Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

It Still Burns

This candle and it’s holder was purchased by newlyweds in July of 1978.

Finding it in a small shop tucked away off the main street in Gatlinburg, Tennessee they paid $4.25 to light it in their honeymoon suite.

Over the past 40 years, it has traveled through several states roughly tucked in a dresser drawer. It has stood as a sentinel, at times taken for granted and at other times greatly enjoyed. It has met struggle and been placed under stress it was never meant to endure.

But here it is. Forty years later. And it still burns.

By the kindness of God, it still burns.

Give Me Jesus. Please.

“Our seeing then, Lord, will be the vision of you as you are, but this is not granted to us yet.” [Augustine, Confessions]

I am a jockey who for nearly three months has been watching the horses race from the stands. I’ve had a great deal of time to contemplate how I do, or am to do, what I do. That contemplation, which is one of the benefits of sabbatical, is occurring in a world that feels like it is coming undone. It is occurring in a time when people, those who have not written off the value of preachers altogether, are either looking to preachers to tell them how to think or are telling preachers what they must speak.

It is an invigorating and challenging time to be a preacher. I, as most ordinary pastors I know, am a shepherd, not just a preacher. I have sheep I want to guide, people whom I want to help navigate the world’s uncertainty. And as a Christian, I have convictions – political ones that sound like moral ones and moral ones that sound like political ones. I have a strong impulse to give people any biblical guidance I can. As I prepare to return to the pulpit I wonder if I should adjust my preaching to touch more directly upon what people should think about immigration, assault weapons, sexuality, and the like.

But that impulse is tempered by two realities.

First, I’m reminded of the preacher’s calling. Paul’s emphasis is upon the preaching of the cross. In Corinth he resolved to make the cross his primary message (1 Cor 2:2). To the Romans he argued that the hearing of the gospel preached is what would bring faith and consequent reconciliation among people (Rom 10:8-17). His message to the struggling Galatian church was so centered on the cross that John Stott devotes a moving chapter of his book The Cross of Christ to helping us see this. Do 21st century congregations need this message any less? I could argue we need it more.

And though we need it more, we we may find it less. A benefit of sabbatical is that I can visit other churches. As I search for one to attend, I do so as one thirsty and weary and hungry and fearful. I look for a church which will through the preaching and the liturgy bring me to Jesus. I want to hear His voice. I want to know His presence and His comfort. More than ‘want’, I need this. We all do. I’ve had a difficult time finding it.

Considering this sense of calling and need has led me to a certain resolution regarding my own ministry. Yes, I will touch upon the difficult matters of our day when the text upon which I preach demands it. But that will not define my preaching. I have to understand that all who make the effort, the huge and consuming effort, to get up on a Sunday morning to drive to church and then face the trauma of being strangers in a crowded room are, like me, whether they know it or not, in a desperate need to meet and to hear Jesus. They need to hear what He has done for them more than they need to hear what they must do for Him. And it is my calling to make sure, as much as it is in me, that that happens.

I urge my fellow preachers to commit to the same. There are innumerable resources out there for our people to help shape their views on the political issues du jour. There is time for private conversation and classes on those matters. But on Sunday, when I or others come to your church, what we need is Jesus. We need liturgy and word and table linking up in an unbreakable thread to reacquaint us with the savior, with our Lord, with our soul’s desire. These things we can only find in church, and you have the opportunity to shape the service and preaching so that we do.

So, preacher, this is not a small thing for those of us who are sitting before you. We need Jesus. We need a clear, believable, thoughtful, heartfelt, warm, presentation NOT of some position, nor even of some gospel schematic or theological system. We need to see Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. We need to be brought into the presence of the living God and to hear his welcome. In such glory we will find grace, and on the other side of grace we will long to be sent and to do his will.

Please give this to your people. To us. To me.

UPDATE: A good friend has pointed out to me, justifiably, that the original form of this post was unnecessarily critical of churches in the community I inhabit. I own that. I know these churches are seeking to be faithful to bringing the gospel to a troubled world in a way that world can hear what they have to say. All churches face the same challenge, my own included. My positive appeal – to make sure our worship focuses on Jesus – was clouded under what was unnecessarily negative in my own experience. For this I am sorry, but as well grateful for friends who won’t let me get away with such things.

 

Cribbage Love

My wife and I’ve been married 40 years and there are still mysteries to be solved. Like this: a few months ago she went to the store to buy Monopoly so that we could play it with our grandson over Easter. She came home with Monopoly and a cribbage board.

Cribbage?

“Why cribbage?” I asked.

“I don’t know. It looked fun,” she said.

“What a great idea!” I should have said.

Barb read my puzzlement and began to take it personally. But the grandkids were coming and after the grandkids my sabbatical (highlighted by a Mediterranean cruise) was starting, and so we turned our attention elsewhere.

Until the first night of the cruise.

We were somewhere off the coast of Italy. Dinner was over. We returned to our room wondering what this routine away from the church, from family, from home would look like. We had, of course, brought the cribbage set with us still unopened. I figured I had earned some good husband points just tossing it in the suitcase. But I had also lugged along with me my skeptical resistance, thereby negating all such positives. Nevertheless I managed to say, “So, do you want to learn to play cribbage?”

“Sure,” was her not surprising answer.

Cribbage, as some of you may know, is a card game whose points are scored by placing pegs in a board with 121 holes for each player. So we opened our board, shuffled the cards, and laid out the instructions. It was quite a bonding moment for Barb and I to realize that given that these were written by a non-native English speaker and printed in 6-point type, we were in no way going to learn to play cribbage.

Finally, something about cribbage on which we agreed. We put it away and read books.

The next morning over breakfast while the ship was making its way into the Adriatic Sea we noticed among the day’s listed activities a scheduled gathering for those wanting to play cribbage. It was kind of an ‘of all the gin joints’ moment. We decided to slip in and watch people play. Maybe we could figure this out. My skepticism was giving way to the challenge.

In a small room on deck one, far from the maddening crowd, we found a small group gathered at two tables playing this so-far mysterious game. We walked up to one table where two older men were playing and asked if we could watch.

Turns out we were meant to learn this game. The men we asked, a father and a son both named George, had been teaching people to play cribbage for decades. Originally from Chicago where the older George had been the dean of a university they now live in Portland, Oregon. That is the thing about cribbage. It allows for conversation, even among strangers. As we watched, they explained what was happening and why. Then they started a game and let us look over their shoulders and tell them what to do. Finally they started a game and handed the cards to us to finish it. And they left us to play. And we did. Every night.

We played in some places public, as, we found, did others. Between Croatia and Montenegro I spotted a woman and a man playing cribbage near the pizza restaurant where we were eating. I spoke to them about their game, the woman protested that the man, her husband, “is kicking my ass!” We laughed, and in that moment became friends. We ran into them a couple of times after that and asked them for rules clarification which they were delighted to give. We were finding that cribbage aficionados love to evangelize their favorite game.

A couple of days later, we sat down in a tender ready to ride into Santorini. This woman and her husband boarded the same tender and mentioned that if we liked, we could play cribbage with them some day. We exchanged room numbers and the next day, somewhere between Santorini and Naples we met up. For over two hours we talked and played. She was Canadian and he Serbian. They had met and married years before through a dating service and never looked back. One thing they loved to do together was play cribbage. It was delightful.

We are no longer anywhere exotic. Our house sits in an Orlando suburb and sails nowhere, but we’ve continued to play most nights. Cribbage has just the right amount of challenge to make us think, but not so much that we have to focus weary minds on it. And to my wife’s delight, she can beat me.

George, our first teacher, told us that one did not need a cribbage board but that paper, pen, and a deck of cards would be sufficient for a game. When Barb was hospitalized recently, we found that to be true. Pen, paper, a deck of cards, and a hospital bed became a cribbage venue.

When a Twitter friend (there are such things) tweeted, “Hubby and I are looking for ways to laugh and connect at the end of a long day that don’t involve digital entertainment or both reading on our own” I had the answer for her.

Like I said: cribbage aficionados love to evangelize their favorite game.

Goodness and Greatness

When Ulysses S. Grant died in 1885 Mark Twain, had this to say:

“He was a very great man and superlatively good.” (Grant, page 954)

Twain was a cynic unimpressed with power and pretense. He skewered those presuming greatness and mocked those pretending to be good. In Grant Twain saw the greatness others saw, but he saw it rooted in a fundamental goodness of character. Grant was, as Twain noted and his biographer (Ron Chernow) reveals, a fundamentally decent, honest, and principled man. He was human and not perfect, but nevertheless he was superlatively good.

Few will find greatness thrust upon them like Grant. Fewer still will rise to the challenge. But decency is within reach of us all if we but honored it and sought it.

And in the long run, such goodness will be of much greater consequence.

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.

Theodicy and the Cross

Tuesday morning my wife and I read together these words:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1, 2)

In my experience, “How long” questions generally morph into “why” questions and when those who ask them don’t hear an answer from God they often ask their pastor. When asked I would love to answer with words that make the pain disappear. I listen and empathize as a fellow struggler.

That day that began with these questions ended with the terrible news of a friend’s tragic and sudden death.

Kevin Collins was a faithful minister of the Gospel, a servant who had given his life (that part not irretrievably captured by his love for the University of Tennessee!) to Christ and his church. As such he had loved and ministered to me and served and strengthened the church I pastor. His kindness was legendary and his pastoral heart irrepressible. I was shaken by this and was reminded how often death steals from us the things, the people, we love.

Why, God? How long shall our enemy be exalted over us?

Our souls cry out for explanations that satisfy our hearts. We want what theologians call a theodicy, a justification of the ways of God, an explanation of how evil can seem to still exert sway in a world purportedly governed by a loving God. We want a word to satisfy the ache in the heart caused by death.

God, however much we might plead, chooses not to answer all our questions. The scriptures do not exist to assuage our curiosity but to ensure our salvation. What we are told is that in the light of the cross, no matter how great the inexplicable evil around us, there are no grounds for questioning the love of God for us nor his devotion to our welfare. The God whose ways we so often question leaves us no question of his love for us.

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us…. (1 John 3:16)

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

No matter what we face, we need to be once again stunned by the depth of the love of God in the cross.

“We learn from John [1John 3:16, 4:10], then, that although in this world our attention is constantly arrested by the problems of evil and pain, which seem to contradict God’s love, we will be wise not to allow it to be deflected from the cross, where God’s love has been publicly and visibly made manifest.” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ)

God’s love has been revealed to us in a dazzling and objective display of sacrifice. Will he who died for us not care for us in every other way?

We will still not understand the evil we experience. Life will continue to confuse us. Hard things will come. Questions will be asked. We will not get the answers we want. It is then we must look to the cross and know the unwavering love of God for us.

Senator Rubio’s Instructions on Prayer

On Monday Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted

For the senator this was a good political move. It will stir his base and none can argue a prayer for peace. Points all around.

And yet this vexes because it plays into a common misreading of the psalm to which it refers, a misreading which often poisons evangelical political thinking.

The Psalms of Ascent, of which Psalm 122 is one, were hymns of hope sung by Jewish pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for one of Israel’s annual feasts. Jerusalem was their focus because it was where God’s house was.

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!” Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem! (1, 2)

Jerusalem fills the psalmist’s heart not as a piece of real estate or civic entity but as the place where God is. It was a place of worship and a place of justice. It was held in his heart as the place where things are as they are supposed to be.

Jerusalem— built as a city that is bound firmly together, to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD. There thrones for judgment were set, the thrones of the house of David. (3-5)

This is the psalmist’s vision, but it is an idealized vision. He is aware of the city’s inability to effect all he longs for and so his hope is seated in Jerusalem as a symbol of what God will and can do when he dwells among his people, not in the city itself.

The failure of the physical Jerusalem moved Jesus to tears.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37)

Jesus did not weep for the city per se (cities don’t throw stones) but for the people the city represented. The city stood as the symbol of the people among whom God was determined to dwell, the people who bore his covenant promises. And so Jesus spoke of the destruction of the city (which came) and the consequent re-centering of those covenant promises in his church.

The psalmist is making a pilgrimage to a city which would fall under judgment and eventually be destroyed. But the hope his pilgrimage represented would not be touched. It would be relocated.

We all ache to be in that place where God is. The Jerusalem the psalmist longs for and is heading for and longs to be a part of is a society in which worship is unfettered, where judgment is rich with justice and mercy, and where God’s people are one. We long for the garden, for that deep impulse to be in naked fellowship with our God and with one another, and it is a longing that will be fulfilled. But it will be fulfilled by a city God brings from above, not one that is built on earth.

In the meantime, the hope and the prayers encouraged by this psalm are not for the protection of the residents and political stability of a city in Israel, appropriate though such prayers might be. The prayer this psalm encourages is for the peace of that people and that place where God’s worship is now centered, and where now God’s purposes of justice and unity are now worked out. To pray for the peace of Jerusalem is to pray for the stability, purity, and prosperity of the church.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that this is not what Sen. Rubio had in mind.

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