Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Few biblical passages depict the severity and gentleness of YHWH more poignantly than the Exodus narrative of Israel’s escape from Egypt.

The day of their flight, after all, follows upon the night when YHWH’s avenging angel stole the life from every first-born of Egypt, from the palace to the dungeon. In a carefully calibrated escalation of sternness that leaves no protagonist untouched and unmoved, YHWH meticulously prepares the moment when Israel will escape extermination and find both future and liberty in one noisy dash.

At the end of 430 years, on that very day, all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. It was a night of watching by the Lord, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so this same night is a night of watching kept to the Lord by all the people of Israel throughout their generations. (Exodus 12:41–42 ESV)

Ah, these nights of watching.

These times of trouble when we may die or we may live, and no one knows the outcome.

Will our dreams become reality, or will they simply perish in a silent, unnoticed disappearing act? Is this the end, or is this a beginning?

Nothing for us to do, then, in nights like this but watch.

It is comforting to know that at least this once, back in Egypt’s imperium, YHWH too stayed up all night watching. Nothing was going to escape his grip, no malevolence would derail his purpose. No hideous strength would touch the apple of his eye this night. His Israelites would have their new day, no matter the impeding powers.

People still celebrate YHWH’s night of watching with their own. We call it Passover, with its bitter herbs and its swallow of wine and its evening-gathered families and its memory of a night that will not be forgotten. ‘This night’, a child intones to his convened, listening, remembering family, ‘is like no other’.

Yet we may hope, at least, that YHWH has other nights of watching, when our lives and our hopes and our future will not be swallowed up in the dark by calamity as we wait, powerlessly, for morning.

Watch, YHWH. We need you to watch. Please stay up late with us—for us—as this new night falls.

The Bible is unflinching about the human predicament.

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.   And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:4–8 ESV)

How do we become un-lost?

How do we overcome our agnostic doubts, find our way through the morass of what we self-justifyingly call ‘the evidence’ to a defensible conclusion?

How do we assess this abiding sense of guilt again someone we can’t quite see?

How do we decide whether whether we are, finally, alone? Or not?

But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9 ESV)

The Bible’s story of human origins has the creator seeking out the first humans in their worst possible moment.

It has ever been so, and we are fortunate for it.

Absent a creator who—so we are told—pursues us and loves us in spite of everything, we are lost. We are on the fence. We cannot know if the aloneness we feel is real, or only the product of minds poorly equipped for the harshness of life.

To be lost out here is more than a feeling, and the jungle is vast.

But, wait! I hear someone …

 

Is it only the hope born so relentlessly in a new year’s first hours?

Or is YHWH’s purpose as unstoppable as it appears this first morning?

… and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel .. (Matthew 1:11–12 ESV)

From the conjunction of a January 1st and the first verses of the New Testament emerges a fresh glimpse of divine purpose, pushing through the bitter-sweets of the year just gone and into the face of all manner of fears about the one taking shape under our feet.

Matthew—grouping a genealogy of the about-to-be-born Jesus into an artifice of fourteen generations here, another fourteen there—molds history’s apparent chaos to make it a bit more ordered and orderly than rapid readers in the twenty-first century might understand it to be.

Between one fourteen and another, he skips over an apparent end-point: deportation, or exile. In the world of Babylonian eminence, a people did not emerge from exile. They either died in its grip or assimilated into the empire’s powerful ways and means so as to become unrecognizable among the flotsam and jetsam of once-proud peoples and nations now subjugated by the empire’s irresistible force. So was Israel’s great crisis short-handed as ‘exile’.

Yet Matthew skips over Babylonian captivity as though it were nothing. Well, not quite nothing, but nothing more than a comma in the long story of YHWH’s purpose.

Exilic calamity brands death into the bodies of less favored nations, who will die sooner or later far from home and be forgotten when they do.

Not to those who serve the divine Father of the about-to-be-born Jesus. They taste the same blood as those who are ground into dust by history. Their hearts race to the same fears. They curse the same mornings. Far from  immunity to history, they have been thrust into its sweaty core.

But, just when all seems list, a new fourteen appears, a biographical cluster that promises life, progeny, and future.

And now, we are about to be told, a king is born. His name means ‘He rescues’.

And, on top of that, it is January 1st, when all things are possible.

Give us fourteen more, then.

 

 

the nerve!: Proverbs 30

Grace and gentleness notwithstanding, we do well to cultivate a capacity for indignation that is on its way to revulsion.

Some behaviors are almost too brazen to be countenanced.

There are those who curse their fathers and do not bless their mothers. There are those who are pure in their own eyes yet are not cleansed of their filthiness. There are those—how lofty are their eyes, how high their eyelids lift! There are those whose teeth are swords, whose teeth are knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, the needy from among mortals. (Proverbs 30:11–14 NRSV)

Biblical wisdom knows this.

The Hebrew phrasing wants to speak of a ‘generation’ or ‘category’ of person who is almost too vile to exist. That he does is something of a wonder.

The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) captures the nuance of the curt Hebrew monosyllable דור, which is commonly translated by ‘generation’, ‘kind’, or ‘species’.

There is a breed of men that brings a curse on its fathers And brings no blessing to its mothers, A breed that thinks itself pure, Though it is not washed of its filth; A breed so haughty of bearing, so supercilious; A breed whose teeth are swords, Whose jaws are knives, Ready to devour the poor of the land, The needy among men. (Proverbs 30:11–14 JPS)

JPS’s deployment of the quasi-animalesque ‘breed’ successfully connotes the difficulty of even speaking of such unnatural behavior as a phenomenon of human affairs.

This species of human being defies all created intentionality. It knows nothing of gratitude or the persistent benefit of the doubt which is due one’s elders. It revels ignorantly in its moral hypocrisy. It offends by that core component of human rebellion that consists of lifting oneself up. It repurposes words—created for giving life and sowing blessing—to consume those who can least defend themselves against such articulate evil.

It is, almost literally, a shame to have to speak of such people.

One must, but there is no pleasure in it.

Tolerance is not here a core value, post-modern self-congratulation be damned.

The nerve of these people!, biblical wisdom subtly exclaims.

It expects us to turn away, to swallow hard, and to feel an indignant flush on our cheeks. There is a moment when not to revile is folly, a self-condemning abdication of proper honor and shame.

 

For the New Testament writers, the ‘good news’ is in reality amazing news.

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10–12 ESV)

These same writers consider that the long story of intrusive grace has opened a new chapter in their time. The trajectory of this tale—whence it comes, the mysteries it transmits, the grace it continues to reveal—is only in the smallest sense know-able ahead of time. The early daughters and sons of the Jesus movement lived with a continual sense of surprise.

Yet each surprise ‘lined up’ with what had gone before.

The letter we call 1 Peter punctures any assumption that greater beings than we are understand these things comprehensively. Apparently, there is mystery even in the heavenlies.

Indeed, it would seem that human beings—as the special concern of YHWH’s redemptive tenacity—are poised to understand that redemption in a way that greater creatures cannot. Some things are barred even from the gaze of angel eyes.

Or, perhaps it is that the angels are as surprised as we are and along with us as the story unfolds, for they—with their presumed proximity to heavenly counsel—had not known that YHWH would do this … would burnish his glory in just this way … would prove himself this creative, this good, this worthy of praise.

The verb is a strong one: … ‘things into which angels long to look.’

They’ve had enough clues, these angels, to expect the outlandish, the lavish, the most laudable.  They lean forward, expectantly, awaiting the turn of a cosmic page.

But this! This glory, crafted of these sufferings!

Who ever would have thought!

 

maranatha: James 4

Is it just me, or does it feel as though our world is falling down around us?

Full disclosure: I am not an alarmist, a conspiracy theorist, or an eschatological-narrative binge-er. In fact, I have no stomach for such talk—which always strikes me as historically naive—and am enough of a coward that I generally seek to avoid conversation with … well … alarmists, conspiracy theorists, and eschatological-narrative binge-ers.

This is probably not a virtue.

Still, recent massacres perpetrated to the echo of ‘Allahu Akbar!’, the desperation of Syrian refugees on their self-described ‘Journey of Death’ towards Europe, the reflexive move of otherwise steady state governors in my country to bar these bedraggled people from entry into our states and cities …

Addiction stomping all over family and friends.

My rudderless people shuffling toward electing the loudest shouter in the field.

Well, I could go on, but the news and the palpably frightened look in the eyes of people whom I’m not accustomed to seeing afraid make me doubly aware in these days that our world is badly broken. And, therefore, in need of radical repair.

Soon, please.

Then, there’s the Book of James.

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. (James 5:7–8 ESV)

The incrementalist side of my heart—which prevails in most arguments—hopes that healing for our bleeding world does not require the radical solution abbreviated by the New Testament’s ἡ παρουσία τοῦ κυρίου (the coming/appearance of the Lord). If history’s course were up to me, I’d prefer a steady permeation of human experience with the leavening power of Jesus’ love, a smooth entrance ramp to an even better highway if you please.

Reunion with our Lord would be the slightest tweak of an upward trending. Most would see it coming. Most would welcome him.

Alas, I fear things may not be up to me.

Maranatha! (μαράνα θά: ‘Our Lord, come!’) became a familiar phrase on early Christian lips, both in jubilation and in trembling, when martyrdom’s harsh whip made it a more complex matter to jubilate. This cry of early Syriac Christians must have resonated with deep poignance, for it finds its way untranslated into the New Testament’s Greek record. It is not the only time in the New Testament record that a profoundly moving moment was remembered in the language in which human beings first heard it articulated (Aramaic/Syriac), even though the language of record was Greek. Some of Jesus’ most signature moments were remembered in just this way, as they were experienced.

The times were neither convenient nor abstract then.

Nor, it feels to me, are they convenient or abstract this morning.

So does this morning’s reading from the New Testament book of James find its path without friction into my heart.

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient.

The farmer’s fruit is, oh, so welcome, when it finally comes to harvest.

But the waiting, the doubting, the patience, the inscrutable mysteries of germination and maturation, of rains early and late. These things are a holy torture, in a farmer’s field and in a weeping world where evil swarms like locusts and confusion suffocates like a leaden sky.

It comes to one as something like gentle rain, this realization that our earliest sisters and brothers needed both the urging toward patience and the permission to cry ‘Our Lord, come!’

As I do, this unsettled morning.

μαράνα θά.

 

 

Our organs of perception and expression are not meant to function at the same speed.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19–20 ESV)

Biblical wisdom trains the senses to calibrate their velocities both with reality and with the opportunity to construct community.

Hearing is meant to spring purposefully towards opportunity. Quick out of the blocks, sustaining a sprint, rounding the corner for a lap even faster than the last one.

Listen quickly, listen long, listen often, wisdom would tell us. Be quick about it. Time’s a’wastin’.

Yet speech ought to take its time. Talk needs to meander slowly down the street, pause often to distract itself with the goings on, creep towards its moment. If it never gets to the end of the block, little is lost. If our power of speech feels unappreciated, well, let it learn to enjoy the occasional time-out.

And then there’s anger. Not exactly an expressive capacity, it is the fast-acting venom the poisons in direct proportion to its velocity. Let it stall, stumble, stand idly in self-forgetfulness. The less that is seen of anger, the better.

Critically, the anger of man does not produce the righteous of God.

Anger gets itself up into a bother, comes quickly to feel righteously indignant, makes all sorts of unnecessary speeches. Enough already. Slow the thing down before it hurts somebody. God is rarely in the anger. He lives elsewhere, with rare exceptions.

Hurry up to hear. Slow down the tongue-wagging. Make anger a tortoise.

Know your speeds.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.