Lenten Lectio: Reflection on Psalm 22:23-31

Brass figures from the Bible by Hans Teppich, n.d.

All of you who revere the Lord—praise him!
All of you who are Jacob’s descendants—honor him!
All of you who are all Israel’s offspring—stand in awe of him!
Because he didn’t despise or detest
the suffering of the one who suffered—
he didn’t hide his face from me.
No, he listened when I cried out to him for help.
I offer praise in the great congregation
because of you;
I will fulfill my promises
in the presence of those who honor God.
Let all those who are suffering eat and be full!
Let all who seek the Lord praise him!
I pray your hearts live forever!
Every part of the earth
will remember and come back to the Lord;
every family among all the nations will worship you.
Because the right to rule belongs to the Lord,
he rules all nations.
Indeed, all the earth’s powerful
will worship him;
all who are descending to the dust
will kneel before him;
my being also lives for him.
Future descendants will serve him;
generations to come will be told about my Lord.
They will proclaim God’s righteousness
to those not yet born,
telling them what God has done.
Psalm 22:23-31 (CEB)

One of the greatest things about the Bible is that, at its core, it’s all about the little people. Now, I don’t necessarily mean our friends who find themselves in a lower height percentile. I’m talking about people who find themselves outside the circles of power in culture and society. People we might consider minorities, outcasts, exiles and the ostracized

If you need further proof, just head towards the front of your Bible. Once there you’ll realize that the foundational story is about a group of slaves. These are people pushed to the outskirts of society, people despised and detested, people who suffer under the heavy foot of oppression and who have no voice.

And yet…God hears their cry. God acknowledges their voice. God calls them “my people.”

It’s not so much the great and powerful God concerns himself with. Sure, there are great kings in the pages of Scripture. But, often their stories are cautionary tales of the allure of power. They all, in some form or another, turned their backs on God for their own purposes.

And, in doing so, turned their backs on the marginalized.

God warns the Israelites in Exodus 22:21-23, “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.” It’s comforting to know that God hears your cry when you are the oppressed and mistreated. However, it’s just as easy to overlook the oppressed and mistreated when you feel safe, secure and strong. This will become the greatest rebuke God levels against the kingdoms of Israel and Judah through the prophets.

No wonder they are rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek!
To be sure, their evil deeds exceed all limits, and yet they prosper.
They are indifferent to the plight of the orphan, reluctant to defend the rights of the poor.
Shouldn’t I punish such acts? Declares the Lord.
Shouldn’t I repay that nation for its deeds?
Jeremiah 5:27-29 (CEB)

Lent is a time when we have the opportunity to identify with and listen closely for the cry of the oppressed. We are called to enter the wilderness, to fast, to feel the pain of hunger and of want. Honestly, most of us in Western society (especially those of us who are white and male like myself) are RARELY if ever marginalized and oppressed. We are blessed beyond our comprehension and rarely feel the sting of injustice. Maybe Lent is a time for us to try to tune our ears to hear the cries of the oppressed. Rather than walling ourselves off from, ignoring, or instructing those who find themselves at the bottom of society we should take the time to hear their stories.

One time St. Francis of Assisi was in Rome for a pilgrimage, he noticed all the poor begging outside the gates of St. Peter’s. He did not just walk by, he did not just drop a few coins, he did not call the authorities to clear them out and he did not hand them information on how to find meaningful work.

He immediately sold everything he had and sat down to beg with them outside the great basilica. St. Francis heard their cries, he heard their stories and they became his people.

Those who have ears, let them hear.

God hears the cries of the oppressed, will you?

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Spirit Lead Me Where? (Lenten Lectio Reflection on Mark 1:9-15)

“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders…” Lyric from the song Oceans

I only briefly mentioned the 21 Christians who ISIS executed last week in my Psalm reflection last Friday. Today I would like to look at their story in light of this verse from Sunday and a current, very popular, worship song. For those who are unaware, some of our Coptic brothers were recently executed in Libya just because they were Christians. Here is some information about who they were. On Sunday, my pastor talked about how we in America live in the “winners circle” of sorts and are often unaware (by ignorance or by choice) of the issues our fellow Christians face elsewhere in the world. We spent some time praying for the families of those killed and fellow Christians who face this kind of persecution and fear regularly.

We then sang some worship songs and went home. As I drove home, with my daughter dozing in her car seat in the back, this lyric from the song Oceans by Hillsong United flashed through my head (apologies to my wife who currently loves this song).

“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders…”

I couldn’t get the image of those ominous, black clad, ISIS soldiers leading their orange clothed captives down the beach out of my head. Who knows what our captive brothers were thinking or praying at the time. But I felt an extreme disconnect between my experience of singing those song lyrics and the images of the soon to be executed Christians being led down the beach.

Is that what it looks like to be led by the Spirit?

Do I honestly want my trust to be “without borders” like that?

Something tells me that singing that song should be a bit more challenging and unsettling than I originally thought.

Then, I read the Gospel section for Sunday and I was not comforted one bit.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)

The verse gives us two very different movements of the Spirit along with two very different outcomes for the main characters. First of all, John baptizes Jesus and the spirit of God comes down in the form of a dove proclaiming blessing on Jesus. This is a movement of the Spirit I feel like we are familiar with and would welcome all day, every day. This is the jumping around, hands in the air, worship service type movement we put up on screens and videos. This is how we often show how “alive” and “vibrant” our churches are. We also might call churches that look like that “successful” or “growing”.

We think those churches are doing it right. They probably sing cool and moving songs like Oceans every Sunday.

But then, the Spirit takes a seemingly unpredictable move. Immediately after all the blessing and fanfare, Jesus is driven or pushed (The same Greek word is used when Jesus casts demons out) by the Spirit out into the wilderness.  In the wilderness Jesus fasts and is tempted for forty days. When Jesus emerges from the wilderness, he begins preaching and it seems things are on an upswing. But then John, who just baptized Jesus and witnessed the fanfare of the Spirit, is arrested. Later, in Chapter 6, we find out John is beheaded while imprisoned.

Is the spirit confused? At one moment the spirit gives a blessing, and then in the next it leads Jesus towards temptation and the wilderness. The Spirit, we are told in Luke’s Gospel, fills John and his ministry. Yet John is arrested and is beheaded while working his spirit filled ministry.

“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders…”

Spirit lead me where? Do I know where that road ends? Do I realize what I’m asking?

In Lent, the road is a bit more clear as we begin walking the path that leads Jesus to the cross. We spend 40 days examining our lives mirroring the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. During this wilderness journey we attempt to strip away the temptations and struggles that may impede our walk. It’s a tough journey. We may take some solace in the fact the Spirit is with us and has brought us out here. Much like the pillars of smoke and fire brought some comfort to the Israelites as they were led through the Exodus journey.

But, the season of Lent ends with the crucifixion.

The same Spirit that blessed Jesus, led him into the wilderness and led him to the cross.

The same Spirit that leads us in full and amazing worship services, may also ask 21 of our brothers to trust God as they face martyrdom on a beach far away from home.

Following the Spirit, standing up for Jesus and the Father are typically not well received by the world.

During this season of Lent, realize what asking “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders…” meant for Jesus, John and the 21 Christians martyred last week.

Sometimes we might get blessing.

Most of the time it seems, we might get something completely different.

Prayer for the First Sunday of Lent

Benin Baptism photograph by Ferdinand Reus, 2007.

Benin Baptism photograph by Ferdinand Reus, 2007.

God of wilderness and water, your Son was baptized and tempted as we are. Guide us through this season, that we may not avoid struggle, but open ourselves to blessing, through the cleansing depths of repentance and the heaven-rending words of the Spirit. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

Lenten Lectio: Reflection on Psalm 25:1-10

Coventry Cathedral (1956-62) by Basil Spence.

I offer my life to you, Lord.
My God, I trust you.
Please don’t let me be put to shame!
Don’t let my enemies rejoice over me!
For that matter,
don’t let anyone who hopes in you
be put to shame;
instead, let those who are treacherous without excuse be put to shame.
Make your ways known to me, Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth—teach it to me—
because you are the God who saves me.
I put my hope in you all day long.
Lord, remember your compassion and faithful love—
they are forever!
But don’t remember the sins of my youth or my wrongdoing.
Remember me only according to your faithful love
for the sake of your goodness, Lord.
The Lord is good and does the right thing;
he teaches sinners which way they should go.
God guides the weak to justice,
teaching them his way.
All the Lord’s paths are loving and faithful
for those who keep his covenant and laws.
Psalms 25:1-10 (CEB)

Here we are again, the season of Lent has kicked off and we begin our (hopefully) introspective and reflective journey towards Holy Week and Easter. Some of you were marked by ash crosses on Wednesday and many of you have decided to fast from something during the 40 days of Lent. Some may not give up anything and there are some who have given up everything. Those who do fast may give up some kind of food, some may fast from a technology, some may fast from being selfish and some may fast from simply saying “Yes” to everything.

We will all be walking very different journeys and very different paths during Lent.

In verse four of this week’s Psalm the psalmist writes, “Make your ways known to me, Lord; teach me your paths.”

Lent is a time for us to look at the path we’ve walked and reevaluate if it’s the path God wants us on. It’s a time to ask potentially hard questions. What has hindered us? Are we on the right path? Do we need to change course? What might be in our lives that is misleading and misdirecting? Where can we open up to bring more light and perspective on our path? Who might we need to invite on our journey or who might we need to part ways with?

Sometimes we give something up. Sometimes we try something new.

What’s important is that we look at our lives.

Not our neighbors.

This section of the Psalm ends with, “All the Lord’s paths are loving and faithful for those who keep his covenant and laws.”

Sometimes we are walking closely with someone but most of the time we are all on very different paths. Lent is also the time to acknowledge that my path is not your path. As long as we are both on a journey that honestly desires to find God’s path and direction, then we’re doing this Lent thing right. If we spend most of our time expecting others paths to look like ours or having a laundry list of expectations, then we are doing Lent gravely wrong.

Lent is a 40 day journey through the wilderness towards the cross.

And, as the ancient Israelites learned, there are many ways through the wilderness.

“All the Lord’s paths are loving and faithful” for those who earnestly seek God to, “teach me your paths.”

May we seek to walk and learn God’s path for our life and may we honor the journey of our neighbors.

Prayer for Ash Wednesday

“Blessing the Dust” © Jan Richardson

Gracious and merciful God, you see into the secret places of our hearts, where we mourn our sins. As we turn again to your grace, receive our prayers. Look with mercy on our contrite hearts, wash from us the stain of iniquity, and create a new and right spirit in us, that we may declare your praise and offer an acceptable sacrifice in these Lenten days; through Christ Jesus, who bore our sins on the cross. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

Taking up Infirmities

A Bed Too Short by Annie Vallotton, n.d.

You may or may not have noticed that I did not post any sort of blog last week. While I had plans and ideas and a few drafts running around, I never had the time to sit down and flesh out what I had started. This was due, in no small part, to the fact that our two-year old daughter was crazy sick. The past almost two weeks have been full of late nights, doctor visits, staying home from work, broken sleep and broken hearts from watching our miserably sick child. All of these conspired against me from posting anything.

Honestly, all of these things conspired against us from doing much of anything last week.

Probably the toughest thing for us was when we would put her down at night she would often wake up coughing or just uncomfortable from a fever. Then, after some late-night side-elbows or groaning to decide who got up and who would go back to sleep, my wife or I would to go in and try to comfort her back to sleep. This would often involve taking her out of the crib, sitting in a chair and rocking her back to sleep. One night when the lot fell to me, I began rocking my daughter to sleep as she proceeded to cough some more, inches away from my face.

“Man, I hope I don’t get sick.” I thought. Visions of more time spent away from work and my poor wife managing the house while my daughter and I coughed in disturbing harmony raced through my head. Somewhat miraculously, my wife and I had avoided catching the contagion. But, every late night and coughing fit seemed like a prime opportunity for our tired bodies to get infected. As I rocked in the chair, my mind split between the worry that I might get sick and the concern for my frustratingly ill child…a Bible verse flashed into my head.

It was certainly our sickness that he carried, and our sufferings that he bore, but we thought him afflicted, struck down by God and tormented.
Isaiah 53:4 (CEB)

I suddenly realized, this is a small vision into what Jesus did for us. Entering into the dark and broken sickness of our world, he scoops us up and rocks us in his lovingly pierced arms. In that, some might say he risked infection, risked suffering and risked exposure to that which was making his beloved creation sick. In a way, as the prophet Isaiah points out, he chose to expose himself. He came down to take up our sicknesses, our sufferings and our pain so that he might carry them away.

His exposure was not a sign of his weakness.

His exposure was a sign of his love.

Leave it up to God to turn you into a pile of emotions and tears in the middle of the night as you’ve found yourself somewhere between a pit of frustration and overflowing love and concern. I accepted that I might get sick. But at that moment, comforting my daughter, holding her and loving her was helping her heal. I was exposing myself, hoping that I might help carry her infirmity away.

Sickness be damned, I held her closer and kept rocking.

Prayer for Transfiguration Sunday

The Light of the World

The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt, 1853-1854.

Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, whose compassion illumines the world. Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, the same Jesus Christ, our Lord,who live and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.