Archive for June, 2011

Whose Tragedy? Whose Redemption? Reflections near the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

by   |  06.27.11  |  Uncategorized

In only a few weeks, America and the world will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the infamous day in which airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, triggering a global war against terrorist organizations and their supporters, real or imagined.  Many American Christians will no doubt remember the event in the context of worship, wrapping the day and its aftermath in the language of the gospel and the trappings of the church’s worship.

How should we do so?  Given the power of ritual to transform minds and hearts, to unite or separate, to heal or harm, how should we Christians commemorate such a day?

For many evangelicals, in particular, the temptation to merge the claims of the nation-state with those of the ecclesia will be all but irresistible.  Flags will fill worship space, patriotic anthems will ring from congregation and choir, and the solemn words of remembrance will merge almost seamlessly the words of Scripture with the words of American exceptionalism.

Such events will no doubt occur.  That they will occur, however, can only be a continuation of the tragedy of 9/11, for one of the casualties of the event, besides the nation’s all but lost capacity for self-criticism, has been the church’s ability to see itself as a counter-culture free of the impulses of the state.  For some Christians, the demands of patriotism are almost indistinguishable from those of the gospel.  In many cases, therefore, our worship services commemorating 9/11 may be less about Christianity than about civil religion.  And so for those who take the gap between the impulses of culture and the call of faith in Jesus Christ, the “worship” that day will be nothing less than a sacrilege.

How do we avoid such an outcome?  Surely our desire to remember the day in a Christian way makes more sense than simply ignoring it or pretending that the anniversary is not upon us.  How can we proceed?  Perhaps there is a way forward.

First, worship for the church always means taking the cross seriously.  Taking the cross seriously means several things.  (1) It means remembering that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  There are no righteous groups and unrighteous groups in our world.  Such distinctions are God’s business, not ours, and they will not be clear until the end of the world (Matthew 13:24-30).  (2) It also means acknowledging that we in the church have sinned, just as our culture has sinned (Isaiah 6:5).  Commemoration in our case must not only acknowledge the horror of planes used as missiles, but also the horror of unmanned drones lobbed at civilians (as well as their named targets), of the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, and all the rest.  The cross was necessary because evil has penetrated every aspect of human existence, not just some parts.

But (3) taking the cross seriously also means that we need to be very clear about how God goes about redeeming the world.  We should be scandalized by prayers or sermons that attribute the blessings of religious liberty to military might.  Such claims directly contradict the teaching of Scripture (Deuteronomy 17:14-20; Psalm 20:7; John 18:36).  They argue that power and wealth demonstrate virtue, and that God is on our side, subject to our political agendas, amenable to our prejudices and desires for power.  Such conflation of political pragmatism with the transcendental call of the gospel fundamentally compromises the message that has been entrusted to us.  The radical nature of the Christian faith becomes very clear here as we contrast it with the claims of political entities, no matter how benign, familiar, or even treasured they seem.

Second, however, Christian worship also looks for the ways in which God works to redeem the world.  The cross stands next to the empty tomb, so to speak.  As resurrection people, we worship God in order to reflect the ways in which the Almighty acts to redeem every human being.  Thus our prayers bring the concerns of suffering people before the Almighty, who wishes all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:1-7).  Our hymns extol the ongoing work of God, past, present, and future and so introduce those who join in singing into the story of God (Psalm 78).  The Lord’s Supper re-enacts the mighty deed of God in raising Jesus from the dead, so vindicating the righteous (Acts 2:24-28).  It also creates a community before God.  As the apostle Paul puts it, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). By reading and interpreting Scripture together, we recall that the story of God is one of generous gift-giving to the creation, culminating in the final resolution of all things in the new creation (Isaiah 11:1-9; Revelation 22).  Our worship reflects the splendor of God’s actions working in the lives of people.  The God who transcends time and space works in ways far more complex and beautiful than the mere politics of nations.

Finally, then, what would a Christian worship service commemorating 9/11 look like?  Let me propose specific elements it should have:

  1. Confession of sin
  2. Statements of repentance
  3. Commemoration of, and intercession for, all who have suffered, not just Americans but all who have lost family members throughout the world, as well as acknowledgement of those who have returned from war broken in mind or body
  4. Readings of biblical texts calling us to peace and justice
  5. Truth-telling about what has really happened in the past decade, including the truth about our own complicity in the problems of the world
  6. Commitments to renewal of our focus on the Gospel’s call to all to receive Christ’s invitation to bring our burdens to him (Matthew 11:28-30) and to live trusting in God’s ultimate triumph over evil (Revelation 22:17)

As we head toward the anniversary of a real human tragedy and all the tragedies that have flowed from it, let us keep our heads and hearts about us.  We Christians have something to say that differs from the dominant culture’s celebration of violence and self-gratification.  We serve a living God who calls us to lives of peace and justice.  We live, we worship in anticipation of the day when all things will be made new and terror and wars will be distant memories.  Until then, let us so act that on that day we will be found faithful to its true nature.

Longing for the Presence of God: The Psalms in our Worship 34

by   |  06.20.11  |  Bible, Hope, Prayer, Theology

Longing for the absent lover — this is the stuff of romance.  Memories of the smells and sounds of the lost relationship, memories of times shared together, memories of the last moment of touch all cascade through the mind of the one who longs for the return of the one who has gone away.  Longing for the absent lover also describes the life of faith, for the elusive God whose presence brings life seems distant and yet ever present.  Out of the tension created by this absence that is not absence comes something we call faith.

It is fitting, then, that the second book of the Psalter opens with  Psalms 42-43, once a single poem only later split apart.  Unlike many laments, which concentrate on either physical or social suffering, this one concentrates upon the source of suffering, the absence of God.  Thus it opens with the arresting image of the thirsty deer anxiously searching for water, and closes (43:5) with an address to the very life force of the psalmist: “why are you prostrate, O my soul, and why are you troubled upon me?  Trust Elohim, for I will yet praise him.  Deliverance (comes from) my ‘Face’ and my God.”  (“Face” is sometimes a name for God, or more often, for an aspect or manifestation of God, so I am offering here a very literal translation of the Hebrew text.)  These verses bracket the lament material between them, thus moving the reader from an expression of desire to one of confidence in the Almighty.

The core of the psalm works by setting up a series of contrasts: times of celebration versus times of disquiet and anxiety, drought-stricken land versus gushing springs, and mourning for God’s absence versus hope in God’s imminent presence.  The spiritual dryness and isolation characterizing life without God elicit metaphors of ecological dryness and social isolation, a nice poetic turn.  More to the point, the refrain that recurs in 42:6 and 12 (5 and 11 in English) as well as 43:5 works to undermine, or perhaps to place in its proper perspective, the expressions of isolation and despair.

Finally, it’s not very surprising that the opening of this psalm should have been set to music in our own times (my church frequently sings at least two different tunes set to it).  Our age senses keenly the absence of God.  Choked by war, fenced in by economic insecurity, despairing before ecological degradation and leaders’ denial of the plain facts, we all sense the absence of the transcendent One.  This psalm, therefore, does not belong merely to a past age.  It belongs to us, as well.  For just as the psalm details lost confidence in ancient verities, so also it sings about a God who transcends all the truths about God and has a life beyond our ideas, no matter how cherished.  The psalmist longs for God to be God so that we all can be human beings.  I’d like to join the ancient poet in this timeless desire.  Perhaps you would too.

An End, and Thus a Beginning: The Psalms in Our Worship 33

by   |  06.08.11  |  Uncategorized

With Psalm 41, we come to the end of the first book of the Psalter.  When the collectors of the Psalms, working sometime in the 4th-2nd centuries BCE with older hymns and collections of hymns, put the finishing touches on their work, they divided it into five sections, mirroring the five books of the Pentateuch.  It was their way of saying, this collection of poems counts for something in the life of Israel.  We respond to the story of divine salvation by praising, lamenting, recounting, reflecting, and, in short, using all our artistic skills and emotional capital to express our innermost thoughts about life with the God of Heaven and Earth.

Psalm 41 makes several moves.  First, verses 1-3 (Hebrew 2-4) offer a beatitude or macarism, a statement of what it means to be in a right state.  The wise speaker of the psalm is one who cares for the poor and distressed.  To identify with those in trouble is to speak the truth about oneself, since we are all in trouble at one time or another, and we are all vulnerable.  The alternative to such an identification is a self-deluding attempt to distance ourselves from the destitute, sick, isolated, or otherwise vulnerable people in an effort to make ourselves more than they are.  Such an attempt always fails because we are not really different from “them.”

The second move comes in verse 4 (Hebrew 5) and continues through verse 9 (Hebrew 10).  Here the psalmist laments his or her own vulnerability, identifying with the suffering of others by acknowledging the hostility of others and seeking God’s help.  Lament is thus intimately connected with the wise view of the previous section.  Only the wise know how to lament properly!  (Think about that a bit.)

The psalm’s third move stretches from verses 10-12 (Hebrew 11-13), with the final verse being the editorial marker of the end of Book One of the Psalter and thus a closing for all the first 41 psalms.  The psalm itself originally ended with verse 12 (Hebrew 13), the conclusion of a three-verse statement of confidence in the Lord.  The only way that wisdom’s recognition of life’s tragedies can escape a cynical or despairing view is through the realization that, despite all appearances, God is in charge of the world.  Thus the psalmist expresses a trust that God delights in him or her and thus that God can be approached on that basis.

The psalm, though neither elaborate not especially innovative, marks a fitting end to the first section of the psalms.  It deftly connects lament and hope, much as the first 41 psalms do as a collection.  In the world of this psalm, God has not yet acted to save, but the psalmist believes that such salvation is only a matter of time.  God will, at the right moment, work to save.  Of this, the singer of the psalm, ancient or modern, can be confident.

A final set of thoughts: reaching this point in the Psalter allows me to take stock of where this series of posts has come so far.  We have seen a wide range of ideas, images, and emotional states in the first 41 psalms.  The diversity will only grow from here.  But for now we can ask the simple questions, “what is a psalm, and why did the poems in this book get to be in it?”  Part of the answer — not the whole — has to come from reading the entire collection, one after the other.  When we do that, we see the effect that the collectors were seeking.  What effect?  To answer that, notice that both Psalm 1 and Psalm 41 begin with a benediction, “blessed is the one.”  In the former case, the blessing extended to everyone who faithfully sought God’s presence by contemplating Torah.  In the latter, things are even more concrete: the blessed, hence wise, person cares about the poor and vulnerable. Of course, there is a connection, because careful reading of Torah would lead one to care for the poor, and care for the poor would lead one to the God who is revealed in Torah.  Psalms 1-41 close this loop, so to say.  Now the reader must decide whether he or she does too.  With that we find an end to the first set of posts, and the beginning of a new one.  Stay tuned.