God the Connoisseur

Did God create the universe because God loves beauty?

I have been preparing a set of talks on the two creation stories we find in Genesis 1-3. A recurring note in the first story (Genesis 1:1-2:3) is that after each day’s work in the creation process, God pauses to survey what he has done. He finds it good.

When the whole work of creation is complete at the end of the sixth day, God not only finds his creative work good, but declares it “very good”. This places a superlative judgment on all of God’s work.

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Like a precious pearl: The earth seen from outer space. Photo credit: NASA.

The Hebrew word we translate as good in this text is the word tov. It is helpful to understand the specific associations of this word. Tov does not carry a primary association of moral goodness. Rather it seems to mean more precisely good as something that pleases us, something that delights us, or something that gives us pleasure because it works the way it is supposed to. It has an aesthetic connotation rather than a moral connotation.

So when we read in Genesis that God looks upon his creative work and declares it tov, the text is signaling that God looks upon his creation like an art connoisseur. God sees it working as it is supposed to. He appreciates its beauty. That fills him with pleasure.

When we attend church, we don’t often hear ministers talk about God as one who delights in beauty. But I think we should. For the one who creates us as sensuous creatures is one who appreciates the power of beauty to move us deep within.

What Evokes Our Feeling of Awe

I know there are many ways people think of the power of beauty. I think of it, however, as the power to evoke in us a spontaneous response of pleasurable awe. When we stand in the presence of something beautiful, we catch our breath. Why? Because it seems so right as it is. For whatever reason it exists, it fulfills that reason perfectly. It is what it is meant to be.

That’s why, for example, a mathematician may describe a particular mathematical formula beautiful. It is what it is meant to be, often with the greatest of simplicity. When we look at a painting or a sculpture and proclaim it beautiful, we are in awe of what it is, precisely because every aspect of it–whether color, line, shape, or texture– contributes to that right being.

That is apparently the response of God in the Genesis text when God surveys the world he has created. In God’s vision, every aspect of this world is as it is meant to be. Therefore it is exceedingly tov or beautiful.

I think humans get in touch with that same feeling when we see some of the images of heavenly phenomena that have been captured by the Hubble telescope. Some of the images of galaxies or astral clouds just shimmer with color. They dazzle us.

Is that why on the seventh day God rests? God takes time to enjoy the beauty of the work he has just completed. Maybe that is also one reason why God created in the first place. God enjoys beauty and cannot help but be an artist.

Certainly the beauty of creation is cause for praise, according to the psalmist. One of the great praise psalms is Psalm 148. It soars as a song praising God for all the beautiful diversity of the universe. The psalmist moves from the glories of heaven, with its sun, moon, and stars, through the sea monsters and other creatures of the deep, through natural phenomena like fire, snow, and stormy winds, through the majesty of mountains, to the abundance of animals and wild beasts, to the diversity of human beings.

When we seek to create things of beauty, we humans show ourselves to be images of God, as the Genesis creation text says we are. We too take delight in creating things that shine out a glory because they are what they are meant to be.

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Power and Service

Jesus’ counter-cultural paradigm of power.

In 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted an exhibition on Hatshepsut, the ancient Egyptian queen. My wife bought a catalogue for me as a gift. I had not read it until a couple of weeks ago.

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Colossal images of Hatshepsut in the guise of the god Osiris at her mortuary temple. Photo: S.F.E. Cameron

Hatshepsut is a rare figure in Egyptian history. She is the most prominent woman who occupied the throne as a sovereign Pharaoh in the over 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian civilization, a position she held for some 20 years. During her rule, Egypt flourished. She seems to have sparked some new directions in art, as is demonstrated by the many wonderful artistic creations in the exhibition. They include several sculptures of Hatshepsut (often dressed in the regalia of a male king).

As I turned the catalogue pages I was fascinated to watch Pharaonic propaganda at work. Egyptian kings, including Hatshepsut, made sure they were the chief subject of royal art, especially the art in public locations. Pharaohs often added new structures to old temples or built brand new temples. They covered these temple walls with images and hieroglyphics proclaiming their exploits. They magnified the gods by magnifying themselves.

When they built new gateways into temples, they adorned them with colossal sculptures of themselves seated on thrones or striding forward. So large were these statues that a person of normal height might only come up to the statue’s ankle or calf when he or she stood beside it. Any person entering the temple must have been intimidated by these displays of royal power, or at least reminded of how insignificant he or she was beside such  power.

Hatshepsut was a great builder in this time-honored tradition. Her greatest construction was her mortuary temple (Deir al Bahri). It sat on the west bank of the Nile, directly in alignment with the great temple of Karnak on the other side of the river. It is one of the highlights of Egyptian architecture, with beautiful terraces advancing up to the inner sanctuary.

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Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir al Bahri reconstructed. Photo: Andrea Piroddi

Across the façade of these terraces Hatshepsut erected a series of colossal statues of herself in the garb of a king or in the garb of Osiris, god of the afterlife. It marked a formidable entrance into the structure. Statues in the exhibition were smaller, but very formal in pose presenting images of sober majesty.

I am sure Pharaohs chose to sponsor such art because they believed it proclaimed their superior power and divine status (Pharaohs were considered living gods.) Such art legitimated their rule, but also must have been designed to make sure their subjects never questioned who was truly in control.

Such propaganda has been common in other cultures as well. Many a strongman has resorted to it. One only needs to remember the colossal statue of Nero which he erected in ancient Rome or the colossal statues of Lenin and Stalin erected in the Soviet Union.

Jesus’ Paradigm

As I turned the pages of the catalogue, however, I found myself thinking how totally opposite is this mindset of power to the mindset we see exhibited in Jesus in the New Testament. I am drawn in particular to the famous Christ hymn that the apostle Paul quotes in Philippians 2:5-11:

[Christ], though he was in the form of God,

            did not regard equality with God

            as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

            taking the form of a slave,

            being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

            he humbled himself

            and became obedient to the point of death—

            even death on a cross.

  Therefore God also highly exalted him

            and gave him the name

            that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

            every knee should bend,

            in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

            that Jesus Christ is Lord,

            to the glory of God the Father.

This hymn is a remarkable reflection on Jesus’ mindset concerning power. It states, for example, that Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not grab at equality with God. Instead Jesus freely chose to empty himself and take on the form of a servant.

The word servant in Greek is actually the word slave. One can hardly think of a more powerless person than a slave who has virtually no control over his or her life. Yet Jesus freely accepts such humiliation, even when it ends in death.

Yet paradoxically this choice leads in the end to the highest of power as God exalts him by giving him the name which exceeds all names, namely the name of God himself. It is in humble service that Jesus comes into the fulness of power. The apostle Paul holds up Jesus’ example as the one Jesus’ disciples are to follow.

Hatshepsut and her fellow monarchs would have found such advise incomprehensible. Also do many people today, Christian and non-Christian. Yet this is the seemingly crazy message that the Christian gospel proclaims. It is a message that goes against every natural instinct we have. It has been, therefore, a hard message to live, as Christian history shows.

 

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

New Directions in Evangelism

What might chocolate chip cookies have to do with the Christian message?

Evangelism today is challenging. In our mean world of controversy and polarization, Christians have adapted well to the surrounding culture. We are now best known for our mean words and actions.

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Photo credit: Procsitas Moscas

Both undermine our efforts to share the gospel. We call our message good news. But many outside the church hear it as bad news. Our words come across as hollow and inauthentic. Instead of enticing people into our fellowship, we drive them away.

How do we change that dynamic? By acting out kindness, says Andrew Ponder Williams, a campus minister in southern California, in a blog posting titled Kindness is the New Evangelism. He describes the power of simple kind acts such as handing out free cookies to people passing by on the street. The unexpected free gift puzzles people, opening an opportunity for conversation.

I found it a very thoughtful essay. It sent my thinking into new directions. I think it might do so for you, too. I would encourage you to click on the link above and read it for yourself.

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.

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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.

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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.