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The Beauty of Pentecost – We Live by Gift, not Grasp

Reflections from Dr. Howell

  Walter Brueggemann, whom I’d count as our world’s greatest Old Test ament scholar, has published a little book, Virus as a Summons to Faith. It’s a little series of in-depth Bible studies. He explains why this might help: “I, as a Bible teacher, believe that any serious crisis is a summons for us to reread the Bible afresh.”

He shies away from nothing. Many Bible texts conceive of God as bringing “pestilence” as a punishment for the people’s sins: Deuteronomy 28, Exodus 14, Jeremiah 15, 2 S amuel 24 (God’s reply to a census!), on and on. But God is love, right? “The Lord, it turns out, has many tools of sovereignty beyond the force of love.” So did God inflict this pandemic on us?

Brueggemann is a wise, subtle, helpful teacher. Now is the time to realize that consumerism has its costs. Planes and cars have been devastating God’s good environment. Human conceit that we are masters of our fate and can solve all problems is arrogant fiction. Thoughtless leadership afflicts innocent people – as David prays, “I alone have sinned – but these sheep, what have they done?” The king humbly owning responsibility! Money and power aren’t the answers now.

We are witnessing “unintentional consequences of the virus,” like clear skies, less smog, people outdoors more, people slowing down, noticing beauty in creation, neighborly care. And so we can see how God is involved, not by hurling down a virus, but in hidden ways, woven into the very order of creation, that won’t be mocked. Ours is to be “sobered, summoned, emancipated and filled with wonder before God’s holiness, that outflanks us.”

The Bible is not only probing in diagnosis. There is always hope. Jeremiah grieves that parties and weddings are postponed! But then God reminds him that “There shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and gladness, the songs of bridegroom and bride” (Jeremiah 33:10). Brueggemann calls this “relentless, uncompromising hope.”

How do we come by this hope? It’s not Wait things out until we’re back to normal. It is rather a realization, a living into God’s new thing. Moving there begins in groaning. All through the Bible, we hear agonizing groans, Israel in Egypt, the Psalms, Jesus on the cross, the desolate disciples at the cross. We want the new life without the groaning – which is as silly as a woman wanting to give birth without the discomforts and painful pangs of pregnancy and labor. Denial of the mess our world was in before the pandemic, much less what’s going on now, blinds us to the new thing God is doing.

And as we’ve said many times, hope depends, not on us, or somebody else, but on God. Brueggemann looks closely at Psalm 77. For 10 verses, the Psalmist is full of sorrow and self-pity: “I cry to the Lord, I moan, my spirit faints, I am troubled, I consider the days of old, I remember years long ago…” God welcomes all candid prayer – but Brueggemann wryly observes that in this “we find ourselves at the pool of Narcissus.” The pronouns “I, me, my” occur 23 times in the first 8 verses!

But then the creative turn: pivoting after verse 10, the Psalmist is caught up in God, God’s deeds in the past, God’s might and wisdom, God’s tender compassion.” Brueggemann is right: so much of our praying mirrors society’s consumerism. But God is not “on call.” God isn’t our valet, or a fortune cookie. God is God – and that’s our hope. “We live by gift, not by grasp.” Instead of self-preoccupation, the Psalmist gets caught up in praise, in wonder, in awe. As I heard someone say years ago, “the antidote to despair is… praise.”

I want to be liberated from… me. And a world that lives as if there is no God. God is still God. God’s good creation is groaning, and revealing its truths to us. Can we get fixated on God, in awe, humility and hope?

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