December 15, 2017

Seeing God at Work

Note from CM: This is an adaptation of a funeral sermon I gave this week. The theme was designed to represent both the character of the deceased and those who cared for her in her final season of life. I commended them as people who consistently displayed down-to-earth, practical, faithful, and genuine love.

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No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. (1John 4:18)

One of my great privileges as a hospice chaplain is to see God at work every day. I realize that sounds like an audacious claim, but let me explain.

How do we see God working in our lives? People try to answer that in many ways. Some focus on extraordinary spiritual experiences. Some talk about having dreams and visions and hearing God’s voice. Others suggest that they witness miracles or occurrences that cannot be explained in any other way than that God is present and working.

But I see God working in much more ordinary and down-to-earth ways. Listen to this verse from scripture: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” The Apostle John tells us here that a primary way of recognizing God’s presence and active involvement in our lives is to see him in the true and genuine love people share with one another.

Another apostle, Paul, describes what this love looks like:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:9-21)

This passage reminds us that genuine love is not some lofty ideal, concept, or disembodied virtue. It is as down to earth as the basin, water, and towel by which Jesus knelt down on his knees, took his disciples’ dirty feet in his hands, and washed them. It is something you can feel in a family member’s touch. It is something you can hear in words of reassurance from a friend. You can see it in the tireless and often thankless work of a caregiver. When someone brings a meal, or helps out with a financial need, or gives a worn out family member some respite, what you are seeing is love. When we exercise patience with those who irritate us, when we show kindness to those who wish us ill, when we show faithfulness over a long period of time to those who count on us, that is love.

No one has seen God at any time, but when you see things like that, you are seeing God at work.

Love is practical. Love is hands-on, face-to-face, heart-to-heart, human caring. It is being with someone and staying with them in such a way that they receive benefit and encouragement. It is not always easy. It may well mean taking on difficult, mundane, or distasteful tasks. It can make you cry sometimes. You may feel doubts, discouragements, frustrations, and encounter fears and anxieties. Sometimes emergencies come up in the middle of the night or at other inconvenient times, causing you to lose sleep and get tired and grumpy. You might find yourself exchanging angry words with those around you or even feeling bitter and put upon. Love involves patience, forbearance, saying “I’m sorry,” and extending forgiveness.

Love is as down-to-earth as it gets. It is completely ordinary, and yet, what could be more extra-ordinary than love like this? After all, according to the Apostle John, this is the best vision of God at work that we are ever going to see in this world — “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

This is the love I witness every day as a hospice chaplain, as caregivers show love to family members and friends at the end of life. I often see it in the patients themselves, as they graciously allow others to serve them and then respond to them with words and expressions of gratitude. I see it in my team members, who travel all around our city to visit people in homes, extended care facilities, and hospitals. I can only pray that people will see it in me as I seek to engage others in pastoral friendship.

As author Frederick Buechner once reminded us, this world is both a beautiful and a terrible place. We all try to navigate our way through it the best we can, hoping for as much of the “beautiful” and as little of the “terrible” as possible.

I was recently watching a travel show about the Alps and it showed a guide leading some folks up a mountain to a little inn that had been built at a high elevation with spectacular views. To get there, they had to walk on frighteningly narrow little paths. It looked to this observer like one wrong step could mean certain death. The one who built the path recognized how treacherous it would be, so he attached cables to the side of the mountain that hikers could grasp for support as they carefully ascended. As the guide took his guests up the mountain, he had them hang on to those cables as he led the way. In that beautiful yet terrifying setting, the path maker had provided something that made travelers feel safer, more secure, and hopeful about reaching the top without incident. And, there was someone to walk the dangerous path with them.

That is love. And this is what we all need on our journey. This kind of love enables us to see the beauty while minimizing the terror in this life. And this is the kind of love that enables us to lift our heads and see that a loving God is with us, walking beside us and working on our behalf.

Merton on Advent: Christ in our world as it is


Note from CM: This past Sunday was recognized in many Anglican churches as the Feast of Thomas Merton. Today we present an excerpt from something he wrote about the season of Advent.

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Merton on Advent
Christ in our world as it is

St Gregory the Great said that all Christians should continue the prophetic mission of John and point out the presence of Christ in the world. This may mean many different things. John was able to point out Christ at the Jordan, in a moment of fulfillment, which gave meaning to his whole life. But John also had to witness to Christ in prison, in face of death, in failure, when even the meaning of his other glorious moment seemed to have been cancelled out.

So too, we may at times be able to show the world Christ in moments when all can clearly discern in history, some confirmation of the Christian message. But the fact remains that our task is to seek and find Christ in our world as it is, and not as it might be. The fact that the world is other than it might be does not alter the truth that Christ is present in it and that His plan has been neither frustrated nor changed: indeed, all will be done according to His will. Our Advent is the celebration of this hope. What is uncertain is not the “coming” of Christ but our own reception of Him, our own response to Him, our own readiness and capacity to “go forth to meet Him.” We must be willing to see Him and acclaim Him, as John did, even at the very moment when our whole life’s work and all its meaning seem to collapse. Indeed, more formidable still, the Church herself may perhaps be called upon some day to point out the Victorious Redeemer and King of Ages amid the collapse of all that has been laboriously built up by the devotion of centuries and cultures that sincerely intended to be Christian.

• Merton, Thomas. Seasons of Celebration (pp. 90-91)

Pete Enns: Christmas in “Christian America” and the Old Testament

Peasant Life. Chagall

Note from CM: Now here is an eye-opening post. I guarantee you that the thoughts Pete Enns shares here will not have crossed the minds of many evangelical Christians or to Christians of other brands who emphasize strict observance and piety. In my view it serves as is yet another example of how separated the religious can be from the realities of ordinary life and how little most of us understand about the people in the Bible and what their actual experience was.

His words also confirm to me what I see every day now as I work in the community rather than within the walls of a church. Generally speaking, many of the people I meet who don’t call themselves religious may have more faith and spiritual sense than those who do. And those in the church are often just as bound by superstitious and “worldly” thinking as their neighbors are.

There is something wonderfully human about what Pete writes here, and something that reinforces to me that we’re all in this together. I’m reminded of Bonhoeffer’s words, which reflect my own experience: “I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, “in brotherhood.”

• • •

Christmas in “Christian America” and the Old Testament
By Pete Enns

Here comes a rant.

Christmas in America is a national holiday, woven securely in a secular liturgical year, with little authentic religious significance for many/most of those who celebrate it.

It’s commercialized nonsense, a vehicle for reaching quarterly profit margins. Christmas means malls, Lexus “December to Remember” commercials, and some very dumb Christmas specials.

OK, rant over. We all know this, and pointing it out is as insightful as saying that network television has too many commercials and toilets flush counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere (or do they?—click here).

My point here isn’t to take aim at the easy target of the secularization of Christmas, but to draw an analogy between Christmas in America and what we read about Israelites in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament is, to state the obvious, religious literature. But we tend to assume that the ancient Israelites were as aware as we are of what we read. They weren’t.

There was no “Bible” through most of Israel’s ancient history—what we call the Old Testament did not begin to take form until after the return from Babylonian exile (that is, beginning in the 5th c. BCE) and was still somewhat in flux in the days of Jesus and Paul. And whatever writings were floating around in the days of Israel’s kings (roughly 1000-600 BCE) were the stuff of trained scribes, not Shlomo and Miriam Israelite farmers and sheepherders. People weren’t running around “reading their Bibles” as we think of it today. 

I imagine that the ancient Israelites celebrated their rituals—festivals, sacrifices, regular times of worship—with the same lack of awareness for their deep religious significance as most American’s celebrate Christmas. Perhaps, like popular American culture, they sort of just went along with the momentum of their vaguely sacred holidays adapted to cultural norms of the day—if they observed them at all.

If we could walk through ancient Israelite towns sometime between 1000 and 600 BCE (when Israel was a nation with kings and a Temple with religious rituals), would we see an idyllic scene of common every-day Israelites owning the full religious significance of their holidays and rituals?

Or would we see more or less what we see today as we walk through Walmart or Times Square—masses of Americans for whom vaguely ancient religious symbols have been reframed by the dominant culture and reinvested with meaning?

This is why biblical scholars and historians make a distinction between the Old Testament and “Israelite religion.”

The Old Testament is the official record of the literate religious leaders, written not as a straight record of historical events (as if there is such a thing), but as stories, interpretations of the past to prescribe what the people should believe and do in the present—namely in the exilic and post-exilic periods. (I just said a mouthful, but this isn’t in the slightest bit controversial for most. I give this a lot of space in The Bible Tells Me So.)

Scholars of “Israelite religion” engage the Bible, to be sure, but also archaeological evidence that shows us what people on the ground actually did do.

One example is the constant Old Testament refrain in 1 and 2 Kings about the proper worship of God:

  1. Yahweh and Yahweh alone is to be worshiped,
  2. and that happens only in the Temple in Jerusalem,
  3. with no images of any kind.

Readers today might assume that these injunctions were more or less commonly known at the time, and so we read the biblical stories about the failure to worship God properly as stories of out and out rebellion—“Geez Louise, Israelites, when in the world are you going to learn to obey God?! How many times do you have to be told?!”

But it may be that your average Israelite had no real conception of how God is “supposed” to be worshiped. Or they had an idea, but, like a lot of American’s singing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” or “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” they effortlessly and unknowingly mix together some vague awareness of what it all “really” means and just going with the cultural flow.

Again, think of what is generally considered to be a fairly “normal” celebration of Christmas in American culture. You buy toys, slippers, and toasters online, wrap them and put them under a tree, and settle in to watch He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special or A Year without a Santa ClausMaybe go to church and sing “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

There. We did Christmas.

I don’t see my neighbors or the local butcher as rebelling against anything. They’re just doing what they know, flowing along on the cultural currents. They might not know very much if anything about what Christmas “really” means.

They’re just being Americans, born into a culture where, if you’re not Jewish or Muslim, you just “celebrate Christmas like everyone else,” along with your own private family traditions if applicable. And that’s that.

The Old Testament normalizes and centralizes worship practices, which the masses are supposed to follow. Imagine if the federal government tried to impose strict rules on how to celebrate Christmas (beyond making it a bank holiday). We would find a new definition of “chaos.”

Ancient Israel’s actual worship of God may have been more like that of “Christian America” at Christmas than a hyper-alert and knowledgable practicing Christian community today.

Fertility figurines from Judah (1000-700 BCE)

This may help illustrate the point. Archaeologists have uncovered ample evidence that ancient Israelites during the monarchic period (1000 to 600 BCE) engaged in the worship of a fertility goddess like that of their Canaanite neighbors and pretty much every other ancient people of the region. Scads of clay figurines, like the ones you see here, have been found that were the personal property of your average Israelite.

This would not have been seen by them as a rejection of Yahweh in favor of another, but the merging of the worship of their God Yahweh with what “everybody else did.”

Israelites worshiped other deities, in the form of images, in the home. The very opposite of the biblical injunctions.

As I said, the Bible routinely condemns this sort of thing, like commanding that the “Asherah” poles (symbols of fertility) be cut down. That seems straightforward enough: the Bible says that worshiping the fertility goddess is wrong, everyone knows it, so stop it!

But think about it from a different angle. Why do we read on page after page in the Old Testament the condemnation of such worship practices on the part of the Israelites? Why the felt need on the part of the biblical writers to make such a huge point of ridding the land of idols and false places of worship (“high places”)?

Because it was so popular, so common. Everyone was doing it.

The fact that the biblical writers protested so much against false worship probably tells us not so much how “rebellious” the Israelites were against clearly understood commands, but that the ancient Israelites were as detached from their official religion as are many/most Americans from official Christianity.

The celebration of Christmas in America today may give us a pretty good idea of what Israelite life was like, religiously speaking, during the time of the kings. The biblical stories of the past, in that respect, are more like sermons to catechize and motivate the Israelites rather than objective accounts of the past.

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