Reflecting on “This is my song” and John Chrysostom

This morning we sang a hymn in place of the offertory. The hymn is a well-meaning hymn known as “This is my song” by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness. The hymn has an interesting history: first as a poem and then as a hymn. The song is a stirring song set to the tune Finlandia.

Poet Lloyd Stone (1912-1993)

I also struggle with that particular song. I struggle for two reasons. First, I struggle with the song because I love the song. I think it is beautifully written, wonderfully lyricised, and matched perfectly with the stirring tune of Finlandia. If I were to choose a patriotic song as one I could adopt as my own, this would be the song I would choose first. I appreciate the balance between pride in one’s land and an appreciation for the viewpoint of others. I also appreciate that Dr. Harkness was a pioneering theologian whose work I love to support.

Dr. Georgia Harkness (1891-1974) was a leading Methodist theologian in an age when female theologians were definitely not the standard.

The second reason I struggle is that I am increasingly immersed in the early church. I enjoy reading through ancient sermons, ancient theologies, and reading about the lives of the leaders of the early church. Recently I was reading an excerpt from John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407 CE) in Amy Oden’s “And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in the Early Church.” The excerpt was from Homily 16 on 2nd Corinthians from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, v. 12, which was published in 1889, and the version I share below is sourced from the public domain. I will say Dr. Oden’s version reads far easier. Chrysostom wrote:

“Knowest thou not that we live in a foreign land, as though strangers and sojourners? Knowest thou not that it is the lot of sojourners to be ejected when they think not, expect not? which is also our lot. For this reason then, whatsoever things we have prepared, we leave here. For the Lord does not allow us to receive them and depart, if we have built houses, if we have bought fields, if slaves, if gear, if any other such thing. But not only does He not allow us to take them and depart hence, but doth not even account to thee the price of them. For He forewarned thee that thou shouldest not build, nor spend what is other men’s but thine own. Why therefore, leaving what is thine own, dost thou work and be at cost in what is another’s, so as to lose both thy toil and thy wages and to suffer the extremest punishment? Do not so, I beseech thee; but seeing we are by nature sojourners, let us also be so by choice; that we be not there sojourners and dishonored and cast out. For if we are set upon being citizens here, we shall be so neither here nor there; but if we continue to be sojourners, and live in such wise as sojourners ought to live in, we shall enjoy the freedom of citizens both here and there. For the just, although having nothing, will both dwell here amidst all men’s possessions as though they were his own; and also, when he hath departed to heaven, shall see those his eternal habitations. And he shall both here suffer no discomfort, (for none will ever be able to make him a stranger that hath every land for his city;) and when he hath been restored to his own country, shall receive the true riches. In order that we may gain both the things of this life and of that, let us use aright the things we have.”

John Chrysostom, Homily 16 on 2nd Corinthians from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, v. 12

Effectively, Chrysostom is referencing the teachings of Jesus about treasurers on earth. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:19-21 to avoid storing up treasures on earth. Chrysostom points out that one cannot take houses, fields, slaves (different time in history: not justifying the unjustifiable, but pointing out Chrysostom’s context), gear, or anything else out of this world. Chrysostom points out that we have been forewarned against building up our riches on earth or claiming the things of this world as treasure. We cannot take the things of this world with us. Indeed, it is only in the next life that we find ourselves growing into our true inheritance and riches.

What catches my eye in regards to the hymn and what causes me to ask deep questions is the line “For if we are set upon being citizens here, we shall be so neither here nor there; but if we continue to be sojourners, and live in such wise as sojourners ought to live in, we shall enjoy the freedom of citizens both here and there.” Chrysostom sees Christians as people on a journey through this life with a goal of reaching the next. If one stops to claim this place as one’s land, one will only have it for a moment. If one claims one citizenship to be in Heaven, then one has the freedom to both enjoy this world and move into the next without great loss. Indeed, a strict reading would say that one cannot move into the kin-dom of God by grasping tightly to a land, a nation, or one’s own goods.

Strictly speaking, the hymn we sang stands in opposition to one of the earliest Christian leaders because it claims that this is our land, our nation, and our space while Christian tradition teaches that we belong elsewhere. This world is a world in which we live in a fog. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11-12 to a community in conflict about the things of this world: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul tells them to stop acting childishly and to quit dividing themselves over earthly matters. This is a place where we see the world, each other, and God dimly (like in a mirror from an age when a modern mirror would be a miracle). The world to which we belong and where we are headed is where we will see clearly and be seen clearly. The world to which we belong is one in which we shall come into our full being.

Thus, I am torn by the hymn. I love the hymn, the words of peace, and the seeking of understanding of other people. I also realize that Chrysostom might look at the differences between nations and see people whose eyes might rest better on the world to come than the goods and lands of this world. Neither we in this land nor those folks in other lands can carry the goods of this world to the next life.

This hymn may be one of those places where we must live in the tension between ideals. The older I grow, the more I come to see that life requires a bit more flexibility than I once carried in my idealistic youth. As a friend likes to say at church: “Blessed are the flexible for they will not be bent out of shape!”

Let us Seek: Enthroned Forever

This morning I stood outside the elementary school where my children go to school. Today is Flag Day in the United States. Our children sang songs, marched, paid tribute to the flag, and were very patriotic. The presentation was a stirring event for everyone involved.

I returned to my office, visited with the CHOW folks serving in the Zimmer Annex, spent some time reading from my book for the Academy, and then sat down at my computer to look up the menu for the local deli down the street. I clicked on Facebook while Kelli made me a delicious sub for lunch. I saw an article about violence in Virginia. I read an article which was updating as I read. Violence, death, and pain suddenly filled my mind.

I wanted to go back to the circle in front of the school and see my kids celebrate the flag. I wanted to go back to the moment where all of my cynicism crumbled before a child who marched proudly and another child who signed boldly with their classmates. It had been such a powerful expression of innocence and I wanted to go back to that place.

I have been asked how I handle being a citizen of earth and a citizen of heaven. I tell people that I have dual-citizenship. I am a citizen of the United States and a citizen of Heaven. I love the nation where I was born, but have accepted allegiance to the Kingdom of God. I have made vows as a minister that have further tied me to that nation as an ambassador of the “Shepherd” of us all who serves within the church.

Ultimately, as a result of my faith and may vows, my allegiance falls foremost to my citizenry in Heaven. History teaches me that nations come and go, and that life is short. The dictionary teaches me that eternity is endless. My citizenship in Heaven is established by and through Jesus Christ and will last as long as I am held with love by God. My citizenship in Heaven is eternal since nothing can separate me from the love and God. My citizenship in Heaven is eternal since Christ will not lose me.

Unfortunately, my ties to Heaven do not release me from the sorrow of events like those that took place today in Virginia. My heart is broken as more folks lay in hospitals injured by violence. My heart is broken as I know at least one person lies in a morgue.

Even reading the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for today did not bring comfort today, and not just because Job gets told off by God in one of the readings. If anything the readings (except Job’s selection) brought longing for a better world into my heart. Consider the words of Psalm 29:10-11: (NSRV)

“The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!”

I long for a world where God sits enthroned over humanity. If Jesus is the image of the invisible God, then I truly long that Jesus would be enthroned. The world needs more compassion, more grace, and more love from her leaders.

In my opinion, the world would seemingly be a million times improved if Jesus were to return. Consider the promise of John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

In defiance (apparently) of Jesus’ words to us, my heart is troubled by the violence that I see in the world where I was born. On this Flag Day. I wish that everything could be happy songs sung by children, but this is a dangerous and questionable world. I want the peace of God to fill the hearts of the world, because the world just doesn’t offer the peace we need on days like today. I fear we need the strength spoken of in the Psalms, because this world can shift like sand in a single moment. We need to build on the rock for when the storms come.

The reading from John 14 brings more longing than perhaps anything else. John 14:25-26 says: “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

Teach me, Holy Spirit. Teach us all. Remind us of Jesus’ words and teach us how to live in this world of rifles, bullets, and death. Our sins stain us scarlet. Wash us clean and we shall be as fresh as newly fallen snow…