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.

hold that thought

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

James 1:19-20

It is so easy to get what might seem to be an inspired thought, and I don’t mean from God’s word, but right now I’m referring to something we want to say. But if we would give it enough time, our thought might at least be tempered or revised altogether. It’s important to let time and life help us to better understand. Realizing just how little we know.

It’s not like we can’t speak out. There’s indeed a time to speak, and a time to be silent (Ecclesiastes 3). And we will make mistakes along the way. That’s a part of being human.

But we need to emphasize to ourselves that there’s always plenty more to learn. And therefore listen, listen, and listen some more. To others, and especially to God.

against fear

One wise person years ago said that we should never act on fear. All too often in my life, I have. And while I may think I did what I needed to in order to alleviate it, it would invariably not lift the cloud that was over me. I’ve learned that only God can do that.

Yes, we need to redirect our sight, as my wife has often reminded me, getting our eyes off our trouble and onto the Lord. And as she also has often said, it’s Satan. Yes, we’re in spiritual warfare no doubt. Good, important reminders.

It is interesting that the most often repeated command in Scripture is “Don’t be afraid” or words to that effect. I find in my own experience it’s like going on an interesting, but terrifying roller coaster ride. You hang on and hang in there. What choice do you have? The exhilaration may kick in at a certain point, or you may simply be glad that the ride is over. I did learn in my days of roller coaster riding, to enjoy the ride. But I think sometimes, depending on the ride, that would be quite impossible.

For me, I’m sorry to say, and sorry to disappoint you: there’s no easy quick fix. What change that may help us would surely be incremental over time through taking good steps like being regularly in God’s word, in Scripture, and doing what God has called us to do. I have found that it’s like a process one has to go through. Different stages come along like denial or trying to get rid of it, whatever. But when we come to accept it, and just do the best we can with God’s help, sooner or later the fear will subside.

Of course this includes trying to apply the spiritual warfare passage in Ephesians 6, getting someone close to you to pray for you, being in God’s word and prayer.

We need to hang in there. God will see us through, giving us the wisdom we need, and ideally, a new lesson learned. God is at work in the mess. In and through Jesus.

stilling the storm of words

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.

Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heart
to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few.
A dream comes when there are many cares,
and many words mark the speech of a fool.

Ecclesiastes 5:1-3

I think I’m a word person, so words are important to me. I want to know truth, and I want to communicate. It is probably something of the gift God has given me. So if there’s a storm of words, I may not like the storm, but I might easily be taken into the storm. And I’ve found over the years that such participation does little if any good. All too often it feels like one is only becoming part of that storm, certainly not helping to still it.

And now we have a pandemic which has hit the United States in full force economically, politically- exacerbating the great divide, and certainly physically, with the mounting death toll. And politically, it’s an election year. So all of this gets played out into a never ending storm of words. The map for this weather front sees little break in the clouds and storm to come. And not sure where the light at the end of the tunnel might be, if it’s coming at all.

Qohelet, the main writer of Ecclesiastes, seems to be a pessimist by nature, maybe what we would call a realist. He/she seems to be something of a hard core skeptic. I can resonate with that. When people think they have the answer to something, they’re never at a loss for words. But when one is not sure, or knows enough to know that they don’t know that much, then less words come, or maybe none at all.

The book of Job is a case in point. Filled with words from Job questioning God’s justice, and Job’s friends, correcting Job, and the words go on and on. But after God speaks, Job shuts his mouth, and continues to listen. And then repents in dust and ashes. Yes, we need the word from God, and much less of our own words. But to get to that point of listening, maybe we have to experience something of the storm of words, our own and others.

When one considers all of Scripture, and I’m especially thinking of the psalms, it seems like pouring our hearts in prayer to God, and expressing our unvarnished thoughts to him is commendable, and seen over and over again in Scripture. I think what we need a good healthy dose of though, is to learn to say less and listen more. And the one we need to listen to is God. To hear what God is saying to us ought to be our goal. We need to speak less and listen more. Yes, to others. But above all to God. Then the words we do speak might actually matter more.

 

in the new normal

After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.

Job 42:7

What happens when the heavens feel like brass, when one seems to have no peace, or it comes, but mostly is gone. Read the amazing wisdom story of Job. It’s a wisdom story, not necessarily a story about an actual event. That’s how some take it, including myself, though it really doesn’t matter. But Job found himself in the depths of complete personal loss, except that his wife who remained, counseled him to curse God and die. In this story, God is actually wagering Satan in a sense, letting Satan take his worst shot at Job without killing him to answer Satan’s accusation that Job will dismiss God since he serves God for personal gain.

Job doesn’t take this passively, the loss of his children, loss of wealth and now stricken from head to toe in misery. He questions God, and even wishes for the reversal of creation, including of course his own existence. Yet Job hangs in there. He is still talking to God, and talking around his friends who had their nicely pat theological and seemingly life-oriented answers. Recently I read these friends were like first year seminary students. Some wisdom in that thought.

Living in the new normal is not a new theme for me. I’ve lived much of my life in difficulty of one kind or another, mostly inward, though in reaction to external situations, but just a steady dull, regardless. PTSD surely is something we all experience at different levels, since we humans live in a broken world. How do we live in “the new normal”?

I think we have to do what Job did. Hang in there with God; appeal to God. Ask questions. Determine to hope in God to the end. And learn how to live as well as we can “in the new normal.” There is no sense thinking we can escape it. As in the case of Job, only God can grant that. We have to keep after it in our faith, but learn to live as well as we can. Trusting that God will see us through and give us what we need. The breakthrough and change will come. In and through Jesus.

understanding one’s weak points

I remember Jesus expressing disappointment, maybe even consternation at times over his disciples’ lack of faith. There are general areas we need to keep growing in, some weak spots we need to shore up. There are weaknesses common to us all as humans, then there are especially vulnerable points peculiar to each one of us.

It seems to me that it would be good to have some understanding of our vulnerabilities so that we might not only be aware of such, but somehow work on trying to understand how we can do better.

There’s a whole list of the possible weak points we might have. One can think of the so-called “seven deadly sins” for a start (see Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung). We would do well to learn from the tradition of the church, wisdom God has given the church through the ages.

We often react more than anything else, and our reactions usually aren’t helpful. We often fail to get to the root of our problem, much less deal with it in any effective way.

We need wisdom from God gathered, yes by the Spirit and the word (Scripture), but within that we’ll find that we need the help of the church, counsel from others. In the meantime we need to do the best we can with what we have, where we’re at.

This is not a snap of the finger, quick fix. Such a remedy is more like a bandage which might be good to stop the bleeding, but may fail to deal with the cause. We need to take the long look, to patiently work at finding what our problem is, and what Scripture prescribes for that. We need to quit jumping with our limited knowledge along with lack of knowledge, even misunderstanding, trying to solve the issue ourselves. Otherwise we’ll never get very far, and we’ll always struggle in certain areas, susceptible to the enemy’s attack.

This will be a lifelong endeavor. We’ll be making progress in some things, only to find we need to work on something else. Part of the journey we’re on here and now. In and through Jesus.

“incremental”

The word “incremental” has become an important word for me at work. It probably is not hitting the precise meaning, or the way it’s used, but I see it as meaning little by little, to add up to making work easier for me and others. It’s not like I’m trying to slough off of hard work, but making it manageable, and being willing to relax more when things don’t work out, even when mistakes are made. But to keep pushing on this direction.

I used to work full tilt, kind of trying to do something of this, but with more of an accent on working hard. I still work full tilt, but in a different way. Now it is more thoughtful in terms of trying to keep myself relaxed and through that example, to help us all do the same. So that others aren’t stressed out, beginning with the fact that I’m not stressed out. Of course I can’t handle how others do their work, but hopefully my example can rub off on others, if it’s really helpful. And part of my goal is to make everyone’s job easier, so that they can concentrate on what’s in front of them, to minimize the extra they have to do.

This is making a world of difference for me. I keep thinking of the word, “incremental.” I have it firmly in my memory, finally now, or so I think. But my first thought as far as my work is concerned is to do it little by little, in manageable chunks, even if that means more movement on my part, which it inevitably does. And trying to avoid being in a hurry, insofar as that’s possible. I find the hard work is in a sense easier, certainly easier to manage, and therefore less stressful. In fact there seems a fallout in stress, none or not much at all. Kind of a part of my goal, to avoid undue stress beyond just the normal minimal stress each part of the job requires.

Add to that just lately, I realize I won’t entirely achieve this, so that I have to depend on others to pick up where I can’t. So learning to relax, even when I can’t always achieve “incremental” as I intend to. But making it my first priority as far as the nuts and bolts of my work is concerned; to do so incrementally, little by little, with plenty of room to get things done comfortably. Something I consider clearly to be a needed help of wisdom to me from God. Sometimes in God’s generosity, a kind of wisdom given to anyone. And for us “in Jesus”, it is always in and through him.

no truth apart from love

The wise in heart are called discerning,
and gracious words promote instruction.

Gracious words are a honeycomb,
sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

Proverbs 16:21,24

Some people seem to think that truth is telling it like it is, no holds barred. But truth in God’s world is always joined with love; you can’t separate them. Love is not love apart from truth; truth is not truth apart from love.

This should be an important baseline on how I judge my own speech and the speech of others. How well I receive a sermon, message or as it’s often called nowadays a conversation around and in God’s word. Is it imbued with grace and truth? If not, it will be lacking.

None of us has it altogether. And we might tend more either toward grace, or truth. People who are known to be blunt are often admired as “telling it like it is,” or “being real.” And others who can never say anything that might be displeasing to others will likely not be taken seriously, or will be seen as flatterers.

What we need is a combination of grace and truth. We speak truth, but we do so gently, with love. In fact we would want to consider and ponder how to make truth as attractive as possible, rather than quite the opposite. What will help us a long way in that direction is humility, the realization of how much we ourselves are in need of grace. That should help us put a curb on our harshness, and hopefully find in time that it no longer characterizes us.

When we understand our own great need for God’s mercy and grace, we won’t look down on others. But instead will want to help them with the help God gives us. In and through Jesus.

connecting all joy in whatever trial with prayer for God’s wisdom

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

James 1:2-8

When we’re in the pressure cooker, it’s easy to revert to something less than helpful. We need something better than fight or flight. And James gives us something much better here.

We’re to count it all joy when any given trial hits us, because through that God can do a deeper work in us. We need to persevere through it, so that we can grow in whatever way God has for us.

I think we can connect that with the directive to ask God for needed wisdom. Maybe it can stand alone as well, since James is more like Proverbs than any other book in the New Testament. Either way, it only makes sense to ask God for wisdom in trials. God will give it to us as we go on imperfectly as it will be, with a heart set on living in his will. In and through Jesus.