gently leading others

He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.

Isaiah 40

Isaiah 40 is truly one of the great passages of scripture, like Romans 8. I hesitate to say that, because I believe we should consider every part important, even the most obscure passages that we might not understand well, if at all. But this passage comforts God’s people both with God’s immense greatness and immeasurable goodness and in terms of God’s great salvation.

What seems especially helpful is the idea of God’s gentle leading. Oftentimes when people, when any of us think of God, we think of an extension of our experience with authority figures, which too often has not been encouraging, but quite the opposite. Or perhaps for some of us, those people were largely absent from our lives. The picture of God given to us in scripture is that God is beyond everything and yet nearer than the breath we breathe. That God is just as much intimate as God is transcendent. That means that the God who is not overwhelmed in the least enters into the picture for humankind, for the world, yes, for us. And God cares for us.

I love the imagery quoted above (see NRSV in link, “[God] will gently lead the mother sheep.”) That God leads the sheep, us, gently. We need that. And in turn, that is how we’re to help the young among us. Not pushing them, or being gruff with them. But gently leading. In fact, we can take that as the cue on how we’re to influence each other. Not that we’re in life to manipulate, but instead we want to learn to follow God’s leading, and hopefully help others to do the same, since we know that is best, and in fact is wonderful.

When one looks at the entire Story in scripture, one also sees that God leads out of weakness, that actually God’s weakness is strength. It is the way of the cross, the way of suffering love for us and for the world. And a part of our salvation for us now in this world, is to learn in and through Jesus to take that same road for others in our commitment to Christ and the gospel.

Let’s pay attention to those who gently lead, and especially to our Lord God, and then learn to follow in those steps. In and through Jesus.

do we really believe?

In liturgical churches every Sunday, worshipers recite usually the Nicene Creed, which begins with:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of things visible and invisible.

I like that practice, though it’s seldom used in churches we’ve been a part of. It is suggestive of the reality that our faith is not just an indiviudal faith, but communal. Like Paul said, we can be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. And it is about what we believe in terms of what God has revealed in what theologians call general and special revelation. Fulfilled in Jesus and the good news in him.

The intellectual belief shouldn’t be underplayed; it is important. But if we really believe that, it means we’re taking God at his word, and therefore trusting him. It is a personal, experiential faith which concerns all of life. We believe in and trust the God who created everything, and promises to make all things new in the new creation in Jesus.

When it comes right down to it, our faith is pretty well worthless if it doesn’t involve the nuts and bolts of where we live, and if it doesn’t get beyond just our concerns to concerns for others, to God’s concerns, the interests of Jesus. Faith isn’t some mere religious belief which is nice for Sunday at church, but is hardly an afterthought in real life. It is about nothing less than all of life, or it is nothing at all since it’s not living up to what it is said to be.

We believe because of God’s testimony to us in Jesus, in the gospel, and because of God’s grace through that testimony. We have the witness in ourselves by the Holy Spirit, that even as the gospel accounts compellingly make clear, Jesus indeed rose from the dead, a bodily resurrection. And God’s promise in him won’t stop until all evil is judged, and all things are made new. And that hope begins in this life, with the faith and love which accompany it.

What we truly believe because of God’s grace in and through Jesus.

something more needed than answers

Reason is an important part of our humanity, and is honored time and again in scripture. God reasons with us, even when in our sin we are unreasonable and irrational. But appeals are part of the mix in God’s “prevenient” (going before) work of grace, which is present to help us come to our senses and repent, and like the lost, prodigal son return to the father, whose heart and hands are always open.

Even if we were given answers that would suit us, it ends up being that we need more than that. We even need much correction in our thinking to begin with, though as a rule there is enough of God’s imprint through creation left on us for something of God’s work to go on in appealing to our minds.

In the last couple of years, a passage of scripture has been particularly impressed on my mind, and I hope on my heart and life, Proverbs 3:5-6:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

It has been well said, I believe from Thomas Merton and surely from many others, something like: It’s more about accepting mystery than receiving answers. There surely are all kinds of reasons for that, one of the most basic of all: we simply can’t comprehend the wisdom and knowledge of God any more than we can take in all of God.

We must simply believe in the end that God is great in God’s goodness and good in God’s greatness. “God is great and God is good.” We must be like little children before the Father, trusting in the Father’s good will and love for us and for the world in and through Jesus. Growing and becoming more and more mature in that belief and appreciation, so that hopefully we’re changed.

In the end, about many things we’ll have to simply admit and freely acknowledge that we just don’t know. We are not capable of sorting out and fixing, or even understanding what needs to be fixed in the first place. We have to leave that in God’s good hands. Both in a faith that prays in commiting everything to God and waits for God’s grace and power in the already present and coming kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

an Advent meditation: taking God at his word

An angel appeared to a humble maiden with the message that she would become pregnant, although she had not yet come together with Joseph, to whom she was engaged. The message was clear as to the special nature of this child: the son of God, the long awaited Messiah. But it was also confusing since babies don’t come apart from relations between a woman and a man.

The angel told her that she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. Of course this was not what happens in ordinary life, does not happen, period. And we know at about the same time John the Baptist’s father-to-be had not believed the word from the angel who had appeared to him, that he and his life Elizabeth would conceive a child. Although that would be through normal processes, they were well past the age of child bearing. Hence another miracle. In Zechariah’s case he did not believe the word of the angel, the message from God. But in Mary’s case, even though the word was even more challenging, no relations at all, yet Mary took God at his word, accepting the message from the angel.

Mary is rightfully honored for being the mother of our Lord, indeed as the church has called her, “the mother of God.” Of course she was a sinner like all the rest (some church tradition teaches that by grace she was preserved to be without sin so that she could bear the sinless one, but that seems to me to be an unnecessary theological move lacking exegetical support in scripture itself). What stands out to me for this post is her unwavering faith in God, in the word of God given through the messenger angel. She soon “sings” or “chants” (actually only speaks, but the words come across like a song, hence called “Mary’s Song” in the NIV 2011 headings, as well as the Magnificat in church tradition) a wonderful burst of poetic summation of something of what God was up to in all of this.

I rather treasure this aspect of Mary, how firmly she took God at his word. Of course this was a great honor, and that was not lost with her. She was a humble, lowly servant of God, one who had no pretense to greatness as the world sees it. Her greatness was to humbly trust and obey. And so, along with Joseph, she was an exemplary parent to this Child who not only had humble, believing parents, but uniquely had God as his Father.

All my life, nearly six decades now I have struggled with worry. As a recent, excellent book helped me see from scripture (Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry, by Amy Simpson), worry is simply at its root the failure to trust God, to simply take God at his word. And that is more than just the failure to exercise the needed faith. One might have all the discipline in the world, but still falter at this point because they really don’t understand both the greatness and goodness of God as revealed to us in scripture and ultimately in and through Jesus.

And so during this particular Advent season, I want to especially meditate on the faith that Mary had. Praying that God will help me imbibe and grow into the same faith, one that can rest in God’s promises in and through the one who came and is to come.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month.For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

the coming of the Mighty God

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.

During Advent we both remember and anticipate the coming of Jesus. Scripture goes to pains to make it clear that he comes as fully human as we are, born of a woman, made (or become) flesh. But scripture also goes to pains to say he is at the same time much more. Yes, in him is the name, Mighty God, but this is more than a title of honor with reference to his faithful fulfillment of his unique calling. He is indeed and specifically in the passage cited above, in his reign, “the Mighty God.”

My mother taught us to pray a simple prayer when we were children which starts out with words more like a creed: “God is great and God is good…” God’s greatness and goodness come together in the one who is to come to settle the score concerning justice, once for all peoples and all time. It will be a settling that is both eminently great and eminently good.

But when he came the first time, he came as a humble baby. As human as the rest of us. God became human. And so humanity was taken up into divinity, and divinity partook of humanity. God became one of us, living where we live. And yet he remained God, a great paradox, mystery of mysteries. And this, the Incarnation is forever, and is tied to his death and resurrection for sins and new life, to bring in a new order, beginning now. It is now the way of the cross. And even in his coming which we await, he will appear as the Lamb slain. God will indeed bring judgment in the form of justice on the face of the earth, when heaven and earth become one in Jesus. This “Mighty God will vanquish all evil, and judge all the wicked. And it will be a judgment brought on the basis of what Jesus did in his first coming. Evil will be judged, and all creation will experience in full, the redemption Jesus brings. There will be both marked continuity and discontinuity between this present life and the one to come. The “Mighty God” will reign in full humanity. He fulfills God’s calling to Israel for the blessing of the world.

We need to remember that God is revealed at long at last in his Son, Jesus. We need to see all the revelation of God in that light. We know the one who came as a helpless baby is the one who will come to reign forever. We can rest assured that he is God over all, over everything. We can put our complete confidence in him, indeed we are called to do that now. To bow our knees to him as Lord and King. And submit our lives to him. The great and good God. That we might be a blessing in him for the world.

hemmed in

The psalmist declares that God has hemmed them in behind and before, and layed his hand on them. In that word we would find comfort. But what if to get there, one finds one’s self hemmed in by difficult, indeed impossible circumstances? That one has no one to turn but to God for help?

I think God often does that with his children. Or at least at certain times with some of his children. For one reason or another, or for a number of reasons we feel hemmed in. Like the circumstances of life have us, and there’s no escape.

Our propensity would be to escape (with “the wings of a dove” in the words of another psalm), be done with the problem, and live happily ever after.

But God knows better. His ways are not ours. God wants to bring us more and more into the way of Jesus. It’s the way of salvation not only for us, but for all. Even for our enemies. As well as for all things in and through the new creation in Jesus.

I don’t like to feel hemmed in by circumstances, indeed by adversity. But I’ve found in the past that I’ve learned new lessons, gone into deeper depths in relation to God, especially have come out of such times with more of a sense of God hemming me in. Of God’s hand being on my life, indeed on the circumstances of my life as well. So that there could be a sense of peace and even fullness of joy.

But by and large I live more in the in-between places, not caring that much about it, except when again I get hemmed in so that there seems to be no breathing room. A good place once again to turn to the One who has all things in hand. To find his salvation in and through the way of Jesus. God’s blessing, that we might be a blessing to others.

does God cause everything?

There is a minority tradition in Christianity which insists that God causes everything: rapes, murders, tsunamis, and so on. That God even creates some to condemn them forever. And that in all of this, God is glorified. And what this tradition then suggests is that’s it’s all mystery. We don’t know why God does it, but he does.

May I suggest for a good number of reasons based on scripture that this is a tragic error. It is a misreading of scripture, and like all wrong teachings, is not helpful at all in one’s view of God or truth. At the same time, most of these people have a good enough hold on scripture and the gospel- with much other teaching as a result, that I judge their lives and ministries as good in the kingdom. But I think their answer concerning tragedy gives people false comfort, an easy answer in a way, but a mistake just the same. One that does more harm than good.

The teaching in the Hebrew Bible that God causes everything is simply a bowing to God’s sovereignty. And yet God is not implicated at all in the evil people do. The Book of James makes that clear. God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone. Each one is carried away by their own lust which when it conceives, gives birth to sin, which in turn gives birth to death. Then James makes it clear that every good and perfect gift comes from God. Evil does not. In fact the entire biblical narrative and teaching, from Genesis to Revelation holds this as true.

If God does not control everything, is he in control or not? Of course God can intervene and protect and stop anything evil from happening either suddenly or over time. We believe sometimes he does, surely oftentimes. In ways we’re mostly unaware of, probably often through angels, as well as directly by the Spirit, etc. Theologians and biblical teachers have talked about God’s permissive will. Not that God condones what is done, but God allows people to make choices in their sin, which can harm others. Or God does not intervene to prevent tragedy when we believe he could. Just recently a most terrible tragedy happened in our area over which we are praying.

We must hold on to the reality that while God does not control everything, he is always in control in everything. Which means he could have prevented any tragedy from happening, but did not. And it also means that God is at work in everything for good. Not everything is good that happens, certainly not the recent tragedy. Yes, the father, and infant son are with Jesus now. So we can find good in it, and that’s important. But we must not minimize the tragedy, or blunt the sorrow. We have hope beyond this, that God will indeed work out everything for good, and yet the sorrow and scarring over the tragedy will remain. The mother and two young daughters will ever miss their husband/father, and son/brother. We remember the story of Job.

The Lord’s Prayer helps us, as we keep praying it, and according to it. The Amish strongly hold to this practice and theology, so that through their acceptance of God’s sovereignty, they tend to accept disaster and evil done to them better than most Christians, it seems. Even while having to work through it, which they generally seem to do better than most of the rest of us, through their community. We need each other in Jesus, as well as God’s help by the Spirit.

In the end we do indeed have to bow to God and his sovereignty, and trust in his greatness and goodness. That God is indeed in control in his love, through Jesus. That God is at work to bring good out of evil.

In the meantime we do well not to quote Romans 8:28 to the grieving. Let them grieve deeply and well, in fact they need to for a time. Simply be with them in their grief, simply praying for them. Without trying to soothe them with some talk of God’s sovereignty. Jesus empathizes and prays, and that is what we need to do at this time.