Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Gospel of the God-Abandoned

"The Psalms make it possible to say things that are otherwise unsayable. In church, they have the capacity to free us to talk about things that we cannot talk about anywhere else." - John Goldingay

"Most of Scripture speaks to us; the Psalms speak for us." - Athanasius

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  - Psalm 22:1

If the Psalms are prayers to be prayed, then Psalm 22 is a prayer for those who like getting right to the point.  The Psalmist doesn't mince words.  Right from the beginning: "God?  Where are you?  Why have you given up on me?".

But is this really a prayer meant to be prayed?  Are these really words we are meant to speak to God?  It seems a little impious and disrespectful - accusing the benevolent and almighty deity of abandoning us - doesn't it?  Perhaps the Psalmist is not expressing reality but simply how he felt.  Surely this is the prayer of an immature faith.  We would never pray this prayer because we know that God would never abandon us.

And yet, here are these words on the lips of the Psalmist.  These are the words that all of Israel uses to describe its life with God.  These are words that we find on the lips of Jesus as he hangs on the cross.

Perhaps this Psalm makes it possible for us to say what is otherwise unsayable - life with God includes abandonment by God.  

In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus tells his disciples that he must suffer and be rejected.  Upon hearing this, Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him for these words.  Why?  Because just moments earlier Peter has confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, God's anointed sent to deliver Israel.  For Peter, these categories - Messiah and suffering - are mutually exclusive.  One can not be both.  If Jesus is truly the Messiah, truly God's chosen as Peter has just confessed then he can not suffer.  This is unthinkable, unsayable.  In response to Peter's categories, Jesus does nothing less than to call Peter "Satan".  

I imagine we have trouble making Psalm 22 our own prayer because at some level we still make Peter's same equation: chosen = not suffering.  We are God's chosen people so we will not face any real suffering.  Or if we do then there is some explanation for it: God has a plan, teaching us a lesson, greater good, etc.  There may be some bumps along the road but God abandonment?  Surely this is hyperbole.  This is unthinkable, unsayable.

Yet the central image of our faith - the one that adorns our sanctuaries and our necks - is a symbol of God abandonment.  We forget that because for us the cross has become a symbol of hope and eternal life, if not merely a religious trinket.  So its easy for us to pass over its original significance - an instrument of torture and death, a reminder that the Romans, not Yahweh, were really in charge, a tool of oppression, a sure sign of God's having cursed and abandoned you.

A few verses later in that same passage in Mark, Jesus says these well known words:
"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."  
This is the tension/paradox/inherent contradiction of Psalm 22 (which ultimately ends in praise) and of any follower of Jesus.  To know salvation is to know abandonment.  To be a chosen follower of the chosen one is to know God-forsakeness.  To journey with Jesus is to say "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?".

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Pattern of Prayer

Switching gears from preaching in Paul's letters to the church at Corinth to preaching the Psalms is a kind of intercanonical culture shock.  These two disparate genres pretty well represent the varied literary landscape of Scripture.  Paul's writings are letters which means they are highly contextual, written for a specific group of people at a specific place at a specific time.  These letters often take the form of carefully reasoned rhetoric as Paul's tries to persuade his audience to a specific course of action.  The Psalms, on the other hand, are anything but rhetoric and anything but contextual.  While scholars have assigned a few of the Psalms to specific times or events within Israel's story, most resist such labeling.  The very purpose of most of the Psalms is to transcend their context and have a universal quality to them; they are meant to be prayed and sung by anyone, anywhere, at anytime.  These are ready-made words for God...a pattern for our own words...words for when we have no words.

This is especially true of Psalm 25.  In Hebrew, this Psalm is an acrostic; each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (with the exception of two letters and one letter repeated).  This Psalm is a pattern of prayer.  To say it is a pattern, however, is not to say it teaches the right way to pray or that it is a pattern that must be followed in robotic fashion.  After all, if this were so, there wouldn't be much point in having 150 different Psalms.  The existence of the collection itself witnesses to the plurality and freedom of prayer.  Perhaps the Psalm is not meant to be "taught" or "followed" at all.  Perhaps it is simply to say here is a pattern that contains movements familiar to those who have made a habit of prayer, to say this is how we have repeatedly found ourselves responding to the God who has saved us.

That pattern of response goes like this:

The Psalmist begins (v. 1-3) by expressing trust in God to deliver, asking God that he not be put to shame by his enemies.  Part of the Psalmist's expression of trust is to say that none who wait on the Lord will be put to shame.  This leads to the next movement of the prayer (v.4-5) in which the Psalmist recognizes his own need to wait upon the Lord if he is not to be put to shame.  So the Psalmist asks God to teach him God's ways.  This is the Psalmist's waiting; not only waiting to be taught by God but also waiting and trusting that God's reaching will be proved true.  This prayer to be taught by God reminds the  Psalmist of all the ways he has failed to be taught by God.  The next section of his prayer (v.6-7) asks God to remember his mercy and not the sins of the Psalmist.  The Psalmist is confident that God will do this, not because the Psalmist deserves it but because God is good and upright (v.8-10).  In fact, God's name, that is, God's reputation is honored when God provides for those who respect God as the Psalmist does (v.12-15).  Finally, the Psalmist ends his prayer by returning to his original request that God would deliver him (v. 16-21).  Then, just in case we missed that this prayer is not limited to one individual, the final verse "re-voices" the prayer as one for "Israel" - the man in whom all Israelites find their identity.

I trust you God.

Teach me to trust you God.

Forgive me for when I haven't trusted you God.

I know you'll forgive me God not because I deserve it but because you are just that good.  You are love.

May you be glorified in my life.

I present my request to you again because I trust you.

I can't tell you how many times I've prayed this prayer - and not because I was trying to imitate this Psalm or any other.  Anyone else find themselves praying basically this prayer over and over?  Sometimes it feels like I hardly know anything else to pray.  These are not the overly pious words of someone who has all the answers about God and prayer.  These are just the words of anyone who has ever tried to live with God for any sustained period of time.

There is a substantial market out there for books on prayer and how to pray.  Anyone who knows me knows I love books.  In fact, love probably isn't strong enough of a word.  Its more of an obsession.  I even have a couple of books on prayer.  But I've found that the only books I've ever encountered on prayer that were really worth anything weren't the ones that tried to explain what prayer is, how prayer works, how to go about praying, or how to make my prayer life more "effective" (whatever that means).  They were the ones that simply offered different kids of prayer, the ones that included prayers to be prayed.  They were the ones that simply got me praying.  It could be that's the kind of book Psalms is to be for us - just the kind that gets us praying - because prayer is a hands-on activity.  It is the real work of the Church.  And over time, if we'll keep wrestling and being honest with ourselves and God, we'll find that our prayers sound an awful lot like the Psalms, not because we wanted them to but just because this is what life with God is like.

Some Help with the Psalms

I've recently been reading the introduction to John Goldingay's commentary on the Psalms since I'll be preaching from the Psalms in Lent.  I've heard a lot of people say how much they love the Psalms because of the range and depth of emotion they find there.  They can relate to the Psalmist in a way they can not with other Biblical writers.  This part of Scripture sometimes seems more "human" than other parts.  I've preached from the Psalms a few times before and always found it difficult.  I am much more comfortable in Paul's reasoned arguments than I am in the rhythm and meter of poetry.  I confess that this says more about my personality and the way I approach Scripture than it does the Psalms themselves.

Nevertheless, I am in the Psalms again and I am doing my best to let them go to work on me.  Goldingay's commentary has offered some insights that I believe might be helpful in that endeavor and I thought it might be worth sharing a few of those here.  I hope to honor these gems of wisdom in my preaching over the next several weeks.

"The Psalms make it possible to say things that are otherwise unsayable.  In church, they have the capacity to free us to talk about things that we canno4 talk about anywhere else." p. 22-23

Quoting Athanasius's Letter to Marcellinus, "Most of Scripture speaks to us; the Psalms speak for us." p.23

"Historically, I assume, the Psalms came into being as Israelites prayed and praised in these words.  They do not document so much their seeking of God as their responding to God's seeking of them, though this response is a spluttering and awkward one." p. 23

After discussing how important historical background is for understanding many parts of the Bible, the prophets as one example, Goldingay says "With the Psalms, the opposite is the case.  They do not contain the specific historical references that appear in the Prophets, and it is much more obvious that they stand independent of their original context and are designed for people to use as the vehicles for praise and prayer throughout the story of God's people."  p. 25

Along the same lines as the previous quote: "They proceed and work by not making reference to the particularities of their origin, so that such information does not distract people who use them and make them more difficult for worshippers to identify with."  p.30

"...psalms came to be accepted in the believing community because it knew they had the ring of truth, even if they were anonymous... Actually, the same is true of the prophecies of people whose names we do know; they came to be accepted because their hearers knew themselves convicted by God when they heard them, not because bearing the name of Jeremiah automatically gave them authority (his story shows this was not so).  The community that recognized them then invites us to listen for God speaking to us through them - in the case of the Psalms, to make them our own prayers and praises." p.31

"Doxology and theology are closely related.  Doxology requires theology; glorifying God involves making many a statement about God.  Conversely, theology finds one of its natural forms in doxology.  There is a role to be played by dispassionate analytical theological statements, though I cannot remember what it is, but the natural way to make statements that do justice to God's nature is to make them in the form of praise.  Dispassionate analytical statement about God deconstruct." p. 69

Speaking about the use of the Psalms in the New Testament: "They (the NT writers) were not trying to do exegesis.  They were using form of expression they found in the Psalms to help them understand themselves and formulate their beliefs.  It will be important that their formulations do fit in with the inherent meaning of Scripture as a whole... But they do not need to fit the results of exegesis of a particular passage they quote.  The Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture is inspiring the writers to see a new significance in the words that appear in Scripture."  p. 77

John Goldingay.  Psalms: Vol.1 Psalms 1-41.  Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms.  Ed., Tremper Longman III (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic), 2006.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Truth Happens

The Corinthians have accused Paul of flattery - and not the "No, that looks really good on you" kind of flattery.  This is a serious accusation - the "He's just a flip-flopper who panders to whoever is listening so you can't really trust what he says" kind of flattery we associate with politicians.  The Corinthians are questioning whether Paul's word is trustworthy ...and with good reason.

As we read between the lines of the Corinthian letters, we can make a very educated guess about Paul's relationship with this Church and why they would make such an accusation.  In 2 Corinthians, Paul mentions both a "painful visit" with the Corinthians as well as a "painful letter" he has written to them (now lost to us) indicating the rocky nature of his relationship with this church.  Then in 1:16 Paul says "I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea."  We can gather from what Paul has written that neither of those visits to Corinth took place. Considering the poor state of Paul's relationship with this church, it is easy to see how his failure to follow through on two promised visits would only add insult to injury.  We can imagine the Corinthians saying "He visits when he says he won't be here for a while and then doesn't visit when he says he's going to be here.  How do we know if we can even trust this guy?".

Paul's response to this accusation is unexpected.  If someone accused of me of not being trustworthy my response would likely be to defend myself by trying to demonstrate how I had been consistent even if it didn't appear that way.  I would want to explain my rationale for why I did what I did.  And for a moment it appears this is what Paul is going to do as well.
"Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time?"
But instead of continuing in that line of thought he begins to discuss the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ.
"As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee."
Where we would expect Paul to say "Trust me!  I know what I am doing!" he essentially says "Trust God because you know what God has already done among you!".  Where we expect Paul to talk about his faithfulness he instead talks about God's faithfulness.  But this is not a mere distraction on Paul's part.  He is not simply dodging a difficult question.  He is asking the Corinthians to reconsider how they judge his trustworthiness.

The fundamental question here is whether or not Paul's word can can be trusted.  Paul's answer:  "Just look at the impact my words have had among you and decide for yourself."  A more literal rendering of v. 18 is especially helpful in seeing this:  "God is faithful because our word to you has not been Yes and No."  God's faithfulness has been exhibited in Paul's words and the Corinthians response to those words.  They have come to believe in Jesus Christ in whom all the promises of God find their fulfillment, their "Yes".  God has established the Corinthians in Christ and they have received the Holy Spirit because of Paul's preaching.  Instead of pointing to his own ability to keep his promises, Paul has pointed to God's ability to keep God's promises through Paul's preaching.  God has given Paul's word the ultimate stamp of trustworthiness, far greater than Paul could ever give himself, because of what God has done through that word among the Corinthians.  Paul is essentially saying "What more validation do you want?".

In short, Paul is turning the question upside down.  The Corinthians want to determine the truth of Paul's words by treating them as an object to be dissected, analyzed, and evaluated against their own standards of truth.  But Paul says the real test of his words' truth is not what the Corinthians can do to his words but what his words have done to them ... and by the grace of God those words have saved them.

Perhaps this has profound consequences for the ways we think about Truth as well.  Like the Corinthians, we often think of Truth as an object to be discovered and dissected.  We evaluate statements,beliefs, and practices based on our understanding of what is true.  Obviously, there is some need for this kind of interaction with Truth in our lives.  But maybe the greatest truths aren't the ones we can hold at arm's length to be dissected and evaluated from a distance but the ones that get inside us and dissect and evaluate us.  Maybe Truth is not primarily about what we know.  Maybe Truth is something that happens to us like it happened to the Corinthians.  Truth is whatever sets us free.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Super Bowl and Spiritual Disciplines

I've come to realize that one of the reasons I love sports is because it reminds me what marvelously adaptable creatures God has made us human beings to be.

Last night, I joined the other 110 million+ viewers who watched the Super Bowl and as I did I considered what an absurd set of skills it is that these guys have.  I think to myself "Why in the world should any human being have the ability to throw this oddly shaped ball 40 yards down the field to a quickly moving target sometimes through a window of space between defenders that isn't much larger than the ball itself all while a few 300-pound men are trying to clobber him?" Why should any human being be able to do this?

We take it for granted because sports is such a part of our culture that we've come to expect these guys to make plays like this.  But if you really think about it, there is no real purpose, no innate reason why any human being should be able to throw a ball that far and that accurately.  In fact, as any athlete will tell you, there is nothing natural about what they do.  There is no denying some people start out life more physically gifted than others but no one makes it very far without lots and lots and lots of practice.  Eli can make that throw because he has thrown a football literally tens of thousands of times in his young life.  Even for Eli who comes from a football family, this was not a gift with which he was naturally born. It was a skill he practiced until it became natural.  He made throw after throw after throw until all that throwing shaped him into the kind of player who could make this kind of throw.  Adaptability.

I use sports as an example because its something I understand but the same is basically true of most great demonstrations of human skill whether it be in music, art, writing, etc.  In fact, I would argue that its not just a matter of skills we develop but that it is our very selves, whatever you want to call that - our soul, spirit, personality - that are adaptable.  We really are like clay in some ways.  Who we are is shaped by what we do and we will be shaped most by those practices we choose to engage in repeatedly throughout the course of our lives.  God has made us to be truly adaptable creatures.

For me, this is one of the best arguments for why spiritual disciplines are a necessity.  Our goal as Christians is to be a Christ-like people.  But we have to recognize that doesn't just happen.  Yes, we are saved by grace and not our works.  Yes, it is God who works to transform us into his likeness.  But that transformation takes place as we offer ourselves to God over and over again throughout the course of a lifetime.  We pray and read Scripture and serve others and repeat countless times over the course of our lives not because we want to become really good at prayer or reading Scripture or because we believe those things win us any points with God but because we believe those things are opportunities for God to shape us to be more like Christ.

But this isn't just a matter of individual disciplines either.  Its about our disciplines together as a community as well.  Eli Manning has not only thrown a football ten of thousands of times in his life.  He probably has also run that specific play and others like it with his team hundreds or thousands of times.  They have run that play so many times that everyone knows where everyone else is supposed to be.  They have run it so many times that everyone knows how to adjust given different coverages and situations.  They have run it so much that it has become natural for them to work together in this way.

Such is the life of the Church.  We are a people engaging in private prayer and study so that we may be shaped into Christ's likeness.  We are, however, also a people who bring our different gifts and skills together while we worship together, share life together, and love together.  We come together because we can't be fully shaped into the kind of player, the kind of Christian we need to be if we are only practicing by ourselves.  This salvation that we've been delivered into is a sort of team sport and we can only really practice who God wants us to be when we practice together.

Friday, February 3, 2012

My Google Reader and A Rescued Perspective

I should have something akin to a TV remote for my Google Reader because I approach it with about the same fierce efficiency as I approach searching for something interesting on TV; quickly skimming each channel/article deciding in a fraction of a second whether or not it is worth any more of my time.  This works well for me because many of the items in my Google Reader are information oriented; a series of headlines about sports, news, and politics.  "Manning Cleared for Play in NFL".  "Romney Wins Florida".   "Unusually Mild Winter Continues".  These are things I like to know but not things about which I need a great depth of information so the headlines are quickly skimmed and discarded.  The usual exception to this are the blogs written by people I know personally; friends, family, and fellow pastors whose words are of more interest because of our personal connection.

But there is yet one other category within my Google Reader.  It is the very small group of blogs by people I have never met but whose writing by itself is compelling enough to keep me reading and even looking forward to their next post.  Some of these blogs, like this one, were shared by friends on facebook.  Others, like this one, I found linked to another blog I read.  And then there is this one, that my wife pointed out to me.  If you click on those links and read for a while (something I'd encourage), you'll notice that despite their different topics and styles, they have something in common.  They are all women.

This is not something I set out to do.  I certainly was not sitting around thinking to myself that I needed more of a feminine perspective on life.  In fact, I've been reading most of these blogs for a while now and it was only recently that I even noticed that the handful of blogs I found myself coming back to again and again are mostly written by women.  To be honest, I was actually pretty surprised when I realized it, at least enough that it caused me to pause and consider for a while why this might be the case.  Why did I find this writing, these stories so compelling?

Aside from the simple fact that all of these blogs are intelligent and well-written, there seems to me to be one other germane quality: perspective.  More specifically, a perspective that is not my own.  In these blogs, I come to see the world from a different angle, through a subtly different lens.  In these writings I am confronted with "otherness" and am therefore confronted with a truth I would not otherwise face quite so clearly.

Of course, the internet is not the only place to find this otherness.  I am confronted with it in my work as a pastor as well.  As a pastor, I often get to see circumstances that no one else sees and hear stories that no one else hears.  The unfortunate truth with which I have now become familiar is that more often than not those unseen circumstances, those unheard voices belong to women - obviously not always but in a disproportion that is surprising in its severity.

And that is probably the only reason this post is worth writing.  I imagine the last thing that most women need in their life is another man's commentary wringing in their ear.  But I bother writing a post like this - one that has much potential for awkwardness and misunderstanding - because there is much talk around the internet these days, sparked primarily by a handful of well-known pastors, about how the Church should be more masculine.  To be honest, there is a part of that message that could resonate with me.  If by "masculine" we are talking about activities that will engage more men in the Church and encourage us to hold each other accountable and become more mature disciples of Jesus then I say let's go for it.  But if by "masculine" we mean that men should do all the preaching, teaching, and leading... if by "masculine" we mean to say that male voices are the only legitimate ones... if by "masculine" we imagine that being male means we are any more an image of God than if we are female... well, then at the very least we, as the Church, have missed an enormous opportunity to be confronted by truth.

In the creation narrative, the woman is described as a "suitable helper" for Adam.  In English, this makes her sound something like a maid.  It sounds very much like she is someone whose very existence is defined by the service she provides another.  But in Hebrew the word translated as "suitable" means something more like "in front of" or "facing".  It denotes equality and otherness; someone who stands apart from the man but is face to face with him as an equal.  And the word translated as helper is also not one that represents inferiority.  In fact, there are several places in the Old Testament where this word is used of Yahweh himself.  God is the helper who rescues us in our time of need.  In short, Eve is a sort of hero in the creation narrative.  Unlike most Hollywood story lines where it is the woman who needs a man to rescue her, here it is the man who needs rescuing from his loneliness and God creates the woman to do just that by way of her equality to him and otherness from him.

I think this can be a pretty good picture of what women can be for the Church: those who are given by God to rescue the Church from the lack of wholeness that comes with being merely masculine by way of their equality and otherness.  We need not only the faithful service but also the voice of women -in all their otherness from us men - in our churches if we are to truly be the kind of people God has created and called us to be.  I believe we need to hear the voice of women, alongside of but distinct from the voice of men, if we are to hear the whole voice of God.