a dissenting voice

The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel.

He said:

“The Lord roars from Zion
and thunders from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds dry up,
and the top of Carmel withers.”

Amos 1:1-2

The tradition of the prophets in the Old Testament, echoed by Jesus (example: Matthew 23) seems all but absent in Christian circles, particularly my own tradition, the evangelical one. Of course if you speak out on any controversial issue, you are often assailed from all sides, because you don’t get everything right.

The prophets, Amos a prime example, certainly went against the grain of their times. This was about all of life, but the heart of it was the failure to love God and neighbor, the failure to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

The follower of Christ is called to follow him implicitly. That means back to holy Writ, Scripture, turning the pages, praying, and seeking to live this out in ordinary life, through all its in and outs, ups and downs. When doing so, one inevitably will be barraged with criticism.

The prophets had to live out the message God gave them. Isaiah and Jeremiah are stark examples of that. And followers of Christ are especially to live out the message of Christ and the gospel, the taking up of their cross. That is a huge dissent from the norm, the narrow way as opposed to the broad popular way (Matthew 7:13-14).

The goal is not to live in dissent, but to see God’s work bring change. Change first of all in one’s own life. And then perhaps through that, change in the life of others. Our part might not be necessarily to say much, but to listen and pray, to pray and listen. All God’s working. But not avoiding the difficulty of what the prophets faced. Part of the way of Jesus, in and through him.

getting a grip on the world’s disorder

If you would like to get upset and out of sorts, then turn on a news channel, or go to news sites online. Even from those trying to get facts straight from whatever perspective or bias they have, there’s plenty to get worked up with nowadays. And this is true no matter what our understanding might be, however we might understand various issues.

I think we do well to turn to the entire Bible, and specifically the Old Testament Hebrew prophets. I think of Isaiah, which we might say in its own shape is kind of a miniature Bible in itself. And the relatively short book of the prophet Habakkuk might especially fit well into the current time, though it surely speaks to every time.

Habakkuk was complaining about the disorder of his day, the order for him surely being God’s shalom, meaning the flourishing under God’s rule meant for God’s people to display to the world. Instead Israel’s leaders were disrupting God’s order for their own gain, of course against God’s kingdom priorities, like caring for the poor and oppressed.

So God was going to use a new order which wasn’t at all like the kingdom order of God. The Babylonians were actually a law unto themselves, hammering one kingdom after another, and scoffing at every ruler and god, even at God himself. And yet God was using them. This was indeed troubling to Habakkuk, who didn’t know what to make of it as we see from the book, surely not liking it, either.

I think we need to settle down in our seats with open Bible in hand, and simply let the prophets speak to us in this day and age. If we hold to the Scriptural teaching that God’s sovereign reign is in some way over all, that God is at work in the mess of the world, surely that ought to help us to settle down and get a grip on our own emotions, as we learn to rest in trust in God. That seems to have been what happened to Habakkuk over the course of the book, as we see in his song of resolute trust in and praise of God at the end.

We do need a change of mind for sure, the right thoughts to enter in, before a change of heart, which we mean emotional can settle in. We begin to understand that whatever disorder and order in the world we see contrary to God’s kingdom does not mean that God is not at work. In ways we couldn’t have imagined and wouldn’t have planned, God can be at work. That doesn’t mean what the Babylonians were doing was good, even as Scripture tells us. And God was going to hold them accountable. But God was indeed using them in his transcendent wisdom.

Read the book of Habakkuk and let it soak in. We don’t need to get all worked up and bent out of shape over the news. God is in charge; we’re not. We should pray for government officials and be good citizens. And above all be witnesses of God’s good and perfect kingdom now present and to fully come in and through Jesus.

developing an awareness of and sensitivity to systemic evil

There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
and detest the one who tells the truth.

You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.

There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.

Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.

Therefore this is what the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says:

“There will be wailing in all the streets
and cries of anguish in every public square.
The farmers will be summoned to weep
and the mourners to wail.
There will be wailing in all the vineyards,
for I will pass through your midst,”
says the Lord.

Amos 5:10-17

We are very much aware of the evil of abortion. The supposed woman’s right to choose. What about the evil of “white privilege?” The only ones unaware of that are many of us whites who don’t face what African-Americans face here on a daily basis. And then there’s the poor. Yes, there are programs to help them, and of course we should do what we can as well. But all too often the system is stacked against them. Like being hired in places not full time, and not much over minimum wage. So that they are on their own as far as healthcare. And if you make a bit too much, you’re not covered. And often the poor don’t do what’s considered basic healthcare such as a biannual or even annual trip to the dentist, not to mention an annual checkup with a doctor. Supposedly healthcare is something people should figure out themselves, not provided as in every other first world nation. Not to mention that they don’t have a living wage. Of course everyone has to be held accountable, and there are no easy answers for everything. And climate change caused by human consumption, greed, misplaced values impacts especially poor nations and the poor.

I consider all of this, and there’s surely more, as nothing less than systemic evil. I’m tired of government being considered evil. And corporations are not? Please. They sold us down the river during the last recession, and we had to bail them out. Main Street bailing out Wall Street with taxes. And our nation continues to spiral into further and further debt funding the military with more money than the next several nations combined. So that the national debt it has to pay will soon exceed what is spent on the military. And yet we don’t have enough funds to provide needed healthcare to the poor and middle class, the latter losing their homes sometimes because they became ill or have some disease, lost their job, and didn’t have adequate healthcare insurance, which by the way, they couldn’t well afford in the first place.

All of this is chalked down to politics and then summarily dismissed. But it’s not at all about politics. And as far as I’m concerned the Democrats overall are just as guilty as the Republicans. I don’t even care to get into the political aspect of it, with all the finger pointing, and white washing that goes on. Washington is broken no doubt. And government with the political impasse is in crisis.

But that’s in a way neither here nor there with me. What we as Christians need to address in word and deed insofar as we can along with much prayer are matters that have to do with loving our neighbors as ourselves. And loving our enemies as well, by the way. But Jesus was talking to his disciples, to be sure.

It is all messy, what to make of what’s going on, and trying to figure out just what our role should be as Christians, and as the church in relation to the state. It’s a tall order. But we shouldn’t be shy at expressing our thoughts and concerns. We shouldn’t be known as either Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, progressives, liberals, or whatnot. When people look at us they should have trouble pinning us down in ways like that. But they should know that whatever our mistakes, we are committed followers of Christ, and the church, not at all subservient to the state. Except to pray for government leaders, pay taxes, participate in the democratic process as we’re led to, as we choose, and wish the best for everyone.

We can’t cut the prophets out of scripture, in so doing cutting a large part of Jesus out, too. We must echo them. But always in love, along with justice and mercy always together. As we pray for God’s kingdom to come, and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. In and through Jesus.

longing for a better day

Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.
It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

“Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
You have lifted up the shrine of your king,
the pedestal of your idols,
the star of your god—
which you made for yourselves.
Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,”
says the Lord, whose name is God Almighty.

Amos 5:19-27

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Martin Luther King, Jr., was I believe the greatest civil leader of the last century. He spoke with a moral authority which arose out of his Christian understanding, and with a gift of intellect, resolve and passion unmatched probably during his time, and nearly any time. And like the prophets of old, he called people to a better day, which would involve change, indeed repentance. He didn’t mince words, yet he spoke and acted as a follower of Christ, with no love withheld from enemies, in the midst of many prayers, and surely, struggles and tears. To do what he was doing put his life on the line. It was compelling, and could not be dismissed even by those who desperately wanted to.

The prophet Amos lived during a time of great evil in the land. God’s people Israel were continuing on as if all was okay, but in fact all was not. Rich people were living off the poor. The heart of God’s command to love God, and one’s neighbor as one’s self was not the heart of God’s people. So through Amos, God was calling his people to repentance.

They sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.

Amos 2:6b-7a

Here in the United States, racism is not erased. Society is still stacked against people of color, at least in many places. Of course some overcome, but for many, they settle down into what they have to do to make ends meet. Others, disenfranchised, don’t do as well, sometimes into a life of drugs in which violence is more or less an every present danger and threat. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening. I don’t see how God’s people who read scripture and take Jesus and the prophets seriously can remain silent in the face of such injustice and lack of love. To write it off as secondary to the tragedy of abortion is simply the refusal to do what God does throughout the pages of scripture. And see Amos on this. God doesn’t let some sins slide. Everyone for everything is held to account, particularly for sins against love for God and for one’s neighbor, including those different such as the stranger and refugee.

It’s up to us as God’s people in Jesus to do what Martin Luther King, Jr. did. To do our part, whatever that might be, in calling especially the church, God’s people along with others to a better day. Of course in the church we should be endeavoring to live this out, but alas, all too often we rest in the status quo. God is patient, but wants us to develop a sensitivity to these things. That we might have something of God’s heart for every situation. And show that heart through prayer and deeds in and through Jesus.

patience in the face of suffering and oath taking

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.

James 5:7-12

In light of James’s warning to their rich oppressors, James tells these believers to be patient until the Lord’s coming. Some say James expected the Lord to come within that generation. Maybe so. I’m not sure we can insist the language found here and in other places has to be interpreted that way. I think not. I would rather see it as God’s judgment being soon given the brevity of life, and that it’s imminent in that it could happen any time. And when life is done, judgment is next (Hebrews 9:27). Of course the judgment spoken of here is at the Lord’s second coming. Bear in mind that the future brings not only the resurrection of the righteous, but of the unrighteous, as well (Daniel 12:2).

James point to the farmer as an example of the kind of patience these Christians in faith are to exercise. There is a process which seems to take time along with God’s working. So patience is a necessity in this, yes, “in the face of suffering.” And with that in mind, James now points to the prophets we read of in a good chunk of the Old/First Testament (Hebrew Bible) who spoke in the name of the Lord. Suffering was their lot, as Jesus pointed out later. Persecution and martyrdom. Not easy, when you read their story. Speaking God’s message and living as God’s people will not go unchallenged in one way or another. And lest we think it’s only about identification with God before the world, it may be about our testimony in holding to God’s goodness and faithfulness in the midst of adversities of any kind, as Job did, even as he presented his case to God. And we remember the end of that story. And I want to just soak in James’s word after these points:

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

These words those believers needed to take to heart, and we do too. We wish this for our enemies as well, but if they refuse to respond to this kindness and goodness of God (Romans 2:4), and don’t accept God’s mercy on God’s terms, their end will be according to their deeds. But yes, we need to soak into these words, and let these words soak into us. God’s mercy for us, and for others, yes even for our oppressors. And yet judgment will come, and that too is a word of encouragement, particularly to those who face evil in the form of persecution.

And then James adds a word on oaths. I think it’s in line with making much of taking an oath, as if you are bound by it in a way that you are not bound when simply speaking. God wants our word to be as good as gold so to speak, completely reliable even if not bound legally, morally, and spiritually by taking an oath. Does that mean we can never change our minds, and take back our words, or break our promise? As a rule we shouldn’t. But there may be circumstances when we need to change, or may want to. Which is why we need to choose our words carefully in the first place, if we speak at all. We need to weigh everything in light of what we previously stated and the context. We have enormous freedom, I think, but it needs to be with Spirit-led wisdom. We want to be sure our witness of Jesus is not affected. We want others to see Jesus, and receive for themselves the good news in him. God has what appears to be a change of mind in scripture at times within his unchanging character. There does seem to be some genuine give and take in God’s relationship with people. And God swears an oath as well, we read both in the Old Testament and in the book of Hebrews. So oath taking is not intrinsically evil or wrong. It is the kind of oath taking being done in Jesus’s day and afterward that is evil. As if such an oath is binding in a way that one’s word is not. For God’s people, followers of Christ, there is no place for that attitude or practice.