You Were a Stranger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Story:

Happy endings are hard to come by on the island of Lamepedusa. For one thing, even the migrants who survive the journey to this tiny island gateway to Europe have a long way to go before they reach anything that could be described as a “happy ending.” Nevertheless, there are glimmers of hope. The kiss of this young couple radiates both relief and hope. “We made it!” it exclaims. Hope—like the island of Lampedusa itself—persists in a sea of suffering.

Bible Reading: Exodus 23:9

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. God is counting on both empathy and memory to reinforce this command in Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (JPS).

God’s appeal must have had a powerful impact on the newly liberated covenant people. One wonders if it could have a similar impact on many of us.

Consider, for instance, this statistic: In the years between 1892 and 1954, approximately 12 million immigrants passed through the immigrant inspection station on Ellis Island. Were your ancestors among them? Mine were. I can’t help but wonder if my great-great-great grandparents shared a kiss of hope like the one in the picture.

Discussion/Reflection:

  • Were your ancestors immigrants? If so, how does that affect the way you view contemporary migrants?
  • What does it feel like to be a stranger in a strange land? To what degree can empathy and memory help us engage the contemporary conversation around migrants and refugees?

Action:

  • Research your own family’s story.
  • Read more about the island of Lampedusa in this March 26, 2019 editorial: A Look from the Border.

Prayer: Forgive us for our short memories. Forgive us for our lack of empathy. Forgive us when we are quick to accept God’s grace for ourselves, but slow to show grace to others.

Rachel Weeping

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Story:

This image of a mother cradling her baby is heartbreakingly lovely—or at least it is until we realize that they are under the waves. Then it is just heartbreaking.

The tragedy that took their lives and the lives of at least 366 others took place just off the shores of the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea on October 3, 2013. Over 500 people were crammed onto the rickety boat that caught fire and capsized that night. They were trying to escape war and poverty in places like Eritrea and Somalia.

We don’t know the names of the woman and child in Francesco Piobbichi’s picture. But he drew the picture so that we would not forget their story. Here is how he describes it in words:

On a moonless night, a boat with hundreds of passengers sank just off the coast of

Lampedusa. They asked for help but in vain. Hundreds of people perished at sea.

A baby was born at sea that night and then died without ever having seen the day

or smelled the sweet smell of land. The present sank without giving possibility for the

future to be born…” (Drawings from the Border, Claudiana, p. 21).

Bible Reading: Jeremiah 31:15 (NRSV)

“A voice is heard in Ramah,” the prophet Jeremiah writes. It is a voice of “lamentation and bitter weeping.” The matriarch, Rachel, is “weeping for her children” who have been killed or driven into exile. She “refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:15).

Although the circumstances of our contemporary exiles are not precisely the same, it is hard not to hear mother Rachel weeping still. What else can one do but weep?

Believe it or not, some seek to blame the victims. “Why would a woman in the last stages of pregnancy try to cross the Mediterranean in a crowded boat? Why would she leave home in the first place?” they ask. These questions are ignorant of the desperation that drives migrants to leave their homes in the first place. They also overlook the fact that many women are raped along the way, and held for months in brutal Libyan “detention centers.”

Rachel is right. Weeping is the appropriate response. But it is not the only response. In a radio broadcast commemorating the anniversary of the October 3 event, Paolo Naso, the coordinator of Mediterranean Hope suggested that–

The only way to commemorate the victims of immigration should be the commitment

to stop this tragedy with laws and programs that allow safe and legal journeys to those

who have been fleeing war, persecution, hunger, and violence.

Weeping is natural. Blaming is inappropriate. But working for change is imperative.

Discussion/Reflection:

  • The loss of life on October 3, 2013 is often described as a tragedy. In what ways is that word inadequate? In what sense might it better be labeled a crime?
  • Describe your response to Piobbichi’s portrait? Are you drawn to it? Repelled by it? Why? What do you think of the portrait’s nickname: The Madonna of the Mediterranean?

 Action:

Prayer: Forgive us when we are tempted to look away from problems that seem too big to fix. Help us to find real ways to help. And lest we pray only for ourselves when the suffering of others is so great—stretch out your hands to comfort, to heal, and to save.

A Familiar Face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

             Artwork by Francesco Piobbichi

Story: If the face in the prow of the boat looks familiar, it’s because it is that of Anne Frank. Most of us know her story. Though she died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, Anne’s words live on in a book that has since been translated into over sixty languages: The Diary of a Young Girl. Penned during the years she and her family were in hiding from the Nazis (1942-1944), Anne’s diary gives us a tender and terrifying glimpse into the soul of a young woman who ached to live in a world free of hate, persecution, and war.

What many do not know is that Anne’s father, Otto, tried desperately to get his family out of the Netherlands. His efforts were thwarted in part by the restrictive immigration policies of the United States. Anne is portrayed with a smile in this drawing, but perhaps the artist, Francesco Piobbichi, is inviting us to imagine Anne finally making her escape with others who share her hopes and dreams of a life free from hate, persecution, and war. He may also be nudging us into asking ourselves an uncomfortable question: If we care so much about Anne Frank, why don’t we care more about the lives of the other people in the boat?

Bible Reading: Hebrews 13:1-3 (NRSV)

 This passage from Hebrews urges us to “show mutual love.” It’s another way of stating Jesus’ golden rule: “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). Of course, this requires both imagination and empathy—both of which seem to be in short supply sometimes. Still, if we could manage to drum up even a little bit of both, we might find it easier—and more urgent—to open our hearts and wallets to refugees. “What if I were on one of those rickety boats, trying to make my way across the Mediterranean?” we might ask. “What if I had given everything I had to purchase my passage from unscrupulous traffickers? What if I had been raped and tortured in a Libyan prison?”

If that were not sufficient motivation, the book of Hebrews points out another possibility. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” it says, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

When we read The Diary of Anne Frank we say to ourselves, “If only I had been there I would have tried to help her!” There is no way to know, of course, if we really would have tried. But there is a way to find out if we’re willing to help the real and present refugees that, like Anne Frank, are trying to find their way to freedom. Who knows if, in helping one of them, we might be aiding another Anne?

Discussion/Reflection:

  • What was your reaction when you realized that it was Anne Frank in the prow of the boat?
  • Why is it so much easier to care about Anne Frank than contemporary refugees?

 Action:

  • Research what’s happening with Humanitarian Corridors. This ecumenical effort seeks to provide safe passage for at least some refugees. This link to the World Council of Churches’ web-site describes the safe arrival in France of refugees from Syria and Iraq in July, 2017: Humanitarian Corridors Story
  • Read The Diary of Anne Frank or watch one of the movies, documentaries, or mini-series based on Anne’s story. As you watch, consider how you might help a contemporary refugee find a way to life and freedom.
  • Read this story from April 11, 2024 in the Washington Post about recent shipwreck in the Mediterranean.

Prayer: Forgive us, O God, for caring selectively. Forgive us for turning away from people who may not look like us, or speak like us, or worship like us. Fire our imagination; fuel our empathy. Then guide us to ways we can make a difference.

Note: Back in 2019, I wrote a series of Bible studies focused on the Bible’s consistent call to welcome the stranger. I’ve decided it’s time to revisit that series.

Musicians don’t typically offer an encore unless their audience asks for one. In this case, it’s not so much the audience that’s demanding an encore, but current events. Rhetoric has grown increasingly vicious, racist, and violent as politicians seek to stoke the fear and anger they think will get them elected. In language that sounds chillingly like the fascism of the 1930’s and 40’s, Donald Trump accuses immigrants of being sub-human and of “poisoning the blood” of America.

Just as chilling to me is the failure of so many Christians to speak out against this rhetoric and the policies that grow out of it. Many of us seem to be oblivious to the content of our own Scriptures.

And so, I offer this, the Encore Edition of the “Welcoming the Stranger” Series.

Samia’s Story

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Story:

Only God knows the names of all the people who have sought the relative safety of Lampedusa’s shores. But we know the name of the woman in this picture. It is Samia Usuf Omar. She was a sprinter for Somalia in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. When she returned to Somalia after competing in the Olympics, she found herself in an increasingly dangerous and restrictive situation. So, in October of 2010 she began the journey she hoped would take her to Europe, a new coach, and a chance at the 2012 Olympics.  In October of 2012 her overcrowded boat ran out of gas. She drowned within sight of the rescue boat. The only reason we know about her is because another Samali athlete, gold medalist Abdi Bile, told her story.

Bible Reading: Ruth 4:11-18 (NRSV)

Ruth was a refugee. She fled famine with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and struggled to find acceptance in Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem. As a foreigner, a widow, and a recent convert to her mother-in-law’s faith, Ruth exists on the margins of the community of which she longs to become a part.  In this passage from the end of the book that bears her name, we see the community finally returning her embrace. Instead of “Ruth, the Moabite,” she is here named with the matriarchs, Rachel and Leah. In the genealogies that follow, we realize that she is the great-grandmother of King David.

Ruth’s story reminds us that “foreigners” have had a crucial role to play in God’s story of salvation. It prompts us to remember that every refugee has a name and a story that is known to God even if it is not known to us. It makes us wonder about how the gifts and hopes of those who have died might have changed our world for the better. Finally, it nudges us to open our hearts, our minds, and our homes to people who we perceive to be different from ourselves.

Discussion/Reflection:

  • How does knowing that Samia’s name and story affect your image of what it means to be a refugee?
  • How might our response to the refugee crisis change if we knew the names and stories of the people involved?

Action:

Prayer: Gracious God, to you all your children by name. We lift before you all the people who risk their lives to find safety on distant shores. Even if they are anonymous to us, they are known and loved by you. We pray, especially, that Samia’s story may inspire others. May it help us to revise our assumptions and check our stereotypes. Comfort all those who grieve for those the world has forgotten, but whose love and legacy will always be a part of those they have left behind.

Note: Back in 2019, I wrote a series of Bible studies focused on the Bible’s consistent call to welcome the stranger. I’ve decided it’s time to revisit that series.

Musicians don’t typically offer an encore unless their audience asks for one. In this case, it’s not so much the audience that’s demanding an encore, but current events. Rhetoric has grown increasingly vicious, racist, and violent as politicians seek to stoke the fear and anger they think will get them elected. In language that sounds chillingly like the fascism of the 1930’s and 40’s, Donald Trump accuses immigrants of being sub-human and of “poisoning the blood” of America.

Just as chilling to me is the failure of so many Christians to speak out against this rhetoric and the policies that grow out of it. Many of us seem to be oblivious to the content of our own Scriptures.

And so, I offer this, the Encore Edition of the “Welcoming the Stranger” Series.

Welcoming the Stranger Series-Encore Edition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            Drawing by Francesco Piobbichi

Read: Matthew 25:31-40

…for I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matthew 25:35, NRSV).

Back in 2019, I wrote a series of Bible studies focused on the Bible’s consistent call to welcome the stranger. I’ve decided it’s time to revisit that series.

Musicians don’t typically offer an encore unless their audience asks for one. In this case, it’s not so much the audience that’s demanding an encore, but current events. Rhetoric has grown increasingly vicious, racist, and violent as politicians seek to stoke the fear and anger they think will get them elected. In language that sounds chillingly like the fascism of the 1930’s and 40’s, Donald Trump accuses immigrants of being sub-human and of “poisoning the blood” of America.

Just as chilling to me is the failure of so many Christians to speak out against this rhetoric and the policies that grow out of it. Many of us seem to be oblivious to the content of our own Scriptures.

And so, I offer this, the Encore Edition of the “Welcoming the Stranger” Series.

Joseph Stalin is said to have observed that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.” One doesn’t have to approve of Stalin to recognize his point. And it may have something to do with our insensitivity to the very human faces of immigrants and refugees. Overwhelmed by statistics (for example, it’s estimated that the civil war in Sudan has created over 8 million refugees), we become numb to the very human tragedies that would allow us to recognize the face of Jesus in these “strangers.”

That’s why I decided to focus on one person’s story for each of the reflections in this series. The stories are true and are brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. While the “border” in these stories is the Mediterranean Sea, the themes of desperation and hope apply to people everywhere who leave their homes in search of safety and a better life.

Each reflection features a story, a drawing, Scripture, prayer, discussion questions, and

action prompts. I pray that they awaken in you a deeper sense of why “welcoming the stranger” is not only central to the Christian faith but incumbent upon those of us who profess to be Christians.

Discussion/Reflection:

  • Why do you think there is so much hostility toward immigrants and refugees even among Christians?
  • Where in the world do you see Jesus in the faces of “strangers”?

Action:

Prayer: Give us the courage to see beyond statistics. Show us how to welcome others as you have welcomed us.

Resurrection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read: John 20:1-18

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes (John 20:3-10, NRSV).

Resurrection. It’s a word we don’t use very often—except, perhaps, on Easter Sunday.

Literally, it means “stand up” or “stand again.” But none of the people who showed up at the tomb that first Easter morning expected to see Jesus “stand again.” A corpse just doesn’t do that.

Jesus, of course, is the main character in this passage, but the story is told in such a way that we see it unfold from the perspectives of three people who were close to him: Mary Magdalene, Peter, and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,” (aka John). As we see the story again through their eyes, I invite you to ask: which character do I identify with most closely? Who would I be if I could step back into the story of that first Easter morning?

Mary Magdalene sets the story in motion. She gets up at the crack of dawn. (One wonders if she’d slept at all.) She goes to the tomb while it’s still dark. What were her plans? To mourn, certainly. To weep, obviously. Perhaps, as two of the other gospels suggest, she brought spices with which to anoint Jesus’ body. That was a traditional practice back then, but Jesus’ burial had been so hasty, there had been no time to perform that last act of love.

How had she planned to roll away the heavy stone blocking the door to the tomb? Perhaps—like most of us when we are lost in grief—she had no specific plan. Maybe this was one of those “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” situations. In any case, when she got there, she saw that the stone had already been removed.

But for Mary, this was not good news. Her first thought is that graverobbers have been there before her. That’s what she tells Peter and John when she runs back to tell them the news. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Oh, no, she must have thought. I didn’t think things could get any worse, but now they have!

Now let’s follow Peter and “the other disciple” as they run to the tomb. John outruns Peter. He stoops down and sees the linen wrappings from Jesus’ body. Perhaps that sight is enough to confirm Mary’s story. In any case, he can’t bring himself to go in.

Peter finally catches up and, leaving John at the entrance, strides into the empty tomb. Empty, that is, except for the linen wrappings that John had seen. Oh—and this is curious. He sees “the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself” (v. 7). What did he make of that?

As he is pondering this, John finally summons the courage to enter the tomb. He sees the exact same things that Peter sees, but for him, something “clicks.” I wonder if it was that carefully rolled up piece of linen that had been on Jesus’ head. It must have been important somehow, since the gospel writer saw fit to include it in the way he’s told the story.

What could it have meant to John in that moment? I wonder…did it seem out of place? It doesn’t fit with the “graverobber” theory, does it? What graverobber takes the time to carefully roll up the piece of linen covering the face of the corpse? That just doesn’t make sense. Unless…unless it wasn’t graverobbers. What if—no, it couldn’t be. But what if it was Jesus himself who rolled up that piece of linen. It would be the first thing one would do, after all, if….

We can’t know for sure that this was the detail that turned John’s despair into hope, but this is the point at which “he saw and believed.” And then—almost as an explanation of why he and Peter had been so slow to assume Jesus’ resurrection—the gospel writer adds these words: “For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (v. 9). In spite of all the hints from the psalms and the prophets, in spite of Jesus’ own candid predictions about how he would be killed and would rise again after three days (Mark 9:31-32), they were still surprised.

Can you blame them? No—I don’t think we can. And the fact that they were not expecting the resurrection gives credence to the story. It was a lot to take in. So, they did the only thing they could do in the wake of such a surprise. They went home to think about it.

Mary Magdalene is still there, however, weeping outside the tomb. Eventually, she works up the courage to bend down and look in. Two angels look back at her and ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?” They may be angels, but from Mary’s perspective, this must have seemed like a really stupid question. So she tells them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Notice that she’s still working off the “graverobber” theory.

Even when she turns around and sees Jesus himself standing there, she doesn’t know it’s Jesus. To see Jesus “standing again” is so far from her expectations that she doesn’t recognize him. When he asks her why she’s weeping (again with the dumb question!) and whom she’s looking for, she assumes he must be the gardener. Then she wonders if he—the gardener—has taken Jesus’ body, so she tries to convince him to give it back.

It’s not until Jesus—very much alive—says her name that she recognizes him. “Mary” he says—and she finally realizes that she has to entertain a new theory. Not graverobbers, but resurrection.

So, which character are you most drawn to in this surprising story?

Is it Mary, loyal to the last, but so lost in grief that she needs two angels and the risen Lord himself to awaken her hope?

Is it John—the beloved disciple—who is quick to run to the tomb, quick to assume the worst, but also quick to consider what the evidence is telling him—that Jesus might actually be alive.

Or is it Peter—slow but steady. Maybe it takes him a little longer to get to the tomb, and maybe it also takes him a while to arrive at the same conclusion John comes to. But we know he eventually believes. He gets there eventually.

Or perhaps you are simply yourself, standing somewhere on the edges of this story, wondering what to make of it all.

Wherever we find ourselves in relation to this story of the first Easter, we should not downplay how shocking it is. Resurrection is not something one expects. It is not “natural.” It is not “status quo.” If we have come to see it as such, it’s simply a sign that we have become numb to the central shock of the story: Jesus, who was dead, is alive again. And because he lives, we—and all creation—have the hope of “standing again” with him.

Today, as you consider the story of the resurrection, feel the shock of it. Consider the wonder of it. Celebrate the hope in it. And then, live the rest of your life in light of it. Because after resurrection, nothing can ever be the same.

Ponder: Do you believe in the resurrection? What difference does/will that make in your life?

Pray: Don’t give up on us, Lord Jesus, even when we are slow to understand that you are very much alive.

Hosanna!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read: John 12:9-19

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!” (John 12:12-13, NRSV).

“Hosanna!” is one of those words that we only use once a year—and then only if we happen to be in church on Palm Sunday. Most of us assume that it’s some ancient synonym for “Hallelujah!” Of course, we’ve forgotten what that word means, too, so maybe it’s time we looked into what all the shouting is about.

“Hallelujah” is actually a mash-up of two Hebrew words that mean, “Praise God!” If you’re a stickler for accuracy, it’s a plural imperative, so it literally means, “Praise God, y’all!”

“Hosanna!” also traces back to two Hebrew words, but they mean, “Please—save!” In other words, this is an ancient way of crying for help. I guess that’s why you never see it without an exclamation point.

When you’re learning a new language, it’s usually wise to start with a handful of words or phrases that you might need in an emergency. Even before “please” and “thank you,” one really ought to memorize things like, “Where is the bathroom?” and “Help!” Even Google Translate may not be fast enough to meet your needs in some situations, after all.

The story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is included in all four Gospels. In all of them, the episode follows stories of Jesus healing the sick. Only in the gospel of John does it also follow the story of the raising of Lazarus. I point this out because it gives John’s version of “Palm Sunday” even greater urgency. No wonder people were flocking to meet him and shouting, “Please, help!” Who wouldn’t want to get help from someone who had the power to raise you from the dead?

Of course, they also thought that he had real potential in other ways. They didn’t stop with “Please, help!” Drawing from Psalm 118 (a messianic psalm if ever there was one), they also shouted, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Then they went on to call him the “King of Israel.” None of this went over well with the local authorities, who felt their power slipping away.

I find myself wondering what Jesus was thinking and feeling as he rode that borrowed donkey through the throng. I’m guessing he felt compassion, first of all. (These people needed even more help than they knew.) But I suspect he was also frustrated at how far off the mark many of them were as to his real identity and mission.

We also need more help than we know. Sickness, war, famine, and death still stalk the world, of course. But we have other things in common with that ancient, palm-waving crowd. We’re quick to see strong men as saviors—people we think will solve all our social and political problems. We even try to conscript Jesus into serving vile agendas that have nothing whatsoever in common with his actual life and teaching. I’m talking racism, prejudice, greed, and hate.

There’s a word for this situation, and we need to shout it to heaven it with all the urgency we can muster. That’s right. It’s “Hosanna!”

Ponder this quote from author Anne Lamott: “I worry that Jesus drinks himself to sleep when he hears me talk like this.” How might this apply to certain current manifestations of Christianity? How might it apply to your preferred brand of Christianity?

Pray: Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!

God Help Us

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read: Genesis 2:15-25

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Genesis 2:18).

What on earth does it mean for woman to be created as man’s “helper? Even if you don’t take the creation stories literally, this is an important question.

For years Genesis 2:18 has been used to put women “in their place.” By this people (read: some men) generally mean that they interpret the verse as a divine mandate that women are created to be in a subservient role to men.  It will surprise no one that this is not a view I favor either as a woman or a biblical scholar.

Again, I ask: What does it mean to be a “helper”? And why do so many interpreters assume that it implies subservience?

Translation is important here, although it doesn’t tell the whole story. In Hebrew, the word ezer can indeed mean “helper.” Yet, there are a couple of things we ought to consider before we draw too many conclusions from this.

First, the full phrase in Hebrew means “a helper as his partner” (NRSV). Another possibility would be, “a helper as his counterpart” (my translation). When we consider the full phrase, it’s much harder to come away with the impression that the woman is created as some kind of second-class citizen.

The other consideration is how the word ezer is used elsewhere in the Old Testament. Most often, this is a word that used to describe God. Yes—God!

Psalm 33:20 says, “Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and shield.” In Psalm 121:1-2, the psalmist lifts up his eyes to the hills and asks, “from where will my help come?” Then he answers his own question: “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

So, why are we assuming that being a “helper” is a subservient thing?

I think it says something less than flattering about us when we try to downgrade the role of helpers. I call as my witness Fred Rogers, who once said:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

Can I get an “amen,” anyone?

Helpers are not only sent from God, they are imitators of God. If we can’t get that through our heads, then—well—God help us.

Ponder: Why do you think so many interpreters have read Genesis 2:18 to imply that women should be subservient to men? How does the reminder that God is a helper change your view of this verse? How does it change your view of your calling?

Pray: Help me to be a helper, O God.

Frail Children of Dust

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read: Job 42:1-6

I had heard you with my ears, but now I see you with my eyes. Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes (Job 42:5-6, JPS).

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we hear as ashes are smudged on our forehead on Ash Wednesday.

If that’s not a stark enough reminder of our mortality, let’s move to the cemetery. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” the officiant says, and we toss a symbolic handful of dirt onto our loved one’s coffin.

Most of us don’t like such reminders. In fact, we go out of our way to avoid them. And if you think it’s uncomfortable receiving the ashes on Ash Wednesday, try stepping into the shoes of the one who is imposing them. Imagine reminding your favorite teacher, your child, your grandchild that “they are dust.”

Yet, like it or not, we are dust. Genesis 2 gets it right in depicting humans as humus. There’s a similar word play in the Hebrew. Adam (human) is from the adamah (earth). Ellen Davis points out that in the Bible, the soil is less of a resource than a relative.

All of this is important background for our verse du jour from the book of Job. The trouble is, most translations obscure our ability to get its point.

For instance, the NRSV reads: “…therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” This makes it sound like an expression of self-loathing—or worse—an admission of the “secret sin” that Job’s friends have been making such a fuss about. It is neither of those things, but only a better translation will help us to understand why.

Here’s one from the Jewish Publication Society that I find helpful: “I had heard you with my ears, but now I see you with my eyes. Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes.

Bear in mind that Job has just been on a whirlwind tour of, well, a whirlwind. After demanding an explanation for why bad things happen to good people—namely him—Job braces himself for an explanation from the Almighty. He seems to assume he will understand such an explanation. To God’s credit, God responds, but not with the explanation Job (and we) are hoping for. Instead, God spends chapters 3841 with a whirlwind of “where were you when” questions designed to put Job’s question into perspective.

If you’ve ever experienced the power of a hurricane or a tornado, you’ll understand why the whirlwind is such an apt metaphor for Job’s reality check. We’re powerless to control it. Completely out of our league. Just so, the God who made the morning stars sing together and leads Leviathan around with a fishhook has a level of wisdom that is exponentially beyond human understanding. In short, God is God and we are not.

It’s in the wake of this reality check that Job “reconsiders.” Sure, he still has questions (don’t we all?), but he now understands the limits of his own wisdom in a way he didn’t before. He understands that he is “dust and ashes”—a phrase that is used to describe the human condition. In Genesis 18:27, for instance, Abraham dares to dicker with the Almighty over the fate of Sodom, but he does so knowing that he’s doing so at his own risk. “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord,” he says carefully, “I who am but dust and ashes.”

We’re only human. Yet, as Job discovers, there is some real freedom in that. At the end of the day—and a whirlwind of a day it has been—God asks us to live without having all the answers. Job does just that, reinvesting in a new family knowing full well that no amount of “let’s make a deal” obedience can guarantee their safety. Faith is about trust, not calculation.

It’s a lot to ask. But that’s what the life of faith is. And that’s part of what it means to be “dust and ashes.”

Ponder: Being “dust and ashes” doesn’t mean we aren’t worth anything. What does the incarnation tell you about how God values our humanity? The crucifixion? The resurrection?

Pray: Frail children of dust and feeble as frail, in Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail. Your mercies how tender, how firm to the end—our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.*

 

*From the hymn, “O Worship the King, All Glorious Above!” by Robert Grant.

Steadfast Love Is the Answer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read: Psalm 145

The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 145:8, NRSV).

Have you ever found yourself thinking, “There ought to be a word for that!”? Half the fun of learning other languages is discovering such words. For instance, iktsuarpok is Inuit for “that feeling of anticipation you have when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet.” Or there’s the German word, kummerspeck, which refers to “the excess weight one gains from emotional overeating.” (Literally, it translates as “grief bacon.”) Or there is the Scots word, tartle, for “that panicky hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can’t remember….”*

I don’t know about you, but I need all of these words.

Whenever it takes more than one English word to capture something from another language, it’s a sign that there might be more going on than we realize. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly the case with the Hebrew word that I would argue is the most important word in the whole Old Testament.

I’m talking about the word ḥesed. In the NRSV it’s usually translated as “steadfast love.” Other times you’ll see it as “mercy” or “kindness,” or even “goodness.” If you grew up with the King James Version, you’ll know it as “lovingkindness.” But all these translations are attempts to capture something we don’t really have a word for in English.

Ḥesed (pronounced chĕsĕd) is love that goes above and beyond the call of duty. It’s selfless, covenant love. Sacrificial love.

Most of the 248 times this word is used, it is used to describe the way God loves. When God comes to Moses on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 34:6, for instance, it says that “the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (ḥesed) and faithfulness….’” The fact that God shows up at all just two chapters after the golden calf incident is the perfect illustration of a love that goes “above and beyond.”

The psalmists are understandably fond of this word. In Psalm 51, for instance, the psalmist knows that it will completely change the calculus between his sins and their consequences. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love (ḥesed); according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.”

The prophet Jonah is the only one who has the temerity to complain about God’s ḥesed, but that’s precisely because he doesn’t want God to show it to people Jonah doesn’t like (see Jonah 4:2). There you go again God, he whines, loving extravagantly. I hate when that happens—unless, of course, it happens to me.

Petulant prophets aside, ḥesed is sometimes a human quality. Ruth and Boaz, for instance are both people who go above and beyond the call of duty—acting with love and loyalty even when there’s nothing “in it” for them.

The fact that the English language has no precise equivalent for ḥesed makes me wonder about how this has shaped those of us who use that language. Maybe it’s time we learned a new word.

Ponder: How does the Hebrew word ḥesed lay a foundation for what we learn about God in the New Testament?

Pray: May our own ḥesed reflect your own, O God.

 

*Taken from 51 Wonderful Words With No English Equivalent