The Ethiopian Eunuch

Read: Acts 8:26-39

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it” (Acts 8:27-29, NRSV).

“Do you understand what you are reading?”

That was the question Philip posed to the stranger. For some time now, I have wondered the same thing.

When Christians discuss the subject of homosexuality, we tend to obsess about a small set of Scripture passages. What would happen if we expanded the discussion to include some other stories? Stories that may—on closer examination—offer relevant wisdom?

One of these is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. Scripture does not give us his name, but tradition identifies him as Simeon Bachos. Since identity is much more than nationality or sexuality, let’s agree to call him by his name.

What do we know about Simeon Bachos? We know he is from Ethiopia. We know that he is a person of some power and significant responsibility. The Queen of Ethiopia has entrusted him with her entire treasury, after all. Although Jewish law would have barred him from becoming a proselyte (see Deut. 23:1), we know that he is at least deeply curious about the Jewish religion. He has just come from worshiping in Jerusalem, and when Philip finds him sitting in his chariot by the side of the road, he is reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Even if the Jewish faith did not accept him, he seems to have accepted Jewish faith.

But what does it mean when it says that he is a “eunuch”? In short, it means that he has been castrated. This brutal practice was common in ancient Near Eastern and North African courts. Among other things, it ensured that the victim was “safe” with the women of the court. Whether it was inflicted as a punishment or a condition of employment (or both), we can be fairly certain it was not voluntary.

Are you beginning to sense why this story may be relevant to Christian discussions about all things LGBTQIA?

The overwhelming scientific consensus tells us that sexual orientation is not a choice. It is not voluntary. And yet, so many Christians keep insisting on having these conversations in the category of “sin.”

What, I wonder, would Simeon Bachos have to say to us in light of his experience?

He might tell us what it feels like to be treated as an outsider. He might bear witness to the pain of wanting to be part of a community of faith that wants no part of you.

But he might also tell us about the day he was sitting in his chariot reading Isaiah 53. He’d been trying to puzzle out who this Suffering Servant was—this person who “was despised and rejected by others” and who was taken away “by a perversion of justice.” Whoever this Suffering Servant was, Simeon Bachos wanted to meet him. They’d have a lot to talk about.

Maybe he’d tell us about Philip showing up out of nowhere to explain about Jesus. How Simeon Bachos had blurted out, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” How, to his surprise, Philip hadn’t raised a single objection. How they had simply jumped down from the chariot, walked over to the water, and gotten the job done. How in that moment Simeon Bachos had felt like he finally belonged.

We can’t be sure exactly what Simeon Bachos would say to us, of course. But I’m pretty sure that, at the very least, he would look us in the eye and ask, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

Ponder: In the beginning of this story, it is God (via an angel) who gives Philip his marching orders. What do you think God is telling the church to do today? What is God telling you to do?

Listen: For a wonderful exploration of this passage, listen to this sermon by Gordon Wiersma, preached on May 2, 2021 at Hope Church in Holland, Michigan. (The sermon starts at minute 33:40.) If you would rather read the sermon, here is a link to the text.

Pray: Help us to understand what we are reading, gracious God. Help us to be open to all the wisdom you have for us—whether through Scripture, or science, or those with stories to tell.

Sister Act

Read: Numbers 27:1-11

Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness…and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers (Numbers 27:1-4, selected portions, NRSV).

If you’re a fan of “God said it; I believe it; that settles it,” then you may not want to read Numbers 27 too closely. It has the potential to upend some assumptions.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

This obscure passage from the book of Numbers may seem like a strange place to start a series called, “Double Takes.” After all, most people probably haven’t looked at this story once, let alone twice. But since this story is about double takes, it seems like an especially good place to begin.

The first people who do a double take in this story are the five daughters of Zelophehad. We even know their names: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. If we are regular readers of the Bible, our antennae are up from the get-go, since the Bible does not always bother to record women’s names, let alone their perspectives. But the perspective of this sister act gets the story off the ground. It’s what gives them the courage to come forward.

The daughters of Zelophehad had a problem. Every Hebrew family was supposed to inherit a piece of the Promised Land. But since only boys could inherit, and their father had died with “only” daughters, they were out of luck.

One can only imagine the conversations they must have had around the dinner table. They knew the letter of the law, but what about the spirit of the law? There must have been a moment when they looked at one another and knew what they had to do. The fact that it wasn’t the “done thing” does not seem to have occurred to them.

To make a short story shorter, they bring their case to Moses and the other movers and shakers. It must have caused quite a stir. (The Bible bothers to tell us about it, after all.) Moses is flummoxed, so he takes their case to a higher authority. And then, even God does a double take.

“The daughters of Zelophehad are right,” God admits. “You shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter” (vv. 7-8).

The fascinating thing about this divine double take is what it says about the need to interpret for new situations. God’s word is not static. It must be interpreted anew in each generation. In this story, even God reconsiders, and Moses the law-giver must become the law-interpreter.

This is bad news if your preferred method of mounting an argument is to quote Scripture as if it were carved in stone. That approach is too easy, too lazy, and too arrogant. No, the hard work of interpretation means we’re going to have to consider the spirit as well as the letter of the law. Jesus, if you recall, had some things to say on that subject.

In the next several installments of this series, we’re going to take a second look at some parts of the Bible that may not be as “settled” as we have assumed. It will be hard work. It may require you to re-think some cherished assumptions. But if you are worried, just remember Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They had the courage to come forward. I hope you will, too.

Ponder: What Bible passages do you think need a double take? What’s to stop us from reading whatever we want into the Bible?

Pray: Help us to interpret your Word with humility, openness, intelligence, and courage.

Double Takes Series

Sometimes the Bible doesn’t say what we think it says.

In this series we will take a second look at some passages that are often misunderstood. While I can’t promise that these “double takes” will change the way you see the world, they may well change the way you see certain parts of the Bible.

In all candor, you may not experience these new perspectives as improvements. Sometimes it’s easier to keep thinking what we’ve always thought. But for me, it has been a blessing to reconsider my assumptions. I am reminded of something Barbara Brown Taylor once said about being dis-illusioned: “Disillusionment is the loss of illusion—about ourselves, about the world, about God—and while it is almost always painful, it is not a bad thing to lose the lies we have mistaken for the the truth.”*

May God grant you the courage to take a second look and the wisdom to know how to respond to what you see.

Carol M. Bechtel

*Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 8.

Saving Our Place

Read: 1 Kings 21

Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:1-3, NRSV).

Ahab’s offer sounds reasonable enough. After all, kings have been known to take what they want without paying for it. Shouldn’t he get points for offering Naboth fair market value for his vineyard?

Judging by Naboth’s reaction, it’s not about the money. For Naboth, it’s about something infinitely more sacred: his ancestral inheritance. He refuses to trade or to sell—and he pays for that refusal with his life.

Would we defend our inheritance with our lives?

That’s not really a hypothetical question. The earth, after all, is our ancestral inheritance. And since selling out or trading up doesn’t seem to be an option, we had better take care of it. Our lives—and the lives of future generations—depend on it.

Last week I had the opportunity to return to my family’s farm in northwest Illinois. I took a picture of our old barn (see above). It’s on its last legs, but still beautiful in my eyes. In my memory it’s a place of warmth and safety—a place to lie back with a book while watching dust mites play in the sunbeams. It’s a place to watch calves and lambs tumbling into the world. It’s a place for befriending a family of field mice. It’s a place to sing songs with my siblings.

Everybody should have a place like that, but few people do.

Is my attachment sentimental? Yes. But even allowing for that, I would argue that this place has formed me in ways I can’t explain. It’s as if the place is imprinted on my soul—much as a mother’s face is imprinted on the psyche of her baby.

Is the earth such a mother—whether we are aware of it or not?

The pandemic has pushed us to think about a lot of things. High on the list, however, is how precious—and interconnected—our world is. It also pushes us to ask: What do we need to do differently to protect our ancestral inheritance?

Wendell Berry pushes us in similar directions. Here is part of a poem that he wrote long before the pandemic. It’s called, “A Poem About Hope and Place”:

Because we have not made our lives to fit

Our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,

The streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope

Then to belong to your place by your own knowledge

Of what it is that no other place is, and by

Your caring for it as you care for no other place, this

Place that you belong to though it is not yours,

For it was from the beginning and will be to the end.*

We belong to places more than places belong to us. Berry knows it. Naboth knew it. But do we know it?

If you know it, what are you willing to do to “save your place”? How has it saved you?

Ponder this quote from another poem by Wendell Berry: “There are no unsacred spaces; there are only sacred places and desecrated places” (from “How to Be a Poet”).

Pray: Help us to make our lives fit our places, God of all creation.

 

*See the full text of the poem and hear Wendell Berry reading it by following this link.

Not My Weed?

Read: Proverbs 5:16-19

There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family (Proverbs 5:16-19, NRSV).

First, I should make it clear that this reflection has nothing to do with marijuana. If the title led you to believe otherwise—sorry. I don’t have much to say on that subject.

No, this reflection is about unwanted plants that spring up and flourish in spite of all our efforts to eradicate them.

My husband accuses me of being obsessed with weeds, and he is probably right. He has plenty of evidence. For instance, when we were on a walk the other day, and I spied a luxuriant little weed in our neighbor’s flower bed. I slowed down, hovering over it with hand outstretched. (It was mocking me, after all.) But no. Tempted as I was to put an end to its miserable little life, I straightened up, took a deep breath, and walked on. “Not my weed—not my problem,” I said—as much to myself as to my husband.

“Good for you!” he said. (He’s a therapist, so he likes to encourage boundaries.) “I’m going to get you a t-shirt that says: NOT MY WEED—NOT MY PROBLEM!”

I liked the idea at first. But the more I thought about it, the more I found myself wanting to qualify the statement. “I need an asterisk,” I argued. “Sometimes your neighbor’s weed CAN be your problem.”

So, we spent the rest of the walk composing a list for the back of my t-shirt: creeping Charlie, dandelions, purple vetch, multiflora rose, garlic mustard, Norway maples, deadly nightshade…. Some are “garden variety” weeds, and others have graduated to invasive species. But all of them spell trouble, even when they are in your neighbor’s yard.

Sometimes, even if it isn’t your weed, it’s still your problem.

God seems similarly obsessed with certain noxious behaviors in today’s passage from Proverbs. All of them have one thing in common: they have a catastrophic effect on community. Your neighbor’s lie, for instance, can quickly become a problem for a lot of people.

We don’t have to look very hard for contemporary examples of this. The bigger the lie, the bigger the problem, as we’ve seen all too clearly of late. But other behaviors and/or attitudes can have a similarly noxious effect. Racism, sexism, and good old garden variety greed spring to mind. And all of these behaviors press us to ask some hard questions of ourselves and of our society. Questions like: When does one person’s freedom become everyone else’s problem? When that happens, what do we do about it?

I do not know the answers to those questions, but I do know that the health of our communities depends on how we address them.

It’s not going to be enough to proclaim: Not my weed—not my problem. These weeds are everybody’s problem.

Ponder Peter W. Marty’s words about our nation’s need to reevaluate our relationship with guns. Marty’s editorial, “Becoming Disenthralled,” is in the April 21, 2021 edition of the Christian Century.

Pray: Grant us wisdom and courage, God, as we struggle with complex problems. Help us to see the weeds in our own garden as well as in those of our neighbors.

Shield the Joyous

Read: Isaiah 35

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Isaiah 35:10, NRSV).

What a difference a few decades make.

I first encountered the phrase “shield the joyous” when I was in my early twenties. It was—and is—part of a traditional evening prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. Maybe you’ve prayed it yourself:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

When I first encountered the phrase, “shield the joyous,” it struck me as an odd kind of afterthought. It didn’t fit with the rest of the requests. After all, it makes sense to pray for the sick, the suffering, the weary, and the dying. But why would we want to pray for the joyous? Haven’t they already received the answer to their prayers?

Now, several decades later, that part of the prayer seems not just necessary, but urgent.

Having been around the block a few times, I’ve learned how rare and how precious joy is. I’m not talking about run of the mill happiness—though, goodness knows, we can be grateful for that. I’m talking about moments of incandescent delight. The kind that make us feel as if we have stumbled onto something holy—because we have.

A few drops of such joy in the ocean of a lifetime can make that life worth living. But if you have experienced it, you will know how hard it is to hold on to. What’s found is often lost. Because as the Jewish prayer book puts it, “It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.”

The fragility of joy has brought many believers to their knees. It’s hard not to be bitter when joy slips through our fingers. What kind of a God would play those games?

Maybe the kind of God who would rather die than let death have the last word.

This is the God that the prophet Isaiah wants us to hold on to. The God who “will swallow up death forever” and “wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25: 7-8). On that day, Isaiah reminds us, our joy will be everlasting (Isaiah 35:10).

It isn’t easy waiting for that day. But we can wait in hope, knowing that our present joy is a preview of coming attractions. Knowing that what’s lost will again be found.

In the meantime, I will continue to pray that God will “shield the joyous.”

Ponder: What helps you to choose hope over despair? What role does gratitude play?

Pray: Hang on to us when we do not have the strength to hang on to you, Lord. Help us to wait in hope. Then give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Hope Deferred

Read: Proverbs 13:12

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life (Proverbs 13:12, NRSV).

What are you waiting for?

We’re all waiting for the end of what seems like an endless pandemic. Maybe you’re waiting to see someone you haven’t seen in a very long time. Maybe you’re waiting for a call from your lawyer, your doctor, or your employer. Maybe you’re waiting for justice.

Or maybe it’s “all of the above.”

Waiting is hard work, and all of us know a bit too much about it these days.

Perhaps that is why this proverb jumped off the page at me recently. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, it observes, and one gets the impression that whoever said it knew exactly what they were talking about. This is hard-won wisdom, and we recognize its insight because it rings so true with our own experience.

Hope itself is what helps us through the waiting, of course. But the brilliance of this proverb is that it zeroes in on that excruciating moment when hope itself is postponed. It’s that moment when we realize that the wait is going to be a lot longer than we realized. That moment when some mean-spirited hand reaches out to turn the hour-glass over just when the last bits of sand are spilling through the neck of the glass.

And so our hearts become “sick.” I think this means more than just being sad—although, goodness knows, that’s bad enough. The Hebrew word for “heart” makes room for more than emotion. It involves our intellect and our volition as well. So, for instance, when Pharaoh’s heart is “hardened” in the Exodus stories it means that his heart has stopped working well. Not only are his emotions out of control, but he’s not thinking straight, and as a consequence, he makes some really bad decisions.

I don’t know about you, but I think my Hebrew heart is sick. Call it “pandemic fatigue” if you will, but whatever it is, it’s taking a toll on my emotions and my ability to think. And something tells me it may not be a good time to make major decisions.

I suspect that this proverb’s diagnosis is “spot on” for many of us. But what wisdom is there for us as we wait?

I was thinking about this while listening to a retrospective of the life of Britain’s Prince Philip. When asked about all the ups and downs of his extraordinary life, Philip simply replied, “Well, that’s life. I just got on with it.”

There is something to that, and it speaks to a certain grim determination that one doesn’t see as much anymore. It brings to mind the women who made their way to the tomb early on that first Easter morning. Talk about “hope deferred.” Resurrection must have been the last thing on their minds as they gathered the spices and headed off in the dark toward Jesus’ tomb (Luke 24). But off they went anyway, putting one faithful foot in front of the other—just getting on with it.

Hope, as it turns out, is amazingly elastic. By God’s grace, it will stretch until we find the truth of the second half of the proverb: a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. Until that day, all we can do is get on with it, putting one faithful foot in front of the other.

Ponder this saying (often attributed to Augustine): Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain the way they are. What does this saying suggest about faithful waiting?

Pray: Our hearts are sick with waiting, Lord. Give us what we need to wait faithfully and well.

Broken Beauty

Read: John 20:19-30

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” (John 20:27, NRSV).

What’s the point of pain?

Don’t get your hopes up. I can’t answer that question. But I would like to at least honor it with a few observations.

Sometimes pain is transformed into something beautiful.

When composer, Johannes Brahms, got back from a visit to his mother’s grave, he added a movement to his A German Requiem. It is an intimate interlude in the piece, voiced for a soprano soloist. She sings the words Brahms needed to hear: So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you…as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.

Brahms borrowed those words from Jesus and Isaiah, but he must have heard his mother’s voice in them as he composed this piece. And when we hear them, we are comforted as well. Brokenness has been transformed into beauty, and it is a beauty from which we all benefit.

A word of caution is in order here. If we are not careful this can turn into something trite. Nobody needs a slogan like, “No pain, no gain!” slapped onto their wound like a band-aid. Suffering is suffering, and we don’t make it less so by rushing to look on the bright side. Having said that, however, one can’t help but marvel at the mysterious alchemy that sometimes turns suffering’s “dross” into gold.

There is an ancient Japanese art form that specializes in this very sort of alchemy. It’s called Kintsugi. It involves taking pieces of broken pottery and mending them with materials graced with gold. The end result is something that is arguably more beautiful than it was before.

In his book, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making, Kintsugi master, Makoto Fujimura, looks at faith through the lens of his art. The results are stunning. For example, he points out that even after resurrection, Jesus still bears the wounds of his crucifixion. Then Fujimura writes, “Through these sacred wounds a new world is born; through the revealing of the wounds still embedded in the new body of Christ, our faith is given.”

We begin to see what he means when he reminds us that, “The Christian gospel, or the Good News, begins with the awareness of our brokenness…Christ came not to “fix” us, not just to restore, but to make us a new creation.”* Not unlike a work of Kintsugi art.

This is good news. Yes, we are broken. But in the hands of the Artist, our brokenness may yet be transformed into beauty. The world’s brokenness may yet be transformed into beauty.

Ponder these words by Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering.

There’s a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

Pray: Gather our brokenness, crucified and resurrected God. Then transform it into beauty and blessing.

 

*Both quotes are from the book Art and Faith: A Theology of Making by Makoto Fujimura (Yale University Press, 2020), p. 45. For more on both John 20:27 and Makato Fujimura, see “Why Is Jesus Still Wounded After His Resurrection” by Peter Wehner in the New York Times, April 3, 2021.

Considering Silence

Read: Proverbs 27:14

Whoever blesses a neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing (Proverbs 27:14, NRSV).

It’s difficult to say who was more startled.

My husband and I were taking a walk in the wooded dunes near Lake Michigan one afternoon. It was a weekday, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Or so we thought.

Cresting a rise on the trail, we suddenly found ourselves face to face with an owl. It was sitting on a branch not six feet from us. We stopped in our tracks, stunned into silence. There followed a thirty second stare-down during which we sized one another up. Then the owl, unimpressed with us, flew off to find more interesting company.

Neither of us had ever been that close to an owl. But the encounter sparked a shared memory of a poem we had learned as children:

A wise old owl sat in an oak.

The more he saw, the less he spoke.

The less he spoke, the more he heard.

Why can’t we all be like that bird?

In my case, I’m sure the occasion for this poem’s quotation was some adult’s attempt to get me to stop talking. Looking back on it, however, I think there might be an enduring message there for all of us.

Listening seems to be something of a lost art. We don’t “ponder” much anymore. On top of this, social media makes it possible—even mandatory in some circles—to launch our opinions on the world whether we have had time to consider them or not.

Then there was the post that said, “I’m thinking of starting a blog, but I don’t know what to say.” That one leaves me—well—speechless.

We live in a culture that is awash with words. Some of these words need to be spoken and are, in fact, overdue. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” True enough. Point taken.

But I wonder if we might also do well to consider silence as a faithful option—or at least as a prerequisite for our speech.

The proverb about blessing a neighbor with a loud voice early in the morning suggests that timing is everything. And that, I think, is a nudge in the right direction. Perhaps it is not silence or speech per se that matters so much as wise words well timed. As another proverb puts it: “To make an apt answer is a joy to anyone, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Proverbs 15.23).

I think I’ll stop writing now since I’ve run out of things to say.

Ponder: How long do you wait before you hit “send”? What risks are there to speech? To silence?

Pray: Help us to be better listeners. Help us to weigh our words and to speak with wisdom.

Short but Sweet

Read: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2, NRSV).

We call it, “the day the light changes.” You’ve probably noticed it, too. It’s that day in spring when the buds on the trees turn into tender green-gold leaves. And just like that, the light changes. Winter’s harsh glare gives way to the softer shades of spring.

Of course, it’s easy to miss it if you’re not paying attention. But isn’t that part of its appeal? We savor its sweetness precisely because we know it will not last for long.

Robert Frost has his finger on the pulse of this phenomenon in his famous poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief.

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

No one needs lessons in life’s ephemerality after a year of close encounters with COVID-19. Yet, the reminder that life is both fragile and short presents us with some important choices. How do we live knowing that “nothing gold can stay”?

This is precisely what the “Teacher” is wrestling with in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes. At first, it seems like he is making some pretty cynical choices. In fact, he sounds a bit like someone who has lived through a pandemic. Tell me you can’t relate a little to these words:

All things are wearisome, more than one can express;

    the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing (1:8).

It’s like when you can’t remember what day it is, and all the days of the week become “Blursday.”

But I’m not sure we are being completely fair to the Teacher if we write him off as a cynic. He is a realist, certainly. He’s been around the block enough to know that life is not only short, but often unfair. He knows that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful” (9:11). Yet, in spite of this, he urges his fellow humans “to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live” and to “eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil” (3:12-13).

The key to understanding what makes this Teacher “tick” is often lost in translation. Look again at that “vanity of vanities” verse that opens the book. The Hebrew word behind what is rendered as “vanity” is: hevel. It does not mean “vanity” in the sense of being futile, meaningless, or proud. It means fleeting or ephemeral.

It may help to know that Cain’s brother, Abel, is named Hevel in Hebrew. A quick review of that story in Genesis 4 reveals that Abel’s life is short—thanks to his murderous brother. But no one could come away from that story thinking that Abel’s life is meaningless.

Nothing gold can stay. But it is still gold. Pure gold.

Ponder Frederick Buechner’s words from his novel, Godric:What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

Pray: Help me to embrace this fragile life with gratitude instead of cynicism.

Finding Jesus

Read: Exodus 32

So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:3-4, NRSV).

“Jesus Christ, we invoke your name, amen!”

These were the words of one of the Capitol insurrectionists standing at the front of the Senate chamber on January 6, 2021.* Seizing the moment, the shirtless man beside him then called the violent crowd to prayer. After first removing his horned hat, he spent the next minute attempting to conscript God to his cause. He concluded with the words, “In Christ’s holy name we pray.”

In Jesus’ name? Really?

To paraphrase a line from Anne Lamott, “I worry that Jesus drinks himself to sleep when he hears [people] talk like this.”

Be that as it may, the prayer is but one example of what author, Jack Jenkins, describes as “a violent faith brewed from nationalism, conspiracy, and Jesus.” In a January 12 article for the Religion News Service, Jenkins wrote this of the January 6 event: “While not all participants were Christian, their rhetoric often reflected an aggressive, charismatic, and hypermasculine form of Christian nationalism—a fusion of God and country that has lashed together disparate pieces of Donald Trump’s religious base.” He also points out what was obvious to most people watching the riot on television that day, namely, that “Christian nationalism and hypermasculinity often overlap with forms of white supremacy.”

By what insidious sleight of hand did this version of the faith find its way into the hearts of so many?

Moses must have asked himself something along those lines when he came down off Mount Sinai to discover the people of God bowing down to a golden calf. How could this people, so recently rescued from slavery, credit a calf with bringing them up out of the land of Egypt?

What is often overlooked in this story is the fact that the people had somehow conflated this calf with the God who had so recently rescued them at Red Sea. Moses’ brother, Aaron, aids and abets them in this delusion. Building an altar in front of the newly minted calf, he declares, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” The LORD. That’s shorthand for the God’s proper name. Talk about an insidious sleight of hand! The Capitol insurrectionists have nothing on Aaron.

While I don’t want to make excuses for calf-worshipers of any age, it is instructive to ask how such things happen. A careful reading of the story in Exodus suggests that the people felt like they’d been abandoned. They felt powerless. They wanted a god that they could see, admire, and best of all—control. The only problem was that this god had little to do with the real one.

It’s surprisingly easy to make this kind of mistake. It is much harder to admit the mistake and undo the damage. History is riddled with examples.

In his book, Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley quotes a “catechism” that white Christian slave-holders used to teach slaves. It read:

Who gave you a master and a mistress?

    God gave them to me.

Who says that you must obey them?

    God says that I must.

What book tells you these things?

    The Bible.

McCaulley uses this catechism to question “whether the Christianity that the enslaved were taught was indeed the Christianity of the Bible.” It’s clear that it wasn’t. In light of this, he points out that “early Black conversion entailed finding the real Jesus among the false alternatives contending for power in the culture (p. 78).

How do we find the real Jesus among the false alternatives? That’s not an easy question to answer. But surely, the first step is to realize how easy it is to get mixed up. Then we need to ask each other—and ourselves—some hard questions. Repent if the shoe fits. Try to make amends. And all the while, pray hard that the real Jesus finds us.

Ponder: By what insidious sleight of hand did a false version of the faith find its way into the hearts of so many? How do we find the real Jesus among the false alternatives?

Pray: Forgive us. Then find us, Lord Jesus, even as we try to find you.

 

*The prayer begins just before the 8-minute mark of this video shot by veteran war correspondent, Luke Mogelson. He is a contributing writer at the New Yorker.