Monday, August 25, 2008

Burning the Scroll

In December 604 B.C., Jeremiah was ordered by the Lord to write down all his prophecies on a scroll. The prophecies included many threats against the nation of Judah and its rulers and people, which would be enacted if they did not repent of their rebellious ways. Jeremiah, prevented from entering the Temple, sent his secretary Baruch to read the scroll to the people. The populace had gathered in the Temple for a fast. When they heard what Jeremiah had written, certain officials became interested and asked that the scroll be read in their presence too.

When Baruch complied, these officials took the words seriously and said that the king must be informed. Knowing that the king would not welcome the prophecies, they suggested that Baruch and Jeremiah go into hiding. The scroll was then taken into the king’s presence and read to him by a servant named Jehudi.

Since it was winter, there was a brazier with fire in it to heat the apartments. “Each time Jehudi had read three or four columns, the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the fire in the brazier until the whole of the scroll had been burned in the brazier fire” (Jeremiah 36:23). The king then ordered the arrest of Jeremiah and Baruch, but they had been hidden. The Lord ordered Jeremiah to write the scroll over again; it is likely that what he wrote now comprises the bulk of his prophecies that we find in the Bible. As we know, the king and his successor did not repent, and the threats in the prophecies of Jeremiah were fulfilled.

How often it has been the case that people refuse to hear or heed the word of God proclaimed to them. In Scripture we see it and in the history of the Church. It is very easy to assert that this pattern is showing itself again in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion today—which I think is true. Most of the leadership in the Episcopal Church and beyond is effectually “burning the scroll” by resisting and denying and trying to silence the authoritative word of God as received by the faithful from the earliest days of our profession. They continue to resist, and the road of calamity continues to be the main highway.

I think, however, there is great danger in stopping with such an indictment. Pointing the finger at others, even when there is good reason to do so, does not excuse the finger-pointers from being “scroll burners” themselves.

Unlike the king of Judah in 604 B.C., I believe that most of today’s “scroll burning” leadership does have at least a little something of value to contribute to understanding and living the Gospel. And it is a vital part of discipleship regularly and frequently to ask, “Where am I myself resisting the word of God? What do I not want to hear?”

I expect that, except for the great saints, every age, every individual Christian, has a blind spot somewhere in Christian profession. Other ages were cruel; others were indifferent to the suffering of the impoverished; others were complacent or lethargic. In each case those who believed themselves to be faithful could and did provide good reason for believing that their “blind spot” was consistent with the Gospel.

Pointing the finger, in love, is an important part of the Gospel, i.e. taking the speck out of a brother’s eye. We must not forget, ever, that taking the beam out of our own eye is even more important. These are the very words of Jesus. (See Matthew 7:3 and Luke 6:42.)

I suppose that God knows that fallen people, even the faithful, are prone to these blind spots, and that they plague our discipleship. I imagine that he has allowed for them, also, in the course of salvation history. May he open the eyes and hearts of today’s “scroll burners”; may he open my eyes and heart wherever that needs to be done.

Friday, August 01, 2008

“I Have Been Young And Now I Am Old”

When I was a child, my grandparents lived a few miles from my family’s home. We visited them frequently. I recall a small, white, wooden house with a large pepper tree in front, which I occasionally climbed. There were many such houses in the neighborhood, nestled under the shadows of old trees. The rooms inside the house were small, even to the eyes of a child under ten years of age. There was a cozy fireplace in the living room, with a burgundy-colored wing chair in front, and an old, patterned sofa to one side. The kitchen had a worn linoleum floor, and the stove stood on cast iron legs. There was a carved table in the bedroom; a collection of tiny bottles, probably for perfume, was arranged on a lace covering, spread over the table. Behind the house and separate from it was a one-car garage. A gravel driveway led to it from the street.

My grandparents moved from the house in 1958, and as years passed I had not been back to see it. Thirty-five years later, I unearthed the address of the house and went to search for it. Although the street had been widened and its name had been changed, the site of the house was not difficult to find. One would never have guessed that there had been such a quaint and peaceful neighborhood in the area, for the entire block had become a wrecking yard. There were no houses or trees for hundreds of yards. The wrecking yard was surrounded by a high fence, made partly of corrugated iron and partly of cinder block marked in places with graffiti, with gates of chain-link fence filled in with slats. Incongruously, there was an old-fashioned mailbox on a square post jammed into the three inches of earth between the cement sidewalk and the cinder block fence. The mailbox bore my grandparents’ address.

A sense of loss coursed through me, of course, and I remembered again my family’s visits in that quiet place in a much simpler and slower age. My earliest memories of my grandparents stem from those years, when I came to know those old people who had seen the turn of the twentieth century. In the early 1970s, their ashes were buried in a cemetery a few miles to the south of their old homesite.

Two days ago I turned sixty. Am I old now? On that day, as I was praying the psalms, I read, “I have been young and now I am old” (Psalm 37:26a). I was sitting in that same burgundy-colored wing chair which I inherited after my grandparents and then my mother died. It still has its original covering, and the cloth is only a little faded. Nearby is an old wrought iron stool that, long ago, I covered with a remnant of the patterned cloth that had been on my grandparents’ sofa.

From the moment we are conceived, we move toward death, and our path is marked by many lesser deaths and griefs. We live in a world that we often perceive to be indifferent and sometimes even hostile, full of pain and sorrow, heavy with loss and disappointment and frustration. Tragic headlines reveal the appalling extent of our world’s suffering in numbers that numb us. Our years extend and our memories preserve this burden of sorrow, even as we ourselves age and weaken and suffer continuing loss.

But still we love, look for joy and satisfaction in life, and hope in unseen things. It seems most illogical to do so. If we look only at this world, the evidence of decay and wrong is overwhelming: all things die, and human greed, cruelty, and indifference seem to continue unchecked. But although some individuals despair, and a few despair completely, our race continues to hope. Taylor Caldwell, in her great novel Great Lion of God about the life of Saint Paul, referred to this redemptive, never-quite-defeated side of humanity, when she wrote of “the alleged good that lay, like a pearl, in the slimy musculature of a bestial organism”. George MacDonald used even more poetic imagery when he said, “There is glory and might in the body, this vital evanescence, this slow glacierlike flow of aging mortality and revealing matter, this ever-uptossed rainbow of tangible humanity.”

The perfect beauty and eternal joy promised by God can seem as wonderful—and ephemeral—as a rainbow in the face of the unrelenting iron of mortality. Yet a rainbow, comprised of water and sunlight, is made up of the elements that age and corrode iron over time, until it is fully dissolved and can even become nourishment in soil. True love endures against mortality. “Our present perishable nature must put on imperishability and this mortal nature must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53). Am I old now? It doesn’t matter. “There are three things that last: faith, hope, and love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). And I have all three.