The Lament Psalms

The Bible’s sanction for bringing our rawest feelings to God.

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Among people who do not read the Bible often, there is a misconception that the Book of Psalms is a collection of praise songs and thanksgivings. The reality is different. A large number of them are poems of complaint and sorrow.

Scholars call these songs the lament psalms. In them the psalmist (or the assembly that sings or chants them) cries out in anguish to God. The anguish may well up from a threatening situation in the psalmist’s life, such as a serious illness that looks as if it is going to be fatal (Psalm 38) or a bout of depression (Psalm 88)*.

More often the anguish is a result of cruelty or injustice that the psalmist is experiencing. The injustice may be a betrayal by a psalmist’s best friend (Psalm 55). Or it may be vicious gossip that one’s neighbors are spreading in the community (Psalm 109). Or it may be ambushes or violence that one is suffering in the streets (Psalms 56 and 64).

The source of the anguish may not, however, be personal. It may be national. It may be the exploitation of the poor and marginalized by the powerful classes in society (Psalm 109). Or it may arise from the devastation brought upon the land by foreign invaders (Psalms 74 and 79). Or by a threat to annihilate Israel (Psalm 83).

Though many, the sources of the anguish all stir up a desperate cry to God that often begins with words like these:

How long, O Lord, how long? Will you forget me forever?

            How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

            and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2)

Language of Shocking Violence

What is so disconcerting about these lament psalms is the violent language the psalmist uses in regard to his enemies. He curses his enemies and cries out to God to wreak revenge on those who are attacking and oppressing him.

A good example is Psalm 109. Here the psalmist’s enemies are maligning his reputation in the community. They speak hate. They spread lies. They say to themselves:

Appoint a wicked man against him;

            let an accuser stand on his right.

 When he is tried, let him be found guilty;

            let his prayer be counted as sin.

May his days be few;

            may another seize his position.

May his children be orphans,

            and his wife a widow.

May his children wander about and beg;

            may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.

May the creditor seize all that he has;

            may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.

May there be no one to do him a kindness,

            nor anyone to pity his orphaned children. (Psalm 109:7-12)

The psalmist takes up their very words and turn them against them. He asks God to bring the same fate upon them and their families. We are in the realm of something approaching a blood feud.

In Psalm 137, the hatred of the psalmist is turned against the Babylonians who have leveled the city of Jerusalem and killed or exiled its population. The psalmist reaches a climax in his hatred when he wishes that some other invader will come and dash the babies of the Babylonians against the rocks just as the Babylonians did to the Judean babies.

This is strong stuff. Many of us recoil against such bitter prayers. So much so that many churches will ban the lament psalms, especially the cursing psalms, from recitation in their liturgies. Others will exclude them from published editions of the psalms.

There is a danger in this banning, as the writer Kathleen Norris reminds us all in a beautiful essay on the psalms.** These lament psalms bear witness to the fact that life is full of suffering, pains, and injustice. She quotes a Benedictine nun, who once said, “The human experience is full of violence, and the psalms reflect our experience of the world.”***

If we are to have an authentic worship life, we cannot ignore the hatred and injustice in the world, especially within our own inner selves. That is the rationale for beginning a worship service with a confession of sin. We come before God with mixed emotions. We are people of light anddarkness. People of love and, yes, hatred. That is our reality.

Retaining Laments in Our Worship

Keeping the lament psalms in our liturgies and in our Bibles does raise the question: How do we deal with these difficult and emotionally complex psalms? How do we integrate them with the admonition of Jesus to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)? Let me say a few things about how I handle these psalms.

One, the lament psalms give us sanction, I believe, to bring our rawest feelings into our relationship with God. The words of these psalms are strong, but they do reflect our most painful experiences. When we try to suppress these strong feelings from our consciousness, we drive them into our unconsciousness where they can fester and wreak havoc with our lives. This is the very personal experience of military veterans suffering from PTSD.

The first step to healing is to bring our most troubling feelings into the open. And the lament psalms provide a model for doing so.

This does not mean that God–or we–may fully approve of the feelings we are releasing. There may be morally troubling aspects with those feelings. But we cannot deal with feelings that remain buried and hidden from sight.

The lament psalms in fact gives words for expressing feelings we may not yet be able to articulate for ourselves. I’ve been told that after the event of September 11, 2001, many churches who incorporated lament psalms into their liturgies of sorrow and remembrances found those very psalms expressed best what many in the congregation were feeling. The language of the lament psalms remains relevant over and over again.

Prayers of Violence Directed to God

Two, we need to notice that the lament psalms are usually addressed to God. That means they are prayers. That’s very important in my book.

The psalmist is expressing raw feelings, but he is expressing them to God, not directly to his enemies. He may be wanting God to act on his violent requests. But when we bring our violent feelings to God, we may be surprised with God’s response.

God may choose not to act on our requests, for to do so would violate his own character as a loving Father. Instead God may in a sense say to us, “Now that you’ve brought your desires to me, let’s begin to work on them. Let me begin to heal them.” That can happen by God bringing us into a change of perspective that ends up in transforming our desires and feelings.

We see this very action modeled in Psalm 73. The psalmist begins with a lament about how the wicked seem to experience no negative consequences from their evil actions. They seem to prosper and enjoy health and public esteem. How unfair!

Then the psalmist says he walked into the sanctuary of God (Psalm 73:17). There he underwent a change of perspective. He saw how God had set them in slippery places and how they can be destroyed in a moment.

As a result, he undergoes a dramatic change of attitude.

When my soul was embittered,

            when I was pricked in heart,

I was stupid and ignorant;

            I was like a brute beast toward you.

Nevertheless I am continually with you;

            you hold my right hand. (Psalm 73:21-23)

Our lament prayers may begin the first steps in a purification process that leads to a dramatic reversal in our feelings and attitudes. At the end of the process, we may recognize how foolish we were in all the revenge we begged God for. Prayer can indeed be a transforming power, transforming us rather than our enemies.

Songs of Solidarity

Lastly, it is important too to note that most of the psalms are meant to be sung or chanted in a community of faith. Even when the psalmist speaks in the first person singular, scholars point out that we cannot always be sure if the “I” of the psalm is meant to be just an individual speaking or is a communal “I”. Is the “I” really meant to be the voice of “We”?

That is important to remember when someone complains about the lament psalms that they do not express what he or she is feeling that day. But the psalms are expressing the feelings that other members of our faith community may be feeling or that believers may be feeling somewhere else in the world. By reciting these psalms in our liturgies, we acknowledge our solidarity with believers not only who are rejoicing, but also suffering grievous sorrow and injustice.

They also tend to draw us into an awareness of how we participate not only in suffering with others, but also inflicting suffering on others. Kathleen Norris says this in a striking way.

The psalms mirror our world but do not allow us to become voyeurs. In a nation unwilling to look at its own violence, they force us to recognize our part in it. They make us reexamine our values.****

So do you still want to ban the lament psalms from your worship and Bible study? I for one do not. They prevent my religion from becoming a form of escapist fantasy. They keep me grounded into real life. And it is only there that I can cultivate a wholesome relationship with God and with my neighbor.

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* Psalm 88 is unique among the psalms. A deeply anguished psalmist cries out to God, but he seems to have no expectation that God will come to his rescue. The final line is the most despairing in all the psalms:

You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

            my companions are in darkness.

** “The Paradox of the Psalms,” in Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk. New York:Riverhead Books, 1987.

*** Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, page 97.

**** Norris, The Cloister Walk, page 103.

 

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In God We Trust

Isaiah’s provocative take on America’s national motto.

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The American national motto appears on all American coinage.

If the prophet Isaiah were to enter the pulpit of many American churches today, he would baffle if not alienate most who heard him. American Christians generally hold the view that preachers should stay clear of politics. In fact, our tax code recognizes the rule that in order for a church to retain its tax-exempt status, preachers in the pulpit must refrain from endorsing particular political candidates.

When you read the first 39 chapters of Isaiah, you realize that Isaiah did not share this viewpoint. His message was highly political. Among other things he repeatedly counsels the kings of Judah on how to handle the kingdom’s foreign relations. His authority? The word he says he receives from God. His approach can and should make American Christians uncomfortable.

The Historical Context of Isaiah

Isaiah was active during a particularly tumultuous time in the ancient Near East. In the 14thcentury B.C., the Egyptian empire had largely abandoned its garrisons stationed in the Levant.

As a result, a historical window opened up that allowed a throng of mini-states to gain independence and flourish. They included the city states of Tyre, Sidon, and the Philistine Pentapolis. They also included mini-kingdoms like Aram, Moab, Ammon, and others. Among them was the united kingdom of Israel that under David and Solomon dominated the region for a short period. Then it broke apart into the two rival kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

This international situation prevailed for approximately 600 years. Then in the 8thcentury B.C. the Mesopotamian power of Assyria began an imperial drive to expand beyond its Mesopotamian roots. As Assyria expanded east and west,* it swallowed up and destroyed most of the mini-kingdoms and city states that had flourished for a half millennium.

Assyria even defeated Egypt and annexed it into its empire, just as one mighty python might swallow up another python of equal size. The Assyrians established an empire whose extent had never been matched in the previous history of the ancient Near East.

Among its potential victims was the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital of Samaria. Israel along with its neighbor Aram had launched an alliance to resist Assyrian advance. They hoped to enlist the southern kingdom of Judah, which was ruled by the dynasty of David, as another partner. When the current king Ahaz resisted, they chose instead to invade Judah and replace the king with a puppet.

In desperation, Ahaz contemplated calling on Assyria to come to its aid. Isaiah the prophet told him he would be foolish to do so. Instead Isaiah counseled Ahaz to place his confidence in God who would be the kingdom’s true savior.

Ahaz ignored Isaiah. Isaiah’s counsel seemed impractical and unrealistic. How could faith in God be a reliable defense? Ahaz summons Assyria.

Judah and Assyria

Assyria was only too happy to come to the rescue. The threat against Ahaz was lifted. The Assyrians destroyed Aram and its capital Damascus and then turned to Israel and its capital of Samaria, which it wiped off the political map of the Near East in 722 B.C.

Then Assyria turned its attention to Judah. In 701 B.C. the Assyrian king Sennacherib  invaded Judah, leveling one Judean city after another. Then Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem, now ruled by Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son. (Jerusalem’s lonely desperation is well described in Isaiah 1:7-9.)

Hezekiah sought to defend the city by strengthening its defenses, pulling down houses to build up the walls. He also constructed a tunnel to direct the waters of the city’s one spring, which lay outside the walls, inside the walls. He opened up the city’s armory. And he sent a delegation to Egypt to plead for assistance. All of these seemed to be necessary and very practical responses to the Assyrian threat. His measures are described in Isaiah 22.

Throughout this tumultuous time, what was Isaiah’s counsel? He constantly advised Judah’s leadership not to put any trust in foreign alliances or in relying on their armaments (chariots and horses in particular), but to place their trust in God. God would deliver them.

A Uniting Message in Isaiah?

Reading through Isaiah 1-39 can feel very confusing. Oracles are not listed in chronological order. Rather we feel that we are dealing with a jumble of oracles hastily thrown together. There seems to be no uniting thread.

But I have come to question that assumption. What I think the editor of Isaiah has done is take the many oracles of Isaiah, delivered over a number of years in this time of particular crisis for Judah, and arranged them into an order where they deliver an enduring message of warning and hope for future generations.

As I read through these chapters, I catch hints here and there of a unified message emerging. The prophet sees the chaos that is roiling the Near East in his day as the work of God. The aggressive Assyrians are simply the tool of God’s judgment.

For example, foreseeing the fall of the city state of Tyre, the prophet cries:

Who has planned this

                        against Tyre, the bestower of crowns,

            whose merchants were princes,

                        whose traders were the honored of the earth?

            The LORD of hosts has planned it—

                        to defile the pride of all glory,

                        to shame all the honored of the earth. (Isaiah 23:8-9)

The era of the mini-city states and kingdoms is coming to an end. During their centuries of flourishing, they also engaged in constant predatory raids and warfare on each other. In the prophet’s eyes, the land has become polluted as a result of the incessant bloodshed. In addition, the elites of these states have exploited the lives of the poor and marginalized. Life for these oppressed ones has become bitter.

We see this theme most clearly expressed in Isaiah 24:5-6:

The earth lies polluted

                        under its inhabitants;

            for they have transgressed laws,

                        violated the statutes,

                        broken the everlasting covenant.

            Therefore a curse devours the earth,

                        and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;

            therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled,

                        and few people are left.

The time of reckoning has arrived. This is the reality Judah must confront as it looks upon its desperate situation. God is moving in the international scene. Judah, along with the other mini-states of the Levant, are reaping the bitter harvest of their unceasing warfare, conflict, social oppression, and religious hypocrisy.

Judah’s Hope for Salvation?

Because God lies behind this turmoil, Isaiah warns Judah’s leaders against turning to their customary tools of statecraft.They should not place their hopes in international alliances, especially with regional powers like Egypt. Egypt will prove a broken reed. Nor should they place their hopes in their military preparedness or advanced armaments (like horses and chariots, the tanks of Isaiah’s day). None of this will ultimately save them.

Rather Judah’s king and people should place their trust in the Lord. That is the burden of the famous oracle that Isaiah delivers to King Ahaz, that we read each Christmas:

Therefore the Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel(Isaiah 7:14). [The name Immanuel in Hebrew means “God with us.”]

The point of this sign is that before this child has emerged out of infancy, the international threat against Judah will have passed. All Ahaz has to do is trust in God.

As counsel to the Judeans, the prophet delivers this word from God:

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel:

In returning and rest you shall be saved;

             in quietness and trust shall be your strength (Isaiah 30:15).

The message of Isaiah does not seem to be a message of disarmament pure and simple, but it comes close. He certainly places no great confidence in spending vast sums on building up Judah’s military might. Rather he is advocating a radical change of mindset, a mindset that places priority on trust in the Lord.

The Real Source of National Security

Where should then Judah invest its energies and resources, if not in military preparedness? Here is where I hear the import of Isaiah’s constant cry to establish social justice and personal righteousness in the land and in every one of its inhabitants.

It is in caring for the welfare of all in society (especially the vulnerable ones referred to customarily as the widows, orphans, and resident aliens) that Judah can best work for its national security. The cultivation of personal integrity is vital for its peaceful future.

We hear this viewpoint expressed in the following passage:

The effect of righteousness will be peace,

                        and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.

            My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,

                        in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places (Isaiah 32:17-18).

 If I am hearing the message of Isaiah correctly, then we can begin to appreciate why few Americans today would welcome his voice. Proponents of Realpolitik will dismiss his message as nonsense. Isaiah, they will say, is living in a delusion. He doesn’t know how the real world works.

Judah’s leaders also ignored his counsel. So why were the words of Isaiah preserved and treasured rather than thrown on the dung heap of history as words of madness?

The Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. was lifted not because foreign allies came to the rescue. Nor because Judean military might overwhelmed the Assyrians. Rather something totally unexpected broke the siege. The Old Testament reports that a mysterious plague decimated the ranks of the Assyrian army (see 2 Kings 19:35-37).  2 Chronicles 32:21 says that as a result Sennacherib returned to Assyria in disgrace. There he was assassinated by his own sons. What saved Jerusalem was not power politics, but the contingencies of history, which the prophet along with the Old Testament as a whole attributes to the hand of God.

This is why Isaiah’s message can be very provocative for us. He can call into question our own national priorities and obsessions. Is the practice of Realpolitik, especially in its most bullying form, going to ensure peace and prosperity? Are the vast sums we spend on our military establishment really going to secure America, especially when they are paid for by drastic reductions in programs of social welfare? Is what makes a nation strong its military might or the integrity of its institutions and its people?**

Our national motto is: In God we trust. But what does it mean in practical terms for a religiously pluralistic country like ours to trust in God? Here is where the prophet Isaiah may challenge some of our most fundamental national assumptions. And here, too, I suggest lies the enduring power of the prophet’s message.

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* Isaiah turns to the metaphor of a raging river that is overflowing its banks and flooding the land (see Isaiah 8:5-8).

** If you wish to hear a thoughtful reflection on the message of Isaiah and America’s obsessions with guns, I would refer you to a short talk made by Chris Hays, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Fuller Seminary, during a panel discussion on “The Bible and American Gun Culture” that happened at the seminary in March 2019. Hays opened up for me new perspectives on Isaiah that are in part reflected in this blog posting.

A Society in Collapse

What does a failing society look like? Isaiah’s answer.

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The ruins of Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Photo, circa 1925.

In Isaiah 9:8-10:11, Isaiah, a Jerusalemite prophet, turns his attention away from his own city to the northern kingdom of Israel* in his day. He sees its future as dire. And that future offers a warning of what lies ahead if the residents of Jerusalem continue in their present ways.

One can read this passage as the expected output of a court prophet. As a loyal Judean, he would be expected to predict the demise of his own country’s enemies. But that’s not quite what we find in this passage. Israel’s dire future is not punishment for its aggressive hostility towards Judah. Rather, the passage reads as a vivid description of a society that is collapsing within itself.

Not that Israel knows its future is precarious. The prophet says that in arrogance and pride the kingdom is harboring illusions of grandeur. Its ordinary dwellings built of brick have fallen (maybe because of an earthquake or maybe because of foreign invasion). But the kingdom plans to rebuild in stone, the construction material of palaces.

Likewise its normal groves of sycamore have been leveled. But the Israelites plan to replant them with cedar, another construction material of palaces. But if they do so, Isaiah says it will be a venture in wasted resources. The Lord has set his face against them. He will rise up the Aramaeans and Philistines to devour them.

As the passage moves on, the prophet turns his sight to the kingdom’s leaders who mislead the people. Its prophets speak lies; its elders lead the people astray. What is not clear is whether the leaders are consciously or unconsciously leading the country in wrong directions. The outcome, however, is the same. The people are left in confusion (Isaiah 9:14-16). No one is sure what the truth is.

Things are not working the way they should. People are indulging in excess, but coming away feeling dissatisfied. This is vividly conveyed in verse 9:20:

They [the people] gorged on the right, but still were hungry,

                        and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied.

As a result, in frustration the people have turned on each other and fallen into civil strife, if not downright civil war (described in the metaphor of cannibalism). Manasseh, another tribe in the northern kingdom, is said to have devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh. This tribal strife would have been poignant for Isaiah’s listeners. By tradition Ephraim and Manasseh were said to be the two sons of Joseph. Their aggression towards each other would have been seen as fraternal strife. The bonds of civic unity are breaking apart.

A Note of Realism About the Poor and Weak

Isaiah particularly denounces Israel’s leaders who have legislated decrees that oppress the poor and the marginalized in Israel’s society. These decrees rob the poor, especially the widows and orphans, of justice. They have become the prey of the strong.

Throughout the Old Testament, the welfare of the widow, the orphan, and the resident immigrant is an object of God’s special concern. Prophet after prophet will denounce God’s people for their neglect of these weak members of society.

But Isaiah injects a discordant note into what is a common theme. In verse 9:17, the prophet announces:

That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people,

            or compassion on their orphans and widows;

for everyone was godless and an evildoer,

            and every mouth spoke folly.

 In this social collapse all fall under divine judgment, even widows and orphans. Why? Because everyone was godless and an evildoer. The sense I get when I read this is the thought that the poor and weak, despite the oppression they suffer, still buy into the illusions their leaders promulgate. If they could be rich and powerful, they would behave just as their oppressors do.

It is a note of realism that the poor and weak are not more moral just because they are poor and weak. Both the rich and strong and the poor and weak share in common illusions.

A Compromised Society Cannot Stand

The impact of all these social developments is that Israel as a society is fundamentally compromised. It does not have the unity, the strength, and the community resolve to stand up firm when outside pressures come bearing down. And those outside pressures are on its doorstep in the threat posed by imperial Assyria.

When that threat becomes actually real (as it does shortly afterwards), Israel does indeed fall. It is wiped out of the political landscape of the ancient Near East.

It is sobering to read this portion of Isaiah. How he analyzes Israel has enduring value as an analysis of any society that undermines itself with destructive partisan strife, injustice, and buy-in into illusionary thinking. For Isaiah that is a warning to his own community of Judah. Do not follow in Israel’s footsteps. Whether his description also speaks a warning to our own society today I will leave for each reader to decide.

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* The northern kingdom of Israel was also known as Ephraim (see verse 9:9), because the most prominent tribe in the kingdom was the tribe of Ephraim.

 

Was Jesus Born Again?

Does Jesus experience himself that spiritual awakening that he describes in John 3?

In his conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), Jesus talks about the necessity of a new spiritual birth if we are to see and enter into the kingdom of God. Is Jesus speaking from personal experience? A close reading of the opening chapters of the Gospel of John might suggest he is.

When Jesus describes this spiritual birth to Nicodemus, he says:

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’(John 3:5-7)

Jesus mysteriously talks about this spiritual birth coming from water and Spirit. There has been much debate about what Jesus is talking about? Some read water as referring to our natural birth as creatures of flesh. Other read water as referring to baptism. Which is it?

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The Baptism of Jesus, by Piero della Fancesca, 15th century.

I find myself wondering if we should not read these words of Jesus in the context of John, chapter 1. Chapter 1 contains John’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.

Jesus’ Baptism

What all the accounts of Jesus’ baptism bear witness to* is that it was at the moment when John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan that the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus as a dove. Notice in these accounts the close link between baptism in water and the gift of the Spirit. One seems to trigger the other.

In my last posting (Born Again: What Does Jesus Mean?), I interpret the spiritual birth that Jesus describes in his conversation with Nicodemus as a kind of spiritual awakening or transformation of consciousness that allows a person to perceive and live within the kingship of God. If this is the proper understanding of the new birth Jesus is describing to Nicodemus, then I would ask: Is this not exactly what Jesus experienced in his own baptism?

The accounts of Jesus’ baptism emphasize that this was the moment when Jesus received the gift of the Holy Spirit. His baptism also marked the moment when Jesus launched his public ministry. It was a ministry characterized by powerful acts in the Spirit.

The synoptic gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) also note that Jesus’ message was one that proclaimed that the kingdom of God had drawn near. It was on the doorstep. This implies that Jesus had a discerning insight into the movements of God in history. He perceived something that others did not.

The gospel accounts therefore suggest that his baptism marked a momentous transition in Jesus’ life. Luke’s account of the 12-year-old boy Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:41-51) suggests that Jesus had an acute spiritual sensitivity even in his childhood. He already acknowledged God as his father. But he, like any human being, awaited a moment of spiritual transformation in order to see the nearness of the kingship of God and to work powerfully in harmony with that kingship.

If the born-again experience is a transformation in consciousness (as I contend in my previous posting), then the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism suggest that that was exactly what happened to him. They talk of his seeing the heavens opened, of seeing the Spirit visibly descend upon him, and hearing the direct voice of God. In that respect what Jesus experienced calls to mind what the apostle Paul experienced in his Damascus road experience (see Acts 9:1-9).**

Born Again: A Necessary Transformation Because of Our Humanity

If this is a correct understanding of Jesus’ baptism, then it suggests that the born-again experience is not so much a remedy for sin, but a necessary transition for human beings as creatures of nature to rise to a higher level of existence where they as creatures of nature are also creatures infused with the divine life and power of God in the form of the Holy Spirit.

This has always been an idea embedded in much Eastern Orthodox theology in its doctrine of divinization. Salvation in this doctrine has always been about more than redemption from sin. It has been about human beings being raised to share in the divine life. All this is summarized in the Orthodox proclamation that God became human (in the incarnation of Jesus) so that human beings can become divine.

It is standard Christian proclamation that Jesus was sinless. So Jesus would not need to be born again as a remedy for sin. But if Jesus was truly human (as orthodox belief has always asserted), then he too would need to experience that birth from above–that spiritual awakening–that raises humans from a purely natural and material existence to that unity with the divine that has always been God’s salvific purpose.

I recognize that what I am proposing is a bold reinterpretation of Jesus’ baptism. I am fully prepared to admit that I might be very wrong. But I also contend there is much more depth to John 1 and John 3 than we have customarily seen.

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* For the accounts of Jesus’ baptism, see Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22, and John 1:29-34.

** It is also important to note in the account of Paul’s experience the close link between baptism and his spiritual transformation. This is one further reason why I think we must interpret the word water in the phrase of water and Spirit in John 3:5 as referring to baptism, not to natural birth. In Christian sacramental theology baptism does confer a new spiritual birth. Baptism marks the initiation into life lived under the kingship of God, but it does not confer spiritual maturity. One must grow into that maturity through a life lived as a spiritual journey into greater and greater spiritual wholeness.

Born Again: What Does Jesus Mean?

Close reading Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus challenges a customary interpretation.

No New Testament text has held a more prominent place in my childhood religious upbringing than John 3:1-21. It recounts a conversation Jesus holds with a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus.

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A high Celtic cross at Iona Abbey, Scotland.

What my childhood churches latched onto in this dialogue was what Jesus says in verse 3. (It was always read in the King James Version.)

Jesus answered, and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Jesus then repeats what he says in an expanded way in verse 5:

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

 These two verses became the proof texts for the constantly repeated claim that unless a person was born again, no one could hope to enter into heaven when one died. This conviction gave punch to many an evangelistic appeal.

Furthermore, the born-again experience was understood as denoting a conversion experience where one confessed one’s sins and accepted Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior. Only if one had undergone such a conversion could one be assured that one would be saved at the Last Judgment.

It was generally assumed that this conversion experience would also be dramatically emotional. It would provide an intense sense of relief from guilt followed by a deep assurance of peace. The words of hymnody often described the experience best: Once I was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

This kind of preaching troubled me as a youth. I had not experienced any such dramatic conversion. Did that mean I was not born again? Such questioning triggered many fears.

As a result, I have long wrestled with this text. Did my religious upbrining understand John 3:1-21 correctly? There is an element of mystery about the words Jesus speak. Could Jesus mean something different from the customary interpretation I was taught as a child?

From my wrestling with this text, I have come to believe that the customary interpretation is a shallow understanding of Jesus’ message. There is much, much more to what he is saying.

Paying Close Attention to the Words

A close reading of the text demands that we give acute attention to the exact words Jesus uses. For example, his comments concern seeing or entering the kingdom of God.* The customary interpretation assumes this phrase means heaven, the place where God, the angels, and saints live.

But that is not the primary meaning of kingdom of God in the New Testament. The English phrase translates the Greek words basileia tou theou. Basileia does not denote the land or state ruled over by a king. Rather it refers to the king’s authority or power as king. A more correct translation would be kingship. That is why many modern English translations render it reign of God.

In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) kingdom of God is linked to God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. This parallelism is important to understanding the terminology. God’s kingdom is the reality of living harmoniously within God’s will. Certainly God’s will is fully realized in heaven. But Jesus’ message** is that the time has arrived when that will is going to be fully realized on earth as well.

The import of Jesus’ words is not about the prospect of going to heaven when one dies, but the prospect of living under God’s kingship here and now.

The next two words I note is that Jesus talks about seeing and entering the kingdom of God. Seeing is about perceiving. How can we perceive the kingship of God at work in the world and in our own lives here and now?

The general assumption of humanity is that as we look at the affairs (the often chaotic affairs) of the world in which we live, we see no evidence of God being present or at work. Rather everything usually looks out of control. How can Jesus say otherwise?

When Jesus talks about entering the kingship of God, he is talking about how we can truly experience that we are living under the beneficent rule and providence of God. How can we come to live in submissive harmony with the will of God?

Ambiguous Word

The answer Jesus gives to both questions is that we must be born anothen. Anothen is a Greek adverb that can mean both 1) again, and 2) from above. Because it can have both meanings, it is an ambiguous word. Jesus may use it because he intends both meanings. There must be a new beginning to life, but it is a new beginning coming from divine rather than human initiative.

That becomes clear from the context. Nicodemus assumes anothen means again. So he asks how a grown man can enter his mother’s womb and be born again. He assumes anothen has one and only meaning.

But verse 5 demonstrates that Jesus understands anothenprimarily as meaning from above. He does this by saying a man must be born of water and the Spirit. We are clearly dealing with a kind of spiritual birth or beginning. That becomes even clearer as Jesus then goes on to talk about the invisible wind blowing where it will. The Greek word for wind (pneuma) is also the Greek word for spirit. The critical term anothen has a dual meaning, but the spiritual meaning is primary in this discourse.

So to summarize Jesus’ statements, if one is to perceive the kingship of God in the world and to live harmoniously within it, one must undergo a spiritual initiation analogous to a natural birth.

New Birth as Spiritual Awakening

What is this new birth? I have come to believe it is a form of spiritual awakening by which a person gains the capability of perceiving God’s kingship in the world and living within it. This awakening involves a transformation in consciousness. It places within a person a kind of spiritual sense organ that allows one to perceive and enter into the world of the divine spirit.

What am I talking about? Let me turn to another analogy to explain. We now know that radio waves fill the atmosphere. They did so even before human beings came to discover them. But human beings could not tap into those radio waves and use them for communication until we developed the instruments to transmit and receive radio waves.

God’s kingship is a reality in the universe. But we do not perceive it and we do not come to live harmoniously within it until we receive the spiritual sense organ for such perception. That sense organ is the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

The Spirit is a gift, a gift from God, not our achievement. Entering into the realm of God’s kingship is always a gift. That is the significance of using anothen with the meaning from above.

Jesus’ words also suggest that that gift has a beginning point. It is analogous to a birth. But Jesus’ words do not imply how that initiation happens, except for the ambiguous phrase of water and the Spirit(more on that in my next blog posting). Nor does the initiation confer spiritual maturity. The initiation launches us on the spiritual journey, but we must go deep into that journey to attain spiritual maturity.

So what do I end up with as I read this passage? I hear Jesus saying that in order to enter into life under the kingship of God we must be lifted up into a spiritual plane. That lifting up does not abolish our life in the flesh, but adds a more profound spiritual reality to our life. The gospel writer John will call that spiritual life eternal life.

Does what I have written mean that I’ve plumbed the mystery of this text? No. It remains a mysterious text. But that mystery also cautions me to be careful in how I read it. It will always evade a simple understanding.

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* Interestingly, these two verses are the only two places in the Gospel of John that the gospel writer uses the phrase kingdom of God. This phrase is used profusely in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but except for these two verses, it is found nowhere else on the lips of Jesus in John.

** Mark 1:15summarizes Jesus’ preaching as: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the gospe

The Siren Call of Fame

Fame issues a bogus promise of immortality.

The Bible’s authors and editors have a predisposition to juxtapose stories that they want us to read in dialogue with each other.

A wonderful example occurs in Mark 10:35-52. This passage recounts two stories about Jesus. The first (Mark 10:35-45) tells of an occasion when James and John ask Jesus if they can sit on his right and left when he enters into his glory. The second (Mark 10:46-52) tells the story of Jesus healing a blind man named Bartimaeus on the outskirts of Jericho.

I believe that Mark wants us to hear these two stories in juxtaposition. Why? Because of a phrase that Jesus asks in each story. When he is approached by James and John, Jesus asks: What do you want me to do for you?(Mark 10:36) When Bartimaeus shouts to get Jesus’ attention and Jesus stops to talk with him, Jesus asks the very same question: What do you want me to do for you?(Mark 10:51).

This repeated question links the two stories together. Mark wants us to reflect on the very different answers the three people give. In particular, the answer Bartimaeus gives throws a whole different light on the answer James and John give.

empire_state_building_(aerial_view)

America’s tower: The Empire State Building in New York City.

Juxtaposed Stories in Genesis: The Tower of Babel

Another example occurs in the Book of Genesis with the two stories of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) and the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9). I believe the editors of Genesis want us to read these two stories in juxtaposition, too. Let me explain why.

The story of the Tower of Babel tells of an effort by a group of people in the plain of Shinar who set out to build a city. Its crown jewel will be a tower which will extend its top into heaven.

What fascinates me in this story is their motivation. They say they want to make a name for themselves because they are afraid that they will be scattered upon the face of the earth. In response to this fear they launch a huge public works endeavor.

How does building a name for themselves protect them from being scattered? The way I understand the link is by seeing the fear of scattering as a stand-in for the fear of death.  What the people of Babel are really afraid of is the oblivion that follows upon death. After we have been dead two or three generations, who will remember us? Will we not all sink into that great mass of humanity who have died and been forgotten?

How can we prevent that?  By creating such a great name and reputation that people will continue to remember us and talk about us long after we have died. We thereby gain a measure of immortality by our continuing fame.

We see another example of this craving for a measure of immortality in the heroes that Homer celebrates in The Illiad. The warriors in that epic share the same value system as does Achilles. Achilles is offered a choice. He can live a long and prosperous life in rural obscurity. Or he can live a short life but one made shining and glorious by his constantly celebrated deeds as a warrior.

Achilles chooses the latter option. He does obtain a measure of immortality. His deeds continue to be celebrated down through the centuries of Greek history as they are sung by bards like Homer. His fame continues even unto today.*

This hope that fame will confer on us some measure of immortality makes its promises so seductive. So we spend a great deal of energy and resources on our quest for our own celebration in the realm of public opinion and the organs of the news media. I ask if it is not this same quest for immortality that Achilles and the residents of Babel crave, a quest that fuels so much of our own society’s obsession with publicity.

In the end the quest of the people of Babel is thwarted. Not only does God block the building of their tower, but also their search for fame. The text does not remember any name of the tower’s builders other than telling us they lived in the plain of Shinar.

Juxtaposed Stories in Genesis: The Call of Abraham

Now let us turn to the story of the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9). Abraham (then named Abram) is living in obscurity in the region of Haran when he receives a call from God. God calls him to leave his country, his family, and his native culture and migrate to a land that God will show him.

If Abram will obey God’s command, then God makes some extravagant promises to him. First, God will make him into a great nation. Second, God will bless Abram (which as the story unfolds we learn includes great prosperity). Third, God will make Abram’s name great. And fourth, God will use Abram to bring a blessing upon all peoples of the earth.

These are extravagant promises. They represent all the great dreams and cravings of kings and other potentates through the ages. These powers have exhausted immense resources in order to acquire just these desirables.

But what catches my eye when I read this story is that third promise from God. God promises to make Abram’s name great. This was the great longing of the people of Babel when they launched their tower. Abram is promised this great blessing with an amazing fame that will indeed extend down through generations upon generations and throughout the earth.

God, however, invites Abraham not to seek this blessing by his own initiative. Abraham is not instructed to go and do great deeds that will rebound with praise among the people around him, especially great deeds in war or business. Instead Abraham is invited to simply respond to God in obedience to his command to go on an undoubtedly risky venture.

Abraham does obey. The text states that obedience in one short sentence. So Abram went, as the Lord had told him( Genesis 12:4). God lives up to his promise. Abraham is today one of the most remembered and celebrated names in human history and the great hero of faith in three world religions. He is granted that measure of immortality that the people of Babel (and the heroes ofThe Illiad) so craved.

 Stories that Probe Our Inner Spirit

What links the stories of the Tower of Babel and the call of Abraham is this repeated theme of making a great name for one’s self. That theme figures prominently in both stories. That fact, I contend, is the signal to us that the editors want us to read these two stories in juxtaposition.

What these two stories can do together is provoke us to think as well about our true motivations for doing the things we do in our own lives. Are we motivated by a desire to make a great reputation for ourselves that will establish, for example, our superior status in the community? If so, are we falling for the bogus promise that the siren goddess sings.

Or are we motivated by other factors: our genuine desire to be of service to God or to the community. Or by our sheer delight and joy in doing the things that give us delight and joy regardless of whether we win recognition for what we do or not?

This is how I find reflecting on these two stories from Genesis shines a probing light on my own inner spirit.

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* Achilles has a very different take on his choice when Odysseus encounters him in the land of the dead in the eleventh chapter of The Odyssey. When Odysseus points out to Achilles his great fortune in holding such a renowned reputation as a warrior on earth, Achilles protests that he would rather be a plough man on earth working for a poor farmer than lord over this collection of dead warriors, which Achilles calls “used-up men.”

Darkness Is My Only Companion

Psalm 88 is a psalm of lament like no other.

person standing next to tree

Photo by Suliman Sallehi on Pexels.com

It’s a common misperception that the Old Testament psalms are all songs of praise or thanksgiving. The reality is that the majority of them are desperate pleas for help in times of trouble. Scholars label them psalms of lament.

The troubles listed in these laments are the many troubles and tribulations that afflict human beings. They include: life-threatening illness, anxiety, malicious gossip and reputation smearing, social ostracism, betrayal by friends, murder by ambush, oppression by the rich and powerful, defeat in battle, foreign invasion, even old age.

What is striking about these lament psalms is that the psalmists bring all these troubles before God. The lament psalms are poetic prayers. They plead for God’s saving intervention.

And in most, there is not only a fervent plea but also an ardent hope that God will come soon to save them. Yet if God delays, the psalmist remains confident that God will nonetheless come. A good example is Psalm 22, where after the psalmist expresses his torment in anguished terms, he concludes the psalm in confident praise.

The Israelite Horror before Death

Psalm 88, however, stands apart from all the other lament psalms. For one thing, it contains one of the most vivid descriptions of the ancient Israelite’s expectation on the afterlife. That expectation did not involve a belief in either a heaven or a hell. Instead all the dead, righteous or evil, entered the subterranean world of Sheol (also called the Pit). We see this world described in verses 3-6 and again in verses 10-12.

This land of the dead was a shadowy world where the dead subsisted in a drained-out ghostly existence. We might think of them as zombies. What was most distressing about this world of the dead was that God was not present in it. God abandoned them.

We experience the bleakness of this vision of the afterlife when we hear the psalmist talk of the dead as …those whom you [God] remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. (Verse 5). This is intensified when the psalmist rhetorically asks: Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? (Verse 10) The implied answer, of course, is No.

In this language we see how much of an existential horror death is to the ancient Israelite mindset. The expectation of resurrection has yet to dawn in the Israelite consciousness. This is important to remember when we read the language of salvation in the Old Testament. It does not mean going to heaven when we die. Rather salvation language talks of God’s intervening rescue of us in the trials and tribulations of this life. The Exodus story is the great epic of salvation in the Old Testament.

A Dialogue of Accusation

The second striking feature of Psalm 88 is the psalmist’s boldness in accusing God as the source of his troubles. In Verses 6-7, he moves to second-person address, saying, You [God] have put me in the depths of the Pit…your wrath lies heavy upon me.

This accusatory speech continues as the psalm progresses. Inverses 13-18, one accusation piles onto another:

O Lord, why do you cast me off?

            Why do you hide your face from me? (Verse 14)

I suffer your terrors; I am desperate. (Verse 15)

Your wrath has swept over me;

            your dread assaults destroy me. (Verse 16)

 I am astounded at the psalmist’s boldness in accusing God of being the cause of all his troubles, in effect, his enemy. If biblical faith is to be understood as trust, then here we see its almost negation. The only vestige of faith that I can identity in this psalm is the fact that throughout the psalm, the psalmist continues to address his complaints to God.

The psalm in fact is a prayer, for it begins O Lord, God of my salvation(Verse 1). The psalmist has not cut off his dialogue with God, even though the tone has turned angry and vituperative. This psalm calls to mind the boldness of Job as well as he contends with God over the cause of his misery.

At the Bottom, Despair

The final striking feature of this psalm is its ending. The psalm comes to an abrupt stop on a bottom note of deep despair:

You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

            my companions are in darkness.(Verse 18)

This is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the verse. But the Psalter in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer gives it an even more desolate expression.

My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,

            and darkness is my only companion.

Here the psalmist finds himself in profound and deep isolation. He sees no reason for hope or confidence that God will hear his prayer or reverse his situation. It is certainly the starkest verse in all the psalms and possibly in all of the Bible. Whereas the other psalms of lament have various expressions of hope and confidence in God, this one stands apart in its utter hopelessness.

A Psalm for Humanity in Its Depths

I find myself amazed that the editors of the psalms should have included this psalm in their collection of ancient Israelite poetry. The tendency of most pious would have been to exclude it as a perversion of faith.

I am glad the editors did not. It seems to me this psalm gives expression to those times when our own faith hangs on by something as fragile as a spider’s silk strand. These are the times when life experiences throw us into such confusion and despair that we can see no light at the end of our tunnel.

At such times, we, too, know darkness as our only companion. I certainly have experienced such times in my own life, especially in my young adult years. It is reassuring that the psalmist seems to give us sanction for lifting up such times of depression to God, even if it must be in the words of accusation, desperation, and despair.

It is also why this psalm can speak powerfully to people trapped in a downward spiral. Once when I was serving as a hospital chaplain, I visited a patient who was suffering from a serious kidney disease that had endured for ten years. She was a good church woman. But as we talked, she expressed her weariness with God who did not seem to respond to her prayers for healing. She felt, she said, so utterly alone and abandoned, especially as her friends at church continued to enjoy robust health.

I suggested that I read a psalm to her and then ask if it expressed how she was feeling. I read Psalm 88. When I finished, she looked at me and said, “Chaplain, I don’t feel that bad yet.” This psalm may have been helping her to realize that her faith was not yet at such an end as she thought it was.

One of the things that has always drawn me to the Bible is the astonishing range of human experience that its words give expression to. Its understanding of the realm of faith is far more expansive of human experience and emotions that most religious people dare go.