The Babylonian Blues

There is much to like about a barbeque restaurant. The smell of meat smoking, special sauce, the music. My mouth waters just thinking about it. More often than not, in my mind at least, the music of choice is the blues. Whether or not that is true – when I hear the blues, I think of barbeque.

Apparently, barbeque distracts me (I am thinking about brisket right now). Because I am trying to think about an old psalm. The psalms are set naturally to music and Psalm 137 is no exception. But if the psalms were a series of concerts, Psalm 137 is the place where the concert tour gets hi-jacked. There we find ourselves struggling to sing our songs. How are we expected to sing in a foreign wasteland?

Just listen… “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept… Upon the willows… We hung our harps.” Then “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Keep listening… “May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you.”

Instead of song, we get tears. The singers have literally hung up their instruments. Their tongues are sticking to the roof of their mouths. The point is, if this is a song, it is the blues. When we hear it we hear the heartache and disappointment and tears. We hear the blues. It is unclear who wrote this psalm. I propose it was someone with a name like Fat Matt, One Eyed Willie, or Skeeter.

But if we listen again, we might hear something more. We might hear the faint sound of tenacity. We might hear the desire to remember. We might hear the undercurrent of hope to sing again. We might hear a concerted effort to not forget.

I can’t help but find myself in a place where I wonder what will happen next. And then I hear the clanging of silverware. I am pretty sure I smell smoked brisket and my mouth begins to water when Skeeter walks out with the special sauce and sets it on the table. Did I mention that I get distracted by barbeque? My apologies, we are talking about Psalm 137. We are talking about the blues. But we sing this song with the recognition that things are not ok as they are. We sing this song with the expectancy that things will be different one day. We sing this song so we will not forget. It is time to reach into the branches and take down our instruments. It is time to sing.

The Rugged Terrain of a Hostile World

“Father, Into Your Hand…” (Luke 23.46)

As in the first ‘word’ in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the Father again. We might remember that his very first words in the Gospel are about being in his Father’s house. So it may not surprise us that his final words prior to his death are about being taken into his Father’s hands. Jesus on the cross is consistent with the rest of Jesus’ life. Luke wants us to know that nothing, not even the cross, can stop Jesus from demonstrating the ways of God. He has already forgiven his executioners and made reservations for a criminal to enter paradise, now he commits his spirit to the Father.

We may find ourselves thinking of Psalm 31, especially the part where the psalmist says “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Jesus was saturated in the Psalms. The Psalms reveal some rugged emotional terrain. So does the cross. Jesus knows about rugged terrain. It should not surprise us that in challenging moments he reaches into the language of the psalms and adds “Father” before he goes on to quote “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Again, we should not be surprised. It was Jesus who taught us when we pray to say “Our Father…”

When we read this “word” we should not forget the connection between spirit and breath. We are reminded of a true gift from God. We do not possess our breath. We cannot hold it in or keep it. It is gift. Given again and again and again. We inhale, we exhale – gift.

Jesus gives his spirit willingly. Like the rabbi at his own funeral, he commits his life to God the Father. His spirit is not taken from him by those who put him on the cross. He gives it back to the One who gave it to him. He gave away what they thought they were taking from him. Admittedly, this is contrary to the visible evidence. From all appearances, Jesus had his breath taken from him. Meanwhile, Jesus is trusting that the Father is greater than the power of death.

This text reminds us of our dependence on the Father. Our spirit, our very breath is a gift from the Father and our lives are dependent on him. Perhaps we can think of many things we easily take for granted that in wiser moments we recognize as gift. We have been given much. Just look around. Look at your clothes, hands, feet. Breathe deep. Color, smell, taste – all gift. During Lent, we are reminded that following Jesus demands thankful, grateful spirits. May we give even those back to him.

Perhaps it is fitting to conclude with an observation. While many were hostile toward Jesus, Luke highlights that Simon carried the cross, the daughters of Jerusalem mourned for him, a criminal was welcomed into paradise, the centurion praised God, and Joseph was waiting for the kingdom. Some of these may have been aware of the conclusion of Psalm 31 “Be strong and let your heart take courage, All you who hope in the Lord.” We too follow Jesus into the emotional terrain of a hostile world. May we also “Be strong… take courage… and hope in the Lord.”

A prayer from Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Thank you for the gift of life, Father God. There will come a day when I will meet you face-to-face. The One who gave me life and has numbered my days. As I take in each breath and exhale may I remember, by your grace, that my life is not my own. Just as Jesus gave His life up to save humanity, it is my desire to give my life in service and worship to you. In a world that invites me to worship and serve anything and everything but you, may I be fixed on the breath that you gave and remember the name of Jesus. Thank you, Jesus, for your Lordship and leadership. It is my desire to follow you unto my last breath.”

What are We Thirsty For?

“I Thirst” (John 19.28)

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus said “I thirst” and then goes on to tell us he said it because of an old psalm. Yet, considering the circumstances, we might imagine it did not require an old scripture for Jesus to know he was thirsty.

Interestingly, this is not the first time Jesus claims to be thirsty in John’s Gospel. Chapter 4 tells us of a time when weary from a journey he was seated by a well and said to a Samaritan woman “Give me a drink.” The conversation goes on until we learn “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst.” The further the conversation goes the less the Samaritan woman seems to understand about thirst, but the more she began to believe Jesus was the one who could quench it.

In response to his words on the cross he was offered a sponge of sour wine. Earlier, John has already told us that Jesus rebuked Peter (18.11) “The cup which the Father has given me – shall I not drink it?” Here on the cross, we find the same determination to drink the cup – Even if that cup is full of sour vinegary wine.

John keeps giving us glimpses of “The Word was God” mixed with “The Word became flesh.” Jesus was a real human in need. On the cross, God subjected his own self to the reality of human need. This was no pretend job. Jesus is reduced to the most helpless. And he is thirsty. We are reminded that at the beginning of the Gospel we are told “The Word became flesh.”

At the same time, the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothes the way they did and onlookers responded to his statement of thirst “that scripture be fulfilled” because Jesus possesses the authority of one who was with God from the beginning. Those in attendance that day had no idea that Jesus was the one making decisions. And we are reminded that at the beginning of the Gospel we are told “The Word was God.”

It is ironic that one who offered living water and walked on water and who turned water into wine is now thirsty. We may wonder, can he now turn sour wine into water? But John says he mentioned his thirst to fulfill an old scripture. People always take Jesus so literally in John. “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep…” The Samaritan woman didn’t know he had access to the actual stuff from deep in the well of creation. Maybe it is not literal water he is thirsty for. Maybe he is thinking about something else.

The Gospel appears to be interested in both literal thirst and figurative thirst. The more we try to discover what Jesus is talking about the more the waters flow back and forth from literal to figurative. Perhaps John wants us to ask why we are content with sour wine when living water is readily available. Perhaps Lent asks us to give up our sour wine in order to enjoy what Jesus offers. Following the one who said “I thirst” is to follow one who knows the weariness of the journey. At the same time, it is to follow the one who offers water which after will cause us to never thirst again.

A prayer of response by Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Jesus, the water I drink is often sour because it is old and stale. Instead of the fresh, living water that you offer me daily, I often choose the encounters I have had with you in the past. Help me, Jesus, to remember that there is fresh living water to drink every day. You are a Father who meets all our needs. The needs of my human body are met according to your will, even if you need to send a raven or provide manna from heaven, I believe your promise that you will meet my needs for sustenance. You will care for me when I am suffering. And you have living water that I need every day.”

A Journey of Presence and Absence

“My God, My God…” (Matthew 27.46; Mark 15.34)

The only words Matthew and Mark report to us from the cross are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Both report them in Aramaic so we cannot miss them. The fact they come to us in Jesus’ native language may suggest some emotion. Jesus is not the first to know about being forsaken, he is quoting a psalm. Surely this is not a coincidence; the psalms are part of a collection of songs and prayers that travel a long journey of presence and absence. Just as Good Friday happens as part of a larger story, this “word” occurs as part of the practice of singing and praying the psalms. Old Israel knew about feeling abandoned by God. Some still feel it.

The cross is not for safe religion. In fact, pop religion will try to convince us that a scene like this is not possible. The cross goes against the way we think the world is supposed to work. The cross leaves the holiness of God raw in the world. This is evidenced as the temple curtain is torn and as the Son of God hangs exposed on the cross. Here is a cry for the abandoned. It exposes a holy God whose plan is victory by weakness.

The Gospel writers do not report the crucifixion in the same way. This reminds us there is more than one explanation for what happened on this day. For some of us, Good Friday and the place called skull is a good match for what we feel. It tells us the truth about suffering and the high cost that comes with the ways of God.

Mark writes after both Peter and Paul had been executed. He writes as other Christians were in danger of execution. It is difficult to know exactly how this would have affected Christians in Rome but we can be certain that they lived in fear.  They may have felt forsaken. In this context, Mark writes to help the church get through the suffering without losing hope for the future or forgetting the Jesus story.  This is a dark Gospel intended to help readers navigate dark days.  The Gospel wants us to know how far God is willing to go.

Raymond Brown talks about crucifixion as gruesome on account of the “screams of rage and pain, the wild curses and the outbreaks of nameless despair of the unhappy victims.”  Brown goes on, “Yet it was not in rage but in prayer that Jesus screamed his loud cry.”  In a moment of intense emotion, he cries out to “My God.”

During Lent we follow one who knows what it means to feel forsaken. We follow one who experienced unimaginable pain. We follow one who knows how to navigate dark days. We follow one who has traveled the paths of presence and absence. This is good news. We cannot go where he has not already been.

A prayer of response by Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Father in Heaven, when the time of suffering and darkness come to my life let my mouth speak your name just as Jesus did. Let my eyes be fixed on you and let my hope be in your perfect will, not my circumstance. Even if I feel forsaken let my obedience and your name on my lips be my guide. My feelings may fail me, but you, oh Lord, will never fail me. Even in suffering and humiliation, you will never fail. Place in me a steadfast heart that will obey.”

Creation Adventure

Curiosity sets me into motion.  It pulls me along throughout the day.  It opens my eyes and prompts me to tune into the world around me.  Curiosity is just there, I do not summon it.  Instead, it summons me.  Curiosity leads to discovery.  But exploring is not about finding facts.  It is about capturing stories.  Paying attention to what goes on during the course of a day helps us to capture story.  If we just move through the motions it is like turning the pages of a book without reading the words.  Curiosity is a companion that I did not ask for but am glad to have along.  When I become distracted, it shakes me awake and begs that I join it in a new adventure.

Curiosity pulls me into a world of gifts where I participate in a creation experience that is a theater full of stories to be captured.  The best that I can do is to be there with open eyes when the next performance takes place.  This is a cosmic drama.  And we participate in it, according to Virginia Stem Owens, “just by opening our eyes and metabolizing carbohydrates.”  There are sights to behold and sounds to be listened to and tastes to enjoy.  These gifts are to be respected.  If they are not treated with proper reverence, they may bite back.  Creation is filled with beauty, but also with risk.  Be vigilant – there is danger.  Yet be thankful – there is grace.

As I write this, I am on the Atlantic coast and I stare out over its waters.  I see shells churned out by its waves, pelicans flying close to its surface, and dolphins playing offshore.  But most of the life that resides in this water is unseen and a mystery to me.  Underneath the constant waves is more than I can imagine.  The psalmist says that the ocean contains “swarms without number, animals both small and great.”  This includes Leviathan, created just “to sport in it.”  Eugene Peterson says that the psalmists are season ticket holders in creation’s theater.  They certainly seem to have a seat close to the action.

There are many things about the coast that are different from things back in the Susquehanna River basin.  The sound of the waves lapping against the shore is unlike anything I hear in a usual day.  The freshwater clam shells I find in local streams are nothing like the assortment of shells that wash up on shore here.  The amount of sand that I have been stepping in is far different from the red clay soil in my backyard.

Yet, the things that orient me are the same.  When I take a deep breath, oxygen still fills my lungs.  The same sun rises in the morning and sets at night.  The same stars shine and the same moon wanes overhead.  Venus, the morning star, is visible at dawn in both places.  Temperature and occasion still determine what I wear.  Such regularities are reliable and generous and provide me with direction.  They remind me that this part of the world is connected with the part that I will return to.  They are proof that we are part of something bigger than just what is available now.  Look around at unlimited beauty.  Breathe deep.  Experience creation.  Be grateful.

Beware of Lunar-tics

Next week we will witness a lunar eclipse.  According to some, this one is different than others that we have seen before.  If they are correct, then strike up the band and let us to break out into a chorus of “Bad Moon Rising.”

This eclipse will be the first of four “blood moons” in the next eighteen months.  It is of interest that all four of these “blood moons” occur during Jewish holidays.  Since these four lunar eclipses occur on the holidays and so close together; it has been speculated that they have special, religious significance.  Noteworthy religious texts include Joel 2.31 “the sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” and Revelation 6.12 “and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood.”  Some project that verses such as these suggest that the blood moons are harbingers of doom.  This is not the first time that we have witnessed others who are tripping over prophetic and apocalyptic furniture.

I tend to get excited about the sky.  I also tend to get excited easily about the biblical text.  So, when sky and text get together in the same conversation it grabs my attention.  Studying the sun, moon, and sky fascinates me.  Yet, the idea of looking at them for prophetic revelation strikes me as a little odd.  Have we started to consider astrology as a Christian discipline?  Does this sound like a Dan Brown novel to anyone else?

It troubles me that preachers participate in this message.  At least pop scientists and writers of suspense thrillers are honest about their craft.  It isn’t the first (nor is it the last) time that marketers have caused a stir like this.  This is the sort of thing that we are tempted to become fascinated with when simple obedience becomes too boring.  Remember when the world last ended in December 2012?

Something we can be certain of is that lunar eclipse is another wonder in a remarkable cosmos that will stir your soul.  Another exhibit from a Creator who happens to possess a wildly creative imagination.  Perhaps a fitting religious text for a moment like this comes from Psalm 19.1 “the heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.”  Go ahead and pull out a lawn chair, and marvel at the sky.

The Gift of Taste

While we seek food out for reasons of survival, we also seek food for enjoyment.  Taste is a complex satisfaction.  As omnivores, we enjoy many tastes and so we like to try new foods.  We never seem to stop tasting new things.  We take chances on new flavors and acquire tastes for the unusual.  Jalapeños, olives, dill pickles, sauerkraut, blue cheese, and mustard are all tastes that may not have appealed to us at first bite.

Diane Ackerman tells us that we had more taste buds when we were babies than when we are grown.  Adults have about 10,000 taste buds grouped by theme that are found primarily on the tongue but also on the palate, pharynx, and tonsils.  These are salty, sour, sweet, and bitter.  New research even suggests a fifth taste “savory.”  No matter how many, the tongue is “like a kingdom divided into principalities according to sensory talent.”  A flavor that travels “through this kingdom is not recognized in the same way at any two places.”  That makes combining flavors an interesting experiment.  Probably why my dad always salts cantaloupe.

I too like to explore tastes.  I like to bite into a cranberry and feel it pop in my mouth followed by pleasant sour-ness.  The sweet that squirts from a fresh strawberry.  The crunch of an almond followed by that woodsy taste.  The fresh piney taste of rosemary.  Nearly anything cooked over fire.  The exhilaration of a sip of lemonade.  The mix of flavors in a bite of salsa.  The combination of spices and pumpkin put together in a pie.  I could go on, maple syrup, marinara sauce, black tea over ice – yum.

This summer we visited an ice cream shop where I ordered a bowl of sweet corn and black raspberry ice cream.  Not a combination I would have thought of myself but I would like to have some again sometime.  Right now would be a good time.  When we lick ice cream with the tip of our tongue, the taste buds for sweetness give an extra jolt of pleasure.  The taste buds that lie in the back of the tongue pick up bitter tastes and “as a final defense against danger they can make us gag to keep a substance from sliding down the throat.”

We can taste something only when it begins to dissolve, and we can do that only with saliva.  Everyone’s saliva is different.  Ackerman suggests that it is flavored by diet, habits, heredity and even mood.  Of course, even taste should be enjoyed in moderation.  We can be excessive or overindulgent.  Ackerman suggests that this may be an attempt to fight boredom.  What will we not do to entertain ourselves?  Our stomachs may be full while our souls starve.  How ironic that we can be both a glutton and a starved soul all at once.

We are sometimes guilty of eating too fast.  But “if we let something linger, feel its texture, smell its bouquet, roll it around on the tongue, and chew slowly so we can listen to it, we savor it.”  Or use “several senses in a gustatory free-for-all.”  She suggests that “a food’s flavor includes its texture, smell, temperature, color, and painfulness… among many other features.”  I agree.  Some of us are lucky supertasters who experience more intense flavors because we have more taste buds.

Butterflies taste things by stepping into them.  Most of their taste organs are on their front feet.  What would it be like for us to taste a bowl of sweet corn and black raspberry ice cream by stepping into it first?  Other creatures have a sweet tooth (we are not the only ones).  A friend of mine used to board a horse nearby where Karissa and Keightley would visit to ride, groom, and muck.  At Christmas, the horse loved to eat candy canes.

Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, says that while we may think of taste as something that helps us to choose food, the sense of taste may have developed to help us screen foods.  Our taste buds desire sweet foods as good to eat and dislike bitter foods that might harm us.  Sweetness is a sign that food is a rich source of energy.  We do not have to be taught to like sweet foods.  It is an instinct to help us through times of food shortage.

I can’t help but wonder if that desire is similar to what the psalmist is telling us when he declares “How sweet are Your words to my taste!  Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”  No wonder he declares elsewhere, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Greater than Danger

I have been reading Psalm 23 and cannot help but notice the confidence that the gifts of God are greater than the dangers of life.  We enter this psalm with the name of the Lord.  The phrase following the initial naming of the Lord sets the tone for the remainder of the psalm “I shall not want.”  The Lord is the satisfaction of all needs.  Nothing else is necessary.  The psalm suggests that this is not only a spiritual satisfaction.  With the later reference to cup and table comes the implication that the Lord is the satisfaction for all needs.

The psalm then proceeds to talk about God.  “He” makes, leads, restores, and guides.  Then in the center of the psalm we find a more direct address with the strong pronoun “Thou.”  Perhaps this part of the psalm is more immediate or is stated with more emotion.  The psalmist speaks directly to this “Thou” while walking through a deep dark valley and while in the presence of enemies.  The psalmist does not fear impending danger because of the presence of this “Thou.”

Another interesting observation in the psalm is the pronoun ”I.”  This is no self-centered “I”, but one full of gratitude and thanksgiving.  One that acknowledges that the presence and actions of this “Thou” are enough.  This “I” is trusting that life, no matter how dangerous, no matter how evil, is in the hands of this “Thou.”

The psalm knows about threatening situations.  The psalm knows that evil is real.  That danger exists.  But it also knows that the Lord is greater than the threat.  The presence of the Lord is enough.  No matter the situation.  It does not mean that there are no deep dark valleys.  It does not mean that there is no evil.  It does not mean that there are no enemies.  It does mean that He might prepare a table for you right in the presence of your enemies.  The presence of the Lord is enough even in (perhaps specifically in) situations where danger is the greatest.

As in the beginning, the psalm ends with the name of the Lord.  This may be noteworthy and suggest that life is lived in the presence of the One with this name.  The One who walks the deep dark valley with me also leads me beside quiet waters. The Lord is with us.  The psalm knows that danger is real, but it also knows that the Lord is greater than danger.