Faithful Foreigners: Uriah the Loyal

 

Read: 2 Samuel 11

Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing” (2 Samuel 11:11, NRSV).

Uriah does not get top billing in most people’s memories of 2 Samuel 11. His character gets crowded out even in the way the story is referenced. Case in point: have you ever heard this infamous chapter referred to as the story of “David, Bathsheba, and Uriah”?

In spite of this, Uriah the Hittite is arguably the most admirable character in the story. (Bathsheba gets honorable mention, in my opinion, but I will save her time in the spotlight for another day.) David, on the other hand, comes across as anything but admirable. The contrast between the two makes this a classic case of the “faithful foreigner” motif.

To summarize: While General Joab and the army are out risking life and limb, King David is back at the palace getting up to no good. While pacing on the palace roof, he plays peeping tom. Although he knows full well that the object of his admiration is “the wife of Uriah the Hittite” (v. 3), he sends the royal messengers to bring her to the palace.

I know that I promised to save Bathsheba’s time in the spotlight for another day. But an honest analysis of the story really requires that she get a “Me Too” moment. Try to see the story from her perspective. Her husband is at the front. She is taking a ritual bath in what she almost certainly assumes is the privacy of her own courtyard. The next thing she knows, the palace guards are at the gate. What would you think? Maybe there is news of Uriah. In any case, she has no choice but to go with them. What happens after than says much more about David than it does about Bathsheba. The poor woman barely even gets an active verb until she sends to David and tells him she is pregnant. Since the punishment for “adultery” is stoning, we can hardly blame her for that. She is literally between a rock and a hard place. If you doubt her innocence, read ahead to the prophet Nathan’s parable in 2 Samuel 12. Bathsheba deserves no more blame than the “little ewe lamb.”

I suppose we ought to give David some credit for responding to her message, although the response itself does not cover him in glory. After three failed attempts to get Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba—and thus solve the paternity problem—David finally sends word to Joab to get Uriah killed. In what is the story’s most poignant bits of irony, David entrusts the murderous message to Uriah himself. David knows he won’t open it. Uriah is the epitome of a straight arrow, after all. Unfortunately, he ends up on the receiving end of the same.

Why won’t Uriah “go down to his house”? There must be some reason he disobeys a direct order from his commander in chief.

If you take Hollywood’s word for it, Uriah is a prig and a fanatic. But perhaps we shouldn’t look to that 1951 film starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward for excellence in exegesis. The truth is that Uriah—even though he is a foreigner—is abiding by the law that prohibits soldiers from sexual intercourse before a battle. The fact that King David urges him to violate that law—three times, no less—says a great deal about where David’s loyalties lie.

There is an annual insurrection in my Old Testament class over what some students see as my “disrespect” for David. My plea to them—and to you, dear readers—is to get David down out of the stained glass window. The Bible does not whitewash this story, and neither should we. Second Samuel’s David is deeply flawed. Uriah the Hittite—or perhaps we should call him Uriah the Loyal—is the foil that helps us see David’s sins.

Ponder: Why do you think this story is included in the Bible? What are we meant to learn from it? What do we lose when we participate in a cover-up? What can we learn from Uriah’s loyalty?

Pray: Gracious God, our sins are ever before us (Psalm 51). Help us to be honest about all the ways we have failed you. Thank you for your forgiveness, and for being willing to work through imperfect people. Give us leaders who put the welfare of others before their own selfish desires.

 

Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series

Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.

In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.

The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!

As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!

Faithful Foreigners: Balaam’s Ass

 

Read: Numbers 22:22-35

Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (Numbers 22:28, NRSV).

If you have ever learned a language, you know that one usually starts with the typical before moving to the exceptional. You learn the pattern of the regular verb first. Once you’ve got it down cold, then you venture on to the irregular ones—albeit with fear and trembling.

The wisdom of this approach is fresh in my mind because my husband and I are trying to learn Italian. We have a very healthy fear of irregular verbs. So, I know that it might be better to begin this series on “faithful foreigners” by establishing the regular pattern: someone who is perceived to be a “foreigner” proves to be wise, faithful, and ultimately important to the story the Bible is trying to tell. However, this time the exceptional is so exceptional, we’re going to start there and save the typical for later.

I’m talking about Balaam’s ass. She is not just a faithful foreigner; she is a cross-species faithful foreigner. I love her not just because she makes her owner look like an ass, but because she has some choice words for us as well. And if we can suspend disbelief long enough to listen to her, we might find ourselves wiser for it.

Balaam is himself a foreigner, but he is only faithful about 85% of the time. (He gets a B as compared to his donkey’s A+.) He has been conscripted by the king of Moab to curse the newly liberated people of God, who have come up from Egypt and are encroaching on his territory (vv. 4-6). Balaam has some scruples, however, and refuses to curse what he knows God has blessed. He only agrees to go with the king’s emissaries after getting special permission from God (v. 20), and makes no promises at that. He saddles his infamous ass, and sets out.

It’s unclear why “God’s anger was kindled because he was going,” but in any case, “the angel of the LORD took his stand in the road as [Balaam’s] adversary” (v. 22).

This is when the fun begins.

Even though Balaam is, by profession, a “seer,” he is completely blind to the fact that the angel of the LORD is “standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand” (v. 23). The donkey’s eyes are just fine, however, and she wisely turns off the road. Balaam beats her for her trouble, and forces her back on the road.

The next time the angel appears it is smack in the middle of a narrow path between the walls of two vineyards. What’s a poor donkey to do? She thinks fast, and scrapes Balaam’s foot against the wall. The unappreciative Balaam beats her again.

The next time the angel blocks the way, the donkey simply sits down. When Balaam strikes her again, it proves too much for her—and for God. God opens her mouth and she asks Balaam point blank, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?”

Balaam’s response says more about him than it does about her: “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!”

His ingratitude must have been galling. With admirable self-control, she asks, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” Even Balaam has to admit that she has not.

One wonders if it ever occurred to Balaam to ask—not just why his faithful donkey had suddenly undergone a personality transplant—but why she was suddenly speaking her mind. Perhaps it was because he was so caught up in his own righteous indignation.

There is a lesson in that for all of us when we think we are on a mission from God. We don’t always see as clearly as we think we do—even if we are professional “seers”. Wisdom is where we find it—even when it comes from unexpected sources.

Ponder: How might this story relate to issues in your life or our world? (One example might be climate change.) Whose/what voices do we need to hear? What might they be saying to us?

Pray: Give us eyes to see, O God, and ears to hear your wisdom from unexpected sources.

 

Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series

Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.

In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.

The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!

As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!

Faithful Foreigners: Jesus the Refugee

Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series

Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.

In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.

The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!

As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!

 

Jesus the Refugee

 

Flight to Egypt fresco by Renáta Sedmáková

 

Read: Matthew 2:13-23

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt (Matthew 2:14, NRSV).

A refugee is typically understood to be “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.”

The gospel of Matthew makes it crystal clear that Jesus and his parents were refugees. In this, alas, they were not and are not unusual. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) there are currently 25.9 million refugees—the highest number ever seen. And this doesn’t even count the 41.3 million “internally displaced” individuals, or the 3.5 million “asylum-seekers” (UN Refugee Statistics). That the danger was real for Jesus and his family is borne out by Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (Mt. 2:16).

There are unusual features to the holy family’s story, of course. Joseph learns of the danger when he is tipped off in a dream by an angel. And Matthew goes out of his way to point out that this whole episode fulfills something the prophet Hosea once said (Hosea 11:1). But we shouldn’t let the extraordinary features of this story eclipse its brutally ordinary basics. Jesus and his family fled for their lives, and in doing so, they made common cause with millions of people, past and present.

So, why did presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, catch flack from religious conservatives when he referred to Jesus as a refugee? His Christmas tweet was straightforward:

Today I join millions around the world in celebrating the arrival of divinity on earth, who

came into this world not in riches but in poverty, not as a citizen but as a refugee.

No matter where or how we celebrate, merry Christmas.

Yet, this response by JD Rucker was typical of the push-back Buttigieg received from the Twitter-sphere:

Jesus was not born into suffering. His earthly family was neither poor nor refugees. His story

is not a metaphor to push open borders policies here and around the world. It’s a guide for life

and death, a message of hope beyond this world.

I will leave it to others to analyze all the aspects of this Christmas kerfuffle. But as we begin a new series called “Faithful Foreigners,” it seems important to point out a couple of things this story brings to the surface.

First, why are we so worried about stating the obvious? Jesus and his family were refugees. Are we so xenophobic that we cannot even contemplate the fact that Jesus had something in common with “those people?” Or perhaps it’s our discomfort with a vulnerable Savior. If that’s the case, then the cross is going to present a problem. In any case, my colleague Suzanne McDonald observed that, “If you can’t accept that they were refugees, then you have a political issue that has become a gospel problem.”

The second thing that’s worth saying is this idea that Jesus’ story is “a guide for life and death, a message of hope beyond this world.” Yes and no. Of course Jesus’ story has life and death implications. But if we think it is only—or even mostly—about the next world, then “it’s time we rubbed our eyes and read our texts again” (NT Wright in Surprised by Hope).

Pray: For all the ways we fail to see you in the faces of “those people,” dear Lord, forgive us.

Tuned for Praise: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

 

Read:

As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste (Song of Solomon 2:3, NRSV).

Metaphors allow us to say what we mean—only more so.

Think for a moment about how metaphors work. They allow us to free associate. They invite us to bring memory and senses to the aid of what is often an abrupt comparison. So, when the psalmist says, “I am a worm,” everything we have ever thought or felt about worms rushes in to help us understand what the psalmist is saying (Ps. 22:6). Sure, he could have explained that he was feeling vulnerable and was having trouble reaching his full human potential. But that would have been boring. And at the end of the day, it wouldn’t have told us a fraction of what he managed to convey when he smashed the words “I” and “worm” together.

Lovers have long been quick to catch on to the potential of metaphors. In this verse from one of the world’s most famous love poems (Song of Solomon 2:3), the woman invites us to share her appreciation of her beloved by describing him as an apple tree. Go ahead. Accept her invitation. What do you think of when you imagine an apple tree? Shade, sweetness, nourishment…. The list is as long as your imagination and as broad as your experience.

It’s not clear whether this verse from the Song of Songs inspired the 18th century poem, “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” Others have made the leap between that ancient love song and the love between Christ and the Church. What is clear, however, is the poets’ mutual appreciation of a metaphor.

As you read it—and then listen to it expressed musically—free associate. Bring your own memories to the poet’s extended metaphor. Let the richness of the comparison fill your senses and your soul. Because metaphors allow us to say what we mean—only more so.

 

JESUS CHRIST THE APPLE TREE

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit, and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be
of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

 

Listen:  Jesus Christ the Apple Tree This anthem by Elizabeth Poston is based on a text from “Divine Hymns or Spiritual Songs” compiled by Joshua Smith in 1784. This performance is by Seraphic Fire, conducted by Patrick Dupré Quigley.

Pray: We would rest here a while, O Christ—from our toil and ambition, from our anxiety and grief. Make our soul to thrive. Keep our dying faith alive.

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: Sore Afraid

 

Read: Luke 2:8-20

Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Luke 2:9, NRSV).

The shepherds were right to be terrified. The glory of the Lord can get you killed.

Ask the prophet Isaiah, who sees the Lord “high and lifted up” and knows right away he has no business in the presence of such electrifying holiness. “Woe is me!” he cries in Isaiah 6.  “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Moses may not know what he is getting into when he blithely says to the Almighty, “Show me your glory, I pray” (Ex. 33:18). God agrees, but only after stashing Moses in the cleft of a rock. When God passes by, Moses only gets to see God’s backside. We’re left to assume that God’s full-frontal glory would have turned Moses to cinders.

And then there is Ezekiel who is so nervous about describing God’s glory that he begins to sound like a contemporary teenager. The last three verses of Ezekiel’s call narrative contain eleven uses of the word “like” (Ez. 1:26-28). It’s just too risky to come right out and describe what God, so he settles for approximations. At the end he sums it all up with the doubly-distancing sentence: “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” Then he promptly falls on his face.

So we can hardly blame those certain poor shepherds in the gospel of Luke for being “sore afraid” (KJV) when “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”

One of my favorite Christmas pageant memories is of the year when my daughter (then about age 7) played an unsuspecting shepherd. This was one of those delightfully unrehearsed productions. She had been told to “do whatever the story says.” So when the angel showed up and she heard the words, “sore afraid,” she dropped to the floor and started writhing. “Well, the story did say SORE!’ she told me afterwards.

Sometimes I wish we could capture a bit more of that “sore afraid” spirit when we hear the Christmas story. It’s one of those times when familiarity breeds not so much “contempt” as “numbness.”

Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to this poem be Jaroslav Vajda. It helps us to feel the shock waves in this story. And if we find ourselves scurrying for cover when the angel tears the sky apart with light—well—maybe that’s as it should be.

 

Before the Marvel of This Night

 

Before the marvel of this night

Adoring, fold your wings and bow,

Then tear the sky apart with light

And with your news the world endow,

Proclaim the birth of Christ and peace,

That fear and death and sorrow cease:

Sing peace, sing gift of peace!

Awake the sleeping world with song,

This is the day the Lord has made.

Assemble here, celestial throng,

In royal splendor come arrayed.

Give earth a glimpse of heav’nly bliss,

A teasing taste of what they miss:

Sing bliss, sing endless bliss!

The love that we have always known,

Our constant joy and endless light,

Now to the loveless world be shown,

Now break upon its deathly night.

Into one song compress the love,

That rules our universe above:

Sing love, sing God is love!

Text by Jaroslav Vajda

 

Listen:  Before the Marvel of This Night This anthem by Carol Schalk interprets a poem by  Jaroslav Vajda. This recording is by the St. Olaf Choral Ensemble.

Pray: Give us the sense to know when we are on holy ground this Christmas.

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: Born in a Barn

 

Read: Luke 2:1-7

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:7, NRSV).

We’ve known since we were kids that the little Lord Jesus was asleep on the hay. And we have it on the same good authority that when the cattle started lowing, Jesus didn’t even cry.

What’s “lowing”? Why do we assume baby Jesus didn’t cry? For that matter, why do we assume there were animals present? Look closely. Luke doesn’t say a word about animals. He mentions a manger. (For non-farm folks, that’s a box for holding animal food.) Ah—so we infer the presence of animals based on the reference to the manger.

I grew up on a farm. Since the barn was one of my favorite places, I always thought Jesus showed exceptionally good sense being born in one. But I was worried about that manger thing. After all, if a cow or a donkey was used to eating out of that manger, what if they took a bite out of the baby by mistake? My mother assured me that Mary and Joseph must have made sure the animals kept their distance. “But wouldn’t the animals be mad?” I wondered. Clearly, Jesus would have to be careful. Barns were great, but even I knew you had to watch yourself.

The mere mention of a manger may be weak evidence for our elaborate nativity scenes. Still, the instinct for including the animals is a good one. They are, after all, part of the creation that Christ came to redeem. And if we take the incarnation seriously, why shouldn’t they be among the first to witness the Savior’s birth?

It turns out that the only danger in our “animal enhanced” nativity scenes may not be from the animals themselves. Rather, it stems from our own tendency to romanticize the scene. Why is that we assume that any Bible story that features animals is automatically a children’s story? (Think hard about Noah’s ark. Is there anything remotely appropriate for children in that story?) Why is it that we assume the baby Jesus didn’t cry—or have a dirty diaper for that matter? If we’re going to believe in the incarnation, let’s embrace it—not sanitize it.

As we move toward the manger this Advent, let’s stop and smell the manure. Let’s allow the baby Jesus cry for a while, for heaven’s sake. And don’t just send the kids into the manger in their shepherd costumes. Crowd in there with them. It’s a story for all of us.

Besides. Who else is going to make sure the cow doesn’t take a bite out of the baby?

Listen:  O Magnum Mysterium – This anthem by Morten Lauridsen reflects on the “great mystery” of the incarnation—animals and all. This recording is by the Nordic Chamber Choir.

Translation: O great mystery and wonderful sacrament, that beasts should see the new-born Lord lying in a manger. O blessed virgin, whose body was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

Prayer: Renew our sense of wonder, O God, that “he came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all; and his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall.”

From “Once in Royal David’s City,” words by Cecil F. Alexander, 1848.

 

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: Word Made Flesh

 

Read:

Have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8, NRSV).

When was the last time you read through the instructions for the Tabernacle in Exodus 25 through 31?

I think it’s safe to say that this section of the Bible is unexplored territory for most of us. And while this section of the Old Testament may never be a devotional classic for Christians, there are some startling truths tucked into this ancient instruction manual.

One of these has to do with God’s insistence that the holy heart of this structure be covered with animal skins—goat’s hair, rams’ skins, and fine leather to be exact (Ex. 26:7 & 14).

My colleague, Tom Boogaart, was the one who first alerted me to the theological significance of this detail. The holy place that houses the ark of the covenant—that “mercy seat” upon which God is symbolically enthroned—is to be covered with skin.

We might be forgiven for missing the significance of this detail if we’re reading these verses in the middle of July. But if we’re reading during the Advent or Christmas seasons, it’s harder to miss the canonical echoes ricocheting between the testaments. John 1:14 makes the echo explicit, announcing that “the Word became flesh and lived [literally “tabernacled”] among us.”

The irony in the Old Testament context is that, just as God is making plans to dwell among the covenant people in a more tangible way, the people are down at the foot of the mountain making a golden calf. When they stand back to admire their artwork, they announce, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex. 32:4). Of all the nerve! We cry, offended by their effrontery. Before we get too far up on our high horse, however, we might want to reflect on our own tendency to follow the wrong gods home.

God is offended, too, and threatens to wipe out these ingrates and start over with Moses. But Moses talks God down, and to make a long story short, the Tabernacle does eventually get built. It becomes the place where the covenant people can experience God’s holy presence in a tangible way—God clothed in flesh, as it were.

There is something essentially shocking about the incarnation. Frederick Buechner helps us to appreciate this when he describes it as “Ultimate Mystery, born with a skull you could crush one handed” (from Whistling in the Dark).

But spare a thought, this Christmas, for the Tabernacle’s instruction manual. It hints at an important habit of God’s heart—that is—God’s longing to “dwell” with us in a tangible way. Maybe with the Tabernacle fresh in our minds, we will be just a little less surprised when John tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

Listen:  O Nata Lux. This text (translated below) is often associated with the Feast of Transfiguration. Its reference to being “clothed in flesh,” however, makes it a rich meditation on the incarnation. The composer of this setting is Morten Lauridsen; the performance is by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Translation & Prayer:

O Light born of Light,
Jesus, redeemer of the world,
with loving-kindness deign to receive
suppliant praise and prayer.

Thou who once deigned to be clothed in flesh
for the sake of the lost,
grant us to be members
of thy blessed body.

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: With a Love Like That

 

Read: Luke 15:11-32

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15:20, NRSV).

Sometimes love can stop you in your tracks.

That’s what happens to me when I read the parable of the prodigal son. People have rightly pointed out that it is the father in this story who is, in fact, “prodigal.” He lavishes his love on not one, but two calculating offspring. The younger brother can’t wait for his dad to die, squandering his inheritance on short-term gains. Then the older brother pitches a fit when Dad decides to let bygones be bygones. What a pair!

Part of me wants to write “Part Two” of this parable. In the sequel we would find out whether the sons learned anything from watching their father’s application of what we might call “new math.” It was a way of calculating that multiplied and divided everything by love.

New math seems to be a motif in all three of the stories in Luke 15. The lost sheep and the lost coin were, in fact, practice sessions for the parable of the prodigal father. All three stories must have had the Pharisees fuming. But the tax collectors in the crowd must have smiled to themselves (see Luke 15:1-2). Jesus clearly wasn’t very good at math….

I thought of this story in choir rehearsal the other day. We were singing Dan Forrest’s exquisite suite for chorus and orchestra, Lux: The Dawn From on High. It was the third movement that stopped me in my tracks.

After the second movement’s insistent proclamation of John 1:5 (“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”), Forrest continues with these words from a poem by Daniel Ladinsky:

Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, “You owe me.”

Look what happens with a love like that.

It lights the whole sky.

This week we begin another journey through Advent. As the days grow shorter and the news grows darker, turn toward “love like that” wherever you find it—love that doesn’t get lost in careful calculations. It’s a love that will light the whole sky.

Listen:  The Sun Never Says

Pray: Help us to reflect your prodigal love.

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: No Quid Pro Quo

 

We continue the “Tuned for Praise” series with three hymns on healing.

This is the third of those three reflections.

 

Read: Job 42:7-17

After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations (Job 42:16, NRSV).

Contrary to popular belief, the book of Job does not have a happy ending.

Oh, I know that Job ends up with twice as much stuff as he had before and a whole new set of children. But are we meant to believe that life was ever really the same for him after his 42-chapter ordeal?

My young daughter, Ellen, made me feel the sharp end of this point once. I had just finished reading the ending to book of Job to her and her brother, Andy. Afterwards, she sat very still for a moment. Then she asked, “Mom, if Andy and I died and you and Dad got NEW kids—would that make it OK?”

No. It would not be OK. It would never be OK.

Her question sent me back to the end of Job’s story with some questions of my own:

  • What was it like for Job to risk living and loving again once he knew that he could lose it all at any moment?
  • How could he find the courage to serve God once he knew that faithfulness did not guarantee health, wealth, and happiness?

Though we can’t ask Job directly, there are certain clues to how he might respond to these questions in the details of the text itself. He prays for his so-called friends. He throws a big party and gives gifts to his siblings—even though they had been noticeably absent during his ordeal. He gives frivolous names to his new daughters (Dove, Cinnamon, and Eye-Shadow)—and then flaunts all convention by naming them in the will along with their brothers.

If we expected Job to be bitter, fearful, or suicidal—we have another thing coming. This is a man who knows how to throw a party. This is a man who seems to have decided to serve God even if there isn’t anything in it for him. This is a man who has learned to live without all the answers.

I like to imagine Job singing the hymn, “O God Beyond All Praising.” I picture him singing with his head thrown back and a smile on his face. The references to Christ in verse two would puzzle him, but if we told him the story, it probably wouldn’t surprise him to learn the lengths to which God was willing to go to make things right. And when he got to verse three there might be tears on his cheeks, but he’d sing all the louder. Because who would know better than Job that “whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill, we’ll triumph through our sorrows and rise to bless you still”?

Listen:  O God Beyond All Praising– This hymn text by Michael Perry is here set to the tune THAXTED by Gustav Holst. You may recognize this tune as the triumphant theme of the Jupiter movement from his suite, The Planets. This arrangement for choir and orchestra is by Richard Proulx and is available from GIA Publications.

Pray: “Whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill, we’ll triumph through our sorrows and rise to bless you still.” Thy will be done.

From v. 3 of Michael Perry’s “O God Beyond All Praising.”

 

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: When Memory Fades

 

We continue the “Tuned for Praise” series with three hymns on healing.

This is the second of those three reflections.

Read: Psalm 77

I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your ways of old. (Psalm 77:11, NRSV)

Memory. It lays the foundation for so much of our faith.

At the last supper, Jesus enjoins the disciples to “do this in remembrance of me.” In so many of the psalms, memories of God’s past faithfulness are the basis for present hope.

This seems to be the logic that lies behind Psalm 77. Yet, there is a twist at the center of this psalm that makes it especially valuable for the care of souls—especially those souls who feel betrayed by their own memories.

The psalmist’s distress could not be more real. “I cry aloud to God,” she admits at the outset. “My soul refuses to be comforted.” But as she continues to describe her distress, she departs from the usual pattern. For this psalmist, memories of God’s past faithfulness are tinged with more pain than pleasure. It’s the very contrast between past blessing and present pain that she finds so galling. When she “consider(s) the days of old, and remember(s) the years of long ago,” she is confronted with a litany of agonizing questions:

Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?

Has his steadfast love ceased forever?

Are his promises at an end for all time?

Has God forgotten to be gracious?

Has he in anger shut up his compassion?

It is at this point that she comes to a bitter conclusion: “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

If the psalm ended there, it would still be useful for the care of souls. It is no small thing, after all, to help us find words for our fears, our doubts, and our grief.

But the psalm goes on in a way that makes one wonder if A) the psalmist came back later and wrote the ending, or B) the psalmist was surrounded by a community of faith that was able to bear her up when her own strength was spent. There is no way to know for sure, of course, but I think I’m leaning toward the latter.

I think of Psalm 77 whenever I sing what has become one of my favorite contemporary hymns, “When Memory Fades.” Mary Louse Bringle wrote the words for a friend whose mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Like the psalm, this hymn faces fear and pain with uncommon courage. And then it surrounds both primary and secondary sufferers with prayers to the God who will always remember us.

As you listen, let the words bear you up even if your own strength is spent.

Listen:  When Memory Fades – This hymn text by Mary Louise Bringle is here set to a tune by Jane Southwick Cool. The arrangement is by Eric Nelson. It is sung by the St. Olaf Choir, Anton Armstrong, conductor. In some newer hymnals, the text is also set to the familiar tune, FINLANDIA, by Jean Sibelius.

Pray: “When memory fades, and recognition falters, when eyes we love grow dim, and minds confused—speak to our souls of love that never alters; speak to our hearts, by pain and fear abused. O God of life and healing peace, empower us with patient courage by your grace infused.”

From v. 1 of Mary Louise Bringle’s “When Memory Fades.”

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!