Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Wandering through Scripture: Micah 1:1

“The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kinds of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.” -Micah 1:1 (RSV)
I was recently convicted that I needed to engage more study of Scripture on my own apart from what I do with the Daily Offices and the Sunday Lectionary. After some prayer and discernment, I felt the book of Micah would be a good starting point. So as I go through the book and digest what it says, I will periodically post my meanderings here.

Micah begins with the bold statement, “The word of the Lord.” This means that what follows, the words written down by Micah, are a revelation. It follows then that these words are true because of their source. They are not Micah’s words but the Lord’s (and if they weren’t true, Micah would be put to death per Deut 18:20).

One thing that’s always interested me is the distinction between the word of the Lord and the Word of the Lord. Here, the Hebrew word for “word” is דבר (dabar) while the word for “Word” in John 1:1 is the Greek λογος (logos). The main distinction is that the דבר here in Micah lacks flesh and personhood, it is a verbal communication from the divine. This is not to say its veracity is of a lesser value than the λογος but that they are different species of divine self-disclosure. Certainly, the written דבר provides us a snapshot of the divine nature for our benefit. God’s transcendence and Otherness necessitates that it is he who makes the first move towards us. Yet, these revelations have a trajectory that ultimately culminate in the λογος. He is not just another disembodied word but is the embodied Word itself, the very undergirding principle of our reality taking on flesh to stand in solidarity with us. It does not negate the written word as a mode of revelation but rather clarifies it all in, through, and around himself. He is the center of all of creation and all of history.

Here, however, the דבר belongs to the Lord and is being spoken and recorded by the prophet Micah and not the other way around. This raises the question: to what degree, if any, does Micah actually influence the דבר given to him by God? Is this an example of Incarnation and Inspiration or does the divine origin of this message overshadow its human channel? Surely, the “word from God” here represents God’s message to his people through the utilization of hte unique facets of Micah’s personality, literary acumen, and other distinctive components of his individuality.  

To further accentuate this point is the Hebrew verb היה which translates “came to,” implying its objective existence outside of Micah. Micah, therefore, is a passive receptacle, not an active participant, in the derivation of meaning. The word comes to (arrives at) Micah so that it can be distributed to the people of God. Micah does not actually do anything to make himself a channel, at least nothing in the text hints at that. In fact, very little is even known about the prophet Micah.

The prophet is introduced as “Micah of Moresheth.” His name means, “Who is like Yahweh?” It is a fitting name for a messenger of God to a sinful people because it emphasizes Yahweh’s holiness. Jeremiah 26:18 explicitly quotes Micah 3:12 but the text does not reveal anything more than the subscription of Micah’s book here in 1:1.

We are told he’s from Moresheth which is in Gath (see Micah 1:14), southwest of Jerusalem. Moresheth would have been right on the border between Israelite and Philistine territory. In fact, 1 Samuel 17:4 reports that Goliath is from Gath. This location implies that Micah was most likely some sort of peasant or farmer.

So we know that Micah was relatively insignificant in comparison to the word of the Lord he was commissioned to communicate to the people of God but it is important to establish a timeline of when the book claims it was written. Otherwise, its oracles become divorced from the reality they seek to address.

Micah does a good job of providing us with the relevant data for coming up with a date of his writing. The kings of Judah who reigned while he prophesied were Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Jotham (750-735 BCE) can be found in 2 Kings 15:32-38. He was a relatively good king who won some important military victories for Judah but failed at pulling down the high places and destroying idolatry in the land.

Ahaz ruled from 732-715. Details of his reign are recorded in 2 Kings 16. Unlike his father, Jotham, he was not a good king at all. His main fault was that he took gold and silver from the Temple of the Lord and sent it to the king of Assyria as a tribute. He also forced the construction of pagan, foreign altars inside Israel.

The final king mentioned in Micah is Hezekiah (716-687). 2 Kings 18-20 and Isaiah 36-39 provide details about him. He was a good king who destroyed the idols of the people. 2 Kings 18:5 reports, “Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before or after him.”

Two of the three kings who were alive during Micah’s time were actually good kings. Yet the end of verse one informs us that these oracles are not merely for the Southern Kingdom. “Concerning Samaria and Jerusalem” includes both Israel (identified by the metonymy Samaria) and Judah (identified by the metonymy Jerusalem).

Important Lessons and Things on Which to Meditate

1. The primary role of the prophet is to maintain the people’s covenant relationship with God. As such, prophecy is functioning as a channel for God’s word to his covenantal people.
2. God’s words culminate in the Word of God. Prophetic messages must be tied to the covenant and ALL covenants in the Old Testament point and lead to Christ.
3. God uses people to be vehicles for the advancement of his covenant message.
4. Because of its divine origin, the prophecy exists independent of the prophet. Their role is to convey God’s message to the people, not make it their own.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Escaping the Tyranny of the To-Do List

If you’ve ever spent much time with me, you probably know that I keep a number of lists. There’s a list for tasks to be completed, movies to watch, albums to listen to, books to read, etc. I’m not sure why my tendency is to seek out shelter in the structure of a to-do list but I have for quite some time. Perhaps it’s a way for me to treat the symptoms instead of the problem of my disordered soul. Upon further self-introspection, however, I am firmly convinced that the way I have adopted the practice of keeping lists has become idolatrous and thoroughly unproductive.

One of my favorite movies is The Chaos Theory starring Ryan Reynolds and Emily Mortimer. For those who haven’t seen it, the basic overview of the movie is about a man whose rigidly structured life is functionally ruined after his wife mistakenly moves the clock backwards instead of forwards in an attempt to help him out. “A specific list is a happy list,” he pontificates before his collapse (which is instrumental to him learning more important lessons). Yet the point of the movie is that such rigid scheduling is not the best way to live because it leaves no real room to be human.

Funny enough, the reason this was my favorite movie in years past was precisely because of his inelastic scheduling that I identified with him in the first part of the movie when he was keeping intricate lists and detailed itineraries. While the movie remains one of my favorites, it’s now for entirely different reasons.

The Anglican in me feels a need to confess: “I confess to Almighty God, to his Church, and to you, Reader, that I have sinned by my own fault in thought, word, and deed, in things done and left undone; especially because I have overplanned and overscheduled my life. For these and all other sins which I cannot now remember, I am truly sorry. I pray God to have mercy on me. I firmly intend amendment of life, and I humbly beg forgiveness of God and his Church, and ask you for counsel, direction, and absolution.”

Surely planning and precision are not sinful. However, my kind of planning is to literally list everything: a Google calendar, a monthly schedule, a weekly to-do list, a daily appointment and to-do list (really this is symptomatic of laziness and an excuse for my lack of intentionally fostering the practice of memoria). But what do these practices communicate about my anthropology? Or, at the very least, what am I assuming about myself when I sit down to make such lists?

The answer: I am making the assumption that I am nothing but a machine outfitted for productivity. I am functionally dehumanizing myself and making the statement that my to-do list is my purpose. Out of the gold of my various vocations, I am crafting a golden calf with my to-do list, leaving little room for me to actually be human. Perhaps my lists help me achieve truth and goodness to some degree but they suffocate the potentiality for beauty. Without beauty, what are truth and goodness? Without beauty, we only see the other transcendtals through a mirror dimly lit.

In his masterful book, Practicing the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence conveys an important truth that I have been learning lately:
"He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think."
The tyranny of the to-do list, at least in the detail in which I had been crafting mine, is that it divorced me from both my purpose as a human and from my awareness of the nearness of God. By constantly placing the next thing on my immediate radar, it distanced God from my attention (though fortunately, that reality is not reciprocal as God is always near per Acts 17:27).

I'm not really sure what hte way forward looks like in regards to productivity. I do know it doesn't look like what I've been doing. Yet what's important is that we have room to breathe, to live, and to be. All that we do, we do in his presence and living life to its fullest means being constantly aware of that reality. I don't specifically know how to do that yet but I can take comfort in Brother Lawrence's observation, "Do not be discouraged by the resistance you will encounter from your human nature; you must go against your human inclinations. Often, in the beginning, you will think that you are wasting time, but you must go on, be determined and persevere in it until death, despite all the difficulties." 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Poem of the Day: "Listen, Lord -- A Prayer" by James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was a poet and author as well as a lawyer and activist who served in the NAACP for quite some time. He was also appointed as an ambassador to Venezuela and Nicaragua by Theodore Roosevelt. His work was highly influential during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Here is his poem, "Listen, Lord -- A Prayer":

O Lord, we come this morning
Knee-bowed and body-bent
Before thy throne of grace.
O Lord--this morning--
Bow our hearts beneath our knees,
And our knees in some lonesome valley.
We come this morning--
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain,
With no merits of our own.
O Lord--open up a window of heaven,
And lean out far over the battlements of glory,
And listen this morning.

Lord, have mercy on proud and dying sinners--
Sinners hanging over the mouth of hell,
Who seem to love their distance well.
Lord--ride by this morning--
Mount your milk-white horse,
And ride-a this morning--
And in your ride, ride by old hell,
Ride by the dingy gates of hell,
And stop poor sinners in their headlong plunge.

And now, O Lord, this man of God,
Who breaks the bread of life this morning--
Shadow him in the hollow of thy hand,
And keep him out of the gunshot of the devil.
Take him Lord--this morning--
Wash him with hyssop inside and out,
Hang him up and drain him dry of sin.
Pin his ear to the wisdom-post,
And make his words sledge hammers of truth--
Beating on the iron heart of sin.

Lord God, this morning--
Put his eye to the telescope of eternity,
And let him look upon the paper walls of time.
Lord, turpentine his imagination,
Put perpetual motion in his arms,
Fill him full of the dynamite of thy power,
Anoint him all over with the oil of thy salvation,
And set his tongue on fire.

And now, O Lord--
When I've done drunk my last cup of sorrow--
When I've been called everything but a child of God--
When I'm done traveling up the rough side of the mountain--
O--Mary's Baby--
When I start down the steep and slippery steps of death--
When this old world begins to rock beneath my feet--
Lower me to my dusty grave in peace
To wait for that great gittin' up morning--Amen.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Poem of the Day: "Bury Me in a Free Land" by Frances E.W. Harper

Today's poem comes from Frances E.W. Harper. She was born free and lived in Baltimore, Maryland from 1825-1911. Today's poem, "Bury Me in a Free Land," was featured in a book Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854) which catapulted her into abolitionist circles alongside figures such as Frederick Douglass, William Garrison, and many others.

Some of her other works include "Two Offers," the first short story by an African-American woman to be published, Moses: A Story of the Nile (1869), Sketches of Southern Life (1872), and Iola Leroy (1892).

Here is today's poem, "Bury Me in a Free Land":

Make me a grave where'er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth's humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.

I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.

I could not rest if I heard the treat
Of a coffle gang to shambles led,
And mother's shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parents' nest.

I'd shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother's arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame
My death-pale cheek grow red with shame.

I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Poem of the Day: “The Slave Auction” by Frances E.W. Harper

Today’s poem of the day is “The Slave Auction” by Frances E.W. Harper.

The sale began—young girls were there,
     Defenseless in their wretchedness,
Whose stifled sobs of deep despair
     Revealed their anguish and distress.

And mothers stood with streaming eyes,
     And saw their dearest childre sold;
Unheeded rose their utter crime,
     While tyrants bartered them for gold.

And woman, with her love and truth—
     For these in sable forms may dwell—
Gaz’d on the husband of her youth,
     With anguish none may paint or tell.

And men, whose sole crime was their hue,
     The impress of their Maker’s hand,
And frail and shrinking children, too,
     Were gathered in that mournful band.

Ye who have laid your love to rest,
     And wept above their lifeless clay,
Know not the anguish of that breast,
     Whose lov’d are rudely torn away.

He may not know how desolate
     Are bosoms rudely forced to part,
And how a dull and heavy weight
     Will press the life-drops from the heart.