Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa … - Nehemiah 1:1

Today’s Scripture Reading (August 23, 2017): Nehemiah 1

I sometimes wonder how much of our history is going to be questioned a thousand years from now by scholars reading of the events of our day. What events that we have lived through every day will cause people to wonder if this could be true. How many of our leaders will be accepted as historical fact – or is it possible that our political leaders will be seen as legendary in status. (Is it possible that Donald Trump might be regarded as a symbol of the populist feelings that dominated American culture during this period of time rather than an actual President of the United States?) Even with proof, we seem to have trouble believing the things that we have not seen with our own eyes. And if you doubt that just consider the rise in the number of Holocaust doubters that we seem to possess in our culture a mere seventy-five years after the horrible events that took place during the Second World War. And this doubt is present in spite of the volumes of pictures and film that we have access to that were taken at the time of the Holocaust. For some, the truth is that we were not there so we really can’t know.

We have a similar argument when it comes to the characters that were presented with in the pages of the Bible. A rabbi by the name of Jesus of Nazareth really did walk the earth. We know from several historical writers that he lived and that he was crucified for his teachings. This is historical. Was he the Son of God and did he come back to life, these are issues that invite doubt in those who do not want to believe in the full story of Jesus and here we can man things about which we can argue. But we cannot seriously maintain that Jesus the man never existed. There is too much proof outside of the Bible to allow for that supposition.

Nehemiah stands in a similar position in history. Every indication leads us to believe that the person of Nehemiah is a real person who served the King of Persia in the middle of the 5th Century B.C.E. The opening words of the book that carries his name anchors this person into a real point in time. And everything fits. Nehemiah served the King Artaxerxes of Persia. It was the twentieth year of his reign, or 445-444 B.C.E. Artaxerxes reigned for forty-one years, so this places the story of Nehemiah at the center portion of the Kings reign. It is likely that there was political stability at this point in the reign of Artaxerxes. And the story begins in the month of Kislev at the Citadel at Susa. And even here, the facts fit. The capital of the Persian Empire at this time was the city of Persepolis, but the book of Nehemiah says that these events started during the month of Kislev, which translates to late November or early December. And Susa was the winter capital of the king. During this season, we would not expect the king to be in Persepolis, but rather Susa.

And here the story begins to unfold, as historically it should.   

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Nehemiah 2 & 3

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the room of Jehohanan son of Eliashib. While he was there, he ate no food and drank no water, because he continued to mourn over the unfaithfulness of the exiles. – Ezra 10:6

Today’s Scripture Reading (August 22, 2017): Ezra 10

As threats of racial violence continues to reverberate in many areas of our world, the question that is left is really “what do we do next?” And maybe central to the question is this one – do we even understand why racism and racial violence is wrong. I am not sure that the answer to the question of our understanding of wrong in this area is yes. Deep down there seems to be a racial chasm that we have no idea how to cross.

About a week ago I watched the talking heads on CNN discuss the question of racism in the United States. Unfortunately, the CNN conversation seemed to huddle around the question of political history and who did what when. There is no doubt that all of the political parties have had their racial moments. But at some point we have to be able to flip the switch and say clearly to the world “yes, we have messed up in the past. But in the future we have decided to move in a different direction. We want to change the past; to make a break with it. Who we were yesterday is not the legacy that we want to leave for the future.” But maybe that is easier said than done. We still have the racial chasm that we have to build a bridge over. The blame has to end. We have to decide what kind of a society we are wanting to build, and then build it.

Ezra knew that Israel needed a change. It was time to move the nation in a different direction. And so the first thing he does is get alone and fast as he contemplates the nation’s change of direction into the future. As the leader of the nation, he mourns the unfaithfulness of the people and takes the blame for their failure on himself before his God. And maybe that is what we miss. The blame does not begin with others. It starts with us. We have to mourn what has gone wrong – be willing to weep over it and understand our part in the failure of the past. Only then can we move into the future with a new idea of what needs to happen next.

By the way, I am not convinced that Ezra got it right. The problem was that foreigners, the racial bias that is present in this passage, brought with them foreign gods. Marrying a foreigner didn’t just introduce a foreign god into the culture, it brought it into the home. The real question behind Ezra’s problem as Israel started off on fresh footing was this – regardless of your nationality, are you willing to follow the God of Israel from this moment forward. If you are, then everything is okay, even if you were not a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But if you are not willing to follow the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob into this new adventure, then you cannot stay. You must go – even if you were born a citizen of Jacob’s Nation. There is no room for you in the new national dream, and national direction on which we are ready to embark.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Nehemiah 1

Monday, 21 August 2017

I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. – Ezra 9:6

Today’s Scripture Reading (August 21, 2017): Ezra 9

Actress Priyanka Chopra once commented “Black, brown, white, yellow – why are we always talking about colors? I’m a girl. I believe in a global community.” I agree, although as a white male my opinion on this matter often doesn’t count. I am viewed as a part of some elite, even though that is not the experience that I carry through life. I am convinced that the idea of community is essential. My whiteness is irrelevant. Our world is filled with beautiful color that enhances everything that we do. We exist in a global and color-filled community.

The existence of a global community is one reason why protectionism bothers me. The world in which walls meant something died when we invented planes and rockets with the capability to fly over the walls. We need to understand all struggles are global problems that require all of us to solve. There can be no real success at solving the problems of environmental care, poverty, racism or many others unless we are willing to partake in the global community and recognize that our membership in the human race requires that we go beyond our national borders. Success requires community. Of course, the flip side is also true. Failure is never limited to the individual; when one fails, we all have failed.

Ezra sets the example for us in this. He has just entered the scene, and he is told of the failure of the community. There is no indication that any of this failure is his. There is no cause to believe that Ezra’s theology had, in the past, been misguided. He has moved from exile back to Judah with the intention of making a difference. And yet he refuses to chastise the people for their shortcomings. His prayer does not say that their, the people’s, sins are higher than their heads. He says “our sins.” Even though he had nothing to do with what had happened, before God, he places himself in the middle of the community and repents of the communities shortcomings.

And not only does Ezra repent of the sins of the community, he feels for the community. The words “ashamed” and “disgraced” speak of a two-pronged process. First, Ezra understood and felt the shame of the sin. But it was not enough to stop there. Next, Ezra felt the physical discomfort and pain that the shame brought with it. He could have avoided that pain by reminding himself that he was blameless of the wrongdoing. But as a leader of the community, he refused to do that.

Shame is an emotion that usually brings change. And that change is, in part, because of the pain that we feel as a result of our shame – what this passage calls disgrace. As a member of the global community, we must allow ourselves to feel the disgrace, because only then will we have the reason to find the answer. As long as we don’t feel the pain, it will forever be someone else’s problem – and global repentance and change will never take place.   

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Ezra 10

Sunday, 20 August 2017

I assembled them at the canal that flows toward Ahava, and we camped there three days. When I checked among the people and the priests, I found no Levites there. – Ezra 8:15

Today’s Scripture Reading (August 20, 2017): Ezra 8

Author Leo Buscaglia, also known as Dr. Love, wrote that “your talent is God's gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.” Every one of us has been gifted by God in some way. Too often we seem to bury the gifts we have been given because it is not the one that we wish that we possessed. But God never gifts us without some purpose. We are all important puzzle pieces, and when we are willing to put our pieces together, we have the potential to make a difference in this world. And this difference is the reason why we have been gifted in the first place. Buscaglia is right. Or maybe to phrase his words, God has gifted us with the expectation that we will make a positive difference in the world in which we live by acting together and, in this act, giving our gifts back to God.

It is apparent that as Ezra returns to Judah, he returns with a purpose. He intends to restart the practice of Temple Worship in the newly built Temple. To complete this task, he needs two groups of people who have been specially gifted to work in the Temple. Both groups are technically Levites or descendants of the Tribe of Levi. One group was the priests who were responsible for the sacrificial rituals within the Temple, and the other was the Levites who were not priests who were responsible for all of the rest of the activities of the Temple. Maybe the most important role of these Levites who were not priests was that they were the musicians required for the worship of the Temple.  

Ezra notes that he checks among the people and the priests and he finds that there are no Levites. Obviously, he has priests because he has spoken with them, but what is missing is this second group of Levites; the Levites support workers for the Temple, and possibly most importantly, the musicians.

In some ways, this is problematic because we know that Levites were part of this group. One solution is that the Levites had grown comfortable in Babylon. The Tribes of Israel had been instructed to give their tithe to the Temple in order to care for the Priests and Levites, allowing them the time to minister in Temple. But the Tribes had often not brought the whole Tithe into the Temple, leaving the Priests and the Levites living off of very little. It is possible that the Levites, being freed from the responsibilities of the Temple, were supporting themselves and did not want to go back to the responsibility of the Temple supported by the Tithe.

But another interesting option is that when the rulers in Babylon had ordered the Levites to provide music during the exile (Psalm 137), the Levites had cut off the tips of their fingers making the playing of their instruments impossible. So as Ezra checks among the people and the priests, he finds Levites, but none that can play the necessary music of the Temple.

And without the Talents of the Levites, the Temple worship could not be restarted. The Levites were necessary to give their talents back to the community – and back to God.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Ezra 9

Saturday, 19 August 2017

For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel. – Ezra 7:10

Today’s Scripture Reading (August 19, 2017): Ezra 7

We are living in the age of “The Education Gap.” On February 23, 2016, Donald Trump bragged, “If you listen to the pundits, we weren’t expected to win too much – and now we’re winning, winning, winning the country. We won with the young. We won with the old. We won the highly educated. We won with the poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.” Of course, the last line caused Donald Trump to be relentlessly mocked. But it is also the truth. Trump loves those with less education, and they have reciprocated – they love him back. In March of 2016, the Atlantic reported that “the best single predictor of Trump support in the Republican primary is the absence of a college degree.”

But it is not just Donald Trump. Brexit and other populist movements in Europe are sparked by those without education. And it might be that this is sparked from within the Christian Church. (Admittedly, the role of the Christian Church in the election of Donald Trump has mystified me.) The Church has long been a place where we have dealt with education with suspicion. This is partly because of populist movement inside the church with regard to the Bible. The idea seems to be that those who are educated go beyond a “plain reading of the text” that is the only reading available to people who have had less religious education. If the Bible is truly a book of the people, then, according to this group, it must be a book that can simply be read and meaning gained, and not a book that must be studied.

The Bible would seem to push back against that very idea. The psalms open up with this idea:

Blessed is the one
  whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers (Psalm 1:1-3)

We are blessed when the Bible is important enough for us to delve into and examine the ideas that are behind the texts. We are blessed when we dare to struggle with what the Bible says, and in the process, we learn more about God and his Kingdom. The path to blessing is not in simply reading, but allowing the Holy Spirit to grant us understanding as we fight with the words it presents.

And this defines the essential character of Ezra. He was the one devoted to the study of the Bible and learning exactly what it is that the Bible teaches (Orthodoxy) and with taking what he had learned from his times of study and putting it into practice (Orthopraxy). He struggles with the word of God. And now he serves as a model, not just for those of us who endeavor to the lead the church, but for all who call themselves Christian. We are made and formed through our struggle with the Word of God, not by our cursory glances at what the Bible might say. Without a willingness to struggle, the church is nothing more than a populist movement that is virtually devoid of God, because God is made alive within us as we struggle with him.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Ezra 8

Friday, 18 August 2017

Esther’s decree confirmed these regulations about Purim, and it was written down in the records. – Esther 9:32

Today’s Scripture Reading (August 18, 2017): Esther 9 & 10
“That's what fiction is for. It's for getting at the truth when the truth isn't sufficient for the truth.” This is how fiction writer Tim O’Brien describes much of his own life's work. Good fiction often reflects truth better than the truth itself. It is the reason why so many of us read fiction. Summer is coming to a close, and for decades I have devoted my summers to the practice of reading good fiction. Getting alone with a good book is one of my primary ways of relaxing and recouping what I need for the year ahead. But it is also an excellent way to be reminded of what is true because even if the stories are formed from the imagination of the authors, the truths are the ones that we need to understand.

One of the most enduring questions surrounding the Book of Esther is whether or not the book is historical. There are several historical accuracies and inaccuracies. King Xerxes was a real king, and the story is anchored in a particular place and time in history. It reflects some of the practices of that time very well. But it also fails at the same task.
The question is not new. Esther was the last book to be accepted into the Hebrew Canon, and even then it was a severely redacted version that was approved. And one line of thought is that Esther was never intended to be a history, but rather a historical novella. Historical novellas were popular at the time when Esther was written, so this becomes another favorite novella from this period. But it is also a story written with a purpose. It strove to reveal the truth in the celebration of Purim, which celebrates the events of the story. But the meaning of Purim actually goes beyond the story of Esther. It celebrates the idea that God always takes care of his people. Always.

Esther might be historical, or it might be a historical parable. But either way, we can’t lose sight of the truth that is being told by the story. God is involved with the lives of his people. He always has been, and he always will. And the story, like many pieces of good fiction, reveals the truth that we all need to hear.
Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Ezra 7

Thursday, 17 August 2017

In every province and in every city to which the edict of the king came, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebrating. And many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them. – Esther 8:17

Today’s Scripture Reading (August 17, 2017): Esther 8

Paulo Coelho comments in “The Alchemist,” “Don't give in to your fears. If you do, you won't be able to talk to your heart.” Fear is something that must be defeated. And because of that, there is an inherent weakness in the politics of fear. Fear might be able to motivate people in a particular direction for a short time. But the reality is that all through that time the people we are motivating will be plotting the defeat of their fear.

Yet, fear is a tool that is often employed by individuals who want to drive us in a particular direction. Politicians use fear to grab hold of votes and motivate people to give to their campaigns. Religion uses fear in the same way. You must believe the way that I do because if you don’t then the evil that is all around you will come crashing down on your life. You must give your money because together we can hold off the attack of the darkness. But in the end, we begin to resent the things that have caused us to be afraid. And we start to attempt to throw off our shackles. We need to be able to talk to our hearts.

I have no idea how this passage in Esther was intended to sound. It might have been that, for a people who came close to being eliminated and who lived in constant fear of those who held power, the idea that the ones who were trying to eliminate them began joining with them and becoming like them, was a positive circumstance. But what bothers me about the comment is the reason behind the movement. They joined the Jews because they were afraid. This was not a movement toward the Jews because they were respected or because their loving beliefs brought people of all nations toward them. People became like the Jews because they were afraid of them – and that is a circumstance that simply cannot be a long-term strategy.

Don’t try to scare me into believing like you. In the end, we will end up resenting each other. Respect me and, hopefully, we can build a lasting friendship. But fear cannot make anything that is lasting because fear has no staying power. And I have no desire of being a stranger to my heart.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Esther 9 & 10