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25 April 2015

Kantate / Easter 5

Psalm 98

Since I have written on Psalm 22 in an earlier post (see February 21, 2015), for this Sunday I will focus on Psalm 98, assigned in the German six year lectionary.

Sing to the Lord a new song, / for
 he performs amazing deeds! / His right hand and his mighty arm
accomplish deliverance. 2 The Lord demonstrates his power to deliver; / in the sight of the nations he reveals his justice. 3 He remains loyal and faithful to the family of Israel. / All the ends of the earth see our God deliver us. 

4 Shout out praises to the Lord, all the earth! / Break out in a joyful shout and sing! 5 Sing to the Lord accompanied by a harp / accompanied by a harp and the sound of music! 6 With trumpets and the blaring of the ram’s horn, / shout out praises before the king, the Lord! 7 Let the sea and everything in it shout, / along with the world and those who live in it! 8 Let the rivers clap their hands! / Let the mountains sing in unison before the Lord! 9 For he comes to judge the earth! / He judges the world fairly, / and the nations in a just manner. (NET)

(to be continued)

22 April 2015

"The Best Known, But Worst Translated Chapter of the Bible" (Jubilate / Easter 4)

Psalm 23

"The clock is my dictator, I shall not rest.
It makes me lie down only when exhausted.
It leads me into deep depression.
It hounds my soul.
It leads me in circles of frenzy, for activities sake.
Even though I run frantically from task to task,
I will never get it all done,
For my ideal is with me
Deadlines and my need for approval, they drive me.
They demand performance from me, beyond the limits of my schedule.
They anoint my head with migraines
My in-basket overflows.
Surely fatigue and time pressures shall follow me
All the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the bonds of frustration forever."

If this anonymous "antithesis" to Psalm 23, painting the picture of a person harangued and harassed by the all-powerful clock, disturbs you, you might be tempted to say, "Thank God for the real Psalm 23". Chances are that you think of the King James Version.

But now you are in for another surprise: modern psalm scholars think that Psalm 23 is the "best known but worst translated chapter of the Bible" (Clines). While the King James Bible is a piece of world literature in its own right, scholarship hasn't stopped advancing, and is able to point out where the famous translation is missing the mark.

Take a look, then, at the most accurate translation of Psalm 23 I have been able to find. As you read, remain aware of how you are feeling.

1 Yahweh is a shepherd to me; / 
therefore there is nothing I lack. 2 In grassy pastures he lets me lie, chewing the cud; / down to quiet waters he leads me; 3 he revives my life; / he leads me by the right paths— all to uphold his repute. 4 Even when I walk through a dark valley, / I fear no harm, / for you are with me;  / your crook and your staff are my reassurance. 5 You spread a banquet before me / even if enemies surround me; / you anoint my head with oil; / abundance is my lot. 6 Such goodness and constancy shall surely be my companions as long as I live, / and I shall journey again to Yahweh’s house for many days to come. (translation: Professor David Clines)

No more green pastures! No valley of the shadow of death!  No more dwelling in the house of God forever! 

So how do you feel about this translation? Angry because it isn't "traditional" enough? Disturbed because it isn't sublime enough? Disconcerted because somehow it's not heavenly, holy, divine or happy enough to your taste?  

But perhaps you are on the opposite side and find yourself delighted because the words aren't as "traditional" as you feared. Perhaps you are glad because you realize that there is new life in the old psalm that you didn't know was there.  Perhaps you feel relief to be free of the constrictions of the old words.

Of course, while people have strong feelings, good or bad, about a text they grew up with, translating Scripture is not about feelings or nostalgia, or about someone's need to uphold or reject what always seemed such a comfort to many.

Translating the psalms is the art of transferring ancient hymns and prayers from Hebrew into English accurately but in such a way that that content remains useful for the meditation of God's people.  

I happen to think that the words above provide a fresh look at a text hardly anyone ever truly thinks about any more, a text that has become habit and ritual: something that's done because it's "always" been done, and about which nobody quite remembers whether there was a time when it wasn't done.

These words also represent a translation that clears up some of the inaccuracies of the traditional version. Here are some of the details:

V. 2
בִּנְא֣וֹת דֶּ֭שֶׁא יַרְבִּיצֵ֑נִי
bin·’ō·wṯ de·še yar·bî·ṣê·nî;
In grassy pastures he lets me lie, chewing the cud.

The Hebrew noun דֶּ֫שֶׁא (deh'-sheh) simply means "grass" (not green) or "fresh shoots", and the verb רָבַץ (raw-bats') means to lie down or to stretch out.

But why add "chewing the cud"? Because people who know sheep know that a healthy sheep never lies down to graze -- for that the sheep remains standing -- but it is to chew the cud that a sheep will "lie down" and "stretch out".

Just like cows, sheep are ruminants. When they swallow food it goes to their first stomach (the rumen), where it ferments for a bit, and the chemical digestion starts.  It then goes back through the esophagus so they can munch on it some more, to further the mechanical digestion. That is, by the way, why we use the word "ruminate" to express the human activity of meditating and pondering.

V. 4
גַּ֤ם כִּֽי אֵלֵ֨ךְ בְּגֵ֪יא צַלְמָ֡וֶת
לֹא אִ֘ירָ֤א רָ֗ע
gam kî-’ê·lêḵ bə·ḡê ṣal·mā·weṯ
lō- ’î·rā  rā‘
Even when I walk through a dark valley,
I fear no harm ...

The noun צַלְמָ֫וֶת (sal-maw'-veth) means "deep darkness" or "thick darkness", and often describes extreme danger.

States one standard dictionary: "It describes the darkness of eyelids tired from weeping (Job 16:16), the thick darkness present in a mine shaft (Job 28:3), the darkness of the abode of the dead (Job 10:21ff; Job 38:17), and the darkness prior to creation (Amos 5:8)."

The noun רָע (rah) means "adversity", "distress, misery or calamity".  Since in modern English the word "evil" doesn't mean "disaster" or "misfortune" any more, the translation chosen is "harm".

V. 6b
וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְּבֵית יְ֝הוָ֗ה לְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמִֽים׃
wə·šaḇ·tî bə·ḇêṯ- Yah·weh lə·’ō·reḵ yā·mîm.
I shall journey again to Yahweh’s house for many days to come

The translation of וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י as "dwell" is common, but relies on an editorial change made by translators.  The word in the Hebrew text clearly suggests not dwelling but returning.

The last two words of the psalm, לְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמִֽים, are often translated as "forever", perhaps in a "christianizing interpretation, in which the Lord's house is understood as heaven, and the psalmist begins to dwell there ... forever." (David Clines). But since the phrase, literally "the length of days", doesn't mean "forever" anywhere else, it seems smarter to stick to "for many days to come".

After these few examples for the reasoning behind the decisions made in the Clines translation it it clear to me that making this old psalm more accurate doesn't make it less suitable for private devotion and public worship.

As busy and industrious North Americans, we are inclined to view life as an achievement; think of the phrase “we make a living”. In contrast to that attitude, Psalm 23 affirms that life is essentially a gift. Not something you can achieve or buy or work hard for – God's gracious gift to each of us.

Saint Francis of Assisi lay on his deathbed. He was singing, and singing so loudly that the whole neighborhood was aware. Brother Elias, a pompous but prominent member of the Franciscan order, came close to Saint Francis and said, "Father, there are people standing in the street outside your window." Many had come. Fearing that the last moment of Francis' life had come, many who loved him had gathered together around the house.

Said this Brother Elias, "I am afraid nothing we might do could prevent them from hearing you singing. The lack of restraint at so grave an hour might embarrass the order, Father. It might lower the esteem in which you yourself are so justly held. Perhaps in your extremity you have lost sight of your obligation to the may who have come to regard you as a saint. Would it not be more edifying for them if you would, er, die with more Christian dignity?"

"Please excuse me, Brother," Saint Francis said, "but I feel so much joy in my heart that I really can't help myself. I must sing."

You see that Brother Elias is concerned with public opinion. He wants Francis to be serious and dignified; he can't stand the idea of Francis being ordinary. Laughing and singing and dancing in his mind are for ordinary people.

But Francis says he must sing; he has already melted into God. It's not even that Francis who is singing any more; he has become the song.

That's why he cannot help it; he has no control over it any more. The song of the universe is happening. The self, the ego, no longer exists. Saint Francis is no longer there as an individual; in him is absolute silence, and out of that silence the song has been born.

Francis died singing; he is the only Christian saint that died singing.

No matter what the lords of this world promise us, we know that all we need is this shepherd. We know that we are strangers here and that our home is elsewhere – thus we are critical of the lords of this world.

14 April 2015

Remaining Aware of God's Presence When Things Get Tough (Misericordias Domini / Easter 3)

Psalm 4

There was once a Zen monk who was being pursued by a ferocious tiger. Running from the tiger, the monk raced until he came to the edge of a cliff. 

He glanced back, and saw the growling tiger about to spring. The monk spotted a rope dangling over the edge of the cliff. He managed to grab it and slowly, very slowly began shinnying down the side of the cliff. 

Whew, he thought, I am out of the clutches of this monstrous tiger. What a narrow escape! 

But as he looked down, he saw a quarry of jagged rocks five hundred feet below. He looked up and saw the tiger poised atop the cliff with bared claws. Just then, two mice began to nibble at the rope. What to do? 

That moment the monk noticed that within arm's reach a strawberry bush was growing out of the face of the cliff. He plucked the one beautiful shiny strawberry growing on the bush, ate it, and exclaimed, "Yum, that's the best strawberry I've ever tasted in my entire life!"

If he had been preoccupied with the rock below (the future) or the tiger above (the past), he would have missed the strawberry he had been given in the present moment.

My Zen story shows how one monk manages fear and anxiety; Psalm 4 shows how the Psalmist does it.

Intro: Searching for God (V 1)
1 When I call out, answer me, O God who vindicates me! / Though I am hemmed in, you will lead me into a wide, open place. / Have mercy on me and respond to my prayer! 

First Stanza: How Long? (V 2-5)
2 You men, how long will you try to turn my honor into shame? / How long will you love what is worthless and search for what is deceptive? (Selah) 3 Realize that the Lord shows the godly special favor; / the Lord responds when I cry out to him. 4 Tremble with fear and do not sin! / Meditate as you lie in bed, and repent of your ways! (Selah) 5 Offer the prescribed sacrifices / and trust in the Lord! 

Second Stanza: What goodness? (V 6-8)
6 Many say, “Who can show us anything good?”/ Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord*. 7 You make me happier / than those who have abundant grain and wine. 8 I will lie down and sleep peacefully, / for you, Lord, make me safe and secure.

"When I call out, answer me, O God" ... The beginning of our psalm might remind some of us of a popular song from Taizé:

O Lord, hear my prayer / O Lord, hear my prayer / When I call, answer me.  / O Lord, hear my prayer / O Lord, hear my prayer / Come and listen to me.


The Introduction (V 1) makes use of two pairs of words: call/answer and constriction/space:

בְּקָרְאִ֡י עֲנֵ֤נִי
bə·qā·rə·’î  ‘ă·nê·nî
"when I call, answer me"

בַּ֭צָּר הִרְחַ֣בְתָּ
baṣ·ṣār hir·ḥaḇ·tā
"[when I was] me in distress,
you have enlarged"

Luther's take on the second pair of words is instructive: "Als mir eng war, hast du es weit gemacht". "When I was in a tight spot, you created breathing space for me."

As the Psalmist turns to prayer, she asks for vindication and mercy; these terms foreshadow the troubles that are only hinted at in the verses to come.  She has no particular request, other than that God hear her (answer me) and grant her some peace of mind (lead me to a wide open place).


The First Stanza (VV 2-5) asks a question many of us have asked whenever we were in trouble: How long?

כְבוֹדִ֣י לִ֭כְלִמָּה
ḵəḇōwḏî liḵlimmāh
"[How long will you turn] my glory
into shame"

"You men, how long will you try to turn my honor into shame? / How long will you love what is worthless and search for what is deceptive?"

The source of the Psalmist's anxiety is described as "men", persons of significance or influence, as distinct from the common people. In their persistent pursuit of vanity and lies, they have made the Psalmist’s כָּבוֹד (kabowd: honor, reputation, character) a כְּלִמָּה  (kelimmah: ignominy, confusion, dishonor, reproach, shame, "a nothing").

Says James Luther Mays, "In the culture of ancient Israel, honor was of the greatest value; it is in most societies. Honor is the dignity and respect that belong to a person’s position in relation to family, friends, and the community. It is an essential part of the identity that others recognize and regard in dealing with a man or a woman. In Israel its loss had tragic consequences for self-esteem and social competence. Shaming and humiliating a person was violence against them worse than physical harm."

Feeling hemmed in and constrained by human enemies, she asks God to give her room:  to release her from the straits and pressures to which she has been subjected.

But even as she asks the question we know so well: “How long?”, she finds an answer. "Realize that the Lord shows the godly special favor; / the Lord responds when I cry out to him." 

No matter what they say, they know the truth as she does! The godly (חסיד, chasid) is both the one who has experienced God’s faithful love (חסד, chesed) and the one who has learned to show that love to others.

The first stanza ends with six imperatives, again arranged in pairs: tremble/don't sin; meditate/repent; offer sacrifices/trust God.

This is how Norman Fischer** translates VV 4-5: People, tremble / And be upright / Commune with your hearts / In the deep of night / Awake on your beds. / Be still: / Offer that / For it is fitting / Trust it / For it is the rightness / Of all that is.


In the Second Stanza (VV 6-8) the question is, What goodness?, and it's not the Psalmist who is asking, but skeptics and doubters around her.

“Who can show us anything good?” they growl. Can your God really do any good? This is when the Psalmist recalls the old blessing which she has heard hundreds of times during worship: “The Lord will make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord will lift up his face to you and give you his peace” (Num 6:25–26).

In an "ironic reversal" (Erich Zenger) of the Aaronitic Blessing, she squashes any uncertainties that might have stirred within her and others during this assault: "Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord".

As she prays, it dawns on her that there is an inner sort of joy that surpasses all the joys gained from owning more stuff.  What is a successful harvest (of corn and grapes for new wine) compared with her inner joy?

The Psalmist's inner joy is connected with shalom, the theme of the last verse: I will lie down and sleep peacefully (literally "in shalom") / for you, Lord, make me safe and secure.  Many of us know this last verse from singing Compline.  

These words have been used for evening prayer for so long because it's such a powerful way of invoking God's protection during the night.  

The German word used by Erich Zenger comes to mind: Geborgenheit, a word that carries within safety, peace and security.  It is also a word that is less abstract than any of those three; it paints the image of a mother sheltering her newborn child in her arms. 

In the midst of whatever we are experiencing, good or bad, the Psalmist invites us to remember and to say, "I will lie down and sleep peacefully, / for you, Lord, make me safe and secure."

That's enough for me. There is no need to worry about what was, or what will be, since God is with us right now and right here, and promises to never leave us.


*In V 6b I have replaced the wording of NET ("Smile upon us, God") with that of NRSV.

**Norman Fischer. Opening to You. Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms. 2002.

08 April 2015

Unity in God: Refreshing and Invigorating (Quasimodogeniti / Easter 2)

Psalm 133

The sufi masters say that there would have been no creation at all if the five elements had not come together in unity.  This is how they tell the story:

Earth, fire, water, air, and ether are natural enemies to one another, but God joined them together through the recitation of the kalimah: "There is no god except the one God, and Muhammad is His Messenger."

Before the five elements joined together as one, each proclaimed with great pride, "I! I! There is no one greater than I! I can do anything I want." Water said, "I can do anything I want." Air said, "I can do anything I want." Earth and fire and ether also said, "I can do anything I want." Each one boasted that it was invincible. But if we consider everything that was created out of these five energies, we will see that they all contain some imperfection or weakness and that they all are subject to change and destruction. Except for the All-knowing and Almighty Eternal God, everything is imperfect and will change.

To break the pride of the five elements, to destroy their arrogance, and to bring them together in unity, God showed them their many weaknesses.

To earth He said, "Do not think that you are great. Good and evil and all that is filthy and discarded exist within you. And everyone steps on you."

"I am indeed full of faults," the earth was forced to admit.

"Recite the kalimah in the name of the light of Nur Muhammad," God commanded. And earth recited the kalimah.

Then God told water, "You wash away dirt from others, but then you keep it all within yourself, and the millions of worms and insects and germs that grow within you make you smell terrible. What is more, you have no shape of your own; you are trapped by what surrounds you. Only when there is an opening can you flow out and escape. O water, how can you say that you are great, when you can be pushed about by winds and blocked by earth from going wherever you want?"

"I certainly have many faults," admitted water.

"Recite the kalimah in the name of the light of Nur Muhammad," God commanded. And water recited the kalimah.

Then God told fire, "You think you can do whatever you want, but air can blow you out and water can drown you. That should put an end to your arrogance. There is only One who is without fault. That One is Allah, the eternal One who has no beginning or end."

And fire also had to admit, "I am full of faults."

"Recite the kalimah in the name of the light of Nur Muhammad," commanded God. And fire recited the kalimah.

Next God told air, "You look at everyone's face, but no one looks at your face. You think you are great, but there are tall mountain ranges that can block you. And when houses, trees, or mountains stand in your way, what can you do? Nothing."

"I have many faults," admitted air.

"Then recite the kalimah and know that there is someone greater than you. That One is Allah." And air recited the kalimah.

Then God told ether, "You are maya, you are illusion. You are nothing but glitters. One storm pushes you this way, the next pushes you that way. As soon as daylight comes, your glitters disappear and the beauty of your own light fades. You are powerless in the daylight."

"I am full of faults," admitted ether.

"Recite the kalimah," God commanded. And ether recited the sacred words.

And so, when the five acknowledged their deficiencies and affirmed their faith, they became one, and Islam came into being. Only after they recited the kalimah did they join together in unity.

Unity is the theme of Psalm 133:

1  הִנֵּה מַה-טּוֹב, וּמַה-נָּעִים line 1
 שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד. line 2
2 כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב  עַל-הָרֹאשׁ line 3
יֹרֵ֗ד עַֽל הַזָּקָ֥ן זְקַֽן־ אַהֲרֹ֑ן line 4
שֶׁיֹּרֵד, עַל-פִּי מִדּוֹתָיו. line 5
3  כְּטַל-חֶרְמוֹן-- שֶׁיֹּרֵד, עַל-הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן: line 6
כִּי שָׁם צִוָּה יְהוָה, line 7
אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה-- חַיִּים, עַד-הָעוֹלָם line 8

Look! How good and how pleasant it is  / when brothers live together! 2 It is like fine oil poured on the head / which flows down the beard—Aaron’s beard, / and then flows down his garments. 3 It is like the dew of Hermon,  which flows down upon the hills of Zion. / Indeed, that is where the Lord has decreed / a blessing will be available --eternal life. (NET)

Wow! How good and how pleasant is /

The dwelling of brothers, all together—
2 Like fine oil on the head / Running down over the beard, /The beard of Aaron which is running down / Over the collar of his robes; 3 Like the dew of Hermon running down / Over the mountains of Zion—There Yahweh Commands the blessing—Life always! (Frederick William Dobbs-Allsopp)

Psalm 133 is the fourteenth in the collection of songs of ascents (Psalms 120–134). People who have encountered this very short psalm often only remember the first verse (line 1-2).  I learned to sing those two lines when, on one of my two trips to Israel, our group was taught this popular round:

Hine mah tov u mah-nayim 
Shevet achim gam yachad.
("Look! How good and how pleasant it is
/ when brothers live together!")

Hine Mah Tov is a song traditionally sung at Shabbat feasts and is the basis for several Israeli folk dances. It has been recorded by artists as diverse as Dalida, Meir Finkelstein, Ishtar, the Miami Boys Choir, and Harry Belafonte.

The Songs of Ascents were songs meant to be sung by "ascents" (pilgrims) while they were going up to a high place: the Temple in the city of Jerusalem. 

As Jerusalem crowns the hill and its Temple stood on a "mount", the pilgrims were literally "ascending". Such "going up" together created community; as James Luther Mays writes, "The festival transformed the pilgrims into a family that for a holy time ate and dwelt together."

Religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem became a significant aspect of the culture of the Jewish Diaspora. The story of the boy Jesus and his parents attending the Passover in Jerusalem exemplified its meaning in Jewish life. (Luke 2:41 - 52)

If our psalm were a musical composition, its form might be called "Theme and Variations".

The theme, Unity in God, stated in lines 1-2, unfolds in the remaining lines in two variations that look deceptively simple yet are quite intricate in their construction.

In the first variation (line 3-5) the blessing of unity is compared to fine oil ( כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב = kaš·še·men haṭ·ṭō·wḇ). The word טוֹב ("good" in its widest sense) describes the superior quality of this oil, and thus can be translated as fine, sweet or precious.

“Precious oil” is a measure of extravagance and well-being, and of blessing beyond expectation.  Writes Dobbs-Allsopp: "Since the climate in other parts of the Mediterranean world (e.g., Egypt, Me-sopotamia) was not suitable for growing olives (too consistently warm), olives and olive oil were among the Levant’s chief luxury items coveted by the social and political elites ... and commonly counted among other valuables (gold, silver, and the like)".

And there is more: in the Psalmist's mind the oil is imagined as being  "poured on the head / which flows down the beard—Aaron’s beard, / and then flows down his garments". According to Dahood, the Hebrew grammar suggests that the Psalmist recalls the scene of the consecration of Aaron himself, described in Leviticus Chapter 8.

The second variation (line 6-8), builds on the first and intensifies it, as it compares unity in God with dew from Mount Hermon ( כְּטַל-חֶרְמוֹן = kə·ṭal ḥer·mō·wn).

Mount Hermon, a "majestic, snow-capped mountain" (Dahood), is actually a cluster of mountains with three distinct summits, each about the same height. See the picture above. The Anti-Lebanon range extends for approximately 150 km (93 mi) in a northeast-southwest direction, running parallel to the Lebanon range on the west.

Because of its height the mountain captures a great deal of precipitation in that very dry area of the world.  Mount Hermon has seasonal winter and spring snow falls which cover all three of its peaks for most of the year. Melt water from the snow-covered mountain's western and southern bases seeps into the rock channels and pores, feeding springs at the base of the mountain, which form streams and rivers. These merge to become the Jordan River.

But there's more. The Psalmist imagines the dew flowing "down upon the hills of Zion". The author brings his comparison back home to the pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem: The life-producing effect of harmonious living is as though the most copious dew fell upon the arid mountains of Zion.

And there's more still: "Indeed, that is where the Lord has decreed / a blessing will be available -- eternal life."  Here we encounter the word ḥay·yîm (life) that I alluded to in a recent post.

The phrase חַיִּים עַד-הָעוֹלָם  describes the ultimate blessing, “life for evermore”; whether or not this is what we mean when we say "eternal life", there's some allusion here to immortality.

Oddly, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint replace the word ḥay·yîm with šā·lōm and thus omit the reference to eternal life; Dahood and Dobbs-Allsopp agree that the lectio difficilior (the more unusual or difficult version of the text, in this case that of the Masoretic Text) is more likely the original. Since it is hard to conceive that someone would add the word ḥay·yîm to the established MT, it is more likely that the omission is secondary.

How does all this fit together?

Mitchell Dahood writes, "Exegetes have long puzzled over the semantic connection between brotherly unity, the fragrant oil upon Aaron’s beard, and the dew on Hermon’s slopes. One cannot pinpoint the connection which the psalmist saw when drawing these comparisons, but the Ugaritic-Hebrew parallelism, ... “the dew of heaven, the oil of earth” ... may supply a literary clue."

F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp thinks that our psalm "engages, interrupts, breaks into the world" as "something more than a mathematical summing of its component words" by creating a sophisticated web of echoes and references.

One scholar is puzzled and uses a Ugaritic text to illuminate the use of the two metaphors; the other points to connections within the Old Testament.  Both are impressed with the intricate document this short psalm is.

But enough with all the scholarly stuff.

"How good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity!"  The passage is lavish and appeals to our senses.

  • See in front of you the viscous sweet oil dripping down Aaron's beard and cascading down his robe ... that's how unity in God works.
  • Imagine the dew streaming down from majestic Mount Hermon and nourishing the parched ground everywhere ... that's how unity in God works.

Hine mah tov ... Wow! How beautiful!

The setting at the bottom of this post is from Claude Goudimel's Genevan Psalter.  If you'd like to get a feel for the old tune, check out this clip:

03 April 2015

The Sixth Word on the Cross: Completing Creation

Good Friday Sermon

That was the day they killed the Son of God 
On a squat hill-top by Jerusalem. 
Zion was bare, her children from their maze 
Sucked by the dream of curiosity 
Clean through the gates. The very halt and blind 
Had somehow got themselves up to the hill. 
After the ceremonial preparation, 
The scourging, nailing, nailing against the wood, 
Erection of the main-trees with their burden, 
While from the hill rose an orchestral wailing,
They were there at last, high up in the soft spring day. 
We watched the writhings, heard the moanings, saw 
The three heads turning on their separate axles 
Like broken wheels left spinning. Round his head 
Was loosely bound a crown of plaited thorn 
That hurt at random, stinging temple and brow 
As the pain swung into its envious circle. 
In front the wreath was gathered in a knot 
That as he gazed looked like the last stump left 
Of a death-wounded deer's great antlers. Some 
Who came to stare grew silent as they looked, 
Indignant or sorry. But the hardened old 
And the hard-hearted young, although at odds 
From the first morning, cursed him with one curse, 
Having prayed for a Rabbi or an armed Messiah 
And found the Son of God. What use to them 
Was a God or a Son of God? Of what avail 
For purposes such as theirs? Beside the cross-foot, 
Alone, four women stood and did not move 
All day. The sun revolved, the shadows wheeled, 
The evening fell. His head lay on his breast, 
But in his breast they watched his heart move on 
By itself alone, accomplishing its journey. 
Their taunts grew louder, sharpened by the knowledge 
That he was walking in the park of death, 
Far from their rage. Yet all grew stale at last,
Spite, curiosity, envy, hate itself. 
They waited only for death and death was slow 
And came so quietly they scarce could mark it. 
They were angry then with death and death's deceit. 

I was a stranger, could not read these people
Or this outlandish deity. Did a God 
Indeed in dying cross my life that day 
By chance, he on his road and I on mine?

(Edwin Muir: The Killing)

My friends,

the sixth word of Jesus on the Cross comes from John  19:30; there we read,

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

What were the words Jesus said  before he bowed his head and gave up his spirit?  The New Revised Standard Version renders the Greek as “It is finished”; so does the King James Version.  

The New English Translation has Jesus say, “It is completed!”.  The Message Bible translates with, “It’s done ... complete.” Luther’s translation into German renders Jesus’ words as, “Es ist vollbracht” (It is accomplished).  And the Plattdeutsch New Testament says, “So, nu is allens in de Reeg broecht” (Everything is put in order).

As I dug a bit deeper, I found that the Greek word underlying these various  translations is τετέλεσται. The basic meanings of that Greek word are “to bring to a close, to finish, to end”, “to  perform, execute, complete, fulfill”, “to accomplish” and “to pay”.

So when Jesus said, “It is finished”, what did he mean?  What, in fact, was finished?

To figure that out we need to look at the opening chapters of Genesis. (I am indebted to colleague Matthew Buccheri for the insights shared in the next few paragraphs).

“In the beginning" ... That's how Genesis starts, and that's how "John" starts his Gospel; as he is writing he echoes the words found on the first page of the Bible.  

The opening chapters of Genesis are structured around the seven days of creation. Day one: God creates light; day two: God creates the heavens; day three: He separates the water from the land; day four: He creates the sun and the moon and the stars; day five: He creates the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea.

And then on day six, before God rests on day seven, Genesis tells us that God created humanity in his own image and crowned them with glory and honor. Then the writer of Genesis tells us that when the creative process was done, when God looked at his creative work, God said one thing, “It is very good".  Intriguingly God didn't say, “It is finished.” 

"John" opens his Gospel with the opening words of Genesis--“In the beginning”--and he, too, structures his entire account around seven statements: The seven “I am” statements of Jesus.

In chapter 6 of John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the bread", in chapter 8 He says, “I am the light of the world", in chapter 10 he says, “I am the door". Also, in chapter 10 Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd", then, in chapter 11, “I am the resurrection and the life", then, later in chapter 14, “I am the way and the truth and the life", and then finally, in chapter 15 Jesus says, “I am the true vine.”

"John" is doing everything he can to echo the Book of Genesis with the hope that we "get" his riff on Genesis: he's writing the story of  humanity's re-creation and redemption.

So, with Genesis as the backdrop, when the author reports Jesus saying, “It is finished” it would likely mean something about re-creation and redemption.  Perhaps, he meant to say that what is finished are our vain attempts of redeeming ourselves.

But there is more. As I remembered that Jesus didn’t speak Greek primarily, but Aramaic, I dug deeper still.  I searched in many places from various times, and without fail, all my research led to one Hebrew phrase, נשלם (Nishlam). We know that Jesus didn’t really shout “tetelestai” after drinking that wine; it’s rather likely that he shouted, “Nishlam”.

Even as I pronounce the word, “Nishlam”, you may hear its root, without ever needing to know a word of Hebrew or Arabic.  Its root is shalam, salaam or shalom. Shalom is often translated “peace”. When we hear the word “peace”, we usually associate this with an absence of war or strife, but (as is the case with a lot of English translations of Hebrew words), this does not adequately define this Hebrew word.  

The connotations of “Shalom” include completion, fullness and wholeness. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann introduces “shalom” by observing that in the Bible, “all of creation is one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony and security toward the joy and well-being of every other creature.”

“The most staggering expression of the vision is that all persons are children of a single family, members of a single tribe, heirs of a single hope, and bearers of a single destiny, namely, the care and management of all of God’s creation.”

Shalom is the substance of the biblical vision of one community embracing all creation. It refers to all those resources and factors which make communal harmony joyous and effective. The origin and the destiny of God’s people is to be on the road of shalom, which is to live out of joyous memories and toward greater anticipations.

Shalom is an enduring vision.  The Prophet Jeremiah uses shalom even in the midst of exile, a surprising and powerful promise thrust into a place of despair and cynicism. History is bounded by God’s will for shalom and his accomplishment of shalom. In Jeremiah’s telling, God still promises when everyone else has given up. His message is that God is there.

Shalom is not “a peaceful, easy feeling.” Establishing peace is a disruptive process. The  language of shalom is laced with political overtones and a call to extend blessing to those who wrong you. It is an announcement of the end of the age, filled with messianic metaphor and an-nouncement of the Kingdom of God.

Which brings me back to our moment when Jesus uses the language of shalom:  “Nishlam” – in plain English, “Everything is whole again”.

Creation is not finished until Jesus dies shouting Nishlam.

And there he opens the whole of creation, which consequently begins fully, in a completely new way, in the garden on the first day of the week.  Since that first day of the week, all of us are on the Road to Shalom once again.

As one of the disciples, you've given up your job, given up being at home every night with your wife and children, given up everything, all because you believed him. His strength of character and conviction, the incredible authority that shows when he is making God's Word come alive, his seemingly limitless compassion for every-one, even the untouchables like lepers and tax collectors, and strangers, like the Woman at the Well.

But look at him now. Mocked, beaten, bloodied, hanging on this cross, gasping for breath, grasping for life. Oh, Jesus! Why? It's almost over, I think. His breaths are very shallow. He's shouting out something. That's it. He's taken his last breath. He's dead! I can't believe Jesus is dead!

But what was it that he shouted at the end? I think he said, “Nishlam”… “Everything is whole again”.   

How does this make sense?  He’s about to breathe his last, and his summary is that he’s made everything whole. In John's Gospel, there are a couple places where Jesus explicitly tells us what work he has come to do. So if he cries out, "Nishlam!" at the end, doesn't it make sense that Jesus would have that work in mind that he mentioned earlier?  

There are two stories, in John 5 and 9, stories we are familiar with.  In John 5, he heals a lame man. In John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind from birth. Both times John is very deliberate to tell us that Jesus did this on the Sabbath, the day that God rested from creation and did no work. In fact, this idea that God rested on the Sabbath and did no further work seems to go beyond that. We often have this idea that God was completely finished with creation after only six days. But listen to what Jesus says to the Pharisees after healing the lame man. They are challenging him about working on the Sabbath. And this is what Jesus says, (John 5:17) "My Father is still working, and I also am working."

My Father is still working. What work could the Father still be doing that Jesus is helping him with? Could it be that God is still creating? Isn't that God's basic work? And then there's the story in John 9, which begins this way: (John 9:1-3) As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him."

Again, God's work is the reason. We are the ones, like the disciples, who think about sin, who jump to conclusions about sin, most often other people's sin. Jesus talks again about showing forth God's work, doing God's work. And then how does Jesus heal this blind man? With mud (!) and power from on high.  Does that remind you of anything? The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground ... Gen 2:7

Could it be that the work which Jesus is doing is the work of helping God to continue creating? It's almost like creation isn't finished yet, and so Jesus is healing these people, on the Sabbath no less, in order to continue helping bring creation to fulfillment.

In other words, the goal of God's work and Jesus' work is not just our salvation. The goal is bringing the whole creation to completion.

Could Jesus have meant that when he said with his dying breath on the cross, "All Is Now Whole"? That this death was somehow the fulfillment of creation? How could that be? How could such a horrible death be the crowning event of all life? Of all creation?

Listen to St. Paul put the matter on this cosmic level.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.” (Romans 8:18-24).

Imagine a TV show in which someone wants something – money, power, prestige, influence – and then someone else wants the same thing. Competition becomes rivalry.  Things escalate further to slander and scandal, and then to blackmail and threats.  Families are in turmoil. A powerful figure steps in and finds the one to blame; then the scapegoat is murdered, and the turmoil dies down, for a time.

Does that sound like “Dallas” or “As the World Turns”? In fact, what I have just described to you is the sacrificial pattern humanity has used throughout the ages to curtail violence. Invariably, the pattern contains desire, rivalry, scandal, scape-goating and sacred violence.

The Son of God came into this world when human sacrifice was still in full force, in the form of executing blasphemers.  Those who participated were blind to our lust for sa-crificial killing, and it took the Son of God handing himself over to the sinful ways in which we are bound, to end the pattern.

He was killed as the only way of leading humanity out of the culture based on death, allowing us to come to be what God always wanted us to be: to be one with each other, to be one human family utterly alive with God.

“Nishlam”, he cried when he died, “everything is whole again”. At his death, we were made free for a new way of life: not death-based, but life-based.  As our Risen Lord he would come back to forgive us and to release us. “Nishlam” – the cross makes whole ("and by his wounds we are healed"); it fulfills and completes creation.

“Nishlam” shouted our Lord, “It’s done; creation is complete”. He came to end the sacrificial logic (that God requires a sacrifice for our sins). It’s not God but us humans who are wrathful and punishing. God offered a sacrificial lamb so we might see our sin and accept God’s alternative: grace and mercy, forgiveness and love.

Jesus’ death says more about human beings than it does about God. When "John" says that God is love, we know there’s no footnote somewhere that claims, “but sometimes God is wrath and anger”. “Nishlam” said Jesus, and pointed to the power of shalom.

By disrupting the ways of the death-based world, God’s shalom crossed out all our ideas of the atonement.  Take the word, “atonement” apart; take that word  apart the right way, and you get at-one-ment.

At-one-ment is what God desires.  We are all one in love. We are all one on the Road to Shalom Everlasting.

And may the Shalom of God,
Which is beyond everything we can 
grasp or understand,
Strengthen and enlighten you
Until that day sometime soon
When we all are meeting in that Life
That has no end.


02 April 2015

Gratitude, Grief and Grace (Ostern / Resurrection of Our Lord)

Psalm 118*

"There once was a sage named Fa-Yung who lived in a lonely temple high in the mountains. He was visited one day by a wandering monk, T'ao Hsin, the Fourth Patriarch. As the two were talking a wild animal roared close by, T'ao Hsin, a fully enlightened monk, jumped. 'I see it is still with you,' said the Fa-Yung, referring, of course, to the instinctive emotion of fear.

Shortly afterwards, while he was unobserved for a moment, T'ao Hsin inscribed the Chinese character for the Buddha on the rock on which Fa-Yung was accustomed to sit. When the sage returned to sit down he saw the sacred name and hesitated to sit. 'I see,' said T'ao Hsin, 'it is still with you!'"

In this old Zen story we witness a conversation between two sages, one a fully enlightened patriarch of Zen, the other a deeply spiritual person on the cusp of awakening; yet both, not unlike nearly all of us, find that "it" (that is, fear) "is still with you!"

The four basic emotions -- mad, sad, glad and afraid -- will always be around where there are human beings, and in Scripture we encounter those basic emotions most fully in the psalms.

Our lectionary tends to assign only portions of a given psalm, as on Easter Sunday only VV 1-2 and 14-24 are presented of Psalm 118. While it is understandable in practical terms, this procedure deprives the reader and hearer of the psalm's full impact and, as one commentary puts it, can "take the teeth out of it" to the point of making the Sunday psalm feel innocuous.

1 [O give thanks to the Lor]d, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. 2 [Let Is]rael [now say], “His steadfast love endures forever.” 3 [Let the house of Aaron now say, “His steadfast love] endures [fore]ver.” 4 Let those who fear the Lord say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” 

5 Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. 6 [The L]ord is with me; [I will] not [be afraid. Wh]at can mortals do to me? 7 The Lord is on my side among those who help me; I will look in triumph on those who hate me. 8 It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in hu[mans]. 9 It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in [princes]. 10 All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lo[rd I cut them off]. 11 They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the Lord I cut them off! 12 They surrounded me like bees, (but) they burned out like a fire of thorns; for in the na[me of the Lord] I cut them off!  13 I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me. 14 The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;  16 [“The right hand of the Lord is lifted high.” 17 I will not die, but live, and I will recount the deeds of the Lord]. 18 The Lord has punished me severely, but he has [not] given me over to death. 

19 Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter them and give thanks to the Lord. 20 [This is the gate] of [the Lord, through which the righteous will enter]. 21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. 22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 23 [This i]s the [L]ord’s doing; [it is marvelous in our eyes]. 24 This is [the day that] the [L]ord [has made]; let us rejoice [and be glad in it. 25 Please] save (us) now, [O Lord]! O Lord, please give us now success! 26 [Bl]essed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you by (your) name from the house of the Lord. 27 The Lord is God, and he has given us light. The cords of the festal procession are with branches [up to the hor]ns of the altar. 28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will exalt you. 

29 [O give thanks] to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!

The picture above shows a sculpture of Martin Luther located at Coburg Fortress (Veste Coburg) in Germany, where in 1530 Luther lived for five and half months under the protection of Elector John the Steadfast. He stayed for the duration of the Diet of Augsburg, which he could not attend as an outlaw of the Holy Roman Empire. As Philip Melanchthon attended in Luther's place, making history with the drawing up of the Augsburg Confession, Luther wrote and wrote.

Twenty years later Mathaeus Ratzeberger, Luther’s physician, visited Coburg Fortress. He made a point of inspecting the room Luther had used as a study and meticulously noted down the verses which Luther had written on the wall.

One of those verses was Psalm 118:17, Non moriar sed vivam et narrabo opera domini ("I shall not die, but I shall live and recount the deeds of the Lord" in the Vulgata); that verse is also displayed underneath the sculpture pictured above.

On his wall, Luther had added to V 17 musical notes for singing. Other sources report that during one of his periods of Schwermut (depression) Luther had received a composition by Ludwig Senfl on just this verse, and that spending time with the verse had made his Schwermut leave him.

Psalm 118 was thus Martin Luther’s favorite -- “My own beloved psalm,” as he put it. Luther considered verse 17 to be “a masterpiece,” and he asserted that “all the saints have sung this verse and will continue to sing it to the end.”

לֹֽא אָמ֥וּת כִּי אֶֽחְיֶ֑ה
וַ֝אֲסַפֵּ֗ר מַֽעֲשֵׂ֥י יָֽהּ׃
I will not die, but live,
and I will recount the deeds of the Lord.

The word אֶֽחְיֶ֑ה is derived from the verb חָיָה, which means to live, have life, remain alive, sustain life, live prosperously, live for ever, be quickened, be alive, or be restored to life or health.  Most of us know the toast used in drinking to a person's health or well-being used by our Jewish sisters and brothers, L'Chaim ("to life"); the noun chaim is directly related to our verb חָיָה.

"I will not die, but live, and I will recount the deeds of the Lord". Luther’s “masterpiece” is a good place to start in appreciating the message of Psalm 118.  V 17 can serve as a summary of the Psalmist’s account.  

Framed inside repeated calls for thanksgiving there is one part (VV 5-18) that portrays the Psalmist's troubles and God's acts of deliverance, and another part (VV 19-28) that commemorates  her victory in an elaborate liturgy.  The themes of gratitude, grief and grace weave in and out of Psalm 118, much as they do so in each of our lives.

The title of one of  Anne Lamott's books comes to mind: "Help, Thanks, Wow: The three essential prayers".  So.  When you are full of gratitude, let your prayer be THANKS. When you are overcome by trouble and everyone gives you grief, let your prayer be HELP.  And when you can't help but marvel at God's grace and love, let your prayer be WOW.

*Translation from The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (Abegg et al., 1999). Square brackets in the text indicate parts of text that have been lost.  Also, since eight full verses of our psalm (4-5, 11, 13-15 and 21-22) have fallen victim "to cave worms or the ravages of time" (and are therefore missing in the DSSB), I have added those verses from the NRSV.

23 March 2015

Holy Week Companion

Holy Week

Every time Holy Week comes around again, many say, "This year I will make time for at least a few services during Holy Week", but then life happens, and you end up doing other things instead.

I want to invite you to use my "Holy Week Companion" to get you started this year. On almost one hundred and fifty pages these three PDF documents from 2006 offer you Scripture, poetry, music and art.

Here's a sample text from Part II.

who hast made all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made, nor desirest the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live; Have mercy upon all who know thee not as thou art revealed in the Gospel of thy Son. Take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word; and so fetch them home, blessed Lord, to thy fold, that they may be made one flock under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen. 

(Collect for Good Friday, Book of Common Prayer)

Simply copy each of the following http strings into your browser and retrieve the document stored at that location.

A blessed Holy Week to you and yours.