Month: December 2019

Jeremiah

We know Jeremiah through his scribe Baruch, beginning in 626 BC, during the reign (640-609) of Judah’s King Josiah. Jeremiah was part of Josiah’s reform, launched after a scroll was found in 621 during a Temple renovation. Jeremiah engaged King Zedekiah as Judah fell to Babylon (586). When many were exiled to Babylon, Jeremiah’s friends took him against his will to Egypt, where he wrote a letter of encouragement to the Babylonian exiles. He died in Egypt sometime before the exile ended in 538 BC.

Jeremiah’s example is relevant today during this period of polarized news media and polarized political loyalties. Jeremiah’s loyalty was not to king or party, but to the Law of Moses. His support for a king depended on whether the king was faithful to that Law. His honest feedback to King Zedekiah landed him in jail. When Babylon’s conquest of Judah caused some to doubt God, Jeremiah said their defeat was the responsibility of the king, the priests and the people–not God. He was confident God would restore Judah.

In recent weeks I’ve heard, “I’ll never vote for a democrat. They’re socialists.” I’ve heard, “I’ll never vote for a republican. They’re fascists.” The biblical prophetic tradition warns against blind loyalty to a leader or to a party. As we enter the year 2020, Jeremiah has never been more timely–or more needed.

Tomorrow: Ezekiel.

Amos

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(Amos 5.23-24)

Amos is the best example of a biblical prophet speaking to religious leaders. Jesus continued this tradition. Jesus’ harshest criticisms were directed toward the religious leaders of his day. I lived with this awareness during my active duty years and it remains part of my consciousness.

Amos, a shepherd and grower of sycamore trees from Judah, traveled north to Israel to challenge injustices by King Jeroboam II (786-746 BC). He was an “outside agitator.” At the king’s residence he met the priest Amaziah, whose job partly was to keep troublemakers from getting in the king’s presence.

The Civil Rights movement was made possible by the biblical prophetic tradition. The African-American church understood the biblical prophets because often prophets like Amos spoke for those without voice.

Bryan Stephenson, a prophetic voice in Alabama, is Executive Director of Montgomery’s Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy, upon which the upcoming movie is based. A Margaret Hoover Firing Line interview with Bryan was aired on Friday, December 27th.

“Who do You Think You Are?”
Francis X. Clooney, Harvard University

Tomorrow: Jeremiah.

Elijah

Elijah’s place in Judaism and Christianity is large relative to the biblical stories about him. After the united monarchy (1020-922 BC), Israel (northern kingdom) and Judah (southern kingdom) parted ways. Elijah was a prophet in Israel in the time of King Ahab, around 870-850 BC.

The Elijah stories revolve around his conflicts with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel over idolatry and injustice. For example, Elijah confronted the king for unjustly seizing Naboth’s vineyard. No one, including the king, is exempt from the law of Moses. No one is above the law.

The prophets could be strong supporters or scathing opponents of a king. Elijah would have disagreed with the later European political doctrine of the divine right of kings. The American Revolution was a catalyst that “deprived the doctrine of most of its remaining credibility.”

Today, a leader may not use “divine right” language directly, but rather assume a patriotic mantle to dismiss an opponent as a “communist,” an “outside agitator,” an “enemy of the people,” a “traitor,” or a “troublemaker.” Elijah’s courageous, eloquent response to Ahab expressed the essence of the biblical prophetic tradition:

When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”  He answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.”

Elijah hiding in a cave at Mt. Sinai (1 Kings 19.11-13)
Saints, Feast, Family

Tomorrow: Amos.

Nathan

The people of Israel wanted a king “like the other nations.” They soon discovered a principle later expressed by John Acton (1834-1902) in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

With typical Jewish irony, the Bible begins the story of King David’s plot to kill his soldier Uriah by saying respectable kings lead their troops into battle, but King David lounged on the roof of his house while his army fought the Ammonites. Nathan, the king’s trusted prophet, confronted David about taking Uriah’s wife and having him killed. Psalm 51 is David’s response to the prophet Nathan’s rebuke.

Leaders need prophets. Nations need prophets. They provide timely truth that may disturb or anger a leader or a people. Wise leaders listen to dissenting voices that have integrity. Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet was a team of rivals. Nathan is the classic example of a prophet who was an “insider,” a trusted advisor to King David who spoke truth to power.

States need prophets, too. Auburn historian Wayne Flynt, one of Alabama’s more prophetic voices, applied John Acton’s famous quote in a New York Times article: “Alabama has had a seamless transition from Democratic one-party rule and synonymous corruption to Republican one-party rule and synonymous corruption.”

Wayne Flynt has been called the “Conscience of Alabama”

Tomorrow: Elijah.

Samuel

Broadly defined, the biblical word “prophet” is someone who speaks for God, more forth-teller than fore-teller, as in: “If you continue on your current path, this is what will happen.”

Samuel was a “judge,” a grassroots leader the Israelites believed to be chosen by God. Samuel hoped one of his sons would be Israel’s next judge, but the people saw his sons as unfit. They wanted a king, like other nations. Samuel resisted, then relented, and anointed first Saul, then David as king.

Samuel saw danger in monarchy. “Kings will raise your taxes, draft your children, and lead you into war.” In his second effort to secure a king for Israel, Samuel looked to the heart rather than to outward appearance. David, far from perfect, led the tribes of Israel into a “united monarchy.”

Samuel was the last of the judges and the first of the prophets (as that special role would be defined). He anointed Saul, then David with olive oil, a symbol of God’s spirit, blessing the king and the people. Samuel both encouraged and admonished the kings, which inspired later prophets to confront a king’s unjust use of power.

The U.S. Constitution provides “checks and balances” via separation of powers to curtail arbitrary, autocratic rule. No one is “above the law.” This was a relatively new idea in 1787, but its roots are in ancient Israel, beginning with the struggles of the people, the judge/prophet Samuel, and Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David.

Tomorrow: Nathan.

Then Samuel took a small container of olive oil and poured it on Saul’s head. Samuel kissed him and said, “The Lord has chosen you to lead his people Israel! You will rule over the Lord’s people and you will deliver them from the power of the enemies who surround them. This will be your sign that the Lord has chosen you as leader over his inheritance.” (1 Samuel 10.1) Woodcut engraving after a drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (German painter, 1794 – 1872), published in 1877. My Jewish Learning

The prophetic tradition

In a sermon, the rector of the St. John’s Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square from the White House expressed opposition to the U.S. war effort in Iraq being led by President George H.W. Bush, who sat in the congregation. After worship, when asked by reporters for a response, President Bush said (according to my memory), “He did his job and I do mine.” This is how a mature leader responds to criticism.

Mr. Bush was deeply involved in the Christian faith his entire life. He understood the biblical prophetic tradition which includes “speaking truth to power.” He was neither intimidated nor swayed by his rector’s sermon nor by his Episcopal bishop’s visit to the White House to oppose military action. But he respected these leaders and remained a faithful member of their faith community.

President Donald Trump offered a very different response to criticism from a conservative, evangelical magazine. Christianity Today rarely speaks on political issues. One exception was their 1998 support for the impeachment and removal from office of President Bill Clinton. The magazine now supports Donald Trump’s impeachment and removal from office.

President Trump lashed out at Christianity Today’s editors, inaccurately describing them in a tweet as a “far left magazine.” This was reminiscent of his accusations that his critics in the news media are “the enemy of the people.”

Mr. Trump’s apparent misunderstanding of the biblical prophetic tradition is ironic since the most articulate interpreter of this tradition in our time is Walter Brueggemann, a fellow Presbyterian. In coming posts, I’ll explore some biblical prophets and their relevance for our current national crisis.

Tomorrow: Samuel.

“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”
― Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination

Christmas

In a sermon in Constantinople on December 25, 380, Gregory of Nazianzus (330-389) referred to the day as “the feast of God’s Appearing” and “the Nativity” because “he has been born.” A few years later, likely 386, John Chrysostom (349-407) mentioned “the most solemn and awe-inspiring of all feasts” that was upcoming on December 25.

Christmas was relatively new. Most of the earliest church leaders believed the end of the world was near, Roman persecution was common, and followers of Jesus could be distracted by many religions, some of which made raucous celebrations of the birthdays of emperors, founders of religions, etc. So, at first there was no interest, and even opposition, to putting a day on the calendar to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

By the 380s, that was changing. The western church (centered in Rome) adapted winter solstice celebrations by making December 25 an annual observance of Jesus’ birth. The eastern church (centered in Constantinople) emphasized the manifestation of Christ to the world on January 6 (Epiphany). Both days are now important celebrations, with Epiphany following the “twelve days of Christmas.”

Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) brought a new “earthiness” to Christmas with a focus on the manger and the poverty and simplicity of Jesus’ birth. In part of the 1600s, Christmas was banned in Puritan England and Massachusetts. The 1843 publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) prompted a new wave of interest in Christmas.

Wood in biblical times was rare. Stone was plentiful. A typical manger was hewn of stone and could contain water or food. A dry, warm stone manger would feel cozy to an infant.

Bethlehem

Certain locations on earth seem to have the capacity to connect earth and heaven and are known as “thin places,” where the veil between life and life beyond death seems to be thinner.

The concept of “thin places” leads me, and I believe most Christians, to Bethlehem. The “little town” is etched into our consciousness via Luke 2.1-20, Christmas carols and Christmas cards and serves as a geographic reminder of the “primary and compelling message of Christianity,” the Incarnation, which Richard Rohr calls “the synthesis of matter and spirit.”

That’s a pretty heavy responsibility for one little town, where “the word became flesh and lived among us … full of grace and truth.” The good news for Bethlehem and for all of us is that it is not merely a pilgrim destination or an iconic holy place. Bethlehem, representing the mystery of Christmas Eve, points to a larger reality: All that is Holy is available to us right where we are, right nowand in every place and every moment.

O Holy Night, by the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra with Kristin Chenoweth,
at Temple Square, from PBS

Newgrange

It was cloudy at Newgrange for sunrise on Saturday. Thirty thousand people applied for a lottery ticket to see the sun’s rays illuminate a small chamber inside an ancient earthen mound. The event takes place over several days around the winter solstice, but each year one day is chosen for a national celebration. It was Saturday.

Newgrange is 41 minutes north of Dublin, Ireland. The passage tomb mound was built around 3200 BC, which was 600 years before the Giza pyramids in Egypt and 1,000 or more years before Abraham. It was designed so that the sunrise on the shortest day of the year fills the inner chamber with light via a tunnel.

Ancient, pre-biblical people knew the sun’s light and heat are essential for life. They learned to celebrate the annual “bottoming out” of the sun in the northern hemisphere on what we today call the winter solstice.

December 25th was chosen as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus because it gave new meaning to what was already an important festival in pre-Christian northern Europe.

Newgrange at Winter Solstice–without clouds
Knowth.com

A novel by Scott Peck

Scott Peck (1936-2005) wrote a novel in 1996 entitled In Heaven as on Earth: A Vision of the Afterlife. My friend Joe Elmore introduced me to this book that I believe is out of print, but still available from used book vendors. The above link provides a brief introduction, so I’ll just offer a quote from page 26. Daniel, the deceased, has no eyes but can see, no hands but can feel, etc. Norma and Sam, two “Greeters,” are there “to help newcomers with the Adjustment.”

Sam said, “The governing law of the afterlife is … the Principle of Freedom. There is absolutely nothing … coercive here. … Some choose … hell, some purgatory and some heaven.” Daniel explores all three. Heaven was a glorious reunion. Hell was a trash can in the hallway, full of free souls who were afraid to leave. Purgatory gave me some new insights since it was never part of my Protestant universe. Sam describes it as “a gentle place. A healing place if you want to be healed.”

The novel ends with Daniel beginning his “apprenticeship,” teamed with two international leaders in the skills he honed on earth. He had never felt more welcomed and more excited. His earthly opus would continue in heaven as part of God’s larger opus of perfecting Creation.

Image from thinplaces.net
For more about “thin places,” see First Things, by Timothy George