“Remember…”

 “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” – Hebrews 13:3

As I begin my journey into Lent, I have been praying and asking the Lord what it is that will bring me closer to Him during this time of deep reflection and soul-searching.  In years past, I have felt the need to give something up:  tv, sugar, caffeine…  In other years, I have felt strongly that I should “take something on” such as reading my Bible everyday, or giving to charity in a meaningful way.

In my fifteen years of being a believer, I have always tried to be a faithful follower during Lent because it re-oriented me in my relationship with Christ.  Regardless of where I find myself spiritually following Christmas, I have always looked forward to Lent as a time that I could get back on track, I could be renewed, I could slow down and pay attention to things that mattered.  But I always got to “do” something.

This time it’s different.  At this point, I am getting a very strong message not to “do,” but to “remember.”  Be aware.  Be mindful.  Pay attention.  And what am I paying attention to?

My brothers and sisters.  The church.  My friends right down the street, and the saints half-way around the world. The Holy Spirit is telling me, “It’s not about YOU!”  There are all kinds of hurts going on in the church today.  So I will pay attention and pray.  I will pray everyday for those that share a life with me in the body of Christ.  I will do my best to get outside my own bubble and try to make a difference in the lives of those that need Jesus the most.

I might be called to “do” something.  And that would probably make me more comfortable.  But for now, I will be still.  I will listen.  And I will pray for those around me like I have never prayed before. It’s going to be a different kind of Lent.  And I am thankful for the opportunity to watch my Savior at work.  Maybe being still won’t be so hard after all.

I would love to hear what our Lord is asking of you this Lenten season.  Please share your thoughts if you so desire.  Let us journey together these next forty days, my friends.

Shalom…

I am feeling strongly about beginning my prayers for those in the church who are persecuted for their faith.  Consider the following video if you feel the same.  It is a long one, 13 minutes.  But a very thought-provoking time for those of us worshiping from the comfort of a risk-free environment.

 

“Now That’s a Good Story…”

So I am studying the Book of Daniel in an attempt to identify the elements of apocalyptic literature present.  I have enjoyed this assignment because when reading such material, I have always gotten a headache trying to figure out what it was actually trying to teach me.

As I have sank into the genre of apocalypse, I have learned something of the form, content, origin of this strangely mystical and sometimes disturbing form of writing.  I will attempt here to share some of those elements from Daniel, so that I may grow in my understanding of why these passages were written in the first place, and why they were included in the Canon of Scripture.

The main elements that characterize apocalyptic literature are fantastic visionary experiences that most times include a heavenly messenger or presence (visions,) narratives recounted by famously wise people from history (legends,) cosmic dualism that pits the forces of good against the forces of evil (dualism,) eschatology, or a picture of the end where the current world order is abolished in favor of a new world structure that favors the righteous (end times,) moral strictness that exhorts the reader to maintain the highest moral standards – that they would be considered one of these righteous (morality,) and finally highly symbolic language that appeals more to the readers emotions than to his logic.

We find all these elements of apocalyptic literature in the Book of Daniel.  Let’s look at chapter 7 first.

Chapter 7 opens in verse 2 with Daniel (a legend,) having a dream (vision) of some fantastic beasts (symbols,) that represent foreign kings that rule over Judah.  In verses 9-14, we see clear dualism in the introduction of an almighty figure.  The heavenly figure is pure and powerful and good.  This symbol of good succeeds in destroying the evil beasts and establishing his reign upon the earth forever.  In verses 15-28, we see the narrative of Daniel, himself, trying to understand this vision he has been given.  He speaks to another heavenly being (verse 16,) and the we are given a view of the end times in which the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil occur, and reign of the Holy One ushers in a new order in which the righteous prevail over the evil (verses 26-27.)

In chapter 10, we see a different story, although it contains similar elements.  Once again, Daniel receives a vision from a heavenly messenger (verse 4.) The vision only comes to him because he is wise and trustworthy (verse 7.) And it is filled with complex and exciting imagery describing this “man” that speaks with Daniel (verses 5-6.). We see a battle in the heavenly realms between the opposing forces of good and evil (verse 13.) We also see great acts of morality, or righteous behavior on the part of Daniel as he persists in prayer (verse 12.)  And, finally, we see elements of end times discussion as the being proclaims to Daniel that he will receive the further revelation of what is to come (verse 14.)

As we move our attentions to chapter 11, we see a great narrative developing we see the cosmic tension building as the evil forces take center stage in wars against each other (verses 1-28.). However, as the final victorious king turns his attentions to warring against the righteous ones (verses 30-39,) our author continues to assert the coming defeat of this evil agent (verse 45.)

We must move into chapter 12 to view the continuation of Daniel’s revelation.  And in it we find that Daniel is affirmed by the heavenly being as being wise and trusted to possess this great revelation (verses 4 & 13.). As well, rewards are promised to the righteous that persevere throughout persecution from the evil ones (verses 1-3, & 12.)

As I read these stories, and as I uncover the meaning of the symbolism and repeating themes used, it is becoming pretty clear that the author’s intent was to encourage those oppressed people.  He was trying to infuse spiritual hope into a physically hopeless situation.  By revealing Yahweh as the almighty conqueror, he supported the Jewish nation in their attempts to remain faithful and hopeful in a time of great despair and uncertainty.  The use of the vivid and symbolic language engaged them at an emotional level that superseded their intellectual reality.  So, in taking the Book of Daniel as whole, we can see that it could have been an effective tool in the sustaining of the Jewish people throughout one of their darkest historical periods.

 

“Why Me, God?…”

I listened to a fascinating podcast today from the Professional Left.  In it, the two hosts were discussing the Book of Job.  Their thoughts and opinions gave me much to think about, so I will share here my ideas and I hope to hear from some of you as well.

First, What They Got Wrong

Now, these people obviously weren’t Bible scholars.  In fact, as they recounted the story, they got a few of the details wrong.  For example:

  1.  The refer repeatedly to the Satan in the story as the devil.  Whereas, according to scholars, this is incorrect.  This character was not the devil we associate with the New Testament, but another heavenly being known as the “Accuser.”  Two different entities.  (Stanley, p. 509.)
  2. They made several remarks about Job’s wife being killed and replaced.  However, in reading Job chapter 2, we see that Job’s children were killed, but his wife actually lived on to harass him through his troubles.
  3. I don’t know if I should label someone’s opinion as wrong, however, in minute 30 of the podcast, one of the hosts described the main theme of Job as being, “the best man being tested and punished by God because He was bored.”  I will cover what I believe the main function of the book to be later, however, I will say here that I believe this statement to be dead wrong.

So, they got a few minor points wrong.  However, in their discussion, they got a number of important ideas right.

  1.  God never answers Job’s questions.  Throughout the bulk of the book, Job continues to ask why God would allow such tragedy to befall him.  And even though God responds, He never gives Job the “Why.”  Instead, He seems to ridicule and mock him for asking.
  2. The end does not absolve God for the loss of Job’s first family.  The end of the story ties everything up nicely with a bow with Job’s fortune being restored and four generations of children being born.  I am sorry, but having 2 new children does not make up for the senseless loss of one.
  3. The Evolution of Blasphemy.  The hosts discuss the attitudes with which people have come to question God over time.  They made some good connections with the fact that Job was a shift in Wisdom writings from a Deuteronomic theology to a more realistic and questioning way of reasoning through life’s ups and downs.  In other words, where many Wisdom books, such as Proverbs, assumes the ideal that faithful people receive only good gifts, Job turns to the questions of reality when terrible things happen to those good people.  Does God always give us what we deserve?  Does suffering mean God is angry with us (Stanley, p. 510.) The Book of Job makes it ok for us to ask those questions.

What Did They Miss?

Both hosts made some good points about this story that is so hard for most of us to accept.  I think everyone, especially Christians, want to believe that God rewards faithful followers.  However, I believe the hosts missed a critical point regarding the function of the Job story.  They focused much on how uncaring and malevolent God was toward Job.  One seemed emotionally engaged with the idea that God wronged Job and how terrible a deity He was for it.  It was as if the story’s primary concern was refuting the Conventional Wisdom writings that God is just, loving and equitable.  Almost as if the main point was to show how petty and irresponsible God can be.

However, by looking closely we can see that the true function of Job is completely different.  The central message of this ancient writing is that God is so big and beyond our comprehension that we can never truly understand his plans or his reasoning. We try to put Him in a box, so that we can explain why certain things happen.  We try to relieve our own emotional discomfort by attaching blame to a victim or a specific, divine reason to a tragedy. (Doctorow.)  But that is not how God nor the universe works.  And just because we don’t understand why bad things situations befall us, it doesn’t mean that God is out to get us.

Stanley puts it best, “The message is clear: humans are incapable of understanding why things happen as they do, including why humans suffer.” (p. 511.). We are not God, my friends.

“My Lament…”

So, I am tasked with creating a Psalm of Lament (or Complaint) for my Old Testament Class.

A lament psalm is one in which the writer is experiencing a painful situation.  He cries out to Yahweh and asks for divine intervention in his problem (Stanley, p.  397.)  The lament psalms are especially appealing to me because they contain real emotions, anger, fear, depression, etc…  The lament psalms are not legends and myths from “days of old,” that have nothing to do with me.  In fact, Stanley relates that the reason the psalms have been so popular for thousands of years is their “generality” of emotions allows people of varied circumstances to apply them to their own lives and to find comfort in doing so (p. 397.)

There are some features that are standard for most lament psalms.  However, they are not always consistently engaged.  We might find greater emphasis on some elements, and almost no emphasis on others.  Nonetheless, these are the features commonly found in this genre, according to our class handout:

  1. Address to God – Approaching God in such a way as to identify Him as the one who can help me with my problem.
  2. Complaint – I tell Him what is wrong. And I use my entire descriptive vocabulary to do so, just so he knows how bad it really is.
  3. Statement of Trust – I admit that I do trust Him to help me, even though He has not done so yet.
  4. Petition – I tell Him what I want Him to do to fix my problem.
  5. Vow of Thanksgiving – I promise to praise Him, but more importantly, to share with others the story of His great deeds once He intervenes in my circumstances.

I believe that as a modern church, we do not do a sufficient job of teaching our members how to engage the lament psalms.  According to Stanley, “one of the chief benefits of religion is that it helps people cope with adversity,” (p. 398.)

I believe that is true.  However, we need to do a better job introducing our people to the language, the emotions, and the appropriateness of approaching God with our pain.  If not, then we risk turning our faith into nothing more than a dead ideaology that is no help to us in our daily struggles.  I love this quote by Dr. Lester in his article, Psalms of Lament:

“Lament gazes unflinchingly at the present reality of pain and at God’s apparent slowness to save.”

The laments give voice to our reality and allow us to approach God boldly with our problems and cries for help.  They are the core foundation in our ability to express trust in an ever-present and loving God, even when He hasn’t acted on our behalf, yet

I have never tried to write a psalm of this nature before, but I thought about it a great deal and figured that the time of my own greatest “lament” would be a good place to begin.  I tried to express the emotions and needs in that time while still remaining available to others in their situations.  I also tried to incorporate the main elements that are expected in a psalm of this nature.  Hope it speaks to some of you!

Where are you, my Lord?

Where are you, my Rock and my Fortress?

Why have you left me here all alone?

Why have you abandoned me in my time of greatest need?

All day long, I cry out to you, “Help me, Lord!”

But You remain silent.

I am lonely in this place, my King.

Once, I was part of the world; doing lunch with friends, meeting the day with joy, taking showers…

Now I slog through life;  every day a repeat of the one before. 

Gone is the joy of laughter and stimulating conversation with others.

All that exists in my head is the incessant drone of Max and Ruby…

Help me, Lord!

My enemies pile up around me.  They overwhelm me and drive me further into the pit.

And yet, I have faith in You, my King.  Deliver me from this torment, I beg You!

As the dirty clothes encroach upon me, and the stench of the overflowing diaper pail overtakes me, I feel as if I am drowning.  I can’t breathe! 

Help me, Lord!

I am weary, my King.

I long for the days of old when sleep came peacefully and consistently.

Now, I live under the constant threat of the voices in the darkness crying out, “MOMMY!, I need juice!”

Have mercy on me, I beg.  Just for an hour… a blessed nap from your victorious right hand…

Help me, Lord!

You will save me.  I know it to be true. 

For I am your precious child, doing my best to honor you. 

And on that glorious day, when you restore me to a life of meaning;

I will sing your praises; in your mighty presence I will dance.

And I will trust that my feet will fall in soft, green pastures,

instead of crushed Cheerios and ants…

I Praise you, Lord!

“How Little I Know About the Old Testament…”

So I am beginning the week with my new class, “Intro to the Old Testament.”  I have learned some basic information that I have always wondered about, but have never asked the questions.  I thought I would share some of most interesting facts I have picked up so far:

  1.  The Name – Most everybody I know calls this first half of the Bible, the Old Testament.  The word testament actually means covenant.  So it makes sense to me that everything prior to Jesus is considered the “Old” covenant, and everything beginning with Jesus is considered the “New” Covenant.  However, I never thought about what religions call this collection of writings. For example, the Jewish people refer to it as the Tanak.  This is actually somewhat of an acronym, in that T = Torah (the Law or first 5 books,) N = Nevi’im (the Prophets,) and K= Ketuvim (The Writings or everything that didn’t fit into the first two categories.). This is the Hebrew Bible.  There is no old or new to it.  This is their entire book.  So, of course they would call it something other than the Old Testament.
  2. The Contents – Where I come from, we talk about the fact that the Bible is a closed cannon.  Meaning we believe that God’s full revelation has been recorded there and it is complete.  So it has always made me question how other religious bodies have different books in their Bibles.  If ours is so complete, why are they different.  So, a couple of things I read began to make sense.  First, the development of the OT was not a one-time event.  The addition of the books came over a long period of time and was based upon the different usage among the different groups of Hebrews at the time.  Remember, they didn’t have computers, phones or even printing presses to share information.  In fact, most of the stories were orally translated.  So this led to different sources over time.  As well consider why our protestant Bible is missing several of the books found in the Catholic Bible.  We have to look no further than our friend, Martin Luther, who in his famous reformation removed not only icons and prayer practices from our tradition, but also several of the Apocryphal books as well.  Only in recent history has the Apocrypha began to reemerge in some of the more common translations of the protestant Bible.

As I reflect on this history, it makes me question why we cling so tightly to the idea that “Our” Bible is the unchanging Word of God.  When, in fact, it has been changing throughout history.  I look forward to learning more about the foundations of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible/Tanak – as I seek to more deeply understand God’s message for us through it.

Peace my friends!