Tuesday, June 9
PSALM 92 – DOING WHAT IS GOOD
Forty-one years ago, I sang a required recital to complete my masters in church music. On that springtime program was an esoteric setting of Psalm 92 by 20th Century composer Leo Sowerby. Although I have not sung the song in over four decades, I still remember its haunting melody, strange and wondering organ accompaniment, and biblical text. All the components of this music seem a part of the very fabric of my faith. I often sing it silently in my mind or out loud when I’m in traffic.
It is good to give thanks unto the Lord
and make music to your name, O Most High,
proclaiming your love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night,
to the music of the ten-stringed lyre
and the melody of the harp.
It is good to give thanks unto the Lord.
Remembering God’s love in the morning and God’s faithfulness at night — that’s not a bad way to go through life! I have discovered that remembering God’s love and faithfulness always incites great gratitude within.
Life is often complicated, complex, and perplexing. When we need to know the right thing to do, we can look to Psalm 92 for a good model.
Indeed, it is (always) good to give thanks unto the Lord.
St. John’s University, Collegivelle, MN, 56231 2006
Friday, June 5
By Jeni Cook Furr
Psalm 131 (NIV)
1. My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. 2. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child, I am content. 3. Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forever.
Psalm 131 (CEV)
1. I am not conceited, Lord, and I don’t waste my time on impossible schemes. 2. But I have learned to feel safe and satisfied, just like a young child on its mother’s lap. 3. People of Israel, you must trust the Lord now and forever.
This little psalm distinguishes itself in several ways. First, it is short. It’s short enough to consider at least two different translations (above) to allow for a better understanding. Charles Spurgeon called it “one of the shortest psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn.” Second, we should consider the author. While the subtitle identifies David as author, this psalm is in a collection (120-134) considered “ascent psalms,” or “traveling up to Jerusalem” songs, and thus, some scholars attribute 131 to a woman, perhaps one traveling in pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a festival with her young child. Let’s consider both possibilities. Finally, we must take note that this is one of scant passages in which God is strikingly portrayed as our Loving Mother.
It has been said that you can’t speak about your humility, for as soon as you do, you’re being proud again. Yet here, “My heart is not proud, Lord,” is immediately followed by the acknowledgement that some “things are too wonderful (or impossible) for me.” It is a prayer, a confession, clearly not a boast.
If David is the author, he has certainly learned from his mistakes. He had been accused of being too ambitious for the throne, and too prideful, dancing in triumph while leading the way for the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. But now, he has learned the lessons of Proverbs 3:34: “God opposes the proud but to the humble he shows favor.” This is not arrogance. This is a humble acceptance of the author’s place in the world and before the Lord God.
Much like Job’s resolution in chapter 42, this author demonstrates honest humility before God. Some things are beyond the understanding of mortals, and we must each finally digest that truth for ourselves. Life holds many mysteries (both wonderful and terrifying) that we cannot understand. We have plenty of questions and doubts. Sometimes we have fear and anger. But there are some things in life we will never understand. Hopefully, like the psalmist, we can learn that we don’t need to know it all. And there is no need to inform everyone about our opinions. In the age of social media, this can be especially tempting! I am reminded of some wise advice attributed to Abraham Lincoln: It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt. Instead of an inordinate desire to feel important, the author of Psalm 131 models a child-like humility, yet not without confidence.
Furthermore, we humans can’t, and don’t need to control it all. When I used to travel frequently for work, (and especially right after 9/11), I developed a litany of prayers for boarding an aircraft. I prayed for the pilot, co-pilot, flight-attendants, passengers, air traffic controllers, mechanics, screeners of passengers and luggage, weather conditions, the aircraft itself, and flocks of birds. I also asked God for special care during take-offs and landings. I always wondered if God was slightly amused by or annoyed with my feeble attempts to “name it and claim it” in prayer. Of course, my litany neither gave me more control, nor made God more attentive or caring. It didn’t change the reality of terrorism. But as I sat in my middle seat, I found comfort in talking with God about these things, in knowing that Someone much greater than I was in control. “These things are too great and too marvelous for me.”
This leads the psalmist to claim, “But I have calmed and quieted myself,” or better yet, “But I have learned to feel safe and satisfied, just like a young child on its mother’s lap.” This is a “weaned child,” one not seeking food or provisions. He/she is old enough to have some experience with this troubled and fallen world. The child still recognizes his/her dependence, and has learned that there is sometimes pain and fear in separation from the Mother. This verse makes me wonder about that mother/psalmist/song-writer traveling with her young child up the rugged terrain, the mile-high trek to the holy city of Jerusalem. What mother cannot identify with the experience of her child racing head-long into her arms with double-skinned knees, the world’s largest splinter, or the monsters of another bad dream? What mother hasn’t experienced this a hundred times over? And what child has not found the very best comfort, contentment and healing in that secure and loving embrace?
If we are honest with ourselves, in a world of COVID-19, we face fears we never imagined, an enemy we can’t even see. We fear touching an infected surface, touching our faces, forgetting to bring a mask, or going to public places where others don’t wear them. The danger seems to surround us.
In recent days, we’ve also seen violence unleashed again in our streets. This goes far beyond the “usual” violence we’ve come to think of as “baseline”. We’ve been horrified to watch violence hiding again as “excessive force,” and peaceful protests turned into senseless destruction and chaos by those who would take advantage of a raw moment.
Both of these evils seem endless. COVID-19 is new, but our need to quarantine may drag on week after week. Violence, including racial violence, is systemic and generational. How long, Lord? How long? Imagine the fear that David felt, running and hiding from the murderous Saul for years. Did he “calm and quiet himself” in writing this psalm? Did he think of God’s protection like a loving, maternal embrace?
My own mother had a wry sense of humor. In my earliest memories, she would lift me into her arms, hug and “love on” me and say, “I love you so much, I think I’ll just keep you.” That became the definition of the word for me. Whenever I needed an expression of love, comfort, healing, assurance or intimacy, I would run into her arms and ask her to, “Keep me, Momma! Keep me!” The psalmist knows that contentment and comfort are found in the loving embrace of God. “The Lord bless you and keep you.”
Where do you find the loving embrace of God during these trying times? Maybe you have experienced it most often in a pew on Sunday mornings. So now where do you find the calming, comforting, loving lap of God? How often are you willing to humbly run into that embrace?
Our final verse addresses the people of Israel and exhorts them to trust in the Lord, or hope in the Lord. As the child implicitly trusts the Mother, we are to trust God’s wisdom and God’s timing. “Now and forever” is a statement of hope that our relationship with God is truly never ending. Christians trust in and hope for eternal life with God. Perhaps the “now” part is harder that the “forever” part. This psalm now leads us back to the beginning. We don’t control everything, or know that they will all work out like we want, or think they should. We must trust God, our good and faithful Parent, who is working them out as Paul says in Romans 8:28. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. So for now…”May the Lord bless you and keep you.”
Questions to Ponder:
As the threat of COVID-19 drags on and on, how and where do you find comfort, security and hope? Can we really come to think of that middle seat on an airplane as being seated in the lap of God?
Psalm 125 says, “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people now and forevermore.” Is it possible to think of God surrounding our community, much like a Mother embraces her children? If so, what would this mean for our church?
What does it mean to you, in practical terms, to “trust in the Lord” now? Are there behaviors that demonstrate this?
You have probably seen or heard this before, but I was surprised several years ago, when I found this sign on the wall in my very capable and humble physician’s treatment room:
This is God,
I will be handling all of your problems today.
I will not need your help.
So, relax and have a great day!
And finally, from the very best poet:
Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened,
And I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
For I am gentle and humble in heart,
And you will find rest for your souls,
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Mt 11:28-30)
June 2, 2020
What do you do when life falls apart?
Psalms 3 from The Message translation
1-2 Look! Enemies past counting!
Enemies sprouting like mushrooms,
Mobs of them all around me, roaring their mockery:
“Hah! No help for him from God!”
3-4 But you, God, shield me on all sides;
You ground my feet, you lift my head high;
With all my might I shout up to God,
His answers thunder from the holy mountain.
5-6 I stretch myself out. I sleep.
Then I’m up again—rested, tall and steady,
Fearless before the enemy mobs
Coming at me from all sides.
7 Up, God! My God, help me!
Slap their faces,
First this cheek, then the other,
Your fist hard in their teeth!
8 Real help comes from God.
Your blessing clothes your people!
King David wrote Psalms 3 while fleeing Jerusalem. His own son, Absalom planned to take over his kingdom and have his father killed. You can read more of the back story in 2 Samuel 15-18, but Absalom’s clever approach made him able to subvert and divide David’s kingdom without saying any specific thing that could condemn him. Israel dropped their support of their greatest King (David) and instead allowed a wicked, amoral man to rule over them. David went from being very rich and powerful to running for his life.
When you read the words of the scripture and know the backstory of what has happened to David, you can understand the frustration of the words he writes. He really must have felt that enemies were all around, for they were even from within his own family.
We are not immune from enemies either. Sometimes our enemies are other people who have chosen to turn against us or whom we have mistreated. Other times, our enemies are things beyond our control: a lost job, a terrible diagnosis, the end of an important relationship. And often, at the very time that we find ourselves surrounded by “enemies”, we discover more and more “enemies” on our journey. At times, it can appear that everyone and everything is against us. Sometimes, we lose hope and believe that there is no hope for us, that things will never get better.
Hopefully, when we find ourselves “with enemies sprouting like mushrooms”, we will do as David did and will practice Selah (a pause or a rest). David asked for God’s help and then rested as he waited again for the enemy. When we feel surrounded on all sides, we too must call out for God and then take a holy Selah. God created rest as an essential human need and never more so than when we are facing battles of grief, pain, loneliness or sickness.
Let us remember to rest and then to get up, know that we are God’s children, and continue on in our journey to love others as God has loved us first and to help others battle their enemies as well.
Friday, May 29th
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
One of the common things that I hear from you at Woodland and from friends in other churches is how much we all miss physically worshipping together. Obviously, as we’ve seen in news reports, this is difficult for worshippers around the world. I’m thankful for our pastoral leadership team who have been diligent in creating our virtual worship experiences. For me, these times offer gratitude for the week completed, guidance for the week ahead, and the welcome recognition that I am not alone. One of the remarkable benefits of worship is its ability to turn our minds and hearts from lamenting the world as it is toward a perspective of gratitude for the overarching grace of God. This spiritual practice of giving thanks and praise, which we know as doxology, is vital for health – physical and spiritual.
I began to think more about this several years ago, when I criss-crossed the country visiting a number of different churches – from Seattle to Orlando, from New York City and Chicago to Los Angeles. Specifically, I was involved in a project studying churches with innovative approaches in relating to young adults. One thing I noted about their worship was that, although I heard a lot of energetic “praise songs”, few of those churches seemed to me to incorporate a sense of doxology into their worship. Now, I suppose a word of explanation is in order here. Doxology is, in the traditional sense, a hymn, a piece of music, sung in many churches — “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow…” The Gloria Patri and the sung Lord’s Prayer are also forms of doxology. More importantly, though, “doxology” has a broader meaning. It is really an effort to respond in awe and gratitude for the indefinable, inexpressible Mystery that we call God. A sense of the Holy is intensely personal. For me, Daniel’s preludes are a deep doxology every week. What is it that evokes that sense for you?
Today’s Scripture is a doxology, an effusive, grateful outburst of praise beginning with the word, “Blessed,” and ending with the phrase, “to the praise of His glory.” The eleven numbered verses are actually just one long, breathless Greek sentence, composed by an inspired author!
This “doxology” is the beginning of a letter traditionally regarded as having been written by Paul from his Roman prison, although some scholars believe that it may have been written by one of his associates after his death. It was a common and accepted practice within the biblical tradition of the ancient world to write in the name of a revered figure, and so, if this were the case, although it may seem strange to our modern perspective, the letter would have still been valued as a valid expression of the faith of the apostle. It is also believed that the letter was meant to be a circular letter shared by many regional churches, which would explain why there are no personal references to Paul’s deep and long-lasting friendships in the church at Ephesus where he spent so much time and had much personal investment. Those historical questions are fascinating. However, for the meaning we find in its teaching, we will simply take the letter at face value and consider it to be from Paul to the church at Ephesus.
The structure of Ephesians is more like a sermon than a letter. And if that is the case, then this introduction we are considering today is more like a hymn. You might even consider it as the special music right before the sermon itself. But as in all worship, music is vital to the experience. It has been said that singing is perhaps the purest form of prayer.
Back in the days of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, Will Willimon remembers attending a freedom march. He, along with many other students, had gathered to march for justice, to bravely stand up and be counted, to demand that the government do something for the rights of African-Americans. Will said that he was astounded that the first thing the organizers of the march made them do was to gather in a hot, rural black Baptist church for hours of endless singing and praying and preaching. The white students got edgy. “Let’s get on with the real work of justice. Let’s get out on the streets where we can do some good. What does all this singing have to do with the work at hand?” The organizers patiently reminded the students that they had been at this a lot longer than they had. They told the students that they were not contending against a few bad laws or people; they were struggling against principalities and powers, against cosmic evil. “If all we have to sustain us out in the streets,” they said, “is optimistic humanism, then we won’t be here long.” What Will and those others discovered was that they were there to be in church, to be reminded of Who called them together, Who sent them out, Who marched with them. Will said that he discovered in that little rural church that the most important revolutionary act he could make was to sing a hymn, praise God, and trust God. He said, “Praise always precedes Christian action, calls it forth, sustains it. We love — in the streets, in the office, at school — because we have been loved.”
Worship is vital for us as the church, and as we glean from this Scripture passage, worship is formed by grateful praise – doxology! Therefore, sister and brothers, let us, in W.H. Auden’s words, “stagger onward rejoicing.”
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
What sorts of things tend to encourage you in gratitude… personal relationships, creating or sharing meals, reading or study, the natural world, music, prayer, worship? During these difficult times, purposely incorporate into your days things that inspire thankfulness for life as gift.
Carl Jung, the eminent psychologist, had this phrase carved in Latin over the front door of his Zurich home, Bidden or unbidden, God is present. Thank God for continual Presence.
Ask for “doxology” to travel with you this day, to see life in terms of grace for which to be grateful.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Two Countries”
Skin remembers how long the years grow
when skin is not touched, a gray tunnel
of singleness, feather lost from the tail
of a bird, swirling onto a step,
swept away by someone who never saw
it was a feather. Skin ate, walked,
slept by itself, knew how to raise a
see-you-later hand. But skin felt
it was never seen, never known as
a land on the map, nose like a city,
hip like a city, gleaming dome of the mosque
and the hundred corridors of cinnamon and rope.
Skin had hope, that’s what skin does.
Heals over the scarred place, makes a road.
Love means you breathe in two countries.
And skin remembers–silk, spiny grass,
deep in the pocket that is skin’s secret own.
Even now, when skin is not alone,
it remembers being alone and thanks something larger
that there are travelers, that people go places
larger than themselves.
Sunday, May 24th
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
–I Thessalonians 5:1-11
One of the things I have found myself doing during these days of isolation is planning out my trips with a bit more care. Whether I’m headed to the grocery store, the gas station, or the neighborhood mailbox, I try to anticipate where I’m going, what my route will be, and what I need to take with me. That certainly rings true with our travel guide for these next few days, the Apostle Paul. Paul was a brilliant strategist. His journeys were not spontaneous events, but thought-out and prayed-for experiences. Like Alexander the Great’s desire to conquer the whole world, Paul had intentions of winning the entire world for Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take a military strategist to observe the method in Paul’s travels. He intentionally went to the largest, most cosmopolitan, most traveled places in his world. He felt that if he could create strongholds for the Gospel in those places, then the fires of faith would naturally spread along the major highways and by-ways of the world.
The port city of Thessalonica was one of these prosperous urban areas. Located on a gulf in the northwest corner of the Aegean Sea, it was on a major trade route connecting Greece and southeastern Europe. Paul traveled there and began preaching and teaching, first to the Jews in the synagogue, but then to the Gentiles. It was among the Gentiles that Paul had his best results. People came to Christ, and the fellowship was great, so great that it frightened the Jews and authorities. Thus, Paul had to make an earlier-than-planned exit, going on to Athens and then to Corinth. It was in Corinth that he wrote his letters to the church at Thessalonica, which, by the way were the very first of his correspondence to churches. If you read this first letter in entirety, you will find it to be pastoral and personal. How Paul remembered the Thessalonians; how he loved them! The first three chapters are evidence of that. In the following two chapters we see the more pastoral side of Paul, teaching in a very careful way matters of great consequence. His point in today’s Scripture passage deals with the future. And as Eugene Peterson reminds us, the way we conceive of the future very much affects the way we live in the present. Paul is attempting here to re-invigorate this church with hope of a future in Jesus Christ that will permeate the present with expectant living.
When I was a Baylor student, one of my jobs was that of being the reference librarian for the Waco-McLennan Library on evenings and Saturdays. It was a great job, because I learned so much about the library in general and the reference area in particular. I mean, I would field all sorts of questions . . . from sports questions to scientific questions, to political questions, to historical questions . . . all kinds of questions. It made things lively, to say the least. One intriguing aspect about my work was that for the nearly three years I was there, a man would come in every morning and stay until the library closed at night, charting the book of Revelation and its close cousins, Ezekiel and Daniel. He would work diligently, head bowed, pencil furiously pushing numbers and dates. Occasionally he would come over and tell me about his work, about how he was getting close to plotting the end of time. I was always amazed. I mean, I appreciated the fervor of his obsession, but I also thought, “What a waste.” He spent all of his time in that library, quite literally, with charts and numbers, while the world raced by him. I’ve wondered whether in these days he’s still there, getting even more persistent with all of the talk about the end-times.
Evidently there were a lot of people in the church at Thessalonica who were obsessed with the idea of the second coming, originating perhaps from Paul’s teaching, which also espoused the imminent return of Jesus. However, the Thessalonians’ concerns with this belief began to verge on hysteria, so much so, that Paul wrote his letter to assuage their fears and focus their callings.
His choice of the phrase, “like a thief in the night,” has become legendary. What a strange way of attempting to comfort anxieties about the possibility of Jesus’ impending return. I mean, envisioning Jesus as a thief? The New Testament gives all kinds of metaphors about Jesus — the Living Word, the Light of the world, the Good Shepherd, the Son of Man — all good descriptions, sure enough. But how about this one… a thief in the night? Paul Minear, the wonderful New Testament scholar, reminds us that the New Testament writers “did not hesitate to speak of Christ as a robber.” You can check it out for yourselves in Matthew 24, Luke 12, Mark 13, Luke 29, II Peter 3, not to mention Revelation. Scripture seems quite comfortable in the use of this simile, “Our Lord comes as a thief in the night.”
Now, I’ve heard a lot of preachers use this phrase to startle people, to try to, quite literally, scare the hell out of people. Their line of questioning usually goes something like this: “How are you going to feel if Jesus comes and you are in a bar or on a dance floor or in a movie or playing golf or mahjong?” Garrison Keillor, in his self-deprecating humorous way, remembers his formative years in the little Plymouth Brethren Church his family attended: “The basic question in my mind, then and now, is what does God want me to do? I think about it every day. Or I try not to think about it and thus think even harder about it.”
As guilt-inducing and unsophisticated as those questions are, they are not bad questions, not really. But if those negatively-framed questions turn you off and tune you out, let me ask the question in a different way . . . “If Christ should actually appear during your lifetime, where would you like to be?” “What would you like to be doing?” When Paul wrote that phrase, he wasn’t trying to frighten the Thessalonians. He wasn’t trying to scare the hell out of them; rather, he was trying to encourage the heaven in them. You see, Paul’s theology had shifted dramatically from laws and orders and scare-tactics to love and grace. His words were simply encouragement to do what they knew to be Christ’s calling. The letter, after all, seems to have been intended to be pastoral in nature. And the importance here for Paul was not so much knowing the time of Jesus’ return as it was understanding Christ’s purpose for our lives. With his hymn in I Corinthians 13 being the touchstone of Pauline theology, this letter could be a pastor’s reminder that we were created by love for love. Therefore, the idea of Jesus’ coming, for those who really follow, won’t be scary at all. It will be great joy.
John Killinger, the great teacher of preachers, once told about having to walk past a cemetery each evening on the way to his girlfriend’s house, the girl who became his wife. He said it was scary on the way over, thinking about all those spooky things that take place around a graveyard. But he said, strangely enough, on the way home, when it was the darkest, he was not thinking about the cemetery; he was remembering his sweetheart. You see, love changes the world, quite literally. Today the words of Paul remind us that whatever the future may hold, our lives have a purpose in God’s love, and that is meant to be good news. In this time when our world seems to be coming apart, these words are to remind us of an ultimate reality.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Sitting beside my mother as a child in our church in Odessa, Texas, I remember hearing an old Fanny Crosby hymn, “Will Jesus Find us Watching?” If you were raised in the church, you may have memories of sermons, lessons, and hymns related to the idea of the “end-times” or the “second coming.” What part do those play in your spiritual life today?
How do you feel about Eugene Peterson’s idea mentioned above that the way we conceive of the future very much affects the way we live in the present? In prayer, seek an awareness of God’s creative, unfolding vision for our world. Are there ways in which you seek God’s guidance in your personal, daily choices, decisions and interactions with others?
How may we, even in this time apart, follow Paul’s admonition to encourage one another and build up each other?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Al Staggs’ “Reunion”
We will all arrive there someday.
We are ever moving closer
to that gathering of precious souls
whose lives left an indelible mark
upon our own lives and souls.
Our minds can no more imagine
the life to come than we could
imagine being born into this world.
Just as there was no intention
or effort on our part to be born,
we shall emerge in a new fashion
through no effort of our own.
We are much more than flesh and bone,
for these are merely the manifestations
of something far, far greater than
what is now visible to the human eye.
We are also spirit, just as those
whose bodies we laid to rest are spirit.
We will, we must all meet again
For that longed-for reunion
in another realm, another time.
Saturday, May 23rd
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
–I Corinthians 13
Taking a Mediterranean Vacation with St. Paul as a Guide
I suspect most of us have more than a mild case of “cabin fever” by now, and how we would like to get out and travel! Of course, planes, trains, ships and buses aren’t considered the safest of ways to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. With that noted, please join me as we accompany Paul in his letters to those early Christian churches. I won’t get into the debate as to which New Testament letters scholars believe that Paul actually wrote. If you are interested in that conversation, please avail yourself of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s excellent book, The First Paul. We’ll just be doing an excursionary trip, touching on the main attractions and issues about which Paul was writing. In some ways, I hope to be like a docent in a museum, pointing out things I hope will interest and inform you.
As we begin, let’s get to know our tour guide, Paul, a most iconoclastic human being. Rather than trying to draft a definitive biographical sketch, let me simply suggest several things that I think give us insights into this complex person.:
(1) Paul was a cosmopolitan individual. He was from Tarsus, a city in modern-day Turkey, located about twelve miles from the Mediterranean seacoast and the site of one of the most famous universities in the world. As William Barclay has noted, “Perhaps it was not just as famous in the academic life as the ancient universities of Athens and Alexandria, but the scholars of Tarsus were famous for one thing – a burning and even passionate enthusiasm for learning.” Paul would have been trained in Greek philosophy and rhetoric, and was fluent in various languages. He hailed from a prestigious Jewish family, one who had attained Roman citizenship, not an easy thing to have in those days.
(2) Paul was unequivocally Jewish. The fact that he was sent to Jerusalem to study under the famous rabbi Gamaliel is a telling sign. And Paul was quite proud of that fact, boasting of it in his letter to the Galatians as “being blameless under the law.” (By law, he was referring to the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures.) Ironically enough, his teacher, Gamaliel, a grandson of the legendary progressive rabbi, Hillel, was also quite open-minded. As the leader of the Sanhedrin, it was Gamaliel who cautioned the fanatical Jews, who wanted to prosecute the Christians, to be patient and let God be God. I use the term “ironic”, because while Paul may have sat at Gamaliel’s feet in learning the technicalities of the law, he was his polar opposite in implementing it, even to the extent of persecuting the Christians.
(3) Related to Paul’s Judaism is the fact that his experience on the Damascus Road has been considered by Krister Stendahl and others not so much a conversion as a calling, similar to the experience of the call of Ezekiel. In this way of thinking, Paul, who never disavowed his Judaism, saw himself as part of the prophetic lineage of God, given meaning and direction from Jesus the Christ, whom Paul saw as the fullest expression of Judaism.
(4) Paul was a mystic. Albert Schweitzer and others have noted that Paul had visionary encounters with Jesus. It was these mystical experiences that directed his theology. Mysticism has never been particularly easy for academia or religious institutions. But one might think of Paul this way – a curious combination of the secluded visionary, Julian of Norwich; American monk/social activist, Thomas Merton; and South African human-rights evangelist, Bishop Desmond Tutu.
(5) Paul integrates his mystical experiences with Jesus and his Jewish training during three years in Arabia (most likely the Nabatean capitol of Petras) where he conceptually developed this spiritual amalgamation of the theological “justification by faith,” and the spiritual being “in Christ Jesus.” His analytical mind was engaged in an intensely personal way.
Paul felt most profoundly to be “on call for God.” His ministry could be described in a phrase borrowed from Augustine’s Confession: “sine vi humana, sed verbo,” which is “Without human force but by the word of God.”
And so, with the person and heart of Paul in mind, on to Corinth…
Corinth was a city with an important position as a trading site, because it was located between two nearby ports. Biblical historians believe that Paul’s trade as a tentmaker would have been especially valuable in the city, given the needs of the many travelers passing through. Sailors also often lived onshore in tents while their ships were in dock. It is generally felt that Paul’s intermittent tentmaking work offered him some financial support, in addition to being a way to interact with people to share his gospel message.
Ancient Corinth had been a Greek city, but it had been defeated by the Romans in 146 B.C.E., at which time it was refounded as a Roman colony and exposed to new settlers and influences from elsewhere in the empire. This made it a very cosmopolitan place, with Greek culture, language, and religion being reshaped by Roman civilization. Latin then became the official language, and there was much diversity in religious life, with the worship of traditional Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, local heroes, and even Egyptian deities. Of course, from Jewish and Christian perspectives, this was idol worship. Paul visited Corinth at least three times, founded assemblies there, and wrote at least four letters to Christians in the city. The letter we know as 1st Corinthians is believed to have been composed by Paul in Ephesus around 54-55 C.E. in response to reports he had received from the church in Corinth.
I find today’s Scripture passage to be a most telling portrait of Paul. The words seem to me to be that remarkable combination of heart and head, of Paul’s own mystical spirituality and disciplined Jewish mind. While the words are often used at weddings, they are, I think, words of calling just as applicable for a baptism. As Scott Peck once noted: “Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional. The person who truly loves does so because of a decision to love….True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed. It is a committed, thoughtful decision….True love is an act of the will that often transcends ephemeral feelings of love…” This is the kind of love that Jesus lived and modeled, and one that Paul beautifully captured in his letter to the church at Corinth, a committed, thoughtful decision to love, no matter what, no matter how.
Michael Lindvall is the retired pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City. He is a gifted storyteller and writer. In one of his stories, he tells of a time in his own life when he was the minister of a small-town church in Minnesota. He titled the story, “Our Organist,” and tells about being a guest supply preacher for a little church in Carthage Lake, a town on the way down and out. The Carthage Lake church hadn’t had a minister of its own since 1939. But a handful of people held on and gathered one Sunday a month, at noon, for Sunday school and worship with whatever preacher they could convince to come to Carthage Lake. The clerk of the congregation, Lloyd Larson, told Michael that there were only eleven members, but they would all be there. And he promised an organist, who had been Carthage Lake’s organist for 60 years, Lloyd’s sister-in-law, Agnes Rigstad.
The Sunday of Michael’s guest appearance arrived, and Michael described the small white frame building, the large sentimental stained glass windows of Jesus the Good Shepherd, lamb in one arm, staff in the other, and Jesus praying alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, and two cars and a pick-up truck out front. There were eleven regular worshipers, scattered throughout the sanctuary, sitting in their customary pews, with one visitor, a young man. Lloyd explained that there was no bulletin, that the preacher should just announce the hymns.
Michael nodded to the organist, with her wig slightly askew, who responded with a broad smile. Worship began. Michael announced the opening hymn, number 204, “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.” Agnes smiled at him and played “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The eleven elderly members sang by memory. Only the young man used a hymnal. Before the sermon, Michael announced the next hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” He looked directly at Agnes, who smiled back and played “I Love to Tell the Story.” After the sermon, Michael walked over to the organ bench, bent down, and whispered, “Agnes, what are we going to sing?” She smiled and began to play “Just as I Am, without One Plea.” After worship, Agnes shook his hand but didn’t say a word. Lloyd sheepishly explained: “Forgot to tell you about Agnes. . . . You don’t need to tell us what the hymn is, only when. Agnes only knows those three hymns, so we always sing ’em.” “Good grief, Lloyd, you mean to tell me you’ve been singing the same three hymns for 60 years?” Lloyd was concentrating on the frayed sanctuary carpet. “We like those hymns well enough, and we know ’em by heart . . . . And she’s our organist. . . .”
Later, Michael met the young man, Neil Larson, Lloyd’s grandson, who explained, “Agnes is my late grandmother’s little sister, Lloyd’s wife’s baby sister. Agnes has never been quite right. She never says more than a few words. . . . But she learned to play those hymns in one week 60 years ago when the regular organist got sick. It was a moment of musical emergency. Anyway, she hasn’t been able to learn one since. Playing the organ this one Sunday a month means the world to her. Sometimes I think it’s mostly for her that they keep the church open. Aunt Agnes lives for the first Sunday of the month.”
I love that story, because it resonates with Paul’s words: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. . .” Those words and the ones that follow are radical pronunciations of the love called for in the Kingdom of Heaven, and its outpost here on earth – the church.
As Michael was talking with Lloyd’s grandson, the young man continued, “Yes, Aunt Agnes lives for this, and I think it is because of that that they keep the doors open once a month.” Then he went on, “They asked me to play, of course. They had to ask. But grandpa knew I’d say no. I remember how he sighed with relief when I said no. Then he slapped me on the back.” “You’re an organist?” Michael asked. “Eastman (School of Music) class of ’84. I’ve had some big church jobs, the last one down in Texas, big church . . . brand new organ, 102 ranks. Four services a Sunday. Then I got sick. I’ve been HIV positive for six years. The personnel committee of that church figured it out, the weight loss, all the sick days, not married. They told me it would be best if I moved on, but not till after Christmas, of course. My parents live in St. Paul, but my father and I haven’t spoken since I was 19. . . . I’m not sick enough to be in the hospital, just too tired most of the time. I really had nowhere to go. My grandfather said I could move in with him and Agnes. To tell the truth, I feel right at home in a town of 80-year-olds.”
He paused and went on, “They keep Agnes, and they took me in. And since I moved up here, most every night Lloyd or old man Engstrom from down the road opens up the church for me. If it’s cold, they lay a fire in the wood stove. And then I play the organ. It’s a sweet little instrument, believe it or not. Lloyd’s kept it up. These last few weeks it’s been almost warm in the evenings, so they leave the doors and windows of the church open and everybody sits out on their front porch and they listen to me play— Bach, Buxtehude, Widor, all the stuff I love. And they clap from their porches; even Agnes claps.”
And, from his heavenly porch, so does Paul.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Most of us remember a time when we have heard today’s verses read during wedding ceremonies. Can you think of other contexts where they would be just as profound? Thank God for the lessons in Paul’s words.
Consider some of your favorite travels. What is it about traveling that is appealing? How does it help you to understand the world?
Paul addressed this letter to a very diverse, globally-influenced community. Modern travel and technology have caused our own community to both benefit from and struggle with diversity. What about Paul’s spiritual journey might help us in sharing the gospel with today’s world?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road, 9”
Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires.
The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.
Allons! we must not stop here,
However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here,
However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here,
However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.
“The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is the people.” I learned this little verse as a child and taught it to my children, and, it seems, that it is truly valid today. The church is very present today although it manifests itself in a variety of ways.
To me the church is the aide in a nursing facility who comforts a woman when her family cannot; the anxious grocery checker who keeps coming to work in spite of fear; the singer who sets up a sound system and a stool, grabs his guitar and entertains the neighbors up and down his street every Friday night; the man who has worked at the Lysol factory for 30 years and now has a new sense of purpose in his desire to make others safer; it is the man who picks up his trumpet each night and plays Taps from his balcony to honor the providers and celebrate the dead.
Are these acts being done in Jesus’ name? I don’t know. But they are being done in Jesus’ way. Jesus was never a stickler for “organized religion,” but He was the ultimate proponent of shared kindness and love given freely to others.
So, to me, the church at Woodland is evident in every act of love, every silent or spoken prayer, every note or phone call, every time we give of ourselves to others not anticipating anything in return but knowing that being a part of the love of Jesus in the world today is not only a very good thing; it may be the only thing.