Category Archives: Meditation

Landmarks

When you spend a lifetime reading the bible, there are always parts of it that are intriguing but make absolutely no sense, until they do. There is a thread in the Old Testament, rooted in the Torah, mentioned in the prophets (Hosea 5:10), and echoed in the writings (Proverbs 22:28), that has intrigued me since I first fell upon it as a child. I was the goofy, bookish, slightly macabre child that found cemeteries fascinating. If you ask me why, I think it was just the mystery. The biggest hill in town that nobody talked about. Markers stretching back to “times before”. In the closest cemetery, that “before” would simply have been before IL was a state, but in the big town, before the US was a country. This was an actual weight of time, combined with all the epitaphs people used on stones. My pious favorite, “In the hope of the resurrection”. The touching “beloved mother”. The cryptic masonic and other odd symbols. Proud obelisks, and the sentimental despair of weeping angels or cloak draped urns. So when I ran across this:

“You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the Lord you God is giving you to possess.” – Deuteronomy 19:14.

It peaked the imagination. Why would God or Moses give such a commandment? Why did God seem to care about stones? And why are they connected with that important biblical word neighbor? Just who is my neighbor?

In our modern formatted texts, that verse is probably set apart like its own little sense bubble having nothing to do with what came before or after. I think it would be a mistake to treat it as such. The first piece of context is Deuteronomy itself. These are the commands given right before Israel takes the promised land. Israel is going to take the land, expel the Canaanites (or they are supposed to do so), and parcel it out. They will be making new boundary lines. God isn’t telling Israel to not make new boundaries, but they don’t get to remove the old owner’s boundaries. Strange. The second piece of context is the law immediately before it which concerns sanctuary cities. These sanctuary cities are to be established to protect those guilty of accidental manslaughter from revenge killing. They do not protect the murderer, they simply create a neutral court to determine the motive. “If anyone hates his neighbor” the lex talionis is in full effect. The third piece of context is the law immediately after which regulates witnesses. A single witness shall not suffice. Also, a malicious witness (i.e. a false one) shall fall under the punishment he tried to procure for his brother. Again the lex talionis is invoked. Again, neighbor and brother.

Landmarks are part of discerning judgment and refuge. Landmarks give a dual witness. They judge and the give refuge, and it is up to us to understand both from the witness of those not present. And that witness moves in both directions. They witness to us their judgments, but they also elicit from us our judgments. They witness where they found refuge, and ask where we find ours. If we are righteous we enact justice in our own day. We provide to the living refuge and judgement. That is the point of the invocations of the lex talionis. Moses knows that there will be many times we don’t wish to do so, but in both cases, the murderer and the false witness, he says “your eye shall not pity”. Landmarks often become what Jesus chides the Pharisees over. “Woe to you! You build the tombs of the prophets your father’s killed (Luke 11:47).” Landmarks can be witness to the times we did not do justice. The landmarks of a people no longer in the land, like the Canaanites, can be a witness to the fragility of our hold of it. “God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones (Luke 3:8).” Landmarks can be a refuge in a troubled time. This is the toughest to maintain in a sinful world, but I think it is the point of Jesus’ cry “My house was supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it into a den of robbers (Mark 11:17).” If a place is consecrated to the worship of the Father in spirit and truth, it should remain so, for all nations. If they don’t, they witness against us. If those consecrated places do, we find the peace of Christ resting on them. But even the grandest Cathedral is but a temporary refuge, a landmark which points to our eternal refuge.

If we go about in spasms of iconoclasm moving landmarks, it is not that that their witness it no longer true, but that we can no longer discern its voice. “Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing (Luke 11:44).” We become even more unclean, because we have removed that which would have witnessed to someone who might have heard, and understood, and repented. We ourselves are cursed, and our actions curse others.

I wish I could take down every statue of Robert E. Lee. I wish I could remove the markers of a racist past. I wish that I didn’t know now what I didn’t then about Sally Hemmings. I wish that I could return to the graveyard of my childhood awash in mystery. But when we become men, we put away childish things. The most childish of those things is believing that anything straight was ever made from the crooked timber of humanity. It is such a tempting fantasy that we can remake the world in our image. That by moving a few landmarks we can make the land new. That by taking the body off the cross, we can return to divine impassibility. That by taking the crucifix off the altar we can have our best life now. That by whitewashing the tombs everything will be beautiful.

But the Lord says, “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark.” Why? Because the Canaanites, the racists, the slaveowners, the crucifiers, these are my neighbors and my brothers. If they can’t be saved, neither can I. But Christ came for sinners. Even the stones cry out. Every landmark gives a witness – some soft and some brash, some welcome and others a scandal. This land we held, which is yours now, is fleeting. This land is not the promised land. Don’t wait, don’t hold on to it. Do justice now, love righteousness now, walk humbly with God now, that you might enter into eternal dwellings.

10 Theses on the Office of the Keys and Today’s Church

“What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? The age when we could tell people that with words—whether with theological or with pious words—is past, as is the age of inwardness and of conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether. We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ aren’t really practicing that at all; they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer

1. When Bonhoeffer thought about “religionless Christianity” what he meant was a church that did not have the authority to bind.

2. Even into the 20th century, for large numbers of western people the church maintained the ability to discipline which is the ability to bind

3. That ability existed regardless of the state of one’s faith. The unbelieving libertine would face the binding authority of social stigma.

4. The upheavals of the 20th century have left the church not only unable to bind non-believers, but believers as well are unbound.

5. Believers are unbound in that the church is a personal choice. One might bind themselves but nobody is bound to pope or creed without consent.

6. The state and the family remain the only binding authorities, and the family is disintegrating fast.

7. In this religionless Christianity, the church is suffering a state of humiliation as Her Lord suffered.

8. The state of humiliation did not change the fact that Jesus was the eternal son.

9. Likewise the church’s humiliation does not change the eternal facts of the office of the keys. What is bound remains bound.

10. What it will make clear is that the motivations of binding words are love, not power.

A Reflection on Glory

mara abbott2I’m a sucker for the Olympics, but not for the right reasons. Network coverage is first about nationalism. We only see the athletes from our country. It is second about personalities. There is a reason beyond cheesecake that you get a steady stream of Kerry Walsh-Jennings. Mother of three going after her fourth gold medal who always has a smile and speaks in an easy relatable way, who wouldn’t want to watch that? But the reason I’m a sucker I like to think is even more elementary – it’s about the glory.

The old Hebrew word for glory in its root meaning is weight or mass. When the glory of the Lord fills the temple in Isaiah’s sight, we aren’t talking radiance. It is the weight of the moment before the prophet’s eyes. Millions of moments added together are a feather in the wind compared to this one moment in time. In modern democratic societies glory is something we are not supposed to want because it is unequal. We can have pageantry and pomp which simulate glory, but meet their democratic nemesis in satire. When you encounter true glory, nobody would think of making fun of it. The only thing you wish to do is like Peter on the mount, make the encounter longer. But then it wouldn’t be glory.

Also, unlike our ersatz democratic versions, glory is found in victory and defeat. It is found not just in the glamour sports, but also in the out of the way. In that way glory is more democratic than its replacements could ever be. Four, sometimes eight, sometime more years of training and exercise, uncountable moments, go into this one performance. And even within that one performance of hundreds of moments, it is one that defines it.

Look at the women’s cycling road race. Cycling has an interesting dynamic in that the peloton – the mass of cyclists – are relentless and they almost always catch you. But not always, and that is why some cyclists always make a break away. Cycling is also a team sport, although it may not look like it. There is always a golden child and everyone else is a specialist to protect and carry that golden child. But sometimes it doesn’t break that way. Mara Abbot was not the golden child but a specialist climber. Her role was to hit the hills with everything she has to take the final sprint out of the legs of everyone else while carrying her teammate to the top of the hills. But her teammate couldn’t do it, and no one else would help on the climb. So Ms. Abbot did it all herself opening up a minute lead on the pack. One person had gone with her, but she didn’t share the load. And when they crested the hill, this hanger-on took off down the steep slope. About half-way down nemesis caught her as she couldn’t control the bike and flew over the handles in a heap leaving the in control Ms. Abbot alone in the lead. And she kept it, for a long time. She never looked back. She kept her eyes on what was ahead. After the race, they asked her if she ever thought she might get a medal. Abbot answered, “well at 5 miles and 4 and 2 and 1, no. The chase always captures you, and I had left it all on that hill. But, when I saw 300 meters to go, I said, this could happen.” At 200 m three riders in a chase pack zoomed past her. She didn’t respond, there was nothing left to respond with. Abbot finished fourth. After doing everything right – the perfect teammate, the lead on the climb, keeping within herself on the descent, 4 hours on the bike – she wasn’t on the podium by 4 seconds. But that is the thing about glory, the weight of all those moments compressing into that one. She had run the race. She had left it all out there. The hill specialist without the motor to win it (the expectation was that after the hill she would just drop out of the race) was there. Everyone watching knew she was going to get caught, but she never looked back. It’s not the glory of the podium, but this was something even weightier. This was a unique moment. Terrible and full of glory.

I think the apostle Paul was something of a fan of the games as well. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever (1 Cor. 9:25).” There he focuses on the winning, but later “So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory (1 Cor. 15:42-43).” All the moments of our lives are compressing to that last one. That is a unique moment, terrible and full of glory. When the weight of eternity is placed on us, have we run the race such that it is a prize, or a punishment? “We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).” Don’t be fooled by the imitations, don’t settle for what fades, see the signs and prepare for that eternal weight of glory.

Sacramental Life – A Maundy Thursday Meditation

ChristWashingFeetIcon John’s gospel is what is sometimes called thick. This is my attempt to ponder John’s Last Supper, which is a Last Supper and not one at the same time. The icon at the left is the footwashing. That is what John talks about when the synoptics relate the institution of the Lord’s Supper. This sermon meditates on how John captures the sacramental life: Baptism, Lord’s Supper and Confession in one scene. And then relates how we live that sacramental life.

Full Sermon Draft

Origen on Scriptures, Word and Doctine

The gospel this week is John 4:5-26. I don’t think this works in the sermon, but something Origen comments on this Sunday’s gospel text is fascinating…

The Scriptures, therefore, are introductions, and are called Jacob’s well. Once they have been accurately understood, one must go up from them to Jesus, that he may freely give us the fountain of water that leaps into eternal life. But everyone does not draw water from Jacob’s well in the same way…Some who are wise in the Scriptures drink as Jacob and his sons. But others who are simpler and more innocent, the so-called sheep of Christ, drink as Jacob’s livestock. And others, misunderstanding the Scriptures and maintaining certain irreverent things on the pretext that they have apprehended the Scriptures, drink as the Samaritan woman drank before she believed in Jesus…The “you” refers literally to the Samaritans but anagogically to all who are heterodox regarding the scriptures. The “we” literally means the Jews, but allegorically it means, “I, the Word, and all who are changed by me receive salvation from the Jewish Scriptures.” For the mystery now revealed was revealed both through the prophetic scriptures and through the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ…if the Father seeks true worshippers, he seeks them through the Son ‘who came to seek and to save that which was lost’ purifying and educating those who he equips to be true worshippers through the Word and sound doctrine….

Sound doctrine is part of the sanctification process. It is a partner with the Word. But notice where he puts those who “misapprehend” the scriptures, outside of belief. The scriptures should lead to understanding and eternal life, but if one persists in anything but innocence then, trouble.

The Violent Bear it Away (A Meditation on Matthew 11 and some current events)

JB headThe appointed gospel text for advent 3 was Matthew 11:1-19. Due to our Christmas schedule, we skipped it and went for Advent 4’s readings. When you are aiming for rejoice, the second John the Baptist lesson just doesn’t fit the bill. So we took it up in Bible Class Sunday and this morning. When I should be wrestling with the Christmas Eve message, I can’t let this one go. It seems so appropriate, yet so against everything the modern American church attempts to say.

It starts out with a question. John the Baptist sits in Herod’s prison and sends a couple of disciples to Jesus with a question. Are you the one, or should we expect another? Most of the commentators in Christian history have attempted to paint a fig leaf on this question. They have typically made comments to the effect the John was just moving his disciples along. He was asking the question and sending them for their benefit. We don’t know, but it doesn’t feel like that to me, especially when we encompass Jesus’ answer.

Jesus’ answer to me is twofold. A yes, look at the miracles. And when concludes the list with “the good news is preached to the poor” that is a textual referent to Isaiah 61:1. But then Jesus appends a “but”. “Blessed in the one who is not offended by me.” Why would someone be offended by Jesus? Especially why would someone sitting in prison who once gave a bold witness to Jesus be offended? Part of Isaiah 61:1 is “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Surely the greatest of the prophets, as Jesus would say the Baptist was/is, would be included there. Jesus, are you going to free me, or not?

The disciples are always asking are you going to establish the Kingdom now? The 5000 fed out in the desert tried to crown Jesus. He was eventually crucified because he claimed to be “the King of the Jews”. Did you come out in the desert to see a reed blown by the wind? No, we don’t need to come out to the desert to find someone who will tell us what we want to hear. Did you come out to find someone in fine clothes? No, if we wanted to see worldly power and authority we’d go to Congress (or K street). We’d get plenty of reeds in the bargain. No we came out to hear the Word. We came out to hear a prophet. And this prophet, this inbreaking of the reign of God is not by power and glory. It does not empty out the prisons, at least not the physical prisons. John, blessed are the ones who are not offended at this humble Kingdom. This Kingdom that only comes hidden. This Kingdom that only frees you of your sins.

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away. The Kingdom comes not in pomp, but as a child in a manger. It comes not at the head of an army, but on a donkey. It comes not by bread and circuses, but by every Word of God. It comes not by authority, although it has that, but through appeal. It comes to the poor, those who know they need it. It comes by grace.
And as with everything that comes by grace, that makes appeals, that feels soft. The violent take it. They took him…to a cross. They took the apostles. They killed the prophets and stoned those sent to them. Do we really think it is different for us? From the time of John the Baptist until now…

The kingdom can come with kind words such as these. It can come with crass words captured here. Doesn’t matter to those who don’t have ears. “We played the flute and you did not dance/We sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” From the time of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers, and the violent bear it away. There is just an order to these things. First they will come for the crass, and then for those who can use nice words unless they are quiet. I wonder what my 10 year old self would have thought soon after the miracle on ice if I had told him a Russian president, as Machiavellian as he might be, might understand the place of religion better than an American. (This is not an assertion that it is true, just that in 1984 I would have laughed at the thought – the Godless red commies, today after reading that from Cold-Warrior Pat Buchanan it can’t be laughed away.)

But this is Advent closing in on Christmas. Immanuel did come and did free us from our sins. “Jesus, friend of tax collectors and sinners.” And he will come in triumph and make all these minor trifles blow away. When the government shall be upon His shoulders (Isa 9:6), and with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked (Isa 11:3-4). And wisdom is justified by her deeds (Matt 11:19)

Thoughts on Observing Courage

There the 8 year old flipped and tumbled and fell – gymnasts don’t come from tall peasant stock like ours – but she got up to try it again. I had just limped my way up the sidewalk. My calf pulled in the latest reminder that my jumping days were past. And in the midst of a wince I recognized that pre-eminent virtue of youth – courage. After landing flat on her back making a 270 instead of a 360, she did it again. The gym was full of such amazing courage.

I remember some of that physical courage now sadly traded for those more mature virtues of prudence and patience (ok, I’m still working on patience). But seeing so much courage jogged me into pondering a little Aristotle, “we become brave by practicing bravery”. In our youth we have such physical strength to practice courage with this flesh, this flesh that even now is wasting away. The teacher of Ecclesiastes says something similar in a very Hebrew way, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”” Now is the time of grace. Now is the time to practice.

We practice the faith, so that we might be found faithful. We endure suffering so that we might develop character. Character isn’t revealed, it’s produced. There is hope for us all. While my physical courage is no longer there as it once was – the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak – I pray that I have learned the lesson of youth and that courage has been won in practice. That ultimately I could say with St. Paul, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. (Phi 1:20)”

Ash Wednesday Meditation

Text: Joel 2:12-19

Joel is one of the 12 short little books at the end of the Old Testament. 12 so called minor prophets. And we don’t really know when he wrote. The best guess is that he is early. He is the 2nd of the 12 short prophets which are thought to be roughly chronological. But the larger historical situation might not be that important to hearing Joel’s message. The immediate event that spurs his prophecy was a plague of locusts of unusual size. One day the field are ripening, a good harvest looks probable, fair winds are blowing…and the next those winds bring uncontrollable clouds that devour what was so promising.

Fathers hide the remaining wheat from wives and children – because they need seed for the planting. The daily bread becomes not so daily. The rich and privileged bail themselves out, while the poor are left to glean after the insects.

What was probably shocking to Joel’s original listeners was that he described God as being at the forefront of that army of locusts. That the plague of locusts was a warning – a mirror – for Israel to recognize their spiritual state.

We don’t really have trouble with locust any more. Our pesticides take care of such plagues. We can’t control the weather, but if Florida freezes or Iowa floods, we can always just ship stuff in from California or Kansas or Argentina. And it is dangerous making a comparison from Israel to any modern state. The church is Israel – not the United States.

But I don’t think it is much of a stretch to look at financial contagions, foreclosures and persistent unemployment as a swarm of a kind. Some people saw the signs building – but there isn’t much you really can do. Nest eggs are guarded jealously after in hopes they “come back” like seed stock. The rich and privileged bail themselves out, while everyone else is lectured about moral hazard. And all of it swimming in a devouring cloud of 15.4 trillion in debt – almost $50K for every man, woman and child in America. $250K for my family alone – more than 5 years wages. Given the bacon I ate yesterday I might not have 5 years.

A mirror to see our spiritual state?

But the promises of God remain. Joel quotes Moses – after the golden calf episode. “Return with all you heart, with weeping and with mourning. Rend you hearts, not your garments. Return, for the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He relents over disaster.”

And where does God relent? Where are hearts rent? “Call a solemn assembly, gather the people, consecrate the congregation. Elders and Children and infants. The Bridegroom meets the bride there.”

The later prophets would rail against hypocritical gatherings. Israel would rend garments and not hearts. But Joel’s prophetical call is timeless because God’s work is timeless. The bridegroom still meets the bride here. God is gracious and merciful and abounding steadfast love.

The Lenten season is one of repentance. For looking in the mirror. For rending hearts. We put a very solemn note with the Ashes. An outward symbol of the examination of the heart. But like the cross, a symbol the reflects hope. Because this God is faithful. With Him there is forgiveness. Amen.

A Remembrance

Oct 9th was my brother’s birthday. It’s actually been two years since he passed away. The actual date of his death is never the one that hits me. It’s the birthday. I think I remember more picking up the phone that first Oct 9th and dialing his number to wish him happy birthday and hearing ‘this number has been disconnected’ and going ‘oh, that’s right’ and putting the phone back in the cradle thinking ‘of course, you only drove his car into work this morning.’

One of the great stories I was told by one of his co-workers was about moving a data-center. Having worked in the business that phrase is something of an oxymoron. You don’t move data-centers. You build data centers. You move the traffic from the old to the new. You decommission the old. There are just too many things that would never make the transition. Aaron worked for a government security agency. I can only imagine why they were moving a data center. It must have needed to be done. Of all the crap jobs, moving all those boxes and wires would place somewhere high up the crap pile. And that was what the boss said. “I have no idea how this is going to happen.” So he asked Aaron to do it. That was the only name that popped into his head. And he did it. In the process he found a couple of crossed wires. He wrote them up in his report. The boss stared dumb-founded at that fact. A moved data-center should have been full of them. This one had two wires better.

So the next time you are tempted to say, ‘good enough for government work’. It isn’t. Find the two wires.

Even if the system is ok, if you know it could be better, find the two wires. Hell most of us live our lives embedded in systems that are metaphorically missing doors. If someone tries to sell you on the glories of the system – such a great hood ornament – while excusing the missing doors, don’t accept it. Find the wires. Ask for the doors. And if you have the responsibility, it’s being done on your watch, especially you, find the wires.

If you are asked to do a crap job, do it with excellence. If you are just asked to do your job, do it in a way that you find the wires. Don’t settle for having the title – the great hood ornament – and driving a car without doors and hiding crossed wires. Life is too short to live with crossed wires.

So, to the best of the Brown brothers, that is all I have to say about that.

Glory, Holiness, Duty and Other Archaic Concepts?

Yesterday was Veteran’s Day or Armistice Day for those who like history. In prepping for Thursday’s bible class I has read this article. The author’s source – the Homeric Epics – is remote from most people. My attempt at a translation didn’t hit the mark yesterday, but I’ll use it here. If you have seen the young Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall, think about the attitudes put forward by the youngest brother who enlists for WW1. The young Princeton lad is full of duty and glory and enlists, surely in part to live up to his Civil War vet father – a man who had no use for ‘Civilization’s wars’ and was living in Montana as far away as he could get.

In that War the West burned out its concepts of glory. Tom Howard in that article was asking just that: where today do you find glory and its companion holiness? His is a familiar lament from a certain section of the church yearning for a more stately form. And that yearning in some should not be denied. There is holiness and majesty in God. But that feeling I think is foreign to most we are called to reach today. It took 2000 years, but I’m pretty sure that those wars of the 20th century burned out a bad idea.

The bible’s picture of the glory of God might often be expressed in grand language (the Hebrew’s thought of glory in images of weight while the Greeks thought in images of light), but that seems to be a nod to God using our language. The “Ur” story in in Exodus 33:22-23. Moses wants to see God’s glory. He is shown God’s backside (in a euphemism). Hannah’s Prayer (1 Sam 2:8) and Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55) both equate God’s glory to the radical reversal, to the lifting up of the lowly. The Psalms (Psalm 24:7, 85:9, 96:3, 102:15) always equate God’s glory with his work of salvation. God’s glory is not an attribute but an action. By Zechariah 2:5 the glory dwells within (foreshadowing the indwelling of the spirit?). That picture of God’s glory continues in the New Testament. We’ve seen Mary laud the glory of the great reversal. John (John 1:14) equates the glory of God with Jesus who is the fulfillment of grace and truth. The biblical picture of God’s glory is His work of salvation. God’s glory is seen best in what this world sees as abasement. Think of the progression of the Apostles Creed: only son of God to human infant to suffering to crucifixion to death to burial to hell. It is only when the Son has become the lowest that God raises Him up, places Him at the right hand and gives Him the authority as judge. What we think of as glory comes after what the Father thinks of as glory. God’s glory is seen in that work of service. In this world, we see the glory in the backside. In the next, we see face to face.

So where do we find glory? In Christ on the cross. In everyone who portrays Christ amongst us. Not in pomp and ceremony but it service. And what about glory’s mate holiness? 2 Pet 1:3 – “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” Because of Christ’s glory which has grabbed us, we are now equipped not just for life but also for godliness. Where do you find glory and holiness today? Look low.