what can I do?

Now the angel of the LORD came and sat under the oak at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites. The angel of the LORD appeared to him and said to him, “The LORD is with you, you mighty warrior.” Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has cast us off and given us into the hand of Midian.” Then the LORD turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.” He responded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The LORD said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.”

Judges 6:11-16; NRSVue

The longer I’m on my faith journey, the less I like to focus on individuals and individual faith. But it’s a part of life, an important part of it actually, and while the church in Christ is preeminent for our spiritual journey at this time, it’s not like each one of us is not on a spiritual journey, because we most certainly are.

Just like every story in Scripture, there’s something we can gain, or at least we should make the effort to do so. And it’s not hard to see a few things in the Gideon story. One of the questions I ask myself from time to time is just what I can do. I can see enough from the whole of Scripture and from life that there is indeed plenty I can do. Just learning to pray and continuing in prayer, to grow in that is by itself exponential in importance. Good works will come with real prayer; God will make sure of that.

In the passage above, Gideon is humble, understands his limitations, probably doesn’t appreciate well enough the gift that he has so that God’s call makes little or no sense to him at all. And as we see from the rest of the narrative, he struggles somewhat in his faith, or at least I would consider that to be the case given his seeming propensity to demand signs or proof that it is really God who is speaking to him. I can imagine that had I been living in that time, and it were me, I would have been the same way.

God commissions Gideon, but the key seems to me to be the point God makes that God will be with Gideon. This is something for each of us to take home. We are the called in Christ, yes together primarily, but also out from that into our individual lives, to do the good works God has for us, and to see God’s loving rule in Christ present in all of that.

It’s good to read Judges 6-9, the entire Gideon story, and consider. It may have had a good beginning, but not such a good ending. Nor was it necessarily all good throughout. That is a heads up for us. It’s important that we remain steady, which means continued growth in Christ, and for us, in Christ’s body.

Hopefully good things to remember as we consider yet another fascinating story in Scripture.

against a passive, non-activist faith

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James 1:27

For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lie dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

Menno Simons

So much of what I’ve seen in evangelical Christian faith is more than less totally about one’s individual relationship with God through Christ with an emphasis on being assured of eternal life, and the best of that, an emphasis on knowing God’s love in one’s own life. Most of that I’ve found good insofar as it goes. But it simply doesn’t go far enough if we take all the pages of Scripture seriously.

If we have the faith of Jesus, we’ll be active on the ground, and that, especially together. This is not a life any of us can live on our own, by ourselves, because the life of Christ is mediated primarily through Christ’s body, the church. In and from that, we can live honoring lives in the love of God and neighbor and enemy as well.

Let’s clarify a bit where that activity nowadays should be. To be concerned about all the injustice that has been meted out and remains even to the present day. To let it be known that this is not acceptable. To do the necessary work in which we’ll mostly be unseen, with the willingness to work in changing systems, in many cases advocating for something entirely new. And all of this simply the natural outworking of our faith. An expression of who we are in Christ.

Yes, we’re totally loved, completely accepted, and helped in every way possible in our life in Christ, and that especially so together. Even as we do struggle due to our human limitations and ongoing resistance by the spiritual and physical principalities and powers. But our faith is active, in good works for the poor and mistreated, not just to bandage the wounds, but stop all that is wrong and work to bring about new beginnings, as well as reparations in the quest for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven.

Yes, we have the hope that Christ will return. But a major part of being ready if I understand all of Scripture correctly will to be about our God’s business right now, which means a passion to see that light of Day make needed differences in the here and now. That as I understand it is what the true evangelical faith looks like.

what does true Christian compassion in the United States and elsewhere look like?

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to your dreams that you dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the LORD.

Jeremiah 29:1-9

We in Christ are exiles in this present world. We’re scattered all over the earth, and like what follows after this passage, we await God’s visitation, the return of Jesus Christ to bring God’s promises into complete, final fulfillment. In the meantime, again we live as strangers and exiles in whatever nation we live.

God told God’s people through Jeremiah in days of old to settle down and live faithfully in Babylon. We see Daniel doing the same thing. It’s interesting that they were not called to make the worship of God the law of the land in Babylon. They were simply to be faithful to God regardless of what was happening in the world. Yes, it was judgment, but mercy too. But they were to live out their faith in a foreign land. Remember Daniel’s example? Daniel didn’t try to convert Babylonians, but his example spoke volumes.

Fast-forward to today where I live in the United States. Christians are known here for wanting to take over the levers of power everywhere and not just push hard their agenda, but force and enforce it on others. Not at all anything like what we read about in Jeremiah 29. It leaves me wondering many things, and simply strongly disagreeing on many things more. But one question I might ask is simply this: Where is compassion in all of this, and specifically, Christ’s compassion which we’re called to bring and to be to others?

It seems like we want the same thing the Jews of old wanted. No exile, God’s visitation now, and everything just as we think it ought to be. But if you take Scripture seriously, we all know that only at Christ’s return will that begin to take place. In the meantime, what should we do now?

God’s people are the church together and in different places. We’re to show compassion in thoughtful, discerning ways, not only by handouts, but trying to understand the big picture, and what can be done to get rid of injustice in society, both individual, and especially systemic. Both. We have to keep working on that, because really the problem can be us, or at least we’re not apart from the problem. That is all a part of this, whether we like it or not. And we honestly ought to, because if the Christian life is anything at all, isn’t it a life of ongoing repentance?

The gospel is the power of God for salvation, not state power. That salvation is for individuals, yes, but also it should enable us to encourage the best for the nation-state in which we live. And to be relaxed within our pluralistic world, even as Israel was to live in the Babylonian world. Finding the good in it, and being an influence for good through Christ, being good and human.

Power politics and forcing and enforcing our way is not God’s way. At least not as evident in Jeremiah 29 and the gospels and what follows.

the little things (which can either make or break, hinder or help)

Go to the ant, you lazybones;
consider its ways and be wise.
Without having any chief
or officer or ruler,
it prepares its food in summer
and gathers its sustenance in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O lazybones?
When will you rise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want, like an armed warrior.

Proverbs 6:6-11

We can do only one thing at a time, and there’s always plenty to do. Of course, we can’t do everything, and we don’t do well berating ourselves because of that. We need wisdom from God to know what to do and to know what can be left undone. It’s better to do a few things well, than try to do everything.

There are things we really shouldn’t do. I’m not thinking of moral issues, though they’re certainly included, but rather what we know is not helpful for us in the long run but is hard to resist when we really should. Okay, I’ll say it. For me it’s snacking on a little something just before I go to bed. I feel better, do better when I have at least (or around) a twelve-hour gap between my last meal of the day, and first meal of a new day. And nothing to eat close to bedtime.

There’s the obvious from the above passage. We keep at it day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Just humbly plodding along. Doing everything we’re supposed to do. That adds up and accumulates over time exponentially, at least in shaping our character along with the provision God gives us through that.

The little by little of good is so important. No less important is the harm we can cause by a little of what’s wrong. Yes, we will fail along the way, and there’s always the necessary confession of sin, of letting others know we’re sorry. 

It really doesn’t have to be much, and sometimes really is not, but a little bit, and little by little of that can and will go a long way if we keep at it.

 

slow down

therefore thus says the Lord GOD,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
“One who trusts will not panic.”

Isaiah 28:16; NRSVue

There is so much to get done! But we can only do one thing at a time. And are we really meant to do everything? Yes, certain things, okay. But we’re limited. And often we take on more not just out of noble purposes, but maybe at times even ignoble.

Israel of old at large was not being faithful. They did not heed God, having their own agenda, and therefore did not care about God’s promises, much less believe them. Or at best their faith was weak and vacillating. When it came right down to it, they felt it depended on them, their agenda and program they were bent on fulfilling.

But life and we should add God doesn’t let people off the hook so easily. Real life presses in and challenges us, at least eventually, and at every turn. We can’t ignore it. In the case of Israel they felt pressed to be in a hurry, to panic (see NET footnote). They were left to themselves, or felt all depended on them. Eventually panic set in.

Faith rests in God and in God’s promises, God’s promise in Jesus. We need to slow down, to trust, to rest. I find that as I simply purposefully do that, I am much more inclined to trust. One might want to argue that we need to trust first, and then we’ll slow down. That’s true. But sometimes stopping what we’re doing when we’re recognizing that it’s not helpful, and doing what we ought to be doing instead can help us into a better rhythm, and gives us the chance to really hear and understand what God is doing and how we fit in that.

At any rate this is important for me. If something should be done, I find that ordinarily I need to do it deliberately, more often than not, slowly, seeking to keep in step with God, doing so in faith, and not as if all depends on me. Something we do ourselves and would do well to learn to do together as well. In and through Jesus.

a peace that’s not only personal

On that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
We have a strong city;
he sets up walls and bulwarks as a safeguard.
Open the gates,
so that the righteous nation that maintains faithfulness
may enter in.
Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace—
in peace because they trust in you.
Trust in the LORD forever,
for in the LORD GOD
you have an everlasting rock.
For he has brought low
the inhabitants of the height;
the lofty city he lays low.
He lays it low to the ground,
casts it to the dust.
The foot tramples it,
the feet of the poor,
the steps of the needy.

Isaiah 26:1-6;  NRSVue

“Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee” (KJV) is a well known verse turned into song. That this applies to us as individuals is wonderfully and blessedly true. But to be faithful to the biblical text, we need to read the context, the whole. We’ll then discover that it indeed has societal, global implications. It’s about a nation that maintains faithfulness. And that faithfulness as we see also in the context is with reference to justice, and specifically justice for the poor.

Yes, we can personalize and enjoy this passage ourselves. But we’ll miss a lot, even the point of this passage, if we focus only on that. One of the most serious weaknesses of precious promise books, whatever good they actually do have. It’s a city no less, given to justice for the poor. Something which needs to be heard loud and clear today. What churches should be about. A central part of the expression of our faith. In and through Jesus.

“be instant in season, out of season”- KJV

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound teaching, but, having their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, be sober in everything, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

2 Timothy 4:1-5; NRSVue

I love the King James Version‘s rendering in this passage, “be instant in season, out of season.” The idea as we read above is to keep doing what we’re called to do no matter what. Whether it’s convenient for us or not, or for that matter even convenient to others. Of course, we want to be helpful to others, but the only help they’re going to get which matters is help from God. It can be through us, but definitely from God. Just as all help we ever receive ourselves is from God, though often through others.

We need to be ready, prepared, above all in our spirit, in our heart, through prayer, through trying to walk day by day, every moment, through every time whether good or bad, whatever the case may be, we need to always be ready to do whatever it is that God has called us to do. The gospel is at the heart of that, but the specific calling, though we might divide it in general categories such as speaking and serving and for many of us, some combination of both, will be as different for each of us as each of us is different ourselves.

The point though is to be ready. And the test of that will come when we’re especially feeling not ready, maybe under siege, under spiritual attack. We must not give in then, because that actually can end up being the time of greatest blessing. God can pour out God’s Spirit in answer to prayer, and never forget that the Lord’s power is made perfect in our weakness. It’s never about us, but only about what God has given us to do, and the love of God made known in the good news of Christ.

In and through Jesus.

don’t be distracted: Anna

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Luke 2:36-38; NRSVue

It seems like there’s nothing easier than being distracted. My spiritual mentor and director and good friend has told me that in his experience there can be a thousand screaming monkeys. All the more true for me as well. I can count on something distracting me from meditation on scripture, from listening and hearing God’s voice, receiving God’s word.

Anna was not one who lived with distractions. Oh, I’m sure that she had to deal with possible distractions. But interestingly we’re told that “she never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” She had been married but devoted herself exclusively to God after her husband died. Maybe she never had children. We’re not told. But it reminds me of what developed later, the monastic orders.

But as followers of Jesus, it seems to me that we’re called to be entirely devoted to Christ in normal life, just as Jesus did in his thirty-three or so years on earth. Yes, 1 Corinthians 7 tells us that one can be more totally devoted to God when unmarried and Jesus wasn’t married. But he did work in his “legal” father’s trade, and perhaps as the oldest son looked after his mother Mary after Joseph passed. There are responsibilities and concerns that come with marriage and family, to be sure. Anna knew all about that. What is needed is total devotion to God, something we can always give, even while we’re busy fulfilling family along with other responsibilities. In fact we show devotion to God in part by giving ourselves fully to the responsibilities at hand. But at the same time, when and where we can, we regularly want to be attentive to God by being in scripture and prayer. In Anna’s case, fasting as well.

Because of this, Anna was ready when Christ appeared. She was primed and afterwards pumped, telling all about this child. Something for us as well, in our time and place, yes, even today in the midst of all the distraction of the season. This should be what we’re all about, our very heart.

In and through Jesus.

the humdrum and Advent

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Luke 2:8

We disregard the humdrum and what is boring at our peril. When we think we have to fill our lives with this or that, we can miss what God wants to give us. Only to the empty does God come with God’s filling, with God’s abundant, more than enough plenty. But to the full, God cannot. They are already full of something else, no room for God’s gift.

Let’s neither underrate nor despise the necessities life presses on us. And let’s remember that God in love works with us, with all our idiosyncrasies and conundrums. We simply need to press on which includes plodding on. God will help us as we seek in God’s will to do that. In and through Jesus.

sleep can give us more than just the needed cushion after the hardness of a day

It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.

Psalm 127:2 Or for he provides for his beloved during sleep

Psalm 127:2

How often after an “evil day” has sleep given us just a new breath and fresh start to life, as we awakened? Of course God is in the details of that. And not with us just being passive, although that can happen. As our intent is to be fully obedient to God and follow our Lord completely, no matter what we’ve gone through and how lost and out of sorts we are by the end of the day, God can give us sleep and in that sleep what we need to be refreshed and ready after we awaken to a new day.

Like long life, days can be long too, and take their toll on us. But God is ready to help us. We need to just keep waiting on God, looking to God, seeking to direct ourselves and be directed into all it means to be faithful. Without flinching from the most difficult aspects of that. While at the same time, God’s grace extended to cover our inevitable weaknesses and sin is ever present.

So I’m much encouraged. And I must say I enjoy sleep. I have been taking a melatonin tablet before hitting the sack lately. Sometimes it is hard to fall asleep. Rather than counting sleep, we can start praying, and then I think the sleep will come. We rest  in the arms and good care of God. In and through Jesus.