Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Morning


Ecclesiastes 7:15-29 OR Micah 7:1-20
Psalm 44
Matthew 10:9-23 OR Luke 12:1-12
Romans 3:1-22a

O Holy Savior, Son of God and Son of David, shepherd your people with your staff, as in the days of old, the flock that belongs to you, which abides in the midst of a garden land; show us marvelous things, as in the days when you came out of Egypt, so that the nations shall see, cover their mouths, and be ashamed of all their might. For you came into this world with nothing, and you have called us to go forth with nothing but your Spirit to teach us what to say, speaking peace to those who receive you and remaining at peace in the face of rejection. Give us, therefore, strength and sustenance for this earthly life, that we may have hope and courage to endure, for you have promised that those who endure to the end will be saved.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Kindle version of The Joyful Feast is now available

Monday, December 1, 2014

Second Sunday of Advent (Year B)

We wait for you, little knowing that you wait for us to reach out.
We call to you, heedless of your voice in our ears.
We approach you, making no forward progress, but turning around,
we discover you have been with us all along.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

First Sunday of Advent (Year B)


For those opting for Year B this year ...

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

God is faithful!  Come together and wait for the advent of the Lord.
We lack nothing for the vigil.  We keep watch and wait.
Stay awake!  For you do not know when the Lord will return.
With signs in the heavens,
with power and glory, Christ will come.
Take heart!  By the grace of God you have been blessed.
We will endure to the end, that we may be found blameless
when Jesus Christ comes again.

Eternal God, who comes to us in different forms and at different times,
we await your coming again: Let the heavens be opened!
Let every creature on earth behold your grandeur and your glory!
We anticipate your arrival with worship in our hearts,
with eager, expectant eyes, and with lives ready to be changed
by your holy presence among us.

For the rest of this liturgy, see When Heaven Stands Open.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Liturgical Elements for Reformed Worship

Consisting of one RCL cycle, plus Year D ...


One colleague suggested issuing them in a slip case. Now that would be nice, wouldn't it!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The lectionary and the liturgical year can lend shape to all kinds of things

With Year B fast approaching, allow me to reiterate, yea, demonstrate, that I have long found the Revised Common Lectionary a very helpful, valuable, and inspiring tool, not just for preaching, liturgy, and prayer.

But I encourage you to compare the Table of Contents and the titles here with the Sunday lections in Year B:

... and the track list here to the Sundays of the Christmas cycle (Advent through Transfiguration).

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Secret of Salix Babylonicus

UPDATE: As I was saying ...

BUMPED (Originally posted Jun 22): If you are interested in reading more about the origins of this story, see this related post.

UPDATE: Here is the FB page for SSB.

There are countless people under such tremendous stress just now, many depressed, many bereaved, many sick, many wounded, many undergoing persecution for their faith; there is so much deep need on so many fronts. On one level, this little book is just a short story, a parable (to be more precise), so perhaps one should not expect too much of it. On another level, however, the need of the world is so great that one would be negligent if one were to keep in reserve the most modest palliative or source of consolation that might ease, however slightly, the burden of just one despairing soul. Written in 1997 and fully illustrated for the first time, The Secret of Salix Babylonicus, has much wisdom and encouragement to offer, despite (and perhaps owing to) its brevity and simplicity. May it be a blessing to you, dear reader, and a source of inspiration, encouragement, and hope to you and to any and all with whom you "share" it. [Thank you for liking it on FB. Bear in mind though, that Shares reach further, and the ministry of the willow is all about the long reach.]

Available on CreateSpace:

... and Amazon:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Psalm 21

(vv. 1-7)—This psalm, by virtue of its placement in the psalter, follows Psalm 20 as a joyful and thankful response to an answered prayer. Where Psalm 20 consists of a series of petitions for the king and expressions of confidence that they will be granted by the LORD, the verb tenses that predominate in Psalm 21 laud the LORD both for what he has done for the king and for what he is doing in the present tense.
            The king rejoices in the LORD’s strength and exults greatly for the help he has received (v. 1). The LORD has “not withheld the request” of the king (v. 2), but has granted him life—“length of days forever and ever” (v. 4). Such phrases, in a merely historical-literary sense, may no doubt be attributable to the hyperbolic nature of royal liturgy of ancient near eastern culture; but taken in light of the Davidic covenant, they ring with Messianic promise and assurance. Further, this Christological covenant best illumines the alternating use of present tense verbs that describe the relationship between the LORD and the Messianic king:
you meet him with rich blessings;
you set a crown of fine gold on his head (v. 3). … 
His glory is great through your help;
splendor and majesty you bestow on him.
You bestow on him blessings forever; 
you make him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the LORD … (vv. 5-7a)
The use of the present tense to describe what we might otherwise consider “one off,” punctiliar events (blessing, coronation, meeting, etc.) is clearly meant to assert and establish ongoing, enduring, even eternal relationship that corresponds to a divinely instituted and “kept” covenant.

(vv. 8-13)—In the latter portion of the psalm, the future tense emerges with a strong sense of prophetic promise, each promise declaring the absolute victory of the king over his enemies, with the LORD himself sure to “swallow them up in his wrath” (v. 9). Granted, the strong imprecations against the enemies in this section are difficult to reconcile in light of Christ’s instruction that we should pray for, bless, and love our enemies. Two verses in particular give us pause.
(v. 9)—“you will make (your enemies) like a fiery furnace when you appear. The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them.” A couple of features of this passage need to be considered. First, the psalmist in this section is clearly speaking to the king when he says “your” enemies; the psalmist is not offering a merely self-serving prayer against “my” enemies. Second, the Davidic king and the LORD are so closely allied in this Messianic psalm that the uses of the second person “you” and “your” should in no instance be stripped of their sense of theological and Christological agency. In fact, the fiery end of the LORD’s enemies at the appearance of the LORD’s anointed bears considerable proleptic, even apocalyptic thrust. It concerns what God will do with his enemies in the end, not what Christ has commanded his followers to do in the interim between his two advents.
(v. 10)—The other troublesome verse concerns the doom pronounced upon the children and offspring of the LORD’s and the king’s enemies. The difficulty here is similar to that presented by the psalmist’s outburst in Psalm 137, or by the ban pronounced by Samuel on the Amalekites. Admittedly, this is a concept or image that begs for a more symbolic than literal interpretation; e.g., “offspring” are seeds, and in biblical literature so too may many other things be sown: words, deeds, etc. Patterns of behavior and attitudes, especially toward the Jews, can also be passed from generation to generation, and regarding these too we should not hesitate to pray for a crop failure. Certainly, this verse should not be used as a rationale for genocide, which mishandling of the text would also miss another important mitigating factor, namely, the moderating sense of progression in these verses from discovery (v. 8), to revealing (v. 9) [NB: fire is illuminating as well as consuming], to restraint (v. 9) [swallowing is akin to surrounding], to containing the spread of enmity (v. 10), to a failure of the enemies’ plots (v. 11), and finally, to flight (v. 12). If the enemies can flee at the end of this process, we can be assured that some mercy has been extended, more than would appear at first glance. Moreover, their flight is mentioned in response to bows aimed at their faces. Nothing is said of the arrows being launched. Thus, we are left with an image of evident and considerable restraint.
            The psalm ends (v. 13) as it began (v. 1), with direct address to the LORD. It is a promise of song and praise that shall ever be lifted up as a tribute to God’s blessed use of strength and power on behalf of his anointed king.

Romans 2:12-29

(vv. 12-16)—Here Paul introduces “the law” into his argument which serves as the reference for judgment of sin. It also, however, serves to distinguish Jew from Gentile; those who have the law, possess the law, or live “under the law” from those who do not have it, who live “apart from the law” (v. 12). So, yes, there are two classes of people: the Jews with the law and the Gentiles without it. But when it comes to sin, there are two types of Jews: those who only hear the law and those who do it, and it is the latter “who will be justified” (v. 13). As for the Gentiles, we should expect, since they do not have the law, that the whole of their lives is degenerate: their since committed “apart from the law” mean hat they shall likewise “perish apart from the law” (v. 12). The Gentiles are, in short, “lawless.”
            But Paul confronts the reader, especially the Jewish reader, with an unexpected class of person, one who defies all prior categorization, namely, the so-called righteous Gentile. Such a person does not have the law, but does “what the law requires” anyway, which Paul asserts is “written on their hearts” (v. 15); thus, they obey the law “instinctively” (v. 14), as a matter of “their own conscience” (v. 15). Indeed, their conscience itself “bears witness” to the law and to its deep-seated inscription on heart and mind; thus, the ongoing adjudication that is characteristic of the human conscience, with its “conflicting thoughts," will either “accuse or perhaps excuse” the Gentile on the day of judgment.
            This is not the only occasion on which Paul calls for judgment of the self in preparatory, even pre-emptive, anticipation of the final judgment (cf. 1Cor 11:31-32). But here he associates it very closely with the core of what he calls “my gospel,” according to which “God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all” (Rom 2:16).
            Thus, where the external distinction between the Jew and the Gentile is initially assumed and posited in terms of the law, that distinction is shortly set aside by way of the internal and “secret” matter of the heart and the conscience; this hidden, internal life alone can account for the instinctive obedience one sometimes sees among Gentiles who, if they are doers of the law, will be justified before any unrighteous Jews who merely hear the law and stop short of doing it. [That Paul can assert, as part of his argument, “the does of the law … will be justified (2:13), suggests that the claims of James (2:14-26) regarding “works” in relation to justification are not a theological aberration, and are not in conflict with Paul's gospel.]
            Nevertheless, all this is strictly by way of comparison in the social order of the human sphere; it has nothing to do, at this point, with a human—whether Jew or Gentile—claiming righteousness apart from Christ. On the contrary, Paul is on his way to showing how Jew and Gentile are equally needful of the righteousness that Christ alone can impart, for “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (3:9).

(vv. 17-24)—Here Paul turns to address the Jewish reader specifically, and it soon becomes clear that, whereas the Gentiles are by and large regarded by Jews as idolaters, the Jewish predicament is that of hypocrisy, which is arguably worse than idolatry, since the Jew should know better and judges the idolater as though he did, but compounds his problem by doing the very same thing. No doubt Paul’s description of the Jew who considers himself on solid ground hits very close to home, for it closely resembles his accounts of his own life as a Pharisee (in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Acts). In this description, however, we note the law is mentioned five times:
“if you … rely on the law … and determine what us best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? … You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” (2:17-23)
Such hypocrisy on the part of the Jew, Paul laments, has the effect of discrediting the God of Israel among the Gentiles. He quotes Isaiah: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (2:24; cf. Isa 52:5). In short, those who were to serve as a light to the nations, drawing the Gentiles toward God have, by participating in idolatry, besmirched God’s reputation and thereby driven the Gentiles away from him.

(vv. 25-29)—Now Paul takes the distinction between Jew and Gentile to an even more personal level: circumcision, the sign of the covenant by which Jewish males were physically distinguishable from their Gentile neighbors, he declares—like the law—to be “a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal” (2:29). This distinction between spiritual and literal matters recalls a similar point in the Corinthian correspondence (2Cor 3) that Paul makes regarding the reading of the Torah, but here we should stress that the sign of circumcision is not just another example of keeping or breaking the law (as in the previous references to theft, adultery, and idolatry (Rom 2:21-22). Rather, circumcision is a sign of the promise given to Abraham, which (as Paul takes pains to point out to the Galatians) predates the law by several centuries. Thus, the breaking of the law reveals conduct inconsistent with one’s identity as a participant in the covenant, as one whose outlook, priorities, and ‘walk’ are guided by the promise. Such inconsistency, he declares effectively cancels the covenant: the circumcision of the lawless becomes uncircumcision, or (put in more precise chronological terms) the lawlessness of the circumcised becomes uncircumcision; while one who is outside the covenant community but conducts himself in accordance with the law—such a person shows himself to be a Jew inwardly, whose heart is circumcised, even if he does not bear the physical sign of circumcision.
         Paul’s final comment here is striking: “Such a person receives praise not from others but from God” (2:29). Imagine that! The God whom we praise and adore, to whom we give worship and thanks, has praise to bestow upon the obedient. This is something we should bear in mind as we explore the entire epistle, written as it is with the aim of bringing us—the individual reader and the church in all its rich diversity—to “the obedience of faith” (1:5; 16:26).

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Monday, November 3, 2014

Leave it to Proverbs ...

Leave it to Proverbs to say so succinctly what what others (ahem!) take whole books to say. Here in a nutshell is the case for keeping the prophetic books and the apocalyptic discourse in play.
Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint, but happy are those who keep the law (Proverbs 29:18). 
Notice, it says "happy" (or blessed), not "saved." This is not a soteriological text, but one that speaks to one's state of health and well-being, and perhaps even the well being of whole churches. But the main thing to notice is the role of prophecy: not to tell the future in a rigid way, for God can change his mind about how he will respond to certain situations; it is not even necessarily to "come true," though the truth of it is beyond doubt; it is rather to keep people from giving in to self-destructive and wild abandon. Strange as much prophecy may sound, it is in fact a check against insanity.

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.