Time for a Sabbatical

Thank you for being an engaged reader.

I’ve been writing this blog for eight years. It’s been a joyful experience sharing with you my insights into the Bible. I also delight in the wonderful feedback you have sent me.

In recent months, however, I have begun to sense my creative well running dry. I feel that my recent writing does not bring fresh insight into the Bible’s message. Writing has become something of a burden.

I’ve decided to take a sabbatical for several months. After that I will assess if the break has recharged my batteries. If it has, I will return, I hope, with new enthusiasm and new creativity. I plan to keep my site active so you can access the archive of past postings if you choose to do so.

Thank you for being a steady and engaged reader. I hope the past eight years have broadened your knowledge and understanding of the Bible. I urge you to continue to read it on your own. Let the Word do its work.

 

The Miracle of Emmaus

The gift of grace is the gift of seeing.

1602-3_Caravaggio,Supper_at_Emmaus_National_Gallery,_London

The supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio, ca. 1601. Note how Caravaggio sets the scene as a full supper in a 17th century Italian home. The historical becomes contemporary.

Of all the resurrection stories in the gospels, my favorite has always been the story that Luke tells of two disciples encountering Jesus as they walk to the village of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). It has such a feeling of reality about it.

Distraught over the crucifixion of Jesus and now stories that he might have arisen, the two disciples are trying to make sense of the last three days in their lives. They try to sort things out as they walk from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus.

As they walk and talk, a stranger joins them. He asks them what they are discussing. As they share their tumbled thoughts, he proceeds to help them understand what has happened. Turning to the Old Testament, he explains how a close reading of the Torah and prophets should have led them to expect that the Messiah would suffer before entering into his glory.

They are so caught up in the conversation that when they arrive at their destination, they invite the stranger to stay with them for the night. Let us hear more. But first there is the evening meal. As the meal begins, the stranger takes up the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and hands it to them. (These are the essential and hallowed actions of the Eucharist.) At just that moment, they recognize the stranger. It is Jesus. But he vanishes.

What captivates me about this story is its theme of blindness and sight that weaves through the narrative. As the disciples walk their road, they do not recognize that the stranger joining them is Jesus, even though they must have spent a lot of time with Jesus over the years of his ministry.

They do not recognize the distinctive sound of his voice. Nor do they recognize his style of teaching even though they must have heard it many times before. Yet their hearts burn within them as they listen. Might that not have triggered memories?

It is only when the stranger picks up bread, blesses it, breaks it, and hands it to them, that they gain the gift of sight. They recognize their Master with an outburst of joy. Something about the actions of the Eucharist wipes away the obscurity that clouds their eyes and minds.

The Ring of Realism

What makes this story so realistic to me is that the description seems to be spot on right in describing my own spiritual experiences. Most of the time I live my life with no awareness of the presence of Jesus in the people and circumstances of my daily living. The man I meet in the grocery store is Sam the butcher. The woman in the doctor’s office is Jessie the nurse. I don’t expect to see Jesus in them. Nor do I expect to meet Jesus in my commute on the subway, or ordering a hamburger in McDonald’s.

Yet maybe I am or was. The Emmaus story makes that provocative suggestion.

To see Jesus in my daily life takes a special gift of sight, a miraculous gift of sight. It is not something that I can command. I have to receive it as a gift conferred in the gracious timing of the Giver.

In John 3:3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born from above in order to see the kingdom of God. It is the same point the Emmaus story makes, but in different words. We can only see the movements of God in our world and in our own lives as we are given the gift of spiritual sight. Physical eyes do not see them, nor do intellectual powers.

As the parallel verse of John 3:5 suggests, the same thing can be said of spiritual experience. One can only enter, experience, the kingdom of God as one is born from above. Spiritual insight and spiritual experience are both gifts, not achievements.

Thomas Merton, for example, says this about contemplative prayer:

The only way to get rid of misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it…For contemplation cannot be taught. It cannot even be clearly explained. It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized. The more objectively and scientifically one tries to analyze it, the more he empties it of its real content, for this experience is beyond the reach of verbalization and of rationalization.*

Waking Up to Reality

Yet daily life and our encounters with other people, I believe, are infused with the spiritual. Our dilemma is that we see that only when our eyes are spiritually rinsed and our powers of perception are cracked open to let the spiritual light beams stream in. Or in other words as Merton might put it, we need to wake up.

So for all of us, we are in the position of Bartimaeus the beggar. When Jesus meets him on the road leading out of Jericho, he cries out to Jesus. When Jesus stops and ask him, What do you want me to do for you?, the beggar answers, My teacher, let me see again.(Mark 10:46-52)

All of us who would see Jesus in our daily lives must pray the same request. And wait for the precious gift to be given.

The Emmaus story, however, suggests that there is one place where that miracle is most likely to happen. It is in the experience of the Eucharist. When we participate in that service of thanksgiving, when the bread is blessed and broken, the wine blessed and poured, we have our best chance to see into the kingdom of God.

For there is nothing more basically daily and natural than the eating of bread, nothing more material and bodily in our lives, and yet here is where we stand our best chance of having our eyes opened to see in this material act the action of the Lord lovingly feeding us. Daily, material life is fulfilled as it is lifted into and fused with the realm of the spirit.

It is where I have and still do most experience God as a loving father and extravagant host. It has been and is a transformative moment for me. As I participate in this ritual over and over again, maybe, just maybe, my eyes will be opened to see that what is true of the bread and wine in the Eucharist is also true of all my daily living. That is at least my prayer.

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* Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Books, 1961. Page 6.

Arrogant Knowledge, Humble Love

How do we nurture healthy individuals within healthy communities?

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The intricate network that composes the ceiling of the church La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.

I think it is a widely under-appreciated principle that the apostle Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 8:1: Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

It is widely under-appreciated because the more advanced one’s education, the greater the temptation to become conceited about that education and the elite status it seems to confer. We can cite many examples:

  • The academics who expect deference be shown to them because of their stature in their academic discipline.
  • The political pundits and the newspaper columnists who expect a respectful hearing because of their ability to analyze current affairs.
  • The bureaucrats who wield authority because of their insider knowledge.
  • The scientists who assume they should have a dominant voice in public policy because of the insights they bring from their particular scientific fields.
  • The partisans who assume their allegiance to a particular ideological viewpoint uniquely qualifies them to discern truth from fake news.

Elites alone, however, are not the only ones susceptible to this temptation. It can afflict members of one’s own family in family dinners. We’ve all have sat around tables where a know-it-all brother or aunt tells us that they know exactly what we should do. And local churches can fall into the temptation when proponents of various theological or cultural viewpoints contest for the controlling voice in congregational life.

That seems to have been the case in the church in Corinth that Paul is addressing in his first letter to the Corinthians. The congregation was split among several factions. Each appealed to a different spiritual authority. Some members of the church were also looking down with condescension on other members of the church whom they considered less advanced in their views than they were.

This contemptuous spirit had come to a head in one particularly divisive issue. Was it appropriate for Christians to eat meat which had been sacrificed in pagan temples and was then sold in butcher shops or served at civic dinners? Those who saw no problem in so doing took their stance on the basis of their advanced theological knowledge. Others were less sure of the issue and therefore scandalized when their fellow Christians ate such meat.

Here was a situation where opinion was pitted against opinion, with various appeals to knowledge as authoritative. The impact, however, was to split the congregation into contentious parties. Resentment and furtive back-biting must have been rife.

Unity as the Mission of the Church

That is exactly what alarmed Paul. The arguments were damaging the unity of the church. And that unity was his chief concern.

Unity was not just essential for the survival of the church. It represented the redemptive purpose of the church. As Paul will express in his Letter to the Ephesians, he sees Christ as the force of a reconciling peace that works to unite the divisions of humanity into one. It begins with reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. As he writes:

He [Christ] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups [Jews and Gentiles] to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Ephesians 2:15-16)

The church is to be the advance leaven of this unity that is ultimately to leaven the whole loaf of humanity. When the church falls into contentious factions, it neutralizes its spiritual mission.

The Power that Nurtures Unity

What nurtures that unity? For Paul it is love, not knowledge. Knowledge puffs up individuals, breeding a spirit of arrogance and complacent self-reference. But that is not the spirit that builds communal unity. Rather what breeds unity is a spirit of respect for all individuals in the community, care and concern for their welfare, sensitivity to the needs of all, forbearance, and forgiveness for wrongs done.

This is not love understood as affection. Rather it is love understood as actions and attitudes that seek the well-being of another. Paul provides a clear indication of the behavior that he considers loving in his famous chapter on love (1 Corinthians 13). There he summarizes the actions of love:

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

These are the kinds of action that build up community, not ideological debate nor an attitude that the winner takes all. Nor an educational system that sees education as simply skill acquisition with no element of character development.

Paul is not a believer in the attitude that an ignorant faith is a superior faith. He highly prizes wisdom as does the whole Scriptural tradition. Knowledge has its important place in the life of faith. But a purely intellectual approach is not fully up to the task of producing a healthy community.

The Church as a Spiritual Network

We get further insight into his viewpoint when we read later in 1 Corinthians 12 his application of the analogy of the human body to the church. The church is like a body which has a diversity of organs and limbs. But all are meant to work in coordination for the welfare of the whole body.

This is not, however, a communitarian view where the welfare of the community always takes priority over the welfare of the individual. Rather the community and its individuals live in interdependence. Individuals enjoy healthy well-being when the community in which they live is healthy. Likewise communities enjoy a healthy well-being when the individuals who compose it are healthy.

This is the concept of a network in which each individual element of the network is interconnected and interdependent on all the other elements. This comes through clearly when Paul tells the Corinthians:

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (1 Corinthians 12:26)

The Contemporary Relevance of Paul’s Principle

 It seems to me that one of the reasons why so many Americans today distrust experts and expertise is because all too often experts have delivered their pronouncements with little regard for the impact on the community as a whole.

This has been especially true for the advocates of globalism. They have often been blind to the needs of those who have lost out in the drive to a global economy. Their blindness has triggered the backlash of populism. Globalism would have been much more palatable to the whole community if globalists had had a more acute sensitivity–and empathy–to the needs of those who were being disadvantaged by it. Because they did not, the global world they so deeply prize is being jeopardized.

The church, as Paul envisions it, would be a counter-agent to this style of doing business. But in spite of what we might regard as our advanced theological knowledge (or our insights into Scripture), we are enmeshed in the same divisiveness as the culture around us.

 

In a Time of Pandemic

A modern-day lament psalm

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Albrecht Durer’s Vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Woodcut, 1498

In this time when we are all living in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I find my thoughts returning to the tradition of lament psalms in the Old Testament. They expressed the fears and terrors of a people under severe threat.

What might a lament psalm look like in our current time of pandemic? I asked myself and then sat down to try my hand at drafting such a poem for our time. I would like to share it with you. Maybe it will speak to you.

The woman that I refer to in the poem is Lady Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century English mystic who wrote down her visions during a time when the Black Plague was ravaging England. It killed one-third of England’s population.

Her visions speak a powerful message of reassurance.*

Who can measure the strength of a virus?

            Who can assess its inner power?

No eye can detect its invisible colors;

            no skin can feel its crawl.

It lies hidden like a viper in its hole;

            it leaps and sinks its fangs without warning.

We shake hands with our neighbor,

            and it jumps from finger to finger.

We cough and it scatters on the vibrations of air;

            we sneeze and it rains upon the unsuspecting.

We turn the door knob and it attaches itself;

            we grab the steering wheel and it adheres.

Where comes the deadliness of such minuteness?

            We stagger in the face of its assaults.

The newscaster mounts the statistics

            on the television screens of our minds.

They feed our terror before a hidden enemy

            as if a guerilla band has attacked our village

            and gunned down indiscriminately.

How shall we defend ourselves?

            Where can we hide in safety?

Our only refuge is solitary isolation;

            we shed the bonds of neighborhood.

We confine ourselves to a world behind locked doors

            waving greetings through glass windows.

Yet in this retreat, without street noise, alone,

            without the distractions of daily commerce,

we may begin to hear the voice of mistress Julian,

            chanting her Jesus-word to a plague-drenched England:

“All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

____________________

* If you find Lady Julian’s words too Pollyanneish, then I suggest you read her full visions to catch the context of acute illness and suffering from which they arise. She says they were the words Jesus spoke to her in her near-death experience.

The Foolish Wisdom of God

We misperceive the gospel if we miss its paradoxical character.

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The crucifixion of Jesus as depicted by Matthias Grünewald in the Isenheim altarpiece, 15th century

For one brought up from childhood in the church, like myself, it is easy for the fundamental points of the Christian proclamation to become common-place truisms. When that happens, we lose all sense of how extraordinary they really are.

That is especially true for all talk about the crucifixion of Jesus. We talk and sing about the power of the cross and the glory of the cross. We wear the cross around our necks. We hang gilded crosses from the ceilings of our churches. And yet how easy it is to lose consciousness of how extraordinary a thing it is that Christians make an object of gruesome execution the central image of their piety.

I count myself among them. That is, until I was recently reading the opening words of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Christians in the church in Corinth. That church is undergoing a serious congregational crisis. Theological factions have broken out in its assembly, factions that seem to be out-shouting each other in their claims to hold the wiser and more eloquent understanding of the principles of their religion.

Paul is scandalized by the situation. In reality, he says, the factions are spiritually immature, not advanced. The proof of this is that they are engaging in such bitter rivalry with each other. The fruit of their rivalries is to counteract the momentum of the gospel.

In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, he presents his own analysis of what’s happening. He zeroes in on the centrality of the crucifixion to the Christian gospel. He makes the extraordinary statement that the crucified Jesus is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). He then reinforces what he has just said by adding:

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:25)

Now these are standard motifs in Christian preaching. But as I was reading them again, I was struck anew about how extraordinary it is for Paul to say this. For we, too, live in an age when facility in persuasive speech and effectiveness in action are highly prized.

We see this especially in the world of politics and corporate business. We want our leaders to inspire us by their speeches. We want them to prove their competency by accomplishing exalted goals. One business manual has expressed these two values in the summary label “big hairy audacious goals.”* And if we cannot deliver on them, we will be consigned to the category of followers, not leaders.

The Lesson of the Crucified Christ

But this is not the lesson Paul draws from the Christian proclamation of a crucified Christ. Instead it is through the pathway of self-effacing service, rejection, defeat, and even death, that God is at work to transform the world.** In this respect the Christian gospel proclaims God’s way as being 180 degrees opposite to our normal expectations of how transformation works.

In another passage (Philippians 2:5-11) Paul will describe the way of Jesus as the way of emptying (Greek: kenosis) himself. It is such an emptying that releases the power of transformation. It also leads paradoxically to his exaltation.

For me, as I reflect on Paul’s statements, I find myself asking: Just how does this way of the cross, this way of emptying ourselves, release the power of transformation? And how does it differ from a pathological self-humiliation?

That is one of the central mysteries that I think that Christian theology is called upon to explore and elucidate, especially in its systems of spirituality. For in the end the gospel, as Paul sees it, is not about abstract intellectual brilliance and sophistication (although certainly some theologies have that), but about pragmatic power, a power to transform both minds and behavior. And if our gospel proclamation does not transform, then either the gospel is a fantasy that needs to be discarded or we misperceive how it works.

__________________

* James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Harper Business, 1994.

** Transform is the import that the word save carries in this passage of Paul as elsewhere in his writings. He is less concerned about the eternal fate of individuals than he is with the fulfillment of God’s purposes and plans for the world.

Just What Was Jesus Preaching?

The Gospel of Mark provides a handy nutshell summary.

Rembrandt,_Christ_Preaching_(La_Petite_Tombe),_circa_1652,_Rijksmuseum_Amsterdam

Jesus peaching, a drypoint etching by Rembrandt, 1652.

The Gospel of Mark tells us that after Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, he launched his preaching ministry in Galilee. Mark also gives a thumbnail summary of that preaching. He summarizes it this way:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1-14-15)

In his ministry, Jesus will say and teach many things. But for Mark the core of Jesus’ preaching is this proclamation. And it should, I believe, remain at the foundation of the Christian proclamation even today.

But just what is Jesus saying? It is easy to misunderstand, especially if we bring our own presuppositions to the words. To better grasp what Jesus is saying, I find it important to return to the original Greek words. Let me try to unpack them.

  • The time is fulfilled

Greek has two words for time. One is chronos. Chronos refers to time as a period of time. The emphasis is on duration or flow. So if we were to talk about the succession of days, months, and years, we would use the word chronos. It is the source word for the English word chronology.

That is not the word Mark uses. He uses instead the other Greek word for time. That word is kairos.  What Mark says is that the kairos is fulfilled.

The focus of kairos is not on a period of time. Rather it designates a point in time. In English, when we say we have an appointment with a doctor, we would talk in Greek about our kairos time with the doctor.

When Jesus is saying that the kairos is fulfilled, he is referring to a specified time, a date that has been fixed in advance. We might take it as the appointment date when something is to happen.

The question is: What is to happen on that appointment date that Jesus has in mind?

A hint to the answer is the word translated fulfilled. The Greek word is the verb plēroō, used in this sentence in the perfect passive tense. In Greek this verb conveys the meaning of something that becomes full. From that we get the extended meaning of bringing a completion or finish to something. Also it could have the association of something that has become fully mature.

Plēroō is the word New Testament writers use to refer to the fulfillment of God’s promises given in the Old Testament, especially through the prophets. When Jesus says the kairos is fulfilled, then he is looking back to the Old Testament promises and saying that the appointed time for their fulfillment has come.

  • …the kingdom of God has come near.

What specific Old Testament promises does Jesus seem to have in mind? That is suggested by the next sentence, when Jesus says the kingdom of God has come near. The promises Jesus has in mind are those in the Old Testament that look forward to a time when God is fully established as king over the earth.

Notice I place the emphasis on God’s kingship. That’s because the word we translate kingdom is the Greek word basileia. The prime focus of basileia is not the land over which a king rules. That tends to be the primary focus of the English word kingdom. Rather basileia focuses more on the king being king, exercising his powers as king. We would be more accurate to translate it by the English word kingship or royal rule.

What Jesus is saying is that the kairos when God becomes the unchallenged king over all the earth has come very near. And if we look at how the Old Testament describes kingship, we understand that that means the time is coming when God completely establishes God’s order over the earth, when God sets all things right that have become disordered, corrupt, and broken. God will establish the condition of shalom (Hebrew for peace) in the earth.

An important part of that task of setting things right is God championing the rights and dignities of the poor, the oppressed in society, the marginalized. That will involve establishing equity in society. The privileges of the rich and powerful will be abolished. All will share equally in the participation in and in the rewards of society.

We see this understanding of the duties of kings expressed in Psalm 72, a psalm that pictures the ideal king. Foremost among the king’s concerns must be his championing of the rights of the poor and marginalized. He is to establish justice in the land.

So what has drawn so close, according to Jesus? It is that appointed time, that time that the faithful have been longing for and praying for for a very long time. It is the time when God sets things completely right in the world.

For Jesus that time has come near. These two English words translate the Greek word engizo.  This Greek verb refers to the action of approaching or come near. So Jesus is saying that that time when God will set things completely right, that time so longed for in the Old Testament promises, has come very close. You might say it is right on the doorstep, just before the knock on the door is made.

This message–that the kairos has been fulfilled, the time when the kingship of God will be fully established on earth has drawn near–is the news Jesus is proclaiming. For anyone who has longed for a better world, a more just order for society and life, this will come as good news.

  • Repent

How should people react to this good news? Jesus offers two responses.

The first response: He calls on his audience to repent.

Now here is where it is very easy to misunderstand Jesus’ call. The reason is that the English word repent has the primary meaning of feeling sorry about something one has done in the past and resolving to do better. The emphasis is on the emotional feeling of contrition or regret about something one has done. Here the English word carries a wealth of associations that come from medieval Catholic practices of penitence.

But the Greek word that the translators translate as repent has a different meaning. The Greek word is metanoia. And metanoia does not refer primarily to an emotional feeling. Rather it means more precisely a change of mind.

Jesus is calling his audience to change the way they think. His concern is not the floating ideas that pass continuously through our mind as the day goes on. His concern is with the fundamental beliefs or convictions that determine the way we look at the world, at other people, at ourselves, and at God. A more accurate word might be the word mindset.

Our mindset governs how we behave and operate as we live our lives. It often has its roots in our childhood experiences. Its ideas are often firmly settled in our consciousness and not easily dislodged.

Our mindset determines:

  • whether we look upon the world as a dangerous place or a place of great opportunities,
  • whether our first reaction with strangers is a stance of hospitable welcome or a stance of suspicion,
  • whether we approach life with great self-confidence or with great self-doubt,
  • whether we regard God as a capricious tyrant or as a gracious lover.

Jesus calls us to change the operating system in our minds on which we approach our life. He calls us to change it in the light of this good news that he brings that the long-awaited time has come and the kingship of God is about to be established. The whole world will be soon changing radically.

  • …and believe in the good news.

What we are to change in our mindset is our fundamental operating belief. We are now to operate our lives on the conviction that the good news Jesus is announcing is true. This is the focus of the word believe, which translates the Greek verb pisteuo. It is the second response Jesus calls from his audience.

Here is a sense of intellectual conviction, but much more. It implies a confidence and trust in the truth proclaimed so that that conviction starts to govern the way we live.

The message we are to believe is a message Jesus calls good news. The English words translate the Greek euangelion. This is the Greek word from which we derive the English words evangelism and evangelical. That good news message is the one declared in the previous two sentences: The time is fulfilled. The kingship of God has come near.

If this message proclaimed by Jesus is true, then a fundamental change in our attitudes, in our mindset, in our way of living is called for. Everything is about to change dramatically in the world. We need to get ready.

How are we to change? We need to read the rest of the gospel and listen to Jesus as he teaches to get a sense of what kind of different behavior he is inviting us into. Maybe that is why the Gospel of Matthew follows his nutshell presentation of Jesus’ preaching with the much more extended Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is drawing out the behavior implications of that nutshell declaration.

Jesus’ message today

How are we to take this proclamation of Jesus today?  One stance is to say that Jesus was wrong. The kingship of God was not established in a very short time back there in the first century. The disordered, corrupt, and oppressive order of the world has continued on for the past 2,000 years. I can respect the attitude of those who take this stance. For in many ways the Christian gospel can seem unbelievable in its claims.

Yet countless Christians have found Jesus’s proclamation believable and compelling, believable and compelling enough that they have been motivated to respond to it by becoming Jesus’ disciples.

Their experience suggests that that there is a perennial quality to Jesus’ proclamation. The kingship of God is always drawing near and is knocking on our doors. And when we live by that conviction authentically, it can indeed cause us to live our lives dramatically different. Their testimony is that it leads them into a deep experience of a kind of shalom, a well-being that nothing else can deliver.

Like Jesus’ first audiences, we, too, when we read Mark’s summary of Jesus’ preaching must decide if we find it believable and compelling or not. Whatever we decide will, however, have an impact on how we choose to live. We will change our fundamental mindset or we will not.

 

 

Dealing with the Three O’Clock in the Morning Anxieties

What guidance can we find in Jesus for the flood of anxieties that disturb our sleep?

The Sermon on the MountCarl Bloch, 1890

Jesus teaching on the mountain, by Karl Block, 1877

It is a common experience for me to wake up about three o’clock in the morning to use the bathroom. Then I try to go back to sleep. But sleep eludes me. Instead powerful anxieties invade my consciousness. I lie there tossing them over in my mind, examining each facet, and then trying to determine how I will deal with the threatening situations they raise. It may take me an hour or more to fall asleep again.

I am not alone. One of my favorite bloggers is Michael Jinkins. He is currently pastor of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. Before that he was President of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

He writes a blog titled “Accidental Pilgrims.” I read it regularly because he always has something thought-provoking to say to me.

His most recent blog is titled “Buses and Anxieties.” As I read it, I found he experiences at night what I experience. That’s why I found myself paying close attention to what he has to say about how the teaching of Jesus addresses this common experience. I link to it because I think many of you my readers will find it an illuminating piece, too. It is well worth reading.

The Impotence of Anger

We overestimate the power of anger to correct injustice.

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I was reading the Epistle of James recently when I was stopped by what he says in Chapter 1, Verses 19-20:

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

 I was taken aback when I read …your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. What an unexpected thing to say. We generally believe that when an injustice is done, anger is indeed the proper response, especially if we can direct our anger towards the one who has committed the injustice.

We see anger being constantly expressed in both our public and our private life today. America is in constant turmoil as one aggrieved group after another expresses its deep anger through protest marches, Facebook attacks, Twitter exchanges, irate commentaries on TV and in print media, road rage, and personal screaming at one another. Rage reigns as the spirit of our age.

Anger, I think, is an appropriate response to injustice done towards ourselves or others that we care about. Injustice injures the sense of fairness, harmony, and wholeness that we instinctively believe should characterize human living.

And I believe that expression of our aggrieved feelings is healthier than letting them lie unexpressed within our inner selves where they fester into something sick and malevolent. Repressed anger can breed depression. It can also break out in acts of explosive violence, as in many of the mass shootings today. When the magna within a volcano is blocked from flowing out naturally, the interior pressure builds up to the point where release can only come through a fearsome explosion.

There is, therefore, health in letting anger express itself. As my wife often reminds me, she must vent when the inner pressures become too great. That allows her to return to a sense of calm. I think that is true for most human beings.

Trying to Understand James

So why does James say what he does? I want to know more about his thinking. The context, however, does not provide it. James gives no explanation for what he says. I am left to speculate. Here’s where my thoughts lead me.

If expressing anger is a healthy release of painful emotion, employing anger as a tool for achieving change in another person or in a society is another matter. I wonder if that is not what James is driving at when he writes, …your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

Anger is a poor tool for changing other people for one good reason. When we direct our anger at another person, that other person is most likely to feel attacked. Because they feel attacked, they harden their defenses, not soften them.

Whether they see some truth in our anger, they still are likely to close up, not open up. And since they feel attacked, they defend themselves by counterattack. The situation tends to become uglier and uglier as battle lines harden and emotions get hotter and hotter.

We see this, for example, with many of the angry pro-life protestors who gather outside abortion clinics and try to block access, disrupt operations, and shame those entering or working inside. Such protests seldom lead to any real change in the situation or even fruitful conversation between the two sides, whether anti-abortion or pro.

I see this phenomenon as well in much of the political discourse in our country today. Anger from those who oppose or even despise Trump hardens those who support Trump. The rage of those who support Trump hardens those who oppose him. In such a climate, anger seldom leads to any transforming change of attitudes. We do not change our opponents’ attitudes. We just harden them.

I wonder if James’ attitude may not reflect his own reflections on the narratives in the Old Testament. The prophets are full of denunciations of Israel’s sins and injustice. These denunciations are said to be the words of God, expressing God’s anger at what he sees.

But did the denunciations lead to serious spiritual change? On the whole, they did not. Israel continued in its ways until catastrophe brought the ways of wayward Israel to a calamitous end. Even God’s own anger does not seem to have been effective in advancing his righteous order for life. If God was to find a way to set things right in the world (another meaning of the biblical word righteousness), then it had to be in a way different from the outpouring of divine wrath.

So we come to the New Testament message that God so loved the world, the disordered world of injustice, that God sent his Son to set things right through the way of sacrificial love.

Working for Real Change

This then leads to the question: How is real change achieved in situations of injustice? Not by violent expressions of anger, but by engagement in concrete constructive actions to remedy and transform the injustice. One enters into the social trenches and works in whatever way one can to bring first compassion and then change to the situation. Jesus sets the example and calls us to follow him.

Such an approach does not work transformations overnight. It often encounters frustrations and setbacks or even dramatic reversals (as happened to African-Americans in the years of Reconstruction and Jim Crow in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies). Jesus’ work of compassionate ministry landed him on a cross.

But the wisdom of Jesus’ parable about the seeds (Mark 4:1-9, 13-20) is that some of the seeds we plant in our actions do sprout, blossom, and produce an abundant harvest. And the seeds that Jesus planted in his own ministry have certainly done that.

This is not to say that protest marches and other public expressions of anger are illegitimate. They do an important job of expressing the anger and frustration that people feel about injustice. They turn the spotlight on that injustice, which is an important first step in correcting it. But public and private expressions of anger seldom motivate the perpetrators of injustice to change. They just fuel even more hardened conflict.

Is this then why James says what he does? Do my speculations make sense, or do victims of injustice hear them as a cop-out? I am curious what you my readers think.

 

Flesh Finds Its Fulfillment

Death is not the ultimate destiny for our mortal flesh.

I find it hard to make sense at times of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I get the gist of the author’s argument. He is trying to persuade some wavering Christians to remain firm in their allegiance to Jesus.

What I find hard to follow is the support arguments he makes for his case. For one, he makes constant references to the old Jewish temple and sacrificial rituals. If we are not familiar with them, as most modern Christians are not, then we will find the arguments he makes based upon them puzzling.

For two, the author is well versed in the Greek literary culture. He writes elegant Greek. He also slides in and out of the Greek practice of interpreting narratives as allegory. He sees aspects of the Old Testament story as prefiguring the events that happened with Jesus. This is not quite seeing Old Testament details as spiritual symbolism, but it’s not far from that. That can challenge our attempts to understand his argument, too.

Yet his imagery and phrasing can prove highly provocative to the imagination. They stick in our minds like thistle burrs. We have a hard time shaking them out. They have left an enduring impact on Christian worship language and theology.

The Example of Melchizedek

Let me give one example. The author makes a big deal about the Old Testament figure of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is a minor figure in the Old Testament. He is described in Genesis 14 as the priest-king of Salem, the future city of Jerusalem. He greets Abraham after his victory over four kings. Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils. Melchizedek in turn entertains Abraham with a meal of bread and wine.

Early Christian readers noted that small detail. They saw it as prefiguring the Christian Eucharist. And so in Christian iconography, Melchizedek’s reception of Abraham is linked to the celebration of the mass.

Sacrifice_of_Abel_and_Melchisedek_mosaic_-_San_Vitale_-_Ravenna_2016 (1)

The mosaic of Melchizedek in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. 6th century A.D.

A beautiful example appears in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. There a mosaic shows Melchizedek offering a sacrifice of bread in front of something that looks like a Christian altar. His bread is clearly prefiguring the bread that will be consecrated in this spot in the Christian Eucharist.

Entering the Inner Sanctuary

 It was a different detail, however, that caught my attention as I was reading Hebrews recently. In chapter 10, the author writes:

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:19-23)

The point of the passage is found in the last sentence. The author repeats once again his admonition to remain steady in faith. He has been repeating this theme throughout the letter.

We can be resolute in faith, he argues, because Jesus has opened the way into the inner temple. Here he is alluding to the curtain that separated the most inner sanctum of the Jewish temple, the Holy of Holies, from the less sacred Holy Place. Only the high priest could enter this inner room. And that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.

Now the author of Hebrews employs this imagery to express a spiritual reality that the earthly reality points to. The inner sanctum is the presence of God. We can confidently enter into that presence because Jesus has opened the curtain that separates us from the presence of God.

The Curtain of Flesh

Here’s the detail that grabbed my attention. The author says in a parenthetic phrase that that spiritual curtain is our earthly flesh. By having lived a life of faithfulness in the flesh—a flesh he shares with all of us human beings—Jesus has opened the way into God’s presence.

When I read that, this detail became the burr that stuck in my mind and provoked some further reflection.

It is an axiom of Christian spirituality that God is spirit. As invisible spirit, God cannot be perceived directly by the sensory organs of our bodies. We cannot see God with our eyes nor hear him with our ears. In that respect our material bodies are a barrier to spiritual perception.

We can only perceive God’s presence indirectly, through the effects God has in his actions in the world. That’s why I think the traditional proof for God’s existence based upon the world’s design has such persuasive power, even if it does not provide a logic-tight proof. We sense the presence of a creative power behind the beautiful universe we observe with our senses and our scientific tools.

And that is how it must be as long as we remain creatures of flesh. In that sense, I resonate with what the author of Hebrews says when he identifies the obscuring curtain with our material flesh.

But what if our flesh can come to perceive spirit? What if our flesh can be given the right perceptive capability? That is, I believe, the good news of the Christian gospel. For the destiny of the material universe–and the destiny of each of us as material human beings–is ultimately to be so infused with God’s Spirit that we can come to perceive God’s presence directly. The barrier of flesh is transcended.

The Role of Resurrection

And how does that happen? By a transformation of the flesh in the experience of resurrection. In the resurrection we become, indeed the whole universe becomes, material bodies which unite with spirit in a perfect and fulfilling union. As a result of that union, we become capable of perceiving the world of spirit in a way we could not before.*

This transforming experience seems to be what the apostle Paul is trying to describe in 1 Corinthians 15. There he says of the resurrection that lies ahead:

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. (1 Corinthians 15:42-46)

Our experience of life in the flesh is one of both pleasure and pain. It is a life of mutability, for our bodies are always in flux. It is one of health and of disease. It is one of amazing ability (witness Olympic athletes) and one of disability and limiting injuries. It is one of creativity and one of staleness. It is one of vitality, and one that ends in total loss that comes with death.

It is these facts of life that made the ancient Greeks so disdainful of material life. In the great Platonic vision, salvation meant escape from this imperfect, mutable existence and arrival in the static, but perfect world of spirit (the world of the Forms). Christian spirituality has inherited much of this disdain in its various forms of extreme asceticism.

But that is not the vision of the New Testament. When Christians proclaimed the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus, they held out to the world an unprecedented hope. They saw the destiny of human beings–and ultimately of the whole universe–to be a glorious transformation when material existence is not abolished, but raised to a high and glorious existence, in which matter and spirit are so interfused that they become one.

We see this vision described with great vividness in the vision of the new Jerusalem that we find in Revelation 21-22.

The Practical Point

Now what is the practical, here-and-now point of this Christian vision? It means Christians are called to care deeply about life now in the flesh. In caring for that life here and now we are stewards with God in working to bring material life to its glorious destiny.

We do not run away from the demands placed upon us by daily living, demands that we encounter in carrying for our families and earning our living in our jobs. We pursue with all our energies the search for healing for bodies and minds. We work to nurture the well-being of our environment and the earth’s climate. We care deeply about the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, for we work to help them rise to their glorious destiny too.

And yet we do all this well aware that the eternal is not the same as the material existence we now live. Therefore there is nothing about our present material existence that is of supreme value. We do not turn material existence into idolatry. We long for a glorious destiny that has not yet arrived in its fulness. All of the material creation must pass through the door of death before it can emerge into resurrection.**

I am aware that what I am writing may sound just as strange as the language of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I am trying to describe a vision I have of creation and life that I cannot describe with full precision because it is not yet here. Yet I glimpse hints of it throughout the New Testament.

We can sometimes feel about our lives that we are stuck in the mud, as if we are turtles crawling through the muck of a fetid swamp. That, to some degree, is life in the flesh. Yet the Christian gospel tells us that is not a fully correct perception. The swamp will someday be transformed into a beautiful paradise garden, fed by all the life that was the swamp. And we turtles will one day sprout wings so we can soar through this garden like dragonflies.

In the meantime, let us–as the author of Hebrews might counsel–keep up our faithful crawling encouraged and buoyed by our vision of the glorious destiny that is coming in God’s providential timing.

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* If I understand the theology of Teilhard de Chardin correctly, this is what he means by his Omega Point. Like the Epistle to the Hebrews, his writings can be challenging to read, but they linger in my mind and continually stimulate my thought. What I write in this post would not be possible without the influence of Teilhard de Chardin on my own thinking.

** In saying that, I think of the strange phenomena of black holes in our universe. I wonder if we cannot think of black holes as the form of death that stars experience. What happens to a star when it is sucked into a black hole? Does it dissolve away? Or does it go through some kind of resurrection experience? Who knows? But the message of the gospel might suggest that in the black hole experience stars too undergo some kind of mysterious transformation.

 

David and Jonathan

The amazing friendship that should never have been.

David_and_Jonathan

Jonathan and David embrace in friendship. From a 13th century French illuminated manuscript.

One of the grace notes in the Old Testament narratives is the various references to the passionate friendship between David and Jonathan.* When we encounter the first mention, we find the text telling us:

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. (1 Samuel 18:1)

What strikes me about the sentence is that phrase Jonathan loved him as his own soul. It suggests the depth of feeling that Jonathan feels for this young man who has just slain the fearsome giant Goliath.

Another glimpse of the depth of Jonathan’s feelings comes two verses later. The text tells us:

Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. (1 Samuel 18:3-4)

Jonathan is so attached to David that he literally gives David the garments of his warrior honor: his robe, his armor, and his arms. It is an astonishing gift of liberality in a deeply warrior culture. And also an expensive gift. Armor was something so expensive that only the elite could wear it.

As we read on in 1 Samuel, we learn that this attachment between the two men is not a passing fancy. As David’s popularity with the public grows, it incites deep jealousy in King Saul. Saul begins to see and fear David as a rival. He also begins to entertain plans to kill this rival.

Jonathan tries to dampen his father’s fears by becoming an advocate for David. He reminds Saul of David’s bravery and his service to the kingdom. He asks his father, You saw it, and rejoiced; why then will you sin against an innocent person by killing David without cause? (1 Samuel 19:1-7)

 Jonathan can pacify his father’s fears only temporarily. When Saul again makes plans to kill David, Jonathan sends a coded message to David to flee for his life. David is no longer safe in the royal court. As the two friends part—never to see each other again alive—we again get a glimpse of the passionate attachment between the two young men.

The text tells us:

As soon as the boy [who had been instrumental in delivering the coded message] had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap, and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept more. (1 Samuel 20:41)

An Inter-generational Bond

Jonathan goes on to say to David:

Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever.’ (1 Samuel 20:42)

This friendship has become something more than a normal friendship. It has become a spiritual bond that will extend beyond their own lifetimes to their descendants.

We also note that the attachment is deeply mutual, as the text makes a special point that David wept more.

Some modern readers have asked if this friendship was something more than emotional. Was it homoerotic? Is there a hint of that in the detail that they kissed each other? But what kind of kiss was it? Was it erotic or just a kiss of deep affection?

Another hint occurs in David’s lament over Jonathan’s death when he describes his love for Jonathan as passing his love of women. I contend we can spin too much speculation from these details. The Bible draws a tantalizing veil over the nature of their friendship.

Later details in the Biblical narrative make clear that this deep attachment never waned. When Jonathan dies in battle with the Philistines, David launches into a passionate lament over the death of Saul and his son (2 Samuel 1:17-26). His tribute to Jonathan is especially poignant:

Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.

            I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;

greatly beloved were you to me;

            your love to me was wonderful,

            passing the love of women. (2 Samuel 1:26)

And David honors the bond that Jonathan saw as passing into future generations. When David learns that Jonathan left behind a handicapped son, Mephibosheth, David brings this son to live in the royal compound and provides him with a royal pension. The text says David treats the young boy as if he were one of his own sons. (2 Samuel 9)

An Improbable Friendship

What the stories about David and Jonathan bear witness to is the enormous prestige the ancient world gave to friendship. It was regarded as the highest form of human relationship, a far higher and often more intimate relationship than marriage. It possessed especially high value in the warrior cultures of ancient times. We find another passionate example in the friendship between Achilles and Patroclus described in Homer’s Illiad.

I discuss the reasons for this prestige in another of my blog postings Jesus’ Privileged Friends. You can click on it if you wish to learn more about the reasons ancient people so highly valued friendship.

But what is particularly striking about the friendship between Jonathan and David is that it should never have happened. Jonathan was after all a royal prince, the son of Israel’s King Saul. He, therefore, had higher social status that David, that upstart who had once served as a lowly shepherd herding sheep.

As we read the Biblical text, we learn that David indeed became a serious threat to the throne of King Saul. He in fact succeeded Saul as king of Israel. Saul hunted down David to kill this rival. He had good political reasons for doing so. This should have given Jonathan every reason for dropping this now politically inconvenient friend.

And yet the Biblical text tells us that the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Jonathan remained loyal to David for the rest of his short life. And on the different occasions when he protected David from his father’s murderous rages, he put loyalty to his friend above loyalty to his father the king. It would be hard to find a similar example in all the many annals of royal dynasties in human history.

Likewise, as we have seen, David remained loyal to Jonathan, even beyond Jonathan’s death.

How can any of this have happened? It is a marvel among marvels. And a testimony to the power of passionate friendship.

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* The accounts are scattered throughout 1 and 2 Samuel. They include: 1 Samuel 18:1-5; 1 Samuel 19:1-7; 1 Samuel 20; 2 Samuel 1; 2 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 9; 2 Samuel 21:7