reflecting a bit on America: shades of gray (no, don’t even think about bringing down the Washington Monument, etc.)

This is the fourth of July, and if you’re going to read only one blog post today, settle in on this one from Brian Zahnd, I Love You, America, But Not Like That.

There is no doubt to me that another part of the reckoning due to the enslavement and mistreatment of Africans has come for America. We are in a day when  some would see the dismantling of all of America’s cultural landmarks. Almost the entire tent coming down to be replaced with something else.

There’s no doubt that great evil was done, and that the founding father’s blindness or acceptance of slavery is plain downright wrong. There is no gray in that. And as George Will pointed out in his most recent (outstanding) book, The Conservative Sensibility, there would be no United States apart from the slavery which under girded it, and gave founding fathers the time to hammer out the foundation of this nation.

What we need to keep in mind is the whole. Not excusing any part that is wrong and actually downright evil. But remembering what was good. I shouldn’t neglect to mention the other part of what’s called America’s original sin: the stealing and killing of native Americans, “Indians.” Both African-Americans and native Americans suffer to this day.

Without trying to cover everything that should be, I just want to point out here that we need to see life as it truly is. I love biographies that are not hagiographies, but try to tell it, warts and all. That’s one thing among many others that I love about the Bible. It doesn’t try to hide the blemishes, blotches, and indeed complete failures of characters. A great case in point is David, said to be a man after God’s own heart no less. But his actions when you read the account we’re not altogether good. And what he did in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah were downright evil. But do we dismiss and diss David? No we don’t. It’s not like the bad part is forgotten, because it’s not, and shouldn’t be.

Looking at American history, I can still respect men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Instead of just seeing their flaws, I can acknowledge their good points, and greatness in some respects. Ironically holding to ideals on paper, not lived out entirely in their lives.

Again, this is not to excuse what’s wrong, or say what’s past is past while failing to see the many ramifications and realities which live on to this day.

So let’s not bring down the Washington Monument, or the Jefferson Memorial, etc. If anything is idolatrous then yes, that ought to come down. But let’s leave memorials like what I just mentioned intact. We should not even be considering removing them. I’m not referring to monuments that honor those who rebelled against the United States, the Confederacy, etc. They ought to be moved into museums, no longer to be honored in public squares. We can set up with our iconic memorials, new works that remember what Africans had to endure, and the great contributions African-Americans have made to this nation. As well as memorialize the good native Americans have done.

God have mercy if any of our lives are looked at strictly in terms of good and evil. For some there is great evil, other’s great good, but for all, there’s some mixture, so that there’s a certain shade of gray. As we Christians look to the one light of the world, Jesus, to expose our own spiritual darkness, and all the spiritual darkness around us, for the good of all. In and through Jesus.

intercepting oneself

I think most anyone would like a do-over in something in their lives. It’s not like God can’t redeem what can’t be undone, but that is no reason to be glad about what was done in the first place. And in the mess called “life,” it all ends up being complicated.

What’s not complicated is out of the wish to undo what was done, the desire to help others avoid the problem and “intercept themselves” from that, knocking down or intercepting the errant pass. Stopping one’s life in their tracks for repentance and help over time in moving in a new direction.

Unfortunately the Protestant or at least Evangelical church seems to be in a free-for-all. For whatever problems the Roman Catholic Church (and I suspect the Eastern Orthodox Church would fit into this as well) has with their traditions, some of them were set in place to help those who had sinned. And we need preventative measures to help those who are struggling, or even in the throes of sin. But alas. Instead we rely on Bible teaching and worship in song, largely, with hopefully people plugging into small groups, etc. But I’m afraid people are left largely on their own. Leadership and I’m referring mainly to pastors are simply and tragically not trained in this. So it ends up being hit and miss.

We at least need to use those who have repented and changed over time to be a help to younger people who may be in danger themselves. It’s not enough to have the Bible. We have to have people who have received wisdom from God either through their own failures or the hard knocks of life, or through witnessing and understanding something of what others have gone through. But none of this seems to me to be taken all that seriously. It is probably more a case of discomfort in not being able to handle that. But if the church had something set in place gathered from the wisdom of the past, how much better off would we all be. And probably some of us would not need to have the wish to intercept themselves.

Jesus’s blessings and woes

Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.

“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

Luke 6:17-26

Perhaps an echo of the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy, Jesus gives his version, which like almost everything Jesus did was surprising, often turning expectations on their head. And even to this day, though we’re used to the idea that these words exist, we hardly take them seriously, much less live by them.

We want to live in the full flourishing of the kingdom now. We want everything to be okay, good, great. And at least we want to have our slice of “the American dream.”

But Jesus calls us to accept something entirely different. Really, just how he lived. It’s not like he didn’t take responsibility. We can see that he did, the first thirty or so years of his life. I mean responsibility in the way we think of that: earning a living, providing for one’s family, etc. But when it was time for him to fulfill the Father’s calling, and his ministry, then it was done in complete dependence on the Father. Jesus’s words here are not something he didn’t live out himself. God’s riches we’re not meant to be hoarded, but shared with others. There was never to be a moment of self-sufficiency, but instead an utter trust in God for God’s ongoing provision. We see this all through Jesus’s life along with his teaching, including the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.

The blessings and woes are meant to encourage and warn. Encouragement to those of us who struggle from day to day, maybe due to no fault of our own, or more likely with some fault, but seeking to live in God’s will. And warning for those who are self-sufficient, well able to take care of things themselves, often with their own agenda. The woes are meant to be warnings that the rich would hear so that they would change. One classic example that comes to mind of a rich person changing is the story of the tax collector, Zacchaeus.

So we need to take heart, regardless of where we might fall on the spectrum. God will take care of everything as we endeavor to follow Jesus. To the very end. 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.

love that enemy

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-48

“Love wins.” That may seem trite and empty, but there’s wisdom and truth in that saying. Especially in the way of Jesus, actually at the heart of the way of Jesus.

How easy it is for us to be disgusted with people who seem against us, and return their attitude with a nonverbal slight. We need to repent of such attitudes, and instead show humble love to our enemies.

After all, we too were enemies of God, but God loved us even then. If we’re to be true children of our heavenly Father, then we’ll learn to do the same. In and through Jesus.

 

doing the hard work on the ground against racism

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Luke 10:25-29

Enough is enough. That is the attitude in the United States right now in response to yet another killing by a police officer of an unarmed African-American man. In a string and steady stream of them, really going back to the time when slaves were forcibly taken from Africa and treated worse than animals.

Jesus is questioned maybe sincerely, maybe not, but about what one must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what is written in Scripture and he gives what Jesus says is an apt reply. Jesus tells him to love God and neighbor that way, then he will live. He then asks who is neighbor is.

I have come to realize not just in my head, but by experience how prejudicial and actually judgmental I can be against those of another culture. I’ve learned to step back, stop myself, and listen, and think, and pray, and keep doing that. Looking at my own many faults and those of my people group. As well as seeing what’s special in others. What we’re called to in this passage is to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Simple, yet of course profound.

This will require repentance on our part, hands off to correct or manage, and a heart intent on loving others with a hands on attitude to help, to serve. Also a willingness to receive needed help from others, even from those who are wrongly thought to be inferior to us.

Yes, a big part of the needed change against systemic racism that needs to occur in this nation and around the world against all racism.

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:30-37

 

vindication from God our Savior

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol
or swear by a false god.

They will receive blessing from the Lord
and vindication from God their Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek your face, God of Jacob.

Psalm 24

When I read in the psalms about God vindicating his people, I think how undeserving I am of such vindication. And this is a psalm of David, who doesn’t seem that worthy of vindication when you consider his great sin of adultery and murder. But maybe that is meant to be an encouragement to the rest of us who, while we may have not committed such an act, still know we’re so undeserving because of what we have done, left undone, and because of grievous attitudes in our heart at times.

Just to make it clear what vindication means, it involves someone being proven to be in the right. When one thinks about that, one can’t help but think of God’s grace without which none of us would ever be in the right in the first place.

What especially stood out to me today in reading this great psalm is the line: “They will receive…vindication from God their Savior.” I think that helps us understand how God’s people are vindicated. It’s not because of them, but the God who saves them.

N. T. Wright helped me see from the psalms how God’s righteousness is tied to God’s salvation of his people. God’s saving act includes vindicating his people, who apart from that would never be vindicated. Of course this goes beyond what we deserve, because when we read all of the psalms and the rest of Scripture we understand that no one deserves vindication in themselves. We’re all sinners.

We receive vindication from God because of our faith and the difference God makes in our lives. We are different through and through, not wanting to do what is wrong, but wanting to do what’s right, even while we do fail along the way. It’s God’s working that makes us want to face our true selves, repent, and walk in God’s way, and keep doing that again and again with our ongoing confession of our sins, and endeavor to walk anew and afresh in God’s will for us in Christ.

And so we can be encouraged with this thought. God’s vindication of us is completely not because of us, but because of God, as by faith he credits righteousness to us, and helps us to want to live accordingly, even in the midst of our inevitable stumbling. God will vindicate us, yes, each one of us, in and through Jesus.

 

forgiving others

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

Luke 17:3b-4

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Matthew 18:21-22

In the sometimes rough and tumble existence of life, there’s forgiveness needed, yes, on all sides. But especially so when sin is especially evident, say in one’s attitude or action toward another, sometimes in angry words spoken.

Jesus told his disciples to hold each other accountable for their sin, and forgive them when they repent (see Luke passage above).  And he made it clear that forgiveness is ongoing, that there’s no limit to how often we forgive the same person (see Matthew passage above).

Jesus told a parable in the Matthew passage which makes the point that we forgive because we’ve been forgiven. And forgiven for a worse offense than what was done to us. We might say that sin against God is worse than sin against us, though it’s true that all sin is essentially against God. God has forgiven us because of Jesus’s death for our sins. So we in turn must forgive others. And that if we don’t forgive, we’re handed over to the torturers, so that in essence, we’re only hurting ourselves.

People do need to know they’re forgiven, and frankly, we all need it along the way. So let’s freely extend it to others, yes holding them accountable, but when all is said and done, wiping the slate clean, as if nothing has happened at all. And as necessary, doing it again and again. In and through Jesus.

I’m not referring to abusive relationships. We should forgive, but keep our distance. And also try to hold them accountable, so that they will get the help they need.

 

fresh starts

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Psalm 51:10

Psalm 51 is the great penitential psalm written in light of David’s great sin (2 Samuel 11). There had to be repentance for restoration, and deep contrition over time for needed change. There’s no two ways about it. We can’t think that confession and a wave of the hand changes everything. All of us in some way need a new start.

What we’re in need of is God’s grace for the forgiveness of our sin, for the cleansing needed in our lives, and for new life and direction. We need to be determined to continue in that grace, and when we get off track to be able to quickly get back on. To continue in the way God sets before us, with all its turns and changes along the way and daily renewing. And when need be, more fresh starts. In and through Jesus.

our humble, faithful witness

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

It is important to be faithful day after day. I did not say perfect, but faithful. None of us is perfect; we’re not going to realize that in this life. But we’re to be faithful, which includes plugging away in what we have to do every day and doing so in a way that is a witness to those around us. That will include repentance on our part along the way, and growth in grace, as we seek to love others because of God’s love for us, and our love for God in return, in Christ.

I have found this to be powerfully and wonderfully true in my own experience. God can work wonders even through us, in spite of and perhaps even through our imperfection, but honest attempt to remain faithful. We want to be pleasing to God and a blessing to others. That is our goal. And God will help us as we continue on day after day. In and through Jesus.