monday mull: on freedom

On Mondays, I take the week’s text and start turning it over in preparation for Sunday’s sermon. This is the Monday Mull.

For Sunday, July 4, 2021: Jeremiah 2:4-13; 1 Peter 2:9-11 (chosen; not lectionary)

Jeremiah 2:4-13 (New Revised Standard Version)
Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord:

What wrong did your ancestors find in me
    that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
They did not say, “Where is the Lord
    who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
    in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
    in a land that no one passes through,
    where no one lives?”
I brought you into a plentiful land
    to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
    and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”
    Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers[a] transgressed against me;
    the prophets prophesied by Baal,
    and went after things that do not profit.

Therefore once more I accuse you,
says the Lord,
    and I accuse your children’s children.
10 Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
    send to Kedar and examine with care;
    see if there has ever been such a thing.
11 Has a nation changed its gods,
    even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
    for something that does not profit.
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
    be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
13 for my people have committed two evils:
    they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
    and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
    that can hold no water.

1 Peter 2:9-11 (New Revised Standard Version)

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,[a] in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

10 Once you were not a people,
    but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
    but now you have received mercy.

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.

I never know what to do with ‘Muricatide.

I know it’s not a fair title to give the season of Ordinary Time between Memorial Day (last Monday of May) and Veterans’ Day (November 11) in the United States of America, but it is certainly something that is considered in every congregation. It may not be so outside of the American church, but I assure you–when September 11 is a Sunday, every pastor I know is weighing if and how she’ll acknowledge it.

In the congregation I serve, members are patriotic, but our worship is not. We recognize Veterans’ Day, because a contingent of our body are veterans. (We also recognize fathers on Father’s Day, mothers on Mother’s Day, and sinners weekly.) We have moved our naming of those who have joined the choir eternal to the first Sunday of November, All Saints, rather than Memorial Day Sunday. But man, what do we do on the Fourth?

I chose these texts because America is not part of the divine plan, but Americans surely can be.

I do not believe the United States of America is exceptional in the work or realm of God. Our history is too complex, too fractured and too painful to suggest God’s providence has been at work in the country, as a concept and as a whole, from its beginnings or founding. Even with the good that is done at times, the United States is akin to Babylon, not Israel, anyhow.

God is not going to bless a country that keeps children in cages, anyhow.

This is not to say those who are Americans are lost, hopeless, without value or contribution to the Reign of God. We have narrow roads and the eyes of needles to go through before we might best understand our role and rigor in the world. Hence the Jeremiah text, my favorite image from the prophet, this double evil–not only have we rejected the fountain of living water, but we have built our own cracked buckets, insisting our way is as adequate and even better.

I want to play with the First Peter text. I’m… not the biggest fan of First Peter. It’s a very late letter, in terms of the New Testament–it’s at the end of the chronological canon, along with other books I do not value: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus and 2 Peter. The Church swung back from the radical notion that Jesus is going to show back up at any time, so we can live liberated, inclusive, just lives for God into more prolonged, perhaps permanent, systems of belief and functioning.

The short verses from 2 Peter suggest a call not to American Christianity, but the greater Church, founded on mercy. If we are going to be counter-cultural, we have to drop our cracked cisterns and seek God at the source; we lose labels and privileges that come from it.

I hope to affirm patriotism as a vital part of civil society–the loss of civil religion and guiding myth have led to our polarization that is insidious, all-encompassing in our world; patriots love the country and want it to change, improve and grow. And, patriotism is not a spiritual gift; it is not the highest calling. We are aliens and exiles, even under the Stars and Stripes. What does it mean if our currency is mercy?

the spiritual practice of study

On my best days, I get up just before five in the morning. I say morning prayers. I pour a cup of coffee. And I spend about thirty minutes studying scripture. In 2020, it was First Corinthians. This year, it’s Second Corinthians.

Believe it or not, I’m not sharing this information so I can seem like Such A Better Person Than You.

A few years ago, my friend Casey asked what part of the Bible I was studying. “Oh,” I said. “I’m doing this series on Galatians in the spring, I think, so I’ve been really getting through commentaries,” and she cut me off. “For yourself,” she said. “What are you studying for your own spirit, for your own development?”

So yes, this is kind of a pastor-specific post, but bear with me here–in all the hubbub of planning studies and prepping sermons, I’d lost track of the spiritual practice I enjoy the most–Bible study.

I formalized it in 2020–I want to be clear: I did personal Bible study prior to last year. Last year, however, I made a ridiculous goal and actually succeeded: Go through First Corinthians with three commentaries. The ones I chose were J. Paul Sempley’s from The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Richard Hays’ from the Interpretation Commentary series, and Gordon Fee’s massive tome from the New International Commentary on the New Testament. I went pericope (chunk of text) by pericope (chunk of text), usually early in the morning, with a few Saturday marathons.

That’s the First Corinthians binder.

I like yellow notepads so I took notes on those. I could have done front and back, but I didn’t–so please, hold off on telling me how impressed you are at my copious note-taking. (Though, I did average about ten pages of handwritten notes per pericope–I wanted to be thorough. Did you know there are studies that show taking notes by hand helps memory retention?)

It’s more about this: I set a goal and stuck to it. I’m a big thinker; I live in my head and the future, and I sometimes struggle with the idea of completing something and the work it takes to do so. (The idea is just as good, I believe at the onset, as actually completing it.) It’s nice to have thoroughly studied a foundational text of Christianity. I bought two more commentaries to work through as I type up my notes, after I finish 2 Corinthians. In the picture below, you can see the few notes I have–the yellow pages on top of the shelf.

Yes, there are DND supplies on the bottom shelf. No, you can’t borrow them.

If you are looking for a spiritual practice and you’re not so big on silence or stillness, I recommend the deep study of scripture. Grab a couple commentaries–they’re surprisingly cheap at used bookstores, go figure; has a few new ones, surely. Find some time, open some scripture, say a prayer, and start taking notes. I’ll even write out some steps, right here:

  1. Pick a book that’s not super long, and not remarkably complex. Don’t start with Jeremiah or Ezekiel, is what I’m saying. If your goal is to get through an entire book, choose something doable–a minor prophet, an epistle. Do you prefer narrative, or are you all right with theology?
  2. Get a couple of commentaries–at least one academic. Historical, literary, ideological, and all those other contexts matter, as do the original languages. It’s fine if you want to use “Laity Dave’s Quick Jaunt through Philippians,” it really is–but learn something. Also feel free to skip the paragraphs in which syntax is parsed and parsed and parsed.
  3. Print out the scripture double-spaced. You’ll want to take notes on some word choices and orders–translations into English are, by definition, imprecise because they’re not in Greek. What does it mean for “power” to be exousia rather than dynamis? You may think nothing right now–but you’re mistaken! Make notes on the printed out scripture, keep it with your notes.
  4. Set aside actual time to do it. Twenty minutes, once you get into the groove and become familiar with the commentators, is a productive amount of time. I can never do more than forty in a sitting. My brain has enough, and that’s okay.
  5. Invite the Holy Spirit to guide your study. Because this is feeding your Spirit and deepening your faith. Why wouldn’t you want the presence of the Divine invoked and blessed for it?
  6. Make good mistakes, don’t get caught up in form. In the picture below, you’ll see I have a picture of my notes from Hays Chapter 11:17-34, which was broken up in the commentaries as vv. 17-22, 23-26 and 29-34. Because of how I formatted the printouts, I put the third page of the notes, and only the third page of the notes, in the new section with the printed out scripture. If you’re thinking, “This has no bearing on anything I care about, Arthur,” you’re absolutely right! That right there is the point: these are your notes. Throw them away when you’re done, if you want. But again, why would you do that?

And, as with exercising, as with journaling, as with anything that matters in the work of transformation–if you miss a day, or a couple days, or a week, or two weeks: just come back to it. Turn the page and start up again. Because if it–whatever it is–is about doing something flawlessly and effortlessly the first time, you probably should not be reading this blog nor doing anything suggested herein.

Are you going to study scripture this year? What are you thinking about? Need recommendations? Want to tell me why I’m wrong about everything? Leave me a comment, drop me a line!