pray and love, love and pray (the theme I keep returning to)

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.

1 Peter 4:7-8; NRSVue

I keep coming back to the same theme again and again: Love and pray; pray and love. I have often thought I would enjoy or at least appreciate being a part of a monastic (married) order. The idea is not just here and there, now and then practice of this and that, but a regular communal practice of scripture readings, prayers, and partaking of Communion together. That is not likely, so I try to practice it faithfully when it’s offered with others, as well as in my own practice. I am thankful for the newish Mennonite hymnal, Voices Together, which has a helpful morning and evening office in the back which keeps me in scripture, and in regular prayer.

I see the world at a dangerous place, maybe a precarious tipping point. Climate change with catastrophic consequences ahead if it’s not addressed forthrightly, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, racial injustice in the United States and in many other places in the world, an attack on democracy by an authoritarian rule which is even cloaked with the name “Christian” and is often ardently supported by Christians in a deadly and idolatrous union of church and state, and I’m sure there are numerous other concerns that deserve attention. You may not agree with all I list here, or you might see things somewhat differently. What we will agree on is that these are difficult times.

First of all we have to make sure that we’re aspiring to be followers of Christ. Christian is not enough, and especially with ties to a Christendom which fails to see the radical nature and difference of Christ and Christ’s kingdom in this world. While we hope and pray for the best of each nation in which we live, our citizenship and allegiance is elsewhere. We are citizens of anything in this world in a loose, secondary sense. We pay taxes and give due honor and respect and want to contribute to what is good, but as aliens.

I think of those younger: children and grandchildren. What they will be left with. Yes, people like to remind us all the time that “God is in control,” but remember that God lets people have the consequences of their ways. What is important for us who name the name of Christ is to really be led by the Spirit as Christ followers. The fruit of the Spirit evident in our lives.

And what more can we do than love and pray? Good works must follow, or our prayer and love will be empty, hollow, or at least not as full as it needs to be.

As is pointed out in the passage above, this requires self-discipline on our part along with a maintaining of constant love in the community, an attitude with corresponding actions supporting both. What I want to be about, growing in that, whatever else I think. Not letting up and seeking to live that out with others. In and through Jesus.

resident aliens

Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

John 18:36; NRSVue

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.

For the Lord’s sake be subject to every human authority, whether to the emperor as supreme or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Peter 2:9-17; NRSVue

Stanley Hauerwas has made “resident aliens” well known among those interested in such things. This is an apt description of us as Christ followers, believers in Christ, Christ’s body in the world- the church. We are not tied to any government, yet we live respectably as residents among them, subjecting ourselves to their governance as long as it doesn’t contradict Christ’s calling to us.

At the same time we’re aliens wherever we are. As followers of Christ we don’t follow the ways of the world, and we don’t align ourselves with any earthly government or authority. We live under such authority, but we’re not united with them. We are an entity in and of ourselves, distinct from anything of this world.

This is what Scripture tells us, and the early church of the first three centuries seems to have lived this out. It was easier for them to do so since they were at best held at arm’s length by the ruling authority, the Roman empire at the forefront. But after Constantine the church no longer was persecuted but joined to the hip of the state. Church and state as it were, were wedded together. In fact the only ones who could serve in the Roman military were those who were Christians in name. Before that as far as we can tell in the preceding centuries, Christians not only could not serve in the Roman military, but rejected outright any such service, refusing to kill under any circumstances, citing the teaching and example of Christ.

We wish the best for all government political entities and pray for them and aspire and seek to do good for all. And we thank God for their service.

We reside with all, but as aliens. Not really belonging but present and seeking to live at peace with all. As we await the return of our Lord when we’ll no longer be aliens, but at home at last with everyone for ever.

we bear witness to a better day

In the last days

the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.

Many peoples will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Isaiah 2:1-5

Today in the United States is Memorial Day when Americans who lost their lives in military service are honored. We indeed should remember them and their sacrifice. But we as followers of Christ and the church of Christ ought to point to a better day when violence is not only the last resort alas unlike today, but when war will be no more.

That thought sounds so unreasonable when there’s so much violence and evil in the world. We have to remember that violence is not ended with more violence. Sooner or later that cycle continues as old grievances surface. Unfortunately what ought to be and what actually is are so far apart. It’s like you have to use a hopefully sanctified imagination to think of anything which could be different.

Violence is a fact of life, embedded in the human existence. There is not the necessary trust in God, in Christ with the hope/anticipation of the resurrection to make the commitment to something else. But if churches of Christ aren’t doing this, then what does that say about our witness? Are we just supposed to be okaying, even strongly supporting military action and wars of the state? Surely not.

We in Jesus point to a better day. By how we live along with our telling of this. We encourage nations to make peacemaking the priority, along with trying to understand and address underlying issues behind the violence. Realizing indeed that all violence will not be vanquished until Christ returns. Nevertheless doing all we can to point ourselves and others to a better day. And hopefully seeing that played out more in creative ways in opposition to oppressive regimes, with the commitment to do good to the distressed, and ultimately to all. A tall order indeed. But a large part of our calling. In and through Jesus.

Christians are supposed to be followers of Christ, marching to the beat of a different drum

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

John 18:33-38a

Jesus was in trouble not because he was advocating some new religion about an inward kingdom. Yes, he exposed the Pharisees for their focus and emphasis on externals and not the heart. One could find Jesus’s thought in the Prophets, which is why Jesus challenged Nicodemus, asking him why as teacher of Israel, he didn’t understand such things. This was a challenge to their authority over Israel. Jesus, if he was the Messiah, the true King of the Jews, would challenge, undermine and ultimately overthrow that.

And Jesus as Lord and Son of God was a direct challenge to Rome, which used the exact same terms for the Emperor. Here was this group coming along and using the same terms for one they considered the Messiah. Rome looked at what he did, and considered it relatively harmless. But ultimately when Christians would not give any of the allegiance that belonged to Jesus to the Emperor, to the Roman state, then Christians would not be meeting the requirements of the state, the occupying rule. And therefore would be persecuted. Pilate did want to let Jesus go, but the claims of Jesus and his followers, and how that might get Pilate in trouble with the Roman authorities over him probably did have plenty to do with Pilate handing Jesus over for crucifixion. Along with the pressure from Jewish leaders. Ultimately any nation state will be weary of Christians whose full allegiance is only to one kingdom and Lord.

Something I hope to be more and more in step with along with others. In and through Jesus.

 

 

a new political imagination

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Mark 1:14-15

In Jesus’s time there was a profound, eager, if somewhat hushed among many expectation that the Messiah would at long last come and God’s kingdom with him, specifically to overthrow the Romans, whose grip on the people of God held them in a kind of exile in their very home. That’s where we have to begin if we’re to bring forward what Jesus’s words above mean in the present day.

We need to go on and read the rest of Mark’s gospel account, and along with that, the other synoptic gospel accounts, Matthew and Luke, with the final gospel account, John. Only then will we begin to understand the kingdom that God brings in Jesus, invading the world now, and ultimately destined to take over the world.

From this can come a new political imagination as we see the fulfillment of God’s promises to the world in Jesus, in King Jesus and God’s kingdom come in him. If we think it’s just about personal salvation and getting others saved to go to heaven someday, then we’ve missed the point. Yes, it’s in terms God reconciling the world to himself through the death of Christ, forgiveness of our sins and new life in Christ. But that includes the reconciliation of all things to himself and new creation. A kingdom no less is now present.

At the heart of that, or we could say inside of this reality in Jesus is a new way of life, a new way for humans to live not just individually, but with each other. Yes, a whole new way of life. One that we see in the New Testament fulfills God’s passion seen in the Old Testament for the poor, the oppressed, the stranger, those in chains and suffering, somehow as we find in Jesus’s teaching and what follows including even God’s enemies.

We know that God is at work even in what we call the state, nations and governments, kingdoms of this world. But we also know that God’s own kingdom work in Jesus is elsewhere and different. And that the kingdoms of earth will be ultimately judged and destroyed, exposed as the beasts they really are.

What can help us see and understand this new political imagination better is to understand the idolatrous hold nationalism can have on us. We American Christians ordinarily see politics in terms of left and right, conservative and liberal (and moderate), and whatever else might be floating out there. But surely God wants us to see through those paradigms for whatever usefulness and good they have in this world through the lens of God’s kingdom come in Jesus. We as Christians are called to be about that, and nothing more nor less.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t participate in one way or another in the world’s political system. It does mean that we do so essentially as outsiders, those of another political realm. Taking seriously the politics of this world, but only in terms of the politics of Jesus which has invaded the world, indeed the politics of the world to come. In and through Jesus.

Thanks to Stephen Backhouse whose work is renewing in a fresh way my own thought on this.

overcoming evil with good

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:21

There seems to be nothing more natural to us than responding to that which is not loving, or maybe even hateful with that which is less than love. We want to hold our ground, or at least protect ourselves. And besides, what right does anyone have to act the way they did? How in the world are we supposed to “overcome evil with good”? And just what does that mean? To understand, we have to look at the fuller context.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17-21

We’re to do good to others, even when it may seem to make no sense. What makes sense to us unfortunately is tit for tat, if you do me wrong, than I need to at the very least hold you at arm’s length, and likely I need in some way to retaliate. But what does Scripture say? Something quite different.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Romans 13:1-7 follows, the passage on God’s command to us to be subject to the state, governing authorities, who are obviously accountable to God to carry out their duty for our good, and for the good of society or people in general. So those who do evil are accountable to God in part by being accountable to the governing authorities, which in turn are themselves accountable to God.

But back to the main point: We don’t have to become best friends to those who are mistreating us. And this is not at all referring to abusive relationships where even our lives might be at stake, and certainly our well being. We need to get out of them, and look to the governing authorities when that’s needed. We can love from a distance through prayers, but keep our distance at the same time.

But in many cases our enemies will be those we have to put up with day after day, whether at work or someplace else.  We may not win them to Christ, but maybe we can win them to ourselves, and help them become open to the gospel message. Their incredulity might turn into something of a friendship during which they will see our lives, and the fact that our love for them is genuine. So that instead of God’s judgment, they might eventually receive his salvation. In and through Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

misplaced confidence

For the director of music. Of the Sons of Korah. According to alamoth. A song.

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come and see what the LORD has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”

The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Psalm 46

Fear seems at the forefront of much thinking today, even in Christian circles. There’s no end to what we’re afraid of. We could say often it’s fear about everything, but that would be a hyperbole. Actually those who are motivated significantly by fear have confidence in some things which not only alleviate their fears, but give them a sense of security. But when we get to the bottom of it, it can end up being a misplaced confidence.

In the United States we say, “In God we trust,” but when it comes right down to it, is that really the case? It’s too easy to slip into confidence in ourselves, our military might, our know how, our vision of how things ought to be, etc., etc. This besets people on every side, be they moderates, progressives, conservatives, whatever.

This can be subtle, hard to discern and uncover. Again, it’s not like we can’t profess confidence in God. Note that this psalm is written to God’s people, Israel, and by extension, to us all. Part of it is addressed to the nations, which might include Israel at a given time, to “be still” or “cease striving” as if everything matters on human effort and might.

True dependence on God does not mean security and at times even force is not needed. In a world of evil, there are times for such. It does mean that our dependence should not be on such to see us through, but only in God. Military action should be used as a last resort, and hopefully to help promote peace, certainly not war.

What if Christians actively took a role of advocating peacemaking, and reticence toward any military action? Instead we ought to be known as those who stand for peace, are opposed to war, and make that known at the ballot box. But in the United States neither major party can claim the high road here. This is not at all to dishonor those who have served and serve in the military. They deserve our honor, support and prayers. But it is to acknowledge that our ultimate dependence is only on God, and nothing else. Our hope is always and forever only in God. Who will judge what is done now, and finally put a stop to it once for all. In and through Jesus.

for this July 4th

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

May the Lord answer you when you are in distress;
may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
May he send you help from the sanctuary
and grant you support from Zion.
May he remember all your sacrifices
and accept your burnt offerings.
May he give you the desire of your heart
and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy over your victory
and lift up our banners in the name of our God.

May the Lord grant all your requests.

Now this I know:
The Lord gives victory to his anointed.
He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary
with the victorious power of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall,
but we rise up and stand firm.
Lord, give victory to the king!
Answer us when we call!

Psalm 20

Here in the United States today we celebrate Independence Day when officially our nation began. What this nation stands for in principle is good, even though we’ve never lived up to it. Such is the human enterprise. We can’t reach that goal entirely apart from God’s grace and enabling in Christ. And that’s really at the heart of the fulfillment of the psalm quoted above. Only when Jesus returns when heaven and earth become one will that be fully realized.

But in the meantime, the United States should aspire in humility before God to occupy its own space for the good of all humankind. Realizing that it’s not in its own might or weaponry that it will succeed. But only by God’s mercy. As we know victory resides only in the King of kings, and Lord of lords, Jesus. And the United States should always be ready to acknowledge wrongs done, and try to make them right and do better.

This should temper our expectations, and help form our prayers, even as we thank God today for the good of the United States.

the war we’re in, the Christian and violence

There is the “culture war.” And we know of actual wars, right now honoring the last of the veterans of World War II. What about the Christian? What warfare can or even should we be part of?

Jesus taught the way of the cross, that we’re to love our enemies and pray for them, that we’re to bless those who curse us, and when struck, turn the other cheek, as well as go the extra mile. There’s no question that Jesus resolutely refused all physical warfare. The Messianic way fulfilled in him would not become embroiled either in the world’s wars, or in physical warfare at all.

2 Corinthians 10:3-5 and Ephesians 6:10-20 are the two passages which come to mind when speaking of spiritual warfare. One also thinks of Daniel’s praying, and the angelic and spiritual forces behind the scenes as he did. For the Christian the gospel meaning good news in Jesus is the armor and weapon we’re to use  in God’s mighty power to resist the enemy. And particularly for those called to proclaim, but for all of us as witnesses, we do indeed have authority in Christ to share the life changing word, above all in how we live, in word and deed. And this must be a part of what we’re about as Christians, regardless of anything else, certainly including all who serve in the state.

I know devout Christians have served in the military and police force. Of course that in itself does not prove the legitimacy of such. I was raised in a denomination that teaches Christians should not participate in such. And I am empathetic to that position, and to this day read a portion of the Sermon on the Mount (or the Sermon on the Plain) as part of my daily Bible reading.

One needs to step back and consider war in general, the just war theory proposed by Christians, actually derived from another thinker. And the evil in the world. It is said that peaceful efforts which refuse any violence actually change the tide, whereas using physical force only keeps the chain going of retaliation going, essentially taking vengeance when God tells us that we’re to leave that in his hands. And directly contradicting our Lord’s words when he said that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is not what we’re to live by, but rather, love for our enemies.

There’s no question that we should love our enemies, and that we should be willing to give up our lives for Christ and the gospel. And that should be our heart and soul, that we love in the way of Jesus, even doing so in a way that might cost us our lives.

That said, my own position now is that as a last resort when there’s simply no other alternative, Christians can use weapons within the role of the state. I say this sadly, remembering the worthy witness and position of Martin Luther King, Jr. and believing that such a witness is not only needed, but indeed called for in the way of Christ and against evil. There’s no question that he faced death both as a threat to himself and his family. And of course in the end was assassinated.

For me it’s an open question with no answer which completely satisfies. But I have to side with Miroslav Volf, insofar as I actually understand his position, that given the brutal, incorrigible evil present in the world, which as a matter of course kills and rapes and brutalizes, that there is a place for force. And that such measures lie with the state (Romans 13), not that there’s a given outline of what the form of government is to be in Scripture. There isn’t.

For me there’s no easy answer to either defend Christians ever using violence as part of the state, or never using such under any circumstances. I just don’t know.

My position now is that we’re to take the way of the cross in following Jesus. That just like the Amish have received protection with thankfulness, we too can receive such from the state. And that we can serve in such positions in the state. But always with the hope to resolve all matters and conflicts peacefully, or with as minimal force as possible. And that where need be, we can and should conscientiously object when what the government is ordering us to do is unjust.

Above all, and always, we need to be those who are marked as belonging to Jesus, taking the way of the cross. That even if we do participate in the force of the state, that we do so with the same gentleness and meekness, that of the Lamb. Realizing that we’re in a broken existence within the already/not yet continuum when peace won’t occur until the Prince of Peace returns. In and through Jesus.

for Memorial Day

We are thankful for all who put themselves in harm’s way for the good of others, and really for the good of all. Of course we recognize and acknowledge the limitations of any nation state of this world, and regret that all too often what is decided is the best for national interests does not necessarily have the best for all in mind, and actually often ends up detrimental to the national interest it professes to protect.

At the same time, even given the inevitable limitations of the state, we are thankful for all those who serve in the military and police for the good and protection of others, and especially for those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in doing so. We want to remember them on this day.

May God give the governmental leaders of this world the wisdom to look to him, to be reticent, even wary of violence except as a last resort. A deep respect for the life of all, beginning with those under their command. And all of those serving a heart to be present for the welfare of their own nation. As prayers are offered that all conflict will end once and for all in the petition, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”