Why God Won’t Rescue Us This Election Year

 

Yes, it’s going to be a memorable election year, no matter what happens…and unfortunately, it will be memorable for lots of anxiety and anger, along with whatever other milestones are reached.

In response to all that unpleasantness, I frequently see one of my Christian friends’ Facebook feeds sport a meme that reminds us all that “Jesus is Lord” or that “God is Still on the Throne” or “Jesus is King of kings.”

Now certainly those things are all true, but why are you bringing them up now?

If it is to point out that God’s ultimate will shall be realized, then carry on.

But if what you are trying to say is that It’s all good, God is in control and he will save us from ourselves…I have to say I don’t think that’s true.  And to say that isn’t to besmirch his sovereignty!

One of the things revealed to us in scripture is that God is omnipotent…but he voluntarily limited his power when it comes to us, by giving us free will.  God doesn’t override our choices.  God will lead us and guide us by his Spirit if that is what we want…but if we are bound and determined to make foolish choices, he isn’t going to stop us.

And so when it comes to our election, we’ve been given plenty to work with to choose as wisely as possible – we not only have the Bible, we have the Holy Spirit of God within us to guide us into all truth!  We have been given wisdom and God will give us more if we will ask in faith.  We have been educated and know how to read and how to look things up and fact-check and know what a candidate really said (and we even have helpful fact-checkers who will help us know what they said last year!).  We have been taught that the priorities are to love our God and then to love our neighbor (who is anyone in need of mercy)…and even to love our enemies.  We have been taught to be suspicious of fear and anger and defensiveness as our motives, and to seek first the kingdom of God so we can proceed from peace.

We’ve got what it takes to choose well.

But if we persist in believing what is not true, in operating out of outrage or fear or tribal identities other than the kingdom of God, if we insist that only one issue is important to God and therefore we won’t bother to learn about anything else, if we find ourselves empowered by hatred…and THOSE are the elements of how we choose who to vote for, well…God isn’t necessarily going to rescue us from a terrible mistake.

God is going to let us have what we choose, with all the good and bad consequences that come from our choices.

Enough Old Testament history ought to demonstrate that bad kings got chosen and they then chose badly as kings…and the innocent were hurt.

So yes, God is on the throne, for sure…and he has promised that this world will come to an end and his own kingdom will come.  And when it does, there will be no more tears, no more mourning…and no more sin.   Jesus is King of kings and one day all nations will acknowledge his Lordship.  But this isn’t that time and he isn’t on the ballot.

So in my opinion, we need to take our right and privilege to choose our own leaders in this country very seriously.  And if we are followers of Jesus, we ought to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”  We need to understand that we can’t vote into existence the kingdom of God on earth – that’s not how it will come.  We can’t vote or in any other way coerce people who aren’t Christ followers to behave like they are.  But we sure can vote and in other ways influence our government and culture to be just, to be wise, to care for everyone and to do what is right, as much as we can in this world.

And we need to put in the time and effort to choose well.

God isn’t going to rescue us if we choose to do it badly.  He will let us have what we think we want.

 

How Christians Should Vote….

 

 

I have a few political opinions.

But this isn’t the place where I am going to air them.

This is, however, the time and place for Christians to start thinking about what it means to follow Jesus as a voter.

The original writers and readers of the New Testament could not have imagined a world in which everyday people got a say in who their rulers would be!

In their world, rulers came and went and one could only hope they’d be just sometimes…at the very least, that they would not make things worse.

So our system of government, however warped it may be, would have been a shock to them.  And for that reason, the Bible doesn’t explicitly tell us how to vote.

Loving your neighbor

But we should vote the way we do everything else…loving God with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  Who is our neighbor?  The one we can have mercy on, as Jesus taught us in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus demonstrated for us how to live in this world, as “citizens of the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus wasn’t afraid, and he wasn’t defensive.  He treated the weakest, the most needy, and those who were objectionable to the religious folks with the same respect he gave everyone.

And he wasn’t at all impressed with power – not the devil’s offer of the “kingdoms of this world,” and not Rome.

Nor was he troubled by Rome and their occupation or even their taxes – looking at the Roman coin with Caesar’s head on it, he said “give Caesar what belongs to him, but give to God what belongs to God.”  Caesar’s coin with his image?  The king can have it.  People made in God’s image?  They don’t belong to anyone but their Maker.

When we vote….

When we vote in the USA, we need to vote with our neighbors in mind, and their needs – not just about what is good for us and our families.

When we vote in the USA, we must not just vote for what is good for Christians – Christians are sent into this world that does not know God to show them God’s love.  Sticking up for our own interests first is the exactly wrong way to go about it.

When we vote in the USA, we must avoid the temptation to vote with only one issue in mind.  Our neighbors (and us, too) need more than one thing from government.  Love deals with the real world, and one-issue-voting is a shortcut.

In the USA, the church has benefited from surprising things, like the “separation between church and state” and the First Amendment which not only protects our religious practice and speech, but also has prevented the government from establishing any one state church or religion.

Freed to practice our faith without government entanglements has grown the American church.  We must not give that away, even at the “cost” of offering the same freedoms to others.  In a free marketplace of ideas, the gospel shines – we don’t have to be afraid.

When we vote in the USA, we are voting for people to take office.  Every person is flawed; everyone is a sinner.  If we are looking for someone sinless to take office, we will wait a long time!

So, in my opinion, we need to look for someone who is responsible and who is interested in looking out for all Americans as government does its work.  Anyone who writes off part of our population is, in my opinion, not a safe person as president.  Anyone who “will say anything to get elected” might say anything to get whatever they want…or their friends want.  If that kind of practice can be proven, it’s a big problem.   Anyone who appears not to believe in both justice and mercy is probably not going to do us good.

Love one another as Jesus loved us

Sincere Christians sincerely differ about political parties and candidates.  We are commanded to love one another as Christ loved us, so those things cannot be allowed to break fellowship among us.

However, sincere Christians who want to love their neighbors need to be willing to listen and learn, and like any good candidate, not write off swaths of their neighbors or enjoy cruelty to anyone.

In my opinion, certain kinds of political speech found on Cable TV and radio stations wears down the soul and teaches us hatred of our neighbors, and ought to be avoided.

In the Spirit, let us not be afraid and do for others what we would want for ourselves.  Vote like that.

 

Next time, why it’s not enough to say, “Jesus is King”

 

Listen to your brother’s blood

“Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’

‘I don’t know,’ he replied.  ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

The LORD said, ‘What have you done?  Listen!  Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground…..’”   Gen 4:9-10

 

I am getting numb, and I know that’s wrong.

Today the blood of 80 more cries out from the ground in Nice, France, and I can’t watch anymore.

There is nothing new under the sun, the Bible says, and I know there is nothing new about bloodshed and murder and justifying killing for all manner of reasons.  I doubt I share any of the killer’s rationale in this situation, but I’ve been in situations where I did – I certainly felt like I wanted Osama’s head as I stared at the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2011.

Some people respond to this violence with a wish for more and better violence from us, from the “good guys.”  Everybody needs a gun.  We need to declare a war.  We need to build a wall.  We need to get them out of here before they do it to us. 

But just for a minute, before we arm up and build up, can we listen to the words of God here?

“Listen!  Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

Jesus really did call his followers to some radical obedience.  He told Peter, after he took off Malchus’ ear with a sword, that those who live by the sword, die by the sword.

He told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  He told us to take it when someone wanted to slap us around, turning our other cheek to them, too – not because he was a wimp but because there is no war when the other side won’t fight.

I think from Jesus’ point of view the things we lose from not fighting are temporary, and the things we just might gain from surprising enemies with love and prayer are eternal.

No, I’m not quite mature enough to instantly feel that way.  But I am getting to the point where I just hate guns, and the contempt that leads to death, and the blood thirst and the death wish and the idea that we are just so strong and clever when we can kill other people.  Because as this guy with a truck proved, it’s not really all that hard – you just have to be hard on the inside.

The Bible tells us our enemies are not flesh and blood.  What if we are just killing each other and delighting the Evil One, because that was all he wanted?  What if we saw with better lenses, that even the one who wants me to fight and kill him because of his absurd ideas about God, is a victim of Evil and not really my enemy.

I’m not quite mature enough to instantly feel that way.  But I want to grow to that place.

 

The blood is crying out; it’s got to be deafening in heaven.  Lord, have mercy on us.

“Looks like there is no safe place anywhere.”

 

I’ve heard that a number of times this week, as we all process the terrible mass shooting in Orlando last weekend.

This event causes pain to a number of communities, but no one moreso than the LGBTQ folks everywhere, but especially in Orlando.  The club for them wasn’t just a venue for drinking and dancing; it was a zone of safety, where everyone expected them to be just as they were, and they did not have to hide any portion of themselves to fit in.

This was even more especially true for LGBTQ folks of color, especially for “Latinx” – Latinos, Latinas, and those of Hispanic heritage who don’t identify with –o or –a, for whom that evening’s theme made it a really perfect safe place.  They thought.

“Pulse” was added to the list as one more among so many places of public accommodation that have been now demonstrated as not safe from a shooting, including movie theatres, the workplace, school, the mall, and even churches and synagogues.

For gay folks where home isn’t especially safe, some of these “third places” have been a source of life – but now …”there is no safe place anywhere.”

There is more than enough blame to go around as social media discussions have made clear:  there are lax gun laws, hateful religious speech, mental illness (and failure to provide care), the FBI letting the guy go, and ISIS and all other “radical jihadists,” not to mention one commentator blaming the victims for not fighting back!

But if I withdraw from the debate for a moment I remember what I have learned.  Along with whatever blame I or my group may share for what we did or didn’t do that contributed to such hatred and such violence, I must remember how the situation on earth looks to God.

It’s not popular to say so, but Jesus certainly demonstrated that there is a personal source of evil, that this evil being opposes God and everything God loves, and loves it best when we will do his bidding without even crediting him.

The Bible tells us our real enemies are not flesh and blood, but spiritual – the “principalities and powers” as the Apostle Paul put it, in a spiritual realm beyond our senses.  Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit came among us he would prove the world wrong about judgment, because in Christ’s death and resurrection it was not people who were condemned, but “the prince of this world.”

Yes, Satan loves our willingness to hate people who are different from us, and he loves it even more if we will couch that hate in religious language.  This event was a two-fer for Evil:  some blame the gays while others blame the Muslims!  He loves the paralysis of our leaders who can’t give up the money that comes from the gun lobby even while people who clearly beat up their family members can get a gun, along with people who are on the no-fly list because they might be terrorists!  Satan loves how we like to play at being death-dealers, with video games and movies and shooting ranges all decked up to show us as bad-asses, even dressing up the target to look like the sitting President of the United States, because the gun folks don’t like him.  Satan laughs when we spend our money to stock up on MORE guns because any day now the jackbooted thugs are coming for our guns.  Seven and a half years and they still haven’t shown up – better buy another one.

Satan also enjoys it when nominal “Christians” get angry when we remind them that Jesus told us to turn the other cheek when our enemy slaps us one time, to get slapped again, or to give up our shirt when a thief takes our coat.  When we tell them Jesus said to pray for those who persecute us and to love our enemies, they laugh at us and declare that surely God loves someone who knows how to kill in self-defense.  And then they declare as “Christians” their hatred for Muslims, being very sure that God wants them to defeat the Muslims in order to defend the minority Christians in their lands.

Are we so sure that’s God talking?  Because Jesus predicted Christians would be hated for loving him, and never gave them a word about self-defense – instead, they as we are promised an eternal home and that one day Jesus would make all things new.  This world is our place of witness, and there is no safe place.

No, there is no safe place here.  We are however already safe in the hand of God.  We have “already died” in Christ and we have “already” been seated in the heavenlies with him, too – our place there is reserved.  In this world we are merely ambassadors, sent with a message of reconciliation to everyone else from God.  We demonstrate this reconciliation from God by refusing to be anyone’s enemy, since after all our enemies are not flesh and blood!

Therefore it may not be welcome in public spaces right now, but we can even have compassion on the shooter, no matter what confluence of evil suggestions filled him up to the point of carrying out his nefarious deed.  We are not his judges; God is.  But we also know that God visited all sin on his Son on the cross, even this one.  We are not too sure that God’s justice even on him may be grace.

And may there yet be grace on all who in God’s name have visited hatred on gays, and on Muslims…hatred and “walls” just makes for militants.  If God is love, why did we think it was up to us to decide who is not invited?   It pleases the devil when we thrust a hand in someone’s face rather than hold out a hand in introduction.

No, there is no safe place here.

We weep with those who weep, and mourn with those who mourn.  And sigh because knowing that it is Evil personified at work, doesn’t make it any better.   Knowing that the devil is defeated is nice but with all humanity we cry out, come Lord Jesus, come – come and make all things new.  Come and make a safe place in a new heavens and a new earth.  We have made such a mess of this one.

 

Brock Turner and the “Journey of Ascent”

Father Richard Rohr does workshops* for men and women using a helpful theory about the spiritual formation journey for each gender.
Traditionally, he says, at puberty the genders’ journeys begin to differ – in fact, they go in opposite directions.
Young men begin to learn their power – they begin the “journey of ascent.” For the next decade or two their bodies will teach them they are strong and vigorous and with this power, they can dominate or protect. They can rule. They can produce. In a conflict, they can win. Later, as their physical strength and virility fades, men begin the “journey of descent,” which can lead to humility and wisdom, but will not automatically lead there.
Young women, however, begin to learn something different from their bodies at puberty – they begin to learn that their bodies at least in some ways are for the service of others. They begin, at puberty, their “journey of descent.” Traditionally, in young adulthood, women married and began to give birth and care for children. In those situations, women naturally learned to delay gratification of their own desires, to submit their strength to the needs of others, etc. For them, the “journey of ascent” begins later in life when the children are raised! Women and men often cross paths at this time of life, when women can begin to pursue more of their own interests and use their strength outside of strictly the needs of their families.
These paradigms are of course shifting in our current setting, but there is something to be learned in observing these patterns. Father Rohr points out that in most cultures (but not ours), young men at puberty were taken by the men of their culture into some kind of challenge, which was meant to demonstrate that their strength and virility was not just meant for themselves, but for the good of the community.
I was thinking about all this in relation to the story of Brock Turner, the “Stanford rape case,” and the social outrage over his lenient sentence.
I understand his (and his father’s) bewilderment over everyone else’s insistence that Brock is a rapist who deserves more jail time, when to them it seems like he’s a good kid who made a mistake. Of course I don’t know them, but I’ve known people who they remind me of – privileged, powerful, with all the schooling and coaching and experiences that a well-rounded 1%-er will need to dominate society.
He was only doing what he’d been brought up to do, only doing what everyone else does. The problem, it may be, was that he never had that experience of learning that his strength, virility, power, prestige and privilege were not just for himself.
He never learned the elements of the journey of descent…only ascent. And so people have been pointing out that he thought everything he wanted…even a woman…was his to take, and the idea that someone like him might be called to account for it is…confounding. After all, he didn’t really rape her. He knows where the boundaries are – the boundaries that suit him. But he doesn’t know that the way he sees the world is not acceptable.
I hear a lot about more “complementarian” forms of Christian doctrine and how they set people and churches up for this same kind of thing. These are the folks who infer from the few things said about gender in the Bible that God says all men rule over all women, that all men are given the task of protecting and guiding all women, and all women were made to serve men.
To them, this kind of thing can be avoided when women stay home, marry young and are protected by their fathers and then their husbands. And that certainly is one way to solve the rape problem…unless the men involved, with their worldviews so skewed about their place in the world, instead learn that they are dominant, powerful, privileged, and can take what they want from women. Then, even marriage won’t save that woman.
Instead, I see Jesus, who looks at men and women far differently than any of these paradigms have taught us to see each other. To him, each were individuals. Each needed a “journey of descent” into humility before God. Each needed to see with God’s eyes that we are both wonderful and a mess, made in the image of God and yet torn up and driven by fear and desire and sin.
Each needs to trust Jesus for forgiveness and real power…and then a much better “journey of ascent” begins, one hand-in-hand with the living Christ who never used his power for himself at the expense of others, who never took what he wanted but gave what others needed…who never would have seen an unconscious woman as an opportunity for sex. Neither does he think just women are here to learn humility and service!
As a culture we need to stop asking kids who’ve been taught to sharpen their individual strengths all their lives for their own benefit to suddenly understand others with an empathy they never learned. As a culture, it sounds to me like we need to teach young men and women that their power and strength and intelligence and even their virility are not toys for themselves but tools for not just them but their village. They will not always be strong. Everyone is going to need some help. And we are responsible for more than just ourselves.
That’s not the only answer to the Brock Turner sentencing outrage – no, not at all. We need to ask ourselves why we put young people of color away for many times more of sentence, for much less of a crime. Much has been uncovered in this situation.
But I’m reminded that rape has been and is still often used as a tool subjugation and cruelty over whole populations. Dominance is an ugly desire, unless it is tempered with love and empathy and responsibility. If we’re not teaching that to our kids, we are growing up monsters without knowing it.

*http://www.amazon.com/Men-Women-Journey-Spiritual-Transformation/dp/1616361026

“Winning” isn’t anything

I just read that Baylor University, ostensibly a Christian school, allowed their football team to conduct its own internal investigations into accusations that some football players had engaged in sexual assault on campus, according to an investigation ordered by its Board of Regents.
They acted like they didn’t need to follow the law, or legal procedures under Federal Title IX. In fact, the president of that university (the famous Ken Starr) has just been demoted because the football department’s staff was never trained in Title IX procedures, which was apparently the university’s responsibility. The football coach was, of course, fired.
No matter now; one of the football players is serving 20 years for rape; another is serving 6 months for sexual assault.
Actually, no – THANKFULLY, no. I’m grateful the Law kept after the individuals who should have called those footballs players, that football department and the university to account, a long time ago!
Why was this allowed to continue at Baylor? Could it be that Art Briles, the coach, brought Baylor to its first successful season since 1980?
In other words, they were “WINNING”! And winning at any cost is, in some circles anyway, considered a virtue. But not in Christ’s circles. And of course, to the victims of these sexual offenders, the cost was far too high. (To win football games??)
We need to keep this in mind in the echo chambers of our mass media as we keep hearing Donald Trump diagnose our national condition as that of “losers,” and his main contribution to office that with him as president we will be “winning” so much we will get tired of it.
Mr. Trump doesn’t go into details often (it’s be yuge! Believe me!), but the whole notion of being winners deserves some examination.
It would be great to be strong, healthy, with an economy that provides for everyone. It would be great to be good, so that all our people have access to education and health care, and our communities are strong enough to be willing to care for the least-of-these. It would be great to be at peace, so that we would hardly know what to do with that “peace dividend” we thought we were going to have in the 90s. If you want to make America “great”-er, those are visions I can deal with.
But the essence of “winning” is that someone else must “lose.” I’m all for cheats and thieves to lose, but why should I consider it a good thing if I have more because I took it out of the mouth of someone else who wasn’t in on my scheme? Trump thinks that’s winning.
Why should I think I am finding peace by building walls and throwing out people who’ve been here contributing for a long time…or by attacking the innocent families of deluded terrorists? That’s not even peace. It’s détente. Trump thinks that’s winning.
And in which way are we going to win if we can’t even figure out which side of things Mr. Trump is on? He’s for and against abortion, for and against Obamacare, for and against everyone carrying a gun! Don’t we have to know the name of the game before we can win it?
The problem with winning as a goal, is that it is just too easy to cheat, to overpower others, to take things that don’t belong to you and to overlook real criminality as long as you get the prize in the end. The problem with winning is, it’s always making losers…and victims. And leaving aside the gospel for a moment, losers don’t usually really go away. You just have to deal with them again, bigger and madder than before. Ask Ken Starr.
No, Mr. Trump isn’t going to bring us peace OR winning. Jesus really already taught us that. Peace, real peace, comes from the Lord, and he showed us that the way of peace in this world is going to look radically different from what politicians must seek. Real peace comes from following Jesus, who bent down to wash the feet of others, touched lepers and told us to turn the other cheek if someone wants to hit us twice.
We really can’t have both this world’s ideas of winning and eternity’s view of peace, unless we’ve put “winning” in God’s hands. I don’t know how that works for Christian football coaches (although I’m QUITE sure it doesn’t involve overlooking rape), but for those of us paying attention to elections, let’s not lose our perspective. Jesus WON our salvation by letting the Empire nail him to a cross (and then rising from the dead). He seems to know something they didn’t. Let’s go with him.

Living in concert with the Holy Breath

So what it all comes down to, I think, is learning to live “in concert with” the Force.

Well, not the Force.  The Spirit.  It’s just that in our world, “the Force” makes more sense!

But the Spirit isn’t the Force.   The Force is impersonal; the Spirit is the living God.

And we’re just crazy enough to believe Jesus, that he has come to live within us, by his Spirit.  Or, if you like, by his “Breath” – in the Greek and in the Hebrew, the same word suffices for both.

When we come to trust Jesus enough to say we are his, he moves in, by his Holy Spirit, to live his life in us if we will let him.

And this is what “discipleship” is – learning to live alongside his life in us, in step with him, in concert with him.

I’ve read a lot of books about discipleship, about the nuts and bolts of setting up discipleship programs and discipleship team, but I feel like I just figured out what it is!

All the programs are about, are ways for us to pay attention, to lift our concentration from the pushes and pulls of our human self trying to survive in this world (aka, “the flesh), in order to hear from God about what is important today.

That’s what “spiritual disciplines” are – they are ways of quieting the mind and settling the appetites and ignoring the wants and fears and angers, long enough to encounter the still, small voice of God.

God very much cares about what we in our humanness want and need.  It’s just that if our objective is just to answer the calls of our “flesh,” we won’t live in the power of who we really are, and we likely won’t even make our “survival selves” happy.

Humans are made to seek meaning – but not just meaning.  We were made to live in companionship with God.  There’s that talk in the Bible about us being made in God’s image.  I don’t think that means we look like God; I think it means we have some of God’s characteristics, like love of beauty and a need to create and an urge to solve problems.  It pleases God when we live in the fullness of those things, but he doesn’t want to just watch.  He wants us in relationship with him, day by day.

And in that relationship (made available to us in Jesus), when the Spirit of God has come to live in us, we might start to see each day differently.  If we are paying attention.

Suddenly interruptions might not be annoyances, they might be holy appointments.  The person we share a bus seat with might get a prayer, even if they don’t know it.  And the answer to a question we are pondering may come out of nowhere (well, it will just seem that way).

And the things that have driven us before – anger, shame, anxiety – these things start to get smaller because there are bigger things to be done.  It is no longer so satisfying to be outraged every day, or to seek to control the bad things that might happen by pre-worrying about them.  These are practices, too – but not spiritual ones.

Discipleship, then, is just helping one another along the way to adopt the kinds of practices that will help us  hear  God’s voice by his Spirit, encouragement to understand and believe what God has said, maybe a kick in the pants when we are indulging the “survival self” more than the Spirit in our lives.  Discipleship involves the telling of stories, of success and falling down, so we can thank God together for the promise that he will never leave us alone.

I am learning.  Interested in what others think….

A little reflection of glory

Everybody’s got an agenda.

There are so many causes and efforts I am in favor of!  So of course my mail, email, Facebook and Twitter feeds include so many calls to action, it’s exhausting – and I wind up ignoring them most days.

But shouldn’t I be engaged in all these efforts, as a way to build the kingdom of God in our time?

That raises an interesting question.  Who does “build the kingdom of God”?

The Bible tells us that God is going to establish it.  We believe that Jesus initiated it in his resurrection.  But nowhere does it tell us to BUILD it.

The scriptures call us “citizens” of the kingdom of God, by virtue of our new identity “in Christ” – that is, that when we have put our trust in Jesus, we are joined to him.  His death becomes our death, his resurrection becomes our resurrection.  We, too, are children of God, and God is our Father.  And we are “seated in the heavenlies” with him, Paul writes in Ephesians.

So our task here is illumined by our connection to him, who sits at the right hand of God!  We become able to see his glory by the presence of the Holy Spirit within.  We live with a foot in each existence:  one in this world, and one in the next!

We don’t have to build the kingdom – it’s coming.  God has built it.

Our job is really, to reflect it.

That’s what Jesus is describing in the Sermon on the Mount.  Blessed are the peacemakers – not, if you are a peacemaker, you will be blessed.  Go be a peacemaker.  Instead, in the real kingdom of God, peacemakers are already blessed, as are the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc.

In the kingdom of God, love is the order of the day; so is justice.  No one has to tell anyone to love their neighbor or extend mercy or do justice.  It just is that way.

And as those who reflect his glory in the midst of this world, our call is to live with that understanding – in the “real world,” defined as that which exists eternally in the presence of God, there is no hatred or warfare.  There is no racism.  There is no murder or rape.  There is no need and no poverty.  There is no threat and there is no fear. Our hearts know this, and we are called to live like it, right here in the midst of our neighborhoods and our jobs and our daily lives.

Not that we pretend those things exist here.  Rather, we ferret out of our lives the hatred, fear, anger, prejudice that lives there, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The kingdom comes and lives in us!

And then we are predisposed to loving others in a way that is truly a sign of another world to come.  After God has done this work in us, we won’t have to pretend to be loving or holy so as to give God some good PR.  We WILL BE loving and holy, as the Spirit has more room in us to display Jesus’ glory!

Once again, it’s the little things done in every Jesus-follower’s life that make big headlines in the presence of God but probably weren’t noticed by many in this life.  Nothing more urgent than the light within first.

Now, loving my neighbor may mean getting involved in some causes.  I’m all for that.  But Lord, do in me the prior work, so I won’t feel proud of my “sacrifices” or fool myself into thinking I’m building your kingdom.

Instead let me see the people you have put in my path, and help me to discern what I in my earthly self have stored away in my heart that violates your kingdom.   Remove from me the powerful impulses that oppose your kingdom and its ways.  Then let me love, whoever it is you send me, with the love of Jesus.

May it be so.

Without God’s love in my heart?

Sometimes I become aware that there is heart-03a standoff within me, between my will and the heart of the Holy Spirit within me.

Usually, it’s when I’m particularly devoted to being right today, and the Spirit is instead after something else.

You’d think God would be very devoted to being right since, after all, God is almost by definition, as the Creator of reality, right about it.  But it turns out that God’s priorities are different, much of the time.

In the last few years, a friend at church has brought us a challenge, to choose a “word for the year” in January, a word which would stand for a goal or a purpose or an aspiration. Sometimes I haven’t been able to choose one, but this year I chose “beloved.”

Not so much that I’m beloved by God (although standing in grace I believe I am!), but that everyone is beloved by God.  Not because everyone is so very loveable, but because God is love…and he made us to love us.

While I confess that being beloved by God doesn’t take the place of an individual responding to God’s love, I am also admitting that if I am a follower of Jesus, then I need to take into account the “belovedness” of everyone I meet.  They are each owed that status, and yes, that should make a difference in how I consider them in my mind and heart.

In my dedication to being right all the time, I sometimes forget that.

Sometimes, I become aware that my judgment of another person has run up against God’s prior consideration of them as beloved – that’s the standoff in my heart between me and the Spirit.

I met this standoff in the pages of scripture today.  In John 5, Jesus is being hassled by the religious leaders because he healed a man on the Sabbath.  Actually, he not only healed this disabled man, but he told the man to “pick up your mat and walk.”  I’m not sure how the leaders felt about the healing, and the walking, but the carrying of the mat definitely fit in the confines of the definition for work, and on that score, the man was violating the Sabbath.  Asked about it, the former invalid reported that the man who healed him told him to do it, and he was of a mind to do what that man said!

When they found out it was Jesus, the religious leaders entered into a debate with him about it.  And this debate comes to a conclusions when Jesus says, “You study the scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life.   These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life….I know you.  I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts.”  (John 5:39,40,42)

They do not have the love of God in their hearts.

               That’s the judgment on them.   They don’t believe in him, they won’t follow him, they won’t accept them, and all because God’s love isn’t within them.

I double-checked that in the Greek.  I wondered, was Jesus saying, that they did not love God (the love for God was not in them)?  Or is he really saying, as I understood at first, that their problem was they had not downloaded, so to speak, the kind of love God has into their own hearts?

It is the second.  It is a judgment on them by Jesus that their hearts are devoid of the love God has for others.  Though they are very religious; though they search the scriptures, and wait for the Messiah, and keep the law and know the rules…they are missing something fundamental.

God’s love for others.

And so they missed the belovedness of the disabled man, and why God would want to set him free without waiting for another day.  As they missed the belovedness of the woman caught in adultery, or Zacchaeus or Levi, tax collectors for the occupiers against their own people.  As they missed even the belovedness of the Samaritans…of the Romans…of themselves, to God.

So this year I see it.  And when there is a conflict between belovedness and something else, I am not so quick to dismiss the belovedness.  As Jesus says here, it is the necessary equipment to understanding the rest.

May it be so for us.

On Growing Old

This is a sermon from 2009.  Much too long for a blog post.  But then again, I was helped again by it, so I will share it.

God’s Word on the Tasks of Living:  Getting Older  2/22/09

When I first proposed this study series that we’ve now reached the end of, with the theme of “God’s Word on the Tasks of Living,” and I told you we’d consider such things as marrying and parenting and working and managing wealth, and then I tacked on the end there, “growing old” – did you wonder what it was doing there?

I mean, is growing old a task of living – or is it instead an obstacle to those tasks?

Consider, after all, that all those other things we’ve talked about are essentially productive:  growing up; making a home; raising up the next generation; having a life’s work; building wealth.

Is growing old really in that category?

Some would argue that it is precisely because getting old is essentially the opposite of being productive that growing old in our culture is fundamentally disrespected.

In America, we value beauty and vigor – the physical attributes of youth.  We value innovation, entrepreneurialism and flexibility – the mental attributes of youth.  We value cutting edge science and technology – the province, it seems, of youth.  All of those things have to do with reproducing and building and competing.

As we get older, the changes that happen to us become handicaps in just those areas – reproduction; building; competing.

Generations ago it used to be said that children should be seen and not heard; these days, it’s old people who we get the feeling should not be seen or heard.  Culturally, we disrespect age:  it seems to be ok to make fun of old people in commercials or TV shows.  Our culture seems to prefer that the active older folks live together (and away from everybody else), and once older people become inactive they drop from  our culture’s awareness — out of sight and out of mind.    Old folks, like children in ages gone by, are supposed to know their place.

 

This is not funny. The pressure on us to be young forever makes the rigors of growing older even harder – there don’t seem to be any compensation for the losses we feel in our body and strength.  Where once upon a time it was said that old folks were valued for their wisdom and experience, now as we age we sense not just our bodies but our value diminishing.

Baby boomers seem particularly to have been caught off guard by this – after all, popular culture as long as we’ve been alive has been about us.  We didn’t trust folks over 30, and now that we’re well past that, we cheerily claim that 50 is the new 30!  But we’re not getting away with it – folks in their 20s are now starting to blame everything that’s wrong with our society on old folks – you know, Baby Boomers!  And our protests that we aren’t old, that we can’t be old because we’re never going to get old, fall on ears which are not listening to us.

And so it’s with dismay we Boomers see ourselves becoming older people.  It isn’t just the physical changes and losses we fear – it’s the very disrespect we know is coming our way, and we know it, because we’ve participated in it.

So we shouldn’t be surprised by people like the famous actress I heard about a couple of weeks ago.  She’s in her 60s but goes through an extensive daily regimen of hormones and supplements to keep herself looking – ahem – 50.  By extensive I mean that she uses three different hormone creams placed on various parts of her body, and takes 60 supplement pills every day.  She claims to have beat menopause this way. She admits she’s a little over the top but says she does it because she wants to live to 110.

Perhaps she does.  But it seemed more to me, reading her story, that what she really wants is not to look a day over 45.  Ever.  No matter how old she gets, she never wants to look old or be called old or be written off as old.

 

That’s what’s going on in the world we live in, and it’s like the weather:  everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

But when we come here on Sunday morning, it is my job to proclaim to you the truth of the real world –  the kingdom of God.  Here is where we get our heads set back on straight, to see things the way God sees them, after the world has done its darnedest all week to mess us up.  So what does the word of God have to say about getting older?

 

Whenever someone’s great age is mentioned in the Bible, it means something.   That’s because, during most of Bible times, reaching old age was rare!  I read that in the days of the New Testament, the average female who survived to the age of 10 could expect to live to the ripe old age of 34.  Compare that with our times in the United States:  in 1999, a 10 year old girl could expect to live past 80.

In the Bible, someone who had lived to have grey hair and wrinkles had survived many things that had killed off their peers, and was considered to have the mark of God’s favor on them.

So consider this:  from the Bible’s perspective, anyone can be young – it takes the hand of God to help you get to be old!

 

 

But the Bible does admit that if we get to be old, there are losses we endure.  At the end of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher (considered to be Solomon) gives a description of the diminishments of the body for one who reaches old age.  It’s written quite poetically:

Ecclesiastes 12

1 Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”-

2 before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;

(that refers to the dimming of vision)

3 when the keepers of the house tremble, (your hands shake)
and the strong men stoop,

(the legs go)
when the grinders cease because they are few, (the teeth)
and those looking through the windows grow dim; (the eyes again)

4 when the doors to the street are closed (the lips)
and the sound of grinding fades; (the teeth)
when men rise up at the sound of birds, (can’t sleep)
but all their songs grow faint; (can’t hear)

5 when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets; (we become unsteady and afraid)
when the almond tree blossoms (the hair turns white)
and the grasshopper drags himself along (small things are too difficult)
and desire no longer is stirred. (you can figure that one out for yourself)
Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.

6 Remember [your Creator] —before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,

7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

 

The Bible doesn’t whitewash growing old.

In fact, the Bible calls the diminishment of age what it is – decay, the approach of death – and God’s word knows just what ails us most in the midst of it –  it’s what the Bible calls “being enslaved by the fear of death.”

In all our culture’s disrespect of age and mockery of the old, that’s the thing that no one says – that what bothers younger people about old age isn’t really frumpy clothes or listening to stories about times long ago; what bothers us is that in our culture we’d like to pretend that death is optional, and obvious old age reminds us that it is not.

Years ago, I used to work with my mother, who wrote a syndicated newspaper column about food.  Once a month it was my job to read through the abstracts of nutrition and other medical research for studies that might be interesting to highlight in the column.

Reading study after study used to strike me funny after awhile, because it starts to sound like all these researchers believe that if they were able to identify and eliminate every cause of death, we would just stop dying.  In dry scientific lingo, it sounded like a report on the project of eliminating mortality.

At the time I was doing this reading, cancer death rates were rising, but this was actually a sign of success.  Do you know why?  Because fewer people were dying of heart disease!  Medical and lifestyle changes were reducing the numbers of deaths due to heart disease – so those people who might have died of heart attacks lived longer until they what they died from, was cancer.  It used to be that more people didn’t live long enough to get cancer.

I salute medical research and I appreciate my much longer probable lifespan, and I hope those researchers keep at it and eliminate many more diseases.  But no matter how much research we do, we are not going to eliminate dying, and the death rate has remained the same:  100%.

Though we like to keep the evidence of this quiet, the truth is, we’re all going to die.

The Bible knows it, and isn’t afraid to talk about it, and in the scriptures we read what we’re afraid to say:  the struggle we have with our bodies as we get older is the evidence of what Paul calls in Romans the whole creation’s bondage to decay.  The grinders are falling out and the knees are going and the, um, almond blossoms would be turning white if I let them.

The Bible isn’t afraid to talk about it because the Bible is about the solution to it.  The Bible says that Jesus came and took on our flesh and lived our life, and then he died our death – except he conquered death.  When Jesus rose from the dead, he was the first one to do what all of us who belong to him are going to do – rise from the dead.

In fact, the Bible says that Jesus entered death in a way that, because of him, we never will – if we have put our faith in Christ, when this heart stops beating we will go to be in the presence of God, never experiencing what Jesus did: the complete separation from him, the entirety of death.

The Bible proclaims that when we come to believe that Jesus is the one sent from the Father and that he did indeed rise from the dead –when we put our faith in him and turn our lives over to him — the Holy Spirit of God comes to dwell within us and we are reborn into a life that we will never quit living.  Though our bodies will die, yet will we live; and as those who live and believe in him, we will never die – and on the last day, even physically we will live again.

Forget the hormone creams and the 60 pills; Jesus has staved off death for me, permanently!  The life I live in the Son of God is his life now, and though I will change my address from this life to eternity, the me that loves Jesus now is the me that will be present with him then.  It is that life that I have already begun to live.

So how does it change my experience of aging if I am actively engaged in living a Christ-filled life now?  Paul writes about it in Romans and we read it this morning:  you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.  If Christ is in you, though the body is dead, the Spirit is life.  And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also…so, don’t live according to the flesh, but live according to the Spirit.  For you didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption – you are a child of God.  When we cry, “Abba!  (Daddy) Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us.”  Look around at everything in the creation – “the creation,” he says “waits with eager longing” along with us, for rescue from decay.  Paul imagines it this way:  that we, along with the whole creation, are groaning in labor waiting for the birth of the new heavens and the new earth, where we’ll get our new bodies, too.  Now we, and the whole creation, are subjected to decay and growing uselessness – but when Christ comes, all things will become new!

So the Bible’s take on it is that if we live long enough to experience the effects of dying on our bodies, it at least ought to be a reminder to us that we are going to escape the very worst parts of death, and that on the other side of physical death is what our faith looks to, a freedom from the slavery of decay and from our fear of death – a new life of no longer being stalked by death.

 

So can we really feel differently about the limitations of age and looming of death, just by believing that?  Even in the face of a culture that absolutely believes otherwise?

 

The other thing the Bible has to say about age, has to do with wisdom.  Wisdom is the province of the aged, and elders were to be respected and consulted for their wisdom.

Our culture respects knowledge and data and information – but wisdom is something else.  Wisdom knows what to do with the data and the information; wisdom comes with experience.

And wisdom, the Bible tells us, comes from knowing the Lord.  Richard Hays says that the old people we read about in the Bible, are “well practiced in watchfulness for God.”  Think of Simeon and Anna, those elder prophets waiting and praying at the temple for God’s provision of Messiah, who were rewarded by God with a glimpse of the baby Jesus.  Think of Zechariah and Elizabeth, faithful in temple service and in righteousness even though they were childless and so disappointed and disgraced by that – they are rewarded with the gift of being John the Baptist’s parents, and both of them prophesy about God and his character as part of that assignment.  They knew how to wait on the Lord; they knew, from long practice of prayer and trust and knowing God’s word, what God is like.  And they are held up for us as wise.

 

Contrast, however, the picture we get of Nicodemus the Pharisee leader in the gospel of John.  Nicodemus is not a kid, but Jesus does not consider him wise even though he is learned.  Nicodemus is curious enough to come to see Jesus, but he is so concerned about the fallout from that among the other Pharisees, that he comes by night so that he won’t be seen.

And when he does, Jesus answers the question he hasn’t even asked yet:  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus says, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  Nicodemus is too old for Jesus’ confusing questions!

Jesus tells him again that it is being born by the Spirit, not by the flesh, that is important.  When Nicodemus says, “how can these things be?”, Jesus answers him, “are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

Their conversation goes on, but it is clear that Jesus thinks Nicodemus may have years but he does not yet have wisdom, because he does not have the wisdom of faith.  Nicodemus may know the data of the scriptures, but he does not know the wisdom of the scriptures, because he doesn’t yet know the things of the Spirit.

 

From this, we receive instruction about the difference between getting older as a child of God, versus just getting older.

As followers of Jesus, who have His Spirit, we are supposed to be learning his ways.  Through disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, giving, worshiping, even fasting, we become “well-practiced in watchfulness for God.”  The longer we’re at it, the deeper in Christ we grow, and the wiser we become.  So those among us with greater years have the potential to be those among us with greater experience in walking with Jesus, and greater wisdom.  Wisdom does not come just from racking up birthdays, but wisdom will come from long practice of walking with the Spirit of God.

But the Bible’s wisdom is this:  whether we are old or young, the beginning of wisdom is reverence of the Lord, and the glorious thing about this “being born again” thing is that it is never too late to start!  No matter who we are, we are called to turn our hearts toward God and turn away from sin.  We are called to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord.  We are invited into the community of believers, the outpost of the kingdom of God, the church.  We are instructed to pay attention to the word of God and obey it, to join in worship and in service, in prayer and in giving, to walk with Jesus, alone and together.  By these things, we are released from the slavery of our appetites and our sin natures and helped to pursue the things that are life; at the same time, our vision is lifted from the trivial things of this world to the eternal things of the next, so our perspective is changed.

Our knees will still hurt, but we are less likely to feel quite so sorry for ourselves when our minds are on what God’s mind is on.  We still fear the act of dying, but in the fear there is mixed a real eagerness to know what it will really be like to be with the Jesus we have come to know so well in prayer and worship.  And the jibes of those who dismiss us for being “old” still hurt our feelings, but they do pale in comparison to the prospect of actually being wise.

 

I’ve been reading a memoir called “Somewhere Towards the End” by Diana Athill, who is 91 years old – it is her memoir of aging.  She also wrote a book about her 50-year-career as a book editor, but in this book she writes about the curiosity that she no longer can get interested in novels, although she used to enjoy them so much.

I wonder if that has something to do with something else I learned about recently.  At the Midwinter Pastors’ Conference I went to a workshop on “Aging with Grace” and was reminded of Eric Ericson’s developmental stages.  If you ever took psychology you probably read about him and his developmental theories – he came up with eight life stages; each of them has a particular task.  Middle adulthood, he theorized, is concerned with what he called “generativity” – with production.  But Late adulthood – he proposed 65 as the starting age – is interested in what he called “integrity” – here’s what he means.  When we reach older adulthood and we realize that death is on the calendar for us, we begin to review our life to see if the whole of it was successful.  This is pursued through telling our stories to ourselves and others, and integrating the events of our lives together to evaluate the whole.  Another theorist, Robert Butler, says that we pursue this life review whether we want to or not, and if we won’t be conscious of it, we will do it through dreams.

So I wonder if Diana Athill isn’t satisfied with reading other people’s stories anymore, because whether she wants to or not, she is concerned with evaluating her own – maybe even enough to write a book about it.

The Bible has something to say about this, too.  If we have been attending to the disciplines of worship and prayer, we have been invited into confession – the act of telling the truth to God and to ourselves about the ways in which we have fallen short, stepped over the line and missed the target.  We do that because we want to be forgiven, and we are invited to:  if we say we have no sin, the Bible says, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But, it says in the same place, if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.  So, if we have been doing what the Master told us to do, we have been doing mini-life-reviews all along…and thus when the time comes that we feel compelled to evaluate our life story, what we should see are the fingerprints of Jesus all over it, writing “forgiven” next to the sorry parts.

God’s perspective on your life story, and on mine, is that Jesus takes our stories and weaves them into his own.  Paul says  “…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  (Gal. 2:20)  As we grow in Christ, what should be seen in our life is the unmistakable evidence that his story is now being lived out in me.

Perhaps that explains one other thing that we see in the Bible’s old folks.  They were not exempt from having God doing an amazing new thing in or through them.  Abraham and Sarah were in their nineties, and they gave birth to the child of promise.  Hannah and Elizabeth were too old for such stuff, too, but that didn’t make it too hard for God.

New things are not off limits for old folks who belong to Jesus:  Simeon and Anna weren’t too old to believe that God really was going to bring a Messiah, nor were they too set in their ways to accept that the Messiah God brought, was the infant of a nondescript poor couple who showed up in the Temple one day, instead of what they expected.

If we believe the Bible we have no reason to believe that we could ever be too old for God to give us an assignment, or even an entirely new calling.  Remember what Peter quoted from the prophet Joel on Pentecost:  “in the last days…God declares…I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

And that only makes sense when you think about it – to the world, to our knees and our arteries, we are aging and dying, but in Christ, we have only just begun.