Monday, April 27, 2015

Hosea - Part 5 - I Will Love Them Freely

Like so many sad stories, the book of Hosea ends happily. The prophet instructs the people to return to the Lord to ask forgiveness and promise faithfulness. He even gives them the exact words to say:

Take away all guilt; 
accept that which is good,
and we will offer
the fruit of our lips.

Without a moment’s hesitation, God embraces the penitent nation.

I will heal their disloyalty;
I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them.

Have you nursed a grudge for a few years? Do you remember some harsh words from a neighbor? Does some past injustice at work still rankle? For us, forgiveness is hard. It may take years. It may take forever.  We treasure our hurt like a diamond. It’s no wonder, then, that we have a hard time accepting forgiveness from God. Because we struggle to forgive, we think that God, who has so much more to forgive than we, must struggle also. 

But, no. God forgives easily. The reason this post is short is because God forgives in an instant. In Hosea, it took three verses. It’s almost as if God’s forgiveness is there waiting. 

God can bring us out of the muck of our sin and set us on the right path. Our righteousness, our faithfulness, our desire for God comes from that one pure source of love.

It is I who answer and look after you
I am like an evergreen cypress;
your faithfulness comes from me.

If there is anything that I want to take away from this lectio divina experience with Hosea it is that God’s forgiveness is certain. God cannot wait to forgive me, you, all of us. We have only to ask.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Hosea - Part IV - Hewn by the Prophets

We are saved by faith and not by works of the law; Paul tells us so repeatedly and emphatically. Christians sometimes believe that this is an insight particular to them. Jesus repeatedly bypassed the “law” in favor of acts of love and healing. He put love ahead of rules, people over procedure. Virtue comes from God. Rules and regulations must give way.

Old Testament writers, however, frequently point to God’s relentless care of his people. No matter how far they stray, God cannot abandon them. No matter how fleeting is their faith, God will reform them endlessly to his own purpose. All they need to do is know him, remember him.

Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets
I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

The dictionary tells us that to “hew” is “to make or shape” but, most interestingly, “to remove a large piece of.” This is what a prophet will do: a prophet will call a spade a spade; a prophet will provoke; a prophet will admonish; a prophet will be used by God to remake God’s people. Prophets unsettle our systems and plague our minds.

We don’t want this. We don’t want large pieces removed from us. We are comfortable as we are, or so we think.

There is a saying: Hate the sin but love the sinner. Our priest pointed out in a recent homily that we tend to love our sins and then hate ourselves for them. Israel loved its sin; it was attached to it. It was so far gone that it identified with its own defilement. Israel was tangled in a web of sin, a morass of wrong-headedness. They were bogged down; their systems imprisoned them in despair.

You have plowed wickedness,
you have reaped injustice,
you have eaten the fruit of lies.

God would force them into exile. Their wealth would disappear. Their hubris would dissolve. Their hearts would break.

I am the Lord your God
from the land of Egypt:
I will make you live in tents again
as in the days of the appointed festival.


Because you have trusted in your power
and in the multitudes of your warriors,
therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people
and all your fortresses shall be destroyed.

As angry as God sounds in these passages, his words don’t feel angry to me. Certainly, from my place and time of safety, 2700 years later, I can see beyond the wrathful words and hear the love and care in them. God brought prophets to his people. He brought woe and hardship and destruction. Why? For salvation. For the kingdom.

In the later chapters of Hosea, God remembers his love for his people.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down and fed them.

There is so much pain in these stories of love. The people turn from God and are miserable and weary. God mourns for the loss of the true hearts he fashioned. The people are forced to remember God’s mercy, they are hewn by the prophets, reconciled to their Father.

Does this sound like freedom? Most of us don’t relish the idea of being hewn. We want to make our own decisions, correct our own faults in our own time and way. We aren’t primitive folk like the ancient Israelites.  God’s corrective actions might seem restraining as read in Hosea. Fine for them, but wrong for us. 

The thing about lectio divina is that every word in every text is meant to be taken to heart. Every verse is as if it were written expressly for me, for you. So I can’t dismiss anything. I can’t claim a 21st Century view point. A point of view is meaningless here. When you are reading Scripture, especially when you are praying it, you are in eternity. Time vanishes. You may as well be some sinner in the northern kingdom destined for Babylon. This is what I learned: I am every one of those people. And God taught me to walk. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Hosea - Part III - Whoredom

Do you have the habit of looking away whenever you come upon the word “whoredom” in scripture? It seems that the Old Testament writers in particular believed that prostitution was the quintessential sin. That “whoredom” directly involves women is not lost on me. The Book of Hosea explicitly identifies whoredom as Israel’s prevailing sin; spending a few weeks in lectio divina with this text made it impossible for me to look away.

Are women the worst sinners? Not an original idea. Do the sins of women embody the sins of all humanity? I've heard this before and I imagine you have, too. What is whoredom exactly?

Whoredom, prostitution, takes a gift of God, the sexual act, and turns it into a transaction. It is that simple. God does not want his gifts made into business.

There is no faithfulness or loyalty.
and no knowledge of God in the land.
Therefore the land mourns,
and all who live in it languish;

together with the wild animals
and the birds of the air,
even the fish of the sea are perishing. 4:1,3

In Hosea, Israel, specifically the northern kingdom of Ephraim, has lost sight of their gifts from God and turned them all into transactions. They stripped these gifts of all their divine love and made them nothing but cash and carry stuff. Shepherds became politicians, tacticians, nothing of God. Grain and wine and oil became commodities instead of the gifts of a plentiful creation. They conveniently adopted the religious practices of their neighbors. It was good for business.

A wind has wrapped them in its wings,
and they shall be ashamed because of their altars. 4:19

Israel has dug itself into a rut of sin and defilement. One thing led to another. It is impossible for them to return to God. 

Their deeds do not permit them
to return to their God.
For the spirit of whoredom is within them,
and they do not know the Lord.

It is worth remembering that the Book of Hosea is set in the time leading up to the Babylonian captivity. Israel would be looking back on this time with horror at itself. It would blame itself. It would see the exile as God’s fitting wrath, affecting all the people, all their hopes, their generations, their prosperity.

They shall eat but not be satisfied:
they shall play the whore but not multiply

So “whoredom” is a designation that gathers in its broad sweep the maligning of God’s gifts and our lives with those gifts. We are meant to feast on the bounty of the earth. We are meant to marry and produce offspring. We are meant to form communities with wise shepherds to lead us. We are meant, most especially, to remember that all this benefit comes from our creator.

When Israel failed in this imperative, they had no way back. Corrupt systems were in place, people sought gain, the rules went out the window.

Do you remember the part of Catcher in the Rye when Holden says that his brother, D.B. a writer, was “out in Hollywood being a prostitute?” He meant that his brother, instead of writing literature was writing screen plays. We might not take so severe a position against movies today, but for Holden, his brother was selling his gift to unworthy buyers for simple gain. Whoredom. In his view.

Can we look at our gifts and fully know that they come from God: the food on our table, the partner in our bed, the money in the bank? I think, with difficulty, we can. We are tempted to see our plenty as our right, as the result of our hard work, our charm, even our luck. But it takes only a step back, a grace before a meal, a long loving look into our partner’s eyes to find God’s hand in all of it, even in this finding.

And there will be whoredom no more.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Hosea - Part II - The Mirror

Hosea and Gomer

The life of a prophet is not an easy one. He might be reviled or he might be lionized. He might be taken up into heaven or swallowed by a fish. He might have his head cut off at someone’s party. The prophet Hosea’s life was no exception.

God told Hosea that his life must mirror God’s own relationship with Israel. Hosea's family would be a micro version of God's family. Hosea would marry a prostitute and have children with her. Furthermore he was to name these children names of disgrace: Jezreel to remind him of the bloodshed in that valley, Lo-ruhamah, which means “not pitied” and finally Lo-ammi, which means “not my people.”
The wife, Gomer, would later return to her “lovers” in the belief that it is they who provide for her, and she will be made 

…like a wilderness,
and turn her into a parched land,
and kill her with thirst.
Upon her children I will have no pity
because they are children of whoredom. 2:3-4
I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees, of which she said, “These are my pay which my lovers have given me.” 2:12

There will be further punishment:

I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals,
when she offered incense to them, 
and decked herself with her ring
and jewelry
and went after her lovers
and forgot me, says the Lord. 2:13

Finally, God intervenes. He removes the names of the Baals from her mouth. He makes a covenant with all of creation and abolishes the bow and the sword and makes her lie down in safety.

On that day I will answer, says the Lord,
I will answer the heavens
and they shall answer the earth;
and the earth shall answer the grain,
and the wine, and the oil,
and they shall answer Jezreel;
and I will sow him for myself in the land.
And I will have pity on Lo-ruhamah (which means no pity)
and I will say to Lo-ammi (which means not my people)
 “You are my people”*
and he shall say “You are my God.” 2:17-20

Even after this forgiveness, Hosea must again love a woman who is an adulteress. He must tell her that she is to remain chaste for many days, just as the Israelites must remain in captivity for many days without  leaders or the trappings of their worship. Chapter 3

The key thing for me in these first three chapters is that Israel (Gomer) was tainted from the beginning. She was never worthy. She had no righteousness in her. Putting her trust in emptiness came easily to her.  Caring about finery and flummery was her stock in trade. This is not some specific character in a story; this is Israel, God’s chosen people.

Yet God’s love cannot be withheld. With no action on Gomer’s (Israel’s) part, God puts everything to right. Israel (Gomer) is reclaimed in love and mercy and the children are renamed and redirected. For me, this is the astonishing thing. Israel only repents when directed by God. In fact, God forces the issue. God's hand is in everything. It's in the set up, the fated marriage; it's in the children disgraced even before birth; and it's in the redemption that they didn't even realize they needed.

I know this can happen. I have experienced repentance that I did not seek, mercy that I not only did not deserve but that I didn't even want. 

Is this the way with God? Did Jesus let Peter deny him three times so that he could then pronounce his love to Jesus three times? "Lord you know everything, you know that I love you." John 21:15-19 

Does God let us go astray in order to bring us back? The Bible tells me so.

*Many scholars believe that Lo-ammi was actually not Hosea’s biological child. If that is so, the case for God’s mercy on people beyond the nation of Israel is well attested here.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Hosea - Part I

During Lent, I attended a special series of lectio divina sessions that used the lectionary readings for the following Sundays. The leader of the series told us that a person could actually do a sustained lectio on a complete book of the Bible.  This idea intrigued me and I determined to do it right after Lent.

What made me select the book of Hosea is a mystery and I am reluctant to analyze my choice. Lectio divina is a way of praying with Scripture. The practice brings you into intimate contact with the text in memorable and transforming ways. To select a text that, on the surface of it, would provoke a prayer like "Please, God, make it all go away" suggests an odd mental state, but I supposed Hosea would have something to say to me.

Our series leader suggested Jonah, but I resisted that choice because I knew I would have a lot of preconceptions. I know exactly how I feel about Jonah, and that is definitely not the proper attitude for lectio divina! Suffice to say that on Easter day I began the practice. With Hosea

Normally in lectio, you read (lectio) until you are struck by a word in the passage. This then becomes your “word”. You think (meditatio) on it, meaning you ruminate on it, searching for meaning and relevance to your own life. You will carry the “word” with you until your next time of lectio. 

Then you see how this word causes you to pray (oratio) from its meaning, offering your prayer to God in whatever way seems right at the moment. Finally, you leave off all words and images and simply rest contemplatively (contemplatio) in God’s presence allowing the word to work in you.

I might have followed this process exactly if I hadn't become so caught up in the narrative in the first three chapters of Hosea. In any case, after that beginning surge, I found myself reading a chapter or so each day, finding a “word” though sometimes only after several readings both aloud and silent. 

What surprised me was that the prayer part of the process, the oratio, came most easily. Typically this is the step that gives me trouble. It’s hard for me to find words to express myself to God; I always think I’m too formal or too informal, too practiced or too gushy. My prayers throughout the Hosea readings, however, flowed spontaneously and felt completely right. 

This sustained lectio practice gave me time to think a lot about sin and forgiveness. I also had to think about tribes, politics, nations, history and money. The readings were not isolated sessions; they built on each other. They fed each other and they fed me.

The words I prayed during this series were: answer, whoredom, hewn, babbling, defiled, fortress, child, prophet, wind and stumbling. This list won’t tell you very much, but it may indicate how discursive my prayer was. The story of Hosea is not a happy one, but, like many sad stories, in the end, it made me happy.  I think God intended this, as he does all things.

Over the next three posts I am going to go into detail about the book of Hosea and my prayer with it. I hope you will return for these brief posts. I hope, as well, that you will consider a sustained lectio prayer for yourself some time. If you do, I’d love to hear about it.