With Gladness

I started reading the Gospel in the wrong place this morning, a little early, and began with a passage that was actually from the previous week, and I saw something I’d never noticed before:

35 And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.”’
37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. (Mark 12:35-37 ESV)

Jesus is quoting Psalm 110:

The Lord [YHWH] said to my Lord [Adoni] (נְאֻ֤ם יְהוָ֨ה לַֽאדֹנִ֗י)

At this point in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been called “Son of David” (υἱὸς Δαυίδ) exactly once — by Bartimaeus the blind, the last person Jesus heals in Mark. I think here, he’s responding to a general belief, that the Christ, the anointed one, will be a descendant of David, a legitimate king.

The question is actually posed in Matthew 22, where in Matthew’s recounting of this story, he has it begin this way:

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” (Matthew 22:41-42 ESV)

And all this is interesting. But it isn’t what excited me this morning.

What got to me was that last phrase:

And the great throng heard him gladly.

Gladly — ἡδέως. It’s a word that shows up again in the New Testament only in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, in chapters 11 and 12, where Paul attempts to shame the Corinthians into putting up with him as they gladly put up with fools, in which he gladly boasts of his weaknesses (because the power of Christ is made perfect in weakness), and when he says he gladly spend himself and be spent for the souls of the church at Corinth. This is a gladness that does hide itself. It pokes and it prods and it even boasts. This is a gladness that cannot be kept to itself.

And this is the kind gladness this crowd has when they hear this strange news. Why would the crowd be glad of that? After all, a restored Davidic kingdom with a proper king from the line of David is allegedly what everyone has been waiting for. But that, apparently, is not what has been promised after all.

The crowd listening to this in Matthew is apparently too afraid to ask Jesus any more questions after this. But here, in Mark, they are glad — glad to hear this news that the Christ, the anointed one, is not the Son of David, but is rather David’s Lord.

It also means that all these attempts in the Gospels to link Jesus to David — the genealogies in Matthew and Luke — are akin to window dressing. True, but also completely beside the point. The Lord who is coming, who will sit at the right hand of God, who will have his enemies put underneath his feet, is not a Son of David. He’s something else entirely.

And the crowd heard this news gladly.

I’m struck by that gladness. It truly is unexpected.

SERMON — Giving From Your Poverty

Today I preached at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York. And this is what I preached.

Lectionary 32 / Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

  • 1 Kings 17:8-16
  • Psalm 146
  • Hebrews 9:24-28
  • Mark 12:38-44

38 And in his teaching [Jesus] said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows ‘houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:38-44 ESV)

Today we have Jesus sitting in a very public place, watching people as they come and go and do something very public — make their contribution to the temple treasury. And in doing so, as Mark notes, they show to the world who they are.

“Many rich people put in large sums.” And no doubt they made quite a show of putting their contributions in the temple offering box. Think of how the wealthy in our day behave, donating money to causes and institutions, building and endowing and putting their names on things — so that everyone knows, and will know for some time to come, who is responsible. Who gave that cancer could be fought, or malaria combatted, or illiteracy and ignorance alleviated.

Or that knowledge may be spread, or God worshiped, in this place.

Who gave enough. To leave a lasting, permanent, named mark on the world.

Today we have press conferences, well managed affairs where reporters are invited and told a glorious story, that so-and-so has given such-and-such moneys — millions, or maybe even a billion or two — for some wonderful cause that will better our lives. Or make it possible to lead better lives in some far-off day.

There are some people who simply cannot give away their fortunes fast enough. I’m thinking of Microsoft found Bill Gates, though the foundations created by the 19th century robber barons — people like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, who both died long, long ago — are still busy funding causes and research, trying to make the world a different place.

“Many rich people put in large sums.” And Jesus watched. He watched as those rich people, some of whom I’m certain made a show or even a spectacle of their giving just as the rich do in our day, of telling all those around them — whoever could see, whoever could hear — of the great and wonderful things they were doing in giving so very much to the upkeep of God’s house and the priests who keep it.

And Jesus does this not long after condemning the scribes — the officials of the temple — for their very public demonstrations of piety and probity. He is especially critical of the scribes for “devouring” the houses of widows, for leaving the old and very vulnerable destitute in their faithfulness — in their faithful giving to the temple — while they strut around in nice clothes, seek public honors, and and pray long and ornate prayers. “They will receive the greater condemnation,” Jesus tells his disciples. And us. Though, to be honest, he is not entirely clear about the “the greater condemnation” is.

And honestly, I’m not sure I want to know.

So, is what this widow does when she pops her two copper coins into the treasury box — everything she had, Jesus tells us — is she being faithful? Or is she being exploited?

Is Jesus celebrating her contribution to the upkeep of the house of God? Or is he condemning a system that further impoverishes and exploits this woman? And her simple faith in God?

We know what the condemnation of Jesus looks like. We see it, in the very words he speaks earlier in this passage about the scribes devouring the houses of widows. We see it earlier in this chapter, when he tells the sadducees “you are quite wrong” after they ask him a very silly question about marriage in the resurrection. We’ve seen Jesus angrily teach in the temple that this house, which is supposed to be a place of prayer, has been turned into a den of thieves. We watched Jesus curse a fig tree, condemning it to permanent fruitlessness. We’ve seen him rather pointedly tell a crowd that his mother and his brothers are those who do the will of God, and not those related to him by mere blood.

So, Jesus is not condemning this widow or her giving, even as he rebuked the very system she is giving to. We’d know if he was. He is, in fact, celebrating her faithfulness.

And that’s hard. Because, if we can believe what Jesus says here — and I think we should always believe what Jesus says — she has given everything, all she had to live on, and put it in the temple offering box. She is destitute. Her house, her livelihood, has been devoured by this temple. How she will live, being a widow, with no income and probably no one to protect or care for her, is anyone’s guess.

She has sacrificed everything. Because she loves the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob so much, and she trusts that this place, this house so meticulously rebuilt, so vast and ornate, is the place where God in his glory and his fullness dwells.

Even as the fruits of her faithfulness are devoured by the scribes who squander her meager gift on their squalid lives, her faithfulness still matters. It is real, and true, and she gives not from her surplus, not from her excess, not from what she can spare. But from the very substance of her life. How she lives after this is anyone’s guess. But she clearly trusts God.

She clearly trusts God.

I want you to consider, however, the next thing Mark reports Jesus as saying, something not in this week’s passage. When his disciples remark at the beginning of chapter 13 that this temple complex is amazing, wonderful buildings made of wonderful stones, Jesus tells them:

“Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

In the end, no one’s gift to maintain this temple, whether two measly copper coins or a sack of gold, will matter. The Romans will come in force and great number and demolish this place, stone by stone, and almost nothing will remain. Every gift given for its upkeep will have been wasted.

I can’t tell you how sad it makes me to consider the impermanence of things. In fact, there are few thoughts that make me despair more than knowing that at some point in the far distant future, our sun will exhaust its hydrogen fuel, begin fusing helium, expand, and then eventually collapse in on itself, with nothing left but a cold, dwarf star and a few ruined planets. That this is billions of years in the future doesn’t lesson my sadness about this any. Just knowing that someday, nothing will remain of humanity and our efforts, struggles, and passions seems to me to very definition of pointless and futile. Why do we bother living at all?

And yet … her faith mattered. Her life was likely precarious and short, her wealth squandered by those she gave it to, but her faith — the faith that compelled her to share all she had — that mattered. It mattered to Jesus. It mattered then, and it matters now, and it will matter long after entropy claims the light and heat of the last star in the universe.

Because Jesus matters. Because Heaven and Earth shall pass away, but the faithfulness of Christ will be there. Always.

I have spoken of cosmic things, things that drive me to despair sometimes. But scripture, scripture is not so concerned with the cosmic. Scripture is worried about a here and now that we live in, that we can touch. In our first reading, we have another widow, out gathering wood for a fire. She meets Elijah the prophet, and he asks her for water and something to eat. There’s a drought, a drought Elijah has effectively commanded upon the world. He is fed by ravens who bring him bread and meat, but eventually the stream he drinks from dies up. So he goes looking for water.

That’s when he meets the widow. Hungry, he asks for something to eat. And she says she has nothing. She is getting to ready to eat the last of her food, at which point, she and her son will lie down and die because they have no more. No more is coming. And Elijah tells her to make him something of her flour and oil anyway, and feed him, and do not be afraid, for the jar of oil and the bag of flour will not run out until the rains return.

Trust me, and trust God, Elijah says. And give me all that you have. Trust that you have not been forgotten. You have not been abandoned.

At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has, several times, predicted his own death, just as he predicts the coming destruction of the temple. In Mark, whenever Jesus tells his disciples he is going to die, he always finishes by telling them he will rise again on the third day. He does not predict the restoration of the temple. But he predicts his resurrection.

Trust me, Jesus tells his disciples, do not be afraid. Give me all that you have — not some ostentatious show of your marvelous surplus, but every pathetic copper coin you possess, all that you have to live on, all that you are — and know that you will not be abandoned. You will not be forgotten.

Though what you give may be squandered and misused by those you give it to, the lives you live not valued by those who should value them, and all you contribute given for things that will in the end burn and collapse and be forgotten by the ages, what you faithfully give to Jesus will always matter. Because Jesus matters.

Because Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead. He matters. Now, and forever. Amen.

SERMON – Give Us the Glory

I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it might look something like this.

SERMON Lectionary 28 / 20th Sunday After Pentecost 2015 (Year B)

  • Isaiah 53:4–12
  • Psalm 91:9–16
  • Hebrews 5:1–10
  • Mark 10:35–45

The disciples of Jesus didn’t get it. They didn’t get Jesus. They didn’t really understand who he was or why he had come or what he had come for. I’m not sure, half the time, they were really listening.

And so, in a bit that should have been part of our reading today, left out of both last week’s and this week’s gospel passages, is Jesus, telling his disciples what they are actually going to Jerusalem for:

32 And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” (Mark 10:32–34 ESV)

Mark is the shortest of our gospels, but this little bit has some fascinating details. Jesus walked ahead of his disciples, they were amazed, and following Jesus, they were afraid. All this before Jesus describes the awful things that are about to happen to him — betrayal, arrest, condemnation, humiliation, death.

Yes, three days later, Jesus tells his amazed and frightened disciples he will rise again. Not dead. Very, very, not dead.

And how do James and John respond to this?

Give us a place of honor at your side, in your glory.

Glory. They want glory. Literally, here, they want the attention, the honor, they want the eyes of all the world upon them, thinking those eyes are on Jesus. They want to share in the light that shines upon Jesus, their teacher and friend. They want to be part of it.

Now, maybe they think this walk to Jerusalem is about a kingdom that will look and smell and taste and be like Rome. Power that can do what it wants, when it wants, where it wants, how it wants. Power that knows little restraint upon passion or desire or avarice. Perhaps they think this kingdom is like that, and whatever power is coming to Jesus, they want a share of that.

Well, who wouldn’t?

There’s nothing in the passage, though, that suggests they think that way. I like to think sometimes that the disciples were good, earnest revolutionaries on their way to Jerusalem to seize power, ends the Roman occupation, and create what they truly believed was the kingdom of God, but honestly, we don’t know what was in their minds. Perhaps all that is happening here is callow ignorance and boasting, like Peter, who will later swear that he will never leave Jesus when the Lord described how he will be abandoned by all who follow him. Maybe they are humoring the boss, or sucking up, or maybe they think that whatever is coming, they really, truly, honestly want part of it too.

But they don’t really understand Jesus. They have no idea what they are asking for. They will know, eventually, after Jesus is dead, and risen, and ascended. They will know. But not that day. Not on that road.

Can you drink the cup that I drink? Jesus asks.

A cup. Jesus will later gather with his disciples, in what must have struck them as a weird and terrifying meal, break bread with them, and pass it around. “This is my body,” he tells them. He then takes a cup, he gives thanks, and he passes it around. “This is my blood,” he says.

Later that evening, as Jesus struggles with what is about to happen, what he has time and again told his disciples will come to pass, he will pray in the garden of Gethsemane to the Father to “remove this cup from me.”

This cup. The cup that Jesus drinks. That he shares. The cup he asks — no, he pleads — with the father to take away.

[Pause]

Jeremiah speaks, in chapter 25, of something called “the cup of the wine of wrath.” God tells the prophet to give this cup to all of the nations I am sending you — beginning with the Kingdom of Judah — and make them drink of this cup. And when they drink, God tells Jeremiah, all of these nations shall “stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them.”

The sword. War. War without mercy, without limit, without pity is coming, and it will begin with Jerusalem, which will become a desolation and wasteland. And then it will seep outward, to Egypt, to Moab, to Edom, to the Philistines, to the rest of Israel’s neighbors, and eventually, to the north and the south, far and near, and all of the kings of the earth shall drink of this cup, ending with the King of Babylon — the Rome of Jeremiah’s time.

Then Jeremiah writes:

“Then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Drink, be drunk and vomit, fall and rise no more, because of the sword that I am sending among you.” (Jeremiah 25:27 ESV)

The cup of the wrath of God, full to overflowing, filled with war and violence and fear and death. No one with any sense would take that cup and drink it. Not gladly. Not happily. Only in fear and trembling. And even then, not if you absolutely had to. I’d refuse it if I could.

And God knows this. Which is why he tells Jeremiah:

28 “And if they refuse to accept the cup from your hand to drink, then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: You must drink! 29 For behold, I begin to work disaster at the city that is called by my name, and shall you go unpunished? You shall not go unpunished, for I am summoning a sword against all the inhabitants of the earth, declares the Lord of hosts.” (Jeremiah 25:28–29 ESV)

What if this is the cup Jesus passes around the table, the cup Jesus begs the Father to take from him, so that he doesn’t have to drink it?

[Pause]

On that night when Jesus was betrayed, he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.

All of them.

All of us.

When we gather at this table, when we celebrate this supper, when we eat bread and drink wine, we think of reconciliation and forgiveness, of belonging and unity, of the grace and mercy and God, a self-sacrificing gift of salvation made in fear and trembling. But what if this bread, and this cup, is also the wrath of God, poured out upon the world, swords loosed against all who dwell on earth, a judgement upon us, for our sin, our violence, our desire for wealth, and power, and glory?

I have a confession to make. I’ve never been comfortable with saying that Jesus somehow takes the wrath of God for me, so I don’t have to. That Jesus dies for me. I don’t buy it. I don’t believe it. My eyes tell me a different story, one of sin and suffering and death. Everywhere. So much. If Jesus is busy dying for us, taking wrath in our place, drinking a cup that we cannot drink because it is too much to bear, then honestly, I don’t know what to do. Because we all still suffer. We all die.

We all drink that cup. Without even thinking about it.

I think it’s better — and a great deal more correct — to say Jesus lives and suffers and dies with us, drinks this cup with us. Does it first. Is out in the lead, amazing and terrifying us at the same time. And then he rises, defeating sin and death and showing us that the wrath of God looks more like resurrection than it does a rain of fiery stones from heaven.

Or a Babylonian army besieging the city. Or Roman legions laying waste.

In taking the wrath with us, and then rising on the third day, Jesus shows us that the wrath of God is not something to fear. It will not make us fall so that we will rise no more. We are free to live without fear of that wrath. Because it cannot leave us dead and desolate.

Jesus tells John and James, “That cup that I drink you will drink and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” They will drink — oh, will they drink. They will preach and teach and heal and raise from the dead. And like Jesus, they will suffer. And they will die.

And like Jesus, they will rise.

We will rise.

So as we gather at this table, take this cup, each and every one of you, and drink. Drink of the wrath of God, poured out upon the world. Drink also of the mercy of God, the promise of God, poured out for many. Drink of the life of God, given, so that we may live.

The Problem of Modernity

I’ve dealt with the subject of the American civil faith beforeespecially from that glorious time of strong and steady church attendance in the decade and a half following the Second World War, but it is a subject I will return again and again. In part, because I listen to a lot of old radio shows — many bundled with commercials and public service announcements — and in part because I think the rot in the American church is a very specific product of American Christendom.

So, I present yet another public service announcement — this from an episode of Gunsmoke broadcast on December 02, 1956 — encouraging Americans to worship:

The world is in a chaotic state these days. Maintaining world peace requires much more than military strength. It takes moral strength too. That moral strength can come from our spiritual advisors, our ministers, priests, and rabbis. Educating our children in the right way, teaching them to love and fear God, can to build morally and spiritual strong young men and women out of them.

Many of us have personal troubles, some of which seem insoluble. Contact with God will provide the necessary comfort and strength to carry on under even the most trying circumstances. Get into the habit of attending your church or synagogue regularly, and don’t go alone. Take a friend with you, or better still, take your whole family. Families who worship together, stay together.

There come times in all our lives when we feel the need of advice or comfort from a spiritual advisor. Howe much more helpful he can be if we are in regular communication with him through weekly worship.

Make America spiritually strong. Attend your church or synagogue each week.

Remember, this is from the high-water mark of American Christendom. Churches were full and well-funded. They bustled with children. Clergy were respected, and listened to, as intellectuals and figures in the community. The country was a lot more Christian in any number of senses — culturally, ethically, even perhaps on some level confessionally. And yet someone convince me that the faith presented here is not Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Because that’s what it looks like to me.

The focus here is on the individual and the nation. But not on the Church, or God, or even Christ. (Jesus couldn’t be central save as a teacher of good works, since at this point, Jews had become full participants in the American civic faith.) There is no mystery here, no communion, just faith as a public utility with a personal and public end — a strong nation peopled by individuals capable of dealing with problems. There is no suffering here, just “times of our lives when we feel the need of advice or comfort.” There is no sin and no redemption here, just a chaotic world in need of morally and spiritually strong women and men.

Again, tell me why this isn’t Moral Therapeutic Deism.

I feel like I’m belaboring a point. (Because I am.) This is the problem with liberal Christianity — and by that, I mean the (primarily) protestant surrender to the truth claims of modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Rome would surrender later.) The protestant churches accepted the modern order — the state, society (the community of citizens bounded by the state and defined by their relationship to the state, progress, and the belief that the purpose of human history — the purpose of humanity — was embodied in the state, rather than the church. The church became an adjunct to the state, supporting its efforts, its purposes, and guiding people toward their “proper” places in this order. The whole point of the church was to provide a moral and ethical buttress to the state-centered order, and provide ethical guidance to individuals during “trying circumstances.” The church is useful to the maintenance of the liberal order, and perhaps justifies it morally (especially in cosmic struggles with officially atheist ideologies), but it is nothing more.

So, of course the church cannot meaningfully teach its story — the story of Israel’s encounter with God, the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and how that changed the people Jesus called to follow — and cannot meaningfully disciple people because it has, for at least 150 years, been too busy making good citizens out of them. The church has been too busy telling, and elevating, and celebrating the story of liberal modernity — democracy and progress and science and history and freedom — to tell its own story. If we have failed to shape people as followers of Christ, it’s because we stopped trying. A long time ago.

It is a partisan political conceit of the worst kind to think that somehow the rot set in only recently, with a few Supreme Court decisions, or in the Sixties, when 1950s American Christendom fell apart. It is much older than that. It goes back at least to an uncritical and unquestioning acceptance of modernity, and the story enlightenment moderns tell about human beings and the meaning and purpose of our existence. (And it may go back farther than modernity, and may be deeply rooted in Christendom itself, which means failure and collapse is an inescapable product of success and prosperity. Which is, if you consider it, very much in line with the biblical story of the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Israel.)

Which means, like Jeremiah, all we can do is watch as the Babylonians gather and being their siege. Nothing is going to save this city. There are no miracles coming. Only defeat. And exile.

The Lectionary This Week — How to Love God and Love Your Neighbor

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Reformation Sunday, 26 October 2014 (Year A)

  • Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
  • Psalm 1
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
  • Matthew 22:34-46

After several weeks of difficult and even unpleasant readings from Matthew, this Sunday’s readings — and it’s Reformation Sunday for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — give us something that, at first blush, seems a lot less problematic. Something we can find some grace in. Something that doesn’t involve kings and masters burning villages and consigning the improperly dressed to outer darkness.

The gospel reading is from Matthew 22, verses 34-46:

34 But when the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:34-46 ESV)

“On these two commandments depend all of the Law [νόμος] and the Prophets.” Loving God with heart, soul, mind, and body, and loving your neighbor as yourself. These are the whole of not just the Law, the Torah, the teaching that God gives to Israel as it wanders in exile, but also of the prophetic critique God makes of Israel as the divided kingdoms are sliding toward conquest, exile, and oblivion. Israel is called to love God, and to practice love toward others, as its part in the call by God to follow. And the failure to love God, and love neighbor, will be the cause of the disaster looming over the divided kingdoms as Assyrians and Babylonians bear down upon them.

Love is that important.

We’re lucky, this Sunday, for having some real guide to what that love looks like. Too often, we’re deprived of concrete examples of what “love of neighbor” look like in daily living. But the first reading from this coming Sunday, from Leviticus 19, does a very good job of laying out in black and white what that love is supposed to look like as God’s people strive to live with each other (the lectionary reading excludes verses 3-8, but I have included them here):

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. 3 Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. 4 Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the Lord your God.

5 “When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. 6 It shall be eaten the same day you offer it or on the day after, and anything left over until the third day shall be burned up with fire. 7 If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, 8 and everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from his people.

9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.

11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God:I am the Lord.

13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God:I am the Lord.

15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:1-18 ESV)

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This is about being holy — קָד֔וֹשׁ — and so it would be fair that in these commands God gives to Israel, God is describing what holiness looks like.

And it looks like generosity. It looks like grace.

All of these acts are relational. The you here in the commands is singular, and all this is spoken to the individual Israelite. The commands and prohibitions are about life together as the people of God. How I treat you, and how you treat me, matters. These commands speak to what it means to live with each, and how each us should live with each other. Especially with the most vulnerable — we aren’t to strip our fields bare, whether to maximize our own gain or to keep all of the produce for ourselves. There are people who rely on gleanings, on the grapes dropped in the vineyard, on the fat of the land, for their sustenance. Just as Israel relied on manna gathered daily — and only daily — for food in the wilderness.

Down the list, the prohibitions against stealing, lying, profaning the name of God, depriving laborers or servants — who would be neighbors — of their earnings, cursing the blind and deaf and making life unduly difficult for them, showing partiality in court, slandering neighbors, hating and taking vengeance upon neighbors — all of these things destroy trust, allow the strong to behave callously and cruelly toward the weak.

It isn’t how God treats God’s people.

Note, with the exception of not hating “your brother in your heart,” this love of neighbor isn’t about feeling good about your neighbor. It isn’t in what you think or believe about your neighbor. It’s almost entirely about how you act toward your neighbor.

Even when it seems they are solely about personal piety in which no one else is affected. How can keeping leftover meat for three days even approach sinfulness, much less the kind of sin that would merit someone being “cut off from his people”? (And that consequence for keeping leftovers is probably the reason these verses were not included in this week’s readings.) Possibly because it shows a lack of generosity, and unwillingness to share, or a belief that something must be hoarded, either because it’s scarce or simply because it’s delicious. No reason is stated here, but given what else this prohibition is bundled with, it would make sense that this is about an unwillingness to be generous. To share without fear.

While Leviticus will go on to describe holiness as being separate:

23 And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. … 25 You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not make yourselves detestable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground crawls, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. 26 You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine (Leviticus 20:23, 25-26 ESV)

in our reading for this Sunday, holiness is described as generosity, honesty, kindness, truthfulness. We are not Canaanites, and we do not live like Canaanites. Not just in what we don’t do (this section of Leviticus is full of things Israel is forbidden from doing), but also in the things we do for each other. In the ways we live together. We care for one another. We create a community where the poor, the blind, the deaf (and others) don’t just eke out a living in some neglected corner, but live with some dignity in the midst of everyone.

This is what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind … [and] … love your neighbor as yourself.”

If there is a weakness in this Leviticus passage, it is the sense that neighbors are largely restricted to “your own people” (בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ). This is a legitimate concern, especially since Israel has been commanded to separate itself from the Canaanites, the people whose land they have been given, who they are conquering, the people God is driving out from the land. Is nothing owed the stranger, the foreigner, even the one set aside for destruction?

Well, I cannot speak to the Canaanites — who aren’t exterminated, by the way — but God does instruct Israel quite explicitly later in Leviticus 19:

33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV)

The stranger, the sojourner, is to be treated the same as the kinsman. The stranger, the sojourner, is also a neighbor, entitled to the gleanings from the field, to the kindness and respect due every fellow Israelite.

(Don’t forget, however, that this talk of loving God and loving neighbor in Matthew comes as something of a break in a long series of deeds, parables, and discussions about the coming judgement of God upon God’s people Israel. And after this, Jesus gets serious — down and dirty — in describing the hows and whys of that coming judgement.)

* * *

And then after this, Jesus asks the Pharisees an interesting question: “What do you think of the Christ [the anointed one]? Whose son is he?”

It’s a fascinating question, since Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 110 to suggest that the Christ — the anointed one — cannot possibly be the Son of David, since David calls him “Lord.” At least I find it fascinating, since Matthew so clearly puts Jesus in line with both David and Abraham at the very beginning of his gospel:

1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1 ESV)

So, Matthew puts him in this lineage, while he also quotes Jesus seeming to deny it. It’s a stunning juxtaposition. I’m not entirely sure how to make sense of it.

I think I know why Matthew roots Jesus so solidly in that lineage of Abraham and David — Jesus inherits the promises given to Abraham, bears those promises, witnesses those promises, and finally fulfills this promises. The same is true of the promises made to David. To Abraham, God promises many descendants, a land of his own, and that he will be a blessing to the world. To David, God promises to establish his kingdom forever.

Jesus is given all of these promises, and in him, they are all fulfilled. (I have come to believe that for Matthew, Jesus is Israel.) And yet, he is bigger than Abraham and Moses and David and even all Israel gathered from exile. I cannot quite put my finger on this right now. Mostly this is just churning around in my mind. But Jesus’ story, from the beginning of his ministry to his passion and eventually his resurrection, is the story of Israel, it parallels the judgement that is about to descend upon Israel in the coming war, and the coming destruction of Jerusalem.

On Being Told By God

I have been receiving of late weekly Bible commentaries from the Aleph Institute (the link to the institute itself is broken), a Jewish chaplaincy outfit based in Florida that specializes in military and prison chaplaincy as well as “family ministry.” (I put that in quotes because I’m not sure what it means. I’m not suspicious — I like just about everything I get from these folks — I just don’t know what “family ministry” is.) And I get these because I have befriended Dr. Joel Dreyer, a former employer of mine who is currently in Federal Prison.

He’d been sentenced to 10 years after pleading guilty to drug offenses, but his sentence was tossed out more then a year ago, and now he’s doing indeterminate time until a federal court judge rules on whether he is competent enough to assist in his own defense.

Aleph is associated with the Chabad Lubavitcher, and Doc Dreyer recently sent me a couple of a Lubavitcher pamphlets — Geulah (literally, “Redemption,” though it refers specifically to the coming of Messiah) published by the Chabad World Center to Greet Moshiach, and a little thing called “Reflections of Redemption: Essays on the Weekly Torah Reading and Moshiach, Based on the talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menacham M. Schneerson” and published by Moshiach Awareness Center, an operation of Enlightenment for the Blind.

Before I quote what I want to quote, a couple of things. It’s interesting just how much these Jewish pamphlets reminds me of a certain kind of Islamic publication I saw a lot of long ago when I was Muslim. (I’m thinking specifically of some of the material that came out of South Africa.) It’s very heavy in Hebrew cognates, so much so, that parts of don’t really feel written in English. This is very true of the “Reflections on Redemption,” which has the following sentence:

[T]he Shabbos of Re’eh is also Shabbos Mevarchim — the Shabbos on which is recited the blessing for the new month.

Not so bad, except that the use of the transliterated Hebrew words is something of a stumbling block. There’s a lot of that in this short essay, mostly because the essay deals with a word-by-word examination of a particular Hebrew phrase from the Torah, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse,” though the pamphlet leaves off the curse bit of the verse. (As an aside, I wrote a song on this passage.) Still, there are a lot of Hebrew transliterations in the essay, and I find myself wondering what value something like really is to someone who doesn’t already have some understanding of Hebrew. There were Muslim publications that used so many Arabic transliterations that there was almost no point in their being written in English.

But this is all so beside the point. This comes from the “Point of Light” essay in Geulah. There is no date, but the number on the upper corner says “469” it lists candle lighting times for Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Montreal for the week of October 11, 2013 (7 Cheshvan 5774). No author is noted, but there is a picture of what appears to be the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. And this is what sticks out for me in the essay:

Our forefather Abraham was not asked. He was told. 

“Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s home, toward the land that I will show.” G-d command Abraham to forsake anything that is comfortable and familiar to him, and set out on a harsh journey, with no clear idea of his final destination. 

Abraham had already established himself in Ur Kasidim. In one moment, G-d appeared to him and commanded him to leave everything that he had built up, and move to a strange land. Before sending him on this journey, G-d blesses Abraham: “I will make you a great nation.” 

At that moment, who was in control? Was Abraham taking control of his life, or relinquishing it? Abraham realized that while he might have been living a successful, conventional life, there was something missing. He was grounded in the habits of his land, his birthplace, his father’s home. By choosing to follow that Divine voice, Abraham willingly and consciously let go of his past. He opened himself to live a life without boundaries, without limitations, without expectations. And is doing so, he made himself a vessel to receive G-d’s blessings, to become a great nation. 

I’m inclined to quibbled with some of the wording here. I’m not sure Abraham really chose to follow. Could he have said no? Or did God go trolling Ur, commanding many until one — Abram — said yes? We don’t know. The biblical story we have says God spoke, and Abraham followed. I don’t believe he could have said no. Not really. No more than Mary could have.

Again, besides the point. The Rebbe’s essential point here is important — Abraham was not asked. He was told. 

In our democratic modernity, we have made an idol of choosing. We choose what we will do. Wo we will be. Who we will love. Where we will live. We choose what we consume. We can even, at the edges, choose how to consume. But we choose. Choosing is what we do. Choosing, and the ability to choose, has become the essence of human freedom in Enlightenment Modernity. Someone who can choose is free. Someone who cannot choose is a slave.

The church is no stranger to this ideology of choice. Of giving people choices. Of believing God gives us choices. After all, in that Deuteronomy passage discussed above, God gives Israel a choice — life or death, good or evil. So, God gives us choices. Choices to follow. Choices to believe. Choices to be grateful.

Except I’m not so sure. Abraham was not asked. He was told. Our best stories of Jesus in the New Testament shows a God incarnate who chooses, who calls disciples. And not by saying, “whoever wants to follow me can follow.” But by telling — “Follow me.” “You shall be fishers of men.” “Feed my sheep.” “Baptize and teach and make disciples of all nations.” Not a “please?” or “would you like to?” in the whole bunch. Commands. All of them.

The one time that comes to mind when someone actually asked Jesus “What do I have to do to earn eternal life?” Jesus answers his questioner in such a way that he walks away, despondent. Jesus gives ambiguous answers to all those who ask. And maybe a lot of people saw what he was doing, what his disciples did, and actively choose to follow.

But not the disciples. They experienced what Abraham in the Rebbe’s account experienced — the overwhelming call of God. They were not asked, they were told. And there is no saying no to God. To be a disciple, as opposed to one who merely follows, is to know there is no choice, no choosing, no options, no alternative. Just the overwhelming presence of God to which “no” is not an answer. Here’s where I love the two short verses which are the call of Levi-Matthew (this is the Luke account):

After this he went out and saw ca tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.

There’s so much story that just isn’t there. Like the Good Rebbe, we can fill some things in with our imaginations. I suspect Levi had watched Jesus and his disciples doing their thing for weeks. Perhaps he was curious, interested, perhaps he even admired them. But I suspect he also watched them as they worked and concluded, “they will not end well.” And yet he knows when Jesus walks into his life, and command him to follow, he cannot say no. There is no “no.” Not anymore. Just the yes of God, which tore his life to shreds and left him with absolutely nothing save for the promise of God.

Whatever happened, both Luke and Matthew say the tax collector got up and followed, leaving everything he had. Everything. He. Had.

This is hard experience to speak of in our day and age. It is unreasonable, and Enlightenment Modernity disdains unreason. It sees the call of God as compulsion, and compulsion may be necessary, but we’ve done everything we can to remove raw power from compulsion, hiding it or burying it in social structures that seem to (or sometimes even really do) offer choice. It sees the call of God as overwhelming, and aside from sexual passion, we have banished the overwhelming from our lives.

Abraham was not asked. He was told. “Follow me.” He left everything. And followed.

Why Justice is a Bad Idea (-OR- What the Justice of God Really Is)

One of the many controversial things Stanley Hauerwas has said and written is “justice is a bad idea.” It’s a statement I have emphatically agreed with ever since I first read it, especially as a critique of progressive protestantism. In War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity, Hauerwas does the best job of explaining very simply what he means by the above statement and more importantly, what he thinks God’s justice actually looks like:

[M]y suggestion that justice is a bad idea was meant to call into question abstract accounts of justice often associated with liberal political theory, which assumes a just social order is possible without the people who constitute that order being just. My worry about appeals to justice in advanced capitalist societies has been that such appeals can blind us to the ways our lives may be implicated in fundamental forms of injustice. 

However, my deeper worry about appeals to justice has been theological. Reinhold Niebuhr, in the interest of making Christianity politically responsible, argued that in matters of politics Jesus must be left behind, because the political work necessary for the achievement of justice requires coercion and even violence. For Niebuhr, “justice” names the arrangements necessary to secure more equitable forms of life when we cannot love all neighbors equally. Good Barthian that I am, I worry that justice so understood becomes more important that the justice of God found in the cross and resurrection of Christ. (p. 100)

Hauerwas then draws heavily from Dan Bell’s essay “Jesus, the Jews, and the Politics of God’s Justice,” noting that if Jesus is the Justice of God, then Christians cannot help be be passionate for justice because “we are in agreement that God does justice and so should we.” However:

… [Bell] thinks such agreement is part of the problem, just to the extent that the Christian enthusiasm for justice distorts our reading of Scripture. He is particularly critical of an approach he characterizes as “social justice advocacy” for how its adherents approach Scripture. For according to Bell, advocates of social justice read scripture for values and principles they think crucial to motivate Christians, in Bell’s words, “to get off their pews, leave the stained glass bliss of the congregation and its liturgy behind, and go out into the world to do justice.” 

Such an approach, Bell notes, presents justice as an external standard to which Christianity is accountable. Indeed, it is assumed, and therefore it is also assumed that justice can be understood apart from Christian theologian convictions and practices. Human rights, for example, are defended in a manner that renders irrelevant what Christians believe or do not believe about God. Such a view of justice, as well as the approach to Scripture associated with justice so conceived, Bell argues, is determined by the modern political context. 

That context, moreover, is one in which the church is assumed to be apolitical and, therefore, not relevant for determining how to know as well as do justice. Such a view of justice thus reinforces the politics of modernity, in which “the church is consigned to the role of cultural custodian of values rightly cordoned off from political practice, which finds its highest expression and guarantor in the nation-state.” Desperate to show the social relevance of the church, Christians ironically underwrite in the name of justice an account of social relations that presumes a privatized account of Christian convictions and the church. (p. 101-102)

Hauwerwas is also very critical of how Jesus is used in the “social justice advocacy” approach:

Jesus is relegated to being a motivator to encourage Christians to get involved in struggles for justice. Even if Jesus is thought to have practiced justice in his ministry, he is appealed to as a symbol or example. What really matters is not Jesus, but justice. This understanding of justice not only displaced Jesus, but also displaces the Jews as crucial for determining what we mean by justice. Social justice advocates often direct attention to the call for justice made by the prophets, but the justice for which the prophets called is often assumed to be universal in a manner that has no particular or intrinsic relation to the Jewish people. (p. 102)

This does a fairly good job of summing things up. The problem he — and I — have with justice talk is threefold:

  1. Justice is an abstract idea unmoored from the concrete practices of liturgy and daily living.
  2. The calls for justice in scripture are abstract an universal — God is speaking to all humanity — rather than God speaking to a very particular people in a very particular place in very particular circumstances.
  3. Justice as understood is heavily reliant on the exercise of state power and state violence (or at least appeals to state action) to reorder the world in a more”just” way.

Hauerwas spends a couple of paragraphs dealing with the more theologically conservative approach that Bell calls “justice as justification,” which centers God’s saving act on the individual who either accepts or rejects God’s saving work in Christ. But his strongest critique is of liberal or progressive Christianity.

I will not spend much time detailing Hauerwas’ critique of rights language, especially the language of human rights. In his Gifford lectures, Hauerwas destroyed my libertarianism by describing the rise of individual rights not as resistance to the state, but as emanating from the expanding power of the state. Every right is actually a claim, and when the nation-state has a monopoly on force, coercion and violence, every claim empowers the state to act as the agent of the claim. More individual rights means more state power! (I’ve read the argument elsewhere, and I agree with it.) Hauerwas notes that human rights as constructed are not significantly grounded in either scripture or canon law (despite constant attempts to plant them there) and in any case, are universalized in a way to make the secularly intelligible in a way that makes the story of God encounter with God’s people in scripture irrelevant.

So what is justice for Hauerwas? Does he even have a vision of justice? He does. Jesus is the justice of God. Citing Bell again, Hauerwas states clearly:

[A] text like Matthew 25:31-45 makes clear that the works of mercy are not principles or values that then must be translated into a universal or secular vision of justice. Rather, they summon us to participate in God’s redemption by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, harboring the stranger, visiting the sick, ministering to prisoners, and burying the dead. Such is the way, Bell suggests, that we learn what it means for Jesus to be the justice of God. (p. 115)

We who are church, as the body of Christ in the world, are God’s justice, insofar as we are joined to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism. We are called not just to do, but to be God’s justice. In the debate over national health care and the insurance mandate, for example, rather than lobby for state policies, it would have been better for the church — if the church were honestly concerned about healing the sick — to actually care for the sick, rather than demand the reorienting of society in ways we believe to be more “just” (including demands for the exercise of state power, which always includes the possibility of state violence).

For Hauerwas, the best example he can find for how justice is actually done is in Hans Reinder’s Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology and Ethics:

Reinders observes that much good has been done in the name of disability rights for creating new opportunities, as well as institutional space, for the disabled. But such an understanding of justice is not sufficient if we listen to the disabled. They do not seek to be tolerated or even respected because they have rights. Rather they seek to share their lives with us, and they want us to share our lives with them. In short, they want us to be claimed and to claim one another in friendship. (p. 115)

God has not created, or even called for a theory of justice, Hauerwas writes. Rather, “God has called into the world a people capable of transgressing the borders of the nation-state to seek the welfare of the downtrodden.” We are God’s justice when we cross boundaries, when we meet strangers and make them friends, when we share our lives with people and welcome them into our lives. That, and not abstract ideals or a partisan political program, is justice. And we’re not called to make others do the work when we are unwilling. Or to rewrite the rules of society so it will somehow be “easier” to do this. We are called to do this very hard work ourselves. And without any regard to the rules or structure or order of the society in which we live.

The No, and the Yes, and the Wonderful-Terrible Love of God

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
                             — John Donne

* * *

Well. The time has come for me to tell the story, to describe what has happened this week. To try and explain where I am. To help my friends and colleagues and those who care about me make sense of things. To help me make sense of things.

For the last almost six years, I have been studying to be a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I was called to this church after 15 years of being Muslim, after encountering God in the fear and terror of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and meeting the wonderful people of Peace Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Virginia, who helped me understand the God I met was the risen and crucified one, Jesus. The program is supposed to last only four years, but I am so very special that my time took six years.

But seminary study is not all there is. Each of the geographical entities of the ELCA has what are called candidacy committees, boards of pastors and lay people who evaluate potential future pastors. This candidacy process has three formal steps: entrance, endorsement (to go on internship), and approval (for ordination). As I said, I am special, and my process has been lengthy and difficult. I had to be endorsed twice (because my first internship failed).

For the last two months, I have been at the approval stage. The first time I met with my candidacy committee (which is in Washington DC, where my home church is), they postponed approving me because of what they claimed was contradicting information. They agreed to meet again to discuss me on February 7. Which was Tuesday. And they did.

They did not approve me. Their stated reason is that I do not possess the social skills necessary for effective pastoral ministry. I believe they are wrong, and that they do not know me well enough — they have never really made the effort — to make that judgment, but it is the final judgment of the committee. It will not change in the near future. If ever. For a time, a few hours Tuesday afternoon, I thought about writing an angry screed against the folks of the Metro Washington DC Synodical candidacy committee. But a screed is not in me. Not now. Perhaps not ever.

(UPDATE: I should note, I suppose, that my candidacy committee did not approve me despite an unconditional recommendation for approval from both the seminary and my second internship supervisor.)

Now, I need to tell you a story. The story of the story of my life. (That looks strange on the face of it. Just go with me.)

The story I had used to tell me who I was, what the world meant, to show me where I fit in the scheme of things, begins even before I have any conscious memories. My mother told once that when I was very, very young, I came to her and asked: “Why doesn’t my daddy love me?” That is where my story begins. It was added to some more by my father, who became incredibly physically violent when I was six and seven. (His violence would last on and off until I was 15.) It was added to when I was nine, when we arrived in Southern California and I began school at Citrus Elementary in Upland. Where the kids bullied me incessantly from the moment I arrived, belittling me, threatening me, tormenting me. The teachers were no help. It was as if the kids ran Citrus Elementary.

And then I entered the fifth grade. It was hell. Because the teacher joined in with the kids in belittling me, threatening me, bullying me. If you’ve not been told by a teacher, in front of God an everyone, that you are stupid, that she will fail you and make you repeat the fifth grade, you have no idea what it is to be reduced to utter and complete nothing.

Because of my father’s violence, which alternated with indifference, I was scared of boys. Terrified of them. So scared that I was actually unable to go into a restroom. So — and this is possibly the hardest and most embarrassing thing I’ve ever said publicly — I peed my pants a lot. It started, I think, when I was at La Mesa Elementary in Monterey (where my father was at his most violent), was lessened somewhat at R.O. Nelson Elementary in Newport News, Virginia (I actually had some very protective friends who, while they would talk about it and even laugh — I eventually deciphered their code — they never made fun of me for it). But like everything else in my life at the time, at Citrus it was out of control. It was just one more thing everyone could bully and make fun of me about. Which they did. And it did not help that the preferred way of dealing with the problem, on the part of teachers (and earlier, by my parents), was to try and humiliate me out of the habit.

I don’t remember many adults being terribly compassionate. Or willing to take much time to get to know me. In fact — and here’s a horrible story — the most positive adult attention I remember from that time was a creepy man who hung around the General Dynamics sports complex (where my dad played softball) and liked to pull up my shirt rub my stomach with his hands, telling me all the time how pretty I was. That’s all he did, and there but for the grace of God nothing worse ever happened to me. But it’s a horrible thing to consider — at 10, I was perfect pedophile bait.

I do not know if I can communicate the extent to which I felt alone and abandoned when I was 10 years old. I had one friend, Marck Weiss, who had it at least as bad as I did. I survived the fifth grade almost entirely because of Marck, and I cannot thank him enough for being human in the midst of inhumanity. But also I did so because one day I decided that if lonely, unhappy, and despair were all I were going to feel, then they wouldn’t hurt. Because they hurt, it meant there was something else to feel — something that was not hurt. I had no idea when that would be. But I would live to get there. I would wake up and live through the nightmare — and it was a nightmare — to get to whatever the absence of in my life then promised me would be in the future.

To survive, I looked inward. I developed my intellect, I read books, and my mother helped with all this (in part, I think, because I was her intellectual companion in my parent’s less-than-pleasant marriage). The world around me was either utterly indifferent to my existence or relentless cruel to me. It was not a place where I was cared for or about. The adults had all the power, could make their decisions, were never accountable, and I never mattered. I was at best a tolerated nuisance. I internalized this understanding of who I was. I was and am exceptionally bright — often times I was the smartest person in the room. That was almost never a good thing. (What I loved most about my two years at Georgetown is, for the first time in my life, I was not. You cannot know how wonderful that was if you’ve never had your intellect be just one more thing people hold against you and torment you about.)

Things would get better after fifth grade, especially when I arrived at Upland Junior High School. Most of my tormentors were not there (I do not know why), and tired of taking the abuse, I started fighting back. I got suspended for fighting a few times, but once I started fighting, I stopped peeing my pants almost immediately. High school was a little better — I was bullied some as a freshman, but mostly after that it was all about not being included. Not belonging.

Along the way, I found myself looking for surrogate daddies to fill that hole. William Turner, a shop teacher and the man who ran the Upland High School auditorium, first filled that role. I think he understood what I needed and he provided it. He taught me how to work, helped me develop a sense of personal honor. I first figured out I had this daddy hunger at San Francisco State, when I had to puzzle through why I wanted more than I was getting in a relationship with one of my journalism professors. After that, ever conscious of this, I always carefully watched and evaluated the emotional nature of my relationship with male supervisors. I couldn’t help wanting to bond, but I could watch it and keep tabs on it, so it didn’t go out of control.

And Jennifer taught me how to love. Hers was the first real nurturing, unconditional love I’ve ever gotten. I know about God’s love from her.

But mostly the story I have told about myself since is a sad and angry one. The world is an unsafe place for me. People are mean and cruel. If they aren’t now, they could be. People with power will never use it in my favor, and they will always use it against me. The great question of my life was: “Will anyone ever love and want me?”

So, I arrive at LSTC six years ago in this condition as an adult who’d had something of a career as a journalist. I wouldn’t call myself a roaring success, but I wasn’t a staggering failure either. For two years, I’d been at church where almost immediately, people came up to me and said: “You should be a pastor.” It was an overwhelming experience, living in a mental world of no one wanting me and finding myself in a world where it was beginning to seem like people most certainly did.

Because the amazing thing about Lutherans is that they actually do care about each other. To a certain extent, I think they take that for granted. Because of that, life in the seminary community here pushed all my buttons. My desire to be nurtured and cared for, especially my daddy hunger? David Miller, Kurt Hendel and even Pastor Craig Mueller set that off. (Mueller, strangely, reminds me of my mother.) After my first internship went kablooey, I found myself looking back and finding in Rosanne Swanson and Sister Barbara Sheehan mommy figures as well — something I did not know I was even looking for. The lost little boy that was me was wandering around, amazed and transfixed in this world of really compassionate and caring grown-ups, and asking: “Will you care for me? Will you protect me?”

My first internship was at a small church in Wisconsin. I picked the supervisor because 1) we seemed to gel theologically and 2) he was young (nine years younger than me) and so I wasn’t gonna have daddy issues with him. It was not a wise choice — he was not up to the task of supervising an intern and he certainly wasn’t up to the task of supervising me. Jennifer and I found a congregation that while not quite knowing what to do with me (because no one really does at first), they opened to us and cared for us. It was overwhelming because, for Jennifer and me, it was so unexpected. One woman in the congregation essentially inserted herself into our lives as a kind-of mom. I knew about my daddy hunger, but I had no idea that I was open to being mommed. It was too much. I hugged her. She did not want to be hugged. She never told me. No one ever told me. And that’s why my first internship ended. Almost three years ago.

The abrupt ending of my first internship, without any warning, was my worst adult nightmare. In that moment, I ceased being 41 years old and reverted to being 10. No one wanted us. The adults were all mean. Decisions were made capriciously. No one talked to me or even asked me what had gone on. It didn’t help we faced homelessness as a result because we had nowhere to go. Everything I ever feared about the world, had worked hard to make sure would never happen again, I was facing. Living in. Every button I had was pushed. It was horrific.

And I wanted to run. I tried. (I had tried to run away and never go back to school when I was 11, but I got caught.) I flung several dozen resumes in the general direction of Washington, D.C., and if someone had bit, I’d of gone. But in the back of my soul was the notion: “Charles, you would only be running from yourself. And you’ll be back here in a few years anyway, since this is what you are called to do. So stay. However hard it will be, stay.” So, I did. I did what was asked of me by the school and by my candidacy committee.

But mostly, I stayed. I faced the mean grown-ups and slowly, ever-so-slowly, told my story and they got to know me. And I got to know them. It took a lot of courage. On the other hand, waking up and going to Citrus Elementary School every day of the 5th grade took far more courage than that.

And so I began to truly comprehend what it meant to live in the midst of people who cared — who cared about me. People for whom I could care. People who actually seemed to mean it when they said they would take the time to get to know me. I will not say it was easy, as I was having to learn a whole bunch of things people normally learn in their teens and then not under harsh lighting and constant adjudication with the threat of final judgment. But I was learning, and I learn quick. The hunger to be cared for began to dissipate as I came to know that I was, in fact, cared for. The compassion and empathy I have always had — things not valued among the people I grew up with — were not just useful here, but important. Even essential. I was beginning to become the person God had made me to be. It was grueling. But it was also the most amazing and rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

So now we are here, and I stand amidst the wreckage of, well, something. In the midst of my candidacy committee’s no — a no I fully expected — something amazing happened. It’s why I hope you’ve read this far.

I was oddly at some kind of peace with their decision. Not because I thought it was right, but because I knew it was not the final answer. And not because I trust some kind of appeals process (there really isn’t one), but because I trust God. A day later, on Wednesday, I was talking with Jennifer, trying to explain to her why I was okay with what happened (because she wasn’t), when it finally came to me in words:

This experience is pushing none of my buttons. It isn’t even trying. I’m not sure it could if it wanted to.

Loneliness, abandonment, not being wanted, cruel uncaring grown-ups making horrible decisions about me, being treated as problem to be gotten rid of rather than a person — none of those things were going off inside. I mean none of them. There was almost no emotional resonance at all. I was feeling none of the things I had grown accustomed to or expecting to feel. This experience was residing someplace completely new. And as I pondered that reality, it really hit me:

My present and my future are no longer in thrall to my past. My past no longer determines the meaning of the now. It no longer has any say on what my future means. My past is no longer writing my story. It is no longer telling me what my life means.

I was free. I was free. In a way I had never understood freedom before. It was a strange, and overwhelming place to be. I spent much of Wednesday and Thursday being almost stupidly giddy because of this. If you found that odd when meeting me, now you know why. There was an intense half hour Wednesday afternoon when I just had to sit with the deep sense there was something inside of me, something that wasn’t me, handling my soul. Washing it, maybe. It was odd, overwhelming, overpowering.

I understood that I now lived in a world where people loved, cared for and wanted me. That great question was answered. With a “yes.”

And that would be enough if it weren’t for what followed. Because since Wednesday, I feel like I’m living in a field of charged particles that keep flowing through me. I have trouble sleeping, but not out of worry. I have been living in a kind-of high. Because there’s too much energy in me right now.

Here, I need to explain my difficult relationship with forgiveness. As an act of will, I have been unable to forgive. Emotionally, it was a matter of justice and fairness for me — if I forgave all those kids at Citrus Elementary School, the teachers, then what they did would stand. I held out for some kind of cosmic justice, some hope that if I just held onto it, it could be undone. Because it wasn’t right, what they did, and if I let go I’d have to admit on some level they’d won and I didn’t want that. I wanted to win, to have the final say. I want you to appreciate this reasoning. I don’t care whether it makes any sense to you. It made sense to me. It was why I had a hard time conceiving of forgiveness in a world where the wrong done to me was allowed to stand. Even if that wrong was done by people now ghosts in a place that has long ceased to exist.

Plus, I found I was unable to forgive myself for being the person the world would do to what it did.

So… Friday, I worked at the library in the early afternoon. It was snowing as I came out, and I went out into the courtyard and stood in the snow, arms open, face up to the sky, letting the snow and the wind pour over me, around me, into me. I started walking toward my apartment. And then it happened. It was a well, a flood, a shaking, and suddenly, I found the words of forgiveness in my heart, in my mind, on my lips. I said names, names I have carried with me for 34 years. I spoke them. I forgave them. I did it several times. Each name. I meant it.

And then I told each one of those people: “I am no longer carrying you with me. From now on, you walk. You are on your own.”

I now know what forgiveness is. To forgive someone is to take from them the power to write your story, to tell you what your life means. To be forgiven by God is to become part of the redeeming story of God and God’s people. To know that hope and life are bigger than fear and death. And to have that very real story become your own.

I am in a very strange and wonderful place right now. For the first time in my life, my story is my own. The past is a book that has been shut and put away. Nothing is reaching back to touch it, push it, make sense of the now in the then. I have something of a blank page to work on. But I also have no map. The scenery no longer makes sense. The terrain is strange. I do not know quite where I am. I have no idea where I am going. And none of this was gentle, which is why I have put the Donne poem in front of this essay. Friday afternoon left me exhausted, spent, like I had been ripped open from the inside.

What the committee decided was wrong. Worse, it was a mistake. But for the first time in my life, I find myself knowing that it was not the cosmic wrong, not the latest version of some primordial wrong that I have lived with for so long. I’m also willing to accept a somewhat disturbing possibility — that their decision was absolutely the right decision for absolutely the wrong reason. I would not have been battered by God these last three days had it not been for their “no.” In their “no,” I’ve gotten more “yes” from God then I possibly could have imagined. In fact, it can stop now. Because I need to recover some. For the last few days, I have not belonged entirely to me. And that, brothers and sisters, is deeply unsettling.

It’s hard for me to think right now about my call. I know I am called to preach and teach the gospel, and proclaim God’s presence and promise among God’s people in the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. I even suspect I am still called to this among Lutherans — people who cared for me and about me in a way no one has outside the Saudi student community at the Muslim Student Association masjid in Columbus, Ohio, did in the early 1990s. If I had to choose right now, I’d choose to be a mystic living in a cave, simply because that’s what I feel God’s been doing to me for the last few days. Or a crazy, itinerant holy man who prophesies and blesses. But I don’t get to choose. God does. And God has chosen for me to be in this strange, in-between place right now.

More than anything, I feel reborn. Like I have born from above. This wonderful-terrible love of God has worked its way in me, has had its way with me, has ravished me, has left me hurting and exhausted. (Let that be something of a warning to all you who yearn for such things but have not had them.) I am at the beginning of something. I do not know where I am going. It’s almost like I do not have a past anymore. (Or better, I now have a future than can tell me what the past means!) But I have a present, and a future, a new story written in and by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And I have sisters and brothers in faith and call to help walk with me and help me discover what a life lived in faith and hope really looks like.

So, now that I’ve left my ghosts by the side of the road, walk with me. Let us walk, and write, and tell our stories, together.

May Your Hell be Properly Hellish. And Properly Permanent.

I never know quite what do when someone says something like this:

Evangelical opposition to Bell is exemplified in a succinct tweet from prominent evangelical pastor John Piper: “Farewell, Rob Bell.”

Page Brooks, a professor at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, thinks Bell errs in a conception of a loving God that leaves out the divine attributes of justice and holiness.

“It’s love, but it’s a just love,” Brooks said. “God is love, but you have to understand you’re a sinner and the only way to get around that is through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.”

The problem I have with what Brooks says is that for him, salvation is not accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, but by the belief in that death and resurrection. There is a significant difference. Salvation is no longer done by God’s act in Christ, but by my act for myself. I am saved not by God’s action for me but by my faith in God. This is what Brooks and his ilk are actually saying. God is therefore irrelevant to salvation in this set-up.

If God is sovereign, then God’s act alone saves. And you must be open to the possibility that Christ’s atoning death and resurrection saves even those who do not confess that reality (some or all). Otherwise, human salvation is *ENTIRELY* a product of human action — individual human faith in God’s work in Christ.