T is for Tears (an alphabet for penitents)

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it,  saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God. -Luke 19:40-44

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday. Jesus came to the city triumphant, celebrated as King and riding on a Donkey foal. Hosanna, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. They hailed him as King in the pageantry of Palm Sunday [incidently, there are interesting resonances between Jesus’ and Jacob Maccabee’s triumphal entry a century and a half earlier]. Days later these same folks would chant, “Crucify Him! Bring us Barrabas!” But today was a day of fanfare. No one present foresaw the tragedy of the coming week. No one, except Jesus.

When he drew near the city, he wept. There stood the Son of God, snotty faced and red eyed, his voice shaking,“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes . . .” Jesus wept for the spiritual blindness of the people—the way that their patterns of behavior, leadership, and systems had put them on a  path of destruction. Jesus wept because, in a few short decades, the city would be under siege. The walls of the city and the temple would be destroyed in 70AD. Those in the city walls would be crushed. Jesus wept because the people didn’t recognize the day of their visitation—Jesus, the Word made Flesh—he Incarnate God was riding into the city. The people did not see. 

Tears are cathartic. A good cry is an emotional response which releases an endorphin that helps reduce pain and improve our mood. Far from being a sign of weakness, emotional tears give us the strength to face difficult tasks. Sometimes naming past wounds can cause tears to well up in our eyes and provide the emotional release that allows you to move forward. If you have had a good cry in the face of grief, loss, betrayal, rejection, you know what I am talking about. This is sometimes embarrassing because when you cry your emotional self is exposed. But it is always good.

Tears are an essential component of the spiritual life and a sign that we are open to the rhythms of God’s grace. We have had too much of spiritual dry eye—the stony-faced rationalism of late Enlightenment Christianity. But like grace, tears can’t (or shouldn’t) be manufactured. Crocodile tears and manipulating the emotions are signs of a spirituality gone amiss. Yet, the soul sensitized to God’s heart will feel what God feels.

You may find yourself weeping at systemic injustice, racism, poverty, violence, war.  You might cry about the path we are on—the mutually assured destruction inherent in our divisiveness, violence, and mistrust. Your heart may break for your city and the spiritual blindness you find there, the ways people miss God’s presence and purposes. The soul that perceives the peril of our mutual life but never cries is dangerous.  It is the cryers that have the emotional honesty to name the pain. They don’t medicate their pain with distractions but take an honest look at the predicament we are in. We need more red-eyed prophets to show us a better way to navigate the world.

God soften our hearts so that it will break for what breaks Your heart. Let us feel what You feels. Give us the strength to look at our predicament and face the days ahead. 

 

A Prayer For All Saints Day

For all the saints who from their labors rest. . .

We thank You and give You praise.

It was You that shaped them,

sustained them,

made them hunger and thirst for righteousness,

So that through their life and witness we would be

inspired by their heartbeat for justice and their tenacious hope

in dark, difficult times.

Thank you for unsung saints–

never beaitified but beautiful in your eye–

whose deep prayer spoke life to dead bones

whose quiet service and tender care

kept us connected to Christ when faith was fragile

and resolution weak.

For their lives we are thankful. Thank-you

for the ways they embody Your Life

and bind our lives to Yours

where we are all bound together

in the unity of the Spirit

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

A Commentary on Judges and Ruth: a book review

While Evangelicals declare that all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16), we do not make much space for certain books of the Old Testament in worship. Take the book of Judges. Besides the Gideon and Samson stories in children’s Bibles and Sunday school lessons, Judges is left untouched by many churches. The Sunday Revised Common Lectionary has just one reading from Judges in its three year cycle (Judges 4:1-7) which highlights Deborah, the female Judge and prophetess. Of course, this is a mere fragment of the Deborah/Barak story, ignoring the main action of the chapter (the actual battle with Sisera and his destruction at the hands of Jael). The book of Ruth fairs a little better (it is not a violent book, so the RCL is less reticent to exclude it). There are two passages included in year B (not too bad for a four-chapter-book).

But the books that are most difficult for us, and feel archaic to our modern sensibilities, sometimes have the most to teach us. Robert Chisholm does a masterful job of mining the depths of Judges and Ruth and bringing homiletic insights to working preachers. I have not read Chisholm in any substansive way before, though I did reference his From Exegesis to Exposition several times in seminary. In A Commentary on Judges and RuthChisholm examines the passage through a synchronic lens, with an eye for its historical impact and literary craft. He then draws out the theological import and suggests a direction for pastors who will be preaching from the passage.

The book of Judges and Ruth occupy the same historical period in Biblical history (the time of the Judges, cf Ruth 1:1).  But their tone could not be more different. Judges describes Israel’s failure to possess the land, their repeated fall into idolatry where they ‘do evil in the eyes of the Lord,” and the way the surrounding cultures contribute the the moral decay of the nation. In the beginning of the book, when a ‘Judge’ is raised up by God in response to the people crying out and returning back to him, the Judge acts decisively to deliver the nation. Othniel (3:7-11) and Ehud (3:12-31) set the standard. However when Deborah commissions Barak to deliver the people, we see him hesitate (4:8). This hesitancy to act (or to follow) is evident in every cycle in the later part of the book (i.e. Gideon, Jepthah, Samson). When you get to Jepthah (10:6-12:15), a generally righteous judge you find that he is so affected by the surrounding culture that human sacrifice is an acceptable offering in exchange for victory (336).  Samson’s twenty year ‘rule’ is not accompanied by any sort of crying out to the LORD by the people, no one rallies around him, and he only fights the Philistines on his own whim.  The epilogue of Judges (17-21) records two episodes which evidence the moral degradation of the nation (including nationally sanctioned rape).

The tone of Ruth is much more hopeful. Naomi returns from Moab a widow who had lost her sons. Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law comes with her, though there is no prospect of an heir or a future for her there. When she goes to glean in the fields of Boaz, she is treated with kindness. When Naomi hears of it, she hatches a plot to get Ruth hitched. In the end Boaz marries Ruth and the two become the great grandparents of David (and she is included in the Messianic line of Jesus).

For each episode in these books, Chisholm presents a translation and narrative struture (noting the Hebrew syntax in his translation), discusses literary structure, exposits and discusses the message and application. The final section is where he draws out the exegetical and theological themes and points at homiletical trajectories. This is a tightly organized and well presented framework and it read well (which you can’t often say of higher level commentaries). Chisholm is a confessional scholar and so sits under the text. As an exegete, he has a sharp eye for the original context, and his exposition is helpful for drawing out a message for today which is faithful to the text. I also appreciated that he discusses at length in his comments, the degradation of the treatment of women throughout the book of Judges. He is cognizant of feminist critiques of Judges, even if his reading is much more conservative (i.e. he hints at Deborah’s appointment as Judge the result of the lack of male leadership. Though certainly the Hebrew scriptures attest elsewhere that God’s choice is not necessarily society’s choice). I appreciated his handling of the Ruth story as well (some of his translation notes are golden here!), but it his reading of Judges which garners my highest praise.

This is the second volume in the Kregel Exegetical Library I have reviewed (the first was Volume 1 of the Psalms by Allen Ross). On the strength of these two volumes, I think this is going to be an excellent commentary series. Both volumes have strong introductions, attentiveness to historical and literary forms and practical insights. I can’t recommend this commentary enough. So if you are preaching on Judges or just want to delve in for personal study, this is well worth the effort. I give it five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Kregel Academic for providing me with a copy of A Commentary on Judges and Ruth in exchange for my honest review. I was not asked to write a positive review, but sometimes, they are that good.

Prayer for Ordinary Time (second week after Pentecost)

We worship and we wonder. . .

 

We worship and we wonder

why the God of love would

deem to pour His mercy on us.

We recount our weeks and recoil

at how often our pettiness,

unlove, and immorality

have revealed themselves.

We know we do not deserve such love.

 

We worship and we wonder

how an hour a week makes

much difference in our lives.

We stand and strain to sing songs too high for us,

we listen as the sermons too long for us,

We keep the feast  with bread and wine (juice)

far too little for us.

 

We worship and we wonder

and wonders of wonders it is enough.

God’s mercy comes for us anew

and we are changed (if not instantly

incrementally).

We eat and, wonder of wonders,

we are filled.

 

 

 

 

The Ascent of God

This coming Thursday is Ascension Day–the day in the church year when we celebrate Jesus’ post-resurrection-trip-to-heaven. While this is a significant event in Christ’s life and the life of the church, it doesn’t get much play in today’s churches. Growing up in church I remember 2D disciples and flannelgraph feet, but I don’t remember much else said about Jesus’ Ascension. If your church recites the Creeds  then it  is affirmed: “he ascended into heaven.” However it is little emphasized in worship, in readings, or preaching. Only Luke records the event (though he does it twice) and we may wonder what the big deal is.

In another age the Ascension was celebrated as the crowning  glory of  the Incarnation. Listen to St. Augustine:

The Ascension is the festival which confirms the grace of all other festivals put together–without which the profitableness of every other festival would have perished. For unless the Savior had ascended into heaven, His nativity would have come to nothing . . . and His passion would have borne no fruit for us . . . and His most holy resurrection would have been useless. -St. Augustine, quoted in Tim Perry & Aaron Perry, He Ascended into Heaven ( Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010) 3.

The following observations are my musings on the significance of the Ascension. I affirm the event as a historic reality. Jesus stood with his disciples somewhere near Bethany where they witnessed him taken to heaven. While the events of Jesus’ Ascension are only described by Luke in Luke 24 and Acts 1, there are a number of passages  assume its reality.

So why does it matter? Here are three observations:

  1. The Ascension means Jesus is absent.  In another sense, us post-Pentecost believers know Christ’s presence with us through the ministry of the Spirit. We cling to Jesus’ promise to be with us, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). But let’s not gloss  over Jesus absence. One moment Jesus was with his disciples, the next moment he was taken up into heaven and they were told that in the same way he departed, he would one day return.  Because  of the Ascension we are people between times: Jesus is no longer with us bodily, Jesus will one day return. We pray and work toward the Kingdom of God but as post-Ascension people we live in the ‘already but not yet’ tension of the Kingdom of God. 
  2. The Ascension means that Christ’s Incarnate work is finished. We love Christmas with all its fanfare and we walk with Jesus on the road to Calvary through Lent and Holy Week. On Easter we proclaim Christ’s resurrection with shouts, songs and chocolate bunnies. As significant as Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are, they lose their meaning unless they are sealed by his Ascension.  If Jesus the incarnate one does not return to the Father, than we are left with a fractured deity. If the words of dereliction on the cross resulted in Christ’s eternal separation from God, then there is no hope for humanity.  The Ascension is Christ’s vindication and proof that God’s favor rests on Him. Philippians 2:5-11 describe how the Ascension is the telos of Christ’s Incarnation:

    In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

    Who, being in very nature God,

    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

    rather, he made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

    And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself

    by becoming obedient to death—

    even death on a cross!

    Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

    and gave him the name that is above every name,

    10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

    11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father.

  3. The Ascension means that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God.  Jesus is exalted and that means Jesus reigns! This is good news, especially in a world with marathon bombings, political and social unrest, bloodshed.  Things on earth are not all as they should be (or will be!), but we can be confident that the risen and ascended Christ, sits with God and intercedes on our behalf.

So Thursday night  celebrate the Ascendant one and give thanks that the Christ who is absent will one day return, that his salvific, incarnational work is completed, that he reigns in glory and holds you in his hands.

Prayer for Easter 4

The Lectionary Text for today includes the Shepherd’s Psalm (Psalm 23).  I am singing and playing on the worship team at my church tonight and we’ll  be singing the House of God Forever by Jon Foreman (video below). Here is a prayer based on this season and the Psalm (the prayer is my own and you shouldn’t blame Jon Foreman for it).

Death’s Dark Valley–

If we doubted  that’s where we were,

this week’s events have shown us.

We mourn for those in Boston,

for West Texas,

for Syria and other war-torn places,

for the suffering of those we know and love.

We mourn and ask, “How long?”

We wonder where you are.

 

Resurrected Shepherd

lead us to quiet waters,

Bring us to green pastures,

restore us and make us whole.

May we know your presence with us

here in Death’s Dark Valley.

Guide our steps and keep us from wandering.

Prepare Your Table for us

though we are surrounded by enemies

We long to taste your goodness and mercy.

May we dwell in your house forever.

 

Prayers for Easter Week 3 (John 21)

Like Peter at the Sea of Tiberias

we meet the resurrected Lord

and then return to

the-way-things-used-to-be.

We mend our nets and go fishing.

Yes we saw him, but is life really changed?

And anyway a man has to work!

 

For Peter: A fruitless night closes

when at a word the nets are full.

Jesus there  and wants to breakfast with him.

 

Three times he asked,

“Do you love me?”

Peter says yes, and is

trice commissioned to

Feed Christ’s sheep.

 

The three times weren’t lost on Peter–

who had three times denied Christ before his cross.

But in that moment, Peter knows he’s fully accepted and loved

that Jesus is not done with him yet

and there is more for him to do.

 

Resurrected Lord: 

We do love you, help our un-love!

Transform our lives from the-way-we-were

to your true image-bearers. 

Commission us to your service

despite our poor catch records.

Thank you that you are not finished

with

us

yet.