Category: revised common lectionary

The Coming Refining Fire – Lectionary reflection for Advent 2C (Malachi 3)

Malachi 3:1-4 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? 
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

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                The message of Advent is clear. Get ready. Get cleaned up. Prepare yourself for the coming of the Lord. But, are we ready to bear the burden of purification? Are we ready to be refined by the refiner’s fire? A little water from baptism maybe, but fire?  Sometimes we ask for things to occur, but don’t know the full ramifications. We cry for justice, forgetting that we might get singed along the way.
                Malachi speaks to a people facing a crisis. Exiles have returned home to a ruined Jerusalem, from Babylon and Persia. They have rebuilt the Temple, but maybe they’re not of one mind when it comes to supporting it. The Book of Malachi is best known for its “stewardship theme” of tithing so as not to rob God. Maybe the context of this message was a capital campaign to rebuild the Temple. Maybe people were a bit behind in their pledges (Mal. 3:8-12). Could the prophet of record be a disgruntled priest, who is discouraged by the lack of progress in supporting the Temple or in behavior change for that matter. We aren’t reading that portion of Malachi 3. We’re reading the word that precedes it.
That word follows the word we hear now, a word about a messenger, perhaps an eschatological messenger, who will come suddenly to carry out judgment. The identity of the messenger is uncertain. The name Malachi can be translated as “My Messenger,” which is the task given to the one who is coming. In any case, the word comes to the people from God, and it is God who will do the refining.
                Whoever this prophet is, who likely writes early in the fifth century, BCE, the word we hear, is that the people have lost their way. They want much but seem unwilling to give of themselves for this purpose. They may be experiencing disillusionment. They decry corruption, but perhaps are caught up in it themselves (and can’t see it). So, the prophet calls the people to account on behalf of YHWH Zebaoth (Lord of Hosts), who is coming, with refiner’s fire, to cleanse and renew the community.
                The Gospel reading from Luke 3 that accompanies this reading speaks of another messenger, who is sent to the people, to prepare them for the coming of the Lord. That messenger or prophet is John, son of Zechariah, who proclaimed a baptism of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord—as Isaiah had already revealed (Luke 3:1-6). Malachi’s calling is similar, or better, John’s calling is similar to that of Malachi. Both prophets call for repentance so that sins might be forgiven, and people might be purified.
The age in which we live is an age of division that at times lacks a sense of moral vision. As Reinhold Niebuhr would say, moral man is living in an immoral society. We hear hue and cry about corrupt systems—political, religious, corporate—even we participate and perhaps benefit from those systems. We want change, but we would rather not incur any pain or inconvenience. It is like those who complain about the roads, but demand tax cuts. So, we throw out the bums, and elect new bums in their place. When the new bums fail to fulfill their promise (or fulfill it at our inconvenience), we complain. It seems to be a never-ending cycle. So, perhaps Malachi’s concerns are our concerns.
While we’re not sure about the context, the prophet is concerned about the context at hand. Things are not as they should be, which suggests that God will do something to set things right. People have been calling for God act, but perhaps they need to ready themselves first. The refining fire might prove uncomfortable. So, am I ready? I don’t know. Is the church I serve ready? I don’t know that either.
                As we move quickly toward Christmas, on this the second Sunday of Advent, with only two more Sundays after this one we are faced with the question: are you ready for what is to come? Perhaps we will answer: If only we had more time, or perhaps more resources, then we could fulfill our promise. But will this answer be sufficient? While the promise that the coming messenger will bring refiner’s fire might seem ominous (who wants to undergo judgment), perhaps it is for the best. Perhaps if we submit ourselves to this process, we will be better prepared to bring our offerings to the Temple in righteousness.
                With Malachi’s message in our minds, what is the vision that moves us in this journey toward Bethlehem? What are we hearing from God that speaks to our souls? Are we ready to receive this word of judgment so we can prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord?
                Let us remember that the season of Advent points not only to the first Advent, when a child is born in Bethlehem, a child who will grow up to preach good news, bring healing and wholeness, and then face death, but also a second Advent, the eschaton, the time of judgment. While the death of Jesus culminated in the Resurrection, that was the end of the story. We live in the interregnum, the in-between time, before the coming Day of the Lord. We may be experiencing some of that refining fire now, in our time.
                After centuries of Christendom, where in Europe and its colonies, Christianity dominated culturally, that cultural dynamic no longer exists. People find church to be less important. They still claim faith in God but operate outside the usual channels. Our congregations shrink, and along with it, our budgets. The majority of churches in America have less than 100 members. I serve one of those churches. I know the challenges that come as we grow smaller. Thousands of cars pass by our church each day, no one paying attention to that church on the corner. I don’t know the future. I am hopeful, but realistic as well. The future of our congregations, especially smaller ones with older and whiter memberships, is uncertain. The good news is that God is faithful to the covenant, and so the invitation is sent out, inviting us to submit ourselves to the refiner’s fire.
                This passage is intended to be heard on Peace Sunday. The question is, does it bring peace to our souls? Does it inspire us to be peacemakers? Whether we’re able to answer in the affirmative, we can hear the words of Alan Gregory, who writes:
When Christians accept God’s calling, it is good news for the world, because the church, when it is willing to bear God’s refining, represents the glory of humanity as it exists in God’s desire. In the end, of course, what sustains the church, and all human beings touched by God’s grace, lies beyond the words of judgment, in the faithfulness with which God shall complete the loving work of creation.  [Connections, p. 20].
May we present ourselves to God’s messenger so that we might be refined. With that act on God’s part of refining us, we find ourselves brought to wholeness, to completeness, along with the rest of God’s creation. With  that we can continue the journey toward Christmas.

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

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God’s Righteousness Revealed – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1C – Jeremiah 33

Jeremiah 33:14-16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

 
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                It is the First Sunday of Advent and a new liturgical year begins. This first Sunday in the Christian year is designated “Hope Sunday,” which is a good place to begin a journey. Advent has an eschatological dimension to it, in that it invites us to look forward to God acting on our behalf not only in the present but in the future. It invites us to put our trust in the God who makes and fulfills covenant promises. Many congregations, including my own, begin the journey singing the medieval hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” While the hymn references the exile of Israel, it also invites us to look longingly toward the coming of the Christ child.  But it doesn’t end with the coming of the Christ child. That is a past event, and Advent continues to point us forward into the future. So, with this first Sunday we begin a journey that will takes us from anticipation to fulfillment in the coming of the Christ child, and then from there through the ministry of Jesus, his death, resurrection, on to the planting of a church that will bear the message of Jesus until that time when Christ reigns all in all.
                The word of the Lord as recorded in the first testament comes to us from the prophet Jeremiah. We can assume that this word is addressed to exiles living in Babylon. Although this word is addressed to both the people of Israel and Judah, Israel had long since disappeared from history, having been rooted out by the Assyrians in the eighth century. Jeremiah offers words of encouragement, reminding the people that God fulfills God’s promises, and the promise that is put before us concerns the time when “a righteous Branch” will “spring up for David.” As one might expect among a community of exiles who have watched as their nation has lost everything, including its leadership, there is the hope that life will return to normal. That things will go back to the way things were when the nation was at least theoretically independent. The only way for that to occur would be to see a member of the royal family restored to the throne of Judah. That is, there is an expectation that a member of the Davidic line will emerge, take the throne, and in that role will “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This would be good news!
                The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent in Year C is taken from Luke 21. In this reading we hear Jesus speaking in apocalyptic terms of the day God’s reign will be fully revealed. In this reading Jesus calls on the hearer to “be on guard so that your hearts are not weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap” (Lk. 21:34-35). The message of Advent is always one of being prepared and being alert for the day of the Lord is ever at hand. That was Jesus’ message, and it was Jeremiah’s. Neither Jesus nor Jeremiah offer a timetable, only a promise that the realm will come, and with it will come justice.  
 
                As we read Jeremiah today, in what some call a post-Christian age, when the church’s cultural dominance is diminished, what word do we hear? There are some who seek to “make the church great again,” by reclaiming cultural dominance. We see this in practice during this Advent/Christmas season by the demand made that retailers great customers with “Merry Christmas,” as well as demands that city halls place creche scenes on their front lawns. During other months of the year, we hear calls for restoring prayer and bible reading in schools. Some even want to make the McGuffey Reader of the 19th century the standard educational curriculum. Is this what Jeremiah has in mind for us? Is this the day when the Lord will be our righteousness? While, it’s true that the exiles desired to return to life as it was before exile, is this God’s vision? When we read books like Ezra and Nehemiah, we see attempts made in the post-exilic period to return to normal, by rebuilding Temple and city walls, while attempts are made to keep the community pure (Ezra’s call to put aside foreign wives—Ezra 9). While Zerubbabel was a Davidic descendant and the center of hopes of David restoration, he served only as a governor appointed by a Persian king (Haggai1). I’m not sure that either Zerubbabel or any other governor fulfilled the promise, but the promise remained.
The Christian community has taken it up, affirming that Jesus is the true son of David, and thus the righteous branch, who will bring justice and righteousness to the land. This is the vision that drives the Christian message. Jeremiah likely had a return to the land of the ancestors in mind, when he spoke these words. Jesus, on the other hand, at least in Christian theology, has a larger frame of reference that a return to the land of the ancestors. For Jesus the vision of the future involves the revelation and inauguration of the realm of God. This eschatological realm is marked by God’s justice and righteousness. As we gather for worship in Advent, we are confronted by this larger vision of God’s realm. Out of that vision comes the question of how we, the people of God, called together in the name of Jesus, can embody the justice and righteousness of God. This embodiment can take a variety of forms, but all reflect God’s love for all creation. This might involve both those first responses, taking care of immediate needs, like providing food and shelter, but ultimately it involves pursuing systemic change, so that the vision might be fulfilled.
With this invitation in mind, we begin the journey of Advent, moving toward the celebration of the birth of a child who was, at least temporarily, a homeless refugee.    

Picture attribution: Tree of Jesse, a Bavarian ivory panel., from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=27238 [retrieved November 26, 2018]. Original source: Wikimedia.

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Living Under God’s Rule — Lectionary Reflection for Reign of Christ Sunday (2 Samuel 23)

2 Samuel 23:1-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
23 Now these are the last words of David:
The oracle of David, son of Jesse,
the oracle of the man whom God exalted,
the anointed of the God of Jacob,
the favorite of the Strong One of Israel:
The spirit of the Lord speaks through me,
his word is upon my tongue.
The God of Israel has spoken,
the Rock of Israel has said to me:
One who rules over people justly,
ruling in the fear of God,
is like the light of morning,
like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,
gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.
Is not my house like this with God?
For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
ordered in all things and secure.
Will he not cause to prosper
all my help and my desire?
But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away;
for they cannot be picked up with the hand;
to touch them one uses an iron bar
or the shaft of a spear.
And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot.
 
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    The liturgical year ends with Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. With the age of monarchy passing into history, this might seem a rather anachronistic way to end the church year. Most modern monarchs serve as ceremonial heads of state, but the real power is left to elected officials. So, is Christ a ceremonial figure? Despite the fading of monarchies, the idea of monarchy may still have some relevance to our spiritual conversations. Of course, there have been conversations about shifting metaphors to more modern possibilities, but none of them have truly caught fire as descriptors. Some have shifted to speak of the realm and reign of God rather than kingdom, but the basic concept remains the same, though the shift allows us to recognize that king and kingdom have patriarchal edges. While monarchies have become more ceremonial, contemporary western leadership positions such as president and prime minister are elective in nature. The question then becomes, in what way is Christ elected as our ruler? So, it appears for now we’re left with monarchical imagery.
                With Christ the King Sunday at hand, and because we are working through the readings from the Hebrew Bible, we have before us the reading from 2 Samuel 23, which enshrines the “Last Words of David.” The lectionary has taken us on a quick jump from Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 1), in which a woman goes to the Temple at Shiloh and makes a deal with God, promising that if God redeemed her from the shame of barrenness, she would bring her son (she asked for a son) to the Temple to be raised there. Lo and behold, she has a son, whom she names Samuel, and she fulfills her side of the bargain. In the end Samuel is called by God to be prophet and judge over Israel. In that position, he anoints first Saul and then David to be kings over Israel. From that song, we jump to another. The two songs frame the rise of monarchy, the fall of Saul and the rise of David. Although there are more stories to be told of David’s exploits, these words are placed here, immediately following David’s song of Thanksgiving (2 Sam. 22).
David is envisioned in Scripture and in our imaginations as Israel’s greatest king. He was the one who united the people and set them on a proper course. Solomon’s kingdom might have been larger in area, and Solomon may have built the Temple, but it was David who set the course. It was David whom God exalted, anointed, and favorited. And as Paul declared, David is to God “a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes” (Acts 13:22), and thus a precursor to Jesus, the Messiah.
Of course, the story of David’s reign and that which follows is much more complex than this would suggest. David’s reign not without its scandals, and yet over time David took on a messianic mantle that was passed on to Jesus by early Christians. David’s kingdom would before long fall into realms, one of which disappeared in the eighth century BCE. The smaller portion of his realm, the one that continued under a Davidic dynasty would last until Nebuchadnezzar brought the kingdom and the monarchy to an end in the early sixth century BCE. When the exile ended in the closing third of the sixth century, the former Judean kingdom existed only as a province of the Persians and then of the Greeks. There would be a brief return to monarchy under the Hasmoneans in the second century BCE, but it would be subsumed under Roman rule before too long. By the first century of the Common Era, during the time of Jesus, a messianic fervor erupted in the former realm of David, now under Roman domination, either direct (Pilate) or through vassal kingdoms (Herod Agrippa). The early Christians came to interpret the ministry of Jesus in messianic terms, understanding Jesus to be the chosen heir of David, though the nature of his realm was reenvisioned into a spiritual realm.
                In light of Christ the King Sunday, we might read these “Last Words of David” with the proclamation of Revelation 1 in mind, as this passage marks the second reading for the day. 
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (Rev. 1:4b-6).

Considering this affirmation of Christ’s kingly rule, how might we understand David’s words as words to us?
                The word we have before us come, is said to be an oracle of God, a prophetic word that is delivered through David. These last words begin with a description of David as being the one who is “exalted of God,” “anointed of God,” and the “favorite of the Strong One of Israel.” These three descriptors of David exalt him to an honored place in the heart of God. What he speaks comes from God and might be understood to be his testament, his words of guidance to those who would follow him. Consider that David, as God’s oracle, speaks of the covenant God has made with the house of David, a covenant that is everlasting. If heard in the light of the exile or its aftermath, it’s not surprising that there would be those who would claim this mantle and seek to restore Israel to its former glory. After all, hasn’t God pledged loyalty to the covenant?
So, here is the message of God revealed to us through David:
One who rules over people justly,
ruling in the fear of God,
is like the light of morning,
like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,
gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.
(2Sam. 23:3-4).
One would assume that David is the one who rules justly in the fear of God. As to David’s position in the eyes of God, he is “like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the grassy land.” You might say that David is the apple of God’s eye. A just ruler is a blessing to a nation. One who rules in the fear or awe of God, who understands the position of ruler in relationship to the overall rule of God, “is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” It is a message of blessing. We can see it. We can feel it. We can smell it. Yes, “morning has broken, like the first morning.” In the words of the third verse of the song, “Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning born of the one light Eden saw play! Praise with elation, praise everyone morning, God’s recreation of the new day!” [Eleanor Farjeon, Chalice Hymnal, 53]. 
 
                If a just ruler brings blessing, then the godless, the one who fails to abide by the covenant, is like a thorn that must be thrown away. The contrast is stark. The thorn must be removed, but removal is not easy. You can’t just pick them out by hand. You must use an iron bar or spear shaft, and then when removed they must be consumed by fire “on the spot.” Why? I would assume that if they are not, they might take root once again.
                There is in these words of David an affirmation of covenant but also of judgment. We bring the liturgical year to a close with difficult words. Then, when we regather on the first Sunday of Advent, and light those candles, we prepare to receive a different kind of king. Yet, these words do seem to speak of the need for judgment, of refining, as a pathway to justice. There is here a word of promise and a word of warning to take with us, as we move toward a new season with Christ the King.
               
 

Picture Attribution: Christ the King of Kings, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55319 [retrieved November 19, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_King_of_Kings_(Greece,_c._1600).jpg.

               
               

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

A Soul Poured Out -Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 26B (1 Samuel 1)

1 Samuel 1:4-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” 
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

 

12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. 

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

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                The Revised Common Lectionary takes us from the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman, who would be ancestor to King David (and by Christian extension ancestor of Jesus) to the story of Samuel, who would anoint Saul and then David as kings of Israel, after serving a lifetime as priest and judge in Israel. One story line that runs through Scripture is that God has a special concern for the one who is for whatever reason marginalized. That includes women who are unable to conceive in cultures that prize a woman’s ability to bear children. To be barren was considered cursed, or at very least a subject of shame. We see this with Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah. Moving into the New Testament there is Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. In each of these stories, God intervenes, and takes away a woman’s “shame” as a child is born who will be used by God to further the biblical story.  But what about those women who do not share in this relief?
                Here in 1 Samuel 1, we encounter Hannah, the second wife of Elkanah (remember that there is no one biblical marriage pattern and that polygamy was common), who is beloved of her husband, but who suffers the ignominy of experiencing the reality that in the words of Scripture, “the Lord closed her womb.” Despite her husband providing her a double portion of his Temple offerings during their annual pilgrimage to the Temple at Shiloh, because he loved her, that doesn’t seem enough. This is due in part to the fact that Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, would constantly provoke her, causing Hannah great irritation, and no doubt deep pain, reminding her of her shame as one who was considered barren. While Hannah’s story might differ from many modern versions of infertility, it might resonate with those who struggle with difficulties conceiving. As Rich Voelz notes in his book Tending the Tree of Life, a book on preaching emerging out of the struggles he and his wife had at conceiving a child, the church often struggles to provide words of comfort and encouragement in the face of infertility and reproductive loss. In his book he seeks to break up “the silences and unhelpful practices that make people like me feel as if we are the shadows of faith communities, and to begin moving individuals, families, and communities of faith toward better understanding, healing, wholeness, and faithfulness” [Voelz, p. 8.].  
 
                In our day, a couple might go to stead of going to a fertility specialist, but Hannah goes to the Temple at Shiloh to pray. We’re told that “she was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.” Note that she not only cried out to God in prayer, but her prayers were accompanied by bitterness. There is frustration inherent in this prayer. There is a feeling of injustice. She wants vindication. That vindication, in her mind, involves conceiving and bearing a son who would redeem her in the eyes of her rival and perhaps her husband (even though he professes his deepest love, she is not ready to accept this reassurance). Here is her prayer:

“O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” (1 Sam. 1:11).

If God will remember her, she will offer her son up to God as a nazirite; as one who is wholly committed to God. He will not drink intoxicating beverages and he won’t cut his hair. Paul once took a vow like this, but only for a time, not for a life. Hannah promises that her son would take such a vow over a lifetime. I know parents like to live out their dreams through their children, but this might be taking things a bit too far, but her prayers are heard and affirmed.
                As she prays in the temple, Eli the priest overhears her prayers, but he thinks she’s drunk. Remember she’s crying out to God bitterly. So, what’s he to do with this hysterical woman. But she’s not hysterical, she’s in the midst of negotiating with God. She wants to make a deal with God. If God will answer her prayer, she’ll bring her son to the temple to be raised (I expect she made this promise before checking with Eli). It is a great sacrifice on her part, but in her mind her shame would be removed. As we see, her prayer is answered. Eli assures her, once he understands the situation, that she has been heard and that she will receive what she has asked for. The narrator tells us: “Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.” Yes, she went home, had a party with her husband, and she moved from sadness and bitterness to joy.
Once she returns home, we’re told that Elkanah knew his wife, which means they had sex. One thing leads to another, and she conceives. Why? Because God remembered. Yes, God kept God’s side of the bargain. As for Hannah, she names her child Samuel, which means “I have asked him of the Lord.”  The lectionary reading ends there, but the lectionary writers have assumed that we know that if God kept God’s side of the bargain, Hannah would do the same, and she does.  
 
As to what happens next, Rich Voelz notes:

The relationship between Hannah, Samuel, and Eli might be called a type of “open adoption.” Hannah is never fully out of contact with Samuel, bringing him a handmade robe every year when she returned to Shiloh to offer her yearly sacrifice (1 Samuel 2: 19). Samuel becomes the one who is the mouthpiece of God for Israel and the one who oversees the establishment of Israel’s monarchy.  [Richard Voelz, Tending the Tree of Life, p. 80.]

Samuel will prove to be an important figure in the life of the people of Israel, thus the prayer of Hannah was fortuitous. While this birth will prove to be a blessing to Israel, we should not forget the challenge in life faced by Hannah, whose infertility placed a stigma on her. Having that stigma removed was important.
                As we ponder this passage, it is worth noting that the stigma can still be present in our day.  How might we as church break the hold of silence, so that persons, couples, families, who face infertility or reproductive loss know that God hears and responds? Eli was insensitive at first, and might not have been the greatest parent, but he does ultimately provide true pastoral care for Hannah.

Picture attribution: Malnazar and Aghap’ir. Hannah before Eli the High Priest, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56672 [retrieved November 12, 2018]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Malnazar_-_Hannah_before_Eli_the_High_Priest_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg. 

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

 

That It May Be Well with You – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 25B (Ruth 3-4)

The Story of Ruth by John August Swanson
3:1 Naomi, her mother-in-law, said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” 5 She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”
4:13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
*************
                When Naomi decided to return home from Moab after the death of her husband and sons, Ruth the Moabite wife of one of her two sons decided to follow Naomi to Judah, making Naomi’s people her people, and Naomi’s God her God. Making this choice wasn’t easy, as the two women had no guarantee of support. Naomi might find some support as she was older and might find family who would take her in. Ruth, however, presented a problem. Not only was she as a Moabite a foreigner, she was a much younger woman. In other words, she might live on for some time after Naomi. Why might this be a problem? Remember there wasn’t any form of Social Security or Medicare. The only safety net was the family, and if the family couldn’t provide you were on your own. Ruth’s only hope was marriage, but who would be willing to marry her? After all, she was a foreigner. Naomi had one possibility up her sleeve. There was a custom, even a law, which said that one’s nearest kinsman had a responsibility to marry a woman who had lost her husband and produce an heir for that person. It’s called Levirate marriage.  It may be a foreign practice to us, much like arranged marriages are in the West. We prefer to make our own matches (with the help of computers or not). For Naomi, however, this seemed to be the only way of providing for Ruth and herself. So, she began plotting a strategy for Ruth. That strategy is in play in this reading that excerpts parts of chapters 3 and 4 of Ruth.
                In this story, we learn that Naomi has a relative named Boaz. He seems to be wealthy. He’s not married. He doesn’t have children. He’s a close relative. In other words, he’s available, and fits the criteria. By the time we get to chapter 3, Boaz already seems interested in the welfare of Ruth and Naomi, allowing Ruth the opportunity to glean from within the fields and not just the edges. He makes sure the other men do not bother Ruth when she comes to the fields. Remember a lone woman would be vulnerable (chapter 2). It would seem odd that he didn’t know Naomi and Ruth’s story, since Bethlehem is not a large town. He may have already known that he was among the nearest kinsmen, if not the closest. And, perhaps he was interested in settling down and found Ruth a possible mate. That’s just reading between the lines, but it’s possible.
                The first excerpt, from chapter 3, finds Naomi directing Ruth to prepare herself to go a-courting. She has Ruth wash up, put on her best clothes, and then go out to the threshing floor and wait until Boaz goes to sleep. Then, while sleeping, she is to uncover his feet and then lie down next to him. Boaz will then tell her what to do next. I should note that uncovering feet is a euphemism. Naomi has a different body part in mind, but by doing this, Ruth will signal to Boaz that she is willing to be his wife (if he’s willing). Naomi is putting Ruth in a vulnerable position but seems to know what she’s doing. All of this seems well choreographed, as if this is a normal form of courtship. As for modern day application, I wouldn’t recommend it. Apparently, as we see in chapter 4, it works. Boaz marries Ruth. They have a son, named Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. The Gospels pick this up, of course, in the genealogies of Jesus, though only Matthew mentions Ruth, along with Rahab and Tamar (Matt. 1:1-17). This final piece isn’t in the book of Ruth, of course, but it’s worth mentioning, because Matthew thinks it’s important information.
 
                All of this is a rather nice story about the deliverance of two women in difficult circumstances. As the women of the village declared to Naomi:

Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.

All’s well that ends well!  But is there more to this than meets the eye?
                Ron Allen and Clark Williamson remind us that the Book of Ruth, though the story takes place during the time of the Judges, was postexilic. It would have appeared at a time when the Jewish community was having serious conversations about marrying Gentiles. Both Ezra and Nehemiah, which focus on the period of rebuilding Judah after the return to Jerusalem by the exiles, call for Jews to divorce their non-Jewish spouses. While it may seem harsh to us, these calls for separation emerged at a time when the Jewish people were reforming their community. Allen and Williamson write: “In the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, Jewish leaders sought to restore the vitality of the community. Intermarriage may have led some Jewish people to bring foreign gods and practices into Jewish homes, and some in the community sought to rid the community of such compromises with the culture and thereby to invoke God’s blessing on the restoration of the land” [Preaching theOld Testament, pp. 200-201]. Contextually, it’s understandable. But not all were of the same opinion. Ruth offers an alternative viewpoint and connects Ruth and Naomi to Israel’s greatest king.
                Allen and Williamson suggest that Ruth offers a challenge to this restriction on intermarriage in two ways. First, we’re told that Ruth demonstrated covenant loyalty (hesed) to Naomi, and thus to Israel. You might say she converted. Secondly, Boaz is an exemplary Israelite. Besides, “how could the community forbid relationship with the people of David’s grandparent” (Preaching the Old Testament, p. 201). As we consider this passage today, we might think here in terms of the challenges and possibilities of intermarriage. On the racial/ethnic side, the challenges are different than the religious ones. In one sense the religious challenge was resolved here by conversion—Ruth committed herself to Naomi’s God and to her people. To do so meant that she would have put aside her former religious beliefs. Granted, in the ancient world this worked much differently than it does today in a pluralistic culture like ours.
While Ruth does offer an opportunity for intermarriage, it is in the context of conversion. Marvin Sweeney offers some clarity here:

Although Ezra– Nehemiah stipulates no procedure for conversion of a foreigner to Judaism, there is no indication in the book that foreigners who adhere to YHWH were an issue. Again, the book of Ruth steps in to fill the gap by specifying how a foreigner would become a part of Israel, specifically by swearing adherence to YHWH and living as part of the nation of Israel as Ruth does in Ruth 1: 16– 18. Furthermore, Ruth is also in dialog with Num 25: 1– 9, which portrays the apostasy of the men of Israel with the women of Moab. Rather than viewing Moabite women monolithically as a source of apostasy, Ruth counters the image of Num 25: 1– 9 by stipulating that Moabite women can adhere to YHWH. [Sweeney, Marvin A. Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to The Jewish Bible (Kindle Locations 11955-11960). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.]

I believe that Allen and Williamson would concur with Sweeney on this, that Ruth isn’t offering a blanket response on intermarriage, but might be filling in a gap in the Ezra-Nehemiah trajectory.
                Whenever we engage conversations like this, it is always important that we do not fall into anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish paradigms, which paint Judaism in negative light to paint our own faith in better light. Intermarriage without conversion is always a challenging idea. Yes, it’s becoming common in our day, but it is not without its problems, especially when it comes to the children. Living in pluralistic America offers the opportunity, but we should beware of offering a cafeteria form of religion, that doesn’t affirm the integrity of religious traditions. Christians, Muslims, and Jews share certain features, but they also have significant differences that can’t be easily washed away.
                What Ruth can do, however, is open a conversation about the role of religion in family and community life. To be uncomfortable with religious intermarriage doesn’t make one a bigot. At the same time, our views shouldn’t be left unexamined. What is the issue? Is it spiritual or is it something else? Remember that Ruth was a “foreigner,” but she became a full member of the community and that is what was deemed most important. In the end, everyone was blessed!

Picture attribution: Swanson, John August. Story of Ruth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56561 [retrieved November 5, 2018]. Original source: http://www.JohnAugustSwanson.com – copyright 1991 by John August Swanson.

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Your People Are My People – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 24B (Ruth 1)

Your People Are My People – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 24B (Ruth 1)

Ruth 1:1-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
 
Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
 
15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said,
 
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”
 
18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
*****************
                The story of Ruth and Naomi is powerful. Here are two women, left adrift by the deaths of their husbands. One is from the Hebrew people and the other a Moabite. We shouldn’t overlook a third woman, Orpah, Naomi’s other daughter-in-law. Orpah chose to return home at the urging of Naomi, who was concerned about what the future held. Orpah is sometimes vilified for her choice, but it was probably a good decision, especially considering where the story leads. While we can’t forget Orpah, this is the story of Naomi and Ruth
The story of Ruth begins with an act of migration. A famine has hit the land of Judah, forcing Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and two sons to seek a more secure life in the neighboring land of Moab. Historically Moabites and Israelites were enemies, so this was a difficult decision. But they immigrated to Moab and apparently found enough welcome to make their home in this foreign land. Their story is a story that has been told and retold down through the millennia. As for the family, the two sons took wives from among the Moabites, an act that might have gotten them in trouble back home. But, it appears they were planning on staying put for the long term. Then tragedy strikes. The three men die suddenly, leaving three women without any support. Ruth and Orpah probably made a difficult decision to marry outside the community, and probably cut themselves off from family (just speculating). As for Naomi, she had family back home in Judah, and so she decides to return. But what about the two daughters-in-law?
We see in the text that there is deep affection among the three women. They want to go with Naomi. Naomi is gratified by this show of affection, but she’s not sure that she can provide for them back in Judah. It would be best if they returned home, made amends if necessary, and hopefully find new husbands who could provide for them. At least they would be with their own people. Orpah, tearfully decides to follow this path. Ruth, on the other hand, refuses to return home. She is ready to share Naomi’s fate, come what may.
The reading for this week is the first of two drawn from Ruth. The story might be brief, but it does a message that resonates with our time for it speaks of immigrants and the challenges they face. People migrate for various reasons, but most are hoping to find something better than what was left behind. It might be economic, or it might be fear of violence and persecution. There might be salvation in the foreign land, but one might not find a welcome there. Migrants might contribute to the community, but they might also soil it.
 
As we hear the story of Ruth, perhaps the stories of modern migrants and refugees come to mind. We know people are on the move. There is that caravan moving across Mexico, composed of men, women, and children who have left Central America seeking safety and perhaps a better life in the north. There are the refugees fleeing wars in Iraq and Syria and Yemen. Even people in our own country have been moving from one region to another hoping to find a better life. It’s easy to vilify migrants. It’s commonplace to fear the stranger. Yet, if we look back through our own histories we will probably see evidence of migration. My ancestors came here from various places in Europe. Most came before there were immigration offices and quotas. Did they come legally? In answer, I would say, there was no policy on legal or illegal. They came, they settled, and became part of the fabric of society. If we’re to understand Ruth, we need to keep this in mind.
Naomi was insistent that the two women return to their families. She makes it clear that she couldn’t provide them the security of a husband. Without a husband they would be without stability.  The future was uncertain for Naomi, who wasn’t marriage material. All she could hope for was the mercy of her family, whom she and her husband had left behind years before. She might not receive a warm welcome, and the daughters-in-law even less of one. After all, they were foreigners, about whom they had been warned. Ruth, however, won’t go back. She insists on following her mother-in-law, no matter what happened. She was all in!
Ruth’s response is expressed through song. She sings: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge.” Whatever the future holds for you, she tells Naomi, I am willing to share it. Not only that, but “your people will be my people.” And where you’re buried, I’ll be buried. Ruth is so committed, she’s willing to sacrifice everything. This is love, that is expressed in spite of the challenges, but also because of her love of her mother-in-law, so she’s willing to come alongside here and share her future. The remainder of the book tells that story.
There are several ways of engaging this passage. We could speak of the relationship between family. Sometimes we make light of in-law relationships, but this one is stronger than most “blood” relations. Considering the times, I hear in it a word about migration and welcoming strangers, who make choices they hope will better their lives. My ancestors did this. They came from Europe, mostly the British Isles, hoping to find a better life. Those who migrate today do so for the same reasons, only we have made the process more difficult (and costlier). The story of Ruth and Naomi might offer us a path forward, so that we might welcome the strangers in our midst. When we hear immigration stories, may we hear with hearts informed by God’s love and grace the difficult choices made along the way. When Ruth tells Naomi “your people will be my people” may we hear in these words a commitment not to assimilate so as to lose one’s identity, but to come a contributing member of the community, as Ruth will do.  Of course, this has important implications for the stories that follow, for Ruth is counted among the ancestors of David and of Jesus. You never know who is in your family tree! They too may have once been strangers in a strange land.

Picture attribution: Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. Ruth and Naomi, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55328 [retrieved October 29, 2018]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/clicks2006/4150846200/.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Is Everything Back to Normal? – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23B (Job 42)

Is Everything Back to Normal? – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23B (Job 42)

William Blake – Job and his daughters
 
42 Then Job answered the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”
 
 ******************
10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. 12 The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.
*****************
                It seems that all it took was a bit of humility, a word of repentance, and a recognition on Job’s part that he didn’t know what he was talking about to get his life back. The ending of Job has always given people pause. After all the speeches on the part of the “friends,” urging Job to repent, which he rebutted, and the back and forth between Job and God as to why Job suffering (he may have cursed his own life, but Job never cursed God) in the end Job gives in. Maybe God just wore him down. Starting in chapter 38, God began assailing Job with questions. There is a brief response on Job’s part in chapter 40, but it’s a brief respite, as God starts right back up and continues the diatribe on through chapter 41. The message appears to be that there’s a lot that Job doesn’t know, and thus he needs to be careful with his responses. Job seems to agree, at least that’s what it looks like here in chapter 42. After that gets cleared up, everything returns to normal. Isn’t that the way we like things? Don’t happy endings make for a good story? After all, who doesn’t want to live happily ever after, as is always the case in a Disney story?
                This reading from Chapter 42 is the fourth lectionary choice, and it brings the story of Job to a close. It might not have been the way we would have expected it to end, considering how things started, but maybe ending on a high note is for the best. The lectionary creators, as is their penchant, do a bit of editing to the chapter, excising verses 7-9. In these verses we find God giving the “friends” a tongue-lashing. It’s a bit harsh and may not fit the intentions of the lectionary creators, but this omission is unfortunate because it essentially justifies Job’s complaint. Consider this word: “After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, he said to Eliphaz from Teman, ‘I’m angry at you and your two friends because you haven’t spoken about me correctly as did my servant Job.’” (Job 42:7 CEB). Yes, Job is in the right, and the friends are not.
Before we get to this excised response on God’s part, we must first attend to Job’s response to God’s diatribe. Job had asked plenty of questions of God, but in the end, he admits that when it came to God’s questions, he simply doesn’t have any answers. After all, God, seems to know everything and whose plans can’t be thwarted. In seems as if Job is defeated by God’ outburst, and yet there is a sense of vindication in that God deals directly with Job. In Job’s response, we hear him say that whereas before he had only heard God’s voice, now, having encountered the whirlwind, Job has seen God with his own eyes. With that, all Job can do is repent with dust and ashes. I wonder, is he repenting of his questions or simply affirming his lack of knowledge and understanding. Job recognizes that he is not God. With that, I prefer the latter explanation. Job isn’t repenting of us questions, just his lack of understanding. This is good news, as I appreciate the questions.
Job’s response, which might have been the original ending of the book, gives way in verse 7 to God’s response to the three friends, who learn that their response was incorrect.  They simply didn’t know what they were talking about. Job, on the other hand, while there might be much that he doesn’t understand or have knowledge of—after all, he wasn’t there to witness many of these things first hand—he was right in this—Job’s “misfortunes” were not the result of unrighteousness or sin. God directs the three friends to atone for their mistake by offering seven bulls and seven rams as a burnt offering, asking Job to offer a prayer of forgiveness. It wasn’t God who was to receive this offering, it was Job, the righteous one.  It’s unfortunate that this is missing because God does admit that Job was correct all along (though God doesn’t repent for putting Job in this predicament).
When we return to the text chosen by the lectionary in verse ten, it seems as if everything has gotten back to normal. It was a series of unfortunate events, that cost him family, land, his own skin (suffering on his part), but now everything is good. After Job prayed for his “friends,” God restored everything that was lost, only this time he is doubly blessed. He was faithful, and therefore he was rewarded. I know this doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book. Wasn’t the prior message that Job’s misfortunes had nothing to do with a lack of faithfulness, so how could this act of blessing be a sign of faithfulness?  In any case, standing at the center of this blessing is the provision of children, specifically three daughters, as well as seven sons. The sons aren’t named, but interestingly the daughters are—Jemimah, Keziah, and Keren-Happuch. Of these three daughters, the author of Job declares “in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters.” They even received an inheritance, along with their brothers—that mention is made of this suggests that this is unusual. But perhaps the message here is that even as Job is blessed, so are his children. After all, as we learn in chapter one of Job, he had always taken good care of his children, offering sacrifices for them so that if they had fallen short of righteousness they were covered. Of course, faithfulness and blessing involve a long life—one hundred and forty more years to be exact, so that the one who lost his original family was able to see four generations of children born. Interestingly enough, no mention is made of Job’s wife. I wonder why? Has something happened to her? Why is she not sharing in the blessings, at least not by name?
When we read Job, I’m not sure we encounter a God we wish to embrace. Here is a God who makes wagers, and seems to be a sort of bully, pummeling Job with unanswerable questions. But maybe this isn’t about God, it’s about our own understandings of righteous and relationship. After all, in the section omitted by the lectionary creators, God does affirm one thing about Job. He was right, and the friends wrong about the cause of misfortune. Deanna Thompson spends a good deal of time with Job in her book Glimpsing Resurrection. She explores the question of trauma in light of the Job story, and she concludes:

And perhaps most important, the book of Job models a relationship with the Divine that allows for anger, grief, complaint, and protest, a relationship that may not yield clear answers regarding the reason for suffering but one that can move between tragedy and joy, and one that dares to include laughter even when the risks of living are intimately understood. [Glimpsing Resurrection, p. 99].

Perhaps that is the message of Job for us. This isn’t really a theodicy. It doesn’t give a full answer to our questions concerning God and suffering, especially if we wish to insert love into the equation. After all, God seems to respect Job, but not necessarily express this in terms of love. The message appears to be that when it comes to suffering and trauma, there are no clear or easy answers. We may want clear answers, bit they always seem elusive. With that the story might have ended, but the creators of this story have chosen to end on a high note. Job is blessed at the end, but not everyone is so fortunate. Sometimes all we can do is end with where things stand at the end of verse 6. We may need to simply kneel before God in sack cloth and ashes and repent, even as we continue to ask why.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Who Do You Think You Are? – Lectionary Reading for Pentecost 22B (Job 38)

Who Do You Think You Are? – Lectionary Reading for Pentecost 22B (Job 38)

“The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind,” William Blake
Job 38:1-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
**************
                As we learned in chapter 2 of Job, the central character in this story (Job) is the victim of a wager made by God with Satan regarding the nature of Job’s righteousness. Despite being tortured, Job refuses to curse God, though it might have been the best thing for both him and his wife had he done so. As Jonathan Walton points out Job isn’t the only one suffering here. His wife had to watch as ten of her children died, the family fortune disappeared, and now she is left to care for her husband’s deteriorating body and spirit. He concludes: “When we look at the situation through her eyes, we might have more sympathy for this woman who looked upon her dying husband’s body and declared, “Please, honey. Just curse God and die” [Walton, A Lens of Love, p. 74].
The reading for this week from the Hebrew Bible is the third of four excerpts from Job. The first reading was the aforementioned excerpt from chapter 2. In the reading for last Sunday (Job 23), we find Job complaining bitterly about his situation. He doesn’t curse God, who appears to be the cause of his afflictions, but he does complain that God has chosen to be absent. This response on Job’s part followed a less than satisfying set of conversations with three friends who are also frustrated, though for them it’s Job who is the problem. If only Job would confess his unrighteousness things would get better. For his part, Job won’t give in. This will lead to another set of conversations with the friends, which leads to an angry response from a younger observer named Elihu, who is angry with Job for not admitting his guilt and with the three friends for not finding an answer. Elihu has his own set of defenses of God’s righteousness that extends from Job 32 through Job 38, where God jumps in and seemingly piles on.
 
                You must feel sorry for Job (and as noted, his wife as well). Not only is he the victim of this wager between God and Satan, but he must endure the critiques of his so-called friends as well. The reading from Job 38 brings God back into the picture. In fact, this is the first time God is going to speak since the early chapters. Throughout all this discussion between Job and his friends, he has been silent. In fact, Job bitterly complains of God’s absence (Job 23). Now God appears in the form of a whirlwind and seemingly demands to know why Job has the temerity to raise questions with God without having adequate knowledge. Before we get to God’s engagement with Job, I should take note of the reference to the whirlwind, which is a form of a theophany. It is a way of depicting God’s power and authority—storms always pack a lot of power!
Appearing in the whirlwind, God seemingly taunts Job: “Gird up your loins like a man.” If you think you know so much about life, let me ask you a few questions! Thus, begins the inquisition of Job. The lectionary spares us a bit by suggesting we read just the first seven verses of chapter 38. You can, if you wish, drop down to verse 34 and read from there to verse 41. I’m not sure it adds much to the conversation. Seven verses might be enough. Of course, God doesn’t bring this inquiry to a close in verse 41. No, the questioning goes on until in verse 2 of chapter 40, God asks Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.” Job meekly responds: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” (Job 40:4-5).  With that response by Job, God picks things up and continues on until the end of chapter 41. Next week we get to hear Job’s answer, brief though it might be, in chapter 42.
 
                In the meantime, we have before us God’s questioning of Job. The questions start at the very beginning of the biblical story: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4a). Were you there when the creation of the earth commenced? If not, then you can’t know the full story of reality. Much of chapter 38 focuses on God’s act of creation, as well as God’s provision. It’s a bit unfair of God, don’t you think? What is Job to say in response? Of course, Job wasn’t there. Of course, Job can’t issue “an order to the clouds so their abundant waters cover you?” (vs. 34 CEB). And on it goes. Job isn’t suggesting he’s God. He’s just claiming to be righteous and faithful. I don’t know about you, but I think God “doth protest too much!” Or, maybe, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson suggest, it’s possible that God’s rhetoric is not angry but ironic. Drawing from their former colleague Gerald Janzen, they suggest that what God does here is “prompt Job to realize that God approves of Job’s questions.” At the same time, they note that Carol Newson suggests that God’s speech is a reminder that we “should honor the boundaries of our own knowledge and figure out how to live creatively within them.” [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 159]. Thus, what looks like God shutting down the conversation is simply a redirection of it. Keep asking questions, even if there are no final answers to be found.
 
                Tone is always difficult to discern. It seems as if God is ignoring Jobs complaints and shutting things down, when God might be doing something else. Perhaps God is suggesting that the entire discussion of retributive justice that marked the prior thirty-five chapters or so might not be the correct conversation piece. Perhaps God is really rebuking the friends and not Job. As for Job, perhaps the answer is that somethings are simply unknowable. So, we must come to life’s situations with humility, asking questions, knowing that answers might not be forthcoming.
 
                We might not have been there “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” but it is good to know that there was joy at the beginning (vs. 7). J.S. Randolph Harris notes that in this response to Job and his “friends” God reminds Job and us that this “is God’s world, and not ours. Sometimes we need to hear that word.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 173]. But, even so, despite the vastness of the cosmos, all of which belong to God, Job 38 reminds us that God chose to speak to Job. Harris writes: “For all of our seeming inconsequence, we are the ones to whom God has spoken, the ones to whom God holds out the promise of conversation about the design of creation.” God doesn’t dismiss Job, but simply reorients his vision. [Feasting on the Word, p. 175]. This is valuable knowledge. Job might not have been there at the beginning, but he is part of that divine creation.

 

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He 10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nholds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

A Bitter Complaint – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21B (Job 23)

A Bitter Complaint – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21B (Job 23)

 

Job Talks to God
 
23 Then Job answered:
“Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.
“If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
10 But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.
11 My foot has held fast to his steps;
I have kept his way and have not turned aside.
12 I have not departed from the commandment of his lips;
I have treasured in my bosom the words of his mouth.
13 But he stands alone and who can dissuade him?
What he desires, that he does.
14 For he will complete what he appoints for me;
and many such things are in his mind.
15 Therefore I am terrified at his presence;
when I consider, I am in dread of him.
16 God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
17 If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!
 
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                The story of Job is revealing. It speaks to our human concerns regarding the nature of God and God’s relationship with creation. It addresses the perennial question of the existence or presence of God amidst human suffering. If God is truly loving, then why does God allow suffering? The easiest answer is that we get what we deserve. If you are suffering you must have done something to deserve it. The poor experience poverty because of their failures. Women are assaulted and raped because of the way they dress. You have heard the message time and again. But reality is never that easy. I don’t know that there are any easy answers and solutions, at least not ones that assume God’s omnipotence. It is in the context of questions like these that Job often speaks. Here is the righteous person, who has done everything he can to keep himself holy, and he makes sure that he pays any debts owed to God by his family. He’s the kind of person you want on your church board. He’s honest, faithful, hard working. As we learned in the first reading last week, the reading from Job 2, God is impressed by his righteousness. But, then God goes and messes with the paradigm by engaging in a wager with Satan that allows Job to be put through a living hell. Despite his suffering, Job clings to his sense of righteousness, and despite the encouragement to do otherwise refuses to curse God.
                In this second reading from Job, we hear Job complain bitterly about his situation. He may not curse God, but he would like to have a word with a God who appears to be absent. His bitterness is compounded by the conversations he has had with his so-called friends. In the intervening chapters, which we have skipped over, Job’s friends, who at first came to comfort him, have in turn urged him to confess his sins so he might be saved from his torment. His friends embrace a vision of reality, Job likely once held, that sin leads to suffering. We call this retributive justice—we get what we deserve. Having heard Job claim innocence, Job’s friends rebuke him. Their interpretation of Job’s plight starts with the suffering and works back to the “cause,” which must be Job’s sins. Again, this is easy to do. Bad things happen to bad people. We have been seeing it influencing our politics as we eat away at the safety net, threaten to take funds from under-performing schools (rather than providing more resources, we take them away), and turn away refugees fleeing from humanitarian disasters. There is, of course, the flip side to this. If you are rich or successful, you must be righteous.
Job has been responding to these arguments with a series of rants, complaining to whoever listen, that he is innocent. He resists the arguments of his “friends,” who are offended by his ongoing confession of innocence. However Job may feel about things, his defenses do not mesh with their theological system. He has upset their religious and cultural values. Yes, he’s unorthodox. I expect that Job wants to agree with his friends, having embraced their theology, but it no longer works. It doesn’t fit his experience of life. Therefore, there must be a different answer. As that answer doesn’t seem to be forthcoming, he cries out in bitter complaint. If you’ve read the first couple of chapters, you know that Job has a reason to be bitter. You would be too! He could go along with his friends’ advice and confess to sins he doesn’t believe he’s committed, but he’s not going to do so. In the omitted verses you get a hint that Job is hopeful that he will be vindicated. God might be absent, but things will work out. In any case, God will do what God wants (see verses 10-15).
                Many of us were taught that it was not appropriate to argue with God. God knows best, so don’t protest. Just take it in. Fortunately, Scripture offers us a counter view. Many of us have found encouragement in Job’s rebellious response to God. Now Job doesn’t curse God or give up faith in God, but Job is willing to lay it on the line with God. If only I could find God, I would give God a piece of my mind—something like that.  Job speaks to the times in our lives when we feel we are suffering unjustly. He speaks here of his sense of God’s absence. We all have felt the same. Yes, we know that God is always and everywhere present (it’s an article of faith—we call it omnipresence), but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel otherwise. We see similar complaints in the Psalms, and this is in its own way a Psalm.
                Job understands that his traditional views don’t work, but how will he respond? In verse 17 we read Job’s response: “If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!” (NRSV). Or is it? The New International Version offers a different take: “Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.” The NRSV offers a Job in despair. The NIV offers a in the words of Mark Throntveit, “defiant, feisty Job, more intent than ever to press his case” [Feasting on the Word, p. 151]. Both are possible translations, but they offer different versions of Job. Personally, I prefer the defiant, feisty Job, though I understand the one who lives with despair. Throntveit does suggest that the NIV reading connects well to the word we read in verse 2, where Job declares that his complaint is bitter! Throntveit comments: that by connecting verse 17 with verse 2, the author offers a “smoother transition to chapter 24,” where we find Job’s “scathing indictment of what God’s absence means in a world where the wicked run roughshod over the weak.”
Does this not speak to where we find ourselves at this moment in time? Churches are trying to be faithful, but they’re struggling. They see other churches thriving and wonder why they can’t. It does seem as if we’re wandering around in the dark. The choices seem to be living in despair or fighting on. So, here we are, in the dark, making our case. We cry out—where are you God? At one level this doesn’t preach. We want a message of success. We want to hear about light. That is not the message for this week, at least from Job. But, maybe, just maybe, we’ll find solace here. If we persist, perhaps God will hear us. At least that’s Job’s hope.

Job Talks to God, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55467 [retrieved October 8, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Noordwijk_Sint-Jeroenskerk_beeld.jpg.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Saving Our Skins? A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20B (Job 2)

Saving Our Skins? A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20B (Job 2)

Job & his wife – La Tour
1:1 There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
2:1 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2 The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3 The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” 4 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5 But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.” 
7 So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8 Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 
9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
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                Job was a righteous man from the land of Uz (wherever that is), whom Satan dared God to torment, to test his faith. God agreed to the wager, and as a result Job’s children were killed by raiding parties and his property destroyed. It was a sad day for Job, but he remained firm in his righteousness. He grieved but didn’t curse God. That’s the essence of chapter one of Job, though the lectionary includes only the introductory verse in the selection for Pentecost 20B. That’s because the focus is on chapter two and a second wager, this time involving Job’s own body. Will Job remain faithful with this twist in the story.
                As in chapter one, in chapter two of Job, the heavenly council gathers with Yahweh presiding. Satan appears once again before Yahweh, who once again asks Satan what he’s been up to. The answer is, “I’ve been traveling around the earth, checking things out, seeing what people are doing.” Once again, Yahweh asks Satan, what he thinks of Job. After all, “there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Did you notice God’s response? Job remained blameless and upright, even though Satan had “incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” God is rather proud of this man, whom God had allowed to be tested.
                I have always been intrigued by the story of Job. It invites us to think through our understanding of God, including God’s relationship to the world. In my theology, God is love, and a God who is love doesn’t go around messing people’s lives. Yet, that is the story, which should cause us to pause before embracing a literalist interpretation. In this picture of God, God is rather petty. God play games with a man’s life, by letting his children be murdered and his property destroyed, just to see if Job will stay firm in his faith. Job does, despite everything that is thrown at him. Job is righteous, but what about God? Is God so thin-skinned that God can be manipulated by Satan? It’s a question we must face, if we’re to hear this story.
                If we’re to read Job in a way that informs us theologically, we need to affirm at the very beginning that this fiction. The first clue ought to be Job’s homeland. Where is Uz? It could be Edom, but who knows. The picture of the heavenly court is also a clue, though it gives evidence of its rootedness in a pre-monotheist Israel. Whatever its origins, the book raises questions about our understanding of God, the nature of faith, and the challenge posed to that faith by human suffering. With that is our opening point, we need to also address this important character who appears in the early chapters, and that is the person of Satan. The character of Satan as depicted here is not the devil of human imagination. This is no figure with red skin, horns, and a pitchfork. This figure is more an informant, sent out by God, as would a king, to keep watch for rebellious activities. In this set of exchanges, Satan raises questions about Job’s piety. Is it based on living the good life, and if that good life is taken away, the piety would go away as well? It’s a good question, and whether we like the way the question is set up, it does speak to our own realities.
                In chapter two, when God asks Satan what he thinks of Job’s response to misfortune, Satan responds that this is to be expected. It’s one thing to lose your family and property. It’s another thing to have your own body afflicted. Isn’t it human nature to do whatever we can to save our own skins, even at the expense of those closest to us? That’s just the way things are. Jesus knew that. In the Gospel of John, we hear him say: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Jesus will do that for his friends, but what about us? When push comes to shove, won’t we save our own skins? That’s the wager. So, God goes along with the wager, allowing Job to be afflicted, but not killed. Pushed to the limit, will he curse God?  That’s the question.
                Satan went and cursed Job, causing sores to appear on his body running from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. In other words, the totality of his body was covered with “loathsome sores.” He was miserable. He probably wished to die. But he remained firm in his faith. He did so, even when his wife suggested that he curse God, so he might die. Curse God and get it over with. That was her advice. But he refused. He remained firm in his faith, despite everything.
                Satan was wrong. Job didn’t save his own skin by cursing God, though Job’s wife encouraged him to do so. He told his wife that one should expect both the good and the bad from the hand of God. That isn’t a comforting word on Job’s part. It doesn’t fit with my own theology. It’s not that I plan on cursing God, but I am troubled by the idea that God would authorize the bad. God might allow something bad to occur, or maybe, just maybe, there are things God simply cannot do. Through it all, however, Job remains firm in his faith.
This response on Job’s part, his decision to accept his fate and not curse God sets up the next phase of the story, his encounter with his “friends,” who at first seek to comfort him and then as time passes, and Job won’t confess his sins, raise questions about Job’s righteousness. After all, isn’t suffering the result of wrong doing? So far, however, Job does nothing to warrant his suffering, if suffering results from wrongdoing. His suffering comes from a divine directive.
                The questions raised by the Book of Job are important ones. In some ways the Book challenges another strain of Wisdom Literature that presumes that blessing is a sing of righteousness and suffering is a sign of unrighteousness. It also invites us to consider the we view the divine-human relationship. Marvin Sweeney, a Jewish scholar of the Hebrew Bible (and my son’s professor) at a Protestant seminary, offers these words of insight:

The book of Job deliberately presents the model of a righteous man who suffers with no apparent moral justification in an effort to force critical reflection on the issue. The arguments posed by Job’s friends concerning the meaning of human suffering and their assertions of divine righteousness even in the face of evil and Job’s responses to each of them are in fact the key issues of the book. The book of Job is intended to question the standard theological premises of the Torah and the Prophets, viz., is it really the case that observance of the divine will leads to success and peace in life? Is it really the case that the wicked suffer— and not the righteous? Is it really the case that G-d is just? Indeed, the final episode in which G-d affirms Job’s demands for an explanation for his suffering— even though G-d never provides such explanation— indicates that such a critical agenda is in fact the purpose of the book. In the end, the book of Job affirms divine presence and it appears to affirm divine righteousness, but the book also affirms the right and obligation of human beings to ask such questions of G-d. In this respect, Job points to and affirms a model of a human being in critical dialog with G-d.  [Sweeney, Marvin A. Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to The Jewish Bible (Kindle Locations 11439-11447). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.]

                The door is open. Are willing to walk through? Are willing to enter a critical dialog with God, as Sweeney proposes? The lectionary moves quickly, jumping from chapter two to chapter twenty-three. We don’t get to see the dialog with the friends, but we do experience Job’s complaint, which is set up by this attack on Job’s skin.

Picture attribution: La Tour, Georges du Mesnil de, 1593-1652. Job and his Wife, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46621 [retrieved October 1, 2018]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.