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.