trying to see the big picture

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light,
as if someone fled from a lion
and was met by a bear
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like water
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:18-24; NRSVue

Trying to see the big picture, things as they really are will require both an openness and sustained effort on our part. Amos is a prophet who certainly saw, something inherent within prophets, earlier called seers, receiving a vision from God. And often that vision had everything to do with the times in which they lived, seeing the current situation in light of God’s revealed will, eventually in light of the kingdom of God which was and is meant to bring flourishing to all of humanity, to all of creation.

Amos’s words, indeed his calling was not an easy one, certainly true of all the Hebrew prophets. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed Amos’s words in the most difficult task he undertook of seeking racial justice, equality, and reconciliation. King’s passion was rooted in the gospel, the good news of Christ, and the vision cast through that, calling America to the best in its tradition, though it’s not certain that the US Constitution advocated for individual liberty for all, but that’s another topic, and well beyond what I could address (interesting article on this). But after decades and decades, not to mention centuries of wrongdoing to the Africans enslaved in America, the United States went through the upheaval it did hitting against the climax of the Civil War. Yet not ending with that as more was in the works given that much was not healed and made right. True to a significant extent right up to the present day, in fact becoming most evident in recent times.

There’s no question that just like during Amos’s time, we are up against what seems to be intractable forces, or to try to make it clearer, it seems like the fallout is here, that we are going through a perfect storm as it were, that the result of our ways (I include myself in that, too) has pressed in on us. That people on both sides have had enough. During Amos’s time the poor and oppressed could do little. During our time there is both the sense in which they think they can do more, but those who give up are often tempted to despair with a few giving into violence. And those whites who feel their lives are needlessly threatened by all of this, a few of them are ready for violence as well.

Both Amos and Dr. Martin Luther King’s call is entirely different. It is about stepping back and trying to see the big picture both in terms of what actually is, and what God would have be. That comes through being in scripture (Hebrew scripture and the New Testament- considering the Apocrypha with that) and prayer. And doing so in community, but all of this with an eye to try to see the current reality. Listening to everyone, especially those who are marginalized or feel that way. The poor, the stranger, and in this time where I live, first of all the people of color beginning with African Americans and the indigenous, and along with them all others: refugees, Muslims, Chinese, etc.

Unless we do this, we’re not actually seeing as either the prophets or Jesus saw. With the goal of acting in the love of God which Jesus brought with the willingness to suffer in love and out of that same love, for others. Knowing that the good news in Jesus is one of reconciliation of all, involving working through everything that means. In and through Jesus.

ratcheted up a notch

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like washer’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD, as in the days of old and as in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.

For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?”

Malachi 3:1-7; NRSVue

I’m not sure if anyone actually likes difficulty in and of itself. For other reasons, people might like it. To meet the challenge, to achieve some goal through it, maybe winning in competition, along with other reasons why people embrace what is hard. Hardship might be another matter, after all there’s surely a line drawn for each person, which they wouldn’t care to cross.

God was out to change the descendants of Levi, to purify them so that sin was being dealt with in their lives, and so that sin could be dealt with through their assigned task in the lives of others.

What about when we run into difficulty and what for us are impossible things to accept? Life won’t let us down that way. For some, especially who have plenty of material wealth, they may be able to glide through and pretty much avoid what are the common struggles for others. But even they can’t avoid everything, like possible sickness and eventual certain death. And difficulties will come their way as well, even if not so much circumstances, but disillusionment over emptiness in spite of being so well set.

God is active in people’s lives, and especially in those who name God’s name as those belonging to God and supposed to be the Lord’s followers. And part of that activity is not at all comfortable. “Refiner’s fire” and “washer’s soap” imagery above refer to purification and cleansing. We all need it. In the heat of life, what arises can be anything but pleasant, and not good. This can come through a multitude of small nagging things as well as a major concern which hangs over our heads.

But God is at work in that. It’s up to us to respond in being aware what sins need to be confessed, and the change that needs to come in our lives. And actually God is at work to ratchet us up a notch so to speak. So that we are becoming what before certainly was not the case. God is at work for great good, certainly including us. But we need to endeavor to accept that fully. So that we might be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1-2).

In and through Jesus.

casting the demon out

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.”

Matthew 12:43-45; NRSVue

Sometimes I think, and it’s beginning to feel settled to me, that often a demon so to speak inhabits institutions, and yes, even families. When one thinks about it, there’s really no family nor institution that is perfect. It might be “picture perfect” in reputation or even in its own imagination. But there’s a brokenness in everything as certain as the cracks that show up on the walls or ceilings of any house.

When I refer to institutions, I’m not leaving out churches. Christ’s presence is what makes up a church, where two or three are gathered in his name. But as we see in the seven letters to the church in the Revelation and elsewhere, the devil can get into the details, into the works. And families, the same. Some are very broken, and some seem to get along remarkably well. But no family is any more perfect than any individual.

But while there’s a sense that there may be some truth in this for any institution or family, I’m thinking of special situations such as we find ourselves in today. There is so much anger, division, and there appears to be little if any hope that anything will change perhaps before catastrophe or the worst part hits, hopefully with some cushion and limited fallout. And hopefully as well, to give the needed realization that change is needed.

If we’re concerned about such a situation, chances are it’s close to us, or we’re somehow involved in it. Like Daniel of old, who from all appearances even in Scripture was blameless and upright, we too need to pray to God, confessing our sin, our part in the problem, be it in family, or any institution. We most definitely need to be open for the Lord’s insight and correction in our own lives, before we can imagine God’s breakthrough in the lives of others.

As we do that, then maybe God will give us the understanding and sense needed to become part of or fit into the solution. And as Jesus said, some do not come out except by prayer and some manuscripts add, fasting.

There’s always hope, even if it doesn’t come easy. In and through Jesus.

forgiving others so that we might be forgiven

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 6:12, 14-15

and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:32

Our Lord tells the parable of the unforgiving servant who although he was forgiven a huge debt outright, would not forgive a servant of his who owed comparatively little, but didn’t have the resources to pay it back readily. And in the Lord’s teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, we’re taught to ask for forgiveness of our sins, since we’ve forgiven others of their sins against us. And then after the prayer that unless we forgive others, we ourselves won’t be forgiven. Yet Ephesians tells us to forgive each other just as God in Christ has forgiven us. What are we to make of this?

I think this might be akin to John in 1 John telling us that we’re to confess our sins, and that as do so, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins (1 John 1:9). We’ve been forgiven which we’ve been taught is past, present and future because of Christ and Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. But we’re to live that out in the present. 

We might hold grudges against others, against another, and we withhold forgiveness from them, maybe in some kind of passive aggressive way, but oftentimes that apparently being so receded that we’re unaware of it, but we simply don’t forget the offense and still hold it against the person. Instead we’re told that we’re to forgive them. As we’ve already been forgiven as we’re told in Ephesians. But also so that we might experience forgiveness ourselves for the sins we inevitably commit. Including the sin of not forgiving that other person.

This is something we have to do, and keep working at doing. It may involve struggle, and time, but in our hearts and minds we need to be committed to that. God will help us follow through as we set our face toward that goal. In and through Jesus.

no, it’s not wrong to have a broken and contrite heart. quite the contrary

The sacrifice acceptable to God[d] is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Psalm 51:17

After we’ve sinned, and I refer not just to “great transgression” (Psalm 19:13), but to all sin, when we confess and repent we’re often told to forget about it. That our sins have been removed as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12) which is true upon genuine confession and repentance. But if we’re to take seriously the great penitent Psalm, 51, then we need to accept the fact that what pleases God is not only acceptance of God’s forgiveness to us in Christ, but also God’s acceptance and I would even say pleasure in a broken and contrite heart over our sin.

That doesn’t mean we should wallow in our sin, or hate ourselves. We hate what we’ve done, and not merely the consequences. If we hate only the consequences, then we certainly don’t have a broken and contrite spirit. For most sins the consequences are only a reminder that we haven’t arrived in this life, and that we do well to be more and more humble. For some sins the consequences may be greater along with the realization that there’s work for us to do to be rid of our tendencies without ever thinking we’ll come to the place in this life when we’re actually above the possibility of falling again.

No, with thanksgiving and praise to God we accept God’s forgiveness upon our confession of sin. But we also take our sins seriously, out of love for God and others allowing our hearts to be broken. So that our lives following will become different. Hating what we’ve done, and making amends as best we can with an entirely different life. Letting God, as the psalmist, probably David in Psalm 51 aspires, to do God’s work of thoroughly cleansing us on the inside, so that our hearts might be inclined in love toward righteousness and justice, wanting to avoid all wrong.

In and through Jesus.

prayer can change things, and prayer can change us

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

James 5:16b-18

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Genesis 32:24-31

the book of Job (1-42)

It’s easy to see from the biblical account how prayer can change things. And any of us who have witnessed this kind of practice for very long at all can attest to the same in our experience. But it will become equally evident over time that prayer can change us as well. I don’t say here that prayer changes things and prayer changes us, but there’s surely value in all sincere prayer. Even if it doesn’t seem to hit pay dirt, and seems to make no difference at all, I don’t think there’s anything we can actually do that is as great as praying. Yes, we need to do other things as well, but prayer ought to precede them all.

From the above Scripture, we can indeed see that prayer matters, both in terms of situations, and how we are affected in the process of praying. True prayer involves thanksgiving to God, confession of sin, praise of God for God’s acts, the worship of God. And in both set as well as spontaneous praying, either can be just as effective and I believe we actually need both. But in praying for a situation, we end up not only grappling with our situations, but with ourselves in the process. We might be in the way of God’s answer, and in terms of something in our character, perhaps a specific sin issue. God works to help us see and work through that. And we can’t forget that prayer does oftentimes involves spiritual battle. The enemy does not want us to pray.

So we need to hold on to this truth, and above all put it into practice. In and through Jesus.

get rid of all ideals of community and self

…we, who are many, are one body in Christ…

Romans 12:5

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

What is meant here is that we must drop all the idealizations we have of church, of others, and of ourselves. That’s not easy to do, nor does it even make sense to us. Aren’t we supposed to hold to ideals for ourselves and others? Maybe on a certain basic level, yes. We have to get up in the morning, fulfill our responsibility during the day, care for our family, take care of ourselves, etc. What is spoken of here is something else. Expecting others to measure up to some ideal we have. Or turning away when people don’t.

We’re all in this together, for better and for worse, indeed one body in Christ. None of us measure up to ideals we impose on ourselves. What God has in heart and mind will prevail. But it will be worked out in this life only if we’re committed to hanging in together through thick and thin.

What we need to be about is simply committed to following Christ together. Realizing that throughout that will be the necessary confession of sin, caring for each other, even putting up with each other at times. But believing that God is going to do it, is in the process of conforming us together into the likeness of God’s Son.

In and through Jesus.

gentleness born of wisdom

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.

James 3:13

You can’t manufacture or make up godliness. That comes from God through Jesus by the Holy Spirit. And as it grows in us, it will be characterized by gentleness. The more we live in God’s grace in Jesus, the more gentleness will characterize all we do, even when we’re up against it.

It’s a sure sign we’re off track, spiraling somewhere else when we’re not gentle, but rough, coarse, maybe even violent in our speech and behavior. That’s when we need to get back to the basics: confession of sin, repentance, renewed dependence on God. And the gentleness that comes from God by the Spirit in Jesus will again help us and make us gentle ourselves. In and through Jesus.

a broken and contrite spirit (warning and blessing)

The sacrifice acceptable to God[d] is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Psalm 51:17

There are a couple of severe warnings, red signs I want to put up at the beginning of this post. First: Never ever under any circumstances say that the big sin is alright because of what can come after it. Secondly, never think for a moment that you are less close to God since you’ve never committed such, but be thankful you haven’t.

If you consider David’s story, and the tradition that says that this psalm is in conjunction with David’s great sin in essentially murdering Uriah, and committing adultery with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, you will note that while God was merciful and did bring good out of it, yet much evil also happened in connection with it. And God told David through the prophet Nathan that because of what David had done, the sword would never leave his house. David paid an awful price. Yes, he may have had a deep sense of sorrow over sin, and the desire to live completely differently the rest of his life. But do you need to commit such a sin to have that? No. The blessing is that such a sin never leaves a person, that they should be humbled daily the rest of their lives over that. But really all of us need to be humbled, because everyone of us is capable of committing the same. Even if we haven’t, we know that in our heart sometimes along the way, we actually have, or at least have been sorely tempted to do so.

But now to dwell on the main point for a moment. God never despises the broken and contrite heart. Contrite as in deep sorrow over what has been done, not over the consequences at all, but this is sorrow over what one has actually done. One who has committed the great sin should never let go of that blessing, even as they remain with a brokenness and contriteness over it the rest of their days. And the rest should never look down on them, but seek to have such a heart themselves, realizing that they too are broken, that daily their attitudes fall short of always loving God and neighbor. While at the same time all being thankful for the truth that those who have committed the great sin can have a heart over it that God will never despise, so that God will help them, and can give them a depth beyond, sadly many of those who haven’t committed such a sin. In and through Jesus.

realizing and accepting our limitations

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

2 Corinthians 12:7b-9a

As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.

Psalm 103:13-14

I think it’s vitally important for us to accept our human limitations, as well as the limitations we have as individuals. And to look at reality in the face, and not try to escape it, or pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Yes, we hurt. We’re impacted by weaknesses that we’re trying to overcome by faith, but we often slip back. We also have not arrived in this life so that we don’t sin, but because of God’s grace, we confess our sins, repent, and seek to find God’s way for us in Christ.

I think the older we get, the more we realize that we need each other. We’re all in this together. And as we get older we realize that our time is drawing near, as the days, weeks, months, years, and even decades simply escape us. Soon it will all be over. That underscores our complete dependence on God, who gave us life, new life in Christ, and on whom we depend for resurrection beyond this life.

But back to now. We are limited, frail, often weary and worn human beings. With many disappointments along the way, indeed some perhaps serious regrets. Made of clay, yet in God’s image. God in Jesus joining us in that. Never forgotten and continually loved in this life by the God who made and is remaking us. Yes, even while we groan and are sorrowful and struggle even in our faith at times. In and through Jesus.