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In Eugene Peterson's introduction to the book of Joel in his wonderful new paraphrase of the Bible, he writes,
When disaster strikes, understanding of God is at risk. Unexpected illness or death, national catastrophe, social disruption, personal loss, plague or epidemic, devastation by flood or drought, turn men and women who haven't given God a thought in years into instant theologians. Rumors fly: "God is absent..."God is angry"..."God is playing favorites, and I'm not the favorite"..."God is ineffectual"..."God is holding a grudge from a long time ago, and now we're paying for it"...It is the task of the prophet to stand up at such moments of catastrophe and clarify who God is and how God acts. If the prophet is good - that is, accurate and true - the disaster becomes a lever for prying people's lives loose from their sins and free for God. Joel is one of the good ones.(1)It is certainly true that people become much more aware spiritual things in the face of disaster. Remember all the folks who came to worship in the weeks following September 11th? I would love to say that they are all still here from week to week, but we know that is not true.
Now we are facing another imminent disaster, war, and the way the powers that be are talking, it is likely to come just as we are beginning Lent, this unique period of the church year in which we are called to careful, critical self-examination and introspection. Where is Joel? I wonder if Joel has lost his voice.
An interesting article appeared in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago. The headline read, "Clergy Takes Unusual Step Preaching Both Peace, War."(2) Listen.
Things have been pretty busy at St. Bartholomew's lately. On a recent Saturday, one group of parishioners worked on a patriotic Adopt-a-Soldier campaign, collecting names of servicemen to pray for. Another geared up for the protest rallies that made headlines last week. Then there were the members who gathered to pray for President Bush and "those in authority."I know how he feels. Any of us who have been around for awhile remember the conflict in churches brought on by the Viet Nam war. Pastors are not immune to desires for self-preservation. Truth is, this vocation requires some political skills - if we are going to get anything done, we need a reasonable consensus and the support of most of those with whom we serve. This situation with Iraq is a pastoral minefield. As the Journal article continues, "While some rabbis are citing the Talmud to justify a pre-emptive attack, others are quoting the Old Testament's injunction to turn swords into plowshares. In Chicago, a priest holding a "pro-peace" Mass also invited uniformed war veterans to march down the aisle...Even within religious groups there are divisions; Catholics are divided almost 50-50 while Protestants and other religions favor war about 2 to 1...[still] some worshipers feel it's the clergy's moral duty to promote peace." Is it any wonder that the prophet seems to have gotten lock-jaw?
I was intrigued to see that the cover story in this week's Newsweek is entitled "Bush and God."(3) It is an in-depth examination of the President's religious background and faith perspective in light of all the public references he makes to matters religious and the wide political support he enjoys from conservative Christians. The one thing I did not find there (or any other place, for that matter) was any indication at all that his faith in Jesus Christ was even the slightest speed bump on the road to Baghdad.
Lots of the President's supporters wear those tee-shirts and bracelets that became popular a few years ago with the acronym, W-W-J-D...What Would Jesus Do? Concerning Iraq, what do you think?
Well, I cannot tell you what to think. People of good will are going to have varying perspectives on this issue. Our Secretary of State, Colin Powell, when reminded of President Bush's statement that he goes to bed by 10 and sleeps like a baby, retorted, "I sleep like a baby too - every two hours I wake up screaming."(4)
Now, we find ourselves at the beginning of Lent. Introspection. Self-examination. Ashes symbolic of our relative place in the grand scheme of things..."ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
My own self-examination takes me to what I have promised as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. Many years ago in my ordination, I was asked, "Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?"
I promised, "I do and I will."
One of those confessions, adopted just over 35 years ago, in another period of national conflict says,
God's reconciliation in Jesus Christ is the ground of the peace, justice, and freedom among nations which all powers of government are called to serve and defend. The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding. Reconciliation among nations becomes peculiarly urgent as countries develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, diverting their manpower and resources from constructive uses and risking the annihilation of mankind. Although nations may serve God's purposes in history, the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling.(5)As a minister of the gospel in the Presbyterian Church, I cannot support the coming conflict. According to the war plan leaked to CBS News, 800 cruise missiles will be used in the first two days of the attack, twice the number used in the 40 days of Desert Storm. The plan, called "Shock and Awe," is designed to destroy the enemy's will to fight. Will it work, or will that make them all the more determined? Who knows? How many innocents will be slaughtered? Who knows? How many billions of dollars will this cost, billions that could and should be spent to care for human needs both here at home and around the world? Who knows that either? What I do know is that my own Lenten journey will involve doing all in my power to dissuade our leaders from pursuing that path. If we are going to give anything up for Lent this year, let us give up war!
The prophet Joel must regain his voice. "Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill." As one preacher has wisely said, "The church must be PROphetic or it will be PAthetic."(6)
On the last page of the Newsweek issue that features the "Bush and God" article is a column by Anna Quindlen.(7) She too is concerned about what lies ahead. She concludes,
What is required of a nation that is not only the greatest democracy on earth at this moment, but the nation by which all other democratic attempts have been measured, the petri dish of individual freedom? That answer is clear: it must live up to its principles, not down to its enemies. The danger in having enormous power is that the ambition to use it for good can so often be subverted by the temptation to use it for dominance. The leader who occupies the high ground, or the bully wearing blinders: I am waiting to see to which nation I belong.I wait too. And I pray.
1. Eugene Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002) p. 1631
2. By Elizabeth Bernstein and Eileen Daspin, Staff Reporters, Wall Street Journal, 2/21/03
3. Howard Fineman, Newsweek, March 10, 2003, pp. 22-30
4. New Yorker, February 10, 2003
5. Confession of 1967, 9.45, The Book of Confessions, (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 1996)
6. Cecil Murray, pastor of the First African Methodist Church, Los Angeles.
7. "Waiting, One Hand Behind," p. 82