the negative condition of humanity: lost

If there’s one word I would use to sum up the condition humanity is in, I might say lost. Like most things in life it’s more complicated than that. There’s something wonderfully good about humankind. Each person is indeed a gift. But not all is well. There’s something fundamentally wrong.

Lost is the condition humanity is in biblically speaking due to sin. Sin is that which is in violation of God’s will, contrary to God himself, and actually against humanity itself, since we humans are made in God’s image. Because of that, we’re lost from God’s good intention for us.

We remember the biblical account of Adam and Eve being driven from the Garden of Eden into a condition where life would be hard. The ground would be cursed because of sin, everything cursed actually, including humankind itself. Curse in Scripture is the opposite of bless. Its end result is condemnation and death, whereas blessing comes through redemption which brings life.

We are lost on our own. Being made in God’s image, we are left to thinking that there must be more, much more. But we’re at a loss to find it, indeed we can’t find it ourselves. That is why the Bible speaks of the Good Shepherd finding the lost sheep, the woman finding the lost coin, the father rejoicing over the return of his lost, wayward son. We are lost, pure and simple. No rocket science. That’s just the way it is, and the sooner we come to acknowledge that, the better off we’ll be.

God seeks us before we seek God. In fact it’s only because God seeks us in God’s grace in Christ that we would ever turn a glance his way, and hopefully surrender and come running into the arms of the Father. It’s because Jesus himself was willing to be cursed, and lost for us so to speak, feeling forsaken of God on the cross, that we can be found in him, through simple faith in him, and God’s word: that good news. In and through Jesus.

accepting one’s lot in life

Moreover, when God gives someone…the ability…to accept their lot…—this is a gift of God.

Ecclesiastes 5:19

It may seem strange to read that someone in their 60’s, approaching retirement age struggles over accepting their lot in life, just how it turned out. But that’s me. After all, I have two academic degrees. Yet it turns out that I worked in a factory setting, for decades now, and where I’ll end Lord willing, albeit in a wonderful ministry until “retirement.”

I have struggled with “what ifs?” and “if onlys?” off and on. Those thoughts will probably hit me at least now and then the rest of my life, but hopefully they’ll ebb and become less and less as I learn more and more to simply accept and learn to embrace where my life is today.

There are some things that I can understand from my past, even important things to remember both in what became not helpful attitudes and actions. It’s not like I’m immune to such now. Not at all. But I believe by God’s grace that the Lord has helped me to come a long way, and in some respects 180 degrees from the worst or critically bad of that. And that wasn’t easy and took time. It’s one thing to confess one’s sin, it’s another to become a person who never would do such a thing as a rule, because their character has changed (1 Peter 4:1-2).

But there’s much of my past I don’t really understand. What comes to mind now is what some evangelical theologians have termed as “middle knowledge,” the idea, whether it has much merit or not, that God knows the entire range of possibilities in the life of the world, and specifically in an individual’s life, and moves accordingly. On the face of it, that makes plenty of sense to me, but in the end I want to remain in the testimony of Scripture along with what the church by the Spirit holds as truth. So when it comes to some theology, I just don’t know. But I have so many thoughts and questions, along with regrets. I have my own ideas, not that far removed from what they’ve been for many years, but I hold them more tentatively now. And I know in an important sense for me, none of that probably matters anymore. At best it’s water over the dam, or it could even be a mistaken notion on my part.

As my wife has told me time and again, there’s no sense rehashing the past, all the mistakes I’ve made, many the kind which most everyone makes. Do we trust God for the present as well as the future, even in spite of the past? That’s an apt question to ask.

We all have our limitations, along with the gifts God has given us. We might be able to get some help in this life to overcome or do better with illnesses we have, be they physical, or even in some measure mental. Such help should be considered a gift from God, to what extent it’s God-given. And above that, the blessing that is ours in Christ through the gospel. We find helpful for us the words of Scripture as we read it, prayerfully meditate on it, and study it.

The bottom line is to accept one’s lot in life as given from God. I think we can argue in the context of the passage quoted from Ecclesiastes above (click link to see NIV paragraph) that it’s about learning to live as humans, the humans God created us to be. And we learn from the gospels and the rest of the New Testament that we are restored into the fullness of humanity through the God-Human, Jesus (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 1 John 3:2).

Despite my past failures and above all, lack of faith, or thoughts that I wish I would have done this or that differently, I have to learn to let go of all of that entirely, and learn to accept and thankfully appreciate where I’m at, seeing the good in the present circumstances as God’s provision for us, for my wife and I, along with our ongoing natural concern for our family. And seek to be faithful in serving Christ in the place and with the service he has given me. In and through Jesus.

Jesus’s full participation in being an ordinary human (and what follows)

When it comes right down to it, every human being in an ordinary person, including Jesus, who though being God, became human, so that he is God and human at the same time. Remarkable. But yet somehow an ordinary human being.

When I say ordinary, I mean genuine, real, nothing more/nothing less. The truth of the matter about ordinary people is that really all ordinary people are extraordinary in the sense that they are made in God’s image, and therefore unique within creation. What it means to be in God’s image probably involves a number of things, including the special task God gave humankind at the beginning to be steward rulers, one might say, over God’s good earth. To rule under God, and to be in relationship with the God who essentially is Relationship as Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Jesus will forever remain unique, since somehow in mystery he is both fully God, and fully human. That God, yes God became human in and of itself is remarkable, because while God in essence is of course unchanged, yet God’s participation in humanity, even sharing in humanity by becoming human is a radical change. But it just goes to show how extraordinary, ordinary people are in the first place.

And so I like to highlight in my mind both just how ordinary we humans are, and how God in Jesus partook of that ordinariness. Remember during Jesus’s life that those who knew him noted nothing more remarkable than that he was the carpenter’s son, and the carpenter (Matthew 13; Mark 6). Not that such wasn’t good; it was simply in contrast to the work he was taking on, and the claims along with that.

But I also want to highlight that each and every human is also extraordinary, at the very least in creation and potential, and in ways we might not suspect or understand, and yet can begin to appreciate. That actually includes every human being. And how in Jesus, God takes us up into the full potential and meaning of what it means to be created in God’s image. Of course Jesus is the complete, exact, full, we could say unblemished image of God in humanity. As Colossians tells us, “all the fullness of the Deity…in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9; see also Colossians 1; Hebrews 1:3).

Humans are special in being uniquely related to God. That is evident in creation, and made clear in new creation, entered into by faith, with baptism accompanying that, picturing another aspect of why God became flesh, to take us humans through death into the fullness of life.

And so we need not diminish who we are, nor should we get any kind of big head about it. Humans are indeed humbled yet exalted in and through Jesus. We have a special place and identity in and through him. So that we should embrace our humanity in terms of God’s good creation and will for us fulfilled in new creation in and through Jesus.

“we shall overcome”: Martin Luther King Jr. Day

We Shall Overcome” was a beautiful anthem of the American Civil Rights Movement. It was sung by the African-Americans of that time, and those who stood with them in their cause for justice in equal rights in the United States. It was more than a push back against the Jim Crow laws of the south (not to mention the segregation in the north), but a stand in saying, “We will accept, and take no more of this.” Rosa Parks was a key person in getting the movement started, and there was no more prominent leader in it, in fact he is considered the leader of that movement, today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The song expresses a stand rooted in God’s image within all humanity. That we are made for relationship and love, and an understanding that we are in this life together. And that we all have our part in it, both in relationships, and in vocation. And it’s a song of commitment to overcome injustice together, but not in a violent way, but with a commitment to nonviolence. Martin Luther King Jr. was impacted both by the life and example of Mahatma Gandhi, and preeminently by Jesus himself who taught his followers to love their enemies and turn the other cheek. King over and over again preached and spoke in these terms, and with the words of Jesus. And he and many others put those words into practice again and again.

We do need to stand up for what is right, particularly when it affects others. And we who in the United States live to this day in a privileged condition, especially compared with our African-American sisters and brothers need to be sensitive to how we might play in that ourselves without realizing it, as well as develop sensitivity to how society itself is bent in this direction. How we are all, each and everyone impacted by prejudice in prejudging others through some stereotypes, instead of really getting to know them, and becoming aware of their difficulties and plight.

And we need to remember what was done to them: They were stolen from their nations in Africa, and forced to be slaves with no possibility of freedom, at least not under the normal circumstances. And to this day are discriminated against in the criminal justice system, and before that, all of this lending itself to the fallout which would occur with any of us. And a deep wounding which can only be healed through much time, leaving its scars behind.

As in all things, and as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew and preached, the one hope for all humankind and against all evil is found in the gospel of Christ. Through that good news we are reconciled to God and to each other. Sin is dealt with, and all the injustice with it through the atoning sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, the resurrection bringing the new life of love into the here and now, to break all the chains of injustice, and bring in nothing less than the freedom of God’s children.

We are all in this together. Today I celebrate and remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and of all those who stood with him in love against the hate of that time. And remember that though some most significant changes came through that movement, we have not yet arrived to the place where we fully love and accept each other, and have the best interest of the others in our hearts. We’re not there yet.

Laws of the land can help and actually are crucial against corrupt systems, but what is especially needed is the change of hearts through the gospel, and an acclimation toward justice which we find in scripture fulfilled in the gospel, as well as in other places where this ethic is taught on earth through God’s image within all humankind. But there is no place where it is so thoroughly taught with the hope of being fully realized as in the gospel of Christ, to begin in the church.

This is an essential part of the heart of our calling as witnesses of Christ and the good news in him. Something we wish to carry on in the love and compassion of Christ, in and through him.

the dignity and destiny of all peoples

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign[b] on the earth.”

Revelation 5

As we draw near to the day on which we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in light of the present time, we do well again and again to reflect on the dignity and destiny of all of God’s created children.

That means we need to accept and learn to appreciate every culture. We might not celebrate or live out life like others do, but we need to see their strengths and our weaknesses. We need to look for and find the good in their way of life, and the not so good in our way. And we need to learn from them, and be open to appreciate ways in which God’s image is uniquely reflected in them.

We enslaved peoples from the African nations, on what pretext, I don’t know. Just because we could. And supposedly good people stood by, and ended up even participating, maybe trying to put a human face on this inhumane evil. And even the church stood by, either saying nothing, or at times, even justifying it.

And to this day there are people who see dark skinned people as somehow inferior. Today we have the scourge and lie of white nationalism. As if somehow we who are white are better, as if God created us a notch above the others. And in fact some have even argued that certain “races” (there is actually only one: the human race) are subhuman.

God’s word gives the lie to all of that in the truth that all whom God has created, God intends to redeem into the new creation. That all humans are made in God’s image. And that such are going to reign on earth.

What does all of this mean for us now? And especially where I live in the United States of America? I’m sure it means quite a lot, but from my perspective, I’ll name two. It means we need to live differently right where the rubber meets the road, in our relationships with others. That we need to go out of our way not to judge what ought not to be judged. One example from my own life: I am a worker, and while I can relate to people, I am a down to business person, who doesn’t like to “waste time.” But I notice that people from other ethnicities like to spend more time and visit, which for me cuts into the time during which I should be working. I leave room, and actually want to make room for such times when I can, but work itself is the priority.

I can learn from others to stop here and there, and appreciate the other. While also noting that these people work just as hard, and do just as well on that end, in fact they might make some contributions to the work itself which helps us do better. In other words, I need to see everything in its entirety and put the best case on everything, even if I may not be able to see it at the time.

For us, this means we have a learning, and more precisely a growing curve. The point I’m making here is that we need to stop putting others down, just because we don’t live the way they do. We need to ask what God’s values are. They have to put up with us, with our blind spots, and how often we put work over people and relationships. I’m sure work was important to Jesus. But never at the expense of relationships for sure.

My other point would be the church itself. How are we doing in showing the world the dignity and destiny, indeed, the beauty of all humanity? I wonder. Overall, with some exceptions I don’t think we’re doing all that well. There are white churches, black churches, and then other churches of other ethnicities right in the same city. And to some extent that’s understandable, and we’re not to force the issue, but be in prayer over it. But especially us white folks need to take it on ourselves, considering history, to purposefully open the door for a multiracial witness. That would mean taking people of other ethnicities onto the pastoral staff, and into the leadership of the church.

This is a part of our witness to the truth and reality and power of the good news in Jesus. In which we’re to live, and be committed to. Accepting others fully, just as God in and through Christ fully accepted us.

Christians do those kinds of things

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

1 Peter 2:11-12

The idea that Christians do those kinds of things can actually be a two-edged sword. Professing-I say- Christians did evil in the Crusades and against Jews as well. Those who have named the name of Christ have not always lived up to that name. Not that we can match Christ, but we are to be a community as well as individuals who are Christ-like, strikingly different than society around us.

The difference was stark as well as more subtle, definitely pronounced when Christianity first came on the scene: a fulfillment of Judaism, and yet in a way that no Jews anticipated, so that what Christians did, Jews would never do. And in sharp contrast, indeed opposition to the rest of humanity, the other group of people than Jews being called Gentiles, in this case the Romans. Christians actively protected babies from abortion, were to be faithful to only one spouse, considered humility a virtue, and I’m sure on and on it goes. Old hat now, since the knowledge of the story, and of Christianity played out in churches for centuries throughout the world has given at least many a kind of image of what that means, oftentimes by this familiarity breeding contempt, at least losing sight of the revolutionary character of what it means to follow Christ, to be a Christian.

Sometimes we might pinch ourselves and ask why in the world we’re doing what we’re doing, and not doing other things. Christians have been criticized for doing what they do out of a religious motive in comparison to nonreligious people who do the same thing, it is said not out of a religious motive, but out of a heart of love. There is no question that church and Christianity can be an empty ritual and religion which might even cause more harm than good. Of that I sadly have no doubt.

But at the heart of what Christianity really means as to its goal is the actual fulfillment of what it means to be human. And at the heart of that is love played out in good works. Faith in Jesus is restorative to the humanity that God created in the first place through the new creation in Jesus. A Christian should epitomize what it means to be human. What that involves might be debated, but scripture gives a clear picture of what it is. There’s some overlap with society at large, because humans are made in the image of God. Therefore people everywhere believe that loving others is important. But that love, just like all else in creation can be distorted so that it’s twisted, often to a self-love which “loves” for its own use and pleasure at the expense of another. And often in marked contrast to Jesus’s teaching about loving one’s enemies.

So why do I do the things I do? And part of that frankly is putting up with myself, being patient with myself, and my own unhelpful foibles, repentant yes, but still patient. At the heart of that is the cross, and in Jesus’s death seeing God’s love for us, and forgiveness and new life extended to us in Jesus. So that we want to follow on that basis. And live and do as Jesus did. With ongoing forgiveness needed for both omissions and commissions which deviate from that. But nonetheless that trajectory being our goal and passion in life from day to day.

All of this by the grace (gift) of God in and through Jesus.

 

the importance of one’s work

I’m not sure if you can attach work to vocation, or God’s calling, which is part of my frustration in writing, but in some general sense one surely can. Because God’s creation of humanity in God’s image involves representing God in the world in what humans do in their rule which is actual stewardship over the earth and God’s creation on earth. Work is important from the beginning, and only the toil due to working with the thorns comes from the curse of the ground because of humanity’s sin.

Work is certainly not the most important aspect of who we are, which is surely to know and love God, and in that communion to know and love each other. But we can’t separate work from that, because it’s part of the whole. Just as we rejoice in God’s works, we can rejoice in the good works of each other, and in those which God enables us to do.

We have the Protestant work ethic on the one hand, but also the Protestant penchant for being suspicious of good works. The former might have been mostly from Calvin and the latter inherited from Luther, but it’s not fair to suggest that those who emphasize rest from works in the faith that’s apart from works, fail to work themselves. The best of those traditions have some good understanding and balance between the faith that rests and the faith that works.

I love work, and hard work at that. Often I find it quite therapeutic. I may be under something, but not only the distraction, but effort of work helps one to settle into a kind of peace or blessing from God. Of course everything is a gift from God, work included. Works will continue beyond this life, but what we won’t miss is all the difficulties that can come with work in the here and now. Overcoming such difficulties indeed can be part of the fun now, but often require plenty of patience and persistence, and rest when those kinds of days come mercifully to an end.

Work is a part of who we are as humans. We’re given something to do which includes something of a creative capacity from God as well as the ability to cope with creation. All the while rejoicing in God’s works, and being thankful for the good works given to us. Even while we look forward to the rest to come in the next life, which actually will include even more works I take it. But done in the sphere of the new creation in which the dynamic will be striking, a work grounded in a wonderful freedom of love. In and through Jesus and to the glory of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

 

the woundedness of sin

Woe to the sinful nation,
a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers,
children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the Lord;
they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
and turned their backs on him.

Why should you be beaten anymore?
Why do you persist in rebellion?
Your whole head is injured,
your whole heart afflicted.
From the sole of your foot to the top of your head
there is no soundness—
only wounds and welts
and open sores,
not cleansed or bandaged
or soothed with olive oil.

Isaiah 1

Yesterday’s post was an apt enough application of our woundedness in terms of the effects of sin, specifically how we as sinners in our sin hurt each other verbally and in other ways. But the heart of our woundedness according to scripture is sin itself and the reality that we are sinners. In scripture that is seen as a sickeness, not in the equivalent of how that is used today in psychology, as in saying, for example, that so and so has a sickeness of some sort in their lying (“pathological liar”) or whatever is accepted as such. This sickness in scripture is moral, sin itself considered a sickness inflicted upon the sinner. So that we fail to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, and we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves. Instead we are turned in on ourselves as the center, everything else, even including God himself revolving around us, so to speak, to meet our needs. In a sense we become god, or enter into an idolatry that is both enslaving as well as self-serving.

We are sick in a moral, spiritual sense, because we are sinners. We not only fail to wish, or even desire the best for everyone (of course we wish the best for those we love, for our friends, insofar as we understand what that best might be), but we even are not unhappy when evil comes to some, and too often hardly care at all when someone we know is in some kind of trouble, except perhaps to be concerned in how that might affect us.

We not only sin, but we are sinners through and through, from the top of our heads, to the tip of our toes. Not meaning that we can’t do any good at all. But only that sin somehow pervades everything. So we are talking about what we both do and fail to do because of who we are. As Jesus said, every good person bears good fruit, but every evil person bears bad fruit.

Our sin is in terms of brokenness in not fufilling or living out our humanity as God intends it to be. Hence the need to be “made whole.” And our relationships are broken: our relationship with God, and with other humans. With creation in terms of our stewardship so that we use it for ourselves, and end up abusing it, rather than taking care of it, even ruling over it under God, for the good of all (Genesis 1). And we are broken even in terms of our relationship with ourselves, so that we are all but lost in making ourselves the focus, so that we fail to flourish in the true meaning of our existence.

And so enters Jesus to not only restore us to the ideal we find in the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 and 3, but to help us begin to realize all the goodness God intended. In and through Jesus himself, the perfect human, his person and work, the sacrifice of himself for our sins.

“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”

1 Peter 2:24

what shapes us

America is looking toward a presidential election, the outcome of which will shape it one way or another. But that outcome is in part due to how America has already been shaped. As important as this election is, especially given the striking difference which seems to have come into play, this is not to be compared with the importance of being shaped by Jesus Christ through the gospel in the church, a shaping which is Trinitarian in its source: from the Father, through the Son and by the Holy Spirit.

While I’m afraid the former takes on something of a formative place in the lives of many of us who name the name of Jesus that only the latter deserves, the truth is that we are shaped by where our faith, hope and love lie. And we’re to have one complete, entire commitment by which we’re shaped, to Jesus himself as our Lord and King. God not only is One, as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but God is alone God, so that we’re to love him with all of our being and doing, and in that spirit, love our neighbor as ourselves.

It is God in Jesus by the Spirit who shapes us. But God does so through the gospel, through the sacramental and common life of the church, and through life itself, in all its bends, blessings, and even brokenness.

A key thought in this post is the truth that while, for example, being an American inescapably impacts us all, in a variety of different ways, since after all, we are American citizens, or we happen to live in America, or whatever society we’re a part of, we in Jesus find our essential shaping, even in that, in him no less. And that shaping in him is of course Trinitarian, gospel, and church-oriented. The common thread is a person, the person of Jesus himself. So that we find that we’re united not only to God through him, but also to each other in him. And in that unity we are being remade into the image no less of the One who is remaking us, a shaping that is to continue and last forever.

my take on politics and the politic which will stand

Allan R. Bevere has been formative in my understanding of politics, and his book, The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World spells out well what I think is the error of both the religious right and religious left: allegiance and commitment to entities which by their very nature, cannot be allied with what has been called, “the politics of Jesus.” God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus is not from this world, and in a sense is not of this world, when referring to what scripture calls, “the world” along with “the flesh” and “the devil.” Yet it is for this world.

The gospel meaning good news is as big as all creation in the new creation come in Jesus. It can be known only in and through Jesus as Lord and Savior. And in and through Jesus’ body, the church. King Jesus is the one through whom one politic will stand when all others have ended, think of the visions in Daniel depicting the end of worldly kingdoms by the kingdom of God. Through Jesus which in meaning includes all revealed in scripture about him, we find the answer to all of life, not only about forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, but also the purpose for all creation realized in the new creation in him.

Going back to Genesis we find that humankind is unique in that it is created in God’s image: male and female. And as such, humankind is given the calling to rule over all the earth, essentially to be stewards of God’s good gifts for the good of all and to the glory of God. This is getting at the heart of what salvation is all about. It is not only saving us from our sins, but also for love to God and to others, and in accordance with God’s design for life in what will end up being the new heaven and new earth, in scripture that being a garden and a city. Jesus will be King of kings, so that in the government to come, humans will take their place in God’s order for all things, an order which will bring humans to their full potential as flourishing individuals living in community in a love from God which changes all: from the hearts of individuals, to every system in place. 

To the present: evil is very much at work in the world, and we’re told that it will be so to the end until King Jesus returns. The call for us now in King Jesus is to take the way of the cross, the way of death and resurrection, to enact along with proclamation, the gospel of King Jesus. With that, God has ordained the state (Romans 13) to bear the sword, as it says, against evil doers, yes. And also with responsibility to enact justice as best they can, with an emphasis we find in scripture to see that the needs of the poor and helpless are met.

What worldly governments do then, is important in God’s eyes. But while the church can hopefully influence such for good, simply by being faithful to its calling from God, the church of necessity, must beware emptying the good news of its power by looking to the power and prestige of worldly authorities. Our King over any other authority we may be under in this life is Jesus. Jesus is our Lord, and Caesar is not. We comply to Caesar insofar as that is the will of King Jesus. And that will seems to be one of living in an alternative kingdom, which can’t be aligned with earthly kingdoms, but brings heaven down to earth in and through Jesus.

This is something of my sketch at present for what is indeed important in this life as well as the life to come. Politics as in the ordering of society for the good of all in God’s good will in Jesus.