Delight and the Song of Songs

To celebrate Easter, we’ve been looking at the Song of Songs in our studies on Monday evenings. It’s a book that celebrates delight and human bodies, which is especially helpful in this time of a pandemic when life feels a little less delightful and moving our lives on to zoom has made us feel a little less embodied.

Song of Songs is a bit of a confusing book, at least partially because it’s an unusual genre in the Bible (e.g., a love poem) and Christianity has not always been very good at talking about sexuality. The following two reflections have helped us appreciate the text more fully.

Laura de Jong, who is a pastor, speaks passionately about how this Song awakens delight and longing in all of us, irrelevant of our marital status:

“Because this greatest of songs is about many things, but not just about human sexuality. And its not just an allegory of God’s relationship with his people. It’s also about longing, and excitement, and living deeply, and sucking the marrow out of life, and whimsy, and delight, and beauty, and language, and community. And it’s about God. What he has done, what he is doing, what he will do. The Song of Songs is an invitation to life.”

Laura de Jong, “The Greatest of Songs.”

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a theologically profound article about sexuality and desire:

“Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.”

Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace.”

As the article is quite theologically dense, if you’d like some help understanding it, Debra Rienstra, a writer and professor, has summarized his work: Rowan William for dummies on sexuality.

Hope this Easter

It has felt odd celebrating Easter this year, as it’s hard to celebrate when we do not get to be physically with many of those we care about. Besides the challenges of social distancing, more and more of us here in the United States are experiencing COVID-19 close up, either knowing someone who has become sick or becoming sick ourselves. There is tension between the sadness and uncertainty of this time and the hope and joy of Easter. 

Tish Harrison Warren has written an encouraging article in Christianity Today that proclaims the hope of Easter in the middle of the challenges of this time:

“The truth of the Resurrection is wild and free. It possesses us more than we could ever possess it and rolls on happily with no need of us, never bending to our opinions of it. If the claims of Christianity are true, they are true with or without me. . . . .

Believers and skeptics alike often approach the Christian story as if its chief value is personal, subjective, and self-expressive. We come to faith primarily for how it comforts us or helps us cope or lends a sense of belonging. However subtly, we reduce the Resurrection to a symbol or a metaphor. Easter is merely an inspirational tradition, a celebration of rebirth and new life that calls us to the best version of ourselves and helps give meaning to our lives. But the actualities that we now face in a global pandemic—the overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, the collapsing global economy, and the terrifying fragility of our lives—ought to put an end to any sentimentality about the Resurrection. . . .

I am a Christian today not because it answers all my questions about the world or about our current suffering. It does not. And not because I think it is a nice, coherent moral order by which to live my life. And not because I grew up this way or have fond feelings about felt boards and hymn sings. And not because it motivates justice or helps me to know how to vote. I am a Christian because I believe in the Resurrection. . . . If Jesus is risen in actual history, with all the palpability of flesh, fingers, bone, and blood, there is hope that our mourning will be comforted and that death will not have the final word.”

In honor of Easter, we’re going forward with a new study on Song of Songs. We start tonight. Join us! We’ll keep looking at Lamentations on Saturday, though, holding the tension of the sadness of this time.

How lonely is the city

“How lonely is the city that once was full of people!” is how the Old Testament book of Lamentations begins. These words suggest that the life of the city is dependent on people and the relationships between people. When these are absent the city itself feels lonely and “the roads to Zion mourn” (Lam 1:4). 

The other week we began studying Lamentations in response to everything happening in the world because of COVID-19. The grief-filled words remind us that lament is an important part of a life of faith. We lament to express frustration and even our anger for the way things are. The book of Lamentations helps with that, as “Lamentations is a searing book of taut, charged poetry on the subject of unspeakable suffering. The poems emerge from a deep wound, a whirlpool of pain, toward which the images, metaphors, and voices of the poetry can only point.” Kathleen O’Connor, “Lamentations” in NIBC, 879

Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, in his book Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, talks about how lament gives voice to the grief and sadness that result from the task of “reality,” or honestly identifying the state of things. This can be especially challenging when others do not share our concern. We hear this also in Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?” (Lam. 1:12). O’Connor echoes Brueggemann:

“The book of Lamentations practices truth-telling. It refuses denial and reverses amnesia by inviting readers into pain and affliction in all their rawness. It urges us to face suffering, to speak of it, to be dangerous proclaimers of the truth that society wants to repress. … Advice like ‘Get over it,’ Get on with it,’ ‘Look on the bright side,’ reinforces the dehumanization of the sufferers by refusing to accept their stammering efforts toward truth” and healing. (O’Connor, 892). 

Wherever you find yourself in this journey, may we be supportive of each other, being people that “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). In our communities may we share words of comfort and hope in the midst of struggle. Like with the book of Lamentations, may our “stinging cries for help, [our] voices begging God to see, [our] protests to God who hides behind a cloud – all create a space where communal and personal pain can be reexperienced, seen, and perhaps healed.” (O’Connor, 879).

– Mitchell Eithun and Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink

Epiphany – Seeing anew

Epiphany stands for ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’ and is celebrated on January 6. As Campus Edge’s Monday night study fell on Epiphany this year, we celebrated it together. This included blessing the house together, which was a liturgical experience few of us had experienced (as it’s outside of our church traditions).

We also spent some time remembering the story of the three magi in Matthew 2, as well as connecting it with Isaiah 60-61. One of the most fascinating aspects of both of those passages is their focus on foreigners – and how it is that these ‘outsiders’ see and respond to God in a way that the insiders (the people of God) did not. As Kierkegaard notes,

“The three kings had only a rumor to go by. But it moved them to make that long journey. The scribes were much better informed. They sat and studied the Scriptures like so many scholars, but it did not make them move.”

quoted by Derek Schuurman in his article, The Heart of Christmas.

Perhaps one way that we can see anew during this season of Epiphany is to be open to listening to and learning from unexpected people and places.

God of tomorrow, some day, and forever

In the season of Advent, a lot of people look to the book of Isaiah and find hope in how the texts point to the coming of Christ (especially Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7; 11:1-9). Ironically, though, I find the texts less hopeful when the focus is primarily on how they’ve been fulfilled by Jesus’ birth. I believe that the point of these Isaiah texts is not simply to provide hope to the Israelites that God would some day do something miraculous connected to salvation. Instead, the texts provide hope of how God would be working in the near future for their salvation. God is, after all, God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, or, in the case of this text, a God who works for salvation tomorrow, some day, and forever.

There is hope in recognizing that God did not act only in history one time: during Jesus’ time on earth. Instead, God is active in all time. God cared enough about the Israelites to provide salvation to them in their time. God gave a sign to Ahaz (and the people of Israel) showing that the siege would end in the very near future. By the time a child not yet conceived was old enough to know right from wrong, the kings attacking them would have fallen and they would have recovered from the current siege to the extent that the child would be eating honey and curds (Isaiah 7:14-16). Isaiah 9 and 11 speak to deliverance through the coming of a king who would bring justice, a king who would do what “was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done.” A king would come of whom it would be said: “there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not stop following him.” This king was Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, as described in 2 Kings 18:3-6.

Yet, just as the text gives hope for the immediate future of the people, it also provides hope for our future. Because as much as the text was immediately fulfilled in Isaiah’s time and was more fully fulfilled with Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1:22-23), it has not yet been fully fulfilled. The justice and righteousness spoken about in Isaiah 9:7 and Isaiah 11:2-5 were not fully established with Jesus’ coming. Nor is the peaceful kingdom presented in Isaiah 11:6-9 a current reality. Recognizing the many layers of fulfillment in the text allows me to be honest about how they have not fully been fulfilled. And so we can read these texts with longing and hope. We can honestly lament that, even though Jesus came at Christmas, the world is still so much not the way it ought to be. The injustices that Isaiah speaks about, such as prioritizing profit over the well-being of others (especially the marginalized) have re-surfaced in new ways today, such as the Flint water crisis, sweatshops, and extreme weather because of climate change.

These texts give me space to lament the suffering and injustices of the world. Yet, they also allow me to rejoice in the significance and wonder of Jesus’ birth while longing for Christ to come again and fully bring about the justice that first was established in Hezekiah and more fully in Jesus. And these texts reassure me that my hope in Christ coming back to bring justice is not in vain. Because certainly a God who has been faithful in assuring that the words of these texts came true in the near future and the some day, this God can and will fulfill the words in a future that is still before us.

Isaiah and the Prophetic Call to a Just Society

At the beginning of his book, the prophet Isaiah convicts a “sinful nation, people laden with iniquity” (1:4). The society he describes is full of bribes (1:23), fixes itself on material wealth (2:7) and denies justice to orphans and widows (1:23). Even the worship of the people is meaningless without justice: “bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me” (1:13).

The prophet implores the people to “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17). As Christians, what do we to in response to this call to social justice? How can we be “repairers of the breach and restorers of the streets” (58:12)? Reflecting on the words of Isaiah, here are some thoughts on how we can faithfully approach justice issues today.

1.    Build Theological Knowledge

Unfortunately many injustices have been perpetuated by theologies that seek to build wealth and retain power.  One way to confront these forces is by reading the Old Testament prophets. The prophetic word exposes collective, societal sins, such as denying justice to orphans, widows and the poor. After announcing God’s judgment on nations and rulers,  Isaiah reveals God’s vision of a just future as nonviolence (2:4), equity for the poor (11:4) and a renewed creation (65:17-25).

The words of the prophets and the example of Jesus affirm that Christians are called to stand with vulnerable people. Fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah (61:1), Jesus announces his mission in Luke 4:18:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.

Accordingly, during his ministry, Jesus identified himself with the poor (Matt 8:2; 2 Cor 8:9), urged followers to sell their possessions (Matt 19:21) and imagined a future in which the guests of honor will be the poor and oppressed (Luke 14:12–14). The words and actions of Jesus have inspired liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez and James Cone to argue that God’s justice for the oppressed is at the heart of the gospel.

2.    Learn About Injustice Today

The complexity of human societies make it difficult to know how approach justice issues. Often we participate in systems that have upheld social inequality. This means it is important acknowledge the ways in which society has been constructed that have given us an advantage. Recognizing these power dynamics, Isaiah speaks often about God’s great reversal: the proud will be cast down and the lowly will be lifted up (5:15, 11:4, 14:30). This means that responding to God’s call for justice means listening to the marginalized people (Phil 2:4). We can do this by approaching conversations openly and embracing uncomfortable moments as a chance to learn and grow. 

It can be helpful to start by exploring the historical context behind one issue. Drawing inspiration from the language of Isaiah, concerning issues today include gun violence (2:4), land appropriation (5:8), government corruption (10:1-4) and the climate crisis (24:4-5). Joining a justice-seeking community such as a church ministry or an advocacy group is a a great way to learn about local efforts to combat injustice.

3.    Speak Out

Inspired by the example of the prophets and apostles, Christians are called to advocate for a just society today by speaking the truth to power and performing nonviolent direct action.  While it is easier to stay neutral, the gospel is inherently political and has implications for public policy. Isaiah openly confronts the sins of oppressive political leaders, saying “ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right” (Isaiah 10:1-2; see also Matt 23:23). While we do not need to walk around naked for three years (Isaiah 20:2-4) or cook food over human waste (Ezekiel 4:9-13), we can draw inspiration from the prophets, who spoke out boldly against injustice.

In the midst of the struggle for justice it is also important that we are called to pray for and love our enemies (Matt 5:43-48). Amidst God’s judgment, Isaiah reminds his readers that “[God’s] hand is stretched out still” (Isaiah 5:25, 9:12, 9:17, 9:21, 10:4, 14:26) and on the day of the Lord, even Assyria, Babylon and Israel will together be a “blessing in the midst of the earth” (Isaiah 19:24-25).  By serving in humility (Matt 23:11-12) we admit our mistakes and rely on God’s grace (Isaiah 30:18).

Furthermore, we acknowledge that human political systems are deeply flawed. While confronting unjust leaders, the early church boldly proclaimed that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  No political party will be able to bring about a completely just society, no particular candidate can be our “savior” and no earthly nation will thrive forever (Dan 2:44-45; Isaiah 60:12). The good news is that Jesus is the true ruler of the world (Isaiah 9:7; Rom 1:1-4). As Christians we are called to participate in building God’s kingdom of justice and peace: “Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1).

Potential Resources and Readings

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Acts and the Gospel of Hope

In him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)

The Book of Acts records the earliest proclamations of the gospel after the time of Jesus. Peter, Paul and others preach to Jews, Greeks, philosophers, politicians, kings and foreigners all around the Middle East. Extraordinarily, Peter and John were “ordinary, uneducated men” (4:13), working in the face of intense opposition from political and religious leaders.

In his famous sermon on the Areopagus, Paul preaches to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, the through-leaders in first century Athens (17:23-31). Paul tries to contextualize the gospel for intellectuals who “spend their time simply and solely in telling and hearing the latest novelty” (17:22). Academic discussions often veer into obscure topics, of interest to only a few people. How does the gospel enter into these spaces? The sermons in Acts affirm a multi-faceted gospel message, expressed in different ways for different people.

Contemporary Christians have often shortened gospel message to “Jesus died for your sins.” While calls for repentance are an important part of the gospel (3:13), this statement fails to capture the breadth of the message of Jesus found in the gospels, especially as it pertains to Old Testament history and prophecy (7:1-53). Gospel preaching in Acts reveals more details about The Way (18:24, 26) and the extent to which “Jesus Christ is Lord of all” (10:34).

In Acts, the Gospel message is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible and the expectation of a messiah to rule over God’s people: “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus” (3:13). For example, Peter discusses the hope of God’s personal presence in Psalm 16 (2:25-28) and the hope of God’s spirit in Joel 2 (2:17-21).  This means that the gospel is a continuation of the covenant made with the God who created of the universe (14:15, 18:24) and liberated the Israelites from Egypt (7:35-36, 13:17). Along with forgiveness of sins (5:31, 13:38-39), the messianic reign brings God’s Spirit to all flesh (2:17, 2:33), healing for the oppressed (10:33) and the resurrection of the dead (17:18, 23:6, 24:15).  The expansive good news found in King Jesus establishes an entirely new way of being human: by living in the kingdom of God.

Several conflicts with authorities in Acts are a reaction to the proclamation that Jesus is king. The believers’ prayer for boldness (4:24-30) recognizes that “the kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have governed together against the Lord and against his Messiah.” When ordered by the chief priests not to preach in the name of Jesus, the believers proclaim “we must obey God rather than any human authority” (5:29). Later earthly authorities fall Herod Agrippa dies suddenly he flaunts his charisma in front of a crowd (12:20-23). While earthly authorities see the Jesus movement as a threat to their power, Christians recognize that Jesus used his royal power to be a servant (Phil 2:6-7).

The Book of Acts also demonstrates that there is room for everyone in the kingdom: disabled people (3:2), the sick (5:16) and sexual minorities (8:26-40). As Peter exclaims, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (10:34). As much as we like to believe that “Christian values” inform our policy making and interactions with other people, our modern societies sill fail to support the same groups of people that early followers of Jesus embraced.

My hope is that church will return to the vision of the blessed community that shares their possessions (2:44), breaks bread (2:46), confronts unjust authorities (3:14-15, 5:29-30) and appoints servant leaders (6:3-5). The “acts of the apostles” demonstrate that a sense of solidarity and community rooted is at the heart of the Gospel. We live in the kingdom of God and the reign of Christ and await the “restoration of all things announced long ago” (3:21).

– Mitchell Eithun, campus pastor intern.

Hope for all Creation: Ezekiel 47

As part of our chapel series on Hope for all creation, I gave the following short reflection on Ezekiel 47:1-12.

While I have grown to love the book of Ezekiel, I often find it strange. And this passage, despite the beautiful image of life-giving water that it presents, is no exception. It is filled with odd repetitions and details. Why does it matter to us, the readers, which directions the water is coming from? Why are we given measurements?

Going back a few chapters in Ezekiel, there are more measurements. Measurements of doors and walls and rooms and instructions for priests. These chapters look like building instructions for a temple, and many people over the centuries have interpreted it that way. If we build the temple, then Christ will return – and the vision presented here of the water that gives life – will finally come true. It’s one interpretation of Ezekiel 43, which says that these words are written so that people might be ashamed and turn to God, and then they must follow these instructions. And God will dwell among them. And who of us doesn’t want God to dwell among us?

I find something deeply appealing in the idea that maybe – if we just follow this formula or these instructions – then everything will be the way it should be. The water of life, as depicted in this passage, will overflow: “the fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”

Except experience and history have taught us that God cannot be contained or controlled. I – we – cannot do enough to make and ensure God will come to dwell among us. Any effort we might make to build the temple pictured here actually can’t work: the text doesn’t give building materials, the dimensions are too large to fit on the temple mound, and probably most noticeable, it’s lacking a roof. The temple isn’t meant to be built. It isn’t meant to be one more thing to do; instead it’s a vision of what already is. It’s a vision that is calling us to turn to God, to turn away from our own efforts to control God – or even try to control and run the world around us. The temple is a vision of God’s presence and another reiteration of God’s repeated refrain throughout Ezekiel – I will be your God and you will be my people. I will dwell among you.

God will dwell among us because that’s what God does. God dwells among us. Genesis 1 tells the story of creation but many scholars recognize that the language is more than just a description of the world coming into being. It is a description of a world that has been formed as a temple: God’s temple where God dwells. Since creation, God has dwelt among us, inviting us to see God through the beauty and power and wonder that creation instills in us.

Throughout the Old Testament, God’s presence was shown to the Israelites through the temple in their midst, but God’s presence was hardly contained to the temple. And this vision of a new temple here in Ezekiel makes that even more clear: no roof, after all, could hold God’s presence when God’s presence is throughout all of creation.

Because God’s presence is not always obvious, despite the beauty of creation, God came among us in the form of Jesus, and today God is present with us in the Holy Spirit. And we can take great comfort that it is not on the basis of our own efforts that God dwells among us, but simply because that is who God is. It is part of how God formed creation. And since then we have been given many gracious reminders of God’s presence: a vision of life to its fullness, full of the water of life.

Reading the book of Daniel

I have to admit to being a bit surprised by how much I’ve appreciated looking at the first part of the book of Daniel. As much as I love the Bible, I associate the stories of Daniel with Sunday school stories that tended towards primarily encouraging us to be good moral people. Such a simplistic understanding of the stories (and the Bible) doesn’t fit with the complexity of real life today.

Yet the conversations we’ve had in our studies and the commentaries we’ve been using have been encouraging. Both commentaries (Wendy L. Widder’s The Story of God Bible Commentary: Daniel and John Goldingay’s Daniel & The Twelve Prophets for Everyone) have challenged us. I’ve been convicted about how much culture (and empire) can form us. I’ve also been comforted by how God continues to be present in our lives.

First, some words of conviction. Goldingay, in speaking of Daniel 3 and the actions of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego notes that

“Their unwillingness to live by other people’s conventions and expectations raised questions about those conventions and expectations. It’s one of the ways in which Jewish people have fulfilled their vocation to draw the rest of the world away from its usual assumptions about religion and life.” John Goldingay, Daniel & The Twelve Prophets for Everyone, 20.

Widder, in talking about how Daniel 3 might apply to our lives today, highlights how idols are not always as obvious as the one that appeared in that chapter. Bowing down to the idols of today can happen in very subtle ways:

“Sometimes when I sit down to write, facing my computer screen with outstretched hands, I wonder if I am bowing before the god of prestige. When I lie prostrate on the couch during primetime, it occurs to me that the god of entertainment and leisure might have taken up residence in my living room. In the glow of the refrigerator as I partake of unnecessary and even unhealthful calories, I realize I might be fellowshipping with the god of gluttony. . . Perhaps the most pervasive idol is human autonomy – the right to do what we want, how we want, when we want, with whomever we want. If something makes us happy, we are entitled to it. If something makes us unhappy, we are entitled to get rid of it. Human autonomy is the god of gods, and we worship it fervently.” Wendy L. Widder, The Story of God Bible Commentary: Daniel, 81.

While I found the story to be convicting, I also found it encouraging. Surprisingly enough, the encouragement is not because on account of how, in the book of Daniel, it appears that God always shows up and rescues those who follow God. In fact, the rest of the Bible (and even the situation of the Israelites in Daniel who have been carried off to a foreign land) indicates that God does not always rescue people. Instead, God is present with those who follow God.

We, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are invited to follow God, not simply because “the God we serve is able to deliver us” but “even if God does not.” (Daniel 3:17-18). As much as I sometimes want a God who will simply and always intervene in my life to deliver me, I know that this doesn’t reflect reality. Deep down, I’d also rather follow a God who does not simply follow my whims but instead is present in the midst of the complexity and suffering in life.

Judges: God uses the weak and unexpected

We’ve been looking at the book of Judges in our studies at Campus Edge. The book of Judges is strange and violent, and it’s not always clear how these ancient stories apply to our lives today. Yet, the book of Judges is clear in telling us that God raises up judges from the weak and imperfect and uses them to save the people of God. The judges do impossible things: Samson killed hundreds with the jawbone of a lion. Barak took on 900 iron chariots and Jael killed the army commander with a tent peg, Gideon took down an entire army with 300 men blowing trumpets, smashing jars, and yelling at the top of their lungs.

Knowing our own weaknesses, we are encouraged by how God uses those imperfect people, people like Samson, Gideon, Barak and Jael. After all, if God can use these people, then God can use us despite our own weaknesses and incompetency.

The challenge, though, is that we often move from gratitude that God can use to us to focusing on all that we have done: we tend to become the hero of our own stories. While Judges proclaims loudly that God uses the unexpected people, it’s helpful to remember that most of the time that unexpected person isn’t me.