one of the nightmares of our time

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure during the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

James 5:1-6

I would like all of us to wake up to what the Bible clearly holds as a priority time and time again, but the theology so many hold won’t allow that. So all we can do is pray and speak and try to encourage and participate in change. Just one of the nightmares here in the United States, the land of “the American dream” is the failure of whatever that dream is supposed to be to take hold for all. We white Christians by and large might think we’re insulated from this, that while we can help this or that person in need, that it’s really not our trouble or business. But that supposition is a failure to understand the repeated witness of Scripture. Also it’s a failure to understand how what harms one group ends up harming all.

Here in the United States we have way more than enough to fund college education for all, childcare and healthcare for all, which would pay itself off in spades. There’s no need or in my case want to get into the details of all of that. Except to say that the rich of the land have been living off the backs of the poor and it is only getting worse as time goes on. There is no good reason why everyone in service and low paying jobs shouldn’t be getting paid double the amount and more right now, along with full health care. None except greed along with a complete failure to understand the point of Scripture about this, and reality.

But we need to get America back to its greatness again, so we’re told. Back to what? A time when segregation was the norm along with laws limiting the rights and privileges of minorities which white Americans could take for granted? And let’s not go back too far: the time when the economy of the south was built on the backs of slaves, and because it was so beneficial for those in the north, nothing much was said. Although a rising tide of dissenting voices led to the Civil War. Like all nations, US history is messy, but we need to face every part of it. Don’t ignore things like the 1619 Project. You’ll learn a lot. We need to face the past squarely, and work at understanding the ramifications for the present time, and work to bring about full reparation in an immediate as well as full way over time.

All of this matters if the witness of Scripture matters. But if it’s just about us and Jesus, then I guess the witness of Scripture is secondary or that we have no responsibility except to get people “saved” and wait for Jesus to come back and take care of the rest. If there wasn’t such compliance with the advantages we live in and ignorance of the disadvantages of others, and if we would actually work at helping those in need, not only with mere handouts, but seeking to overhaul systems of wrong and greed, then such people could be taken seriously. God knows everyone’s hearts of course, and God is a God of grace. But God is not anyone’s fool as some of the wicked in the psalms seem to imagine. And we as followers of Christ do well only when our hearts are aligned where God’s heart is aligned.

Yes, God will judge with good judgment and the salvation to follow. But we as followers of Christ must bear witness to that now, and advocate and be part of needed change in the present, just as we pray that God’s kingdom would come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Or else we’re not in step with Jesus whose new way is a fulfillment of the passion of the prophets. The way of love for God and for neighbor in all times and places. In and through Jesus.

(Some of the most important points and a significant part of the impulse to do this comes from a thoughtful woman friend on Facebook who posted a far better critique of the present than I raise here.)

be yourself (with all its foibles and flaws)

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

Ecclesiastes is in some ways the most fascinating book to me in the Bible, though others are as interesting in their place, and when considered together. This book reminds me of the great Danish philosopher, Soren Kirkegaard, and the book Kirkegaard: A Single Life, by Stephen Backhouse is a great read. I am sorry to see it so high on Amazon. Get it from a library. It was one of the few life-changing books I’ve read, though every good book should help us in life.

As I recall (thankfully, I have my own copy) the book points out how Kirkegaard sought to live a radical life of following Christ within what he considered an entirely dead Christendom of which he wanted no part. He stood out for that reason, but also because of all of his challenging, compelling writings along with his peculiar manner of life which certainly ran across the grain of the culture of his place and time. Called “the father of existentialism” but at the heart of what he was it seems to me: a follower of Christ. But I’ll certainly have to leave it to many others to help us, though the book mentioned above is said to be the best introduction to him hands down, with a summary of all of his works in the back.

Kirkegaard like all the rest of us made mistakes, his share of them. But life was to be lived, not debated about or philosophized or even theologized. To Kirkegaard, what it means to follow Christ is the point of existence, and the only way that is understood is by endeavoring to live it out, to be authentic in the sense of being oneself, to move forward in reality, in real life.

For me I think along with being in Scripture and prayer, I seek to understand in the midst of living. And there’s no escape from life. There are so many aspects of it. Ecclesiastes is all about that, life under the sun, and all the experiences one passes through here. How on the one hand vanity accompanies everything, I would think especially if it’s considered an end to itself. But on the other hand how we must go on and be fully present in it all, not only present, but a full participant as well. As the book in the end reminds us from the one who was sharing Qoheleth’s (“the Teacher’s”) thoughts, doing it all in the fear of God seeking to obey all of God’s commandments, aware of the judgment to come.

We will make mistakes along the way, no doubt. But God will help us as we realize that we learn from Christ only as we seek to follow Christ in all of life, in everything. And in the midst of a world in which so much is vanity, a chasing after the wind, in which most all of the best endeavors fall short of the goal, and even those which succeed at least in some sense don’t last.

I take heart in this. I have my foibles and flaws (just ask my wife). But I want to go on just as I am, but also with others who are attempting to do the same just as they are. We’re in this together for better and for worse.

And we have wonderful enigmatic books like Ecclesiastes to go back to again and again, along with the rest of Scripture, as we keep trying to make sense of what’s in front of us, and how we’re to carry on. Being each one of us our own unique God-given selves.

In and through Jesus.

thoughts and prayers are not enough

The LORD saw that the wickedness of humans was great in the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humans on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the humans I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air—for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the sight of the LORD.

These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.

Genesis 6:5-14

We’ve had more than enough of school shootings in the United States (and elsewhere). Another one now, and people will be offering their sincere heart-felt thoughts and prayers. And that’s good insofar as that goes. But it’s not enough.

I am tired of the religious people in the United States who make such a big deal out of abortion but are completely absent as far as advocacy for the children after birth, and who are advocates for guns and adamantly opposed to gun control laws. Often, we’ll hear from them that the answer is not more laws, or another law, but God changing people’s hearts. Try telling that to any of those who put their lives on the line during the Civil Rights Movement. To dismiss the efficacy of laws in curbing evil is preposterous, and just one of the many reasons I don’t take such groups seriously myself.

Yes, thoughts and prayers are wonderful. But they don’t mean a thing, not a thing at all unless they’re backed up by action. Are we going to tell the truth, or not? Is it really necessary to have access to assault weapons with the Second Amendment backing (in my opinion, a mistaken understanding of that amendment).

God saw the violence in Noah’s time and said enough is enough. Why isn’t America doing all it can to curb the use of weapons, not excluding the weapons of mass destruction? And why do professing Christians back that? Is our dependence on God or on a gun? We might think both, that we depend on God, and God wants us to keep our gun loaded just in case. Is that the way of Jesus? Does the way of Jesus apply to us? If we’re followers of Christ, it does. If we’re followers of Christianity and Christendom, perhaps not.

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.

are we a disappointment to God?

The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
    a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
    he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
    as on a day of festival.

Zephaniah 3:17-18a; NRSVue

Often we carry a burden of feeling and thinking that we are a disappointment not only to certain ones, but to God. That God looks on us and is not only disappointed with some of what we’ve done, maybe even much of that, but is disappointed in us. And there’s theology that in my mind is beneath the name Christian which supports and even promotes the idea that God basically just puts up with us, only able to stand to look at us and accept us because God sees us through and in Christ. Whatever grain of truth might be in that, the thought actually does not comport well at all with the whole of scripture, and especially in the light of Christ’s coming. In fact, any truth in it makes it more dangerous since people are more apt to swallow it. And so, we go around thinking and feeling that we’re nothing more than worms, really not liked by God, but somehow loved in the sense of God putting up with us. There is so much to say about all of this. Someone could write a book on this, not to say there haven’t been books written at least around this subject. There is much to say and sort out.

The above passage in Zephaniah is in the context of God’s judgment and work of salvation. With all the evil doing of the nations and of God’s own chosen people in Jerusalem, there’s a people who had been victims, and the rest evidently respond to God’s judgment with humility. At any rate, we can think of Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, who certainly didn’t do right by his father, himself, or anyone else for that matter. Yet the father longed for him, and when at long last seeing him return, ran toward his son and embraced him, and had an all-out celebration, holding nothing back.

Yes, just as we’re disappointed at times in things we’ve done in our lives, so God also. But we’re not a disappointment to God. God sees the one God made, and delights in that. And God delights in all God wants to bring to pass and enjoy about us in God’s love. God sees that in everyone. One of our problems is that we project our poor way of seeing others onto God, as if God is limited in some similar way. But that indeed is not the case. God sees through the ugliness of our lives at the beauty that is present in God’s creation of us. And God loves us through and through just as we are. Yes, just as we are. God will help us in God’s love to become all that we really are, all God made us to be through creation and new creation. In and through Jesus.

all things work together for good

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28; NRSVue

All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

Julian of Norwich

Do we really believe that God is somehow active in working all things together for good? That work is actually meant for all, to be experienced by God’s children. In a world which seems completely at odds with that. We might be able to trace some of this working in our imaginations, but it certainly requires faith on our part to begin to rest in this reality.

We get in trouble trying to unravel and figure it out ourselves. We just have to take it at face value for what we’re told here. All things, not some things. Work together, all in the mix. For good, meant for the good of all. Involved in that are all the peculiarities of God’s work, including God’s good judgment and the salvation which follows. And in the meantime, all the ins and outs, ups and downs, every struggle and circumstance of life, somehow even our own miscues and sins. For good. In and through Jesus.

God’s beloved

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:9-11; NRSVue

Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax-collection station, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

Mark 2:13-17; NRSVue

I think I would put The Cure somewhere on the top ten of the books which have most influenced me, or at least most intrigued me. It is a most interesting read, whether or not you agree with it entirely. It’s really not meant to be a book to convince you of this and that doctrine, in spite of somewhat copious although often helpful endnotes. It is a story of the difference between living in grace and religion*, the latter involving unrelenting standards to measure up to with necessary masking to hide the fact that inevitably no one does. The place of grace is entirely different, not only no mask wearing, but hair let down with many tears. People are real, themselves, and completely accepted. Unlike the place of religion where you are accepted on many conditions.

The difference is what the above passages are getting at: the love of God from the God who is love. God has God’s heart set on all humanity, really intent in restoring all of creation, and especially fallen and broken humanity. That is more than evidenced in God becoming flesh meaning human in the Son Jesus through the Incarnation. Completely identifying with us, right where we live with all of its challenges along with our (not his) failure, but with the laughter and joy as well. But it seems especially identifying with those who are mourning, the poor, the oppressed, the downcast, the marginalized. Bringing the healing that can only come from God, healing being synonymous with salvation in New Testament terminology.

If there’s one place I especially feel uncomfortable, it’s with religious folks. Unfortunately you have to add to that nowadays those who are caught up in the tribalism of this or that political persuasion. But lots of those folks are religious, which just becomes either a new rule added on, or understanding among them that it’s simply that way no questions asked.

In contrast to that, God accepts everyone warts and all, just the way we are with all of our blindness, failure and sin. And unlike religion, people are fully accepted in the beloved one, Christ. Christ came that we might through him find our true identity and ultimately our true selves in the reality we are included in with him through faith and baptism, so that we may come to realize that we too are indeed God’s beloved, God’s much-loved ones.

In the end we’re told that God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15) accomplished in and through Christ in his life and reconciling death, so that everyone will be included. It will be a most happy ending, even if it takes some time to get there. No one will be left behind, no one left out. Not even the sad religious folk who somehow imagine themselves better and look down on everyone else (see Gregory of Nyssa, George MacDonald, etc.). Not that judgment and severe judgment isn’t in the mix, because it most necessarily is, but not a rejecting, obliterating fire, but a purging, redeeming fire. But this is another subject entirely.

But the point is that we need to see that “in Christ” we are indeed God’s beloved. That we don’t have to measure up to this and that which other people, even churches might want to impose on us. No, we are not rejected, but God’s children.  In and through Jesus.

*Religion in the sense of something fabricated by humans rather than received from God and regularly practiced and lived out in response to that (example: James 1:26-27).

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.

awaiting justice and mercy

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

Advent involves the anticipation of God’s justice at long last coming to earth, but a justice that is full of mercy. As we’re told elsewhere in Scripture:

…mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2:13b

God in the Person of Christ will return and set things right. And that will be a judgment that is ultimately saving. Yes, to purge the earth of the wicked, of wickedness. To do what only God can do, whatever that is, along with how God will do that. We see this worked out in our lives now. God doesn’t just correct us, sometimes when necessary with loving discipline, which to us can be painful. God also sets us in a new path, one full of justice, righteousness, peace, and joy.

What God has done and is doing in our own lives, we can anticipate God wants to do and will do for all, at Christ’s return and perhaps beyond. Now we get into waters which are over our heads in that there is no completely clear word, though theologians vary in this within Christian orthodoxy (note Gregory of Nyssa).

We wish for all what we have received and are receiving from God. In the meantime we seek to do what is just, loving kindness, as we walk in full humility before God, not imagining for a second that we are in less need of God’s grace and help than anyone else. In and through Jesus.

is God a God of wrath, or a God of love?

…God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

1 John 4:8b-10

There’s no escape from God’s wrath in Scripture. At times it seems pretty alarming, even all-consuming. Is the retributive justice that most Christians I know seem to accept, a rather “tit for tat,” or as Jesus reminds us, “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” a part of God’s justice at work in the world, and in the end? Is there an aspect of God’s justice which is restorative? That seems obvious too, when you consider God’s judgment in Scripture with what seems to be the end goal of blessing those God judges. Could both be at work in God’s justice: retributive and restorative? And what does this have to do with God’s wrath and love? (These questions and my wondering moved by this interesting podcast.)

It seems to me that the standard position has been that it’s both. I take it that whatever wrath comes from God is always an expression of God’s love. When love for God manifested in love for neighbor is violated, judgment always come. I take it as at least primarily God honoring humans and human will, and letting us suffer the consequences of our bad decisions. But at the same time, always offering grace to us in Jesus.

I also believe that God’s love is supremely revealed on the cross, Jesus hanging there. Of course the resurrection essential in that love being poured out on all who have faith in Jesus, and ultimately on all creation in the new creation.

So is God a God of wrath, or of love? We could look at Scripture and without hesitation say both, but I think that’s a mistake. God is in essence love, and whatever wrath and judgment come from God is always and forever an expression of that love. I take it that God is not into retributive justice at all, but only restorative justice.

What’s at stake here? It seems to me right now that how we view God, who we think God is, the most important point for us is at stake here. As was said in the podcast (and other thoughts here gathered from that; click above link to listen to it, quite worth the time), we either see God as one who was angry with us, takes that anger out on the Son, and therefore now can pour out love on us. Or we see God as love through and through, and doing everything out of love, including taking human wrath on God’s Self at the cross in the Son. And turning that into complete forgiveness for all who put their faith in, trust in the Son, in God and that good news in Jesus.

Theology and biblical interpretation are important, but not God’s word in themselves. May God’s word break through to us in Jesus, and transform our understanding, and in so doing change us into the image of Christ. Where love has full sway and directs all things. May God’s love become more and more not only understood, but experienced by us, so that we might help others to become aware of that same love. In and through Jesus.