Tag Archives: God

“Wanted, Not Worthless”

foundWhen I was just starting seminary back in 1976, there was a national evangelistic campaign that featured yellow bumper stickers that boldly announced “I found it!” “It” was salvation – redemption, the forgiveness of sins, life eternal and abundant. On the bulletin board outside the dining hall where students posted announcements and advertisements, someone plastered one of these yellow “I found it!” bumper stickers, and others in the community took this as an invitation to comment, a chance to come up with some facetious slogans of their own.  It started innocently enough with a simple question– “What is it?” That got the ball rolling. “If you find it, please turn it into the office immediately,” one said, and that was followed with a – “No, I found it — it’s mine now.” “Well, if you found it, then you can have it because I don’t want it!” was answered with – “Well, you may have found it, but I never lost it.” And so it went day after day until finally one day someone posted – “He found me.”

sheepDr. George Eldon Ladd, the world class New Testament scholar who taught at that school was famous for saying that the only truly “new element” in Jesus Christ’s teachings about God was that He was a “seeking God” — a God who “takes the initiative to seek out the sinner, to bring the lost into the blessing of His reign” (80).  The Pharisees of Jesus’ day taught that while God “was always [at least theoretically] willing to take the first step towards us, that in actual practice the initiative was almost always left up to the sinner to return to God.” The people in Jesus’ day thought that it was up to them to find God, but Jesus Christ said that it’s God who actually comes to find us, so that whoever posted – “He found me!” –clearly understood Dr. Ladd’s point.  In fact, I sometimes wondered if it wasn’t Dr. Ladd himself who posted it!  And where Dr. Ladd said that he found this great truth of God seeking the sinner most clearly was in the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke.  There are three parables about God seeking and saving the lost in Luke chapter 15.  The first one is the Parable of the Lost Lamb.  And the truth that this parable firmly establishes is the idea that what gets lost gets sought!  The shepherd doesn’t scold, or shame, or spank his little lamb for getting lost; no, he just went after it and brought it back home again joyfully.

Jonathan Dahl’s father died 30 years ago. On his death bed, Jonathan’s father made a final request of him. “Find Jeff” he said.  Jeff was the oldest boy in the Dahl family, and he had vanished one hot August afternoon six years before his father died.  Strung out on drugs after years of failed rehabs, Jeff exploded when his parents refused to give him $35.  He smashed some furniture, kicked in a car door, and threatened to burn down the house.  His father told him to leave, to just go and not come back.  And Jeff did.  He left and had not been seen or heard from by anybody in his family after that day.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

jeffJeff was the oldest and brightest son of an IBM executive who lived in Darien, Connecticut. Jeff was absolutely adored by his kid brother Jonathan.  Jeff was the kind of big brother who would stop to tie his little brother’s shoes at the bus stop, sit with him during lunch in the school cafeteria, and play with him after school.  Jeff was a good athlete and a great student.  Some of his poems were published when he was still in Middle School.  He won trophies for swimming and tennis. He had a steady girlfriend and a full tuition scholarship to college.   Jeff Dahl was every parent’s dream, the picture of success.  He was bright, popular, and gifted — a kid full of promise.

It was when he was a freshman at college that Jeff began experimenting with drugs. It changed him.  He became moody and withdrawn, disinterested and unmotivated. To buy drugs he started stealing things.  He got into trouble with the law, and that’s when he began an endless cycle of drug treatment programs.  During one of these hospitalizations he was diagnosed with a mental illness that’s characterized by uncontrollable urges and sudden emotional outbursts. But the doctors weren’t really sure if Jeff’s behavioral problems were caused by his drug problem or by his mental illness.  They said they needed Jeff to be drug free for six months to know for sure.  Jeff never was drug free for six months.

Jeff was 27 years old when he got kicked out of the family. Later, when things calmed down a bit, Jeff’s father regretted what he’d said to him. He knew that if Jeff had cancer, or had become a paraplegic, that he would never have thrown him out. But Jeff was gone. He’d vanished without a trace.  And then Jeff’s dad got sick himself, and as he lay dying, he made his final request – “Find Jeff.”

The burden of this request fell squarely on Jonathan’s shoulders, Jeff’s little brother.   A writer for the Wall Street Journal who travelled the country chasing stories, Jonathan was in the best position to conduct the search.  And so Jonathan would add an extra day or two onto every trip he took for business so that he could poke around the kind of places where homeless people were likely to be known – shelters, police stations, public libraries, churches with ministries to street people.  Flashing Jeff’s picture to the people in those places, Jonathan would ask, “Do you know him?” “Have you seen him?” In every city he visited, Jonathan would call every Jeff Dahl he found listed in the phone book, hoping against hope that he might just accidently stumble upon his brother. At one homeless shelter he visited somebody finally recognized Jeff’s picture and told him that he thought that he’d gone to Colorado with some friends. Jonathan booked the first flight to Denver he could find.  When he got there, Jonathan tracked down the mother of one of Jeff’s friends, and he got the name of a clerk at an X rated bookstore who know Jeff really well.  After a long conversation with that guy late into the night, Jonathan finally got a phone number, and he sensed that his long search was nearly over.

Jonathan drove around Denver the rest of that night in his rented car waiting for the sun to come up. At dawn he found a pay phone at a convenience store and punched in the number that he had been given.  The phone rang once, twice, three times.  Finally a groggy voice answered – “Yeah,” it said, “What do you want?” Jonathan panicked and hung up without saying a word.  It was Jeff’s voice.  He’d done it.  He’d found his brother.  But after all the years, through all the pain, what was he going to say?  He dialed the number again, and when it got picked up at the other end, Jonathan quickly said, “Jeff, this is your brother Jonathan. I love you.  We miss you. Please come home.”  There was a long pause, and the sound of sobbing.

Luke 19:10 is one of the Gospel’s purpose statements, Jesus telling His disciples why He’d come and what He was there to do – “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” This verse is the punch line to the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho who climbed up in a Sycamore tree to try to see Jesus who was passing by that day.  Zacchaeus was “lost.” He’d betrayed his people, denied his identity, and sold his soul.  It had made him rich, and it had left him isolated, inhabiting the margins of society, estranged from his people and their God.

parnellJonathan Parnell takes Zacchaeus climbing up the tree to get to Jesus as a symbol of all the ways that we as human beings try to get right with God in our own strength and by our own effort. It’s popular to talk about the spiritual life as a ladder that we have got to climb in order to get into God’s presence and to win God’s favor. “Religion tells us to seek. We are advised to climb trees like Zacchaeus, to depend upon our own exertion for any hope of ascending to the divine.  We are told to bridge the gap by our effort.  If you want salvation, they say, seek it.”  And then one day Jesus comes to town and says, “Hurry up and come down” (19:5).  He’s the seeker.  He’s the Savior.  Zacchaeus didn’t find Jesus by climbing up the tree. Jesus found Zacchaeus by telling him to come down out of the tree and going home with him. “Our seeking – our trying to reach the divine on our own – is silenced when we learn that the divine has reached down to us… by becoming one of us. Here we are, spinning our wheels in hopes of getting to God, and then God… comes to get us. 

“Lost” doesn’t mean “worthless” but “wanted.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “passed over” but “pursued.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “inferior” but “valuable.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “loathed” but “loved.”
“The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, wherever you’ve gotten yourself off to, whatever you’ve gotten yourself into, He’ll come. He’s already looking for you.  And when He finds you, what He’s going to say is – “I love you. We miss you. Please come home.” DBS+

 

 

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“Are you saved?”

edwardsI can still remember reading Jonathan Edward’s (1703 – 1758) sermon – “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” – in an American literature anthology when I was in high school, and being absolutely horrified by it.

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you… God’s wrath towards you burns like fire; God looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire…”

 When I was in the 11th grade, I didn’t think that I was nearly as bad a person as that sermon said I was, and I didn’t think that God was nearly as mean and awful as that sermon made Him out to be.  And if this is what I, someone who actually believed in God and regularly went to church thought about what Jonathan Edwards said in his sermon, then, I wondered, what would an unchurched unbeliever think? I’ve since found it.  If getting “saved” involves the view of God and self that Jonathan Edwards described in his sermon, then they’re just not having it.  But what if getting “saved” doesn’t involve Jonathan Edward’s view of God or self at all?

Back in the day, when students at Yale University would tell Dr. George Buttrick (1892 – 1980), Dean of the Chapel, that they weren’t coming to his services “because they didn’t believe in God anymore,” his standard response was always to say -“Tell me more about this God you don’t believe in anymore because I probably don’t believe in that God either!” And this makes me think that before rejecting “saved” talk because of the spiritual offense of what Jonathan Edwards famously did with it, maybe it should first be wrenched from his grip so that we might look at it from another vantage point.

The New Testament word for “saved” means to be “rescued,” “delivered,” “kept from harm.” It was a word that assumed that there was something or someone powerful out there that’s threatening people; someone or something that’s trying really hard to destroy them.  And the New Testament word for “Savior” was the title given in the ancient world to anyone who was able to keep people from that something or someone actually harming them.  Generals who won great military victories were called “saviors” in the ancient world.  So were ship captains who navigated terrible storms and brought their passengers and cargo safely to port, as were wealthy benefactors who rebuilt cites after natural disasters, as were rulers who brought stability and prosperity to their states.  We do the same thing.  A “Savior” is someone who “saves” people from something horrible that’s happening to them.

When he was just a little boy the preacher David Pratte says that he and some of his neighborhood friends built some rickety rafts to float down the drainage ditch in front of their homes after a big storm (https://www.gospelway.com).  A neighbor warned them that the ditch was deep, that the current was fast, and that the water was muddy. “It’s dangerous boys” he told them. “You could drown if you fall in,” and David almost did.

raftWhen his raft predictably capsized, David struggled to get to the shore, but he couldn’t get a good grip on the slippery bank and he kept being pulled away and under by the swift current. When he finally slipped exhausted beneath the dark water for what he thought was the last time, that neighbor heard the commotion from his house, ran just as fast as he could to the ditch and jumped in fully clothed.  He couldn’t see where David was in the muddy swirling water, but he just happened to kick him when he jumped in, and so he was able to reach down and pull David up and out to safety. You saved my life,” David kept repeating to that man that day, “you saved my life.” And to this day David will tell you that he thinks of that man as his “savior,” and the story that the Bible tells us is the story of how God does this for us as human beings.  He jumps into our lives, and into our world, to pull us out of the trouble we’re in.

The Gospel is not as complicated as we sometimes make it out to be. We’re made for fellowship with God, but that intimacy got shattered when we chose to cut God out of our lives, and then everything else in our world began spinning out of control because God was no longer at its center holding everything in good balance and proper orbit.  Seeing the damage we’d done, and understanding the trouble we were in, God began the slow and deliberate process of making His way back into our lives.

Now, when we talk about getting “saved,” I believe that what we’re talking about is God doing this hard work of fixing what’s broken, of repairing what’s gone awry, of restoring us to a right relationship with Himself.  Some Christians, like Jonathan Edwards, when talking about salvation put the emphasis on the negative impact that all of the bad things we do have on God.  What we do wrong makes God mad, and so getting “saved” means escaping His punishment. But there are other Christians who, when talking about salvation, put the emphasis instead on the negative impact that all of the bad things we do have on us.  It makes God sad to see the way we struggle and suffer, and so getting “saved” means that God steps in to help make things better.

LouiseI like to read mysteries, and one of my favorite series are the books that the Canadian author Louise Penney writes about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the provincial police force of Quebec, and the quirky little village where he lives with his wife and friends – Three Pines. Armand Gamache is one of the wisest literary characters that I have the pleasure of knowing, and he is forever saying that there are four sentences that we all need to learn how to say as human beings — “I don’t know.” “I need help.” “I’m sorry.”  And “I was wrong.” It’s gotten so that now when people ask me why I think they need to be “saved,” I think in Inspector Gamache’s terms –

  • People need to be “saved” because we need help. As the folks in recovery know all too well – we are powerless over so many things, and our lives are unmanageable in so many ways, and only a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity and stability. Unlike Jonathan Edwards, my emphasis when thinking and talking about salvation is not that we’re bad and that God is mad, but that we’re in trouble and need God’s help.
  • We also need “saving” because there’s just so much that we don’t know. We don’t really know who we are, or what it is that we finally want. And we aren’t really sure about who God is, or what it is that He finally wants. Thus is why the book of Proverbs begins with the declaration that “reverence for God is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7). Jesus meant the same thing when He said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and then everything else in your life will start to sort out for you” (Matthew 6:33). When the fact of God’s existence and the truth God’s being gets fully reestablished in our lives, then we have a firm place to stand, and a sure foundation from which operate.
  • And finally, we need “saving” because we’re frequently wrong and we’re often sorry. I know I’m guilty about some of the things that I’ve done in my life, and I’m deeply ashamed of the kind of person that I know I can be at times. You may have seen that bumper sticker that says – “I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.” Well, I’ve got cats and I’m not sure that they even give me a thought except when they want to be fed. So, for me, it’s different.   I want to be the kind of person that I know God created me to be, that Jesus Christ has made possible for me to become again by dying and rising for me, and that the Holy Spirit is right now empowering me – bit by bit and day by day – to actually become.

When I hear the word “salvation” these days, I don’t primarily think about a God who needs to be appeased because He’s mad at us for being sinners, but rather, I think about a God who’s steadily, relentlessly making His way towards us, at great personal cost to Himself, because He knows we’re in trouble, in desperate need to help, and He loves us.

Practically speaking, believing this has some very real consequences for me –

  • First of all, I know that every single person I meet every day, all day, is in some kind of trouble. The fact is, we all need “saving.” As Dr. Charles Kemp, my professor of Pastoral Care at Brite Divinity School 40 years ago constantly told us – “Always be gentle and kind to people because everyone is carrying a heavy burden of some sort.”
  • And second, I know that every single person I meet is someone for whom Christ died (I Corinthians 8:11). Jesus Christ is the way God makes His approach to us in our need, and it’s what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross and then by getting up out of that borrowed tomb that is how God deals with all of those forces in our lives and this world that seek to work us woe. Jesus Christ is how God jumps into the deep, dark, swirling waters that are pulling us under to pull us up and out.

It was hard for me to see the face, and heart, of the God I knew in Jesus Christ in the things that Jonathan Edwards said about Him in his famous sermon. But rather than throwing the theological baby out of the homiletical bathwater that he was using, I discovered that there are other, better ways of Biblically thinking and talking about the saving work of God in Jesus Christ than the one Jonathan Edwards chose to develop.

Christianity is a religion of salvation. Jesus Christ is the Savior.  Christians are people who have been saved.  And it matters, it really matters, that we who know this firsthand in our own experience of it by faith to then think and talk about it in ways that emphasize God’s goodness and grace in a world where suffering, struggling people are desperately seeking help and hope. DBS+

 

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“Thoughts & Prayers” and “Pastoral Malpratice”, Part 3

thoughts

Part 3

The second crucial conversation that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” involves us in as Christians is the one that we have with God about the things that can be shown to be what the Bible teaches. This is the third step in the process that Richard Hayes identifies as being what it means to take the Bible seriously. We’ve got to relate the truth of what the ancient texts say to the reality and demands of our contemporary circumstances and situations. As Dr. Hayes explains –

Even if we should succeed in giving some satisfactory synthetic account of the New Testament’s ethical content, we will still find ourselves perched on the edge of a daunting abyss: the temporal and cultural distance between ourselves and the text.

There’s a familiar distinction that often gets drawn between the “letter” of a Biblical text and its “spirit” based largely on John 6:63 where Jesus says – The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life,” and on 2 Corinthians 3:4 where Paul describes the new covenant that comes to us not as a written code that kills but “in the Spirit who gives life.” And while I would not want to drive too deep a wedge between the “letter” and the “spirit” of a Biblical text, I fully appreciate the difference between wanting to know the “letter” of a Biblical text so that I can be intellectually informed, and wanting to experience the “spirit” of a Biblical text so that I might be spiritually transformed.

George Whitefield (1714 – 1770), the Anglican cleric who’s powerful preaching ministry did so much to stir the fires of the 18th century Evangelical Revival in both Great Britain and the American Colonies, explained –

I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books, and praying over, if possible, every line and word. This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh life, light and power from above.

In my mind this is the perfect description of the second crucial conversation that a serious commitment to “thoughts & prayers” will generate in us as Christians. Once we know what’s in the Bible, then we’ve got to come to terms with how it actually applies to us and our lives, and that involves a prayerful conversation with God about what it is that we find in the Bible.

I remember singing the James Russel Lowell lyric in the classic hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation” from the 1953 Disciple hymnal (the best one we ever produced) when I was in Christian College and serving my first few churches in the Pacific Northwest –

“New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”

It’s not that God’s truth changes, but the contexts, both personal and social, to which those ancient truths must speak certainly do. We ask questions today that the Bible never anticipated. We face situations now that the Bible did not foresee. Go to the concordance in the back of your Bible right now and look up every reference to assault rifles, school shootings, and the Second Amendment, and you will find none. But this doesn’t mean that the Bible is devoid of wisdom to guide us, or that it is without good counsel to instruct us as we seek solutions to contemporary problems.

We may not have chapters and verses to which we can turn to settle a question, but we do have principles that are deeply informed by the weight of the Biblical witness, and that can be prayerfully discerned by paying attention to the Spirit’s promptings in our minds, and by listening to the Spirit’s small still voice whispering in our hearts. As John Robinson (1576 – 1625), the Pastor to the Pilgrims in Holland told them in his farewell address as they left for the New World – the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.” And it’s the second crucial conversation that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” generates – the one that takes place between a Christian and God about what’s in the Bible – that’s when, and where, and how we find that truth and see that light.

The idea that we can do away with serious “thoughts & prayers” in the urgency of the demand for meaningful “policy & change” is an ignorant argument at best, and a dangerous argument at worst. And for those of us who are in the “thoughts & prayers” business to give the impression that “thoughts & prayers” are unnecessary and irrelevant is foolishness at best, and unfaithfulness at worst. It’s only as we do our “thoughts & prayers” work with integrity and intentionality as people of faith that we will have anything helpful to say in the public conversation about “policy & change.” DBS +

 

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“Thoughts & Prayers” and “Pastoral Malpratice”, Part 2

thoughts

Part 2

More than just some pious drivel, I find that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” involves me in two crucial conversations. The first one is the conversation that is Scripture itself.

What we have in the Bible are a series of serious conversations about scared subjects. The Hebrew Scriptures, or “First” Testament, are in a serious conversation with the Christian Scriptures, or “Later” Testament, about what God is doing. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are in a serious conversation with the Gospel of Mark about what Jesus did, and what it means, and the Gospel of John jumps in later to have an important conversation with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke about who Jesus is, and why He matters. Paul is in a conversation with James about the meaning of saving faith. Peter and Jude are in a conversation with each other about what faithfulness looks like in oppositional times. And the Book of Revelation is in an important conversation with all of the other books in the Christian collection about how God in Jesus Christ is finally going to complete His work of salvation begun in the Incarnation 2,000 years ago.

A real commitment to “thoughts & prayers” is a commitment to eavesdropping on the conversations that are already going on in the Bible on any given subject long enough to get a good sense of what’s at stake from God’s point of view, and to understand what faithful alternatives are actually open to us. The New Testament scholar Richard Hayes says that the first two steps that are involved in this process of taking the Bible seriously are – first, to read the texts carefully (a “descriptive” task) and, second, to look for the coherence that exists between them (a “synthetic” task). The first task is making sure that you have all of the relevant pieces of the puzzle that you are working on, and the second task is trying to figure out how they all fit together. The fact of the matter is that we all tend to proof text our preconceived positions when we open our Bibles. We know what we already think, and so we selectively go to the Bible looking for those verses that support it while discounting any verses that we might come across that don’t. The approach that Richard Hayes describes as “faithful” begins instead with a gathering of all of the relevant texts rightly understood in their proper literary, historical, and theological contexts.

For instance, in the Bible’s conversation about social violence, someone following Dr. Hayes’ approach is going to have to bring the sixth commandment about not killing (Exodus 20:13) into conversation with the Noahide commandment (“Noahidism” is a monotheistic ideology within Rabbinic Judaism that says that non-Jews are not obligated to convert to Judaism, but that they are required to observe the Seven Laws of Noah) to kill those who kill (Genesis 9:6). The Prophet Joel’s instruction to “beat your plowshares into swords” (3:10) is going to have to be put into conversation with the Prophet Isaiah’s instruction to “beat your swords into plowshares” (2:4). Jesus’ instruction to His disciples to put away their swords (Matthew 26:52) is going to have to be brought into conversation with His instruction to buy swords (Luke 22:36). And the angel’s announcement at His birth that Jesus is the bringer of peace (Luke 2:14) is going to have to be brought into conversation with Jesus’ own protest that He came “not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). And this just scratches the surface.

The first crucial conversation that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” involves us in as Christians is the one that Scripture has within itself – one text arguing with another text; one idea grappling with another idea; one truth challenging another truth. Every significant thing that the Bible teaches involves us in just this sort of complicated thinking – God is three and one; Jesus is fully God and fully human; the Kingdom has already come and is not yet here; we are saved by faith without works, but faith without works is dead; God is sovereign and we are free; the Bible is the Word of God and a thoroughly human word. It’s only as we wrestle with the Bible’s “furious opposites” that we begin to gain the mind of Christ, and start to think God’s thoughts after Him. But this doesn’t happen without being in conversation with God, and so tomorrow we’ll look at praying… DBS +

 

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The Crushing Place

olivepressThe word “Gethsemane” literally means “the place of the olive press.” Olive oil was essential to life in ancient Israel, and the way that it was produced was by putting the harvested and pitted olives into a great big stone trough and then rolling another enormous stone back and forth over them, crushing them and extracting their oil.  The Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus went to pray on the night that He was betrayed was an olive grove, and there would have been just such a press nearby.  The symbolism is obvious.

Jesus’ “crushing hours,” the place He went to struggle with the weight of doing God’s will, was the place of an olive press.  This was a time of real testing and a place of real struggle for Christ. “My soul is very sorrowful,” He told his disciples, “even to death” (Matthew 26:38), as He begged them to remain there and watch with Him. “Abba, Father,” He prayed, “all things are possible to thee, remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:36).  And in a detail that only appears in some of the ancient manuscripts that we have of the Gospel of Luke – “being in agony, Jesus prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to upon the ground” (22:44).  It’s a powerful word picture.  Just like the oil being extracted from the olives through crushing in the press in that garden where Jesus prayed, Luke was telling us that the life of Jesus was being extracted from Him through the crushing experience of wrestling with God’s will.

fatherWhat God the Father asked of His only begotten Son that night long ago in the garden was a unique part of His work of redemption. This will never be a part of our experience.  We can’t do what He did.  We can only receive the benefit of it by faith.  But the Gethsemane experience of heaviness, that feeling of the moral and spiritual weight of the choices that are constantly in front of us, that’s always going to be a part of our experience as Christians, and Jesus knew it, which is why I think that the very first thing He said to His disciples when they got to the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His testing was – “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (22:40).

The Greek word translated “temptation” here is a word that means “to test,” “to try,” “to prove.”

It may be used in a positive sense as in the case of Job, who said in the midst of his trail, “When the Lord has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (23:10).  Or it may be used in a negative sense: to tempt toward evil. (Ron Ritchie)

And the point is that this is going to be our experience as followers of Jesus Christ. We’re going to find ourselves in our own Gethsemanes constantly.   Every single day is crowded with choices great and small, and as Christians we’re going to make these choices acutely aware that there is always more than just one will that’s pulling at us.  There’s that adversarial something that crouches at the door of our lives just waiting to spring (Genesis 4:7).  There’s our own will, what it is that we think we want for ourselves. And then there’s the Lord who has a vital interest in everything we think, say and do as His disciples.  Paul told the Corinthians that the love of Christ “constrained” him (2 Corinthians 5:14).  The word that Paul used for “constrain” is a word that literally means to “press hard together,” and suddenly we’re back in Gethsemane, at the crushing place.  Faithfulness is all about this struggle of wills.  Every decision we make as Christians is made in the push and pull of these forces.  We will constantly feel the weight of them, and it’s always going to hard.  There’s simply no escaping it if Jesus is your Lord.

When we say “yes” to Jesus when he asks to be the Lord of our lives and worlds, Gethsemane becomes our home address.  It’s where we’re going to live the rest of our lives.  It’s in this crushing place of the contest of wills that we are going to find ourselves tested and changed, and through the experience, it’s where we’ll discover the best ways to cooperate with the God who’s will is one day going to be done on earth as it is in heaven.   And it all starts when, with Jesus in the place of the olive press where lots of different forces all seek to master us, we can pray – “Not what I will, but what will… not what I want, but what you want…” DBS +

 

 

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Beloved

beloved
The great temptation of the church in an era of challenge and decline like the one that we currently find ourselves in is to want to pull back and take care of ourselves rather than to turn outward in Christ’s mission of extending God’s compassion to anyone and everyone who has been kicked to the curb and told that they don’t matter. And because this is just such an era of challenge and decline for churches like ours, the Jesus I believe we really need right now is the Jesus who meets us in the Gospel of Luke.

jesusesThe Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is the Messiah of God’s complete faithfulness. The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is the Son of God’s mighty purpose and power. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel is the Son of Man whose compassion draws the least, the last, and the lost into the embrace of God’s inclusive love.  And the Jesus of John’s Gospel is the Word of God made flesh who comes to offer us the gift of eternal life.

I know all of these Jesuses.
I believe in all of these Jesuses.
I need all of these Jesuses.

When I struggle with knowing what’s true and who it is that I can finally trust, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew I really need. When the days grow dark and it feels like chaos is winning the fight, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark I really need.  When loved ones die and I am confronted with the fact of my own mortality, I find that what I really need is the Jesus of the Gospel of John.  And when I am tempted to pull back into the cocoon of myself to pursue my own private interests and to seek my own selfish well-being, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke I really need.  The most important thing for a church like ours to rediscover and then proclaim in a mean era when people are increasingly picking sides, drawing lines, and building barriers to keep others out is that we are God’s “beloved” — we are — all of us — God’s “beloved.” And this is precisely what the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke makes clear to me.

Near the end of his life, Henri Nouwen said that the central moment in the public ministry of Jesus as the Christ as far as he as concerned was His baptism in the Jordan by John when He heard the voice of God say – “You are my beloved.”  The last great theme of Henri Nouwen’s long and distinguished vocation as a spiritual teacher was the development of this idea that at the very center of the spiritual life for us as Christians is hearing the words – “You are my Beloved” – in “a deep way,” and then living out this truth as a contradiction to everything that the world believes.

belovedThe world says that our worth is determined by how we look, by what we weigh, by who we vote for, by where we live, by the level of our education and income, by who we love, by where we were born, by the color of our skin, or by any one of a hundred other things. But in the world our worth is always conditional.  It always depends on something else.  It’s something we have to deserve.  It’s something we have to be worthy of.  It’s something we have to earn.  But the Biblical word for “beloved” cuts through all of this and says that our worth is something that is established by God’s own determination and declaration instead.  The Biblical word for “beloved” is variant of the Biblical word “agape,” a word that refers to God’s love – a “deep, active, self-sacrificing, and absolutely unconditional” kind of love. To be “beloved” is literally to be “agape-ed.”

Jesus heard that He was “agape-ed” ~ “beloved” when He got baptized.  Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John to fully identify Himself with the people He came to seek and save, and so when God declared Him “Beloved” I believe that it wasn’t just a statement about Him alone, but rather it was a statement for, and about us all.  As one of the greatest theologians that the church has ever produced, a man named Athanasius (296 – 373), put it – “He [Jesus Christ] became what we are so that he might makes us what He is.” Getting into line with all those people who were being baptized was part of Jesus “becoming what we are,” and God’s declaration of Jesus as His “Beloved” child is part of Jesus “making us what He is.”

In a sermon that he preached at the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis at the beginning of January in 2011 [http://yourcathedral.blogspot.com/2011/01/you-are-my-beloved-sermon-for-feast-of.html] the Rev. Mike Kinman explained that the truth of “Beloved-ness” is a truth that moves in three directions at once.  First it moves inward. It’s first a word that gets spoken to each one of us individually. Once we’ve internalized this truth and feel it in our bones, then it starts to move outward.  You see, not only am I God’s beloved, but so are you, as is everyone in this beloved community we call the church.  So, in your imagination tattoo the word “Beloved” onto the forehead of every other Christian you meet – the Conservative ones and the Liberal ones, the Progressive ones and the Fundamentalist ones, the ones who are most like you and the ones who couldn’t be more different from you – and then frame every thought you have of them and every word you speak to them, or about them, by the fact that they are numbered among God’s “agape-ed.”  And once we’ve started treating each other around here, inside the four walls of the church, as “beloved,” then it’s time to open up the doors and take this show on the road.

John 3:16 doesn’t say that God so loved the church that He sent his only begotten Son, but that God so loved the world. It’s the whole world and everyone in it that’s “Beloved” by God.  There are no exceptions.  And so Rev. Kinman told his congregation that Christians are people who –

…through prayer and [Bible] study listen to God’s voice saying: “You are my beloved,” and who every day grow a little less fearful and a little more trusting that it is true. It’s being people who look at each other and see before anything else someone whom God adores. [And] Who every day try just a little bit harder to be a part of God adoring everyone else…

cupJesus heard God say that He was “Beloved” while standing in the waters of His baptism.  I think that where we are most likely to hear God say that we are His “Beloved” is at the Lord’s Table where bread is broken and a cup is poured in remembrance of Christ’s saving acts and in celebration of His continuing presence.  We come to the Lord’s Table to hear God say – “You are my Beloved.” And then we go from the Lord’s Table knowing that every person we meet is God’s “Beloved” too, and understanding that we may very well be the only people in the world with the power at that moment to tell them, and to show them, who they truly are – God’s “Beloved.”  DBS +

 

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The Week of the Two Babies

Babies

We’ve just come through the week of the two babies.  Two Sundays ago it was all about the baby Jesus.   Last Sunday it was another baby who demanded our attention — “Baby New Year.” A baby in a top hat, sash, and a diaper has been the symbol of New Year’s Day since the dawn of the 20th century when the Saturday Evening Post began putting a picture of a little baby on the cover of their year-end issues. The symbolism is clear.  The New Year arrives like a little baby who will age through the days of the coming year and after 12 months be old and withered in the end, like Father Time.

Carl Dennis, one of my favorite poets, saw these two babies – Jesus and the Baby New Year – with their respective celebrations just one week apart on the calendar as competitors of sorts.

More jubilant by far than many Christians
On the birthday of Jesus, [he wrote] the many pagans
Crowding into the square this New Year’s Eve,
Though by now they must realize that the baby
Whose birth they’re about to witness
Is doomed to grow old and die in a year,
Just as the last one did, and the one before,
Without a crumb of hope in a second coming.

I take a different view. Rather than competition for Christ, I find that Baby New Year with his message of growth and change is actually the perfect counterpoint to our tendency as Christians to linger too long at the manger.

We love Christmas. It pulls at our hearts. Christ the baby can be cuddled and cooed. We want to hold Him in our arms as he sleeps, and this is precisely the reason why we need Baby New Year to come along just a week after our visit to the Christmas crib with his urgent cry of “tempus fugit” – “time flies.” Halford Luccock, a Methodist minister who taught preaching at Yale Divinity School for a quarter of a century, warned about how our Christmas celebrations can actually become something of a liability to our Christianity. He said –

“[We can] become so entranced with the beautiful story of a baby in a manger that [we] miss the chief point of the story, and hence do not feel the compulsion which it lays on life. We can become so charmed with the story of a baby that we grow sentimental about it; it does not ask that we do anything about it; it does not demand any vital change in our way of thinking and living.”

And so Professor Luccock preached a famous Christmas sermon about how the baby Jesus did not remain a baby for very long. As significant as Christmas is, he insisted, it is far from the end of the story, and it is certainly not the bulk of the story. Christmas is just the story’s beginning. The baby Jesus grew up, and in his maturity we see a way of living that calls for a change in our own.  He asked –

“Is our Christmas only a story about a baby, or is it more, a deathless story about a person into whom the baby grew, who can redeem the world from its sins, and who calls us into partnership with his great and mighty purposes?”

You see, the baby grew up, and so must we. When Luke tells us that – “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (2:52)he was telling us that Jesus was a human being just like us who grew up just as we do.  And spiritually, because Jesus is the “new Adam,” the one who shows us the right way to live, the way God always intended us to live, I think that we can take the four categories of Jesus’ maturation as a human being that this verse describes – the intellectual, the physical, the spiritual, and the social – and use them as a way to plot and then keep track of our own maturation as human beings.

growthMy grandmother kept a record of my growth as a kid from year to year by making marks on a wall in her pantry right next to the marks of her other four grandchildren. And spiritually this is what Luke 2:52 does for us.  It tell us how Jesus grew up as a human being, and in doing this, it tells us about the different ways that we are to grow up as human beings as well.  We are in the season of New Year’s resolutions right now.  Many of us are considering the ways that we want to do better and to be better next year than we were last year.  I believe that this instinct is hardwired into us as human beings. We are built to grow, and according to Luke 2:52 the channels of our growth are going to be –

  • Intellectual because “Jesus steadily increased in wisdom.” The New Testament says that being a Christian is a matter of the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2), so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “What difference is Jesus Christ making in my thinking?”
  • Physical because “Jesus steadily increased in stature.” The New Testament calls our bodies “Temples of the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 6:19), and then it commands us to “glorify God in our bodies” (I Corinthians 6:20), so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “How does my physical life reflect my spiritual commitments and values?”
  • Spiritual because “Jesus steadily increased in favor with God.”  Every image that the New Testament uses to describe the spiritual life is an image of growth – a seed planted, sprouting and growing to the harvest, a building going up from a foundation, brick by brick to the roof, a footrace from the starting blocks, through the course to the finish line, a person growing from birth through childhood to adulthood, so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “Where am I growing right now in my relationship with God?
  • Social because “Jesus steadily increased in favor with people.” The New Testament is very clear that we can’t love a God we don’t see if we aren’t loving the people around us that we do see (I John 4:20). So, the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “How am I getting along with others these days?”

clock

For most of my life I have prayed the same Order for Morning Prayer. In part, it says –

 O merciful God, confirm and strengthen us; that, as we grow in age, we may grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I prayed these words when I was 12 years old. I prayed these words when I was 32 years old. I prayed these words when I was 52 years old. And I expect to still be praying these words when I am 72 years old. To live is to grow.  To live is to change.  This is not just a Christian truth, this is a human truth.  What makes it “Christian” is the direction that our growth as human beings takes.  As a Christian, I want to grow in grace as I grow in age, and what this aspiration means is that I know that I’m not finished yet.  I’m still very much a work in progress.  I’m still figuring out how Jesus Christ affects the way that I think, and how He determines what I do with my body, and how He makes it possible for me to relate to God, and how He informs the way that I treat you.  I was working on this when I was 12.  I was working on this when I was 32. I was working on this when I was 52.  And I expect to still be working on this when I am 72.  I expect to still be working on this when I am 72.

I find that this week of the two babies is my annual invitation to grow up in every way into Christ – intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially – and my timely reminder that I’m not finished yet. We’ve all still got some growing to do.  DBS +

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Christmas Movies and the Gospel

movies

This Christmas at my house we watched “Elf,” “Christmas Vacation,” “The Santa Clause,” “Christmas with the Kranks,” part of “White Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” and the “Miracle on 34th Street.” Movies are some of our culture’s most familiar texts for interpreting the meaning of this season. And I predict that they will only grow in importance in the future as fewer and fewer people go to church and publicly identify themselves as Christians.

buddySomething Christmas movies buffs like to discuss are their favorite characters. Online you’ll find lists and lists of people’s favorite characters in Christmas movies – Buddy from “Elf,” Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Clark Griswold or Cousin Eddie from “Christmas Vacation,” or any one of the characters from “A Christmas Carol” — Jacob Marley… Tiny Tim… Ebenezer Scrooge.  The character from a Christmas movie that I personally find most spiritually intriguing is “old man Marley” from “Home Alone.” Old man Marley is the across-the-street neighbor of Kevin McCallister, the kid, who through a series of blunders, gets left behind when the rest of his family flies to France for the holidays. We are introduced to old man Marley in “Home Alone” when Kevin sees him shoveling the snow on his sidewalk.  Kevin’s older brother, Buzz, has convinced him that old man Marley is “the South Bend Shovel Slayer,” a man who had infamously murdered his family with a snow shovel, and so every time Kevin bumps into old man Marley early in the movie, he yelps, turns, and runs away.

HomeAloneThe best scene in the movie, in my opinion, is when, alone and afraid, Kevin slips into a dark church where a children’s’ choir is rehearsing for Christians Eve and old man Marley, who is also there, alone and afraid in the dark, slips into the pew beside Kevin. Their conversation eventually gets around to their families, and old man Marley tells Kevin that he’s there listening to that children’s choir rehearse because it was the only way that he could hear his granddaughter sing.  You see, old man Marley hadn’t murdered his family, they were estranged, they hadn’t talked to each other for years.  Old man Marley lived his life in the pain of this isolation, and poignantly he told Kevin, “You can say hello when you see me. You don’t have to be afraid.  There’s a lot of things going around about me, but none of it’s true.”  These are the words of someone who’s been pushed away and who just wants to belong somewhere, to somebody.  There’s Gospel in these words.  Paul told the Ephesians that Jesus Christ came to specifically bring people who felt pushed away back into the circle of God’s care and concern. “He is our peace… He broke down the barrier of the dividing wall… He came and preached peace to those who were far away” (2:13; 17).

shadowsIn Luke’s familiar version of the Christmas story, the shepherds are old man Marley. They were the ostracized ones, the people who were pushed away and lived in the shadows. Shepherding was hard and dirty work. Living with their flocks in the open fields, shepherds stank of sheep.  Nobody wanted to be around them, and not just because of their poor hygiene. Daily contact with blood, manure, and dead animals rendered shepherds unclean spiritually. And so they were excluded from the community of faith, and from the ceremonies in the Temple.  They didn’t belong.  They weren’t fit to be with God, and they weren’t fit to be with other people. They were the “far off” ones, and then on the night when Christ was born, Luke tells us that they were the very first people to be told of it and to be invited to come and see it.  This is not an insignificant detail of the story. The way that Luke tells us his story of Jesus, God makes His way in Christ to all of those who have been pushed away – the poor, the sick, the different, the unclean, the needy – and He invites them all back into the embrace of His love.  And here’s a secret that we all live with, every single one of us — in some way we’re all old man Marley.  In some way, we’re all the shepherds.  In some way, we’ve all been pushed away.  In some way, not one of us really feels like we quite belong.

hollowhillsIn her book, The Hollow Hills, the novelist Mary Stewart told the story of a young man who had been raised in one of the great households of Northern England. But deep inside, he knew that he didn’t belong there.  He’d been told the story for as long as he could remember about how he had been left in a basket at the gate of the castle as a baby.  He was unknown and unwanted — illegitimate, an embarrassment, an object or shame and scorn. He belonged to no one; no one belonged to him. He knew all too well the pain and fear of being pushed away. And then one day, unexpectedly, he was brought to the court of the king.  And as he stepped into that royal hall, the king stepped down from his throne, and gathered that boy up into his arms.  With tears in his eyes, the king explained that he was his son, his first-born, the heir of the throne, the next in line to become the king of the realm.  The king explained how he’d had to send him away at birth to shield him from the plot of an enemy who sought to destroy him, but that now the time had come to finally restore him to his rightful place, and this story is ours.

Somewhere deep inside we all feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for. There are painful ways that we have all been pushed away. We’re all familiar, in our own way, with the pain of not fitting in, and with the fear of never belonging to anyone, anywhere.  And then, in that darkness we’re told about a little baby born in Bethlehem to be our Savior, and we’re invited to come and see Him for ourselves.  And it’s there, kneeling at the manger that we discover that we are in fact wanted, that we are in fact loved, that we are in fact accepted, that we do in fact belong.  In Christ the “far off” are brought near (Ephesians 2:13-17), and that’s me… that’s you… that’s us… Merry Christmas!  DBS +

babyjesus

 

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The Hopes and Fears of all the Years

blue

Genesis chapter 35 is where Bethlehem gets mentioned in the Bible for the first time. Ordinarily, when we hear about Bethlehem we hear about its connection with David.

Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Luke 2:4)

This is an important plank in the argument that the New Testament builds about Jesus being the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah promised throughout the Old Testament. Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem because He was the son of David (Matthew 1:1), and Bethlehem was David’s hometown.  But long before Bethlehem got associated with David in the story of salvation that the Bible tells, Bethlehem had an association with Rachel, the second wife, but first love of the Patriarch Jacob, and one of David’s great ancestors.

holylandOn my first trip to the Holy Land some thirty years ago, long before the partition and the scar of the wall that now separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem had been built, we stopped at a little domed shrine on the outskirts of Bethlehem on our way to see the Church of the Holy Nativity. It was Rachel’s Tomb, the traditional site of her burial, and it was crowded with people, especially women, who had come there to sit and ponder, weep and to pray.  The way Genesis 35 tells the story, Rachel died in childbirth on the road just outside of Bethlehem as Jacob and his household were making their way to Hebron, back to the home of his fathers.  Jacob buried Rachel right there on that lonely road outside of Bethlehem and erected a pillar over her grave as a memorial, and Jewish tradition says that from that moment on her grave became holy ground, a special place of prayer, especially for people who were discouraged, or distressed, or despairing.

Jewish tradition says that when Joseph got sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, as the caravan that was heading to Egypt passed by Bethlehem, that Joseph escaped and ran to his mother’s grave where he cried out in fear and was given hope in the promise that the Lord would always be with him no matter what. “Consoled and strengthened,” that tradition says that “Joseph voluntarily returned to the caravan” with “the courage he needed to face the future.”  Later Jewish tradition says that when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and carried off the Jews into their 70 years of exile after the destruction of the Temple, the dispirited captives passed by Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem, and when they saw it, that their fears and sadness were immediately met by its witness to God’s faithfulness to His promises. In fact, Jewish tradition says that Rachel was deliberately buried by Jacob on the road outside of Bethlehem and not in Bethlehem itself so that later on when God’s people were being carried off into captivity that they would pass by it and remember the covenant that God made and kept with His people. [Dovid Rossoff, “Tomb of our Matriarch Rachel.” http://www.jewishmag.com].

motherIt’s appropriate that the memory of Rachel would elicit this kind of response. You see, Rachel is remembered and celebrated in the Jewish tradition as one of the Bible’s great mothers, and significantly, one of the words that gets translated “mercy” in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word for “womb.” In the Bible the mercy of God gets compared to the tender and tenacious love of a mother that will not let her children go. And so in the book of the prophet Isaiah, God asks “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb?” And then God says – “Even should a human mother forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).  Think of the finest, strongest love of a mother that you have ever seen, and then understand that God loves you even more than that!  Knowing that they were loved by God with a mother’s love like this, it was only natural that the tomb of one of Israel’s most revered mothers would become an important place for our spiritual parents, the Jews, to pray, especially when they were in trouble and needed some reassurance that God was still there for them, and that He still cared about them.  For generations, Jews have made pilgrimages to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem when they got to the end of their ropes, when they have felt alone and afraid in the universe, when the have been unsure of where God is or what God is doing, uncertain even if God was there, or if He cared. They went to Bethlehem looking for some tangible connection with the God of history and promise, and they found it in the story of their mother Rachel and in their remembrance of God’s “womb” love for her children.

nativityThe Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” contains what just might be my favorite line from a Christmas carol – “…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I am intrigued by this idea of Bethlehem being the place where our hopes and fears as human beings meet. I find this to be a really meaningful way to think and talk about the meaning of Christmas. We come to Bethlehem each year as Christians for the very same reason that our spiritual parents, the Jews, go to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem — to get some proof that we have not been forsaken or forgotten. And it’s in the story of another mother that gets told from a manger in Bethlehem in the middle of a dark night that we get our assurance that we are not alone in our dark nights or abandoned to our fears.  As the Swiss Theologian Emil Brunner (1889 – 1966) wrote in his book “Our Faith” in the chapter on “Prayer” –

sinisterAs children lost in a woods, are fearful of the sinister darkness – and then, suddenly, hearing a sound from the somber blackness, a familiar voice, a loving, seeking, helping voice, their mother’s voice — so prayer is our reply to the voice from the Word of God in Jesus Christ which suddenly cries out to us in the mysterious, dark universe. It is the Father calling us out of the world’s darkness. He calls us, seeks us, wants to bring us to Himself. “Where are you, my child?” Our prayers mean “Here I am. Father. I was afraid until you called. Since you have spoken, I am afraid no longer. Come, I am waiting for you, take me, lead me by the hand through the dark terrifying world.” It is a tremendous moment when a man hears this voice and knows he is safe. God is at hand!

Merry Christmas!

DBS +

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“More than watchmen for the morning…”

sun

 Between graduating from Christian college in May of 1975 and starting seminary in the fall of 1976, I got married and worked as a youth minister at our church in Pocatello, Idaho.   Now, in Idaho they think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t hunt and fish, backpack and camp, snowmobile and ski.  And so part of my job description at the church in Pocatello was to serve as the assistant Scout Master for the church’s troop.  That’s what I was doing at 7800 feet in the Grand Tetons camped next to Hechtman Lake in the shadow of Mt. Berry.

I was with my Boy Scout troop one day out on a scheduled weeklong trek through the backcountry. It had taken the better part of that first day just to get from the trail head up to Hechtman Lake, and on the second day we were planning to go up and over the Mt. Berry pass into the high Alpine Meadows beyond it. We pitched camp, caught our dinner – dozens and dozens of small Dolly Varden trout that went straight from the frigid lake into our frying pans and then into our bellies, and then we sat around the camp fire telling stories and talking about how hard the next day’s climb was going to be.  A few hours after dark everybody was fast asleep in their tents.

The storm came up suddenly and violently as they do high in the mountains. There was a flash of lightening followed almost instantly by a clap of thunder and then it began to pour.  Too late did we realize that we had pitched out tents in a natural runoff for the rain from the granite peaks above us to the lake below us.  And thus began the longest and most desperate night of my life.

I was awakened by the screams of some of my boys being washed into the lake in their tents with all of their stuff. There was a mad scramble to get the boys untangled from their tents and out of the water.  And then once everybody was accounted for, the next critical task was to get out of the rain and to save our campfire for some warmth.  We quickly rigged a canopy over it and slowly fed it firewood that was just barely dry enough to burn.  We unzipped the sleeping bags that we still had to make blankets that we draped over little clusters of boys who looked like drowned rats and then we huddled around the fire against the dark, and the cold, and the rain, impatiently waiting for the sun to rise.

Psalm 130:5-6 says –

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

 My terrible night on that mountain with those boys helps me appreciate what the Psalmist was talking about when he wrote these words. The trouble he was in that prompted him to write this familiar prayer is unspecified in the text. Lots of interpreters say that they appreciate this ambiguity because it allows each reader to fill in the blank with his or her own particular crisis.  Our “depths” are different, and this cry from “out of the depths” is vague enough to be able to take them all in.  This is a prayer that anybody can pray no matter what it is that is threatening to undo them.

What drives the spirituality of this Psalm is the experience of waiting. Simone Weil, one of the great Christian mystics of the 20th century, said that the experience of “waiting patiently with expectation” is the “essence” of the spiritual life in the Bible, and I think that’s right.  The Bible defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), and that means that faithful people are going to have to get comfortable with waiting because it concerns things that are “hoped for,” things that are “not yet seen.”

The God of the Bible hears our prayers and acts on our cries for help, to be sure, but always on His terms and in His time. And so, in this Psalm, we who believe get compared with “watchmen for the morning” who wait for the rising of the sun.  That’s literally what I did with my Boy Scouts high up on that mountain in Wyoming back in 1976.   We watched and we waited for the rising of the morning sun.  We understood that with the coming of its light and warmth that everything would get better for us, and this is why the Bible frequently uses the image of dawn as a way of talking about salvation.

The Christmas Canticle that Mark preached on last Sunday morning, the “Benedictus” (Luke 67-70), is the hymn of praise that Zechariah sang to God on the day when his son, the baby who would grow up to be John the Baptist, was born.   This is a song that gets sung in many parts of the church every single day as part of Morning Prayer, at the beginning of the day, just as the sun is rising.   From personal experience I can tell you that there’s some real power in saying – “Because of our God’s tender mercy the dawn will break upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” – as the first streaks of light are crossing a dark night sky.  The sunrise – the “day spring” – is a good picture of the true meaning of Christmas.  Just as the first streaks of light on the far horizon signal the start of a new day, so the humble birth of Christ in Bethlehem’s stable signaled the fulfillment of a promise, the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, the coming of God’s Savior to begin the work of repairing all of creation.  But it takes faith to see, and it takes time to unfold.

I know that we are living in a time of real “depths” – personal, social, political, and cosmic.  And I understand the very real feelings that many of us have that God has inexplicably absented Himself from the very real struggle in which we find ourselves these days. “Where is God?” is our cry in the face of terrorism, and natural catastrophe, and glaring injustice, and inconceivable violence, and abusive power, and blatant greed.  Why, there’s even a theological category for this feeling, it’s called Deus Absconditus,” and it refers to the way that God so often appears hidden in our experience and world. Reflecting on this, theologian Peter Leithart says that it’s when the world spins out of control and our instincts are to “rush to cockpit to take over the controls before we crash,” what we need to remember is that this plane already has a pilot. And because of who that pilot is, we can know that “confusion is not the final word… that confusion will itself ultimately be confused and dispelled.” That’s the promise of Scripture.

dawnNo matter how dark the night, or chaotic the storm, God’s got this. And this is the kind of trust that the faithful waiting of Advent is meant to activate in us.  It’s by crying out from our depths, and then watching and waiting for God’s tender mercy to break upon us from on high like the dawn that we enter into the spiritual experience of Psalm 130, and the spiritual meaning of the season of Advent, and will wind up with hearts that are truly prepared for the celebration of the coming of Christ at Christmas. DBS +

 

 

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