Sometimes it causes me to tremble

Winter Trip concluded.  Exceptional time with a group mixed of Iowans and New Yorkers, with some good folks from the Philippines and the big sky of Montana sprinkled in.  I love to watch groups become “a group.”  It happened so easily and naturally this time, as everyone took a active interest in one another.  The people of the Bible called that mishpat, “society,” but that’s a theme for another blog.
I mixed in too.  Along on this trip were my brother and his son.  People who know me from way back get a real “read” on me, and I on them.  And while diversity is appealing for a start, a shared experience is ultimately what makes us a people, rather than merely members of the human race.  The sites we visit on our trips have a unique way of providing this shared experience, one of of following Christ together.  To the peoples of the east, this was essential to salvation, a shared experience of following Christ.  My nephew, Luke, has given me permission to edit a day’s entry in his blog from his trip to the Holy Land.  What surfaces here are some rather deep feelings, personal feelings, born out of one day together in the land.  Feelings like these are meant to be shared…

There’s going to be no way to describe today accurately. I can’t do it.  Not now, not ever.  The words you’re reading merely represent a standing stone to how I experienced God here.  Today was a tour through passion week, beginning on the Mount of Olives. Ascending the hill, to our right was Jerusalem with the desert at our left.  On the way, we talked about how easy it would’ve been for Jesus to flee into the desert.  Bryan told a story of the only time my grandfather had come to Israel.  At Gethsemane, in the Basilica of the Agony, Bryan found him face down, prostrate before the Lord.  A pastor for decades, it was here that he fully grasped the humanity of Jesus.  And it was here that Jesus waited, crying out to His Father, ultimately accepting that he had to “drink the cup” placed before him.  With every opportunity to give into the impulse of personal desire, he chose to die for us.  As we entered the basilica, I sat and listened to the mass and meditated on the image of Jesus before His Father.  And my grandfather before his.  That was a powerful moment in my life and my grandfather’s.

Later that day we came to the Church of St. Peter In Gallicantu, the church of the “rooster crowing.”  This church was built on the site of where Peter denied Christ, the courtyard of the house of Caiaphas, where Jesus was imprisoned for 24 hours.  From the church floor built over the courtyard, we were able to look down into a hole where prisoners charged with capital crimes were held.  I could see Jesus there, lowered down into that hole, spit on and abused, hung by shackles on his hands, face against the rock we touched.  Down in the hole together, we read Psalm 88, the only psalm not ending in praise to God.  We pondered how difficult it must have been for Jesus to find a way to praise God in this dark, lonely place. In that dungeon we sang hymns of thankfulness for the cross.  And hymns of disbelief.  Why would he do this for us?  There I experienced the small, echoed chamber that held our Savior reverberate with the low-note of “tremble” in response to the question, “Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?”  I can tell you about it, I can’t describe it, neither that moment in history nor our moment in that hole.

Then we walked the path Christ would have taken to the cross, where He was hung on an olive tree and nailed to a beam.  We talked about how His death according to Paul ushered in the end of the old code.  The apostle wrestled with the oxymoronic nature of how the “favored of God” could be crucified, a cursed individual rejected by God.  Yet Jesus is raised from the dead, and now sitting at the right hand of God.  It is a beautiful picture of our reality through Christ:  There is nobody so far from God that He cannot reach you.

Finally, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we went to the basement, to an unfinished section of the church where the chiseled rock of the Golgotha quarry is exposed.  This was the rock  that shook when Christ was raised from the dead.  We laid hands on it as a group and sang a glorious song of victory: “Christ The Lord Has Risen Today.”  Most of the detail in the site is gone.  Destroyed.  Built over.  Buried by the earth.  The mighty palaces have fallen.  What’s left?  The Living God and the rock face that bore witness.  The world that doesn’t know Christ will only see Him through His witnesses.  I don’t know how else to summarize this trip.  I can tell you what happened here, but I can’t explain it.  Everyone in the group went to the same places; none of us had the same experience.  But each of us…no, all of us together walked in the footsteps of Jesus.

That’s it, Luke.  We did it together.  And those events of history and faith became with power a common experience for us uniting us in Christ.  Changed we are when we stand in these places.  Every time.  And, we pray…for all time.

Being people of the circle

The phone rang early in my Jerusalem hotel room this morning.  It was
a friend calling to invite me along on an errand he’d agreed to run in
Hebron.  He was to deliver some cash to a family there and wanted
company.  As it had been years for me between visits to the south of
the West Bank, I was immediately interested.

We arrived mid-morning to a city teeming with life.  A place not
unlike San Francisco with its hilly topography, el-Khalil er-Rahman,
as Hebron is known to the local residents, is a favorite of mine.  In
spite of its considerable difficulties, this bustling metropolis has
found the means to survive, even flourish, in hard times.  I had many
things on my agenda today:  the old city market, the ceramic and glass
blowing industries, and the tomb of the biblical patriarchs and
matriarchs with its extensive Herodian architectural exterior.  With
our plans multiplying, my friend and I put off as long as possible the
point of the visit:  the delivery of the money.

This turned out to be a mistake.  The family did not live in Hebron
after all.  In the afternoon we set out on a trail in search of them
that led first to a small town and then, after hiring a driver with a
car with no license plates (!) and pounding for a half an hour on an
unpaved rural path, we arrived at a khirbeh on the edge of the desert.
A khirbeh (“ruin” in Arabic) is a tiny hamlet of 20 to 30 small
houses and yards often built in a circle for common protection of the
homes and their terraced gardens.

We were invited in by a gracious host and treated to the warmest in
village hospitality:  sweet tea (qubbaya), continuous rounds of Arabic
coffee and food, and joyful conversation, occasionally punctuated by
long, nervous silences.  Minutes turned into hours.  And my friend and
I grew anxious to do what we had come to do and get back to Jerusalem
before nightfall.  But there seemed to be no way out.  Things to do
with money and business are always left until the very last.

As I fiddled with my meal, it occurred to me how linearly I live my
life.  Always thinking schedule, checking my watch, what’s next in
line, take care of what I have to do with dispatch and move on.  In
the end though, managing to fit in what I want to do.  Our hosts were
not like that.  They were “circle people.”  They lived in circles, sat
and ate in circles.  And these circles anchored them, bringing them
back always to what life is lived for.  Time meant little in a circle
of friends.

I thought of the exquisite poetry of the first psalm:  the life of the
“wicked,” it says, is of little substance (“like chaff,” 1:4),
endlessly moved about by the winds of time, change and personal
agenda.  Not like the tree (1:3), which is deeply rooted in soil and
water.  The tree’s life is found in the life-giving environment
beneath it and around it.  I remembered the conclusion of the psalm
that the wicked will not have a seat “in a circle of friends” (1:5,
translation mine).

Do you ever find yourself chasing after things that turn out to be
behind you in the end?  The older I get the more joy I take in my
family and my friends, both old and new, and in the times behind me
that, though past, offer strength for living.  I decided this
afternoon to join the party.  To circle back and to enjoy the company
of some really fine people who just wanted to say “thank you” to two
strangers who had brought them a gift.

Rain in its season

As many of you know, the month of January typically finds me in the middle east guiding group(s) of students and pilgrims.  I confess that I have never much minded leaving behind the snows and frigid temperatures of my New York residence this time of year for a  more tolerable climate here.  That said, I certainly do not suggest that Jerusalem doesn’t know its share of “winter” weather.  In fact, rainy conditions in December through February are eagerly anticipated and, as essential to the agribusiness here, even prayed for earnestly.  After them comes six long months of dryness.  But therein lies a personal dilemma for me.  Do I support the economy with my prayers that God will send “the tears of heaven” and a strong season of winter rains on the land?  Or do I give into my own desires that the rainy, windy days of January will be limited until the activities of my groups have been accomplished without impediment from the weather?
A few nights ago I flew into Tel Aviv from New York.  Just before landing, I rose to stretch my legs and in time found myself standing next to an haredi Jewish gentleman facing eastward offering his morning prayers.  I stood close enough to him to notice that he prayed a traditional winter liturgy for rain.  The prayer was for abundant rain, but not so much that its blessing would become a curse upon life.  Later, we stood in line together waiting to be checked through passport control at Ben Gurion Airport.  There I confessed to him my intrusion on his spiritual exercises.  He asked if I understood his prayer.  I told him I did and that his prayer spoke directly to my winter dilemma of realizing that the land is desperate for rain and the life that it brings but hoping that it might be limited for my personal convenience.  We laughed.  But the truth of the prayer is powerful.  Too much of a good thing can be damaging.
For the people of the middle east, water is life.  But there can be too much of it, as flash floods this time of year give testimony.  And then it becomes a threat.  In our part of the world, we have immediate access to most everything we consider essential for life, the stuff that gives us pleasure and makes life comfortable.  Things so easily gotten that we come to expect them and imagine that we cannot live without them.  Then the blessing becomes a curse.   Sadly, even our Christmas season has not proven immune from the infection of the immediate and abundant.  The prayer of the season for rain encourages us to seek for ourselves and for one another what we need.  And that God in His wisdom and timing bring it in limited supply upon us all.

I sang for my father

Sorry folks.  The title of my blog today is an obvious rip-off, playing on the name of the famous stage play and feature film (1970) by Robert Anderson, “I Never Sang for My Father.”  I confess I missed the film in the 70s (too many other things going on in my 20s…) but saw it recently with my wife in an off-Broadway production.  If you missed it too, I’ll describe it briefly.  The play hits home for many who struggle through a final season of life with an aging parent.  Walls of resentment, bitterness and regret block a college professor’s (Gene Hackman) final attempt to reach his father (Melvyn Douglas) who cannot come to terms with the way his children have lived their lives.  Depressing, huh?  And what does this have to do with a blog on BibleSettings?  Well, read on.

Just this Friday past, I had the wonderful privilege of sitting with my father through the final moments of his life.  As my brother and I watched him reach for his last breaths, we held tight to him and to each other, thanking God for the influence of this remarkable man upon his sons.  Yeah and, by the way, I did sing for my father.  I used to sing a lot in an earlier life.  And though the talent was marginal, dad always delighted in whatever I produced.  A pastor, he frequently took me along for funerals, weddings and special services to provide music.  What in fact he was trying to do was to give opportunity for me “to use what God had given me for His glory.”  Things like this were important to dad.  “God gives us things, and He expects a good return on his investment,” he’d say.  So I sang for my father.  And then in 1992, Dad joined me in Israel on one of my trips.  It was the first time he’d been out of the country since his service tour in Europe during World War II.  Dad, a “homebody,” took a chance that this pilgrimage to Israel guided by his eldest son would yield something for him.  What pleasure it gave me to watch dad delight in the sites and sounds of Israel!  He struggled a bit to keep up with the physical side of things, but spiritually and biblically, the trip opened up new vistas of understanding for this man who loved the word of God.  And then some months later to hear mom describe the changes in dad’s preaching and appreciation of the Bible as a result of that trip?  For me, that was heaven.  It was like singing for my father all over again.

I wish you could have known this man who was responsible for so many good things about me.  But alas, a blog format cannot contain the description.  Perhaps the following short biographical sketch which I wrote just this afternoon for his memorial might help a bit.  He was such a contrast to the character in Anderson’s play.

John Robert Widbin, 88, native St. Louisan, youngest son of Frank and Bertha (Mueller) Widbin, World War II veteran (European theatre), successful businessman, loving son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, and treasured by countless friends throughout the world, passed from this earth into the presence of his Lord on Friday, July 20th.

Though Bob had no formal ministerial training, at great effort he became a superb pastor, theologian, and churchman in the truest sense of the terms, serving three congregations over more than a half century of ministry.  More importantly, together with his beloved wife, Lois, he loved God and served Him with a passion that reached unfathomable proportions in faithfulness to Christ, uncompromising devotion to the Church, and an availability to people that defies description.  Many owe their livelihood, their marriages, the well-being of their families, even their very lives to his well-timed intervention and compassionate influence.  No one could have known Bob ‘just a little bit.’  To know him was to know him well, for he shared his inner life and his radiant smile so naturally.  Even advancing years could not erode his spirit.  Surprisingly, they left him free of bitterness and regret.  He lived his later years as he had his earlier:  youthfully and vigorously attending to others.  And in the end he faced his eternal destiny confidently and without fear.

We shall miss him terribly.  He simply was one of those remarkable individuals who just made everyone and everything better.  The work he leaves behind lives in eternity.

That is the kind of person I want to be as the years catch up with me.  Maybe this week you take a good look at the influences for good upon your life?  Whether a relative, a friend, a teacher, a parent.  Be that kind of person for those who come behind you.  And don’t forget to sing for your father while you can.

It’s uphill to the kingdom

When I finish guiding a group in Israel, normally my habit is to spend a bit of time looking around on my own.  My June trip this summer was no exception.  After seeing the group off at the airport, I returned to Jerusalem and wandered down to one of the city’s most historic parts, The City of David, original Jerusalem.  An appropriate spot to do some looking around, for at the foot of this hill, at its lowest level, are the Herodian banks of the Pool of Siloam.  This is the place, according to John 9, where a man without vision was once sent by Jesus to wash his eyes and be healed of his blindness.  I tried to imagine what first sight looked like for a man blind from birth.  And then it happened to me.  Sort of.  In a very familiar place to me, my eyes opened.  And I saw something new.
Excavations near the Pool of Siloam have recently revealed an underground sewer system from second temple times where waters flushed from the temple mount once coursed down through the Tyropoean valley to the confluence of Jerusalem’s wadis.  What makes the discovery especially significant is that this tunnel was constructed for more than just drainage.  It was intended to serve as an emergency escape route from the temple fortress above in case of a perilous situation on the platform.  Such an emergency did in fact arise in the year, AD 70, when Rome moved to put an end to the Jewish revolt that had dragged on into its fourth year.  Invited by workers to enter this underground system and move upward along its course to the mount above, I thought of the role this tunnel had played in the fall of Jerusalem and imagined the events occurring around me had I been there on those fateful days in August so long ago.

In the summer of AD 70, Roman general Flavius Titus launched a devastating assault with four legions against Jerusalem and its temple.  For months, Jewish Zealots fought bravely, managing to fend off every attack thrown at them.  But finally, hopelessly outnumbered, the situation grew impossible for the defenders, and on August 28 (the 9th of Av), battering rams broke into the inner wall of the temple.  Roman forces poured through the breach onto the esplanade burning and looting at will.  The defeated Zealots broke ranks and, with no other course left to them, fled into the emergency tunnel in a desperate attempt to escape.  The attacking legionaries pursued them mercilessly and for nearly two days rooted out the fugitives from their hiding places in the sewers below.  As attested by archaeology, the carnage that ensued was unimaginable.

While walking the uphill course of that tunnel, I was haunted by thoughts of those terrible days.  Though dazed by their reality, however, I sensed strangely that I might be, in a way, reversing history.  And I was not doing it alone.  Others climbed with me.  Those Jews of old were there, returning to the kingdom they had built, if ever so briefly, with their ideals and resolve.  And on a climb that increasingly took on metaphorical proportions, others were there as well, climbing to the Kingdom of God above.

I thought of the group that I had just finished guiding through Israel.  Most of the members were East Europeans and Eurasians serving God in the former Soviet states.  For sure, theirs is an uphill climb.  Enemies abound.  Attrition is high.  The odds are against them.  Still faithfully they trudge on, day after day, year after year, believing that work for the Kingdom must survive.  I thought of others in the West walking with them on this journey.  And I rejoiced in a cherished ministry that God has given me to climb in the company of dedicated servants like these.

After some time underground I emerged exhilarated on the Herodian street above.  I knew what I had to do then.  I found my way through tears to the so-called “Wailing Wall” a short distance away to pray for fellow-climbers on our journey.  Perhaps you are one for whom I prayed.  If so, may God uphold you as you climb, strengthen your gait, and quicken your step.  Be encouraged.  You are not alone.  It is indeed uphill to the Kingdom.  But the company is good.  And the course is certain.

A Christmas surprise

As usual, this year’s holiday season was more or less a “road show” for me.  It began in early December on the island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, with everyone joyfully preparing for Three Kings Day.  Then after celebrating Latin Christmas and Gregorian New Years with my family in suburban New York, it moved abruptly to Jerusalem for Armenian New Years (January 13), and to Bethlehem on January 18, together with dear Armenian friends for the Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity.  The various celebrations impressed me deeply, each contextualizing indelibly yet differently the event of Christ’s birth for their respective communities.  Still I could not help but notice that in the move to adopt and adapt the Story, certain key details of the historical event have been lost along the way.  And I suspect that if we could visit again that first Christmas in Bethlehem, there would be a few surprises awaiting us.
One of these surprises would be the circumstances of the birth in Bethlehem.  All traditions import that no lodging was available to Joseph and Mary, whether due to crowded conditions at census or suspicions about Mary’s pregnancy.  This based upon a verse in the book of Luke (2:7) stating that “…there was no room for them in the inn.”
I assure you that middle easterners today who hear this are shocked by this detail.  First, because hospitality is a such strict obligation for households in the middle east.  No seeker, absolutely no one, can be turned away.  And as Joseph is returning to his home of origin, one cannot imagine, especially with a full-term pregnant woman in his company, that he would not have found warm hospitality in any home there, even in an overcrowded situation.  And then inns, or khans, were seedy places in first century Palestine and, to say the least, were inappropriate lodging for women in this or any other condition.  Middle easterners hear this story differently than do westerners.  They assume that Joseph and Mary would have found lodging on first try, as Matthew’s account suggests (2:11), and that Jesus was born within the confines of a home in Bethlehem.
So how does this fit with the information in Luke about “no room” in an “inn?”  To resolve the apparent discrepancy it helps to know something about village housing in first century Palestine.  In addition to living space and work facilities for its householders, village domiciles contained two required rooms.  One for guests who might happen by.  Receiving guests increased the prestige of the house and brought news to the family.  The “guestroom,” or kataluma (literally, “a large room”), was the most elaborately decorated and best appointed room in the home.  Here is where Joseph and Mary would have stayed in the home they approached.  And it is this word, kataluma, or “guestroom,” that appears in Luke 2:7.
Then, homes in that culture contained within their walls a stable for draft and pure-bred animals.  Because of the legal/ritual requirements, animals raised for slaughter at special events like weddings, funerals and festivals, were cut away from the herd and grain-fed from mangers within the home.  Fecal remains and feeding troughs have actually been recovered from these spaces.  The animals therein invariably received names and were treated as pets.  The story of the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:30-37) illustrates well this convention.  Jephthah promises God that if he gains victory against the Ammonites, he will sacrifice as a burnt offering whatever “comes out of [his] house” upon his return (11:31).  Naturally, he expects a house animal to emerge from the stalls when he returns at first light.
This information permits the following reconstruction of the Christmas story.  Joseph and Mary were shown to the guestroom of a home in Bethlehem, and they planned to stay there for the duration of Joseph’s business.  At some point during their residence, we cannot know when, Mary goes into labor.  And then the conditions of the guestroom, public and overcrowded, were no longer suitable for her condition, prompting Luke’s summary of the situation (see above).  Joseph and Mary have few options then for privacy with midwife support.  They choose to retire to the animal quarters somewhere else in the house.  And there the Child was born, one of the mangers serving as a cradle for the newborn.
This was the actual location of Christ’s birth.  But Luke’s point doesn’t stop there.  He reminds us in providing this historical detail that the Savior, one evangelist will call Him the “Lamb of God,” was born in a room set aside for sacrificial animals.  And like these animals, He will be raised not to live, but to die.  In fact, to give His life as an offering for others.
Most traditions incorporate a habit of giving gifts at the holiday season.  This is God’s greatest gift to all of us.  Peace with God and goodwill toward one another has been accomplished in the life given for you and for me.  Have you opened your gift yet?  It could be the beginning of a whole new life for you.  A life with God really in it.  And you have only to receive it.

No turkeys allowed

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I find my thoughts drifting already to that most wonderful of all holidays.  In my mind though, the modern version can’t keep pace with its ancient counterpart.  No, I’m not referring to the 17th century colonial American first pilgrim harvest.  I am speaking about a Thanksgiving that makes the one observed in the Plymouth Colony look recent by comparison:  The First-Fruits Festival in ancient Israel.    Let me give you a quick tour.

We’ll pick it up more than twenty-five hundred years ago in a Galilean village at the end of the spring harvest.  For more than five weeks, weather-beaten farmers have gathered the cereal crop.  And now they join together with their families for the week-long pilgrimage to their capital city, Jerusalem.  People from other villages along the way will join in and make the trek with them.  Nights on the road will be filled with singing and dancing and an endless string of campfire stories.  Soon they will arrive in Jerusalem and camp east of the city on the Mount of Olives.

The evening before festival, ovens are built and fires set to prepare fresh-baked barley loaves, two to a family.  These from the grains of those first sheaves harvested.  It is the best of the crop.  Next morning they will deposit the loaves in their baskets and make the descent into the city.

They will enter the eastern gate near the spring, walking together in family units through the city and then uphill into the palace precincts.  The King will stand before them there arrayed in purple and red-violet, gold and silver articles of rank hanging from the edges of his garment..  He looks to be what he is:  The visible manifestation of the invisible God of Israel.  The people follow him then in tribal order from the palace platform up the hill and right into the temple courts.

The wait on-line will seem endless as each family prepares to go before the priest in the outer court.  But only the father of each family may draw near him.  The other members will wait behind to hear his confession.  Listen carefully.  It is important.

“My Father was a wandering Aramean.  He went down into Egypt and became a great nation.  But the Egyptians treated us harshly…  Then we cried out to the Lord in our misery.  And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.  He brought us to this place and gave us this land.  And now I bring the first-fruits of the soil that YOU, O Lord, have given me.”  Deuteronomy 26:5-10

Doesn’t sound much like a Thanksgiving prayer, does it?  Isn’t Thanksgiving about being thankful for what we have?  And no Turkey!?  The pilgrims would have been appalled.  And what’s all of this about Arameans, oppressions, and rescues?

Well, this confession was a really big deal in ancient Israel.  It was the key to being and becoming again, every harvest, the people of God, rather than just another people with stuff.  Thanksgiving was about more than just being grateful.  It was about setting a priority on HOW Israel would be grateful.  At harvest time, when the blessings of life were so visible, there was a subtle temptation to focus on WHAT one has, rather than WHERE it comes from.  And that mistake is the essence of idolatry.

For Israel, the trick was to express gratitude in the right way:  As a PRAISING PEOPLE, not just as a thankful people.  Did you know that the Hebrew language doesn’t have a word for “thank you.”  Middle easterners find “thanks” rather offensive.  It is looked upon as a subtle way of drawing attention to the one giving it, rather than honoring the one receiving it.  As an expression of gratitude, “thank you” would have come across to the biblical peoples as cheap and miserly.  Here are some of the ways that middle easterners express gratitude:  “May God bless your hands which have given me this gift.”  “No one has ever been so kind to me.”  “May God hear your every prayer.”  These expressions elevate the giver, not the receiver or the gift.

Israel also expressed gratitude by being A GIVING PEOPLE.   So often our Thanksgivings become more about getting, whether it is a big meal, football fun, or just a day off.  Our Thanksgiving can be the most gluttonous day of the year.  But for Israel, as God had given everything, the people celebrated Him by giving back generously, hilariously, and outrageously.  Theologians call this “imitating God.”

Finally, Israel expressed its gratitude by being A CONTENTED PEOPLE.  “Blessing” is a funny word.  In Hebrew we have two words for it.  One, barukh, has to do with transfers from one to another out of priority for the other.  But the other word, ‘ashrei, cannot be transferred.  It refers to the blessing we enjoy when we live with the right priorities for ourselves and about those things we own.  This kind of “blessing,” or “contentment, is enjoyed we are fully conscious of how little we really need, rather than how much we could to want.

May I encourage you this Thanksgiving to think about those ancient Israelites and that weird harvest celebration of days gone by?  Confess your praise for the Giver rather than offering thanks for the gift.  Imitate God by giving ridiculously rather than stockpiling more and more for yourself.  And do find contentment whatever your present circumstances in the love and compassion of God, rather than longing for things that cannot satisfy.

If you will do that, you will truly be grateful.

At the entrance to things

A curious thing occurred in our intensive Hebrew class this August (see previous blog “August Language”).  The first day of the course was the first day of the solar month (August, 2011), which coincided interestingly with the first day of the lunar month, called Av by ancient and modern Jews.  While not unheard of, this concurrence is quite rare in calendrical cycles.  I could recall no other occurrence of the phenomenon in my nearly forty years of teaching Hebrew.

Now I tend to be sensitive to these threads of coincidence and so announced to our class on that morning that beginning a course at the beginning of both a solar and lunar month was not something to be casually ignored.  You see, the first day of the lunar month, or “New Moon” (cf. Amos 8:5), was held sacred by the ancients and so was free of human work.  It was set aside specially for God as a reminder that all time was granted by the Eternal One.  Beginning a month with this recognition was supposed to awaken worshipers to the reality that the entire month ahead and everything in it was a precious gift, not ultimately fragile and frustrating, but something for which to be grateful for its potential and opportunity.

And so to consecrate our class and set it apart, as time had already done so, we wanted to observe a very ancient Jewish tradition.  We would post a mezuzah on the door of our classroom.  Mezuzah means “doorjamb.”  Tradition holds that every Jewish home must be marked on its primary doorjamb with a small container holding a rolled parchment inscribed by a professional Sopher (scribe) with the text of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 (note especially 6:6,9).   The tradition recalls the slavery of the people of God in Egypt when they painted the entrance of their tents with lamb’s blood to protect them from the plagues.  The blood distinguished the residents as God’s people under His protection throughout the chaos.  Today, the mezuzah is used to designate a faithful home, a place where God dwells and where the human residents live as members of His family.  It is placed on the right frame angled inward toward the opening.  Those passing through touch the container and kiss their fingers as an expression of devotion to the One who dwells therein.

For our Hebrew class, we wanted to show that as the entrance of our experience had been timed sacred by the calendar, so the entrance to our classroom (the doorjamb) would sanctify our gathering.  We would depend on God throughout our course to help us.  We would honor each other not just as classmates and teacher, but as partners on the journey and as those called by God to this place at this time.  Our God is a God of Firsts.  He calls us to be faithful first, at the beginning of times and seasons and at the entrance to places.  We are not to wait to commit until we are convinced.  We commit first as an act of devotion, ready to believe, ready to trust, and ready to experience the Divine Presence whatever circumstances may arise along the way.

On our mezuzah was the Hebrew letter Shin.  Looks much like the capital “W” in our script.  This letter has tremendous significance in several ways.  First, Shin is the initial letter in one of God’s earliest names, Shaddai.  God says that He revealed Himself to the fathers and mothers of Israel by this Name (Exodus 6:1-2).  Second, Shin is the first letter of the first word of the scroll contained inside:  Shma, “Hear.”  This word in Hebrew connotes obedience.  Remember that obedience is required as a first step before the experience can be enjoyed.  And finally, the orthodox today see three uprights in the appearance of the Shin, like our “W.”  The outer uprights represent the members of the family inside the door.  The center upright, joining the outer uprights, represents God.  He is the Center of family life.  It is He who makes an assortment of individuals into a community.  It is He who makes our gathering sacred.  He turns it from a house of boards and beams into a home where human life is valued and where people treat each other with love and concern.  Jewish people never leave their mezuzot behind when they move.  They take them along to every new place for every new season of life.  Think about that when you begin something new.  Beginnings can be stressful.  But we have the assuring company of a loving Savior and the fellowship of one another–especially at the entrance to things.

August language

For the past twenty-five years, August for me has been a language month.  Let me explain.  At the seminary in which I teach, the biblical languages are offered in intensive format for those desiring to delve into the deeper dimensions of the Bible.  For four weeks every August for the past quarter century, I have taught eager learners to read the classical Hebrew language of the Bible.

Classical Hebrew was not exactly the language of King David or the vernacular used by the prophets to promulgate their oracles.  The street language of the people of Israel, called Canaanite after the various populations who preceded her along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, was a bit different.  Classical Hebrew was a special literary form of the street language.  It was developed by the scribal caste in ancient Israel to produce the official documents of the nation.  What Jews call the Hebrew Bible and Christians call the Old Testament was authored and edited in this developed literary language.  Most of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament looks exactly the same linguistically speaking, even though it was obviously produced over a period of many centuries.  Language uniformity exists because all of the books of the Bible were converted to a common dialect that has come to be called Biblical Hebrew.  This is what I teach and have taught, all told now, for nearly forty years.

My first experience with Hebrew was in Israel in the early 1970s.  As a young man fascinated by the exotic world of the middle east, I studied Hebrew in an intensive/everyday experience in classrooms in Jerusalem and on a Galilee kibbutz.  The language I learned then is the main language of the modern state of Israel.  Called Modern Hebrew, it has been in the process of development only since the late 19th century.  It is founded, however, upon the classical language of the Bible.  So while Modern Hebrew is not exactly the same as Biblical Hebrew, gaining oral and aural facility in Modern Hebrew gives one a leg up on mastering the language of the Bible.  When I studied Biblical Hebrew a few years later, I found it easy and fun because I’d already learned to speak and write its modern counterpart.  It is a bit like reading the King James Version of the Bible from a linguistic platform of 21st century English.  Not exactly the same language, but “you can get there from here.”

A selling point for my August language class is that we don’t just do language.  We also introduce students to the culture of the people who used the language for communication.  Every day I bring to class an item that illustrates something from the biblical, medieval, or modern experience of the Jewish people.  Items like a 6th century BCE Babylonian arrowhead found near the northern wall of Jerusalem, a Herodian period oil lamp that would have brought light to a home in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus, or one of the various symbols used by Jews from rabbinic times to the present to capture the dynamic of commitment to God and His Torah.  I expect to discuss some of these items in upcoming blogs.  I think you’ll enjoy these presentations, so check back, right?

As you can tell, my Augusts are about language.  I hope you didn’t mind my sidestepping my usual topics in this blog to talk about Hebrew, which for years now has been and I expect forever will be an important part of my life.  Want to know more?  Come join us in Nyack, New York!  Always glad to include you in my August Language.

Tents, Take II

If you are reading my blogs, you will recall my “tent talk” a week or so ago [“At Home in God’s Tent”].  There we reflected upon the importance of the tent as a symbol of “home” to the seasonally migrating people of early Israel.  To a desert people, the tent was far more than just a place where they spent their days and nights.  It was the defining unit of their society without soil; the insuring hope of protection against hostile elements, both natural and human.  The tent meant security, connectedness and belonging to its inhabitants.  No wonder that after sedentism (transition from nomadic to permanent settling) occurs and the nation emerges in a permanent homeland, the tent retains its nostalgic impact upon their imagination.  One can take people out of the desert, but never the desert out of people.

For pastoral nomads, there is no more important business than tent making.  The process is tedious and requires the utmost care.  Women spend months weaving broad “strips” (Heb. talliyot) of goat hair.  The strips are then kneaded or clasped together by hooks or splints into a whole fabric.  This product is then contoured to form a single portable unit.  Goat hair is ideal for tent construction as it is oily, expanding to seal the tent in wet weather, yet contracting to allow ventilation when the weather is dry.  Typically, the hair is plucked from black goats, as the desert people are aware that black deflects the harmful rays of the sun while absorbing its heat against the cold desert nights.  No article of the “movable property” (Heb. tso’n), even the flocks, is more highly valued by the family or more fiercely protected than its tents.  Theft or loss of a unit is a major tragedy.

Because of its societal importance, tent imagery is central to many solemn assemblies in the desert.  One particular desert occasion in which the tent plays a crucial role is the wedding ceremony.  Marriage partners,  usually mounted on a camel, are presented under cover of a stylized tent, or “canopy” (Heb. chuppah).  This tradition, practiced in ancient Israel from desert times (cf. Psalm 19:4-5) and reflected in contemporary Jewish nuptials, still serves as a context for the marriage vows.  As such, the couple commits (1) to provide a “cover” of identity and security for one another and (2) to acknowledge the divine act whereby they are united forever under the “cover” of God’s “tent.”

The apostle Paul in his epistle to the Colossians draws upon the second temple Jewish wedding ceremony and its image of the wedding tent as a cover for marriage.  He says:

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, cover yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And above all, take love.  Love clasps these together into a complete whole.”  (Colossians 3:12-14, translation mine).

Paul, a tentmaker by trade, understood from experience the difficult procedures and lengthy process of producing a tent.  He also sensed the power and applicability of tent imagery for marriage:  By carefully weaving “tent strips” of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness, and then painstakingly threading them together with love into a whole, a marriage becomes a home.  As such, it provides belonging and protection for those who dwell therein.  Paul’s desire is that God’s Home, the Church, be built by its members in the same way, with the same precious fabrics, and with the same results.  This is the business of the Church.  There is absolutely nothing more important.