Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Christian Life (Page 1 of 8)

Finding Good Company

When Paul says that ‘bad company corrupts good morals’ (1 Cor 15:33) he is, I understand, quoting a Greek playwright much as we might quote Shakespeare in order to make a self-evident point. In this case the self-evident truth is that our character is going to be shaped in a large measure by the company we keep. He who hangs out with angry people grows angry. Get all your news from the fearful, and every drop of rain becomes a piece of the sky that is falling.

The point I raised in a previous post is that perhaps the degradation of public discourse among Christians is that many of us are modeling our behavior and attitude on those whose feeds we read or shows we watch, on those whose way of handling opposition is entertaining and engaging more than it is Christ-like. Such less than stellar company may be corrupting our sense of what is good and right in dealing with controversy.

Not many of us are independent thinkers. We do need others to give us perspective and insight on issues. But with that perspective and insight will come a particular attitude and approach. If the source of our information is one which takes pleasure in demonizing and ridiculing opposing views, we, sadly, will find ourselves doing the same. We need to disassociate ourselves from those who convey a bitter, angry, fearful, and divisive spirit even though they might be funny and provocative and entertaining and even insightful. There is no question that those with the sharpest tongue (or pen) can often be the most engaging. But the ability to leave an opponent in a bleeding rhetorical heap on the floor (perhaps for a cause with which we agree), while captivating, does not nurture within us the heart of Christ. We can and should do better.

But what does better look like? I suggest that we find our perspective from those who, Christian or not, reflect the following attributes:

  • Humility – the willingness to admit limits of knowledge and understanding.
  • Integrity – the willingness to admit error.
  • Charity – the willingness to show deference and respect for those of an opposing view.
  • Restraint – the willingness to refrain from polarizing an issue when there is uncertainty.
  • Perspective – the willingness to see the sweep of history and the stability of the church over time.
  • Knowledge – being well informed on all sides of a subject.

I will expand on these as time allows. In the mean time, I am interested in attributes you would add. Further, I would love to hear the names of sources that you believe reflect these qualities.

But let me repeat my point: if we are ourselves to learn a gracious way of engaging, dare I say ‘loving’, our opponents, we should spend time around people who reflect these virtues and steer clear of those who don’t.

Quarrelsomeness

It is often with dismay that I cast my eyes over the Christian landscape.

This landscape is inhabited by friends as well as those who gain prominence in news reports and online and print conversation. It is a landscape of controversy and conflict, and it grieves me deeply.

It is not the existence of disagreement itself that pains me (though I am by nature conflict avoidant). Disagreement we will always have. Unity is not uniformity. The “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” church is a reality born of many minds wrestling through deep questions seeking understanding and common confession. It’s not the presence of disagreement that is my concern.

My grief is sparked by the way we address those disagreements. Paul warns Timothy to flee from the one who has an “…unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction….” (1 Timothy 6:4, 5) It is the quarrelsome spirit with which disputes are carried out that grieves me.

That Paul addresses this spirit is a good reminder that the reality to which I speak is not one that is born of or unique to the internet age. Of course the ease with which news travels, and untruth and slander propagates, in a digital world does not serve us well. And it does not take long for those who hunger for ‘hits’ and ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ and ‘followers’ to learn that being provocative and edgy, perhaps quarrelsome, can spike those numbers in an intoxicating way. Nevertheless, the spirit of contention and the tendency to grow ugly in our disputes well predates the internet.

I grieve that in this we, the Church, have not learned to distinguish ourselves from the world. The sniping between the President of the United States and his critics carried out in plain sight on Twitter bears all the marks of a power and popularity struggle between pre-adolescent boys. It is shameful in its own way and cries out for a dose of restraint and decency. But I am afraid that someone familiar with that world dropped into the crossfire among Christians disputing the issue du jour would find no difference. Would he be able to tell that we are Jesus’ disciples by the love we have for one another? (John 13:35) I don’t need to answer that.

Just Be Cool

I am aware that this is a lament without substance. I am not footnoting and cross referencing or using person A and opponent B as examples. Yes, this is sparked by a current controversy which led me to drop in on some sites I don’t normally frequent. And yes, I was saddened by what I found there and saddened that good friends had directed me to sites that were happily trashing other good friends of mine. I’m purposely not being specific because my point is not one particular person or group and not one particular issue or conflict. It is that our discourse has degenerated to the point that I want to cry out in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 6, “Why not rather suffer wrong?” (verse 7) than fight before unbelievers?

This also might be a lament without solution. I can shout into cyberspace with the power of ALL CAPS and exclamation points, “STOP BEING SO MEAN!!!!” but that only adds to the noise. And it would be futile to wander among competing positions urging men and women to be nice and play fair.

But I do want to invite my small community of readers to act with some radical flair.

First, we need to agree that the spirit of our discourse is a problem. If I’m wrong in that, let me know. I will then return to my regularly scheduled life.

Secondly, we ourselves need to practice what we want to see. What is hard about this is that we so few models of how to enter into disagreements in a Christian way. We will, I fear, model those we hear. It should come as no surprise that if we hang around angry people, we will be angry. If our only models for how to confront differences are clever men and women proud of their verbal power and snark, then we will be trained to attack. Perhaps we need to remember that “those who walk with the wise become wise” (Proverbs 13:20) and its corollary regarding fools. Maybe we have been enamored with the wrong models. We have learned to react in accusatory, fearful, angry ways because those are the models to whom we have exposed ourselves.

We need to do better. We need to stop following, stop reading, stop promoting those who model what we would not want to emulate and find those whose spirit we want to imbibe.

More on what that might look like to follow.

God, Monasteries, and the Rhythms of Life

How do we ‘experience’ God?

One Sunday morning in college I stood in a worship service in our church in a pew three rows from the back singing the hymn “Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart.” I wept at the words and the palpable sense of God’s love and favorable presence. I experienced the reality of God. I was moved. My devotion was deepened.

This past April, I returned to that church. I sat in the same pew. We sang similar songs. Similar leaders prayed. We heard the same Bible. But no tears came. No emotional engagement happened. I left unmoved.

So I ask, “How do we ‘experience’ God?”

I had never knowingly seen a monk. The one speaking to us was a bit chubby with short, cropped, slightly graying hair. His white robe underneath it’s black overlay, the signature of the Trappist, showed evident wear, stained in some places, frayed in others. As he spoke to us he betrayed a frequent smile. Though he had chosen a life of seclusion and silence I sensed he cared for people and took joy in speaking.

He introduced himself to us as Father Carlos and spoke to orient us to the week ahead of us at the Abbey of Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery where we were guests. He touched briefly on the rules of silence—where and when we could speak—assuming that it was for the silence that we had come. The monks open their home to guests so that, among other things, guests might through silence and solitude become ‘open to God in a particular way that is not always available in the world today’ as their welcome material puts it.

The Monks’ Church

One might think that pastors don’t need this, that we have a hot-line of openness to God. One would be wrong.

Pastors too easily orient their lives around what they produce for others. I find I’ve nearly forgotten what it is to read something—even Scripture—thinking only of its inherent value for me and my life as a Christian and not of how I might use it for a sermon or lesson or for someone else’s encouragement. I wanted, needed, to be ‘open to God’ in a way not ordinarily available to me. I wanted to experience Him in a fresh way.

To this end I determined to take nothing with me but a Bible and a notebook and to spend the time being engaged with God through his word in a way not otherwise possible. That was a good plan. But it terrified me. What if I bored of that? What if I could not sustain the prolonged biblical reflection? What of the time that would then be wasted? I panicked and shoved a dozen books into my suitcase, just in case, and effectively sabotaging the radical possibilities of my original plan.

I spent the week (silently!) reading and praying and walking. The books were good. The physical rest was real. The time I did spend in the Scriptures was fruitful. And watching men who have dedicated their days to to a routine focused on worship and prayer alerted me to the ways in which I’m enslaved to a world that discounts the importance of such things.

Nevertheless, there was “no angel visitant, no op’ning skies” as the hymn puts it. There was no overwhelming experience of the wonder and love of God.

If that is not found in a monastery, then where? How do we experience God?

It is easy to attach a sense of our ‘experience’ of God to our productivity. If we are doing enough good and working hard enough for Him, then we find it easier to sense his care for us. I know the fallacy of such thinking and I preach a gospel that undermines it. But it is a persistent burden we carry, trying to earn our way to friendship with God. It leaves us hungry, in need of a re-awakening, a revival in our inner being.

They are serious.

I had planned the monastery trip over a year ago because I was hungry for such renewal. But renewal is God’s work, and he did not wait for the monastery to do his work. From January through Easter I had the joy of preaching a dozen sermons

on the death and resurrection of Jesus from Luke 22-24. I cannot measure the impact of those sermons upon those who heard them, but in the one who preached them there was great fruit. Spending time in the presence of these texts stirred in me again an understanding of Jesus as one who loved me beyond measure and as one I long to follow.

This awakening was fed as I hit my post-cruise sabbatical stride, re-reading John Stott’s The Cross of Christ together with unhurried and regular Scripture reading alone and with my wife. The monastery retreat, intended to jump start a renewal process, simply became a part of it.

This is not surprising. Renewal, or some experience of God, ordinarily occurs not in a spectacular fashion, but in the course of faithfully lived lives. We may not know what to do with five days of silence and solitude and worship and prayer (or we MAY know what to do and panic). But the soil out of which real renewal will arise is the daily rhythms of a life faithfully lived. God is not constrained. He is as willing to warm our hearts through our breakfast Bible reading in the towns in which we live as he is willing to do so in the strange confines of a central Kentucky monastery.

For sure, the daily rhythms of a pastor’s life necessarily involve more time in the company of Scripture. If you are not a pastor, your rhythms will not match mine. But what is necessary for all of us is that we build moments into the daily rhythms of our lives that allow room for the Spirit to breathe his breath into us. For me that means certain things, for others different things. It may mean cracking open a few moments of each day or week to place yourself in the presence of God. Perhaps it means making it to church regularly on Sundays. It may mean meditating on Scripture as you walk the dog.

The stepping away from the ordinary rhythms of life, such as Gethsemani afforded me, is necessary if only to assess those rhythms and reset them to make more room for the things of God.

How do we experience God?

Perhaps we expect God to meet us as he met the French mathematician/philosopher/apologist Blaise Pascal who famously had an experience of the presence of God one night which he described simply with the word ‘FIRE’. Maybe he will. But ordinarily he does not.

He met me in the third row from the back in a suburban Michigan church in 1978 when all I had done was get up and do what I normally did – go to church.

Certainly such deep movements of the Spirit in the soul are not for us to orchestrate but for God to give. He will make himself known to the one who waits with patience in the ordinary and faithful living of the Christian life.

Preparing for Silence

A week ago Monday I pulled into the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery set in the beautiful rolling hills of Western Kentucky. Gethsemani is home to brothers of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance. At Gethsemani the monks (including author Thomas Merton until his death in 1968) continue the monastic disciplines of prayer, silence and labor as it has been practiced there for the past 170 years and around the world for nearly a millennium. For ordinary people like me the Abbey provides a place where one might sample a period of silence and reflection, and so I had come.

I was directed to a modest third floor room that would be my home for five days. It had once housed a monk for life. On the desk were a schedule of meals and times of prayer and the ubiquitous FAQ answers. Were I in charge, I’d add a page to that stack to adequately prepare new ‘retreatants’. It would say something like this:

  1. Be prepared to be silent. There are specified places for talking, but signage nearly everywhere reminds one of the rule of silence. Shocking as this may be to us used to constant noise, it IS a balm to one’s inner introvert.
  2. Be prepared to be silent. I know. I already said that. But your hosts mean it. You will find yourself wondering whether to say things like ‘excuse me’ and ‘thank you’ (you may). You will need to suppress the urge to ask others for their names and hometowns and stories. They will remain strangers. But they are there to hear from God, not you. So, as much as this is a challenge to your inner extrovert, be silent.
  3. Be prepared to be well fed with three precisely timed (7:00, 12:30, and 6:00) meals of simple and wholesome food.
  4. Be prepared to not find beer. These are not the Trappists who brew. These ones make fruitcake and fudge. Sorry.
  5. Be prepared to look at these men as if they are some kind of zoo animal. (“O, look! There goes one!”) Monks are rare, after all.
  6. Be prepared to climb. There is an elevator that serves the newer portion of the retreat house, but it is so slow that I fear if I entered with a green banana on the ground floor it would be rotten by the third. To get a cup of tea from my room required 140 stairs. I counted. Of course I did.
  7. Be prepared to be awakened at 3AM by the bell in the bell tower. (Your

    The Bell

    window is open because there is no AC in these rooms. The bell therefore sounds like it is hovering, oh, three feet above your bed.) Vigils are at 3:15 (followed through the day by lauds, terce, sext, none, vespers, and, before bed, compline). These monks are serious about prayer and think you might want to join them. Even at 3:00AM. (I did. Once.)

  8. Be prepared to be drawn into these rhythms of prayer and psalm. I found myself at times checking my watch so that I might sit in the back of the church and bring my own heart and its concerns to their scheduled times of prayer.
  9. Be prepared to be different – to not like it. Some of us don’t like silence. Some of us reflect better in a library surrounded by books or in a coffee shop with a laptop than we do sitting in a garden or in a church. That’s okay.
  10. Be prepared to sleep. It’s not being lazy. It’s called rest.

I left my ‘cell’ early Friday, summoned by the 3AM bell, trudging down 70 stairs and out into the darkness and back to the ‘real’ world. I left having grown fond of the place in spite of its oddities.

And I left sent on my way by prayer, by men devoting their lives to that “useless” endeavor.

I Am Woman, Hear Me

Some months ago, the controversy du jour involved Vice President Pence’s policy of not meeting women alone. Some found his policy appalling, some found it quaint, and some found it proper. I weighed in on it here because it touched a bit of my own history and struggle as a teacher and particularly as a pastor.

In response to my post I received a kind and insightful email from a young woman whom I had had the pleasure of coming to know ten years ago. She is an intelligent and sensitive follower of Jesus who, as a woman, has had a difficult time finding a home in the church. In her email she shared her experience as a woman in churches similar to the ones I have pastored. I think we need to hear her, and others like her. (She has given me permission to post her comments, though I have edited them for brevity and anonymity.)

Neither she nor I bring these thoughts with any kind of agenda. But understanding the experience of others can implicitly suggest necessary agenda. If it does, I’m glad.
I am grateful for her honesty.

When I first started to engage in Christianity, it was really clear to me that I would always be limited in some way as a woman. When [my male friends] had questions, they’d just go meet with the pastor. When I had questions, it was just not the same, even if that’s not an explicit rule. All the pastors were men and I’m a woman. So the natural supposition was to find a woman, but for many reasons that can be difficult.

To just know that’s not really an option when you have a male pastor, to engage as an individual and share your questions and concerns, subtly tells us “this is for men” and that women aren’t priorities here….

To be taught from a young age that my very biology is evil in some way, not because we’re all evil (total depravity!) but because I am a threat to men in some unknown way that I do not control, that I can be responsible for leading men astray, or that there’s a risk I’ll harm their reputation simply by being a woman, the internalizing of those messages is confusing and hard and leads to lots of feelings of self-hatred and questioning of yourself….

I had an experience of sexual abuse from a church leader as a child and so the argument that women are a risk to men is minimized when I know the opposite (that is, statistically more probable).

Going to church as a woman can sometimes be a heartbreaking experience. Every time I went to church with a male, whenever people would come over to say hi, he would be greeted first. He would be engaged in conversation. My presence there was in relation to the man next to me. There were a couple of times that I would try churches for weeks by myself and really wouldn’t make connections and then a guy would come with me and all of the sudden we’re welcomed. You can definitely make the case that the guys were just more outgoing and friendly, but it was definitely not every time.

Yes, these aren’t huge things. I’m not being stoned when I walk through the door or anything, but it is obviously discouraging to feel, even subtly, as if I don’t have a place because of my gender.

I invite others to reflect on this and to share similar, or contrasting, experiences.

Chutzpah in Nashville

I learned the meaning of ‘chutzpah’ the hard way.

As a young seminary student I witnessed an ordination exam which I and a few others felt was inadequately conducted. Somehow the fact that I was a young seminarian and the exam had been carried out by experienced ministers was lost on me. I went to one of my professors who had been involved in the exam and pointed out the deficiencies we had observed.

His response was predictable. “It takes a whole lot of chutzpah for you to walk in here and say that.”

I had never heard the word, but the tone with which that sentence was delivered communicated its meaning perfectly. “Who do you think you are to criticize those who have been doing this for the number of years we’ve been at it?”

Indeed. Who did I think I was?

I’m grateful for that professor. He was angry, rightfully, at my cheek. The impudence involved in stepping out of my role and placing myself in a position to assess my elders and find them wanting was massive.

Perhaps I am engaging in another display of chutzpah in raising a tiny voice of protest against the various scholars and genuinely godly men and women who have attached their names to the “Nashville Statement,” recently issued by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Perhaps they need to stand up as one and stare me down saying, “Who do you think you are?”

But perhaps the shoe this time is on the other foot. I find myself asking, “Who do they think they are?” The CBMW is an agenda-driven independently formed parachurch organization. It is not the church and yet it presumes to raise its voice to scold and instruct the church. The very fact that it demands to be heard with authority and to speak to and for the church suggests that there has been a massive realignment in Evangelical Christianity’s definition of and respect for the church. That which was born to assist the church, the parachurch, has grown in its youthful impatience to swallow its parent and to act with independence and swagger.

The preamble of the Nashville Statement should be re-written in terms that require us to ask questions even more fundamental than those of marriage and sexuality:

“Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be THE CHURCH.”

For that is the hidden revolution in statements like this. Whether the content is helpful or not is beside the point. The very existence of the document and the impetus of those behind it reveal that its authors have not only lost patience with the church, they have seen her as no longer bearing any power or weight.

Speaking as I am attempting to do into the independent, consumer mind-set of Evangelical Christianity, I know that many who read this will be mystified by my concern. So far has our respect for the church and her messiness and process fallen. But having not arisen from the church, a statement like this bears no ecclesiastical authority. There is no labor of any church court or body behind it. It lacks the carefully weighed, though painfully slow, nuanced pastoral concern of ecclesiastical process. It was not generated at the request of the church, and it has not been adopted as the stated judgment of the church. Hence it has no authority beyond the respect given to the names attached to it. And though I have respect for many of these, it is an Evangelical Celebrity Document and nothing more.

For a group such as this (complete with a ‘donate now’ button placed dramatically at the end) to speak to and for the church is chutzpah. But it is chutzpah barely noted because before there was loss of respect for marriage in Evangelical Christianity there was a greater loss in respect for the church.

Note: An earlier post taking issue with the statement’s doomsday tone can be read here.

Breathless in Nashville

Call me weary.

A few days ago I was finally able to read the recently issued “Nashville Statement” of which some, but not all, readers will be aware. I have some thoughts about its content, but I need to say that whatever merits it contains or lacks, I can’t get beyond its sky-is-falling tone. A friend calls it breathless, which strikes me as accurate. In my life there’s been a whole lotta breathlessness going on.

I grew up in a mainline church whose doom was pronounced by conservative voices in her midst. I began to flourish in my Christian understanding when the twin terrors of “charismania” and biblical errancy were staked as boding threats to be opposed. Soon we were being told that if we did not stand foursquare against women being ordained, the end would come. As well, all we held dear would perish if we did not take a life or death stand against the theory of evolution. And if we did not make immediate changes to the way we “do” church there would soon be no one to fill our pews as the youth, we were warned, were leaving and never coming back.

I have been hearing of the end of the church and her witness for so long that I can, or will, no longer hear such messages. When we are told that the only path of faithfulness is to Jump! Respond! Take a stand! all I want to do is to take a nap.

The Nashville Statement, addressing the shifting and rapidly evolving Western cultural position on sexuality, strikes the same rhetorical drumbeat:

“Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age?”

Catastrophe is imminent unless, of course, we fall in line with those behind this statement. But I’ve heard this song before. I change the station and move on.

Perhaps I lack the necessary cultural awareness and cannot see how weak the pillars are which hold the sky that will soon collapse upon us. A number of people I greatly respect have signed on to this and perhaps they are right. Perhaps I should awaken from my slumber. Perhaps this is the one issue, the one that rules them all and that will, in the darkness, bind us.

But I’m prejudiced against ultimata whatever its source.

It is not just prejudice, though. I have a great confidence in Christ’s church. In spite of the challenges she has shown herself quite resilient, hasn’t she? I see no reason for that resilience to pass. I believe her people will continue to trust Jesus, to love and serve one another and their neighbors. I believe the church will continue to worship, and struggle, as she waits and longs for the kingdom that will come.

For help along the way, a true consensus statement articulating and defending the traditional view of sexuality offering a humble and compassionate restatement of the historic Christian view of marriage with irenic engagement with some of the emerging counter proposals would be welcome. But that is not what we have been given.

It is the teacher who speaks with a calm and reasoned voice who gets heard in a noisy classroom. That is the voice we need.

While we wait for it, let us continue to serve Jesus through his church. In that we should not grow weary.

The Great Commission without the Church? Inconceivable.

Many Christian ministries are driven by a single eyed focus on Jesus’ final words (Matthew 28:19, 20). These words have been sloganized as ‘The Great Commission’ to impel an urgent evangelistic effort to find and develop committed followers of Jesus Christ. This would be admirable if this common use did not eviscerate the heart of this commission by eliminating the place of the local church.

Most properly understand that these words ask for more than finding converts. Jesus says

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…. (19)

Jesus wants his disciples to help others become his followers. This involves clearly

…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (20)

This commission is fulfilled, it is felt, when the new disciple begins to make and teach other new disciples. But it is not.

We have not been compliant to the commission if the new convert is not as well, through baptism, admitted to the membership of a local church. The whole commission reads:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19, 20)

Jesus’ Jewish followers would have heard this in covenantal terms, as should we. In their heritage, when someone from ‘the nations’, not born a Jew, came to faith in Yahweh, his verbal expression of that faith was not enough to mark him as a follower of Yahweh. He could claim faith and live righteously, but he would not be admitted into the life of the followers of Yahweh apart from receiving circumcision, the mark of covenantal inclusion (see Exodus 12:48). Then and then only would he be considered a follower, a disciple, of God.

The only change in the minds of Jesus’ listeners would have been the nature of the mark. Circumcision is now baptism (a subject for another day). Baptism marks a person’s being included among the followers of Jesus. By this act one is marked as belonging to God, as having been admitted to the community of faith, to the church of the living God. This step is integral to genuine discipleship and cannot be omitted from our understanding of it. We have not fulfilled the call of the commission if we do not lead Christ’s converts to Christ’s church.

Groups operating outside the context of the church do wonderful things, but they cannot fulfill the great commission. Any work that fails to establish as its center the act of discipling converts into the church is not being obedient to the final words of Jesus.

My son’s Marine recruiter hung with him long after my son had signed his commitment papers. I later was told that Marine recruiters don’t get credit for the recruit until he steps onto the yellow footprints at Parris Island. Only then has he fully discipled his charge.

Only then has he fulfilled his commission.

Especially in Nottingham

Some of us live squarely, if unwillingly, in Nottingham. We live where those close to us die in childbirth, where innocent drinks become desperate addictions, where brilliant minds descend into dark caverns of mental illness. We live desperate for hope.

If we pray, there are many paths along which those prayers could be shaped. The path followed by some of the Psalms led to imprecation, prayers wishing ill upon their enemies. Such prayers strike our gentle and sentimental sensibilities as too harsh and ill-fitting to be worn by Christians.That is, until we come face to face with our real enemies. Paul reminds us:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 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. (Ephesians 6:10-12)

We can puzzle over the effective power of the forces of darkness, but we ought never doubt that their efforts are arrayed to harm us. It is against THEM, the agents of death and decay, that we pray. Language that sounds violent and inhumane becomes understandable against such an enemy.

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,
like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.” (Psalm 58:6-11)

Awful words these, yes, but not when aimed at one whose food is the infliction of grief and death and suffering and despair. To pray thus negatively, is to pray this positively:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9, 10)

To the degree God’s will is not yet manifest on earth, we pray that it would be, that our understandable fear would be replaced by the certain hope of the coming kingdom.

We pray harsh words against a bitter enemy, all the while longing for this:

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth! (Psalm 57:11)

Which is to cry out, with John and all the saints,

Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

Such prayers are never lost upon the God who cares.

Especially in Nottingham.

Not in Nottingham

At the heart of Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood is a song penned and sung by Roger Miller (and covered here by Mumford and Sons) which captures the heart’s anguish when life has penned us in with sorrow.

Nottingham was home to the poor people for whom Robin Hood robbed the rich. But even with his heroics, life grew grim. It was unfair.

Every town has its ups and down
Sometime ups outnumber the downs
But not in Nottingham

To escape the despair one might flee, but when the oppression is so deep, the sorrow so profound, even that seems impossible.

I’m inclined to believe
If we weren’t so down
We’d up and leave

Unable or unwilling to escape, an appeal is made for relief, but it meets only silence.

We’d up and fly if we had wings for flyin’
Can’t you see the tears we’re cryin’?
Can’t there be some happiness for me?
Not in Nottingham

Pretty heavy fare for a Disney film.

The sequence over which the song plays is an image of rain falling on a people for whom all hope is lost. It’s an honest prayer of lament asking in despair, “Can’t there be some happiness for me?”

For the many who pray such a prayer, the response, it seems, is never more than the sound of rain on the pavement.

In some ways, it’s a biblical prayer. The psalmist prays in this way:

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me. (Psalm 88:14-16)

There is, the biblical writers knew, a time for weeping and mourning (Ecclesiastes 3:4). And yet they did not shrink back from penning such honest laments because they knew, unlike the poor stricken residents of Nottingham, that there would, as well, be a time of laughing and dancing (also Ecclesiastes 3:4).

“Can’t there be some happiness for me?” Yes, they knew there would be. There is resurrection on the other side of death. And for that we long.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation. (Psalm 42:5)

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