Not Against Flesh and Blood

Ephesians 6.10-17

You can tell a good deal about a culture by the stories it tells. A lot of the tales popular in the US include the notion that ‘violence is the solution’ to problems. We see this most clearly in movies and TV shows where, at some point in the show, someone pulls out a gun or hauls off with their fists and solves the problem. “Wham!” (Thump) ” My hero!” Seems to be the theme of the day.

Whether it’s Michael Bay blowing things up ‘because’ or the Furious franchise casually pulling out a gun to solve their problems, it’s the same formula. Do violence, things get fixed. Is it any wonder that we tend to reach for our fists as a demonstration of ‘being strong?’

And when some well meaning person comes along and points out that violence, while simple in application, brings along with it a whole complex of implications many of which create new problems, they are glibly told to ‘tell it to the nazis’ or the confederacy. They are told that the Jews would have been completely exterminated and the slaves never freed if we hadn’t taken up the sword against evil.

Therefore, we’ve come to assume that violence is to be our ‘everpresent help in time of trouble.’ And thus we justify our violence, blithely forgetting that the motto is “ultima ratio regum.” (For those to whom this is too obscure, king Louis  XIV of France had this motto on his cannons because the heavy guns were the “ultimate/final argument of kings.”)

Violence is thus enshined as a tool by our stories. Furthermore, it is appealing to use because it is simple to apply. Once I decide to hit you, the only things that are important are can I reach you with my fist and can I hit you hard enough. Who you are and how we have come to this moment in time are utterly unimportant. The complexities of life have been simplified to the equation my fist + your face = victory!

H.L. Menken made a pithy and critical comment about this kind of thinking “to every problem there is a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong.” I am not by any means ruling violence out entirely as my pacifist friends do but as a Just Warrior I know that one must have more than simply “just cause” before initiating violence.

Furthermore, I have Jesus resurrection as a reminder of the radical (from the Latin radix “root”) change that can come in life through God’s intervention. I have even seen this trasformation take place in my life and the lives of those I know. Furthermore, Scripture reminds us that the fight of our life is a spiritual one. We will indeed face physical barriers and physical opponents. We will absolutely have to address these things with physical force. But when we go from “I am angry” to “you must die” in 0.5 seconds, we are failing the spiritual battle in order to win the physical.

This is because, as Paul reminds us, our war is not with the flesh and blood “enemies” we see in front of us but with the ideas, the assumptions, the miasma of spiritual evil which floats in the air around us. Our fight is against the prowling lion that seeks to devour us whole in our rage and thirst for blood. This is the enemy that tempts us to believe that victory comes when our enemy is completely destroyed instead of when they are reconciled, that punching “nazis” in the face is spiritually superior to gaining them for life.

Certainly there is a time when violence is our last available response, our ultima ratio, but even then it must never devolve into Holy War where absolute violence is permissible against a dehumanized enemy. Nor must it be taken up casually, our minds kept in the same scabbard as our sword. As I had to learn at home, simply being an annoying little snot is not sufficient justification for pounding on someone, not even if they are your little sister and the Source Of All Evil (sorry sis, I was a total jerk).

In the same way, just because someone is part of Other Political Party/This Protest Group, saluting (or not saluting) the flag, shouting things I hate/shouting hate at me, punching them in the face because I hate them is wrong or, as they say in the Royal Navy  you flash, you lose.

So, given that our real enemy is the miasma of evil ideas and not the people in front of us, and that violence is our last resort against direct physical threats (not just people who are jerks), what are we supposed to do?

Could I interest you in the Spiritual Practice of discernment? In this context, it’s the heart habit of being aware. Aware of who we are, our limits as human beings, and that we are not at war with our enemies (no matter how emotionally satisfying and simplistic the “war” might be)

 

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A Completionist God

In Role-Playing video games there are two types of “quests” that we do. Story quests are tasks we have to accomplish to drive the story forward. “Beating the game” means finishing all the story quests.

But story quests are not the only type of quest we are offered. In open world games, there will also be side quests: sometimes complex side journeys that are entirely optional. Further, there are fetch quests, missions which are accomplished by going somewhere, getting something, and bringing it back. There are, in fact, whole alternate storylines down which we can ramble in addition to completing the story.

All of these quests are available but only the story ones are necessary to finish the game. More complex and mature games may have as little as a third of the quests/missions provided actually be required to finish the story. This vast field open for exploration and action in addition to the story has given rise to the Completionist player.

It is not enough for a completionist to simply finish the game, they are utterly determined to get 100% of the quests done. Interestingly, they can track exactly how many of the quests are still unfinished because each gamer gets a quest log listing all their open missions. The log is added to any time someone mentions something we could do or we uncover some new avenue to explore. In this way the gamer can keep track of all the side quests that pop up while they’re finishing the task at hand. Using the log, they can then decide which, if any, of the optional quests looks interesting.

But for a completionist, a quest log with unfinished quests is a challenge and even a bit of an insult. They are absolutely determined to finish every single quest offered. Some of them will even find ways to simultaneously finish two opposing quests, finishing as many sub-steps as possible before the Rubicon moment where they have to choose one version of the future. Some extreme completionists will even reload save files and finish the quests both ways in order to see every possible future.

This all connects to the God revealed to us in Jesus because while we may have picked up the notion of a God who is really just concerned about the people who complete the “story quest” in the right order and get the correct score. Scripture and the life experience of the church over the ages, shows that this notion is quite bogus.

Somewhere along the way we’ve also picked up the (rightly mocked) sense that the church is made up of just those people who are like us. God, we seem to think, while hopeful that everyone will play nice, is willing to take ‘just the nice ones’ and let the rest “go to hell.” The rest of Scripture suggests that this is not quite true.

The more I read the Old Testament (yes, the one with all the words of judgment) the more I’ve had to at first wonder and now be certain that, God is actually a completionist.

It is not enough for the church, the Body of Christ in this world, to just get in as many people as can complete the story. God wants the whole roaring mess. It’s not enough for ‘just us’ to get across the finish line, we win the game when everyone makes it across. The God who made humanity from dust longs for that dust to live truly, deeply, and completely (otherwise, what’s the point?)

This Old Testament God of thunder and threat is also the one who declares “I take pleasure in the death of no one” and asks “why will you (choose to) die?” But wait, you say, this whole “choose life” thing is just about doing what God says, toeing the line and being a good little clone, right?

Are you sure? What if this path we are being asked to follow is the way to leave behind the lies of our past and reach toward newness and healing. What if this resurrection business is about giving freedom to people bound in chains and death. What if the process of standing up again really is the point of life and therefore everything else is more on the order of shallow simulacrum? Suddenly the whole notion of “choosing life” is about choosing to really live instead of some half-way, half-life.

This then brings us back to our greedy God who is playing the game of life with a completionist’s intentness. Instead of trying to get through the thing in order to ‘beat the game’ and just get the easy wins, the God who has hold of my life is a completionist, obsessed with getting not just all of me but also the whole of the cosmos.

And because this God is focused on the complete game, the whole cosmos, “winning” means going through the whole of life and drawing all of it into God’s very being. And since “in the end, God wins…” this is very good news.

 

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Trusting Power

Matthew 21.23-32

One of the classic suspicions of the modern age, is suspcion of power. No matter who has it or how they use it, anyone with power is (we are told) out to take advantage of us. I mention this because the pharisees ask Jesus “by what power (exousia) do you preach these things?” and he answers by talking about trust.

This is because the word we translate “faith” (pistis) includes the notion of “trust.” This makes sense because stable, solid trust in a person can indeed be described as faith. For that matter, trust that goes deep into another person is one of the most critical parts of building a working relationship.

The Gottman institute has studied relationships to the point that they can watch couples interact and predict (with a 90% accuracy) whether the relationship will last or not. They look at individual interactions (called “bids”) and see how they are recieved by the other person, how often and in what way they are rejected, and looks at the totals. An increasing number of well recieved bids, a preponderance of healthy interactions, is a sign of overall health. To use the “church-y” language, it’s  a sign of faith.

This is what makes Jesus’ reply so powerful. He’s being challenged on power and authority and instead of fighting with the Big Power People, he points to the biggest flaw in the power peoples’ power argument. With the parable of the two sons he points out that lip service that doesn’t become life service too is pointless and empty. In other words, if we ignore the relationship bids long enough, we should not be surprised when our beloved leaves.

While it may seem “undignified” or “irresponsible” to suggest that God is interested in a dating style relationship with us, the Old Testament suggests otherwise. We can get rather uncomfortable with this idea but that’s just us being well… prudish. Humans tend to differentiate the cosmos into “its” (things we can use) and “thous” (beings with whom we have relationships).

We can relate to a series of its and have a good life but the powerful stuff that transforms who we are and how we become are pretty much always connected to “thous” who come into our life and touch us deeply. In fact, God even looked at the first life, full of “its” and devoid of “thous” as it was and called the whole thing “Not Good.”

And so, faced with questions of power, right, and leadership, Jesus points us back to how we love and live in place of our fondness for the “right answer.” He didn’t give the tax collectors and prostitutes answers, unbending rules of “how to do it.” He gave them himself and expected them to trust him enough to put in their whole life. Because faith is something we do rather than something we have, this actually makes good sense.

While the parable of the sons is considered a word of judgment against the chief priests and elders of Jesus’ day and their focus on power, it is also a word of hope. You see, just because both sons weren’t going into the field shouldn’t obscure the fact that one “changed his mind” and later went. We even have a parable about what happens to vineyard workers who get there late (hint: they still get the day’s wage).

Because faith is lived, we can grow in trusting. We can deepen our life. We can find the freedom in knowing that life is actually a long series of growing-deepers instead of a single set piece “win or go home” event. This makes sense when we understand that the point Jesus made with his life was that he was giving a life instead of an answer sheet.

In the face of questions of power, he invites trust. He gives us himself and asks that age old question “do you trust me?” We get to say “yes” with our whole lives.

In all our confusion, misdirection, and silliness, our “yes” is wonderfully precious. And no matter how faint or partial-hearted it is, it is enough.

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God is at Work

Philippians 2.1-13

One of the classic congregational anxieties is “how can we go on, we don’t have a pastor to lead us!” Churches, particularly Lutheran ones, have a long habit of relying on the pastor to guide, direct, and energize the people. When pastor isn’t there or is there but not leading with authoriy, people become anxious and gradually turn to chaos and sometimes even panic. (For the quick thinking among you, there is a Far Side comic about that, just look for the one about the border collie at the party).

While this happens in congregations, we run into the same issue in our own lives. We’ve been told by the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” culture in which we live that we have to carry the whole world on our shoulders. We are told that self reliant, self-starting, energized and motivated people will Make It Work We are encouraged to blame ourselves and depend only on our own strength to accomplish everything. So we add to our panic by worrying about our own energy.

Where will my help come from” is not just a cute line from a beloved psalm, it is a real question. Where am I going to get the strength to do all these things I’m supposed to do? How am I going to find the courage (“heart strength” from the French couer “heart”) to change my habit of life from what I learned to who I wish to become. We did after all, pick up a lot of mental and emotional habits as kids, many of them the product of parental crazy filtered through child sized capacity to understand.

As we grew older and realized how these certainties constrict our lives, we gain the additional challenge of finding the strength to break those chains if we hope to live lives full of hope. All this effort comes of course, on top of the day to day mess that is being alive in this chaotic world. So where do we get the strength to do any of this? It seems like the easier solution is to self-medicate some numbness so we don’t have to try and lift the world with one finger anymore. Just do some simple stuff, stay small, sleep through the bad parts and muddle through.

While an understandable decision, it goes against the nature of the God revealed in scripture. In my wrestling with the word I have been lovingly and relentlessly confronted by a God who wants us to live with every fibre of our being. I have met a God who seeks life for us and not just “failing to die” life but life that is fully and completely lived. This is a life lived to the fullest, most distant square inch of space, a life filled to its remotest edges with living i.e. an abundant life. (Note: perissosabundant” does not mean giant pile, it means “excessive, beyond expectations, to the fullness“).  This God is downright inescapably  desirous of our living, breathing, be-ing and already at work to bring about this life in us.

And this is where Paul’s letter to the Philippians gives us a clue of where our help comes from to do and be all these new things. He starts with a list of “if it should be true that…” statements. They’re all subjunctives, subordinate clauses that, if they are true, lead to the imperative in the next verse “fill-full (fulfill?) my joy with the result that you have the same thinking and the same love, one soul and one way of thought.” (personal translation) Full joy comes with the results of united ways of thought, living, and loving.

Full joy comes in full life. It comes with humble, other focused being and following the example of Jesus. After hearing that we may be tempted to say ‘wait a minute, you haven’t turned down the heat, you’ve just raised the pressure! I don’t just have to fix my history and my habits, now I have to be perfect like Jesus? Thanks for nothing.’ This looks bad but hang in there just a little bit longer and see if the explanation helps a bit.

With fear and trembling” (well duh, I’m messing with my life thank you, that is scary enough) work at, work out, work on, subdue, bring into order (all these words translate katergazomai) your own salvation. In other words, with all due seriousness and a deep lack of confidence that “I have it all figured out” go at working to bring into order the chaotic mass that is your saved life.

This working out means to work on a thing that is not sorted, a laboring to understand the tools already stuffed into your life. They (and our life itself) may be a piled up mess of ‘I have no idea what goes where’ but all the parts are there and all the power is there and all the knowing, living, be-ing is there so dump it out like a giant bucket of legos and sort out what you will make with this one wild and precious life.

Well that’s pretty hopeful, but where does the energy come from and how will I know that I’m going to get it right? I have, after all, a loooooooong history of making the dumb choice, how dare I start this vital and precious project knowing that there are no training wheels and I am inevitably going to crash? Consider where the work is actually coming from.

It is the last verse of this passage that reveals where a church gets its power, where each believer gets the order and life in us. “For God is the one working within you, the one to will and to energize everything about what is well chosen and well done.” (personal translation)

You see, it is God who is working in and through you, in and through me, to bring about the triumphant and good ending to our living. Our hands are not the only ones holding the wheel of life, our heart isn’t the only heart willing our good, we are not alone in this work and God has a lot of practice in bringing good out of our screwups.

Therefore, when faced by a congregation without a pastor, a life made up of mess, know that it is not our power that makes things go toward life. Our life is indeed in our own hands but it is not only in our hands. God is at work, willing and giving energy for us to bring our salvation life into order, fullness, and joy.

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I Knew It!

Jonah 3.10-4.11

Jonah is having one of those bad days that come to all of us eventually if we take God seriously. He has his plan in place, he knows what God is going to do, he wants God to Bring Justice Down, and then God forgives the Bad Guys and leaves Jonah mad. The Ninevites were about to get their (richly deserved) visit from Ultimate Smackdown Jesus ™ and then God has compassion on them and turns away from wrath and judgment.

For those of you who missed Ancient History class, the Assyrian Empire [capital city: Nineveh] was famous for pioneering techniques we would eventually call: seige warfare, civilian mass murder, and ethnic cleansing. They were Not Nice People. Jonah’s interest in updating our shameful saying about indians to “the only good Ninevite is a dead Ninevite” is entirely understandable.

But God rewrites Jonah’s narrative of judgment and decides for compassion and mercy, leaving Jonah with a tub of fresh popcorn, a ringside seat for the apocalypse, and no apocalypse.

In spite of all that we’ve been told about how God loves to smack down people who question the Almighty Power, Jonah gets mad and God listens. “I knew it!” Jonah shouts, “I knew this was what you were going to do! This is why I fled to Tarshish, so you wouldn’t do that ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ thing you do.

This is one of the reasons that some scholars believe this book is actually a midrash (a story to explain a point of theology) rather than objective reporting of fact. For myself, I say “I don’t know, I wasn’t there” (and neither were you), so let’s put the modernist “did it really happen” question on the shelf and get on with the story.

Interestingly enough, that gracious and merciful… thing is such a constant refrain in the Old Testament that it could just as easily be God’s proper name. And not only “could it be” it actually is.

It turns out that the God we have been taught is a bloodthirsty monster, is actually all these things: Gracious, Merciful, Slow to Anger, Abounding in Steadfast Love and Faithfulness. Each of these qualities deserve special study because they are important Hebrew words.

  • Gracious from rechem “womb” this is the fiercely tender, mother love of God
  • Merciful at root this means “to have pity/compassion, to show kindness to.”
  • Slow to Anger this is the most idiomatic of the phrases because it literally means “long nosed.” In Hebrew our anger is connected to our nose because noses flare when we’re mad (and sometimes smoke comes out too 🙂 thus if one has a long nose, it takes more time for the whole thing to flare thus you are “slow to anger.” This is why we are on solid linguistic ground to say “God has a big nose.”
  • Steadfast Love this is one word hesed and it is the combination of steadfast, covenental love and the endless mercy that “endureth forever” as the psalmist says.
  • Faithfulness from emet faithful/true. This is often paired with hesed in the psalms because love, truth, mercy, and faithfulness are all part of one completely tied together thing with God.

So Jonah is mad at God for well… being who God is. In other words, he’s mad that God forgives. I even get this, I’m grateful that God is willing to look at the utter mess I’ve made of my life and turn a loving thumbs up on this disaster, but I want the Bad Guys to Suffer For Their Crimes. This notion, that our appetite for harsh penalties is directly related to which side of the gavel we’re on, is one of those things that gives me compassion for Jonah, the prophet who didn’t want to extend compassion.

I see myself in him, in his frustrated humanity that wants The Right to win Right Now, that wants the Bad Guys to hurt the way I hurt. The very human being who wants to get an extra reward for working hard instead of just being treated like everyone else (and yes, there’s a parable for that). I get it, I’ve been there, in sober moments I don’t even like that part of myself, but it is there in me just the same. Part of what makes this story so important is how God responds with this narrow-minded, angry, selfish part of humanity.

We’ve been told, or perhaps just picked it up from the air around us, that God despises this narrow, harsh part of us and that it is shameful to bring it into God’s light. We may even believe that God’s only response to this evil is to blot it (and us) out of existence but because God has at least as much compassion on us as God had on the Ninevites, who are so lost and confused that they “do not know their right hand from their left.”

Jonah brings his ugliness out into the light of God and is not smashed for it. He does not get turned into a pile of ash or banished to unending darkness. What God does with the ugliness Jonah brings is hold it up before Jonah’s eyes and… forgive it. God takes the darkest, most crabbed, grinch-y, Scrooge-like part of Jonah and washes it in the light of Everlasting Love.

God shows Jonah his own bitterness, constrasts this with God’s own boundless compassion and says ‘aren’t you glad I’m in charge?’ God takes the dark and shameful life of Nineveh and forgives it. God takes the dark and shameful parts of Jonah and forgives them. God looks at you and me and, even seeing our own dark and shameful parts, forgives and longs for us to come into the light of life.

God does this because fundamentally God is Chain-Breaker, Life-Maker, Let’s Dancer extraordinaire. God is indeed Gracious and Merciful more than we can understand and this compassion extends to the animals as well, two leggers aren’t the only ones in the Kingdom. “How can I not have compassion on Nineveh, that silly city? How can I not have compassion on you, you silly person?” And in the mystery of compassion, God does.

 

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Before their OWN Lord

Romans 14.1-12

One of the questions lobbed at us by our hearts and well meaning people all around starts “but what about the Other Guy?” Yes, it’s nice that you tell me these things and that your heart hears and learns this new way of being but “howcome they get to get away with Thing?” In other words “why do I have to do this but they don’t?”

Well first of all, you don’t know their story and because you don’t know the full why and wherefore of their life, you don’t have the complete knowledge needed to tell their story. In fact, they are the only people who get to tell their story. Given our faulty and incomplete knowledge of what they are experiencing and what has brought them to this day, our right to judge is pretty limited. In fact, if we take seriously the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the way to spiritual life includes us “always asking ‘who am I’ and judging no one.”

Note that this does not mean that “what is good for me is right” or that our non-judgmentalism requires never calling something evil. What it does mean is that we need to hold our discernment of truth lightly when it impacts someone else.

We may be convinced that everyone marching in that protest is, at heart, a Nazi but we don’t know them or their story. They could be there because of their experience of betrayal of the “work hard, keep your nose clean, and you’ll get success” bargain that they had signed up for. We may be certain that all those BLM folks are rage filled thugs longing to do violence, but we don’t know their hurt or the history of systemic violence which has fallen on their heads because of the color of their skin. And those are just social generalizations. In Paul’s day they were actually having a church fight about what kind of food people could eat and Paul had to step in.

The fight was between vegetarians and carnivores because in order to eat meat, one had to either be very rich or buy direct from the temple (since temples sacrificed lots of animals and they couldn’t eat all the meat, so they sold it). Therfore, eating meat was either a sign of extreme wealth or an after the fact participation in pagan worship. The alternative, not eating meat, meant that one could just eat vegetables and save money while also not worshipping false gods.

While this seems kind of silly today, when decent cuts of meat go for less than $10 a pound and you can get enough to flavor a meal for less than $5. It was a big fight in the church. People of good will were trying to figure out how to be faithful in the absence of clear Scriptural direction. They took ‘what I want,’ ‘what the bible says,’ and ‘what’s going on in society’ and tried to figure out how to live.

While it could seems an issue of no importance or relevence for today, Paul presents it as an issue for the church to find out how to live with each other. He’s concerned with the way people of faith are pointing fingers and judging each other instead of finding out how to make a life together.

He throws out this rather odd phrase to help the church past this roadblock. “Why are you judging the servant of another?” If we’re going to be technical about this Paul, both the vegetarians and the carnivores are actually servants of the same Lord. So how do you expect us to deal with this “servant of another” thing? How about by realizing that people stand or fall before their lord and not before you or me.

The point Paul is getting at here is that people stand and fall not to our sense of justice but before Jesus’ sense. It is God to whom each person is accountable and God gets to make the choice about who’s in and who’s out, not us. This means that even though we Just Totally Know that this person is Doing It Wrong, we don’t get to throw rocks or stand in judgment.

What we get is the opportunity to pay attention to our own feet and our own path. We get to focus our attention on how faithful our life is and leave the other person in the hands of God. This is unsatisfactory in so many ways because part of us still wants to be God, to rule the world and decide who is good and who is bad. This is Not Our Job (thank God).

The focus then is (rightly) on us and our living rather than judging our neighbor’s worthiness. This should lead to a certain amount of nervousness on our part, after all, how good a job have we been doing at being like Jesus, at bearing Christ into this world with our words and our life, hmmmm? This is why Paul included the next part of his statement. Since “It is before their own Lord that each will stand and fall,” and their Lord is Jesus, “they will be able to stand because God will support them.” It is the same for us. We stand or fall before the Jesus who chose union with us on the cross instead of giant clubs of doom.

While you and I have been busy working out to whom God has given a thumbs up and who deserves the thumbs down, Paul points out that God has actually given a thumbs up to everyone. Thank God that our judgment is not the one that deeply matters for the life of the cosmos.

God is the Judge, God is the Avenger of Wrong. The righteousness we enforce is a partial righteousness, the judgments we render are based in incompete information and thus tentative. The story of the life of another is not ours to tell, not in its glory or its shame. Each person stands before God and while it is true that “only God can judge me,” this means that God will judge me. So while we may want to rant about “those antifa idiots,” or “those Nazi scum,” or even “those postmillenial dispensationalists,” God is the one who gets to decide, God is the one before whom they (and us too) must stand or fall.

And, as Paul reminds, “God will cause them to stand because God is faithful.”

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