Category Archives: Poetry

Gnomes

Danish poet Johan Ludvig Heiberg (1791-1860) created a fairytale about a schoolmaster named Grimmermann who accidently falls into a hole that lands him 70,000 fathoms under the earth and into the world of the gnomes. Grimmermann feels entitled because he received a royal commission from the king of Denmark. However, when he pompously announces his royal commission to the gnomes, expecting to be treated with respect and dignity, he is shocked to discover that the gnomes don’t care. They are completely unimpressed by his royal commission. His Majesty appointed him to some work considered important in Denmark, but it is meaningless in the world of the gnomes. They are indifferent to the honors of Denmark. They live in a different kingdom. Grimmermann just can’t understand why he’s not fawned over.

We who follow Jesus are supposed to be citizens of the Kingdom of God, having pledged allegiance to the King of all kings. We are not citizens of any country; we own no allegiance to any state; we fawn over no political or financial leader. Celebrity means nothing to us. We are not intoxicated with power, nor impressed by wealth, prestige, or success. You may have a king’s commission from one of this world’s empires, but we are not impressed. As Thoreau said, we march to the beat of a different drummer. 

GOD RESCUED. GOD IS RESCUING. GOD WILL RESCUE.

I heard someone recently say that they were anxious for “things to get back to normal.” God does not want us to “get back to normal.” “Normal” often means self-indulgent greed. “Normal” in much of North America has too long meant racialized. For far too long, “normal” has been the systemic institutionalized legally sanctioned oppression, poverty, marginalization, and disenfranchisement of people of color designed to empower the (mostly white and mostly male) rich and powerful.   

Isaiah 35 speaks of restoration during Isaiah’s time, during the time of the Medo-Persian Empire, during this kingdom age (between Pentecost and the Second coming), and in the eternal age to come. Isaiah 35 is literal and it is symbolic. There are deserts where only cacti can grow, and there are deserts in hearts lacking empathy. Lions and jackals can kill you. So can poverty, racism, depression, and loneliness. 

After the death of King Solomon, the nation of Israel split into two countries. The northern part was called Israel and had its capital in the city of Samaria (not to be confused with the region of Samaria in Jesus’ day). The southern kingdom was called Judea. It’s capital was Jerusalem. Assyria violently crushed Israel in 722 BC and subjected most of Judea, but not Jerusalem, to bondage. Assyria also brutalized and conquered all the nations that surrounded Israel and Judea. Isaiah lived during this time.  Through him, God predicted the fall of Israel, and, later, that Jerusalem would not fall to the Assyrians. 

Eventually, (circa 612 BC) Babylon rose up and defeated Assyria. Babylon destroyed Judea and Jerusalem in 586 BC and carried away the remaining Jews into slavery. The Medo-Persian Empire in turn conquered Babylon (circa 539 BC) and slowly allowed some of the Jews to return to their land as subjects of the Empire. Isaiah chapters 40 through 66 were written about this period. 

Coming back to chapter 35, Isaiah predicts the restoration of all those who had been, or would be, oppressed by powerful empires. Regardless of whether the oppressor is Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Syria, Greece, Rome, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, American civil-religion, or the deep-seated racism of imperialist occidental culture, deliverance will come. 

Regardless of whether the oppressor is religion, white supremacy, capitalism, communism, addiction, greed, narcissism, anger, hatred, violence, depression, mental illness, poverty, marginalization, or political disenfranchisement, deliverance will come. 

The oppression may be my own fault. It may have unjustly imposed upon me. It may come from my past. It might be woven into corporate and political structures. It may be enshrined by law and championed from pulpits. Regardless, deliverance will come.

Isaiah 35 opens with a declaration that God will fully rescue, redeem and transform the natural world – deserts bloom, snow-fed springs like those in Lebanon will flow, the mountains will be lush like Mount Carmel, and radiant like the coastal plain of Sharon. Joy and singing will erupt.

In verses 3 & 4, we learn that not only will nature be renewed, but (being part of nature) humankind will be as well. Fear and anxiety are banished.

Then comes the central theme – the latter half of verse 4: Our God will come and save us! God’s great rescue operation! All of creation, all of humankind, redeemed and transformed. Perfect love descends into hell and rescues the damned.

Like a symphony, the melody repeats – humankind rescued (verse 5-6a) – nature transformed (verses 6b-7).

Salvation is past, present, and future. God saved us. God is saving us. God will save us. Justified. Sanctified. Glorified. 

The Kingdom of God is then – it came in a manger. The Kingdom of God is now – God is making all things new. The Kingdom of God is not yet – Jesus will come again.

God rescued. God is rescuing. God will rescue.

God did all the heavy lifting. The victory was won at the cross. Everything changed on Good Friday. The strong man is bound.

God invites us to participate with him as he makes all things new.

God beckons us spoil the strongman’s house. The gates of Hades cannot stand under the onslaught of the church. Setting captives free, declaring liberty to those who are bound, delivering the oppressed, making the world a gentler more just place through cruciform love – this is our calling and our privilege. 

How? Prayer, fasting, loving service, resisting empires, nonviolent resistance to injustice, loving enemies, forgiving others, washing feet, taking up the cause of the weak, willingness to die for Christ – we overcome the evil one by the word of our testimony (our testimony is what we do, how we live), and the blood of the Lamb (our willingness to live and die like Christ). Our sacrificial lives mingle with His, and freedom rings. 

Finally, here are some practical ideas from some of my African-American friends:

  1. Search your heart and ask God to help you love others – all others.
  2. Ask God to show you where you’ve been racist. Be honest. Admit it and make amends. 
  3. Don’t patronize, but ask where you can come alongside and help.
  4. Learn from African Americans. Learn African American history. Read books by African American authors. Learn about systemic racism. Listen.
  5. Hire black people, especially black men.
  6. Support black-owned businesses.
  7. Speak up and object whenever you hear a racist or disparaging comment made about a person of color.
  8. Attend marches for justice and equality.
  9. Donate to organizations supporting racial justice 
  10. Vote for candidates who will advance the cause of justice for all

Joining God in Making All Things New: Isaiah 35

Nine Kinds of Love

In classical Greek, there are a variety of words to describe love. It is a mistake to try to rank them. Only one falls into the unhealthy category.

  1. Mania: Obsession, infatuation, insanity, a sister to rage, the stuff of stalkers and schoolboys. This is the bad one.
  2. Ludus: Love as playfulness, as a game, flirtations without any commitment, which can be innocent or damaging.
  3. Éros: Sexual attraction, but not necessarily animalistic lust. Éros includes appreciation of beauty in all its manifestations. It’s where we begin loving God, others, nature and ourselves.
  4. Pragma: Sensible, committed love; the opposite of romanticism; the stuff of most long-term marriages.
  5. Storgē: Familial bonds, “blood is thicker than water;” care and concern for parents and children and siblings.
  6. Xenia: Hospitality, welcoming guests into our homes, guest-love
  7. Philía: Deep lasting friendship and loyalty
  8. Philautia: Self-love – either negatively, as in selfishness and narcissism, or positively, as in compassion for oneself
  9. Agápe: Unconditional, self-sacrificial, cruciform, selfless, altruistic love. God is Agápe. “By this shall all know you are my followers, that you agápe one another.”

Setting aside mania, which needs to be treated with medication, psychotherapy, repentance, and perhaps a dosage of exorcism, living as God intended us to live, embracing our full humanness and flourishing life, requires that we cultivate healthy ludus, éros, pragma, storgē, xenia, philía, philautia, and agápe.

I am not suggesting office flirtations, but genuine love between friends and lovers needs an element of playfulness. Hopefully, the relationship is not based on having fun; but, equally hopefully, friends and lovers have fun together, laugh together, and playfully celebrate together. Ludus

We are not rutting elk, but learning to appreciate the beauty in nature, in others, in ourselves, and in the creator God behind it all, will carry us a long way towards peace and wholeness. Take the time to observe and consciously note the beauty, especially (with regard to others) the beauty behind the pain. Éros 

Every lasting marriage and enduring friendship settles at some point into pragmatic, sensible commitment. We become comfortable with each other, feeling no need to impress or play-act. Many in our contemporary culture chase after everlasting romanticism, which is always a dead end. Being content and relaxed with a friend or spouse is nice. Pragma

In many of the African-American, Afro-Asian, and Appalachian families I’ve been around, storgē is strong. Grandma will be cared for in the home no matter how demented she gets. The ne’er-do-well alcoholic uncle now dying of lung cancer will likewise be taken in. The bonds of family and clan are strong, intergenerational, and forgiving. Grown kids call their aging parents daily.

Likewise, we in North America could learn much from Asian, Middle Eastern, and African cultures about xenia. In biblical times hospitality was paramount. Think of Abraham finding three visitors by the Oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18, or Jesus sending out his apprentices knowing they would be taken into local homes (Mark 6:7-13), or God’s condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah for their lack of hospitality. (Ezekiel 16:49) The art of welcoming guests and making people feel at home is a vital part of truly becoming the beloved community.

We live in a transient society. The majority of Gen X (currently in their mid 40s to early 60s), millennials (late 20s to mid-40s), and centennials (late teens and 20s) change jobs every three years and live in a variety of cities around the world during their careers. Philía is hard to come by because deep friendships take time and effort to cultivate. It can happen long-distance, interspersed with regular visits, but more often friendships are left behind and new ones acquired that never have time to mature. To have a meaningful spiritual inner life, we need three things: (a) contemplation, prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, scripture study, times of praise and worship, (b) involvement in promoting social justice, joining God in making the world gentler and more loving, and (c) friendships, koinonia, relationships that guard against anger and despair, that keep us on course. 

The negative side of philautia is all too obvious in the public arena – greed, pride, arrogance, selfishness, egotism, narcissism, and self-promotion are not only off-putting, but also destructive to cultures, nations, and individuals. That kind of philautia calls for repentance and transformation, a new heart, and a right spirit. Philautia, self-care, has a positive side, however. Learning to accept oneself as broken, to forgive oneself for failures and sins, to rest in our true identity as beloved children of God, and knowing God loves us and will never give up on us, allows us to find the beauty in and around us, and respond with kindness.

Unless we shift the biblical definition of agápe that is clearly demonstrated in the life and teachings of Jesus and the poetry of the apostles, agápe is impossible apart from the dynamic of the Holy Spirit. Agápe is God in us. Agápe is us living and acting like Jesus – forgiving our enemies, turning the other cheek, denying self, going the second mile, laying down our lives, responding to violence with nonviolence, serving others, washing feet – this love looks like Jesus on the cross. It is cruciform. God will shed this agápe abundantly into our hearts if we seek to know, love, and serve God. 

Chill Out, Isaiah

We love the book of Isaiah. It is filled with beautiful messianic prophecies and visions of the coming kingdom age when God has renewed everything. In between those visions, however, is a lot of judgment. 

Assuming the prophecies are in chronological order, the book begins with five chapters of sin-blasting prophetic preaching. 

A shift occurs in chapter six when Isaiah finds himself in the presence of YHWH and is suddenly cognizant of his own sin. 

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” is an unbiblical cliché. Closer to scripture would be to say, “Love the sinner; hate the sin in myself.” “Judge not that you be not judged,” said Jesus. Judgment is God’s work. Mine is to love others. All others.  

It’s about 742 BC. Uzziah has been a good king, reigning for over half a century. Now he’s dead. What’s to become of the nation, especially now that the Assyrians are on the move? Tiglath-pileser III is already brutally destroying city after Neareastern city. Many of their citizens preferred mass suicide to falling into his tortuous hands. 

Isaiah now realizes he is complicit in the national sin. He is humbled and repentant, but Isaiah’s message is still not comforting in the short term. Utter destruction is coming to the northern kingdom of Israel and to most of Judea as well (c. 722 BC). Jerusalem alone will be miraculously spared, but not forever. Another even more powerful kingdom will arise. Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon crushed what remained of Judea and Jerusalem in 586 BC.

Why is all this bad stuff happening to Israel and Judea? Are these not God’s chosen people?

Isaiah answers plainly, as do all the Old Testament prophets. Read through the book. Look for what the sins of Israel were.

What sorrow awaits the unjust judges
    and those who issue unfair laws.
They deprive the poor of justice
    and deny the rights of the needy among my people.
They prey on widows
    and take advantage of orphans. 
(10:1-2; NLT)

  • These religious people have not only been unjust, they have used religion to justify their injustice. 
  • They have not cared for the poor, the refugees, and the oppressed. 
  • They have not stood up for the marginalized and disenfranchised against the oppression of the powerful. 
  • They have accepted, even supported, corrupt leaders filled with greed. 
  • They have been characterized by haughtiness, pride, consumerism, and opulence.
  • They have championed militarism and the official use of violence. 

Listen as well to Amos:

“I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.

(Amos 5:21-24 The Message)

Does this apply to us, to me?

Some definitions are necessary:

  1. White supremacy is simply the dominant culture in North America. Euro-Americans hold most of the wealth and power.
  2. Nationalism (not to be confused with patriotism) is exalting one nation over all others and seeking to impose the culture and values of that nation on others. 
  3. White privilege is not individualistic. It refers to the reality of natural benefits and mechanisms. It means your skin color is not held against you. Privilege includes what you don’t get (followed, surveillance, redlined, pulled over, assumed guilty, etc.)  
  4. Black lives matter. No one is saying other lives don’t matter. Black lives matter means black lives also matter, just like other people. (And, by the way, there is no coalition that supports rioting, looting, and violence, but if I am more concerned with looting than with a police officer murdering an innocent man, something is amiss with me.)
  5. Systemic racism is the maintaining of the dominant culture via policy, law, and structure. It is usually not overt. 
  6. Race is a human construct. There’s only one race – the human race. God created us of one blood. There is no such thing as a “white” or “black” race – those terms were invented to justify chattel slavery. 
  7. Ethnicity is how we see ourselves.

I live in the wealthiest most militarily powerful nation on earth. It was built on land stolen from native people with the sweat of people kidnapped from Africa. Native American/Indigenous people and African Americans have been and are being oppressed, targeted and abused consistently by those in power.

Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, dedicated Christian George Floyd, … the list goes on. Killed by officers of the law.  All but elderly Ms. Johnston unarmed. 

A Harvard graduate bird watching in Central Park … faux panic that could have gotten him killed for asking a Canadian white woman to please leash her dog. 

But it’s way more than this.

It’s not just a few rogue cops or an occasional racist.

It is a dominant white culture that uses its power to oppress and perpetuate injustice. 

It is lynching, Jim Crow, KKK, segregation, red-lining, gentrification, lack of affordable housing, lack of access to healthcare, food deserts, and responding to “black lives matter,” with “all lives matter,” and “blue lives matter.” 

It is political promises without any systemic change. 

It is a freeway system purposely designed to cut off black communities from jobs and transportation. 

It is monuments honoring those who were in active, open, armed rebellion against the United States of America for the purpose of maintaining slavery. It is Confederate battle flags. It is neo-Nazi rallies. It is “Make America Great Again.” America has never been great for African-Americans. Since European invaders arrived with their guns and smallpox, it has not been great for the native peoples who had lived here for 10,000 years. 

It takes 11.5 generations of African American families all doing the right things to build the intergenerational wealth Euro-Americans have in one generation. 

It is not by chance that COVID-19 has hit the black and native communities harder than anywhere else. 

It is lack of inclusion in places of power. It is C-suites and church boards void of people of color. It is lack of opportunity.

Every empire oppresses. Every dominant culture seeks to retain power by pushing down others. Religion is used to justify dominant power. 

Not so for those who follow Jesus. Kingdom of God power is expressed in service: 

42 So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. 43 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10, ESV)

Isaiah cries out with predictions of devastation and ruin. That’s not the end, however. Messiah is coming. A new world is coming,

“Come let us reason together …”

“A virgin shall conceive …”

“Unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given.”

“Wonderful. Counselor. Might God. Everlasting Father. Prince of Peace.”

“They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of YHWH as the waters cover the sea.”

Swords become ploughshares; spears are forged into pruning hooks; children play safely in the streets; wolves and lambs cuddle; lions and ox graze side by side. Peaceable Kingdom. The Beloved Community.

The Kingdom of God is future and not yet. It is here and now. “Behold, the Kingdom of God is in your midst.” 

How does this new kingdom come about?

By the cross. By the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And, what is that good news?

Jesus begins his ministry quoting Isaiah 61:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

(Luke 4:18-19 NRSV)

If it’s not good news to the poor, it’s not the gospel.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it (Ephesians 2:13-16 ESV)

No divisions. No more Jew, gentile, male, female, black, white, liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, socialist, or market capitalist. All one in Christ, just as Jesus prayed we would be (John 17). 

One Body of Christ – one multinational, multilingual, multicultural, intergenerational Body of Christ. The church universal.

Jesus died to tear down the walls that divide humans and to create within himself one new humanity (Eph. 2:11-18). Reconciliation is just as essential to the atonement as forgiveness of sins. If we omit racial reconciliation from the Good News, what we preach is simply heresy.

Anti-racism lies at the core of the gospel. As long as we truncate the gospel into “accept Jesus and you’ll go to heaven when you die,” and relegate justice issues to an optional add-on, we miss the entire point of the Bible.

Jesus did not come just to save a few souls. Jesus came to rescue and redeem the entire cosmos. Jesus came to make all things new. Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil. Jesus came to create a new humanity based on cruciform love. This new humanity is the church, the people of God. They are drawn from every conceivable nation, language, culture, and ethnicity. The church transcends all social, religious, gender, and national boundaries and ideologies. It is the Beloved Society. It is just. Equity reigns. The greatest serve. Power is displayed by self-sacrificial lovingkindness. 

Judea and Israel were crushed because they failed to care for the poor, oppressed, marginalized, and discounted.

When he came into the presence of YHWH, Isaiah cried, “Woe am I, I am a man of unclean lips …”

Humility involves being teachable, learning from others, listening.

Am I a racist?

My knee-jerk answer is “of course not!” I was raised in a progressive, educated, lower-middle class home where we supported civil rights. Some of my ancestors fought to end slavery.

But … the culture I was raised in was racialized; our neighborhood was all white; I had my first black teacher in junior high school; I was never taught the true history of American genocide of the indigenous, nor of the brutality of slavery. I didn’t know what redlining was, or that police forces were first formed to capture run-away slaves, or that poverty produces despair and breeds violence. I had never heard of the Tuskegee syphilis or the University of Cincinnati radiation experiments. I had no idea how prevalent lynching was and that it occurred into the 1960s.  I was ignorant of the middle passage. I had no conception of what it would be like to have no healthcare or to live in neighborhoods where you can’t buy healthy food. Until I was in high school and tutored children with missing ears nibbled off by rats when they were infants and developmental delays from eating lead-based paint chips in a desperate attempt to assuage hunger, I had never seen real poverty. 

I have benefitted from the twin evils of stolen land and stolen people. I am not responsible for the sins of previous generations, but I have been complicit. I have white privilege. I have never worried about being shot during a traffic stop. I have never been suspiciously followed in a store, or had women jump abruptly off an elevator when they saw me approaching, or had someone call the police on me when I was bird watching. I didn’t need to give my son “the talk.”

What to do?

 “Come now, let us reasontogether, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool. 
(Is. 1:18 ESV)

I lament, crying in prayer on behalf of those victimized and for those who oppress.

I repent. Repentance simply means to change your mind. 

Humility means I listen. I listen to the voices of African Americans and Native Americans. They really do have worthwhile things to say. I read the theological, historical, and sociological works of Afro-Asiatic scholars. I try to be teachable. I try to listen.

I use my relative lack of melanin (which oddly gives me privileges) to speak up against injustice.

I purposely nurture friendships with people of other ethnicities. 

I ask the Holy Spirit to guard my heart and fill me with love.

What Was Isaiah’s Complaint?

Loving God in the Garden

Two Varieties of Spiritual Grapes called Mishpat & Tzedakah

Isaiah 5:1-7

You’ve heard of zinfandel and chardonnay. God’s garden also has several varieties of fruit. 

From the Reformation to modern times, the state church of most of Scandinavia has been the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The story is told of a 19th century Swedish Lutheran priest who preached on the teachings of Jesus. The congregation was so convicted that many were left crying. The minister, feeling for them, sought to console them with, “Don’t cry children. The whole thing could be a lie.” 

Kierkegaard said that true worship consists in simply doing God’s will.

“Why do you call me Lord and don’t do what I say?”

“If you love me, keep my commandments.”

How do we express our love of God?

Isaiah 5 gently begins as a sweet love song to God. Now I will sing for the one I love, a song about his vineyard… 

Who is it I love the best? Have I been singing love songs to my Jesus, my beloved God? Isaiah sings to YHWH. Songs sung to God have always meant more to me than ones sung about God. The best worship leaders are not putting on a show – they are singing love songs to Jesus. 

In his song, the prophet emphasizes the effort YHWH went to in establishing and caring for God’s garden. God chose a place with rich fertile soil, ploughed, disked and raked the soil, and cleared it of weeds and stones. Then, God enclosed it with a stonewall and built a watchtower so an eye could be kept at all times on the vineyard, the approaching weather, and predators.  A family of raccoons can desecrate your crop. 

God carefully hewed out a winepress. In biblical times, winepresses were often chiseled out of solid rock. They had two levels – one where the grapes were crushed and a lower level that collected the grape juice. A winepress such as this indicates a permanent commitment to be in this place and care for this vineyard. Clearly God was in this thing for the long haul. 

God prepared everything in advance to optimize success. Then, God planted the finest, choicest vines money could buy.

YHWH waited patiently for the grape harvest, but the grapes were wild, bitter. An alternate translation says they were “stinking things.” 

Now the song shifts. Isaiah is no longer singing. God is speaking, singing, chanting, pleading, poetically weeping:

Now, you people of Jerusalem and Judah,
    you judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could I have done for my vineyard
    that I have not already done?
When I expected sweet grapes,
    why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes?

Other than turn us into robots, mere puppets void of volition, what more could God do for us?

We were lost. Creation was ruined. 

God became human. Lived amongst us, walked in our shoes, resisted every temptation known to humankind. He served us, washed our feet, told us not to fear, and that our sins were forgiven. He healed us of our afflictions, set us free from the forces of evil, and taught us, in word and by example, how to live a new way as citizens in a new kingdom.

Then, he willingly went to Calvary. As he was accused, sentenced, mocked, whipped, humiliated, spit upon, slapped, punched, abused, crowned with thorns, stripped naked and nailed to a Roman gibbet where he was left for his diaphragm to squeeze the air from his lungs, he forgave his enemies. 

All the sin, evil, misery, corruption, violence, hatred, inequity, and transgression, not only of all humankind, but of the entire universe, coalesced and focused on him like a laser beam. He absorbed it all.

It killed him. The devil laughed. The disciples wept. The religious felt vindicated. The Romans felt exhausted. Religion and Empire killed Jesus. 

Unbeknownst to any of them at the time, everything had already changed. It was indeed Good Friday.

Death couldn’t stop him. The grave couldn’t hold him. Hades swallowed him, only to vomit him out. Up from the grave he arose.

All sin forgiven. Off the table. Gone forever. Power to set every captive free. Good news to the poor. Kingdom come. A new age. A new beginning. The entire cosmos rescued. All things new. Age-abiding life. 

King Jesus crossed an infinite divide to become sin with our sin so we could be the righteousness of God in him. 

He ascended to heaven and poured out his Holy Spirit on all flesh, flooding us with the power and graces we need for life in his Kingdom. 

What more could God do?

We love him because he first loved us.

Isaiah 5 identifies the vineyard with the nation of Israel:

The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
    The people of Judah are his pleasant garden.

Now, we – Jews and gentiles, of any and all nationalities, ethnicities, and circumstances – we who pledge our allegiance to Jesus – we are his vineyard. “I am the vine; you are the branches; my Father is the vinedresser,” says Jesus to us. 

And he looks for fruit. When we bear fruit, God prunes and supports so we can bear more fruit. He snips off the dead branches that never bear fruit.

The fruit for which God looks comes in two varieties.

Mishpat: Justice.

He expected a crop of justice, but instead he found oppression. (v. 7)

In English, mishpat means “justice.” We sometimes think of justice in terms of punishment, arresting officers, incarceration. God’s justice is not violent, vindictive, or punitive, but rather always restorative. God aims to make us just, ethical, moral, people of equity, people who treat others with dignity and respect, who live by the Golden Rule. 

Strict equality is not enough.  If a short person and a tall person are both given identically equal stools to sit on, the taller person is still taller. 

I’m a landlocked sailor. If every sailboat is exactly like every other in a race, they just race around a pre-set course according to pre-set rules. If, however, you have an open-class race in which boats of all different kinds are racing, the race has to be handicapped in order to be fair. Mathematical formulas are applied and time is added to the fastest boats to compensate for the ones that have no choice but to go slowly. So the old catboat takes three hours to complete a course the catamaran finishes in an hour, but when the formulas are applied and times adjusted for equity, the catboat wins. It sailed faster than expected. The human race is rigged in favor of white people. Flying about the Internet are misused statistics about race and crime, akin to pointing out that, clearly, the catamaran is faster. 

Equity means the playing field is leveled. It means reparations. It means affirmative action. It means black people and white people being treated the same by police officers, judges, juries, human resource departments, and landlords. Some people are trying to run the race with weights attached to their ankles – weights like intergenerational poverty and oppression, for example.

Had George Floyd been white, he would not have been on the ground with a callous knee squeezing the air out of his lungs. The race-hating white perpetrator of the Charleston Emanuel AME church massacre who killed nine people attending a mid-week prayer meeting was treated with respect, even taken to get something to eat by police. 

What applies to whites does not apply to blacks in this country. Government and institutions are saturated with unconscious systemic racism. It’s the water we swim in. We inherited a racialized society. 

Mishpat demands equity, honesty, listening to voices unlike ours, being open, teachable and willing to learn, and taking special care for the marginalized, disenfranchised, vulnerable, oppressed, and voiceless. It means social justice – equality in housing, healthcare, job market, education, and availability of services. 

God is looking for mishpat.

God is looking for tzedakahTzedakah means righteousness.

He expected to find righteousness, but instead he heard cries of violence. (v. 7)

Tzedakah is most often used in contemporary Jewish communities to mean charitable contributions.  In the middle ages, Rabbi Maimonides said the highest form of tzedakah is to give enough money to a stranger so they can live freely and independently for life, like setting someone up in a business, for example. The next highest, according to the good rabbi, would be a significant anonymous gift to someone you don’t know. 

Biblically, tzedakah means much more than generous charity, although that’s included. It is an ethical obligation, an essential behavioral feature – it implies being a person characterized by charity, understanding, nonjudgmentalism, generosity, tolerance, compassion, and liberality.

It means being teachable. It means listening to the voices of the lowly, the vulnerable, the alien, the sick, the incarcerated, the victimized, the oppressed – those Jesus called “the least of these my sisters and brothers” in Matthew 25. 

African-Americans really do have something to say. The rest of us need to listen.  

Turn off the white dominated media and listen to the voices of our black sisters and brothers. 

Lectures, sermons, writings and blogs by Doctors John M. Perkins, Bernice King, Drew G. I. Hart, and Dominique DuBois Gillard are great starting places.

There’s a poetic play on words here. God looked for mishpat/justice, but instead found mishpach/oppression; God looked for tzedakah/righteousness, but instead found tseakah/violence. 

In Isaiah 5, God cries woe on those who get rich at the expense of others, who are motivated by greed and consumption, live in opulence while others go hungry, who perpetrate injustice, who cheer cruelty, oppress the vulnerable, blame victims, or incite violence.

Judgment is God’s reluctant, strange work of stepping aside and allowing the natural consequences of evil to implode. Finding no justice, nor any righteousness, but instead injustice, oppression, violence, and inequity, God steps aside:

Now let me tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard:
I will tear down its hedges
    and let it be destroyed.
I will break down its walls
    and let the animals trample it.
I will make it a wild place
    where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed,
    a place overgrown with briers and thorns.
I will command the clouds
    to drop no rain on it.

Jesus will not stay in a church, a community, a city, a nation void of love. 

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”– Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Isaiah 5 New Living Translation (NLT)

A Song about the Lord’s Vineyard

Now I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
    on a rich and fertile hill.
He plowed the land, cleared its stones,
    and planted it with the best vines.
In the middle he built a watchtower
    and carved a winepress in the nearby rocks.
Then he waited for a harvest of sweet grapes,
    but the grapes that grew were bitter.

Now, you people of Jerusalem and Judah,
    you judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could I have done for my vineyard
    that I have not already done?
When I expected sweet grapes,
    why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes?

Now let me tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard:
I will tear down its hedges
    and let it be destroyed.
I will break down its walls
    and let the animals trample it.
I will make it a wild place
    where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed,
    a place overgrown with briers and thorns.
I will command the clouds
    to drop no rain on it.

The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
    The people of Judah are his pleasant garden.
He expected a crop of justice,
    but instead he found oppression.
He expected to find righteousness,
    but instead he heard cries of violence.

Loving God in the Garden: Isaiah 5:1-7

What in the World is this doing in the Bible?

The Song of Songs that is Solomon’s, or, Canticles[1] is the most enigmatic book in the Bible. Like Esther, Song of Songs makes no mention of God.[2] Esther alludes to God and makes it easy to see God working behind the scenes. Not so here. Song of Songs is an erotic, passionate love poem in which two young lovers are ravished with one another’s sexuality. That bothers a lot of people.

After living a very promiscuous life, Augustine of Hippo was converted to Christianity and lent his skills to integrating Platonic philosophy with Christian doctrine. Among other things, he invented the idea that God designed sex for only one purpose – to make babies. Any other use of sex was deemed sinful. That became the dominant (if not practiced) view in occidental civilization for nearly 17 centuries. It led to Victorian prudery, the belief that contraception is contrary to God’s will, and an exalting of celibacy over marriage. Sex was basically wrong and to be avoided if possible, albeit occasionally necessary to propagate humankind.

That all blew up in the sexual revolution that began in the late 1950s. Sex as duty, sex as a necessary evil, was tossed out and replaced with sex as recreation. “If it feels good, do it.” Sex is fun. Enjoy it whenever and with whoever you want. 

Then came sexually transmitted diseases and broken hearts, so the idea of recreational sex was tempered with “be safe, make sure you’re ready and you really care about the other person.”

Long before the sexual revolution, even long before Augustine, is the Song of Solomon, a delightful, passionate, joyous, explicit celebration of sex. Song of Solomon denies both prudery and free sex. The two people in the Song of Songs are quite obviously totally committed to each other. They are monogamous. They give themselves abandonedly to each other in thorough guiltless enjoyment and heated passion. We humans are designed as sexual beings and are free to fully and lavishly enjoy that within committed relationships. The woman in the poem warns her female friends, however, not to stir up sexual passion before they are ready. Her advice works for males as well. It’s a fire that can easily get out of control.

OK, but still, isn’t the Bible the book about God? Shouldn’t, therefore, all the books of the Bible be about God? 

Enter the theologians. 

No one knows when Song of Songs was written, but it was around by about the third century before Jesus was born and it was accepted into the Jewish canon as scripture. Rabbis have long taken it as an allegory of the love God has for Israel. Christian theologians built off of that and have for two millennia viewed the book as an allegory of the love between Jesus and his bride – the church, the people of God.

Both of those views make sense. There are hints of backstory in the poem. One not entirely far-fetched possible but imaginative backstory is that King Solomon disguised himself as a simple shepherd in order to take walks in the countryside without being harassed. (It’s hard to be alone when you’re a celebrity.) On one of those walks in what is now Lebanon, he met and fell in love with a simple village girl. They pledge their troth to one another. He tells her he’ll come back and get her and marry her. She waits. The royal entourage shows up one day, complete with the king riding in his palanquin. The king emerges, and lo and behold, he is her shepherd lover! They ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.

Jesus came as simple peasant, won our hearts, and left promising to come back for us. When he does, we who are engaged to Jesus[3] will be wed and enjoy “the marriage feast of the Lamb.” And, we will live happily ever after. 

Whether or not we can follow an analogy like that in the text, its lesson is true. If we read the lines spoken by the man in Song of Songs as the words of Jesus to us (and the words of the woman as ours to him)[4], we gain a deeper awareness of the radical scandalous love God has for us. We discover, for example, that, we are all fair and beautiful in God’s eyes and that Jesus loves being with us.

There’s yet another lesson in Song of Songs.

Song of Songs is filled with garden imagery.

In chapter 2, the male voice sings: 

Get up, my dear friend,
    fair and beautiful lover—come to me!
Look around you: Winter is over;
    the winter rains are over, gone!
Spring flowers are in blossom all over.
    The whole world’s a choir—and singing!
Spring warblers are filling the forest
    with sweet arpeggios.
Lilacs are exuberantly purple and perfumed,
    and cherry trees fragrant with blossoms.
Oh, get up, dear friend,
    my fair and beautiful lover—come to me!
Come, my shy and modest dove—
    leave your seclusion, come out in the open.
Let me see your face,
    let me hear your voice.

For your voice is soothing
    and your face is ravishing
.

Chapter 4 speaks of

Ripe apricots and peaches,
    oranges and pears;
Nut trees and cinnamon,
    and all scented woods;
Mint and lavender,
    and all herbs aromatic;
A garden fountain, sparkling and splashing,
    fed by spring waters from the Lebanon mountains
.

And in that same chapter, the woman sings:

Wake up, North Wind,
    get moving, South Wind!
Breathe on my garden,
    fill the air with spice fragrance
. (MSG)[5]

In Canticles, the garden is abundant, fruitful, lush, copious, and verdant. It reminds us of Eden before the fall, and stands in stark contrast to the thorn and thistle infested Eden after sin enters the system. 

As Genesis opens, all is chaos, disorder. God speaks and brings order into the chaos, light into the darkness, beauty into bareness, life into a lifeless void. It is good. It is very good. It is beautiful. But it’s not complete.

God invites humans, created in the divine image, to partner with God in expanding Eden until the whole earth is a garden. That’s what “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” means. God is saying much more than have a bunch of kiddos. The humans are to guard the garden against evil forces and expand it out into the remaining disorder in the cosmos. They mess up. They let evil in and they don’t extend the beauty of Eden.

If we fast-forward to the last book of the Bible, we see the culmination – the whole cosmos is a beautiful garden-city. Heaven comes to earth. Earth and heaven wed. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth.

Between Genesis and Revelation sits the Song of Songs. Throughout, it not only celebrates the love of two people, but also the restoration of harmony. When the first humans sinned, discord resulted. There was discord between people (“It’s the woman you gave me!”), discord in nature (thorns and thistles), and discord with God (“Adam, where are you?”). Dissonance everywhere.

Look around today. Dissonance. Discord. Pollution. Fouled air. Oceans full of plastic. Species going extinct. The environment raped for profit. Police killing black men. Riots. Income inequality. War. Lies. People selfishly refusing to protect others from pandemic viruses. People claiming to be Christian while supporting policies and politicians diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus. Dissonance. Discord.

The Hebrew word teshuqah(תְּשׁוּקָה)is very rare. It occurs only three times in the Bible. It means a desire or a longing. At the fall, God tells the woman that she will desire her husband but he will rule over her. In Genesis 4, God warns Cain that sin desires to snatch him. And in the Song of Songs (7:10), the woman declares, I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.

See the contrast, the reversal? 

  • Genesis: Sin, fall, discord, environment out of whack. 
  • Song of Songs: harmony, congruence, a flourishing garden filled with fruit and nut trees. 
  • Genesis: the woman’s longing will be toward her husband. 
  • Song of Songs: the husband longs for his bride. Partners. Equals. Two strong independent people ravished unselfishly with one another. 

Unity. Harmony. Peace. Justice.

How? Not by ignoring wrong. Not by excusing injustice. Not by violence. Unity, harmony, peace, and justice in the environment and in society come from nonviolent, self-sacrificing, other-oriented, altruistic, cruciform agapé love. A third way. The way of the cross. The way of Jesus. 

Celebrate with me, friends!
    Raise your glasses—“To life! To love!”
(5:1)


[1]You’ll see it abbreviated S of S, Song, or Cant

[2]The closest that any verse comes to mentioning God is 8:6, which in some versions reads: Put me like a seal over your heart/ Like a seal on your arm. /For love is as strong as death, / Jealousy is as severe as Sheol; / Its flashes are flashes of fire, / The very flame of the Lord. Most translations leave out the word “Lord”, as, for example, NASB, “a vehement flame.” NIV and NET read, “a mighty flame.” The reference is to burning passion, not to God.

[3]Baptism is our engagement to Christ. The second coming is our wedding procession. The marriage feast of the Lamb is our reception. 

[4]Helpfully, many translators mark who is speaking in the text based on the gender of the Hebrew nouns. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell sometimes.

[5]All scripture quotations are taken from THE MESSAGE, copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Song of Songs and the Key to Harmony with God, Others, & Nature

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