ADVENT: DISAPPOINTMENT AND HOPE

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Because things do not always go according to our plans or our desires, disappointment and hope always go hand in hand. We may discover the truth of that observation when we apply for a job or for admission into a program, organization, or school. You might think, for example, that you and your prospective employer or program are a perfect match, but despite your earnest efforts and self-confidence, you, for reasons often beyond your control, may not be chosen. It is always easy to get discouraged. That’s why, after such a disappointment, writing the next letter of application or making the next phone call is sometimes so hard to do.

I know how it feels to be rejected. A tall metal file cabinet in my home office contains a folder of hundreds of rejection letters that I received from 1988-1993 in reply to my application for university teaching positions. I was not alone. It seemed to be the norm then, both for me and for my classmates that one out of two hundred letters resulted in a full-time academic teaching position. Many persons I knew, despite their hard work, could only find adjunct teaching positions with low pay, no benefits, and no job security. I was extremely lucky to land the position I did at Temple University in a time of hefty budget cuts and hiring freezes. 

In her senior year of college, my youngest sister and her suitemates devised the best strategy I know for dealing with the frequent disappointment that comes with applying for a job. Every rejection letter that she and her friends received from prospective employers was posted on the walls of their suite. By early May their walls were completely covered with rejection letters pasted side by side and end to end. This communal sharing of their rejection letters made it obvious to each of them that the rejections could not be taken personally,  that is, each response was not a rejection of them as a person. They each knew that they had specific talents and skills; they only needed to find an employer who would appreciate those abilities. 

Despair and hope go hand in hand. To live our lives fully we have to continue to hope in the face of despair. In Advent, we are often reminded of our “eager longing” and hope in the present for the future redemption of the whole creation (Romans 8:19 ff.).

The hope of the Hebrew people for a Messiah was borne and nurtured through centuries of disappointments, military disasters, and cataclysms.  Their hope in the face of many reversals and disappointments was unabated.  This hope was sustained, just as my sister had learned in her senior year in college, because together her suitemates were able to support one another in bad times just as they did in good times. The hope that they nurtured together empowered them to live under the promise that something better was yet to come. 

The season of Advent this year is unlike any other in my lifetime. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are unable to safely meet together for in-person worship and fellowship, where we would, if only we could, support one another in person. We have found other unexpected ways to stay connected with Zoom and YouTube, and other electronic resources, that while they can never replace person to person contact, they have allowed us to widen the sphere of our connections, allowing people who might not otherwise be able to join us whether because of health or distance from us to do so. Even in the midst of our present despair, loneliness, and lack of meaningful personal connections, we remain hopeful that better days will soon be at hand.  

LONELINESS

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Over the past few months, I have been reflecting on the difference between loneliness and solitude. In English, the two words have slightly different meanings; where loneliness has a more negative connotation, solitude has a more positive one. “Being alone” can be good or bad depending on the feelings and emotions attached to it. We might say, for example, that we enjoy “being along,” but when we say that we are “lonely” it is always value-laden and negative. Solitude, on the other hand, suggests that it is an aloneness that we have sought out, a space that we have carved out for ourselves in which we might devote needed attention on ourselves. 

We do not always experience loneliness when we are alone. On the other hand, we may feel very lonely in a crowd. In A Philosophy of Loneliness,[1] the Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen, observes:

Loneliness as such cannot be predicted by the number of people that surround an individual, but by whether the social interactions that individual has satisfy his or her desire for connection; that is, by whether they interpret those social interactions as meaningful. Loneliness is a subjective phenomenon.[2]

Svendsen distinguishes between chronic, transient, and situational loneliness and by extension between endogenous and exogenous loneliness.[3] Chronic loneliness describes the situation in which “the subject experiences constant pain on account of having insufficient ties to others.” 

Transient loneliness, Svendsen observes, “can overtake us at any moment, whether we are at a crowded party or home alone.” 

Situational loneliness is caused by life changes, such as the death of a friend or a family member. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people into isolation. This is particularly true for those living in skilled nursing care, who in order to protect themselves, are often isolated not just from their families but from the very people with whom they live in common. Many are left alone in their rooms with little to no contact to family and friends outside because of their current situation. 

During the COVOID-19 pandemic we find ourselves in a peculiar form of situational loneliness in which we desire to be with one another person — in school, church, or other social situations — but cannot fulfill the desire for the personal closeness that might mitigate our loneliness because in-person contact in these places is either restricted or forbidden.

Svendson did not have the pecularities of the loneliness brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic in mind when he published this book in 2015. His main contention when he wrote the book is that loneliness, whatever the cause, has more to do with the interpretation of our own internal state, than it does with external factors. Loneliness is experienced as coming from external forces even if that is not truly the case. We may think that loneliness is a fact of our environment and that changing our environment will change our own perceptions of loneliness. Loneliness “is experienced as a lack of satisfying relationships to others” because either we may not have sufficient relationships with other people to satisfy our own expectations or because the relationships we do have do not provide the emotional closeness that we desire — or perhaps both may be the case. 

Loneliness feels as if it is being externally imposed on us, but perhaps we have some character traits or personal expectations of others that shape that perception. Do we, for example, feel lonely even in the midst of a large group of friends and family members? Do we expect other people to respond and somehow take care or reduce our own loneliness?  “The pain of loneliness,” Svendson argues, “is the pain of insufficient acknowledgment.” In other words, our perceived loneliness may in fact be caused by the expectations we bring to our relationships with others.‘

Instead of expecting others to take away our loneliness, Svendsen maintains, we must acknowledge and take responsibility for our own emotions. “Your emotions are your emotions,” he observes. “They belong to you.”[4] While you can’t choose what or how you feel, you “can try to change the way that you think” about the situations in which you experience loneliness. “You are not lonely because you are alone, you are alone because you are lonely.” It is a loneliness for which you must take responsibility. For despite everything, Svendson says, it is your loneliness.[5]

Loneliness in all its forms will come and go in life. Loss and isolation are a part of living. No matter how many connections you have with others, you may not be satisfied with the quality of these relationships. How then can you find a way to move from loneliness to making more meaningful connections with others? When you acknowledge and take responsibility for your loneliness,  that begins to transform your perception of that loneliness. Instead of looking to others to satisfy your longing for connections, you might examine what you expect of others. Rather than viewing your loneliness as something that originates outside yourself, ask yourself what you might do to begin to make more meaningful connections with others?  


[1] Lars Svendson, The Philosophy of Loneliness. Kerri Pierce, trans.  (London: Reaktion Books, Ltd., 2017).

[2] Svendson, 22-23.

[3] Svendson, 28. 

[4] Svendson, 133. 

[5] Svendson, 138. 

“DO NOT WORRY ABOUT TOMORROW…”

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Over the past few months, as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I have been working mostly from home. During this time, I have thought a lot about what Jesus says in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in which he tells his followers not to worry about what they will eat or drink or wear. “Strive,  first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Then he concludes: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt. 6:31–34 NRSV).

We are living in a time of great anxiety.  How can we live without worry?  Is it possible? And if it is, how would we go about putting it into practice?  As I reflected on these questions, I was reminded of something that Thomas Merton had discovered on this topic in the writings of the 6th century Syriac bishop and monk Philoxenos of Mabbug. I will come to that in a minute, but first, let me say something about Merton and Philoxenos. 

The American Trappist (Cistercian) monk, writer, theologian, poet, and mystic Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968) was among the greatest Christian spiritual writers in the 20th century. The 1948 publication of The Seven Story Mountain, Merton’s autobiographical account of his conversion to Roman Catholicism and his decision to become a Trappist monk, was propelled by critical acclaim to the best-seller lists of the day and led to an enormous increase in the number of people seeking monastic vocations. 

During my seminary training, I studied ancient Syriac, a dialect of ancient Aramaic that bears a close resemblance to the language that Jesus spoke. There were vast numbers of Syriac-speaking Christians in the early centuries of the church, but many people in the West are entirely ignorant of the great wealth of theological and spiritual treasures that were written down in Syriac language along with the central importance of ancient Syriac texts and translations for the study of the text of the Holy Scriptures. 

Because of my interest in Syriac literature and language, I became interested in what Merton had to say about Philoxenos of Mabbug (Aksenāyâ Mabûḡāyâ, ܐܟܣܢܝܐ ܡܒܘܓܝܐ (ca. 440-523 A.D.). His monastic name, ’Aksenāyā means “the stranger,” or, in other words, a person who was a lover of hospitality. In Greek that was translated as Philoxenos (a friend or lover of strangers,” or “the hospitable one.”)

Philoxenos was a monk and bishop in the Syriac Jacobite Church that separated from the Churches of Rome and Constantinople following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. That council declared that the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, had two natures, one human and the other divine and that those who held otherwise were heretics and were no longer welcome in the church. The Syriac Jacobite Church, formed in reaction to the Council of Chalcedon,  was officially miaphysite, that is, they insisted that after the incarnation the human and divine natures were merged in such a way that the incarnate Word had only one nature (Gk. mia = one and Gk. physis = nature). This might seem to be of minor theological importance today, but at the time and for the centuries that followed, it was a church-dividing issue. 

An important source for Merton’s wisdom is found in the conferences that Merton, known as Fr. Louis within the monastery,  held with the novices at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky. Merton was the novice master and as such was responsible for the academic formation of monks in training. While recordings exist of many of these conferences (or what we might also call classes), most of them have not been published.[1]

What drew Merton to Philoxenos was their shared monastic vocations. Despite the fact that Philoxenos was from a separated church, the deep wisdom of his reflections on how to live simply as a monastic ineluctably drew Merton to his writings. This wisdom, as Merton demonstrates in his conferences, is just as valuable to those living out monastic vocations as it is to those of us who are not.

The genre Philoxenos employed in his Discourses was the mēmrā (Syriac plural, mēmrē) The genre can best be described as metrical poetry in the form of a homily addressed to a monastic audience. The thirteen Discourses of Philoxenos begin with an introductory mēmrā followed by pairs of mēmrē, each pair centered on the same theme but developed in different ways. It is not immediately clear why two separate mēmrē were written on the same theme. Sometimes the first of the two mēmrē takes a moralistic tone while the second takes a more mystical tone. Or, perhaps the second is a later reworking of the first. There is no consensus on this. 

Mēmrē 4 and 5 both focus on the topic of “simplicity.” After a brief analysis of a passage from Philoxenos that Merton identifies for discussion,  I will look to see what Merton does with this topic in the conferences with his own monastic students. 

In Mēmrā 4,  “On Simplicity,” Philoxenos discusses the simplicity of Jacob who was unfairly deceived more than once by Laban his father in law. In spite of this, Philoxenos writes, “The purity of Jacob was not afraid and his simplicity was not shaken, and his innocence did not become inflated.” As long as Jacob was attending to his own concerns, God was concerned for him about the other external things that happened to Jacob. Jacob, thus, “is an example of enlightened instruction to all who wish to labor with the Lord: one should not let his thoughts cease from reflection on God nor occupy them with devising schemes by which to harm his enemies.”[2]  From the example of Jacob, Philoxenos turns to the monastic audience and exhorts them with the following words. 

But you, O disciple, remain in the purity of your mind. It is the Lord’s to know how to guide your life, and which things are beneficial for you that he should do for you. Have you heard about others that are preparing to do harm to you; and others that are lying in ambush to take your life; … and others that reproach your glory and find fault with your way of life; and others that dig in order to throw you on the earth from the height on which you are standing; … or others that speak against and revile you, and hurl mocking abuses on you…? But you, in all of these things, remain in your simplicity and do not turn your back from where you have been watching, and do not cease from your secret conversation with God.[3]

Philoxenos continues: 

Do not let the coercion of these things outside of you defeat the coercion of the hidden anchor on which your life is suspended, but hold on to Christ with the hope that is not found false, according to the promise of Paul to us, “Let us hold on to the hope that was promised to us, which is to us like an anchor tied onto our soul” so that you may not be moved.[4]

It is quite interesting to see what Merton makes of this passage. As he interprets it to his own monastic audience, Merton seems to have Jesus’ admonition not to worry about what is going to happen to us in the future in the back of his mind, even though neither Merton nor Philoxenos mention it explicitly. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt. 6:34).

In his monastic conferences, Merton frequently relates what Philoxenos has to say with examples from Zen Buddhist themes and texts. It is the juxtaposition of the texts of Philoxenos with the Holy Scriptures and Zen Buddhist ideas that makes Merton’s idiosyncratic interpretation so remarkable.[5]

After talking about what Philoxenos wrote on the topic of simplicity in much more detail than have outlined here, Merton makes the following, somewhat colloquial, observations:

Anxiety about yourself. What is going to happen to me? Now this, I would say, is extremely important. This is the big thought. And this is the thought that we as monks really need to learn how to handle. This is the thought. What is going to become of poor me? One year from now, ten years from now, where am I going to be? What is going to happen? How’s it going to be? So I’m going to croak, but how, when, where? It doesn’t matter. What we have to do is attain this purity of spirit and let God take care of it. What is going to happen to me is of no importance. Why? Not because in itself it is of no importance. But it is useless for me to worry about it because it is already taken care of. So this is purity of spirit in this particular context. And this is simplicity.[6]

As Merton continues his reflections about the anxiety that each of us faces in our own ways, he relates it first to the experience of his monastic colleagues, who even in their partially cloistered existence can never be sure what tomorrow will bring. As Merton talks, he gradually brings his monastic audience back to what Philoxenos says about hope and why when we put our ultimate “hope” in God we find not only simplicity of life but rest from the overwhelming anxiety that so often clouds our ability to see that hope. Merton says:

[You] don’t stand back and judge what God is making out of your life. This is absolutely essential. What we are constantly doing [is] constantly looking at our lives: where are we going, how is it going, how are we going to get there, how am I going to get around the next corner and what happens at 5 pm or 5:26 and what’s going to happen at 5:27? How am I going to get this done? What’s going to happen if he says this, what do I say? And if Reverend Father makes the foundation in Norway, then what? This is what we have to learn not to do. It’s extremely important for the contemplative life. And this is the real contemplative life to stop doing this! But it’s extremely hard. It’s very difficult indeed. And so what we have all got in our heads is a whole lot of gimmicks about ‘how to make it’ and ‘how can I handle this’ and all these eventualities and so forth. So there’s a great deal of anxiety. And the answer is hope. We have got to have real hope in God, because when we’re thinking about ourselves and figuring out about ourselves we’re not hoping—we’re figuring! To figure is not to hope! We have to put all the important stuff in God’s hands.[7]

At this point, Merton makes a turn in his interpretation of Philoxenos that seems to interweave what Merton’s reading of Buddhist texts, particularly as they relate to the illusory nature of the self. Here, Merton offers his most profound insight on what Philoxenos has to say about simplicity. Merton observes: 

We have to put all the important stuff in God’s hands. [Which means] not being preoccupied with this ‘I’ who is going to be there tomorrow. Where the trouble comes [from] is this centering our thoughts on the ‘I’ that is here: ‘Here I am.’ But this ‘I’ is not all that important because it isn’t all that real. What we experience as ourselves is 99% imagination. We construct an imaginary self that we have to live with, and this is not for real. And it’s not important. The real self, the depth of our true self that is going to last, is a self that we don’t see, we can’t observe and can’t plan for. And that self is in God’s hands, and is constantly safe, constantly secure, can’t get out of God’s hands. Everything that is real in us belongs completely to God and he isn’t going to let go of it for two seconds. He is not worried about the unreal in ourselves, but we are. So constantly if we are worrying about the unreal part of ourselves, which is the part that we worry about, then we have to constantly keep constructing it, and protecting it, and defending it, and fixing it up so that it won’t collapse and pushing it along so that it will get through these things and so forth. And there’s nothing there! But we waste all this time worrying about this. And if we can get rid of this we [would have] a great more time for doing more important things and we can forget about this business of keeping this self which isn’t really that important and really isn’t that much there. We can forget about this and think about God and not worry about ourselves and He’ll take care of the rest. So hope then is this great important thing.[8]

These words of Merton are extremely profound. Hope is an antidote to worry and anxiety. Real, authentic, hope is more than just wishful thinking. It is found in our willingness to put our fragile selves into the hands of God so that God can hold them for us. When we put ourselves in the hands of God, we can re-focus the energy we waste trying to shore up the illusory self that we mistake for our real self. The real self is in God’s hands and it “can’t get out of” them. As Merton concludes, “Everything that is real in us belongs completely to God and he isn’t going to let go of it for two seconds.”[9]

I think it’s worth paying attention to what Philoxenos says about how we should deal with the things that give us worry and anxiety.

Do not let the coercion of these things outside of you defeat the coercion of the hidden anchor on which your life is suspended, but hold on to Christ with the hope that is not found false, according to the promise of Paul to us, “Let us hold on to the hope that was promised to us, which is to us like an anchor tied onto our soul” so that you may not be moved.[10]

In these troubled times, may you find rest for your souls (Mt. 11:30) anchored to the hope we have in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 6: 19-20). 


[1] Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos were recorded at Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani near Bardstown, KY between April and June of 1965 and some excerpts from them have been published. For selected passages, see Thomas Merton, OCSO, “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug (April-June 1965): Philoxenos on The Foundations of the Spiritual Life and the Recovery of Simplicity,” Edited, with an introduction, by David M. Odorisio. Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, Vol. 13.2, (2010), 251–271. Merton makes additional comments about Philoxenos in Thomas Merton, “Rain and the Rhinoceros” in Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1964), 9-23. See, 14-23. 

[2] The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug: A New Translation and Introduction, Cistercian Studies Series # 253, trans. Robert A. Kitchen (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2014). See, Mēmrā 4: 30, 101.  

[3] The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug, Mēmrā 4, 31, 101 

[4] The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug, Mēmrā 4, 32, 101-102. 1 Philoxenos cites Hebrews 6:19-20: We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”( It is generally accepted today that Paul did not write the book of Hebrews but that authorship was widely accepted in the time of Philoxenos.) 

[5] See,“Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 258 and 261.  

[6] “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 268-269.

[7] “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 269.

[8] “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 269-270.

[9] “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug, 269.

[10] The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug, Mēmrā 4, 32, 101-102.

THISDAY, THATDAY, ONEDAY…

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are living under stay-at-home orders to help “flatten the curve” and slow hospital admissions and also to protect the most vulnerable among us.  While I continue to work full-time at home, it is easy to forget what day it is.  It is in the midst of that confusion someone — and I don’t know who — suggested that we rename the days of the week to Thisday, Thatday, Theotherday, Someday, and Oneday.  

While I remain quite busy during the week, I do forget sometimes what day of the week it is, as each day I work in my home office, rarely going outside the house at all, except for a brief walk in the evening with our dog.  Each day in that sense is pretty much like any other. I suppose that is because without going out of the house, the days seem more similar to each other than they would were my routine a bit more varied. One thing that still trips me up is that when I am scheduled to preach, I think I have until Sunday to prepare a sermon, but then suddenly somewhere around Tuesday (or Wednesday — who knows?) I realize that I have to finish preparing it and that I need to record it by Thursday morning so that it can be processed in time to put it up on the church YouTube page for viewing on Sunday morning. 

In a previous post from September 2019, I reflected on Thomas Mann’s epic 20th century novel, The Magic Mountain, and his perceptive account and analysis of how we humans experience the passing of time. [See, “The Passage of Time,” [https://craigphillips.co/2019/09/17/the-passage-of-time/] At the risk of oversimplification, Mann suggests that the more familiar we are with our setting, the faster time seems to pass. When our setting is entirely new, however, time seems to pass more slowly. That means that at the beginning of the stay-at-home period, when it was something new to us, the days may have seemed to pass more slowly. After a while, when staying home became the new normal, the days may seem to have passed more quickly. What this suggests is that during this time there are opportunities for me do new things, even while at home. 

With the increased time at home, I have tried to find new things to do in the evening (when I don’t have church meetings to “attend” on Zoom).  I purposely have tried not to watch more TV and movies than I normally do, but rather to take the time when I might have been elsewhere to learn new things right where I am. This week I baked a wonderful loaf of Swedish rye bread. As I write this, I have a loaf of a darker Norwegian rye bread rising in the oven prior to baking.  I also plan to bake some sourdough bread over the coming weekend. My wife and I walk our Chocolate Labrador Retriever every evening before bedtime when things are quiet outside and then either watch some television together for a while or we each read something that we enjoy.  I am in the middle of five books at the moment, and in the next few weeks I hope that I will finish one or more of these (without beginning to read any others!)  

In addition to reading, I am taking advantage of online college courses on computer programming on Coursera and EdX.  I have always been interested in computer programming, even though I have absolutely no desire to do it professionally. In the late 1990s, long after I had completed college and graduate studies, I took a college course on Java programming at a local Penn State campus. I never did anything with what I learned in that class, but since high school, when I first learned to program with FORTRAN on an IBM mainframe computer, I have always been interested in computer programming languages. The nice part about auditing a course on one of the online platforms like Coursera and EdX  is that I can watch some amazing class lectures, and I don’t have to do the homework or worry about my grades. I can learn as much or as little as I want.   

Even though the days right now may seem to be running together and it may seem that “Someday” or “Oneday” may never come, think about how you might spend the time that is given to you in a way that is rewarding to you and the people around you. You are never too old to learn something new!  “Carpe diem” — seize the day — enjoy the moment.  

I pray that you remain, healthy, safe, and happy during this time of uncertainty and anxiety.   

THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD

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The following meditation is taken from a sermon preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia on March 22, 2020.

The twenty-third psalm is the most beloved of the one hundred and fifty psalms in the Psalter and possibly the best known and most memorized chapter of the Bible.  

The KJV version of the Psalm has been read and recited by generations of Christians whose language is English. The Psalm originally was written as a prayer in poetic form in Hebrew. Hebrew poetry does not depend on rhyming, as many poems do in English, but on the rhythms of the verse and the parallel structure of the verses that build upon one another.

The opening verse of the twenty-third Psalm is composed of four words. The Hebrew name of the Lord God of Israel, the “I am who I am”, is the first word.  “My shepherd” is the second word.  “Not” is the third. And the last word is the verb that means,” I lack.” So literally it reads, “The Lord God is my shepherd. I lack nothing.” 

When you look closely at the psalm you will note that it begins with the pronouns “I” and “my.”  It switches next to the pronoun “he” when talking about God. Then suddenly and without warning the psalmist addresses God in the second person familiar, “you” (or “thou” in the KJV). Finally, it returns to the first-person pronoun, “I” of the psalmist and the second person familiar, “you,” referring to God.  

This is what gives the 23rd Psalm its particular character. It is a poem that is at the same time a prayer and a statement about the faithfulness of God even in the most difficult and trying of times.  

The Psalms may be categorized into several categories.  It may surprise you to learn that this Psalm is usually categorized by biblical scholars as a “psalm of lament.” It is an individual lament, that is the prayer for help of an individual.   

The biblical commentator Jerome Creach offers this helpful analysis of the psalm as a prayer of lament. Psalms of lament or complaint:

“have faith and trust as their cornerstones. Those who are praying feel free to haul all their baggage to God because of their intimate relationship with the Lord. They are certain God will hear and answer. The complaint psalms move swiftly from plea for help and description of enemies to assurance that the Lord will deliver. Though Psalm 23 contains no complaint and is thoroughly a statement of trust, it still belongs to the category of lament. Behind the confession of faith in Psalm 23 are trials that required the psalmist to seek the shepherd’s staff and tent for protection and shelter. All that we have of the psalmist’s experience, however, is the beautiful poetic expression of confidence in the aftermath of threat and danger. That is, surely the psalmist experienced an unspecified threat, survived, and then composed this poem.”[i]

Phillip Keller, a pastor and author, worked for eight years as a shepherd. In his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, he illuminates the meaning of the Psalm for us in a more practical way Sheep, notes do not lie down easily. 

“It is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear. Because of the social behavior within a flock sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax. Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger.”[ii]

“The sheep must be free of fear, friction, flies, and famine to be contented.”[iii] And as Keller notes. The shepherd is the only one who can “provide the trust, peace, deliverance, and pasture that is needed to free the sheep. God is that shepherd. God is our Shepherd. God is your shepherd.  

In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his work and ministry as being the shepherd of God’s new covenant people saying, “I am the Good Shepherd.” 

Jesus is our Shepherd. Jesus is your shepherd. 

Notice that Psalm 23 begins with rest and not with frantic activity. 

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

We sometimes assume that our work for God and in response to God depends on our own activity. But here is a reminder that whatever we do for God or in response to God begins with us trusting God so that we might rest.  From that deep rest and refreshment comes the energy for us to do the work to which God is calling us.   

The biblical commentator J. M Boice observes:

“It is important to note that “the valley of the shadow of death” is as much God’s right path for us as the “green pastures” which lie beside “quiet waters.” That is, the Christian life is not always tranquil nor, as we say, a mountain-top experience. God gives us valleys also. It is in the valleys with their trials and dangers that we develop character.”[iv]

Yet the valley has its own unique problem. The problem is fear. What is the answer to that fear? Clearly, the answer is the shepherd’s close presence, for he is the only one who can protect the sheep and calm their anxieties. 

At the beginning of the Psalm, we read, “He makes me lie down … he leads me beside quiet waters … he guides me.” But at the end, we read, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” [v]

“We are never so conscious of the presence of God as when we pass through life’s valleys.”[vi]

We are living in extraordinary times. The normal order of our everyday lives has been disrupted.  The social fabric that holds us together is stretched as we keep a certain bodily distance from one another so that we might protect not only ourselves from infection but also those who are the most vulnerable to it. 

We are passing through one of life’s valleys. Our shepherd is the one who can protect us, God’s sheep, and calm our anxieties and fears as we traverse that valley full of so many unknown dangers. In this difficult time, may you seek rest and comfort from the good shepherd who is with us always in every circumstance of our lives. 

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”  (Psa. 23:1–6 KJV)

Notes

[i] Jerome F. D. Creach, Psalms. Interpretation Bible Series (Louisville, KN: Geneva Press, 1998), 34.

[ii] W. Phillip Kellner, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, (Zondervan, 2007). See J. M. Boice, Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 209.

[iii] J. M Boice, 209.

[iv] J. M Boice, 211.

[v] J. M Boice, 211.

[vi] J. M Boice, 211.

EMMANUEL (GOD WITH US)

Photo by Eyasu Etsub on Unsplash

When the Bible comes up in conversation, it is apparent to me that many people view the Bible as a book of lofty otherworldly sayings — all about spirituality and all that kind of stuff. Perhaps it is because of this misconception that when folks actually begin to read the Bible, they often are quickly disillusioned and give up almost before they try. They give up, I venture to say, not because the Bible is boring, but because it does not accord with their own preconceived notions of what they think should be about.

The Bible is not a very heavenly book; it is, in fact, a very worldly book — a this-worldly book. The Bible tells of the rise and fall of kingdoms and of families. It tells of greed, corruption, and sin of every kind. It tells of the horrors of slaughter, military defeat, and tragedy on a mass human scale. The Bible, in short, tells us what it is like to live in a world structured by human pride and insolence, by greed and corruption, and by power gone mad. Our very Christmas story—the story Jesus— is, we proclaim, the story of God’s involvement in our world.

Yet, human beings do not recognize this fact and cruelly execute the one God sent.  The story of the Messiah’s birth, while joyous and happy at the outset, comes with ominous signs. The gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday in the Christmas Season tells the story of the travels of the Magi who follow the star to the place of Jesus’ birth. Their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh foreshadow Jesus’s life, ministry, and death.  Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for his burial anointing. The child born to be king is also a child born to die.

“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road” (Matt. 2:12). 

Immediately following this story, Joseph receives a similar, more ominous, warning. We read:

“Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. …When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matthew 2:13-16). 

It is this description of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, that I find a particularly good example of the worldliness of the Bible. Shortly after his birth, Jesus becomes a political refugee. Herod, according to the story Matthew relates, undertakes a mad, jealous search for the child who has been born. Joseph and Mary, being warned in a dream, take their newborn child Jesus and flee with haste into Egypt. In his failure to find the child, he orders the execution of all Hebrew infants under two years old. 

The story of Jesus’s birth, in other words, is no fairy tale. The harsh realities of the world — its political upheavals and violent repressions — are never far from Jesus.  Should we be surprised then that Jesus’ own ministry is cut short by the forces of political repression and power? All of this was foreshadowed by the events of his birth.

When I look at the world we live in today, I see a world that is not much different from that of the time of Jesus’ birth. A number of years ago, we had a “Code Orange” terrorist alert during the Christmas season. I remember thinking at the time how sad and incongruous it seemed to have such an alert during the Christmas season. Reflecting on this gospel reading, I realized that a Code Orange during Christmas is nothing new. It was that way for the children and parents of the Hebrew Innocents at the first Christmas.

This realization alone does not somehow make everything all right. No one wants to live in fear, in any fear, whether from political repression or terrorism. The story of Christmas is that into the world of sins and evil comes God enfleshed — made incarnate in a real human person, the person of Jesus. The joy of Christmas makes its greatest impact when it is juxtaposed to the harsh realities of human existence. Because then, the truly good news of the gospel shines like a single candle burning in the night. Referring to the incarnation of God’s Word into the world, the writer of the Gospel of John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5 NRSV).

The light of God incarnate in Jesus shines in our world as a candle in the night. Sin and evil still exist in this world, and although God never desires that kind of life for us, we human beings bear the responsibility for our arrogance, pride, avarice, will to power, hatred, and for our wars and aggressions.

God nowhere in the Bible promises us a world without suffering. God never promises — even God’s most faithful servant — a life without pain, suffering, or difficulties. Just look at Jesus, if you want proof of that. What God does is descend to our hurt, our pain, our insecurities, our loneliness, and take it all on, and into, God’s very being. That is the story of Christmas.  God became flesh for us and for our salvation. 

That is the hope of the Gospel this Christmas season. God is with us. The Hebrew word Emmanuel, which means, “God with us,” encapsulates the meaning of Jesus’ birth for us. Now God is with us. In our deepest hurt and need God is with us. In sorrow or pain, God is with us. In fear and anxiety of every sort, God is with us.

Into our midst, God has come. Come let us adore our Emmanuel and give thanks on this last day of the Christmas Season. God is with us.

LISTEN, WATCH, AND WAIT: AN ADVENT MEDITATION

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One of the oldest traditions of Christian worship, one that stretches back for centuries, is that of beginning the day with reciting the psalms.  This practice strengthened in the 4th century when men and women began to leave the cities of the Byzantine Empire, becoming hermits and monastics, living alone in the “desert,” where they devoted their lives to God.  When monastics began to live together (the technical term for a monastic who lives in community is “cenobite”), liturgies were developed for collective prayer at fixed times of the day.  

The prologue of the 6th century Rule of Benedict urges the monks living in community “to open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: ‘If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts.’”(Psalm 95:8)

The first service of the day was called Vigils, or “praises.” It occurred in the middle of the night, usually between midnight and 3 A.M. During Vigils, all are reminded that if they hear God’s voice that day, not to harden their hearts.  If there ever is a time when one’s heart is hardened, it is just after awakening in the middle of the night to pray.

All of the retreats I have made in the past five years have been to monasteries that lived according to the Rule of Benedict. At the monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico, Vigils begins at 4 A.M.  At Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, the monks rise at 3 A.M. and begin Vigils at 3:20 A.M.  While I was a guest of the monastery, I lived in accordance with this schedule. It is quite a shock, as you might well imagine, to move from a world in which going to bed between 11:30 P.M. and midnight is quite normal to a world in which one retires at 8 P.M. and arises at 3 A.M. But that is how it is in the monastery 365 days a year. 

The monastic schedule follows the rhythm of nature more closely than does our modern world of artificial light, endless movement and activity, and of global business and commerce that works relentlessly around the clock. The monastic day is tailored to a more ancient and more natural rhythm of going to bed when the sun goes down and arising before sunrise to work and to pray.  It always takes some time for a visitor to adjust to the schedule and pace of life in the monastery. I found it the most difficult to fall asleep shortly after 8 P.M. knowing that I had to rise at 3 A.M.

While I can’t say it was always easy to wake up so early in the morning, there was something exhilarating about the sounds and sights of the middle of the night. The first night I awoke in the high altitudes of northern New Mexico, I was astounded by the vastness of the starry sky. It is one of the few places I have been where light pollution from nearby cities has not blotted out the Milky Way and the numerous stars in the heavens. Each morning I had a five-minute walk with a flashlight from my lodgings to the monastery. On the way, I watched for fire ants and snakes, not really expecting to find one, but just to be safe. One day another person who was also making a retreat at the monastery asked me if I had seen the coyote that was right next to me on my walk through the sagebrush.  I hadn’t.  I had heard the coyotes but had not seen them. The rest of the week, I kept my eyes open and remained alert whenever I made this trek in the dark. 

In South Carolina, on the other hand, I awoke to the clammy humidity of a warm July night. As I walked from my lodging to the monastery, through the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, I heard the sounds of tree frogs, frogs, insects, and other assorted creatures.

At both places, when I entered the monastery for Vigils, I was reminded to listen to God’s voice, wherever I was and whatever I was doing.  God might speak to me that day and I needed to be vigilant to that voice. At Vigils, one is watching not merely for the dawn of the new day but also for the advent of God in one’s own life. As the psalmist wrote, “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning” (Ps. 130: 5-6).

The season of Advent is a time of special vigilance for all Christians as they prepare themselves for the Christmas feast.  It is a time in which we put ourselves in the place of the generations of people who waited and longed for the coming of God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah. At Christmas, we will celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the first advent of God in our human history, as we remember and give thanks for what happened in Bethlehem so long ago.  

In the season of Advent, we also are to be vigilant for the return of our Risen Lord in our history, his second advent.  The gospels remind us throughout the season to live our lives as if Jesus might return at any moment. We are urged always to be vigilant and prepared for the return of our Messiah and Lord at any time.  

Finally, in the season of Advent, we are to prepare our own hearts so that our Lord may find a place to be born within us.  Every day is a day in which God might speak to us.  Every day is a day to watch and wait for God to speak to us.  Every day is a day of vigilance. “Today if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”  This Advent, try every day to pay special attention to the moving of God’s Spirit within you.  Harden not your heart—listen, watch, and wait and prepare to be surprised by God. 

 

In the booklet, for which you will find a link below, you will find a short Advent service that you can use as a private devotion or as a service with family and friends around your Advent wreath. You might even use it along with your blessing at dinner. You also will find activities for all ages.

May you have a blessed Advent season in preparation for the coming of our Lord this Christmastide.

 

NEW BEGINNINGS

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Moses was a prince in Egypt, an adopted son of Pharaoh. As such, he had access to power and wealth. But after killing an Egyptian in anger, whom he saw beating a fellow Israelite, Moses fled into the wilderness to avoid arrest and punishment. Things did not look good for Moses, a fugitive from justice, who now tended sheep far away from the life of privilege he had known.

God, on the other hand, had a plan for Moses. God searched Moses out and revealed God’s self to Moses in a burning bush. God then said to Moses, “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:10)

The call of God came as a great surprise to Moses. He had resigned himself to tending sheep in the wilderness. How could he ever expect that God could use a murderer like him to fulfill God’s plan? Moses “found favor” in God’s sight and God called him by name (Exodus 33:17) to a task so arduous Moses had no idea how he could accomplish it apart from complete trust in the God who called him.

The story of Moses is a story of new beginnings like no other. It reminds us that nothing in our past can hinder the ability for God to use us as God wills.  Nothing we have done or failed to do can stop God from calling us to something new. And, nothing we have done can prevent us from starting over again. God never gives up on us and God always gives us the chance to start over again.

Don’t listen to those who tell you that you are forever stuck in your past. Don’t listen to those who tell you it’s too late to start something new. Listen instead to God who says to each of us in God’s own way, “you have found favor in my sight and I know you by name.” (Exodus 33:17)

God is with us in our beginnings and our endings because God is a God of promises. So, don’t get stuck in the past. Look forward to the future with hope. Look forward to your future with hope. It is never too late for God to use you in God’s own way and for God’s own purposes.

“SO MUCH DEPENDS”

cute chickens on green grass in farm
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

“So much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow…”

William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow” from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume  1909-1939 (New Directions Publishing Company, 1938).

I have always been struck by this famous short poem of William Carlos Williams. It is a poem that describes a common pastoral scene of a rain-drenched red wheelbarrow beside white chickens. What does it mean to say that “so much depends” upon it? Why does it matter? Read the poem, think about it, and read it once again.

(https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45502/the-red-wheelbarrow)

The poem is a written version of a realist still-life painting. When confronted by a still-life painting, people usually do not ask why an artist chose a particular species of flowers in the painting or why the artist chose to portray the food, cutlery, or porcelain at a rich patron’s table. Yet when some people I know, read this poem for the first time they balk at it. What? Huh? What is that about, they ask?

This verbal painting juxtaposes a product manufactured by human beings, namely the wheelbarrow, with part of our natural world, the chickens.  It is a scene without the farmer who, if the wheelbarrow were not covered with rainwater, might otherwise be working with it. While human beings are absent from the scene, the white chickens wander as they search for food.  This is a scene that no doubt could be spotted in many a farm or rural setting. The sheer ordinariness of the poem is perhaps why it is so unsettling for some to read.

Williams Carlos Williams (1883-1963) maintained a lifelong medical practice in Rutherford, New Jersey. He published his poetry celebrating everyday American life mostly as an avocation. He could write a poem about the contents of your refrigerator that you no doubt would appreciate if you opened yourself up to the possibility. In all its simplicity, this poem is skillfully constructed. This poem, I would argue, is as much “a work of art” as any painted still-life is.

Most of our lives are quite ordinary. We spend the majority of our days on the earth doing simple things of which we and others take little note. What we ate last month for dinner and the errands we long ago completed are for the most part already forgotten. Everyday life, we can readily admit, is for the most part quite boring.  Sure, there are highlights to every week, month, and year. Yet we will spend ninety-five percent of our lives engaged in ordinary and non-eventful tasks. It is here in the midst of that ninety-five percent of our mortal lives that we too need to find God, or at least leave some space for God to find us.

This poem of Williams directs the eyes of our imaginations to a simple everyday scene that at the same time points to a world of wonder and excitement. “So much depends” on such a simple scene because these simple scenes, tasks, and everyday events make up our lives. It is here and not in some bodiless, “spiritual” realm that we must look for the signs of God’s presence and activity.

Pay attention to the simple everyday things that you do. There in the midst of your everyday busy lives, you will find God. So much depends on that.