Sunday, March 29, 2009

Time to Pray

I’ve taken some time off from blogging. I wish I could say I used the opportunity to rest and renew spiritually. Fact is, I’ve been busy with a lot of other things and have found little time to pray. Does that ever happen to you?

In our home we have family devotions every evening, but I also try to set aside alone time for morning and evening prayer. Unfortunately my prayer time has been a little hit and miss lately, even though I feel the need to get away, unplug, and focus on the inward journey. One helpful thing I did this week was made plans to go on a spiritual retreat—48 hours alone with myself and with God, no program, no distractions. It’s not something I’ve done very often, but again it’s something I feel the need to do.

At church this morning I filled in for our regular Sunday School teacher, who is away at a funeral. The lesson was on Isaiah 38 where the prophet tells an ailing King Hezekiah, “Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live” (v. 1). That’s all the motivation Hezekiah needs to make his spiritual life a top priority. Hezekiah turns his face to the wall and prays, weeping bitter tears (vv. 2-3). God spares Hezekiah and promises him fifteen more years of life. God’s judgment is always contingent upon his mercy. Remember Jonah’s prophecy that Nineveh would be destroyed? God reserves the right to relent.

It shouldn’t take a terminal illness or a prediction of judgment to motivate us to take our spiritual lives seriously. I know that intellectually, but I’m glad for the gentle reminder today. 

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The World To Come

I finished a good book last night recommended to me by Rabbi and Navy Chaplain Melinda Zalma. The World To Come (whose title can mean either the future or the afterlife) is a well-written story about an ordinary man named Benjamin Ziskind who steals a million-dollar Marc Chagall painting from an art museum. The author, Dara Horn, who studied Yiddish and Hebrew Literature at Harvard, weaves flashbacks into the narrative to give the backstory about Ziskind’s family and their connection to the purloined painting. She sprinkles Yiddish tales and discussions of faith and the meaning of life throughout her at times charming and at times disturbing but always engaging novel. 

You can read a NY Times review of A World to Come here.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Spring Cleaning

Christ Drives the Money-Changers from the Temple by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1626, 43x32 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow, Russia. 

When I read John 2:13-22 about the cleansing the temple, I’m shocked by Jesus’ behavior. Who is this angry Jesus, whip in hand, driving the animals from the temple and overturning the moneychangers’ tables? He is not the tame Jesus I normally have framed in the portrait gallery of my mind.

Jesus says to those selling doves, “Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise” (16). In the parallel passage in Mark’s Gospel, he adds, “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (11:17). Apparently there were two main things that set Jesus off—profaning sacred space and preventing prayer—even more than the economic injustice and exploitation of the poor most commentators focus on. 

Jerusalem in general and the temple mount in particular were sacred in ancient Israel. The Psalmist calls them “the city of our God” and the “mountain of holiness” (48:1). It was here that Abraham took his son Isaac to sacrifice him at Yahweh’s command, and it was here that Yahweh provided a substitute. It was here that King David brought the Ark of the Covenant and Solomon built his temple. For the Jew, it was the center of the universe, the place where heaven and earth touched. This was holy ground. The buying and selling of animals and exchanging of money at the temple, however necessary for its ritual, was a form of desecration. Not to mention that the merchandising likely took place in the Court of the Gentiles, disadvantaging those foreigners who wanted to draw near to God’s house.

It’s too easy for us to stand on the sidelines and cheer, if we think of Jesus as just a social reformer, cleaning up corruption at the temple. The idea of profaning the sacred, on the other hand, should make us turn the focus inward. We need to think about the ways we confuse the secular and the sacred in our own lives. Peter Kreeft says, “Our society sometimes doesn’t seem to know the difference between sex and money. It treats sex like money and treats money like sex. It treats sex like money because it treats it as a medium of exchange, and it treats money like sex because it expects its money to get pregnant and reproduce all the time.” This is but one example of how we profane the holy. I’ll leave you to think of others.

Then there’s the bit about my house being called a house of prayer. It’s not the temple ritual that Jesus is much interested in. In fact, he came to put an end to that. But he cares deeply about helping people to connect with God, directly, through prayer. With all of the noise, smells, and haggling going on, no one could pray and that made Jesus angry.

Jesus prayed often. He prayed early in the morning, in the evening, all through the night. He prayed when others slept. He prayed at meals. He prayed before important events in his life. He prayed before he ministered and when he did miracles. And he taught his disciples how to pray, what to pray, and for whom to pray. If there was anything Jesus was passionate about, it was prayer.

He became angry when he saw that there was neither room nor enough peace and quiet to allow people to pray. If Jesus cared that much about prayer, maybe we should take it a little more seriously ourselves. Perhaps it’s time we did a cleansing of our own temple—a little spring cleaning in our hearts to remove all of the things that keep us from praying.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Getting It All Wrong

I think of the soldiers who went off to World War I full of nationalistic zeal only to have it choked out of them in gas-filled trenches. My German grandfather was a foot soldier for the Kaiser in World War I. My uncle, his son, was a Nazi submariner, who survived World War II physically, but came home at the end of the war with deep, emotional scars. Those who go out rejoicing, often come home weeping.

But it’s not only the losers who experience a profound sense of betrayal and loss. It was a British soldier, Wilfred Owen, who wrote the bitter and haunting poem Dulce et Decorum Est, and Owen was on the winning side. Winning side? Can there be any winners in war?

The fifth-century BC Greek dramatist Aeschylus said, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” Or, as an updated, pop culture version has it: “The first casualty of war is innocence” (Platoon). Truth, innocence, idealism, patriotism, sanity . . . there are many victims.

If you had asked me in March 2003, why the U.S. military was getting ready to invade Iraq, I would have said, “Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction he’s ready to use on us and our allies. We have to stop him now before he does!” Everyone else in my battalion would have said the same. I was convinced that our cause was just because of the credible, serious, and imminent threat our government (and a president I voted for) outlined repeatedly on TV. I never suspected for a minute that they could be mistaken, or worse, lying. (Even after returning from Iraq, I was sure WMDs would be found, soon. You can read my comments here.) Whether willfully or not, the U.S. Government told us what appears in hindsight to be false, and the casus belli for the Iraq War has long since disappeared like mirage in the desert.

Many people have had times that rocked their world and turned deeply held value judgments upside down. Those experiences leave you wondering, “If I was wrong about that, what else have I gotten wrong?” Has that ever happened to you?

The Apostle Peter too had his Aha! moment. In Mark 8:31-38, Peter is so sure he’s right, he tells Jesus he’s wrong. It takes a good deal of moral courage to stand up to the boss and tell him off—especially if your boss is the Son of God!

Peter confronted Jesus about his defeatism, his crazy idea of the Messiah as a suffering victim, rather than a conquering king: “that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (v. 31).

Then the rebuker becomes the rebuked. Jesus yells at Peter: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” (v. 33). Has Jesus lost his mind?! He’s screaming at his lead apostle as if he were demon-possessed. In a moment Peter passes from disciple to devil.

The words “behind me” (opiso mou in Greek) appear twice in this passage. In verse 33, “Get behind me!” means “Get out of my way!” In the very next verse, however, Jesus declares, “Whosoever will come after me (opiso mou), let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” It’s a play on words that almost works in English. Jesus is saying, in effect, “Either get behind me or get out of my way, Peter!”

There are two choices: the path to power and glory or the one to shame and suffering. Peter was so sure that the Messiah was supposed to be on the former, he rebuked Jesus for suggesting he would go down the latter. Suffering Messiah? No way! It’s an oxymoron. You know, like “jumbo shrimp” or “military intelligence” or maybe even (gulp) . . . “Christian soldier”? Nah, that’s going too far.

The only way to be a true disciple of Jesus is to follow him down the low road, the road to defeat and humiliation. But before we can do that, we have to repent. Repentance (metanoia) means to have a change of mind. We’ve got to admit where we’ve gotten it all wrong. But that’s not easy to do, now is it?