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.

love is about helping others

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge the weak brother or sister for whom Christ died is destroyed. But when you thus sin against brothers and sisters and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never again eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13; NRSVue

In the Hebrew Bible God is superior to all other gods. But we learn in the New Testament that in actuality that there is no other god but God. However not everyone readily understood or received that. Those who did could easily look down on those who didn’t. Paul makes it clear that while love does not mean setting aside knowledge, to love means that we temper what we do with that knowledge.

Knowledge can be weaponized to put people in order. That can result in the loss of faith by those who are not ready for the change and perhaps never will be. Paul in his writings seems to try to point out that those who are weak in their faith in that they don’t accept the changes that have come in Christ, but remain scrupulous to Jewish laws and tradition, should accept the fact that others who have faith in Christ but abide by none of that are completely accepted by God. With the obvious implication that they too no longer have to abide by such customs.

Love is central in how we navigate everything. We don’t set aside knowledge for the sake of love. But we act with that knowledge only in accordance with love. Our goal is to help others and if that means we curtail both what we do and say, then sobeit. At the same time the weak are told not to judge the strong, not to look down on them. Which is another important theme in Paul’s letters. Recent work on Romans sees that as major in that letter.

We may think we know better on this and that. But how will that help others who think differently? While we won’t agree with them, the goal must always be kept in view. It is to love in a way that will help others come to see and understand all the truth of the good news in Jesus.

God’s light breaking through

And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.

1 Corinthians 2:13

Usually we all plod along, often struggling to understand, but proceeding from what understanding we have.

Then there are those seasons, usually short times, maybe a bit each day but probably less often when God’s light just seems to flood us and help us see and seemingly understand better many things. When that window is open there seems almost no end to where we might go, what we might explore. Though God’s light is for life, not for our speculation or mere knowledge. Head knowledge by itself is not enough, though it is good to have.

But I’m soon back to where I almost always am. Struggling to understand, but looking to God for the insight only God can give. In and through Jesus.

part of God’s loving training: we’re on our own

[the LORD] stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly,
guarding the paths of justice
and preserving the way of his faithful ones.
Then you will understand righteousness and justice
and equity, every good path;
for wisdom will come into your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;
prudence will watch over you;
and understanding will guard you.

Proverbs 2:7-11

Not long ago I heard someone say that we just have to figure things out ourselves, make the best decision, the idea I think being something like God is not just going to hand out all we should do on a plate as it were. God wants us to make the best decisions we can.

Of course we should pray, and sometimes we will have a special sense of what it seems God wants us to do in a given situation. But by and large, we’re actually left to ourselves. But if we’ve been trained in wisdom and the knowledge that accompanies that, then we should be able to act and respond in ways that express love to God and to people, and honor God as God’s image bearers.

All the while seeking to take in and learn more of wisdom from God through life and faith. As we carry on in this world, especially seeking to follow Jesus together. In and through Jesus.

the most basic truth for us: God loves us

God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.

We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first.

1 John 4:17-19; MSG

There is nothing more basically important to us than the fact that we’re loved, and loved by God no less. We really have to hold on to that and not let go of it. God loves us, each and everyone God has created. God wants relationship with us, even longs for us. And God wants us to live in loving relationship with each other.

We humans are easily given to fear. We’re afraid of this and that, and for understandable, good reasons. But what is more important than that is God’s love. No matter what we face, no matter what happens or might happen, God is love and loves us. And we know because of that, God will take care of everything, that ultimately all will be well. So that even in the midst of the troubles of this life, we live in God’s love. And continue on knowing we’re loved both in our mind and experience.

And out of that love we seek to love others in practical, down to earth ways. In so doing extending God’s love to them in a way in which they’ll hopefully find that same love which exists for themselves.

The God who is love really wants the entire human race to live in that love. And out of that love in love with each other. Even now. In and through Jesus.

what John “the elder” and beloved apostle of our Lord might say to us now from 1 John 2:15-17

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

1 John 2:15-17

Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.

1 John 2:15-17; MSG

John would likely warn us in no uncertain terms that to play by the world’s ways is opposite and in fact in opposition to following Jesus. And that it shouldn’t be about our wanting, but about doing God’s will. This can be especially poignant when considering the political sphere. What are Christians advocating for and why? All of that needs to be examined in the light of Christ, who he is and his coming. Of course also what he has done and what that means for us both in terms of believing and doing.

When John is speaking of the world here, he is referring to the world system, the ways of the world. John describes what he means: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes,…the pride of life.” It’s centered around us, what we/I want, self-centered. It’s not about loving God, or loving our neighbor as ourselves.

John might tell us that Christians ought to advocate for others, be present for others, and not be concerned about ourselves. To seek to live in God’s will which would involve seeking the good of all, and the good of God’s good world. And that both God’s special revelation given to us in Scripture and the gospel, and God’s general revelation in creation worked out in some fashion in science and in other ways should be front and center in this.

We accept the good gifts and abilities God has given us and humankind, while we reject all that which is opposed to God’s will. But that rejection only in the way of Jesus, mostly in terms of what we actually accept and are all about: God’s grace and kingdom come and present in and through Jesus.

seeking understanding

The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge,
for the ears of the wise seek it out.

Proverbs 18:15

Knowledge. We live in a world filled with wonder, and among people complex in their makeup. And we’re in the midst of it, our heads often spinning over this and that. There is so much to unravel, to understand.

We’re told here in Proverbs that the heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, that the ears of the wise seek it out. Discernment and wisdom involve asking questions, probing questions, and not taking things at face value.

At the same time we are settled into the acceptance that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. That fear amounts to reverence and awe over God and God’s ways. There is no end to knowledge because God is the fountain of  it all. The more we understand about creation, the more apparent that there’s both mystery as well as intelligibility behind it all.

So we keep on processing. Never arriving. Seeking to love God and our neighbor through it all, and in all we do. In and through Jesus.

first things first

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9

I too often have the experience of getting through one thing or another that troubles me, finding inward peace with the freedom to think beyond troubles, only to be assailed by a new problem. I think there’s some serious wisdom in seeking kind of a monastic existence apart from the cares of this world. In my case it would be a married monastery. Yet in having to go through the extra difficulties one can grow in faith and wisdom. I suppose if I were to choose, unblinkingly I would take the former. But I am stuck in the latter, at least for now.

There’s a good word for us from Paul that relates to this, I think. Paul had plenty of serious concerns, but they were all more or less related directly to the kingdom of God. He filled his mind with good things, which is more than evident in his writings. And remember when he said in what is allegedly his last letter that he wanted the parchments and the scrolls (2 Timothy 4:13). He was a reader, or he had someone read to him due to what seems to have been an eye condition. At any rate, he kept himself occupied with truth, knowledge and beauty both from God’s revelation of Scripture, and from other sources as well, evident in the terms used here.

For me that means I need to major on what is major, do my best to take care of the rest, but not let go of what’s most essential. In fact even in addressing problems, we can do so hopefully through ways which will actually add to our well being, instead of tearing us down. While we don’t let go of what is helpful and edifying, from Scripture, and from other sources, all part of God’s revelation, as we sift though those things.

And we must act. Paul says to look at his life, and do what he does, to follow him as he follows Christ. That is so important. We need people who have learned, or at least are learning to walk the walk. To learn from them over time, just to be around them. Sadly the way it is, church life is hardly church life at all in so many good places. You have to really take initiative in looking for small groups, maybe even a house church, and develop relationships. I’ve gained a lot from that in recent years, even though it has been limited in the numbering of gatherings. Faithfulness to Christ in love for God and for others in God’s grace must be lived out, yes in our imperfect sometimes broken ways. But that must be our priority, indeed passion.

So we need both commitments: To occupy our minds with good things. And to live in the faith God gives us, following the good example of others, that we might in turn be an example. In and through Jesus.

back to the basics: communication

For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand.

2 Corinthians 1:13

Yesterday I kind of tried what amounts to a thought experiment which I felt was over my head, but shared anyway, at my wife’s insistence. But today I’m back into my comfort zone, trying to work through things which are more or less clear to me. If we would seek to be faithful in what we do understand, surely God would help us understand more.

Communication to me is so very basic, and something I want to take pains to do. What’s at stake here is my own understanding, then along with that, the understanding of others. I’m not sure if this came from years and years of listening to the New International Version of the Bible being read, or if I preferred that version because of its emphasis on clarity and accuracy. Supposedly it gives up some accuracy for clarity, and depending on how you look at that, I suppose you can say that’s so, though I might try to argue against that. It really ends up being just what you’re looking for in a translation. I hope for retaining as much of the sense of the original as possible, but communicated in the way we speak and think. After all, it seems like at least most of the Bible was written in vernacular, the spoken language of those who received it.

But more important than any of that is just the priority of simply understanding, and not letting go until one does understand. Though I have to admit that along the way sometimes I’m still a bit puzzled at what’s actually being said. I am in Proverbs right now, and that’s certainly the case with a number of sayings there. But proverbs are often intended to be somewhat of a puzzle that we’re to turn over and over again in our minds, for more reasons than simply understanding them.

Understanding itself is definitely not enough. We then need to respond in faith and act accordingly. We need to ask how it applies to ourselves, and us together as God’s people.

There is the sense of mystery that should be honored. We need to realize that we’re not going to understand everything. Even though God makes his thoughts known to us, we will never plumb the depths of them, or fully understand and know as God does. And it does seem like God wants that to be a part of our faith journey now. Like Abraham, we go on by faith, even when we don’t know where we’re going, just what the future holds. Leaning not to our own understanding, but trusting in the Lord with all our hearts, submitting to him in all our ways. So when we don’t understand, which in some respects is all the time, we bow to the Mystery, to God.

In the meantime I’ll continue to try to translate God’s directives into my life, into my involvement in the community of Jesus, and in the world. I’ll keep working at that, because I often am at a loss. For the goal of hopefully following Jesus in this world with others, and being faithful to the good news. Beginning with myself. In and through Jesus.

my thoughts matter, but then again, really they don’t

A song of ascents. Of David.

My heart is not proud, Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    both now and forevermore.

Psalm 131

I have been somewhat wrestling through a most difficult subject which is dividing the church nowadays. And there are other issues. Some of those I’m willing to take a stand on. Others, I’m more in prayerful sorrow, even dismay. It’s not like I don’t hold to some position from Scripture. It’s just that not everything may not be as clear cut as we make it to be.

All that said, I’m just one person, quite limited. The entire church has to be involved in processing issues on at least two levels: the congregation of believers themselves, led by those who are grounded well theologically. The Spirit speaks to and through the entire church, not just the educated one. And leadership which is grounded to some extent theologically and academically as well through the ups and downs and difficulties of ministry, and of life itself.

We’re all in this together. I’m offering whatever actual help God has given me, but it is indeed most limited. On just so many things I either don’t know, or am not certain. And I know that in nothing at all do I know as God does. Yet at the same time God gives us enough to keep moving forward by faith. So that together we can put our faith and hope in the God of our Lord Jesus. In and through Jesus.