ADVENT 2017 — Conspiracy

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions. (Hebrews 1:9 ESV)

I wish this was about me.

Honestly, I wish this was about you.

But it isn’t.

Hebrews says that God speak this of the Son, the Son through whom the world was spoken into being. The Son. And not us.

Who are the companions of the Son? The Angels, about whom this bit of Hebrews also has much to say? Maybe. But I don’t think so.

Those companions are us, the people the Son is made like us in every respect, the one for whom the Son suffered, so that we may be saved. He is anointed, and because of the we are anointed.

So, yeah, I suppose this is about me. And you too.

We have been made holy and righteous in our calling. And our redeeming.

But remember, the righteousness here is not ours. The hating of wickedness here is not ours. They belong to the Son, and he has shared them with us. We have not done this work, we have not been this righteous. We have not earned this oil which drips down our faces and the backs of our necks. Our holiness and our sanctity and our gladness, our joy, are gifts, unearned and undeserved.

I will put my trust in him.

ADVENT 2017 — Speak

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets … (Hebrews 1:1 ESV)

“… but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

So begins this anonymous letter.

God has spoken to us. Through prophets, who frequently said little of anything happy and upbeat, except that we will eventually be delivered from the consequences of our sin. The prophets came, generally, as a divine check on royal power, a reminder to the king we wanted but should not have that God is, in fact, in charge. And not the king.

And not us, either.

Before then, God chose our rulers in a rather haphazard fashion, judges who were raised in times of emergency to deliver us. Even the first two kings of Israel — Saul and David — were “chosen” by God for reasons clear only to God.

There is no recipe in scripture for governance, except to trust God. Which we clearly cannot do. In our failure to trust God — to demand a king that we be like everyone else — God tells us of the consequences of that desire, that we shall be enslaved and impoverished by our king. However, our God also makes promises to us and to the world through the lineage of that king.

In short, God uses our very sinful condition and our faithless demands in which to ground and make real the promise of redemption.

The prophets tell us two things — that we have sinned, and that we will be redeemed. Sometimes that first message is harsh and imponderable. “Do not pray for this people” or “I am in the army making war on you, and I am bringing famine and pestilence and death.” I think as church, as the assembled people of God, we do not hear or heed those prophetic utterances enough. (Someone else is always responsible for the sin that brings misfortune, and that sin is never idolatry, never a failure to trust God.) We go straight to the redemption part, confusing it with modern promises of freedom and liberation, thinking our salvation has some kind of identifiable political shape, that there is some kind of political and social order God wants for the world and if we just work and struggle and fight we can and should make that happen.

But that gets us to the second message. The redemption God promises is sometimes harsh and imponderable as well. Jeremiah had to remind the exiles more than once that promises of a quick deliverance were not coming from God. Many would die in exile, and many would be born in that exile who would never be delivered. Hope is sometimes finding ourselves in the wilderness, being guarded by our conquerors and captors, and having to build homes and beget families. Hope is sometimes heading to the hills to avoid the coming disaster, as Jesus tells his disciples when they remark on the awesomeness of the temple complex in Jerusalem.

It stinks to live at a time when hope is consists largely of waiting in a place that is not your home under the rule of people you would never choose. When hope is planting and building, knowing what you are making is only obliquely for the ages, only a way to get your children and their children to whatever awaits in some distant, unspecified future.

We all want to be home, to be delivered to the place where we shall struggle no more in a kingdom that will have no end, where justice and peace shall reign forever, world without end. But that is not our fate. Likely not our children’s fate. Nor theirs either. We sit on the banks of a strange river and sing praise and laments. We will be redeemed. We will also never live to see that redemption.

ADVENT 2017 — Idolatry

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. (Malachi 3:18 ESV)

So is the day of the Lord’s coming.

What does Malachi mean here, about serving God? About not serving God? He spikes of tithes, of robbing God by failing to give to God all we are commanded. “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.” Through Malachi, God says we have spoken against him, called the arrogant blessed, and allowed those who do evil to prosper, and escape their accounting with God.

We fail to trust God. To trust God is to give what we have to God first, to trust that after we give to God, there will be enough for us. It’s hard to do this, as individuals and as a community of believers. We give of our leftovers, what remains, if we give at all.

We take for ourselves first, hoping we will be enough left over for God.

And we say, “God helps those who help themselves.” No. God helps those who surrender all sense of agency, who give up power, who accept that we are always stuck in that place between Pharaoh’s army and the deep blue sea. We don’t save ourselves, we don’t deliver ourselves, we aren’t responsible for our own good fortune. Hard work or not.

Now, Malachi says that to trust God is to earn God’s blessing. To fill the house of God with food is to test the Lord’s promise that he will “pour down blessing … until there is no more need.”

So, the Lord does help those who help themselves … in a roundabout fashion.

The Lord delivers those who trust in the Lord. Not in their own wealth, or strength, or power, or influence. But in God’s. And that is what the day will reveal.

ADVENT 2017 — Disregard

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. (Acts 3:17 ESV)

A least we aren’t alone in not knowing what we were doing.

This is Peter speaking, of the killing of Jesus, and demanding the release of Barabbas instead. but honestly, it could describe damn near everything.

It describes the elders of Israel in 1 Samuel 8 when they come to the old judge and demand a king. Samuel’s sons, like Eli’s before him, have proven corrupt and worthless. Israel doesn’t want the spoke of Samuel to judge them. “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations,” they demand. “A king to protect us from our enemies, maintain order among us, so that we may be like the other nations.”

And Samuel does. God, through Samuel, warns Israel what a king means — he will take their money and conscript their sons and daughters and all of that he will use for his own benefit. “You shall be his slaves,” God says through Samuel. “And in that day you will cry out out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you on that day.”

“Give us a king anyway!” Israel demands.

We acted in ignorance. We want what we want.

But so did our rulers, turning away from what God required of us, worshiping idols, trusting in supposed gods that have not saved us, believing in wealth and power to save rather than the Lord our God.

God came to us, proclaimed peace and kingdom and redemption, and here we are, blood on our hands. We cannot help ourselves. It is who we are. If we think we can escape for our sinfulness and the earthly consequences, we are sorely mistaken.

But Peter calls upon the people to repent. It is not too late, he says, and we who are lost in sin and ignorance can still be redeemed. We can turn — again and again — to the mercy that comes to us unasked for, the mercy that chose us and called us to follow.

ADVENT 2017 — Upset

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous, lest the righteous stretch out their hands to do wrong. (Psalms 125:3 ESV)

“The scepter of wickedness.” Now there’s a phrase.

It evokes a wickedness that rules as a sovereign, sits on a throne, issues commands and orders and will not be opposed. That rules, and not merely reigns, as a unitary executive who will not be denied.

This is a fairly simple psalm, but it speaks to us something of a disturbing and harrowing message — if we do evil, then evil will rule our land.

But is that wrong? Are we so blameless and righteous that we have not earned the rule of this “scepter of wickedness?” Again, Israel’s whole history is an understanding of Israel’s sin — idolatry, cruelty to the poor and weak and strangers, those who have no one to seek vengeance for them if they are wronged. The prophetic cry, and the prophetic promise, is given to a people who are being led away.

Because they, and their ancestors, stretched out their hands and did wrong.

This being led away, however, is not all there is. It is not the final answer. And the “scepter of wickedness,” which rules over the land, will not cast its shadow forever. A day will come when it will be broken.

And we will be redeemed.

ADVENT 2017 — Unbelief

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him. (Matthew 21:32 ESV)

Who are we?

There’s an argument going on, and has probably always gone on, among the followers of Jesus.

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

I have found, and I think many others have too, that the church really isn’t a place where tax collectors and prostitutes — sinners — are welcomed much. It is a tension embedded deep in our history. Because if we do church right, if we are church right, a people who both love our neighbors and live with self-discipline and restraint, we create a kind of righteousness that becomes its own mark.

And that can be a good thing. But this kind of individual-centered piety, often grounded in the letters of Paul, frequently becomes a version of the pharisee’s prayer at the temple:

“God, I thank you that I am not like other people — greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.” (Luke 18:11-12 CEV)

We get right with God. And stay right. That marks us as righteous, saintly, even sinless, and earns us … well, whatever it’s supposed to earn us.

Jesus today asks the chief priests and the elders who did the will of God: a man who said “no,” but then went to work later after changing his mind; or a man who said “yes,” but who didn’t? Acts speak, and the work in the vineyard was done by those who initially refused.

The sinners who hear, and wander into the wilderness to be baptized — they understood what was happening. They believed.

But Jesus says one more thing. You saw all this, and it didn’t change your minds about John. Or God. Because God could not possibly be calling cast-off sinners to repent. They have no place in a righteous, well-ordered world.

They  — we — have no place in the church.

But God calls us. Because the only righteousness that matters is the righteousness God gives us, and not what we give ourselves. No amount of right, pure, and sinless living makes us people of God.

Only God’s call does that.

ADVENT 2017 — Damage

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

He stood and measured the earth; he looked and shook the nations; then the eternal mountains were scattered; the everlasting hills sank low. His were the everlasting ways. (Habakkuk 3:6 ESV)

Long ago, I was Muslim. And The Qur’an speaks powerfully of the Judgment Day — يوم القيامة yaum al-qiyama or “The Day of Standing” — when the earth will be rolled up and the mountains made flat and all humanity gathered to account for their deeds.

And they ask you concerning the mountains, say: “My Lord will blast them and scatter them as particles of dust. Then he shall leave them as a level smooth plain. You will see therein nothing crooked or curved.” (Qur’an 20:105-107 Khan/al-Hilali translation)

The ways of God are the foundation of the world, more foundational that the ground itself. The mountains, which seems so permanent and unchanging to us, are mere dust to God, things to be scattered when they day comes.

This is the power of God. This is the place of God. Habbakuk stands in awe of a terrible and powerful God, a God who, as in Leviticus, is a frightening presence, even in our midst, even as he is asked to come and defend us. There is no “softly and tenderly” here. There is no gentle breeze. There is no helpless, crying babe in a manger. There is just fear, our fear, that God is angry with the world as bows are drawn and spears are wielded and the nations trampled down in wrath.

But there is hope here, too. Habakkuk waits “for the day of distress to come against the people invading us.” He is hopeful, for justice, for vengeance, to be championed by the Lord. And so, even while the land is bare and yields no fruit, he rejoices. “The Lord is my strength!”

Strength to wait. Strength to see God’s work beneath the foundation of the world.

Seeing Jesus, Seeing God, Seeing Humanity

So, I’ve been busy of late working on a novel, Kesslyn Runs. It is the story of a 15 year old girl in foster care who runs away to join a group of “monks” — led by a failed and disillusioned former Protestant pastor — to find safety and eventually get revenge on the people in foster care who abused her.

It’s set about 20 years in the future, here in Central Washington, during a period of time referred to in the book as The Emergency. The story is very loosely founded on some of the conversations I have had as part of my ministry with kids that I now believe or have good reason to believe were fake. (I think I’ve said before I got catfished by a girl, and likely her friend, for close to two years, and after stewing for a bit about it, I decided that since I’ve been handed a good story, I might as well use it for something.)

I’m nearly 60,000 words through. I have no idea how long this book will be but I have the sense I am about halfway through right now. I have my plot structured through to the end, though flashes of inspiration keep striking and little things keep changing. (And characters keep insisting on doing things their own way, which would be weirder if I didn’t have 30 years of songwriting that seemingly came from nowhere.) It happens, I think, because I spend a lot of time driving hither and yon for work, and that’s when I do most of my thinking.

At any rate, at one point, Kesslyn and the abbot — who has taken the name Jerome — are having a conversation in the chapel of the old Army barracks building that has become their abbey (three cheers for Series 700 “temporary” buildings!) about who Jesus is. About who the Jesus on the crucifix says he is. Because I believe that in the crucifixion, we learn all we need to truly know about God. And ourselves.

Jerome says, “He shows us who he is, and who we are.” Which is what I have come to believe.

Here’s a more poetic understanding of that.

We die. And we kill.

We suffer. And we torture.

We blame. And we are accused.

We abandon. And we are alone.

We condemn. And we are condemned.

We forgive. And we are forgiven.

ADVENT 2017 — Belonging

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. (Psalms 126:6 ESV)

Reaping. Sowing.

You reap what you sow. You get what you deserve. You sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind. The bad stuff that happens to, well, it’ll all come back on you, times two and times three.

The verses right before our reflection text today says something a little different:

Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!

This is about the restoration of God’s people, and it speak of this already happening — “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream…”

We, who have borne the sorrow and the shame of our comeuppance — and yes, I speak a great deal of the consequences of sin, faithlessness and idolatry, because I can conceive of no love that redeems apart from the need for redemption. Because Israel is so cognizant of its sinfulness in scripture, understands that the condition they are saved from they caused in the first place.

And we who languish in a place of darkness and exile, a place that like Sheol is a place without God, have learned — even here, in this Godless place, God is with us. We who have wept have been delivered.

We who have sown tears have not reaped a flood.

The Lord is doing great things for us. And we are glad.

ADVENT 2017 — Ridiculous

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17 ESV)

I missed yesterday. It was a busy day at the newspaper. And I spent my morning writing time on my novel because I was so engrossed in what my characters were doing I couldn’t put it down.

Just before this, Malachi reports the following:

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (Malachi 2:16 ESV)

What the ESV calls “violence” the CEV translates as “injustice.”

We are doers of injustice. We are faithless, idolatrous followers of God who then wonder where the justice is — where is all the stuff that works in our favor?

Malachi is not a happy prophet. But then, few of the prophets to Israel are. He is sent with harsh words to the priests of Israel, who sacrifice worthless things to God. We do this. We keep back the best things for ourselves and give to God … our discards. Our surplus. We give to God from what is left after we first take for ourselves.

We tithe out of our wealth, from the abundance that overflows around us and smothers us, when we should be tithing out of our poverty. Giving to God first, and from that which we can least afford to give.

And we weary God. By calling evil good and demanding justice from God when we ourselves are unwilling to be just.