Sunday, June 17, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

© Copyright, Silverside Church 2007

The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor

June 17, 2007

(Ninth sermon in series, “From Rap to Rachmaninoff: God in Twelve Musical Styles”)


I don’t know how many true non-conformists there are in the world. What I do notice are people who are uncomfortable with the ways the majority of people in a society live and who, thus, pull away or stand out in some kind of way. Yet, what typically happens is that they surround themselves with others who are not conforming in the ways they too decided to avoid. I’m sure you see what I mean.
Just think of how few solitary nudists there are in the world. Where’s the fun in being nude all alone? Thus, nudist colonies form.
Challenging the status quo can be lonely and painful. Most of us are not terribly comfortable with those who refuse to conform to societal norms to the degree we do. And, yet, but for nonconformists nothing would ever have changed. The only religious movements in the world would be polytheistic, and there would never have been an ounce of scientific progress; nor would there be, in all probability, this interesting approach to governance that we call “democracy.”
Marketers around the world use as a foundation for their success, the desire—sometimes the need—any number of people have to conform, to be like someone else, especially if the someone else is rich and/or famous.

o If a renowned, aging movie star uses Depends, they must be good for me too!
o If Brittany Spears shaves her head, young ladies who revere her want to conform by shaving their heads as well.
o If everyone, to hear the announcer tell it, is clamoring to get high definition television, something must be wrong with me if I don’t have it.
o If I decide to color my hair, I can’t just use any coloring agent. Valuing myself, as I deserve to, I have to use Preference by Loreal because I’m worth it. Everyone who loves herself or himself uses Loreal, and nonconformists who don’t are blatantly telling the world that they lack self-esteem.

Students in junior high and high school who don’t fit in with the mainstream group—for whatever reason, any little reason—find support and courage hanging with other misfits like themselves, however small the group. Sometimes the alienation the nonconforming students feel grows into anger and resentment, and we end up with a Columbine tragedy.
When I was in high school, I didn’t have any trouble fitting in with the most popular kids as long as I understood that I was being included because I had a brain and because I was responsible enough to keep student council and the yearbook and such things as that up and running. The automatically popular guys in my school were the athletes; they could be dumb (most were not by any means) and lack people skills entirely, and at the Halls High School in Halls Crossroads, popularity was still guaranteed. To be male and not participating in any sport at all was absolutely nonconformist. People like me could travel in the circles of the more popular kids only by exception. As long as I understood the rules, things worked out nicely.
By the time I was a rising senior, I’d about forgotten the basis for my inclusion in the popular students’ circle. I was going into my senior year as president of the student council and editor of the yearbook. I fancied myself as “in” as “in” could be, and then the critical time came for the election of what we called “senior superlatives.” You know, most talented, most humorous, and all that stuff. I imagined that I might have a shot at “Mr. Halls High” or, at least, “Most Likely to Succeed.” But, OH NO. Was I ever deluded. I sat in my homeroom listening to the announcements the morning the election results were announced, and I cringed when I heard this: “Vickie Bridges, Nancy Coker, and David Farmer: MOST DEPENDABLE.” Oh no! Any one but that one! The word, “geek, “ so far as I know, hadn’t yet been born. “Greaser” was its precursor. Why didn’t they just say it? “David Farmer, Nancy Coker, and Vickie Bridges: GREASERS!!!”
Our musical form today is Rock, and our song today is “Anticonformity” by Krystal Meyers. Let’s listen to it.

[audio clip]

Junior high and high school are rugged places to be nonconformists. Many kids would do about anything to avoid being nonconformists, but there are times when others make that choice for you. You’re simply left out of the mainstream and forced to find your friends elsewhere. What sensitive parent has not felt the angst of her or his child struggling to fit in by wearing the right clothing or hoping to get invited to the right parties and such? And what wise parent has not had to say, one or more times, “There’s only so much fitting in you can do. If drinking and drugs are involved, you’ll just have to NOT fit in.” Or, as my late father, used to say with his quintessential diplomacy showing through, “If you ever come home with alcohol on your breath, I will be you’re a _ _ so hard you won’t be able to sit down easy for a month.” I never, ever came home with alcohol on my breath. Nor did I even sip it anywhere away from home. I didn’t start having an occasional drink until I was a Southern Baptist missionary to Switzerland, and my European Baptist students and colleagues at the seminary taught me how to drink like Jesus.
The no drinking warning from my Dad worked so well on me that I thought such fear-of-God threats must work across the board. So, once when I thought my older son was about to get out of hand—he must have been in the second or third grade—I told him if he didn’t straighten up, I’d beat his rear so hard he wouldn’t be able to sit, etc. etc. Well, friends, times had changed. He said, “Un, no you won’t, and if you even mention it again, I’ll call 9-1-1.”
I asked, “What in the world are you talking about?”
He explained, with a complete absence of fear, “We had a program on child abuse at school today. And if anybody, even a parent, threatens to hurt me in any way, I have the right to call 9-1-1 for protection.”
Well, I lost that round, needless to say. And I had to find other tools of discipline, which—in the long run—was good. But I was angry enough to pop that day. All I could do, though, was walk away while he smirked, and Jarrett loved that gloating moment! If I were going to be able to encourage him to stay away from inappropriate behaviors just to conform I’d have to find other approaches! (Incidentally, I succeeded, and he became a part of the “Goth” splinter group that was much more involved with behaviors that concerned me than the mainstream, “popular” group was. Fatherhood!)


A political non-conformist might do well enough all alone somewhere, but if she or he wishes to challenge the status quo and effect political change, like-minded non-conformists must join together for the sake of impact and influence. Same thing with a religious nonconformist. In our democracy, there is separation of church and state—well, at least, there’s supposed to be; there used to be. It should be proper to discuss nonconformity in these two realms in completely different contexts; however, in those cultures where there is no legal or other provision for the separation of church and state, this is not the case. In those societies, to be politically nonconforming is, of necessity, to be religiously nonconforming. Now, hold that thought for a minute, and we’ll come back to it.
I hope you read our newsletter from cover to cover. Bill Linn puts tons of time into completing it for us every month, and everything in it is worthwhile. If you read this month’s edition of “Inside Silverside,” you saw that we as a congregation are in possession of a replica of the chair illustrated in John Bunyan’s pivotal work, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
This chair was brought from England and presented to the congregation in 1897 or 1898 by Thomas F. Bayard Sr., first United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, which is the court of the British sovereign. Queen Victoria was the monarch when Bayard served and made this presentation to our church.
Bunyan is an ideal person to bring up today because he was a religious nonconformist who suffered considerably for refusing to conform to the legalized religious standards of England. Bunyan’s allegorical novel was initially published in 1678. He wrote the first release of the book in 1675 while he was in prison for having violated what was called the Conventicle Act. The Conventicle Act prohibited more than five people (unless all were family members of one household) from holding any religious services except under the auspices of the Church of England, which among other things meant the necessary use of the Book of Common Prayer. Penalties for infractions ranged from fines to imprisonment, and upon a third offense a person could be forced to leave the country. Charles II was King of England at the time, and while his Roman Catholic leanings motivated his own efforts at religious toleration for non-Anglicans, the Anglicans were clearly in the control of the country.
Bunyan was a Baptist preacher who didn’t believe that he should be spiritually bound to any state church. The law of land, though King Charles himself might have been tolerant of Bunyan, required that Bunyan be imprisoned.
In the year 1675, Baptists had only been in the world sixty-three or sixty-four years. The first Baptist church known in history can be traced to Spitalfields in the east end of London; founded in 1611 or 1612 during the reign of King James I of England. Baptists appear on the world scene just as the King James Version of the Bible is first published.
Baptists spoke out against the lack of separation of church and state. They spoke out against any persecution or harassment of any kind by a government trying to homogenize religious doctrine and practice. They spoke out for freedom of conscience and the right of an individual to interpret scripture for himself or herself without the involvement of any intermediary, priest or prelate.
Baptist groups today, or I should say “groups today who call themselves Baptist,” shame the first Baptists—John Smyth and Thomas Helwys and a handful of others. Those of us raised in traditions that taught us true Baptist principles have heavy hearts about where Baptist groups have, for the most part, ended up in modern times. And the negative connotations that now go along with the word “Baptist” in the hearing of most folks who assume that all Baptists are and always have been of the same ilk grieve those of us who understand where Baptists came from and what they have accomplished for the good across the years.
Bunyan was a nonconformist who was imprisoned simply for speaking his conscience to more than five people and refusing to use the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to set the parameters of his gatherings. He would not let the government keep him from honoring his own convictions.
In the United States today, both dominant Baptist groups, the huge Southern Baptist Convention and the not-so-huge American Baptist Churches/USA have, in their histories, brought great credit to the principles for which many of the early Baptists suffered, some to the death. We have been left with the awful need to come near dissociating ourselves from most things Baptist today because both of these Baptist groups have been shooting themselves in the feet when it comes to honoring the principles that made the first Baptists Baptist.
This congregation has an tangential affiliation with the American Baptist Churches/USA, which is the denominational group most directly descended from the first Baptists in North America, going all the way back to Roger Williams himself who came to this country as a Baptist and then decided not to remain affiliated with any organized religious group; he stopped calling himself a Baptist after a time here in this country, and instead he identified himself as a seeker.
Nonetheless, Williams was a staunch proponent of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state not to mention an advocate for the rights of Indigenous Americans. And Baptists could proudly claim him in their number for a time.
The people who call themselves Southern Baptists have not honored for some long time the right of individuals under God to interpret scripture for themselves. They have tried to take their religious movement back to pre-Protestant-Reformation times in that regard. And, until very recently, the Southern Baptist Convention of the last quarter century hasn’t honored or desired true separation of church and state. Finally, some few in their number are raising concern about the ways Southern Baptist leaders have openly identified themselves with conservative Republicans.
The American Baptist Churches/USA had for a much longer time and in more consistent ways honored the concerns of the original Baptists, concerns that any of us would share. Sadly, in recent years, this Baptist body is splintering as more and more American Baptists want to openly dishonor the principle of the autonomy of each local congregation. In addition to a desire by some conservative American Baptists to want to creedalize certain doctrinal beliefs to which all Baptists should be held, there has also been a move by some of these same conservative American Baptists to condemn gays and lesbians and in particular gay/lesbian clergy as well as churches who minister to gay and lesbian Baptists.
Those of us who are proud of the Baptist heritage in which we were nurtured and who still see ourselves as Baptists properly interpreted, are now torn apart because most Baptists today seem to want to be conformists who require conformity rather than nonconformists who encourage each person to seek God’s truths for herself or himself. That also leaves our congregation in a very difficult place as most of our members have never had any positive association with any Baptist group and who, therefore, have no positive experience with Baptists in times gone by that offsets the unacceptable ways many Baptists today are behaving.
The bottom line is this, though, if diversity is not welcomed and if any person or group believes that she or he or it can establish a doctrinal position to which all must be bound, there is nothing Baptist going on. And the only truly Baptist organizations aside from a handful of local congregations may in our memories.


“Stop being conformed to this world,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “but let yourselves be transformed by the metamorphosis of your minds so that you may discern God’s will—what is good, beautiful and perfect” (Rom 12:2 preacher’s paraphrase). This is a very searching verse, and, by the way, the last word in the sentence, the word translated “perfect” by the New Revised Standard translators, should, in all likelihood, have been rendered “mature.” Paul connects the will of God to what is good, beautiful, and mature.
For starters in understanding what Paul intended here, we have to be careful to understand what Paul meant by “this world,” especially since Paul did not think improper conforming politically to the demands of the Roman Empire, to which most Christians in his day were subservient. In fact, Paul made the audacious and not-well-thought-through claim in the thirteenth chapter of the book of Romans that no government or government leader was in power unless God Godself had willed it. The world might be a much more stable and kind place if, indeed, all leaders were in place by God’s will or design. In any case, let me not chase that alluring rabbit today and save that for another sermon.
Someone has said,

A worldly lifestyle, seeking pleasure, wealth, fame, and
material comforts, will inevitably distract one from pursuing any spiritual purpose. Hence the aspirant must separate himself from the world or maintain some detachment from it. Separation from the world can be achieved either by physical isolation in a monastic community or by living an outwardly ordinary life yet without attachment to its prevailing values.

Don’t be conformed to this world, in other words, but, instead, for God’s sake be a nonconformist. And the way to begin being a nonconformist is to allow the spirit of God, that presence of God within you, to renew your mind. What we think, IF we think, has everything in the world to do with how we’re going to act.
There is a saying in Taoism:

The sage patterns himself on Heaven, prizes the Truth, and does not allow himself to be cramped by the vulgar. The stupid man does the opposite of this. He is unable to pattern himself on Heaven and instead frets over
human concerns. He does not know enough to prize the Truth but instead, plodding along with the crowd, he allows himself to be changed by vulgar ways, and so is never content.

Paul has nothing abstract in mind when he’s speaking of reacting against the pressures of the world; he has some kind of action in mind, but, from all indications, it doesn’t have to do with bucking the political structures of his day. I must add that Paul had no need to want to challenge Rome. He was, by an interesting turn of events, a Roman citizen himself even though a Jew.
Furthermore, the Roman emperor at the time, Nero, had no problems with Christians YET, broadly speaking, as long as they refrained from revolting or trying to stir things up as Jesus of Nazareth had done. Nero’s toleration of Christians, however, wouldn’t even endure to the end of Paul’s life, and in fact it is probable that Nero ordered Paul’s execution. Religion under government control can never work unless the government truly takes a hands-off approach to managing all aspects of religious expression. That has rarely happened. Separation of church and state, and temple and state, and mosque and state is the only workable approach.
Australian theologian, William Loader, interprets Paul’s concerns in this way:

Paul never saw being a Christian as a life membership on a roll somewhere. It was always entry into a relationship and growth in that relationship. Paul is always thinking about what shapes people's lives. It is another way of speaking of one's god. In his day--and certainly in ours--there are many people who count themselves as Christian, but are shaped by the prevailing values of those around them in a way that undoes anything that [Jesus] might have wanted in their lives. They reflect particular national, political or social values, sometimes not even knowing they stand under such influence. They can even call some of these values “Christian.” But there is no engagement with what is at the heart of [Jesus’] message.

Even in a democracy, there is tremendous pressure to conform in certain key ways. The proper expressions of patriotism are prescribed. If you’re a patriot, you must never question the perspective or the demands of a president who prays every day. And if your sense of God’s will for you is to speak out against war, there are those who will ostracize you and call you un-American and un-Christian.
Within religious institutions and structures, there are those who are more than ready to tell you how to think and how to live if you want to be in good with God. And, yet, old Paul, who understood firsthand the realities of both societal and spiritual conformity as well as societal and spiritual nonconformity, comes down on the side of nonconformity—and not for the sake of nonconformity. At some level, Paul understood that God couldn’t be contained by any of the buildings or organizations or creeds we build for God expecting God to live in them.
Any structure or dogma established for the purpose of restricting or limiting God will crumble in the end because God cannot be fenced in. And people who are willing to live by the lure and leadership of God within themselves will typically look like oddballs and misfits and not like the status quo keepers. If we always find ourselves on the side of the majority, and if we’ve trained ourselves never to pay attention when God within us presses us to buck the system, never to see or speak out against the wrong we know exists, never to call injustice what it is, never to demand institutional renewal, never to acknowledge that we ourselves need to be rekindled, then Paul’s words to the Romans fall today on deaf ears.
Be a nonconformist in this world based on a transformation that grows out of a metamorphosis of your thinking so that you yourself may discern what God’s will is—what is good and beautiful and mature.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

© Copyright, Silverside Church 2007

The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor

June 10, 2007

A Lot of Vegetables and a Fiery Furnace
(Eighth sermon in series, “From Rap to Rachmaninoff: God in Twelve Musical Styles”)


The writer of the biblical book of Daniel gives explicit details about the stories he is telling so we know that the time period to which he refers is 606 or 605 years before the beginning of the Common Era. Jehoiakim is King of Judah, which reminds us that the once-united monarchy presumably joining the whole of Israel, all the twelve tribes, had by this time been divided and part of it already conquered by foreign forces.

The northern kingdom was called "Israel," and the southern kingdom was called "Judah." Jehoiakim ruled over Judah, the southern kingdom. The northern kingdom, Israel, had already been crushed by the Assyrians more than a hundred years before the incident on which we now focus.

The writer of Daniel wants us to know that God was displeased with Jehoiakim and Judah and that, in his view--in the writer's view--this invasion of Judah by the Babylonian Empire was with either arranged by God; or, if not arranged for, at least allowed by God. This would have been the widely-held perspective of most of the Judeans at the time and, interestingly enough, the very same providentialist perspective that many persons of faith hold to this very day.

It is also the perspective held by many people who don’t consider themselves “religious,” but who have a general sense of the reality of God and God’s work in the world. The other evening at the college, following an introductory lecture I gave on St. Augustine of Hippo, I asked my students to reflect on Augustine’s perspective on absolute predestination—the idea that everything good and bad in someone’s life has been determined by God long before that individual is even born. I suspect that Augustine made a tiny bit of room for someone to determine her or his own destiny, but if so it was only in a context of what had been primarily predestined.

Many of them held what I would call a secular version of human destiny that very closely paralleled Augustine’s theological views. What the students said were things like: “What will be will be”; and, “Everything happens for a reason.” I asked them what the reasons for 9/11 or the Holocaust were. Even the most articulate among them had no answer because they’ve been programmed to think and say such things without giving any thought to the implications of what such statements imply about God.
The writer of the book of Daniel told her or his readers that Babylonian forces under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah and prevailed because of God’s will. Those of you who know me, know that I don't believe God either wills war or takes sides in wars. From our human perspective, some wars may be necessary because of the ways we have built conflict and hatred into the tapestry of human community, but how can God take sides when God's children are killing each other off?

In any case, my perspective on war was not shared by the writer of the book of Daniel, and King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was God's choice for a winner. More about this fascinating ancient ruler later, but for now I want you to notice that one of his first orders was that some young men from Judah's royal and noble families be taken from their families to be raised as royal Babylonians in a way very similar to the way Hebrew Moses had been raised in the Egyptian pharaoh's palace as an Egyptian prince in every sense of the word.

We know that those young men tapped for Nebuchadnezzar's program were old enough to have some life experience and some of their personal traits already established. I imagine that they were young teens, but they may have been young adults. The specifications for those brought into the program--and remember that this was entirely against the wills of these Judeans who wanted nothing to do with the enemy--was that they be handsome, without physical defect (which I take to mean no physical handicap), already well-educated with a fine education that only the wealthiest of families could have afforded, and fully responsive to those educational opportunities. Nebuchadnezzar wanted young men who were the cream of the Judean crop physically and intellectually.

No bones about it. They were being groomed to serve long-term in Nebuchadnezzar's palace. They were to be taught Babylonian language and literature for three years during which time they were to feast on the royal foods and wines.

The writer doesn't tell us how many young men were taken from their families for this program--if families were even left in tact during the invasion into their homeland. But, for some reason, he singles out four of them for his readers. Maybe we learn their names early because they are going to be misfits: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.

To give you some idea about the nature of this Babylonian immersion program, once in custody, if you will, the program director immediately changes their names--from Judean names to Babylonian names. Names were so very important in ancient Jewish culture; this was a supreme insult to the young men, to their parents who had named them, and to the Jewish people as a whole. Their new names were chosen by the program director: "Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego." Some kid I heard about while I was growing up never could get the last guy's name correct. "Abednego" just didn't register with him, and instead of hearing "Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego" when the story was told, he kept hearing: "Shadrach, Meshach, and to bed we go."
You may know that when the Native American children were stolen from their families and forced to go to the so-called "Indian schools," such as the one right up here in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, their names, too, were changed. Neither were they allowed to speak their tribal languages and dialects or to wear tribal attire. Even their long hair, a source of pride to most females and males regardless of tribal affiliation, was cut off.

Well, you get the picture. These young men were to be treated royally in every way--as long as they cooperated, and cooperation meant a willingness for each one essentially to forget his past.

You experienced readers and hearers of well-told stories know the storyteller is setting up a critical plot issue, right? Absoloutely!


Daniel seems to be the chief among troublemakers, or at least the spokesperson for them. He asks the program director for an alternative diet. Can you imagine! The finest foods and wines available in the world were being rejected for a vegetarian diet with water.

The program director was honest with Daniel; he said he was way too afraid to run the risk of angering Nebuchadnezzar. He simply couldn't allow any variations in the prescribed diet for any of the young men.

Daniel understood that and proposed a temporary test. He asked the program director to allow him and his three buddies to eat the vegetarian diet option with no wine for ten days. Daniel promised that if they weren't visibly stronger and healthier than the ones eating all the meat and drinking all the wine, they would change the ways they had eaten in the past and go along with the established program.

The program director figured nothing would be lost with that deal so he granted permission for the four men to have their vegetarian diet. They were clearly stronger and healthier at the end of the trial period and were, thus, allowed to continue.

At the end of the three-year Babylonian submerge curriculum, these same four men were the stars, and the proud program manager took them before the king. They were brilliant, and, in addition to their book learning, Daniel had an extra gift that would serve him well. That's the subject for another sermon.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were immediately given significant positions in the king's inner circle of advisors, and the word was that they were much more gifted and reliable than were the Babylonian pros who had served the king for years.
Another set up, right? What established national wants to be shown up by a new kid on the block--especially if that new kid is a foreigner!?! Their success would come back to haunt them, sad to say.

The story really turns, to a large degree, on the villain of the story—even though he will have a few good traits that the writer will end up not being able to ignore. I’m talking about King Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of the Babylonian Empire that had attacked Judah. But who is a hero and who is a villain has everything to do with perspective, doesn’t it? I mean, even Saddam Hussein was regarded by many people, even within his own country, as a great leader and a true hero. Such supporters heavily mourned his death.

Speaking of Iraq, the ancient city of Babylon—capital city of the Babylonian Empire—lay about 80 kilometers south of modern Iraq’s capital city, Baghdad. While Nebuchadnezzar was in power, Babylon became the largest city in the world. Many modern Iraqis awe Nebuchadnezzar and hold him up as one of the greatest leaders in history. Somewhere along the way, Saddam Hussein had begun to think of himself as a modern Nebuchadnezzar—the head of an empire of Arabs more powerful than anyone but he himself could have imagined.

Well, whether or not you think Nebuchadnezzar was a great leader or not, he did have some problems with sanity for a sizeable chunk of his reign. While you may think that many of the most noted of super-power leaders in history had problems holding onto sanity, Nebuchadnezzar’s pathology was extreme. It has attracted the attention of psychiatrists and psychologists across the years.

Other than an unquenchable thirst for power, which most noted leaders had and have, the Babylonian King suffered from a remarkable disorder. The exact nature of the illness is unclear, but the general disorder can be called Zoanthropia, a syndrome causing human beings to act like animals; and I’m not talking about Saturday nights in Newark!

According to the book of Daniel, though God had used Nebuchadnezzar to cut rebellious Judah down to size, God began to be displeased with the king’s demeanor. It seems that the powerful king became enamored with his own power and accomplishments; of course, that has never happened since then! And God decides to cut the king down to size. God inflicts this mental illness upon Nebuchadnezzar. And, my dear friends, if you believe God uses illness to punish people, you have no understanding whatsoever of the God about whom Jesus taught.

While boasting of his great achievements, the book of Daniel tells us that God strikes him with mental illness that gripped him for seven years after which time his sanity was restored because he finally came to see the truth about the God of the Judeans. The biblical writer describes this disorder in a bit of detail so the Zoanthropia might be too general of a diagnosis. Some believe that the king was plagued with boanthropy, in which case he would have taken on the habits of oxen, or lycanthropy, in which case he took on the lifestyle of wolves. Neither fits completely with the description the biblical writer gives us:

At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, and the king said, “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” While the words were still in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven: “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: The kingdom has departed from you! You shall be driven away from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the animals of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen, and seven times shall pass over you, until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals and gives it to whom he will.” Immediately the sentence was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven away from human society, ate grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws (Daniel 4:29-33 NRSV).

It is very interesting that secular historians tell us there is a conspicuous absence of any acts or decrees by Nebuchadnezzar from the years 582-575 BCE. At the end of this horrifying episode, Nebuchadnezzar comes to his senses, as it were, and affirms that all power is really God’s power, and all victories God’s victories. His testimony of realization is quite moving except for the frightening providentialism suggested in it:

When that period was over, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored the one who lives forever. For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does what he wills with the host of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. There is no one who can stay his hand or say to him, “What are you doing?” (Dan 4:34-35 NRSV).


Now, well before Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity episode, he had done something displeasing to God also connected in some obvious ways to his unbridled arrogance. Remember that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were in power in Babylon now and that some Babylonians were displaced by their appointments. The comparison isn’t exact by any means, but try to imagine how some of President Bush’s political appointees would feel if they were suddenly replaced by barely-legal immigrants. We know good and well that the unseated officials would be watching like hawks for opportunities to criticize their replacements.

Nebuchadnezzar was so taken with himself that he just couldn’t avoid the temptation to have erected a huge image of himself. The arrogance of certain leaders is hard to absorb. He calls together all the cabinet officials, members of Congress, the Senators, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Supreme Court Justices. Once everybody was in place, the royal herald made this announcement:

You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.

This was serious stuff. Either fall down and worship the statue when you hear the music, or burn in a fiery furnace. And, then, just to prove he meant business, as soon as the announcement was made, the music started playing. A score of the ancient song has actually survived, and we know the tune today as “Hail to the Chief.”

Well, Nebuchadnezzar was so pleased with himself and was just soaking up all that glory when some people approached him. The text says they were “certain Chaldeans,” certain Babylonians. I can’t help but believe that they were the former cabinet officials who had been displaced by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The text says that “these people,” whoever they were, came to the king and “denounced the Jews.” Racial tensions ran high, especially on the parts of those people who lost their jobs to the non-Babylonians.

Sociologists tell us that one of the major components of racial hatred and tension today is the fear many people have that foreigners will come and take their jobs—or in the case of so-called “outsourcing,” they don’t even have to come in to take jobs away. The jobs are delivered to the foreigners. However, such irrationality has to be checked. If we want to be angry with someone for giving jobs away, it should be directed toward CEO’s who make these decisions. No foreigner came in and forcibly took someone’s job. The jobs were given away by greedy American corporations. No need to be angry at the people in other countries who simply took the jobs that were offered to them.

Anyway, you know where this is going. The disgruntled, racist Babylonians said, “Those three Jews to whom you gave leadership positions in beloved Babylon were the very ones who stood straight and tall while the rest of us fell down on our faces before your statue.” (By the way, we have no idea where Daniel was during this incident because surely he would not have fallen down before the statue either so maybe he was away on official business.)

The king called them in and said, “After all I’ve done for you, after all I’ve given you, after all the adjustments I’ve made to make a place for you in the highest levels of my government…and this is the thanks I get? You neither honor my gods, nor me? I’m deeply hurt and shocked at the thanks I get. Please tell me that this is nothing more than a misunderstanding. You know, young men, that you are not above the punishment I have established for anyone and everyone who refuses to do what I have commanded.”

The response of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is, for me, soul-stirring:

O, Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O King, let God deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O King, that we will not serve your gods, and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.

Now, let me tell you why I admire this response so much. It doesn’t make promises for God. It is not set up as a test of either God’s power or of God’s love. It is a simple, straightforward statement that if they survive the furnace, they will praise God for the deliverance. If they don’t, however, they will not blame God for what they have to endure.

I think this is a real model for us because God is not responsible for the bad things that come to us. God doesn’t will them, and we lose energy—not to mention perspective—when we try to hold God accountable for our misfortunes.

This is a good place for us to listen to our Reggae song for the day. Reggae music is a musical style developed in Jamaica, especially Kingston, in the late 1960’s. The beat is distinctive, and the recurring themes are faith, love, relationships, poverty, and injustice. The song we will hear now is entitled, interestingly enough, “Abednego,” and it is sung by the Abyssinians.

[audio clip]

OK, so angry Nebuchadnezzar had the fires in his execution furnace stoked up to temperatures seven times hotter than usual. He had the three Jewish advisors thrown into the fiery furnace. Our song today kept stressing that they had no fear. The heat killed some of the guards who threw them into; but not a hair was singed on their Jewish heads. The word was, they didn’t even smell like smoke when they were retrieved from the furnace.

Nebuchadnezzar truly changed his tune during this episode. Of course, he was amazed that they lived. He also believed he saw a fourth man in the fire with them; that was another point stressed in our Reggae song: “…there were three, no there were four men in the fire….” Nebuchadnezzar took this man to be an angel, a messenger sent from the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to protect them from the fiery furnace.

When brought back before the Babylonian King, he could hardly speak, but one thing was clear: he affirmed their God. It was just a first step for him, and there was much he didn’t understand; obviously, there would be more mistakes he would make, but he was amazed and awed.

This isn’t a factual story in all its parts, of course, but it’s a beautifully told legend, I’d say. A legend is a tall tale based on some legitimate historical facts. It was crafted to inspire faith in the God of the subjugated people, the God of the minority, the God of the oppressed, the God of those who seemed hopeless. The religion of the power people isn’t always either right or real. The story presses up to keep that in mind, and it also drives us to ask ourselves this question: how far are we willing to go take a stand for the God whom we serve and the principles by which that God calls us to live?


Sunday, June 03, 2007

Joyful Noises


“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth” ((Psa 100:1a NRSV). I believe that this literally says something like: “Shout to Yahweh all the earth….” The passage continues with other imperatives: “Serve Yahweh with joy. Come before God with singing [or possibly, with exultation].” The content of the shouting is informed by what follows: shout joyfully, shout with exultation. Combined, these thoughts result in the translation option: make a joyful noise to the Lord all the earth.

When I was growing up at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads, this verse was used as motivation to encourage people to sing who couldn’t. “It doesn’t matter if you can sing on pitch or not; just make a joyful noise to the Lord,” the Minister of Music would say. Of course, he wouldn’t say that to the choir, but he would often say it to the congregation as a whole knowing those who could sing would usually drown out those who couldn’t. And sometimes the congregation would sing with such gusto that those who couldn’t sing failed to hear how bad they really were; sometimes, they’d even think they were making beautiful sounds.

I can’t help thinking of the episode from the “Andy Griffith Show” that originally showed in February of 1962 entitled, “Barney Joins the Choir.” It turns out that the director of the Mayberry Community Choir was in need of a first tenor—not just for strong ensemble singing, but also for a key solo in the Choir’s upcoming concert. Choirs being in need of tenors isn’t exactly a new or unique problem. The reason there was a sudden need for a tenor escapes me, but it runs in my mind that there had been a tenor in place who took ill at the last minute.

Anyway, Mayberry’s diligent deputy, Barney Fife, volunteers for the job. The choir director knew nothing about Barney’s musical skills—or lack thereof—so he was thrilled with Barney’s offer. Beware of musicians who volunteer too readily or too forcefully for solo opportunities! There really are people who think they can sing beautifully, and they can’t sing at all; if this weren’t the case, the ridiculous hit show, “American Idol,” wouldn’t have millions of faithful worshipers.

The show was still kind of new, and Barney’s character still developing. I had just had my eighth birthday about a week before this show aired so I surely wasn’t doing any critical character critique; I just knew it was a funny show, and Barney made me laugh.

We viewers knew there was a problem, though, when Barney’s girlfriend, Thelma Lou, played by Betty Lynn, entered into conversation with Andy Griffith’s character, Sheriff Taylor. It went something like this (and, no, I didn’t remember it from my initial viewing; I had to pick up the dialogue well enough to repeat by watching many re-runs across the years!):

Thelma Lou asks Andy: “Barney’s going to be in the choir? My Barney?”

Andy answers: “That’s right.”

Thelma Lou: “But Barney can’t sing!”

Andy agrees: “I know.”

Thelma Lou goes on: “He’s a warm and wonderful person, and I love him dearly. But he can’t sing!”

Andy agrees again: “That’s true.”

Thelma Lou can’t stop: “He’s kind, considerate, good-hearted—the most gentle person I’ve ever known, but he can’t sing.”

Andy nods: “You’re right.”

Thelma Lou: “He’s the man I want to marry.”

Andy interrupts: “But he can’t sing!”

Thelma Lou: “Not a lick!”

Sure enough, at the next rehearsal, when Barney belts out his solo part, it’s awful. It’s beyond embarrassing to everyone but Barney who thinks he sounds great. And even though everyone agrees that he may be the worst wannabe singer in Mayberry, no one has the heart to tell him he can’t perform. Don Knotts plays the part to perfection.

As usual, Andy comes to the rescue with a plan to allow Barney to save face. They tell Barney he has to sing very, very quietly into a supersensitive microphone. Barney is barely whispering, and the microphone is turned off at that. A very fine singer is lined up to sing the solo from a hidden microphone off stage somewhere, and his is the voice everyone hears even though everyone in the audience along with Barney believe that Barney is singing so wonderfully. His face lights up like you wouldn’t believe when he hears the masterful singing voice that he believes is his. We all need a friend like Andy.

Back to “joyful noises” in Psalm 100.

The setting for most or all of the psalms is corporate worship in ancient Israel. They were songs that were sung--some parts by the whole congregation, some parts as solos, and some parts antiphonally. The crowd would have been like an ancient in-door Billy Graham crusade!

Written over a period of 600 or so years, some of the psalms date back to use for worship in the First Temple, Solomon’s Temple, 950 years before the birth of Jesus. Others must have been written and used after the destruction of that great architectural masterpiece--maybe even by some writers in exile-from-Jerusalem who only remembered or who had only heard about the grandeur of worship in the Temple.

When the Temple was full of faithful Jews gathered to praise God, it must have seemed as if the whole of humanity was gathered. What a lift for participants!

When all the people were gathered for worship in one place, it likely took place in the Temple’s “Court of Women.” Joan Branham, in her article from this April’s “Harvard Divinity Bulletin,” explains:

As Jewish men and women moved away from the periphery of the Temple and toward the core of the building complex, they entered the Court of the Women, where Jewish men and women worshiped together, especially during the major Jewish festivals three times a year. Despite its name, then, the Court of the Women was not gender specific. It did represent, however, the ultimate spatial limit of women’s participation in sacred ritual, a point beyond which women were not permitted to advance. Only Jewish men could proceed from this courtyard into the Court of the Israelites, and only a select caste of priests could move past another low barrier and approach the altar located in the Court of the Priests. Here, gallons of blood were spilled daily in sacred, sacrificial ritual. The ultimate spatial goal of the Jerusalem Temple, the Holy of Holies—the very residing place of God—lay in an enclosed space out of bounds to everyone, save the High Priest one day a year.

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!” The people--the women and the men--were singing this psalm as if they were singing out to the whole earth: the humans, the creatures, and the created order itself. They were corporately calling out to all beings and things created by God to join them in making joyful noises to their Creator. The very sound, let alone the stirring challenge, must have left no one in the singing community or within earshot passive about the medium or the message. Who could say, “No”? Who could say, “I don’t care”? Who could say, “It doesn’t matter”? When that many people are singing joyfully, we have to sit up and take notice whether or not we happen to agree with what they are saying or the reason they have gathered.

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!” Shall we join them?


Gospel Music evolved along racial lines. The first hints of what today is called Gospel Music came out of predominantly African American churches during the first twenty-five years of the previous century. At the same time, some other seeds for what we call Gospel today were being sown by predominantly Caucasian southerners.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the first Gospel Music “star.” Her songs were big on the pop charts from the late 1930’s through the 1940’s. She was a songwriter, singer, and guitarist. Tens of thousands of fans were buying her music and coming to her performances at the peak of her popularity--when she was thought by most to be a strictly “religious” singer. When she began to perform in settings that were regarded by many as “secular,” she lost some of her fan base, but the truth is--except for the famous and beloved Gospel Music artist, Mahalia Jackson--most of the so-called Gospel Music greats sang both “secular” and “religious music.” Think for example of Al Green and the Blackwood Brothers.

There are many strands of Gospel Music today. There is still the predominantly Black Gospel genre; we’re going to hear a little bit of that in a few minutes. There is so-called Contemporary Gospel, and I would put much of the music of one of my favorite vocalists ever in this category; her name is Cynthia Clawson. Finally, what many worshipping communities now refer to as “Praise and Worship” music is a type of Gospel Music. “Praise and Worship” music has been dubbed by some critics as “warm up the crowd music.” Most of the music sung in the mega churches and in churches that advertise “contemporary” worship service options fall into this category.

Gospel Music has been a primarily American phenomenon, but that is not to say it has been ignored outside the United States. Interestingly enough, Gospel Music is a pretty big deal in Australia; one of that country’s most noted Gospel groups is called “Jonah and the Whalers”! How do you like for the name of a Gospel ensemble? Norway has a famous Gospel group called the Ansgar Gospel Choir. There are Canadians who love Gospel and who flock to hear performances of the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir. My older son, during most of his years in Ireland, sang in Gospel choir in Galway; he doesn’t do that now that he’s back in the States. Go figure.
Well, it’s time for some Black Gospel this morning. We’re thinking about “joyful noises” this morning, and so we listen to a song called “Let There Be Praise in the House.”

[audio clip]

Go ahead and put your “No Doze” tablets away. After that, you won’t need them today.

Making joyful noises to God has something to do with praise of God, and I’d like for us to think for a few minutes about praise in general. The only person who ever taught me much of anything about prayer--and I mean an in-person person talking to me, voice to voice and face to face--was E. Glenn Hinson. At the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Dr. Hinson would givehis time above and beyond his heavy teaching load to meet with small groups of students to talk about prayer and to pray with us.

The two most important books I’ve ever read on prayer were both written by Dr. Hinson: “A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle” and “A Reaffirmation of Prayer.” The subject of praise of God comes up when one is trying to learn about the different types of prayer, and--in summary--what Glenn Hinson says about praise is that it is a kind of prayer that celebrates who God is; it often gets tied to prayers of thanksgiving, which thank God for what God has done and is doing. But, all by itself, praise of God is a legitimate prayer form.

If we were to look up a dictionary definition of the word “praise” as used in modern English, we’d find meanings such as: the expression of warm approval, respect, and/or admiration; commendation; exaltation; magnification; applause. I was at some kind of gathering, could have been a retreat, years ago, and it was time for a prayer--maybe a blessing over a meal. And the person who was supposed to pray came to the microphone and said, “Hasn’t God done a great job? Let’s give God a round of applause.” It seemed odd at first, but appropriate; and I ended up liking it. We may do that here sooner or later.

In any case, before we begin thanking God for our blessings--and that’s something important to do, though never letting ourselves imagine that our good fortune means that God has decided on someone else’s misfortune--there is this prayer-posture, this worship-posture from which we commune with God and express through our deepest feelings and/or with our words how enamored with God we are. The first meal blessing I was taught as a child is right on target in this regard: “God is great, God is good, let us thank God for our food.” The “God is great, God is good” part is pure praise.

Praise of God is a good thing; nothing at all wrong with it, and there are a few moments in life that are so profoundly God-centered for us that our praise of God is involuntary, a near-spiritual reflex if you will. Supposed praise of God that is canned or coerced is non-praise all the way. If we only feebly offer what’s supposed to pass for praise because someone tells us to or because it’s Sunday morning and it’s time to go to church, we might as well not bother at all. Unless it springs up from the deepest parts of who we are, it isn’t praise.

I think praise is a lot like love. It needs to be expressed for sure, but the most profound love can never be fully shown or spoken. You love your spouse or partner like that. You love your children like that. You love your parents like that. You love your dearest of friends like that. I’m going to tell the people whom I love that I love them. I’m going to show them in all the ways I possibly can--through tangible and intangible gifts. But the MOST I can ever say is woefully inadequate, even if I am a great orator or wordsmith. And the most I can ever do, even if I possess limitless material wealth, will be but a minimal attempt to convey the depth of love I feel for those nearest and dearest to me. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying, ever, but there is a touch of pain involved in loving someone so deeply; and this is it.

I wonder if my sons can ever understand how much I love them. I wondered at Dad’s funeral if he had any notion of how I cherished him. You understand what I’m trying to describe?

Praise of God is like love in precisely this regard. I’m going to do my best to convey to God how much I’m awed by God and who God is. For me, by this point along my spiritual journey, words are of little use or consequence in this context. They utterly fail me. But I cannot ignore that richness welling up inside of me from time to time when I’m especially aware of God’s nearness, and I begin to think about my life both as a life blessed with God’s presence and as a joint composition between God and David Farmer. Praise of God erupts within; even so, I could never do even a meager job of communicating to God how much I admire God.

I think the passage from Luke 19, where Jesus is riding into Jerusalem on the little donkey colt, is highly inspirational and telling:

As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen....Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (vv. 36-37,39-40 NRSV).


Something we hopefully have learned about God across the years is that there isn’t a “praise quota” with God. Nor is there any demand on God’s part that we praise God. It isn’t a requirement, but if we refuse to allow ourselves to feel the praise we are losers in the process. By the way, praise doesn’t have to occur in a corporate setting; it may certainly occur when you’re all alone or with a friend.

Evidently, it can also occur when one is driving along 202 or I-95 since I occasionally pass folks with their Gospel Music turned up to blaring and booming levels who are dancing out their praise and clapping their hands while they’re supposed to be driving. Their cars are certainly moving forward--sometimes at breakneck speeds--even though their hands are not on the wheel. I guess that’s one of the miracles, huh? If you’re praising God behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, you don’t have to steer the wheel yourself? Is God steering for you, or how does that work exactly? I keep thinking of that bumper sticker advising persons in other vehicles that “God Is My Co-pilot.” Half the time at least when I see that bumper sticker, the driver can’t drive worth a hoot, and I want to pull up beside her or him and yell, “Hey, you need to let Godtake the wheel--all by Godself!” Of course, I’ve never actually done that--well, in Wilmington anyway.

I guess now the fear of road rage should keep me from interacting with any other driver about anything. If I’m trying to motion to a fellow driver to make known that her or his fuel door has flung open or that a gas cap is missing, that could be taken as indications of aggression on my part since the communication involves a loud voice and/or hand gestures. That’s quite a risk to take these days.

I’m sure I must have told some of you about the one time I tried to respond positively to a religious bumper sticker. It was when I was a brand new driver, sixteen years old, and I was driving in Knoxville when I saw a bumper sticker that read: “Honk If You Love Jesus.” Well, I loved Jesus so I began to honk my horn waiting at a red light. The driver of the vehicle whose bumper sticker advised me to do just that, responded by rolling down his window, cussing a blue streak, and managing to send me a finger signal--all before he sped off in anger. So that was it for me. I learned my lesson about responding to religious bumper stickers. I pretty much ignore them--just as I do the ones that describe cargo, such as: “My Mother-in-Law Is in the Trunk.”

I used to watch the old “Hollywood Squares” television show faithfully, and Paul Lynde--in the center square--was my favorite among the stars, though in the early days they were all pretty funny. Peter Marshall once asked Paul Lynde, “What are you supposed to do if you’re going down a highway at 75 miles per hour and suddenly realize that your brakes have gone out?” Paul Lynde paused a moment, got that smirk on his face for which he was famous, and then answered: “Honk if you love Jesus.”

I wonder if anyone has ever had a car wreck while praising God at the steering wheel and if so what she or he said to the trooper who came to take the report. I’m sure there must be some stories there.

Back to more serious conversation about praise of God. I want to be certain to point out today that just getting all wound up in a worship setting--public or private--isn’t any indication at all that God is being praised. There are plenty of religious gatherings where the participants get all wound up. They hear the loud, blaring hypnotic music. They may sing at the top of their lungs. They may raise their hands and wave them all around. They may stand up and dance. They may roll around on the floor and speak in tongues. They may even say or sing words that sound like praise words. They may do some or all of these things and never give God a smidgeon of praise.

We know for sure that there is no essential word formula or word formulae for praising God; in fact, as I’ve already mentioned some of the deepest praise may spring forth within us and remain forever wordless much like Paul’s realization that some of his most profound prayers could not be put into words. If words were attached, then--through Paul’s reasoning--the Spirit of God takes our deepest feelings and turns them into words for the divine ear.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom 8:26-27 NRSV).

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!” I’m wondering today what noises of ours would sound joyful to the divine ear. In our very western, self-centered way, we naturally have come to interpret all key passages of scripture for ourselves and to our own benefit; thus, most interpretations of Psalm 100 make “joyful” a kind of human joy, a kind of cultural joy, a kind of personal joy with no regard that I’ve ever heard for what might sound joyful to God’s ear.

Like love, praise of God isn’t supposed to be, and ultimately isn’t or can’t be, offered only when we’re in the mood for it--only when we’re feeling joyous enough to join in with the psalmic imperative the way we have typically been taught to understand it. Love isn’t love if it is only expressed when we’re in the mood for it. Love that is love may often be or have to be expressed when we’re not in a good mood at all. I think praise is the same way so, again, what may sound joyful to the divine ears isn’t tied to our happy moods or to religious gatherings where the participants get drawn into hyper-emotional states to praise God because if they make God happy, so they’ve been told, God is going to do something for them--maybe that very day. A happy God may give you that new car you’ve been wanting. A happy God may get you that date you’re too shy to ask about. A happy God may give you a promotion at work. You can readily see that there is no praise here; at best this kind of thinking is appeasement, and God doesn’t respond to it.

What would be joyful noises to God's ear?

o I think joyful noises to God's ear may not be loud shouts at all-or at least not sounds limited to loud ones. Joyful noises to God's ear might be the most quietly-spoken of words.

o Noises are joyful to God's ear when they are human voices speaking possibilities, provisions, and plans for peace. Presuming to "praise" God when one has overcome one's enemies on blood-stained fields, and God is credited for giving the victor the victory is a sign of faith in God; truthfully, however, such verbiage isn’t remotely anything like praise even though examples of that very thing abound.
Here are some joyful sounds to God's ear from an organization called One Voice:

One Voice is a grassroots peace initiative that seeks to find common ground between the "silent majority" of Israelis and Palestinians. One Voice has about 100,000 signatures on a petition empowering a panel of experts to propose a solution and will soon present a detailed set of principles, or "pillars," on which people will be able to vote through the Web using facilities to be donated, as well as through other means. The pillars, which are still confidential [as far as I know], "are the beginning of a process to achieve historic grassroots consensus for conflict resolution."

o Joyful noises to God's ear are the sounds of human voices speaking words of encouragement to those who struggle and those who have some pain to bear. Listen to this brief prayer, written by Pastor Scott Moore of Eisleben, Germany:

God of promise, we live in a time where a message of hope is sometimes hard to find. Give us reason to hope. Put words of hope on our lips. Give us the courage to speak and to act for those who have no hope. Send us to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, give sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and to live our lives generously so others may experience your favor.

o Joyful noises to God's ear come from human voices taking ownership for the care of the created order. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz blogged these words, joyful noises to God's ear:

Many of the [hu]man-made dangers facing our environment are actually caused by companies with a vested interest in continuing old habits. People of faith should be able to consider the good of society, beyond their own convenience and egotistical desires, and make changes for the better. People of faith are, in a certain way, optimists, believing that the world can be made better. They can--and should--direct this optimism toward a global effort.

"Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth!"


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

© Copyright, Silverside Church 2007

The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor

May 27, 2007

Calm, Courageous, and Confident
(Sixth sermon in series, “From Rap to Rachmaninoff: God in Twelve Musical Styles”)


Karl Marx is often misquoted as having said that religion is "the opiate of the people." What he actually said, in a bit of context, was:

Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

Now, conservative preachers who are among the ones misquoting Marx generally use the quote (misquote) to scoff at Marx the Communist who went about slamming all religion as a numbing agent--religion as a powerful means to keep adherents from being able or having to face the real world, the cold cruel world.
Since preachers like this are accustomed to taking little bits and pieces of the Bible out of context in order to use them to serve their own purposes, they of course have no qualms vilifying a Communist with his own out-of-context words. When Marx wrote these words in his 1843 manuscript, Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, opium was still legal in many parts of the world. It was used medically as a sedative and a painkiller; but it was also used to combat the effects of diseases such as cholera.
I'm not suggesting that Marx was, after all, promoting or encouraging religious involvement by his people. What I am suggesting, however, is that his comment wasn't nearly the putdown to religion it has been made out by many to be. As an avowed atheist, Marx, no doubt, thought that religion in the end had nothing to offer; and, yet, I don't think he trashed some of the potentially positive things religion could offer those who, unlike him, bought into a God-concept. By the way, Marx was born to Jewish parents, both descendents of noted German rabbis I’ve heard; for pragmatic reasons long, long before Hitler’s lunacy, the parents converted to the religion of the state church, which happens to have been Lutheranism. This “conversion,” if you will took place either shortly before or shortly after Marx’s birth.
As far as I know, the idea of a God never gripped him so there was no dramatic life turn—believing in God one day and zealously denying the existence of God the next. For an atheist, I think he’s potentially relatively nice to religion. I refer you back to the quote I read earlier and to his four closing descriptions of what religion is.

 "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature."
 Religion is "the heart of a heartless world."
 Religion is "the soul of soulless conditions."
 "Religion is the opium of the people."

Could he have meant that religion is a potentially helpful medicine and not that religion is an addictive, illegal narcotic?
I would like to say that I think it's perfectly legitimate for religion to add a little something extra and nice to the lives of those who involve themselves in it. I'm not talking about false hope or false security. I'm not talking about twisting a likeness of God so as to create a god in our own image. I'm talking about the right to be more upbeat and hopeful and positive about life as a result of our religious commitments.
One simple statement of proof. If we learn and then come to believe down deep in the core that God loves us profoundly and unconditionally, that should please and even excite us to the point that we have our lives improved and enhanced. I don't see how it could be otherwise. An affirmation such as this doesn't, by any means, require us to pretend that the world is trouble-free or that because we're happy someone else's unhappiness is a matter of very little concern to us.
Without a doubt, we know that some religions do call on adherents to buy into a way of looking at the world that is nothing more than pure and utter denial. They pretend that God blesses them materially, and those who have to go without are enemies of God who will eventually cease to exist. Yet, both the Jewish religion and the Christian religion call on persons of faith to look at the world just as it is--filled with trouble and injustice, often much more sold out to evil than to good, and so on. But these negative aspects of the world are not the last words; they are not irreversible conditions.
Healthy religion helps us affirm life as it is, even the toughest parts, without playing a game that has us thinking that things are never as serious as they seem and that help is on the way every time we're in a jam. We all know that religion isn't the only source of information in the world telling people things about themselves and their plights that just ain't so. Government, for only one of several other possible examples, has done and is still doing exactly the same thing.
Healthy religion also helps me affirm me. I am a person of worth and value. Affirming that doesn't have to make me live selfishly, as if others are of little consequence in comparison to me or as if all available means of making a difference in the world should be used for my own happiness alone. Indeed, religion shouldn't be used the way Marx's misquote is often said to do; religion shouldn't be an opium in that regard. But religion should be a vitamin or an endorphin if endorphins could be bottled, don't you think? There's nothing at all unhealthy about these. And who wants religion that makes you feel bad about yourself and your world all the time? (Well, never mind that question! If religion makes us feel good about our world’s potential and ourselves even when the world seems to be falling apart, I think that’s a good thing!)


We continue our sermon series today on "God in Twelve Musical Styles" by focusing on "Rhythm and Blues" or "R&B" music. The designation, "Rhythm and Blues," began to be used in the late 1940's to describe music that had been performed predominantly by African American artists for a decade or so.
The "rhythm" part of "Rhythm and Blues" referred to four-beat measures with emphasis on the second and fourth beats. The "blues" part of the name came from the lyrics and some of the melodies that were sad or "blue." I gather that the term, R&B, has been broadened quite a bit across the years since now some songs considered R&B are amazingly upbeat, and it happens that today we'll listen to portions of two R&B songs that are very hopeful and life-affirming. And we'll use them to springboard us into the depths of some wonderfully hopeful passages of Jewish and Christian scripture.
Religion as an institutional means of ensuring that I must always feel bad about myself--at least at some level--has absolutely no foundation in the teachings of Jesus. The Apostle Paul had a preoccupation with human sinfulness that kept him thinking--part of the time, anyway--that there was something fundamentally wrong with human beings instead of affirming that there was something fundamentally right with these creatures created by and in the image of the living, loving God.
I'm thinking of two people right now.

§ The first person was one of the secretaries at the large church in Maryville, Tennessee, where I served as youth minister during the last couple of years of my undergraduate studies. Eva was her name, and she was a wonderful person; someone very patient with a young, struggling and stumbling minister-to-be. Eva and I agreed on many things, most things; but not on this matter. Eva had an overdeveloped sense of human sinfulness, and if she came to church without being dangled over the fires of hell, she considered it a waste of time. No positive happy gospel for Eva. A minister who makes you feel good about yourself just isn't telling the truth. There was a lot of that in my background too so I understood Eva, but as I neared the end of college it just wasn't computing.
§ The second person about whom I'm thinking is a current student of mine at Wilmington College in a course entitled "Human World Views" in which we give a fair amount of attention to how the monotheistic faiths have highly influenced the development of Western thought. This student whose name is Zach is a police officer completing his bachelor's degree. He has a Roman Catholic background, and he told me that some time ago he decided to stop going to church because every single week the priest had a way of making him feel bad about himself. Let's not assume that all priests do that, and let's not assume that Protestants do much better overall.

Now, I'm not pushing for a God who wants all the favored people to be rich and famous, but I am pushing for a perspective on God as something other than a divine brow-beater.
I have no idea how people who are made to think negative thoughts about themselves and their essential worth as human beings are supposed to be able to think positive, productive, healthful thoughts about others. Those who are taught to hate themselves will do so, and they will think similarly low-down thoughts about others.
If we are such despicable characters, all of us, then why does God do so many wonderful things for us? Hold that thought while you listen to a portion of R. Kelly’s song, “I Believe I Can Fly.”
[audio clip: "I Believe I Can Fly"]

This is a song of great confidence and encouragement, as I hear it. If we believe in ourselves, we can accomplish great things. When we stop believing in ourselves—or never have the opportunity to begin—we plod through life as defeated and hopeless people.
Speaking of flying, I want to get us to the ninety-first psalm. The particular psalmist who wrote Psalm 91 surely had a sense of being loved by God. In the opening verses of the psalm, she or he envisions us as baby eagles in a nest, I think.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler [the bird trappers] and from the deadly pestilence; God will cover you with God’s pinions, and under God’s wings you will find refuge; God’s faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness or the destruction that wastes at noonday (Psa 91:1-6 NRSV adapted for inclusive language).

Early last year, the society of pastoral musicians conducted a survey and asked its membership which hymn had had the most profound impact on their spiritual lives. “How Great Thou Art” came in fifth. The winner hands down was the hymn we’re about to sing, “On Eagle’s Wings,” Father Michael Joncas’s reworking of Psalm 91, and I see some blending with the fortieth chapter of Isaiah. In Father Joncas’s version, the mother eagle isn’t protecting us by the cover of her wings; instead, she is teaching us to fly. And we are being raised up on her mighty wings. Is this an image of a God who thinks humans, even with their imperfections, are deserving of divine disdain?


Paul of all people, surely the inspiration for Augustine’s insistence on human depravity and so-called “original sin,” also had this part of himself that understood God’s love. When he penned what we now refer to as 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter,” and the latter part of the eighth chapter of the book of Romans, Paul was at his height of inspiration. Who wouldn’t be more calm, courageous, and confident if she or he knew beyond the shadow of any doubt that God’s love is a force from which no earthly complication or calamity, no earthly power regardless of how pervasive and devious can separate us from the love of God.
We often hear this portion of Romans 8 read at funerals because to those bereaved and left-behind loved ones, it is a confidence builder; one of the most eloquent reminders of this fact of life that I know of. Ask yourself, the question Paul asks of his first readers in Rome: “If God is for us, who is against us?” That’s a really good question, isn’t it? I mean, yes, of course, there are those who oppose us, but if God is for us, how much can the opposition of others ultimately mean to our spiritual wholeness? “If God is for us,” Paul begins, and his emphasis is that God is! In English we might translate this more clearly and confidently, as Paul intended, if we were to say, “SINCE God is for us, who can be against us?”

If God is for us, who is against us?... Who will separate us from the love of God that we have seen in the life and teachings of Jesus? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through the One who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:31b, 35-39a preacher’s paraphrase).

 Spatial separations don’t surprise us as people then and now typically believe that God is far away from us off in some heaven somewhere.
 Death in the list don’t surprise us because many people then and now fear that in the next realm of existence there will be a finality to the separation from God that many feel in this world.
 Rulers of this world may be able to keep us from worshipping as we see fit, and that would (and does!) greatly complicate life for persons living in that kind of political context, but no ruler can take the presence of God away from us, nor can she or he take God’s love away from us. It simply isn’t possible.
 What jumps out at me in the list is the mention of life itself as something that some people see as a factor in separating them from God and God’s love. What in the world could Paul have had in mind? Did he know that life gets so hard, so painful, and so troublesome for some people that they believe that have absolute proof God could not love them? Or could this mean that after so much pain some people go numb emotionally and spiritually and can’t feel or sense the loving presence of God any more? Even life at its worst, though, can’t stop the flow of God’s love.

This kind of buildup is powerfully motivating. Such a foundation lets us believe in ourselves, and even the most secure and accomplished among us need reminders of that from time to time.
Here’s another R&B song from R. Kelly. It was the theme song to the film, “Ali,” about the life of the famed boxer, Muhammad Ali, who from all indications had no trouble whatsoever believing in himself. We all need a little bit, though, of what he had a lot of!

[audio clip, “World’s Greatest”}

I’m that star up in the sky
I’m that mountain peak up high
Hey, I made it
I’m the world’s greatest
And I’m that little bit of hope
When my back’s against the ropes…

Yes, indeed, we all need a little bit of what Ali and Howard Cosell had a lot of!
Another hopeful passage of scripture for me, and I’m sure this isn’t on everyone’s list, is Isaiah chapter six, the first eight verses, in which First Isaiah has a vision of God in a worship setting. Isaiah is overcome with his own inadequacies in the presence of God. He ponders his weakness. He ponders his moral failings. Part of the vision is his purification ritual.
Then something amazing happens; it’s a soul-stirring part of the vision. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” (Isa 6:8 NRSV).
God in a sense is asking for help. God has a mission in mind that cannot be accomplished by either God or any of God’s heavenly messengers or servants. It’s a mission to humanity, and it must be undertaken by a human being. God, in the vision, is asking aloud, “Whom shall I, God, send? Who will go for us? Who will go on behalf of all of us who are not humans?
Isaiah, the man formerly overcome with personal inadequacy and at least a measure of self-loathing, was now able to speak up. And with great confidence despite an appropriate measure of discomfort in the face of utter unknowing, he can now speak. He can now own his God-given capabilities, and he can go out in service to the one great God and the people whom that God created and loved. “Here I am, send me!”

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

© Copyright, Silverside Church

The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor

May 20, 2007

The Glory of God Is Being Revealed
(Fifth sermon in series, “From Rap to Rachmaninoff: God in Twelve Musical Styles”)


I found it interesting that for this gathering when we intended to focus on classical choral music, as one of the twelve types of music we are considering in this sermon series, “The Christian Century” magazine had an article in it entitled, “Handel Scandal.” Professor Martin Marty, dean of modern church historians, wrote about his disappointing discovery that Handel’s “Messiah” had a not-so-godly origin. A close read of the words being sung in much of Handel’s most famous composition reveals, in Dr. Marty’s words, that it is “full of unnecessarily anti-Jewish themes.”

The next time you’re a contestant on “Jeopardy” or “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” you’ll be armed with this vital information. You’ll also be one of the few people in your neighborhood to know the truth about “Messiah.”

It seems that Georg Friedrich Handel had a buddy, one Charles Jennens, who did the libretto for “Messiah.” The libretto is the wording—what the singers sing. A devout man of faith, Handel wanted to create a decidedly biblical collection of songs so he asked his friend, Mr. Jennens, to find biblical texts that he, Handel, could set to music. Jennens followed the great composer’s directions, but he had an agenda of his own.

Jennens felt that Jews constantly called into question the deity of Jesus. As a person holding to the Christian faith, he believed that it was his duty to battle the Jews over this conflict in understanding.
Joining the Jews in such a dastardly doctrinal diminishment would be none other than the deists. Deists were, ostensibly, Christians who didn’t believe in the deity of Jesus; they were “Unitarian-ish”—if you will. And, just as aggressively, they too had to be challenged and stopped!

Dr. Marty, in his article, shows us that Jennens owed his views of the Jews to an author, Richard Kidder, who wrote what Marty calls a “tome” with a tome-worthy title: A Demonstration of the Messias, In which the Truth of the Christian Religion is Proved, Against All the Enemies Thereof; But Especially the Jews. Among other points he made, Kidder insisted that logic required us to see that either Christians or Jews—one or the other—must be in a state of damnation from God’s perspective. Both “sides” can’t be OK with God. As a Jew hater, you know whom Kidder believed to be damned.

In addition to the Kidder work, Jennens favored a translation of the Psalms by Henry Hammond who translated the second Psalm differently than King James’s translators had done. The King James Version rendered a critical verse in Psalm 2 as, “Why do the heathen rage?”. Hammond, in contrast, translated it, “Why do the nations rage?”

So what’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is “nations” for Hammond referred specifically to the Jews, and “rage” in this context meant something like “flourish.” So, the nations, the Jews, are growing, and their growth is getting out of hand. They, therefore, must be stopped.

Actually, if that is what this psalmist meant, she or he would have been delighted with the growth and expansion of the Jewish nation because the psalmist was a Jew writing to Jews! It turns out that such was not the writer’s intent as we see in a modern translation of Psalm 2:

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The sovereigns of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and the Lord’s anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” The one who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision. Then God will speak to them in divine wrath, and terrify them in divine fury, saying, “I have set my sovereign on Zion, my holy hill.” I will tell of the decree of the Lord: God said to me, “You are my child; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Now therefore, O sovereigns, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss God’s feet, or God will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for divine wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in God (Psa 2 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).

Such a warm view of God! It makes us want to be connected to God right away, but not out of love; instead, out of fear! The word “nations” in this passage does not refer to the Jews—not by any stretch of the imagination. It refers to the enemies of the Jews!

We have to believe that Jennens and Handel knew better than this, but did it anyway. How disappointing! Yet, their anti-Semitism was shining through.

Numerous passages, therefore, in “Messiah” speak at this level of anti-Semitism. Handel’s beloved “Hallelujah Chorus,” one of the great choral compositions of all time—many would say--contains some of the tainted terms.

For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Hallelujah!
The kingdom of this world [and who might THAT be, now that you know of Jennens’s modus operandi?] is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ [an anti-Jewish slur even though Jesus was a JEW!!!].
And he shall reign forever.
King of kings and Lord of lords.
And he shall reign forever.

My popularity ratings just fell lower than Bush’s! I’m sorry to have to be the bearer of bad news, but just as the magi never made it to Jesus’ manger and must be honored at some time other than the Christmas season, so also the “Hallelujah Chorus” is a part of Jennens’s fear of and hatred for the Jews.

Knowing the truth, sometimes, can be a terrible thing! What will you do the next time the “Hallelujah Chorus,” this great choral piece, is sung in your hearing?
Allow me to quote Martin Marty:

While I can never again hear the “Hallelujah Chorus” without remembering that is was written to wound the displaceable “nation” called the Jews, with others I’ll sing and rejoice, “For unto us a child is born, unto us son is given.”


More Handel.

And the glory, the glory of the Lord, shall be revealed. And all flesh shall see it together for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

This is a clip from the fortieth chapter of the book of Isaiah, the first chapter of the segment of the prophecy that many scholars call Second Isaiah. Many beautiful pieces from “Messiah” are based on these words of Second Isaiah.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever (Isa 40:1-8 NRSV).

I want to leave Handel here, and ask you to focus with me on the concept of the glory of God—sung beautifully and joyously in one of Handel’s choral pieces from “Messiah”: “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together?” What in the world did Isaiah mean? Let’s begin by noting that what he envisioned was to be an event or set of events in the very near future for him and his people—not something hundreds or thousands of years removed from the concerns of the people to whom Second Isaiah spoke.

God’s glory is to be revealed, and all people—that’s everyone in the world, isn’t it?—are going to see God’s glory together. I am fascinated by how various groups of those who consider themselves children of God have, across the years, viewed the meaning of the glory of God.

The literal meaning of the word, kabod, typically translated “glory” in Hebrew scripture is heavy or weighty—literally, heavy or weighty. The word evidently came to have a figurative meaning—namely heavy or weighty in terms of concern or importance. In its most fundamental sense, then, the glory of God is God’s importance. When one of the psalmists says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” she or he is saying that creation tells us of the importance of the Creator.
The beauty and the order we behold and experience could not have come about without such a creator and designer as God; in that sense, the heavens—literally, the skies—are declaring the importance of the one who created them. The artistry that we see in nature per se is not what the psalmist has in mind as reflecting God’s glory; rather, more precisely, she or he says what God created causes us to reflect on the Creator. There’s a slight difference, perhaps, between the two ways of understanding this issue in the psalm. Speaking of great choral music, Haydn set these psalm words to a majestic melody!

The concept of glory is going to come to be joined, in some ancient Hebrew contexts, with the notion that while humans may typically not be able to see God visibly, there, nonetheless, are visual indications—often with sounds—that one is in the presence of God. “Glory” in this sense came to pick up on the bright—sometimes blinding--light, the brilliance that must emanate from the essence of God as the ancient Hebrews reasoned through the matter. Most often, it seems, people came to associate a luminous cloud with the presence of God. There might be bolts of lightening. There might also be sounds of thunder.

One of the earliest references to this luminous cloud, in terms of how the Hebrew Bible came to be collected, is in the book of Exodus, the thirty-third chapter. The setting is the wilderness as the Hebrews, emancipated from Egyptian bondage, are wandering and in search of the land God promised them:

Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud [this is the luminous cloud to which I’ve been referring] would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend (Exod 33:7-11 NRSV).

We have no idea what to make of this except to say that there was a widely held belief that Moses was special. He could come closer to God than could any other human being. He went to the top of Mt. Sinai to commune with God, but even atop the Mount, while he could hear God’s voice, there wasn’t the face to face experience of God that the writer of Exodus talks about at this point. The writer goes out of her or his way to say that Moses and God talked face-to- face, just as friends talk.

This chapter in Exodus is filled to the brim with anthropomorphisms for God. God has a face, hands, and a backside. After making the point that Moses and God talked face to face, the writer—or maybe another writer whose materials are grafted in to the original story—has a fascinating exchange between God and Moses.

Moses wants to see God, even though the early part of chapter 33 says he did in fact see God face to face on a regular basis. In the latter part of the chapter, Moses wants to see God—as if he’d never seen God before. He asks to SEE God’s glory, an indication that in some contexts there was a visual component to God’s presence.

God says, “OK, I’ll be extra nice and let you see my glory and my backside, but you can’t see my face.” Doesn’t that strike you as more than odd that God changes God’s mind about letting Moses see the divine face and offers, instead, the chance for Moses to see God’s hindquarters? Yes, as indelicate as that is, that is what God offered.

From the book of Exodus, chapter 33 again. Words attributed to God Godself in conversation with Moses:

“`…you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen’” (Exod 33:20-23 NRSV).

The New Revised Standard used the word “back” as the description of what Moses would see, but “back” as we use it today was not what the writer of Exodus had in mind. “Hindparts” or “hindquaters” is much more on target. God wanted Moses to see God’s hindquarters; that is uneasily the proper rendering.


I hope you’re still thinking about God’s glory on the one hand and God’s hindparts on the other, and I hope you have to wrestle with both of those images for at least a week. Ian Harris had the following to say about this most unusual passage from the book of Exodus that raises questions for any number of reasons:

Taken literally, the idea of the divine derriere has nothing to commend it….But as testimony to the allusiveness of God and of all God-talk, the incident has much to offer….In a secular world, which for all practical purposes has moved beyond supernaturalism, it is less and less helpful to keep on defining God as if [God] were a being….As this allusive, non-realist God grows in the human imagination, the theistic God of the Bible cannot but wither. That way of thinking about God was compelling over many centuries. Clinging to it in the secular world of the West is nudging the churches steadily into irrelevance. Hence the most urgent item on every church’s agenda today should be how to make non-theistic sense out of the experiences that the Bible depicts theistically. But it is not.

Everything Mr. Ian Harris is saying here is of vital importance to us, but I want us to pay special attention to his insistence that the most urgent item on any modern church’s agenda must be how to make “non-theistic sense” out of the words, ideas, and divine-human encounters that the Bible “depicts theistically.”

Leading the charge against understanding the Bible according to Mr. Harris’s standards are the Pat Robertsons of the world and, of course, the many followers of the late Jerry Falwell. I could not rejoice in his death this week as some folks seemed to do. When my son phoned me to tell me what he’d heard on the news and to get to a computer to read up on the details, he also asked me how I felt knowing that one of the people whom I have consistently criticized roundly for his narrow-minded fundamentalism and his seeming lack of concern for multitudes of people in the world was dead. I thought for a minute—even before I went to find the breaking news stories of Falwell’s death—and then I told my son, “I’m glad Jerry doesn’t have to be angry any more.”

A God who speaks audibly to human beings and who appears in the world of humans from time to time bathed in a luminous cloud, that God never was and certainly will never be. And yet there is something to God’s “glory” in the sense of God’s importance to even the most liberal and/or secular modern woman or man.

I want to get back to the Ian Harris article that I think is very important and timely. The article entitled, “Is God a Being or an Experience?”, appeared originally in the May 5 edition of The Dominion Post.

As traditionally presented, the theistic God offers security, comfort, protection and rescue; the allusive, non-realist God encourages people to acknowledge the radical insecurity of life and yet face it with hope. The theistic God laid down firm rules for living; the non-theistic God is the central symbol of community values such as respect, trust, responsibility, mutual dependence. The theistic God is identified with love and compassion, so making love sacred; for the non-realist, says Spong, “the God who is love is slowly transformed into the love that is God.” The God of theism is a being; of non-theism, immersion in being itself – so you meet this God not in any after-life but by embracing life in the here and now.

I’m not sure that Mr. Harris is excluding the possibility of an after-life or not, but I certainly do not believe embracing a non-theistic God means tossing the idea of life with God in the next realm of existence. In fact, I feel that the Reverend Mr. Falwell is with God there right now and still in shock to find feminists, homosexuals, and liberals there as well!

Harris one last time for today: “None of those non-theistic experiences and emphases is new. It is the way they are explained and interpreted that is changing. They no longer depend on a theistic God.”

My dear friends, this is where we come in! We take the realities that the ancients explained the best ways they could with their anthropomorphisms, with their very human God, and we modern theological progressives—Jesus Movement types and others—we must talk about the realities of the divine in ways that make sense to the modern scientifically-informed seeker.

The lightening and thunder atop Mt. Sinai had nothing to do with God’s presence after all. Storms naturally took place up there—much more often than out in the wide open desert. But that isn’t to say human beings failed to experience the presence of the living God near that mountain.

If the presence of God brings some kind of light, it will certainly not be in the luminousness of clouds, but it might be the light we see in the face of someone who has found the true presence of God within or in the face of someone who has gained true understanding about the life-source, life-force that many of us now refer to as “God.”

God does not speak with an audible voice. God never has and never will. God has no voice. God is spirit or force. All too frighteningly often, though, certain human beings claimed to have heard the literal voice of God, and those who gave God a voice like that could put whatever words they wanted into the mouth of God. This typically added to the notion of divine maleness, if you will. Since God had and has been thoroughly masculinized, God’s voice sounded like a man’s voice—especially baritone or bass so as not to be confused with the voice of a woman who smokes heavily. The voice of God could sound like the human voice of James Earl Jones or the voice of Billy Graham—in the latter case, God with a southern dialect! But the voice of God somehow never sounded like a man with a high-pitched voice and certainly not as the voice of a woman—even the amazing voice of Maya Angelou! Alas, God has no voice, and God has no gender. If God speaks to you, it will be through some kind of silent communion or in the voice of a human being who speaks truth, love, and/or challenge to you.

The voice thing and even the gender of the divine have, ultimately, been small matters in comparison to the overpowering cultural preferences and prejudices projected onto God. We humans have God preferring our group over other groups of humans. We inevitably make God the God of this nation or that nation rather than the God of all people. We have God endorsing our biases—from racism to classism—and limiting love as well as enrichment or opportunity. That God doesn’t exist and never did.

New Zealand poet Gregory O’Brien, wrote of the real God, the non-theistic God as “the one unknowable thing”:

It soars
It brushes up against us,
Traversing the difficult hours
Without form
Or features
With nowhere to stand or lean.