MadPriest asked a very interesting and tough question on his blog today. He asked, "Must Jesus and the Holy Spirit be an equal part of the godhead with God (the Father)?" My answer was too long for an entry in his blog but I decided to post it on mine...
For starters, it is a question that defies any hope of empiric evidence. Therefore, in an empiric sense there can be no right or wrong answer.
The facts I understand are these:
1. The word "Trinity" is never mentioned in either the Old or New Testaments.
2. There are at least 70 names for God in the Bible in the original languages (Hey, why stop at three?)
3. The "Trinity", as we know it, has been around "officially" since AD 325, when the Council of Nicea established the doctrine of the Trinity as an orthodox tenet of Christianity. In other words, it was established by committee, which in my mind makes it in some ways "a compromise."
4. "Unofficially", the three parts of the Trinity were first mentioned as a single unit when Christ gave The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19.
5. Paul may have been one of the earliest leaders in the early Church to use the three units as one for purposes of preaching and teaching, as in 2nd Corinthians 13:14 ("May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.")
Wow. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation, doesn't it?
So now let's move to a short list of "The concept as I see it"...
1. There was a time when the Son had not yet existed on earth; therefore, there was no need to put the three together until after Jesus' day. If there was no need to put these three entities together prior to that, that implies that they are, in a sense, free-standing entities in their own right.
2. They are all descriptions of separate aspects of God--the big picture God, a man who was connected to God in a way unique to historical precedent, and the small still voice of God, who works from within and behind the scenes.
3. There are aspects of God that are not totally covered by the Trinity, such as shekinah--the presence of God in holy objects or places, that is a word of female gender and of a power that I see personally as equal as any of the other "Names of God."
So...after all that, my answer is, "Equal" is an empiric concept and we are talking about non-empirically understood entities. These things are graded on the "Pass/Fail" system, not the "ABCDF" grading system. Therefore, the "equality" or lack of between the three entities doesn't matter.
This is how I tend to deal with most things spiritual. For instance, I struggled for years (literally) with the entire concept of “The Resurrection” simply because my scientific half of my brain knows “dead” intimately and “resurrected” not at all. For the longest time, I felt that I had to put the Resurrection in some sort of box where I could “explain” it...and really, (and this is something I would not even bring up with 97.5 percent of people, DEFINITELY not to my mom, but MAYBE to her holy roller friend just for shock effect, to see if she'd faint or try to exorcise me or something) deep down inside the scientific part of my brain figures the Resurrection scientifically was one of those weird “not really dead” things. I say that because we would have no trouble saying someone who drowned in a frozen pond and was revived hours later “came back from the dead” and we have all heard of people being taken to the morgue and turning out to be alive, and people sitting up in the casket at their own funeral.
(Ascension is still a bit of a problem in this thought line but I just tend to rely on the power of allegory.
But what I also know is that SOMETHING happened that caused the people of Jesus’ day to believe he rose from the dead, and really, that’s all that matters. The “hows” are meaningless...because whatever happened caused his disciples to go out and start a whole new religion, with him as the Messiah. That is miracle enough for me, and the details become unimportant. I realize feeling the way I do still allows me to say with perfectly honest conviction the “We believes” in the Nicene Creed. (I will save my "why does there have to be only one Messiah?" thoughts for another thread!)
We are a people steeped in the need for “empiric truth”. People 2000 years ago were not. They saw things differently. Also most of the resurrection/ascension stuff is in John, and it often has “more in the story” than the synoptic Gospels. It was written 80-90 years after Jesus was crucified. Compare that to Mark, the youngest Gospel (about 40 years after the fact) and he ends his book with an empty tomb and everyone being afraid.
It’s a concept that has no empiric answer, and I think about it in sort of the way I think about the Prime Meridian. The Prime Meridian is a PURELY imaginary line, created by people. Yet without the Prime Meridian, we could not travel like we do, and we could not have standardization of time on the earth. So the EFFECT of this imaginary line represents a shitload of reality!
Now, would I be fool enough to say, “I don’t believe in the Prime Meridian?” “I don’t believe in the equator?” Of course not. The outcome and the effect of them is very very real! Well, then, if I can believe that about a purely imaginary line, I certainly can believe that a real fellow named Jesus, chronicled in all sorts of ancient history, was more connected to God than 99.99999% of people, which that in itself qualifies as “divine” in my book, and the effect of this man makes things very very real to me in how I understand God. The details of the last couple chapters of John and whether I believe it all in the most literal of literal senses is meaningless.
But back to the Holy Trinity. Mostly I see the Holy Trinity as an entity designed to understand a vast part of what God is all about. But I also respect the need of some people to make it "real" in a different light than how it is "real" for me. But whether the three parts are "equal" or not do not affect its utility or purpose, nor does this equality or lack of equality affect my belief or my spirituality. There are parts of God addressed by the Holy Trinity, and they are not to be dismissed just because we don't include them in the Holy Trinity, nor are they less holy. Convoluted yes, evasive, no--because I am willing to accept the lack of empiric proof of any of it. After all, if you totally needed an answer embedded in empiric fact, why would you choose to believe in God in the first place?
MadPriest asked a very interesting and tough question on his blog today. He asked, "Must Jesus and the Holy Spirit be an equal part of the godhead with God (the Father)?" My answer was too long for an entry in his blog but I decided to post it on mine...
I was doing my pre-reading for Sunday's text, realized we're back to good old "Doubting Thomas" again, and I got to thinking about that dilemma of keeping our faith in the face of doubt.
I saw a really good blog one-liner yesterday:
“Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
I think that’s pretty true. If we didn’t have those moments of honest doubt, we might very well fall asleep in the most real and alive parts of our faith journey. I think back to my struggles every time I'm faced with a spiritual reality. Without that initial mistrust of what I’m seeing or experiencing, would I recognize these moments as real?
When I imagine my own doubts, I have this image of a chasm in front of me. On the other side of that chasm is something desirable—like a special treat—a juicy steak, a bottle of hot sauce that I’ve never tried, something good. In the beginning the chasm looks huge and impossible to cross. I imagine myself in my obsessive compulsive way, pacing back and forth on the one side of the chasm, looking at the goodie on the other side, with the frustration of no way of getting there.
But as I pace back and forth, the little details of the chasm become clearer. Some spots are narrower than others. Some are wider. At some point, I may well see a spot where I start to think, “You know, a person might be able to cross right THERE.”
Now here’s the kicker about doubt. You never calmly walk over from doubt to belief. It’s because it’s a chasm, and it’s impossible to calmly walk over it. You have to leap. You have to take a run at it and just go for it. So you pick your spot, back up, make a run at it, and leap.
Some people never get up enough steam to give it a go. Some people won’t stand there and stare at the chasm long enough to decide there is a way over. They just turn around and go back the other way. Some people aren’t committed to making the leap, they only make a half-hearted leap and fall down in the hole and say, “See, I couldn’t make it over, therefore I’ll never try this again. I’ll just sit down here in this hole in my despair.”
I kind of imagine myself as this person who has, for the most part, learned to have the guts to make the leap, but at the same time covered with the dirt and scars of my failed and near-failed attempts. Sometimes I might almost make it over the chasm but slip down the opposite side, grabbing branches and roots and dragging myself up and over the other side of the chasm, scratched, bloodied, and dirty. Sometimes I have fallen victim to my own fears and fallen in the chasm, maybe even stayed there a while, pissed off. But somewhere in the process, I generally get to the place where I’m sick of staying in a hole (I tend to be fairly impatient once I've gotten past my initial despair) and try to find a way up and out.
It is another of those spots where the “la la shiny happy Christians” and I part company. They sort of imagine overcoming our spiritual doubts as this spotless clean white joyful thing, and I sort of imagine it as an extreme sport, where, when I’m standing on the other side of that chasm of doubt with whatever “spiritual goodie” was on the other side, I’m covered in mud, with bloody scraped knees and dirt under my fingernails, grinning, and exclaiming, “Wow! That was a helluva trip!”
You know, there's really not much I can say about what's going on for Easter that Wallace didn't cover in his sermon. It's fine Easter homily and he was kind enough to give me a copy of it to share after church. You can see why we like our vicar's sermons! I only ask you give credit where credit is due if sharing this.
March 23, 2008
The Rev. Wallace F. Caldwell
Trinity Episcopal Church, Kirksville, MO
Mary Magdalene said, “I’ve seen him”; “I have seen the Lord”. This simple statement no doubt was as astonishing and bewildering to Mary herself as it was to the disciples, and as it may still be to us. But we, too, have seen the Lord: we’ve known his living presence in the way the Sacrament of it opens us up to God and to each other, and we’ve been repeatedly amazed by the life-giving power which flows through our contact with him. Christ is risen, alive in a way utterly beyond our understanding of what life is, raised by God into a fullness of life beyond our most hopeful dreams of what life can be. The power of God that reaches into our incompleteness and fear to heal us, and into our desolation and sin to forgive us, and into our weaknesses to renew our strength – this power reaches also into death to re-create life.
The biblical witness to the resurrection provides no description of the event itself, and no explanation for it, in part because none are possible. The truth of what took place transcends the boundaries of comprehensibility, and confronts us with the mystery of holiness. The resurrection is a revelation, and the appropriate response is not to try to figure out what happened – but to honor the sacred ambiguity of it by feeling the wonder of what God has done, opening our hearts to its meaning, and receiving its blessings with gladness and gratitude. The right response is to listen to the revelation, listen to what God is telling us, and let it broaden our vision and change our priorities and enrich our lives.
Yes, God is telling us that death is not our final destiny, that we will be transformed. We will be raised into eternal life, into the expansive quality of life which already stirs within us as we worship, as we pray, as we give of ourselves to others. But God is telling us far more: the resurrection of Christ is a revelation of God’s intention to transform all of creation, to unite heaven and earth. The world ultimately will be as glorious as the risen Christ, and will be filled with the music of “angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven”. It will be a place of peace, where all that’s true discloses itself
with ever more compelling clarity, and all that’s beautiful grows ever more enchanting, and all that’s good flourishes in ever more prosperous ways – a holy place where everything false and degrading and debilitating will have been forever removed. The world will be, as Jesus proclaimed, the Kingdom of God; and in God’s heart, from the perspective of eternity, it already is. The earth will be a paradise, and our final destiny is to be re-embodied in it.
But that’s not the half of it! The resurrection of Christ not only reveals God’s intention to redeem all of creation from its present misery, it also calls us to serve as agents of the world’s transformation. It calls us to implement God’s will by following Christ, letting him help us live the way he did, with devotion to God’s reign. God is telling us that a new world is being formed through our will to trust and love, through our efforts to share compassion and then forgiveness with those who have caused us harm, through our resolve to establish justice and mercy on the earth, through our dedication to building a community of inclusive hospitality and mutual support. Everything we do to the glory of God contributes to the new creation which already is at hand, shining in the stillness within us and in the bonds among us, awaiting only our consent.
God is telling us today that your life and mine have meaning, that our blessings and our hardships both serve a purpose which vastly transcends our own welfare. God is telling us that our willingness to believe in the promise of following Christ, and to welcome its challenges, is the means by which the redemption of the world will be completed. God is telling us that the way you and I live matters. It matters now, and for ever.
Christ is risen. The emptiness of his tomb is filled with the music of eternity, and we are invited to let him lead us in the dance of salvation. God’s new creation has begun, and we have important, life-enhancing work to do.
Two things kind of ran through my head after our Good Friday service in a different way than they ever did.
1. I have always been able to have a sense in my heart of how the crowd got “wound up” to do Jesus in, but I have never really had a connection to “the aftermath” of this until tonight.
I understand mob mentality pretty well, and I think the angry parts of me connect with it and understand how things can carry you to a place that was a terrible mistake and you don’t know it till you’re there and it’s obvious you stepped over the line. Think about this a little. It’s Passover. EVERYONE is in town. It’s crowded. The public mindset is very tolerant of blood sport—the Romans have seen to that, through the Roman forms of entertainment mixed with the fact life was cheap back then. Imagine that night/early morning.
“Hey, didja hear? They’re trying that Nazarene prophet?”
“No kiddin'? What’d he do?”
“I dunno. Who cares? Let’s go to town and see what’s going on!”
Really, it’s great local drama. The priests are pissed, and they want to curry favor with Rome anyway. Herod and Pilate are like, “I can’t see where this guy has done anything wrong in a public safety sense. I don’t see where he’s run afoul of the kingdom or Rome.” But the crowd is getting bigger in the streets and some toadies of the priests are starting to yell for Christ’s head. Pilate is going, “How ‘bout I just give him a nice public flogging? Wouldn’t that be enough for you?” Then some of the crowd starts yelling “Free Barabbas!” and the rest of the crowd picks up on it, like a cheer in a football stadium. Next thing you know, they’re hauling Jesus up the hill to be crucified.
It is still great sport at this point. It’s still local entertainment, like a good hanging in the Old West, until about halfway through the crucifixion itself. This is the part I never really picked up on until now. At some point, you get the sense the crowd’s mood is starting to shift. They are thinking, “What’s up? Wait a minute! This guy is probably innocent. Look at him—he’s not even protesting his innocence, he’s just hanging there like a trussed-up lamb, dying. Uh-oh. What have we just been a party to?” It didn’t hurt that there was a solar eclipse, either. Now folks are thinking, “Uh-oh! God's upset with us now because the sun is darkening!” At this point, near the end, people had to be heading for home as fast as they could. The Roman soldiers are thinking, “I sure hope this is over soon b/c let’s get the hell out of Dodge as soon as this is over.”
Meanwhile, as Jesus died, the disciples and the women have to be feeling like they’re stuck watching a car wreck two cars in front about to happen. As Christ was being mocked and tormented and he WASN’T saving himself, they have to be thinking, “Well, maybe they’re right. If he really is the Messiah, how come he’s not doing squat to save himself? C’mon, Jesus, break free from that cross and go kick these people’s butts!” As it becomes apparent that’s not going to happen, it had to turn to despair for them. “All this time I’ve spent with this guy is a total waste. He’s not the Messiah. He’s just some guy...and I’m a fool. I was a damned fool for dropping everything and running around with this guy.” As Christ’s life ebbed, their feelings of being misguided, used, deluded had to grow. I have never really picked up on that part or identified it or connected with it until now...that sense of dread, that feeling of being anchorless, fear that they’d be identified as “that dude’s friends” while at the same time watching him die and feeling empathy for their friend and teacher, yet simultaneously trying to push down the growing notion in their heart that this was all a big sham and they’d been had.
As the hill clears of people, it’s just a few soldiers, a little knot of the disheartened faithful, and three dead guys hanging on crosses.
For some reason this year, I connected in a new way with what a lonely, disheartening thing that had to be for his people. I am feeling that loneliness, confusion, even the sense that his followers felt betrayed themselves, because Jesus DIDN’T rise up and smite everyone like the Old Testament's warrior heroes. He just died, silently, like a whipped dog. It was just not how they would have expected it. Mary would have felt the pain of losing her son but having NO CLUE what all the rest of that meant. She had to have known her son was “special” somehow. But what happened would not have made sense in the traditional sense of what she knew about her religion.
I connected with that sense of connection to this confusion, loneliness, and betrayal, and I have a feeling it is part of what I am going to have to carry in my head until Easter and figure out what to do with it then. This is something new for me to deal with. Maybe I have had it before but just pushed it aside—I don’t know.
2. I think because of #1, I have finally, after 40 years, understand what the phrase “dead to our sins” really means. I have never really understood what that means. I had this vague notion that it was being separated from God but more like in a “You’ve been bad and you’re gonna die,” way. Can’t accept the fundie notion that it means you’re consigned to Hell unless you jump through the right magic hoops. But the phrase never connected to me quite solidly.
“Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Well, think about that crowd as they are “stepping over the line” and the people mocking Christ. They are so caught up in the moment of what is happening, so busy going with the flow of it, they don’t even realize what happened until it’s a done deal, and they go, “Ooops. Maybe we screwed up here.” Until that moment, they were truly “dead to their sins”. They simply didn’t exist! It is only when we RECOGNIZE the sin that the pain starts, and then sometimes that is horrible pain, not just from the deed itself, but from what we allowed to happen from the deed, and from the sudden realization we’re sitting across a chasm from God because of it—a chasm we dug by hand.
"Dead to our sins" simply means not even acknowledging their existence. Wow, how many of our transgressions are we actually without knowledge? That's a sobering thought.
“This is my blood.” Hmmm....O negative, the “universal donor”? AB negative, the “universal recipient”? Is it a compatible transfusion? Are there any antibodies? It’s true, I started thinking about blood banking and transfusion right from the start in the sermon Thursday.
Well, and let’s run with that one.
We have just spent the Lenten season contemplating everything we need to do better. It’s entirely possible this experience, every year, makes us a little “spiritually anemic.” If we’re smart, we try to fortify our “iron stores” by delving into the Scriptures, studying, adding something to our lives. But we usually also take something away during Lent (like, in my case, hot sauce!). It leads us to a place where perhaps, at the end of it, we are in need of a “spiritual transfusion.”
Yet, our sins, our doubts, our feelings of unworthiness sometimes get us in this mindset that we can’t accept this life-giving fluid.
Now, if you were profoundly anemic, would you be fool enough, if offered a transfusion, say, “No, I can’t do that. I think I’d rather be anemic, tired, short of breath, and out of energy??????” Of course not. You’d gladly accept the risks of transfusion for the benefit. Yet when we separate ourselves from God, that’s just what we’re doing.
Every week, at the Eucharist, we are offered the gift of a transfusion of the blood of Christ, and like a transfusion, it strengthens us. During Holy Week, on Maundy Thursday, we receive the Eucharist at what might be our most spiritually anemic time of year after Lent, a time where we are literally cutting ourselves open and bleeding out on the ground. This might be the one time of the year we are most “symptomatic” and in need of a transfusion, and the gift of Christ’s blood might be one of the most needed times for this life-giving fluid.
The wonderful thing is, we don’t have to worry what blood type we are, we don’t have to worry about unexpected antibodies or other dangers/hazards of transfusion.
The scary thing is, we still might have a “transfusion reaction”. But, unlike the medical version of a transfusion reaction (which generally is bad), this “reaction” is good. It opens our hearts to the reality of God. It leads us to new levels of sanctification in our own lives. It has the potential for a lifelong lasting effect.
We still have a few more days to bleed out, but by Sunday, we can plan on stopping the bleeding.
(and a little backtracking on Ch. 52...)
Vv. 52:13--53:12: The Fate of the Suffering Servant
Vv. 52:13--53:3: Just Who IS the Servant, Anyway?
Well, from this set of verses, we know this much:
1. He will eventually prosper (v. 52:13)
2. He has a demeanor about him that is noticed (v. 52:14)
3. He will catch the attention of kings (v. 52:15)
4. He sort of came up from nowhere (v. 53:2)
5. He was despised, shunned, and is used to suffering (v. 53:3)
That's a bit of a paradox--a charismatic, obviously noticed person, who is persona non grata, but will eventually prosper. In some ways, that makes no sense. People who catch the attention of others usually do it "to the good"--but, as we know from the tabloids, notoriety sells, too.
However, consider Israel in that time. They're everyone's doormat. Yet they were a thorn in Pharaoh's side in Egypt. They do ok in Babylon despite the fact they are outsiders and not well liked. I have it in my head that the Israelites in Babylon were a little like the Mormons in Missouri in the 1840's before we ran them all back to Nauvoo, IL--fiscally prosperous but clique-ish, with a strange religion, so the locals did not like them.
I know from my own experience how hard it is to succeed when you have the deck stacked against you. I think about when I applied for the full-ride college scholarship that put me through my undergraduate years. I kept getting dead ends from the school counselors about my applying--they wouldn't give me an application--told me "I was not the kind of student they wanted for that scholarship." I am thinking "Say what? I'm #4 in a class of 113." Come to find out the person who was #1 in my class, who was also a teacher's kid--well, SHE had applied for the scholarship and they were trying to ice the competition locally. "You're not the kind of student they want for that scholarship" really meant "You're an outsider," I might also add that the local favorite was quiet, demure, studious, and, in many ways, what people expected in a smart 17 year old. At age 17, I was iconoclastic, cynical, and salty. (I know, you're thinking, "And you think that has changed somehow?"
Once I figured out the game, I called a former classmate who a year older than me, and already going to that school, and I got him to send me an application from their Admissions office. The story has a happy ending. We both made it to the interview phase, and when it was all said and done, I got the scholarship and "the local favorite" didn't. I found out years later I was not a "committee pick" but I was a "president's pick". In those days, the president of the college got three picks on his own out of the ones the committee rejected. I was one of his three. We have been friends for 30 years now. He told me back in the late 80's, "I just saw this big raw diamond in you."
So I guess in some ways I can identify with Israel's struggle in that sense.
Vv. 53:4-7: The Servant Did Nothing Wrong and Got Punished Anyway
This has to be a new and different concept to people of that era. The common mindset is that illness, death, or infirmity is "Punishment for sin." The concept of a stricken person with no sins to bear--theirs or their relatives'--was unheard of. It's a radical concept to them.
The language of these verses is incredibly descriptive and direct--"He was wounded for OUR transgressions;" "Upon him was the punishment that made US whole, by his bruises WE are healed." Israel paid a price many times in its early history, yet the bulk of it was not of their doing. V. 7 describes a sacrificial lamb--like the ram that was substituted for Isaac--like the scapegoat in Leviticus (I think it's Leviticus!)--like the Paschal lamb we honor at Easter. It is also interesting that this verse describes US as "sheep who go astray."
This is a hard set of verses for someone like me who likes to keep everything "square" and "not owe anyone." I mean, I even keep track of "whose turn it is to buy" on meals together with friends. When we think in terms of the crucified and risen Christ, there's no way we can ever "make it square"--we will always owe him. But it does bring up the possibility that other people also bear our burdens as a community, or we may bear another's burdens, and in these scenarios, again, there's no means of "payback", no way of ever "making it square." Perhaps the way we should handle this is instead of stressing over what we "can't repay," instead we should focus on bearing someone else's burden, paying someone else's debt, with the same "non-expectation" of payback, same as Christ.
I think about a friend of mine, who had a stroke, but who had none of the "traditional risk factors" and was younger than the "usual" age for a stroke. Fate put us in a weird position. She would probably have died of her stroke had I not called on the phone that night--and I had even given up and hung up, deciding she and her husband were in bed. Evidently, the phone call awakened her husband, but I had already hung up, and then when he looked over at her, she was not responding. He then called 911.
Both of them have some degree of "survivor guilt" about this and feel they owe me her life, and of course, I'm going, "Aw, man, that was just fate." Now, one could argue it belongs in the "non-coincidence" file, but it does not change the fact both of them feel they owe me a debt which they can't repay. Obviously I downplay it and softsoap it, and "Aw gee shucks" it, but nothing I do will ever change their feelings about that.
I realize from that experience, I also have no small amount of "survivor guilt" about the Crucifixion and Resurrection, which is definitely "unpayable debt" because it happened 2000 years ago. I have always told my friends in the "stroke scenario", "Don't think you have to owe me. Instead, invest that feeling into caring for others, and it will be square in my mind."
Ah...another time I need to follow my own good advice? Um, YEAH. Could it be that is God's way of wanting to deal with those feelings? Could it be that by sharing my gratitude for people who enrich my life and showing compassion to those who cross through my life that this is the key to "not worrying about this debt"?????
Vv. 53:10-12: Out of Pain Comes Light and Strength
Well, here's another concept that would be considered radical in the days of "the 2nd Isaiah"--that the outcome of pain and death can be light and hope. The Psalms are full of "avoidance of the dark," and "avoidance of 'the Pit',". The idea that within the center of the darkness of Death, there shines Light--well, that's totally foreign to them. Even today, we carry residuals of that mindset in sayings like "Like breeds like," and "what goes around, comes around."
Well, we all know that is just simply not always the case, as evidenced by the old saw, "No good deed goes unpunished." It's easy to think of this reality in the negative. But what about the positive? How do we see light in the center of a black pit? The answer is scary--you have to sit in the dark until the hints of light reveal themselves. That is hard, b/c you may not get your feedback very quickly on that one. In my case, I have to resist my urge to bolt. I have a tendency to think about that like I do about fishing, "If I'm not going to start to get a nibble right off the bat, I ain't stayin'." My fatal flaw is not to want to sit in the dark pit long enough for my eyes to adjust to the light. If I don't start to see the way out fairly soon, I start bellowing and carrying on, masking my fear as impatience, bravado, and anger. At times, I'd rather holler at everyone else and would practically die before hollering "help." But if I would just holler "help" more, I might be able to sit in the dark a little longer. I mean, think about it--say you fell in a dark well. You're far more likely not to panic if someone answers your distress call--even if the answer is, "It's going to be a while before I can get you out, just sit still, chill out and don't over-use your oxygen. Help IS coming, it's just not right at the moment." God's like that sometimes.
Sooooo...that was week 5!
Yeah, I know. Where's week 5?
Short answer--I wrote it in longhand while out of town, just haven't put it to keyboard. I have had some unexpected things going on this week and last week. I'm presently away from regular computer use this week. I had to move my retired friend into assisted living last week. It's been hard to get to this blog...but I promise I'll catch up next week!
This past Sunday, I made it into church way early, because of my fear of being trapped in the mud on my gravel road (which the constant freezing and thawing here has turned the road to sludge). I figured if I left early enough and got stuck, at least I might get a pull and still make it to church on time.
As I sat there, it came to me that I really don’t listen much to the 23rd Psalm (one of the texts in the RCL for March 2), because I’m turned off by all the “kitchiness” associated with it. Let’s be real, you can find the 23rd Psalm on some piece of kitch almost anywhere—truck stops, dollar stores, estate sales, not to mention all the nauseating array of quasi-religious gifts you can get online or in a gift catalog. People who don’t know doodly-squat about the Bible or about their own spirituality can quote the 23rd Psalm. This psalm is this trite kitchy thing in my mind, which closes me off from the real power within it.
Anyway, in the still of an empty church, I decided to expand on the words in this psalm and make it my own as a little extra Lenten project. Here's what popped out of my brain:
V. 1: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
The image of the sheep and the shepherd is an important one to me. The sheep graze freely—they are not tied up—yet the shepherd keeps the herd from straying into dangerous places or onto the property of others, when necessary. It’s not that some renegade sheep can’t go take off and get into trouble (that’s certainly possible, and I am a bit of a renegade sheep myself at times) but that obviously is not the shepherd’s intent. I can certainly “escape” the confines of the flock if I so choose. But if I do, the shepherd may well go looking for me!
I always also like to think the shepherd has dogs, like border collies or Great Pyrenees dogs. I’m sure the sheep find the dogs are an annoyance but they also keep the sheep safe. Sometimes I wonder if the annoyances in my life also help define my boundaries.
“I shall not want” is a reminder that God will provide what we need. Not everything we THINK we want, but what we need.
Vv. 2,3: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.”
I probably understand the “green pastures” better than the “still waters.” I think about those times I have watched the stars at night, lying in a pasture. I think about how the view from my house “greens up” across the hayfields each spring. This verse speaks to those moments when I simply sit and enjoy God’s creation.
These moments are often moments of healing and restoration. They are moments when I can reflect on my day and make sense of it. Out of those moments come clarity and vision at times—the discernment of “paths”. These paths can lead us to a richer, fuller place where we can feel the connection with God inside of us.
V. 4: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.”
I have to confess I prefer the King James English language of this verse: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” It’s just so more powerful than “the darkest valley”. For me, “the valley of the shadow of death” stirs up images of “the valley of dry bones” in Ezekiel—this tremendously desolate place earmarked for death. You walk through it very much alive, but with images of death everywhere you look and your nostrils filled with the stench of death. For me, I get this image from the movie “Jeremiah Johnson” when he is riding through that spot where the remains of Indians on their elevated funeral platforms are everywhere, rotting in the winter air, and he gets attacked. That is how I feel when I am in those places in my mind that are my valleys of the shadow of death—death all around and fear of being attacked—and it’s very hard to consider the possibility in those moments that “the Lord is with me.”
“Your rod and your staff” surely refers to the rod of Moses, that showed the people so many miracles. I’m assuming the staff is a shepherd’s crook.
When I read a lot of the “Moses stories” in the Bible, I get tickled because in some of the stories, God practically tells Moses, “Oh—and don’t forget your stick.” That’s probably good advice! “Don’t go walkin’ through the valley of the shadow of death without your Moses stick.”
When I have to cross through that desolate place, it’s not the death within it that scares me—it’s the SHADOW of it that is more fearful to me. It’s not what I see, but what I’m afraid will jump out at me and attack me. So in that sense, it’s very handy to remember you have your “Moses stick” that can find water, kill snakes, etc. I should remember that my “Moses stick” carries all of God’s might and power within it, and the use of it is totally at my disposal. I am protected even if I feel I’m not.
The staff is a different form of protection. That crook on the end of it, in a way, “extends God’s reach.” One of the advantages of being a “country kid” is that I have actually USED a “sheep stick” as we call them around here. When you can’t quite reach a sheep, or you want to get a sheep without startling it or the rest of the flock, you just reach out with that crook of your sheep stick and hook an upper rear leg. Then you can either use it to “reel ‘em in”, or to approach closer to the sheep without startling it. It’s a fairly gentle way to catch them, and gives them a little space, so you can approach them slowly.
I like to think that is how God “catches” me when I’m trying to bolt from a situation and separate myself in the pit of my own despair. He doesn’t rush up and gang-tackle me. He just catches my leg gently in the crook of his staff and lets me stand there, panting and tachycardic, letting me calm down before he eases up and pets me.
V. 5: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
I don’t really have “enemies” per se, in the personal adversarial sense, but I sure have a lot of psychological “enemies”--fear, anger, doubt, despair, uncertainty—and I do not relish the prospect of sitting down to the dinner table with them! There is something incredibly daunting about being told to sustain yourself—eat—right in plain view of all of them, when your stomach is doing flip-flops and your afraid you’re going to puke.
Yet God promises to anoint my head and seal me as one of his own, fill my glass to the brim, right in front of all my personal demons? Whoa! I always think of being “anointed” as being sealed in a bond that extraordinarily special. It’s like God is saying, “Hey, forget your personal demons over there—in my book, YOU ROCK! This is not about them, this is about you.”
That, I believe, is part of the incredibly binding attachment I have for the Eucharist—that no matter what “enemies” have crawled up out of the shadows, no matter what vandals happen to be at my mental gates at the moment every week, I can have that one moment that is 110% “Me ‘n God ‘n everyone else”, where I kneel at Christ’s table and be that uniquely special “interlocking puzzle piece” that holds the Eucharist together. The entire Body of Christ hangs on my presence in a way that is unique and entirely mine. What’s wild is each and every person participating in the Eucharist, if he or she so chooses, can have the exact same sense of uniqueness and value!
V. 6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”
I think the psalmist is speaking to the notion that God’s assurance is binding and eternal. God doesn’t write our names in “the book” in pencil; they are written in blood—Christ’s blood and the blood of Moses and the prophets, and of all the saints and martyrs. Oh yeah—and in MY blood, too. When we seal ourselves to God in sacraments, whether it is baptism, confirmation, communion, whatever, it is the same as slitting my own finger and writing my name in “the book” in my own hand, with my own blood.
God has always operated under the concept of having an oath to us, but I also think there are moments in our lives where we recognize our half of the contract better than others. There are moments when we feel we are more “at home” in the house of the Lord than others. I think about how, over the years, I had to be led to understand that “the house of the Lord” was sitting at the dinner table, enjoying the communion of saints, rather than being taken to the woodshed. It took me a long time to learn to accept that a spot at the “table of the Lord” is part of my birthright and something where my presence is welcomed every time, rather than a position that had to be earned, or ran the risk of being kicked out of the room if I didn’t dot all my “I’s” or cross all my “T’s”. That is what “mercy” is all about. It has nothing to do with what we deserve but has everything to do with what God gives freely.
Although this was not part of my original “Lenten game plan”, reconstructing this psalm just felt right. I have hidden from this psalm for many years because of my knee-jerk aversion to it’s “kitchiness” in popular culture. It was like “I just don’t care about this psalm because every Tom, Dick, and Harry quotes this one and doesn’t understand what the fuss is about it. They just parrot it, without hearing it, or acting upon it.” That became incredibly annoying to me.
But, I think this weekend I came to a spot in my own broken heart where I needed to listen to what it had to give to me. What I’ve come to realize is that although it’s an incredibly short psalm, it is one long in promise and hope. It carries a promise that I will not be abandoned, even when I close myself off from God. Those are promises that are so incredibly beyond the kitch.
Isaiah Chapter 52
Vv. 1-6: Wake up, it’s time to go
God is basically telling Israel that it is time to pack up and leave Babylon. He is saying, “Purify yourselves, clean yourself up, and let’s blow this place.”
The part that sticks in my mind is verse 3--”You were sold for nothing and you shall be redeemed without money.” In some ways, it appears that the Israelites have no value, no worth. But as God continues in vv. 5-6, it’s not that they have “no value”, it’s that God sees a value in them that is beyond money and the Babylonians have no concept of them having any value at all.
This concept speaks to the moments when I acutely feel despair and feel “valueless”. How many times do I feel I’m not appreciated? Unworthy of God’s love? Unloved in the human romantic sense? Unnecessary to the grand scheme of things in the universe? It also hearkens to the times in my life where I felt “dismissed”, or that people made judgments about me outwardly that are just plain wrong.
I always eventually come around to figuring in those cases, “They just don’t get it.” It takes me a while to get up and decide to leave my “exile” but eventually I get up and go. I leave those places. I think that is because, deep down inside, in a place in my soul that is even deeper than “the hurt place” or “the pit of despair”, there is this flickering abiding thought that God sees me as the prize in the $1.00 box of crap from the Friday Night Consignment Auction. God looks in this confusing box of dirty, disheveled items, all piled up in there, and spies the one thing that is worth much more than $1.00. It’s just that I can even get a little lost in the box of crap sometimes.
Vv. 7-12: Trust God and keep moving forward
The first part of this set of verses speaks to the simple fact that God reigns over all of us. The second set points out that this move, unlike the Exodus from Egypt, is planned, and not a “Let’s get the hell out of Dodge” operation.
The “hooks” in this set of verses for me are verse 10 and verse 12: “The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God;” and “For you shall not go out in haste, and you shall not go in flight; for the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rearguard.”
I think of “God baring His holy arm” as the outward signs of our Christian life. But whether it is a religious tattoo, or Jews laying tefillin on their arms for prayers, or someone wearing a cross, or a priest wearing a collar, it all bespeaks that need that people have a need to see “God’s holy arm” in a tangible way. We all have a need to “see” God’s salvation in a way we can appreciate in our darkest exile, and when we know we have to move from that exile. The Jews in Babylon never forgot they were Jews. They just had to have a few decades to get motivated enough to strike camp and go home. The little “signs” and little “non-coincidences” we might see in our lives are manifestations of God’s holy arm.
Verse 12 is important to me because when I have to make tough decisions, making them in a carefully planned way, and not “on the run” is preferable to snap decisions or decisions where I have to act “under the gun.” When we get around to deciding to move our lives in a certain direction, it’s important to realize that not only can God assist us in our guidance towards these endeavors (“the Lord will go before you”) but that he also “has our back.” (“The God of Israel will be your rearguard.”) These decisions may be hard, painful, and full of second-guessing, but they should not be “lonely” ones—God is there.
Vv. 13-15 The first part of the next “Suffering Servant” song
This is the beginning of the next “Suffering Servant” song, I will deal more with it in context with next week’s assignment, but even in this short intro to it, you get the notion that the servant is at least “noticed.” I like the part in v. 15, “For that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.”
God speaks to us “out of the blue” sometimes. I think for me that is best illustrated by the day I was sitting in our beat up, dingy pews, during services, and my mind’s eye, right in the middle of Prayers of the People, saw shiny pews. The scary part is, I saw them EXACTLY as they are now in their restored state. “That which had not been told me, I saw.” What I saw was real. When it became real, by my hands restoring those pews last summer, it became MORE than real. The night I had my “George Burns as God” dream (more on that in a moment), I had not heard what George Burns as God told me, but when that dream came to me, I was forced to contemplate it. In those moments where I am “praying and falling asleep at the same time”, ideas, words, phrases, concepts pop into my head, and I have to contemplate them. What is interesting to me is these moment always come at a time I am receptive to these notions. If we never get in that receptive state, we never hear them.
Re: The George Burns as God dream I had some months back. It goes like this:
I was dreaming I was standing out in front of Trinity having a conversation with “George Burns as God”. Now, I obviously knew in my dream I was talking to God, because he looked like George Burns as God, right? Ha ha ha ha
So I ask George Burns as God what brings him to Kirksville. He says, “I hear you’ve done a lot of neat stuff to one of my places. I wanted to see it up close. It’s more fun to see it up close.” So I am showing George Burns as God all the different things I’ve fixed up in Trinity, and he is remarking on what a nice job I did with things that are tiny details. He goes, “I’m into the details too, you know. People don’t always think I am, but when you’re really into the details, you’re so far into the details that you can HIDE the fact you’re into the details, you know?” I kind of think about that one and say, “Yeah! I get it!”