Monday, November 19, 2018

Luke's Wicked Sense of Humor

Good ol' Luke.

I suspect a twinkle in his eye many a time as he wrote the gospel, tweaking the noses of the know-it-alls, and catching the proud (and who isn't?) off guard.

Today's lection, the rich man (Oh Lordy, listen to the trumpets and watch the security detail in their black SUVs) and, oh wait a minute, does the rich man have a name?

And Lazarus, a stinking little man full of sores and sorrow, groveling on the ground for a few of the rich man's crumbs ... friendless, a companion of raggedy street dogs ...

But, wait, he has a name, a real name, and later in the story, this sad mess of sores gets to sit on the lap of Abraham, while the rich man, a critter without a name, a self-serving bag of pride, goes without a name, and he's hot and he thirsty, and still expects Lazarus to come a-running to wait upon him.

He's not worth naming; his worth is in himself, his possessions and his power. He has what he wants, and so he's lost his name. Like all the rich, so full of themselves, a dime a dozen as God sees it.

But it's Lazarus, the man with nothing, who smells to high heaven with sores and disease, likely condemned by the rich man for being lazy, or stupid, why, he has a name.

Precious in the sight of the LORD.

A name.

I think Luke was chuckling to himself when he wrote the story, recalling how Jesus so often tweaked the noses of the rich and the powerful.

Recalling the moment, perhaps, as Luke witnessed it, or more likely, as Luke heard it from others, that Jesus, too, had a twinkle in his eye, a wicked sense of humor, as he made it clear to those who worked so hard to make a name for themselves, that in God's realm, they have no name at all; they've traded it away for goods.

And the stinking man, licked by the dogs, beneath the table of the rich, well, pay attention folks, because he has a name!

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Psalm 149

Reading the text is always an unpredictable process ... sure, we can sort of determine what the "original" intent might have been, sort of, but it's our response that's most telling.

I've read Psalm 149 a good many times, with thanksgiving and with reservation, because of the violence ... biblical violence in the hands of the powerful is, at best, dangerous; but perhaps it can be read in another way, and that's what struck me this morning.

V.6, "Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands."

Yes, in the eager hands of the already-powerful, such a verse can be disastrous. The Erik Princes of this world love this kind of stuff, and exult in the love of "arms for christ."

Yet as I read it this morning, it reminded me that our praise of God can never be separated from the tasks at hand, the tasks of living and caring for what it is right and good, promoting the wellbeing of a society, and especially defending those whose voices have been muted by the powerful.

The text goes on: "to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron...."

I think of Bonhoeffer's fateful decision to participate in the bomb plot to kill Hitler, which, of course, is an extreme measure, but Bonhoeffer knew full well that love for the nation, for the Jews, now required a dramatic move to remove the source of the nation's ills.

I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., who made clear that violence was never to be offered to violence. But the text makes clear, I believe, that in the struggle for right, there can be no laying downing and simply taking it.

The Civil Rights demonstrators, while refraining from proactive violence, made it clear to the nation that Black People would not longer "take it," but in their determination to cross the bridge or to order a coke at the local drugstore counter, they "violated" the social boundaries and put chains on the powerful.

Lots of folks told them to go back to church and pray, put it into God's hands, and God would sort it all out. But it became evident that God's hands were tied by the powerful representatives of the Jim Crow, and all the prayer in all the world wouldn't open up voting rights or french fries at the local lunch counter. But only a forceful presence that dared to cross the lines and confront the lies.

Well, the upshot of this is both complex and simple: to praise God with our voice is meaningless unless the sword is in our hand, ready to clear the way, make straight the way of the LORD, and put into chains those forces and ideas that make a mockery of religion and love to hurt the weak.

And, that a sword in the hand, always dangerous, has to be linked to praise, lest the sword become a law unto itself, and violence for good simply becomes violence.

So was my reading this morning of Psalm 149.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Day

In 1954, upon the urging of American veteran groups, Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day.

While it's right and good to remember our veterans, it's also right and good that we remember the larger event, Armistice Day, when "the war to end all wars" came to an end, at the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month.

It was a war of fools, as most wars are - blunders into violence, the love of tactics, and the mindless belief that nations can really conquer nations, that might prevails, and "god is on our side." Everyone fought everyone else with chaplains chanting prayers and the leaders of the nations fiercely weaving a bloody tapestry of faith and nation.

When the war ended, with untold millions dead, nothing was resolved - but only from sheer weariness of killing and dying did the combatants lay down their arms, and while the allies were "victorious," they took it upon themselves to punish Germany (and sow the seeds of WW2) and to redraw the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire (sowing the seeds of today's Middle East chaos).

Armistice Day deserves to be remembered with tears and reverence for the millions of soldiers who were ordered to advance by generals far removed from the front. The solider, with friends and family back home, his face covered in mud and his body crawling with vermin, didn't fight for "god and country." They fought to stay alive, and to protect one another. And millions didn't make it, because of the foolhardiness of the nations.

Let's remember our veterans, but let's not make light of their suffering and death by draping their broken bodies with bunting, but covering them with our tears, and a fresh resolve to see the insanity of war, to work mightily to unmask the craven purposes of the arms industry, and give no heed to the mindless babbling of nations who speak of their own greatness.

Let 11.11.11 be our prayer, our purpose, our work every day of our life, until war be no more.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Infant Baptism: The Great Equalizer

Infant Baptism is the New Testament version of Circumcision, the ancient rite practiced by the Israelites as the mark of God's love in their lives, the claim of God upon them, that they, and their children, belong to God, not by their own efforts, or their own choice, or their intelligence or spiritual sensitivity, but rather by the sovereign declarations of God, that "I will be your God, and you will be my people."

God made it clear, from the covenant made with Sarah and Abraham, that children, too, belong, right from the start, and while the ancient rite belonged only to the male child, the New Testament expands the rite to include girls, too - the purpose, the intent, of the respective rites, are the same, but now in Christ, it's clear: all children belong to God, and nothing says that more clearly, and directly, than baptism, the great equalizer for us all - that in Christ, there are no more the distinctions that humans love to make: neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free: ethnic, gender and social.

No one choses their baptism; it's chosen for them, by their families, by the community of faith around them, and ultimately, by the love of God, the primal moving of the Holy Spirit, the a prior grace of God, that moves and works and creates anew, before we know anything about it, before we ask for it, or claim it, or do anything at all on our part.

Hence no one can point to their baptism as a self-affirming sign of any sort of spiritual decision, as in "I did this, I chose to be baptized, I went forward at a revival, I felt the leading of the Spirit, and welcomed it." Or, "I felt the leading of the Spirit, and resisted it for a long, I fought against God [this is the stuff of testimony, the stuff that gets the juices flowing] and then I could no longer resist, and so I surrendered to God."

Notice the dominate of the pronoun "I" in all of this?

There is no "I" in infant baptism; the "I" doesn't exist, because infant baptism is of God, through the community, through the family; it's primal, it's basic, it's not of our own decision, and for the rest of our lives, as with circumcision, we are marked by the water of baptism, in the eyes of God, in the eyes of the community, and in our own eyes, too, though we may do our best to deny it, to forget it, to live contrary to it, but no one can undo the mark of circumcision, and no one can wipe off the water of baptism.

Believer's Baptism, on the other hand, is all about the "I" ... and that's the cause of so much dissension and distress in evangelical communities, creating a spiritual rivalry in which the believer is made the central actor, and when it comes to worship in such communities, "stars" are born who have the most spectacular stories of conversion, resistance, surrender, and then victory over the dark forces of Satan, and so on.

If we begin with the "I" in all of this, that's where we end, and there's nothing more deadly to the work of God than when the "I" assumes control, even when masked with the language of surrender and humility, as in "God has done it all," when in fact, the believer makes it clear that it was their decision, their moment of surrender, their will, their moment to decision, and though God played a part, it was the believer who finished the deal and subsequently plays the central role through prayer, Bible reading, witnessing, fellowship and faith. All of these are important, of course, for all of us, but evangelical communities, these are the tools the believer uses to maintain faith, whereas in reality, these are the gifts of the Spirit, and like John put it, "I must grow smaller, and he must grow larger."

When the "I" is dominant, we have rivalries, dissensions and distinctions - as I heard years ago, "Me graduate school Christian; you kindergarten Christian. What's wrong with you?"

The "testimony" trail in evangelicalism provides the platform of stardom, the "witness" of the "saved," who tell their stories with flourish, and, I suspect, plenty of embellishment, to eager crowds, crowds looking for encouragement, for thrill, for confirmation of their own ego in the spiritual realm.

When it comes to testimony, what did a Jew say, other than "I belong to God, and that's not my decision, it's God's"? ... maybe adding, "I wish God would leave me alone."

What can a Christian say, except the very same thing?

"I belong to God, and that's not my decision, it's God's decision, God's work, God's purpose flowing through the width and breadth of history, from the beginning, and reaching to the very end, however that will be."

And because it's God's decision, from before the foundation of the earth, there is nothing now that can separate us from the love of God in Christ ... what God establishes, God protects; what God initiates, God finishes, and to God be the glory.

And in a weary world where "our glory" plays the central world, much to our sorrow and much to the harm of our world, the message of grace, sovereign, full and complete, becomes the glass of cool water in a hot and thirsty world.

The message of grace, resplendently portrayed in the moment of infant baptism, when this little squiggling, squirming, diaper-pooping, child is touched with the water, and the minister says, "In the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, in the name of the Holy Spirit" ... in the name of all that is good, all that is God, all that is right and beautiful, hopeful and redeeming, "you are baptized! Now and forever more, you belong to God, not because of this baptism, but because of God's decision, made in the heart of God, for sake of God's purposes, God's creation, God's work. And what God has done is revealed and confirmed in waters of baptism."

And, of course, for those who come to faith later in life, it's really all the same - the same intent on God's part, the same purpose, the same grounding - not in the believer can any of this be found but only in the mercy of God. Whereas we're often tempted to point to ourselves in these matters, baptism  erases all such efforts to glorify ourselves.

For the adult being baptized, the language is the same: "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. By the mercies of God, full and complete, you belong to God, now and forever more. not because of this baptism, but through the work of the Spirit, who does it all, the giver of life, unto the glory of God."

Yes, to God be the glory!

And for me, there is no clearer statement of such power than in the moment of an infant baptism.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

I Was Feeling Good Until ... Joshua 6.21

It's a good morning.

My wife is back in town, and me little heart is happy.

As with most mornings, the Daily Lectionary ... the Bible ... you know, THE BIBLE ... which I've studied for most of my life, taught to so many, and from which I've preached endless sermons, some of which were even pretty darn good. Ha!

But, as of late, I'm reading with careful eyes ... and things are hitting me hard ... like this morning's piece from Joshua, with Jericho in ruins, and Joshua says: Take all the valuables, the gold, silver and bronze, and we'll put them into the LORD's treasury, but as for everything else, everyone else, man, woman and child, dogs and cats, cows and goats, devoted [what a word to use] for destruction. Death, m'boys, death; carnage and destruction, kill 'em all ... they don't deserve life; their land is our land. Preserve Rahab and her family; she helped us. But as for the rest, kill' em. As for the city, burn it. As for the future, cursed be anyone who tries to rebuild it. 

Oh dear, what can I say?

There was a time when I would have said: Blood and terror, but such were the times.

These days, I simply say, Blood and terror ... and horrible and hideous ... yes, this happens; this is what nations do to one another; and every nation says that it's their god who commands it, who commends them for it; a god of unrelenting violence who finds blood rather tasty. And for those who care at all about this earth, about life, a word of rejection is needed here. A word that puts material like this into a museum, into a display of sadness, titled, this is what people do when they misconceive god.

Sadder, still, what this bloody business engenders in many who read it ... the Puritans and early Americans who saw the Indigenous Peoples as Israel looked upon the citizens of Jericho ... and down through the ages, as European Christians colonized the world, wiping out tens of thousands of people in a heartbeat, if not by sword, then by disease, and enslaving millions, devoting to a life of unrelenting cruelty and sorrow. Yuppers! The LORD is on our side, and the sword is the way of the LORD. 

I'll not do a Thomas Jefferson on the Bible, with cut and paste ... to make it more "sanitary" and pleasing. No, this is part of the Sacred Text, it's there, and I have to deal with it.

But no longer will I offer justification for it, or try to make it a metaphor, or allegory, or anything like that No, not at all. 

It's just horrible, hideous, miserable and unworthy of the Creator of the World. That ancient Israel should conceive of itself in this kind of blood, and by the sword is not unusual; this is how nations behave. But it's not what God commands or commends!

But that Jews today, and Christians, and anyone else, of whatever creed, who read this for justification of violence and domination, is the greater horror, and the greater crime against God and God's Creation.

It was hard to read today ... I was feeling good, and then this dirty little ditty, if you will ... that the way of the LORD is the way of the sword ... and if Joshua had the temerity to curse those who would try to rebuild the city, perhaps a curse upon those who take up these texts of violence and use them to justify their laws, their guns, their violence, their domination.

But, then, no curse is needed.

Because those who live by the sword die by it. The Bible says that, too, sort of. Whoever wrote that piece (Aeschylus) knew the story, and when Jesus quotes it (he quotes a Greek philosopher, rather than someone from his own religious tradition), he, too, knew the story, better than any of us. 

Now is not the time for me to say: the sword is the device of hell, not heaven; that "death to all" is the cry of the demented, and not the Word of the LORD.

For God so loved the world, that God gave ... upon this hangs all the Law and the Prophets ... and by such is how I read the Bible.


Saturday, May 19, 2018

Thinking about "Dear God"

"Dear God," I've said a million times and then some.

"Dear God,"
"watch over my children,"
"keep my wife,"
"help me,"
"be with my friend,"
"bless our world."

"Dear God" ... sweet words, words of hope, humility, and longing.

Words that have meant the world to me over the years, without question, simple and direct, personal and poignant, "Dear God."

My sadness about the word "God" is how this precious word has been sullied and stained by certain religious elements that have lost all imagination, replacing it with dogma ... religious elements that have ceased thinking, elements without humility before the great mysteries of life, death, love and eternity.

Sadly, my own inner spirit has been hurt by these elements - their brutality, their insistence, their misplaced confidence in what they know, their disdain for the poor, for immigrants, and for people of other faith-traditions.

I have been taking a daily bath in their filthy water for some years now, trying to figure it out, trying to find words to counter their evil influence, wanting to shine some light into the darkness and madness of their violent thoughts and behavior. Compounded by the filthy water of wayward politics, linked to these religious elements, with a horrible and heinous progeny populating our churches, our schools, our sense of being and identity. Bathe in filthy water, and there is no cleansing, but only more filth, more despair, more disappointment and discouragement, until the soul itself is compromised by the principalities and powers of death.

Great music, poetry, exalted preaching, novels and film ... birds and bees and children laughing and crying ... all of this, and more, cleansing ... clean ... clear ... hope anew, courage to believe, to imagine, to see the mountain, to hear the world, to engage the powers of life, and be a human being fully alive, which is, after all, the glory of God.

"Dear God" ... two words that have meant the world to me ... dear, close and kind ... God, high above and surrounding all that is, making life, and holding us dear, as only Dear God can do.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Speechless

If ever there were words that describe my present mindset, it's these of Jeremiah: "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak."

Jeremiah chalks it up to his youthfulness.

But me? I'm no longer young!

I've been around the Horn any number of times, rough seas and craziness; hurt, sorrow and pain; under attack and betrayed; lied about and despised. The stuff of ministry. Yet, plenty of good stuff in the mix, as well: love, hope, peace, encouragement, friendship, humor, loyalty, and victory ... and a wife without peer, and a family of adventure ... rich experiences and travel ... and looking back, I'm satisfied with the years. And now, here I am.

These days, nonetheless, words fail me.

Jeremiah is often at a loss for words, too ... his world is a mess ... politics and religion in shambles, shady characters and greed all around ... what to say, what to say?

He rants and he raves ... he cajoles and condemns ... he comforts and holds up hope ... and when nothing seems to work, he choose silence ... says that God set him up and left him twisting in the wind. For the time being, Jeremiah is on leave.

As I am right now, but the words of God boil away in his guts ... he cannot escape the task ... but who doesn't need some time for the guts to boil, for the churning and stirring of thoughts and hurts and sorrow and despair and anger and alienation? Who doesn't need to tell God off? Who doesn't need to shut up now and then? To declare that's it's not worth my time; to turn around and walk away? Who doesn't need that now and then?

But as Jeremiah learned, his silence can hold only for a while ... because of how it all began. In the beginning, the Words of the Lord ...

When the words of the Lord came to Jeremiah, out of the blue, a wild affirmation: "You're mine. Even before you're conceived in your mother's womb, way before then, I knew you ... and already in my mind, you were appointed as a prophet ... to the nations."

Never just to Judah, but to the nations ... because Judah, while important enough, isn't the sum-total of God's care, but always the nations, the world, everyone and everything. Something to keep in mind, lest one simply hides in the church, talking pious mush and ignoring just how much of the religious enterprise is a house of cards.

So, to the nations ... and it's God's determination.

The bedrock ... you're mine! Which is something the Apostle Paul understood so well, and so did Calvin, but those are stories for another day.

The bedrock love of God.

Warms the cockles of my Calvinist heart ... the a priori love of God ... which is the only place for me to begin, and should I forget to begin there, things seriously unravel for me. Even with that, they may unravel, because unravelling is sometimes needed, so God can reknit the whole deal with longer sleeves, or something like that.

And as St. John of the Cross suggested to young monks all wrapped up in themselves, in such times as these, when things are unraveling, deconstructing, and I have no idea what God is doing, it's because God obscures God's work in order to keep me "in the dark," lest I rush in and tell God what God ought to be doing. When it's done, however, I'll know. When it's done, God will step back and pull off my blinders: "Here'; this is what I've been doing."

Like Jeremiah, I'm pretty much speechless these days.

But the fundamental affirmation of God's love for me remains, though I can forget it now and then, lost in the wilds of idiocy besetting nation and world ... yet this morning, as I write, it's consoling ... like taking a deep breath after a long time of shallow breathing ... the body settles, the mind slows down, nerves relax a bit. Nothing yet clear, but the bedrock remains ... and a house built on the rock withstands the worst of the storms.

I find consolation in my friend Jeremiah, a friend since seminary days - an honest man who cannot sever his connection to God, though he tries, because God won't allow it. It's that basic.

I like Jeremiah every much ... he's a friend, indeed, for times such as these.