The Blood of Bulls and Goats, a Cup of Coffee, and the Renewal of My Inmost Being

One of the standard texts that I’ve heard most of my life in support of “spiritual worship” is Psalm 51:16-17. In my younger years I remember this primarily as a text used against the “physical worship” of the Roman Catholic Mass.

For in sacrifice you take no delight,
burnt offerings from me you would refuse,
my sacrifice, a contrite spirit.
A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.

(This translation is from Daily Prayer.)

If you’re a Protestant you probably know the argument: Physical forms, such as animal sacrifice, temple worship, and today, the Mass, which re-enacts the sacrifice of Christ, are not what God desires. The only thing necessary and proper for real worship is a contrite spirit and humbled heart.

But Psalm 51 doesn’t end with v. 17. There’s one more strophe that always causes me to pause and rethink the cavalier manner in which I’ve assumed I knew precisely what these verses meant.

In your goodness, show favor to Zion:
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice,
holocausts offered on your altar. (vv 18-19)

According to the complete Psalm 51, it isn’t that God doesn’t take delight in sacrifices nor would God refuse burnt offerings. They just need to be done correctly. The issue isn’t the sacrifice; the issue is decency and order. Just as the person must approach God with the right attitude, so the external means of approach must be done in the proper manner. In King David’s time that would be in Jerusalem on the temple altar, which was properly sanctified, and the sacrifice done in the prescribed manner.

This morning I “prayed” Psalm 51 with a cup of coffee in my hand. I put the word “prayed” in parenthesis because of a question that popped into my mind. Assuming that my morning prayer (which I assure you 😉 was done in all humility and with a contrite heart!) is the sort of “spiritual sacrifice” I was taught to offer in Sunday School, Bible College, etc., is doing it with a cup of coffee in my hand “a lawful sacrifice” by the standards of the last verse of Psalm 51, or is it just an informal café conversation with my friend Jesus?

A paraphrase of Eph. 4:23-24 (which introduces Psalm 51 in Daily Prayer) says, “Your inmost being must be renewed, and you must put on the new man.” I think I’ll argue that my cup of coffee helps renew my inmost being, thus making it possible for me to offer a “lawful sacrifice.”


The Disadvantage of a Boarding School

Brenda and I went to a soccer game today. Being a boarding school, all the parents and friends of the kids live a long way away. Besides, it was frigid today. (About 50° and very damp at game time — brrr!!!! — [I know, but it’s best to play along with the locals when it comes to the weather.])

So here is a photo of all (not some … all) the home team fans.

Reminiscent of the 12th Man at a Texas Aggies football games, isn’t it?

The Law of Liberty

Here’s a most remarkable couple of verses from James 2:12-13 that had not caught my attention before. “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”

The translation (paraphrase?) that caught my attention is from Christian Prayer: “Always speak and act as men destined for judgment under the law of freedom. Merciless is the judgment on the man who has not shown mercy; but mercy triumphs over judgment.”

James has already mentioned the law of liberty in 1:25. “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.”

The law of liberty (or law of freedom) sounds so … well … libertine to our American ears, but if we view our liberty as a means of personal freedom rather than as a means to service, liberty itself becomes a harsh task master.

It’s Still Astonishing

A word of explanation is in order as to precisely what I meant in this essay about the Feast of Circumcision when Mary and Joseph named Jesus. The sentence in question is,

God gave Adam authority to name the creatures he (that is, God) created. That in itself is remarkable. But for God to then become incarnate and allow the children of Adam to name him (that is, the Son of God) as well is astonishing!

The issue in question is Luke 1:31 where the angel tells Mary. “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”

One reader thought I just didn’t know my scripture and another gently accused me of willfully ignoring the simple facts of scripture. In retrospect I understand the concerns; unfortunately, I did not make my point clearly.

First, in the ancient order of things (if scholars of all things ancient are to be believed) a name is connected with a person’s very being. To know the true name is thus to know the person intimately, and in a very real sense, to have power over that person. Moses was audacious enough to ask God’s name and (arguably) God answered Moses without answering him at all. “My name is ‘I Am that I Am.'” (with that wonderfully ambivalent verb form that is past, present, and future tense all rolled up in one). God didn’t offer Moses a name as much as a description of who he was. But it was the only thing the people of God had, so they “nouned the verb” and called God “Yahweh,” a name based in the verb root, “to be.”

Second, in the Jewish interpretive tradition, when “Man Gave Names to all the Animals,” those were not arbitrary names but carefully chosen, rooted in the being of the animal that was revealed to Adam as he studied them. Bob Dylan, good Jewish boy that he was, alluded to this in his famous children’s song. “He saw an animal that liked to growl. / Big furry paws and he liked to howl. / Great big furry back and furry hair. / Ah, think I’ll call it a bear.” In Dylan’s whimsical version, the connection between the name man gave and the animal is poetic, but he is dipping into that Jewish tradition that Adam considered the animals and named them carefully, based on what they truly were.

There was a tradition, particularly in ancient Middle Eastern cultures, that the Christian baptismal name was a secret name only used within the confines of worship after the doors were closed to the non-baptized and outsiders. One’s real name (that is, the baptismal name) was known only to oneself, God, and the community. Why such a restriction? Because names (real names) have power.

It is true that the angel told Mary what to name the baby. But the angel came to Mary in the secrecy of the night, with no one else around. When it came to actually naming the baby nine months and eight days later, the angel didn’t swoop down and authoritatively announce to the mohel, when he asked what the child’s name was to be, that God said the baby’s name will be Jesus. Rather, the responsibility to name him fell on Joseph’s and Mary’s shoulders. The allusion to Adam ought to be obvious.

And the fact that the name is revealed by the angel and not arbitrarily chosen out of the “100 Most Popular Eastern Mediterranean Baby Names During the Reign of King Herod” book is significant. According to the Hebrew tradition, Adam looked into the being of the animals and named them according to their being. But Mary and Joseph could not have looked into this baby’s being and comprehended the ancient depth and complexity of his soul. He was fully God and fully human, and that is beyond human grasp, available only through revelation and not through contemplation. Thus the angel’s word to Mary allows her and her husband to fulfill their Adamic responsibility (but now with an awe-inspiring twist) and name God. I’m sticking by my contention that this event is astonishing.

Vang Pao and the Hmong Community

Today Vang Pao, leader of the Hmong people in America for a generation, died in Fresno, California. General Pao was probably one of the most important figures in the Vietnam War and was certainly a hero for the Americans. As cultural leader of the Hmong, he was, and continues to be, a great hero for his people. His story is the story of Asian immigration to the United States. The facts – from the arrival of the Coolies to build a railroad to the arrival of the refugees who helped in the fight against communism – are that we Americans are deeply suspicious of Southeast Asians. General Pao’s stint as a security guard in a grocery store (from elite military general to lowly security guard!) is a profound metaphor for our view of their proper role in American life.

My interest in the Hmong goes back to Central Baptist Seminary where Gam Shea was one of my New Testament professors. Gam was a typically short, compact, and powerfully built Hmong with a great deal of spiritual and physical energy. He was also a contradiction.

He received his education in the United States and was ultimately awarded his PhD at the University Chicago. Because of the rise of the Khmer Rouge he was not able to return to Laos, which is what he desperately wanted to do. He didn’t care for teaching American students because we were rather lazy and lacked seriousness by Hmong standards.

His second choice was to teach at Trinity Seminary in Singapore. That was the main theological institution for the Hmong community in Thailand. But the U.S. government would not allow him to travel outside the U.S. even though he was not an American citizen and probably would never be able to get citizenship – all having to do with his refugee status. He was a sort of prisoner in a foreign land, held captive in a place where he did not want to be by a government and people who didn’t really want him and his kind around.

That left him few alternatives and so he became Assoc. Professor of New Testament at Central Baptist in Kansas City, where there was no significant Hmong community. Even in his job options he ended up being exiled from his people here in America. The Hmong congregated primarily in Minneapolis and the Central Valley of California, but there was no American Baptist seminary in either place.

His theology was also a captive of the Western world. He had experienced the spiritual world at a level unimaginable by any of his students, except for our lone Columbian who had lived through some pretty horrific and remarkable times in her home country. His hair-raising descriptions of demon possession, the power and complete evil of evil spirits, and the remarkable efficacy of the Gospel in these real world situations were utterly spellbinding. He understood the power of the Gospel at so many levels that his students had never imagined. As a result, his Christian faith had dimensions that most of us didn’t even know existed.

Yet, for all that, he was held captive intellectually by the sort of liberalism that denied the non-physical world outright by reducing it to psychological categories. He was able to lecture brilliantly on Paul Tillich’s history of religion and the Tűbigen School’s higher critical methods of New Testament study. All that claptrap was absolutely contradictory to his Christian faith, and yet he taught it brilliantly. I suspect it was one more prison in which he lived as “free man” in the land of the free. This is how Americans did things, after all, and so he would do it with great energy to the best of his ability. That is how the Hmong lived.

We have a small Hmong community here in Siouxland. In one of those “it’s a small world” stories, it turns out that the primary Hmong church (a rural Lutheran church) is very close to our house. I got to know the pastor when I was a member of Prospect Hill Presbytery, because he was a Presbyterian back then. Back in Laos he was a medical doctor, but his credentials weren’t recognized in the United States. The relocation agency was able to find him a job as a janitor at a grade school in Storm Lake, Iowa.

At night he also began to clean the Presbytery offices and eventually became a lay leader of the Laotian Christian community in Storm Lake where he got noticed by the Presbyterians. The reason he got noticed was his “social justice” work among the Hmong in Minneapolis. Along with fine leaders like Vang Pao and Gam Shea, the American military, in that final rush to get refugees out of harm’s way, had inadvertently brought Laotian organized crime into the United States. The FBI mostly treated it as an internal cultural problem among the refugees. Tom Lovan put his life on the line to try to stop organized crime from completely taking over the community.

(I hope I get the details of this story right because it was never news here in town, being a Federal case handled in Minneapolis. I got the story over lunch from a law enforcement officer. He looked at me with a bit of awe when I said hi and made small talk with Tom Lovan when he walked into the restaurant for lunch. With Tom sitting in the corner, visiting with the restaurant owner in Laotian or Vietnamese, the officer told the following story:)

In one of the most remarkable events to ever occur in Dakota County, Nebraska (just a few miles from our house! – but a few years before we moved out here), Rev. Lovan nearly met a violent end. He was naming names and describing crimes committed by the Laotian organized crime group in the upper Midwest (especially, Minneapolis and Kansas City). Because of “credible threats” against him, he was being escorted by the FBI to Salem Lutheran Church, and a combination of FBI, Federal Marshalls, and local authorities (this is before the days of Homeland Security) were checking cars driving along Highway 10 around the area of the church. The Marshalls stopped a car with four Laotians in it. After a quick bit of profiling (what would the ACLU think!!), the Marshalls searched the car and found machine guns, bombs, and various other high tech weaponry – enough to take out half the county. Their job was to kill the janitor Tom Lovan (and to kill him in the most violent and spectacular method possible to make an example of him) because he and his snooping posed a grave threat to Laotian organized crime.

The Presbyterians were willing to bend the rules and deigned to allow him to become a lay pastor, but he certainly didn’t meet the qualifications to be a real pastor. So for a couple of years Tom continued as a janitor and did lay pastor work for the Presbyterians. It was the Lutherans who finally recognized that he was a gift to the Christian community and helped him become a pastor, eventually becoming the spiritual leader of the Laotians and Hmong here in Siouxland and a very significant civil rights leader in the upper Midwest.

It’s with some shame but also with great fondness that I remember my own brushes with the Hmong community in the United States. We Americans haven’t done a particularly good job of being the land of the free and the home of the brave when it has come to Southeast Asians. But it is also with great pride that I say that I have been influenced by them. They are a remarkable people and a significant addition to the American melting pot.

I have no knowledge of General Vang Pao, who passed away today. But if he is the great leader of people as remarkable as Gam Shea and Tom Lovan, he is a great man indeed!

Words Can’t Do It Justice

Here’s a thought that has crossed my mind a number of times today, January 6 (which is Theophany). But first, a reminder that the Orthodox Feast of Theophany is about how the Trinity is revealed at Jesus’ baptism. (Theophany literally means “the revealing of God.”)

The Trinity is revealed, according to Orthodox theology, not in words, but in events or pictures. The foundation of Trinitarian theology (and at this point let me be clear that I’m not quoting any Orthodox theologian per se – this is my reflection and understanding of this matter) is not the Gospel of John nor the baptismal formulas as used in Paul’s epistles, nor the references in scripture to the Holy Spirit as a person. The foundation of Trinitarian teaching is the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. Each person of the Trinity is revealed – in body, in voice, in bird – and so we know the truth of the matter. Saint John, Saint Paul, Saint Luke … just stammering words about these sublime truths. They’re a witness to these events.

But the water … the voice … the dove … Jesus and the, oh, so reluctant John standing in the river …

… In that scene the ineffable mystery of the universe unfolds in a manner no words can do justice.

Who knew? …

… well, Chris Ferrrara knew, because that’s where I discovered this little oddity on my way to finding something else.

Did you know that according to British Common Law, money deposited in a bank is not your money? A bank deposit is not a “bailment” (an entrustment of your property to the bank for safekeeping) but rather an “investment” in the bank.

This bit of common law is why “fractional reserve” banking is legal. Banks can legally lend out many multiples of money they have on deposit. If a bank has $100,000 on deposit, it can loan out nine times that, or nearly a million dollars. This fractional reserve system allows banks to create money out of thin air.

The fractional reserve system is the government-sponsored ponzi scheme that is the basis for the various housing and property bubbles in our history. But I had no idea that it was rooted in British common law saying that bank deposits were investments in the bank!!!

The “C” Is Silent

Last night Brenda walked through the room and asked me who was playing. Trying to answer the “What does TCU stand for?” question before it was asked, I said Texas Christian was beating Wisconsin.

A half hour later I’m watching the sports desk chatter between games and it occurs to me that I don’t ever remember TCU being called Texas Christian University on ESPN.

I smell a conspiracy.

The Name of Jesus

Today, Jan 1, is eight days after Christmas, and is therefore, according to Luke 2:21, the day Jesus was received into the Covenant (ie, circumcised) and received his name. This brings to mind one of my favorite hymns, “At the Name of Jesus,” by Caroline Maria Noel. It is typically associated with the great hymn tune by Ralph Vaughn Williams, King’s Weston.

Here is that wonderful hymn for your edification. (All seven stanzas! Hymnals typically only include four of the seven.):

At the name of Jesus
Every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess him
King of glory now:
‘Tis the Father’s pleasure
We should call him Lord,
Who from the beginning
Was the mighty Word.

At his voice creation
Sprang at once to sight,
All the angels faces
All the hosts of light,
Thrones and Dominations,
Stars upon their way,
All the heavenly orders,
In their great array.

Humbled for a season,
To receive a name
From the lips of sinners
Unto whom he came,
Faithfully he bore it
Spotless to the last,
Brought it back victorious,
When from death he passed:

Bore it up triumphant
With its human light,
Through all ranks of creatures,
To the central height,
To the throne of Godhead,
To the Father’s breast;
Filled it with the glory
Of that perfect rest.

Name him, brothers, name him,
With love as strong as death,
But with awe and wonder
And with bated breath:
He is God the Savior,
He is Christ the Lord,
Ever to be worshiped,
Trusted, and adored.

In your hearts enthrone him;
There let him subdue
All that is not holy,
All that is not true:
Crown him as your captain
In temptation’s hour;
Let his will enfold you
In its light and power.

Brothers, this Lord Jesus
Shall return again,
With his Father’s glory,
With his angel train;
For all wreaths of empire
Meet upon his brow,
And our hearts confess him
King of glory now.

Humorous postscript: The time signature of King’s Weston (the hymn tune) is 3/2, which means there are three beats to the measure. For ages of ages, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Lincoln, NE used this hymn as the processional. On feast days we had a rather glorious full procession led by the acolytes and the crucifer, and followed by the clergy and the choir.

On many feast days the music director made arrangements for the Nebraska Brass to play the prelude, offertory, and postlude, and accompany the processional. Listening to “At the Name of Jesus” being played by the Nebraska Brass and the pipe organ, with the choir leading the congregation in singing (in full voice!) “At the Name of Jesus” is one of those truly glorious moments in worship.

But, the hymn is in 3/2 time. It means that on the first measure you lead with the left foot, the second measure you lead with the right, etc. For anyone who has had any training in marching (military, marching bands, and drum corp types), this is very confusing. While the music was always glorious, the marching was often ignominious. (Even after years of practice.)

The choir director despised using this hymn as the processional because processionals, by their nature need to be in 4/4 time (ie, a marching beat). Once, after one of the music director’s obligatory rants during the weekly staff meeting, I suggested we use “Onward, Christian Soldiers” instead.

… cricket sounds …

At least the secretary thought it was funny. But then again, she named her dog “Otis” … her pastor’s first name. So, I suppose having her support in all things sacred is not necessarily a good thing.

Speaking of all things sacred: Back to the Circumcision of Jesus. I suppose my favorite line of this hymns is from the third stanza in the poem: “Humbled for a season, to receive a name from the lips of sinners …”

God gave Adam authority to name the creatures he (that is, God) created. That in itself is remarkable. But for God to then become incarnate and allow the children of Adam to name him (that is, the Son of God) as well is astonishing!

The Word of God, the one who created all words, became human and was given a word, a name, Jesus, and at that word “every knee should bend, on heaven and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10f).

Amen and Amen.