Monday, February 13, 2012

Ordinary Time

The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses replied, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?" But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?" Then Moses cried out to the LORD, "What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me." The LORD answered Moses, "Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink." So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. – Exodus 17:1-6


How could people like the Israelites fall prey to ordinary concerns like being thirsty? They have seen God’s power displayed in Egypt – boils, frogs, gnats, the angel of death. They have left their bondage and headed to a Promised Land, only to be pursued to shores … where they saw the sea open for them to pass and then close on their enemies. They have come to a place, called Marah, where the water was too bitter to drink; there they saw Moses – at God’s direction – throw an ordinary piece of wood into the water, and miraculously the water became sweet and drinkable. Then, they saw God provide quail and manna for their daily food.

The Hebrews have short memories. They grumbled about their taskmasters in Egypt, and God delivered them. They grumbled when they reached the shores of the Red Sea, and God delivered them. They grumbled from thirst in Marah and from hunger in the Desert. Their past deliverances were not enough to convince them that the current drudgery would not do them in. Their present struggle, their ordinary life as wanderers through wilderness guided by God’s promise, seemed overwhelming. I do not mean to suggest that this is a minor problem – scholars agree that there may have been more than two million Israelites in the desert, so food and water were a real issue. But, the Hebrews’ experience has been that God is more overwhelming. Yet, they grumble.

Now, they thirst again. The recent events at Marah – the last time they were thirsty – apparently mean nothing to these people. They have come to a campground that does not have a nearby spring, and they once again sink to the lowest common denominator. Their life becomes about the most ordinary, the most mundane: They are thirsty. "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?" This time, there is not wood to throw in the bitter pool; instead, there is the staff of Moses to strike an ordinary rock. And the water pours out. An extraordinary God works to solve an ordinary problem.

You may not be familiar with the traditional church calendar, but many churches, including mine, follow it, even if we do not use all the terminology. The time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, and again between Pentecost and Advent, has a particular name in the traditions of the church. Do you know what it is? It is Ordinary Time.

You can see why we Protestants don’t use that term much. What could be more boring than “Ordinary Time?” What could possibly be less important, less sexy, less enthralling then forty-two weeks of “Ordinary Time?”

The famous French monk Brother Lawrence embraced his ordinary times. His work “The Practice of the Presence of God” grows out of years of working in a monastery kitchen until he was finally promoted all the way up to fixing sandals. The ordinary became, for Brother Lawrence, the time and place best to meet God. He wrote:
The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer. In the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Supper.

I have written before (here and here) about how we experience the ordinary. We can see it as the “dog days” or perceive it as the silence of God. The doldrums strike and the temptation is to say, “I am thirsty. Why didn’t you just leave me back in Egypt?”

It is an entirely natural phenomenon. Perhaps the church fathers knew what they were doing when they built some Ordinary Time into the calendar.

So, then, how should we approach Ordinary Time? If the dog days are to be expected … if the silence of God is not a reason to pull the alarm … if the doldrums are natural, then how should we live our lives?

The scripture with which I started this blog is the story of Meribah, of the place where God made water come from the rock. I cannot think of a better illustration of our struggles with Ordinary Time than a people wandering in wilderness who are thirsty. They grumble. They forget what God has done. These chosen people have had a front row seat for God’s recent history, from plagues to Passover to the parting of the sea; but it all seems to have vanished from their collective memory. All they know is that their lives in slavery look a lot better in glorified retrospect than this current situation appears going forward.

And that brings me back to the question: How should we live our lives in Ordinary Time?

One of the really interesting reads of the last few years is The Shack. I remember first hearing about this novel in which God says this:
Many folks try to grasp some sense of who I am by taking the best version of themselves, projecting that to the nth degree, factoring in all the goodness they can perceive, which often isn't much, and then call that 'God'. And while it may seem like a noble effort, the truth is that it falls pitifully short of who I really am. I'm not merely the best version of you that you can think of. I am far more than that, above and beyond all that you can ask or think.

That is critical to our understanding of what a daily relationship with God provides us. Paul tells us God can do more than we can imagine. The presence of Jesus transforms the ordinary to the extraordinary. He is what we need. God tells us to take the rod He has given us and strike the rock. And behold, water comes out.

I was teaching a Sunday School lesson on the great 35th chapter of Isaiah, where the prophet interrupts his oracles of doom and exile to talk about the joyous expectations of the redeemed. Isaiah tells us that the children of God will have a new sense of the glory of God as though the desert were blooming. He tells us that the coming of the Lord brings strength to our feeble knees. Then follows the image of healing, of blind eyes seeing and mute tongues singing.

As I taught, one of the women in my class made a brilliant observation – this scripture is about transformation. It is not just that God helps us along a little bit but rather that God changes us, that what was once a desert is now a garden, that what was once feeble is now mighty, what was once lame is now nimble. She said this, “This is all about something new, where it was not there before.”

That is exactly right. It is what new mercies every morning are all about. I want you to see to how Isaiah puts it:
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you." Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. - Isaiah 35:1-6


You may know the following words of Fanny J. Crosby form the 19th century hymn or the 21st century Chris Tomlin version:
All the way my savior leads me, what have I to ask beside? Can I doubt his tender mercy, who through life has been my guide? … Though my weary steps may falter, and my soul athirst may be, gushing from the rock before me, lo a spring of joy I see.


It is the story of Meribah, of streams in the desert, of water from the rock. It does not just trickle, it gushes. What was not there before is there now. The ordinary has become extraordinary. We are transformed.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Saul

There is a relatively contemporary piece of choral literature called "Saul," by Norwegian composer Egil Hovland. The text, delivered both by narration and by singing, is taken from the eighth and ninth chapters of the Book of Acts. The story is of pre-conversion Saul, who, after witnessing the murder of Stephen, began "breathing threats and murder against the diciples of the Lord." It follows Saul's story through his persecution of the church up until his fateful meeting with Jesus on the Damascus Road. The piece ends with Jesus's question: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"

Our choir director asked me to help the choir understand the context of this piece. When he asked, I eagerly grabbed the folio, anticipating the chance to draw something of great inspiration.

Some of you will remember a radio spot that Paul Harvey presented for years called “The Rest of the Story.” Typically, he would tell an interesting tale about someone, and then, in a grand climax, would reveal the name of the famous person he was describing, finishing by saying, “and now you know the rest of the story.”

This piece, "Saul," is backwards. We already know the rest of the story. We know Paul, writer of thirteen epistles now canonized in our New Testament, leader of three famous missionary journeys, preacher on the Acropolis, the main developer of Christian theology and its principal proselytizer, and ranked by at least some pop authors and pseudo-historians as more influential than even Jesus Christ. But this piece is not concerned with that.

We already know the rest of the story. The Damascus Road story. Whether your pop music tastes run toward “I Saw the Light” or “Blinded by the Light,” you know it. On the way to Damascus, the young Pharisee Saul is confronted with a light, out of which Jesus Himself speaks and changes his name to Paul. Facing accusations and testifying in his own behalf, Paul tells the story himself, concluding, “I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God.” But this piece is not concerned with that.

Yes, I was hoping to find great inspiration. But this piece is not, at first glance, concerned with that either; however, it is profound.

The climactic finish of the song presents the echoing question, the actual words of Christ to Saul on the Damascus Road – “Why are you persecuting me?”

It is a haunting reminder of the question that God asks us all. Before we come to throne of grace, we come to the bench of conviction. Over and over again, we see versions of the same question asked: Adam, where are you? Eve, who told you that you were naked? Cain, where is your brother? Sarah, why did you laugh? Job, where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Elijah, why are you hiding here? Moses, what do you have in your hand? Isaiah, whom shall I send, and who will go for me? Son of man, can these bones live? Peter, why did you doubt? Pharisees, why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? Church at Thyatira, why do you tolerate the woman Jezebel? Disciples, why are you talking about having no bread – do you still not understand? Blind man, what do you want me to do for you?

Saul, why are you persecuting me? Why?

That is the obvious textual analysis of the piece, but this piece is something else. Taking its text directly from scripture, this work is the story of villainy.

We don’t think of Paul as a villain, but we must think of Saul that way. Saul was not merely a half-innocent bystander at the stoning of Deacon Stephen, although that is how scripture introduces him to us. No, Saul was the leader of the attempted destruction of Christianity itself. Ever the good Pharisee, Saul masterminded the task forces of storm troopers whose aim was nothing short of rooting out the nascent church. Going from house to house, Saul dragged women as well men to prison solely for being a follower of the Way. The Bible describes him as “murderous.” Contemporary church historians have called him a terrorist.

And now you know the rest of the story.

As I say, that is not particularly inspirational, so long as you don’t let it get personal. But when it gets personal, there is something to speak to all of us, for there is nothing that any of us knows so well as our own villainy.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” is a great play, but the young heroine is wrong when she says she still believes that people are good at heart. Because (at the risk of being too personal)… we are not good. We have gone astray like untamed, stupid sheep. We are, all of us, villains. To spend four or five minutes, as this piece does, focusing on pre-conversion Saul is inspirational if you know your New Testament. If someone like Saul can turn into someone like Paul, what can God have in store for us? If this villain can become the apostle to the Gentiles, the planter of myriad churches, and the one who penned “Rejoice in the Lord always. … And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – yes, even the writer of those words - then there is hope for villains everywhere, for Iago and Sauron, for Shere Khan and Long John Silver, for Moriarty and Grendel’s mother, for Mr. Hyde and the talented Mr. Ripley and the Joker, for Voldemort and Cruella de Vil, for Amin and Pol Pot, for whichever current political candidate you have written off as untenable, for your boss who does not understand and your neighbor who won’t return your hydraulic log splitter, for the play director who refused to cast you child, for the abusive husband and the unloving wife, for you, and for you, and for you, and for me.

And that, thank God, is the rest of the story.