Earlier this week I took a walk to our neighboring congregation, the shul or synagogue just up the hill. I think it was Wednesday. Wednesday was a blue-sky day, one of those days that tempts you to walk clear across the city. As I climbed the hill some lines from Isaiah floated through my mind:
In the days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
One person walking up to a synagogue is not exactly the streaming of nations, but I trust you can see the connection. Read more
If you have a Bible, on your phone or one of the traditional codex versions, take a look at the second to last verse in II Thessalonians. It’s verse 17 of chapter 3. You’ll want to see the context for these lines, but what I want to draw your attention to is this strange statement: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.” This begs us to play literary detectives for a few moments. Why would Paul write these lines? Does he have some sort of fetish with wanting people to recognize his handwriting? Is he looking for the respect that some graffiti artists or taggers want when they sign things? What’s going on? Read more
What a week last week was—what a surprise! There was cheering from some, wailing from others. The CNN commentator Van Jones said our southern, super-power neighbour was seeing a “white-lash against a changing country” and a “white-lash against a black president.” On the other hand, an American friend of mine sent me a screen capture from her Facebook page: some people she knew were rejoicing, calling their president-elect the new king Cyrus, a minister of God, a divinely chosen trumpet. Read more
Not all Christians vote. I do. For me it’s one of those privileges I’ve been given that I don’t want to take for granted. I’m skeptical about what actual goods state politics can realize. I doubt, for instance, that our governing authorities can make us better people. They can’t do much to make us more patient, more loving, more honest or more courageous. I vote, though, because it’s a modicum of power that’s been given to me and I want to use it to help our communities be more just. Not everyone has that opportunity.
There are two passages that frame the possibilities of governments biblically. One in Romans 13, where Paul describes governing authorities as God’s servants. They keep chaos in check by preserving a basic civil order. For that reason they deserve our support. Then there is Revelation 13, where governing authorities are depicted as a diabolical beast. The beast is worshiped because of its immense power and its seeming invincibility. For that reason they deserve our skepticism.
I vote, but I don’t think that’s the most ‘political’ thing I do. This evening I meet with the committee that plans our congregation’s worship life. It will be a political meeting. We will talk about allegiance and sovereignty. We will talk about how to cultivate certain virtues and ways of being. We will talk about economics and global alliances. We will do all that without mentioning a national government. It will be political, but it will have virtually nothing to do with a state. My point is not that state politics don’t matter—of course they do. My point is simply that Christians always hold more than one form of citizenship.
I have no doubt that this is a terrible way to start, but I’ll be direct: we need to think about sin and confession. This is the theme that runs through our assigned scripture readings. It shows up in Isaiah 1, in Psalm 32 and in Luke 19. If I was confident that none of us have ever done anything to harm someone else, or that our way of life didn’t benefit from harm done to others, or if none of us had ever tried to take God’s job as your own—if I was confident of that, I would turn to a new topic. But I’m doubtful, so my suggestion is that we listen once again to Isaiah. The book of Isaiah is a wonderfully lyrical and imagery-rich part of scripture. The first chapter is just so. Here are some of the lines from our reading. Starting with verse 11: “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” Now verse 13: “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. . . .” Verse 15: “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” Read more
In ancient churches an object called a diptych was pretty important. A diptych was a two-paneled list of those who were a part of a church. They would list the dead on one side and the living on another. They would include the names of the bishops with whom they were in communion. Keeping the diptych up-to-date was a way of clarifying who belonged to a particular fellowship and which churches were recognized as continuing in the tradition of the gospel. Yet there is another very old use of a diptych: the word can also refer to a two-paneled piece of art connected by hinges. Some icons were made this way. You might have two photos in your home that you display in similar fashion. Being able to place two images facing each other and hinged together can evoke a relationship. The reflections that follow take the form of a diptych: two stories, two panels, hinged together but distinct. One panel is the story of Jacob, the other is that of Timothy. We’ll put ourselves between the two and see what we might learn. Read more
A pilgrim went to Mount Athos to learn about the spiritual life. Mount Athos is a small Greek island, quite difficult to get to, but one that is home to something like twenty monasteries. As the pilgrim approached the island by boat he noticed sun-bleached bones on the rocks above the level of the high tide. “What are those?” he asked. His guide replied, “Those are the bones of monks who thought themselves to be so holy that the laws of nature no longer applied to them. They jumped from their cells high on the cliffs.” Some ancient Egyptian monks would tell a similar story. The temptation seems not to be limited by geography. Read more
I was driving home from work when I hit a guy. The light turned green, there were no cars coming, so I turned left. My victim was smoking a cigarette and had made it part way across the strip of pavement marked out by parallel white bars. At the last second I saw him and slowed, but I hit him anyway. Bumper to thigh. I stopped the car. Then put it in gear again and pulled through the intersection. He returned to the curb from which he had come and sat down on the embankment. A few people got out of their cars. Some made their world right by giving me the finger. A man in a ritzy SUV gave me a sympathetic look, as though he too had once smacked a pedestrian or maybe more than one. Read more
Dan Gilbert is the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He tells us that one of the things the human brain can do better than the brains of other animals is it can simulate. That is, your brain, somewhere in its prefrontal cortex, can predict what an experience will be like. Your brain can simulate and experience and you can figure out whether or not you’ll like it. You don’t need to actually do everything to have a sense of what sorts of things you would find more satisfying than others. Gilbert begins one of his lectures on the subject with a question: which of two things would make you happiest, winning the lottery or becoming a paraplegic. Which do you think? Put your predicative simulator to work. Read more
The author and pastor Frederick Buechner once wrote that he could sum up everything he had tried to communicate in his writing with these two words: “Pay attention.” Buechner wrote more than thirty books and he summed them all up with that phrase, “pay attention.” I want to invite us to pay attention, to pay attention to a few biblical texts and to God’s good creation, which even now begins to change from its many shades of green into new dresses of red and brown.
Part of paying attention it seems to me is realizing that our first impressions can be wrong. I can remember one of the summers I worked as a guide leading canoe trips. On one trip we were camped on a little-visited lake set back off the main canoe routes. It was not what you would call a beautiful lake. The trees were not particularly tall, the water was not clear. Instead of rocks or sand, the shoreline was muddy and almost impenetrably shrouded with undergrowth. Read more