Sunday, July 30, 2017

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’
– Matthew 5:9

Introduced in 1873, The Gun that Won the West, the Colt Single Action Army® revolver, also known as The Peacemaker®, has earned more fame and renown than any other Colt handgun. Colt ownership records show a long list of ‘action-oriented Americans’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries including Buffalo Bill Cody, Theodore Roosevelt, Judge Roy Bean, Pawnee Bill Lilly, Captain Jack Crawford, Pat Garrett and General George Patton.

Designed to be defensive weapons, handguns are, nonetheless, like anything else that fires a bullet, very effective killing machines. It’s easy to see how this particular revolver became known as a peacemaker, given its ability to quickly silence the unruly.

Absent a sidearm, what does it mean to be a peacemaker? In a world so ripe and ready for peace, why is there so little of it?

First, there’s a difference between peacemaking and peacekeeping.

Most of us live in quiet, safe communities where everyone seems to get along with one another, even if your obnoxious behavior might irritate someone every now and then. Blessed is the village where everyone manages to make it through the night unscathed. Even if they never go to church, most people, in the course of their normal day, somehow seem to abide by God’s commandment, ‘Thou shall not murder.’

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ but he never said how we ought to go about doing it; no instructions, just a blessing, as if he knew that we might somehow puzzle it out.

Ezekiel prophesied that God is against false prophets who came, ‘saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace’ (Ezekiel 13:10). The prophet Micah, too, warned against false prophets, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
   who lead my people astray,
who cry “Peace”
   when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
  who put nothing into their mouths.
Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
   and darkness to you, without revelation.
The sun shall go down upon the prophets,
   and the day shall be black over them.’ (Micah 3:5-6)

Declaring peace and then not delivering it is a bad idea, and we can only achieve peace when all parties are ready to make it. But peacemaking is difficult. Even if the warring factions eventually collapse with exhaustion, making peace is no easy task.

It is true that in the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus knew, war is mentioned far more often than peace, yet the seeds for peacemaking can be found there, again in the writings of Micah, who seems just a little miffed when he says, ‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
  and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6:8)

Micah describes three concepts that lead to peace. Note that these three, and not peace itself, are what God requires of us.

Joachim Jeremias referred to justice as the central concept of the Bible (Joachim Jeremias, The Central Message of the New Testament, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1981). It is something that we actively have to do. Justice – in Hebew, mishphat – ‘focuses on what is legally expected,’ wrote Munib A. Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, in 2011.

To love kindness is to be compassionate toward others, to show mercy, to be ready to speak out against injustice. We are called to join these two practices with walking humbly with God. Showing humility before the Lord is always a good idea, but the Hebrew used by Micah – hatznea (spelled here without the correct accent marks) – can also mean prudence and wisdom. So we can say that we ought to walk humbly, carefully, and wisely with God. And how do we do that? Perhaps through repentance and forgiveness, first and foremost.

Making peace is not easy, not as easy as making war and disruption. But Jesus says that those who do it, or try to, will be blessed by God. The Bible gives us a road map to achieve it, expecting us to do it not just once or every now and then, but every day. Make it a lifestyle choice, in the same way Teddy Roosevelt and General Patton once chose to make peace in a different kind of way.


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

George Gershwin Would Be Proud

And the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin'
And the cotton is high

Six months into my call, we are now on summer hiatus, at least as far as regular Sunday services go.  The next two months will be as busy or busier than any of the others before them.  In place of Sunday services, we will host four vesper services, two in July and two in August. 

Each service features its own theme and the music and musicians will be oriented to that theme.  Our first service will be based on Genesis 1:1-2:4a, so we are literally starting at the beginning.  Next, we have a folk service, a blues-oriented service, and finally a service tinged by jazz.  Should be fun.

We also have two weddings coming up, one in July and one in August.  If nothing else, we like balance here.

Finally, I am honored to fill my Sundays with sabbatical coverage at another church, and will also provide pastoral care for both congregations.  I love my calling.  This is joyful work.

On top of that,
the church I serve will be taking steps to provide an online-giving option on our web site, and we are expanding our outreach ministry to support local transitional housing for recovering addicts.  A full plate for all of us.  It's a very exciting time here.

One of these mornings
You're going to rise up singing
Then you'll spread your wings
And you'll take to the sky

Enjoy the day.


Vintage view of New North Church, Hingham, Massachusetts

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Have You Got The Time?

The church I serve happens to have a town-owned clock up in the bell tower.  Apparently, in the late nineteenth century, the town decided that knowing the time of day was important, so took charge of maintaining several strategically-located clocks, three in churches due to the height and visibility of their bell towers (New North Church; the Congregational Church; and the Second Parish Church), and the fourth in what became a schoolhouse and is now a business (the William Fearing Building).  Each clock survives today but none of them is in workable condition.  At the most recent town meeting, a majority of citizens voted to approve twelve Community Preservation Act projects, one of which includes restoring each tower clock.

E. Howard & Company in Boston made the clock installed in New North Church (originally Third Church, built by the New North Meeting-House Corporation in 1807).

Given that we all walk around with a watch or clock of some kind on our person (via smart phones, dumb phones, or even actual watches) or in our cars, and that just about every device and appliance in our homes has a clock built into it, why bother repairing some old clocks that will still need maintenance after their respective restorations are complete?
The argument that we don’t need working church clocks anymore is compelling.  Hardly anyone looks up these days anyway; we’re too busy looking down at our phones.  Or we’re driving by and can’t see the clock in any case.  Also, they’re just too danged expensive to repair.  This town has found a solution to that concern by using CPA money for the restoration projects, which is exactly what CPA money is intended to fund.  But still the question persists: Why bother?

It has lots if gears
Each armature connects to an
exterior clock face

I can think of two reasons.  First, the town owns the clocks and has come to realize that it has a responsibility to maintain them.  But why, when they have far outlived their relevance and purpose?  That feeds into my second reason: the town values its history and its legacy.  If we turn away from our shared heritage, more and more of what we hold dear will erode away.  Is taking pride in one’s community a sin?  Should we not love the place in which we live?  Knowing that the clocks actually work might give us hope that other, less tangible stuff in town might also work as designed, and that’s a good thing.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Advent Hope

Based on Isaiah 2:1-5

Tomorrow marks the beginning of a new lectionary cycle, also known as Year A.  We call it the First Sunday of Advent, and our reading concerns the word that Isaiah saw.  That word is mostly about eschatology or the ‘end times;’ for Christians, this means the second coming of Christ.

The hope we share this first Sunday is the hope of the kingdom to come.  We pray for it in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Advent is about expectation, the hope for a better world, a just world, and a new world.

In Deuteronomy 18, the Lord says:
You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?’  If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken.

So how do we know Isaiah is not a false prophet, since his words – God’s words – have not come true?

How can they be true when we live in a world of wars and rumors of wars?  It is us who must start living as if the promises Isaiah saw were true.  Isaiah tells us, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”  We have to practice peace, in our homes and in our communities.  We have to practice justice and reconciliation.  God’s words are not empty.  We are expected to wait for God to reveal the word, to share the word, and we are expected not just to listen to it but to see it as reality.  As Christians, we have to take God’s words and God’s challenges seriously, and work to create that reality.

Our current world is a frightening place.  Isaiah sees something that is not yet here: God’s creation as God intended it to be – peaceful, whole, healed, and reconciled.  Interestingly, Isaiah also tells us that they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks – but makes no mention of our swords or our spears.  The nations shall forget how to go to war but we will not be left unarmed.

Hopeful people not only pray for the coming of the Kingdom; they work for it too.  To hope for justice and peace is to work for it.  To hope for a time when all children are fed and properly housed is to do more than just complain about it; it is to find some children to feed and house and then feed and house them.  Realizing our hope is a constant struggle.

In 1995, South Africa set up a truth and reconciliation commission in the wake of the break-down of apartheid.  The entire nation engaged in a wrenching exercise in truth-telling and forgiveness, and is the better for it now.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “First, people prayed for us.”  Eugene Boring wrote, “If the Christian community is to be a ‘house of prayer for all nations,’ it must be a forgiving community, for only forgiveness makes it possible for people to live together.”

Just as we are invited to walk in the light of the Lord, we will all be invited to share a meal at Christ’s table.  Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  And what we are called to remember is that we gather in peaceful fellowship as a community, imperfect, not entirely whole, but a community nonetheless, as a house of prayer, to live into the hope of Advent.


About the art:

The bronze sculpture, Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares, was created by Soviet artist Evgeny Vuchetich (1908-1974), and presented to the United Nations on 4 December 1959 by the Government of the USSR. 

The sculpture depicts the figure of a man holding a hammer aloft in one hand and a sword in the other, which he is making into a ploughshare.  It is meant to symbolize man's desire to put an end to war, and to convert the means of destruction into creative tools for the benefit of mankind.  It is located in the North Garden of the United Nations Headquarters.

From: Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Take It to the Cross

Based on Jeremiah 23:1-6 & Luke 23:33-43

So here we are in late November and we’re talking about the death of Jesus.  Next week, we celebrate the first Sunday in Advent.  There must be a reason why we have this reading from Luke’s Gospel for today.  Is the death of Jesus really the way of hope, to help us prepare for the birth of the Messiah?

Luke A. Powery, a professor at Duke University, wrote that the old folk songs, the spirituals, the slave songs of the South before the Civil War and Emancipation, all held the belief that ‘Jesus suffers with us.’  Jesus’ death on the Cross shows us that we are not alone in our suffering and death.  God works in the midst of suffering, especially in the case of wrongful suffering and undeserved death.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote, ‘For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:18).  If you think about it, we follow the teachings of a convicted criminal.  Who wouldn’t find foolishness in that?

But we find redemption at the foot of the Cross.  To say we ‘take it to the cross’ means that we celebrate not death and violence, but a love that is always faithful, even in death; a love that shows great mercy; a love that gives grace freely.

At the foot of the Cross, we proclaim the power of God to redeem and to give life.  That’s pretty good news.

As often as we gather in peaceful fellowship not just at the Lord’s Table but for all of our meals, Jesus says to share the blessings of bread and wine in remembrance of him, to give all glory, thanks, and praise to God for God’s abundant mercy and steadfast love, and to follow God’s shepherd.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In a Quiet Corner

Based on Luke 18:9-14

The parable form enables us to arrive at an interpretation based on where we are in our culture and in our own time and place in history.  One commentator says that some parables “break up the soil of previous teaching and prepare for a new perspective.”  Much of the meaning in a parable depends on us.  Having said that, we also want to pursue what Luke was trying to tell us.

Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” to people who regarded others with contempt.  At the end of chapter 17, Jesus is talking to the disciples about the coming of the Son of Man and then, immediately before today’s reading, he tells them the story of the persistent widow.  So we know that at least the disciples are present.  Pharisees and scribes always seem to be lurking about too, along with the ever-present crowd that follows Jesus around.  And then there’s us, the audience.  So Jesus is telling this parable as a warning to anyone for whom giving thanks has turned into self-praise.

This is God's judgement: that we need purging 'with hyssop;' we need wisdom; we need to acknowledge our iniquities, our transgressions. Only then can God create in us a clean heart. Only then can reconciliation and forgiveness with our neighbors occur.

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 Hafez al-Assad thinks at all about the toll the civil war must be having on Syria's citizens? Or is the enormity of his sin so great that he can't even speak about his people and what he's doing to them? Do we ever wonder about the toll exacted upon our homeless population by the policies we impose that only seem to be helpful when actually all they do is frustrate and make the problem worse? At what point do we lose our compassion and fall into sin?

How often are we thankful that we’re not like other people?  “There but for the grace of God go I.”  Is there a difference between the Pharisee just doing his duty and the person who gives to charity only to reduce their taxable income at year end?  How often do we admit that we’ve missed the mark?  Like the tax collector, do we recognize our sinfulness?  Does that knowledge bring us sorrow?

We know what God expects, through the prophet Amos:

Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
   I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
   I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:22-24)

When we re-orient to what God expects – justice, righteousness – when we look at every situation from God’s point of view, then we begin to see the world differently.  The situation in Syria then looks more like tragedy, and the campaign trail, like comedy.

Jesus opens the door for us to discuss the public façade of any system of oppression.  He exposes those who would destroy the village in order to save it.  He tears the veil hanging between our reality and God’s.  He helps us reorient to what God expects versus what we have become used to.  We are free to stand far off by ourselves in our own private prayer time and lay it all out to God.  That’s humbling.  It frees us from our past and from the weight of what we’ve done – or not done.  The good news tells us that all who humble themselves and confess to God what God already knows will be exalted.

Re-orientation leads to self-knowledge, re-evaluation, and transformation.  What we take away from this parable is not that who we once thought was a good guy is now a bad guy, and vice-versa, but that we need to look within and reflect on our own relationship with God – is it honest and direct or are we trying to maintain a façade for others?  Are we self-aware when we seek out the God who made us?

No one has to tell me I’m a sinner.  God knows I know that.  What’s important is how we talk to God about it.  The true confession of our weakness will get us acquitted.  But since we’re not sure this is so, it’s better if we re-orient to what we know God wants from us: justice and righteousness in all that we do.  We must all break up the soil of what we “know” and prepare for a new perspective, through Jesus Christ.


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.