Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Lenten Reflections

In his Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, Walter Brueggemann reminds his readers that theology (literally logoi about theos) is about speech, specifically speech about God. We can get stuck when we read sacred texts and focus all of our energy on asking, “did it happen?” The point Brueggemann makes is that the far more important question is this: “what is being said?” And then the follow-up question: what does it mean? 

Brueggemann suggests that a metaphor for reading the Old Testament is a courtroom where “testimony” is being read in as evidence. As in any courtroom, all of the evidence does not agree. The role of a juror is to try to carefully sift through it all to discover what is reasonable. There is a core testimony, but also there is counter-testimony; sometimes the evidence is disputed. Still, there is much on which at least most of the witnesses agree. This metaphor allows for a reading of the Old Testament that avoids reductionism. It means we don’t need to read it as against the New Testament or by trying to locate Eden on a map, or going on a quest for the historical ark. 

We just need to pay attention to the witnesses. We need to listen to what is being said, and then measure that against our own lives and how we experience God. An Episcopalian might say we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest...  

At the core of Israel’s testimony, Brueggemann begins with two key words: thanksgiving and righteousness. The God of the Old Testament (who is the same God of Jesus) is One who is worthy of our gratitude and who does justice. YHWH  is the One who does right by the widow and orphan. YHWH is also the One who creates and re-creates; the potter who forms the clay. YHWH is the One who makes and keeps promises. YHWH is the One who delivers. Notice all those action verbs: God makes, promises, delivers, blesses, and feeds.

Brueggemann goes on to say that from these action verbs come a whole bunch of adjectives—words that describe who God is. A key text in what Brueggemann calls Israel’s “credo of adjectives” is Exodus 34 where the testimony is offered that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. 

God is merciful. In Hebrew, rhm – the word for womb. God loves us like a mother who has carried us in utero for nine months. God shows hsd – steadfast love. God is there no matter what, like that father in the story of the prodigal son.

We find these same adjectives in Psalm 145:8: 
The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. 

If the journey of Lent is meant to lead us deeper into the heart of God, it matters how we speak of that God. When I was in San Francisco this past fall, and happened to be in town for the Giants’ parade, there was a street preacher across from my hotel shouting a lot about Jesus and about repentance, and about hell. Now I don’t want to say that there is nothing of that kind of language in the Bible but clearly it is not at the core. You don't scare people into faith by threatening them with damnation. That is not the heart of the matter. Sometimes the prophets do get loud in order to try to wake people up. But always they point us toward the God who desires us, yearns for us, loves us with womb-like mercy and steadfast fidelity. The God about whom that street preacher was talking is not the God I know and love in Jesus Christ.

It is to that God, however - the God of the Bible and of Jesus Christ -  to whom we are called to return as this Lenten journey takes us once more into Holy Week, and ultimately the three holy days: the God who is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.

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