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Thursday, November 9, 2017

In the the Crater of Calamity

The following is a Meditation written by Doug Hood’s son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University.

“But now, says the LORD — the one who created you, Jacob, the one who formed you, Israel: Don't fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when through the rivers, they won't sweep over you.  When you walk through the fire, you won't be scorched and flame won't burn you.  I am the Lord your God, the holy one of Israel, your savior.  I have given Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in your place.  Because you are precious in my eyes, you are honored, and I love you.  I give people in your place, and nations in exchange for your life.  Don't fear, I am with you.  From the east I'll bring your children; from the west I'll gather you.  I'll say to the north, ‘Give them back!’ and to the south, ‘Don't detain them.’  Bring my sons from far away, and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name and whom I created for my glory, whom I have formed and made.”
Isaiah 43:1-7 (Common English Bible)

     The fall of Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE was the literal end of the world for the Jewish people. This is no turn of phrase—for the ancient Judeans it was an eschatological cataclysm. They were the Chosen People of the one true God, the God who led them out of bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land. This God was no abstract, metaphorical force, but a God physically present with them in their wanderings through the wilderness, physically present in his direct communications with his prophets and kings, and physically present within their sacred temple, a temple built to his specific measurements and design. Yet despite his presence, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had laid waste to the city, looted their temple, and dragged the survivors into slavery. Even their kings, descendants of the divinely appointed line of David and Solomon, were humiliated and destroyed: Jehoiakim died during Jerusalem’s besiegement, Jeconiah was driven into exile, and Zedekiah was blinded, taken to Babylon, and imprisoned until his death.

     The world had ended. And yet God had not abandoned them. It is here in the Book of Isaiah that we encounter this passage, one of the purest messages of hope and love in the entire Old Testament. You have been broken, God says, but I have created you. You have sinned and been punished, but I shall redeem you. You have been enslaved, yet you are mine. You have been cursed and spat upon, beaten and destroyed, yet you are precious in my eyes. You have been scattered to the winds, but I shall bring you home.

     It is important to remember that the Book of Isaiah was not written all at once by the same authors. Scholars believe that only the first half—roughly chapters 1-39—can be directly attributed to the ancient prophet, a man who’d predicted the fall of Jerusalem about a hundred years earlier. Scholars believe that this passage of hope and restoration was added by an anonymous author written during the Jewish captivity in Babylon. For this author, the disbelieving horror of Jerusalem’s destruction was still fresh and powerful. We cannot imagine the surreality of having one’s entire worldview and culture shattered by a conquering army. And yet, even in this time, the writer felt hope.

     If it took a century for Isaiah’s prophecy of destruction to come true, it would take another sixty for his prophecy of restoration. In 539 BCE, the Persian king Cyrus the Great permitted the Jews to return to their homeland. Two years later, under the instruction of the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah, the Jews rebuilt the walls and sacred temple of Jerusalem. And for another half millennium they stood tall and mighty until falling before a new conqueror: Imperial Rome. Once more the Jews despaired. And once more God responded that he had not abandoned them. For this time he would send the greatest gift of hope mankind would ever know: a Son. A Son who would announce the destruction of death, a Son who would preach a life everlasting, a Son who would reveal a new world without end. And even in our darkest hour, this Son would remind us that we need not despair. The victory has been won. The world might fall, but God will not.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Dear Hate

“God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them.”
1 John 4:16b (Common English Bible)

            Dear Hate is a deeply moving song, written as an epistolary conversation with hared itself, introducing hate as a character “on the news today” and having the capacity to “poison any mind.” Written by Maren Morris, Tom Douglas and David Hodges and performed by Morris and Vince Gill, the song pinpoints the garden – presumably the Garden of Eden from the pages of Genesis – as hate’s origin. The voices of Morris and Gill, supported only by two acoustic guitars, lead the listener along a serpentine path from Selma, Alabama (“you were smiling from that Selma bridge”), to Dallas, Texas ( “when that bullet hit and Jackie cried” ), culminating in New York City ( “You pulled those towers from the sky” ). Yet, hope remains, “But even on our darkest nights, the world keeps spinning ‘round.”

            Hatred’s power, made visible, is answered three times by a confident affirmation, “love’s gonna conquer all.” It is then that the last chorus flips the narrative of hatred’s destructive ambitions to address love as someone who is personal and omnipresent. Though doubt is identified, “Just when I think you’ve given up,” the presence of love becomes unmistakable once again, “You were there in the garden when I ran from your voice. I hear you every morning through the chaos and the noise. You still whisper down through history and echo through these halls.” Love then speaks, “love’s gonna conquer all.”

            Here in 1 John, love’s name is revealed, “God is love.” More, a promise is made. Anyone who clings to love, not as a feeling but as intentional conduct towards others, will discover that they are, in fact, taking-up residence in God and God in them. It is precisely the demonstration of love toward one another, in obedience to Jesus’ example and command, that the reassurance of love’s power over hate becomes unquestioned. By the intentional and active force of love, given freely to others, Christians are able to abide in God and God in them, in a state of mutual indwelling. And it is precisely by this mutual indwelling that we know we are loved and that the very best that hate can summon will not defeat us.

            Dear Hate stands among a growing canon of songs that grapple with hatred – most notably for this writer, Tim McGraw’s Grammy-winning, “Humble and Kind” – and offers a heartening message that love is stronger. Most days, it seems, the news swings the camera toward another appearance of hatred, moving among us at its foulest. All of us fight back tears and struggle with doubt. It is precisely at those moments that Maren Morris and Vince Gill seeks to encourage us with the good news, “love’s gonna conquer all. Gonna conquer all.”