Tag Archives: Old Testament

Minor, Minor Prophets based on Psalm 141

“Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.

Do not turn my heart to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds

in company with those who work iniquity; do not let me eat of their delicacies.

Let the righteous stroke me; let the faithful correct me.

Never let the oil of the wicked anoint my head,

for my prayer is continually against their wicked deeds.”

There is no more appropriate way to celebrate the Feast of John the Baptist than to be a prophet a little like John. Not exactly like, of course; we each have another life. And forth-telling was seldom a fulltime occupation for the prophets of the Bible. John the Baptist was exceptional in this as in many other things. He was a professional prophet literally from the womb. St. Luke tells us that as a child he “grew and became strong, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publically to Israel” (1:80). Most prophets in the Bible were other things before—and after–God called them to speak his word—farmers, mothers, fathers, priests, and carpenters. Some were called to speak just one prophetic word of warning to the powers that be before they dropped back into their former lives.

And so each one of us who have the Spirit of Jesus in us are given our prophetic moments, I am convinced. We may be only “minor minor prophets,” beloved, but that does not mean that when confronted with evil we are not called to speak out in the tradition of John the Baptist. We have a sacred duty to do so, because unless we speak out against evil when we see it, we are a party to it and responsible for it.

In a strategy recently announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it is the stated policy of our government that anyone who enters the country illegally—including those who come here seeking asylum from Central American violence and drug gangs–will be prosecuted to the limit of the law, with their minor children taken from them and placed in separate custody as a form of deterrence. It is a controversial policy. Everyone more or less admits that forceably separating parents from their children is an inhumane practice—even the president doesn’t want to take responsibility for it.  But that doesn’t matter to those who are enforcing a policy that is callous even for this administration.  “If you don’t like that,” Sessions said, “then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

More than 700 minors, including toddlers and babies, have been separated from their parents at the border between last October and April of this year; another 600 since the “zero tolerance” policy was announced in May. The kind of pain and anxiety and trauma these numbers represent is unimaginable. This is not the rule of law, this is intentional cruelty. There is no other way to describe a policy of a government that criminalizes desperate people, and uses children as a way to punish their parents. It is a national sin—there is no other word for it.

There are some people who simply cannot cut a deal with evil, and they are the “major prophets” of every time.  John the Baptist was like that. With evil he was like dog with a snake—he could not leave it alone. He could not keep his mouth shut; that is what cost him his head.

But most of us are not possessed with that passion for justice that John had. We are not “a voice crying in the wilderness.” We are able to accommodate ourselves to the little injustices around us quite neatly and live with the living. If we do not find ourselves and ours in jeopardy, it is easy enough for us to resign ourselves to the suffering of others, and to deplore life’s small cruelties, but do nothing about them.

It isn’t very nice, perhaps, but that’s how we ordinary people are.

But there are times when we stand in the presence of self-righteous evil and are forced to make a choice. This policy of separating parents from their children as a form of punishment and deterrence is manifestly wicked, but it is only the beginning of what will be done. If we want to call ourselves followers of the crucified Lord we have to resist it now, and become minor minor prophets.

Cruelty is not an unintentional byproduct of the White House immigration policy, it is its objective. Its intention is to cause pain and agony for parents and trauma in young children for the sake of vague policy goals, which are not succeeding anyway. It is revenge upon the poorest. It is cruelty for its own sake, beloved, and we cannot ignore it without adding to the suffering of Christ.


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Filed under Church, Life in the Spirit, Old Testament, Prophets, Psalms

Steadying the Ark (2 Samuel, Matt. 8:24-27)

There is a brutal little story tucked away in the book of 2 Samuel. I encountered it for the first time as a child, when my grandmother was reading the Bible aloud to me, as she often did. I stopped her when I heard it and wanted to know “why?” It seemed to me so ruthless and unjust. It still does rather.

King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The progress was surrounded with great joy, with the king and all the house of Israel dancing and singing before the oxcart that carried the sacred ark, accompanied by diverse instruments. And then in the midst of the fun disaster struck:

“When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:6-8).

It says that David was “angry because the LORD had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah,” and we too are bound to find the story disturbing, to say the least.  And it doesn’t help a great deal for us to be reminded that for ancient Israel the ark was the preeminently sacred object, the seat upon which God was thought to sit, the symbol of his presence with his people. It was surrounded by the strongest taboos. When it had to be carried, it was lifted with long poles, and under no circumstances was it to be touched.

But the oxen stumbled. The ark swayed. What if it had fallen? Uzzah thought he was responsible for it, and he reached out to steady the ark to save God from indignity of seeing his throne crash to the ground in a pile of rubble. If you have been around churches as long as I have, beloved, you can imagine what sort of person Uzzah must have been—in charge of the property, a bit possessive and officious, kind of a fuss budget, actually.

In any case he reached out and touched the ark and the fury of the LORD burst out upon him. A moment later he lay dead. As a child, his story both fascinated and appalled me. I asked my grandmother if he had been electrocuted. She said “sort of.” I wanted to know “why?” It all seemed to me so grossly unfair of God. That someone could be struck dead for trying to be helpful. This is certainly not a story for children to whom you’re trying to teach responsible behavior. Nor is it likely to show up in any Sunday school curriculum with an accompanying picture to color.

But it is an adult story and speaks to an adult problem. Those of us who love the church are often feel dismayed and helpless by the disarray into which it has fallen. It is a mess; who can deny it. Looking at it, we feel humiliated for God, and we would like to save him the embarrassment of the Church as it is. Not that we ever could—in our hearts we know that–but we try anyway, criticizing, worrying and fretting, getting fussy over small things, treating the church itself as an idol. That’s what Uzzah in the story did—he treated the ark as an idol, not a seat for the invisible omnipotent God, but a thing made with human hands to be worshipped in itself, and he reached out his hand to steady his god.

But the living God does not want or need to the saved by us.  He can take care of himself. Uzzah didn’t need to steady the ark. God was always in charge; there never was any real danger of its falling. In this regard you will recall another story, this one about a storm that came up suddenly on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:24-27). The disciples were terrified by the wind and the waves, but we are told that Jesus was fast asleep. So they woke him to say, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!” But they really didn’t need saving. They were safe—as long as they were in the boat with the Lord. And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you little faith people.” Then he rebuked the winds and the sea, and we are told that there was a dead calm.

These days Church is being tossed about in rough seas—I’m sure you’ve noticed that. The ark is shaken by controversy and scandal. There is a fussy part of us that feels that we should be doing something about it. But we are at a loss as to exactly what. We lament that things are no being done as they used to be. We lament the indifference of the young and the shortcomings of the clergy. We think that if we were in charge things would be better. We feel as if we should steady the ark or wake the sleeping God to keep the boat from sinking.

But what we need to remember that at the threshing floor of Nacon the oxen stumbled, but the cart didn’t overturn nor did the ark fall. And on the Sea of Galilee the boat was tossed by the storm but it did not capsize. “We have this hope,” as the writer of Hebrews says, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. . .” (6:19).  And reliant on that hope we need to calm ourselves to let God take care of himself and his coming Kingdom in his own way. He is our Savior—not the other way around. He gives each of us something to do, and we should by all means do it, but with the recognition that we can’t do everything or even what is most necessary. Only what we can as well as we can.

In 1906 Winchester cathedral was in danger of collapsing. The south and east walls of the great building were sinking slowly into the ground beneath, which consisted principally of peat. Great cracks had appeared in the fabric of the building. But there was a dilemma. In order for bricklayers reinforce the foundation, the groundwater first had to be lowered. And without support, the removal of the groundwater would cause the complete collapse of the building.

The problem was solved with the help of a quiet bravery of professional driver by the name of William Walker. 235 pits each about twenty feet deep were dug around the walls of the cathedral, and they immediately filled with turgid water. Walker descended into each one of those holes and using 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks he shored up the walls of the church so that the water could be pumped out and the job completed by masons. He worked in complete darkness owing to the sediment suspended in the water. The job took years.

But before he died of Spanish flu in 1918, Walker was credited with having laid the foundation of the whole cathedral, which stands today as a monument to his courage and determination. I have a photograph of William Walker in his diving helmet, rubber suit, and weighted boots hanging over my desk. It reminds me that the Church has to be shored up from below by men and women who do what they can do, diligently and in obscurity. But they don’t delude themselves into thinking that it depends upon them. They don’t fuss. They do what they can. They feed the hungry and care for the down and out, and preach the good news, generally keep the world from ending, which it would if it were not for them.

But it is the Lord the Spirit that gives permanence to the Church, not human beings. As St. Paul writes: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; and that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).  And we need to pray that the Spirit will save us from our all too human tendency toward fussiness, that presumption that makes us want to steady the ark when we see it shaken. It will not fall, and we couldn’t stop it if it did. In that regard we are as helpless as we feel. The Kingdom does not rest upon us. What does depend upon us are the things, great or small, that we called to do in the Kingdom—that’s all and that’s enough.

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Friends in High Places 2 Kings 2:1-14

Friends in High Places      2 Kings 2:1-14    

A woman remarked to me recently–“I’m in a slump right now. . . .” She said it in passing, but her words stuck with me because that’s where I am as well—in The Slump. The Slump is a real place, at least as real as Madagascar. And I suppose it’s not so surprising that we all get there eventually, because we are on the same journey. And traveling down the same road, sooner or later we reach the same places along the way.

The Slump is a low, dim place somewhere more than halfway along life’s journey where a number of paths converge, half obscured by the undergrowth. And there we have stop and make a choice what to do with the rest of our lives. The Slump is an ambivalent place. It might be a dangerous spot, but only if we cannot make up our mind which is the right way to go. I may also be a good opportunity to pause and catch our breath before we move on. But not too long. Night is coming on. We can make out the lights of Jerusalem faintly twinkling through the branches. We know we need to be at the gates before dark. But we still aren’t sure which path to choose, and as much as at any time in our lives we need the company of someone who has been this way before.

The people we meet in the Bible have frequently reached The Slump. They stand at a crossroads in their lives, at a moment of decision. Which path to take? Right or left? Uphill or down? Each of them made a choice and moved forward—that’s why we call them saints. Saints are those who follow The Way. But none of them were saints alone. Every one had a guide, someone who had been down The Way before, and each one was a companion to another saint coming after. Each one was part of the Golden Chain that stretches from creation to the end of days.

The two Books of Kings in the Old Testament contain stories about two saints whose lives were linked together in just this way. The prophets Elijah and Elisha–master and disciple–were active in the northern kingdom of Israel some eight hundred years before the birth of Christ. Their message was clear and consistent—the people of Israel must return to a wholesome, grass-fed devotion to Yahweh and forsake their dangerous taste for rich, well-marbled foreign gods. Otherwise something very bad was going to happen. And something very bad did in fact happen to the northern kingdom—the ultimate heart attack–but in their own time prophets are often regarded as traitors. And not a few of them die because nations cannot endure very much truth. Nevertheless, Elijah and Elisha continued to deliver their dangerous message with courage in the face of the murderous kings of Israel and their still more murderous queens. They were heroes, but they did not live in isolation, like the heroes of pagan mythology. Elijah and Elisha were links in the Golden Chain, united by their love for each other and with saints who had gone before and those coming after. And their connectedness is what gave them strength and guidance to follow the Way.

In Second Kings, chapter two, verses 1-14 we are told a wonderful story—wonder-filled in every sense–that illustrates how the Golden Chain connects those who are part of it. Here find Elijah ready to depart this life. The prophet was no ordinary man, and his death promised to be no ordinary passing. It would be as wonder-filled as his life had been, surrounded by supernatural fireworks. Still the story begins quietly enough. We find Elijah and Elisha, the old master and his younger disciple, walking along together, as they must have walked many times before. Their sojourn is like life itself, and the journey we take together to all the places along the way. Then we come to Parting. We all get there eventually. And between Elijah and Elisha there is the shared awareness that Parting is near. They share a sadness that goes beyond words. We recognize the feeling immediately. It is the realization that this life is not a troubled dream from which we will eventually awaken, young and clueless. This is it. But the older prophet hesitates to bring up the matter at hand, and the younger one chooses to ignore it as long as possible, doing what we all do when things are too painful to face head-on. So they walk on together in deepening silence.

Finally they cross the Jordan River together and the dying business can be postponed no longer.  So Elijah says to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ And Elisha replies, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ To this strange request the old man responds, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’ So they continue walking and talking, and suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate the two of them. Elijah ascends in a whirlwind into heaven, and as he has been instructed Elisha watches. But he is so overcome by emotion he cannot prevent himself from crying, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ And when he can no longer see the other, we are told that Elisha grasps his own clothes and tears them in pieces, as a sign of his personal desolation.

It is indeed a wonder-filled story—as promised–and a tough one for us modern readers to grasp. In interpreting such a story, how literal is literal enough? And how literal is too literal? How much are we dealing with historical facts here–what we would have seen if we had been present–and how much are we delving into the realm of subjective reality—Elisha’s personal experience? Religious experiences—visions and revelations–are so stubbornly individual that they do not open themselves to outside scrutiny. So is the ascension of Elijah a dream or a vision or something more than both? Is it somehow related to the ancient myth of the sun chariot, as some scholars have suggested. The longer we stare at this wonder-filled story the more obscure it becomes. So in the end the modern question—what really happened?—cannot be settled. There is a truth here, but it is ultimately a personal truth. Elisha’s truth—and ours. So let’s say what we can say about this story and go from there.

The Law of Moses provided that the eldest son in the family should receive a double share of the divided inheritance. So when Elisha asks for a “double share of your spirit,” he is not asking to be greater than his master, but to be acknowledged as his eldest son and principal heir. The bond they share runs deeper than that between a teacher and a student. We are to understand Elisha’s request as a sincere desire to imitate, to continue, in the profoundest way to “live out” the Elijah’s life, as a son continues his father’s life. But there is more to it than that. Elisha’s parting cry, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” expresses not only a son’s grief, but a patriot’s anguish over the future of his people, because Elijah’s prophetic gifts, now departed, were of greater value in the defense of the kingdom than all its horse-drawn chariots.

Yet even in his anguish Elisha does not look away. He had been told to watch his master’s going, and he does. And by this ultimate act of faithfulness, he inherits the Elijah’s mantle, the powerful emblem of his charismatic power, which falls to the ground as he ascends. The inheritance has passed. So we are told that Elisha “picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side, and to the other, and Elisha went over.” The miracle recalls the wonders performed by Moses and Joshua, who also divided the waters, and from whom Elijah had in his turn inherited his prophetic gifts.  Each prophet is a link in The Golden Chain, and the gifts of the spirit—courage, insight, integrity—are in an almost literal sense “inherited,” passed down as a legacy from one to another. Elijah and Elisha were separated by “a chariot of fire and horses of fire,” but the Golden Chain was not be broken.    

I read another similar story recently—equally wonder-filled in its own way. This one belonging to our own time.  Early in March of this year Pope Francis confessed in a private conference having taken a cross from the rosary that had belonged to his confessor from the dead priest’s casket. He told those present that he carried it in his shirt pocket for years, but now that he does not have pockets in his cassock, he wears it in a fabric pouch under his cassock. Francis has the status of a superstar these days, and everything about him is of interest to the press, to whom this story inevitably leaked. And they, of course, latched onto it and, taking it out of context, grossly misinterpreted it.  

It took considerable courage to tell such a remarkable story in the first place, especially for someone in the Pope’s position. But he did so in the context of an informal chat with other priests about the need to be merciful to those in their care. In involves the “great confessor” of Buenos Aires, who routinely heard the confessions of most of priests of that diocese, as well as of Pope John Paul II when he visited Argentina. The priest died. But when Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, came to pray at his open casket, he was horrified to find that no one had thought to bring any flowers.  “This man forgave the sins of all the priests of Buenos Aires, but not a single flower . . . ?” Francis recalled. So he went out and bought a bouquet of roses, and it was when he returned to arrange them around the casket, that he saw the rosary the dead priest held twined in his fingers. “Immediately there came to mind the thief that we all have inside ourselves,” the Pope recalled. “While I arranged the flowers, I took the cross and with just a bit of force, I removed it.” And in that moment I looked him and I said, ‘Give me half your mercy.’”

Here is another of those religious experiences that do not readily open themselves to outside scrutiny. Its meaning is stubbornly individual.  But whatever else this story might be, this is not a story about a petty theft. It is a story about how the gifts of the spirit are passed down from one saint to another. Like the mantle of Elijah, the cross the cross Pope Francis wears next to his heart represents a spiritual inheritance, something more real than anything that can be touched. In this case the legacy he asked for was a deep empathy with human weakness, with “the thief that we all have inside ourselves.” And we must presume the request was granted. “Whenever a bad thought comes to mind about someone, my hand goes here, always,” Pope Francis told his audience of priests, gesturing to the pouch with the cross in it that he wears next to his heart. “And I feel the grace, and that makes me feel better.”  It not only makes him “feel better,” but it presumably makes him be better as well—forgiving and less judgmental. An attitude adjustment we all could use, heaven knows!

So how do these wonder-filled stories from the lives of an Old Testament prophet and a contemporary pope reflect upon our own lives, beloved?  They speak to something very important to the Christian life, something we confess that we believe in every Sunday—the communion of saints. The same love and power that binds the Trinity of three persons together, also flows into the world, connecting the saints of each generation to those who have gone before and  those who will follow after. In baptism we became a links in that Golden Chain, and each of us possesses an inheritance we are too slow to claim, especially in those passages in our lives when most need a guide, a confidant and a friend.

So when we are perplexed, when we are confronted with several paths and are uncertain which to follow, when we simply need someone to talk to, all we have to do is ask. We have friends in high places, beloved. Friends have made this journey before and know the Way. New life and forgiveness of sin come only through faith in the crucified and living Christ, but we discover a unique source of comfort, guidance, patience and strength in his saints, in that great “cloud of witnesses,” with which the writer of Hebrews says that we are surrounded (12:1). They are people like us—parents, grandparents, teachers, friends–who struggled and sometimes stumbled, but then got up again and went on the Way. And through them the power and mercy and wisdom of God flows out of eternity into this world of time and space.

Praying to the saints involves a stretch for those of us who were brought up stanchly Protestant. In confirmation class I can clearly remember Pastor Carl Nelson telling us telling us in no uncertain terms that we were to pray to God alone, in Jesus’ name.  To pray to the Mother of God and the saints is a form of idolatry, he said. But Pastor Carl Nelson, who was himself a very saintly man, is now himself dead and part of that “cloud of witnesses.” And I would have no trouble at all asking for his prayers, as I might ask for the prayers of any other Christian.  And I am certain that if I asked I would get it, because as I said, he was a very saintly man.

Maybe it’s those words “pray to” that are the real problem. Maybe “talk to” better expresses the meaning of communion with the saints. They are someone to talk to. Elijah talked to Elisha, and bequeathed him his prophetic spirit. Pope Francis asked a favor of his dead confessor and received half his mercy.  When I see old photographs or my parents and grandparents, I feel their presence very close by. Things that belonged to them also have that effect, like Elijah’s mantle or the confessor’s cross–they become a point of meeting between us.  There is nothing more natural than talking with them, asking for their prayers and accepting guidance along the path they have already gone.

And there is nothing more staunchly Protestant than to say the saints are the saints. It is not the institutional Church that confers sainthood. It is the Holy Spirit who confers sainthood upon the baptized. Sainthood is not something that is minted. Sainthood is something that we can recognize when we see and feel it. The institutional church canonizes certain saints, which it does for its own often political reasons, but you and I are free to talk with anyone who has gone before us, asking for their prayers and guidance in the same way we would ask for the prayers and guidance of any other Christian to any member of the church, It isn’t some sort of weird form of ancestor worship, but the most natural thing in the world, as a sincere desire to imitate, to continue, in the profoundest way to “live out” the lives of those whom we have admired and loved.

We wonder what to do with the rest of our lives. What should I do next?  But we don’t need a program, beloved. We don’t need map to find Jerusalem. We need a saint to hold onto. All of us want to follow Christ, but we can’t do that alone. We are links in a Golden Chain. We need to take hold of the hand of one who has gone before us and then lend a hand to someone who is comes after. The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas contains several sayings of Jesus that scholars believe to be authentic. There the Lord says to his disciples—“Whoever is near me is near the fire, and whoever is far from me is far from the kingdom.” We feel the warmth of Jesus through the hands of his saints.

In the end it is not what we do that matters, beloved. It is what we are. The Spirit will show us what he wants us to do next. We don’t need to concern ourselves over that. Being part of the Golden Chain is what really matters. Which way we go is not important. Every path faithfully followed leads in the end to Jerusalem. What is important is that we hold on.  

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Micah 6:1-8. What Does the Lord Require?

Micah 6:6-8   “What does the LORD require?”  March 4, 2014    

Living a global existence, as we all are forced to do these days, like it or not, I often find myself overwhelmed by the images of second-hand suffering. Is there really more misery out there than in times past? It does seem so at times, doesn’t it? The sophisticated technologies of news gathering have given us a God-like perspective on the mischief humanity is up too. We see close-up the realities of war and terrorism. We are presented with scenes of the unimaginable suffering caused by natural calamities—famine, flood, and earthquake. The media have thrown a window wide open upon the whole sad spectacle of human misery, offering us endless graphic images that clamor for an empathetic response.  

And for those who have planted within them a longing for goodness, who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” to use the words of Jesus, this overload of second-hand suffering doesn’t make a Christ-like response any easier. Quite the opposite.  It was much simpler to respond to the distress of our neighbors when we saw it in a more limited way. The people down the hill suffered poverty, and we were able to help with their electric bill. The widow next door suffered desolation and loneliness, and we were able visit her. The homeless man in the street needed a hot meal, and we were able to provide it. Of course we can still do all those things. Nothing is stopping us. Only now there are so many more neighbors and they are so much more distant from us and they are so much more desperate, literally dying of their want. We are able to look despair and desperation in the eyes of a mother and child half a world away.  I, for one, sometimes feel like I am drowning in a sea of pity.

Scientists who study such things tell us that human beings are equipped with “mirror neurons” that enable us to feel for and with others. Empathy is hard-wired into our brains. But apparently we are not equally endowed with these sensors, however. Some people seem to be physically more sensitive to the joys and sufferings of others, and therefore more likely to feel the tug of compassion toward a moral response.  

That tug, however, is by no means irresistible. Empathetic people—like ourselves, dare I say?–are not always willing or able to act concretely upon their moral feelings. They may indeed feel the suffering of others more vividly, but empathetic people are also more likely to comfort themselves with the idea that when they have felt something they have done something. They have a tendency to mistake their humane feelings for actions, their empathy for a concrete response. Empathy is a moral indulgence, not a moral imperative. There is a crucial difference between feeling empathy for that homeless woman begging at the traffic stop and actually giving her a dollar before the light changes. And if we don’t have exactly the right change—if, say, we only have a five–it is so much easier just to feel sorry and then drive on and let someone else take care of her.  After all, we did feel pity, and that’s something isn’t it? You can’t help everyone. There are too many beggars at our door. The whole world seems to have its hand out.

And there it is again–the problem of moral fatigue. The overload of second-hand suffering that leaves us frustrated and discouraged. We may feel responsible to do something, but also feel helpless to do anything that makes a difference. The needs are so distant and so enormous. The problems are so beyond our means, so impossible to comprehend, let alone solve, that we feel helpless, and helplessness leads to exhaustion. We shut the paper. We turn off the television.

We close the eyes of our attention. We try to shut out the words and images that disturb our peace of mind, but the questions do not go away, because it is the Holy Spirit that has put them there–How much individual responsibility do I have as a follower of Jesus to care for a hurting world? What are the limits of my responsibility? When I see or hear about of people half a world away and my eyes water from the smoke of a distant fire, I know I should do something. But what exactly?

Let me give you an example. My wife and I first heard about this one at the Greek Orthodox Church we attend. For the last few Sundays we have been asked to pray for thirteen Syrian nuns and three orphanage workers, who have been abducted from their monastery in Maaloula. Even as fighting raged in the area, the nuns refused to leave the orphans in their care. Then on December 2 of last year a group of armed rebels linked to al-Qaida and part of the three-year-old revolt seeking overthrow the Assad government in Syria, abducted them at gunpoint and took them to unknown destination, where they still remain. The oldest of the nuns is nearly ninety. The youngest of the orphanage workers—who are themselves orphans—is in her mid-teens.

In a video released shortly after the abduction the nuns denied that they had been kidnapped, saying that they were in good health and being sheltered at location distant from the fighting. But that was almost three months ago now, and nobody any longer believes that they are being held for their safety.

Certainly not the Patriarch of Antioch. After the abduction of the nuns, Patriarch John issued a powerfully worded statement which reads in part:  “Our appeal to the international community: Although we are grateful for all the feelings of solidarity, we no longer need denunciation, condemnation, or ‘feelings of concern’ about the assault on human dignity that is occurring, because all this is engraved in the conscience of all of us. Today, however, we need concrete actions, not words. We do not want voices of condemnation from decision makers, whether regional or international, but efforts, pressure and action leading to the release of those whose only fault was their clinging to their monastery and refusing to leave it.”

The statement has undertones of bitter irony. There is little that the United States and the nations of Western Europe can do to stop “the assault on human dignity” that is taking place in Syria, except raise “voices of condemnation.” We are not going to intervene there. That seems pretty clear. There are some very good reasons why we can’t. The lessons of Iraq are still too fresh in all our minds for us need to rehash them. So what sort of “concrete actions” can be forthcoming? The Orthodox Churches in America has been asked to remember the nuns and orphans of Maaloula in their prayers, together with the other bishops and clergy who had been abducted during the fighting. But apart from our prayers and our unwanted “feelings of concern,” what do we have to offer?

Well, nothing. That’s just the point. As individuals and as a nation we are helpless to effect any change in the situation in Syria—or in so many other corners of world where people are suffering. We can watch these humanitarian   tragedies play themselves out in the media, but apart from lighting a candle before an icon of the Mother of God and sending a check to UNICEF, we can do nothing. We see these assaults on human dignity and feel for those who suffer them—“all this is engraved in the conscience of all of us”—but we are helpless to effect any real or lasting difference.

 But that realization does nothing to the emptiness in our hearts that only personal righteousness can fill. Call it a hunger for righteousness or integrity or whatever you like. The Holy Spirit puts it into our hearts. According to the evangelist John’s account of Jesus’ suffering and death, the Lord, knowing “that all was now finished,” said “I am thirsty.”  He thirsted for the Kingdom of love and justice. It was an infinite thirst, but in our finite way we share in it.  And the question remains-What does it take to quench our thirst? “You always pay in blood or money,” my mother used to say.  How much does integrity cost?

The Old Testament prophet Micah is struggling with this same question when he asks: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” How much sacrifice does it take to restore a person to righteousness?

The prophet lived in a world where blood sacrifice was considered necessary to satisfy God’s demand for justice. Sin was thought of as an unpaid obligation, and real compensation was thought necessary to discharge that debt. Sometimes olive oil would be enough to mollify the LORD’s anger, but more often sin demanded the spilling of blood. Blood was the only thing that could effectively restore a person to righteousness in her or his own eyes and in the eyes of God. Of course, by rights it was the sinner’s own blood that should be spilled, but the blood of an innocent animal sacrificed in worship could provide a ritual substitute.

Still our restoration to righteousness is clearly beyond our means. An ocean of blood could not buy it. “Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,” the prophet asks in obvious frustration. “Shall I give by firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Outside of Israel, human sacrifice was not unheard of, even the sacrifice of firstborn children. The God of Abraham rejected the sacrifice of human blood (see Genesis 22:1-19). Even the utmost imaginable sacrifice is not enough.

That is why God did what he had forbidden us to do. He sacrificed his Son to pay our debt in blood—that the way that Christian theology has often interpreted the Cross. Jesus’ innocent death was a way—the only way—to satisfy for God’s own demand for justice and restore us to personal righteousness. All other sacrifices had proved ultimately futile. So much blood had been spilled and the world remained unreconciled to its Creator. So a better sacrifice was required, and Jesus Christ came to die in order to restore us to integrity, a restoration we embrace by faith alone.  

And having been made righteous by faith, depending on Christ alone, we are freed to pursue goodness for its own sake. Not only freed. We are now constrained by God’s unmerited grace to follow Jesus in the kind of life he led. Christ lived and died among us in order that we might share his life, which is the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit impels and empowers our striving for goodness.

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?” the prophet Micah asks. And then he provides an answer: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  

 Goodness requires more of us than feelings. Empathy for others is not a bad thing—it just isn’t a particularly good thing. It is a start, but not an end. Our response to human need has to go beyond mere sentiment. To be good we have to embody goodness, make it concrete and solid in our words and actions. God’s love was made incarnate in Jesus Christ, and our love must also be incarnated, made real and tangible. The LORD requires that we “do justice.”  That means living out the idea that all human beings deserve food, shelter, safety, and dignified work as a matter of right, not as a charitable gift. It is active justice.

The prophet links active justice with active kindness. Active kindness means addressing the enormous body of human suffering, which often threatens to overwhelm us, one instance at a time. Active kindness is discrete. It is done in the manner of Jesus. He helped and healed those he encountered, individually, and at the same time he offered ordinary friendship to all. It was his business. And to do justice and to love kindness is our business, beloved; our daily duty and not the result of sentimental feelings in which we occasionally indulge ourselves.

If I were shipped off to a desert island with only a half dozen books, I would take along Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I never grow tired of it. At one point in the story, Alice is invited to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts. It is a very confusing game indeed and made all the more frustrating because the mallets are live flamingos and the balls are hedgehogs. Everything is alive and has a mind of its own. And the situation is made all the more trying by the presence of the Duchess, monstrously ugly, always too close by, and with the annoying habit of finding a moral in everything that happens. But Alice, who is a polite and well-brought-up child, is always trying to make the best of things. . . .

“’The game’s going on rather better now,’ Alice said, by way of keeping up the conversation a little. ’Tis so,’ said the Duchess: ‘and the moral of that is—‘Oh, ‘tis love, ‘tis love, that makes the world go round!’  ’Somebody said,’ Alice whispered, ‘that it’s done by everybody minding their own business!’ ’Ah, well! It means much the same thing,’ said the Duchess. . . .”

That’s funny, of course, because on the surface love doesn’t seem at all the same thing as minding one’s own business.  But the two things have more in common than we might think. In fact, love is very much the same thing as minding our own business.

There is an ancient story of how once St. Anthony of Egypt was fretting about divine providence—how God would take care of things—and a voice came to him that said, “Anthony. Attend to yourself; for those are the judgments of God, and it is not for you to know them.” Attend to yourself, mind your own business, do your duty, “walk humbly with your God”—there are many ways of putting it, but they all mean roughly the same thing. Establish your moral code and then live by it.

Each of us has within ourselves the makings of a moral code. We have the raw material, “engraved in the conscience of all of us.” What we need to do is define what we know is good, and then commit ourselves to living out our code on a daily basis. Those who respond effectively to the misery in the world and are not overwhelmed by it are those who have a code they live by. Their code is what helps them to deal justly with other people and act with kindness toward people with whom they have nothing in common. Their personal code of conduct is open to refinement, but always remains the heart of their identity. It allows them to set goals toward which they can press, and it sets limits on what they can reasonably expect of themselves. It defines what their business is—and is not. And while we need to establish a code and then live by it, vigorously and without reservation, we need to remember that everybody’s code is going to be different.  

An eighty-four year old nun was recently sentenced to three years in prison for taking part in a breaking-in at the nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The incident took place in 2012. Megan Rice, a sister in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, together with two other conspirators, was convicted of defacing a bunker which holds the nation’s primary supply of the high-grade uranium used construct build bombs is kept. The break-in exposed serious flaws in security at the facility, but the three accomplices clearly regarded the break-in as a miracle.

Sister Rice asked the court to sentence her to life in prison. “Please have no leniency with me,” she said in her closing statement. “To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest gift you could give me.” After sentencing, the judge said that he was concerned that the three defendants showed no remorse for their actions and he wanted the relatively harsh sentence to serve as a deterrent for others contemplation the same sort of action. Whether the sentence is the just punishment of a criminal or the martyrdom of a saint I leave to you to decide.  

            But this much is clear–here is woman who has a code that lies at the heart of her identity. And living out her code vigorously and without reservation is giving meaning and joy to her existence. Whether her sacrifice will have real or lasting significance, no one knows but God. He alone decides whether our actions are good nor not. But Sister Rice has certainly made a stab at goodness.  And all that endures of our lives, beloved, is the good we do—or try to do. That comes from God and goes back to him. Everything else perishes utterly with us. Thank goodness!


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Who Is This? Job 38:40

January 5, 2014   (My Birthday, by the by)

“Who is this?”

                When I was a child I was an avid collector of stones. It commenced early. My mother said that as soon as I could walk I started picking up rocks and stuffing them into my pockets, and from then on I was never—night or day–without at least one stone on my person at any time. I suppose there must have been some deep psychological significance to my compulsive rock collecting. Who cares? All I know is that there was something in the beauty and the solidity of stones that I found comforting as a kid. They are dependable and companionable—in their own reserved fashion. And since mine was a solitary childhood—we lived miles away from our nearest neighbors–they became my silent playmates.

The badlands of western North Dakota were silent, empty place back then–the oil boom that has changed all that, and not altogether for the good. But back then McKenzie County where my father’s ranch was located was rapidly hemorrhaging population. There were few people—and every year fewer—but there were lots of stones everywhere. Wonderful stones. My father’s pasture with its deep gorges and coulees was rich in fossil life. There were petrified stumps taller than the tallest man and sandstone slabs printed with the most beautiful, delicate falls of Paleocene leaves.

                We didn’t see other people that often, out there back then, and when visitors did come to the ranch I always wanted to show them my fossil collection. “Don’t bring out those old stones, Billy,” my mother would beg, but I did anyway. The stones were part of me–the most interesting part, I thought. Most people were kind and pretended to show as interest, even if they didn’t feel it. But then once when I was ten years old or so my great uncle Dwight came to see my father on some matter or other, and I brought out my fossil collection to show him.

                  That was a big mistake. I really should have known better. Everyone knew what Uncle Dwight was like. To say he was zealously religious is the grossest understatement possible. Dwight was besotted with religion. He was God-intoxicated. A twice-born fundamentalist, an ardent adversary of “demon rum,” a fanatical puritan in every sense, he was the author of several religious tracts which he published at his own expense condemning women for wearing pants and “scent,” and putting forth the idea that if they ran around seductively dressed and smelling like harlots, it was their own fault if they got themselves raped. Shameless seducers, it was they and not their attackers who should be put in jail. You get the idea. It is hardly worth saying that he never married. He lived alone and devoted his spare time to the study of the Book of Revelation. He was as thick as two boards nailed together and just as rigid.

                And it was to this zealous old Pharisee that I presented my fossil collection for inspection. As I said, I should have known better. It gave him the perfect opening. He stood up like an Old Testament prophet and denounced my lovely, innocent stones in no uncertain terms as satanic imposters. They weren’t millions of years old as they pretended to be; they were lately forged by the devil himself in an attempt to mislead people into believing in the hell-inspired theory of evolution—which he persisted in mispronouncing “evil-ution.” The world was created in six days only five thousand years ago and loose change. The Holy Bible (KJV) said so.

I can see him yet, glowering down on me and my fossil collection with unmasked hatred, his eyes burning like coals of hungry fire. He looked as if he would have cheerfully stoned me to death with my own rocks, if he had been able.  I was ten years old—no more—a lonely, backward kid in thick glasses. And of course I could find nothing to say in reply to his tirade. Children didn’t “sass” their elders as much back then, and when stirred up great Uncle Dwight was indeed a very intimidating sight. For one thing, he turned a succession of nasty colors, one after another, his eyes bugged out, and the veins in his forehead stood out like sash cords. Sometimes in the heat of passion he would stamp his feet and do a sort of war dance. It was enough to frighten anyone.

So I just stood there, holding my box of fossils, and took it. I feel sure that in heaven I will forget Dwight completely for what he did to me that day, but I’m not there yet. No child needs to be humiliated like that—I certainly didn’t. It wounded me where I was most vulnerable, at the heart of myself.  But even though I stood there mute before his tirade, I knew Uncle Dwight was full of it.  

At ten years of age I already knew that the world wasn’t just five thousand and some odd years old. I knew my fossils weren’t the works of the devil intended to deceive anyone. They were the imprints left by ancient life forms laid down in sedimentary rocks millions and millions of years ago. I had a book with wonderful pictures that explained it all. The book compared those layered sedimentary stones to a book of wonders, its pages recording the epic story of life on our planet, how it evolved to greater and greater levels of complexity and awareness. And I believed what the book of stones said about the evolution of life on earth. I believed it instinctually, as one is drawn to the truth.

I believed in the Bible too, the ultimate book of wonders. I grew up in a household saturated with the Bible. My parents were both enlightened and devout. As a child I heard the Bible read and quoted constantly. It ordered our existence in this world, and drew us steadily toward the next with the monofilament line of grace.  We knew the risen Lord was with us, even in our obscure corner of the world, and his presence brought light into our wintery darkness and spoke peace to our loneliness. As a child I couldn’t see any real conflict between those two books, the Bible and the book of stones.

I still can’t.  Both are books of great mystery and beauty, and what binds them together is a sense of awe and wonder at our world—that it is—that we are in it—and that there is a Real Presence hidden in all things, like the bread and wine of Holy Communion. And that our world is so very, very old—so many millions of years that only God can count them—was a source of admiration and wonder to me as a child. And it came to me as a profound shock to discover that not everyone felt the same way. It still does.

                Here in Florida my wife and I usually worship at the Greek Orthodox cathedral up the street. But this Christmas our kids were with us and everyone felt the need to hear the familiar carols. So we celebrated Christmas Eve at a Lutheran church near where we live. I won’t burden you with its synod affiliation—some of you will guess it anyway. And the congregation made no bones about what they believe and teach. In the bulletin I found a list of affirmations under the title “OUR FAITH,” outlining what they believe and teach. And there is nothing wrong with that. They should know what they confess, and everyone else should too. But among their espoused doctrines, together with the redemptive suffering and death of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, I found this statement—“We believe and teach that man is not the product of evolutionary development but was created by Divine design in the image of God.” And suddenly through the candlelight, I saw the face of Uncle Dwight glaring down at me, his eyes still burning with hatred for the hell-inspired theory of “evil-ution.”

                My Uncle Dwight is long dead, but his point of view lives on in churches and flourishes. According to a recent Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe that God created human beings in pretty much their present form at one moment in time, less than 10,000 years ago. And in the face of the efforts of scientists and educators to convince them otherwise, the percentage of Americans who believe in what has come to called “creationism” has increased by 2% in the last thirty years. Uncle Dwight hasn’t won his battle with the devil, but he certainly hasn’t lost it either.

                Of course, we Americans are free to believe anything they jolly well want to. The right to be contrary is enshrined among all the others. I read the other day that there are people out there who believe America is 2014 years old. The Constitution protects stupidity as well as wisdom. So here in America churches can believe and teach that the world is flat and the moon is made of gorgonzola—and some of them do pretty much just that. But here in America I also have a right to speak my little piece—thank God. And it is a sad thing for a fervent believer like myself who loves Jesus very much—and I do, each day more–to see something that is demonstrably untrue as creationism affirmed together with the Lordship of Jesus, as if one must accept the first affirmation in order to embrace the second.

Which, of course, you do not. According to the same Gallup Poll, thirty-two percent of Americans subscribe to what the pollsters call “theistic evolution,” a belief that human beings evolved over millions of years, but that God was present to guide that process. But those moderate souls, who believe in the Bible and the book of stones, make up a fairly small minority of those who attend church regularly—only about 25%. Virtually everyone else who goes to church believes that God created the world in six days in the not too distant past and that fossils are creatures that drowned in Noah’s flood, or other such nonsense.

And of course they are free to believe that. This is America, after all. Who cares? I do, actually, because when they believe and teach something that is demonstrably false and lift it to the level of revealed truth, they call the whole Creed into question. That is the kind of willful ignorance is what gives our Christian faith such a bad name among those whom Friedrich Schleiermacher called “the cultured despisers of religion.” They like to style themselves champions of the truth. But in fact such incorrigible ignorance arises not from courage but to cowardice. People who hide behind the wall of fundamentalism are afraid to face the facts. Now facing the facts is often tough. I know, because I have struggled to do it most of my life. It forces us to acknowledge that we don’t know the answers to the greatest questions—and never will.  It forces humility upon us, and humility runs counter to our human nature. But as Albert Camus wrote somewhere–“The most incorrigible vice [is] that of ignorance which fancies it knows everything.”

In the Old Testament book that bears his name, a man called Job learns the painful lesson of humility. By the end of the book the Lord has lost patience with prideful humankind in general, and in particular with Job’s presumptuous questioning of his ways. In chapter 38 comes the showdown. God addresses Job out of the vortex of a desert whirlwind and demands- “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up you loins like man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (38:1-7)

Where? Who? The questions keep on coming and coming, with no space for an answer. And no space is necessary because the answer to every question is the same—nowhere and nothing. We were nowhere when God created us. We are nothing compared with such majesty and power.  But the grilling continues relentlessly through the next four chapters of the book, until finally poor Job, who represents us all, exhausted by so much close interrogation, cries out, “I know that you can do all things, and no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you will declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:1-6) 

And that is essentially where the book ends, with Job crushed by the magnificence of the created universe and reduced to his proper place in it, to dust and ashes. He is humiliated, but at the same time he is exalted. It is the paradox that runs through all of scripture. The mighty are pulled down and the lowly are lifted up. Pride and the pretense of understanding makes fools of us. But humility restores to what we intended to be, the creatures through whom God experiences his creation.

                And as for all the answers to the questions we ask about that creation—Where did it come from? Where is it going? What came before and what follows after?–revealed religion doesn’t have them all. It can’t explain how the world came to be, only celebrate the Creator in poetry and song and in service that imitates his faithfulness and love.

Science doesn’t have all the answers either. In certain realms it can lead us to the truth, but its method simply does not work when it is applied to the question of, say, what is beautiful? Or what is good? Or why is there anything at all?  Religious fundamentalism simplifies things that cannot be made simple, but science often does the same thing. It “murders to dissect.” It persists in asking the wrong questions, as if when confronting the “Birth of Venus” by Botticelli, we could explain its effect upon us by analyzing the chemical composition of its pigments.

The truth is that no one understands how the things that are came to be or why they are, not the atheistic scientist or the literalist believer. What makes us what we are is a mystery that goes beyond us all. Anyone who pretends to grasp that mystery, whatever his or her faith or lack thereof, is pathetically deluded. The best we can do is get close enough to that mystery to feel its warmth. In one of the apocryphal gospels Jesus is reported to say—“Whoever is close to me is close to the fire.” Did he really say that? Who cares?  It is true. And it is also true that nothing becomes us better in the presence of the mystery of What Is than to adopt an attitude of humility and there is nothing wiser we say about it than—I don’t know.    

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