O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us -
he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
It is easy for me to sit and watch the news each evening and pass judgment on the unfolding activities.
With great pride, I decide which behaviors are acceptable to me . . . and which behaviors are over the line. Almost without serious reflection, I am able to identify "the good people" and "the bad people." And when I see something especially grievous, I say (often right out loud), "I would certainly never do that."
And that comment means only one thing. The ONLY thing that comment truly means is that I have not experienced the pain and the suffering and the heartache of the person that I am judging in that moment.
The truth of the matter is that I have no idea what I would do.
Of course, I want to believe that I live with complete self-control. I want to believe that the Spirit of God has so changed me that I am now a different person. I want to believe that God is producing within me the fruit of the Spirit. I want to believe that even my anger at some great injustice would be channelled in healthy and productive directions.
And I sincerely hope that those things are true.
But if one of my children died in the way that George Floyd died, I have no idea what I would do.
And you might be wise to withhold your judgment of me, because you don't know what you would do either.
How would I express my anger? Would I protest and march? Would I riot? Would I destroy property? Would I lash out at those who had caused my pain? Would I start a fire? Would I ask you to help me avenge my loss?
I honestly don't know.
Psalm 137:8-9 (the verses quoted above) are probably the most embarrassing verses in the entire Bible. The raw honesty of the heart cry here is breath-taking. In these verses, the people of God are blessing the person who will avenge the suffering that has been caused by the Babylonians. From a place of painful exile, God's people are celebrating the person who will pay back the Babylonians for what they have done. And what is called for here is not some general, genteel revenge. What is called for here is taking the infants of the Babylonians and dashing those babies against the rocks.
So much for the fruit of the Spirit! So much for an attitude of forgiveness! Still, these words, by God's direction, somehow have found a place in Scripture.
And while I want to reject the spirit of Psalm 137:8-9 and explain that those Old Testament behaviors are a thing of the past . . . and claim that I am now a new creation in Christ . . . I am compelled to probe the depths of my heart and admit that I could easily feel the very same anger. And perhaps even act on that anger.
And the fact that I am hesitant to own up to that admission means only one thing. It means that I have never experienced the level of pain and loss that shows up in Psalm 137:8-9.
Just as I feel the right to judge the people I watch on television these days, I feel perfectly free to sit in judgment of the Psalmist.
But I can do that only because I have never felt their pain.
One day, Jesus was so deeply grieved and upset and angry that he turned over the tables of the money changers. He was in a holy place, a place set aside for worship and prayer. Utterly broken by what he saw, Jesus destroyed the property of others.
Yes, Jesus was completely under control. Yes, he knew exactly what he was doing. Yes, his anger was thoroughly righteous. Still, he destroyed the property of others. And we can argue, of course, that those money changers deserved that destruction. Even so, it is a remarkable scene and Jesus' behavior is stunning.
Personally, I'm not a turning-over-tables kind of guy. So I'm pretty quick to claim, once again, that I would never do that.
But the fact that I would never do that means only one thing. It means that I have never felt the grief of what Jesus felt that day. It means that I have never been so deeply moved by injustice that I simply had to act. It means that I have not suffered the losses that demand that things be different.
And here's what I realize today.
I am usually proud of myself when I say, "I would never do that."
But in truth, I should be ashamed.
I have served as a pastor for twenty-seven years.
Being a pastor is a calling I never sought or pursued. Growing up in a pastor's home, I decided early on that the life of a pastor wasn't for me. But God had other plans. And God normally gets what he wants.
Beginning with my first Sunday in the pulpit in 1993 until this very day, I have faced the same fear. Every week, I am afraid that I won't have anything to say when the next Sunday comes. Fortunately, that hasn't happened - at least, not yet. But I live with the troubling possibility that it might happen at some point.
Thankfully, God has been gracious in giving me a word to share every time I am privileged to preach. I am sure that I have not always spoken the exact word that God has given me, but I have tried my best to stay as close as possible to the leadership of the Spirit.
While God has always given me a word at the appropriate time, I have to admit that I have been at a loss for words for about twenty-four hours now.
What I saw last night on television when our President showed up in front of St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. was profoundly troubling, disturbing, and upsetting. I will leave the politics of the matter for another time, but I do have some theological reflections to share.
Last night, after making sure that the area was safe and secure, the President stood before the church building and lifted a Bible in hand.
Without any specific explanation, we were left on our own to figure out exactly what he intended that act to mean. In that moment, was the Bible a symbol of something? Was it an icon? A charm? A talisman? Was the President suggesting that his earlier speech was supported by the Bible? Was the President suggesting to American Christians that his holding the Bible indicated that he was "on their side"?
It's hard to know exactly what the act was intended to communicate, but I have to say that it left me speechless.
When I watch the world, I typically look for stories in Scripture that help me make sense of the things that are happening. Today, I was drawn to a story in 1 Samuel. Stunned by a crushing defeat at the hands of the Philistines, the Israelites decided that they would be wise to take the ark of the covenant into battle the next time. They were certain that the ark (which represented the very presence of God) would guarantee their victory. With the ark in hand, they believed that they would be invincible. That symbol, for them, carried magical power.
Much to their surprise, even with that great symbol in hand, the Israelites learned that they were not invincible:
So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated
and every man fled to his tent.
The slaughter was very great;
Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers.
The ark of God was captured,
and Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died
1 Samuel 4:10-11
I leave it to you to develop your own application of the story.
But for me, the story tells me that we cannot put God in a box. We are on shaky ground whenever we presume that God is in our camp. And relying on grand religious symbols - such as church buildings or Bibles or even the ark of the covenant itself - does not provide us with a mandate, special protection, or a guarantee that we are actually doing the work of God.
The Old Testament prophets in particular castigated the people of God for meaningless and empty religious ritual, calling instead for changed hearts and changed lives.
Jesus took his place in that same tradition. He was relentless in his criticism of those who used religion for their own purposes.
Perhaps you saw something different last night. But to me, that's what I saw. And I found it devastating and dangerous.
Frankly, it left me speechless.
Weeping may remain for a night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning.
It's a verse that promises hope and comfort. For generations, believers have been strengthened by the certainty of that coming joy. In just a few simple words, we are reminded that weeping does not last forever and that the next part of the story will be better than the part we're living right now.
At the same time, the verse presents us with a few difficult questions.
How long will this night last?
Where am I in this night: is this the beginning of the night or is this near the end?
And is there any guarantee that I will even make it to the morning?
Those are some serious questions!
And while the Bible is utterly committed to the certainty of a coming hope, it is just as committed to telling the truth about the pain of the suffering that precedes the promised joy of the morning. In fact, the Bible is brutally honest about both parts of the story. Both grief and joy are major players in this life.
What's more, grief and joy don't always show up in the same order. Sometimes (as we see in Psalm 30:5) the joy follows the grief. At other times, joy gives way to grief.
While it seems that the normal pattern is grief giving way to joy, verses like Proverbs 14:13 teach us that sometimes laughter leads to heartbreak. Life doesn't always flow in the same direction. It's back and forth, up and down. Sometimes it seems like we're headed for a season of joy . . . and we end up in a time of grief. At other times, it feels like we're at the bottom . . . only to be suddenly surprised by joy.
And then sometimes . . . the joy and the grief are all jumbled up together.
Actually, that's how life feels to me right now: all jumbled up. Every moment, it seems, is the right moment for both grief and joy.
It dawns on me that if I am not grieving and lamenting these days, then I am not paying attention to what is happening in our world.
And even while I grieve, there are plenty of reasons all around to find joy.
Ultimately, of course, joy wins out. We can be quite sure that eventually there will come a time when God will wipe every tear from our eyes, a time when there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4).
But that day is not today.
For today, we wonder how long this night will last.
For today, we wonder if the morning will ever arrive.
For today, we awkwardly juggle the weeping and the joy . . . while we wait for another day.
I continue to marvel at the fact that the entire world is dealing with this coronavirus!
Normally, our disasters and crises are more localized. A hurricane hits New Orleans. A fire rages in California. A plane crashes in Indonesia. Bali is overwhelmed by a tsunami. That sort of thing.
We are accustomed to dealing with small-scale brokenness. And our hearts break when that happens.
But in this moment, the entire world is dealing with the same thing. Of course, the struggle is not exactly the same in each place. Still, the struggle is universal. And, frankly, it is hard even to make sense of how expansive this terrible event is.
Within that reality, though, there are some blessings. And one of those blessings is that followers of Jesus all around the world can offer encouragement and hope and comfort to one another.
So today, here is a word from our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe. We probably haven't heard much from them lately. And we probably haven't thought much of them lately. But these dear friends have a good word for us today.
Listen and be encouraged!
As far as losses go, this one is probably small. But it sure doesn't feel small today. For months, we have known that "some day soon" we would be saying good-bye to our beloved Shadow. And that day happened to be . . . today.
Poet extraordinaire (and passionate dog-lover) Mary Oliver says much of what I'm feeling now:
Because of the dog's joyfulness, our own is increased.
It is no small gift.
It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love
the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street,
and all the dogs not yet born.
What would the world be like without music
or rivers or the green and tender grass?
What would the world be like without dogs?
I'm not sure what the world would be like without dogs. But I am about to find out what my world will be like without this dog.
At the beginning, Shadow was to be Eric's dog. And he was for a time. When Eric wasn't home quite as much, Shadow became Julie's dog. At that time, she was home most of the time. Even later, when Julie began working full-time, Shadow became my dog. For years now, I've been able to work at home quite a bit, so Shadow and I became great friends.
He earned the name that he was given, and was usually close enough to be my literal shadow. We walked miles together, exploring our little corner of the world. He was the model of courage when suspicious delivery trucks came down the driveway, and a doorbell would send Shadow into a frenzy.
It was because of Shadow that we got to know quite a few representatives of the animal kingdom. He had a special affection for skunks, and he was completely fascinated by porcupines (which did not often lead to a good outcome). He knew exactly where the property line was and he was diligent in making certain that the deer stayed on their side of the fence. He refused to cower before raccoons or coyotes. In fact, the only time I saw Shadow afraid was when he was being chased by our rather ill-tempered rooster.
Often, Shadow would sit at my feet while I worked. Oddly, he grew especially calm when I rehearsed my sermons, and he seemed to give special attention when I was reading Scripture out loud. He was likely the most biblically literate dog in northern Michigan.
If you have ever listened to our recorded Bible studies on our church website, you have heard Shadow in the background either snoring, barking, or whining. He was a valued member of our small group.
Until this week, he was at the door every single time we arrived home. We knew exactly what he was thinking: "Where have you guys been?" But over the past few weeks things began to change dramatically. And we knew that something was terribly wrong when he stopped meeting us at the door. After some pretty tough health struggles over the past few years, Shadow let us know this week that he was ready to bring things to a close.
I know. He was "just a dog."
But he was also a great friend, a loyal companion, and a precious gift from God.
Today we said good-bye to our Shadow. If you have ever done something like that, you know exactly how we feel.