Psalm 33—An Invitation

Psalm 33 sounds the call to worship, inviting righteous people to praise the Lord, busting out the lyres and harps, creating new songs and shouting of the Lord’s character. And then the psalmist offers the warrant for such a praise summons:

For the Word of the Yahweh is upright,
all his work is in faithfulness;
loving justice and righteousness,
the love of Yahweh fills the whole earth.

Psalm 33:4-5

That last line filled my imagination this morning—what does it mean to say that creation is full of the love of God? Everything God does evidences God’s faithfulness to the love-soaked creation. The love is everywhere, laid open. Mary Oliver’s poem, “I Wake Close to Morning”, captures the sentiment:

Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers

when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough.1

The psalm adds some color by invoking images of creation, and then invites humanity to stand in awe of a God who “spoke, and it came to be; he commanded and it stood firm.” When God speaks the word, creation comes into order, obeying the Lord’s voice.

Then the contrast: this isn’t like the people in charge of the nations. rather, their plans end up being frustrated, and their armies don’t have the power to save them. Their war horses [read: technological innovations] are “vain hopes for victory”, unable to save them [read: sustain their dominance].

And yet, those who are attentive to the Lord, who fear Yahweh and who hope in God’s love, are delivered from death, and rescued from famine. They can survive scarcity and violence, in other words.

The whole Psalm plays on the contrast of world leaders who seek their own good and scheme to sustain their own power, but ultimately fail to do so, and the Lord who fills the earth with gifts, signs of love, and whose rule is marked by righteousness and justice: those great Biblical words signaling care for vulnerable, marginalized people.

Ultimately, this is what the Psalm calls us towards. Not simply praise for God’s righteousness, but for imitation of it. It calls us to recognize the difference of God, who has true power but uses it generously, and enthroned people who use their incomplete power to inflict harm on others. The psalmist invites us to see such fools from the divine perspective—to watch God watch them—and to see what God sees. Those powers may inflict real harm, but ultimately they turn out to be pretenders, unable to master even their own inner lives, much less order the world.

God sees it all, and invites us to wipe the sleep from our eyes, and see too. Seeing is believing, after all. And all good and true believing becomes doing—in this case, the humble doing of just and righteous people, attentive to the way of God.

  1. This is the opening poem in Oliver’s collection Devotions which is almost cover to cover a meditation on this theme. ↩ 

Steven’s Reading List from 2017

Finally released from my doctoral studies, and the required reading, this year allowed me the opportunity to read more freely and broadly, and I’m appreciative of that. I’ve been pleased with much of what has come my way this year, and want to share some of the texts that have played their part in my intellectual life over the past year. I don’t think this is quite a complete list, but it’s close to the sorts of things that caught my attention over the past year.


Poetry

Counting Descent by Clint Smith

Application for Release from the Dream: Poems by Tony Hoagland

The Works of George Herbert

I really enjoy reading poetry, when I can get my mind in the right frame for reading it. Tony Hoagland has been a favorite for a few years, and this little time didn’t disappoint, though its a shade darker than his earlier work. The poems by Clint Smith are often fantastic, and I look forward to seeing what comes from him later. Herbert’s verses take a little more work for me, but I was daily struck by the way he used poetry as a pastoral tool. In 2018, I’m starting off with some work by Mary Oliver, but hope to greatly increase my intake of good poetry this year. Suggestions are solicited!

Biblical Studies and Theology

Psalms Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics by Ben Witherington III

Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus by Ched Myers

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith

Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission by David Fitch

Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen

Among these, the book by Nouwen was a reread—it’s a top 3 book for me, ever, and I could read it annually. The books by Peterson, Fitch, and Smith are each striking and useful, and I think many people would benefit from hearing each author. The Peterson book is a particular masterpiece, and I hope will someday be seen as a true classic.

Non-Fiction

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

H3 Leadership by Brad Lomenick

Mastering Leadership: An Integrated Framework for Breakthrough Performance and Extraordinary Business Results by Robert Anderson and William Adams

Peak Erik Anders and Robert Pool

Good to Great by Jim Collins

The Ideal Team Player: How to recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues by Patrick Lencioni

Start with Why Simon Sinek

Drive by Daniel Pink

The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner

A stack of leadership books was in the cards for this year, too. Of those, the Sinek book and Mastering Leadership were probably the most useful. However, Just Mercy might have been the best book I read in 2017, period. It’s just an amazing piece, full of story and meaning and mission. Can’t recommend it highly enough. I also found the Kinnamen book eye-opening, as a reflection of the way we humans think and the kinds of biases we are prone to in our decision-making.

Fiction

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

I need to read more fiction, too. Here I come, 2018!

Youth Outreach and Missional Ecclesiology

This last week, the Missio Dei journal published a conference paper I presented last summer reflecting a piece of my doctoral research, which was mostly written in 2016 ahead of finishing off my program and graduating in May of 2017. Cleaning up that article represents the last bit of publishing (at least in this direct form) I intend to do for this particular research project, but I intend to leave it in digital form here on my site, in case somebody might find it useful. Really, the value of a DMin project like this is mostly in the learning process of for the researcher, something which was of great value to me, and I hope will continue to yield fruit as I work in the church.

The finished versions are available here.

I really appreciate all the people that helped me work through that process. I had a great village.

The Last Jedi, the Prophet Joel, and Pentecost

Nota Bene: The following contains mild spoilers for Star Wars Episode VIII, The Last Jedi. Read at your own peril.

My fellow fans of Star Wars and all that its universe has offered us over the past forty years have been a bit divided over the latest offering, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Director Rian Johnson carved out his own path for the series here, to the delight and/or scorn of many. For the record, I liked the film, mostly because of the wonder it set alight in my oldest daughters. This was the first live-action film I’ve ever taken them to see in the theater, and they were delighted and swept away into this universe which has delighted me throughout my life. My most significant feeling for the movie was the profound gratitude of a Dad who got to sit and share something fun and moving with his kids.

There is an aspect of the film I thought deserved a little bit of extra thought. We’ll see if it persists in the last film, but Johnson’s contribution to the canon has a distinct effect on how we think of the force—something Spencer Kornhaber’s article on the film in the Atlantic noticed, too. Kornhaber writes:

And the long-troubling notion that a person’s significance is simply a product of heredity is vaporized with the reveal about Rey’s junktrading parents, cemented by a coda that sees a force-wielding slave-kid dreaming of a rebellion.

Of course, the child Anakin Skywalker’s journey to becoming Darth Vader began with him born into slavery as well. However, the difference here is that the Anakin was discovered as someone special, as a one-in-a-universe boy whose connection to the force was a part of his unique destiny. The short clip witht he slave child at the end of The Last Jedi feels different to me—as though maybe, just maybe we are entering an era when the force works through anybody open to its power.

There are other pieces to this egalitarian vision of the force in the film as well. For instance, Luke rebukes Rey’s imagination of him as a lone hero who would swoop in to save the galaxy. It also seemed like a moment of Force action/intervention when Paige Tico (Rose’s sister), has her moment of sacrificial heroism in the film’s opening battle. (I’m going to have to see that scene again.) See, part of the film’s vision of “heroism” is that the hero’s journey is now open to everybody, from once upon a time storm troopers to mechanics. The resistance is open to everyone, and any who wish may play a part, and find the force helping their journey.

In our own universe, the prophet Joel has a vision like this

“Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
(Joel 2:28–29 NRSV)

This is the text Peter cites on the day of Pentecost, a moment in which God’s spirit would be active not simply in a few special people, but on the whole community of God’s people. For what it’s worth, if your vision of Penetecost was that only the twelve apostles were gifted by the spirit, note that Acts 1:15 speaks about the whole company of disciples being about 120 people, and 2:1-4 certainly reads as though the fire event rested on each of that whole company. Verse 4 reads “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. “

Pentecost was an inclusive event—the spirit given wasn’t just for a few, but for all the disciples of Jesus.

Christianity isn’t a way simply for a few spiritual heroes—the spirit is given to all, and each is given the grace of participating in God’s work. As much as we have masked that fact, it remains true—God’s spirit will not be contained to only a precious few, but is always broadening God’s reach, and draws the most unlikely characters—indeed, wishes to call everyone—in to join God’s mission and community.

A Missional Reading of Nahum

Nahum: A Missional Reading

An Angry Poet

Nahum is a vicious book.

It begins with a quote from Exodus 34, which includes the divine self-revelation:

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7 NRSV)

In contrast to Jonah’s citation of this text, Nahum attends to the more wrathful bits1:

A jealous and avenging God is the Lord,
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and rages against his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger but great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
(Nahum 1:2–3 NRSV)

The wrath of the Lord is focused in this text on Judah’s imperial enemy Assyria. the burning poetry flows from the trauma of the Assyrian destruction of the northern tribes and near destruction of Jerusalem. The prophet’s message is that though the Empire is still “at full strength and many”, their reign is coming to an end.2However, the good news Nahum envisions being proclaimed is the destruction of Nineveh—a destruction which is imagined in vivid detail.

Because of the countless debaucheries of the prostitute,
gracefully alluring, mistress of sorcery,
who enslaves nations through her debaucheries,
and peoples through her sorcery,
I am against you, says the Lord of hosts,
and will lift up your skirts over your face;
and I will let nations look on your nakedness
and kingdoms on your shame.
I will throw filth at you
and treat you with contempt,
and make you a spectacle.
(Nahum 3:4–6 NRSV)

Nahum is a challenging book for missional readers, providing no easy forgiveness or reconciliation for Assyria, no word of hope for the poet’s enemy. It is revenge poetry, much like Obadiah, written in solidarity with a victimized people.

One way of reading it is to enter into that solidarity. Reading Nahum alongside those who have received trauma and exploitation prepares us to be allies of the oppressed in our own age.

When Bad News is Good News

Readers might be surprised to read the familiar text of Nahum 1:15 in its context. In Romans 10:15, Paul alludes to this text, which is a parallel of sorts to Isaiah 52:7. Nahum’s version reads:

Look! On the mountains the feet of one
who brings good tidings,
who proclaims peace!

However, here there is no real word of a full, Messianic peace. The only peace Nahum can envision comes from the impending destruction of Assyria. The utter flattening of this imperial power is Good news for her victims.

Let’s not scoff at this vengeful spirit too quickly—it needs to be heard. The corrupted, devastating power of Assyria had to be stopped, and the word of Nineveh’s collapse could only be received as good news by those victims who had struggled under her power and longed for relief. To read this text in solidarity with the victimized means celebrating the end of terror. Is there any other way to enter into communion with those who have been broken by others than to stand with them as they ask for justice?

Is There Any Room For Mercy Towards Assyria?

But what about the other side? Is there any place for solidarity with Nineveh? Nahum (justifiably) cannot imagine it. God will have a hard time lining up mourners at the funeral:

Then all who see you will shrink from you and say,
“Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?”
Where shall I seek comforters for you?
(Nahum 3:7 NRSV)

Nobody sheds a tear for the oppressor. Indeed, Nahum recognizes that Assyria’s cruel reach has been universal—and celebration over her downfall will surely be so as well.

All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?
(Nahum 3:18–19 NRSV)

Only after we have read this text in solidarity with the victims, wept for them and stood with them while they have we lashed out can we understand what it means to reach toward the oppressor. It’s hard to find a leverage point for mercy, a place where we can begin to see that they have been broken, too. Though they have exercised agency in the process, they have also been acting out a role, been victims of the corrupted structures of the world, the game laid out for them. Did they truly understand their own evil? What forces were they swept up in?

Eventually we might find a way to ask, “Is there any hope for their redemption?” We may struggle towards an imagination of what repentance might look like for them. The struggle is a good sign, an indication that we are reading Nahum on its own terms. But ultimately, Nahum needs a conversation partner, and the Minor Prophets oblige us, bringing Jonah to the table.3Nahum’s Conversation Partner: Jonah

Although Jonah is the more familiar book, it makes sense to me to read NAhum first, absorbing its pathos before turning to Jonah. The dissonance of Jonah emerges more clearly when we read Nahum, absorbing the trauma and finding solidarity with the victims. Then, all of a sudden, Jonah doesn’t seem like simply a foolish, begrudging simpleton. His response, even if comically tragic, makes sense coming from the perspective of Nahum. The big differences between the prophet Nahum and Jonah?

  1. Nahum received a word for Judah, Jonah was sent to Nineveh.
  2. Jonah gets eaten by a fish and vomited.

The perspective of the two prophets towards Nineveh are likely in alignment with each other. Jonah shouts Amen all through Nahum’s sermon, and Nahum screams in protest when God sends Jonah to the Assyrians.

On the other hand, the books Nahum and Jonah are pointed in different directions. Jonah is an astonishing, dumbfounding, stupefying answer to Nahum’s rhetorical question, “Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?”. The whole book points towards a final question: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Who mourns over Nineveh’s destruction? God does.

Is Judah’s pain real? Yes.

Does Nineveh need to be stopped? Yes.

Is retribution in order? Yes.

Does God care? Yes.
God cares for the Jew and the Assyrian.

Reading Like an Assyrian

One last thing. Nahum expresses Judah’s anguish over Nineveh’s oppression and to provide hope for relief from that oppression. As readers from afar, I think that reading in solidarity with the oppressed Jews is the primary mode of reading the text, we should also consider another perspective: reading as Assyrians. It’s worth considering whether our position is most naturally that of the underdogs in the story. We might, rather, be the empowered empire that inflicts suffering on others and exploits them for our own ends. There are certainly those in the world that see the tribes that I belong to (American, White, Christian) in that light. This angle too can be over simplified, but it’s worth considering.

It may be that, as I learn to read in solidarity with the oppressed who cry out for justice, I have to own my role in the empire. It may be that such a reading provokes me to really see my own complicity with violence and runaway power, and calls me to repent.

The missional way stretches towards justice in the whole world, longing with God for all of creation to flourish, with each human freely obeying God, receiving God’s grace and mercy. We long for each person and every nation to experience the abundance of creation, God’s love, and the community of loving, just humanity. Following such a way demands that I continually repent, gaining new self-understanding and turning again to follow God.

When I read with the possibility that I am more likely Potiphar than Joseph, Pharaoh than Moses, Nebuchadnezzar than Daniel, it opens up my heart to repent of corruption and the exploitation of the less powerful. Nahum stands in that space, and I can either cry out with him, or I can hear the prophet call out against me from a distance, and seek change. It may be that a different moments of my life, I need to do both.

  1. The first part of that language also points us towards the decalogue itself. The second command reads: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4–6 NRSV)
  2. Nahum 1:12
  3. This is a great example of the kinds of conversations bouncing between the prophets. If we read them like something of a symposium, rich connections emerge. Obadiah, and Habakkuk, come to mind as equally rich conversation partners for Nahum.

Virtues for Advent

It is now advent, the season in which the Church waits for the coming of Christ—both the celebration of his coming in the past (Christmas) as well as the promise of his future coming. We reflect on what we received in his incarnation, and on what it means to prepare for his return. Anticipation fills the air and we cultivate a sense of anticipation and longing in our hearts. Over time, the church has curated a series of texts that speak to the longing of the season, which reflect on Israel’s hopes for the Messiah, and narratives of the preparatory work of John the baptist, and Jesus’s birth.

I was reading something about hospitality earlier today, and it struck me that the virtue of being hospitable fits well with the spirit of the advent season. I began to think of other “advent” virtues, traits of character highlighted and commended by the season. Here’s what I came up with, though I’d welcome your thoughts on others.

Patience

Essential to the advent spirit, patience calls us to wait without frustration. It cultivates longing for God’s work not-yet-accomplished, and makes us eager for the shalom of the reconciled world. And yet, that eagerness and longing has to be held with patience, with a resistance to responses like wrath or despair over the sin and brokenness we still experience. Advent, the spirit of conscious waiting, cultivates our desire for Christ’s coming and a patience for the meanwhile.

Hospitality

Hospitality caught my eye as an advent virtue. The narratives of Jesus’s birth point toward this virtue, with the familiar language of “no room at the inn” and Mary’s willingness to welcome the child into her own being, and thus into the world. At the core of advent is the practice of preparing ourselves to receive Christ, which also prepares us to receive the stranger in whom Christ may be alive.

Justice

Advent primes us for justice, turning our eyes to places where the broken world cries out for redemption and vindication by God. We hear the cries of those who say, “How long, O Lord?”. We move to solidarity with them. We look for ways to work towards just relief in the present, while we wait for the world to receive the fully restorative justice of God’s kingdom in Christ’s appearing.

Generosity

Advent reminds us that what we seem to possess now is simply stewarded for the king who is coming. It loosens our grip on the things we have, and calls us to become more generous givers, like the ancient magi who traveled far not to receive from Christ the king, but to lay their gifts before him.

Humility

Advent forces us to reckon with our own weaknesses and the limits of our own capacities. We become aware of the big problems beyond our reach, and confess our need for Christ. We also recognize that in Christ’s return there is a reversal coming, whereby the great and powerful are laid low, and the lowly and humble are lifted up, (as in the Magnificat (Luke 1:52-53):

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Perseverance

Perseverance and patience are twin virtues, though there is enough distinction between the two to warrant listing them separately. To me, patience is more about the continued passive endurance of something difficult, while perseverance more actively pushes through the difficulty. Patience is about not giving up, perseverance is about keeping going. Advent encourages both, I think, and on the Perseverance side we are encouraged to continue joining Christ in the work he is doing—the work that he began in the era of the gospels, and which he will bring to completion in his return.

Practicing the Advent Virtues

These virtues blow through the air in advent, calling for our attention and intention. Let me offer a few simple steps towards practicing them with greater deliberateness.

  1. Take a few days meditating through these virtues, one for each day. Or, perhaps just select one and meditate on it throughout the season, take just five or fifteen minutes a day to consider what it means to be more just or hospitable in the season.
  2. One form of such meditation might be journaling, which you could easily prime by taking the virtues above and jotting them at the top or bottom of the next several pages of your journal, as a prompt to think about when you get to that page.
  3. Challenge the people you live with to lean into these virtues for a week or so.
  4. Connect these virtues to texts that remind you of what they mean. (If you’re doing number 3, this would be a great thing to share with your friends and family via quick texts. Bonus for gifs!)
  5. Take a day to take stock of where you are with one of these virtues. Where are you in developing patience, or generosity? How do you know?
  6. Consider other “Advent Virtues”? In what other ways does this season provoke us to cultivate the character of Christ?

I’d love to hear your answers on this last one. Feel free to either comment here or on facebook, or send a reply to @stevenhovater on twitter!