Antiphony: The Song of Zechariah and Elizabeth

Zechariah was an old man when the angel appeared to him. His priestly career was mostly behind him as was the hope of fatherhood. In fact, Zechariah was long past hoping. He was trying to understand the reasons why. He and his wife Elizabeth had tried to have children for many years. They had prayed too.  Of course, they had prayed. Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth a descendant of Aaron! They had been faithful to God for many years. Yet in all that time God had withheld this small blessing from them.

By now you would think that this ambition would have burned low, along with the desire that accompanies it. Yet when the day came for Zechariah to enter the holy place to pray and offer incense, it occupied his mind. After all those years of faithful service, had it really been so much to ask? Others had been granted this blessing, some many times over. Family members, friends, and some who seemed far less devoted to God than Zechariah and Elizabeth had been allowed to become parents. Time and again he and Elizabeth had been called to celebrate the birth of someone else’s child. Elizabeth wept secret tears over the pitying looks she received from the other women. Zechariah tried to comfort her in his clumsy way and urged her not to give up. Now it was too late. They both knew it. Elizabeth was barren. He was old. They were both too far gone in years to hope for children any longer.

Was the old priest brooding? Perhaps, a little. But it was short lived. He was interrupted with a start when out of the corner of his eye he noticed a figure in the shadows standing next to the altar of incense. The flickering light from the seven branches of the lampstand made the man seem to dance. Zechariah gasped involuntarily and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. His first thought was that there has been some confusion. Perhaps another priest had mistakenly thought that the lot had fallen to him to perform this duty. Maybe the error been Zechariah’s. 

Zechariah realized that the figure standing by the altar was gazing intently at him. The priest was about to demand an explanation when the stranger spoke. His tone was reassuring and his face bore the hint of a smile. “Don’t be afraid Zechariah, he said. “Your prayer has been heard.”

“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.”

Zechariah recognized these rules. They were the laws associated with a Nazarite Vow. If the stranger was speaking the truth, not only would he and Elizabeth have a son, but their son would be devoted to the Lord from birth. He would be like Samson or Samuel.

“He will bring many of the people of Israel back to the Lord their God”the stranger went on. “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

A thrill of happiness swept over Zechariah, like a wave that breaks upon the shore. It dissipated just as quickly. This was too good to be true. Perhaps someone was playing a practical joke. But it couldn’t be. No priest or Israelite would dare to trespass here. It was too dangerous. He had heard stories of this kind of thing all his life. Visitations by strangers with promises that came from God. It was the sort of thing that happened to people like Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah. But that was in the old stories. He could not imagine such a thing ever happening to him. 

At last Zechariah found the courage to speak. “How can I be sure of this?” he demanded. “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” There was a note of helplessness in his voice. As if Zechariah was afraid to believe what he heard. He and his Elizabeth had prayed so hard and had waited so long. He did not think they could bear to be disappointed again.

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Zechariah regretted them. He saw the speaker’s expression change in the lamplight. His eyebrows rose in surprise and the timbre of his voice changed from reassurance to indignation. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news” he declared. The angel had not actually raised his voice. Yet his words struck Zechariah like the blast of a trumpet. If terror had not kept him frozen in place, he would have fallen on his face and covered his ears.

“Now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time!” the angel declared.

And then suddenly he was gone. The light seemed to flicker the way a candle does when it gutters. Or the way the sparks rise when incense touches the coals on the altar. There was a hint of fragrance in the air. Not the usual smell of incense but something else. A fragrance that Zechariah could not identify. It made him dizzy. The old priest stood there for several minutes breathing heavily. The ancient silence of the place gathered around him and he tried to collect his thoughts. At last, he made his way out of the Holy Place, stumbling like a blind man.

Meanwhile outside in the temple court, there was a growing sound like waves that have been troubled by the wind when a storm is rising. It was the sound of murmuring coming from those who waited for Zechariah to finish his duties. They were nervous. This delay was not a good sign. Some wondered whether Zechariah had died. Perhaps he had collapsed from old age or maybe he had been smitten by God. After all, such things had happened before. Hadn’t Aaron’s own sons had been struck down when they offered strange fire before the Lord? The waiting multitude cried out in relief when Zechariah finally came into view. But something had happened. That much was clear from the expression on his face. They began to pepper him with questions.

Zechariah raised his arms like someone pronouncing a benediction in a vain attempt to ward off the crowd that swarmed around him. By now he was fully possessed by the joy of what the angel had said. He grinned like a fool. He reeled like a drunken man. He opened his mouth to shout the good news but of course, he could not utter a word. Zechariah began to heave with silent laughter, as tears streamed down his face. He gesticulated wildly with his hands in an attempt to communicate by signs. “He has had some kind of vision,” someone said at last. And Zechariah nodded emphatically.

Zechariah finished out the course of his service and returned home to his wife Elizabeth. The two of them began to count the days until the promised child’s birth. “The Lord has done this for me,” Elizabeth said to those who expressed their amazement. “He looked on me to remove my shame.”

In this way, it came to pass that Zechariah and Elizabeth were drawn into the ancient stories they had known all their lives and so became a tale themselves. Like the answering line of some advent carol, their joys and sorrows were joined to those who had come before. Just as their promised child would set the stage for everything that would come afterward. When Elizabeth’s time was complete, she gave birth to a son. Zechariah wept. Elizabeth laughed. They named him John, just as the angel had predicted. And this was only the beginning of signs.

The Trajectory of Worship

The first time I can remember singing from a hymnal was in 1972. It was the year between high-school graduation and college, the year I got my first full-time job. That year my mother’s health began to fail, and my world shifted on its axis as I started to follow Jesus. That was the year I began to attend Glad Tidings, a plain concrete bunker of a church, whose colored windows reminded me more of ashtray glass than cathedrals. Glad Tidings was a Pentecostal church, but of the reserved variety. Their Azusa Street brethren might whoop and dance. Let other congregations swoon in ecstasy, ravished by the Spirit, or speak in the mysterious languages of men and angels. Not the folks at Glad Tidings.

It’s not that they didn’t believe in such things. They were convinced that God had the power to interrupt the service at any moment. He might send them all into a fit of shouting that lasted for days. Indeed, they prayed for such things to occur. But they never acted as if they actually expected he would. Most of the time, or so it seemed, God respected their suburban sensibilities and kept a polite distance. But every so often the Spirit would stir the congregation the way the angel stirred the waters of Bethesda, and one or two voices would cry “Glory” or “Amen.” They were always the same voices, of course. They never made this declaration at any volume that would disturb our decorum. But it was loud enough for all of us to hear. Just loud enough to let the rest of us know there was glory afoot.

Red Hymnals and Campfire Rounds

Glad Tidings was less self-conscious about singing. Three or four times during the service, the entire congregation reached for the old red hymnals in the pew racks and gave voice to their faith. The dogeared hymnal pages were illuminated by the penciled scrawls and stick figures of bored children. The stanzas below those hieroglyphics depicted the pilgrim life of Jesus’ followers as one of wandering and weariness, tears and tarrying.

We were passing through the valley.

We were camped on the banks of the river.

We were sinking deep in sin.

The hymn writers helped us get our bearings by pointing to the milestones along the way.

We were at Bethel with Jacob.

We were drinking water from the rock with Moses.

We were in the Garden with Jesus.

I wouldn’t describe the melodies of those old hymns as pretty.

They seemed strange to me, as archaic as the shape-note harmonies of the Sacred Harp, from which many of them were hewn. They exuded a kind of musty charm for me, the way my grandmother’s house did with its ancient wood and iron stove. Something about them reminded me of the songs my father and uncles sang after they had drunk too much beer. Songs with titles like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “On the Road to Mandalay.” Those hymns rolled along with a rhythm that was so predictable, you didn’t need to know the words or the melody to sing them. If you knew one hymn, it seemed, you knew them all. And if you didn’t know it, you had only to wait a stanza or two to sing it like you knew it. The songs we had sung the night before at the Lost Coin Coffee House were different from the hymns we sang in church. The Lost Coin was located in the Sunday school building just across the parking lot from Glad Tidings. At the Lost Coin, we worshiped God with campfire rounds led by a gangly guitar player named Mike who prayed daily for the salvation of Bob Dylan and George Harrison.

The songs we sang at the Lost Coin were simpler, based on a handful of chords and a seemingly endless repetition of the chorus. We didn’t mind. If anything, their simplicity made them even easier to sing than the old gospel songs. We sang them with enthusiasm. We clapped. We stomped. We sang in antiphonal rounds. We mirrored the meaning of the words with hand gestures. If someone had taken the words of Psalm 119 and fit them to the tune of “Bingo” (“There was a farmer had a dog and Bingo was his name-o”), we would have sung it. All 176 verses. The songs we sang at the Lost Coin were fun. But fun is not the word I would use to describe the hymns of the church. If the campfire rounds we enjoyed at the coffeehouse taught us that we could lift our voices in worship, those old hymns taught us how to lift our gaze. The God spoken of in those songs was not fun but immortal and invisible. He was so holy we had to say it three times. “Man of Sorrows, what a name,” we cried, “Hallelujah! What a Savior!” Those were the kinds of songs that caught in your throat and moved you to tears. The kind that made you stand a little straighter and sing a little louder.

Now, 46 years later, I find that I have reached a stage in life where most of the music I hear in church is “their” music, whoever “they” are. That is to say, I have reached a stage in life where most of the music I hear in church annoys me. I do not mean to be a musical snob. Indeed, I think of myself as an eclectic. I was raised on Bix and Beethoven. I came of age in the era of the Beatles. The buttons on my car radio are set to classical, country, oldies, rock, and even Christian music. I think of myself as someone who has been baptized by immersion in the waters of musical diversity.

Yet somehow when Sunday comes, all my musical sophistication dissolves, and I am reduced to that most primitive test of aesthetic values: “I may not know what art is, but I know what I like.” Or, rather, “I may not know what worship is, but I know what it isn’t.” When the worship leader reminds me that worship “isn’t about me,” I try to take it to heart. I really do. Nevertheless, more often than not, I walk into church hoping to be a worshiper and leave a curmudgeon. A chastened curmudgeon. A repentant curmudgeon. But a curmudgeon nonetheless.

Reversing Field

I have concluded that the root of my problem is one of vertigo, not aesthetics. What I need is not a change of tune so much as a reorientation along worship’s true trajectory. Like most churchgoers, I tend to view worship as something that moves from earth to heaven. We think of worship as something that originates with us, our gift to God. Perhaps this is why so many of us are conflicted about it. We consider worship to be an expression of our personal devotion. So when the musical style or some expression gets in the way, we don’t feel like it is our worship at all. It is someone else’s idea of worship. Perhaps the worship leader’s or that of the majority. But not our own.

The biblical portrait of worship moves in the opposite direction. The trajectory of heavenly worship begins with God and descends to earth. This trajectory is reflected in Psalm 150, where praise begins in the heavenly sanctuary and resounds throughout the domain of God. From there it is taken up by those on earth, who praise God with a variety of instruments and dancing, until “everything that has breath” praises the Lord (Ps. 150:6). We find the same trajectory of worship in Revelation 5. John, who has been caught up to heaven and sees an innumerable multitude of angels and saints surrounding the throne of God, hears the angels declaring the worthiness of the Lamb “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Revelation 5:13 continues: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’ ”

We find the same trajectory of worship in Revelation 5. John, who has been caught up to heaven and sees an innumerable multitude of angels and saints surrounding the throne of God, hears the angels declaring the worthiness of the Lamb “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Revelation 5:13 continues: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’ ”

In his book Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson makes an observation about prayer that applies to worship in general. “Prayer is answering speech,” Peterson writes. “The first word is God’s word. Prayer is a human word and is . . . never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary.” Worship is by nature answering speech. Like a musical instrument in which one plucked string causes all the other strings to resonate, earthly worship resonates with the worship of heaven. Worship is not our attempt to project our voices so that they will be heard in heaven. Neither is it a performance executed on the earthly stage for the benefit of a spectator God. It is certainly not something we do primarily for ourselves, as if it were a kind of self-amusement or spiritual entertainment.

In a sermon entitled “Praise, One of the Chief Employments of Heaven,” Jonathan Edwards explained, “Let it be considered that the church on earth is the same society with those saints who are praising God in heaven. There is not one church of Christ in heaven and another here upon earth.” This means that when the church gathers for worship, it engages in a heavenly activity. The worshiping church does not merely imitate what goes on in heaven. It participates in heaven’s worship. Like one who walks into the church sanctuary after the service has started, those who worship on earth move into something that is already in progress. We take up a theme that was begun by others before the throne of God, adding our voices to theirs. Consequently, the worshiping church is part of a much larger congregation. It is one that includes patriarchs and prophets, saints and angels. No wonder Edwards called worship “the work of heaven” and observed, “If we begin now to exercise ourselves in the work of heaven, it will be the way to have foretastes of the enjoyments of heaven.”

A Heavenly Congregation

The psalmist’s portrait of worship is noteworthy because it is so specific. One thing is clear from his description in Psalm 150:3–5: It is appropriate to worship God with music. Most believers agree with this. What we often don’t agree on is the kind of music and which instruments to employ in this worship. The reasons for our differences are varied and far more complex than we realize. Some of our differences are a function of culture and taste. We grow accustomed to certain instruments and prefer particular styles. I like the music I grew up with. I hate the music my kids listen to. But personal tastes change. My father was a huge fan of jazz, not the “cool jazz” of today but old school jazz: Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, and Fats Waller. As a kid, I hated his music. When I became an adult, especially after my father died, I found that I liked it because it reminded me of him. This is not unusual. Personal experiences shape our musical preference. So do society and culture.

But even deeper reasons remain for our reaction to the music we hear in church. In his book Resounding Truth, Duke theologian Jeremy Begbie writes that music not only reflects a social and cultural order, it is also embedded in what he calls a “sonic order.” Music “. . . involves the integrity of the materials that produce sound and of sound waves, the integrities of the human body, and the integrity of time.” “When we hear music,” Begbie writes, “a whole range of elements are pulled together—in particular, our state of mind and body, memories and associations, social and cultural conventions, and other perceptions that come along with the musical sounds. Together, these greatly affect the meaning the music will have for us.”

What does this mean for us as far as worship is concerned? For one thing, it means that we cannot help being profoundly affected by the music we hear. Music affects us on every level: neurological, physiological, aesthetic, and emotional. When someone says to me, “I just can’t worship to that music,” I believe them. But the psalmist’s description of the worship of heaven suggests that the variety of musical styles, the instruments used, and the methods the church employs in its worship should exceed the scope of taste.

Simmering Differences

In light of this, three suggestions arise almost spontaneously. They are not new thoughts by any means, but they bear repeating, given that tensions surrounding worship are always simmering below the surface of congregational life.

First, we don’t have to please everyone when it comes to worship. Given the variety of styles and tastes, it is not possible to please all people all the time. I am certain that the psalmist’s style of music would sound alien to my ears. If that’s true, I don’t need to be ashamed of the fact that I really do hate some of the music I hear in church, nor be upset that not everyone agrees with my judgment.

Second, the quality of music is not always the most important factor in our worship experience. Clearly some music is better than other music. A Beethoven piano concerto is qualitatively better than “Chopsticks.” Part of me wants to believe we should offer God only the best. Yet the worship that moves me most and is the most effective vehicle for helping me to enter God’s presence is not always the best music.

Third, it is not our differences in taste but rather our mutual contempt and lack of respect that have caused the most damage in the church. What has hurt us most has been our unwillingness to acknowledge that all of us have sacrificed in some measure when it comes to the church’s experience of worship.

Worship is not a private practice. It is the chief work of heaven and the duty of every creature. A day will come when our conflict and mutual discomfort over the church’s worship will end. Until then we must muddle through the best we can by reminding ourselves that we are part of a much larger congregation—one populated by patriarchs and prophets, saints and angels, where we are invited to join a chorus that began on the first day of creation. The first notes were sounded by those who surround the throne in heaven. Their theme echoes through the rest of God’s domain. All that remains is for us to add our voices to their song.

This essay originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Christianity Today.

Once Upon a Time

Picture of The Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Last Christmas Eve I attended church. It was the sort of church one often sees these days: chairs where there used to be pews, a worship band instead of a choir, skinny jeans rather than vestments, and exposed ductwork in the place of vaulted ceilings and stained glass. In other words, it was your garden-variety contemporary congregation.

Just before the message, the pastor invited all the children to come on stage and listen to someone read from a picture book about a mouse who discovers the true meaning of Christmas. I’m afraid that I can’t recall the details about the storyline. Only that it was unmemorable. Indeed, if there was anything at all remarkable about the tale, it was the church’s assumption that the Bible’s own account of Christ’s nativity did not possess enough wonder to capture a child’s imagination. I find this hard to understand.

C. S. Lewis described the incarnation as “a myth which is also a fact.” By this he did not mean that the events were non-historical but that the historical facts of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection reflect the great themes of myth and poetry. Lewis calls this a marriage of heaven and earth: “. . . claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.”

It is a tragic twist of irony, not to mention a monumental folly, that the church has lost confidence in the power of its own story. Perhaps the reason is that we have convinced ourselves that the old story is too familiar. Like those who turn on the television only to find a rerun, we fear that it will not hold our attention. We think we need a new story. What we fail to recognize is that it is precisely the familiarity of this ancient storyline that makes it so captivating. The tale of a god who comes to earth disguised in human form is one of the oldest storylines in history. It speaks to the ancient heart of the human race. The particular wonder of the Christian story is that it is no disguise. This God actually becomes flesh and dwells among us. It is also no myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.”

What we need is not a new story but renewed confidence in the old story that has been entrusted to us. To use the Bible’s language, what we need is faith. We live in a world that is starved for wonder. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the other stories which occupy our imagination. They are tales of super-beings and superpowers, angels and demons. They depict a world where the dead come back to life and evil is vanquished. Yet it is a world where God, if he exists at all, is conspicuously absent. That is to say, we are immersed in stories which not only reflect our dreams but also our disease.

It is time we put the picture books away and returned instead to the story that begins: “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph….”

Clean

According to family legend, my great grandfather was the first one to drive the twenty-mule team out of Death Valley loaded with borax. I have no idea whether this is actually true or not. Like most family legends, I suspect that it is a work of fiction. But I liked to recount this story to my friends when I was growing up since the twenty-mule team was featured in commercials on the popular television show Death Valley Days. It made me feel just short of famous.

Borax is a “detergent booster.” Apparently, it is used in a lot of other things too. Fertilizer, rocket fuel, and automobile windshields, just to name a few. But I always thought of it as soap. The same people who made Borax also made Boraxo, the hand detergent that promised to make hands “soft, smooth, and really clean.”

Looking back on it, cleanliness seemed to be the driving concern of most of the commercials we watched in those days. They fretted about clean clothes, clean floors, and clear complexions. What did this say about us as a culture? Were we especially dirty? Maybe we were just fastidious. Perhaps it was a little of both.

At points, the Bible seems similarly obsessed. The Old Testament, in particular, appears to be especially concerned about matters of cleanness and uncleanness with its detailed regulations about food, clothing, and its peculiar stipulations regarding spots and blemishes. When we read through these laws we do not get the impression that what is at issue is primarily a matter of hygiene. Indeed, some of the measures prescribed do not seem hygienic at all, especially when the “cleansing” agent is blood. Something else is going on.

The New Testament writer of Hebrews admits as much by calling such measures a “shadow” that can never perfect those who repeat them year after year. Instead of being a remedy, they were a reminder of sin (Hebrews 10:1-3). In a way, so is Jesus’ sixth beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). The Greek word that is translated “pure” means clean. No other assertion shatters our illusion that these beatitudes are some kind of moral yardstick quite like this one.

What Jesus describes is a cleanness that originates on the inside and works its way out. Every other kind of cleansing with which we are familiar works the other way around. Jesus is not talking about getting clean but being clean. When we read his statement, we know instinctively that this is not what we are. If we do not know this, it can only be because we do not really know ourselves. We cannot hear Jesus’ assertion without wondering how it is possible for anyone to see God.

Like the others that precede it, we must take this beatitude as a promise. What Jesus gives us here is not a rod by which to measure our lives but a final portrait of what those lives will look like when Christ is finished with them. Purity of heart is not the condition we must meet in order to gain access into the Kingdom of God.  Instead, it is the final destination for those who enter that kingdom through the gate of Christ. He is the only hope we have of being pure in heart. “You can start trying to clean your heart, but at the end of your life it will be as black as it was at the beginning, perhaps blacker” Martyn Lloyd-Jones warns. “No! It is God alone who can do it, and, thank God, He has promised to do it.” Only the blessed can be pure in heart. They will see God.

Extraordinarily Ordinary

When my friend Ray was diagnosed with cancer, he started reading obituaries. He found comfort in the newspaper’s daily litany of the departed. Somehow it made him feel less alone. Like a pilgrim who is traveling in company, instead of someone who stumbles along a difficult path by himself. It was the ordinariness of the thing that helped him the most.

I feel something similar whenever I thumb through the old yearbooks in the faculty lounge. Their faces framed in horn-rimmed and cat-eye glasses, the images of former faculty gaze back at me with pursed lips or shy smiles. I do not recognize any of their names. They are long forgotten by the school they once served. Along with them are rank upon rank of students who are also long gone. They are not remembered either. Indeed, most of them were hardly known when they were here. Like the majority of us, they were just ordinary people.

It is hard to be ordinary. Especially in a culture which worships the heroic. This is particularly true of the Christian world. Wendell Berry observes that the Judeo-Christian tradition favors the heroic. “The poets and storytellers in this tradition have tended to be interested in the extraordinary actions of ‘great men’–actions unique in grandeur, such as may occur only once in the world” he explains. This is a standard that is impossible for ordinary people to live up to.

As a young Christian, I remember being captivated by the story of Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries who lost their lives when they attempted to bring the gospel to the Huaorani people of Ecuador. When I was finished I got down on my knees and prayed that God would make me a martyr too. It was a foolish prayer, prompted more by romanticism than by devotion. It was a request born of youthful impatience and a rash hunger for glory. Not at all like the real martyrs, most of whom stumbled into their unique calling.

It takes another kind of courage and a different skill set to follow the path assigned to the majority. “The drama of ordinary or daily behavior also raises the issue of courage, but it raises at the same time the issue of skill; and, because ordinary behavior lasts so much longer than heroic action, it raises in a more complex and difficult way the issue of perseverance” Berry observes. “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for fifty years.”

On some days we feel like we are only going through the motions, merely shuffling along as we pass into oblivion. Instead, we are traveling in company. We are upholding the world with hundreds of small and ordinary efforts. We make the bed. We drive the kids to school and worry about the kind of day they will have. We go to work. We clean the bathroom. We wait for the end of the world and the dawning of the age to come. It is a kind of liturgy.

The world needs its heroes. It may be true that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Yet both the church and the world at large are vastly more dependent for their daily functioning on the common efforts of those who are extraordinarily ordinary. The writer George Eliot observed, “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Election Day

I only ran for office once. It was during my junior year of High School. I ran for vice-president of the senior class. To be honest, I wasn’t as interested in the office nearly as much as I was in a girl who was running for one of the other posts on the ticket. So when I learned that I had lost the election, I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. I felt bad, of course. Nobody likes to be rejected. But I was actually kind of relieved that I wouldn’t have to concern myself with student government. I had never given it much thought prior to the election. I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be that interested in it while in office either.

We do not always want the things we strive to get. What looks good from a distance may lose its luster upon closer inspection. We apply for our dream job and after we get it we wonder why we ever wanted it in the first place. We move to a warmer climate to get away from the harsh mid-western winter only to miss the changing of the seasons. We pray with all our might for God to deliver us from bondage and then remember how we loved the garlic and leeks we used to get for free when we were slaves in Egypt.

I see this in organizations as often as I do in people. Churches that are looking for a new pastor often base their choice on the negative traits of the pastor they just sent packing. If he was strong in the pulpit but ineffective in relationships, they look for a “pastoral” pastor who is more interested in people than in preaching. If the pastor had a good bedside manner during hospital visits but was painful to listen to on Sunday, they select a prophet. He’s not much of a counselor but he can call down seven woes on the congregation like nobody else. The change feels good…at first.

In time our compliments are tempered with nostalgic remembrances, if not outright regret. “The new pastor is great,” someone says wistfully, “but do you remember how our last pastor used to…?” You can fill in the blank. As a result, many churches bounce back and forth between sharply different leadership styles. It could give a person whiplash.

It’s Election Day and I am not writing this to tell you how to cast your ballot. You have enough voices shouting in your ear already. The great thing about our electoral system is that you can vote for whoever you want and you don’t have to tell anybody how you voted. You don’t owe anyone an explanation and you don’t have to give them one. Go ahead. Vote your conscience. It’s nobody’s business but your own.

But if your candidate does happen to get elected, there is a good chance you will have mixed feelings about the result by the time his or her term of office is up. Maybe it’s because our expectations are too high. Perhaps the job is too big for any one person. I don’t know. It just seems that whoever we elect, we are sick of them by the time they are done. As for the losers, I imagine that, for some at least, their disappointment will be mixed with a measure of secret relief. Be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.

The Quality of Mercy

Not long after I started driving I had to go to court over an automobile accident. It wasn’t a big one, just a fender bender really. But it was my fault. I hit a patch of ice and slid into an oncoming vehicle. There were no injuries and the damage to both cars was repairable. Still, the driver of the other car was angry. As the police officer wrote me a ticket and told me that I needed to appear in court, the other driver assured me that he would be there to make certain that I received the highest penalty.

I was terrified as the date approached. I’d never been to court before and wondered what the punishment might be. Looking back on it now, I suspect it would have been minimal. The judge certainly wouldn’t have given me jail time for a dent. But to me, it felt like a major offense. The worst part of it was that I knew I was the one at fault. I had misjudged the curve. I was driving too fast for the conditions. What verdict could the judge render on my behalf other than guilty? I felt ashamed.

When my father asked me how I was going to plea, I told him that I planned to admit my guilt. “I am a Christian,” I said. “I can’t lie about it.” He was furious. “You stand there and you tell the judge you are innocent” he demanded. When I told him I couldn’t do such a thing in good conscience, he swore and walked away, muttering something about my faith.

When my court date arrived, I took my place on an uncomfortable wood bench and waited for my name to be called. I felt torn between the demands of my conscience and the desire to please my father. As I listened to the other cases, I noticed that most of them were like mine, minor accidents that were a result of bad weather. I also noticed that many of the defendants didn’t admit to either guilt or innocence. When asked for a plea, they simply stood silent. “Do you stand mute?” the judge asked? When they answered yes, the judge told them that a plea of not guilty would be entered on their behalf.

At last, my turn came. I stood before the judge’s raised bench and shook as he reviewed the details of my case.“How do you plead?” he asked. “I stand mute” I replied. “Is the driver of the other vehicle present?” he asked. Nobody answered. “Is the officer who wrote the ticket in the courtroom?” the judge asked. He was not. “Case dismissed” the judge curtly declared.

The wave of relief that swept over me was palpable. It felt like mercy but it was not. My case was dismissed on a technicality. The judge could not declare me guilty because there was nobody there to testify against me. Mercy is something else. Mercy only belongs to the guilty. For the Christian, mercy is not a verdict, it is a person. God declares me innocent because Jesus took my guilt and the punishment as His own. For this reason, the word that the Bible uses to describe God’s verdict is not mercy but justice. By sending Jesus to stand in my place, God was able to be both “just” and “the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

It is only through this lens that we can understand the fifth beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). We are tempted to read this as a moral imperative. We think of it as a condition. If you want to be shown mercy, you’ve got to show mercy. In reality, it is a reminder. Mercy is not a warm feeling. It is not a determination to see the good in others despite their actions. It is a decision to absorb the offense and take it upon ourselves. There is only one sort of person to whom mercy can be shown and that is someone who does not deserve it. The Bible has a word for this sort of mercy. It’s called grace.

A Hunger for Justice

I have a confession. I have been binge-watching the first season of the Netflix series Daredevil. I know, I know. I am supposed to be doing something more constructive with my spare time. Perhaps reading great literature. Or maybe writing great literature. Instead, I am hunkered down in my chair in front of the television. Don’t judge me.

Ok, go ahead and judge me. What do I care? There is something appealing about the show’s blind hero with his soft-spoken manner. He is a warrior for justice. Which, as far as I can tell, means beating the crap out of people. This seems to me to be a vision which resonates with our age. We have become a vigilante culture. If we don’t like the outcome of due process we simply take matters into our own hands.  This is a view which essentially equates justice with bullying. Since Daredevil does not actually exist, today’s justice warriors must take their own measures, which more and more look like the punishment of the mob. This is true whether it is the virtual mob, whose posts on social media endeavor to shout and shame, or the literal mob that surrounds someone whose views they oppose in an effort to intimidate.

This modern view of justice is sharply discordant from the one described in the fourth beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). The New Testament word which is translated “righteousness” can also mean “justice.” The difference with Jesus’ view is not His vocabulary so much as His angle of vision. What passes for justice today focuses primarily on what others are doing. It aims to call them to account. Jesus’ beatitude seems to turn the spotlight in the opposite direction.

Indeed, Jesus’ vision is not a spotlight at all but a hunger that gnaws from within. The righteousness He describes is a burning thirst that longs to be slaked. It is a compelling desire focused not on where others have gone wrong but upon myself. Instead of being imposed from without, this is a vision of a justice which springs from within. It is the picture of a world where I want to do right. More than this, it offers a radically reconfigured view of myself. It suggests a new creation where I not only do right but I am right.

I am not. At least, not in the way that Jesus describes it here. Perhaps that is why I can be so captivated by a cartoonish vision of justice. The fantasy is a momentary distraction from the harsh reality that my own hunger and thirst for righteousness are tepid and infrequent. Oh, I want you to do good, especially where your dealings have to do with me. But I do not always want to be good. I need more than a different moral agenda. I need an entirely new moral constitution.

What I need is the righteousness that Jesus describes in the beatitudes. It is a righteousness He promises to provide for anyone who hands their diseased and diminished moral appetite over to Him. Jesus’ promise of righteousness puts the lie to the comic book fantasy that we can overcome the darkness by taking up its own weapons and turning them against it. Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Don’t fear the darkness, overcome it. But before you can do this you will need to be overcome by something else. It what Jesus calls a hunger and thirst for righteousness.

The Man Christ Jesus

A few years ago, it was popular to emphasize the masculinity of Jesus. This was not just an assertion of his humanity but something more. It was an attempt to attract men to the Christian faith by showing that Jesus was a man’s man. This vision portrayed a well-muscled Jesus who worked as a laborer, slept in the open, and hung out with the guys (twelve guys to be specific). It was a theme that coincided with the rise of men’s movements both secular and sacred in the culture at large and which was fueled further by angst over what some called the “feminization” of the church.

But the notion of “muscular” Christ did not begin with the Promise Keepers Movement of the 1990’s. The idea of muscular Christianity was popularized during the 19th century and connected the development of Christian character to athletics. What is more, it reflected a way of thinking that was not limited to the Christian sphere. It is interesting to note that Nazism later espoused a similar view, linking the shaping of German character with a national emphasis on athleticism. The Nazi vision of muscularity sprang from a desire to produce a race of warriors and reflected the movement’s affinity with paganism. I am not suggesting that the idea of muscular Christianity is similarly pagan, only noting that there is nothing distinctly Christian about muscularity.

One perceived obstacle in the campaign to rehabilitate Jesus’ muscular image was His affirmation of the virtue that the Bible calls meekness. This was reflected in the third beatitude, which promised that the “meek will inherit the earth.” The Nazis tried to take the earth by force. The athlete relies on superior skill and training. But Jesus points in an entirely different direction. According to Jesus, the meek will win the day. So many have pointed out that meekness is not weakness that the observation has become a cliché. But we also make a mistake when we try to buff up the term.

We get a better idea of what Jesus really means by meekness when we note how he applies it to himself in the invitation of Matthew 11:29: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” The image is soft rather than hard. The man Christ Jesus is “gentle” and approachable. Although the highest rank is his by right, he does not demand the prominence that goes with it. Instead, he associates with the lowly. He was, as Martyn Lloyd Jones observed, the most approachable person the world has ever seen.

The New Testament does not seem to be especially interested in protecting the muscular image of Jesus. This may be frustrating to those of us who live in an age where hypersensitivity about sexual identity is a feature of daily life. Nevertheless, when 1 Timothy 2:5 speaks of “the man Christ Jesus,” it emphasizes his humanity rather than his masculinity.

What implication does this have for those who are trying to understand what it means to be a man or a woman? It points us in the direction of deference and mutual respect instead of power. Rather than striving for ascendancy, we yield. Instead of demanding our rights, we leave it to God to give us our due. This is a bitter pill to swallow for those who have come to calculate their worth in terms of strength. It also puts a very different cast on what it means for a Christian male to “act like a man.” Apparently, it has more to do with meekness than with muscles.

Godspeed, Eugene Peterson

Today I read that Eugene Peterson has entered hospice care. Peterson may be the most influential person in my life that I’ve never actually met. Not only have his ideas about the nature of pastoral ministry profoundly reoriented my thinking, his books have introduced me to some of my favorite writers and thinkers, people like Wendell Berry and Stanley Hauerwas. I am sure that I am not alone in this. I had heard of Eugene Peterson as a young pastor but his greatest influence came when I became a professor training others for pastoral ministry. For over twenty years I have required my students to read Under the Unpredictable Plant,  a remarkable book where he turns pastoral ministry on its head.

Instead of describing the pastor as someone who controls the church and shapes the lives of others, Peterson argues that congregational ministry is the place where God shapes the pastor’s soul. In the process, he takes aim at the culture of careerism which has so infected our idea of ministry. He calls career driven ministry idolatry: “The idolatry to which pastors are so conspicuously liable is not personal but vocational, the idolatry of a religious career that we can take charge of and manage.”

Peterson’s criticism came as a great relief. It explained so much about my ministry and my life. “There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious” he warns. “The congregation is a Nineveh like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts.” How many times since have I wished that I had heard this warning when I was first starting out in ministry? But the truth is, I doubt that I would have accepted it. Oh, I might have believed that this was true for other more ordinary sorts but not for me. I was young.  I was gifted. I was destined for great things.

Peterson warns that anyone who glamorizes pastoral ministry does a disservice to pastors. “We hear tales of glitzy, enthusiastic churches and wonder what in the world we are doing wrong that our people don’t turn out that way under our preaching” Peterson observes. But the real problem is not our ministry but our expectation. We have been pursuing a fantasy. “Hang around long enough and sure enough there are gossips who won’t shut up, furnaces that malfunction, sermons that misfire, disciples who quit, choirs that go flat–and worse.” It cannot be otherwise, Peterson explains. Every congregation is a community of sinners and has sinners for pastors.

I do not think Peterson saw himself as an iconoclast so much as a witness. “It is necessary from time to time that someone stand up and attempt to get the attention of the pastors lined up at the travel agency in Joppa to purchase a ticket to Tarshish” he has written. “At this moment I am the one standing up. If I succeed in getting anyone’s attention, what I want to say is that the pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation and Tarshish is a lie.” For the past twenty-five years, I have tried to add my voice to his.

A few years ago I wrote to Peterson. I hoped that he would agree to write the introduction for a book I had just finished. He declined the opportunity. In a brief handwritten note, he explained that he had reached the stage in life where he had to make careful choices. He said that he was not an expert in everything and needed to stick with what he knew best. He closed with a quote from Wendell Berry. It was the kindest rejection I’ve ever experienced. Godspeed, Eugene Peterson.