The Number of the Beast

NOTE: Headline corrected. How could I have not seen that?

I confess to not being much of a prophesy guy. I was once caught up in the whirlwind of dispensationalism — as I note, its a really good faith for geeky, misfit, and overly intelligent high schoolers — but have not been for some time.

I don’t scour scripture and try to discern the future. Aside from the promise of our redemption, of Jesus returning, and signs of that (which seem to trouble every age since he ascended), and the subjugation of the pagan, gentile world the Christ (whatever that might mean), we have few promises.

Well, and this: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” If we are penitent thieves.

However, while I don’t believe scripture does much pointing to a specific future, it does allude to itself. Which is why I find it curious that no one, so far as I know, has made this comparison.

In Revelation 13, we have a description of two great beasts, and it’s the second beast, “rising out of earth” with “two horns like a lame and it spoke like a dragon.” This is the beast that does great signs, and forces all — “both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave” — to take its mark on the right hand or the forehead so that “no one can buy or sell” without the mark. This is the beast of which John says:

This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666. (Revelation 13:18 ESV)

Six-six-six. A dreaded number attached to Satan and the Devil and all sorts of evil. Yeah, okay, it’s 616 in some manuscripts, but most have 666.

And so, we count letters, do obscure forms of numerology, try to discern who this person might have been historically and who this might be pointing to now.

But what if this is simply … an allusion to something else in scripture? We find ourselves now in 1 Kings 10, after Solomon has just received the Queen of Sheba:

14 Now the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was 666 talents of gold, 15 besides that which came from the explorers and from the business of the merchants, and from all the kings of the west and from the governors of the land. 1 (Kings 10:14-15 ESV)

There’s that number, 666. This is apparently a lot of gold. Solomon is wealthy, powerful, righteous, draws people — like the Queen of Sheba — to him. His kingdom is impressive, his army large, his palace ornate. “The like of it was never made in any kingdom,” the author of 1 Kings writes.

What if John’s number in Revelation doesn’t name a person, but rather alludes to the kind of power the Second Beast has, the power that echoes that of Solomon, a power that draws all to itself. Solomon too was a man, a man who possessed much wisdom yet also turned from the Lord.

It’s not a perfect parallel, or even a good one. It alludes, it hints at, and little more. Perhaps this second beast will be seen as Solomon-like, wise and forbearing, wealthy and powerful, but a persecuted of God’s people, of the lamb and all those who follow. I suspect the two beasts are likely allusions to Vespasian and Titus, the father and son Roman generals who waged war on Jerusalem and destroyed the city, who then both, in turn, became emperor of Rome.

But the 666 may be an allusion power and wealth, and all that it means, and all that it brings.

Your Downfall is Rooted in Your Triumph

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (now THERE’S a title!) reviews The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future, the new book by theologians John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, in The New Statesman.

I want to like Milbank, and his critique of modernity, but I have found the man to be far to awful a writer to deal with seriously. Williams wanted to like him too, and has some good things to say about the book, though he is also critical of portions of the book.

I’ve not read it — I cannot afford books right now, and I’m nowhere near a serious university or seminary library to indulge myself — so I don’t know.

But Williams has this observation of Milbank’s and Pabst’s critique of where the West, where Christendom, “went wrong”…

Milbank and Pabst see the dissolution of this classical Christian picture by the individualism of the Reformation as a cardinal moment in the decay of the West. In other words, the very moment identified in conventional history as the birth of “Western” supremacy – the triumph of a notion of individual right, the recognition of the objective authority of scientific method – becomes the cradle of the metacrises through which we are now living.

I’m not going to deal with the accuracy of either William’s characterization of Milbank and Pabst, or Milbank’s and Pabst’s assertion made in the book, save to say that the idea a civilization’s downfall can be found in its greatest strengths and traced from it peak is a very biblical notion.

1 Kings 10 outlines King Solomon’s wealth — 666 talents of gold come to him in one year, not including all that came “from the explorers and from the business of the merchants, and from all the kings of the west and Thousands of chariots and soldiers, silver as common as gold, and giant ivory throne.

23 Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. 24 And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. 25 Every one of them brought his present, articles of silver and gold, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year. (1 Kings 10:23-25 ESV)

He fills his palace with 700 wives and princesses, and 300 concubines. All of this — women, court, army — is costly. Israelites and Canaanites alike are conscripted to build, and taxed for it all.

Now, ostensibly, God promises to rip the kingdom from Solomon’s hands because he has allowed and encouraged and even likely participated in the idolatrous worship of some (many?) of his non-Israelite wives/mistresses/concubines. (1 Kings 11:9-13) For the sake of David, God will allow Solomon to reign over a wealthy, powerful, united kingdom.

The price to be paid for Solomon’s unfaithfulness will only come after. Solomon will not pay it himself.

It comes in the form of Jereboam, the son of one of the king’s female servants (a mistress?), who rebels against the king. When Solomon dies, Israel comes to his son Reheboam and asks for relief from the taxes, from the forced labor, from the cost for this kingdom, this court, and this large standing army.

Reheboam refuses, and in his arrogance, promises more taxes and tribute and conscription.

So Jereboam leads the rebels, who disown and denounce the monarchy and the state. “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse! To your tents, O’ Israel! Look now to your own house, David!” shouted the rebels, who go their own way, found their own state, and build their own temples.

Solomon’s empire was strong, powerful, wealthy — and that strength, that power, that wealth, was its own undoing. In this, I believe we see something about ourselves as both human beings and as the people of God. We are undone by our power, which sets into motion things we cannot control, cannot fix, cannot repair, and cannot even fully comprehend. I see the story of the church in this light. American Christendom is being undone by the very power, wealth, privilege, and influence it still yearns and aches for. Indeed, Western Christendom itself is being undone by its centuries of power.

Because power undoes itself.

And, to the extent the history of Israel tells us something about what it means to be human — the condition of humanity writ small — then this is true of peoples and nations and empires. An act of faithfulness, particularly on the part of the ruler, can arrest the decline and collapse for a time, but it cannot stop the coming judgment, which was set into motion long before and rooted in the very things that made the society or state powerful and important to begin with.

It also means that sadly, those who pay the price, bear the consequences of sin, are not those who sinned. Solomon died the ruler of a powerful, wealthy state, though he’d also been promised his son would not rule that state. The Babylonians, the ultimate consequence for the sins Solomon set into motion, would not show up and defeat Judah for several centuries. Jereboam would erect golden calves in Bethel and Dan, and proclaim them Israel’s gods, but it would be some time before the Assyrians arrived and destroyed the northern kingdom.

So I am willing to accept Milbank’s and Pabst’s characterization of the West’s decline — the very moment those things arose which made Western Christendom and the secularism arising from it the power that could conquer and organize the world are also the moment the decline begins, because those very things which made the West the supreme global power are also those same things which will bring about its demise.

It’s true. It’s human. And it is inescapable and inevitable.

ADVENT 9 / It Sucks to be Born at Such a Time

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

The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. (Isaiah 24:5 ESV)


I hate that word.

“God will punish you!” I’ve heard it. Not recently, not as an adult, but as a child, from some people who called themselves faithful Christians, followers of Jesus, people who pointed fingers and said, “God will punish you because you do not believe!”

As an adult, I’ve seen the shaking of heads, heard the whispered muttering which suggests that my problems, my suffering, are all my fault. If only I was a better person, more pious, of better character, I would not have suffered, not be poor, not be in such need.

My fault.

God is punishing me. For my faithlessness.


There are consequences for sin. War and penury, defeat and conquest and exile.

But often times, children pay for the sins of their parents. Some pay for the sins of others. The generation of Israel that went into exile was not that generation whose sinfulness, whose faithless idolatry, brought about war and death and exile. It is not fair, and it does not seem right to us.

But it is the way of things.

When we sin, we who God has called to follow, we set into motion things we cannot control, things we cannot see or understand until they are upon us. We may live well, but in that living well, and all that comes with it, are the seeds of our destruction. Israel under Solomon was a rich and powerful state, with a huge army and a sprawling court of ministers and priests and officials and concubines. But that power brought with it the cause of its destruction, as Israelites rebelled against the cost of that army and court, failed to show mercy and forbearance to each other, and rejected the God of Israel as they deliberately rejected the inheritance of David.

The earth becomes defiled. The consequences of sin become bigger than us, seeping into the air and the water — in, with, and under the sky and the soil. Everywhere. The consequences of sin from long ago oozes and poisons everything, wrecking and ruining individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities, even whole kingdoms.

This is not punishment. Those who sin often times live lives of ease. But their sin, that ease, creates conditions that someone will, eventually, pay for. Sucks to born at such a time. To know that once, life was easy and life was good, but now, not so much. Sucks even more to know that ease and that goodness is likely one of the reasons things are so hard now.

Not my doing! I didn’t do this! I’m not the cause of this! The earth is not defiled because of what I have done! I shouldn’t have to pay for this! To suffer for the sins of others! It’s not right! It’s not fair!

But defiled it is. With sins I inherit but did not commit.

ADVENT 3 / Never Again

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

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

Never again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start all over again.

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

And then … not so much.

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

Never again.

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

We are safe.

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

And the God who saved us … knows that.

Discerning Your Nature

I’m not going to comment at all about work here, because none of that belongs on this website.

And I’ll rarely comment about things I report on at work, since none of that belongs here either.

But on occasion, I will write about something that strikes me as important.

Saturday morning, I spent a little time at a career event held for high school girls for a short feature story I was writing, interviewing some of the kids, taking a few photos (they weren’t as good as I liked, given that one of the event organizers said I didn’t really have permission to get anyone’s face, which kind of limits what you can do), and listening to a few speakers.

I don’t know how typical this event was of career discernment for teenagers — because it was basically vocational discernment. The kids didn’t take the kinds of aptitude tests I took when I was in high school 35 years ago, an assessment of skills. Rather, they were asked about values – what was important to them as individuals, to their families, and where they differed from the communities they lived in. How do you define success?

And how are important are things like helping society and/or others, organizing things, prestige, intellectual stimulation, being creative, independence, teamwork, being in charge, stability … the list is much longer, but rather than measuring what you could do, it measures what’s already important to you.

Career types were climbed into the following categories based on the collection of values most important to you — artistic (writer), realistic (police officer, engineer), enterprising (finance, sales), social (counselor, medical), conventional (accountancy, computers), and investigative (programmer, professor, psychologist). Again, this isn’t exhaustive.

But it denotes an approach to discernment that aims for self-understanding first. What am I to do? should simply and naturally flow from an understanding of Who am I?

“If you are wired for something, try to do that,” one of the speakers said.

I’ve railed a lot about the understanding of human beings as resources, as things to be managed. I’ve found that to be a fairly inhuman approach to dealing with human beings, and it has been my experience that any system of management tends to be arranged for the convenience of the managers, and not to the benefit of those being managed.

But as I have gotten older, I have come to accept a few things. First, as a good pastor friend at seminary told me, these systems will work for most people, and in mass society, very few any have any real alternatives to being put through them. It behooves us, then, to make these institutional structures, these systems of formation and discernment, as compassionate ands as broadly accepting as possible. They were never that for me, but I’m an outlier and an oddball. (That fact makes Psalm 10 Ministries both possible and successful.) Anyone who wants to know my sad and terrible experience of school and church can read my book, so I won’t rehash any of it here.

If human beings have to be managed, and if this process works for most people, then yes, help people discern who they are and once they have some grasp of that, then let them tackle What am I to do?

I would have liked something like this, something that would have let me figure out who I am – get sense of my nature as person — and then how I could be useful, how I could love, as I was called to love. I’m not sure Southern California in the early 1980s was up to this — Upland was not a place that valued kindness, mercy, love, and compassion — but I can see a value in this.

Just so long as the oddballs and the outliers also have room to figure out who they are. That their struggle isn’t too painful.

And this leads me to my second point. In talking to the young women I interviewed for the piece, I realized — and am learning to realize as I do ministry even with the abused foster kids who find me — that most people dream small dreams. “I want to be a teacher and a mom,” “I want to be a paramedic because that’s a tradition in my family, and family tradition is important to me.” Dreams like this. Simple dreams. And there’s nothing wrong with any of this. There are days I wish I could go back and be 19 and have such simple dreams.

I know a lot of my kids ache to have simple lives, and realize simple dreams. Which makes something like love, and family, and belonging, not so simple. Easy to dream, but not so easy to realize. Easy to reach for, but hard to grasp.

Granted, small dreams usually require a functional community in order for them to be realized, a sense that things work for you, or at least don’t actively work against you, and this community seems to more or less work for most people in it.

I’m actually glad to see this. And I hope it really does work. I love being there for the broken, the unloved and unwanted, but honestly, I’d rather the world was arranged in such a way that my presence in it — my willingness to love — was simply not needed. It would be nice if no one was bent and broken as community and society tried to form and shape them.

Yeah, I just wrote that.

But I know the world, and I know people. Someone will always be broken. Someone will always need to know they are loved.

SERMON Wounded by God

A reading from Genesis, the thirty-second chapter.

22 The same night [Jacob] arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh. (Genesis 32:22–32 ESV)

We have here what may very well be my most favorite story in all of the Bible.

Jacob is the trickster, the younger son (of twins) who cheated his older brother Esau out of his birthright and his blessing. Esau was the strong brother, mighty, a man’s man, hunting and fishing and farming and doing all those that strong men have always done. Esau is his father Isaac’s favorite.

Jacob stays inside — maybe he’s clever and bookish and probably a bit of a sissy. He’s certainly a mama’s boy. He is not a man’s man. He has lived by cunning and trickery most of his life (Jacob and his uncle Laban struggled hard to get one over on each other), and now he’s on the road — meeting all sorts of heavenly characters along the way — and he has decided to take his chances with his brother Esau.

Jacob has, after a fashion, done well for himself. And maybe the years of having to try and keep one step ahead of each attempt by his uncle to cheat him have finally gotten to him. “I have sent to tell my lord [Esau], in order that I may find favor in your sight,” he commands his servants to tell Esau.

But he’s scared. He stole everything from Esau. We speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau. This man is the recipient of the promise of God not by birth, but by fraud. “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come to attack me …” Jacob prays as he sends his wives and all his children away on separate path so that he may meet Esau alone.

With his offering.

“Perhaps he will accept me.”

Alone, Jacob meets a man, and they fight. That man grabs hold of Jacob, and Jacob grabs back. And the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob… So he fights dirty. And Jacob still doesn’t let go. “Give me a blessing,” he demands in what has to be excruciating pain.1 “Tell me your name. Give me a blessing!”

And wounded, in pain, Jacob does not let go.

This, sisters and brothers, is faith. Our faith. We have come to identify the man — this stranger — as God himself. “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” God meets us in moments of fear, in the pitch black darkness of night, when are most alone and vulnerable, ambushes us and grabs hold of us.

And we grab back. Not knowing who or even what we’ve got ahold of.

But notice … God cannot prevail. The almighty cannot beat us. Omiscience and omnipotence and omnipresence cannot defeat us. Cannot prevail over us. Cannot win in his struggle with us. God himself has to resort to trickery, and even that fails to shake us. We do not let go. “Give me a blessing,” we say of this God who grabbed us in the middle of a dark night, who ambushed us when we were at our weakest, when we were at our worst.

This is faith. To grab hold of God when God grabs hold of you. To not let go. To demand to know who’s got you, to demand a blessing. And realize, God fights dirty. God wants to make the struggle stop.

And yet, frighted and wounded and alone in the inky black darkness, we don’t let go. We don’t give up. We prevail. Over God.

We prevail.

That, sisters and brothers, is our faith.

  1. In seminary, I recall reading a Jewish physician and sometime scripture commentator noting this wound was either physically impossible or such that Jacob would have been in so much pain that he would have been utterly incapacitated. The physician suggested the description of the act itself — putting the hip joint out of it socket — was a euphemism, and that God was possibly raping or attempting to rape Jacob. Which is truly fighting dirty. This is speculation. But consider for a moment what it might mean for God to fight that kind of dirty against us. ↩︎

How To Suffer

I was at mass Monday morning at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Moses Lake, sitting listening to one of the readings for the day when something hit me that I’d never considered before.

This, as an aside, is why scripture should be listened to and not just read. It’s a different experience, this listening, and different meanings come across. It’s how most early Christians got scripture, by listening to it recited.

By listening to the stories told, and the letters read. Out loud. In the assembly.

At any rate, the reading was from the first chapter of Job:

6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8 And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” 9 Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:6–12 ESV)

He will curse you to your face. Such are the words of Satan, the adversary, to God in the assembly. And it came to me that Job is not so much an intellectual discourse on the meaning of suffering as it a guide, a how to suffer.

Job doesn’t curse God, at least not initially — “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,” he says (1:21), and then he rebukes his wife later, saying “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10)

Later in the book, he does lament about his hopeless state, he does wonder where God is, even as he confesses his hope in his eventual redemption, he speaks words of despair and hopelessness, and the book ends with no real answer to Job’s suffering, save that God is inscrutable and who are we to question?

Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?

This is, I think (without doing a further study on the whole of the book, which I’m not doing here), a guide, how to think about and live into suffering — earned and unearned. Blessing and curse are both the gift and promise of God. Job speaks as one who had much, and thanks to the ministrations of Satan, has lost everything save for his life.

In this, it is perfectly acceptable to lament. To wail. To groan. To cry out. To wonder what the point of life is, and wouldn’t it have been better had I never been born? Where is God, and why is God silent? To even accuse God, as Job does, of working against what God in his goodness has willed into being.

All of this is acceptable. It is faith.

But Job never gives in to his despair. He never surrenders. He may wish he’d never been born (in this, I am reminded of a young woman who recently told me she wish her neighbor had actually killed her when he pointed a gun at her and threatened to do so), but he persists in living. Even as he breathes death.

That persistence in the face of a harsh, pointless struggle, is what matters here. It is Jacob, wrestling all night, not letting go, fighting so intensely that God has to play dirty to make it stop.

God here plays dirty too. “Who are you to even question me?” God asks Job. It’s a cop out, a lousy answer, one delivered from on high, spoken from impenetrable and unknowable authority. But it’s also true.

The point here, however, is not about God. It’s about us. It’s about tenacity. It’s about living. It’s about grabbing hold and not letting go. Even if nothing makes any sense.

Even if there seems no point, no relief, no salvation, from any of it.

It’s Okay to Serve Nebuchadnezzar

Christendom left Christians, particularly European and American Christians, with a sense that they were empowered and entitled to organize the world. And with that came an obligation to do good and confront evil.

It makes sense that, in a Christian world, the teaching of the church would be far more prescriptive — telling people how to act and how to live in accordance with God’s wishes for humanity and the good order of creation — than descriptive — merely stating the what, how, and sometimes even why of puzzles humanity finds itself dealing with. The church, after all, has an order to uphold and protect, an understanding of what it means to be human.

In the millenia-and-a-half of functional Christendom, the church came to understand God primarily as creator rather than redeemer. Redemption could be taken for granted (in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ), and so the creation needed to be explained.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t really reflect Israel’s experience and understanding of its encounter with God in scripture. In the Bible, God is met primarily as a redeemer rather than creator. The creation could be taken for granted (it was always there, and it wasn’t going anywhere, and so it didn’t really need explaining), so what needed to be understood was redemption.

Because God was met not in the phrase “let there be light” but in the words “Do not be afraid.”

The creation-centeredness of our theologies has forced us to focus on the right order of the world. Coupled with power, Christians have come to believe the world was ours to organize the way God wants it organized, either because we are imposing order on the world or simply helping the order inherent in God’s good creation realize itself. Creation-centered theology is a theology that wants and needs power — it needs to shape and form the world and all those in it.

But the Bible is not the story of a powerful people. It is the story of one man and his (rather sizable) family told to leave him home for a place he will only be shown when he gets there. It is the story of promises given to that man, to his descendants, to a kingdom that rises and falls, is conquered and occupied and carried into exile. Throughout this story, this people — Israel — are constantly subject to the whim of others, mostly enemies, and what they have, they have solely because this God of the promise has given it to them.

They have earned nothing. They have conquered nothing. They have not even fought for much of anything. God did the fighting. Most of what they have been given is taken from them, and they are left weak, defeated, and scattered, with nothing more than the promises that old man was given long, long before.

This story — promise, rise, defeat, exile — is our story as the church. We have forgotten it is our story because we think we have transcended it. Because we have taught ourselves for so long that we must confront evil and defeat it, that we have a duty to order the world, that we must remain pure and upright and always do good in order to save our souls, we forget that our story is one of sin and consequence, of conquest and subjugation and exile.

And serving those who conquered and exiled us.

This is especially important as Christians — mostly conservatives — wonder what to do with modernity, with a secular politics in the West (especially America) that no longer treats their faith with much respect or privileges their truth claims or institutional structures. The desire to protect themselves, to find a champion (Damon Linker’s interpretation of Donald J. Trump’s appeal to evangelical Christians) who will subdue enemies, seems to have guided much Christian thinking in the West for the last century.

But how should Christians deal with enemies?

The gospel is clear: love them. I constantly focus on the fact that the Beatitudes is a guide for faithful living while occupied and oppressed. Israel was not free, and was not going to be free through its own efforts. Freedom came another way — in love, a love that would not flinch in its encounter with the enemy oppressor, but would also not meet violence with violence. It was a love grounded in solidarity, in generosity, that met inhumanity and violence with forgiveness and “follow me.”

But even before Jesus meets his people in the midst of violent Roman occupation (and predicts far worse), the Hebrew Bible tells us of what it means when Israel is beaten, broken, and carried away into exile.

1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. 3 Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. 6 Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. 7 And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. (Daniel 1:1–7 ESV)

Nebuchadnezzar laid waste to Jerusalem. He killed its leaders, destroyed the temple — the house David promised and Solomon built for God to live in — and carried off the best and brightest of Israel as well as what remained of its wealth and its ceremonial objects. Because of what he did, it would be impossible to worship, and the people of Israel must have wondered — on that long trail of tears from Judah to northern Iraq — what would become of them now that the one thing that held them together — worship — was no longer possible.

If there was ever a reason for non-cooperation with any kind of government, it would be now. It would have been more than appropriate for Israel to tell the Babylonian king to go screw himself sideways and let them weep by the banks of that distant and foreign river by themselves.

Instead, the best and brightest go to serve Nebuchadnezzar, the king who destroyed their temple, conquered their people, and carried them off into exile.

How do you deal with your enemies? You love them. You serve them. This isn’t gospel squishiness … this is hard-headed Hebrew Bible history.

Oh, you speak truth to your enemies. You bear witness to the God who redeems. You refuse to bow down to their idols. You don’t eat the king’s food. You worship even when it is outlawed. You remember and confess who you are and whose you are. But you do this still serving, still loving, and trusting in God.

The church, with its rules and laws and teaching, has forgotten how to trust God. It has forgotten how to be church when the world isn’t organized in its favor. It has forgotten how to be church when it doesn’t have social and political power. Because to be Christian in Christendom is to live with a sense of agency and power, something Israel possessed only sporadically. The church has forgotten that our calling as God’s people is to be faithful, and not successful. The promises we have been given do not include success. Or power.

It will be tough to be faithful in modernity, to eat only vegetables rather than meals cooked in the king’s kitchen, to pray with the windows open so everyone may see. Modernity is all about reducing human beings to mere things to be used, consumed, discarded, and abandoned. It is about forming a standardized and commoditized humanity that conforms easily so individual human beings can be used easily. While we should not be about that, the church in modernity has easily surrendered itself to this objectification of humanity, embracing all the various ways human “things” can best be managed and put to use. It is because of this surrender to modernity, I think, that we have been defeated, and have been carried off into exile, into Babylon, where we are beginning to gather by the river’s edge and weep for what we have lost.

But we can, in good conscience, serve Nebuchadnezzar. We can, in good conscience, serve state and society in modernity, even given all modernity is and does. So long as we remember that the king of Babylon was only a man. That modernity is a transitory thing. It has come, and it will go. And that we have a promise of deliverance, a promise real in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, who lived and died and rose under occupation. Who showed us what it meant to love and even serve our enemies.

Enemies who ruled us without pity.

We can still serve them, our enemies. We can still bear witness to the truth of God’s redeeming love. We know will be delivered because we have already been delivered. We do not need a protector or an avenger like Donald J. Trump. His promise of power and protection is akin to that of King Zedekiah, who started a pointless war with Babylon he could not win. We have Christ, who has overcome the world and defeated death. We have the promises of God. And they are true. They have not failed us.

They will never fail us.

Down in The Pit

Something of a very personal nature today.

I feel particularly lost and hopeless right now. It is the usual thing that has bedeviled my life for the last four years — a chronic inability to find work, or keep it, and with it, an inability to find or make a home for myself, my wife, and Molly, one of the young people I’ve done ministry for and with over the last year who is seeking a home with us.

Some home. My life is very nearly an absolute disaster right now.

And all the issues that come with it — a life on handouts, a loss of my sense of purpose, that I am valued, that I matter to anyone, and a sense of tremendous failure. Like I have failed everyone. I’m tired of handouts, and I want nothing more than to earn bread and rent by the sweat of my brow. But I don’t seem to be allowed to do that right now. Jobs and careers seem to me now to be magical things, out of the reach of a mere muggle such as I. I watch seminary colleagues accept new calls and have kids and buy homes and wonder, “What’s that like? Why can’t I have that?” It’s not that I lack skills, experience, and education, it’s just that nothing of what I can do seems to be valued by anyone.

It’s hard to live like this, with this persistent sense of failure and pointlessness. I feel like the psalmist, one of the sons of Korah, as we writes in the 88th Psalm:

1 O LORD, God of my salvation; I cry out day and night before you.

2 Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry!

3 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.

4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength,

5 like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.

6 You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep.

7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah

Sheol — the place of the dead. The pit. The place where God is not. The place no one returns from.

It’s interesting this psalm is attributed to one of the “Sons of Korah” (בְנֵי קֹרַח), Korah being the rebel leader in Numbers 16 who, along with his followers, is swallowed by the earth and descends alive into Sheol, the abode of the dead. It’s about being alive in the land of the dead, about being as good as dead, as valued and wanted and thought of as the dead.

A long lost friend from high school pointed out to me recently that I’m breathing and speaking a lot of death of late, that I am unable to speak much blessing in my life right now, and she’s right. In my defense, I am not a happy-face, name-it-and-claim-it Christian, and my very faith came about because Jesus to spoke to me while 3,000 people were dying right in front of me. There is a long and very legitimate history of finding God in the midst of sorrow, suffering, despair, and destruction. I am not the first who has waged a frightened and desperate struggle with God in the darkness, and I shall not be the last.

But she’s right. I have not spoken enough of my blessings. I am alive. My wife is wonderful and incredible, and she is sticking with me through something particularly difficult and awful. The kids who have walked into my life because of the ministry I do — especially Molly (especially Molly!!) — are amazing, even in their neediness and brokenness. I wrote an astounding book (a “spiritual adventure”!) that sells very slowly but fairly steadily, without any work at all on my part. While I’ve not felt any music in my heart for the last few weeks, I have written some beautiful music confessing both my faith and the love of God I have experienced in the world. (“Earworms!” according to one fan.)

I am loved and wanted — there is more love in the world for me than I can count. Love and support from more people than I count.

I am still called, by Jesus, to love others — to proclaim his love — in this miserable world. That call, strangely enough, is as strong as ever.

And … There are young people who have found the courage to run from abusive homes — who are alive — because of me.

So, how many more blessings do I need? To quote from the Qur’an — which of the blessings of my Lord shall I deny?

Yet, I am not a happy faced Christian. Psalm 88 feels right at this point in time. Unlike a lot of psalms, there is no resolution to this sense of abandonment, no ultimate redemption.

God is the author of the psalmist’s travails and isolation, the dispenser of a wrath that comes without redemption. God smites, but does not raise in this psalm. That is how I feel right now, alone, dead, unheard and unheeded, so far from God that there is no hope. That no hope, no rescue, is coming.

13 But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.

14 O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?

15 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.

16 Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me.

17 They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together.

18 You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.

To be this alone, with no hope … this is what the psalmist, a son of Korah, the one taken alive into the place of the dead, is expressing. And there’s a time and a place for that. Not every pair of hands raised in praise receives an answer. Not every cry of help to heaven results in deliverance. Sometimes, we are met by silence. Nothing changes. Nothing improves.

This pit, this Sheol, this abyss, is the same place Jonah was cast down when he was swallowed by the fish. But Jonah’s cry is more hopeful than the psalmist’s here is. Jonah has hope, because he knows something the Son of Korah does not know — that God is there, in the pit, in Sheol, in the abyss. God is here, but the God who is here is a suffering God, a God who says, “you are not alone in despair and sorrow.” And that is hope.

Sometimes, it’s the only hope we have.

I know there is redemption. I know that as I dwell in the place of the dead, God’s presence here in this place of the dead means that death is not real. Instead of death, there is eternal life. There is redemption. There is resurrection. So there is hope.

I have no idea right now what concrete form that hope takes. I cannot see that. I know what I want — work and a home of my own — but I also know that may not be what redemption, resurrection, and eternal life look like here. For me. Right now.

What I do know is that the lament the psalmist speaks of here in Psalm 88 is also a faithful expression. It is incomplete, but it is faithful.

Sometimes it is necessary. And sometimes it is all we can say.