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.

heads up on white privilege

They served him by himself and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.

Genesis 43:32; NRSVue

In the United States there’s great controversy practically raging over what is now called “wokeness,” the awareness that the systems have had and continue to have an adverse effect on people of color, particularly African Americans. Though when you study US history, you’ll find that people of different ethnicities have often had a major problem, especially when first coming to the United States, or due to events. But the two major glaring sins of the United States have been the displacement of the indigenous (in my younger years, called “Indians”) and the enslavement of Africans. And what has come from that so that African Americans often find themselves more segregated in the north than they were in the south, and in places that become run down as well as depositories of unhealthy waste. Yes, strides have been made, but there still is discrepancy and disparity, serious overall in actual net worth monetarily. And that is as much the result of the advantages whites have had over many generations, as it is the result of blacks being disadvantaged throughout the same time.

Some will inevitably say that I am now being divisive and also not talking about something positive and helpful. But I would challenge all to keep reading their Bibles from cover to cover and pay close attention to the marked emphasis over and over again on God’s concern for the poor, as well as God’s action, including salvation and deliverance, not to mention judgment against injustice. It is not helpful nor true to scripture to read it all as if it has to do with our personal relationship to God. The gospel covers that and all of life. The light of the good news in Jesus comes into every dark or we might say instead bleak place. And it exposes all that is false, wrong, and contrary to God’s good will.

It is never enough just to read the Bible. Never. We must also pay attention to life itself. What is God saying through our reading of the Bible which actually pertains to the real world out there? And not just our world of course, but the world of others, particularly the poor and the oppressed and certainly add to that the refugee.

Yes, we need to be awakened to all that is wrong. To listen to those who are affected. To pray yes, but also to find out ways that we can help. In this case being willing to acknowledge that we may have been blind, and I personally know that I have, to a white privilege which has excluded or placed burdens and barriers on those of our human family who are black, with other people of color included. Something for us to be awakened to if we’re to take scripture and the gospel seriously. In and through Jesus.

devotion to prayer along with certain kind of prayer

Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving. At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison, so that I may reveal it clearly, as I should.

Colossians 4:2-4

Prayers of all kinds for ourselves and for others should be a practice which we regularly do. We should have a special prayer time along with prayer punctuating our days. Again, all kinds of prayers. For needs, but also with praise and thanksgiving. But looking to God. Waiting on God. Wanting God’s help, even breakthrough for whatever problems we and others are facing.

Usually when we read Paul’s personal request in the above passage, we think of it mostly if not completely in terms of souls getting saved. While that’s certainly included, the ramifications of the gospel are often all but lost. We should be praying for those in strategic places, who are in the open, that the word which goes out from them will not only save souls, but shake and shape the world in terms of the gospel. That all the barriers of “race” might be broken down, that the principalities and powers embedded in the world system might be served notice not only that their day is going to come, but that in a sense it’s already here, as we anticipate the curtain closing on them when the present kingdom of God finally enters in in its fullness at Christ’s return.

We need to begin to understand that the wisdom of God through Christ and the way of the cross is not only the power of salvation for all who believe, but also through the church serves notice to the principalities and powers of the world order that something good is coming, a light penetrating the darkness, and indeed exposing them for what they truly are. That is the way of the cross, the way of the love that comes from Christ. So that the world will be shaken, and ultimately turned upside down, really right side up. As we anticipate the Day when all of this will be finalized once forever when Jesus returns.

In and through Jesus.

Christ’s judgment on the nations

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.”

Matthew 25:31-33

I wish this passage from Christ’s lips would be taken seriously by those who claim to be Christians. But when it’s not taught with its ramifications, then it will be largely lost, not a part of what faith and life consists of for the many who don’t even see themselves as Christ followers. This goes beyond that, and is really an indictment against the church, which can end up not only asleep at the switch, but even a part of the problem if it doesn’t really take seriously a passage like this, and its implications for life based on the rest of Scripture.

Jesus’s words here echo something of the concern of the Hebrew (Old Testament) prophets about God’s vision of shalom: peace and prosperity for all, which while we know will never be entirely fulfilled until he returns, nevertheless is at the forefront of Jesus’s words of blessing and judgment in this passage.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:34-46

Individuals yes, but also nations will be judged by how they treated those in need, and that includes how they treated all. The rich nations who do not help the poor, indebted nations. Who put their own prosperity ahead of ending terrorism and starvation. Who put national interest above the good of others, and are willing to kill innocents in the process. Nations which refuse to help those fleeing war and death. Nations which have made systems of evil and hold on to them, against ethnicities, here in the United States obviously, against African Americans, along with the Native Americans. And the widening gap between the rich and the poor cannot rightfully be ignored. Christ will judge all of that, and will judge whatever complicity we’ve had in it.

So we need to become aware of this, develop a conscience that is no longer seared, but becoming sensitive, so that we can begin to see Christ where we’ve never seen him before. And be present to help in whatever ways we can. 

In and through Jesus.

leave no one behind

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God…

Hebrews 12:15b

Make sure no one gets left out of God’s generosity.

Hebrews 12:15b; MSG

I wonder if we as Christians where I live and have lived for some time now really think and act like the writer to the Hebrews wants believers and the church to do. To leave no one behind.

Of course we can’t make anyone do anything. We’re in such great need ourselves, that to suppose we can somehow control others even for their good, is not even a good thought. What self-control we experience for ourselves is only a fruit of the Spirit.

That we’re all in need of God’s grace is exactly the point made in this passage (click above links for context). Much is involved in that, but in essence it’s about being present in love with each other, the love of God by the Spirit in Jesus. It’s being present for each other both in giving and receiving.

It seems to me that Eugene Peterson’s rendering is so helpful here, given the pastoral wisdom he had.

Work at getting along with each other and with God. Otherwise you’ll never get so much as a glimpse of God. Make sure no one gets left out of God’s generosity. Keep a sharp eye out for weeds of bitter discontent. A thistle or two gone to seed can ruin a whole garden in no time. Watch out for the Esau syndrome: trading away God’s lifelong gift in order to satisfy a short-term appetite. You well know how Esau later regretted that impulsive act and wanted God’s blessing—but by then it was too late, tears or no tears.

Hebrews 12:14-17; MSG

It’s all about being in this together. We can’t make it, or at least certainly cannot make it as well or well enough on our own.

And let this be especially true for those who are marginalized whom our Lord would welcome with open arms. Be it anyone of the LGBTQ+ community, the poor, those ethnicities and immigrants who struggle in a system which does not make room for them or even worse. We especially need to be attentive to all such, to have God’s help through the Spirit and with each other to be aware. Acknowledging that we too need the Lord’s help in this ministry of Christ’s body, ourselves.

This is the heart the Lord wants us to have for each other. The heart God has for each one of us, for everyone. In and through Jesus.

Jesus’ freedom proclamation (Juneteenth in the United States)

When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:16-19

Jesus’ ministry, the good news he brought was one of emancipation, proclamation of freedom to all who are captives. Too often we’ve just seen this in terms of freedom from the  penalty of sin, and hopefully we’ve seen it as freedom from sin’s power, as well. Even though Jesus was not about rescuing Israel from Roman occupation as Israel expected from the Messiah to come, he was about ushering in a kingdom which makes such entities as Rome essentially bystanders, the kingdom of God on the scene, someday to rule completely, but now in a subversive reign. God’s way of change now isn’t easy. It’s Jesus-like, which means cross-shaped. But it brings in the needed, lasting change. But do churches fully appreciate all that means?

Juneteenth is a new national holiday commemorating the day in 1865 when slavery in the United States officially ended. Unfortunately not all the slaves were set free that day, and we know the ugly aftermath which followed. Jesus and the good news in him includes freedom for all peoples to love and worship God, and to live as neighbors to love and be loved. It is not complicated, even though we often make it so. At the same time the web of deceit in refusing to follow through in the simplicity and power of what such freedom means to some extent sadly envelopes so many of us. We fail to see clearly, and therefore we don’t appreciate what others go through even to this day.

May the Lord help us, and lead us to see how we white folks can help people of color to live as equals among us, most importantly how people of color can help us in this. Beginning in the church, even through the church and God’s reign there. In and through Jesus.

the evil of racism

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:26-27

I remember as a young boy living in the country pretending like I was Hank Aaron as I swung a baseball bat hitting stones, or a baseball, putting my lips out to look more like him. Little or nothing did I know about what these baseball players were going through. Hank Aaron (who died at the age of 86, Friday) broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record, but not without having to endure death threats. Willie Horton who played for the Detroit Tigers and was mentored by Aaron, said how he enjoyed playing for the Tigers in the 1960’s, even though he could not stay in the same hotel as his white teammates.

Fast forward to today. We might think things have improved, but notably, the past four plus years white supremacists have come out of the woodwork making their presence felt. No, the sin and sickness of racism is still very much alive.

Interestingly Africans are thought to be the only ones on the planet 100% human in their DNA. How that shakes out, or what it means, I don’t know, except in the mix we can say assuredly that all people on earth are human in the sense meant here in Scripture. Those are scientific categories after all, though I think they’re interesting, myself. The essential point is that all human beings are made in God’s image. That all humans are special.

Looking down on others who are different as inferiors seems to be an endemic part of much of humanity in this world. Which in large part was why Christ came. To break down those barriers, the hate between peoples, and make one new humanity in all its wonderful diversity (Ephesians 2:11-22). But all equal and one family in the human race.

We need to go out of our way to root out racism in ourselves, to begin with, and be sensitive to how it’s baked into society in ways which make it hard for those to see who are living far enough removed from it, but plain as day to those who live in and are victims of it.

This is something we need to become well aware of, sensitive to, and desirous before God to see change. And we need to pray and advocate for that change. Marching with others in peaceful protest. And learning from those who experience it. As we try to realize what Christ prayed for: that we may all be one, just as he and his Father are one (John 17:20-23). In and through Jesus.

for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: the politics of the good news

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Mark 4:12-17

This Isaiah-prophesied revelation came to life in Galilee the moment Jesus started preaching. He picked up where John left off: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

Mark 4:17; MSG

Jesus’s message and proclamation was “the good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23). The gospel is actually political through and through. Of course it’s about our individual salvation as well, but it includes so much more, really everything within God’s creation and human culture. God’s kingdom in King Jesus was coming in, but not in the way that people would naturally anticipate. They wanted in one way or another for God to end Rome’s rule over them. But God saw a much bigger picture, and really an altogether different one. Yes, it was about fulfilling God’s prior promises to them, but in the ways of a costly love which would break down all barriers, creating one new humanity, a beautifully woven mosaic of people groups together (Ephesians 2:11-22).

During this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, let’s take time to pray and ask God to show us where we are blind and resistant to what God has done, is doing, and will complete in and through King Jesus. And what works God has for us in what God is doing now in this regard (Ephesians 2:10; MSG). In and through Jesus.

racism is a strong biblical theme, systemic as well as personal

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 3:6

God called Abraham to become the father of all nations. Abraham and his progeny were to be blessed to be a blessing. But what do we read in Scripture. Israel saw this blessing to be hoarded by themselves, and shunned outsiders. There was certainly strong disapproval of others, which turned into hate. Instead they were supposed to be a light to the nations around them, ultimately to the world. A light of the revelation of God in terms of who God is, and God’s intentions for humanity. But we know that Israel utterly failed.

So Jesus comes as the one who would be the true Israelite and fulfill God’s calling. And of course he did in ways that were unanticipated, not the least of which fully including believing Gentiles, including those hated Samaritans as full members of God’s family.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Ephesians 2:14-18

God in Christ through the good news in the cross breaks barriers, starting with Jews and Gentiles. The Jews hated the Gentiles, and vice versa. Tragically the church has hated Jews for centuries. And there’s all kind of bitter ethnic rivalries that we’ve seen played out in history in recent times right up to the present day.

Sin is pervasive in everything. So that means it’s not only personal, in each person’s heart. But it’s also societal, indeed systemic, rooted in the world system. And that plays out in the history of racism in the United States, and specifically what is easily most pronounced in that, the brutal enslaving of Africans, and all that has followed. This is something the gospel addresses, but not just in terms of changing hearts. But also in uncovering the sin of systemic racism in our institutions. And rooting it out.

The gospel’s full impact won’t be realized until Christ returns. But it is pure blindness not to want King Jesus’s agenda to begin to be fulfilled now. In the midst of the nations and governing authorities who are subject to him, to be judged by him.

We seek to follow in the way of love, yes love even for our enemies as Jesus taught us. Part of the heart of the gospel, and what we’re to be up to in prayer and patient love, beginning with each other, but meant for everyone else as well. In and through Jesus.

accept the struggle against racism, etc.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Ephesians 6:10-20

We can’t forget, we need to always remember: we’re in a spiritual battle. That’s the way it is now, and there’s no escape, even let up from that. The battle does seem fierce at times, and other times it seems we have some rest. But we must always be ready, not caught off guard.

It is a fight over the long haul. And it’s a gospel fight, not a culture wars nor political one. We shouldn’t care who wins the culture war, or the political contests.* That’s not the battle we’re in. The problem with aligning ourselves in such battles it seems to me is that we’re getting our eye off the ball in the actual game we’re in, figuratively speaking. Of course it’s no game, but out and out war, spiritual war.

And part of the grip the powers don’t want to let go of is the grip of racism, specifically against Africans we stole and treated worse than animals, and still look down on to this day as a society. Christians, and specifically white Christians must be in the forefront of bringing the light of the gospel into that darkness.

With reference to racism in the United States specifically against African-Americans we need to listen well, pray, listen again, pray, and keep doing that, keeping our mouths shut, except to speak out in the ways God gives us. As we become more and more aware, we need to do what we can to stand against this evil. First beginning with ourselves, and that will be ongoing, the rest of our lives. Seeking to understand better how we’re in complicity with systemic racism, as well as how the church and we as part of that, can see this evil chain broken.

Nothing less than spiritual warfare, bringing the truth of the gospel to shine its light not only in people’s hearts, but against the darkness seen everywhere. Systemic racism, as well as the racial prejudice we will find if we’re honest, yes, in our own hearts. We want to confess our sins, repent, and see ongoing change. Even as we look forward to the Day when all of this will be gone. Until then, we are strengthened to stand firm in the spiritual battle. In and through Jesus.

*Not that we can’t participate as a citizen of a nation, either by voting, or abstaining from voting.