heart and listen for your still small voice as you guide me and lead me into a year of wholeness and peace, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

[1] Del Hungerford, Accessing the Kingdom Realms (CreateSpace Publishing, 2017), Kindle edition, Chapter 13, section 1, paragraphs 1-2.

[2] Hungerford, 13.1.9

[3] Hungerford, 13.1.10

[4] שׁוּב (shuv) Hebrew and μετανοια (metanoia) Greek, respectively

[5] www.missionariesofprayer.org/2022/01/prophetic-word-ask-for-wisdom/


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”


fear the poor

When I was a little kid, the epistle of James held a special attraction for me.  (Can you possibly guess why?)  Please understand, the fact that I found it interesting doesn’t mean that I really knew what it was about.  I didn’t understand it any more than I did the rest of the Bible.

If we have to think of a term that sums up James’ message—or a category that we might use—it would be “wisdom.”  Other books in that category are Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  James is a fount of wisdom.  In chapter 1 he counsels us, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (v. 5).

1 jaToo frequently, I find myself in that category: “lacking in wisdom.”  I need help in choosing wisely.  In Biblical thinking, wisdom is more than a measure of intelligence; it also involves character.  It’s a question of what someone values, where someone’s heart is leading them.  In that regard, it also involves courage.

I imagine we all can think of cases in which even a Ph.D. education fails to include some common sense, as well as a decent, compassionate spirit.  And on the flip side, there are those who cannot read or write, but who have an understanding and perception that just astonishes.  These are people who are truly centered.  They use the wisdom that comes from the God who created them.

James isn’t very impressed with those who believe something in theory, but never put it into practice.  I’ll confess that that’s one of my struggles.  Sometimes I have a great idea but translating that into meaningful action is a totally different thing!  (Banu often helps me in that regard!)

A good example can be seen in James 2.  I like the way the Revised English Bible puts it.  Here’s how it begins (vv. 1-4):

“My friends, you believe in our Lord Jesus Christ who reigns in glory and you must always be impartial.  For instance, two visitors may enter your meeting, one a well-dressed man with gold rings, and the other a poor man in grimy clothes.  Suppose you pay special attention to the well-dressed man and say to him, ‘Please take this seat,’ while to the poor man you say, ‘You stand over there, or sit here on the floor by my footstool,’ do you not see that you are discriminating among your members and judging by wrong standards?”

We’re presented with the age-old problem of favoritism of the rich over the poor, as well as judging the book by its cover.  We may say, “Of course, everyone should be treated equally.  Who would disagree with that?”  But when we’re put to the test, a whole other thing might be the result.

Other religious traditions have similar stories.  Here’s one from 15th century Japan:[1]

“Once upon a time, the Zen masters teach, wealthy donors invited Master Ikkyu to a banquet.  The Master arrived there dressed in beggar’s robes.  His host, not recognizing him in this garb, hustled him away: ‘We cannot have you here at the doorstep.  We are expecting the famous Master Ikkyu any moment.’  The Master went home, changed into his ceremonial robe of purple brocade, and again presented himself at his host’s doorstep where he was received with great respect and ushered into the banquet room.  There, he took off his stiff robe, sat it upright at the dinner table and said, ‘I presume that it is my robe you have invited since when I first arrived without it a little while ago, you showed me away.’”

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[Ikkyu, 1394-1481]

No one is eager to admit to being apprehensive when confronted by someone in shabby clothes.

Still, it’s a role we play all the time.  I know I have played it too often.  When we lived in Jamestown, there was a certain lady I noticed walking through our neighborhood.  Even in warm weather, even hot weather, she would be dressed in a winter coat—and it was a grungy winter coat.  She looked “different”; she was the kind of person we’re “supposed” to avoid.

One time, as I was walking our dog, he noticed her and went right up to her.  She was very kind to him (and to me), and I wondered why I hadn’t bothered to speak to her before.  To my great shame, I must say I had made some pre-judgments concerning her.  Maybe I thought she would respond in some crazy fashion, or that she would ask me for money.  What a horrible thing that would be!

No, what our society tells us to do is to avert our eyes, to turn away from the poorest of the poor.  (When I say “us,” I’m especially referring to us proper, middle-class types.)  But when we give in to that temptation, we behave like the people James addresses in his letter.  What’s going on with that?  What’s behind the reluctance to engage with the poor?

Why do we too often suffer from aporophobia, fear and loathing of the poor?  (The Greek words for “poor” and “fear.”)

I’m reminded of a story that’s been told about Mother Teresa.  I don’t know how accurate it is, but it does reflect the way she lived her life.  Apparently, one day she was washing the wounds of a leper.  Someone who was watching said to her, “‘I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.’  To which Mother Teresa replied, ‘Neither would I.’”[2]

3 jaSometimes I think that hesitation is similar to the reluctance we often feel in facing our own mortality.  (I don’t know about you, but in the dinner parties I’ve attended, death is rarely one of the topics for the evening’s conversation!)  Poverty reminds us of our limitations.  And we should be aware that poverty is about more than the lack of money, the lack of wealth.

The late Henri Nouwen did a good job of describing it:[3]

“When we are not afraid to confess our own poverty, we will be able to be with other people in theirs.  The Christ who lives in our own poverty recognizes the Christ who lives in other people’s.  Just as we are inclined to ignore our own poverty, we are inclined to ignore others’.  We prefer not to see people who are destitute, we do not like to look at people who are deformed or disabled, we avoid talking about people’s pains and sorrows, we stay away from brokenness, helplessness, and neediness.”

We all have a place of poverty.  We all are poor in some way.  To be honest, we are poor in many ways.  But it can be difficult to see it or to admit it.

Nouwen continues, “By this avoidance we might lose touch with the people through whom God is manifested to us.  But when we have discovered God in our own poverty, we will lose our fear of the poor and go to them to meet God.”

I find that last thought to be really compelling.  When we discover God in our own poverty, we lose our fear of the poor—and that is where we find God.  This seems to be so upside down, but God is rarely found in our successes.  There is too much of “us” in the way.

I’m talking about the God of Jesus Christ, whose life, by any reasonable accounting, wound up as a complete failure.  He was executed in a way reserved for the most despicable, most contemptible of criminals.  His disciples fled (that is, his male disciples fled.)  He was dead.

We fear the poor, because they represent all the stuff that we don’t want.  It sounds so backward, but that’s often the way that wisdom works.  The stuff that we try to deny and hide is where God longs to be found.  We’re asked in verse 5: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith,” and furthermore, “to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?”

James gives the scenario of finding out that someone is in need.  Speaking fine words like, “Go in peace!  Stay warm!  Make sure you get plenty to eat!”—but not taking steps to make that happen—is useless.  We can look at that from a different angle.  We can ask, “If our church were to disappear, would the community miss us?  Would our community be worse if we weren’t here?”

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Especially now, is the community missing us?  How are we reaching out to those who are alone, lonely, disabled, missing human touch?  How will we be “the community” in this new normal?  I shared last week that it’s said we cannot go home again.  How can we create a new home—new sanctuary, both physically and virtually?  How can we present our poverty to result in an abundance of riches?

Even the smallest of steps—the most bumbling and clumsiest of steps—if it is done with the blessing of God, accomplishes far more than we can ask or imagine.

 

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 163.

[2] www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=10216

[3] henrinouwen.org/meditation/meeting-god-poor


hit the reset button

We’ve noticed how this strange new world in which we find ourselves, courtesy of COVID-19, has brought us to a relative standstill, though some places are standing still more than others.  Each of us has taken notice of that reality, sometimes in quite trivial ways.  (I was alarmed when the NHL suspended its season!  But the alarm has turned to elation since they have decided to have the playoffs!)

Shut happens
[photo by Jason Mowry on Unsplash]

Banu and I were discussing certain realities in the church.  We are aware that we’re in an in-between time.  (Never has interim pastor training been more spot-on!)  What is happening now?  What will happen when “this” is all over?

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

Has a reset button has been given to us?  What would it mean to hit it?  One of the scripture texts for Trinity Sunday is the conclusion of 2 Corinthians.  In 13:11, the apostle Paul says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.  Put things in order…”  It’s probably best to read that as a passive instruction.  “Be restored to order.”  Be restored.  Permit yourselves to be set straight.

It appears to be increasingly certain that this coronavirus is here to stay.  We need to make long term plans, not simply knee-jerk reactions.  Unless we are prepared for chaos around the globe (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit!), our economic, political, and even spiritual mindsets need to change.

Is there any wisdom we can glean from Paul’s use of that single Greek word, καταρτιζω (katartizō)?  Surely “be restored to order” can be seen as applying, to not just our relationship with other humans (be they in the church or not), but to our relationship with the earth itself.  It better be—no, it must be—if we are to live within our calling to be stewards of God’s good creation.

Timeout popIt looks like global climate change has taken on a whole new dimension.  Planet earth is calling “timeout.”

[Gregg Popovich, awesome coach of the San Antonio Spurs, calls timeout]

Maybe hitting the reset button will become a daily exercise.  And to be honest, doesn’t that reflect teachings handed down through the centuries?  For example, the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon (who were facing their own strange new world), “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7).  Every morning, when they woke up, they had to hit the reset button.  They had no choice.  Still, the prophet of God encouraged them.  He assured them that was the way to life.

ResetIf human history—if church history—is any guide, the changes we need to make are usually the ones forced on us.  But so be it.  May the Spirit lead, by any means necessary, the restoration required to live and to prosper in this crazy new age unfolding before us.


a large spirit

“I hate it.”  That was what Banu said to me when I asked her, “What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when I say the word ‘patience’?”  She said that it’s usually thought of as being patient while suffering.  I can understand that.  I’m hardly a fan of suffering myself.

Richard Rohr defines suffering as “whenever you are not in control.”[1]  That casts a wide net, but it might actually get to the heart of it.  He adds, “All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain…  If we do not transform this pain, we will most assuredly transmit it to others, and it will slowly destroy us in one way or another.”

Over the past few years, even the past couple of decades, we can see this dynamic at work in our nation—and in the church.  We seem to be more divided than ever, and it is destroying us.

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Rohr continues,If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somewhere in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down…  The soul does not need answers, it just wants meaning, and then it can live.”

He’s on to something when he talks about the pain that we all experience.  Clearly, for some, pain is more intense than it is for others.  But if we do not transform our pain—or perhaps better, allow it to be transformed—we will definitely transmit it to others.  We will become agents of destruction.  We can quite literally become a pain in the rear end!

Some people transmit pain in a less obvious way.  Instead of primarily projecting it outwardly, they direct it inwardly.  They might want to bear their pain, their suffering, in silence.  They might feel like they have to.  This can lead to an inward spiral of self-pity, or maybe self-hatred, which inevitably leaks out.

Suffering doesn’t have to be so agonizing to do damage.  Our patience can be tested by something less than a life-threatening situation.

It has occurred to me that traffic makes time slow down.  It must be true!  While driving down the road, sometimes my car is the last in a line of cars.  There’s no one behind me.  On occasion, someone will pull onto the road right in front of me, forcing me to slow down—sometimes very quickly.  If the other driver had been willing to wait for ten more seconds, even five seconds, there would have been no drama, no temptation for road rage!  Apparently, five seconds feels like five minutes.

(You do understand of course, I have never pulled out right in front of someone!)

Waiting in line can also test one’s patience.  I especially enjoy being in line at a buffet restaurant, waiting for someone who is shoveling mountains on his or her plate.  Evidently, there’s a fear that the restaurant is about to run out of food.

In his letter, St. James does indeed link patience with suffering.  He doesn’t need to invent that connection; the community he’s writing to knows about suffering all too well.  This is real suffering.  It’s not the suffering that comes with slow internet service—or lamenting the terrible season that your team is having!

If we look at the beginning of chapter 5, we see him issuing a warning.  “Come now, you rich people,” he scolds, “weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.  Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten” (vv. 1-2).  It’s the old story of the wealthy beating down the poor, but as we see, their day in the sun will soon be over.

2 ja“Listen!” the scripture says, “The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.  You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (vv. 4-5).

Part of that in another version goes, “You have lived on the land in wanton luxury, gorging yourselves” (v. 5, Revised English Bible).  The unrighteous rich are fattening themselves up, like turkeys destined for Christmas dinner.

Still, with all of that in view, as we get to today’s reading, James says, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord” (v. 7).  (There’s a note for Advent.)  Even though being told to be patient might test our patience, it is the fruit, the evidence, of the Holy Spirit, as the apostle Paul says in Galatians 5.  It goes along with love, joy, peace, and several others (vv. 22-23).  The word in Greek for “to be patient” (μακροθυμεω, makrothumeō) literally means “to have a long, or a large, spirit.”

The letter of James has many nuggets of wisdom.  In chapter 4 he says, “What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (v. 14).  The secret of having a large spirit helps us to take a deep breath and to realize that maybe the sky isn’t falling!  (I freely admit, it’s easier to say that when you’re not in the midst of the storm, or if you’re not Chicken Little with the acorn falling on your head.)

Apparently agreeing with the idea that suffering means being not in control, William Loader says, “The alternative to patience is some kind of panic.  This usually assumes that everything is in my control or should be.  So I become anxious and I fear that not everything will get done.  I then push myself and others around me.”[2]

Drawing on James’ image of the farmer, the idea that “we can make the seed grow by worrying about it is an accurate enough parody of the way we sometimes behave.  Our anxieties will not add anything.  They will diminish us and those around us.”

Why is James so interested in seeing that his beloved audience gets the message to be patient?  Why insist on patience?  Why insist on having a large spirit?

James is deeply concerned about the community of believers; he’s concerned about the church.  Under the pressure of their suffering, he implores them, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.  See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” (v. 9).

Susan Eastman has a few thoughts about this.

She says, “James warns his hearers against turning their pain, their ‘groans,’ against each other.  It is easy, when we are experiencing hard times, to become bitter…or simply to stop going to church.  How many people quietly drop out of Sunday morning worship when they go through intense personal crises…?  How many people put on a pious public Sunday morning face because they fear the judgment of their Christian brothers and sisters?”[3]

The prayer attributed to St. Francis which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” can be very difficult to live.  The part I find especially difficult is the section which goes, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.”  That bit about seeking to understand, rather than being understood, I especially dislike!  I’m not terribly fond of being misunderstood, of being misrepresented.  I imagine I’m not the only one who feels that way.

That’s something to keep in mind the next time we think we know someone’s motives.

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Still, Eastman says that “patience is essential to the process of becoming a peacemaker.  The premature resolution of conflict usually inflicts some kind of violence on one of the parties involved, by silencing them.”  Silencing people is the method of a bully, which means we must resist the temptation to shut somebody up by smacking them upside the head—whether physically or emotionally!

If you look at the rest of the passage, James uses the prophets and Job as examples of patience.  Even though he finishes by saying “the Lord is compassionate and merciful,” Job doesn’t quietly suffer (v. 11).  He questions God.  He yells at God.  Job might even say that the Lord is guilty of bullying him.  In that respect, he really is the picture of patience.

Sometimes change is defined as what happens; transition, however, is how we react to change.  What do we do with change?  Transitional times, especially in congregations, can be quite restless.  One of the challenges is to be patient with the process.  We might find there’s great wisdom in it.

Here’s another reason why this fits the season of Advent.  James says, “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (v. 8).  We are counseled to be patient, to have a large spirit.  That results in trusting God, trusting in the one who comes.  We learn to trust in the one whose advent continues to lead us in casting a vision for the future.

It takes practice to cultivate a large spirit.  I spoke earlier about healthy religion.  With a spirituality that is nourishing, we recognize our pain—we own it!—but we’re able (eventually) to let go of it.  As noted earlier, it also involves recognizing the pain of others.  It involves recognizing the suffering of others and acting!

One way of doing that is by collecting donations of often overlooked items, such as toilet paper.  Not at all to make light of it, but lacking toilet paper represents its own kind of suffering.

I’ve sometimes thought if I had to do without, what would I miss the most?  Toilet paper, for sure.  I would also miss brushing my teeth, applying deodorant, using Q-tips!  It’s those little, basic things that wind up meaning so much.

Kristy Burmeister talks about a friend of hers named Melissa who has a story from when she was in church youth group.[4]

She says, “The youth minister had $10.  He said, ‘We can buy one $10 gift or 9 $1 gifts.’ [including tax].  The entire youth group were rallying around the idea of more is better.  In other words, they would go to the Dollar Tree and find 9 toys for this one shoe box.

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“None of them understood what it was like to be poor.  They all lived in solid middle class or lower upper class homes.  I had understood what it was like to be solidly poor.  I had lived it just a few Christmas’ before.  I cut into the discussion.  ‘I know what’s it’s like to be on the other side of this box.  I’ve lived that life.  As someone poor, I could still get a toy from the dollar store.  We should get one nice item, something they normally wouldn’t get because the money would have to go to food instead of toys.’”

She says she was outvoted.

I have a crazy idea.  Has anyone thought of buying some brand new items, and then donating them to the thrift store?  (Now that I’ve said it, I better put my money where my mouth is!)

Speaking of the mouth, we come to verse 12:Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”

First of all, there’s a long history of debating what swearing by an oath is all about.  It would seem, by a simple reading of the text, that swearing by any oathtaking is forbidden.  Sometimes, as these things go, conditions (maybe accommodations) have been made.  What is prohibited are rash or careless oaths.  Casual swearing (and understand, that’s not swearing in the sense of uttering expletives or “cussing”) is banned.  Taking an oath in court seems to be okay.

Here’s how the Passion Translation puts it.  (Although, it should be pointed out, it’s more a paraphrase than a translation.)  “Above all we must be those who never need to verify our speech as truthful by swearing by the heavens or the earth or any other oath.  But instead we must be so full of integrity that our ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is convincing enough and we do not stumble into hypocrisy.”

My main point deals with the second part, that is, “let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”  That word “condemnation” is from the Greek word κρισις (krisis), which means “separation” or “judgment.”  (I’m not sure why the Passion Translation calls it “hypocrisy,” but that’s a matter for another day!)

Let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no.  Or to quote my mother, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.”  Speak the truth; live the truth.  We might ask, “What does this have to do with patience during suffering?”  How do they connect?  What is the relationship between a large spirit and a truthful life?

As we saw, James uses Job to help make his case.  What was one of the bitterest parts of Job’s suffering?  Those lovely friends of his.

At first, they prove to be loyal companions.  When they hear of his misfortune, they travel from great distances to be with him.  They stayed with him, as the scripture says, for “seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:13).  They exercised what’s known as the ministry of presence.

They honored him in his suffering.  They didn’t offer any unsolicited and unhelpful advice.  That is, not until Job started protesting against God.  That was too much!  They were insistent that Job must have done something wrong.  Why else would he be suffering?  “Repent, Job,” they say, “and your troubles will go away.”

What happens when God addresses Job’s friends?  Does God say, “Nice job, guys, you got it right!”  Not quite.  They are chastised; they weren’t truthful, as Job was.  They are found guilty.

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What does James say?  “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.”  Do not turn your pain against each other.  Live a truthful life.  Indeed, honor each other—honor each other’s pain and suffering, especially in these days: “the most wonderful time of the year.”  Well guess what?  It’s not so wonderful for everyone.

Our loving Lord, whose Advent is nigh, calls us to show that large spirit to bear each other up.  We all carry heavy burdens.  Let us rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

 

[1] myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Meditation--What-Is-Suffering-.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=J5f-pdASkgU

[2] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/AEpAdvent3.htm

[3] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=11

[4] www.patheos.com/blogs/waystationinthewilderness/2019/12/1467


peace able

On Thanksgiving (while watching my beloved Dallas Cowboys put in another lackluster performance—this time against the Bills!), a Target commercial was aired several times with the wonderful news that Black Friday would start at 5pm.  Mind you, this was on Thanksgiving.  Banu and I were surmising how lucky those employees were to have the privilege of working on a holiday in order to make their corporate overlords a few more dollars.  (Well, in all honesty, she said nothing about “corporate overlords.”)

But then there was more good news: twelve hours later, many employees had the privilege of opening their doors at 5am.  Banu wondered who would get up that early just to go shopping!

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Of course, that’s not the worst of it.  Maybe you saw some advertisements proclaiming Black Friday sales running throughout the entire month of November?  We invented a holiday dedicated purely to the acquisition of money (going from “in the red” to “in the black”), and predictably as these things go, it metastasized.

(Still, Black Friday has darker meanings.  For example, there were the crazed crowds in 1950s Philadelphia who came into the city for the Army-Navy game on Saturday and did some shopping the day before.  Many of them took advantage of the commotion and helped themselves to a “five finger discount,” to the extreme annoyance of the Philly cops.)

I asked Banu about her first reaction to Black Friday, and she described it as “suffocating” and “a black hole.”

Why do I start with Black Friday, since it has come and gone?  It seems to me that it symbolizes the way we think of Advent—if we think of it at all.  We too often fill our lives with that which really isn’t very important.  Indeed, the very mention of Advent often elicits yawns and sometimes, actual irritation.

(There have been times in our ministry when, in the context of worship and other events, Banu and I have had—I’ll say—“snarky” questions posed to us, such as, “Is this Advent-y enough?”)

Here’s something from A Child in Winter, a book of devotionals by Caryll Houselander.  It covers Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.  Houselander was an English artist, writer, and mystic who, as the introduction to the book puts it, “comforted and challenged the English-speaking world through the ravages of World War II and the London Blitz.”[1]

She speaks of those who fill up their lives with “trivial details.”[2]  She says, “They dread space, for they want material things crowded together, so that there will always be something to lean on for support.  They dread silence, because they do not want to hear their own pulses beating out the seconds of their life, and to know that each beat is another knock on the door of death.”  (Yikes!  There’s a pleasant thought.)

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I wonder how often we fit that description.  We too often dread the things that make for peace.  We run hither and thither (if not with our bodies, then at least with our minds).  With all of our scurrying, we ignore—we are unaware of—the luminous holiness all around.  Trust me; I am directing this to myself more than to anyone else.

The prophet Isaiah knows a little something about people scurrying around, turning from the things that make for peace.  He is active during the last part of the 8th century BC.  At this time, the Assyrian Empire is gobbling up much of the Middle East.  The northern kingdom of Israel gets gobbled; the folks in the southern kingdom of Judah are nervous.  They don’t want to be gobbled!

The way chapter 11 begins doesn’t seem to let us know of these things, that is, Assyria and its ambitions.  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (v. 1).  This business of stumps and branches and trees goes back to chapter 10, where God tells his people, “do not be afraid of the Assyrians when they beat you with a rod” (v. 24).

The chapter ends on this note: “Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low.  He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall” (vv. 33-34).  So there’s part of the background with Isaiah and the Assyrians.

Why get into this stuff about a shoot, a tiny little stalk, emerging from a seemingly dead hunk of wood?

When I was a teenager, my dad chopped down a tree in our yard.  It was a hedge apple tree.  If you’re familiar with those trees, you know the hedge apples they produce wind up being the size of softballs.  You don’t want someone throwing them at you!

3 isAnyway, I thought the stump that was left would behave like most stumps—just sit there and do nothing.  However, within a couple of weeks, I noticed a little green sprig appearing just inside the bark.  Soon, there were other sprigs, and they continued to grow.  Eventually they became stalks, and in time, the stalks developed into little bushes.  In a matter of months, the bushes had intertwined and kept reaching skyward, well over my twice my height by then.

If I was surprised by the way new life emerged from that stump, imagine the surprise generated by Isaiah’s poem.  The biggest part of the surprise is that the shoot comes from the stump of Jesse.  That is Jesse, mind you, the father of David—the David who would be king.

In the following verses, we see that this shoot, this branch, will be a ruler like none other.  This ruler will possess and exercise wisdom like none other.  Here’s a thumbnail sketch of this leader’s qualities (vv. 2-5): “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him…  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord…  with righteousness he shall judge the poor…  Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist.”  All of that sounds like expectations of a David-ish nature!

So what’s all this with Jesse?

Walter Brueggemann talks about this.  “David’s family and dynasty run out in failure, no king, no future, no royal possibility, only a stump.  But, says the poet [and prophet Isaiah], the stump will produce a shoot, a shoot of new life that was not expected… the new David, the new possibility of shalom,” a new kingdom, a peaceable kingdom.[3]

4 isBasically, the Davidic line has all but died.  The lofty goals have not materialized.  So let’s start from scratch, so to speak.  Let’s go back to Jesse.  And for the sake of fairness, let’s include David’s mother, who unfortunately, the scriptures leave unnamed.  However, Jewish tradition says her name was Nitzevet.[4]

This new David, this new sovereign, will reign in an era of harmony and serenity.  What does it look like, this peaceable kingdom?

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”  Everything in creation “will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (vv. 6, 9).

Here’s Brueggemann again: “The old enmities, the old appetites of the food chain, the old assumptions of the survival of the meanest, all of that is subverted.  The wild will not stay vicious, because the coming one, marked by righteousness and justice, will overrule raw power in the interest of new possibility.”[5]

As Christians, we see the coming one as the true messianic figure, the ultimate Son of David, Jesus the Christ.  That’s what the Advent season is all about.  Advent means “coming,” and so we celebrate the one who has come, the one yet to come, and the one who is always coming, who is always arriving, in our lives right now.

As for Isaiah, his message is one of assuring the people.  But it is an assurance that will cost.  “We must repent,” he says, “to turn around, and to hold on.  The Assyrians are threatening.  But stand fast.  The peaceable kingdom is on the way.  We will have to wait in the darkness before the light arrives.”

5 is

[Holy Darkness: Formless and Void]

We have a similar message during Advent.  Our enemies might not be an invading empire, but we do have enemies, nonetheless.  Perhaps it’s largely true that our enemies are within, the struggles we face—the struggles in which we engage.  As noted before, we don’t like that uncomfortable space, that uncomfortable silence.  We want to jump right over it, to get it in our rear-view mirror.  But that’s not what Advent is about!

“This is the intention of Advent,” says Jonas Ellison.  “It’s a sacred stillness in the darkness before the triumphant joy of Christmas.  It’s where we sit in the ‘blueness’ apparent in this oft broken world and human experience.  When we grow up, we become more attuned with the suffering in the world—and in our own lives.  We can’t override this.  When we do, it festers.  Advent is the season [in which] we sit calmly in the darkness as we await the light.”[6]

He mentions growing up.  (“When we grow up.”)  That fits with the title of his article, “Advent Makes Christmas Something that Kids Can Mature Into.”  Ellison wonders about an idea I imagine we’ve all heard, that “Christmas is for kids.”  He reflects on the surface-level and theologically shallow way we so often celebrate the season.  Please don’t get the wrong idea—he treasures and finds joy in the festivities and gifts and mistletoe.  (Okay, I added the “mistletoe”!)

Yet, he dreams for his daughter.  “I hope to give my daughter a meaning of Christmas that she can mature into as she grows older and experiences the weight, depth, and density of life.”  (I’m intrigued by that term “density of life.”)  He continues, “I pray that Christmas isn’t an extended time of consumerism in order to attempt to cover up her wounds wrought from this oft broken human experience.  I pray she can sit in the darkness with herself knowing she’s not alone.  Knowing that others are sitting in that very same place and God is embracing us all even before the ‘light’ comes.”

We don’t like to wait—especially waiting in the darkness, even if it is holy darkness.  The massive weight of our society and economy shout, “Why wait?”  It’s hard for Advent to compete with that.  There’s a tidal wave that would prevent us from pausing long enough to do the “Advent” thing of reflecting, and as Isaiah would hope for, of repenting.  That means to stop, to look around, and to set ourselves on the path of active expectation.  (Or perhaps more to the point, to allow ourselves to be set on the path of active expectation.)  “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13).

“On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

“Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

 

[Here is the artist’s description of his work, “Holy Darkness: Formless and Void”]

This sculpture is number 1 of 3 in the חשך קדוש series and is based off of the phrase תהו ובהו (prounounced tōhū vābōhū) - which is translated as "formless and void" in Genesis 1.  "תהו ובהו" is written on both side walls of the drawing in a mixture of acrylic paint and gel medium, with the name יהוה (the Divine Name of God in the Hebrew Bible generally vocalized as Adonai or HaShem) written in blue on the back wall.  The very simple statement that the sculpture makes is "Even in the formless and void places of life, God is still there." The sculpture is meant to give the sense of being under water, with a bit of light coming through the surface of the 'water' from above.

 

[1] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 1.

[2] Houselander, 9.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “The Poem: Subversion and Summons,” Journal for Preachers 35:1 (Advent 2011), 33.

[4] www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/280331/jewish/Nitzevet-Mother-of-David.htm

[5] Brueggemann, 34.

[6] medium.com/graceincarnate/advent-makes-christmas-something-that-kids-can-mature-into-cd5b5503687e