Ancient Answers


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Where is your god?

Psalm 42 has always been one of my favorites. Like so often in the Psalms, here too the psalmist is besieged by people who mock him for trusting in God. “Where is your God?” they say to him as he suffers torments physical and spiritual. The language of this psalm is pure poetry. The psalmist is like a thirsty deer; his dialogue with God is like deep calling out to deep. This is language worthy of prayer to God, “the living God”:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
    have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.

It’s beautiful, and doesn’t it make you want to speak to God like this? This is not the kind of petty prayers so many of us still pray well into adult and late adult years – prayers to the “man upstairs,” the big vending machine in the sky! No, no, this is “deep” calling to “deep, at the thunder” of God’s “cataracts.” This prayer is fully aware that God is not the “man upstairs” of American vending-machine religion. This is a God whose “waves and billows” have overwhelmed the man who is praying this psalm. And yet, this awesome God of cataracts and thunder and waves, is a God who comforts the psalmist at night with his love and song.

But take away the poetry and this psalm is a prayer for deliverance. The psalmist wants relief, he wants God to do something. The psalmist remembers his joy- and song-filled journeys of pilgrimage, and these memories comfort him. He reminds his troubled soul to trust in God. (Note the “glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving”; not the downbeat, boring, and bored, chants that many people consider correct Orthodox worship!)

These things I remember,
    as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
    and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
    a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

I say to God, my rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
    because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body,
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

“Where indeed is your god? Why is he not rescuing you?” The question lingers thousands of years after the psalm was composed. Where was God when 3-year-old Aylan Khurdi drowned with his 5-year-old brother, Galip, and their mother, Rehan, while trying to cross the sea from Turkey to the Greek island Kos?

Aylan and his older brother Ghalib in a happier moment.

Aylan and his older brother Galip in a happier moment.

The body of Aylan washed up on the shore of Turkey’s Bodrun Peninsula. Pictures of the lifeless body created immediate controversy. Many newspapers, TV networks and websites refused to show the pictures because of concern not to disturb readers and viewers. Yes, let’s not offend the dainty sensibilities of European and American viewers. I would understand if the concern was about sensationalizing or cheapening the image of a dead child. But no, the concern is always about offending or disturbing viewers; not about exploiting the dead! We have no problem exploiting the dead; we have no problem blowing up hundreds every day with drones and cluster bombs. We have no problem with death or causing death; we just don’t want to offend anyone. And that’s where the modern mockery lies.

The lifeless body of Aylan washed ashore.

The lifeless body of Aylan washed ashore. Many media outlets refused to show this photo so as not to offend or disturb viewers.

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Aylan’s body carefully and reverently carried away by Turkish solder.

“Where is your god,” indeed? Unlike the psalmist I do not look for miraculous interventions by God. The god who works miracles to save people and prevent disasters and wars is not my God. That kind of god does not exist. The God I believe in is right there in that lifeless child and in the soldier who undertakes the sad task of carrying the lifeless body away from the water. That soldier is like Joseph of Arimathea, who carried the lifeless body of Jesus down from the Cross. The images above are indeed images of Christ. Christ is that child, the same Christ who surrendered his own body to the care of humans: Joseph of Arimathea and a Turkish soldier. There was no rescue.

Perhaps some people might find my statements here contrary to certain things we believe. There was a resurrection, after all – at least in the case of Jesus. Yes there was – and there is (or will be). But the resurrection is a different matter altogether and does not change the truth of these images. I love the poetry of Psalm 42, but I don’t share the psalmist’s hopes for rescue. It seems quite clear that God has left the job of rescuing to us, his alleged followers or believers. How well are we doing in that regard? Or is too offensive and disturbing to ask this question? We are after all, very sensitive people and we prefer no one to question our faith. It’s a private thing after all. Good luck with that line when you meet God.

In chapter 2 of the Book of Job, the wife of Job could not take all the physical suffering inflicted upon her husband. She said to Job, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” It’s interesting that the Hebrew word translated as “curse” in our English Bibles could also be translated as “bless”! It should be interesting to study how a single Hebrew verb can mean both “curse” and “bless” – but clearly in this instance, Job’s wife was inciting Job to turn his back on God, since God obviously was doing nothing to rescue Job. She was, in essence, asking the age-old question, “Where is your god?” The Book of Job, of course, goes on for another 40 chapters after these words of Job’s wife, so we’ll leave that book alone for now.


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Big Ben and I

 

Paul today gives us a glimpse into the connected world of the early Christians. There was no Internet, no cell phones, no Facebook or Twitter – and yet those early Christians were connected! Paul rejoices at the coming of Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicos. They made up for the separation and absence of the rest of the community; “they refreshed my spirit as well as yours.” Ἀνέπαυσαν γὰρ τὸ ἐμὸν πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὑμῶν. “The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord. All the brethren send greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

Today I’m inspired by Paul’s sense of connectedness. And in my own way, I also feel connected. I have become friends with people that I have never met in person – thanks to the Internet, my blog, Facebook. One of my favorite friends on Facebook is a young woman in Greece whose father died here in Portland after several months at Maine Medical Center. Some of you may remember Maria, her mother Eirene and her brother Vasili. Maria writes things on Facebook that go very deep into the human condition. She is alert to things that the rest of us might not pay any attention to, and she allows these incidents to inspire her.

big_ben_londres_onibus

There was a fairly trivial news item last week which I saw on BBC World News, about Big Ben in London losing time. It’s running about 6 seconds slow! Not exactly a world shaking news story, coming in the same week as hundreds of refugees dying in the Mediterranean and in a truck in Austria, the same week as a terror attack in a train in France, more gun killings in America, etc. But my friend Maria was moved by this little story of Big Ben losing time to reflect on her own losing touch with time and other things in her own life. She writes, some people run a few seconds behind time; others are centuries behind the time! Big Ben loses a few swings of its pendulum, while for other people the entire ground under their lives disappears!

We are all united by this noun – “loss” – and its verb. We all lose something, someone, some aspect of our personality, something that makes us unique and remarkable. Life is a series of losses. And yet it is also a series of gains. I have lost much over the years – physical mobility, parents, friends and parishioners, energy – and yet I have gained even more – new friends, new insights and understanding, new talents, new desire to go on, new faith that is my own rather than what I have received, and so on. This is what the connected life is all about. My connected life, your connected life.

Just as my friend Maria is inspired to reflect on the importance of loss in life, so I’m inspired by her words to reflect on my own life. We learn from each other. It’s what it means to be connected. It was physically difficult and yet spiritually easy in the time of Paul to stay connected. Today, it is physically easy to stay in touch and to be connected with the world, and yet spiritually difficult to have a meaningful connection. But the choice is always ours to establish meaningful connections and friendships. The choice is always ours to deepen our understanding of what’s going on in the world, to listen to different viewpoints, and appreciate the artistry and potential of the human spirit.

Just as Maria inspires me every day with her words on Facebook, so also I was inspired by Alex & Byron and their decision to fly to Lesvos and help with the Syrian refugees who daily land with dingy boats on that island. They are inspired by their friendship with a couple on the island and after this trip they will undoubtedly feel connected to the tragic lives of people fleeing war, terrorism and starvation. Through Alex & Byron, we also can feel connected and send a “holy kiss” to desperate people.

“Greet one another with a holy kiss,” Paul tells his readers. We also are his readers. Let’s not stop at greeting only each other. Let’s greet with a holy kiss people we’ve never met and probably never will meet. Through Alex & Byron we can send our love to many lives. We can refresh them, as Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicos refreshed, Ἀνέπαυσαν, Paul. This is how we make these words alive for us and for the world.

 


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A wedding banquet Jesus would attend

Here is a marvelous story from today’s news to put a smile on anyone’s face. A Couple Feeds 4,000 Syrian Refugees on their Wedding Day! And I would think that the one who is smiling the most is our Lord Jesus Christ himself. 47957590.cached Jesus often used a wedding feast as an image of God’s kingdom. It seems that in his mind the wedding feast or  large banquet was the best description of our home with God: abundant joy and celebration, and open to all. Matthew 22:1-10 and Luke 14:16-24 are the classic versions of the banquet parable. Note how, in both parables, the invitation is ignored by the elite; this opens the way for the general invitation. In Matthew’s version there is a rather negative epilogue which acts as a counterweight to the openness theme. The punch line of this epilogue – “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14) – has always confused me since the message of the parable is the exact opposite! Did the religious Matthew feel a need to correct the ultra-liberal, and rather unreligious, generosity of the Master? I wouldn’t put it past Matthew. But perhaps there is another way to understand Jesus’ meaning if we just reverse the two halves of that statement: Few indeed are chosen (initially), but then many are called (the open invitation that follows). Perhaps it’s all a matter of how you accent the two statements in this one sentence. Elitism is very common in Christian circles, and certainly the male disciples of Jesus were very obviously afflicted with this tendency. Note John’s desire to stop someone outside their circle (Mark 9:38-41), or the fight between disciples as to who would have the best places in the kingdom (Mark 10:35-37). Jesus was very much aware of this disease of elitism that would afflict all his disciples, throughout the ages. That is why he always went outside the normal boundaries of society and what was ‘acceptable.’ How often did he choose Samaritans as examples of those who please God, rather than his own compatriots who hated the Samaritans (Luke 10:25-37; Luke 17:11-19; John 4:1-42)? And how about his preference for tax collectors and sinners over Pharisees? Or his breaking down of barriers with women and those declared to be ‘unclean’ (Mark 2:15-17Luke 18:9-14; 15:1-2; 8:1-38:43-48; and countless other places in the Gospels)? Jesus often attended banquets and wedding feasts. Perhaps that is why he was accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard”! (See Matthew 11:18-19 and elsewhere.) John tells us that the first miraculous ‘sign’ that Jesus performed was at a wedding feast. Note also that he was inspired to tell the parable of the great banquet from watching people at a dinner where he also was invited:

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:7-14)

Then comes this in verse 15: One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” And this leads immediately to the parable of the banquet I referred to above (Luke 14:16-24).

I like to think that among the 4,000 refugees these blessed newlyweds served on their wedding day was Jesus himself! ‘…. for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’ 47958354.cached