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.

we’re all in this together

The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

John 1:29; NRSVue

and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 2:2; NRSVue

…the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

1 Timothy 4:10; NRSVue

It is vitally important for us to remember that all of us are in this together. And that includes everyone. We are together in this life. We’re not just individuals or families. There is such a thing as a society.

I could have shared other scripture passages to make this point, like how God through Christ has reconciled Jew and gentile to God’s Self so that they are now one body, one new humanity. The passages quoted above make it clear that no one is excluded or left behind, and that is not just some individual salvific thing, but plays out in Christ’s embrace of us all not just individually, but together. We are one flock in Christ our good shepherd (John 10). Of course, the sheep need to enter through the gate which metaphorically is Christ.

The togetherness spoken of here is especially evident in the church, Christ present not only among the church, but in the church, Christ the life of the church together and in each and every one of its parts, or members, as we think of the church metaphorically as Christ’s body. That’s also a picture of what should be, but alas in this broken world, is at best cracked. So, we’re to see everyone as included because of what God in Christ has done. Even the most difficult. Thankfully that includes me, too. Yes, no one is left behind, we’re all in this together.

In and through Jesus.

looking forward to the end of what is destined to end

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating,
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy
and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime,
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat,
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD
and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the LORD.

Isaiah 65:17-25; NRSVue

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them and be their God;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.

Revelation 21:1-6a; NRSVue

I really dislike living in a world in which even what is good and a blessing often also carries some kind of curse with it. Take even the blessed sunlight for example. Yes, what wonderful light it gives us, and we’re dependent on the heat that comes from it. But its rays not only can fade books on bookshelves but can kill those whose skin is too often or intensely exposed to it. Or take trees, another wonderful blessing. Needed for many reasons, one of them to store carbon, also for the ecological balance of our planet. Bringing wonderful shade from the sun’s rays, and some relief from the heat. Yet in a storm they can come down crashing and wreak havoc, even death. There’s really no end to this. We want to do the best we can in this life, but there’s really no escape from danger as well as problems. The best of things will fall apart over time, we humans as well.

But some blessed day the ideal which is so prevalent in our minds, but so deftly alludes us now will be completely realized. We will then live in the blessed light of the glory of God, in an existence in which we will no longer need to be protected from what can harm us. An existence which always will escape us in this life, even while we try to do the best we can. Told to us in scripture here for a reason. To help us understand that all the good we see here and the ideal imagined from that, the highest and complete good, will someday be fully realized. Through and through as God is all and all. Through the full reconciliation of all things in Christ.

In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to do the best I can to mitigate what might not be good for others. All the while realizing that the best of this including ourselves can’t last. But that God will make all things new in a way which will somehow not only reverse but even negate all the tragedy that has happened before. Yes, everything. Somehow for sure. In and through Jesus.

glimpses of light, but the darkness not lost

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

Romans 8:28

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

1 Corinthians 15:28

Scripture is loaded with stories which can make you wonder. If we read the Bible as though it were flat, then we put it together like a jig saw puzzle. And what is often said is that one part is as legitimate as another, for example Jesus’s words not to resist evil and to turn the other cheek do not at all cancel out the violence in the Hebrew scriptures, but both somehow are equally legitimate, though inevitably contradictions won’t stand. Jesus himself did not allow such, rebuking his disciples for suggesting fire should come down and destroy the Samaritans who did not receive him, telling them they didn’t know by what spirit they were speaking.

There are things both in Scripture and in our lives which are broken and need redeemed. And that is not an easy process. But God is faithful, and we can actually help the process and reduce the pain and trouble if we commit ourselves as well as hold on to faith in God, that God will see everything through to the good end in Christ. That is not unlike the messes we see in Scripture, even including arguably either the accommodations or mistaken notions or projections we find there about God, what God is doing.

Everything really needs to be understood in term of the God who is love, who makes that love known which we find everywhere in Scripture, but is revealed fully only in Christ, and Christ on the cross. We have to read and see all of Scripture in that light, as well as all of our life in the same light as well. There are inevitable difficulties from simply living in the world, as well as from our own errors, mistakes, missteps, sins. God is out to redeem all.

What we need to do is to hang on by faith in spite of what we’re going through, what our experience is. To the extent that we do, we’ll begin to at least sense, and hopefully begin to experience what is the end of God’s purpose in Christ: complete, unmitigated love, with nothing whatsoever able to withstand that ultimately, and if we can only trust God, what we’ll more and more experience here and now, the same reality which will be ours and all of creation forever in the redemption and reconciliation of all things in Christ.

Something we not only look forward to, but begin to experience now, even with the inevitable even in part necessary difficulties we go through. In and through Jesus.

*nothing* separates us from God’s love in Jesus

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:35-39

I believe a passage somewhere in the Apocrypha along with the Book of Common Prayer tells us that God loves all God has made. I think within an orthodox reading of Scripture (see Gregory of Nyssa) you can make a case for a Christian universalism, which by grace always involves faith, repentance and change. I am open to such a view myself.

But we who are “in Christ” by grace through faith, along with baptism get to experience this love firsthand, though I would never say that others don’t experience God’s love. But Christ is central to this love being given and experienced by humankind.

It’s important to accept what amounts to the truth that God loves all. In Scripture when it seems to indicate otherwise, we can say that we need to read and understand that Scripture in light of Christ. The writer along with the Israelites or whoever was involved may have been mistaken. God does hate what violates love, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love all who are made in God’s image, and in some sense all of God’s creation. God in Christ is out to redeem and reconcile all things to God’s self, as well as to each other in proper relations.

But all of this, or the basic truth needs to get through to us, not just into our heads, but in our experience. We need to understand that God loves us in spite of ourselves, our many mistakes, missteps, even plain wrongdoings. That God is always present for us with open arms. And in a true sense as close to us as the air we breathe. Nothing at all that we go through as Christ followers can ever separate us from God’s love for us that is in Christ. Oh, that everyone, and I’ll even include myself in that, would step into this and learn to remain there. Whatever other experiences we go through in this life, oh that God’s love in and through Christ might overshadow them all!

In and through Jesus.

in the spiritual warfare keep on loving

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

Ephesians 6:10-13; NRSV

Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.

1 Corinthians 16:13-14; NRSV

I really believe that one of the chief ways the enemy seeks to trip us up is through others. And that can work both ways. When we’re cross about something, or when someone crosses us up somehow, aggravated over something even when we did nothing nor harbored any attitude we were aware of that should cause that. The text makes it clear that our struggle is not against humans, but against spiritual entities. I take it those can include both demonic, spirit beings as well as actual human institutions in which the devil is in the details.

One of the chief strategies of the devil is to get us to react in like kind. If they’re upset, we’re upset also. Or we give others the silent treatment, ignoring them in a way that can’t be missed. All of that and anything like that are exactly what the enemy wants. They want to break up relationships, and especially make it difficult for people to accept the reconciliation that is in Christ. And to divide sisters and brothers in Christ.

We need to be aware of this, and as we draw on the Lord’s strength and put on the whole armor of God, like putting on Christ for the spiritual battle, we need to make sure that our first priority is to love God by loving others, and that includes our enemies, or those who are acting like an enemy. And all the more so to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, we must indeed love. Always. May God help us in this. 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.

peacemaking and persecution

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:9-12

At the end of what has often been called the Beatitudes, Jesus possibly juxtaposes two thoughts side by side which are related, but at odds with each other.

How can you be a peacemaker, yet be on the short end, indeed experiencing violence? Enter the world of Jesus.

Jesus was indeed a peacemaker, from Scripture we say by the blood of his cross, and that’s for sure. He took human wrath on himself to end human wrath. We say God’s wrath, but I would prefer to say God’s wrath against evil. God in judgment took the wrath of humankind on himself there at the cross, to end it once for all. And peacemakers following Jesus indeed need to point this out.

Peacemaking as Jesus was describing it here definitely was related to the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation later established by the cross. For us on the ground now it’s a matter of promoting peace on God’s terms, the peace of the kingdom established in Jesus. It is a peace grounded in faith and allegiance to King Jesus, and a peace based on his teaching and life. Made possible again through his death. We can’t do this on our own.

But even when we are people of peace, the peace spoken of here, that doesn’t mean we don’t end up becoming victims of war, violent opposition, violence in one form or another (Psalm 120). Certainly in being cursed, verbal violence, but sometimes suffering physical persecution. For us in the United States, this seems remote, of another world for good reason. We rarely if ever face one such incident of actual physical persecution during our lifetime. That probably speaks more of the society in which we live, but I wonder if we were more faithful in following Christ if we would see some incidents of it.

Is our persecution really because of righteousness and what is just, as well as for Christ? A good test might be if we’re truly becoming peacemakers in the way of Christ. Otherwise the “persecution” we experience might indeed need to be put in quotes, more about ourselves and our offenses, and less if at all about the offense of Jesus.

Would that life would be this black and white. Unfortunately there are times when it is partly our fault. We may not understand why, it may be nothing blatant or known on our part. Then there are the times we stumble and know better. Ironically those end up easier for us to make peace by simply asking for forgiveness. The other times, we know that somehow our weakness might be in play, but we have knowingly done nothing wrong.

It is hard to know what to do. To be as wise as serpents, but harmless as doves is surely something we need to be considering here. But we may just have to take what persecution comes our way, hopefully God doing a work for good in the one persecuting us, so that they might repent and change due to the love of God present even through us, in and through Jesus.

Jesus’s peacemakers

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

Matthew 5:9

I remember a church in our area which had a sign that said, “Wage Peace.” The church was of the Protestant liberal persuasion which tends to take strong public stands on what is called a progressive, liberal agenda. Then you have on the other hand churches which not only hold to just war theory, but who quite often back American efforts in war. On hindsight, I think we can clearly say that at best there are major problems in military action, and that indeed, war ought to be a last resort.

But was this what Jesus was talking about? While I don’t think Jesus would approve of much of the world’s military action, if indeed there could be any such approval at all, since all is laid bare behind the full scrutiny of the one with eyes like fire, and besides, what affiliation does the kingdom of God have with any nation state? No, Jesus was not referring to that. What he said was surely in a true sense a rebuke to much of that. Wouldn’t it be beneficial and good if the church once again required soldiers returning from war to engage in some kind of time of repentance, even penance, not to earn forgiveness, but to actually be saved from what war effort requires? I say this hesitantly and sadly, while at the same time admiring the service of those who serve honorably and self-sacrificially for their country. And I have no doubt that many do so with character, not wishing to inflict injury on others, but carrying out orders in the confidence that they are on principled grounds. And in a world where evil is often armed, isn’t there a need for police action? I say, clearly yes, as long as it’s restrained, and with the effort to minimize the loss of human life.

But again, back to Jesus and his words here. A peacemaker is someone who makes peace between those who are not peaceful, who often are enemies. Surely peacemaking is in terms of Jesus’s mission which is fulfilled in his death and resurrection. And both before that, and afterward, we find that Christians are to live in the way of Jesus, which means the way of the cross. To understand what Jesus’s words here mean in full, we of course need to go over the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, particularly Acts and the letters. We’re going to find that this peacemaking is always in terms set by Jesus. It is never on the world’s terms, like “might makes right.” And the kind of peace that Roman force enforced. Instead it comes in terms of changed lives, changed societies, indeed, changed priorities. Those alienated from each other, perhaps through past conflict or injustice are made one in Christ. Of course this comes through conversion. Think of Paul’s conversion in which a radical enemy of the faithful, becomes a friend in God.

But let’s not bypass the reality of what often comes between. Those who do the hard work of peacemaking, must themselves, obviously, be peacemakers. You can’t raise Cain, and bring the peace that Christ brings. It must be in the meekness, gentleness, and humility of the Lamb. And it will involve self-sacrifice, even the abnegation of self altogether. But the reward that brings will be well worth the effort. In life, as well as words said, particularly the word of the gospel.

To be a peacemaker then is not to score points and win. We especially need to hear that in this day and age when winning is considered everything, nothing else mattering. No, we take the way of Jesus, and determine from the outset that one of our fundamental goals is peacemaking. A hard task for sure. But more than possible through the Prince of Peace, Jesus, and his sacrificial death for the world, as we walk on the same path, with that same good news, the gospel of peace. Peace with God and with each other. Good news meant even for our enemies. Through the Cross. This is part of what should characterize us, our lives and action. In and through Jesus.

when Christians disagree

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Philippians 4:2-3

It’s inevitable that no two people who think very long at all are going to think exactly alike. We all bring a different intellectual and moral calculus to our deliberations in making judgments on life. Certainly our experiences factor in as well, as does a whole host of other matters, so that it may seem at least on the surface that we disagree with each other. It can be a case of talking past each other in misunderstanding, but there are times when we do disagree. Or for whatever reason we might even be disagreeable simply because we don’t easily get along with someone else.

Whatever the case may have been, Euodia and Syntyche, two ladies who contended at Paul’s side for the gospel were at odds with each other. For one reason or another, they weren’t getting along. On some level, evidently they weren’t seeing eye to eye. And there was division between them. This was not something tolerable to Paul, certainly understandable when you consider this entire letter.

Paul counsels them to be of the same mind “in the Lord.” I consider “in the Lord” key, because that can make all the difference in the world when there is honest disagreement. We might be helped to see that the other person might have a point, that we might possibly be missing something. Or at least that our disagreement is not to be compared with our agreement in the power and truth of the gospel. So that even if we’re not in agreement on something lesser, we can at least recognize that it is indeed not as important as what we agree on. The problem sometimes is when one or the other, or both simply won’t let go of the disagreement instead of agreeing to major on what they do agree on, perhaps finding ways their agreement in the gospel, in Christ addresses their problem.

Oftentimes we develop an attitude, at least of weariness or of thinking that we can’t escape the issue being front and center. This is a problem in this day and age when we find a polarization in society, which is seen within the church, as well. How can we live together well with such differences? The answer is surely in our commitment to, not to mention our dependence on the gospel.

Paul counsels the church to help these women. It had become such an issue, that the church needed to step in, not to judge them, but to help them find their way to peace so that they could live well together in the reconciliation that is in Christ. And in so doing, they could become a model for others in how to live in the unity of the Spirit in their oneness in Christ through the gospel, in spite of what differences they had, or may have still had. Something we need to aspire to today, in a day when lesser things can impede and imperil what is first and foremost: our commitment to Christ and the gospel, and our unity in that. All of this possible in and through Jesus.