Guest Blogger: On Lent, Lament, Emotions, and Enemies

Hi friends! It is with great privilege that I introduce this post by introducing the person who wrote it. Zach DeMoya is a friend I met early on at Duke Divinity School, who is passionate about everything he wraps his mind around. He is a stellar husband, friend, dog dad, and Hebrew student. I hope you will sow with him these seeds of lament that you might reap the joys that come as we approach Easter.

Brothers and sisters, we find ourselves nearly midway through the Lenten season, fervently disciplining and preparing ourselves for the risen Messiah. Traditionally, we do this as an act of modeling the trials and tribulations that our Christ underwent in the wilderness directly preceding his ministry. Growing up in the Bible Belt, this primarily meant an overemphasis on fasting from something in our lives that would be considered “bad” for us – soda, candy, television; you name it, someone probably fasted from it as a form of self-help. That’s exactly it – the Lenten season has been watered down to the point that not drinking Mountain Dew or eating pecan pie has been equated by modern Christians with Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness, tempting by the devil, and ministering with the shadow of the cross beckoning nearer by the day. 

Only recently have I been introduced to the tradition of lament during the Lenten season. This can be a confusing word and practice for most modern Christians – lamenting is not exactly a mainstream form of worship or spiritual practice these days. Lamenting requires mourning, grieving, even weeping – all actions that are rarely if ever practiced communally, and equated with weakness and tragedy if practiced individually. After all, since we as Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus and affirm that moment as the ultimate victory over sin and strife and the only true hope we have in the midst of the chaos of this world, why would we possibly need to lament during the days leading up to the remembrance of the greatest event for the Christian faith in human history?! Naturally, this sort of belief has rendered the Lenten season a time of giving something up to feel better about oneself and a time to make plans to celebrate the Easter holiday with family and friends and pick out a new pastel piece for the wardrobe to wear to the Sunday service. 

I want to reflect a moment on this concept of lamentation. If we acknowledge that it is a counter-cultural practice in mainstream Christianity, where might we find a model for properly and healthily lamenting in our own lives and as the body of Christ? For me, the epitome of capturing the utter humanity that comes with lamenting can be found in the Psalms. This collection of poetic hymns and musical pieces, presumably authored by David (although this is widely debated by scholars across the theological spectrum), often are characterized by the modern church as joyful and enthusiastic songs in praise of God’s divine work in the presence of danger and sin. The beautiful, albeit unfamiliar, metaphorical language has been adapted into worship songs and hymns in all Christian traditions, again typically in upbeat harmonies and used as music of celebration in church services and gatherings across the world. 

So why then do I refer to the Psalms as the model for lamentation for the modern Christian? The Psalms are unique in the Christian canon in that the words reflect human emotion. The author speaks directly to God, reflecting upon God’s action, mourning over God’s inaction, praising deliverance from enemies, and even begging for oppressors to be “smited” (or physically assault violently, for you New Living Translation folks). All of these postures that the author takes in speaking to the divine portray the range of emotions that any human might go through in his/her life – joy, sadness, anger, fear, apathy, contentedness, etc, etc. This is rare if not nonexistent in the Scriptures, and even may beg the question of why the imperfection and inconsistency of humanity would even be included in an inspired or authoritative collection of texts about the Christian God. After all, humans are sinful! What could the Bible possibly need the input of a sinner for in providing the good news of the gospel that indicates the final defeat of sin on the cross? 

I would posit that the oddest emotional expression we see in the Psalms is that of anger. Especially in more conservative Christian circles, “do not be angry” or some version of that phrase is widely (albeit mistakenly) treated as essentially a Bible memory verse. Parents and adults in the church use this to attempt to teach children to love one another and react calmly to adversity. Yet, here in the Psalms, we see quite the opposite. For example, take Psalm 3:7: 

“Arise O Lord, save me O God! For you smite my enemies on the cheek; you shatter the teeth of the wicked” 

First and foremost, let us acknowledge that the beloved New Living Translation translates this as “you slap all my enemies in the face”, which is just a fun modern convention. Imagine David saying this. 

More to the point, appealing to a just and merciful God to “smite my enemies” and “shatter the teeth” is not exactly the type of authoritative reading we want our kids to grow up reading. In the context of the Bible, it gives credence to human anger as a Scriptural emotion and a valid way to converse with the Almighty. While I am certain some well-meaning parents might not be pleased if their children start using the word “smite” in their nightly prayers, the beautiful thing about the psalmist’s words here are that his/her words are REAL. The Psalms as a whole reflect human emotions as not some sort of defect or abnormality that is against the will of God, but rather that God WANTS to know all of us, not just our good sides. Yes, I am asserting that our most wicked thoughts and evil desires are fair game to God – just as the psalmist wished for God to shatter his enemies’ teeth, so too does God want to know when we desire nothing more than the comeuppance of that smug politician that we cannot imagine was created by the same deity as us. 

So, let me pivot back to lent. The Lenten season, at its core, is all about preparing ourselves for the crucifixion and resurrection, meaning we are meant to ponder and experience all of the lows as we approach celebrating the highs. As we read through the Gospels during this season, we learn about how Jesus conducted himself in his ministry all the while knowing how his life was meant to end. In light of the discussion of anger in the Psalms, some of the words of Jesus are striking, to say the least. Let’s compare: 

Psalmist: “Smite my enemies, shatter their teeth” 

Jesus: “LOVE your enemies and PRAY for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43) 

Needless to say, the dissimilarity is obvious. Reconciling these two concepts as equally valid can be really, really difficult. Let me reaffirm my statement above – God wants ALL of us, all of our thoughts, all of our desires, all the good, all the bad requests to hurt our enemies. Also, Jesus commands the Christian in the Sermon on the Mount to love his/her enemy. This is one of many reasons that loving the enemy is quite possibly the most counter-cultural and near impossible of Jesus’ instructions for the Christian. I can safely hypothesize that 99% of this audience has not loved the enemy, much less even considered praying on behalf of the enemy. Yet, the Lenten season calls us to prepare for the events of the crucifixion and resurrection. If you recall the final moments of Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says of his oppressors “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. This is amazing and speaks to the purity and divinity of the Son to plea to God on behalf of the men who had quite literally just nailed him to a cross and signed his death warrant. 

Lent calls us to lament. Lent calls us to mourn, to grieve, to weep. Just as in the Psalms, these are all human actions that even the “perfect human”, Jesus Christ, performed in his life in our broken world. We strive as Christians to model the life of Jesus as closely as possible as we prepare to meet our God in heaven upon our final day. Modeling Jesus is incredibly hard work, especially as our world grows more hostile and divided by the day toward the faith. It seems our enemies grow in number day by day – not just from outside of the church, but even from within. The teachings of the Scriptures are co-opted by false teachers and power-hungry “leaders” to promote their personal agendas and justify their biases and passions all the time. The enemy becomes harder and harder to discern. Naturally, there are more and more things in our world to lament as each hour passes. 

My goal for this Lenten season is to lament. To mourn the loss of innocent life at the hands of radical extremists of all nations and races. To grieve the unbearably difficult conditions that so many of my brothers and sisters live under. To weep over the injustice that minorities in so many Western nations face in the name of the law and of patriotism day after day. How long, O Lord? 

Yet, my lament falls short without following all of Jesus’ instructions. As I mourn and grieve and weep over the oppressed, I am equally called to love the oppressor. As I lament over the misfortune of my neighbor, I am equally called to pray for my enemy. 

In this Lenten season, I pray that you might actively spend time challenging yourself to love your enemies. Not only to love for the sake of meeting that Biblical requirement per se, but to love with the intrinsic desire for your enemy to come to know and believe the Gospel because your enemy equally bears the imago dei as a beloved child of the Almighty God. With the desire that these words might not ring hollow without action on my part as well, let me attempt to put pen to paper on a few unorthodox prayers I have offered up in the past week or so: 

Lord, I pray for Bashar Al-Assad. I pray that in the midst of his dominance and complicity in the tragedy of the Syrian Civil War, your hand O Lord might protect him from harm. I pray that he might find the comfort of your presence in times of grief and times of celebration, and I pray that you might save him from perilous plight. 

Lord, I pray for Bibi Netanyahu. I pray that just as I know with confidence you are the rock and redeemer of the many Palestinian Christians that fear for their lives day after day, that you are that same foundation on which he might find his strength. I pray that you might offer your grace to forgive him of his misdeeds, and your love might shower him in such a way that the path to you might be irresistible for him. 

Lord, I pray for Nikolai Cruz. My heart aches for the families and loved ones of his seventeen victims on that fateful afternoon in Parkland, Florida. In the deepest recesses of my heart, I find it near impossible to desire even life for him, much less a desire to share the same God as he does. All that being said, I pray that he might come to know you. I pray for his salvation. I pray that we may sing the songs of joy and praise together in the golden streets of heaven at the foot of your glorious throne. I pray for healing not only for the families of Cruz’s prey, but also for their predator, as he too is your child and bears your image. 

Let this Lenten season be for you a return to the good news of the Gospel, a time of expectation for the miracle of Easter, but also a time of personal challenge to lament the plentiful evil in this world, and then pray for its evildoers.

Amen.

Cheap Grace

I was sitting in Church History yesterday, learning about indulgences for the first time. For those of you who don't know what indulgences are like I didn't about 24 hours ago, they began around the 11th century and essentially were payments that could be given to the church in order to make penance for a loved one who is now dealing with his or her sin in purgatory. More specifically, they held a view that there was eternal and temporal sin - eternal sin being a sin that offends God and temporal sin being a sin that wrongs other humans. Indulgences were only meant to deal with the temporal sins of a person but were believed to expedite a loved one's time in purgatory. Interesting, huh? 

Well, Luther didn't like this. I don't much like it either. He believed it was an exploitation of the people in addition to being something that replaced the forgiving grace of God. Luther wrote a letter in 1517 to the Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg, saying, "These unfortunate souls seemingly believe they are assured of their salvation as soon as they purchase letters of indulgence. They also believe that the souls leave purgatory as soon as they put the money into the chest...Christ nowhere commanded to preach indulgences but emphatically insisted on the preaching of the gospel." 

However, in this discussion of Luther's response to indulgences, my professor, Dr. Pak, stopped us to say that it is easy for us to understand why Luther, or anyone else for that matter, is justified in disliking the concept of indulgences, but, she also said that Protestants in particular have a very cheap view of grace. We will not pause very long to think about why indulgences could have been appealing to the people. Sin is a real and present evil that has detrimental effects on individuals and communities. In our commitment to believing that there is grace for our sin, and rightfully so, it is not common that we think about the seriousness of it in the first place.

If you're a fan of the Enneagram, I have a typological description that might help us to better understand the ways in which we need to think and speak about grace. I have a few people in my life who are "1s." This type of person, according to the Enneagram, is very concerned with achieving perfection. In case you were wondering, I am very certainly not a 1, for better or for worse. I know someone who pretty fairly evaluates what it means for him to be a 1 - that it is not a matter of necessarily having a high intolerance for imperfections in general but for imperfections specific to himself. He even goes so far to say that he has quite a high tolerance of other people's imperfections while dealing with himself more critically. His understanding of what it means to think about these imperfections is that on the one hand, if we have too high an intolerance for imperfections, then it leads to self-deprecation, and we often miss out on the forgiving and transformational grace of God. On the other hand, if we have too low a tolerance for imperfections, we can become complacent in how dissimilar we truly are from Christ. We must strive toward the middle - confessing our sins and acknowledging the ways in which we are not yet conformed to the image of Christ, while also recognizing that there is grace and that we are human and that sanctification is a process.

Pascal writes that people often divert themselves in any and every possible way, rather than dealing with the realities of our human condition - that condition being that we are completely and totally depraved. We are sinful and corrupt; we have earned nothing but damnation. I can pretty readily agree that it's not something I like to spend a lot of time thinking about. However, in order to have a bigger picture of grace, we have to have a bigger picture of sin and the ways that it is detrimental to our very existence. Paul writes in Romans that this is in fact the point of the law.  "What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet.'" (Romans 7:7). Luther expounds in his commentary on Galatians, noting that, "Now once a man has thus been humbled by the law and brought to the knowledge of himself, then he becomes truly repentant; for true repentance begins with fear and judgment of God. He sees that he is such a great sinner that he cannot find any means to be delivered from his sin by his own strength, effort or works." Notice that Luther says that through the law and understanding sin, we actually become more knowledgeable about ourselves - as Pascal would say, a greater understanding of our own nature and condition. Only then can we be truly repentant. We cannot start from grace but must recognize first what it is that grace has covered.

To make one more note, as was emphasized earlier by the "1" in my life, I understand that there will be people who have a tendency toward self-deprecation. Perhaps you are a person who dwells too much on your own depravity and do not want to recognize the fullness of grace that God is offering you because you don't believe you deserve it. And, truly, you don't. And I know that's unfair, and it sucks to be given so great a gift sometimes, but there is no need to accept it out of guilt and feel the constant need to accept as minimal as grace as possible. There is abundant grace, and God wants us to take it - joyfully as He finds joy in us. 

I met with my Old Testament professor, Dr. Chapman, last semester in office hours, and I still think about something that he said very frequently. He told me that people have developed a kind of moralism in believing in God. People who grew up in the church often feel bad admitting to those who still believe that they no longer do, and he gave me this little anecdote to describe such a phenomenon - A person was talking to the pastor of a church he no longer attended and timidly confessed that he no longer believed in God, to which the pastor responded that it makes no difference to God - I don't think the point is that God doesn't care if we don't believe in Him, but He has never forced Himself on us. In the same vein, people develop a kind of hyper-moralism that isn't always existent in the Bible. God used the scum of the earth to be his leaders and prophets; our sin, after forgiveness, does not leave Him with a tainted view of us. As soon as God pronounced forgiveness over us, it was done. We are forgiven. Basically, my professor said that we just need to let it go. 

Another professor from my undergrad, Dr. Muehlhoff, likes to remind his students that when Jesus died on the cross, all of our sin was still in the future. And yet, he still died and was raised and invites you to accept salvation. There is no sin that is too big to be forgiven because our God is infinitely bigger. 

So, I invite you to aim for the mean, as Aristotle often challenges us to do. Recognize your own tendencies toward self-deprecation or to become complacent in not dealing with your sin. Now I could be wrong, but I'm guessing there a few more of us who tend towards not dealing with the damning effects of sin, because as noted with Pascal, it just simply isn't a pleasant thing to think about. So what are some ways to help us grow our understanding and thereby gratitude for grace?

>Talk about your sin with others. James 5:16 says, "Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." While many Protestants don't practice a formal kind of Confession, we are still commanded to do it in some setting. The more we acknowledge and verbalize it to another person, we not only bring it into the light to be forgiven, but we recognize it for what it is and give it its due weight. We also are less likely to do it again with accountability. 

>Talk about your sin with God. Take more time in your prayer life to discuss the ways you have disobeyed and failed to love God as you ought. Psalm 19:12 says, "But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults." We don't even know the sin that we commit half the time! I suspect at least part of that reason is because we are not cultivating an awareness of it by acknowledging and confessing it. 

>Change the way you talk about grace. Admittedly, the first descriptor on my instagram bio is "grace upon grace." So, I am the first to want to jump to grace, skip over sin, and be happy that I supposedly don't have to think about it. But maybe we should start to have a wider description of grace that starts with sin. I know that means vulnerability in the ways you talk about grace, but as the researcher Brene Brown states, "Vulnerability spares others from shame." We are all broken and sinful people, and we should be more willing to sit in that in order to have a greater experience of the ways we have been saved together by grace. I hope that we will start to form communities that are marked by a greater compassion for one another in our sin and a greater understanding of grace, that results in gratitude for our Father in heaven. 

 So, don't let your grace be cheap. As I've heard around Easter, we want to immediately jump to Sunday without being present in the sadness of Friday. Christ's death was costly, and as a result, our salvation, but praise be to Him who made a way for us!

"But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen." (2 Peter 3:18)

Loving Languages

If you know Hannah James, you probably know that I love languages. I mean literal languages like Spanish. I also mean Biblical languages - Hebrew and Greek. I also mean love languages. Additionally, I'm talking about knowing someone well enough to pick up on the "language" that they speak - their favorite phrases, idioms, patterns of thought and speech, and the way they talk about things they love and hate. Let's dissect these a little bit more.

Learning a language like Spanish or French is such a challenging and rewarding process. It's interesting - you discover and preserve meanings in ways that are different from that of your native language. And it's worth noting that learning a language is for the primary purpose of communicating. It is an opportunity to connect with people in a way that was previously impossible, or at the least, incredibly difficult. It's no surprise that the more effort you put into the language, the more you are able to connect with a person who speaks that language. It is a discipline and a task that must be practiced daily if you want to remember what you have learned and continue to grow. Just briefly touching on Biblical languages, the same concept applies. When we get to know the original Hebrew and Greek that the Biblical text is written in, we become more connected to the Word of God in its original context, though it requires constant diligence and practice. 

Zooming back out, I think learning a language is representative of how we connect with others on a more intimate level. On a more light-hearted note, here are some examples of the way language has played a formational role in my relationships:

>One of my friends at divinity school makes fun of me for using the phrase "good gravy." I grew up in the South, so I'm guessing that's where that comes from, though admittedly I have lost a lot of my Southern roots. From this same friend, I've picked up the sayings "you're not wrong" and the use of the word "stellar." When we both recognize that we are using a word or phrase that typically 'belongs' to the other person, we acknowledge that we are listening.

>I have a few friends who deeply enjoy coffee (my kindred spirits), and I know that I can get any conversation going by asking them about the type of coffee beans they have in their house at the moment or talking about particular shops that they enjoy. 

>My roommate from college, Abbey, used to say to me all the time, "What's the plan, Stan?" Eventually, this evolved into the saying, "What's the plan-ly, Stanley?" which has now resulted in addressing the other and signing our own names as Stanley in all of our letters. In this kind of inside joke, we have another reference to a memory and established relationship.

These "languages" that we begin to speak with our friends and family create a unique bond with one another - an intimacy that has been developed through time spent together talking. Through that time, we begin to understand what topics are off-limits, what is important to keep asking about, and what you enjoy talking about with each other specifically. All of those things look different with different individual friendships. When you think about it, you are in the process of learning the languages of each person in your life. As said above, when learning a language like Spanish, the more effort you commit to learning, the deeper connection you have with a person who speaks Spanish. Never think you are done learning another person's language. I would say I'm fluent in English, but I'm still learning new words in my studies and continuing to discover how to put words together that convey meaning in the most beautiful, good, and true ways. 

What does this look like when we turn to our prayer lives? How do we learn the language of God? Well, it's first refreshing to understand that He knows each of our languages intimately and perfectly. On my first (and only) missions trip to Quebec, Canada, I remember encountering a church service for the first time where our English-speaking team worshipped alongside a French-speaking congregation and recognizing the beauty of a God who understands and honors the prayers and praises we offer in both languages. Even more specifically, He understands the utterances of our own individual languages - the ones that surpass words and cut to the desires of our hearts. And what's more, He cares about those. 

But what can I say about getting to know the language of God? Well, if we commit the same principles to learning languages, we know that it is a daily practice and discipline to learn and understand and keep communicating and connecting. We know that it's hard - that at some point, everything is foreign, though we can pretty quickly pick up on some basic ideas and fundamentals. These sorts of fundamentals are things like - we know that God's words will be characterized by love, grace, truth, and goodness, which will also help us rule out the things that we will never hear from the voice of God. And my inclination is that the more we invest into learning this language and developing a certain intimacy and relationship, the greater our desire will be to keep learning and connecting and being in relationship. The learning curve might be steep, but it quickly becomes worth it with the connection we form. 

So go learn a language. Do it. Commit to the discipline and let yourself see the challenges and rewards that authentically represent how we form relationship with other people. Don't be intimidated by the number of vocabulary words you don't know, but increasingly find joy in the connection you build with those who speak another language. It'll be worth it.

 

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Living as a Word Person

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I'm a word person. 

I used to tell my college roommate, Abbey, that phrase all the time. What I meant by that is that I'm not exactly the most creative person in the world... I've tried my hand at painting and drawing, scrapbooking and photography, but somehow I'm the type of person that ends up with words "doodled" all over my class notes. I try to put them in different fonts, but that's about as creative as I can get in that sense. However, I do enjoy writing (obviously). I like reading stories and seeing the way that the same words we use everyday can be strung together to create meaning and come alive to the reader within their own imaginations. There's a kind of joy in seeing a story unfold through words on a page that can be so profoundly connected to our own stories.

I was also a Communication Studies major at Biola, which has allowed me to see the power of words in many different contexts. We took classes on small group communication, organizational communication (communication in and about work), public speaking, and rhetoric. Words are used and abused, spoken well and left unspoken. Words are everywhere, and they matter! This also means that one of my love languages is Words of Affirmation, naturally.

I say all of this to tell you a little bit more about who I am and where I come from but also to make a first point in this blog series. We are all "Word People" so to speak because we are made in the image of THE "Word Person," namely, the Logos. Because God spoke the world into existence through the Logos and imprinted His image on us, we are now able to identify as a Word person. And that is only the beginning! The embodied Word, Jesus, was born into the world. He lived among us, spoke to us, and listened to the stories of those around Him. He lived and died to to offer us a part in the story of eternal life.  The Word breathes life and brings life. Powerful and yet also poetic, isn't it?

A major take away that I've had from my first semester of Divinity School at Duke is the concept of authorship within the Bible. While there is a lot of nuance in answering the question who wrote the Bible, ultimately we are invited to view the whole narrative as a composite of many narratives and perspectives - a way that treasures diversity within the Word and through the inspiration of the Word. We see this on a large scale when it comes to separate books of the Bible, such as the 4 perspectives given in the Gospels, but we also see this on a much smaller scale when we look closely at the several authors who contributed to the Pentateuch. Though the Pentateuch presents Moses as its author - or perhaps written with a Mosaic tradition - it is widely accepted that there were several other authors involved in the process. The way, then, that the Bible is written is perspectival. It is embodied Truth, inviting the reader to come alongside it and to live in the tensions of life itself, rather than making Truth binary or simply a philosophical concept or idea.

Stories matter. Your story matters. The words that you would string together to describe your life is an ability that springs from the Word Himself to create meaning and offer life to those around you as He has given and offered us eternal life. 

I hope to keep exploring what it means to communicate about God and even with God through the course of this blog, and I hope you will continue to carefully consider your own position as made in the image of the "Word Person" Himself.