Sunday, September 30, 2007

Questioning God - Final Reflections

This study has been a profound experience for me. So much more could and should be said about each psalm that carries one of the accusatory questions but space does not permit in this paper. What started off as a musing on the aggressive prayers that Israel seemed to offer has become a provocative challenge to both covenant and Creator. This study has also cemented in my mind the need for lament in our communities. Without it, our liturgies lack a certain honesty about our selves and our world. We need to overcome the isolating tendencies of individualism on both the personal and ecclesial scale and rediscover our solidarity with a crumbling and disoriented world. Rediscovering our social reality is fundamental to rediscovering lament. When we do, we will find the need for such language again. Such a language will “help the church genuinely mourn the world’s enmity and pain, give a voice to the voiceless, and witness against injustice.”[1] Lament offers the church a solid “rhetoric for prayer and reflection that befits these volatile times, a rhetoric that mourns loss, examines complicity in evil, cries for divine help, and sings and prays with hope. For indeed, what ultimately shapes lament is not the need of the creature to cry its woe, but the faithfulness of the God, who hears and acts.”[2]

[1] Sally Brown & Patrick Miller, ed., “Introduction,” in Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), xix.
[2] Ibid.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Northwestern Alumni Show

I've been asked to submit several photos for an alumni showing at Northwestern College's 125th Anniversary celebration and homecoming. The show goes up at the beginning of October with an 11 a.m. reception with the artists at Te Paske Gallery, Korver Visual Arts Center in Orange City IA. I have attached the entered photos, though I am not sure which of the four will be hung.

This image was taken in Chicago at the new Millenium Park of the Crown Fountain. It was hot humid night in August when I took this. I imagine this place to be for today's children what the fire hydrant was for city children in past decades. This evening rather than projected faces on the glass brick facade it was a waterfall cascading water down on the children.

This summer on our trip home we stopped in New Salem ND to visit friends. We decided to head to nearby Mandan for the 4th of July parade. It was hot without a cloud in the sky. And the sun seemed to be at an astounding intensity. As I stood in the shade of an awning I saw the corner windows and the layers of reflections. When I examine the picture I leads me to questions of reality...What is real and what is reflection? It takes some time for my eyes to sort things out. What is infront? What is behind? What is inside? What is out?

This is another shot at Millenium Park in Chicago. I am not sure of the dimensions of the tower but children were chasing each other around as children do. So I slowed the shutter to catch the movement of the scene. This child caught sprinting through the downpour is reduced to a shadow of movement. Having spend quite a lot of time considering the body this year it makes me think of the relative speed with which our bodies grow and decay. That while certain things have a percieved permanance, live is rushing by in front.

This shot is also from Mandan ND. Again this fits into my explorations of the physicality of the body. This is the second showing of this photo as it was jurored into the Sioux Falls Common Ground exhibit. The bright sun of the day created such stark shadows that just struck me as I wached the shadow move in strange unison with the body. And it is the physical body that makes a shadow possible.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mechanical Body?

While I might be overly critical at times, I rarely react with such disdain for advertising slogans. Perhaps I was just in a particularly bad mood but this sign by Avera (a local hospital) just set me off a few weeks ago. It is located at a prominent location of 26th and Minnesota here in Sioux Falls that Avera often advertises at.

But this ad just refuses to mellow in my mind. It seems to flaunt the reductionistic effect that science and the modern project has had on life. Is our body simply a machine? Are humans utilitarian? If one of us is a “lemon” are we simply replaceable? Is there nothing more to us? What happened to the soul? The spirit? I’m not even opposed to the spirited body or physicalist view of Nancy Murphy, but this just seems an utter affront to the depths of a Christian anthropology.

But then again, maybe I am just expecting too much from a billboard.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Questioning God pt. VIII

Psalm 89
Psalm 89 is another remarkable example of plying the shared memories of God’s action to move God into action once again. This royal lament poignantly portrays Israel’s disorientation after Yahweh’s apparent rejection of the Davidic line. The structure itself is interesting with two alternating forms of praise (vs. 1-2, 5-18[1]) and recollection (vs. 3-4, 19-37).

Verses 3-4 recall the covenant made with David and verses 19-37 recall the oracle of Yahweh’s announcement of his selection of David as king and Yahweh’s faithfulness to his descendents forever. But verse 38 functions as the fulcrum weighing Israel’s current experience of rejection with the promise of its past. Thus it is a profound question and mystery for Israel. If the physical or earthy reality of the covenant is no longer present, what about the heavenly rule? “It is an overwhelming enigma for which the psalm knows no resolution.”[2]

Within verses 1-37 two of the central themes that emerge are Yahweh’s faithfulness (used seven times) and steadfast love (hesed) (used five times). Both of which are prominent to Israel’s understanding about who Yahweh is. And in this psalm, by recounting their history of Yahweh’s actions in Yahweh’s hesed, they pivot from praise to present protest in utter confusion. “Hesed is the proper and right matter about which Israel and Yahweh must struggle, because it is the identifying quality of this odd relationship.”[3] That which was once promised to them has been taken away.

The psalmist seems to say, “In the past you did,” “but now you have…” and lists a stunning arrive of negative actions that Yahweh has directed at Israel: spurned, rejected, renounced, defiled, broken and on and on. However, prior to this scathing list of actions, the psalmist recalls the past saving actions in praise, creating a foil or “set up” whereby they can quickly change direction and call Yahweh to terms. That which functions as praise, also works as bait. Yahweh now stands caught by his own words. Israel has demonstrated their memory and faithfulness, in this instance, is better than Yahweh’s. Following in verses 47 and 50 they petition Yahweh to remember by asking, “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” They remind God to be God.

I have also mentioned the theme of presumed innocence on Israel’s part. As part of the oracle verse 30 begins with “If his children forsake the law…then I will punish” (vs. 32). In the psalm, the “if” is pitted against the “but now” of verse 38 implying that Israel has kept up their end of the covenant. It is Yahweh who transgressed their agreement.

We also see clearly the three participants in the psalm integrally related. The king once upheld by Yahweh’s mighty arm and right hand (vs. 13, 21) now God exalts the “right hand of his foes.” The solidarity of shared enemies between the anointed king and God has vanished and God sides with the kings enemies. After verse 38, is a direct accusation against Yahweh that Yahweh has forgotten the promises to David, and been an active participant in their tragedy. Verse 46 houses the repeated “How long?” questions in regard to Yahweh’s hiddenness and anger. Where the other psalms seem to function with a passive aggressive subtext, this critique of Yahweh is brutally up front.

[1] Verses 5-18 do serve as praise but also memory.
[2] James L. Mays, The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms, 105.
[3] Walter Brueggemann, Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 53.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Questioning God pt. VII - Psalm

Psalm 79
Psalm 79 is another striking example for the communal complaint and lament that closely resembles Psalm 74. It is a very human plea to Yahweh to act on behalf of a sinful Israel who has been overrun by her enemies. Tate notes that the destruction of Israel is not just a theological crisis, but also a political, social, and economic results.[1] Not one aspect of their life was left untouched. The first five verses describe the horrific scene to Yahweh. All three participants, Yahweh, psalmist/community, and the enemies are intimately bound from the outset so that they cannot be extracted one from another. The nations have decimated and humiliated God’s people, and thus, by covenantal extension, Yahweh himself. On the surface, we again see the overwhelmed cry of a besieged people, but from the perspective of the covenant, despite Israel’s sinfulness, God seems to be implicated in this disaster by allowing it to happen. Israel pleas for God’s anger to be turned from them to their enemies. But they do so that God’s actions on their behalf would bring God’s glory. Such is the intimate connection between the covenanting God and community. Within the plea, “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name's sake” (vs. 9) the draws on benefits for both dialogical relationship. By God’s actions, Israel is restored and by doing so, God restores his own name and glory.[2]

We find the psalmist and community immersed within the situation itself and lays it before God that he experience it as well. What is striking is the “guileless simplicity of strongly felt passion, which can be shared with Yahweh. There is no self-deceiving politeness, no attempt to protect Yahweh from how it really is.”[3] The utter humanity that is captured in this psalm is remarkable. This psalm shows us those things such as bitterness, anger, and desire for vengeance that never allowed to be spoken in our liturgies and not like most prayer lives either. But the speaker is honest before God, and yet subject to God’s will. Once again we see the selfish desires raised in exasperation.

[1] Tate, 302.
[2] Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, 72. Brueggemann calls this a “convergence of interest.”
[3] Ibid., 71.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Humor as a Hermeneutical Lens

I am convinced that I have been given a hermeneutical lens of humor. Quite often I am reading and something will just catch and then seem so strange and ironic that it becomes humorous. I often see the exchanges between individuals or individuals and God as part of a comedy sitcom. Humor that can be pulled from slightly twisted readings is wonderful.

Today our lectionary readings included Exodus 32.1,7-14, Psalm 51, 1 Timothy 1.12-17 and Luke 15.1-10.

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the
mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make gods
for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out
of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him."
7 The Lord
said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the
land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from
the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf,
and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, "These are your gods, O
Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!' " 9 The Lord said to
Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone,
so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I
will make a great nation." 11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, "O
Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of
the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the
Egyptians say, "It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in
the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your
fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13
Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by
your own self, saying to them, "I will multiply your descendants like the stars
of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your
descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.' " 14 And the Lord changed his
mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

What struck me today was the exchange between Moses and God. Yahweh tells Moses of an emergency down at the camp saying “your people, whom you brought up” from Egypt. Your people? Has Israel been disowned by God? And does Moses answer in defense saying, “Hey they are not my people, you are the one that chose them and brought them here?” Is Moses trying to distance himself from them? Well that is where my mind went the first time I read it. But after reading it through again I don’t see it quite that way. Rather, Moses pleads with God to relent from his anger, he reminds God that they are his people, that he brought out of slavery, and that he had made promises to them. Moses reminds God to be God, reminding him of his covenantal faithfulness.

And yet, I have seen parents do this very thing with children who are acting up. One parent may say to the other, “your son/daughter wants/need/did/is…” and we may fill in the blank with any frustrating or embarrassing behavior. What is interesting is that God has made up his mind to go back on the covenant. And Yahweh may have had good reason to consider it if it is seen from a contractual point of view where Israel had certainly fell off from their end of the deal. God tells Moses to leave so he can let his anger burn. This adds an interesting facet to who God is. Without psychologizing it too much we see God’s jealousy and anger, not an inferiority complex that leads to a sulking deity.

Another interesting point is that not only was Yahweh ready to cancel the covenant with Abraham and Isaac, he was ready to make a new covenant with Moses. In this we begin to see not just the initial humor but or a petty change in God’s mind, but what would have been a radical shift in our salvation history.

What can we take away from these thoughts? Well, what comes to mind is God’s faithfulness. In one sense, Yahweh seems to be on shaky ground when it comes to his promises. And yet, God does follow through and we must remember that. The other is the importance of knowing our story that we too might remind God to be God. We cannot claim the promises if we have not heard of them nor remember them. We must not only hear the story but live in them and make our lives immersed in the promises of God.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sacred Space in Don McLean's "American Pie"

Don McLean’s "American Pie" is legendary and interpretations abound. But upon hearing again a few times recently I began to wonder about the role of the “levee” and “sacred store” that are central to the song. Many sense the loss of innocence culturally for the nation that was quite apparent during the late 60’s when the song was written. The corporate reality is experienced individually and this is McLean’s autobiography of loss and disorientation.

It is this loss and disorientation that captured my attention in my most recent listening. Paul Tillich has told us that symbols have a life not unlike ours: birth, life, and death. They grow at opportune moments and die at others. Symbols die because they no longer produce the same response in the group where they originated.[1]

Those things which once symbolically oriented McLean and on a larger scale society have gone away leaving many, including the singer, in a great disorientation.

“Oh, and there we were all in one place, A generation lost in space”
While space was being conquered, what was becoming of that generation? Those things, ideas, people which guided them were being lost. This verse seems to suggest that the whole generation is lost and free floating in the limitless universe with little to nothing firm to hold on to.

“The church bells all were broken.And the three men I admire most:The father, son, and the holy ghost,They caught the last train for the coast”
Religion surely played a part. Historically, we see the rise of J.J. Alitzer’s death of God theology was even captured on the front page of Time magazine on October 22, 1965. McLean’s lyrics suggest that God has left his people. In terms of orientation and sacred space, the symbolic idea of God, whether a personal being or vague otherness has lost all meaning for this generation.

“I went down to the sacred storeWhere I’d heard the music years before,But the man there said the music wouldn’t play.”
Embedded within these lines is an attempt to return to innocence (sacred store) where perhaps the love of life had once been kindled. Perhaps it was for McLean the origination of his love of music. And yet the return to these ideas no longer functioned in the ways they once did. They did not give comfort or inspire.

“And they were singing,"bye-bye, miss american pie."Drove my chevy to the levee,But the levee was dry.And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and ryeSingin’, "this’ll be the day that I die."this’ll be the day that I die."”
The well-known chorus is perhaps suggestive of the hopelessness that ensues without orientation and the loss of the symbolic. The levee which holds in the rush of life-giving water was now dry. This place which once an invigorating spring now offered no refreshment or solace.

Read full lyrics here.

[1] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957), 43.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Questioning God pt. VI - Psalm 74

Corporate Laments and Complaints
We do not tend to relate quite as easily to the communal laments and complaints for a number of reasons. Privatization of our faith caused in part by of our individualism, which I have already noted, renders our corporate identity nearly lost along with any capacity to think theologically about public issues and problems.[1] But the ekklesia is not a collection of isolated individuals consuming a private faith. The church is a public body with an alternative orientation in the world. These psalms remind us of that fact. We are participants within a broken world, a world at whose hands the church often suffers, and the same world we are to be reconciling to God in the name of Christ.

Westermann notes that there were typically two sorts of crisis which occasioned the lament: “a political crisis, such as war, enemy attack, destruction of the city or the sanctuary and the deportation of the inhabitants; and the other [being] natural catastrophes such as drought or a plague.”[2] Though within the communal laments, it is almost always the enemies that become the impetus for the psalmist. While the temple and the enemies may not be as easily relatable our context,[3] Brueggemann encourages that utilize a “dynamic analogy” for connecting points.[4] It is an opportunity to do contextualization of the Psalm for similar things on large scales such as war and its losses, destruction done by nature, or and epidemic. It is the language of these psalms that we may and must turn to in solidarity with both a broken humanity or creation and its covenanting Creator.

Psalm 74
Psalm 74 is a painful and yet beautiful expression of Israel’s longing for Yahweh and his saving actions after a great national tragedy. We have seen how the question “How long?” functions to express a human need as well as remind God to be God. The structure holds for this communal psalm.

Verse nine is a powerful recounting of the state of affairs. No longer did the temple and the beautiful things that accompanied it exist. The prophets were gone. And the remnant of those who remained to mourn the loss of that which oriented their whole life did not know how long they could endure these conditions. They had come to their limits. But in verse 10, the end of human tolerance, they cry out to God for that which they do not know, “How long?”

The prominence of memory, in both positive (remember) and negative (do not forget) assertions, is evident even in a cursory read. Verse two incites Yahweh to remember Israel, his chosen people, and Mount Zion, his chosen place as both have been defiled. Such is the state that gives rise to their cries. Verses 12-17 powerfully recall Yahweh’s sovereign power over primal creation wresting it from chaos. While these remembrances act on the one side as praise of God’s past action thus strengthening Israel’s hope. They also function out of a seething undercurrent of doubt and accusations flung God-ward. They are both praising and parading God’s past actions before him in the light of covenant faithfulness. This is perhaps the one of the strongest examples of the secondary text with the psalmist direct insistence that Yahweh, “Have regard for [his] covenant (vs. 20). If Yahweh does not act, it appears he is going back on his own covenant. It is a reminder to God that he once overcame the primordial chaos and that he can, and should do it on the basis of his character and covenant, once again for his chosen people.

It is interesting that the psalmist points out that the covenant is Yahweh’s covenant. It is extended by Yahweh and thus he is also subject to fulfilling it. But the “thou” or “your” theme, referring to Yahweh, is upheld through out the psalm. It is Yahweh’s foes and adversaries, and not Israel’s, who have pillaged Yahweh’s people and sanctuary. It is Yahweh’s name that has suffered derision. God’s honor is on the line.

But again, the secondary implications are indeed secondary to the hope Israel has in Yahweh. In one sense this psalm is about the temple and in another sense, it is not about the temple at all. Instead, it is a question of Who was to have been found there and the One who worked salvation so often in the past. Israel is claiming that Yahweh was powerful then, and despite the desecration of the temple, still is. Israel is not utterly crushed. They were still able to eek out an angry prayer to be laid at Yahweh’s throne.[5]

[1] Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, 67.
[2] Westermann, The Living Psalms, 22.
[3] I would suggest that this is also a dangerous endeavor in the U.S. considering the deeply enmeshed civil religion that many churchgoers participate in.
[4] Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, 68.
[5] Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, 71.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Caffeine Jitters & Electric Skin

When the traffic slows
and then wanes all together
and i
when sitting at my table
can feel at once
my hearts rhythm
rising in my throat,
and the Eternal just as close.

My frailty
and my poverty
and is bound
to your infinity
that all my aspirations
trudge on for naught
without your divine touch
and commission.

Perhaps it was the caffeine jitters,
fingers trembling with electric skin
on that spring afternoon (04.12.2002).
Perhaps there was something so poignant
in the efforts to translate Colossians earlier that day
or in Schliermacher’s words at the table that afternoon.
Yet, when the traffic advances toward the horizons,
26th Street slips into silence.
Something in those moments became clearer:
time and space in the Divine Presence.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Questioning God pt. V - Psalms 13 & 62

Psalm 13 is striking because of the sheer repetition of the “How long?” question. The question is employed four times in the first two verses asking about God’s memory of the psalmist, God’s presence/absence, the Psalmist’s resulting sorrow from God’s absence and forgetfulness, and the proximity of the Psalmist’s enemies. In this psalm, we can clearly see Westermann’s three participants. Though the three are distinct, they are inseparable.[1]

A polite reading suggests that the psalmist is asking for a time when life will return to the good. But if we peer closer and consider the lack of reference to sin or guilt again, we perceive an innocence on the part of the psalmist. Thus the blame is directed squarely at Yahweh for his state. The psalmist proceeds to hurl three petitionary imperatives Yahweh’s way in verse 3 to “consider,” “answer,” and “enlighten.” The psalmist also gives Yahweh a motivation, (or I will sleep the sleep of death) and the subsequent results of God’s continued inaction would result in the enemies triumphing over the Psalmist and ultimately of Yahweh’s self through his covenantal solidarity with the Psalmist.

While the psalmist bemoans his current state of physical and emotional turmoil, he can still find the strength in Yahweh’s previous actions with him to offer a hope that Yahweh will once again deal “bountifully with him.”[2] There is no abandonment of God, but recalling God’s past actions, for the psalmist’s own faith strengthening benefit but for God’s apparent memory slip. This recollection before God, gives him a renewed vigor to wait until the reprieve comes in God’s saving actions. Mays notes that the Psalm is a direct address to God utilizing the “name that God has given the people for God as self-revelation...thus bestowing the possibility and promise of prayer.”[3] Even in the address to God, the psalmist is being faithful to God’s previous actions, calls God to the same focus of faithfulness to their partnership.

Psalm 62 contains an interesting usage within the collection of questions. The psalm is an avowal of trust in Yahweh as the psalmist’s fortress despite the brutal warlike imagery of the enemies who besiege the walls of the city.[4] “How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?”

Here we see all three of Westermann’s participants present, but who is responsible for what? If we lift up the secondary implications, we begin to see that the same question may be indirectly addressed to Yahweh.[5] In this suggestion, God would be implicated by his absence for what befell the individual. And yet, I wonder can the question be directed at God? God is the subject of the immediately preceding verses and not until after verse 3 are the enemies mentioned. If the question is directed primarily at God, God would seem to be culpable for what appeared to be a lapse of protection and forgetfulness of the covenant.

[1] James L. Mays, The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 55.
[2] Craigie, 141.
[3] James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989), 78.
[4] Marvin E. Tate, Psalms: 51-100, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 20. (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), 121.
[5] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 319.