Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ask for More

Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, “Remember, LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. (2 Kings 20:2-3)

Contemporary Instability

Tomorrow marks the first day of Advent, for many (me included), the richest season of all. The high spirits and sentimentality associated with “the holidays” get rechanneled into a sacred journey when we explore anew the beauty and power of God’s promises. We hear Isaiah, Advent's über-prophet, declare future peace and redemption will come in the person of a Savior Who will establish a New Order that transcends politics and ambitions. And we rejoice as we look ahead 800 years to see the promise fulfilled in a tiny Infant born in a barn to humble, trusting young parents. Yet modern esteem for Isaiah as the dean of Messianic prophecy would probably surprise him. It might also rankle him by overlooking the diligence with which he honors his primary duty to address contemporary instability.

All told, Isaiah serves five monarchs in a career spanning as many decades. His years as God’s spokesperson in the Jewish province of Judah aren’t the best of times. Like many areas today—the Middle East, Afghanistan, Sudan, Congo, the Korean peninsula, and the US—ideological strife divides the region. Assyria’s recent ascendance forges an alliance between its bordering nations, Israel and Syria. Given Judah’s ethnic and religious ties to Israel, they assume it will join their coalition. When King Ahaz remains neutral, Israeli-Syrian forces invade Judah, leading to his appeal to Assyria for protection. The Assyrians rout the invaders—taking many Israeli Jews captive—and effectively turn Judah into a satellite state with Ahaz as its puppet king. For the rest of his reign, Judean culture undergoes radical transformation. It integrates Assyrian customs into daily life and expands its religious practices to include Assyrian gods. Towers and monuments to pagan deities dot the land.

Pleading with God

It appalls Isaiah that Judeans observe Jewish traditions out of obligation, while shoring their hopes of political security in pagan pursuits. Before his prophecy offers hope in a Messiah, it seethes with rage at Judah's waywardness. God’s first words indicate how out-of-control things are: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel [i.e., the Jewish kingdom at large] does not know, my people do not understand. Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption!” (Isaiah 1.2-4)

Ahaz’s successor, Hezekiah, gets it. He sets aside political expediency to lead a back-to-God movement, defiantly tearing down the pagan structures. The Assyrian king responds with a threatening letter of intent to destroy Judah and ridicule its God. Hezekiah spreads the letter on the altar and prays, “Now, LORD our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, LORD, are God.” (2 Kings 19.19) Overnight, 185,000 enemy troops mysteriously die in their sleep, proving God’s might and replacing Judah’s false sense of security with true stability. Soon after, Hezekiah falls sick. Isaiah tells him: “Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.” (2 Kings 20.1) The king can’t fathom why God should end his life and reign prematurely. He turns to the wall and sobs, pleading with God, “Remember, LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully.” New word comes from Isaiah. His life will be extended 15 years. Hezekiah survives to rule a stable nation.

Honest with God

Beyond Isaiah’s involvement, what does this saga have to do with the Messianic prophecies we celebrate this season? Quite a lot, it turns out. The Advent connection surfaces first in teaching us God’s promises of redemption and deliverance are born in times of oppressive struggle and insecurity. During these unstable periods, the cultural and political challenges of remaining true to God’s principles may seem insurmountable and imprudent. Yet each of us possesses capacity to become a modern Hezekiah—to resist corruption, to place threats and ridicule on the altar, to trust God’s Word, even to question it when what we’re told God says doesn’t seem just or deserved. When we turn our eyes from people and politics (including the politics of religion), we can be honest with God about our disappointments and doubts. Hezekiah’s honesty about his grief and confusion moves God. Weeping bitterly, he turns to the wall, refusing to countenance the notion what he’s told is all there is. He’s so convinced of God’s faith in him he’s unafraid to ask for more.

Hezekiah weeps for more time. What do we weep for? More love? More acceptance and understanding? More recognition of our gifts and potential? More stability? More peace of mind? More faith to believe? As a new Advent commences, let’s engage it with fuller understanding of its promises. Christ comes to dwell among us not only to make possible our faith in God, but also to restore God’s faith in us. Because we trust God, God trusts us. We honor God’s will with our faithfulness, striving to please God in all we do. But, likewise, we honor God’s trust with our honesty. When what we’re told falls short of what we know is true about God’s love and grace, we have every reason to ask for more.

Because we trust God, God trusts us. We honor that trust with honesty, never being afraid to ask questions, never feeling ashamed to ask for more.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving in Song

From them will come songs of thanksgiving and the sounds of rejoicing. I will add to their numbers, and they will not be decreased; I will bring them honor, and they will not be disdained. (Jeremiah 30.19)

A Virtual Concert

This time of year always sparks nostalgia for my days as a church music minister. Wherever I served, holidays always occasioned special services set aside for song. I loved those times for giving me the chance to build concerts that reflected a wide variety of styles and takes on a common theme. So, on this eve of American Thanksgiving, I’m breaking away from written word to make room for a “virtual” concert, offering my gratitude for God, God’s work, God’s goodness expressed in you, and God’s blessing on this place. Most of all, I’m thankful for promises like Jeremiah 30.19. Our God is faithful.

I pray something here speaks to your spirit and brightens your soul.

“For the Beauty of the Earth”

“Thank You, Lord”

“I Will Give Thanks Unto Thee”

(My all-time favorite Thanksgiving anthem!)

“Forever Grateful”

“I’m So Thankful”


“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

“My Tribute (To God Be the Glory)”

(Note: The song ends at 4.00.)

With deepest gratitude for each of you. What great gifts you are to me! Have a blessed Thanksgiving and joyous holiday season! Much love, Tim.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

We Will Reap

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6.9-10)

Our Capacity for Thankfulness

Before everything goes red and green, with tinsel and lights draped stem to stern, we in America pause in gratitude for our blessings. The bountiful goodness we’re accustomed to is, well, less bountiful. Many will bemoan reduced means and no doubt table talk will flare with political swipes at one side or the other. But, on the whole, we can’t deny we’re truly blessed. While we enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, over a million Haitians in tents will eat what they’ve been able to obtain, as will hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis displaced by floods and Sudanese refugees fleeing ethnic violence in Darfur. This Thursday—indeed, every day—it’s essential we remain mindful as tough as things have got, they’re not so tough compared to hardships abroad.

Still, it stretches us to abstain from grumbling about tough times, having led unduly prosperous, relatively easy lives. Convenience and wealth not only have made it difficult to be satisfied; they’ve greatly diminished our capacity for thankfulness. In the US, as well as Canada and other countries that observe a national day of thanksgiving, the holiday is framed as a harvest feast symbolized by a horn of plenty overflowing with vegetables. Yet in this age of corporate-run, industrialized farming, “harvest” is an abstract concept that diminishes our ability to be grateful for food that sustains us. We invest none of the toil and attention required to produce healthy crops. We don’t fight pests that destroy months of labor overnight. Droughts and floods, heat waves and early frosts don’t threaten our livelihoods or survival. Though we intellectually recognize what goes into reaping a harvest, we have little if any practical experience of the exertion and uncertainty attached to it. This limited ability to appreciate what we’ve been given applies to most everything we own—our clothing, our goods, the homes we live in, and the cars we drive. Though we work hard to acquire these things, very, very few of us work hard to make them. As a consequence, our “harvest feast” loses significance it once held. While we’re grateful we can afford what we have, earlier generations were thankful to have anything at all.

Keep Working, Always Trusting

Modern removal from agrarian culture also deprives us from the full impact of the Bible’s farm metaphors. We hear Christ’s parables or psalmists' poems about sowing, cultivating, and harvesting without fully absorbing the care, diligence, strength, and patience they demand. Our comfort with convenience invites us to reduce them to the equivalent of “Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat.” You plant. You water. You harvest. We get it. But we get far less from the Bible’s farming allusions than pre-modern readers—country and town dwellers alike—who were keenly aware of the growing process. They knew “in season” meant waiting to harvest fruits and grains at the proper time. They realized untimely drought or excessive rain could delay availability of certain kinds of produce by a year or more. They learned to make do until the due season finally arrived. We miss this aspect of the metaphors—the fragile interplay of time and uncontrollable conditions that require us to wait longer than we like to reap harvests of seed we sow. When we can buy fresh-picked apples in February and strawberries in December, it’s a challenge to relate to metaphors that implicitly tell us to keep working, always trusting our labor will reap rewards when the time comes.

That’s Paul’s message to the Galatians, a Celtic tribe in central Asia Minor. Based on what we gather from the text, a group of Jewish converts, known as “Judaizers,” have joined their ranks. They believe all Christians—including former pagans like the Galatians—must obey Mosaic Law. This doctrine contradicts Paul’s teaching of salvation for all through grace for all. The letter rings with urgency to hold fast to the true Gospel, cherish freedom in Christ, and remain united in compassion for one another. Having been enamored with legalism, Paul knows the Judaizers will be stubborn; the problem isn’t going away any time soon. So, as he wraps up, he reaches for a farm metaphor: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galatians 6.9-10) We read this as a “hang-in-there” message. But the Galatians catch subtleties we miss. They hear, “You’re in the midst of a process. Keep working, always trusting your labor will reap rewards when the time comes.”

While We Wait

Our harvest table—any holiday table—spreads before us tangible reminders each of us is in the midst of a process. The good seeds God planted in us are growing. Becoming impatient while our harvest ripens only frustrates us further. Becoming weary with cultivating God’s goodness in our lives only reduces blessings we’ll reap “at the proper time… if we do not give up.” Our harvest is affected by time and factors beyond our control. While we wait, we make use of the delay and conditions by seizing opportunities to do good to all people. In light of the Galatians’ crisis, we find added piquancy in Paul’s stressing “especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” He’s telling his readers (and us) not to exclude the excluders among us. “All” means all, even those who malign and reject us as unfit for God’s calling and unworthy of His grace.

Prior to encouraging the Galatians to keep working, he introduces the harvest idea with a shocker. “Do not be deceived,” he writes in verse 7. “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” What we think and do while our harvest ripens most assuredly impacts what we reap. Wasting time and opportunity we have to sow goodness into others’ lives will decrease our harvest and may even delay it. In the midst of our process, we refuse to get weary. We don’t give up. We keep working, always trusting our labor will reap rewards when the time comes.

Our table spreads before us tangible reminders we are in the midst of a process. We will reap its rewards when the proper time comes.

Postscript: Let Us Not Be Weary

Over 25 years ago—so long ago, it feels like another lifetime—I played keyboards with one of the nation’s leading black gospel groups, Pentecostal Community Choir. One of our most popular songs was “Let Us Not Be Weary,” drawn from the KJV translation of Galatians 6.9. I’ve taken the song and married it to the farming metaphor in today’s post to help us visualize what Scripture is teaching us. I trust it will inspire you. We will reap a harvest of blessings.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

On the Side of Truth

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18.37)

Campaign for Truth

I’ve just seen Fair Game, an unabashedly left-leaning account of the Valerie Plame affair. Given the torrents of poisoned water that’s flowed under the bridge since the scandal, a brief recap may refresh our memory of its genesis. The Bush Administration’s neoconservative zealots, hoping to exploit post-9/11 jitters, fabricated its infamous weapons-of-mass-destruction scenario to justify an unprovoked invasion of Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney and his minions purported Saddam Hussein bought 500 tons of “yellowcake” (weapon-worthy) uranium from Niger. When the CIA couldn’t confirm the transaction, it sent Joe Wilson to Niger to assess its veracity. Few envoys were more qualified for the task. Wilson had held diplomatic positions in Niger and Iraq, as well as served as the National Security Council’s Senior Director of African Affairs under Bill Clinton. Since he wasn’t an intelligence officer, however, the CIA asked his wife, Valerie Plame, a highly respected Agency operative to write a pro forma recommendation. Wilson returned to report the rumor had no basis in truth—not what the White House wanted to hear, nor what it told the American people and world.

On January 28, 2003, President Bush used the annual State of the Union Address to launch the build-up to the Iraqi invasion with a 16-word falsehood: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” In the wake of the invasion, Wilson published a New York Times op-ed piece, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” that debunked the yellowcake story. Exactly one month later, syndicated political columnist Robert Novak attempted to discredit Wilson by publishing his wife’s name to suggest the trip to Niger was an unauthorized boondoggle conducted at her behest. Citing “two senior administration officials” as his sources, Novak exposed them to felony charges for disclosing Plame’s identity, undermining national defense, obstructing justice, and perjury. While the Justice Department investigated, the White House orchestrated a vicious smear campaign against Wilson and Plame that nearly destroyed them. And it very well may have, had Wilson not courageously countered with his own personal campaign for truth.

After the film, over coffee with a friend, I said, “I’m going home to write the blog with no idea what its topic should be. I’ll probably go with a Thanksgiving reflection.” She suggested writing about the movie. The idea sounded far-fetched until I remembered today is Christ the King Sunday, which ends the liturgical year on a high note, setting the stage for Advent. Knowing little about the observance, I dug around to discover it’s a relatively new to the Christian calendar. Pope Pius XI instituted The Feast of Christ the King in his 1925 encyclical, Quas Primas (“In the First”), laying out its objectives: shining light on the Church’s right to freedom and immunity from the state; urging leaders and nations to give respect to Christ; and inspiring the Faithful to gain strength and courage in the feast’s reminder that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies. The political angle—the encyclical’s stressing freedom from tyranny—struck a chord after seeing Fair Game. How all of this relates to our daily walk, however, felt vague and elusive until I opened Scripture to find what it says about Christ the King.

Christ the King

With Advent, “king” becomes a frequently heard title affixed to Jesus, as we revisit beloved Messianic prophecies. Yet when we read Jesus’s story, we’re shocked to find the royal title a lethal liability. King Herod’s plot to kill Jesus hatches when the Magi ask, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2.2) After feeding the multitude with five loaves and two fish, John 6.15 says, “Jesus, knowing that they intended to make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” Finally, having been hailed as Israel’s king during the triumphal entry to Jerusalem, Jesus is tried as an insurgent. Pilate asks straight-out, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (John 18.33) Jesus inquires, “Is that your own idea, or did others tell you that?” To ease worries He might spearhead a nationalist revolt, Jesus explains, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (v36) Pilate says, “You are a king, then!” Jesus replies, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (v37) The quietly measured response thunders with authority. Without donning the mantle of kingship, Jesus is, in fact, Christ the King testifying to the truth. And, as Christ, Jesus identifies Christ’s obedient subjects as everyone on the side of truth.

Setting Us Free

The interchange with Pilate isn’t the first time we hear Jesus use truth to deflect political pressure to own the Messianic title. John 8 recalls a confrontation with Pharisees who dispute Christ’s identity. “You have no corroborating witnesses,” they charge. Jesus answers, “I speak for Myself and God is my other witness.” (v18) This causes cynics and doubters to ask indignantly, “Who are you?” Jesus answers, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning.” (v25) Note the shift from “who” to “what.” We learn what the “what” is in verses 31-32: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Christ the King is Truth. To follow Christ is to hold to Christ’s teaching, standing on the side of truth. And knowing the truth makes us free.

Fair Game presents a grim picture of tyranny. The conspiracy to hide the truth about the Iraqi invasion’s injustice is no different than what fueled the plot to silence Christ. It’s the same evil that conspires against any believer brave enough to question threats of destruction for those who don’t buckle to religious tyranny—who dares to validate what he/she is told to believe against truth found in Christ and God’s Word. Yet once we make the journey and see for ourselves that everyone God creates is equally accepted and called by God, no fear campaign can shake our resolve to stand on the side of truth. We’re immune to propaganda and prejudice. We obey Christ’s teaching. We’re Christ the King’s disciples. No matter who disputes it, that’s the truth setting us free.

Following Christ the King leads us to Truth and frees us from religious tyranny.

Postscript: The Kingdom of Our Lord

On October 30, the Opera Company of Philadelphia staged a flash-mob performance of Handel’s “Hallelujah” in the city’s Macy’s. They sang the Truth. Enjoy this marvelous moment while we reflect today on Christ the King—and prepare to enter Advent!