ADVENT 4 / We Were Gathered

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.

And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:31 ESV)

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be gathered?

Memory dims and fade, but I still remember intensely that beautiful Tuesday morning in September, 2001, when the ordinary gave way to the extraordinary, when death rained from the sky, when men and women tumbled to their deaths, when smoke turned the sun to blood and toxic dust filled the air.

We the elect, those unfortunate enough to have been there that day, were gathered, a mob of humanity, under giant towers slated for destruction, watching, helpless, while people died.

Nameless. Faceless. Placeless. No distinction between us mattered. Unable to protect. Unable to be protected. All equal as we stared at the end of the world.

Is it a good thing to hear the trumpet, to feel the wind, to know that heaven is being folded up and we are, all of us, being brought to one place? To face death knowing we can do nothing? The we have done absolutely nothing?

Is it a good thing, in the face of death, to hear the voice of Jesus speak: “My love is all that matters.”? To know that as the world falls down around you, something bigger is present, and has spoken, and means it?

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be gathered?

ADVENT 3 / Never Again

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.

I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Genesis 9:15 ESV)

Never again.

Waters will destroy. Will drown. Will flood. But never again will waters destroy all flesh. God has promised. Not an end to suffering, or danger, or sorrow, or even the threat. Waters will always loom as danger, even as they give life.

But the whole world, all at once … is safe.

This is little comfort to those who live in places where it can flood, where the waters are not so calm, where their power is always just threatening to break banks and levies and sweep away all in front of them.

Or where the lack of water dries and parches and kills.

But the whole world is safe. We live in the midst of potential cataclysm every day, in the shadow of death. But not all of us and not all at once. We have that promise from God.

ADVENT 2 / Too Much, Not Enough, Nothing at All (Genesis 8:13)

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.

In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth. And Noah removed the covering of the ark and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry. (Genesis 8:13 ESV)

God flooded the whole world. Killed everything. Because of sin. Of human sinfulness. God regretted the creation of humanity, and swore to wipe us out and start all over again.

Start all over again.

There was so much water. Too much. Water everywhere. Covering the mountains. Covering the earth. Water to drown.

And then … not so much.

In rage, and anger, and despair, God laid waste to the world. God saved a remnant, swore to begin again. It didn’t work much better the second time around. God smelled Noah’s first burnt offering and remembered, “Man is sinful to his very core. I’m not cursing the earth or killing everything that lives again because of him.”

Never again.

So following the deluge, following the destruction, following the fear and the uncertainty, following our huddling together in a tiny ark for protection, following what was probably the bickering and fighting of being cooped up in too-close quarters with family we’ve likely grown to despise as much as we love, we see and touch and feel the ground again.

We are safe.

But it took a deluge, took too much water, took a flood, to get us here. And we are not done. We are saved, delivered, redeemed, but we are not changed. We know things now — about God, about ourselves — that we didn’t know before, and that has altered us, but we are no different. We are still sinful men and women.

And the God who saved us … knows that.

ADVENT 1 / Rend (Matthew 24-44)

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion (also known as #FuckThisShit, because sometimes polite language doesn’t cut it) at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.

Advent is a season of waiting and expectation. But it’s not necessarily a polite waiting. Because we’re not waiting in an easy place. We are conquered people. We have been brutalized and broken and exiled. We’ve been slapped and whipped and beaten, humiliated, made to play and sing and dance, by those who do these things without conscience or pity.

They have very little sympathy or compassion for their own. We can expect next to nothing from them.

But we also speak the truth. We are not mere unfortunates, not simple victims of circumstance. We are here because of our unfaithfulness, because of the unfaithfulness of our ancestors, who themselves enslaved and brutalized, who themselves whipped and beat and took perverse pleasure in the subjugation of those who were other. Who set things into motion we can hardly understand, only barely repent of and cannot even begin to correct or repair. We are here because we, as a people, have followed gods that could not redeem or save us. We have sought protection in physical power, in wealth, in ideas, in comfort, ease, and good order. In anything but the God who delivered us from Egypt.

We bear our sin. We bear the consequences of sins that are not ours.

So we wait. For deliverance. For vengeance. Because when God acts — against Pharaoh, again the Philistines, against Babylon — vengeance and deliverance are the same things. We have been promised. We have tasted and seen that God is great. Our ancestors, faithless as they were, also walked dry shod across the sea, over the river, and back to homes after a long exile. They beheld an empty tomb. And believed.

We have been promised. We wait.

Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matthew 24:44 ESV)

I don’t know what I am waiting for anymore. Once, I was waiting for a convoluted church process to approve me for pastoral ministry, and then send me on my way to the work I had been called to do. I had big dreams. Ambitions. I wrote a book, I’m a pretty fair writer and singer of songs. All of that was going to be the foundation for for a nice, substantial, comfortable career.

But that was not to be. None of it. In fact, so much of what I waited for in the last ten years has simply crumbled or evaporated in my hands. I have almost nothing to show for myself.

I have given up waiting for anything. Most days I have no hope anymore. So little music in my heart that the callouses on my left hand have slowly worn off. I have a job, my first real job in 10 years, and that’s something, though accounting for inflation, I’m making less now than I did doing the same work 20 years ago.

But … I don’t know what I’m waiting for anymore. I have no dreams. No hopes. I aspire to nothing. I’m not even sure what the promise of God means to me anymore.

So, what does it mean to be ready … if I have no idea what I’m waiting for? If I have no idea what deliverance, or salvation, or redemption — no idea what any of it means.

And how can I be ready at any hour … when I’m not even sure exactly what it is I’m waiting for?

The Brutality That Was Rome

Keith Hopkins over at History Today tells us why Christians who try to frame the limits of ethical acts (particularly nonviolence) through the question, “But what about Hitler?”, really need to remember how essential and foundational were cruelty, brutality, and violence to the Greco-Roman world and Roman civic and social order:

Why did Romans popularise fights to the death between armed gladiators? Why did they encourage the public slaughter of unarmed criminals? What was it which transformed men who were timid and peaceable enough in private, as Tertullian put it, and made them shout gleefully for the merciless destruction of their fellow men? Part of the answer may lie in the simple development of a tradition, which fed on itself and its own success. Men liked blood and cried out for more. Part of the answer may also lie in the social psychology of the crowd, which relieved individuals of responsibility for their actions, and in the psychological mechanisms by which some spectators identified more easily with the victory of the aggressor than with the sufferings of the vanquished. Slavery and the steep stratification of society must also have contributed. Slaves were at the mercy of their owners. Those who were destroyed for public edification and entertainment were considered worthless, as non-persons; or, like Christian martyrs, they were considered social outcasts, and tortured as one Christian martyr put it ‘as if we no longer existed’. The brutalisation of the spectators fed on the dehumanisation of the victims.

Rome was a cruel society. Brutality was built into its culture in private life, as well as in public shows. The tone was set by military discipline and by slavery. [Emphasis mine] The state had no legal monopoly of capital punishment until the second century AD. Before then, a master could crucify his slaves publicly if he wished. Seneca recorded from his own observations the various ways in which crucifixions were carried out, in order to increase pain. At private dinner-parties, rich Romans regularly presented two or three pairs of gladiators: ‘when they have finished dining and are filled with drink’, wrote a critic in the time of Augustus, ‘they call in the gladiators. As soon as one has his throat cut, the diners applaud with delight’. It is worth stressing that we are dealing here not with individual sadistic psycho-pathology, but with a deep cultural difference. Roman commitment to cruelty presents us with a cultural gap which it is difficult to cross.

Popular gladiatorial shows were a by-product of war, discipline and death. For centuries, Rome had been devoted to war and to the mass participation of citizens in battle. They won their huge empire by discipline and control. Public executions were a gruesome reminder to non-combatants, citizens, subjects and slaves, that vengeance would be exacted if they rebelled or betrayed their country. The arena provided a living enactment of the hell portrayed by Christian preachers. Public punishment ritually re-established the moral and political order. The power of the state was dramatically reconfirmed.

When long-term peace came to the heartlands of the empire, after 31 BC, militaristic traditions were preserved at Rome in the domesticated battlefield of the amphitheatre. War had been converted into a game, a drama repeatedly replayed, of cruelty, violence, blood and death. But order still needed to be preserved. The fear of death still had to be assuaged by ritual. In a city as large as Rome, with a population of close on a million by the end of the last century BC, without an adequate police force, disorder always threatened.

Slavery and military disciplines. Hopkins notes that decimation — the choosing by lots to kill one of every ten soldiers in a disobedient or cowardly military unit — was a punishment the Romans inflicted upon themselves. (Specifically, the soldiers left unselected did the killing of their former mates.) “When Romans were so unmerciful to each other, what mercy could prisoners of war expect?” he asks. And he’s correct.


The Nazi Final Solution may have been the logical outcome of party ideology, but it was primarily the product of total war, the brutal and bloody fighting in the east, where lawlessness and desperation made possible (and maybe even necessary) the methodical extermination of human beings on an industrial scale. But the Final Solution lasted only a few years; the Romans managed their brutality and killing for centuries.

They were very, very, very good at it.

So when we consider the Beatitudes, Jesus isn’t just talking about rude and obnoxious and impolite people, or mere sinners — he’s also talking about conquerors and occupiers who don’t even hold the lives of their fellow Romans and soldiers in high regard. Beating and enslaving and killing is easy for them. It’s sport, politics, and public devotion all wrapped into one. And these are the people we are commanded to “turn the other cheek” to and go a second mile when compelled to walk one.

These are the enemies and the persecutors Jesus calls us to love.

The Place I’ve Always Wanted to Be

George Weigel over at First Things has a short essay on the 50th anniversary of A Man For All Seasons, the Oscar-winning biopic of Sir Thomas Moore. It was a hugely successful film, and an odd one, given the tenor of the late 1960s, but Weigel notes it was author Robert Bolt’s decision to portray Moore as an “existential hero” that made the movie work in its time.

Moore, however, was not such a man. He was not sacrificing himself so that he could be honest to himself. Rather, Weigel says, Moore was sacrificing himself to an external truth. He was “a Catholic willing to die” for truth and love.

Which is something very different from the kind of existential heroism that is the theme of much of modern literature.

Then Wiegel writes this:

There was something worthy and inspiring about certain aspects of existentialism: not the soured existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, which quickly decomposed into nihilism, but the heroic existentialism of a Camus, who could not abide the anti-clerical Catholic progressives of his day and who sought a world in which we could be, as he put it, “neither victims nor executioners.” But it was Sartrean existentialism that won the day, at least insofar as one can trace a line from Sartre to contemporary narcissism, displayed in everything from temper tantrums on university campuses by over-privileged and under-educated barbarians to voters across the Western world who seek relief from their grievances—some quite legitimate—in adherence to some pretty dreadful characters.

“Neither victims nor executioners.” This is where I have always wanted to be. This is where my early reading of Solzhenitsyn drove me to, a place where one lives where one is neither a victim or an executioner, not part of the messy world in which we live, as one who neither suffers nor inflicts suffering. Not invested in the things people make. It’s an easy place for me to want to be, since I’ve always been an outsider, a malcontent, and a misfit, someone who has never belonged much of anywhere. And never much wanted to belong anywhere.

Well, the church — the church is the first place I feel like I could without reservation belong. But the people in the church … don’t want me. And won’t make room for me.

Being a reporter has always felt comfortable, at least from the standpoint of being able to be a professional spectator. Someone who is not invested in the outcomes of things, and who can find some kind of belonging. It wasn’t satisfying — one of the reasons I left journalism to begin with was reporting left so many inchoate spiritual desires unfulfilled — but it may be all I am granted.

Unlike Bolt’s Moore, I am a modern, striving more to be true to myself and my nature than any truth external to me. (Because like most moderns, I have found that fealty and devotion to external truth is, in the end, intolerant and brutal.) And that may be a great part of my problem. For a brief moment I realized who I would have been had I been raised in something resembling a caring society — a ukulele-playing pastor — but no one is having that. I will have to find some contentment, some meaning, and some belonging, in what I can be. In what I am allowed to be.

I do want to devote myself to the truth — that Jesus Christ is Lord — and to love in a way greater than our casual or even professional Protestantism allows. I have always wanted that, and I have never known how to. In my call to seminary and ministry, I thought for a while it was possible for me to live like this. And the church, such as Protestantism is made right now, won’t let me. So am I stuck, almost exactly where I was in the summer of 2001, not sure where to go or what to do.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Because I know exactly what I am called to do and be. And no one will let me. No one wants me. I don’t fit. I thought I might, but the truth is, I don’t fit. I never have, and I never will. Learning to live in this … that will be the task for the rest of my life, I suspect.

JUDGES And So It Begins

A reading from Judges, the third chapter.

7 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. 8 Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia. And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. 9 But when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. 10 The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the Lord gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. 11 So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died. (Judges 3:7-11 ESV)

And here is Israel’s condition. Our condition. Israel has turned away from serving/worshiping עָבַד God, and has embraced the false gods of Canaan. Of its neighbors. Idolatry, serving and trusting and sacrificing to and telling stories about gods who have not saved Israel and cannot save Israel. This is Israel’s chief sin, its primary sin, the one for which the people of God will suffer conquest and exile — will be subjugated for time — time and again.

Othniel is of good character. He is an upstanding citizen, with a good pedigree. Caleb was one of the twelve scouts send to examine the promised land, and alone with Joshua, he was confident Israel could take the Canaanites. It makes sense someone like him would be the first “judge” שָׁפַּט (judge, lead, govern), the first one to redeem and deliver Israel, to defeat its enemies.

This establishes a pattern. Israel sins, and forgets God. Israel succumbs to sin — God gives Israel over not just to its sin but to foreigners, who conquer and rule it. They become the visible, tangible consequence of idolatry. Israel cries to God, God listens, and raises up a savior, who then fights for Israel, defeats its enemies, and there is “rest” for a time.

For a time. Until Israel forgets, and gives itself over to sin — again.

And God raises up a savior, to fight for Israel — again.

This is who Christ is. A redeemer, raised up not only to redeem the people from their sin, but also defeat their enemies. However, Jesus is no temporary savior. The rest he gives us is permanent. We do not need earthly champions anymore, our redemption is real and right now. Even if we do not see it, it is real. We live it. Right now. Even when we fail to trust God, when we turn for protection to those things which cannot save us, we are redeemed.

We cry out, and God hears our cries. But we are already saved.

Draining The Swamp

So, President-Elect Donald J. Trump, billionaire (he owns a mansion and a yacht), wants to drain the swamp of D.C. and Northern Virginia (I’m thinking the placeless Crystal City).

I think that particular phrase was used by some officials within the George W. Bush administration to describe what the invasion of Iraq was supposed to do — drain the “swamp” that is the Middle East of all of the terrible things that motivate Islamic extremism. Dictatorship, despair, war, a lack of economic opportunity. Toppling the government of Saddam Hussein was supposed to solve all of these problems.

It didn’t, of course. Neither did the Arab Spring.

Somewhere, maybe over at LRC, I wrote that while this was an interesting idea, Iraq was not the swamp we should be “draining” (as if this were simply an engineering problem to be solved by the Army Corps of Engineers). If we were really concerned about all of the things and places that gave birth to Revolutionary Islam, then the “swamp” we should be wading into was the muck of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

But we didn’t have the resources to tackle them, and the outcomes of that war, had we waged it, would have been far worse. All three countries had a total population of around 240 million in 2000, and occupying Pakistan alone would have been a fool’s errand which would have destroyed the the U.S. military and created tremendous new operating space for the revolutionaries.

So, if Trump takes on the real swamp that is D.C., he will likely get bogged down in it. The swamp … will swallow him whole and maybe even drown him.

More likely, though, he was go at the wrong swamp, claim it’s the right one, do a great deal of damage, and proclaim some kind of symbolic victory. Little of lasting value will be accomplished.

That won’t matter, of course. My guess is the incoming Trump regime will be at least as dank and fetid and disease infested as any swamp which has ever infested D.C. and Northern Virginia.

JUDGES That Israel Might Know War

A reading from the Book of Judges, the third chapter.

1 Now these are the nations that the Lord left, to test Israel by them, that is, all in Israel who had not experienced all the wars in Canaan. 2 It was only in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before. 3 These are the nations: the five lords of the Philistines and all the Canaanites and the Sidonians and the Hivites who lived on Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal-hermon as far as Lebo-hamath. 4 They were for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the Lord, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses. 5 So the people of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 6 And their daughters they took to themselves for wives, and their own daughters they gave to their sons, and they served their gods. (Judges 3:1–6 ESV)

Why might Israel need to know war? Why might God need to know whether Israel will do as it is commanded?

God already knows Israel won’t. This is settled. Judges begins with this failure. God knows Israel will fail, will not fight and not separate itself and will, instead, subjugate and copulate with the people of Canaan. (You likely cannot have one without the other.) And worship their gods.

So, is war good for Israel? War is inescapable. As Israel intertwines itself with the people whose land they are settling, they will also be subjugated by those people. The wars Israel will fight will no longer be for conquest, but for survival and liberation. They will need rescuing, redeeming. War will be the instrument of their (all-too-regular) redemption. And so the rest Israel was given briefly at the end of Joshua’s leadership will remain a dream, a distant dream.

In this, I am reminded of the expulsion of Eden, when Adam is expelled from the Garden and the ground cursed. He shall have to sweat and work for his bread from a ground that once gave plenty with little or no work. He shall fight thorns and thistles, and for what? For uncertain daily bread. Fighting a ground for his sustenance he shall be buried in when he dies.

Some days will be good. And some will not.

And so, Israel struggles. Mostly against itself. Mostly against its sin. Against the consequences of its sin. God will continue to fight for Israel — the people of God were no more abandoned than were Adam and Eve. But God does not alter their condition any. War will be their lot, their struggle, their fate. For both subjugation and liberation. We will win, and we will lose.

A day will come when Israel will no longer need to learn war — Isaiah 2:4 promises that day will come — but it is not today. Today, we learn to fight.

Because without our will to fight, God cannot be in our midst.

SERMON It May or May Not Be Okay, But I Have Hope

A reading from the Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 29:

1 These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: 4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:1–14 ESV)

I want to tell you things are going to be okay.

But I can’t. Because I don’t know if they are.

I don’t know what okay means with the election of Donald Trump. I know that many of my queer friends, many of my friends in mixed-race marriages with with mixed-race children, are terrified, and many with disabled kids are as well. They fear for the future, and rightly so. Because it isn’t just Trump himself, it’s many of the people he brings into office with him — Chris Christie, Rudi Giuliani, Newt Gingrich could only best be described as callous and indifferent — who are also short-tempered, petty, vindictive, and intolerant of dissent. Sheriff David Clarke, who may find himself tabbed to head a department like Homeland Security, has for months now called Black Lives Matter a “terrorist movement” and predicted a BLM alliance with the Islamic State to topple the U.S. Government.

And what do we do with terrorists? What has Trump said we should do with terrorists? Arrest them. Torture them. Kill them and their families.

These may just be words, but words mean something. Trump’s 2005 boast that he grabs women “by the pussy” has a terrifying resonance given the ministry I do. Words set actions into motion. We’ve had a little taste of what life in Trump’s America looks like, and I suspect Trump and his regime, if they are magnanimous at all in victory, won’t be for very long. We have every reason to believe his government will be a punitive, authoritarian one eager to arrest and brutalize and condemn people.

Alex Jones may yet see FEMA Camps at work.

So no, I have no idea if it will be okay. At best — at best — the American Greatness Trump supporters seek hearkens back to an era which did not welcome and did not include many of the people I love and care about. I have no idea how this will end, whether this will be a bumbling and incompetent government or merciless and brutal. I have no idea. None at all. There is no future to discern here1.

When God spoke through Jeremiah to the exiles of Israel, he didn’t promise them things would be okay either. Consider where Israel was. They had been invaded, subdued, Jerusalem the holy city besieged. Judah was defeated, conquered, and carried into exile, told by their captors to sing and dance and entertain them with their strange new stories. “By the waters of Babylon, there was sat down and wept, and we remembered Zion.” Zion was gone. Not just far away, but reduced to rubble.

There were prophets telling them “soon and very soon now,” that within two years God will break Babylon and the exiles will go home to live and rebuild. And to someone in a strange place, frightened, traumatized by war and conquest and dislocation, living admidst hostile captors and conquerors, that seems good news! Just hang on a few months, all will be reversed! We will be going home! Our defeat will be undone! We can hope again!

But God is having none of it. Because that is not what real hope looks like here.

Build houses and plant gardens, God says. Marry and have children, and give them in marriage. Seek the welfare of the city — this strange city, this foreign city, this enemy city, this home of your conquerors — where I have sent you into exile. Pray for it. It’s success will be your success.

You’re going to be here for a while, God tells exiled Israel, amidst your enemies and your conquerors. So build, plant, beget.

In face of hopelessness and fear, in the face of uncertainty, humiliation, and defeat, God’s command to us is: build, plant, beget.

This is what hope looks like. Not “hang in there, everything is going to be okay,” but: build, plant, beget.

This is not an easy hope. It is not a happy hope. It does not promise quiet, easy, untroubled lives. And it is given to people who will never live to see it realized. It is little different that the promises given to Abraham — descendants, a land of his own, and a blessing to the world — promises he never saw during his lifetime but took hold of tight and believed anyway (though he wasn’t always entirely faithful in that either). We, my sisters and brothers, may never leave this place, this exile, this Tel Aviv — Summertime Hill — that we have cobbled together on the banks of the Euphrates.

We may never see Zion again. We may die here. Our children may die here. And their children may die here too.

None of that matters. We still have hope. We are still called to build, and plant, and beget.

Because we know something else. Babylon is judged. God has promised we will be delivered. We will not be here forever. “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope,” God says. “I will bring you back to the place from which I have sent you into exile.”

Seventy years from now. A long fullness.

And so we wait. And live. In hope. We build, and plant, and beget.

Because Babylon has been judged, and she will fall. We have that promise too. Babylon has been judged, and been found wanting, a place of violence and brutality, of lecherous corruption, of immorality and debauchery. “So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence and will be found no more … And in her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who have been slain on the earth.” (Revelation 18:21b, 24)

Babylon has been judged. It has already happened, even as we weep in exile in its midst. Babylon has fallen, even though she stands tall and strong, her armies invisible, her treasury bursting.

And we have already been redeemed. One who was faithful and true lived and preached and healed and died and rose from the dead, facing down that very power which has carried us off, dying at its hands, and showing us that God’s response to faithfulness is not success, but resurrection. (Just as God’s response to sin is not damnation, but resurrection.) I’m certain in the Garden of Gathsemene, Jesus wanted it to be okay, to know it would be okay, and he realized — it wasn’t. And it wouldn’t be.

This is hard faith. And a difficult hope. It is sometimes a hope of bitter determination. I wish I could say no one will suffer and no one will perish and no one will have to resist great evil. But I don’t. I can’t. I have no idea how terrible things will get. I have no answers except the ones God gave to Israel in exile — build, plant, beget.

Build. Plant. Beget.

In a difficult and uncertain time, that is what hope looks like.

  1. With all the talk of Nazi Germany, Trump reminds me more of Mussolini or Napoleon III (who was the first real modern dictator), and their use of power on opponents and dissidents was real but fairly restrained. Both regimes ended badly, however, in war, conquest, and ruination because of wars they started or joined. Something that should also give pause. ↩︎