Today I think Brueggemann steps into a role quite close to prophet. These words may not be easy to hear for us.
Use the Israel-Babylon connection to understand the connection between the U.S. church and the U.S. empire, and that connection will once again be essentially negative and adversarial. When it is faithful to Jesus, the church will see the hegemonic economic-political-military-ideological force of the U.S. empire as destructive and eventually lethal. The first empire like this that the church encountered was Rome; small wonder that the book of Revelation employs the term Babylon to refer to Rome, or that the arrogance of Rome rivals that of ancient Babylon or the contemporary empire of the United States (Revelation 18:2, 21).
So he leads us to this connection. He wants us to begin to look again at who we are and what it is that has claimed us and what it is that we have let lead us and guide us. And yet, unlike the hymn "lead me, guide me" - where we are calling on Jesus to lead and guide - we allow the empire to take us for a ride. The ride often means that we begin to work on the side of the empire even when it does not carry or put forth the vision of the Reign of God we claim is our life and way. I find these images to be disturbing to me personally because it makes me look at the many ways I am tied to the empire and also maintain those ties. On the other hand, I am also dismayed more and more when people call the U.S. a 'Christian Nation.' First of all, the two words - the two realities - are not at all the same. If they were, we would not be an empire. No empire can rule with the law of love as its banner that leads us into the future. Empires have too many "interests" that never let the law of love rule. Empires, even our own, work hard at talking about empire building and empire action with the words of love - but that is always a secondary statement - a cover-up to make things sound good.
Connection:So how much of our life is spent straddling two worlds - two realities? Is there someway to help us keep in mind the passion of our Lord in the middle of our lives?
Even when we cannot see past this day, O God, your word is meant to be the guide of our days that moves us into new life. Forgive us, as you always promise, when we slip and slide into the convenience of the ways of empire. Amen.
Empires are not simply things of the distant past. They change faces and change the way they rule - but they are alive and we are residing in their world. Again from Walter Brueggemann.
In parallel fashion, the local tradition of the church amid the United States empire is sure to share that same ambivalence about the empire, given tax exempt status and many other deferences. Theologically, however, the freedom and hope of the local tradition of the church depends upon trusting and saying aloud the conviction that the U.S. does not finally merit fear, trust, or eventually obedience. Such boldness is risky and not readily embraced by any of us. It is nonetheless crucial to see that the issue is elementally theological. The local tradition, when faithful, casts its lot with the one whose governance will not be "annulled."
So the church lives within the embrace of the empire. I have always wondered what it would be like if churches no longer were given an 'official' status within our country. What if we could be church and do what we do - but there would be no longer be exempt from taxes? Would we whither away? Can we be giving of ourselves when there is nothing concrete given back to us to encourage our giving? What I find so interesting in our country is that the church is expected to speak up with voices that can be contrary to the empire. In fact, it is encouraged - as long as it is done in a way that keep the 'religious' powers from taking hold of the power of the empire. But the moment that line is crossed we must remember that church becomes empire - empire become the church. The line is a vital thing to keep in place. But we must also take the risk to do and say the kind of things we must a church even when it means that our 'privileges' will be removed. That will be a point of testing in the face of the powers.
Connection:It is not easy to spot privilege. And yet, we are a very privileged people in the U. S. Just think of the importance of an elected official making sure that their religious affiliation is noted. In fact, that affiliation is vital. How many politicians check the box that says atheists or agnostics? I bet it is few - if any. The empire always knows how to create allegiance.
Even when we cannot see past this day, O God, there is enough here in this time and place for which we are to act and live within your Reign. Encourage us again to live in you alone. Amen.
lean We walk and live in the face of empires. And yet, we are told to persist - be faithful.
In the end, however, that courageous poetic tradition reached the conclusion that the empire was at best transitory and not to be trusted or feared. The theological grounding for this judgment is the undoubted sovereignty of YHWH over the nations; but that theological conviction was reinforced by the visible fading of the power of the empire. It is the assertion of YHWH's ultimate rule that clears the ground of fear, and opens the way for hope and new obedience. The capacity to offer a rhetorical assault against the empire and against the gods of the empire is crucial for the compelling force of the local tradition.
For now the ways of empires win the day and are able to control things. For now empires go along their way making the rules for how people are to live. For now people run around paying homage to the gods that seem to be able to keep us alive and in good condition. And yet, we are told of the ruler of all things who does not let the empires of the world and the values they hold dear be the last word. We are reminded that our God and God's Reigning power will never be stomped out. It is within that unstompable reality of God's Reign that God's people learn to move forward as though the empire is not the power of the day - and never will be. The prophets offer us such a reminder because we all tend to live with amnesia or else we simply slip into the ways of the powers around us as though they do win the day.
Connection:Hope is a wild and strange reality. First of all, it is not as real as what we are able to touch and see. It rests just beyond that. But hope has the power to pull us beyond what we touch and see so that we can take the leap to trust what is, once again, born of promise.
Even when we cannot see past this day, O God, you send us word of what is set for all of us no matter what the word of the day tells us. It is Your word of promise that somehow tickles us and takes us through the games of the gods of this world. We thank you for such a voice of hope. Amen.
This week we will move into another chapter in Brueggemann's book "Out of Babylon. It is called Contestation over Empire.
The discernment of the empire by adherents of the local tradition is characteristically tricky and ambiguous. In ancient Israel the reality of Babylon was overwhelming; it was not so easy or obvious to doubt or dismiss the Babylonian gods who appeared to be so powerful and effective. Thus even among the prophets we may observe an ambivalence that reflects political realism.
Even the prophets knew about timing and taking a look at the situation on the ground and moving forward - faithfully forward - with an understanding of what is taking place around them. This is good to remember. In a meeting last week, a number of us who have been trying to bring about some change in our church came to the realization that we will have to faithfully go about the work of the church even when the structure of things around us is not capable of moving in a new direction. It does not mean that we have been defeated or that we have given up. Rather it means that we must change the way we go forward - for now.
Connection:Too often, the roadblocks in the way are able to stop us and we lose our sense of imagination and ability to press on within a faithful life. We forget that roadblocks do come down and roadways are made clear for new life.
Even when we cannot see past this day, O God, we trust that you will be with us and move us along the way of your Reign even as it is in the face of the powers around us. . Amen
There is a certain kind of voice that comes from this poetry that is able to stir up the people of God. Again, Walter Brueggemann in "Out of Babylon."
It is in the character of YHWH to give voice to poetic cadence. Poetic form is indispensable for speech that matches YHWH's own restless freedom. Sometimes, to be sure, the tradition exhibits YHWH slowed to memo and rule and syllogism - but not mostly. Mostly YHWH, in poetic utterance, authorizes candor and grief and issues hope that opens to new possibility. In the prophetic poetry YHWH seeks to penetrate the fearful anxiety of Israel, to energize by defying the given and disturbing the presumed world in which the listeners lived. YHWH knows, always knows, that the empire is penultimate; its time will pass. YHWH's words anticipate a future for Israel beyond the empire. As a consequence, Jewish life in Babylon, local tradition in empire, is voiced in revelatory, defiant, anticipatory terms that the empire can neither silence nor contain.
It is not easy to speak with candor. In fact, it is often easier to keep silent. And yet, the God who is the one in whose image we are created attempts to pull such candor out of us so that the vision of God's Reign will not be silent. Of course, there are many times that the voices we hear and the words we speak are far from the vision - even if we do think we are speaking candidly. That is quite fine. That is why we are people who live in community. It is in the community that the God's candor is revealed. Most often, the source of those words are not known. It may be from someone who rarely speaks. It may be from someone who speaks all the time and rarely has anything to offer. It may be from a person consider wise or a person considered a fool. That is why it is so vital to the life of the community for everyone to risk entering into the poetic exercise of unveiling the life that may be at the heart of how we live in contrast to the empire. The only way we walk together into the future of promise and the Reign that is handed to us is to keep painting a living mural with our words and prayers so that we are all given the opportunity to catch a glimpse of it all.
Connection:Foolishness is often necessary to help us look beyond where we are and where we want to be. The promises of our God are often the most foolish images we will hear and speak. And yet, like fools we continue to talk as though we are the beloved of the Creator of all things - and no power can lay another story on us.
When the poetry of your Reign falls upon us, O God, we become fools - and that is the beginning of liberation. Thank you for your saving words and life. Amen
The poetry of the people that live in opposition to the empires of the world must be bold and move by grace and hope. Again, Walter Brueggemann in "Out of Babylon."
Thus we may ponder what it is like for the children of the local tradition to hear poetry of welcome amid the prosaic control of the empire. This poetry moves boldly in images and metaphors and beyond the imperial world. It takes up old treasured, trusted themes and voices them in contemporary idiom. It dares to suggest that another reality exists beyond the empire's control. It invites new social possibility. It mocks the empire that they had come to trust and fear too much. And it does so because at the center of this poetry, the alleged speaker of new possibility is none other than YHWH, whom the empire could neither silence nor domesticate. Simply by being spoken and hear, the poetry creates a new social freedom. It imagines otherwise; it invites its listeners to walk boldly into the world it creates. It authorizes courage, summons defiance, and lines out resistance, all in the interest of legitimating the compelling force of the local tradition.
I found this piece to be challenging and stirring. Challenging in the sense that we are invited to be a part of this speaking. We are invited to take up the words and images of promise and hope even as they are quite at odds with the banners of the empire that so often feared "too much." This is all very stirring because it shakes me up. At the very center of these poetic and contrary voices is not merely the one we hear speaking. Rather, it is the voice of our God who has been alongside us in and through all things - even the most hopeless of times. The voice of our God is creative and make us move beyond where we are. We are not alone. We are standing within a long line of those who stood up and "mocked" the empires that so easily are able to make us turn their way.
Connection: It is not always easy to step into the path of that which appears to be utterly impossible. And yet, in our tradition the impossible is just another step into what can be and what often must be when God is called the Creator of all things. Our God creates for us possibilities when we are at the end of the road and out of breath and can no longer see or hear or smell or touch anything beyond us.
When the poetry of your Reign falls upon us, O God, continue to be with us as we leap into your presence even when we cannot see you waiting for us to enter into your Reigning power. Amen.
There is, thankfully, that voice that will not stop.
Whether raw human hope, or ideologically led, or divinely appointed - or all the above - the new poetry of welcome becomes the ground for a fresh future. Surely it would not have happened to a community that had quit on its own imaginative discourse for the sake of the flat, one-dimensional, coercive prose of the empire. That new poetry - however it is generated - reached some with open ears, precisely the ones who had groaned most candidly. Presumably the poetry could not have reached those who had given up on rootage and who freely and willingly adapted to a new imperial reality. The local tradition culminates in a readiness for a time of new poetry. And when it is uttered, it is heard as a forceful assurance that exile is the habitat of the holy, and that the empire has not been able - for all its efforts - to eliminate YHWH as the definitive player in the shape of the future.
These voices are not simply 'catch phrases' thrown out among the people. These are words of substance. The kind of words that make people stop and listen. Think of a song that has lyrics that grab you and make you listen again and try to catch everything that is being sung. Think of a poem that weaves words together in such a way you have to untangle its vision and then you sit back and say "Yes." And yet, such work is not always that which engages everyone. If my agenda for life is full and the direction I am going is etched in a deep pattern that I am unwilling to change, these poetic visions of a world that is new - cannot be heard and when they are, they are ignored or suppressed. This is not to say that all poetry brings for a vision of something other than the empire. In fact, the empire is always able and willing to put some of its own collection of words and ways out in front of us. Unfortunately, we too often follow those words and leave the poetry of power and life behind.
Connection: A simple song - a few words at the right time and in the right place - a beat that makes us move -- the vision of God's Reign is meant to give us a light for the living and dancing of these days.
When the poetry of your Reign falls upon us, O God, help us to hear the vision. Amen.
Brueggemann notes that the poet - the voice - will not stop.
Sooner or later the empire might have caused the poetry of the local tradition to evaporate - but it did not happen that way. Rather, all the coercive force of empire is said to become the seedbed and venue for new poetry that was heard among Jews as a voice, and therefore as the presence, of God, the God who has refused to abandon the displaced. It may be that the new poetry of welcome,
is to be understood as raw human hope that in resilience just would not give in;
is to be understood as evidence of the ideological force of those who dominated sixth-century Jewish imagination, who imposed the notion of "return and restoration" on a community that would otherwise have settled for a new home in empire;
is finally to be taken as the gift of YHWH's own resolve for the future that stands against the facts on the ground.
It may be that vision for new life must be "imposed" in order to keep it in the mind of the people and to avoid everything falling back into the accommodating ways of empire. However the voice is raised, there must be a voice. Since we all have a bit of the the empire we would like to see remain in place, this voice of restoration will not be a voice we like to hear all the time. So often, it is good to read the voice of the poets and prophets in the Scriptures and yet we may not want to be open to the same message in the voices that speak directly to our present context. Therefore, we must press the point again. We must also be willing to hear a critique of our own ways and the voice of those attempting to pull us a world of life that is not at all in the shape of the world that is all around us.
Connection: There are always new poets ready to offer us a view of what is not yet and that which must come among us. I find that the young have an ear for good disrupting poetry. Look at Egypt - look at our musicians of substance - look at those who are able to crack open conversations and take us someplace we have not been willing or able to go. All at once, the impossible is available to us.
When the poetry of your Reign falls upon us, O God, help us to sing and dance and move to the beat of life that is not often the best known verse among us. It is there that we may encounter you more fully. Amen.
Today's piece is a direct follow-up to what was quoted yesterday - again from "Out of Babylon" by Walter Brueggemann.
It was an acute question for those displaced Jews, even as now the same question faces the church in the midst of empire. The question never receives a final or a simple answer. The issue is always under negotiation and review; the local tradition is always repositioning itself and, at that same time, always being imposed upon by the force of the empire. So it must have been among Jews in Babylon, hearing always again the refrain of the unwelcome poetry of divine disappointment, always again responding in grief, always again refusing to give up on that ancient rootage.
In the book of Revelation we are introduced to "the first and the last" who is also called "the alpha and the omega." It is the story that always was and always will be. It is the faithful poetry of God's Reign that will find a way to be spoken to a people who, at times, refuse to hear of such a God - or simply are so broken they need someone to come and feed it to them. These stories and promises become the food that sustains and brings back to life all of us when we have had enough - even when we do not know what is pounding us. When people or pets are experiencing the "failure to thrive," others take them in their arms and offer them food. Yes, it must be food they can use - but it is put into their mouths regularly until they begin to benefit from the nutrition. That is what the faithful community is to do with each of us. Bring in the stories that sustain us and empower us to be God's beloved in the midst of empire.
Connection: Do you have a story that is able to feed you when you do not want to go on?Do you have someone in your life to whom you can turn when you are not thriving? Do you have someone or some group that can see that you are not thriving and you can count on them to feed you?
When the poetry of your Reign falls upon us, O God, send saints who will give us the words of your love that we will be brought back to life and yearn again to be whole and blessed - just as you have always seen us. Amen.
The liturgy of the local tradition or the liturgy of the empire. What will it be? Brueggemann looks at the predicament in Israel and Babylon.
One can imagine, then, two parallel liturgies. On the one hand, the imperial liturgy was about unthinking affirmation. On the other hand, Jewish local tradition's practice hosted unwelcome poems and unsilenced cries of need as a response to real or anticipated loss. The issue for displaced Jews is whether they could sustain the theological tradition about which they sat down and wept. In the local tradition the ultimate reality of God and the immediate reality of loss grappled with each other. "But," the Jews asked themselves, "should we abandon the local tradition in order to settle down to life in the empire?" That, of course, is always the question for this (and any other) local tradition: whether to relinquish or retain, whether to accommodate or resist, whether to give one's self over to hegemony's buoyant self-delusions or to live in contradiction to that buoyancy.
Unfortunately, it is very easy to be at home with the self-delusions of the empire - no matter what empire it may be or what it is that claims to rule us. To live in contradiction to the prevailing powers and influences and structures is not an easy road to walk. For if it is done consistently, a contrary walker starts to stick out. Therefore, it becomes more and more tempting to accommodate ourselves to those prevailing winds. It makes practical sense to step back from questioning the status quo. When we do that, we fit in. I know I like to fit in - I think many of us do. That is when we must pick up these old, old stories and poems and songs of resistance and begin to learn the language of lament and the language of hope and the language of radical engagement of the powers around us so that we get it into our hearts that there is another way to move through the contexts in which we walk.
Connection: It is good to find voices that help us resist and re-evaluate and critique and weep and press on in hope. The voices are there. We must turn an ear and begin to receive the gifts around us.
When the poetry of your Reign falls upon us, O God, inspire us to stop and listen and look at the way your Reign can unfold before us and pull us into a life we are not always willing to enter. Amen.
Okay - before any green beer starts to flow, lets look at more of the life of the prophets in the face of empire.
The local tradition of the poetry of alienation and response to grief is so characteristically Jewish. It yields the prophetic and the liturgical voice of the sixth-century crisis of abandonment. It is a quite distinctive and treasured local tradition that shaped lived reality in a particular way. To appreciated fully that local tradition of prophetic poetry and liturgical response, we should contrast it with the empire's own liturgy. The empire's liturgy was all doxology all praise, all celebration, all self-affirmation, and all victorious confidence. The empire had no room for sadness, loss, or grief. Unwelcome poetry never found voice in the empire, for poets of unwelcome were all silenced. The empire permitted no cry, expected no response, engaged in no dialogue, offered no ultimate holiness - and so practiced an unrecognized despair and an uninterrupted denial.
I will not turn this into a critique of the empires of this day - although, it sure sounds familiar. Think about what is happening in some of the Arab world - this voice cannot be heard as it is frightens those in power. Even in the U.S. there is so much fear of losing what we have, voices of vision are called unpatriotic. Odd. Even in the church, we can see that too often, the empire of church (another way to look at church) cannot hear or see the reality of life that is outside of what is in place. The result - we never see a "real" new day. We simply override the new with louder voices or by silencing voices of abandonment. I suppose we must realize that we must not sing and dance to the tunes of the empires around us. Unless, of course, they are voices of freedom and grace and carry the incense of the welfare of all.
Connection: A simple exercise is to look at the shape of the empire(s) in which we live. What is the voice of something other that needs to be lifted up for others to hear? Or - what voice to we need to raise up, even if we are not sure anyone will hear it or want to hear it?
When the poetry of your Reign falls upon us, O God, help us hear its song and begin to sing along to the cadence of a new world. Amen
A part of what we are is a poetic community that is able to see beyond what is.
There are, to be sure, voices of hope. None of these are more powerful or compelling than the "I have a dream" of Martin Luther King, Jr. But such "dreaming" must perforce be grounded well beyond business as usual, and it is only the "local tradition" of faith that dares to speak in this way. Perhaps it is the case that a hope-filled future for our society depends upon the courage and freedom of the local tradition to speak beyond accepted categories for the sake of grace-filled newness. There is a "plan," perhaps, beyond our conventional possibilities. That "plan," however, requires "seeking with all your heart." Such a practice in a weary culture will at best be odd. But its oddness does not make it impossible.
Voices of hope must speak up or we will be left with the emptiness and despair of the present context. MLK spoke up. He found it necessary to lift up our eyes to the reality that was beyond the one in which we let ourselves sink. It is vital for God's blessed and beloved people to lift up our voices when the world around us (society and the church) is dysfunctional and willing to remain and even fight in favor of dysfunction. Unfortunately, we too often let ourselves be seduced by proper protocol (another way to say: You can't say or do that.). And yet, it takes a bit of courage to step up and work at painting another image of what can be. That is not always welcome. What we need to remember is like a graffiti artist, once the work is on the wall, other artists who like what it there will "tag" it with their sign. Sometimes the ones who step forward to point in a new direction need to see that there really are others out there who have dreams and visions of a new day.
Connection: One sign at the Wisconsin rallies was "Walk like an Egyptian." Yes, we need to get up and walk into something new - even when the newness has not yet started to manifest itself. We just might be the beginning of that manifestation.
When the poetry of your Reign falls upon us, O God, we encourage one another and one voice is turned into a choir of hopefulness. Continue to be the light that guides us within you unfolding Reign. Amen
We continue with "The Divine as Poetic" - Walter Brueggemann.
In contemporary United States culture, it is not yet clear how such an emergence of hope might occur. It is certain that the old, tired imperial ideology to which much corporate wealth and much military power is committed cannot yield such possibility. Mostly in the midst of society disarray what we get is moralistic or ideological posturing. Neither of these can amount to a possible newness outside the categories of what is old and failed.
We need the dreamers and poets. These are the voices that take us beyond what is and the way things have been done. In many ways, I must laugh at the pitiful ways some folks are trying to 'make cuts' so that we can reduce deficits. It is as though we lack dreamers and poets in that cutting bunch of folk. Why have we resisted cutting the huge budget that feeds the military and the industries that work long hours at making the instruments of war? We we ever become a nation that works for the well-being of all rather than one that cannot see or live outside the bounds of what we want and what we are afraid to lose? The exiles from Babylon never knew how to live in a way that was different from the prevailing culture of the day. And yet, somehow, enough of them/a remnant started to envision that which seemed so impossible. I suppose it is really easier to become moralistic and focus on individual 'sins' or life choices rather than change the ethic of a whole people. That is quite unfortunate. Then again folks, we are the ones that move us into new possibilities - into promise.
Connection: The tough part is trusting that we can make something else happen. It is so easy to step back rather than step into something new - something out of step with what we have trusted for so long. But - it is time to come out of Babylon.
When the poetry of your Reign falls upon us, O God, our eyes open and we are able to see beyond all the powers that hold us and keep us in place. Take us up into the the language of your Reigning power and help us live anew. Amen
It has been over a month since the last devotion - the longest break I've taken in ten years. Well, today we move back to Walter Brueggemann in a chapter called "The Divine as Poetic."
The displacement of leading members of Jerusalem society to Babylon might have ended in despair. There was ample reason to conclude that YHWH's promises were exhausted and hope was spent: "So I say,'Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord'" (Lamentations 3:18).
That however, is not what happened. In the very midst of such a seemingly hopeless situation, new hope was voiced. New promises were uttered. New poems were offered that alleged to be YHWH's very own commitment to the future of Jerusalem and its erstwhile inhabitants. Thus the divine resolve to bring the deportees home came to be a vigorous assertion and shaping conviction within the exilic community. No reason was given for such a hope, except that it was taken to be grounded in YHWH's own resolve.
I love the beginning of the last sentence in this quote: "No reason was given for such a hope." Then there is that vital assertion. It was "taken to be grounded in YHWH's own resolve." Talk about dreaming. Talk about going ahead even when the evidence all around you is telling you that you are nuts or simply not in touch. And yet, this is the way of God's people. This has always been the way. It brings me back to one of my standard quotes from Douglas John Hall that helped pull me through one of the roughest tie of my life: God Reigns all contrary evidence notwithstanding! When I am in the middle of despairing moments and cannot see how anything but the present reality can be a possibility, God's Reign must be spoken to me. I must count on you to draw poetic pictures of the not-yet but that that is coming. It is with that help - the promises of our God - that each of us can face the baloney of what is and make sure we will be a part of the treasure that awaits us all - new life - surprising life - resurrection life.
Connection: These devotions are just words - moments I take to read a bit and then write a bit. I guess that is all they could appear to be. Then again, the exercise of listening to faithful writers offer a vision into which I can walk has been and will continue to be a life-saver - or maybe - the encouragement to give my life away.
When the poetry of your Reign falls upon us, O God, we begin again. Thanks be to God. Amen.