My daughter Julia, who always finds the coolest stuff online, sent me a link to a story from the History Channel website which Becka Little posted May 3 about a new book by Zora Neale Hurston being published this month. Hurston died in 1960, and had been forgotten for decades when she died. But in the 1920’s and 30’s she was the most important woman writer of the Harlem renaissance. In the 1980’s she was rediscovered, largely due to the efforts of Alice Walker. Her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God became a best seller (I prefer Jonah’s Gourd Vine, myself). Hurston was a writer by talent and inclination, but an anthropologist by training. Her book Mules and Men is a landmark study of African-American folklore and history. The new book, Baracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo, is also a work of anthropology.
In Baracoon Hurston interviews the last living survivor of the Middle Passage. Although slavery was not ended in this country until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1864 (England, the country we said all those nasty things about in the Declaration of Independence, abolished slavery in 1807) the international slave trade was abolished here in 1807. Slave ships still smuggled newly acquired slaves from Africa to this country as late as 1860. Hurston found a man, Cudjo Lewis, living near Mobile, who was delivered to the Gulf Coast of Alabama from his home in Benin on the slave ship Clotilda – the last slave ship to bring human cargo to the United States from Africa.
Her book, based upon interviews with Cudjo Lewis was never published. Black publishers would not publish it because Hurston, the scientist, recorded Cudjo’s voice in his own patois. Black intellectuals at the time felt that this dialect fed racist stereotypes. White publishers were simply not interested. And so this important work has not been published till now.
I am anxious to read it for several reasons. Zoral Neal Hurston is a story teller of rare talent. The experience of the Middle Passage and navigating a wholly new world has not been given such a thorough, first-person voice before. The book will further illuminate the sin of slavery – and we only benefit from such knowledge. Most of all, I want to read the book because it is the personal account of a man who was free, then enslaved, then emancipated – which is the story of every Christian.
Jesus himself makes this clear. When he tells the Jews that the truth will set them free, they angrily reply, We are Abraham’s offspring and have never been enslaved to anyone! (John8.32-33). My impulse would be to say to them, “Uh…guys, I have three words for you: Egypt, Babylon, Rome.” Jesus’ reply is far-reaching, gathering in all of humanity:
Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever, the Son does remain forever. If, therefore, the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed. John 8.34-36.
Paul describes the same, universal state of humanity in Romans 6.16-18. In this passage he reminds us we were all “slaves to sin,” but some have responded to a gospel which makes us “free from sin, and slaves to righteousness.”
This is the state of humanity. But our sense of self mirrors that of those Jews opposing Jesus – “We have never been slaves to anyone.” The freedoms we enjoy through the blessings God provides, and the sacrifice so many have made would certainly cultivate such a reply.
Which is why understanding what it is to be a slave is so important. It is a tool by which we may better understand ourselves as Christians. How will we know the Truth has set us free – how can we appreciate our emancipation - if we have no comprehension of our own slavery?
After suffering a brain injury back in 1997, I experienced four long-term effects regarding my hearing. There was some general hearing loss. I lost the ability to tell the direction of high-pitched sounds. I used to have the ability to conduct one conversation and listen surreptitiously to another simultaneously. This ability, which came in quite handy at my last job, was completely lost. The fourth and most life-altering effect was that I developed a severe and persistent case of tinnitus.
The audiologist told me that this was to be expected, I had scar tissue on or in my ear canal. It started out as static in my left ear – often really loud static. This evolved into a ring, which I have identified as a high B-flat. It is always there. Sometimes it is oppressively loud. Sometimes it keeps me awake. Sometimes there is a second, discordant note. Sometimes (and this is the worst) the note varies at odd intervals. I know that certain factors make my tinnitus worse – fatigue, stress, and especially caffeine. But nothing makes it better.
I’m known as a fairly loud person. I have (or at least had) a booming voice. I play music loud. I have no doubt that the tinnitus has increased my need for volume. The thing is, I loved silence. I loved the early morning in the office – 6:00 am say – when everything was absolutely still. This was the best time to study and pray. But I have not experienced silence, even for a moment, since January 1997.
I have been teaching I Timothy on Sunday mornings, and the apostle Paul has a few things to say in favor of quietness in this letter. In chapter 2 he says that quietness typifies the life we should pray to live.
First of all, then, I urge that entreaties, prayers, petitions and thanksgivings be made on behalf of all men – for kings and all that are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior. I Timothy 2.1-3
He goes on a few verses later to use the same word, “quiet,” to describe how a woman should conduct herself in worship (v.11).
This all leaves me feeling more than a little bit left out. A cursory reading of this passage and so many others (Psalms 4.4, 46.10, 131, 139.18; and Habakkuk 2.20 are good places to start) might make a person deprived of silence feel a little “less than” – somewhat spiritually disabled.
Paying attention to the text, though, reminds me that the word “quiet” Paul uses in I Timothy does not mean silence, it means “quietude”, stillness. Stillness is not dependent on silence (either external or internal). It is the gift we receive from God because He is present.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down is green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters. Psalm 23.1
Surely I have composed and quieted my soul. Like a weaned child rests against his mother, I have quieted my soul within me. Psalm 131.2
Even that famous phrase from Psalm 46, be still and know that I am God, means “stop struggling and know that I am God.” Most modern translations phrase this verse that way, although I prefer the earlier translation.
Silence, then, is a matter of location and choice. It is the gift we have when we know God is present AND we decide to stop struggling and lie down beside the quiet waters He provides. Neither tinnitus, nor boom-boxes, nor traffic, nor any of the noise pollutants we encounter can take this gift away.
This week I was reading through John 6 in Greek and noticed, for the first time, a curious vocabulary choice in verses 54-56. Jesus has just told the Jews in the Capernaum synagogue that they must “eat His flesh and drink His blood” in order to have eternal life. This provokes a “war of words” (verse 52) among the Jews, who are offended at such a statement. Jesus does not back down, but repeats His statement. In fact he more than repeats it, He intensifies it. He stops using the word “eat,” and from verse 54 on uses a word that means “to chomp, to crunch” – like crunching a piece of celery, or chomping ice. How would we react if translators were literal in these verses and have Jesus say, “He who chomps my flesh…shall have eternal life”? Of course Jesus and the Jews were almost certainly not speaking Greek in the synagogue, but were conversing in Aramaic or Hebrew. Still, John was there, and he (or more precisely, the Holy Spirit) choses to change the word from “eat” in verse 51 to “chomp” in verses 52-54. Why?
I have been awfully self-satisfied with my 20/20 hindsight, and the knowledge that Jesus is talking about the communion service at the end of John 6. He is. But even with my after-the-fact knowledge, I am still confused by some of Jesus’ words.
For instance, what does Jesus mean when He tells Nicodemus that those born of the Spirit are “Like the wind” (John 3.8)? I have been just as smug over the years in my understanding that in John 3 Jesus is talking about baptism. He is. But only recently have I admitted to myself that regarding John 3.8 I am just as confused as Nicodemus.
I have another question. In the creation account, how is it that vegetation appears before the Sun is created (Genesis 1.9-19)? God can surely keep vegetation alive if He can create it. I understand that. But creation happens in a logical order: energy, matter, water, arable land, vegetation, simpler animal life, more complex animal life, human life. The one thing that is glaringly out of order is that the Sun comes after vegetation is created. Why did God disrupt the logical order of things?
In the Bible, when folks demand an immediate answer from God, and get one, His response is generally disturbing (see Baruch in Jeremiah 45, and the book of Habakkuk). The exception is Job, whose demand that God explain Himself, is met with the answer “Who are you? I Am God” (Job 38-41). This answer is satisfying, and Job repents (42.1-6). It should satisfy us as well. None of our questions, however personal, pressing, or perplexing, deny that Yahweh is God – or that Yahweh is good.
This is where faith comes in – faith sees us beyond the questions we cannot puzzle out. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11.1). Faith does not make up for a paucity of evidence, but for the limitations of human perception and experience. Faith is for the hard questions. We believe God is, and that God is good. There’s overwhelming evidence of that. Therefore, we do not doubt when our experience, imagination, and intelligence are not sufficient to our questions.
After those “hard words” Jesus delivers in John 6.52-28, many disciples stop following Him altogether. This prompts Jesus to ask the apostles, “You don’t want to go away too, do you?” Peter replies for the 12, in fact he replies for every true disciple when he says:
Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have complete faith, and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God. (John 6.66-69).
We hosted the area wide meeting of Spanish-speaking Church groups yesterday. It was such a blessing to worship together. Mike Mendez (the father, the one with the great head of hair) translated my opening remarks into Spanish, and then translated the sermon of our guest speaker, brother Carlos Hugues, into English. Otherwise the service was conducted in Spanish. This posed only slight difficulties for us English speakers. Despite the language barrier we worshipped together fervently, in Spirit and in Truth.
The songs we sang were set to familiar tunes, and there is so much Spanish in the air that even those of us who have had no Spanish language training can follow along. We all know that Salvador is savior, Dios is God, Corazon is heart, amor is love, Cristo is Christ, agua is water, and Senor is Lord. I could list 20 more words we English speakers identified because they are in common usage, or recognized from a shared background in Greek and Latin. We English speakers sang along with the Spirit and the Understanding.
The same familiarity of vocabulary made following the scripture readings just as easy. I wish that the prayers of brother Ismael, and brother Rigoberto had been translated, as well as brother Chavez’ remarks around the communion table. Their words were so heart-felt and reverent, that even without translation we were all led in adoration of our Father.
Brother Hugues’ lesson on Hebrews 2.1-4, encouraging us not to neglect our great salvation, was a powerful and challenging reminder of what is truly important.
For weeks we announced this meeting as a “Spanish Language” service, but it was truly a Pentecost service. On the day of Pentecost following the death-burial-resurrection-ascension of Jesus the Spirit was poured out upon the Apostles and they began to preach. The miracle of the day was that although 16 different ethnic groups were gathered in Jerusalem, and only 12 apostles to preach to them, everyone heard the gospel in their native language. Something like that happened Sunday evening.
It wasn’t that we all miraculously understood Spanish. There are three logical reasons why language didn’t pose much of a barrier. One reason is that most of us know more Spanish than we realize. Another reason is that we humans communicate in more ways than just with words. But there was something else at work – a common language we Spanish speakers and English speakers share when we share a Salvador. We share the language of the Gospel.
Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God. Which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. But the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; they are foolishness to him, he cannot comprehend them because they are spiritually valued. I Corinthians 2.12-14
Whether one speaks Spanish or English, Hope/Esperanza means something to the Christian it means to no one else. The miracle of Pentecost persists because we share the language of the Gospel.
Christianity has been chided recently for using a specialized vocabulary that is out of touch with most folks – especially young folks. It is true that we can throw theological jargon around like incantations, use those words as Shibboleths, or as a way to keep the uninitiated at arm’s length. We sometimes fetishize words of our own making - “trinity” for instance, which are not even in the Bible. But the vocabulary of the gospel – words like: sin, salvation, grace, redemption, peace, hope, and atonement –are necessary to the message itself. These words unite us across language barriers.
These gospel words will form no barrier to the one seeking God, as Paul tells us in the passage above. For the worldly person, the one with no interest in God at all, his own disinterest is the barrier – not gospel words.
Truly, truly I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself, and walk wherever you wished. But when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go. John 21.18
The day I realized I wasn’t young anymore was the day I caught myself kicking newspapers. We received two dailies at the time, the now-defunct Manassas Journal Messenger, and the Washington Post. One morning I realized I was kicking the two papers together so I only had to bend down once to pick them up. A little later I got into the habit of kicking them uphill so I wouldn’t have to bend over too far.
That was when I knew I wasn’t young anymore. Just last week I realized that I am old (some might say 55 is middle-aged – it is if you live to be 110). I was watching the Marx Brother’s classic, Duck Soup, and I caught myself thinking, “You know….that Margaret Dumont wouldn’t be half bad if she fixed her hair a little differently, and stopped strutting around like the Queen of Asgard.” When you start thinking Margaret Dumont was sort of cute back in 1933 you’re officially old (and in need of some new bifocals). Of course back in 1933 Margaret Dumont was only 45 – 10 years younger than I am now – but still.
I always thought of the passage above, from John’s gospel, in terms of incarceration. Jesus, in calling Peter a second time, makes clear what the cost of following him will be – it will mean the eventual loss of his freedom. Clearly Jesus is seeing the persecutions and arrests Peter will endure in the future. But there is a sense in which this prediction will come true for any of us who live long enough.
Anyone who has ever cared for an aging relative knows how easily, how quickly one can find oneself unable to “gird” oneself and holding out one’s hands so someone else can do the job. How many necessary destinations become places we don’t want to go?
The Bible is clear – the skin we’re in, the body we inhabit is just that – a habitation, not our selves. Paul calls it a “tent” in II Corinthians 5.1-10 – just a temporary dwelling for a pilgrim until he reaches home. My grandma used to like an old country song called “This Old House.” It has been recorded by everyone from Bette Midler to the Gaithers, but Stuart Hamblen released it first, back in 1953. In it he describes his body as a house that is falling apart, but he’s fine with that because he’s “goin’ to meet the saints.” It is a catchy, hopeful song….but it is wrong – we don’t have a house, only a tent.
Knowing this, as careful stewards of God’s gifts, we should take good care of our tents. But knowing this, our first priority is to “redeem the time” (Ephesians 5.16), “number our days” (Psalm 90.12), and “walk circumspectly” (Ephesians 5.15). We must “remember our Creator in the days of our youth,” and remember that the whole duty of a human being on earth is to “fear God and keep his commandments,” (Ecclesiastes 12.1,13).
As the Rich Man learned in Luke 16, we do not cease to be when we die, but we cease to be able to effect change – and thus we must never waste a moment, or an opportunity. Vigor must not be squandered – because like time, it is in limited supply.