Archive for September, 2010

The God Who Helps: The Psalms in Our Worship 8

by   |  09.27.10  |  Uncategorized

Often our discussions of worship focus on what we should do.  Do we sing modern praise songs or just the great hymns of the past?  Do we sing a cappella, with an organ, with a rock band, or whatever?  Does the preaching last a few minutes or quite a few?  Does the communion table figure prominently in the worship space or not at all?

These questions have a place, and someone must decide them.  Nor are they all equally important.  But all of them are beside the point compared to the more fundamental question, what do we think God does during our times of worship and beyond?  The answer to that question so far eclipses the answers to the others in importance, that it must be our starting point for our reflections on worship.

For the author of Psalm 12, the answer is straightforward.  This little poem turns lament into a statement of hope.  Verses 1-4 (Hebrew 2-5) protest the inequities in the world.  It is interesting that the opening does not say “save me” (though the ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, adds the first-person pronoun) but simply asks God to “save” or “help” or “rescue.”  “Save whoever needs saving,” seems to be the idea.  (Thus the idea that 1 Timothy 2 comes to express in the beautifully simple claim that “God wants everyone to be saved” also implicitly undergirds this Psalm.)  Rescue those in distress because their neighbors abuse language to elevate themselves and denigrate others.  So the Psalmist pleads with God.

The last part of the psalm, verses 6-8, contrasts the purity of God’s words, in which nothing is wasted or hurtful or in any way defective, with the words of wicked people, who glorify themselves.  The clarity of the idea here is also a beautiful thing: language can be, and often is, abused by those for whom truth is something to be manipulated for their own benefit.  Yet God never uses words this way, and the purity of God’s language mirrors the purity of God’s mind and thus of the world God is creating.

In the middle of the Psalm is the telltale turning point: “‘From the plundering of the poor, the suffering of the needy — now shall I arise’, says the Lord.  ‘I will help him’, God affirms to him.”  (There are different ways to translate the Hebrew, but this is close enough!)  God’s promise to deliver is enough to turn lament into a statement of confidence.

Worship is the cry of suffering humanity to God.  If we do not need to cry for ourselves, then we still cry out for the sake of others.  Not to do so is to join the wicked in shaping language to create a reality that does not reflect God’s pure heart and tongue.

For us, perhaps the question is whether we really expect God to rise up and help the oppressed.  Or do we assume that things will basically rock along as they are?  Unless we answer that question, our worship may not be very worthwhile because our actions may be the only ones involved.  And that would be a great tragedy.  A lamentable one, really.  More next time.

Thoughts on Summit: Interlude and Postlude

by   |  09.27.10  |  Uncategorized

Now that is Summit is in the books, we can turn back to the Psalms.  But let me say first that last week was a wonderful time, as always, of seeing old friends and making new ones.  Many good things were said and done, and we all got to remember how pleasant it is to be part of a church community in which we can love each other and think together.

Among the many valuable resources that came out of this time, there are a couple that every church leader should consider.  One is Dr. Jeanene Reese’s new book, “Bound and Determined: Christian Men and Women in Partnership” from Leafwood Publishers.  This volume is the result of a decade of research, teaching, and interacting with men and women in ministry.  It is sensible, spiritually mature, and challenging.  It is also eminently readable, and it deserves a wide audience.

Another resource is the website http://halfthechurch.wordpress.com.

You will benefit from the podcasts and readings that will emerge there over the next little while. Hear the voices of men and women in ministry at several stages of life as they wrestle with the relationship between calling and practice in today’s congregations.

Of course, there were many other things said and done during those three and half days that will benefit people around the world for a long time.  I’d love to hear what stood out to you.  Please write in and let us all know.

On freedom of religion

by   |  09.27.10  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

This originally appeared as an op-ed in the Abilene Reporter News on September 18, 2010.

As the recent headlines about Qur’an burning and mosque building have made clear, Americans are conflicted about religion.

Caught between those who fantasize about a Christian America and those who desire the privatization of religion (and thus its ultimate demise), many of us would like to be part of a solution beyond rancorous sound bites.

To do this, we need to agree on three things. The first is that religious pluralism is a fact of life in a democratic society. It always has been, ever since the founders of the United States chose not to institute a state church and to protect the peaceful exercise of unpopular faiths. Those originally marginal groups included Catholics, and sometimes Baptists and Methodists, as well as Jews and “freethinkers” like Thomas Jefferson. The diversity has only grown in our history, as immigrants during and since the 19th century brought Muslim, Confucian, Taoist, Shinto, Hindu, Bahai, and Buddhist practices. America’s disestablishment of religion has, paradoxically, been the incubator of new denominations and whole new religions since the Revolution. There is no realistic, nonviolent way to reverse the trend toward diversity, even if we wanted to. The real-world choice is not between uniformity (everyone converting to my faith) and plurality, but between a pluralism riven with strife and one marked by mutual respect and the capacity of citizens, as the New Testament epistle of James puts it, to be “swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.”

A second reality: respect for the other does not mean surrendering cherished values and beliefs. Constructive dialogue among members of different religions can deepen each participant’s engagement with his or her own faith. This is why medieval Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas read Muslim philosophy, why St. Augustine sought a creative synthesis with Neoplatonism, and why the Apostle Paul used Stoic philosophical language in his epistles, even when giving it new meanings in light of the gospel. The greatest Christian thinkers have not been parochial and narrow-minded.

To the contrary, my commitment to Jesus does not shrink because I recognize that my Jewish neighbor seeks to obey God’s revelation in Torah or that Islam’s core ideas (the five pillars of daily prayer, celebration of Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca, generosity to the poor, and confession of one God) more closely resemble Christian practices than do the secular obsessions with money, fame, and power that so often mar our public life. We differ in important ways, but our religious commitments overlap, extremists in every religion notwithstanding.

Third, civility and sympathy are not optional in a world of six billion people with myriad cultural practices. It has become easy to dismiss the quest for common decency and respect as “political correctness” and to hide behind caricatures and outright lies that allow us to wallow in hatred and ignorance. For a Christian, such a result is unacceptable because it radically contradicts everything Jesus of Nazareth stands for. His most serious criticisms fell on his disciples and those who read Torah most like he did, the Pharisees. He called men and women to lives of dignity, moral clarity, and love for others. It would be hard to argue that the behavior of American Christians in the public arena has consistently reflected that high standard.

As I reflect on the level of our public conversation, I cannot help but think of the tens of millions of Americans who are no longer religious. For many of them, all religious people, and especially Christians, come across as arrogant, uncaring, and ignorant. Isn’t it time that we who love the church and honor its Lord think about how we represent our faith? Isn’t it time that we seek different headlines?

Dr. Mark W. Hamilton
Associate Professor of Old Testament and
Associate Dean
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699
Editor, The Transforming Word

After Rancor: The Psalms in our Worship 7

by   |  09.15.10  |  Uncategorized

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that fewer things bother me, but the ones that do bother me more than ever.  Maybe that’s your experience too.  The thing that bothers me most these days is the widespread acceptance of slander, bullying, disrespect, and denigration of the weakest and most vulnerable of us.  The immigrant, the single mother, the poor elderly, children from the wrong neighborhoods — it has become acceptable in American society, and most appallingly in the church, to blame such people not only for their own fate but for all the ills in the world.  So-called conservatives blame the foreigners, and so-called liberals dismiss the Tea Partiers as unlearned and unwashed.  So it’s an equal-opportunity climate of insult and rancor.  It is not limited to one ideology or party or group or class.  And the deafening silence of those of us who know better seems to add to the problem, not solve it.  These things bother me.  And lately they’ve challenged me to do what I can, even if it’s writing blog posts for those who read them.

But mere righteous indignation cannot solve such problems, and being bothered is not a good end point, only a place to start.  The larger question is, how do we Christians stay focused on our deepest calling, which is to love God with our whole being and our neighbors (all of them) as ourselves?

Psalm 11 is a good place to start, and not just because it’s the next one in our series.  The Psalmist expresses dismay at the behavior of others who “love injustice,” but he or she turns quickly to the source of healing.  This source is the realization that God not only has the wide perspective that allows accurate judgment of all human behavior (“The Lord is in his holy temple/palace…. searches out all all humankind”), but that God has a strong bias toward righteousness.  God is not a neutral observer in the world.  Rather, God calls us humans to be righteous people, in short to be “godly.”

What does it mean to be a righteous person?  Somehow that question has gotten lost in our churches, with all our emphasis on experiencing worship and being a group of friends.  Good things, to be sure, but not the same as the call to be righteous.  How can I live my life as a just person whose work is a blessing to others?  That’s the question, and it’s one that in our time of Qur’an burning and other blatant expressions of contempt and hatred (hence, of injustice), we must ask.  For only so can we be saved.  The God who is no respecter of persons does not let us off the hook because we say we’re Christians.  For Heaven keeps the book of life with all the names in it, not we.   And in that realization lies our hope and the potential to re-imagine our world after the rancor has died away.

Maybe we can brainstorm together.  What do you think it  means to grow as a righteous person?  Who are your models?  What works, and what doesn’t?

The Psalms in our Worship 6

by   |  09.06.10  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Sometimes life is too much with us.  I’ve thought about that a lot this weekend: when sawing up a tree that the wind broke, when painting a fence I had repaired a year ago but just now got around to finishing, when trying to send text messages to a more tech savvy colleague (my children laugh at how slow I am and how often I inadvertently call the text message a fax!).  Life is too much with us, and maybe not enough with us at the same time.

Apparently, that’s how the author of Psalms 9-10 feels.  (Originally this seems to have been one psalm, and an acrostic at that, which somehow got split apart in the Hebrew Bible; in the Septuagint, it hung together.)  Notice the mixture of praise and lament, of calm faith in God and righteous indignation at unnamed enemies.  The author struggles with a hidden God, whose latent power could eliminate evil, though it does not always seem to.  He or she lives in the world of praise, which always stands just a step away from lament because God’s praiseworthiness consists not just in some timeless quality but in the commitment to pursue justice and peace for the creation, including especially humankind.

You see this point clearly in the discussion of the enemies, who in Psalm 9 seem to be foreign powers, and in Psalm 10 may be more personal.  Consider, then, the contrast between God and the enemies.  In Psalm 9, God defeats the enemies (v. 3/Hebrew 4), defends the Psalmist (“you have made my justice and defense”), established the divine throne on justice, caused the evil nations to perish, judges the earth on the basis of righteousness (v. 8/Hebrew 9).

In Psalm 10, meanwhile, the enemies of God are those who arrogantly oppress the vulnerable.  They are bullies and ne’er-do-wells who use the vulnerability of others to their own advantage.  They believe that their position in life makes them invulnerable to attack (even from God!).  The Psalmist recognizes the folly of these people and his or her confidence in God’s sovereignty and goodness leads to the inevitable conclusion that their fate is both sure and dismal.

What to do with such an emotionally raw psalm?  It’s hard not to see our own time here.  The extraordinary dishonesty of our public discourse, the involvement of Christians in movements that prey upon the poor (think of those who, quite irrationally, feel the country threatened by babies born to parents who got here the wrong way), the trivialization of suffering and the transformation of even honorable charity into acts of self-fulfillment (mercy as tourism) — all these abuses, in which Christians unquestionably play a significant role, can open the door to despair to people of conscience.  Moderation seems out of place in such a time.  We must choose sides.  And too many of us seem to be on the wrong side because we have forgotten that Christ’s interpretation of Torah — and therefore of God’s vision for humankind — centered on two principles, one of which was love your neighbor as yourself.

Obviously we have forgotten that.  And so I hope the Psalmist is wrong because if he or she is right, we are in trouble.  We need to pick our enemies a lot better.  Then we can be part of God’s work of making all things right, including saving even the arrogant from themselves.   Sometimes life is too much with us.  But this is not one of those times.