The Chariots of Israel and Its Horsemen

I find myself sitting in a church when a woman up front reads the lectionary passages for the week from a lectern sculptured in the shape of a large, blackened eagle. The Old Testament reading is II Kings 2, when Elijah passes on the prophet’s mantle to Elisha. It is one of those Old Testament stories that shines not only for its devotional or theological virtues for the faithful, but also as a literary masterpiece on its own terms. 

At the climax of the story, right as Elijah is “separated” from Elisha by “a chariot of fire,” Elisha cries out one of the saddest lines in the whole Bible: “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” It is a cry of profound loss and grief, but the grief is rendered even more poignant because the phrase is opaque to us. Why would Elisha specifically mention the chariots and horsemen, of all things, in this severing moment? Why not say “Don’t leave!” or “How am I to live without you?” or just “No!” 

It occurs to me as I sit there that I could go digging for answers as to what this enigmatic phrase means. I could consult a Bible dictionary to learn what the Ancient Near East symbolism of divine chariots was, how Israel must surely keep up with the Canaanite Joneses, furnishing their god with his own slick ride and entourage. Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll even find a theological explanation, that the chariots of fire reveal some aspect of the character of YHWH. Or what if “The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” is simply an Israelite cuss? Something that a lesser man would yell when stubbing his toe, but here befits the awfulness of the moment? 

My mind returns to its body, entombed in the skeletal pain of sitting on a pew and the thick, grey, dead air of a gaping sanctuary, to the moment at hand. Having brushed the commentaries off the table of my mind, I am left with a feeling, the feeling of realizing someone else might be in the room with you, the same feeling you would get from hearing a small mammal in the walls, or a ghost knocking around the sump pump. This is the thrill that the unknown may escape you, that there are supernatural insects that your prying hands have not killed and stuffed into the pocket of your toddler overalls. 

I realize in that moment that I do not want to know what “The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” means, that if someone were to sit down next to me and tell me exactly what it meant, it would kill it, like a triumphant dog with a squirrel in its mouth, and I would feel only disappointment and shame. 

I want something like a National Park Act for the Bible, to say that there are certain words or sentences or even entire passages that would be better left alone in their pristine beauty, instead of bulldozed over into doctrinal or ethical subdivisions. Is this irrational or selfish or silly? Perhaps. But at bottom, my hunger for meaning also wants meaning itself to escape me and remain throbbingly alive, with the power to raise my hair against my will and raise the dead against theirs. 


Little Seams

This poem took me today. Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, a multiracial suffragette of the Harlem Renaissance, is writing about World War I. She saw World War I as an opportunity for Black people to show their mettle, to earn their place in the civic fabric of the United States. Somewhat paradoxically, she saw the meat grinder of World War I as a path of liberation for Black Americans. 

But as fascinating as the background context of the poem is, it was the foreground contemporary resonance that first struck me. How many of us join Dunbar-Nelson in watching the horrors of the Russia/Ukraine conflict unfold, and feel like she did, sitting at home, doing what feels like pointless things, while a heroic battle wages elsewhere? And for us the feelings of connection and estrangement are only ratcheted up higher. Thanks to social media, we are closer to this war than any humans have ever been who are this far from the battlefield. We see the real suffering of real people, and we are rightly moved and outraged. We weep with those who weep.

Yet our estrangement is even deeper than Dunbar-Nelson. At least she could do something tangible with her hands, sewing something of the materiality of the world. For many of us, the same enmeshment in social media that enables us to see the war from a front row digital seat also removes us from encountering the world as it is, before our eyes, in our local spaces, felt to the touch. And most disturbingly, a real war with real people can become a digital abstraction, a gladiatorial spectacle, a NATO Cinematic Universe™️.

In spite of this, there is something redemptive about what this poem offers us. It is a mirror for reflection, and like any mirror, we may not like what we see, but seeing the painful truth may be that first step of redemption. Dunbar-Nelson’s own restlessness forces us to ask what it is that makes us restless about a conflict on the other side of the world and the heroic desire to jump into the fight. 

The poem forces us to ask whether her desire, her restlessness, is actually pointed in the right direction. And the same is true for us. Those of us who are Christians like to pretend that Jesus’ death on the cross was a famous event, a viral video, from the moment it happened. This is not true. As Fleming Rutledge says, the crucifixion was an embarrassing death of a nobody at the frontier borders of the Roman Empire in a province far removed from the rich, the famous, the educated, the cultured, and the powerful. It was just some random state torture and execution buried deep in the subreddits of the Roman Empire. It was the furthest thing from anything heroic happening at that time. And it was the means by which God saved the world. 

The cross calls us to a different kind of heroism. As tempting as it may be to want to heroically and violently jump into history in a great battle elsewhere, the way of the cross is in the opposite direction, right here, in front of our faces. Not seeking glory but receiving a transformative grace in hidden places. Not giving violence but receiving it with unflinching, prophetic honesty, toward reconciliation. Not pining for Manichaean battles between the forces of good and evil, but recognizing that a far greater spiritual battle is waging inside every one of us. Perhaps the most “heroic” thing we can do is not first to go and fight but to take honest stock of the spiritual conflict erupting within our own souls. Perhaps the most “heroic” thing we can do is not to go and fight but to be courageous enough to welcome refugees and immigrants, from Ukraine, yes, but also Syria, Afghanistan, Haiti, Mexico, El Salvador, even at great cost to our selves and the Economy, that great Golden Calf of American Christianity. Perhaps the most “heroic” thing we can do is confront the fissures of racism that still gape in our communities, awaiting more of us to die to ourselves and listen to each other. Perhaps the most “heroic” thing we can do is sit there with someone as their husband or sister is dying, courageous enough to say the word “resurrection.” Each of us has hidden crosses, right there in front of us, if we are willing to look.

None of this is to make light of the Russia/Ukraine conflict. May our depth of compassion for them only grow as the conflict drags on. But as Dunbar-Nelson, stuck at home during the Great War, stitches “the little useless seam,” I ask: What little healings can we patch together in the little worlds right in front of our faces? 

Love in Humility

One of the most profound things my parents taught me is that “humility” is a word with many definitions. (The best teachers are the ones who are learning alongside their students, and my parents were visibly learning about this truth when I was a kid.)

What comes to your mind when you think about the word “humility?” For some, humility means not thinking too highly of yourself. For others, it means always giving God all the glory when someone compliments you. For others, it means always putting yourself down, even in jest, so people don’t think you’re too arrogant.

But humility, like all of the works of love, is a quality that looks different in different people. And humility takes different forms depending on its object.

There is a kind of humility directed at God, that acknowledges the infinite difference between God and humanity, the vast “distance” traveled in the Incarnation of Jesus, and the magnitude of God’s grace.

There is another kind of humility directed at Holy Scripture, to not stand over it with critical arrogance, but to sit under the Word of God, to receive its revelation patiently, quietly, openly.

There is another kind of humility directed at the earth, seeing it not as a pile of raw resources waiting to be conquered and consumed but as a vast, interconnected ecosystem of creatures and things all spoken into existence by God, all dependent upon God for their existence, all praising God by virtue of their existence.

And there is another kind of humility, one that I think is very important, but doesn’t first come to mind when thinking of the definition of “humility.” There is a kind of humility that recognizes that we don’t have unfettered access to someone else’s soul and their walk with God.

I have seen great spiritual harm done when someone in spiritual authority assumes that a conversation provides a panoramic view into someone else’s soul. It does not. Any conversation is only a tiny glimpse of someone else’s inner space.

Humility is perhaps never closer to love than when it is the humility of admitting that we only have the tiniest windows into the work of God within another person.

So what does this kind of love-in-humility look like, practically? It means staying curious instead of putting people in premade boxes. It means asking questions before giving advice. It means holding someone’s pain in the solidarity of lament instead of papering positivity over it. It means watching yourself, closely, to see how your own sinful nature flares up when encountering the sins of another. It means believing that even though you will never fully comprehend the person in front of you, God’s Spirit is more present to them than you are. And it means believing that, even though we frail humans are dark mysteries to one another, God’s Spirit still knits us together in Christ, and real, loving community is possible.

Uprooted and Birthed

Okay so I’ve hesitated about posting this for days, but I feel compelled to share this story…

Two weeks ago, I was praying over this passage in Luke: “The apostles said to the Lord, ’Increase our faith!’ And the Lord said, ’If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.’” (Luke 17.5-6 ESV) I was praying over this passage, reflecting on the trials of our family right now, the blank slate terror of planting a church, the impossible pressures of balancing ministry and family, the wounds of living with and alongside mental illness, the gaps in God’s speech. I was praying over this passage, and asking the timid and embarrassed question that many others have asked before me: “God, is it too much to ask for a sign?”

A couple days later, I happened to be back in Greece and I decided to drive past Lakeview, where I was formerly the pastor. As I drove past the church, everything looked normal. But when I came to the parsonage, I saw that, in a violent windstorm, the last remaining big tree in the front yard had been uprooted and cast over the driveway.

My immediate reaction was shock, and then the dawning fear of a narrowly missed catastrophe. What if we had still been there? What if the tree had fallen on one of us? I drove home, shaken, wondering what it meant. I reached out to a few friends and asked them what they might discern it to mean. We have wrestled with it together. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts, too.

It’s the end of Advent, the darkest time of the solar year and the time of darkness before the light of Christmas. I just read Macbeth, which is a fitting Advent read, as it is one of the darkest of Shakespeare’s plays. Part of Macbeth’s tragic end comes from his refusal to believe that the forest might come for him. He asks, rhetorically, “Who can impress the forest, bid the tree / Unfix his earthbound root?” Who indeed. I do not want to live my life like Macbeth, as if that question does not have an answer. Psalm 29.9 says, “The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, / and strips the forest bare; / and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” I don’t think that we as humans can claim with blithe confidence that we know exactly what God is up to. But I think we are called to seek God’s will anyway, and by the Spirit, spot the glimmers in the dark, like Christmas lights under the snow.

The tree fell over the driveway, a blocked path. There is no way back. Perhaps God wanted us to know that carrying our crosses, there is only one way: forward, following Jesus.

The tree fell after we left. Perhaps God wanted us to know that God is looking after us, protecting us, caring for us and sustaining us.

Old Testament Hebrew is a notoriously ambiguous language. Sometimes, depending on the vowels that you choose, the meaning of a verse can drastically change. One of my favorite examples of this is actually the verse from Psalm 29 that I quoted above. Depending on the vowels, it can be translated either, “The Lord causes the oaks to whirl” or “The Lord causes the deer to calve.” If I were an ancient Christian interpreter like Augustine, I would say, “Well, why not both?” Perhaps the Word of the Lord does both, uprooting the old and birthing the new, maybe even at the same time. Even as God uprooted us from the safety and comfort and fittingness of pastoring at Lakeview, even as God has laid bare some of our wounds and sins and struggles, God is also birthing something new, something exciting, something fruitful for the Kingdom. Advent is here. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

A Review of Hunger of Memory

It is strange and a wonder to stumble on a book that tells your story. A friend recommended Hunger of Memory to me and when I first started reading it, I had to put it down because my skin crawled with the feeling that someone had gotten inside my head and written my thoughts out. The book was published three years before I was born. And yet its pages startle me into recognition like a misplaced mirror. If you want to understand me, this book is a kind of key into my inner world. I don’t like everything in it, but then again, I don’t like everything in me, either.

Richard Rodriguez’s story is so very much my story. He is a Mexican-American man who has mostly lost his Mexican identity and has a weird obsession with English literature. (I know right!? There are two of us!?) Like Rodriguez, I am on a quest to dig deep into cultural treasures that sometimes feel like they are mine to share and sometimes feel like they will always be someone else’s. He also mentions the “sin of betrayal” of learning English, and I know that “sin” deeply. Other Latinos have coldly rejected me when they learn that I can’t speak Spanish.

But to be more truthful, his story is my father’s story and my story rolled into one. What happened more slowly over three generations in our family happened in his life in two. It is a story of growing up poor, of Mexican parents who transplanted their children into white spaces so that they would gain access to education, wealth, power, and success, and the children losing their cultural heritage along the way. This is the American Dream: assimilation, self-determination, success, no matter what the cost.

Like Richard Rodriguez, I am keenly aware of the tremendous strides our family has made in the span of three generations. My grandfather, a migrant worker, became a school janitor so that my father could go to a state college and become an engineer, so that his son could go to an upper class private liberal arts college and go on even further to get a master’s degree so that now I can pick at the Bible in Hebrew, Julian in Middle English, Barth in German. And yet, like Richard Rodriguez, my life took a left turn. I have been given so much as a third generation minority: wealth, education, whiteness, but it’s not what I long for.

On paper, it’s the American Dream in three acts. Rags to riches, or if not riches, at least middle class lattes, minivans, and Amazon Prime. But what was truly gained, and what was lost? This looks and sounds like profound ungratefulness, but it’s not. I have been given so much, more than any other generation in human history. My grandparents and parents worked hard, very hard, to give me opportunities. I am deeply grateful. But it’s a recognition that the gifts are not the Giver and to settle for the gifts in themselves is idolatry. Remember that we have a deeper hunger.

Richard Rodriguez’s politics are scrambled, like mine. By critiquing liberal orthodoxies, he is despised by other minorities. But by exposing the utter meaninglessness of the American Dream, he cannot sit easily with white conservatives, either. He calls himself “a comic victim of two cultures,” and something in me says “Yes, that’s me. I, too, am a shapeshifting tragicomic.”

Rodriguez has written other books where he delves deeper into religious questions, so I’m not going to speak for him on that, but it is at this juncture of double estrangement that the Gospel comes alive for me. Jesus, for me, is the only solution to estrangement. Jesus is the one who made the promises of God come true on the cross, promises of peace, reconciliation, and a home. It is Jesus who is at work in me to reach out, beyond my own shame and guilt and alienation, to truly love and even know others. It is Jesus who is at work in me to reach out in both directions – toward brown and white, toward Republican and Democrat, toward Pharisee and tax collector – in search of community, in search of a home, together.

There are many reasons why I am drawn to Augustine, but one of the biggest is that he was, like me, a person of mixed ethnicity who further lost his already vanishing ethnic identity when he went and got educated. As Justo González points out in his book The Mestizo Augustine, Augustine was both North African and Latin, both conquered and conquerer, a mestizo. This double estrangement – not quite North African, not fully Latin – is familiar to me. And yet it was this same double estrangement that gifted him the unique vantage point from which to write the City of God. His double estrangement opened him up to see that in scripture, Israel and the Church are a pilgrim people, estranged from the world on their way to their heavenly home. His double estrangement gave him the necessary distance to see Rome for what it was, “a second Babylon,” as he called it. I imagine some of the old Pagan aristocracy and not a few proud Roman Christians were very upset when he wrote that. But most importantly, it was in his double estrangement that he experienced the reconciling grace of God, a grace that satisfied his deepest hungers and opened him up to share the feast of God with other living, breathing, broken and beautiful human beings.

Mexican heritage, the American Dream, mestizaje, these are all good gifts of creation. And yet, when worshipped they become what the Hebrew Bible calls hevel: vanity, evanescence. The beautiful paradox of the Gospel is that it is only when we empty ourselves of everything else but Jesus, everything but the cross of Christ, that we can receive the world back, even our cultures and identities, a hundredfold, resurrected, transfigured.

Dead Kings and the Living God

I’ve always been struck by the introduction to Isaiah’s famous “Holy, Holy, Holy” vision of God in Isaiah 6. It begins with the words, “In the year that King Uzziah died.” These opening words anchor the vision in history, so we remember that Isaiah sees this vision of God’s glory in a time of great upheaval and political uncertainty. But teaching high school great books for our homeschool co-op this year has helped me see something else in this passage. Actually, it’s helped me see something that *isn’t* in this passage. For great books this year we are reading the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and selections from Dante’s Divine Comedy. In each of these pagan works [sorry, Dante!], the main characters –– Odysseus, Aeneas, Dante –– go into the afterlife, and encounter many mighty men and heroes of old. This is what a pantheon really is: a projection of the best and greatest of human potential. And this is what is so strikingly different about heavenly visions in the Bible. They are not parades and triumphs of mighty men and heroes. They are revelatory visions of God, which eclipse all human potential and pride. “In the year that King Uzziah died…” If Isaiah were Odysseus or Aeneas, he would have seen Uzziah, freshly divinized, in his vision, but nope, he sees God’s glory. For biblical writers, kings and emperors and presidents are transient, they die and fade from the story. But the glory of God endures. John the Revelator picks up this theme of Isaiah in Revelation. In contrast with the emperors of Rome, who boast of their accomplishments and immortality and divine status, John sees a vision of the throne of God, where the best and brightest of creation cast their crowns before God. King Uzziah died. Aeneas died. Empires come and go. The glory of God is everlasting. 

Aeneas and Abraham

Reading the Aeneid this morning, I can’t help but contrast Aeneas and Abraham. Aeneas is the founder of Rome, Abraham the founder of Israel, except in a deeper way Abraham is not the founder of Israel at all, the LORD is. Whereas Aeneas claims divine ancestry (he is the son of Venus), Abraham has no such claim. Instead, he himself is claimed by God, elected and called by the LORD. The first claim is ontological –– Aeneas is “nate dea,” “Goddess’ son” (Aeneid I.582). The second claim is relational –– Abraham was “called a friend of God.” (James 2.23). Whereas the gods in the Aeneid are essentially props to support Aeneas’ national and cultural identity, the LORD makes a much more radical claim on Abraham, a claim that calls him out from his nation and culture and opens the boundaries of who exactly his descendants will one day be. It is prophesied that through Aeneas’ descendants “all destined wars will one day cease,” (Aeneid 9.643) and it is prophesied that through Abraham “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12.3)

Whether or not Luke was directly familiar with the Aeneid, it seems that he was familiar with the popular imperial Roman propaganda derived from sources like the Aeneid, because his birth narrative in Luke 1-2 appears to be deliberately crafted as both a fulfillment of the Abrahamic prophecy and a subversive critique of Virgil’s prophecies about Roman imperial power. Let the reader understand: We must reject the Virgil option and cling to the Abraham option.

The Psalms Are Our Work Songs.

The superscript of Psalm 8 reads, “according to the Gittith.” No one’s quite sure what that means, but some people thought it meant “for the wine press,” because one of the closest words to “Gittith” was “gat,” or wine press. Now, if it does mean “for the winepress,” then the tune of Psalm 8 could have been a tune that people sang while doing the long, tedious work of treading grapes. In other words, it was a work song.

We don’t often think of the Psalms as work songs. If anything, we might be tempted to think of them as “churchy” songs, songs for Sunday, robes and organs or guitars and light shows. But I like to imagine the people of God singing the Psalms not just in the temple but on the way to the temple, not just in “church” but during the work week.

Alan Lomax, a man who spent his life crisscrossing America and recording its folk music, once went to a prison in Mississippi and recorded the songs the prisoners sang there. Lomax asked Bama, one of the prisoners, why they sang work songs in the prison. He said,
“When you singin’, you forgit, you see, and the time just pass on ‘way; but if you just get your mind devoted on one something, it look like it will be hard for you to make it, see, make a day. The day be longer, look like. So to keep his mind from being devoted on just one thing, why he’ll practically take up singin’, see.”

As Christians, the Psalms are our “work songs,” and now so more than ever, as many of us are more confined than before. What’s your winepress that you are treading, waiting for the day that the grapes have turned to wine, and drudgery turns to party? Could the Psalms be your work songs, carrying you through the day?










Did Mary Really Give Birth to Jesus? (Or, Do Women’s Bodies Matter to God?)

Even though I’ve been looking for years, I can’t seem to find a Reformed theologian who makes a clear choice between the virgin birth of Jesus and the virginal conception of Jesus. When most Christians talk about “the virgin birth,” they are actually talking about the virginal conception –– the idea that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, without a human father. The virgin birth, on the other hand, if I understand it correctly, is the idea that Jesus was not born in the “normal” way, but that he somehow teleported out of Mary, leaving her birth canal untouched. Besides being extremely difficult to believe, I don’t think this has any basis in scripture. But while the virginal conception is extremely important for our whole theology of the Incarnation, our Christology, and even our understanding of divine/human agency, I don’t see anything important gained by insisting on a virgin birth. In fact, I think some things are lost. First, many women experience giving birth as an intensely spiritual experience. By denying that Mary really gave birth to Jesus, we cut off a vital connection between Mary, the paradigmatic new creation woman in scripture, and the ordinary experience of any woman who has given birth. Worse, by insisting that Mary somehow avoided the pain and earthiness of birthing, we disparage a central function of the female body, a body which Jesus came to redeem and one day resurrect. There are even scriptural reasons, I think, to affirm that Mary gave birth the “normal” way. Just as Jesus’ first coming points to his second coming, so Mary’s groaning and pain of delivery is a figure of how “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Mary’s act of birthing is a sign of how every part of our bodies –– not just our minds or “souls” –– is a part of God’s salvation story.

I heartily affirm with the creeds that Jesus was “born of the virgin Mary,” that is, that Mary was sexually chaste before she underwent the female experience of giving birth. But I also want to believe that Mary really gave birth, and that this is a sign of how our whole embodied selves –– indeed, “the whole creation” –– will be brought through our present pain into a greater glory.

… But, like I said, I can’t find any Reformed theologians writing on this. (I’m probably just looking in the wrong places.) What do you think? Or have you read anyone on this?

PS Speaking of “embodied earthiness,” I apologize if this mini-essay feels a bit rushed: I wrote it in the middle of wiping my toddler’s poopy butt.

a review of Adele Berlin’s Zephaniah commentary

An excellent commentary about a stunningly beautiful prophetic book. Zephaniah is a poet of wondrous complexity and emotive power, and Adele Berlin brings just the right literary sensibilities to draw out the poetic dimensions of this prophet.

Four good things about the commentary:

1. Berlin does a great job showing Zephaniah’s dizzying, multidimensional wordplay. Zephaniah messes with words with the same reckless abandon as Shakespeare or MF Doom, and Berlin delights with her catches. Best of all, Berlin shows the aural power of the words, how the sounds themselves convey multiple layers of meaning. This is a prophecy meant to be heard to be believed.

2. Zephaniah, like all Hebrew poetry, is a dense forest of intertextual vines, connecting the poem to the rest of the Biblical canon. Berlin helpfully traces the ways that Zephaniah links to creation, the flood, Babel, Deutero-Isaiah, and the Psalms, just to name a few. Having learned from Berlin, I am now “hearing” Zephaniah in surprising places in the New Testament, too.

3. As a Christian, it is really good for me to read commentaries from a Jewish perspective. Berlin cites a wide range of historical Jewish sources, which wonderfully broadened my understanding.

4. Most importantly, again and again Berlin opts to preserve the strangeness of the text over against emendation and harmonization. She does this because of her commitment to literary interests over text-critical interests, and I am grateful for it, because it keeps Zephaniah’s poetry vivid, bizarre, and unfinalizable.

And, three not-so-good things about the commentary:

1. Berlin follows modern historical-critical consensus in ascribing a late date to the work, so that all of the prophecies are after-the-fact. This robs the book of a certain level of revelatory power, and at certain points even seems to militate against the meaning of the text itself. Can God, the LORD “in your midst,” speak in history?

2. A book as raw and daring as Zephaniah invites (demands?) reflection on the character and doctrine of God, but Berlin leaves this issue out of her comments, focusing only on textual and literary concerns. At times it feels as if the commentary, for all its richness, is avoiding the most critical existential questions posed by the prophet.

3. On a related note: From my particular perspective as a Christian preacher, this commentary is necessarily incomplete, since it leaves the questions of New Testament fulfillment entirely unanswered. Interestingly, the early church fathers did not write much about Zephaniah, either, leaving the book open and in need of more Christological and figural reflection. But that is a book for another person to write…