PSALMS — So Is This Christendom?

Anyone who has read this blog regularly should know I am no great fan of Christendom. That is, the effort by the Church and by Christians to order the world, to create “Christian” societies and/or “Christian” civilization.

The reason is fairly simple — Jesus, as he comes to us in the Gospels, says almost nothing about his followers exercising the kind of power they are, as occupied people, subject to. Rather, the Gospel is a response to occupation — how to live faithfully as God’s people knowing you do not have the kind of power to rule or even effectively resist in any way we understand resisting. In this understanding, one way to look at the Gospel is to see it as a set of instructions on how to live faithfully under someone else’s rules. Without any hope that we will ever get to make those rules.

Even in the Old Testament, which — at face value — seems to involve itself more in the dirty work of governing and ordering the world, Israel is far more an object, subject to the power of others (sin, idolatry, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and above all, YHWH, Israel’s God), than it is a subject, one who exercised power. The Old Testament has little to say about government, or order, save that the inability to adhere to the faithful teachings of God will result in suffering, conquest, enslavement, and exile.

And that is Israel’s history.

There is no recipe for good government or proper order in Israel. Figures are raised up by God to save in Israel — Moses, Joshua, the Judges — and kings are appointed. But this is all personality dependent, not system/structure/institution dependent. A wide variety of characters, from the upright and virtuous Othniel to the serial fornicator Samson and the tainted Jephthah, are raised to rescue Israel. There is no rhyme and reason to the who, except that God chooses them and they are good at what they have been called to do.

Even when Israel comes and demands a king “to judge us like all the nations.” (1 Samuel 8:5) God tells Israel, through Samuel the prophet, that Israel should not want a king — YHWH is Israel’s king, whatever that means, and this demand is a rejection of God’s kingship over Israel. And yet God gives Israel a king anyway, and then proceeds to bless Israel, and makes promises to all humanity, through this gift of the king that Israel should not have.

At any rate, I’ve never been a great fan of Christendom. It requires the followers of Jesus to take a stake in the violence of the world and its outcomes — to do violence, and to justify that violence. With all that means.

But in the last year or so, I have been reading Andrew Permian’s blog P.OST An Evangelical Theology for the Post-Christendom Age and have come to be persuaded by both the way he reads scripture, but also increasingly by his conclusion that Christendom itself represents some kind of promise that Jesus makes to his disciples that the nations — גוים goyim in Hebrew and εθνος ehtnos in Greek — will be subject to Christ as part of Christ’s judgment of the Empire.

(In this, I am not doing Permian’s thesis justice, and I apologize for that. It’s still only something I beginning to wrap my head and soul around, and I really don’t like the implications. I am more Hauerwas then Leithart, and the idea of earthly rule for the church — a church that does violence and is right and justified in doing so — is not a prospect I am really comfortable with yet.)

So what to make of Psalm 2, then? Because as I read this — especially if the “Son” mentioned in this psalm is Christ.

1 Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”

Who is the King of Israel that anyone should pay attention to him? Even at the kingdom’s height, under David and Solomon, it was powerful, but not as powerful as its much larger neighbors.

No, I think some other figure is being described here. This about Christ — the anointed one, המשׁיה — and it is he who is “King on Zion” (מלך על–ציון). It is against Christ that the nations and peoples, and their kings and rulers, rage and plot. It is from him they seek the “freedom” of no longer being bound.

And God holds them all in contempt. In fact, the setting of a King in Zion — upon that hill — is itself an act of fury and wrath. And that makes me wonder, is this, could this be, a reference to the crucifixion? To that awful day on Golgatha when Jesus the Anointed carried the cross to his death?

I’m not speaking here of classical atonement theology, that Jesus bore the wrath of God in our place. I’m not sure yet really what I’m speaking of, save that God’s wrath and anger and sorrow were present on that day as God showed the world the extent to which God incarnate as Christ would go to judge the world.

Because I do believe the crucifixion represents some kind of judgment of the world. Judgment of us. Our violence. Our fear. Our hatred. Our anger. Our despair. An unflinching judgment. It isn’t so much God acting as God surrendering utterly, by doing nothing but dying, God is showing us who we really are. Accuser and accused. Betrayer and Betrayed. Torturer and tortured. Executer and executed.

God judges us by giving himself utterly to us and not resisting. That’s the wrath and fury of God.

7 I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Verse seven sounds like every Gospel proclamation at the baptism of Christ — Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22, even John the Baptist’s second-hand account in John 1:34.

God then goes on to make the Son an interesting offer — ask of me, and I will give you the nations. It sounds a little like the offer Satan makes to Jesus in Luke 4. Jesus refuses the devil’s offer, of course, but that’s because the nations already belong to him. And rules them, he breaks them utterly.

That’s an interesting image. What does it mean to broken like this? It brings to mind the words of Christ in Matthew 21, in the parable of tenants, which Jesus ends by comparing himself to the rejected cornerstone of Psalm 118, noting that whoever falls upon the cornerstone “will be broken,” and whoever the cornerstone falls upon will be crushed.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not a bad thing here to broken, to be dashed to pieces, to be shattered. But I speak an individual. What does it mean for an entire people to be broken? How does Jesus do that? Whether he rules or breaks with a rod of iron (either reading is possible), what does it mean that the Son does this to whole nations?

(What on earth does it mean to be crushed? And can that be a good thing?)

And is that breaking and/or ruling Christendom? Or is it something else entirely?

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

This is where this psalm really troubles me. Because this becomes the Jesus you need to behave yourself around or he will get you. Be nice to the Son, the psalmist says, or else. Anger, and wrath, and perishing. It’s everything the church has tried to walk away from in the last decade or two.

And yet, I also see something of Christendom in here. Because whoever speaks here is speaking to kings and rulers of the earth. And not to the likes of you and me. God has given the peoples of the earth to the Son, the Anointed, as a possession, and the Son has the power to do as he chooses. Best serve the son with fear and trembling and joy. Lest wrath follow.

But what does that mean if the wrath of God is God surrendering to us? Yes, Babylon was God’s judgment upon faithless Judah, and Babylon paid for its role in that judgment. I’m not sure, though, that’s what’s going here. I think there’s something deeper, more profound, an understanding — maybe — that the unwillingness (or inability) on the part of the kings and rulers of the world to serve the Lord or even “Kiss the Son” (in fealty, no doubt) leads to a wrath of emptiness, a God who is willing to watch while we inflict suffering and death upon ourselves. A God who is one with suffering, in the Son, the Anointed one, and whose clear and obvious suffering on that cross planted upon that hill is somehow God’s wrath.

A wrath of emptiness. We stand by, on Good Friday, and watch, powerless save to condemn and demand death, as we re-enact the passion of Christ. His trial. His torture. His execution. The wrath of God, emptied. If we court the wrath of God by disobedience and lack of love, that wrath is visited upon us by our own hands. God’s judgment is to watch, and thereby force us, compel us, to watch as well.

It is not God’s wrath in the way that Babylon besieging Jerusalem was God’s purposeful judgment upon Judah, packed with deliberate meaning. It is a judgment empty of meaning. There is no moral purpose to this wrath, this violence, this destruction. It is not punishment. It is not just. It is not deserved. It is empty. It has been emptied. And we perish. At our own hands. Just as the Son did.

And we watch. Powerless. Just as the Father did.

Nothing Beats Everything

Peter Leithart, who I first encountered reading his book Defending Constantine, blogs over at First Things, and I find him by far the most readable of the bloggers there. He had this to say today about the power of God to attract, even when we have nothing to show for ourselves, and I really wish I’d said this myself:

Christians today often think that the church needs to be powerful and well-ordered to attract notice. This is nothing less than unbelief.

Think of Ruth the Moabitess, who attaches herself to Naomi when Naomi has nothing (Ruth 1:15–18). Naomi went out of Israel full — with husband, two sons, everything she needed. While in Moab, she lost everything.

The Lord has made her life bitter. But precisely at that moment, when Naomi has nothing and can produce nothing, when she’s reminding Ruth that she can’t possibly produce another husband — just at that moment of utter emptiness Ruth commits herself to Naomi, and to Israel.

Naomi says, God has dealt harshly with me. He’s emptied me of everything. And Ruth says, I want your God to be my God. Somehow, mysteriously, uncannily, miraculously, Ruth finds something in a woman who has nothing. Somehow, she knows that the God of empty Naomi is a God of salvation.

By attaching herself to the empty widow, Ruth finds a place in the family tree of David and of David’s greater Son. Clinging to the widow with nothing, she becomes an agent for the restoration of everything.

Paul was not thinking only of Jesus and the early church when he said, “God has chosen the weak things of this world to shame the things which are strong” (1 Corinthians 1:26–31). That’s the story of Israel, and the story of the church.

Yeah, this. Every bit of it.

The Real Problem of Multiculturalism

First Things editor R. R. Reno was interviewed about Pope Francis’ visit by America, and has some very insightful things to say about the progressives who run the world and, in particular, the real problem with multiculturalism:

As editor of an ecumenical journal founded by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, a leading theological spokesman for the Religious Right, where do you find yourself most in harmony with Pope Francis?

Clearly, the primacy of our life in Christ over all things resonates. Secondly, I share with Pope Francis a dissatisfaction with the power elite of the contemporary West, which I think is ideologically oriented toward perpetuating its own power even though it calls itself progressive. Most American liberals think the pope is criticizing conservatism, but they are—along with their European counterparts—in fact the dominant outlook in the rich world. So when the pope is criticizing the global system, he’s criticizing the system they run. It’s not a system being run by evangelical pastors in Texas. It’s a system being run by Ivy League graduates in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington—and they are not readers of “First Things.”

As a political conservative, where do you find yourself most in tension with Francis?

I think Francis accepts uncritically the social justice movement in the Catholic Church, which, although often well-intentioned, adopts the intellectual and moral framework of secular progressivism—which is, I think, anti-metaphysical and easily manipulated by the powerful to serve their own ends. Multiculturalism is a technology for managing and manipulating people. I find the same outlook has a therapeutic view of the human condition. So I’m frustrated by Pope Francis’ use of that social justice vocabulary, which I think is easily co-opted by the rich secular world.

Let me put it this way: To make a claim about Natural Law is the most heretical thing you can do at a contemporary secular university, in the technocracy of today. I wish this papacy was more aware of the true nature of what we’re up against in the 21st century. As a conservative, I’m not opposed to the pope’s criticisms of global capitalism. It strikes me that global capitalism doesn’t need to be defended because it’s the only system we have. So criticizing it and trying to humanize it should be the goal of any morally serious person today, whether they’re conservative or liberal. We just disagree in debate about how best to humanize it.

That critique of social justice language and of multiculturalism strike me as spot on, particularly as tools the affluent and powerful of the world — what Reno refers to earlier in the interview as the “Davos elite” who “increasingly live in a bubble” — use to manage and manipulate the world, and assuage their own consciences. And he reminds us who that elite is that manages the world — Ivy League grads.

Read the whole thing.

Millstones

There’s an interesting line Jesus speaks in yesterday’s (18th Sunday after Pentecost) gospel reading from Mark 9 that I didn’t preach about:

42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42 ESV)

We’ve all heard it, and even probably seen some neat riffs off that line (a Wizard of Id cartoon comes to mind). The Greem term, μύλος ὀνικὸς here is literally “heavy millstone” or “millstone turned by a donkey.”

This is of no account, accept that I was telling someone last night of the women in the Old Testament who also fight in the cause of Israel. There’s Jael, the wife of Heber, who pounds a tent-peg into the forehead of the sleeping Canaanite General Sisera, who comes to her seeking shelter after the defeat of his army. (Judges 4, just in case you’re interested.)

And there’s the unnamed woman who, later in Judges, drops a millstone upon the head of Abimelech (literally, “My father is king”), the son of Gideon, and the usurper who proclaims himself king of all Israel long before Israel actually asks for one. In Judges 9:53,

53 καὶ ἔρριψεν γυνὴ μία κλάσμα μύλου ἐπὶ τὴν κεφαλὴν Αβιμελεχ καὶ συνέθλασεν τὸ κρανίον αὐτοῦ. (LXX)

53 And a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull. (ESV)

That millstone μύλος didn’t kill Abimelech. He ordered his armor-bearer to run him through with a sword so no one could say “A woman killed him.” But she did, and she did it with a millstone, and I just found that interesting. A the same word, or a related word (I’m stretching my Greek here), is used in Revelation 18 to describe what will happen to Babylon:

21 Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone [μύλινον μέγαν] and threw it into the sea, saying,
“So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence,
and will be found no more; (ESV)

This even involves tossing into the sea (εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν), the same phrase Jesus uses to describe the fate of those who cause “one of these little ones who believe in me” to sin.

A great weight, a crushing weight, one normally used to grind wheat to make flour, to give life and sustenance, also used to weigh someone down, make them so heavy, they sink to the abyss. And are no more. Gone.

PSALMS — A Tree In The Desert

It was Martin Luther, I think, who saw the Psalms as the prayers of Christ. That’s one way of looking at them. They are, at least, a nice collection of meditations on the condition of God’s people, on God’s promises, and where those two things meet.

I’ve not read the psalms as thoroughly as I should have. I am trying to correct that, and include some of my musings on the psalms, as I contemplate, here. (This may, or may not, be in any kind of order.)

So, Psalm 1.

1 Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

If I am supposed to be that man, then clearly I am not blessed. Nor particularly happy, which is what this word — אָשַׁר — means. I don’t walk on the path (“stand in the way” could also mean blocking here, but the Hebrew speaks of going the same path that sinners do here) of sinners, nor sit at the seat of scoffers, but I suppose I might be called a one-man parade of wickedness, sin, and scoffing. I mean, I suppose it depends upon who you ask.

And I’m not sure I delight in the teaching of the Lord (בְּתוֹרַ֥ת יְהוָ֗ה) except maybe to see where it deviates from the actual story of scripture. I certainly don’t meditate on on it day and night.

I think this describes Jesus. He did not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or travel the paths of the sinners, or sit at the seat of the scoffers. He delighted in the teaching of the Lord, and he seem to think about that teaching a lot. Even when he wasn’t teaching himself.

And yet, Jesus did kind of walk in the counsel of the wicked, and the paths of sinners, and even sat in the seat of scoffers. I think of his arrest, his trial, his long walk to Golgotha. He walked the path of a sinner, as a sinner, but not a sinner. He walked in the counsel of the wicked, but not as one doing wickedness himself. And he sat in the seat of scoffers, but not to scoff. He was scoffed, berated, abused, and tortured. All the way to his death he was mocked and scoffed at — “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Mark 15:29-30)

And so yes, Jesus. Blessed.

3 He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.

I love the desert. I love the patches of life that sprout up out of nowhere in a hot, dry, inhospitable land. In places where the rains aren’t regular, tall trees can only really grown where there is regular water, from a spring, or a river fed regularly by snowmelt or rain or springs somewhere else.

The man who avoids the ways of sinners, scoffers, and the wicked, who meditates on the teaching of God, is just such a tree. In a place of scarcity, that path and that teaching are abundance, the kind of abundance that guarantees regular blossoms — and not just the flowers that appear after a heavy downpour or a monsoon, and disappear just as soon as the water is gone — and much fruit. With predictable certainty.

This is Jesus, complete even with crucifixion imagery (thanks to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, in which the man put to death by hanging on a tree — עֵץ, the word in Hebrew is the same in both passages — is “cursed by God” and his death “defiles the land”), who becomes the cross, and in becoming that cross, bears abundant fruit of new life. This death is God’s bearing fruit, yielding abundantly, it is God’s prosperity for the world.

4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

The wicked, however, are temporary. There are here, and then gone. The waste from the harvest.

And, in fact, the wicked will not even stand (לֹא־יָקֻ֣מוּ) when the time of judgment comes. There are several images that come to my mind with this. First, the wicked will simply be blown away with the judgement comes (whatever that is). All that remain standing will be the righteous — those who do what the first two-thirds of this psalm suggest.

Second, if we speak of judgment in terms a very specific event (Daniel 12) with as resurrection, the use of the verb קוּם “to stand” may be a way to refer to the resurrection (it is in the Qur’an). Thus, the wicked are not resurrected on the judgment (מִּשְׁפָּ֑ט) but simply perish. They are ushered into non-existence.

But I think, again, of Christ. He stands at the judgment. He is the resurrection. The rest of us, like chaff, are blown away. We do not stand. We have nothing to stand upon. Our ways perish.

All we have is him who is righteous, who is happy and blessed contemplating the teaching of God. He is our path, he is our way, he is our seat in the company of those who sing praises. He is our abundance.

He is our righteousness. Our blessedness. And our life.

SERMON — Be at Peace With One Another

Lectionary 26 / 18th Sunday After Pentecost 2015

– Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
– Psalm 19:7-14
– James 5:13-20
– Mark 9:38-50

I have to be honest with you, I find today’s gospel reading to be more than a little troubling.

Because I always take Jesus very seriously when he tells us — as individual believers and as the whole church — to do something. And I always begin by considering: suppose Jesus really means what he says.

“And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to gahenna, to the unquenchable fire.”

I look at that and think: what if Jesus really means it?

Because these hands … they make me sin. A lot.

Sometimes we take Jesus at his absolute word, and sometimes we like to say, “well, he really didn’t mean *that*.” As Lutherans, we take very seriously when Jesus told his disciples, in that upper room, “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” That’s very important to us, makes the Lord’s supper more than a memorial, makes the bread and the wine more than symbols, more than mere bread, and more than mere wine.

On the other hand, like most good Protestants, we talked our way out of what seems to be Jesus’ clear teaching on divorce, and we separate on a fairly regular basis what Jesus tells us God has joined together. We don’t that teaching as literally, or even as seriously, as Catholics do, for example.

I don’t take this teaching literally — it defies all common sense. (Though maybe it is supposed to.) Most likely none of you do either. I stand before you upon two feet, hold up two hands, and gaze out at you with two eyes. I’ve cut nothing off and I plucked nothing out. And it’s not because I’m not a sinner. And I see that most of you are similarly endowed. And it’s not because you are any more saintly than I am.

But I always ask myself — what if Jesus meant exactly what he said?

Jesus speaks here of gehenna, a place of burning, associated with the coming judgment against Jerusalem. For much of his ministry, especially as he made his way closer to Jerusalem, Jesus warns his people, warns whoever will listen, of that coming judgment, a judgment which will see the city of David reduced to rubble and which will scatter the faithful people of God. Like the prophet Jeremiah, who long before called the residents of Jerusalem surrounded by the armies of Babylon to surrender, to run, because defeat was imminent and only those who fled would save their lives, Jesus is also telling his disciples to flee. To run. To be nowhere near Jerusalem when the armies of Rome show up to take the city apart stone by stone.

Which they did.

And so while Jesus may very well mean what he says here literally, I think he is more saying — if something you do, or even something you are, keeps you so wrapped up in sin that you don’t have the strength, the courage, or even the awareness, to get ready and flee the coming judgment, then you need to do something drastic — cut off your own hand! — to refocus yourself and remind yourself of what’s important. And what’s coming. Because only those who pay attention, only those who stay awake, will save themselves.

Now, I’m not the kind of preacher who will tell you that judgement is coming for *us*, at least the kind of judgment that comes attached to Roman legions besieging and laying waste to the City of David. That’s not my gift. It may very well be coming, though after a lifetime of living with “rapture” and “second coming” warnings, I tend not to put much faith in such predictions. But we still may very well need to be alive, awake, and aware, and even ready to do something drastic to our own bodies in order to save our lives and our souls.

Because as Jesus tells his disciples a later in Mark’s gospel: “Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.”

Even as Jesus warns us, he also tells us — do not be afraid. And in the midst of telling us today that we may need to hack bits of ourselves off to flee the coming judgement, he also says — be at peace with one another.

Be at peace with one another.

Again, this is no small reminder. At the beginning of this passage, some disciples led by John come Jesus bragging that “we saw someone casting out demons in your name but we tried to make stop because he was not one of us.” Something similar happens to Moses, when Joshua sees the two unapproved elders prophesying and demands of Moses, “Make them stop!”

Some group of people, not us, not approved, not part of the club or the team, are busy acting on behalf of God in ways they should not. I mean think of it — some other group of Jesus followers *we know nothing about!* Casting out demons. Who were they? What became of them?

See, we know what peace looks like. It’s a well ordered world. It’s a nicely structured church. It’s a neat and well-groomed family. It’s a place for everyone and everyone in their place. The disciples of Jesus see themselves as the proper collection of insiders, those who belong, who are all properly vetted and approved and licensed to do just the work they’ve been called to do. When we, who belong, are gathered together, well, that’s peaceful. It’s easy — well, okay, easier — to be at peace with each other when we all are part of the same team, the same club, the same group. And we’re all headed together in the same direction.

It’s a world in which no one has to flee anything, much less cut off their foot to save themselves.

But Jesus tells us to be at peace with each other in a messy, disordered, and violent world. One in which judgment is coming. One in which we might have to flee.

It’s the presence of Christ in our midst that makes this peace possible. Because he is peace, peace in a troubled, chaotic, violent world. He is hope in anxious and desperate world. He is life in a dead world. He can tell us, “be at peace with one another” not only because he has shown us us peace, but because he is peace. He shows us what it is to live abundantly in the face of death.

James, at the end of his letter, gives us some idea of what peace means for us. Forgive each other, confess our sins to each other, pray for another, anoint one another, and if someone has wandered away from the truth, bring them back. “Because whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins,” James writes.

And might even keep his sinful hand. Or eye.

That, brothers and sisters, is how we stay awake, and alert, and ready, not knowing the day or the hour of whatever judgment is be coming. We live in peace with each other, we pray for each other, we care for each other and lift each other up. We let God worry about the order of the world, we let others he has called do the work God has called them to — whatever it might be — we let the powers and principalities do what they will and we get down to the work we know we are called to do — to love God, to love each other, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

That, sisters and brothers, is what Jesus wants when he tells us, “Be at peace with one another.”

And I’m pretty sure that he really, really means it.

Preaching!

For any and all who might be interested, and are in the Albany, New York, area (or driving distance), I will be preaching this Sunday, September 27, at Emanuel / St. John Lutheran Church in Hudson, New York. If you like what you read here, or just find it vaguely interesting, come on out. I’d love to meet you, and honestly, I’d love to preach the gospel to you.

Jesus Can Take It

Recently, I had a conversation with a pastor about a possible pastoral position in a small, urban church looking to do mission outreach. There was a lot to like about the prospect, but my conversation with them also convinced me to stop looking for ministry calls, or at least stop answering church adverts.

Mostly, I have learned that the churches placing adverts on indeed.com (or elsewhere) are likely to be much more theologically and doctrinally conservative than I am. And I’m okay with that. A number of them are Baptist in orientation, which is a church culture I’m not familiar with (and I know how important culture is to how we do church, and to doing it successfully, or failing at it miserably), and so it’s just as well they have warned me off. I’m much more “catholic” in my understanding both of church and worship. All of these are importance concerns, and ones I cannot fault anyone about.

But the pastor also expressed some concerns about this short blog entry I posted some time ago (caution, the language and sentiment is pretty foul):

Hello all. I have an essay mostly completed that I started Saturday. But it is not finished, and I just don’t feel like finishing it right now. I just noticed someone who started seminary after me got approved, called, ordained, and has just bought a house. Yet another person moved along smoothly and happily in the process.

And here I am — unemployed, impoverished, and nigh near homeless.

I blame Jesus. Truly. I hate Jesus right now. I hate the fact that Jesus called me to follow him, gave me no real choice, set me in the midst of insular, skittish, easily frightened people who did not know what to do with me and judged me harshly — who condemned me — for it. I don’t want to follow Jesus anymore. I hate Jesus. I hate this call. I hate the gospel. I almost think the gospel itself is a lie. And if not a lie, at least a great cosmic joke, a way for God to get a good giggle at the expense of pathetic losers like me. “Ha! I’ll say you’re forgiven but I’ll also make it clear that being forgiven doesn’t really matter because no one will treat you like it!”

And clearly, no one who really matters can be bothered showing me anything remotely resembling grace.

I wish I could be done with all of this. I wish — I really, really, really wish Jesus would just stay the fuck dead. And leave me fuck alone.

I can understand why someone might have a concern about what I write here. It’s harsh, especially in our Jesus-loving culture, to say something like “I hate Jesus.” That’s a statement of disbelief, or it begins a diatribe on why God doesn’t exist.

But at the same time, I do not understand why anyone would have a concern over that. Essentially, the pastor said such a sentiment suggested — especially if read all by itself, without looking at anything else I’ve ever written — I was not ready for a position of leadership.

And that … THAT I don’t understand.

Life is hard. Unpleasant. Sometimes unending suffering and misery. Frequently, our lives feel pointless, empty, and without meaning. Eventually, we all die, some of us slowly and painfully. We have to, as pastors, as followers of the crucified and risen Jesus, be able to look into the face of the suffering of the world, of its misery, its violence, its seeming inherent meaninglessness, and hold out hope. Not platitutdes, but real hope.

A couple of examples. I have been doing an online ministry with teenagers — it began by responding to posts on an app called Whisper — that has allowed me to walk with and be present for some amazing but incredibly troubled young people.

One young woman, just barely a teenager, had been regularly and repeatedly abused by a foster family. After escaping from that situation, she was abducted and held captive for a little more than 48 hours before being found by the police and freed. (It is, of course, a great deal more complex than this, but I don’t want to reveal too much.) I have gotten to know this young woman a bit, and she has a remarkable faith. But after being freed, even she asked:

Why didn’t God protect me?

Now, I was able to engage her in a bit of ocnversation, because I knew she had a faith. I don’t know why God didn’t keep you safe from harm, I said, but Jesus was there, suffering with you. Because that’s what Jesus does — he suffers with us. She eventually did decide that God did protect her, that God was there, with her. And that was good.

Another young woman, not yet 18, who has been the recipient of much violence and abuse in her life, just lost her baby, who had gotten sick with pneumonia and was in the hospital. The conversation that night was a stream of broken hearts and crying, of wailing and the metaphorical ripping of clothes, of profanity and pain and hopelessness. This young woman does not believe, and when I asked if I could pray, she wailed:

THERE IS NO GOD!

And I wasn’t going to argue with her. I was going to sit, in silence, with her, holding her sorrow and her anger and her despair. Because silence sometimes is all we have. And silence, sometimes, is all we need.

I’ve been told a lot, mainly by people who have been wounded by the church, that I have a very grown up faith. I do not seek answers, meaning, or even much solace in biblical platitudes. Yes, God has got it, and I have a future, and the Lord knows his plans for me and my life, knew me even before I was born, and Jesus is the truth and the truth has set me free.

But I also know we live in a world of real pain, of real sorrow, of real doubt, of real, gripping, life-numbing despair. “My God, My God, why have you foresaken me!” Jesus says from the cross, feeling that very human sense of despair and abandonment, a feeling that must be real or the whole crucifixion, including Jesus’ death, is all an absurd game is which nothing is really risked and therefore nothing is really gained.

He had to wonder whether God would really raise him, he had to not know how it would end, he had live with the fear that maybe death really is the final answer we think it is. Jesus, on some very important and very real level, had to not know.

Like we don’t know.

So, okay, maybe I’m not leadership material if church leaders need to have happy faces, perfect faith, and all the answers. If the expectation someone will look to me to see if life is going to be okay, well, my life isn’t quite the best example of God materially blessing one’s faithfulness. I wouldn’t, at 48, be sleeping on a mattress on a floor in someone else’s apartment if God really did materially bless everyone’s faithfulness. I’d really and truly be the failure I’m sometimes convinced I am.

I have found, however, that too many pastors do not know what to do with such despair, such pain, such suffering, and even such hopelessness. (Mostly from personal experience, sad to say.) This is what the happy face gets us — clergy who cannot handle the suffering of the world, who retreat to the nonsense of piety and lectures on doctrine because they cannot look upon that suffering without flinching.

Without doubting.

I have never doubted. Even the words of that blog entry — I wish Jesus would stay dead — betrays my real understanding. Because I know he isn’t. Because I do trust in the resurrection of Christ. That’s my hope. It is the only hope I know is true. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. I know this to be true. And whatever happens to me in life, I know that Jesus rose from the dead, and in him, I shall rise too. We are already dead, and therefore, already risen to new life. I know I’m part of that, in baptism, in my call to follow and feed sheep.

Even if that leads me … well, nowhere.

That feeding sometimes includes letting people know faith is tough, painful, and in this world, sometimes doesn’t end well. But Jesus can take our anger, our pain, our rage, even our lack of faith. As Shusako Endo wrote in his novel Silence, about Christians in Japan, when a Portuguese priest refuses to walk upon an icon of Christ, Jesus tells the priest:

“Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

Jesus can take it. Which means we can too.

Enough to Eat and Then Some…

I’m currently working on a sermon for this coming Sunday (yes! I’m preaching!), and the Revised Common Lectionary has, as it’s Old Testament reading, portions of Numbers 11:4–29. The reading itself largely focuses on the appointing of the seventy elders of Israel to help Moses administer justice and govern Israel. The Spirit of the Lord comes to rest on the tent where the elders are gathered, and the seventy approved elders prophesy.

But two Israelites — Eldad and Medad — who are not on the list, and not in the tent, suddenly find themselves prophesying too. Joshua complains — “My lord, make them stop!” And Moses shows some magnanimity. After all, he knows God better than everyone in this story. “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone in Israel could prophesy.” So, Eldad and Medad join the club. Even though they haven’t been “approved.”

Interesting, that.

In the midst of this reading, and left out of the RCL text (because the focus of these readings is on the Spirit of God going farther and wider than we expect or even want), are the details of Israel’s grumbling. This all begins with Israel thing and complain that the food in the wilderness — manna from heaven collected every morning save on the sabbath — lack variety. It isn’t as tasty as what they had in Egypt.

Because if it isn’t one thing, it is another with God’s people.

It’s at this point both God and Moses both get angry — God with Israel and Moses with God. “What did I do to deserve being saddled with this people? Can I do this alone?” Moses asks.

And God plots a plot to satisfy the “strong cravings” (Num 11:4) of some of the “rabble” of Israel. And the passages hints at more than just a little anger and even vengeance in God’s plan:

18 And say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat, for you have wept in the hearing of the Lord, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.” Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. 19 You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, 20 but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”’” 21 But Moses said, “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot, and you have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month! ’ 22 Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?” 23 And the Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not. (Numbers 11:18–23 ESV)

One of my theories about the Book of Numbers — where God is at God’s absolute worst, always angry, never particularly happy with Israel, and always visiting some kind of plague or disaster in a fit of pique upon Israel — is that God and Israel are busy working out their relationship here. (This theory is not explicit in scripture itself, but it is how I read the torah.)

God has done this marvelous thing, yanking Israel out of Egypt after hearing their suffering and remembering his promises, and discovers rather late that Israel isn’t particularly grateful or even all that happy about its liberation. They whine. They complain. They make an idol from their golden jewelry and madly dance around while Moses is busy up on the mountain receiving the teaching, thinking he may never come back again. After that, Israel’s God is really, really, really angry at Israel. He even has to be talked out of annihilating Israel and starting over again with the descendants of Moses (Exodus 32) when Moses tells him that he will look bad in front of the Egyptians and everybody.

But God is not happy. And Numbers is a reflection of that deep unhappiness. Breathe wrong in the presence of God, and BAM! You are smoted deader than a drowned Egyptian Pharaoh.

In effect, God has to learn how to be God. Not the God of all creation, which he has been since the beginning and can do without much thought, but the God of a very specific people — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God has to learn who we are, and how to deal with us. God has to learn how to have a relationship with us, what it means to be in a relationship with us. (Some call this “process theology,” but I think it’s just a very faithful reading of the Bible.) And slowly, God begins to realize that the people he has called are not really capable of very much, certainly not the kind of faithfulness he’d like to see from his rescued and redeemed people.

From Sinai to Calvary, God slowly surrenders to this people he has called. He surrenders his assumptions, he surrenders his expectations, and he even completely surrenders his power to this ungrateful, misguided, and idolatrous people. In this, God’s wrath is slowly transformed into a self-giving love that willingly lives and dies with us, convicting us of our sin far more forcefully than any angry judgment ever could.

This is what is means to be Israel, to have struggled with God and prevailed. Not because we’re stronger than God, but because God has utterly surrendered to us, thrown the contest in our favor.

Getting back to the reading, the encounter between Moses and God in Numbers 11 brings to mind, at least for me, the feeding miracles of the Gospels.

There are some significant similarities. If we look at the feeding miracles in Mark 6:30–44 and 8:1–10 (because this is the year of Mark for the RCL), we see both are prompted by the need of the people who have gathered and followed Jesus and his disciples into desolate places, much like Israel wandering in the wilderness. In Mark 6, the disciples want the crowd sent away so they can forage, or buy food, for themselves, something similar to Israel’s complaining about the lack of good food, the food they had back in Egypt, on their wanderings.

In all three instances, the disciples — like Moses — wonder at the logistics of feeding so many people in such a desolate place. “Where will we find the money?” they ask in Mark 6. And because they didn’t get it the first time, they ask again in Mark 8, “How can we do this in a desolate place without bread?” Moses asked God if flocks and herds would be slaughtered, or all the fish of the sea be caught to feed God’s miserable people in the wilderness.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.” (Numbers 11:23 ESV)

And just as in the Gospels, it comes to pass — quail are brought on the wind, so many quail that Israel has piles and piles of meat to eat. They have a feast, and God follows it all up … with a “very great plague.” (Num 11:33)

It’s an abundance that God gives Israel, quail meat running out of Israel’s nose, more meat than even whining Israel knows what to do with. But it’s a wrathful, angry, wasteful abundance, an abundance given in spite, to show the people who God is.

And that’s the difference with the Gospel feedings. Yes, there is a similar overflowing abundance. In Mark 6, the disciples show Jesus five loaves and bread and two fish, and twelve whole baskets of leftovers remain after feeding five thousand men. (Mark 6:43–44) In Mark 8, seven baskets of broken pieces are collected. (Mark 8:8)

But most importantly, the people are fed out of a sense of compassion (Mark 6:34 and 8:2), and not spite or anger. They don’t complain about being hungry and thirsty, not the way Israel did in the wilderness, at least we don’t have them complaining in scripture. This is not about God and the people so much as it is about Jesus and the disciples. “See what you can do when you trust me and have me in your midst?” In both Mark 6 and Mark 8, Jesus asks his disciples, “How many loaves do you have?” Unlike Moses, who wondered where sheep and fish might come from — because there was none on hand — the disciples have a little bit of bread (and fish, in Mark 6), which Jesus blesses, breaks, and then gives to his disciples to then give to the people.

“And they all ate and were satisfied,” (Mark 6:42 and Mark 8:8) something Israel is not as God piles meat before them and then sickens them. Neither God nor Israel is much satisfied with quail coming out their noses.

But God and Israel are satisfied with bread and fish.

I think this is how God has finally learned to deal with us. To have us take a little of what we have, to bless it knowing that Jesus is still in our midst (always in our midst), and then pass it around. All are fed. And satisfied. This is the miracle. Not meat magically appearing from nowhere, falling upon us like rain, filling us and then some until we are sick of it and can eat no more.

Christian Habits 

Rod Dreher notes something very interesting today over at The American Conservative as he contemplates something his priest, Father Matthew — who sounds like an amazing pastor based on what Dreher wrote about him in the Dante book — preached last Sunday:

Yesterday in church, Father Matthew in his sermon made a comment that struck me as highly relevant to a rationale for the Benedict Option. He was talking about the risks of evangelizing when we have not been properly discipled. Yes, we are called to share our faith with the world, he said, “But you can’t share what you don’t have.”

What he meant was that you can talk about the Christian faith all you want to, but if you don’t fully understand it, and haven’t been to some meaningful degree shaped by it, you should consider whether or not you’re really sharing the faith at all. He is an Orthodox priest talking to an Orthodox congregation, and what he specifically meant, I think, is that Orthodox Christianity can’t be reduced to a formula you can print on a pamphlet. It is not only a set of beliefs, but a set of practices. Becoming more deeply Orthodox is less a matter of accepting the right beliefs and deepening your understanding of them (which is important) and more about living the faith and allowing its regular practice to change your heart.

It’s this set of essential practices, I think, that the American church has forgotten, when it doesn’t — in my words — know what to do with converts.

Something I’ve concluded — American Christians do not really know how to welcome converts. None of them do. They do not know how to to do the work of showing people how to live as Christians. … the church is so tied to culture in this country, and it has no idea what to do with outsiders and non-conformists. The American church still expects the culture to do almost all of the heavy lifting, still thinks the skills that make someone a good citizen ought to make them a good christian too.

I think for too many American Christians, Christ is something one slips over an otherwise properly formed life, like a poncho. This following Jesus is an add-on for most, I think, a veneer or a sheen or an overlay that just is supposed to fit an otherwise well-adjusted and properly lived bourgeois life.

We’ve forgotten that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is supposed to form and shape us, and the historic practices of the church — daily prayer, a church calendar, liturgy, the life stories of Jesus told over and over and over again, along with the stories and laments and celebrations of Israel in which Christ’s life is so thoroughly embedded it cannot be comprehended without. Habits. Lives lived in, with, and under this story of an incarnate, suffering, crucified, and risen Lord.

Instead, we’ve boiled it all down to set of ideas that can allegedly be grasped and understood, and then held apart, in a bubble, as we go about our days habituated to things that aren’t Jesus and aren’t his church. Moderns are good at reducing things to mere ideas. It’s one of the hallmarks of modernity. But we forget that “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” (John 8:32 ESV) isn’t said about a fact, or a notion, but a person — God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ.

How we are supposed to live is the work of habits, of memorizing, of doing, repeatedly, over and over again. I’ve always appreciated that Orthodox worship has one liturgy (well, two, an ordinary form and a long one), so it is something that can be learned and repeated by memory. (By contrast, the latest ELCA hymnal has ten settings for holy communion — TEN! — and while it’s nice someone is thinking of the diversity in the church, our infatuation with novelty means no one can effectively memorize much of it.) This is why I love the simplicity of the Catholic mass. I always appreciated that everything Muslims did in worship — including the recitation of the Qur’an — was done by memory. It was a simplicity rich with the forming of habits. I hate worship bulletins and overhead projectors and wish our hymnals were as simple as my Swedish great-grandmother Sophia’s, a tiny, bound collection of words in which the tune name was printed at the end of hymn in lieu of musical notes. Because how many tunes were there, anyway?

(She also had her own hymnal, which she brought with her to church.)

I’m lousy at the habits part, and I lack the self-discipline to do that. I want to be good at cultivating habits, but I need a community of people encouraging me, disciplining me, discipling me. I was better as a Muslim, but then Muslims have preserved more of their habits — especially communal prayer that is supposed to break into and interrupt secular time. But even Muslims are losing their habits (when I was in Jeddah, I noticed that lots of Saudi men would just sit, not praying, during prayer times), their practices, and for many, Islam is the same kind of veneer affectation it is for many American Christians.

Or it is simply an ideology which promises all things and justifies all things.