There’s a lot to complain about in contemporary worship songs – the kind accompanied by guitars and drums. My children call it 7-11 music: 7 words repeated 11 times. The lyrics are often repetitive, trite and sentimental. The music is equally forgettable and wanders all over the place.
My two biggest complaints, however, don’t have anything to do with artistic merit. First, it often sounds like you are love-struck teenager singing to your boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s almost sexual in tone. Is this the way we approach the King of Glory enthroned above? Where is the weight of majesty? Second, the lyrics often lack any connection to the language and themes of the Biblical text. Modern praise music often worships a disembodied Christ, a spiritual presence detached from his story in the scriptures.
And then I read the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem with nothing to say about God’s covenants with Abraham, Moses or David. Nothing about God’s victories over his enemies. Nothing about the law, the temple, the priesthood or the history of Israel. Nothing of the prophet’s call to justice. Nothing about wisdom beginning with the fear of the Lord. It’s just a sexy love song – or possibly a collection of love songs- and a really cheesy love song at that.
Continue reading “Christian Worship, Song of Solomon Style”
This Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Old Testament contains a portion of King Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:22-53).
- Begins by praising the God who keeps his promises.
- Recalls God’s dynastic promises to David through the prophet Nathan.
- Acknowledges that God is bigger than the temple. The whole universe cannot contain him or constrain him.
- Affirms that God has condescended to establish a house where his name might dwell.
- Asks God to:
- Hear the prayers of his people when they face toward the temple and pray. Most of the petitions make it sound like people pray in the direction of the temple, not necessarily in the temple.
- Forgive the people when they repent; lead them to fear God and do what is right; and keep them safely in the land promised to their ancestors. These requests pop up repeatedly throughout the prayer and qualify many of the petitions.
- Render justice in disputes brought to the temple for adjudication, presumably through some act of divination.
- Bring God’s people back to their covenant homeland whenever they are defeated militarily and taken into exile. This petition is repeated twice, with the second petition being the longer.
- Deliver relief from drought, famine, plague and military threats whenever they occur.
- Grant military victory when God sends the people to war.
- Hear and answer the prayers of foreigners who come to the temple because of God’s name, so that his renown might spread throughout the whole world.
- Closes with an appeal to God to hear Israel’s prayers based his election of them as his inheritance, and the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt under Moses.
Overall, the prayer affirms that God has chosen the people of Israel in a singular way, that he delivered them from Egypt and gave them the land of promise, that he expects them to live according to his law, that all people sin, that sin has consequences, that there is no hiding the truth from God, and that God can forgive and restore the penitent.
The most surprising petition of Solomon’s prayer is his appeal on behalf of foreigners. The postexilic tenor of the prayer in its current form is obvious. Given that the text came to us through people who survived the exile, this petition is remarkable. Even when the nations of the world wreaked havoc on the people of God, their tradition reminded them of God’s hope for the nations, that the Gentiles might be drawn to the glory of God’s name and that he would hear their prayers.
Continue reading “Solomon’s Prayer on Dedicating the Temple”
In the story of the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus invades enemy territory and defeats a powerful army to deliver people from bondage.
Jesus enters enemy territory in two ways. The land of the Gerasenes was on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was part of the Greco-Roman region known as the Decapolis, or “ten towns.” It was Gentile territory, the land of foreign gods, a place of idolatry. Additionally, the encounter takes place among the tombs, an earthly realm of the dead, so to speak. Here, then, Jesus faced two of God’s enemies: hostile spiritual powers and death itself.
Unsurprisingly in such a place, Jesus finds a man possessed by unclean spirits. The man howled day and night and cut himself with stones. His fellow citizens tried to restrain him in chains – a horrible way to treat mental illness, by the way – but he always broke free. In Mark’s thinking, the man’s extraordinary strength is evidence of supernatural bondage. The man could break his earthly chains; he could not break his spiritual ones.
When Jesus asked the man’s name – always a good way to start a conversation – the demons replied, “We are ‘Legion’, for we are many.” A legion is a Roman military unit consisting of four to six thousand soldiers. Some of my Christian brothers and sisters see this as coded language referring to a confrontation with the political and military power of Rome. I don’t see anything of that sort in the story. I’ll take Mark at his word; he’s thinking of an army of demons, not an army of human soldiers.
Continue reading “Echoes of Exodus in the Land of the Gerasenes”
A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:37-41)
Ah, yes, Jesus calms the storms of life. The story is a metaphor – an illustration – of what Jesus does in our lives. For the most part, that’s how the gospel will be preached today. And indeed Jesus does calm the storms of my life.
Or maybe the storms of life continue, but we need to trust Jesus anyway. Maybe that’s the point of Jesus’ rebuke, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Again, though, the storm is a metaphor for some existential struggle or internal disquiet that I face.
What if, however, Mark didn’t primarily intend for us to see the storm as a metaphor for our personal struggles? What if he meant us to see the storm as an actual storm, with gale-force winds and 20-foot waves and torrential rain and blinding flashes of lightning? What if he meant us to see it as a big, wet, life-threatening punch in the face from mother nature?
Continue reading “Calming the Storm, Sign or Metaphor?”
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. John 15:9-12
The Comforts of Home
Every afternoon, when I am worn out by the day, I look forward to the moment when I can walk out to my car and silently comfort myself with the thought, “Let’s go home.” And in my life, home has been a moving target.
Continue reading “Jesus and the Promise of Home”