Archive for December, 2017

Re-discovering a contemplative aid

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

I tried to keep a devotional reading schedule for the Advent season of 2017. Well ahead of the first Sunday of Advent I began surveying various aids and booklets produced from a variety of sources.

Keeping this schedule proved more difficult than I anticipated. I almost settled on a booklet produced by The Living Compass Ministry associated with the Episcopal Church entitled Living Well Through Advent 2017, and subtitled Practicing Wonder With All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind.

Being a big fan of the human ability to wonder, I began a daily reading of this little booklet.

Alongside that, I planned to read N.T. Wright’s newest book in his “For Everyone” collection called Advent for Everyone: A Journey With the Apostles, published by the Westminster/John Knox Press.

I struggled to continue through Christmas with these small books, but on the evening of the Second Sunday in Advent, I fell across a 140-minute filmed concert of Handel’s “Messiah” by the Collegium 1704 of Czechoslovakia, conducted by its director, Vaclav Luks.


The concert reminded me of an exposition I’d read about this classic oratorio nearly ten years ago: Messiah: The Gospel According to Handel’s Oratorio, by Roger A. Bullard. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).

I began re-reading Bullard’s book and discovered it to be as much the devotional guide I’d been seeking as any of the others I examined.

Let me note that Handel’s Messiah is an oratorio especially for Easter and thus provides a devotional for the church’s Lenten Season. However, the text–or libretti–is an anthology of scripture compiled by Handel’s friend, Charles Jennens. Relying on the King James Bible and the Psalms as rendered in The Book of Common Prayer, Jennen’s text is dominated by the prophets, the Psalms, and the gospels.

Bullard’s excellent commentary proves itself a devotional for the entire Advent-Christmas-Epiphany-Lenten seasons. Reading it while listening to the aforementioned concert is providing me with a wonder-filled time of contemplation and joy.

Anne Lamott on Jonah and God’s Mercy

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

In analyzing the Biblical story of Jonah, Anne Lamott skips to the chase, reminding us that children love the story of Jonah and a whale swallowing a man even though the “big fish” (for textual purists) plays a surprisingly minor role.

The meat of the story unfolds after Jonah, en route to Tarshish, is swallowed and “burped onto dry land and, despite his best efforts, ends up in Nineveh, where God had told him to go all along.”

Lamott, in her latest book (Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. Riverhead Books: New York, 2017), is describing how Jonah comes face-to-face with a lesson about God’s mercy, and it has very little to do with this minor prophet surviving a storm after being swallowed by a sea beast.

Simply put, Jonah hates the Ninevites, which in part is why he tried to escape his mission by going in the opposite direction. He anticipates they are a despiteful and despicable lot who won’t pay any heed to a prophet’s message from God. As Lamott notes, these are the Evil Empire of Jonah’s day. Jonah thinks God should simply destroy them and be done with it. So, after his regurgitation to Nineveh, the prophet grudgingly spends one day bringing the Word of the Lord to these ingrates, and, would you believe, they listen and repent! (To borrow Lamott’s vision: Imagine Captain Kirk preaching repentance to the Klingons).

Their conversion doesn’t impress Jonah, however, and he sullenly goes off moaning, and groaning, and lost in his meanness because God has not destroyed the Ninevites.

Here, the story seems to get anticlimactic and boring as Jonah, still feeling sorry for himself, asks God to take his life. He sits under a bush to sulk about the unlikely genuineness of the Ninevites repentance. And God causes the bush to grow and shade Jonah in his discomfort, and–another barely noticed mercy–to make Jonah “very happy about the bush” (Jonah 4:6b).

Then a worm attacks the bush, leaving Jonah hot and unhappy again, and God asks the crucial question: “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”

With a touch of contemporary crudeness, Lamott rephrases God’s question and argument: “Jonah, WTF? Mercy for a tree but not a people?”

Even before revising God’s query, Lamott beautifully expresses the lesson of Jonah’s experience: “Even when the worst people on earth undergo a change of heart, God in God’s infinite love and goodness changes his mind.”

Jesus expresses God’s mercy similarly: “Love your enemies.”

Read Lamott’s book. She tells how she came to write about mercy: “I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human; the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”