Friday, August 5, 2016

Book Review - Music and the People of God



da Silva, Jetro Alves. Music and the People of God. Self-published in Lexington, KY, 2016. viii + 121 pp. Softcover.

 Jetro Alves da Silva is an accomplished musician, having worked with Whitney Houston, El DeBarge, and others; a theologian; a student of music history and music in the Bible; and a proponent of the power of music to heal and transform.  In the abstract to his book, Music and the People of God, da Silva states that the project aims to ‘discuss the role of music among the people of God’ and its use through the centuries (iv).
This review offers a brief summary, a critique, and my assessment of the work.  Full disclosure: the author and I attended classes together at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts.  Who knew then that he had such a story to tell?
Broadly speaking, this is a book about music and faith.  It examines music from ancient times forward to today, with an extended discussion on the role of music in the Hebrew Bible.  Along the way, da Silva asks himself many questions about all the aspects of music and its role in faith formation.  His questions lead him into the psychology of religious experience and the theology of music, its history and its purpose.  He takes us on a survey of musical tastes ranging from the ancient Egyptians to Martin Luther and John Calvin to 50 Cent and Jay-Z.  His references are extensive and his research impressively deep.  He knows his topic well and intimately.  Much has been written on the social history of music but I am not sure anyone else has quite taken the approach presented here.
 
Da Silva believes that music has ‘the power to make a simple lyric or a powerful philosophical statement become digestible to the one who is listening’ (1).  In that sense, I believe his intention in writing this book is to draw a line from the music of nature – the sound of the waves of the oceans, bird song, trumpeting elephants, the sound of tree leaves moving in the wind – directly to the music of the people of God in praise of God.  For da Silva, music is both mystical and spiritual, and he connects it with the Holy Spirit, the third person in the Christian Trinity and the ruah of the Hebrew Bible.
As a musician and performer, and then as a music teacher and trained theologian, da Silva has traveled widely and acquired vast experience both personally and professionally.  From Brazil to Brooklyn, West Africa to Los Angeles, to Boston and beyond, da Silva’s exposure to a variety of musical forms gives him a unique perspective on his topic.  All that he has learned in his craft has focused his thinking about the role of music and its use in spiritual and religious settings.
The idea behind the book, the thing that animated Jetro’s urge to write, is that musicians can give their best to the Lord, to glorify God, to keep God at the forefront of their thoughts in their playing, singing, and even in their rehearsing.  In our listening and in our appreciation of the musician’s efforts, music can be a means to grace, emotional healing, transformation, and to sanctuary.  Through its long history as a means of human endeavor, through all its forms from primal drumming to modern Jazz and hip-hop, music has generated joy, controversy, and its own varieties of language, not to mention much that endures in our hearts and minds as rhythms and tunes.  Hearing a favorite song can often transport us back to the time and place when we first heard it, just as a favorite aroma can bring us back to the kitchens of our youth.
Music has been a part of human life experience from the very beginning.  It is used in all aspects of our cultures, in celebrations, funerals, battlefields, religious ceremonies and more.  We listen to music for pleasure.  We create music as an offering.  We present music as a gift to God and to our neighbors.  It has always been thus.  But the musical form is never stagnant.  Throughout its long history, music has evolved, changed, influenced other forms across the nations, and in general has been a constant part of our life together.
The very sounds of the earliest forms of music have been mostly lost to us, though we can pick up traces through ancient sources such as the clay tablets of Assyria, the bas reliefs of Egyptian tombs, and in the psalms of the Hebrew Bible.  Through these, we can know which cultures used which types of instruments and how they used music in all their moods and emotions.  A Hebrew shofar, for example, had a different use and purpose than a Phoenician pipe.  This exploration is just part of the journey da Silva takes us on in this book.
In order to realize this ambitious project, da Silva has appropriately broken his task into discrete, manageable sections.
Four chapters follow a brief introduction in which Jetro describes the groundwork of his own life and experience.  Chapter one offers a summary of musical instrumentation in ancient times and our resources for understanding their use.  Chapter two talks about how music is used as therapy, beginning with King Saul in the depths of his depression, and for emotional and physical healing.  Chapter three discusses music from a theological perspective.  Men like J.S. Bach, Martin Luther, and John Calvin had strong and differing opinions on the use of music especially its use in a church setting.  Luther, a musician, was for it as he believed music was a gift from God.  John Calvin, on the other hand, held the contrary view that music came from people, not God.  Lastly, chapter four addresses music as a spiritual and sacred practice, and forms the heart of the book. 
In my view, as someone with some musical training in his background and as a minister-without-portfolio, this is all fascinating stuff.  In a way, it’s good to know what Luther thought about hymns used in church.  A trained musician looking for a broader view of what it is we do on Sunday, or why, or how it came to be, might find this book to be of great interest.  Even therapists who work with people suffering from PTSD or depression can derive something new here.
Knowing Jetro, I can clearly hear his voice speaking to me from one page to the next.  He keeps to the book’s scope pretty well and seldom strays from his mission to show us the relationship between music and God.  In fact, quite often he goes way beyond just presenting some interesting nugget by offering two or three other points of view, and he almost always moves the ball forward by including his own thoughts and opinions.  His sources extend from the truly ancient to the contemporary, exposing us to a wide range of thinking on a given aspect of the discussion.
One thing jumped out at me as something that might spark a discussion, and that is the dance performed at Herod’s birthday (25).  I’m not sure the goal of the dance per se was to ‘persuade Herod to kill John the Baptist,’ though that was certainly an end result.  The daughter’s goal was merely to please Herod and his (male) guests (Mark 6:22).
At 121 8.5” x 11” double-spaced pages (my copy lacks page 122, da Silva’s C.V.), this first edition print-on-demand book is pretty slender despite the wealth of information it contains.  In a smaller size with a different font, it might feel more substantial.  It is, however, not lightweight in any other way.
There are some typos here and there, too, mostly around the numbering and formatting of just a few footnotes, and sometimes a dropped word, but overall, this is a thoughtfully done academic paper in book form.
Overall, this is a great introduction to a complex topic.  Da Silva tells us where we are going and then takes us there.  We cover a lot of ground, from archaeology to mysticism, but not once did I feel as if I were on my own, even in the midst of the discussion about the relationship between music and neurology and psychology.  In fact, da Silva is quite adept at presenting heavy material at a level appropriate for the reader.
I almost want to join a choir now, or at least to revisit the piano as a tool for tying hymns to sermons.  This book provides greater understanding at several levels, especially in how we experience music from within.
In its current form, I recommend this book to anyone who plays music in church and wants to know more about how we got to where we are today.  Non-church people might not be attracted to this kind of book, but I know some church pastors who might be quite interested.  All I would change is the format, and to fix the few errors in the text.
A great effort by a good man and a great husband and father.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Book Review - Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World



Moss III, Otis. Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair.  Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.  xvi + 127 pp. Softcover.

Originally presented as a series of Lyman-Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School, this slim book includes three chapters, each based on an individual lecture, and four sermons which serve as illustrative examples for the material covered in the lectures.  Moss talks not just about preaching, but also about the history of Black, or ‘blue note,’ preaching, what Valentino Lassiter calls ‘the African American preaching heritage’ (Lassiter, preface, 9).  Like Lassiter, Moss notes that modern day preaching often fails to address contemporary needs.  His lecture series and this book seek to correct that situation.
This review offers a brief summary of the book followed by a critique, and concludes with an assessment and recommendation for the intended audience.
There are as many styles and approaches to preaching as there are preachers.  Moss adds his voice to a long list of authorities on preaching, including his mentor Fred Craddock, David Buttrick, Thomas Long, Kirk Jones, and others.  His influences are many, from Howard Thurman, Abraham Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr., Frank A. Thomas, Henry Emerson Fosdick, and his parents, Edwina and Otis.  This book could sit on the shelf next to Jones’ The Jazz of Preaching, as the two authors both apply musical metaphors to the subject.
Moss intends to show preachers – any preacher – how to ‘effectively communicate hope in a desperate and difficult world’ (according to the publisher’s description).  Preaching with a ‘Blue Note sensibility,’ that is, preaching with a blues aesthetic (Moss, xiii) as it developed in the black American church in the South, is prophetic preaching; a ‘Blue Note sensibility’ preaches about tragedy but refuses to fall into despair (6).
Writing from the perspective of the black preaching tradition, Moss wants to recover and reclaim this tradition from today’s church ‘where Christianity is nothing more than capitalism in drag’ (4).  Blue Note preaching is meant to challenge the church and the preacher: ‘America is living stormy Monday, but the pulpit is preaching happy Sunday’ (4).  Preaching the Blues tradition is now lost ‘in the clamor of material blessing, success without work, prayer without public concern, and preaching without burdens’ (4).  Moss wants preaching to regain a literary sensibility, prophetic speech, and a powerful cultural critique, and names exemplars of each genre, for example, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothee Solle (4-5).
For Moss, Blue Note preaching is an oral art, rooted in sound not the printed page, nor is it confined to the pulpit.  It reaches the head, heart, and hopes of the hearer.  It is performed in the sense of ‘using all sensory resources to communicate’ to others, and not performed in the sense of being entertainment (36).  Elsewhere, Moss says that the preacher ‘paints with a homiletical brush upon a spiritual canvas’ (34) but also includes a level of musicality (40).  Blue Note preaching is many things save for the preacher reading an essay from the pulpit.  And yet, Moss says, there is a danger in preaching, for ‘preaching brings the purveyor into contact with a world of conflict and contradiction’ (34).  Amen to that.
In chapter 3, Moss develops the metaphor of digital/mobile culture versus analog/stationary culture.  The digital culture informs Blue Note homiletics.  There is always something new being created from the old.  Jesus moved the culture, metaphorically speaking, from an analog to a mobile, digital culture.  The introduction of movable type and the printing of the Guttenberg Bible further pushed the culture into a digital framework even as it was only part of a stationary, analog culture in terms of who had access to it (48-50).  This analog-digital culture shift is occurring around us all time, and challenges the preacher.
Moss is speaking mainly to preachers, specifically black preachers but anyone who steps into the pulpit on Sunday is welcome to apply what he has to say.  This is a challenging book; not everyone will be comfortable with what they read.  As a ‘person of pallor’ reading this book, my responses ranged from feeling excluded in some ways from this amazing-sounding tradition to feeling inspired to include in my own preaching Moss’ call for preachers ‘to stare in the darkness and speak the Blues with authority and witness the work of God’ (9).  This preaching style ought to be valid not only for black American preachers but to anyone who proclaims the good news of Jesus and his ministry in their preaching.  Moss’ intent, I believe, is to open up the pulpit to powerful witness from any source and not to preach the saccharine platitudes of a ‘happy Sunday’ (4).  Our world, Moss writes, has been designed by shadows, not truth (30).
In a time of civil unrest, Moss sheds light on (a) how we can address the current sense of despair, and (b) provides insight to preachers for ways to address contemporary issues in authentic, relevant ways.  This book offers a good start for anyone to whom this is news.  If you are a text-based, immobile preacher, this might be unsettling stuff.  For a book based on a short lecture series, Moss presents his material in a logical, coherent way with the caveat that some fine-tuning, some light editing, might help tighten it up, but to do this is to risk stifling Moss’ engaging voice which comes through on every page.  He quotes blues tunes, Scripture passages; he brings in just about every musical form from classical to hip-hop.  There are a few typos – Larry Byrd?  Hey, Moss isn’t from Boston, so we’ll let it go.
Mostly, we hear Moss telling us to study out of our tradition.  Blue Note preaching challenges us to do the work, study our craft, and develop our own voices (61).  Though Moss sometimes repeats himself and occasionally makes the odd claim, this book is appropriate for its intended audience.  Moss displays some showmanship, enthusiasm, and the movement of the Spirit through both the lectures and the sermons (number four, How to Get Away with Murder, is worth the price of the book).
The book is significant and timely, given the recent situation in Ferguson, Missouri and the Black Lives Matter protests.  Moss is biased toward preaching the truth and shedding light on injustice.  His background as a preacher at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago makes him credible and persuasive.  This work is a useful addition to any preacher’s library, particularly to a non-black audience that seeks understanding and new methods of proclaiming the Gospel.
Critically speaking, the book isn’t perfect but it comes close and it does the job as the author intended it to.  In terms of presenting his ideas in an authentic voice, Moss hits a home run.  He taught me that my way of preaching needs to open up and he gave me ways to do that.  There is much food for thought in this little book and I would recommend it to anyone who preaches, period.
References
Valentino Lassiter, Martin Luther King in the African American Preaching Tradition.  Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2001.
Kirk Byron Jones, The Jazz of Preaching: How to Preach with Great Freedom and Joy.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Service & Devotion

Based on Luke 10:38-42

This is one of four meals that Luke tells us about on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.  Here, Jesus enters “a certain village” – it doesn’t matter which one, but the Gospel according to John tells us that it’s Bethany.

A woman named Martha welcomes him into her home.  She has no husband living with her, just her sister Mary, and maybe her brother Lazarus, who is not part of this story, which occurs only in Luke’s Gospel.  Luke wants us to know that Martha is an independent woman of means.  Elsewhere, she is portrayed as one who supports Jesus’ ministry financially.

Her sister Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, symbolizing her status as a disciple, a role usually reserved for men.  As a disciple, she has left everything in order to follow Jesus.

Now remember where we are – first century Israel, not twenty-first century Massachusetts.  What both women are doing is unheard of and would be quite shocking – radical, even – to the first hearers of the story.  It was meant to shock, or the lesson would be lost.  This is typical – Jesus continually turns the world upside-down and challenges us to see familiar things in new ways.  Nothing is ever exactly what it seems, and expectations are often shattered.

This is a story about extremes.  Martha’s distractions are rooted in the real world.  But her obsession with getting her work done before she can allow herself to hear the Word of the Lord has thrown her life into disorder.  Her cares block her path to her devotion to Jesus.  She never seems to be at home, so to speak, in the presence of God.  But Mary, by setting aside everything else, exemplifies the commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.  She delights being in God’s presence.  Jesus says there is really only one thing, and Mary has chosen it.  Apart from this, nothing matters, even ministry.

Concern for the realities of life is valid, of course, but Luke doesn’t provide an easy answer to the problem.  Instead, he maintains the tension between two extreme and opposing truths: Martha’s real-world concerns and Mary’s complete devotion.

But in John’s Gospel, Martha, who serves, shows greater faith in Jesus than does Mary, the disciple.  Mary devotes her life to listening to what Jesus is saying because her faith – her trust and reliance in Jesus – needs nurturing; it’s growing.  Martha, on the other hand, overwhelmed by her ministry of service, shows great faith in Jesus.  Maybe Luke wants to shine a light on why we do what we do in the Lord’s name.

As it happens, in the passage immediately before today’s reading, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.  That story and today’s story about Martha and Mary go hand in hand; in fact, we should probably always read them together, because one story teaches us about love for the neighbor who needs our help and the other teaches about love for and devotion to God.  And these happen to be the two greatest commandments.

The story of the Samaritan teaches us to open our hearts to those in need, and today’s story reminds us that there is also a time to listen and reflect, to love God with our entire being.  There’s a collective lesson, and a balance to strike, between the two.

Luke (and also John in his Gospel) uses Martha as the symbol of dedicated service and Mary as the symbol of dedicated discipleship.  It’s hard work either way.

The two stories also expose the injustice of social barriers, barriers that put people into categories, barriers that restrict and oppress various groups in a society.  To love God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves means we must reject society’s rules and restrictions in favor of God’s kingdom, a kingdom without boundaries and distinctions between its members.  God’s rules are radically different from society’s rules; this is one reason why Jesus’ teachings all seem to flip the world upside-down – because it needs flipping!

Daniel Migliore reminds us that, united in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one community, members of one body and mutually dependent on one another.

Our challenge, as disciples of Jesus, is to balance our real-life distractions with our place at the feet of the Lord; to not only “go and do” as God’s servants but to also sit and listen and learn, and to recognize, resist, and break down the barriers that society creates in order to exclude and separate one group from another, or to prevent us from hearing the Word of God.  Luke has packed so much into just a few verses of Gospel.

And Jesus hasn’t made it easy for us.  We are forced to make up our own minds about how to resolve our work life with our spiritual life, and in how we build the beloved community in a world-flipping faith.  Jesus challenges us to live our faith to its fullest.  He doesn’t expect us to be comfortable in it.  But we need to hear the Word of God; we cannot survive without it.

There is need of only one thing: service and devotion together, with faith-building devotion being first.  Love the Lord first.  Love the Lord always.  And take delight in the Lord.  Choose the better part, as the song in Psalm 84:1-3 says:
 How lovely is your dwelling place, O God!
My soul yearns, even faints, to be in your courts.
My heart, my whole body sings for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home at your altars, wherever they may be – even the sparrow.

Amen.


Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 229.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Justice for the Widow

Mark 12:38-44

As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

Who has heard this story before?  What do you hear in it?  For most churches, this passage serves as an entry into Stewardship Season where pledges are pledged and congregations hear about money in Scripture, usually for the first time all year.  Greed is examined as an un-Christian thing, and we are told that it is the love of money that is the root of all evil.  The pursuit of wealth is frowned upon yet we are told to be generous in our giving.  Money, charity, and injustice are somehow tied together.

AndrĂ© Resner calls the widow in today’s passage ‘the patron saint of stewardship Sunday,’ which happens to be today in the United Church of Christ.  She is raised up as the model example of sacrificial giving.  I have heard sermons that have basically asked, “Why can’t we all be more like her?”  If we all just took the money from our favorite Dunkin’ Donuts Iced Latte Frappachino Surprise one time every week, we could raise our pledge dollars by so much and that would bump the budget up to here and look at all the good stuff we could do as a result – the widow, after all, gave everything so why can’t we?

Do you see how that has nothing to do with what Jesus wants us to see?

Beware of the scribes, Jesus said; they devour widows’ houses.  We are called to care for widows and orphans in their distress (James 1:27); God said we are not to abuse any widow or orphan (Exodus 22:22); the Lord upholds the orphan and the widow but the way of the wicked is brought to ruin (Psalm 146:9).  Widows and orphans have a special place in God’s heart and therefore, their wellbeing ought to inform our sense of justice.

Unlike the scribes in today’s reading, our giving ought to sustain those who can ill afford to give all that they have.  We would preach against poverty, not encourage it.

Justice and charity need each other.  Charity, though, often falls short of providing essential needs.  Arthur Simon, founder of Bread for the World, once pointed out that the two wealthiest districts in Manhattan have had more soup kitchens than the two poorest districts simply because of where the donors, not the hungry people, were located.  Food banks can fill a hole but are unable on their own to solve the persistent problem of hunger unless we also make changes to public policy.

Jesus is not here to praise the widow’s extreme giving; he is here to lament it.  He is calling us to be better stewards of both our financial resources and of our faith community.  The good news is that God sees what is really going on even when no one else does.  God is present for the widow and God will be present for us as we begin the work of fulfilling our responsibilities to the least among us.  This, I think, is the primary purpose of the church.

Amen.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Tax Break Conversations?


"The EITC and CTC prevent more people from falling into poverty than any other program outside of Social Security."  EITC is the earned-income tax credit.  CTC is the child tax credit.  These two tax credits are designed specifically to benefit low-income working families, of which we have many in this country.

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee discussed expired tax benefits for two hours on July 21.  Amelia Kegan, deputy director of government relations at Bread for the World, describes what happened in her report here.  Read the whole thing; it's only one page.

We the people support tax credits for all sorts of things, and we subsidize all sorts of industries, from oil exploration to cotton farming.  Not all recipients need or require tax credits or subsidies all the time.  Subsidies have their own pros and cons.  Farm subsidies, for example, can lift up farmers in a bad growing year, but can also exert a negative effect on the environment.

Unfortunately, most tax credits and subsidies are buried in complex legislation that, it seems, relies on its own immensity to hide the details from the view of the average person.  The latest Farm Bill, for example, is like that.  In fact, President Obama likened it to a Swiss Army knife:

Not all of that has anything to do with farming.  So read Kegan's column.  Wonder why tax reform is such a difficult topic for elected officials to wrestle with.  Consider asking your own elected officials what's up with that.  It will be an interesting conversation.

Peace.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ever Before Me



Based on Psalm 51:1-12; 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

A friend in Maine has a bumper sticker – one of many – on her pickup truck that reads: “If you’re not OUTRAGED, you’re not paying attention.”
According to the BBC, in March, 2011, pro-democracy protests erupted in the Syrian city of Deraa after the arrest and torture of some teenagers who had spray-painted revolutionary slogans on a wall.  By July, nationwide protests demanded President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation.  One thing led to another and the country descended into civil war.  Since then, some 200,000 people have been killed; 11,000,000 displaced from their homes; and 3,900,000 live as refugees in other countries.
CNN reported in April that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had ordered the executions of 15 government officials so far this year, based on information provided by the South Korean National Intelligence Service.  For example, one senior official with the Ministry of Forestry was executed for expressing dissatisfaction with the country's forestry program.
Neither Assad in Syria nor Kim Jong Un in North Korea can afford to allow any dissent or challenges to their authority, and so their default position is to crush it completely.  How might things be different in their respective countries today had they a Nathan of their own to tell them parables about the abuse of power.
Psalm 51 is one of about a dozen psalms that respond to a specific situation in Scripture.  Thus, the context for Psalm 51 comes from today’s reading from Second Samuel, and it is a psalm of David, not by David.  But let’s forget David for a minute; these twelve verses become highly personal and affecting when we hear them with our own situations in mind.
The root of Sin is a distorted or broken relationship with God, and we know it when it happens, as in verse 3: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”  We tend to be pretty quick with our Sunday assurances of pardon, but we can’t just wave our sin away with words.  We need to face up to our sin as David did.  Our confession of sin implies the need for a clean heart and a new spirit.
This is God's judgment: that we need purging 'with hyssop;' we need wisdom; we need to acknowledge our iniquities, our transgressions.  Only then can forgiveness and reconciliation with our neighbors occur.  Only then can God create in us a clean heart and a new spirit.
Imagine how difficult it must be to continually dodge the truth that we have sinned before the Lord; how much physical and emotional energy that must take.  Do you think Bashar al-Assad thought at all about the toll the civil war must be having on Syria's people, or is the enormity of his sin so great that he can't even speak about it?  Closer to home, do we ever wonder about the toll exacted upon our homeless population by policies that seem to be helpful when all they actually do is frustrate and make the problem worse.  At what point do we lose our compassion and fall into the sin of complacency and inaction?
Nathan tells his parable in such a way that David becomes outraged by the rich man’s behavior only to realize that they are his own actions, his own sin.  And it is a rude awakening.  I think it would be quite humbling, not to mention shaming, to hear Nathan say, “You are the man!  You are the one without compassion!”  When do we become outraged by our own behavior?
The Bible scholar Patrick Miller wrote that Psalm 51 “bids us open our eyes to look for evidence” that wickedness leads to its own destruction “in a world that is shaped and governed by God’s moral order.”  The al-Assad’s of the world will be defeated by the weight of their own sin.
Psalm 51 is a reaction to Nathan’s parable and David comes up against the hard truth that his sin is ever before him.  Thomas Long, a professor at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, wrote in response that “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall tear you apart.”  This truth is only bearable by God’s grace and willingness to judge us and restore us.
There is a moment in reading Psalm 51 when we know ourselves to be forgiven.  That moment represents a new beginning which we owe to a faithful God of steadfast love and abundant mercy.
Which brings us to Jesus: today’s Gospel reading from John finds Jesus in Capernaum immediately after the feeding of the five thousand.  The crowd continues to follow him, Jesus said, “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  Who wouldn’t follow a prophet who also provides a buffet?
So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?  What work are you performing?”  Of course, Jesus himself is the sign.  And the connection to Psalm 51 is this: the work Jesus is performing, then and today, is to cleanse us from our sin; to put a new and right spirit within us; to create in us a clean heart; and to reconcile us one with each other.  Through Jesus, our relationship with God is restored.  That’s what I hear when I read the psalm and the gospel together.
Psalm 51 includes tension, challenge, and promise.  It speaks of places within us where we don’t want to go.  It also celebrates redemption and God’s steadfast love.  The afflictions we deal with in this psalm are spiritual.  Our bodies are not broken but our relationships with God and our resistance to God are.  The psalm also gives us an awareness of God’s saving action and cleansing ways.  When we say “thy will be done,” we free ourselves to be filled with the will and grace of God.
The good news here is that God can and will restore the relationships we have broken.  We are not doomed to remain in a cycle of sin, repentance, and forgiveness followed only by more sin.  Through this psalm, we can see both our past and God’s future for us with new understanding.  God will create in us a new beginning, sustain us in times of spiritual drought, and restore to us the joy of God’s salvation.
Maybe it’s time for our friend to get a new bumper sticker that reads: “If you’re not paying attention, God have mercy.”
Amen.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Unintended Consequences



Adam Kirsch recently published a series of articles in Tablet magazine (here, here, and here).  One article, ‘Why Taking Vows Is a Wicked Act,’ raises questions about how ‘taking a vow’ might not be such a good idea.  Kirsch delves into the Talmud’s Tractate Nedarim, which is devoted to oaths, vows, and the problems associated with them from the rabbinical point of view.  He quotes both Ecclesiastes and Rabbi Meir, both of whom believe it is better not to take a vow at all.  Why not?
The Bible insists that a vow, once taken, must be kept: “When a man takes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not profane his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth,” says Numbers 30:2.  But Ecclesiastes says, “Do not let your mouth lead you into sin” (Ecclesiastes 5:6).
One reason not to take a vow is that by doing so, you potentially set yourself up for failure by, according to the Talmud, placing “a stumbling-block” in your own way.  These obstacles encourage people to use dishonest methods to get out of their vows; it is in the making of the vow, then, that leads you into the sin of dishonesty.
This led the rabbis to decide that the courts should not punish people for trying to get out of their vows with bad excuses.  In order to teach people not to take vows lightly, they would often try to provide a better excuse to dissolve the vow, on the theory that a person wouldn’t have made the vow in the first place if they could foresee the unintended consequences resulting from it (think of Herod’s vow in Mark 6:17-24 to give ‘whatever you wish’ to his wife’s daughter only to realize it would mean the end of John the Baptist).
Kirsch tells us the following story: ‘In Nedarim 22b, we hear about the time Rabbi Shimon came before the sages asking for the dissolution of a vow.  However, when the sages offered him various ways out, he kept refusing them: “They said to him: Did you vow with the knowledge of this particular fact?  He said: Yes.”  This happened over and over again, so that the sages had to puzzle over the case all day long – “from sun to shade, and again from shade to sun.”  Finally, a rabbi called Botnit came up with an ingenious solution.  Would Shimon have made the vow if he had known that dissolving it would cause so much trouble to the rabbis?  No, Shimon said, and so the rabbis dissolved the vow.’
The Talmud makes clear that it will go to great lengths to release a Jew from a vow, rather than force him to break the vow and commit a sin.
But what about those times when someone makes a vow for us in our name?
Consider Samson.  It was the angel of the Lord who told Samson’s mother, “Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, for you shall conceive and bear a son.  No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth.”  As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Samson has none of these vows in mind as he tears apart a lion, bashes the Philistines up and down Gaza, and enjoyed a seven-day wedding feast.
The one vow he does keep, ‘his whole secret,’ the one he keeps literally until the end, has everything to do with his hair: “If my head were shaved, then my strength would leave me; I would become weak, and be like anyone else.”  Susan Niditch points out that ‘the “hair growing” aspect of the Nazirite vow is central to the narrative, its plot, its hero’s characterization, and its central themes.’[i]  Samson seems aware that the source of his great strength lies in his hair.  The other vows – the ones not made by Samson for himself – matter little to him and to the story.  So, in essence, when the writer of Judges associated ‘the Nazirite vow’ with Samson, it was really just a plot device to help build a contrast between nature and culture, and had nothing to do with vows per se at all.
And yet, in Numbers 6:1-21, the Bible goes out of its way to provide the legislation for Nazirite behavior.  In fact, this is the only place where the Bible mentions taking a vow to become a Nazirite.  Two questions arise for me, then: were Nazirite vows different from any other kind of Biblical vow, and are vows in the Bible different than modern-day vows?
Short answer: No and Yes.
Tony Cartledge did some work[ii] and concluded that Nazirite vows, like most Biblical vows, ‘were most likely conditional promises of special service,’ of the ‘if you do this, Lord, then I will do that’ variety.  For example, in Genesis 28:20-21, “Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.”
In 2 Samuel 15:8, Absalom said to the king, “If the Lord will indeed bring me back to Jerusalem, then I will worship the Lord in Hebron.”
Other Biblical vows were made under duress during war time:
In Numbers 21:2, “Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns.’”
And in Judges 11:30-31, Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.”  Talk about unintended consequences: the first one out the door to greet him was his daughter.  Do you think Jephthah might have wanted to take that vow back?
Some vows are masked somewhat.  Psalm 35 includes a petition that says, basically, “Rescue me and then I will thank thee, Lord!”  Essentially, though, in the Bible, promises were made conditionally in the prospect of receiving an answered prayer.
Today, we think of vows as binding promises, solemn and unbreakable.  The Canadian Mounted Police vow to always get their man and they do, because they will not rest until the goal is reached.  Institutionally, we understand modern vows, for example, wedding vows, to be unconditional.  Our understanding of vows is shaped by societal and cultural forces.  No one today would make a vow like Jephthah’s and if they did, they would probably work pretty hard to avoid fulfilling it.
On the other, every day, people vow to stay together “for better or worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health” unconditionally and just as often, they break their vows and/or dissolve the marriage union.
So when we debate issues such as who is entitled to marry whom, or whether the enacted law ought to be defined by those who wrote it or by those who interpret it, perhaps we ought to consider the unintended consequences of any kind of vow-taking.  After all, as Adam Kirsch points out, a vow is a promise to go above and beyond, to make a personal sacrifice in the name of God.  Are you ready for that?




[i] Susan Niditch, “Samson as Culture Hero, Trickster, and Bandit: The Empowerment of the Weak,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 (1990), 612.  Gregory Mobley expands on this.  He writes that Samson becomes alienated from God “only when he allows himself to be domesticated;” that is, as long as he maintains his connection to nature in the form of his uncut hair, he is connected to God.  “The Wild Man in the Bible and the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Biblical Literature 116/2 (1997), 230.
[ii] Tony W. Cartledge, “Were Nazirite Vows Unconditional?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51 (1989).  He further concluded that Samson, who had made no vow of his own, was paying a debt incurred by his mother.