“There are tissues in the pews now.” That’s what one elder said was the biggest change our congregation had been through during the previous couple of years. We had been doing some work as a church in “turn-around;” in attempting to shift from a declining congregation to a growing congregation, we made changes. “Before we didn’t need tissues in the pews,” she said, “now we do.” You see, we knew that turnaround would only happen as part of a spiritual awakening. We encouraged authenticity in worship, we preached from the heart and not just the head, we shared music and art and drama that expressed our real faith … and now, it wasn’t an unusual thing to see people cry in worship.
Sometimes, when we are confronted with the presence of the Holy Spirit in worship, we cry. It can happen when we are prayed for, when we take communion, when we sing an especially inspirational hymn, when we share in a time of mourning or a time of joy. I believe crying is a side effect of the softening of our hearts … and it’s necessary to “understand” and internalize both the limitations of our humanness the fullness of the grace of God.
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. (Nehemiah 8:9 NIV)
The people tried their best. They were holding on to a remnant of faith and tradition and identity as the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had an inkling of what God expected of them, but they didn’t understand. When Ezra, the religious scholar and priest, returned to Jerusalem, he found good people, but people who were not “pure” in their following of the Law. They did not understand the Law. And so, after they banded together as a people and rebuilt the temple, after they stepped out in courage to rebuild a safe place … then … only then, Ezra and Nehemiah call them together to read the Word of God.
They don’t come in with words of judgement, they tell them they are sinners, or that they are falling short of God’s demands, or that God will bring havoc on them. No, Ezra and Nehemiah work to build community first, to create a safe place, and they invite the people to hear the Word, to take it in and let it speak to them. When the Word is understood, though, the people weep. They know they have not been 100% faithful. For the people of Jerusalem, it was about the purity of the people and their eclecticism of other gods and other cultures. If there is one thing that’s clear throughout the first testament, it’s that God is the one and only god. Nothing should spoil that.
We try our best, but we still fall short. Maybe we didn’t know. Or we understood it in a different way. Perhaps, we didn’t realize we were causing our children (or our parents) such heartache. We never thought about how our words or our actions were being heard by people of color. We prefer not to think about how we participate in a culture of violence or poverty. We never understood our consumerism or wealth as worshipping other gods. We never meant to exclude people from our congregation, we just wanted to preach the truth.
When we are confronted with the Truth, though, we are also comforted by the God of Grace … a God who never gives up on us. That’s the word Nehemiah has for the people … no need to mourn, no need to weep, no need to sit in shame, guilt, or self-pity, no need to fear. Let’s just get to work and do what we can to change it.
Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10 NIV)
Repentance … turning around … changing. It’s what the Word of God is constantly calling us to. And in the process we are loved, we are claimed, we are comforted, we are given safe passage, we are “home”. Our strength for change is in knowing that we are God’s people. This is the Day the Lord Has Made.
May our churches provide a safe place to hear the Word of God, that we may need tissues in the pews … so our hearts are softened, we understand God’s word for our lives, and we are changed … and go out in joy and feasting and generosity.
APC has instituted a monthly Jazz vesper service. It started last month, but I was unable to attend, so this past Saturday was the first time I could make it. The format of the service is some excellent live jazz music, interspersed with Bible readings. The same text is read each time for a given evening. This past week, the text was Nehemiah 1:5-11, Nehemiah’s prayer as he prepares to request permission to go to Jerusalem to lead in the rebuilding of the city. During one of the reading times, we were asked to allow the text to “speak” to us, to see what words, phrases, or ideas were calling to us. For some reason, I latched on to the word “chosen” from Nehemiah 1:9
but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.’
I don’t want to focus too much on the various implications I thought of with “chosen” and “choice,” other than to say that “to chose” implies that there are multiple alternatives available, and sometimes the “correct” or “best” choice might not be obvious. That was in my mind as I was reading the chapter. And it struck me that the people of Jerusalem were presented with many choices. The choice of whether or not to attempt to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem; the choice of whom to follow; the choice of how to respond to threats to the project. But there’s one choice that’s only mentioned indirectly, and that’s what caught my attention.
“The Story” mentions parenthetically that, when Ezra came to Jerusalem, he was appalled that the people had intermarried with the locals, and this reaction lead the people to repent of their unfaithfulness. This comes from Ezra 9, which describes Ezra’s position, and Ezra 10, which describes the people’s reaction, wherein the people swear to “send away” all of these foreign wives and their children. The people chose to listen to the priest Ezra.
But them we come to Malachai. Specifically, Malachi 2:13-16
And this you do as well: You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. You ask, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did not one God make her? Both flesh and spirit are his. And what does the one God desire? Godly offspring. So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lords of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.
Ezra says to “put aside” the foreign wives. Malachai says to remain faithful to the “wife of your youth.” Both are speaking for God. How are the people to choose?
How are we to choose?
As we’ve seen so often thus far in our readings, we see tension and conflict in understanding what we are called to do and be as God’s chosen people. People of faith can and do hold polar opposite positions on important issues. Gay rights is the one most in the news right now, but there have been countless others throughout the years. Who is “right” and who is “wrong,” and how can we be sure to be on the “right?”
The easy answer, of course, is those who say, “Is it Biblical? That’s my test.” That’s all well and good, but “Is it Biblical?” isn’t always such a cut and dried question to answer. Another way to go is to try to parse individual words, looking for loopholes we can slip through, to avoid making a choice at all. In my example above, it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a plausible explanation that shows that Ezra and Malachai are not in fact in conflict. But those “legal gymnastics” I think miss the point.
My own feeling is that we are called to choose based on our understanding of God’s will, tempered by the guidance of the rest of the community of faith. None of us have a perfect understanding, of anything. But my “looking through a mirror dimly,” combined with yours, can help to clarify things. We certainly won’t get it “right,” but we can at least say we’ve done our best to get it “close.” I think that that’s the attitude God wants from us — to strive for God’s kingdom with all that we are, but also with a humble spirit that says, “I need help in understanding. Teach me, as I try to teach you.”
I know I’ve gone very far afield this week. I hope you’ll forgive me.
This week we’ll be reading the story of Rebuilding Jerusalem. That’s Chapter 21: Rebuilding the Walls. For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: Ezra 7; Nehemiah 1-2; 4; 6-8; Malachi 1-4. Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning. In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here. Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory