Snakes, Wisdom, and Life’s Headaches

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” — Genesis 3:4, RSVCE

Poor snake.

I mean, I get that the serpent of Genesis 3 does cause some trouble. He broaches a sensitive topic, asks some leading questions, and finally presents a couple half-truths that prompt the two literary representatives of humanity to commit the first act of deliberate disobedience. Really, though, I think we mistreat the poor fella.

There is no indication in the Hebrew text that this character is Satan, a devil, demon, or anything other than a creature “more subtle than any other wild creature that the LORD God had made” (3:1). The word often translated as “subtle,” “crafty,” or “cunning” is arum, which actually just means “wise.” The connotation can be negative or positive based on the context of the entire passage in which the word is found. In some passages, those who are arum plot evil things. In Proverbs, though, an arum man is considered to be beneficial, or sensible.

The reason I bring this up is that the serpent’s description as arum occurs before the story, which means it could actually be described as neutral. Translators tend to translate the word based on their knowledge of the story, which is why the English connotation is almost always negative (except in the Common English Bible, which translates Genesis 2-3 wonderfully, see here). I believe the use of  arum in this way is an intentional move by the authors, as the wisdom of the serpent proves to be an amazing metaphor for what happens to all of us as we become more acquainted with this world.

Don’t get me wrong. Disobeying God isn’t good, but it’s time we were honest about the Genesis passages. There is no mention of original sin or temptation, only deliberate disobedience that brings the Man and Woman to full awareness of their situation.

That’s the painful thing about wisdom, isn’t it? The more knowledge and wisdom we possess, the more painful life seems to become. Think about it. The blissful ignorance of a child, similar to that of the Man and Woman before their act of disobedience, is a form of peace that we all lose as life goes on. We become aware of both good and evil, just as the humans of Genesis do, and, like them, our greater awareness yields both positive and negative things. This is why the author of Ecclesiastes says, “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18).

In the biblical world, snakes carried a variety of meanings. They were dangerous, but their venom also was considered to have curative properties. Serpents could both harm and heal, the perfect example being the fiery serpents and bronze serpent of healing found in Numbers as Moses and the people of Israel move through the wilderness (Numbers 21). In this way, serpents were also symbols of wisdom, because wisdom hurts, but also can provide for ultimate healing.

So what does this mean for us today? We should all take a moment to acknowledge the amount of ignorance in the world. People pass judgments on others, even when they know nothing about them! Look at pro-choice/pro-life debates, political parties, or the Islamophobia that has reared its ugly head since 9/11. Look at terrorist groups, the adherents of which believing they are doing God’s will by hating and seeking to destroy entire groups of people based on one particular view of life. Hell, many in the United States have no idea that we are still sending and losing soldiers to conflict overseas! In all of these situations, and more, we see sides being taken with realities being completely ignored, and this is not a recipe for success.

Part of God’s creation is free will, and that includes the freedom to pass our judgments and establish our opinions based on minimal information, no matter how that might hurt others. Ignorance is appealing, as it keeps our experienced reality simple, and we don’t have to complicate life any further by seeking the truth. We would rather just pretend we already have it! To meet those who are different, to live life with those with whom we don’t agree, and to seek to understand those people we may not even like would risk putting us in a precarious situation where reality is far more “gray” than we would like. This “gray,” however, is exactly what’s needed for us to move forward, for it is only with full knowledge of our sickness that we can seek the wisdom to heal it.

As Christ says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). Jesus is pointing out the ignorance of the religious authorities, whose judgment of those seeking the Lord’s presence actually blinds them to their own need of salvation. When we choose to live in ignorance, judging what we do not know without questioning ourselves, we go the way of the pharisees and miss Jesus’ work in our lives.

As we go forward into another week, let’s examine ourselves. Where are we ignorant, and who are we judging based on incomplete information with no experience? In what ways will knowledge in this area make things more complicated for us? How can we take that discomfort and re-invent ourselves and our positions to reflect the complex reality God has gifted to His creation? I will be asking myself these critical questions, and I hope you will join me. If we prayerfully go about this work with the kindness of Christ in our hearts, we can take the painful knowledge of this complicated world and turn it into a wisdom that has the power to heal the wounds of ignorance. I’ll pray for you if you will for me!

Peace be with you!

 

 

Black and Blue Lives Matter

Once when Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” — Joshua 5:13-14, NRSV

With the shooting of Botham Jean by a Dallas Police officer and the killing of Garrett Hull, an undercover Fort Worth officer, we here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have seen another set of contributions to the national “debate” regarding police officers and their treatment of people of color. I render “debate” this way because we aren’t truly debating, whether it be this or any other issue. Debate is a discussion in which two positions interact for the purposes of finding the truth. It is a conversation that happens in community. What we are doing these days is more like screaming at each other from inside our own little boxes.

What I mean is that both people of color and police officers have experiences that are true. People of color were never intended to have an equal share to success and dignity in this nation, and we are in the midst of historical growing pains as we try to overcome a prejudicial narrative that spans over two hundred years, made more difficult by the tendency to devalue certain lives based on whether or not they meet a fickle set of standards in the eyes of the public. On the other hand, police officers are often under-trained, under-paid, and unsupported as they enter into situations we’d all like to pretend don’t exist. They are tense, and they have good reason to be, especially when a routine traffic stop or sitting on a lunch break can become deadly activities.

Families of police officers are fearful every day that their loved one might not make it home. This feeling is both shared and amplified in communities of color, whose fear is actually stoked by the sight of a blue uniform. Further, both officer families and marginalized citizens earnestly desire justice and peace for those they love.

These commonalities, however, are largely ignored in our national dialogue. A motto as specific as “Black lives matter” chafes a public that is still not at peace with its own history, and is misrepresented as an attack on law enforcement and all other lives. Meanwhile, officers are demonized, killed, and blamed individually for systemic issues. To make matters worse, inflammatory rhetoric surfaces that further deepens a divide that never should have been there, putting all parties in greater danger.

So what do we do?

So far, it seems to me that we pick our “box” and scream at those on the other side, blaming “those people” for the present state of our country… and the world loves it. The world is all about handing us two human-made sides from which we must choose. We cannot stay in the middle, for this is a most unacceptable neutrality. When it comes to our politics, religion, or this specific example of Black and Blue lives being pitted against each other, we must exclusively decide.

Screw that.

I’m done, and I hope you are as well.

The truth is, there is no reason to “pick a side” in this worldly debate. Why? Because understanding and reform are needed across the board if we want this nation to move forward with justice and peace. When citizens feel safer, officers are safer. When officers feel safer, citizens are safer. Too much overlap exists for there to actually be exclusive “sides” in this (or any other) national issue.

To illustrate this, I’ll share a conversation I had with an Orthodox priest from Ferguson, Missouri, who was chaplain to both police officers and protesters in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer. During one protest turned riot, looters from surrounding areas had started tearing into a local food pantry. Within seconds, protesters, who were ahead of police forces, performed a citizen’s arrest, locking arms and barring the perpetrators from leaving the charity until officers arrived.

“There,” he said, “in the midst of all that chaos and shouting, I saw hugs exchanged, tears shed, and finally, everyone understood that they all wanted the same thing.” The priest went on to say that even in separate consultations with police and protesters, he found the concerns of both to be similar in every way. They all wanted justice, they all wanted peace, and they all wanted everybody to be okay.

My own experiences testify to the truth of his claims. I have marched in and been a part of Black Lives Matter protests and events. I have also sat with my father-in-law and the rest of my wife’s family in fundraising dinners in honor of fallen police officers. I’ve listened to my Black brothers and sisters and my police-related friends and family as they all described the horrific fears and realities that face them on a daily basis.

So what do we do? It’s true that we can’t just sit neutral, but I also believe that just picking one of the “sides” presented to us is far too simplistic. This is where the text at the beginning of the article comes into play.

At this point in Joshua’s story, he is preparing to attack Jericho. He sees a representative of God, and asks him which side he is on. Notice what the angel says. “Neither; But as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” The Hebrew word the NRSV Bible translates as “Neither” actually means “no.” God is not on any particular human-made side. God is on the side of righteousness, and perhaps that is the side we need to be on as well.

It is not righteous to use our experiences to judge or dismiss those of other people. We are not acting righteously if we do not recognize that God weeps for all who suffer, including our officers and brothers and sisters of color. Progress is not found in vengeance, violence, or one-sided narratives aimed at deepening social and cultural divisions. God’s desire is for all of His children to fully live, and the hatred, suspicion, and fear that so frequently guides our interactions these days will not help us honor that desire.

For us to be righteous, we must recognize that God’s image rests on all people, and they should be treated accordingly, regardless of their race, occupation, economic class, or even their misdeeds. We can’t go on only mourning officers or civilians, without striving to make life better and more sustainable for both. We can’t continue allowing the world to tell us who our enemies are and how we treat them.

We shouldn’t be afraid to specifically say, “Black lives matter.” It shouldn’t insult us, nor should we fail to understand the greater context behind the phrase, as it represents a continuous struggle that is not limited to (or even primarily about) interactions with police officers. It’s not a concept we should feel the need to argue with.

We also shouldn’t be afraid to support and respect our local law enforcement officers. The vast majority of our American brothers and sisters who enter this type of career do so out of a desire to do good things for their families and communities. While systemic issues do lead to particular biases, these problems are largely not conscious, and result from the day-to-day experience of officers in the areas they serve.

By the same token, being righteous means we have the courage to honestly look at what’s wrong within ourselves and our communities, as there are real issues that need actual attention. Such examination necessarily includes police and other institutions that impact our lives. When we let go of allegiances that blind us to suffering, we are free to question any practice or institution that denies equality, justice, and safety to any to our people.

I know this is a lot to think about. I am also sure I run the risk of pissing off a lot of people with what I am saying, as no one likes their reality to be challenged. The truth is, however, that progress and growth are impossible when we keep digging our heels in without taking time to listen with our hearts and minds open. It sounds like hippie advice, but take a look at our society and tell me with a straight face that what we are doing now is working out well. I’ll wait.

Can’t do it can you? So let’s try something different. Let’s prayerfully approach this and all other issues with the understanding that we all want a better future. Let’s acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, and all we can do is offer our experience while being truly open to the experiences of others. Let’s strive to find our common ground and then try to discern together what a better way forward might be.

Peace be with you!

The Burdens Others Bear

…He sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. — Matthew 14:10-11, NRSV

Oh, goodness, this is an unpleasant text. If you don’t have a Bible handy, this is one of the closing quotes to Matthew’s telling of John the Baptist’s beheading in prison. John criticized Herod and Herodias, the wife of his brother, Phillip, as they had become an “item.” In response to this, John was thrown in prison until his death.

Interestingly enough, John wasn’t immediately killed by Herod or Herodias, despite his prophetic denunciation of their adulterous relationship. Rather, Herodias’ daughter, who has nothing to do with any of this, dances for Herod and pleases him so much that he promises to give her anything she desires (14:7). As you can imagine, this excited young woman rushes to her mother, asking with feverish anticipation, “What should I ask for?” Herodias’ answer must have absolutely crushed her daughter’s spirit, as she used it for her own selfish and sinful revenge.

This poor girl had to go to Herod and ask for the head of a man she didn’t even know. On top of that, she had to carry that head back to her mother. Can you imagine that? How must that girl have felt? Surely it makes you feel a bit sick, and yet we do this sort of thing all the time.

True, we don’t normally have our enemies beheaded and make our kids carry that head around. We do, however, hold on to our anger and hatred to the point that it causes those who care for us to suffer. Our children, spouses, friends, family, and God all get to bear the burden of our selfish need to harbor resentment and anger that may have nothing to do with them. Even if it does, is that the kind of life we want to live? I used to live such a life, so let me go ahead and say that it is definitely not.

Today is a new day, and it is also a new opportunity to start letting go of those deep feelings of hurt, anger, and resentment that you may be harboring. After all, it hurts you and your loved ones more than it could ever hurt the intended subject of your ire. If you don’t feel you struggle with this, take a moment to pray and safeguard your heart against such malice, and spend today more aware of your impulses and emotional reactions to the challenges you face. Should you be someone struggling with this, I hope you will join me in realizing that there is no shame in asking for help. It may take therapy, spiritual counseling, a change in setting, or any number of things, but I promise, the benefit of letting go and trusting everything to God far outweighs the alternative. If we all recognize this, we can honor the suffering of John and this young woman, preventing others we care about from bearing such heavy burdens.

Peace be with you!

When Nothing Can Help…

31 And you shall say to the people of Israel, ‘This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. 32 It shall not be poured upon the bodies of ordinary men, and you shall make no other like it in composition; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you. — Exodus 30:31-32, RSVCE

It seems odd to pick such a reading from Exodus. It is filled with such wonderful (and terrifying) stories about God’s activities among the Israelite nation as they sought liberation from the oppressive Egyptians. Burning bushes, various plagues, water from stone, bread from heaven, and a mountain on fire are all examples of the dramatic and powerful imagery found in the pages of this book, yet here I am talking about God’s seemingly legalistic instructions about anointing oil.

What gives? I am glad you asked.

If you take a moment to look over Exodus 30,  you will find instructions regarding the altar and it’s holiness (verse 10), an atonement offering (verse 16), bronze washing equipment (verses 17-19), and anointing oil/incense and the holiness thereof (verses 31-32 and 37). It all seems like the kind of instruction Christians prefer not to worry about. We are, after all, supposed to worship God “in spirit and truth,” not through seemingly empty rituals and the particular implements involved (John 4:24). However, this attitude often blinds us to important things that can be learned by looking at the reasoning behind what God is asking of the people of Israel and their representatives.

If you notice, the various items from this passage are considered perpetually holy. This holiness come not from the items themselves, but from their dedication and proximity to God in the tent of meeting. Likewise, our holiness is not determined by whatever club, political party, career, or family we do or don’t belong to. It is not enhanced by our nationality, citizenship, or race.  As indicated in the text, even the priests need to be made clean! Holiness comes to us only through our proximity to and relationship with God. It comes through acknowledging our need to “wash” ourselves in the loving sacrifice of God Jesus Christ, being made humble before the One, and reflecting the love shown at the cross to the rest of His creation through our words and deeds.

We are part of a world that, as a whole, needs a lot of help to heal. We turn to our politics, our weapons, our protests, our families, and our various heroes to make the difference, but we keep finding that these only provide temporary relief, if any. For real change, we must start by allowing God’s love to make us holy. This requires humility, repentance, and the willingness to change. Once this journey begins, our worldview starts to change. When that happens, we are free to live in light of the love and victory of God, bearing kindness, compassion, and justice to the world in a way that is ultimately transforming in nature. So let’s get to it!

Peace be with you!

P.S. Remember to check out my new topical YouTube channel, located here!

Wrath and Righteousness: Never the Twain Shall Meet

Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. — James 1:19-20, RSV

I did a pretty dumb thing this weekend, but I feel it must be shared. I’m not going into too much detail, but I don’t feel it necessary because we have all made this mistake at one time or another. Really, this is an effort to take responsibility and honor God’s grace in my life by sharing an instance in which I re-learned my own need for forgiveness.

This weekend, someone I consider a friend said something rude to someone very dear to me. I had been frustrated with some on-and-off rudeness all weekend, and this was the last straw. Therefore, I did what many humans do. I took the stand, gave a taste of the same medicine, took the shots… and made everything worse. What ensued was a fight, some tears, and what should have been a joyful weekend cut short.

This morning at church, James 1 was the Epistle text, which is perfect because of the quote above. The truth is, people, evil begets evil. My anger and rudeness in response to someone else’s only made for twice the anger and rudeness previously existent in the world. I think we forget that this is how it works. A shot fired, met by a shot in response, makes for twice as many bullets out there. An angry word or action prompted by similar choices makes for twice the damage. Death for death is just more death.

For me to grow from this, I had to realize my own error, first and foremost. I had to practice what I have taught numerous times: remove the plank from your eye before going after someone else’s speck (Matthew 7:3-5). I had reason to be upset, but I should never have reflected what I was so bothered by. None of us should do this, but we do it ALL THE TIME.

Whether it’s our politics, faith, family, work, or other social issues and interactions, we tend to fight fire with fire, which just burns more stuff down. We reflect rather than combat those things we consider unacceptable, thereby actually strengthening their hold on us and our world!

So, before a new week begins, take a lesson from my mistakes and from the Scriptures: your angry actions don’t produce righteousness. Only reflecting the love of God will do that. Join me in walking in a new way, wherein we strive to minimize the negative forces of the world by refusing to imitate them, looking instead to love, grace, compassion, and truth. For if we want these things in our darkest hour, we must first be willing to give them to others in theirs.

Peace be with you.

Despising the Birthright: Esau’s Lesson

Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. — Genesis 25:34 (RSV)

Here’s one of those Scriptures you’ll never see quoted out of context on a t-shirt or refrigerator magnet. I like those. I’ve never been a fan of the practice of picking inspirational Scriptures and applying them to whatever little thing we have going on, as if Paul was really thinking about high school football when he dictated Philippians 4:13. UGH. But I digress.

Esau has been on my heart and mind a lot recently, particularly after a conversation with my priest, during which the slim odds of my success in the ordination process were made known (or at least implied). I have always recognized this as a possibility. My dismissal from my first and only pastoral position was bound to have far-reaching consequences, and it seems that my being honest about it still won’t do me any favors. While I knew in my head it was a possibility that this was something to which I may never be able to return, the reality of it didn’t hit my heart until after that conversation. I very well may have despised my birthright and lost my blessing, all for something immeasurably inferior.

Esau is the firstborn child of Isaac and Rebekah, and therefore, according to ancient near eastern custom, he is entitled to the blessing of the firstborn, endowing him with the promise made to Abraham. Further, he would be the one to inherit his father’s house. God, however, predicts that Esau will be supplanted by Jacob, and (surprise!) the Lord was right. Esau stupidly expresses willingness to trade all of that blessing and honor for a bowl of soup. Later on, his brother takes advantage and steals that blessing, leaving Esau to weep and pick up the pieces.

I think we are all, at one time or another, Esau. We all have moments in our lives in which we trade our holy calling as children of God for something unremarkable that seems worth it at the time. Sometimes, we are just too dull to see that this is what we are doing.

At this point, I know I have motivated you enough (sarcasm). In all seriousness, though, there is good news. Esau still receives a blessing, though not the primary one, which means there is hope for you and I as well. We are not Esau, at least not entirely, and so we are free to look at this story and learn from it before we stumble headlong and lose it all. What we must do is both simple and difficult. Namely, we must start allowing God to touch every aspect of our lives.

Are we sexually unhealthy and dependent? We need to invite God into that uncomfortable space. Do our politics reflect our fears and selfishness more than our faith? We need to let God into the voting booth with us. Do we blame those who suffer rather than offer them our hand? We need to start making offerings to God by giving of our abundance, and asking him for the compassion of Christ. Do we harbor feelings of guilt, shame, or resentment? We need to allow God’s forgiveness to prompt our own, whether toward ourselves or others. As in my case, do our plans seem to lead us back to the same place of despair? We need to seek the will of God for our lives and keep our eyes open for the blessing he yearns to give us.

The truth is that we are children of God (Ephesians 1:5), co-heirs of the promise in Christ Jesus. We are promised salvation, not just in the future, but here and now. Take it from us (me and Esau), and don’t let the pull of worldly (read “temporary”) success, prosperity, comfort, and desire lure you from the Kingdom of God. Bring this teaching with you into every interaction, and ask yourself whether or not what you are about to say or do will bring you closer to the footsteps of Christ.

I wish I had known to do this sooner, but then again, perhaps it was meant to be this way. Perhaps I am meant to warn and encourage you this day. I hope I have done just that.

Peace be with you!

“Where is God’s Justice?”

“Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.” — Psalm 37:1-2, NRSV

Now THERE is an answer that is far easier said than done! I got asked about God’s justice this week on a popular question/answer site that I am a part of, and it is always a question I am sure to handle carefully (even for a seminary-trained individual). It usually comes from a place of vulnerability, particularly in cases of bullying and abuse.

The person who asked, like the Psalmist, was concerned about the seemingly easy life being lived by the wicked, those who have inflicted pain upon others and are apparently facing no consequences. This is a situation we see quite often in our world, and it is just as difficult to understand now as it was thousands of years ago. In fact, this very question has driven many away from believing in God, as a just and loving God could not possibly allow such injustice (for my views on that, see this post).

So how do we think about this?

The “phoned in” answers include:

  1. Just have faith
  2. Get over it
  3. Maybe what happened to you was punishment for sin, so look at yourself

Yikes. Naturally, I wouldn’t go with any of these… at least, not at face value. You see, there are elements of these to consider, but those elements must be presented with hope, compassion, love, and absent of judgment. Let’s take a look!

First, the “just have faith” answer requires attention. While this generic response is unhelpful as it is, a little explanation can go a long way. Namely, what does it mean to have faith in God when it comes to this particular situation? Paul actually gives us a wonderful answer in 1 Thessalonians 5.

Paul encourages the Thessalonian Christians to “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all” (5:15). This is what faith in God through Jesus Christ looks like. You see, Jesus didn’t kill or even wish harm on those who crucified and ridiculed him, and he definitely had every reason to do so! This is not an unrealistic example for us to follow, but it does take daily intention and practice. It is up to us to respond to the presence of evil in the world with love, which means we can’t spend every waking moment in misery over the pain that we have experienced. We have to believe that God has all of it handled, so much so that we free ourselves to do what we need to do. This is not just believing in God, this is believing in a just God to the effect that we live our lives in light of that loving justice, as opposed to living in light of our want for vengeance.

Next, when it comes to “getting over it,” forget it. That doesn’t happen, and it is unfair to expect that from anyone. What does happen, however, is healing. Healing is a process that results in our freedom from the grasp of those who have done us harm. It eliminates their control over us bit by bit. Healing is achieved with effort, patience, and a lot of help (sometimes professional). It is never easy, but it is always worth it. Part of maintaining our faith in God as a just God is going about the business of healing, severing those painful ties that continue to plague us. As we get healthier and healthier, we recognize our worth, accept that we have been wronged, and commit ourselves to defeating those wrongs by letting God handle the wrongdoers while we live life to the fullest.

Finally, we have this whole “self-judgment” piece. Much of what has befallen me in my life has been a result of my wrongdoings, I do not deny that. However, there are plenty of instances where the opposite is true. Telling someone who has been a survivor of abuse or bullying that it could have been their fault is the height of cruelty, and we should be careful not to do this.

Unfortunately, we often do this to ourselves by making ourselves responsible for the justice of God being enacted on those who have harmed us. If we dedicate time to watching them and waiting for evil to befall them, we are guilty of taking onto ourselves a responsibility that was never to be ours, and we actually neglect to do the one thing required of us: LIVE. We are made to live in light of the love of God as revealed through Jesus Christ, and while we cannot be responsible for the actions of God or the actions of others, we are ultimately responsible with how we choose to live out our days. Are we seeking the good of all or just for some? Are we living out of love or bitterness? Part of being involved in a free creation is having to make these choices, and the choices we make in the face of pain and oppression are the most important. Should you be blaming yourself for the evil of others? No. Should you be wasting your life waiting and watching for them to “get theirs?” Also, no.

So what is the point of all of this? Three new things:

  1. Faith in God means trusting that God is just and will eventually handle all that needs to be handled. This faith is not evident in what you say you believe, but in how you choose to live. Live in light of God’s justice and victory, and you will see the fruit of that.
  2. You have to take time to heal. This isn’t a speedy, shallow, “get over it and choose to be happy” kind of thing. This is a hard process that is so worth the trouble, because it frees you from the control of the wrongdoers in your life, which keeps you trapped in a bitter mindset. Be patient with yourself, and seek any help you may need. There is no shame in seeking counseling and support.
  3. Claim the power you have over your life. This doesn’t mean taking God’s judgment upon yourself (see point 1), but instead, you should seek to meet the evil you encounter with all the love and grace of God you can muster. There will always be pain and suffering, and you can either help it by remaining trapped in a need for vengeance, or you can combat it by intentionally living daily in the love of Christ. You can only control what you do. The rest must be left to others and to God.

I hope that some part of this muddled mess has been helpful for you. I know that the counseling and help I have received over the years has led to a powerful, positive change in me. Does this mean I no longer feel hurt or worry or grief? Absolutely not, but I do know that I am now more capable of living according to the grace of God that I have received, and I covet that for you.

God’s justice is just that: God’s. It is not our job, and it shouldn’t be. We are not just creatures (in the sense of having justice within ourselves). However, when we find ourselves dissatisfied with that, let us remember what the Spirit has taught us today through the Scriptures. It is my prayer that all of us see and live according to the image of God in which we are all created.

Peace be with you!

“To Bind Up the Brokenhearted”

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” — Isaiah 61:1

This is a pretty popular Scripture among Christians, as it should be. After all, Jesus quotes this very passage, using it to refer to himself in Luke 4, which actually makes this a perfect Scripture for the coming of Christmas!

Christmas isn’t always a full-on occasion for celebration. Many people find it to be one of the hardest times of years. It is a time for family, love, togetherness, and joy, but many of us experience it as a reminder of the absence of these things in their lives. I myself am experiencing that this year. I am unemployed, changing careers/callings, and about to close a chapter of my life that I was so sure had many more pages to go. I will be battling shame and a major sense of disappointment as I interact with family this year. This is one of several Christmases that were more painful than joyful. Odds are, you yourself know what this is like.

This is why it is essential that we remember Scriptures like this one from Isaiah. They remind us that the coming of Christ isn’t about family gatherings, presents, and being of good cheer for a month straight. Christ is entering into the dirty, dark depths of human existence. When Christ takes on flesh, it is that of a poor carpenter’s son, nestled into a feeding trough. Christ’s life is lived in the service of others, homeless, wandering from place to place, His great love rewarded with a cross.

With that in mind, the Incarnation we will celebrate this coming Monday is more than a cause for joy; it is a cause for remembrance. We are to remember that there is no darkness, no heartbreak, no addiction, no dishonor, no shame, no scars that are strong enough to defeat the love of God revealed in Jesus. We are to remember that, knowing all that we are and all we have done, God still chooses to be immediately and powerfully present among us, sharing our pain and guiding us to wholeness by the tenderness of His Spirit. Further, we must remember that we are called not only to experience this wonderful story, but also to take part in it. Through Christ, we are made members of God’s family, and as members of God’s family, we are called to share in the work of Jesus Christ. We are called to be sensitive toward those who are in pain, and to develop a rule of life based on the compassion, justice, and grace we receive in Christ.

As you go about the final days of preparation for what truly is a joyous holiday, remember why it is joyous. It’s not about your successes or failures. It’s not about what you have lost or what you have. It is about the God that meets you right where you are, with open arms and a heart full of love as He calls you to experience grace. Believe in this Good News, and share it through your own love of others.

Peace be with you!

 

Fruit-Making and the Gospel

“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.” — Matthew 12:33, NRSV

The Gospel is a black-and-white kind of thing, right? In some ways, yes. You are either intentionally seeking and following God or not. There are strict consequences for fitting in the “not” category. You either love your neighbor and your enemy or you don’t. There are strict consequences for those in the “don’t” category as well.

Now, many of my liberal brothers and sisters don’t like when you bring up the idea of hell or punishment or consequences, as there seems to be no grace in these things. On one level, they are right. On the other hand, consequences are naturally built into our world due to the nature of free will, so it isn’t God’s lack of grace, but our sinfulness that lands on our own heads (Psalm 7:16). In fact, as discussed in a previous post, the teachings of punishment seem to be serving a gracious purpose, and I’d like to re-emphasize that in more detail today.

Before my conservative brothers and sisters pump their fists too high for my argument against avoiding the judgment language of Scripture, it’s only fair that I throw out some challenge in the opposite direction as well. If we get too caught up with this judgment stuff, we run the risk of treating others as though we are the ones who get to judge and condemn them, as opposed to God, the only one with the information necessary to do so. Hopefully, I don’t have to remind you that this is frowned upon by our Savior (Matthew 7:1-5). When we do this, we tend to write people off, and this is dangerous for any faithful person.

Have you ever been written off? Have you ever been categorized according to the worst parts of yourself and given in to that identity? I have. I have believed the lies other people told me because they only knew me for the mistakes I had made. I have known people who lacked grace for themselves, therefore they had even less to show others. The only thing that mattered was the black-and-white of justice, even if the truth was far more complicated. Whatever I had done wrong, that’s what I was, and you can bet I have repeated this cycle with others.

We all, in some way, do this. We categorize each other. We determine who we like, who we don’t, and we define them solely based on those characteristics. If we like or love them, we overlook the flaws. If we despise them, we overlook any complicating factors that might taint our truth. We do this with ourselves. We overlook either our faults or our gifts, usually a combination of both, and we become defined by the most narrow bit of information.

For example, consider this parable from Matthew 13:24-30. This is a pretty classic “day of judgment” piece from Jesus’ teachings. Now, the traditional interpretation that I hear when going over this Scripture is that eventually, THE judgment will occur, and some people are wheat, some are weeds, and one had better hope they are wheat! What’s more, far too many people use this to justify their prejudicial categories against others. We say things like, “One day, they’ll get what they deserve,” and “Thank goodness I am not one of those.”

Looking at the text though, we spot something interesting. When the enemy plants the weeds, the “slaves of the householder” point it out, and the response of the householder is not what we might expect. The slaves ask if they should go ahead and uproot the weeds, and the householder (Jesus) responds, “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest” (13:29-30). On the surface, it would seem Jesus is worried about accidentally uprooted those that are wheat with those that are weeds. The problem is, people aren’t rooted in the ground, and this is a parable.

Jesus isn’t hoping that eventually the weeds and wheat grow apart. He is hoping that there will eventually be no weeds. God’s grace is evident in the fact that He doesn’t want judgment to be premature, and He wants all of us to find our way back home. We are not doomed to either be wheat or weeds. Whether or not we are the fruit of the kingdom or not is dependent upon our willingness to seek after God and live a life that reflects the love He shows us in Christ.  

You are not doomed to be anything. I am not, either. We have to make daily decisions, and whatever we decide will determine what we are in the end. Will we make mistakes, even after resolving to bear the good fruit of the kingdom? Absolutely. It happens. The life of faith, however, is not about achieving the perfection of God revealed in Jesus. It is about pursuing it with grace for ourselves AND for each other. It is the refusal to give up on ourselves and on each other, just as God refuses to give up on us. I think that is some damn good news, and I hope you agree.

So, as the quote at the start of this post says, we are free to decide what fruit we will bear in our lives. It is never too late to change our choices, to seek help in order that we may walk a different path. We are not stuck with no way out of the darkness. There is a searchlight that is always shining, and it is my prayer that you will lift your hands, raise your voice, and begin the slow move toward it. God will be there every step of the way, and He will take care of the rest.

Peace be with you!