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.

the unexpected, the new road, a new goal

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

Job 1:1; NRSVue

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.

Job 1:20-22; NRSVue

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive good from God and not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Job 2:9-10; NRSVue

After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.

Job 3:1; NRSV

And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends, and the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.

After this Job lived one hundred and forty years and saw his children and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.

Job 42:10, 16-17; NRSVue

The wisdom story of Job is as profound in the wisdom we might gain from it, as it is difficult and even perplexing in the story it tells. We who grew up in church and were taught this story as children became inoculated to the problem of the story. And to some extent I still seem to be. After all, God brags about God’s servant Job to Satan. Satan attacks Job’s character, and then God takes up Satan’s wager, and lets Satan take Job’s wealth then his children and after that Job’s health? Job first responds as one would expect since he is after all a righteous person. But when left alone and before three friends initially present with him and seemingly empathetic, but otherwise all alone, Job begins what amounts to a long dialog, more like monologue since he and his friends eventually enter into something more like a debate. And Job ends up not only debating them, but God as well, though God is not yet speaking. After all the bottom has fallen out of Job’s world. And when you think about it, how can you blame him? It is hard for us to put ourselves into the story.

What was Job’s perspective and view before that? I think we at least can see the influences afoot through the remarks and charges of his three friends. God steps in at the end and gives Job a perspective Job had never dreamed of, somewhat prepared just before that by a young man who had spoken, misspoken to some extent I think, but had pointed in the direction in which God would go. And in the end, it ended well. But was all really well that ended well? After all, Job’s first seven children were gone, all the love, hopes and dreams with them. Seven in the end with more and more children to come, but a hole, nevertheless. But for me this is simply a wisdom story, and not an actual event. And much, much wisdom for us in this book, a different kind complementary wisdom to the other wisdom literature in scripture, especially in the Hebrew Bible.

All of that said to try to say something like this. What about when new and unexpected events shake our world from the outside in, to the inside out? When we’re at a loss and are having a hard time coming to grips with what we see in front of us, what we’re experiencing.

I think that’s when we want to praise and thank God, but also come to God with our own honest thoughts. And then try to listen. And for us listening means plumbing the depths insofar as we can through going through a book like Job, as well as the rest of scripture. That is a lifetime endeavor, not something we can do in a day or a weekend or even in a year. But we start that journey and stay on it, even as Job blessedly does throughout this book.

We can be sure that there is a good ending, even if we never completely understand it. Part of our life now. In and through Jesus.

what really matters?

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what really matters, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:9-11; NRSVue

I wonder if Mary and Joseph would have done what they blessedly did if they would have been caught up in secondary matters. Maybe being caught up in details that would make no difference in fulfilling the task at hand, to get to Bethlehem to be registered in the required census. I’m sure they took care to help Mary be as safe as possible, along with the baby she was carrying near the end of her pregnancy.

And then came the time for birth. No place in the guest room, so a manger would have to do. Nothing fancy, and certainly not ideal, but what people were used to. But that opens up an entirely different conversation which we won’t go into here. I’ve not even investigated well enough myself. What is apparent might turn our understanding of the nativity largely on its head. But that doesn’t matter for this post.

Paul’s prayer for the believers in Philippi was certainly something God was helping Mary and Joseph with at this sensitive, crucial juncture. What really matters is something we need to be sensitive to, day after day. We can get so easily get sidetracked on nonessentials. I’m supposing that Mary and Joseph were not the kind of people who were easily distracted.

For us this will require God’s help. Yes, prayer, as the scripture passage indicates here. So that we don’t get lost in the weeds over secondary matters. The end result being that God is less encumbered by us to do God’s good work in us, and also so that the good works God has for us to do might be done always in love. The main point the focus while we let go of what really doesn’t matter. In and through Jesus.

words

Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.

The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:9-14

Jacques Derrida was a twentieth century philosopher who had a lot to say on words and specifically on their limitations. I would like to understand better what he was saying, but it seems to be about how words and texts themselves over time deconstruct or lose sense of whatever was their intent in being written in the first place. Words are written in a specific time and place, and seem to have all the meaning in the world at the time, probably connecting well with others when they’re well said or written. And it seems the continued need for that remains, so that every generation continues to write. Yet there’s value in the old texts and traditions, to be carried over from generation to generation. But how?

Maybe Ecclesiastes gives us something of a clue. Even though we’re far removed from its times and culture, we can readily identify with some of it. Regardless of whether we agree with all of it or not, we have to acknowledge that Qoheleth, translated “Teacher” (or traditionally, “Preacher”) wrote them with plenty of weight, and perhaps down in the mouth much of the time in doing so. And it is one of my favorite books of Scripture. Maybe that’s because it has to do with words. And consonant with Deridda’s thought: their limitations.

In the end, the one who shares the Teacher’s words seems to caution about putting too much weight in them, and in words in and of themselves. The goal is obedience to God, not the veneration or ornamentation of the words themselves. The words remain such as they are, but it’s God, the Spirit who helps us beyond them we could say to their goal. That we might live before God as those responsive to God, to God’s will. Not to set words aside as of no value, otherwise why would we have the book of Ecclesiastes, or Scripture itself? But to understand that words are meant to point us to the reality of God. And help us understand God’s will so that we might live in obedience. In love. In and through Jesus.

not about getting through the trial

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

James 1:2-8

It’s not enough to simply want to get past whatever trial we’re in, then call it good. That is not taking seriously what James is telling us here. We’re supposed to count it as nothing but joy whatever trial we’re encountering, because the testing of our faith produces endurance in us. And to get the full benefit of this, we’re to let endurance have its full effect so that we might be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. The maturity spoken of here may not be so much a place of arriving in this life as much as an ongoing as it were cyclical growth, an analogy like rings on a tree, toward a larger, fuller, as well as more comprehensive growth.

It’s not like we might not get any good out of it, but often, or at least I can say so in my case, we tend to see it as all good, and that we’re in the clear when the trial is over. That’s as if the goal is for the trial to end well. But the real goal for us is not that the trial might end well as good and important as that is. It’s rather that the testing of our faith might end well, that the endurance with which we’re facing the trial will have its full effect. The trial itself in a way is beside the point compared to what’s at stake here: being mature and complete, even lacking in nothing.

And James’s word on asking God for wisdom is most helpful in this. Even with the rather seemingly harsh and blunt word on doubt which properly understood goes with doublemindedness and really concerns those who are not completely engaged if at all in the commitment and attention this needs, but who would be happy to be rid of the trial with really little or no care for spiritual growth. It is not about those of us who really want to press on to this maturity, but often find ourselves weak in doing so, and tempted with doubt along the way not only about our own lives, but God in our lives.

This isn’t easy, not for the faint of heart. On the other hand the alternative is not great, continuing to live in less than full maturity and all the problems which come with that. And paradoxically, as we press on toward maturity, we become more and more stable, able to weather the storms, that is go through the inevitable trials of life better.

A necessary, if not welcome part of our lives, which we are called to welcome fully since God can and will use every trial for our good if we trust God. In and through Jesus.

what is needed beyond considering every trial nothing but joy

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4

It’s a breath of fresh air to be told to consider any and every trial as nothing but joy. That is a good start, and lets us off the hook so to speak. Before we would take it all on ourselves, and believe the solution and outcome depended on us. And that brought with it all kinds of pressure even when we thought what we might have to do might be manageable. But all the more so when it seems either an impossible or next to impossible task. Or when we’re faced with a trial with seemingly no good answer.

It’s important to hold on to the first word, the first directive to consider nothing but joy, any and every trial we face. But we need to add and keep in mind and before us what follows. It is because there is a needed maturity that will come out of it if we just hold on. If we simply do the first part and let it go at that, that won’t be enough. We need to go through the entire process.

To remain in this means to go through a trial. We would rather dismiss it, get rid of it, see it gone. But no, it remains regardless of what mind tricks we might play on it. When it comes right down to it, there’s no denial of reality. So we may as well accept the inevitable, what is present, and seek to make the most of it.

We can reason that the harder the trial, the more God wants to accomplish out of it. And the goal is nothing less than a fullness of maturity in this life. Not perfection here, but some kind of arrival in maturity nonetheless. We have to hold on, not drift, and with that fall back into old ways. But we can be assured that as we “let endurance have its full effect” that indeed, good will come out of it.

Wisdom will be added as well since we’re told that the goal of going through it is to be “mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” But we’re graciously given the opportunity as we go through the process to ask for wisdom. I’m sure for myself that the felt lack and need for wisdom will insure that I ask for it, or at least that I should ask for it.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.

James 1:5

All graciously given to us in and through Jesus.

trusting, not relying, acknowledging go together

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.

Proverbs 3:5-6

Yesterday I began to work on thoughts from this passage related to when life hits us hard in ways in which there seems no escape or good answer, in other words bringing in the impossible. Today along with some other thoughts I want to emphasize one point I did not mention yesterday, how we’re told to acknowledge God in all of our ways. That can be taken for granted somewhat, as the above passage was quoted in full yesterday as well, and to trust in the Lord with all of our heart, and not rely on our own insight should lead us to acknowledge the Lord in all of our ways. But it’s important to emphasize that, because we’re all to prone to believe, yet fail to really act on it.

We need to consider them all, what this Scripture calls us to do: Trust, don’t rely, acknowledge. To trust in God this way is radical for us. It involves a certain letting go. We don’t trust God only up to a point, then take over. We trust God without reservation, wholeheartedly. It is to enter into a certain realm and remain there. And frankly that is hard, at least for me. I inevitably gravitate to trying to figure everything out myself. It is hard to understand or find the balance. It’s not like a far eastern mystic assumption of total disengagement along with a kind of total merging. We do look at reality in the face for what it is, and we look for what is right, just, and good in harmony with love which is understood best in God’s love revealed in Jesus. But no matter what, our trust is in God, not in ourselves.

Then we’re told not to rely on our own insight, which I’ve already touched on. Our understanding and insight is rarely if ever perfect in this life, except for a special gift from God at a certain point. Otherwise, never perfect. This is why it’s a mistake for us to find rest in our own insight. Our own understanding is never foolproof. And why our true rest is found only in God, in our trust in the Lord.

This reminds me of another point which needs some emphasis. Notice that the passage makes it clear that receiving the blessing actually depends on us. If we don’t follow through with what we’re told to do here, then God’s blessing won’t come. Yes, only God can give the blessing: the straight, smooth paths. But for us to receive that, we have to trust, not rely, and acknowledge. It’s up to us.

Finally the missing link of yesterday’s post. If we fail to acknowledge God in all of our ways, then we also are failing to trust in God with all our hearts, and we will drift back to our own understanding. This is akin, I think to what James speaks about when he emphasizes works in telling us that faith without works is dead. We might think we’re trusting in God with our whole heart and not relying on ourselves, but unless we look to God in prayer, and seek to really depend on God in all of life, in every endeavor, then we’re really not. This is all linked together. What you really believe is not what you say you believe, but what you act on. “Yes, I trust in God, but I need to figure this out myself.” No. Instead something like: “I trust in the Lord, and I believe the Lord will help me through this, to find good counsel, to make a good decision, and to be at rest in that process, and in the end.” All the while realizing that this life will be uneven and messy to the end. Learning to find our rest in God in the midst of that.

Something I’m working on myself. In and through Jesus.

part of what honors God in our attitudes

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.

Proverbs 3:5-6

It must have been “the evil day” for this pastor, but I remember decades back witnessing a pastor I respected lighting into a guy I was working with, really giving it to him when we were at his house to do some kind of lawn or tree care. And the guy just taking it, trying to explain a bit, but essentially just taking it. Something I’ll never forget.

Life is so full of quandaries and conundrums. Like it says in Ecclesiastes, the more you know, the more sorrow and trouble. I have often kind of envied those who are seem so happy go lucky, and don’t seem to worry about much of anything, who take everything pretty much in total stride. As for myself, I’m forever asking questions, doubting just about anything and everything, wanting the most firm answers I can get.

My pondering here is just how we can honor the Lord when we’re faced with a difficult dilemma, not knowing how to handle it. And I’m faced with the seeming reality that life is far from foolproof. Maybe it’s a problem with my expectations. After all, we’re promised that nothing at all can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8). But we’re absolutely not promised that those things that can’t separate us from God won’t be our experience.

What we need here is wisdom. And not just the wisdom from Proverbs in the above passage, though that is a good place to start. Of course the proper fear of God being basic to our existence as we’re also told in Proverbs.

The above passage, Proverbs 3:5-6 is helpful here because it’s about life in general, all of life so that every circumstance is included, even the most difficult ones. But what is told us in that passage needs to become more and more a part of who we are.

We’re told to trust in the Lord with all our heart, I take that to mean without reservation. And that we’re to acknowledge God in all our ways. I take that to mean that God is central in all we’re doing, so that even though we might have to ask all kinds of questions and investigate a situation, we seek God’s help in all of that, believing that God will see us and the situation through.

Not to rely on our own understanding or insight is an important point for me. I tend to want to get to the bottom of anything and everything. Are we doing the best we can? And can we trust the process along with the outcome to God? Those seem to me to be two good basic attitudes for us to have.

In the end we’re told that God will make our paths straight. The Hebrew word יָשָׁר (yashar) means “to make smooth; to make straight” (BDB). Somehow God will do that. If we just do what we’re told to do here. To make this the practice of our lives so that when the difficulties come, we will continue on this path. A part of honoring God in and through Jesus.

the necessary calm in the face of the storm

If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,”
I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.
But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I perceived their end.

Psalm 73:15-17

This psalm is not only one of the most interesting, but also if you can say this, one of the most beautiful (click above to see the psalm in its entirety). The psalmist is struck and grieved over what they see which seems to fly in the face of what is supposed to be. And down in the mouth as a result.

But the psalmist gets a necessary grip on themselves in noting that honesty to their children, to their progeny about this would be not only be bad for them, but unfaithful to God. Interestingly we have all of this set in front of us for all to see within the psalm itself. The exact struggle the psalmist is going through, not uncommon by the way, in Scripture. And the breakthrough into an answer that is otherworldly and requires faith. Helpfully, all of that is set before us.

But how does this translate into our lives? We are completely honest to God, pouring out our entire heart such as it is to God, seeking to cast our burden entirely on God. But before others, especially those who would not be ready for what we would share, as well as the realization that so sharing to others may not be timely and could even be unhelpful, we hold our peace.

Notice that the psalmist doesn’t say anything to anyone about this entire episode until after they enter into the sanctuary of God. I take that to refer probably to the temple, certainly the idea of entering God’s Presence. Then they speak/write the whole, but not until then.

So when we face the latest cloud within our experience, we do well to pray, and keep it to ourselves. Maybe sharing it only with a mentor, close significant other, or friend. But maybe keeping it just between ourselves and God might be a good practice. Seeking to draw near to God to get the needed vision and help. Then what we’ve experienced might be a help to others. In and through Jesus.

loyalty and faithfulness

Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
So you will find favor and good repute
in the sight of God and of people.

Proverbs 3:3-4

We are reminded here that loyalty and faithfulness ought to be priorities in our lives. Instead too often we let other factors weigh in and we all but forget this.

There are limits in life, and lines and boundaries that need to be drawn. An abusive partner should not be allowed to continue their abuse, even if that means that one has to depart. Loyalty and faithfulness does mean through thick and thin, “for better and for worse till death do us part.” Marriage is referred to here. But even in marriage, one does not accept abuse. The partner must get the needed help, and there can come the time to separate and God forbid, even annul the marriage. But insofar as it’s possible, and whatever that might mean in any given stage, loyalty and faithfulness should continue. But the loyalty and faithfulness normally required is no longer required in the abnormal circumstances which can occur. All of this requires God-given wisdom.

While all of that is necessarily said, loyalty and faithfulness ought to be staples of our character. We are committed in love to those who are dear to us and have commitments in friendship with others. Many would think of loyalty to a company or workplace, and while there may be some application of that here, what is mostly referred to here his loyalty to people. That certainly involves faithfulness in what we do in the workplace and in other spaces.

Anything at all which might violate this should be considered anathema, in other words worse than unacceptable. “We just don’t go there” should be the mark by which we live by, even our passion. At the same time, we don’t imagine for a second that we’re above falling. We factor in our weaknesses, and pray, and work on living fully in God’s will without compromise, lovingly doing so, but even sharply in places, if need be. And when needed we get counseling along with prayer from others.

Loyalty and faithfulness. Two watch words for us. To always be in the picture of our lives. In and through Jesus.