Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of the Blogroll: 2010

This year again I'm keeping the tradition of closing out the old year by celebrating the best post(s) of the year from various blogs on my blogroll. Welcome to the Best of the blogroll, 2010 edition:
Please welcome to the blogroll starting in 2011 a long-overdue update to include Thin Places and The Pocket Scroll.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Holy, holy, holy: How ancient is that song?

I have one more note in the series on holiness, a comment on the praise of God's holiness in the ancient song "Holy, Holy, Holy" in our worship. Exalting God's name and hallowing it does not reduce to this song; but this song has played an important part through the ages in hallowing God's name. I was surprised just how ancient and widespread that is in our worship.

The song "Holy, Holy, Holy" is part of the most ancient church services. In the ancient Latin liturgies, the song goes by the name Sanctus. In the ancient Greek liturgies, a similar prayer goes by the name Trisagion (thrice-holy), though in its form it is not so closely tied to the vision of Isaiah. But the place of this song in the worship service seems to be older than the Latin or Greek forms. When I went to my niece's bat-mitzvah, there in the service it was a long-expected friend: "Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Adonai Sabaoth!" (Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Hosts!).

The most ancient parts of the liturgy are inherited from Judaism: the Scripture readings, the lectionary to order them, the Psalms, the sermon, the fringed shawl worn by the leader, and at least this one song: Holy, Holy, Holy. Then again, the Hebrews do not suppose that the song originated in their liturgy. From the vision of Isaiah, they believe it to be part of the eternal song of heaven, and our liturgies merely participate in that. Some of the older Christian liturgies introduce this song by reminding the people that here we are joining the eternal song: "Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying:".

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The hope of the nations -- and of the Christians, and of the sinners

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwell in the land of the shadow of death, on them the light has shined. ... For unto us a child is born. (Isaiah 9:2, 6)
So as I mentioned before, "business as usual" is living in darkness and the shadow of death. I've read lots of words today (Christmas; I'm scheduling this to post the next day). Some of the words have been encouraging, but some have been words in which people rehearse their hatred towards other people, or criticize others for celebrating Christmas in a way they don't approve (like with all the sparkly lights), or justify thoughts that they are, after all, more knowledgeable about Christianity than most others. Sometimes it gives the appearance that knowledge is used to put down others; if one person has more facts about the historical background of the day, then the brother or sister in Christ they're presuming to instruct had best stop talking back and admit the superiority of the other. Even if they're as right as they imagine about facts, who is exalted? Business as usual is walking in darkness for all of us. Sometimes the temptation is for us to think we're the light, the "star". We're not.

We're Christian writers, right? I expect we all would like to see these things we write as righteous acts, or at least as our best efforts at it. Which brings into focus something else Isaiah taught us: our righteous acts are filthy rags before God, and it rarely occurs to us that "Chief of sinners" applies to us and our righteous acts, especially in our religiosity, especially when we're most sure we're not the problem -- especially when we're sure we're the light, the star. That was what convinced Saul of Tarsus, after all, to go full steam ahead with his wickedness back in the day: it was precisely his religiosity -- his certainty that here, he was in the right and the others were wrong, so no holds barred in opposing them -- that led him to be chief of sinners, that led him to shed innocent blood, that led him to be arrogant and cruel and ruthless, to lose all sense of perspective. Perspective comes with humility. It is often when we're most convinced that we are the light (the enlightened ones, or the stars) that we are in the deepest darkness. It's not about us. It's really not.
For unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given. And the government will be upon his shoulders. And his name shall be called: Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that day forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas, interrupting business as usual

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwell in the land of the shadow of death, on them the light has shined. ... For unto us a child is born. (Isaiah 9:2, 6)
All year long, we go about business as usual -- and often, "business as usual" is living in darkness, and the shadow of death.

God interrupts business as usual. And God in his wisdom did not send mere words but a child, who in his wisdom did not come to condemn but to forgive. And there lies our hope.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Holiness begins here: "Hallowed be your name"

As we saw before, all the holiness in this world depends on the holiness of God. In a world with no knowledge of the holiness of God, nothing at all is regarded as holy.

We live in an age of disrespect. Too often, derision and mockery are accepted; reverence is not. Too many times, people have marveled at what our culture has become, how low we have sunk, and often the shock is voiced with these words: "Is nothing sacred?"

That which gives purity, beauty, meaning and dignity to our lives is holiness. In "holiness", we find part of the mystery of God. If you ask people, "Where does the world come from?" some will say the Big Bang. The Big Bang lacks two things, compared to God: personhood and holiness. Some will say the world was caused by Intelligent Design but the designer may not be God. The Intelligent Designer, thought of in this way, lacks one thing compared to God: holiness.

Holiness is at the core of the mystery of what it means to be God. The holiness of God is, time and again, associated with his glory and particularly with beauty. Another symptom of this sickness of our age is that our artwork has lost its beauty. It seems this began about the same time that the holy was thrown out of favor as a rightful theme of art. (Should the "Age of Enlightenment" be re-named the "Age of Disenchantment"?)

God's holiness affects more than just himself. It affects us and the world we live in. It is not by accident that the very first prayer we offer each day, each night, is "Hallowed be your name." Jesus taught us to begin with this, to make this the foundation of our petitions, the prayer on which all other prayers rest. Without this petition, the next petitions are impossible. God's kingdom come, God's will be done on earth as in heaven ... What kind of kingdom does not honor its king? And how is his will done -- who sets out to do that will, where God is not honored? It begins with reverence. To hallow God's name is to take part in his kingdom.

If we want to reclaim this world as hallowed ground, it begins with hallowing God's name. Our own holiness does not begin with ourselves, or our personal purity, or our obedience or steadfastness or clean records. It begins with hallowing God's name.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holy, holy, holy: Degrees of holiness

In the Bible, some things are called holy. Fewer are called most holy (in the Hebrew, typically "holy holy"; in English, sometimes "Holy of Holies"). As far as I can tell, God alone is called "holy, holy, holy" (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8).

The things of this world, or the places, or the people, are called holy when they are of God and for God. When God calls his people, he declares that his people should be holy, for he is holy. This is something like a refrain in the book of Leviticus: be holy for God is holy (11:44, 11:45, 19:2, 20:7, 20:26, 21:8, 22:3, 22:32). Again, for us holiness is not mere separation from the impure in the world; it means drawing closer to God.

Relatively few things in the Bible are designated as most holy. Most often, the "most holy" things are the altar, certain offerings reserved for the priests to eat, and the inner sanctum -- the Holy of Holies -- in the Temple. The altar, among the most holy things, had a special blessing: it would make holy whatever touched it (Exodus 29:37). The Holy of Holies within the Temple was also unique: there was the very presence of God, manifested in a way that was rare in the world, but expected at that place.

And then there is one striking reference to something "holy holy" -- striking in the possibility of a double meaning, and in its implications:
Seventy 'sevens' are determined upon your people and upon your holy city: to finish transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy. Know, then, and understand that from the going forth of the decree to restore and build Jerusalem until the anointed ruler ... (Daniel 9:24-25)
What, exactly, is anointed? Are they discussing the Temple and anointing the Most Holy place, or are they discussing the anointed ruler?

I know there are those who insist this has nothing to do with the Messiah. But I'll tell you plainly, the ancient Jews believed "All the prophets prophesied only for the days of the Messiah" – Berachoth 34b, and again, "All the prophets prophesied only in respect of the Messianic era" – Sanhedrin 99a. So the thought of referring this to anything and everything but the Messiah is not in keeping with ancient Judaism.

Instead, here we see a possibility: that the Messiah has a unique connection with that rebuilt Temple, and particularly with that "anointed, Most Holy" here. The manifest presence of God on earth and the Messiah are connected in this passage; the Temple and the Messiah are blurred together. "Destroy the Temple and in three days I will rebuild it" -- Jesus identifies himself with the true meaning of that holy place. At Jesus' death, the curtain veiling the Most Holy place was torn, again pointing out Jesus' connection to the Temple and especially to the Most Holy place, the place where God's presence was found on earth.

And Jesus, true Holy of Holies, brings us to one more thing that the Bible calls most holy: the sacrifices. Among the most holy sacrifices were the sin offerings and the trespass offerings. And these -- these were given the priests to eat. Jesus is the most holy sin offering, the most holy trespass offering, given to the priests to eat. Peter understood that well when he wrote and declared that all of those in Christ are priests. Not only are we a royal priesthood, but like Christ we are part of the house, the dwelling-place, of God: "living stones being built into a spiritual house". Again, holiness is not at all a separation, except from things that are perishing. It is a drawing-in, a transformation, an ever-closer fellowship with God.

I'm not quite done with this series on holiness, but here I will leave off with this thought: the holy and the most holy are bridges between this world and the Holy, Holy, Holy Lord. All the holiness in this world depends on the holiness of God. If God is not holy, then nothing is holy.

Picking up from there next time.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Is holiness really "separation"?

In our world, conventional wisdom says that holiness is being separate, being set apart. We picture holiness as avoiding the evil, the unclean, the impure. No doubt holiness does all that. But is that because holiness wants to be a hermit, or because the world is often unclean?

If the world were clean and pure, would holiness need to be separate from it? Genesis tells the story of Eden, where Adam and Eve heard the LORD walking in the garden (Genesis 3:8). Did God stop being holy to walk among us? No, not at all; I think the world was holy -- a fitting place for God. When the world is good, there is no need for separation.

In the Temple in ancient Israel, the presence of God was said to rest in the Holy of Holies. You could hardly imagine a more separate place. It was within the Temple, in the inner sanctum that even the typical priest would never enter in his lifetime. Even the high priest was only permitted to open the curtain once a year. The point of the curtain was to make sure that the holy of holies did remain separate.
And the curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45)
Those who have read the accounts of Jesus' life will already know: at his death, the holy of holies was torn open.

What was Holiness doing, being separate all those years? Had he surrendered the world to evil, and contented himself with a compromise of a life in exile from his own world? Was Holiness hiding in the Most Holy place, hiding from the world? Had the presence of God retreated from evil and made a fortress for itself, under siege? If so, then at Jesus' death the last sanctuary for Holiness in this world was destroyed. Then evil had broken into the last refuge of goodness on earth. God had come to reach out to man, and man had killed him.

Or was Holiness maintaining a presence among us all those years? Was Holiness giving us a rallying point for hope, that he had not abandoned us even in our fallen state? Was he saying that he stayed with us, even in our sin, even in our wickedness, throughout all the long years? Was his continuing presence saying that one day he would walk among us again? Was it a promise of redemption? If so, then at Jesus' death God's separation from us has ended. Holiness' years of biding his time in a sanctuary is finished. The last barrier, death, has been breached by God. God is no longer to be sought in the holy of holies; God is with us.

We know "God with us" as the name Jesus is given as part of God's promise to the world of his birth. Did God stop being holy to walk among us? No, not at all. God does not change. And where there is no separation from God, more places become holy.

Part of a series ... more to come.

I'm back ...

I think this is the longest I've ever gone without posting since I started my own blog. Missed you guys (all the regulars).

And the lesson I learned: Just because you can avoid the blame game at work, that does not mean you can avoid the two weeks of overtime that it takes to get the problem resolved. :)

I hope to have a real post up later today.

Monday, December 06, 2010

What is the Christian response to the blame game?

Earlier today I found myself googling to find a Christian response to the blame game, when accusations start to fly and fingers start to point. A group I'm involved with looks like it will soon be having a moment like that.

While I didn't find anything I really found suitable on the web, it turns out that Jesus did already explain it to us when he said, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." So if what we we want is to get fair credit for our contributions, and not to be blamed unjustly for problems beyond our control, and for everyone to pull together and find a constructive way forward ... then that's what to do for others. The first step is to resist the urge to defend by pointing the finger.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Behind enemy lines: Christian life in a forced-secular world

A follower of Christ has no enemies, for his own part: hates none, wishes harm to none, works for the good of all. But many others call Christ's people their enemies. And, often times, we find ourselves as Christians in territory that is controlled by those who count us as enemies. Let's face it: banishing religion from the public square does mean that the public square has fallen under the control of hostile hands; a friendly takeover would not have banished anyone. And this has occurred even though the majority of people in this country are religious, even Christian. In the public square, then, we find ourselves in hostile territory. We are behind enemy lines, in a sense.

Unexpectedly, this position behind enemy lines gives us a few advantages, if only we were to use them. Does the word "sabotage" have an opposite, a word that means the stealthy and unexpected act of "subversive" goodness? In the middle of an insult war, a gentle answer is a kind of reverse sabotage. Blessing those who curse us is an act of subversive goodness. Praying for those who persecute us is an act of reverse sabotage. Returning good for evil is Jesus' call to us. And in the midst of this unique amount of fear that so many people are feeling about the nation and the future, hope and goodwill are uniquely potent acts. We are in a position to surprise the enemy, to convert the enemy. Each kind word returned for an insult, each refusal to hate, each refusal to slander, each refusal to assume the worst of others, is planting our flag in enemy territory, the flag of the kingdom of God.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Good tidings to Zion: Handel in modern English

Handel's masterpiece, Messiah, has proved its staying power by now. But the English language has changed, and modern musical tastes are simpler. Handel's original is musically complex. I wanted an arrangement of Handel that could be sung by the congregation as a hymn or a song. Here is a simplified version of one piece from the Messiah in more modern English, something a congregation could sing:

O you proclaiming good tidings to Zion,
Go up onto the high mountain,
Call to Jerusalem, call out your tidings
Go up onto the high mountain.
Lift your voice
Have no fear
The glory of the Lord shall appear
The glory of the Lord shall appear
And all the world shall behold him!

Call out, call out to the cities of Judah
Proclaim unto the Lord's people
Oh beautiful feet bringing tidings to Zion
Call out to the cities of Judah!

Behold your God!
Behold your God!

Lift your voice
Have no fear
The glory of the Lord shall appear
The glory of the Lord shall appear
And all the world shall behold him!

The original was basically all from Isaiah 40:9 and 60:1; this works in parts of a related passage in Isaiah 52. I'm still tinkering with this adaptation, which is rough in places. Think of this as Version 1.0.