Tell the Truth

David Bentley Hart, in his new translation of the New Testament and in his notes before, within and after that translation, insists that Paul’s theology is very different from what we modern Protestants imagine it to be.  Paul writes that Christ came into the “kosmos” to save the “kosmos.” In the translations we are used to, the Greek word “kosmos” is translated into the English word “world.” Hart argues that that will not do; that when Paul used the word “kosmos” he meant something far deeper and wider than anything you and I imagine when we hear the word “world.”

 

While you and I conceive of “the world” as everything that is apparent to our senses or even what humanity has made of the physical world, the word “kosmos,” for Paul, included all of that and the fallen spiritual order.  Thus, Paul writes, again and again, about the powers and principalities, the thrones and dominions in the celestial places.  In one place he writes that these powers and the order to which they belong were all created through Christ, just like all of the rest of creation – just like everything we can see:

Colossians 1:16 for in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him;

In other places, Paul tells us that Christ has conquered these “powers”:

 

Colossians 2:15 having despoiled the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.

 

Hart translates:

 

Stripping the Archons and Powers, he exposed them in the open, leading them prisoner along with him in a triumphal procession.

And, in yet another place, Paul seems to imply that the final conquest of these powers is somewhere in the future and will be achieved at the end of time:

 

I Corinthians 15: 24 Then the end will come, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father after He has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power.

Hart’s translation reads:

 

Then the full completion, when he delivers the Kingdom to him who is God and Father, when he renders every Principality and every Authority and Power ineffectual.

 

We now have the question before us:  Why should we concern ourselves with this concept of the cosmos?  This notion of a complex and fallen spiritual order that is unseen, has been defeated by Christ, and that yet holds some sway in the affairs of humanity?  What practical difference would this make?

 

Let us start with the notion that Paul was obviously concerned that his readers – who would have found Paul’s conception of the cosmos and a hierarchical, spiritual order far less foreign than we moderns – not lose sight of the fact that this invisible order is a fact of life.  Thus, he warns the Ephesians:

 

For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Eph 6: 12

 

Paul follows that warning with advice about how the disciple must carry out the battle.  This is the well-known passage about the armor of God. You know, the “belt of truth,” the “breastplate of righteousness,” the “shield of faith,” and the “helmet of salvation.”

 

I must admit that I never before found this passage very helpful.  It was just a kind of overdone, almost comical picture to me. But, leaving aside the details and whatever might be the distinctions between the helmets and shields and breastplates for the moment, we must admit that  Paul is telling his hearers in adamant terms and tones that since our battle is not against what we see, that our strategies and tactics must be different, much different, than those we would use against a physical enemy.

 

Let’s start with the idea of truth.  Against a merely human foe, would we be likely to use truth or deception?  Would we lie to our enemy to put him at a disadvantage, to deceive him into a trap.  How strange that Paul tells us here that our best weapon in the war against evil is not deception, but truth.

 

We do lie, you know.

 

In fact, it may not be too much to say that when we are facing a battle, our first impulse is to lie, or at least to tell less than the truth.  We want to protect our interest. We don’t want the bad guy to get the drop on us. Here is Bob Dylan:

 

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats

too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking

I had something to protect. . .

 

Jordan Peterson has spent decades as a clinical psychologist, working day after day with people who have crippling emotional problems.  He has come to the conclusion that such problems are always, in the end, moral problems. Even though the sufferers often are not conscious of the fact and may be desperately trying to hide from it, their problems are sin problems.  Many of these are caused or greatly exacerbated by lying.

 

We lie, Peterson says, for many different reasons:

 

To impose my ideological beliefs, to prove that I am (or was) right, to appear competent; to ratchet myself up the dominance hierarchy, to avoid responsibility (or its twin, to garner credit for others actions), to be promoted, to attract the lion’s share of attention, to ensure that everyone likes me, to garner the benefits of martyrdom, to justify my cynicism, to rationalize my antisocial outlook, to minimize immediate conflict, to maintain my naivete, to capitalize on my vulnerability, to always appear as the sainted one, or (this one is particularly evil) to ensure that it is always my unloved child’s fault. . . (209)

He goes on to say that our justifications for lying rest on two premises, both of them false.  The first of these premises holds that we are justified in manipulating reality by lying because we are already sure of what should result in any situation we are in.  We know the end we desire and we are sure that there could be nothing better than what we’re set our cap at and so we lie as a means to that perfect end.

 

Peterson says that this is false because we – limited and finite as we are – very often do not know everything that needs to be known in any given situation.  It may well be that our aim is not prudently made. It may be that the worst thing that could happen – even for ourselves – is that we get the thing we aimed for.  It may be that getting that one thing will prevent a whole string of other good things that might have happened if we had kept our thumb off of the scale. We lie our way into a corner when telling the truth, even if that might have cost us in the immediate, short run, may have led us on to fulfillment and destiny.

 

Second, Peterson argues that telling a lie presupposes that “reality would be unbearable if left to its own devices.”  To translate that into the language of Christian discipleship, it means simply that we are short on faith; that we do not trust the God of the universe with our lives, with our destinies.

 

Paul tells his hearers that it is very important that they not forget who the real enemy is; that the battle of life is a spiritual battle.  The century just past proves once again just how right Paul was and how great the cost may be if his advice is ignored. For the twentieth century is the story of a deliberate and intentional ignoring of that advice and of the catastrophic consequences of that ignoring.

 

Thus, it is Karl Marx who systematically reduced the battle to the seen.  Religion, said Marx – the belief in the spiritual and in powers other than those we can see – is the problem.  He recommended that humanity dismiss the spiritual as mere myth and opiate and focus solely on the physical. That experiment led to  murder and genocides the scale of which was never before imagined.

Advertisements

Meditation on Psalm 57

 

He shall send from heaven, and save me from the reproach of him that would swallow me up.

One cannot study long the songs of David without being deeply impressed that, for David, life was a battle.   His poetry is shot through with complaints about unfair treatment, about enemies who laid traps for him and who slandered his name.  Here is verse four:

My soul is among lions: and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.

So often we look to the Psalms to see the profound expressions of trust in God.  That’s great, but these are brought on by the crises David faced, day by day and year by year.  Should reading the Psalms remind us – even convince us – that life is a battle?  That we are not spending our days sailing, unopposed and in the favor of some kind wind.

I wonder if faith is even possible if we do not see the enemy, if we do not understand the stakes.  David’s foes, although deadly, were at least clearly defined.  He knew who opposed him.  They were flesh and blood.  Men of a rival nation who wanted to defeat Israel.  In our time the enemy, as Bob Dylan reminds us, is “subtle:”

The enemy is subtle

Howbeit we’re deceived

When the truth’s in our hearts

And we still don’t believe.

Bob Dylan, “Precious Angel”

Here is Paul, writing to the church at Ephesus:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

I wonder if we can really know God experientially; have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, if we don’t recognize that there is a war going on and that we are in it; if we do not recognize that we face opposition – even opposition other than our own divided hearts?

Meditation on Psalm 38

 

O LORD, REBUKE ME NOT IN THY WRATH: NEITHER CHASTEN ME IN THY HOT DISPLEASURE.

 

 

Here the writer is overwhelmed with grief.

At first he acknowledges that his misery is the result of his own sin and that the anguish he now suffers is from God:

For thine arrows stick fast in me

And thy hand presseth me sore

But, as seems to me to happen often in the psalms, the course of the poem changes abruptly and the psalmist laments not so much his own sin and merited suffering, but the evil of “mine enemies, lively and strong” who “hate me wrongfully.”

Verse twelve details the dynamics of the evil.  His enemies “lay snares” for him; they “speak mischievous things and imagine deceits all the day long.”  This isn’t difficult to understand or relate to.  Anyone who has gone to school, worked in an office  [or other workplace] or spent time in a family will know just what the psalmist is talking about here.  Things are going along fine [seemingly] and then the day comes when you discover that everyone around you seems to be watching a different movie than you are.  What was once accepted is now poison.  What you believed was affection was only feigned.  You find that what has been said behind your back is not at all what you thought was being said.  You are now a target and the crowd is working together to get you knocked off your horse.

In the next verse the writer says of these complaints and plans against him:

 

But I, as a deaf man, heard not and I was as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth.

 

When I first read this, I thought of the man unjustly accused and surrounded by those who he thought were his friends as described in the previous verse.  And it was easy for me to think that what the psalmist was saying in this verse was that he was so surprised and taken aback by what he was confronted with that he was literally speechless.  Just dumbstruck by the suddenness of it all and unable in the moment to muster any defense for himself, even though the charges against him are unjust.  Again, that’s easy to imagine.  That’s how it feels.

But on second thought, maybe the psalmist is saying something quite different.  Maybe he is saying that, as he is surrounded by these unjust accusations he ignores them and offers no defense because he knows that God is his only defense.  God is his defender.  His own efforts here will be futile, surely.  But, given time, the wheels of the Almighty will grind and – as we mentioned yesterday – the justice of his cause will shine as the noonday sun.

That is a worthwhile lesson.  This is not to say that one should never speak in his own defense.  There are times and places where that is exactly what one should do.  But there are other situations where you cannot win.  Any effort of your own will only make matters worse.  In those instances, it may well be that the only thing we can do is be silent and wait for vindication from God.  This is faith.

Morning Poem, December 13, 2017

Psalm 57: 8
Awake up, my glory; awake psaltery and harp: I myself will awake early.

 

Think of David as he lies on the mountain

He looks at the night sky

Unending, unfathomable, unreachable

The diamond stars

The firmament that declares the glory of God

And he aches

His heart panting like the hart after the waterbrook

At his side are sword, spear and bow

His body is cut from oak, his skin like leather

His mind a blade itself, with razor’s edge

He breathes the open air and the day’s tension dissolves

He rests in the shadow of the wings of the Almighty

.

This man who killed the giant

And tens of thousands

Hears heaven’s choir and plays on his harp

Songs that soothe the savage breast of Saul

His poems are those very psalms

That have charmed and inspired

Over millennia

And he aches

.

At first light, at first rustling of dawn

He turns and shakes away sleep

Here is a new day

He rises, believing the promise

“Awake up, my glory”

.

What is his glory?

One more win in bloody combat?

Or is it that unknowable thing

That all men share with him

That desire beneath all desires

That lesser men have long since forgotten

And forfeited to the unrelenting fates

That lesser men are afraid to confess

.

Does David wake early

Expecting glory in bloodshed

Or does he crave

That his righteousness will shine like the dawn

And the justice of his cause like the noonday sun?

Does he crave that gift, that grace, that dispensation

That is his and his alone?

That unspeakable grace promised to him

When he first came to know himself?

.

Is the difference between him and me

That he believes it will happen

And maybe this very day

And so he wakes early

And takes in hand

Psaltery and harp

Wine on The Lees

Isaiah 25:6

And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.

 

 

If the image of wine settling on its lees (dregs) in Zephaniah and Jeremiah is one that suggests stagnation and accordant ruination, the image in Isaiah 25: 6 seems to be opposite.  That is, in Isaiah the wine that is “on the lees” is “well refined” and fit for God’s “feast of fat things.”   The wine that is “on the lees” in Isaiah is the best wine and better, apparently, for having been kept on the lees!

What can we make of this?   Maybe the best advice would be simply that these two apparently contrary images are not meant to be compared.  They were written at different times and to address different situations and no responsible Bible scholar would waste any time in trying to compare or contrast them.  It’s apples to oranges.

And yet. And yet.  The idea in Zephaniah and Jeremiah is so familiar to those of us who occupy the pews in Middle America.  This is the riff or saw or even cliché that the preachers use to warn us against staying in our “comfort zones.”  We need to get out there and engage the culture, make our witness.  All of that.

I wonder if it might be legitimately argued that the passage in Isaiah may be a kind of counterpoint to all of that.  I wonder if there may be wisdom in allowing Christians to “settle on their lees” and be thereby deepened and strengthened, not embittered.

Not in the sense of becoming complacent or self-sufficient, but in steeping in the gospel and all that it implies.  If you read Rod Dreher (and if you are concerned with the state of the church in modern life, you must read Rod Dreher) you will see constant reference in his prolific posting to the shallowness of the theology in the so-called “Evangelical” churches.  The complaint he cites has to do with the church culture becoming focused on entertainment and hipness and losing sight of tradition and the deeper truths those traditions testify to.  Just a few months ago I heard some people talking about someone who had left a local mega-church for greener pastures because the new church they had found had a better praise band.  Dreher argues – and repeatedly cites research to support – that the generation now rising in the church is all about emotion and little else and that the churches they frequent do little to change this.  In fact, they foster and even exploit it.

Thus, when confronted with any sort of sob story, these youngsters will be quick to abandon any of the church’s teachings on sexual morality.  It’s all about what feels good.  Come on in and turn it up to eleven.

 

 

 

Meditation on Psalm 55

“Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.”

 

I try to read a Psalm a day.  The Psalms, it seems, are fit for daily study in that they each may stand alone.  Other books in the Bible may demand a more comprehensive approach – a consideration of broad context and language – but each Psalm is a story or drama unto itself.

 

So many of the psalms are attributed to David.  Some of those are beautiful devotions, like the 23rd, whose metaphor for God as shepherd is surely one of the high points in the whole book.  But many of David’s psalms are shot through with cursing and complaint.  In reading the Psalms, we discover that, for David, life was a battle.  He is constantly in trouble, surrounded by enemies, suffering betrayals and the consequences of his own wrongdoings; in fear of destruction.  Undoubtedly there is value for the modern man or woman in David’s perspective.  So many of us are insulated from the rough and tumble of life that David lived.  We are not encamped on a desert mountain and wakened by the lion and the bear that threatens our sheep and ourselves.  We are not being chased by a lunatic king who is insanely jealous and out to kill us.  We move from air-conditioned summers to comfortably-heated winters.  Our larders are generally full and our homes secure.

What David’s psalms may do for us is awaken us to the fact that, in spite of the comforts we know, life is a battle.  There is something real at stake; something great that may be lost or gained.  To lose sight of this is to surrender to the status quo:  life simply goes on as ever before, each day is more of the same, and we lift our feet from the ground and simply let the earth spin beneath us.  What difference does our effort make, anyway?

Some may fall into such a defeatist, fatalistic view of life as a result of repeated disappointment and failure.   Some may come to see life as not only unfair, but insurmountably unfair, and finally satisfy themselves with those little pleasures that may be found along the primrose path of least resistance.

This morning’s Psalm for me was number 55.  It is in many ways a typical David psalm.  He is in desperate straits (of course) and is pouring his soul out to God; half wishing for complete escape from life (Oh, that I had wings of a dove; then I would fly away into the wilderness and be at peace) and half wishing for immediate victory in the conflict.

As is his wont, he curses his enemies.  For the most part, there is nothing new here, but as I followed along this morning, one phrase did stand out.  David says of his enemies:

Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.

What can that mean?  What does it mean to “have no changes?”  This reading is from the King James Version which is my starting point for reading the Psalms.  The Psalms are poetry, after all, and there should be a certain majesty, ambiguity, mystery and meter about them.   I looked at several newer translations.  There are lots of variations in the translation of this verse.   NIV: “. . . [they] never change their ways and have no fear of God.”   Some translations seem to attribute the modifier suggesting a lack of change to God.   This is from a newer version of the NIV:  “God, who is enthroned from of old, who does not change—he will hear them and humble them . . .”

Other translations render the verse to say that the change referred to is that change of heart associated with repentance.

As is often the case, I am far more satisfied and intrigued by this unusual and at first ambiguous rendering in the old King James.  “They have no changes!”  Not that they haven’t repented; not that God is unchanging.  (Those two things are true, but this verse is saying something other than that.)

What the verse says to me – and this distinguishes it from the others – is that the enemies of whom David here speaks walk in false security.  The security of wealth and worldly power.  They are comfortable and consequently feel no need of God.  For them, life is not a battle.

How is that relevant to me?  Well, I am not about to sell the house and by a tent and start keeping sheep.  But I might be a little better at recognizing the realities of life.  Life brings us changes.  They are inevitable.  It is not so much that David’s enemies had no real changes.  They were subject to the vicissitudes of life like every other mortal.  But they had done their best to ignore them.  They filled their lives with insulation and diversion and forgot themselves and their real lives.

I don’t have to search for changes, and neither do you.  They are on our plates every day.  Every day we age.  We may grow wiser or simply duller.  Every day our fortunes change.  Look at those who surround us.  How have their circumstances changed and how completely may we have ignored those changes?  What opportunities are lost and which are gained?

A sober assessment of our own changes will indeed teach us new priorities and of our need for God.  Something real is at stake.  Something great may be lost or gained and, although we are active players in this drama, we in our own strength are insufficient to meet the challenge.

Reading The Psalms

 . . . Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me . . .

 

If the Christian life is a personal relationship with God, then the Christian’s journal is the book of Psalms.  There may be fuller and more complete theology elsewhere, but nowhere else in the Bible do we see such a personal and candid conversation with God.  No holds are barred.  We see every emotion:  grief and doubt and disappointment and repentance.  We see joy and triumph and victory and reward and peace.

In the Psalms we see a human being pouring his soul out to God in every situation.  In reading these poems, we find that our experiences are shared and validated.  We are not the first to have great disappointments and frustrations; we are not the first to be confronted with situations and outcomes we don’t understand.  We are not the first to be confronted with our own mistakes and their consequences.

We are not the first to know that all depends on God’s grace – that we have no hope without it.