Five Biblical Devotions

I’ve managed to see Scorsese’s Silence twice in the last couple of weeks. … It’s a surpassingly beautiful movie—but its genius lies in the complexity of its understanding of what faith really is. For some secular liberals, faith is some kind of easy, simple abdication of reason—a liberation from reality. For Scorsese, it’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery, and often inseparable from crippling, perpetual doubt. You see this in the main protagonist’s evolution: from a certain, absolutist arrogance to a long sacrifice of pride toward a deeper spiritual truth. Faith is a result, in the end, of living, of seeing your previous certainties crumble and be rebuilt, shakily, on new grounds. God is almost always silent, hidden, and sometimes most painfully so in the face of hideous injustice or suffering.

– Andrew Sullivan, “The Madness of King Donald”

Hey folks! I know that many of you are not religious in any conventional sense, so if that’s the case, feel free to ignore these obviously religious posts. I’m not striving to convert anyone. That said, it’s a big part of who I am, despite my lifelong misgivings about what constitutes much organized religion in the world today. I need not remind anyone which candidate 81% of white evangelical Christians in the U.S. voted for in 2016, and still overwhelmingly support. There has been no clearer sign in my lifetime of the complete moral, spiritual, and intellectual impoverishment of the evangelical movement, and yet as much as part of me relishes the prospect of their ultimate undoing, it pains my soul to consider how the movement’s Faustian bargain with Trump has not only helped wreck this country and sow widespread misery but further close off generations of people to the true life-giving message of the gospel. So much is lost when the church weds itself to tribal politics. Every time Trump disingenuously invokes the God of love, it becomes harder for someone out there to believe in any of it. Some days, when I hear that windbag bloviating, I just hang my head and cry…

In any case, notwithstanding my complicated relationship with American Christianity and the church broadly, I’ve recently been preoccupied helping to proofread a forthcoming devotional book called Daily Grace being put out by the good folks at Mockingbird, and since it’s been keeping me from other activities, I thought I’d at least post the five entries that I actually wrote for the devotional. Each is a reflection on a passage from scripture. Here goes…

Devotion #1:

But Moses said to the LORD, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent…” Then the LORD said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” But he said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” (Exodus 4:10-13)

I’ve never been big on conventional heroes—the Captain Americas or Neil Armstrongs of the world. To me, the most compelling figures in literature and life are those that are flawed or vulnerable in some meaningful way, and I’m pretty sure God shares this proclivity, at least if the Bible is anything to go by.

Moses is one of God’s great anti-heroes. Despite lowly origins, he grew up in the royal court of Egypt to become what one can only infer was a cocky, hot-blooded young man—the sort who neither doubts his own righteousness nor his ability to fix things. But then Moses murders an Egyptian and is forced to flee for his life. Through the next forty years in rural anonymity, he passes from excessive confidence to profound self-doubt. By the time God visits him in a burning bush, Moses is hardly inclined to see himself as the heroic type.

And yet God nevertheless charges him with the epic task of confronting Pharaoh and bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses naturally wonders, “Who am I?” and he peppers God with a litany of quite sensible misgivings. Despite God’s reassurances, Moses still isn’t having it. Then, as if the burning bush thing wasn’t enough, God proceeds to turn Moses’ staff into a snake, then back into a staff, and then covers Moses’ hand with leprosy before healing it again. After all this, as we see in the passage above, Moses still pleads inadequacy and begs God to “send someone else.”

Who can’t relate? Who doesn’t after all feel inadequate and fearful when confronted by the vast problems of this world or by our own weaknesses and failings, not to mention by the awesome mystery of God?

But in this Exodus story, God reminds Moses that we are never the real heroes anyway. And just as God took a murderous “basket case” like Moses and made him the deliverer of his people and conduit for the Torah, God takes even us and breathes life and purpose and the strength of love into our dreary lives. We’re still anti-heroes, to be sure, but we’re God’s anti-heroes, and God’s not done with us.

Devotion #2:

But [Rahab] took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” (Joshua 2:4-5)

This story reads like a scene from a Cold War-era action movie. Joshua, leader of the Israelites, sends his spies to scope out the city of Jericho. They take refuge with Rahab, a prostitute, who saves their lives by hiding them on her roof, lying to the authorities, and sneaking them out of the city. In exchange, the spies agree to spare Rahab and those of her house when the Israelites invade.

For ancient literature, it’s pretty thrilling stuff, and yet as a child I remember being appalled by the story. I mean, she lied, right? Is the Bible saying that’s okay??? It’s funny how rigid the young mind can be about rules. Not to mention the old mind. It’s also strange that I didn’t suffer the same agony over the fact that—in Joshua 6—the Israelites murder almost the entire city.

Still, Rahab’s story begs the question: Is lying always wrong? A Christianity Today article summarized the issue: “The Bible condemns deception. … Even so, when Rahab’s story is told … the Bible—while not justifying her lie—does not condemn it. The same is true of the midwives’ lie (Exod. 1:15-21) and Elisha’s lie (2 Kings 6:19).” Beyond scripture, I think we can all envision scenarios both routine and extreme in which lying might be commendable, and yet none of this lessens the general importance of telling the truth; it only suggests that the ethical water is a tad murky.

Is lying always wrong? Who cares? Ethical purity was never the point. We don’t worship the Law, nor are we saved by it. The Bible contains much ethical teaching but is not an instruction manual. It is rather—as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it—the story of “God’s search for man.” Twice in 1 Corinthians, that great expert in the Law, St. Paul, writes that “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial.” Such a notion doesn’t lessen the importance of the Law but emphasizes the strange freedom that comes from trusting in a loving power greater than ourselves.

Devotion #3:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
   the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
   and rejoice with joy and singing. (Isaiah 35:1-2)

Sometimes it seems like God sends mixed messages. In Isaiah 34, we read of a God “enraged against all the nations … [who] has given them over for slaughter …” But then Isaiah 35 upends that narrative of despair with a stirring vision of rebirth—a promised day when the desert itself will blossom and rejoice.

As a teenager, I lived in Saudi Arabia. We used to take camping trips into a desolate part of the Arabian Desert known as the Rub’ al Khali, or “Empty Quarter.” One year we drove out there specifically because we’d heard that a rare occurrence was underway—that crocuses were blooming. We searched and searched and found only one crocus, astonishingly beautiful and seemingly out-of-place. Those who’ve lived in deserts know the joyous celebration of rain, of how quickly a desert can spring to life, and how blessed such occasions are precisely because they are so desperately longed for and so rare.

To me, the desert offers a perfect metaphor for the spiritual life, because even in our often materially rich circumstances, we still live aridly, we still thirst, we still long for the thrill of God’s presence. And it’s a metaphor with even greater resonance when viewed in the broader Judeo-Christian context. Richard Rodriguez reminds us in Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography that “Christianity, like Judaism, like Islam, is a desert religion … born of sinus-clearing glottal consonants, spit, dust, blinding light.” The Christian calendar even contains, as he puts it, two “desert” seasons—Advent and Lent—“penitential preludes to the great feasts of Christmas and Easter.”

The desert imagery evokes a dual sense of trust and longing. Like the great prophets and poets of the Old Testament, we too look to collective memory for strength and guidance, leaning in arid times on God’s long record of faithfulness. But in such contexts, when it might be tempting to fall back primarily on dogma—which Rodriguez says “strives to resemble the desert” as a kind of “fossil of the living God”—let us also look with Isaiah to the promise of new life, trusting that God is with us even in the most barren of places, and that God’s kin-dom is forever gathering beneath the surface, ready to burst forth once more.

Devotion #4:

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

In my early twenties I spent a summer working as a cashier at a Dollar General. One day a heavily-bearded fellow in sunglasses looked straight at me as I was ringing him up and said, “Greater love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends.” Awkwardly, I mumbled back, “Uh … good quote, man.”

These are powerful words but not easy ones. In the preceding verse, Jesus had issued a version of his great love-commandment, synthesizing all the law and prophets. Here, we get a glimpse of what that love demands. The stories of martyred saints throughout history fill us with inspiration and conviction: we feel that some great power of love is at work in them, and instinctively seek to honor them, even as we hope never to have to emulate them. I think of the young couple who, in August 2019, died shielding their 2-month-old child in the El Paso Walmart shooting. If that’s not a powerful image of Christ-like love, I don’t know what is.

There is immense tragic beauty in someone dying for others, a beauty that inspires believers and nonbelievers alike. Think of all the self-sacrificial film heroes: Gandalf and Frodo, Harry Potter, Iron Man, Groot, John Coffey, Aslan, Neo, that racist dude from Gran Torino… Perhaps nothing is more compelling to the human soul than the image of someone giving up their life out of love for others, and that’s precisely the type of love that Christ establishes as the ideal in this verse. This is no mere affection between friends or lovers—this is agape, the expansion of the self to include the needs and concerns and desires of others as equal to our own. This is a call to love friends and enemies alike perhaps more than we love ourselves, even to the point of death. It’s an insanely high bar.

Don’t feel up to it? Neither do I. It’s one thing to say, as Peter did, that we will gladly lay down our lives. It’s quite another, as Peter found out, to actually do it.

But the good news is that Christ provides the initiative. At several points in this long sermon from John, Jesus makes that explicit, saying “I have loved you… I have called you… I chose you… I appointed you…” He speaks of sending an “Advocate”. I used to believe that love was some coldly rational decision we make, day-in and day-out, but no. Love is not something we control. It involves difficult choices and sacrifices, to be sure, but the strength to love is most of all a gift of the Spirit, who is with us today and for all time.

Devotion #5:

Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11)

On the surface, this seems like such a throwaway verse. But in fact this verse has a great backstory.

Back in Acts 13, when Paul and Barnabas set off from Antioch on Paul’s first missionary journey, Barnabas had selected his young cousin Mark to tag along, presumably as an assistant or apprentice. Their mission began on the pagan-dominated island of Cyprus, a visit that culminated in a showdown in the town of Paphos. According to local Cypriot tradition, it was in Paphos that Paul received perhaps his first lashing, likely at the behest of Elymas. My family lived on that storied island when I was in elementary school and I still vividly remember the heavily-worn marble pillar where locals say Paul was strung up and whipped. It’s the kind of image you don’t forget.

After departing Paphos, Mark mysteriously bolts and returns prematurely to Jerusalem. Was he sick, homesick, exhausted? Or just scared? The text gives no answer, but given the hardships Paul faced throughout his ministry, it’s easy to see why young Mark might bail. Later, in Acts 15, Paul is unwilling to forgive Mark for having “deserted them.” The dispute over Mark becomes “so sharp” that Paul and Barnabas part company over it, a sad moment of disunion in the early history of the church.

And yet here in 2 Timothy, in spite of everything, we find Paul in need and sending for Mark, even admitting that Mark has been “useful in my ministry.” It seems Paul is now ready to forgive and admit he has been wrong about Mark, who the Bible tells us elsewhere, continued to serve with Barnabas and was later like a “son” to Peter. According to tradition, this is the same Mark that eventually authored the first of the Gospels and is credited as the founder of the Coptic Church in Egypt, where they even believe—despite Mark’s early squeamishness—that he died a martyr, being dragged to death by an angry mob.

If I’m being honest, I love this verse most for the schadenfreude: it’s nice to see the great Apostle Paul have to eat a little crow by requesting help from someone he’d written off. But the story also gives us all a warm reminder not to give up on people, and that even if we do, God never does.

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