Thursday, October 30, 2014

A universal Call to Confession

Here is a Call to Confession straight off the pages of scripture. This could be used every Sunday, but how often are the Proverbs put to work in worship?
"No one who conceals transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy" (Proverbs 28:13).

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Letter to a young writer

Having received a friendly inquiry this morning from an aspiring young author regarding the willow imagery in The Secret of Salix Babylonicus, I thought I would share my response [though not his full name or the content of his e-mail].

Dear Nick: 

Thank you for your e-mail. It is always good to hear from an aspiring writer. Your research and writing sound very interesting. 

It is certainly heartening to know that Salix Babylonicus has been noticed, and I'm grateful you took the time to inquire about it. 

I confess I am not as familiar with the far eastern view of the willow as I am with its near eastern portrayal in the Bible, and its role in English literature (Graeme, Tolkein). My own interest basically proceeded from two primary angles: (1) personal experience, and (2) biblical narrative and the particularly poignant symbol of the willow as mentioned in one of the imprecatory psalms (Psalm 137), notable for the description of Jewish exiles in Babylon, unable to sing because of their grief, hanging up their harps in the trees, and for the startling outburst of rage against their captors, in which they declare happy those who will take the children of the Babylonians and dash them against the rocks. It is a starkly angry moment in Scripture that has proved difficult for many theologians to reconcile with their sense of Judeo-Christian ethics.

In the first instance, I had good memories of a willow in our side yard, which inspired a poem on the same topic, "Psalm 1" in The Just, Quiet Wind, and which I set to music on The Word in the Wind (CD). It was "a great climbing tree" which I came to regard as a personal friend, or less extravagantly, as a good hiding place. But it was also an ambiguous character. One year the roots got into the sewer, and our basement was flooded with ... well, you can imagine. 

As a pastor serving in my first church, the subject of willows came up and I heard a friend dismiss them as a pest, basically a "weed," he said, for this very reason: they are such a thirsty tree, normally located by streams, but also able to wreak havoc with domestic plumbing. I found myself leaping to the defense of the willow. About that time I was taking a course on narrative preaching and theology; this found me (1) thinking through the work of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann on the Psalms, who has always advocated for the Psalms as highly cathartic literature, in which one is often shocked to find the psalmist expressing all sorts of anger and frustration to God ... on the way to a clearer head; and (2) wrestling with that particular Psalm 137, about which I remembered an old song from the musical Godspell, entitled, "On the Willows" (c. 1971). As a preacher I was trying to work out just what in the world such an angry psalm was doing in the church's lectionary (the schedule of texts on which preachers preach), for it seemed at odds with the general tenor of Christian teaching: "turn the other cheek," "love your enemies," etc. But it had also inspired that lovely ballad or lament that I had remembered so well. 

So I wrote Salix in the mid 1990s as a way of trying to reconcile these questions, and the willow played a basically friendly role in that process, as a pastoral counselor or non-judgmental listener. The heuristic moment for me came when I went to my own pre-Wikipedia source, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and found the Latin genus name, and discovered the etymological connection — Tolkein, a linguist, was big on this sort of thing — between the name salix and the compound derived from its harvesting: salicylic acid, a key ingredient in pain reliever. The irony was palpable. We cut down these beautiful trees and grind them up to make pain relievers, when if we simply stopped and looked at them, accepted their invitation to their quiet shade, stepped beneath their drooping branches and the "tent" or the shelter they provide, and considered their name: "weeping willow"—perhaps we might find a safe place to pour out all our grief, our tears, our pain, our frustration, and do so without fear of judgment. But no, we kill them and turn them into pills. Hence, the willow in Salix becomes a sort of Christlike, self-sacrificial character. 

There is a stream of thought in biblical theology (from a Reformed Protestant perspective) that views the psalms as the songs of the Holy Spirit, and this too became a point of leverage in Salix Babylonicus, enabling me to draw the story forward through New Testament times and into the present day, so that it might offer comfort to widows, orphans, the persecuted, the oppressed, or anyone who may be, as Bruce Cockburn so eloquently put it, "swollen up with unshed tears, bloated like the dead." 

Thanks again for your question. It was fun to go back over all this and reconstruct the thought process. As I recall, that is pretty much how it came together. 

With every good wish for your fruitful labors as an author. 



Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Romans 2:1-11

Where, in the previous passage (Romans 1:18-32), Paul has spoken in the third person of those who have ignored the revelation of God in creation and "exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator" (1:25), and "exchanged" divine glory for creaturely images (1:23) as well as "natural intercourse for unnatural" (1:26), here he addresses—and convicts!—the reader in the broadest possible terms, in the second person: "whoever you are" (2:1, 3). In other words, if those who have shamefully exchanged what is divinely ordained, natural, and glorious for what is creaturely, unnatural, and debased, are "without excuse" (v. 20), so too, "you have no excuse ... when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things" (2:1). Simply put, if in the foregoing Paul convicts the idolator, here he convicts the hypocrite; what is more, he does so in the broadest possible, even universal, terms: "whoever you are, when you judge others ... you ... are doing the very same things" (2:1). Thus, it is virtually impossible to escape the conclusion that both idolatry and hypocrisy are universally rampant and epidemic. And, in fact, the infectious connection between the two, from idolatry to hypocrisy, occurs by way of human judgement, i.e., condemnation of others. Alarmingly, Paul does not seem to make allowance for, or acknowledge the possibility, that some may judge idolatry who are not doing the same thing. In this, we surely see the psychological reality of the fallen human condition at work: we hate most in others what he see and hate in ourselves.

Yet Paul does speak of an alternative when it comes to how we respond to this universal condition of idolatry and hypocrisy, and this alternative comes by way of God's "kindness and forbearance and patience," which are intended to inspire "repentance" (2:3). This redemptive path is put before the reader in a series of negative, incredulous questions meant to show how obvious it should be. Paul says: "Do you imagine ... you will escape the judgment of God?" (v. 3) "Do you despise the riches of his kindness ... ? Do you not realize (it) is meant to lead you to repentance?" (v. 4). By contrast, the heart that will not obey this truth, that will not take the way of repentance, is "hard and impenitent" (v. 5; cf. v. 8) and bound for wrath according to "God's righteous judgment."

Thus, when Paul speaks of two different forms of repayment, two different ends or results—wrath and fury for the self-seeking and the wicked (v. 8), or honor and glory, life and peace for those who do good with patience (vv. 7, 10); i.e., "according to each one's deeds" (v. 6)—he is not retracting his foregoing description of the total depravity of the human condition whereby idolatry, condemnation, and hypocrisy have infected one and all; rather, he is speaking now of two different classes of people according to how they respond to the kindness, forbearance, and patience of God. Will they repent of willful wickedness or persist in it?

Furthermore, he sets aside the former distinction between Jew and Gentile (Greek) as the way to separate the righteous from the unrighteous (see 10:12). Both are "under the power of sin" (3:9, 23). Certainly, however, the Jew and the Greek remain distinct in at least one crucial respect: these judgments and rewards will be seen first (sequentially speaking) among the Jews, and then apply to the Greek (vv. 9-10). This matter of historical sequence in the plan of redemption will be the focus of Paul's consideration in Romans 9–11 and elsewhere. What is important at this juncture, though, is to recognize that Jew and Greek are, according to God's kindness, summoned to repentance from what amounts to the same point of departure: the depravity of idolatry and hypocrisy. Furthermore, both possible responses will be seen among both Jews and Greeks. Patient repentance and self-seeking wickedness will cut right across both groups—first among the Jews, then among the Gentiles. But these divergent responses are a subsequent consideration; the prior and universal fact is that all—Jew, Greek, idolator, judge, and hypocrite—are called to repentance.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Great resource for devotions, worship, and pastoral care

From the nursery to therapy, from devotions to retreats, from hospital to hospice, Come Away and Be Still is just what the Great Physician ordered: the Psalms set to simple settings, sung in Hebrew, accompanied by an award-winning a Blevins therapy harp. 

This lovely CD is available on CDBaby, iTunes, and Amazon. [But the samples at CDBaby are smoother for those who want to hear a bit.]

 Victoria Slemmons: Come Away And Be Still

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Worship resources for the coming year

If you want to stretch your worship resource budget, well, you can do the math.


Plus, for less than $10 more, you can save your secretary a lot of typing.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

An open invitation to the Church

Dear Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace and peace to you, one and all, who are baptized in the name of the Triune God and who are called by "the name that is above all names." 

Far too many times we hear a call to repentance as though it were an insinuation that we ourselves are about to embark on a guilt trip that none of us wants to take; but only rarely—far too rarely—do we hear it and welcome it as a call to intercede in the priestly ministry of Christ, the ongoing ministry of reconciliation on behalf of a world that is, frankly, ignorant of spiritual things, biblically illiterate, and thoroughly deluded by any number of forces that are hostile to faith: sin, the flesh, the principalities of this present darkness, etc.

In light of the many daunting challenges facing the church and the nation at present, challenges arising on so many different fronts, but especially the fact that the nation and the world stand on the cusp of a major epidemic—Ebola—that has for decades been isolated to a remarkably small part of the world, I hope you will consider, whether you are overly familiar with or not at all acquainted with it, putting into practice this important and vital text from the Old Testament book of 2Chronicles:

"if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land" (7:14). 
No doubt, if the Church were to do this and if the Lord were to relent and, with the breath of his mouth, instantaneously eradicate this virus from the entire world—may it be so!—the world would almost certainly disregard our efforts as silly, unnecessary, and superstitious; while if for some reason this plague were to continue to spread, the world would likely ridicule our prayers as ineffective. Either way, we have nothing to gain in the eyes of the world. But, in the eyes of the Lord, what we do now is an altogether different matter.

... if my people who are called by my name ...
As you know, this is a word not for unbelievers, who will not give a thought to any of this; rather, it is a word for the Church of both testaments: Jews and Christians alike.

... humble themselves ...
Let me encourage you to kneel if you are able, or at least bow your head, and perhaps lie down face first on the ground. Show the Lord, show heaven, that you mean it.
... pray ...
In many ways, any prayer will do that is reverent and directed to the Holy One whom we meet in the pages of the Bible, for it is faith and fellowship with us that God desires above all; but let me suggest general prayers of confession—lots of them—that apply not only to you, but to the whole church [see the Book of Common Prayer, The Book of Common Worship, Feasting on the Word: Worship Companion; and/or any volume of Liturgical Elements for Reformed Worship]; add your specific confessions to express remorse not only for sins that offend you and your politics, but everything, including the sins that perhaps don't bother you so much, but which may cause others to stumble. Remember Bilbo's confession to Frodo: "I'm sorry for everything!" Let us speak thus to God! Grab a worship resource, one that offers multiple confessional prayers, and read as many as you can, and if possible, read them aloud.
... seek my face ...
Let God know that you desire the joy of his presence, the peace of restored fellowship, and the blessedness of his radiant glory. He will not refuse, for that is precisely what he desires with us.
... turn from their wicked ways ...
Commit to letting go those empty, vain, profane, offensive, self-destructive, selfish, hurtful habits that you have protected and reserved up to now. Remind yourself that God desires better for you, a better state of spiritual health, stronger faith, a purer heart, and a richer life—richer in the treasurers of the kingdom, not in the fleeting riches of this world. Remember that life is short, far too short to waste on ... waste.

The rest of this vital verse consists in a series of three promises: 
... then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.
Let those promises sink in. Let their goodness and our immeasurable need for them move you to your knees, to prayer, to confession, and to an earnest seeking of the Lord's face. 

Dismiss this open letter, if you must, as the ramblings of a pious old fool. I will gladly bear the caricature if it will move others to pray earnestly in faith and beseech the Lord for mercy. By all means, pray for those infected and exposed to this virus; and absolutely, pray for the CDC, NIH, WHO, etc., that their efforts to contain and stop Ebola altogether would be successful, and, mind you, in a way that does not create other (and perhaps worse) collateral consequences. But, as you well know, "unless the Lord (does it), those who (labor for it do so) in vain" (Psalm 127).

God be with you all, for "our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth." Let us delight the saints of heaven with a demonstration of the confessional intercession of the saints on earth. Yes, we saints too have sins to confess. But we are uniquely the ones who know we are to confess them, and we are the ones who have been given the Spirit as the Lord of the conscience so that we may respond to such a call as this, at such a time as this.

Yours in Christ,