LECTIONARY — Tell No One

2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
9 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. (Mark 9:2-10 ESV)

I’m not always the best reporter. Sometimes, when I’m sitting down to write a story, I find that there are questions I should have asked that I didn’t, and I either have to wing it — write my way around the glaring omission — or get on the phone and hope whoever it was I talked to gets back to me on time.

I think about this because of the awkwardness of the three disciples who travel up the mountain with Jesus. Peter doesn’t know what to say, so being hospitable around the risen dead — well, at least Moses died, and was buried, and is now somehow here; Elijah was taken bodily into heaven without dying first — strikes him as the best thing to say in the situation.

And when Jesus commands them to tell no one what they have seen until he has risen from the dead, the three disciples — already terrified — are far too frightened to ask him what he means.

They do what we all do — speculate among themselves what Jesus meant when he said risen from the dead, and hope they arrive at some kind of reasonable conclusion.

This is not a way to get answers. I know this after I sometimes am sitting with a scribbled quote wondering “what did this person mean when he or she said it,” and not being entirely sure, and not really wanting to do the work of getting clarity.

Tell no one what you have seen, Jesus says to Peter, James, and John. This spectacular event, the return of Moses and Elijah, the declaration from on high, “This is my Son; listen to him,” (a reiteration of what God spoke to Jesus when he was baptized in the Jordan River all the way back in Mark 1), all this seem to be an incredible revelation. Why keep silent about it? Why tell no one?

It is because, I think, that this second declaration of sonship, made to the three disciples, is not supposed to make sense outside of the entire story of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the Son of Man, with whom the Father is well pleased.

Glory, sonship, the command to listen, none of it makes any real sense without what comes next — betrayal and suffering and death, followed by a rising that also leaves us terrified and perplexed.

And that also suggests that fear, confusion, and incomprehension are a part of this call, part of what it means to follow Jesus up the mountain, into the city, to join him in the upper room, to fall asleep with him in the garden, to linger — hopefully unseen — around the courtyard of the priests, to gather at the foot of the cross, and to wonder at the empty tomb.

It is okay to be frightened, confused, and to not know.

Because we are with Jesus.

Sinlessness and Progressive Pietism

Former State Department official and author Peter Van Buren has this to say on Twitter about the current state of the Trump White House:

I don’t particularly care about the Trump Administration — Trump himself is something an undisciplined slob who surrounds himself with bad people.

But Van Buren asks a really good question here: “But at what point is someone deemed virtuous enough by progressives?” It points to something at work in progressivism — both its religious and secular iterations — that do not bode well for the church or our society.

Progressivism, as I have written before, has a sin problem. And that sin problem stems, I think, from where progressives focus their understanding of redemption. For religious progressives, they focus upon Jesus’ acts in the Gospels (and God’s prophetic promises) of an expanded covenant and an expanded community. They focus on those excluded through no fault of their own — the sick, the lame, the blind, lepers, Samaritans (outsiders in general), eunuchs, and gentiles. People whose exclusion from the community is not something the controlled, but something imposed upon them, usually in the Torah. The unfortunate suffer through no sin or fault of their own, and the promise of the Kingdom of God is primarily for these formerly excluded or downtrodden folks.

The community of God’s people may have excluded them, and called them sinners, but Jesus ate and lived and preached and healed them. Called them and baptized them. Progressive inclusion is based on this understanding that people have been excluded because the church in teaching the law considered them sinners, but Jesus in fulfilling that law does not.

And I’m generally down with this.

But because progressive inclusion is based on what I might call Fanonist distinctions of oppressed and oppressor, included and excluded, first and last, it doesn’t so much forgive sin as it simply removes it. The outsider isn’t a sinner, the eunuch isn’t a sinner, and so there is no reasonable excuse for their exclusion.

But what to do with real sinners? It’s clear, I think, progressives have decided they cannot be forgiven. There is no redemption for real sinners — sin now becomes both an abstract state of being and an abstract artifact of unequal social power — since there is no way for sinners to repent, no way for sinners to do penance, no way for sinners to get right with the community, no way for the community to accept the penitent. The risks are too great, the distinction too important, to make forgiveness a real possibility. The progressive community, and the progressive church, cannot forgive sin. It is incapable of doing so.

There is simply shunning, exclusion, marginalization — the just desserts of lives poorly lived and power unfairly gained and wielded. A consigning to outer darkness that brokers no possibility of redemption because those excluded are not simply the unfortunate whom God loves, but the wretched damned. It is the humanitarian punishment imagined by C.S. Lewis, only without the humanitarianism.

As long as we are where we are politically — deeply divided and taking cues on what to be and NOT to be from the other side — this will only get worse. Progressives will only grow more pietistic in response to the Trump administration, and their demand for a sinless politics — and sinless politicians, ones who have never made mistakes or hurt others or have always had right views, those who have been sinless in the ways only liberal protestant clergy are considered sinless — will only grow stronger.

And this is why I worry far more about dictatorship from the progressive left than I do the right.

LECTIONARY — The Injustice of God

7 Go, tell Jeroboam, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: “Because I exalted you from among the people and made you leader over my people Israel 8 and tore the kingdom away from the house of David and gave it to you, and yet you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart, doing only that which was right in my eyes, 9 but you have done evil above all who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods and metal images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back, 10 therefore behold, I will bring harm upon the house of Jeroboam and will cut off from Jeroboam every male, both bond and free in Israel, and will burn up the house of Jeroboam, as a man burns up dung until it is all gone. 11 Anyone belonging to Jeroboam who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone who dies in the open country the birds of the heavens shall eat, for the Lord has spoken it.”’ 12 Arise therefore, go to your house. When your feet enter the city, the child shall die. 13 And all Israel shall mourn for him and bury him, for he only of Jeroboam shall come to the grave, because in him there is found something pleasing to the Lord, the God of Israel, in the house of Jeroboam. 14 Moreover, the Lord will raise up for himself a king over Israel who shall cut off the house of Jeroboam today. And henceforth, 15 the Lord will strike Israel as a reed is shaken in the water, and root up Israel out of this good land that he gave to their fathers and scatter them beyond the Euphrates, because they have made their Asherim, provoking the Lord to anger. 16 And he will give Israel up because of the sins of Jeroboam, which he sinned and made Israel to sin.”
17 Then Jeroboam’s wife arose and departed and came to Tirzah. And as she came to the threshold of the house, the child died. 18 And all Israel buried him and mourned for him, according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke by his servant Ahijah the prophet. (1 Kings 14:7-18 ESV)

Last year, sometime, I was arguing with someone on Facebook — something I have resolved to do no more — about the allegations of Russian involvement on behalf of the Trump campaign in the 2016 presidential election.

Basically, I said that if the Russians had interfered (because I’ve read lots of assertions but seen little hard evidence), it was something we have earned, given our interference in the elections and governance of others going back father than anyone of us could remember.

My respondent said it was still wrong — justice would perfect if Iranians, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans et al could interfere in our elections. That would be justice.

And I said God doesn’t work that way.

Because God doesn’t.

And in today’s reading, we have an example of the terrible justice of God. Perhaps we can call it the unjust justice of God.

Jereboam is the rebel who has become king of the northern Kingdom of Israel after breaking away from Judah. It was a revolt over taxes and conscription, which Solomon had levied hard upon Israel to support his magnificent court, large standing army, and expansive empire. Jereboam had led a delegation asking for lower taxes following the death of Solomon, and the wise king’s son and successor, Reheboam, promises to increase their burden and up the violence. “My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.”

And so, the northerners, led by Jereboam, rebel. “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse!” The north goes its own way, Jereboam builds two temples complete with Golden calves — “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” — in Dan and Bethel.

Which gets us to this prophesy we have today against Jereboam. He has sinned, and his sin is idolatry. And because of that sin, his people will pay. Not Jereboam, who “sleeps with his fathers,” but his people. His descendants. His family will come to naught and the nation he governs will eventually cease to exist, conquered and scattered.

I suspect this strikes many of us as unjust. The man who sins should pay for his own. But in ruling Israel as he does, in rejecting David and God’s promises to and through him, and in worshiping false gods, he has set Israel on a trajectory for failure, a failure he himself will never live to see.

That is how Israel understands its history. When Israel demands its very own king back in 1 Samuel 8, Samuel warns Israel what it will mean — the king will take wealth, sons, and daughters, to support his army and his court. “You shall be his slaves,” Samuel says, and there will be no deliverance.

Foundational to Israel’s power and wealth, the magnificence of Solomon’s empire so celebrated in the early chapters of 1 Kings, is this promise. The very sources of Israel’s success are also its undoing. The people whose sin creates the conditions for catastrophic failure are also those who rode high that success.

We are never inheritors of a blank slate. We live in a world of circumstances we did not create. It is wonderful to be alive at the time of David or Solomon, to live in a peaceful, powerful, influential state, and it stinks to live at a time when the Assyrians and the Babylonians are pounding on the city walls as the long-promised judgment of God.

And all the time, the poor — no matter faithful they are — pay the price for how badly they are governed.

The best I can say it that it is the way of things.

There is no perfect justice. Nebuchadnezzar was a deeply flawed instrument enacting God’s judgement upon God’s people. But he was that instrument, and his empire too would face judgment. If Israelite history is human history writ small, then the righteous justice of God is frequently meted out by the unjust upon the underserving. Jereboam deserved to pay, and not his people, and certainly not a future generation that had no choice in erecting ashteroth and golden calves. But he set into motion things no one could undo, and God chooses (generally) not to step into human history to unmake things. God works with and in the history we have and the humanity we are, and we need to remember that.

The best we can do, in times like these, is to keep our eyes on the promise of God that is bigger than our incompetent, cruel, and idolatrous rulers and horrific situations they have created. We will be redeemed. And we do have a portion in the son of Jesse.

LECTIONARY — Vapors and Odors

12 When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, 13 my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia.
14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? 17 For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:12-17 ESV)

This is a stunning image, this “spreading the fragrance of knowledge.” Not the knowledge itself here, but’s smell, as thing we cannot see yet we perceive.

Smell is powerful. Some of my most intense and fondest memories are triggered by smells. Smell lingers, it precedes, it remains, and it is evidence often times of things that aren’t seen and must be hunted for.

Paul says here “we are the aroma of Christ to God,” making us a sacrifice, a burnt offering, incense, that wafts up to God. We are something only somewhat tangible, something coming but not yet here, something being consumed. We are smoke, we are vapor, we are a sign pointing to something else. We are not the knowledge and we don’t even necessarily spread the knowledge, but merely its aroma, its fragrance.

We bear witness to the thing that bigger than us — Christ, who is life. And we are also, as the Body of Christ in the world, something of a living sacrifice offered up to God, a reminder to God of who and what we are, and of God’s presence in our midst.

20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:20-22 ESV)

DAILY LECTIONARY — Despair is NOT Faithlessness

 

8 “Oh that I might have my request, and that God would fulfill my hope,
9 that it would please God to crush me, that he would let loose his hand and cut me off!
10 This would be my comfort; I would even exult in pain unsparing, for I have not denied the words of the Holy One.
11 What is my strength, that I should wait? And what is my end, that I should be patient?
12 Is my strength the strength of stones, or is my flesh bronze?
13 Have I any help in me, when resource is driven from me? (Job 6:8-13 ESV)

I’m going to try to comment regularly on the daily lectionary. I know, I’ve made promises before to comment regularly, and of late, I have abandoned them. So, I’m not promising every day … some days I may awake and find myself too busy to reflect, or too unmotivated.

But I need a regular discipline of some kind. So I will try. It’s all I can promise.

I think we all have some grasp on the story of Job. He was a righteous man, and God was very pleased with Job’s righteousness, until Satan (הַשָּׂטָן the adversary) comes to God and says it’s easy for Job to be upright and good because he has it so well. He’s rich and comfortable and his life is going right. Satan than says to God:

“But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” (Job 1:11 ESV)

Job’s family is killed, his wealth is taken from him, and eventually his health is as well. And what follows is an extended meditation between Job, three friends, and eventually God, about the meaning of suffering and man’s relationship with God.

Job has come to curse his very existence. He wonders what he has strength for, what he patiently awaits. In his dislocation, in which virtually everything but his life has been taken from him, and in which his friends try to convince him this is all somehow his fault (and we, the readers, know it is not).

It is not faithlessness to cry out like this, to wonder where God is, to question the point of our strength and our patience and even our purpose. I do, right now. Whatever reason Jesus called me, spoke to me, bid me to follow, I can’t see it anymore. It has cost me 10 years of my life, and I now work at an entry-level reporting job making around 80 percent of what I made 20 years ago doing the same work.

In some things I am not blameless, but I still don’t entirely understand what has happened, why the church has been, overall, so cold, callous, and unwelcoming. I had held out hope, but no more.

I no longer know what I wait for. I no longer know what my strength is for.

I’m not sure I want God to crush me, but I understand the feeling.

This is despair. This is hopelessness. And it is not unfaithful. It is not the answer — Job is later rebuked, as are his three miserable friends — but it is not faithlessness either. It is okay to cry out to the cosmos in despair, and wonder just what the point of it all is.

It is okay.

Happy 2018

Yes, I have been silent for a while. Too silent.

I have been busy with work, and I try to keep work things for work, and not here. If you are all that keen on reading my journalism, you can wander over to the Columbia Basin Herald.

I have also been terribly busy with this novel, tentatively titled Kesslyn Runs, and I’m about two-thirds done. I have it all mapped out at this point. In addition, I have two sequel novels partially sketched out in my head and an idea for a prequel as well.

I don’t have an elevator pitch for the novel yet, and am hard pressed to describe in 25 words or less what it is about. The genre would loosely be “Christian Noir,” though a Google search turned up a fashion designer with a perfume line, and not a literary genre.

And that, dear readers, is why I labor in utter obscurity.

It is loosely based on this miserable ministry I have done — a much more successful version, at least. It is the story of a group of wannabe monks gathered around a failed congregational pastor who help abused foster kids, and occasionally go out to save them. Kesslyn runs from her abusive foster home for the sanctuary of the monks, and they begin to grasp the abuse she suffered was not merely random but part of a much larger pattern. Oh, and there’s a reporter who helps them as well, and a very bad guy who … well, if any of this interests you, you’ll have to read the book when it comes out.

Yeah, it’s a convoluted noir plot. With twists and turns and liturgy. It’s not a sweet, feel-good Christian story. It’s a dark novel, though it is not without hope. That hope is a resurrection hope.

I’ll sell dozens, I wager.

As I said earlier, much of the dialog and the general plot comes from a series of texts I had with a couple of kids — Melina, Lola, Grace, Aubrey, Annie, and yes, Kesslyn, and several others whose names I cannot remember, though I’m convinced they were all the same person — as recently as earlier this month.

How do I think they were all the same people? There were some significant shared details and rough general shape to all the stories. At one point, one girl sent me a photo clearly belonging to someone else. The stories and encounters have gotten less dramatic or involved over time — I’m guessing playing with me has gotten less interesting or amusing. Which is fine with me. I just wish whoever was messing with me be up front and honest, rather muck around with nonsense. Because I’m growing tired of the pretense.

But, at least I got a great idea — well, okay, fine, I think it’s a great idea — for a series of novels out of it. It’s not often someone hands you a steaming pile of bullshit and you can find a good use for it.

Actually, that’s not true. Bullshit is a fantastic fertilizer. Makes the flowers and the trees and the vegetables grow.

ADVENT 2017 — Conspiracy

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

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

I wish this was about me.

Honestly, I wish this was about you.

But it isn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will put my trust in him.