It’s Simply Too Late

So, Vice President-elect Mike Pence will take the oath of office on Ronald Reagan’s Bible, and he will place his hand specifically on 2 Chronicles 7:14

… if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

It’s an interesting choice.

Pence could have chosen anything from chapter 6, which is the Chronicler’s account of Solomon’s prayer after he blessed the people of Israel and dedicated the temple. In fact, the words of Solomon’s prayer would have made more sense, that long plea Solomon makes for mercy and forbearance from God to forgive Israel when Israel repents.

When the prayer is done, Solomon calls God down from Heaven to dwell in this newly built house, and this his presence may never depart Israel:

41 “And now arise, O Lord God, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. Let your priests, O Lord God, be clothed with salvation, and let your saints rejoice in your goodness. 42 O Lord God, do not turn away the face of your anointed one! Remember your steadfast love for David your servant.” (2 Chronicles 6:41-42 ESV)

Fire does indeed come down from heaven during this long ceremony, after this long prayer, and Israel grovels before the Lord.

Then, long after the dedication is done and the ceremony finished, God appears to Solomon “in the night” (an interesting reference, given that Solomon said at the beginning of chapter 6, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness [Exodus 20:21]. But I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to well in forever.”) and answers Solomon’s prayer. I have chosen this house, God says:

13 When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, 14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. 16 For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 17 And as for you, if you will walk before me as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my rules, 18 then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, You shall not lack a man to rule Israel.’
19 “But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, 20 then I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples. 21 And at this house, which was exalted, everyone passing by will be astonished and say, Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ 22 Then they will say, ‘Because they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods and worshiped them and served them. Therefore he has brought all this disaster on them.’” (2 Chronicles 7:13-22)

Pence is quoting from the promises of God made to Solomon, and by themselves, they sound like an open-ended promise to the people of God — remember me, and I will remember you. After all, God now dwells in the midst of the people, hearing and seeing all that they do. Feeling all they do.

Pence, like a lot of American Christians, confuses America the nation with the People of God. This promise is made to Israel, and by extension the church. There is no other people of God. Christians in Christendom easily confuse nation-state and community because the Christendom community is bounded by both church and state, it is both polity and congregation. To be Christian is to be a citizen (and vice versa). It’s an old problem, one Christians have never dealt well with. But I see no covenant between God and America, no evidence that God ever cut one with America past the self-righteous assertions of American Christians who confuse their civic enterprise with the call to follow Jesus.

But Pence makes another mistake here. This is not an open-ended promise. This is not a theoretical if-then, else-then. Like every set of promises God makes to Israel, it is embedded in the story of Israel’s failure. God speaks to Solomon of the consequences of turning away (Solomon is not the sinner in Chronicles he is the Deuteronomistic account), and Israel, under Solomon’s successor Reheboam, begins to turn away. Rebellion, idolatry, abandonment of the teaching, all lead to war and suffering and conquest.

It’s an object lesson — God demands our faithfulness, and God exacts a price for our faithlessness — but it must also be read embedded in the story of Israel. Which is one of faithlessness and failure. All that God promises Solomon in verses 19-22 comes to pass.

The repentance Pence quotes here comes, if it all, in Nehemiah 9, centuries later, when the exiles have been gathered, the law read, and the covenant renewed — under conditions of limited sovereignty, of Persian rule.

Most Christians do not want to deal with the fact that the story of Israel is one of failure. The story of the church, therefore, must also be one of failure. We will fail. We have found God’s favor and been blessed but God’s favor also included curses for faithlessness. And as often as we have done what we are told, we have not. Again and again, we are conquered and driven into exile, mindful that no arrangement we can put together on the basis of God’s promises and our adherence to the teaching will last forever.

It may be we are a faithful people living in a time of curses. That too is a divine calling, for which we are to bear witness, both prophetic and pastoral. Some of us, maybe many, are called to be priests without a temple. It may be if God’s people — the church in America — will repent, God will fulfill his promises and relent for a season. But we cannot even agree right now on what constitutes our sin, and because America, rather than the church, is what’s at stake for us, the supposed faithful remnant are constantly pointing at those outside, those others who do not share our virtues, and we say their sin got us here. And not ours.

And it may simply be far too late for repentance, whether we speak of Christians or Americans. Storm is coming, Assyrians and Babylonians are shoeing horses and sharpening swords. Consequences we began to bring upon ourselves long ago. God may relent, for a time, but it is probably too late to do much of anything except watch, pray, and seek safety.

An Open Canon?

Andrew Perriman took on N. T. Wright’s five-act approach to reading scripture with this blog entry last week, and it’s worth reading.

Perriman has really influenced how I approach scripture, especially how we read ourselves into the overall story here. What strikes me most about this blog entry is how Perriman takes on the creation-centeredness of Wright’s — and by extension, our — theology.

I have complained in the past that out theologies are far too creation centered. That we take the literal start of the book literally — our thinking about our relationship with God (and his with us) must start with “In the beginning…” Perriman helped me see that all of that is a warmup to the real story, which begins with Genesis 12 and God calling Abram and his family either out of Ur or (depending on how you read the text) somewhere in the wilderness of Haran.

The church has put itself in a place where it has to explain and justify from creation, of God’s good creation and well-ordered world, which led to convoluted mess of natural theology and the wholesale adoption of Greek ways of thinking. God, in much of church thinking and teaching, is first and foremost creator, and redeeming in something we encounter later.

This also forces the church to attempt to explain redemption in ways that, frankly, aren’t helpful.

But if the story starts with Abraham’s call, then it assumes the creation. Indeed, scripture rarely attempts to explain creation or justify it as good or well-ordered. God is first and foremost encountered as redeemer, the one who calls and commands to “go” and “follow” and “do not be afraid.” Creation is mostly assumed, and the need for redemption felt and understood — often as a cry for help — but not theorized or intellectualized. Scripture is the story of an encounter with, an experience of, of God, and an attempt to make sense of that encounter, of who we are, given that God made Abram certain promises. It is not really a set of ideas, principles, or values.

We are God’s fallen people. We know we are fallen, we see the condition of our lives. We need to be redeemed. We don’t really need to understand why we are fallen, except maybe to know that we are bearing the consequences of not just our sins, but those of our ancestors, who set into motion through their sin and faithlessness the situation we find ourselves in. We cry out for redemption, and we know — God will redeem us. God always does.

The question is always: where is our God right now?

Perriman believes Christendom was a fulfillment of a promise given by Christ, and then again through Paul, that God would judge the pagan empire and subject it to Christ’s rule. I’m less convinced of this, though if we are faithful to the story of Israel, Christendom’s history mirrors that of biblical Israel. Because Christ fulfills all promises, however, the most that history is for us is metaphor. The rise and fall and exile and redemption of Israel gives us a way of understanding the rise and fall and failure of the church.

However, Perriman says something very interesting as he reconsiders the five-act structure of scripture:

Act 5 The people of God and global secularism: the people of God in the West is still struggling to come to terms with the collapse of Christendom, but slowly a new self-understanding, a new modus vivendi, and a new missional purpose are emerging. Where we go from here remains to be seen—and perhaps prophesied.

How we read ourselves into the story we have is what matters. And Perriman is suggesting here that we may have to be attentive to the presence of God in our midst in ways that make us far less scripture — or better, word — focused. That we have to be ready for prophetic voices to rise up, and proclaim both God’s judgment upon the church as well as God’s promise of deliverance (both fully realized and not-quite-yet in Christ).

It means the possibility of a reopened canon, or a partially reopened canon. Because it will be difficult to sort it all out as competing voices all claim inspiration, or at least prophetic faithfulness. We already do this, since we cannot read scripture without an interpretation, without an understanding of what it might already be saying, so this is nothing new. I doubt we will add to scripture, not formally, but Perriman understands it will take new prophets to help us here what God is saying to us in the collapse of Western Christendom, and how to discern the presence of God with us at a time when all seems to be slipping from our hands.

Reading the Whole Story

N.T. Wright explains why the whole story of scripture is important, and why we need to understand our Sunday (or daily readings in the context of that entire story.

Whole Bible education. The New Testament makes no sense without the old. This story is our story, and we need to read it seriously, take it seriously, let it shape and form us, and live it seriously.

Also, this.

This is what I want to do: foster a congregation that lives embedded in this story, and the historic ritual of the church catholic and apostolic (daily prayer and eucharist, for example). It is worth doing, telling this story of God’s called out people, our failure to be faithful, and our redemption from exile and captivity — from the consequences of our failure.

That it is God’s acts which form us, and hold us together, and not our deeds. Not our obedience. Not our faithfulness.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and War

President Barack Obama has made the first official visit by a US President to the Japanese city of Hiroshima, to lay a wreath at a memorial to those killed in the US nuclear attack of August 6, 1945, and to call for a world free of nuclear weapons.

It is the old liberal dream — that diplomacy and negotiation should replace war forever.

We must change our mind-set about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build. And perhaps, above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.

Perhaps diplomats can gather around a great big table somewhere and outlaw war itself. Perhaps that will make this kind of change possible, allow for the realization of dreams so long dreamt.

Oh, wait, it was tried once. How’d that go again?

Lots of passive voice in Obama’s speech, as if some unnamed generic group of human beings, with no real purpose in mind, concocted the atomic bomb, and then it just happened to fall from the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in early August 1945. He wasn’t going to apologize — the belief that somehow Obama has been wandering the world apologizing for the United States has always been pure crap — but he wasn’t going to take any direct credit for the attacks either.

“The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations,” unnamed of course until the war is rhetorically over in Obama’s speech, until the United States and Japan are allies, united in purpose and outlook.

It’s an anodyne way of talking about war, careful and, I suppose, thoughtful. Except that it isn’t.

Because it’s hard to talk about war. Hard, in a society like ours where we are constantly morally judging and justifying, reviewing and condemning, acts of the past, to say much sensible about something as horrific as the American decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki with these newly made instruments of terror and death.

But I’m going to try.

One of the terrible truths of war is that when you begin, when you unleash it, you take a terrible risk, make a terrible gamble — that you will unleash events over which you will no longer have any meaningful control.

And that you could lose. And lose very badly.

The Japanese took that risk as they attacked the United States in Hawaii and the Philippines, took that risk when it set war with the United States into motion. Americans committed to war with Japan, and waged that war methodically, systematically, and very, very brutally. No one envisioned a working atomic bomb on December 7, 1941, but the governments of every major belligerent in the Second World War had some idea of what split atoms could do, and were working to one extent or another on a just such a bomb.

Someone would have built it. And someone would have used it.


True enough, Japan was incapable of laying waste to American cities — something the United States was proving exceptionally skilled at by mid–1944. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese died in those air raids, and many more from starvation because of the slow collapse of the country’s infrastructure in the last year of the war.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not irrelevant. These were new kinds of weapons that inflicted a never-before-seen kind of suffering and death. They may or may not have been needed to end the war, depending upon who you believe about the state of mind of Japan’s rulers (or the need to impress Stalin, or simply the desire to see how they worked) in early August, 1945. But they are a piece with the whole war.

Japan dropped the first bomb in anger against the United States. Hoping to win, of course, and defeat the United States. But when the Japanese dropped that first bomb, Japan took the risk that from that point, nothing would go as planned.

I’m not saying Japan deserved to be attacked with atomic bombs. Only that, once the shooting started, each side was going to whatever it took to defeat the other. The first side with these new and terrifying weapons was going to use them. Because they were built to be used. To destroy the enemy, to end resistance, and to secure victory.

I think about the terrible episode of Judges 19–21, Israel’s brutal and most pointless war against Benjamin. I’ve dealt with it in detail elsewhere, so I won’t even rehash it here.

What has always struck me is how this war — and all war, really — is simply reported in scripture. It is not condemned, and not even really praised either. This terrible war against Benjamin is a war instigated to achieve both vengeance and justice (for they are the same thing), but it spirals wildly out of control into genocide and regret and more mass murder, kidnapping, and rape in an attempt to fix the original genocide. It is us at our human worst — lying, self-righteous, violent, faithless, sentimental, regretful, convinced of our own wisdom and our own abilities.

In scripture, war appears to exist simply as an inescapable part of the human condition. What matters is not are we right or are we wrong, are we justified or condemned for waging war — but where is God, and is this war a judgment upon us as the people of God? Because the categories we contrive to morally justify ourselves and our violence — primarily defense, especially of those who cannot defend themselves — don’t fly in scripture. The conquest of Canaan is as aggressive and brutal a war as we can envision (“…[A]nd when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” Deuteronomy 7:2) and it is perfectly moral, set into motion by God. (Israel is also incapable of waging that war for any sustained period of time.) And during the most defensive and morally justifiable of wars, the siege of Jerusalem, the Prophet Jeremiah encourages the people of Judah to surrender, to defect, to flee to the enemy, because the war is lost.

4 Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands and with which you are fighting against the king of Babylon and against the Chaldeans who are besieging you outside the walls. And I will bring them together into the midst of this city. 5 I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and strong arm, in anger and in fury and in great wrath. 6 And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both man and beast. (Jeremiah 21:4–6 ESV)

God, “incarnate” in the army of Babylon, at war with Israel.

I’m not saying that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were God’s judgement upon Japan, anymore than the attacks of September 11, 2001, were God’s judgement upon the United States of America. I do not believe, on this side of the Cross, that a meaningful or purposeful presence of God is to be found in the violence we inflict upon each other. God is no longer present in the enemy army, or marching with ours. God no longer judges his people, or the nations, this way.

Violent judgement came to end on the Cross, when we judged and tortured and then murdered our God. When God surrendered to us.

At the Cross, our violence ceases to have meaning. It ceases to judge. We still do it, but now … it really, truly means nothing.

Oh, God is present in war. But as those who suffer. As those who cower in terror, run for cover. As those who perish. As those who struggle to make sense of the horror they find themselves dealing with, living in, surviving, and inflicting. Obama, in his own way, understood this in his speech:

We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.

We can apologize, or not, for an act that possesses its own horrific logic. The 20th century was a horrible century, in which we fed ourselves fed into Moloch’s fiery hot furnace, shoveled ourselves like so much human coal — and not just in the trenches of France, or the death camps of Poland, or the grassy steppes of Western Russia, or an ancient port city in Japan, or the muddily fields and dusty cities of China, but all across Asia and Africa and Latin America, wherever the Gatling gun and finance capital (or national pride, or revolutionary ideology) imposed an order that saw people as things to be consumed, as mere resources to be dominated and exploited. I’m not even sure we are capable of apologizing for what we’ve done, or how we’d even start.

I do know this — there will be more violence, more horrors, more death, and more destruction. I hope not on the scale and magnitude of the Second World War, but we’ve shown just what kind of devastation we are capable of inflicting when we really set our minds to it, so that is always a possibility. Bombs far worse than those dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki sit, silently waiting, built to be used.

There will be more violence and more war because we are still human. Because we still want justice. Because we still want vengeance. Because we still believe in the work of our own minds and our own hands to make the world right. Because we are frightened it will never be right.

Because we still believe we can silence death … with death.

The Love That Matters

Even though I am not Muslim anymore, I still believe there is a lot of wisdom in the Qur’an. And there is something of an encounter with God in the words of the Qur’an. I especially love the Quranic accounts of the creation and fall of Man.

But there is a sentiment expressed very profoundly in the words of the Qur’an that I can no longer accede to. And it’s such awn important thing that the Qur’an says it four times. (All quotes are modified from the Khan and Al-Hilali translation.)

Say: “Shall I seek a lord other than God while He is the Lord of all things? No person earns anything except against himself, and no bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another. Then unto your Lord is your return, so He will tell you that wherein you have been differing. (6:164)

And no bearer of burdens shall bear another’s burden, and if one heavily laden calls another to his load, nothing of it will be lifted even though he be near of kin. You [singular] can warn only those who fear their Lord unseen, and establish prayer. And he who purifies himself, the he purifies only for the benefit of his ownself. And to God is the final return. (35:18)

If you disbelieve, then verily, God is not in need of you [plural], He likes not disbelief for His slaves. And if you are grateful, He is pleased therewith for you. No bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another. Then to your Lord is your return, and He will inform you what you used to do. Verily, He is the All-Knower of that is in your hearts. (39:7)

37 And of Ibrahim who fulfilled all he was given, 38 That no burdened person shall bear the burden of another. 39 And that man can have nothing be what he does. (53:37-39)

This sentiment — no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another (وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَى) — was once something I believed very deeply. Christian concepts of the atonement, that Christ bore the sins of the world, that he carried my sins to the cross, made no sense to me. I still think it’s an unreasonable confession, something that still makes little sense. The confession the Qur’an makes — that each of us goes to God alone with our deeds, makes more sense.

And it’s an idea even supported by bits of the New Testament — Matthew 25, for example, or Revelation 20 and 21.

But this is one of my beliefs that perished on 9/11. As I stood in lower Manhattan that morning and stared up at the burning towers of the World Trade Center, watching the flame and the smoke, watching helplessly while others died, I understood atonement. I understood our essential sinfulness in a way I had not prior to that day. Not in any way I can explain it.

I certainly cannot explain it any better than Paul does in Romans 5, where he writes:

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11 ESV)

I remember not believing this. I also now know it is true. Perhaps it is the truest thing in the world.

I don’t think atonement is a thing we explain. It’s something we confess. I don’t like penal substitution language — Christ took the wrath of God so we don’t have to — because it strikes me as so profoundly untrue. Rather, Christ takes the wrath of God with us, so that we may rise with him in his defeat of sin and death.

But that is neither here nor there. The church has never agreed on the mechanics of the atonement. It is one of the few things the church has never felt the need to officially explain (in large part, I suspect, because there were no arguments over the fact of the atoning work of Christ). Any language we attempt to use will fall short, will somewhere become unreasonable and illogical. And that’s okay.

Because we still confess it to be true. We know Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins. He bears our burden — whatever that means — and in doing so, we are freed from the consequences of sin and death.

Which brings me to real point of this musing, a passage by Paul in Galatians 6 which, while it seems to say what the Qur’an says about burden, it doesn’t. Not really.

1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. 5 For each will have to bear his own load. (Galatians 6:1-5 ESV)

Bear one another’s burdens. I’ve thought a lot about this in the last few years, especially since my first disastrous pastoral internship, about what it means that carried our burdens and what it means that we are called to bear each other’s burdens.

I don’t say much in my book about what happened on my first internship, mostly because I was embarrassed, but also because I did not want to hurt any of the other people involved. (The only person I really felt I had license to malign, to call an asshole, to say was at fault, was me.) But I think what happened during that time in Wisconsin was a good exampled of how we compel each other, whether we want to or not, to bear our sins.

And it’s also a good example of how not to bear each other’s burden.

For those who haven’t read the book (pages 208-210 for those of you who have but need a refresher), Jennifer and I found ourselves in the midst of a community that welcomed and accepted us with wide open arms — something neither of us really expected. Jennifer and I, to different degrees, experienced both family and community as hostile, violent, and brutally and profoundly unwelcoming. I had been searching for acceptance, for belonging for much of my life, and I thought I’d finally found it — really found it — among the Lutherans.

But I had no idea how to live in the midst of people who really love and care for each other, certainly not as a pastor.

They hadn’t sinned against me. They welcomed me and loved me. By not knowing how to respond to their profound love in a pastoral way, but rather responding to that love as an excited 10-year-old looking for a mom and a dad might, I made them bear my burden. No one in that community was responsible for the violence done to me 30 years prior, but through my actions, I made them bear my burden.

Now, no one knew how to respond , and in that, I bore their burden.

It was not a good bearing of burdens. Indeed, the church as it is constituted right now does a very poor job of what Paul calls us to do. The institutional response defaults to our trust in the tools of modernity — go get counseling and we’ll see if you’re fixed. It was a little like being trapped in C.S. Lewis’ essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” in which no one could speak of sin and wrong, but only about health and safety.

And if you cannot speak of sin and wrong, there can be no repentance and no penance. There can be no redemption. Just an indefinite sentence until the “experts” are satisfied you aren’t sick anymore.

I know, when I speak of this, that I am being a lot more vague than I would like, if only because the examples I could best talk about are ones I cannot. They are too personal, too close.

But I know something of the bearing of burdens. I have carried Jennifer’s. She has carried mine. And in following Paul’s edict here, fulfilling the law of Christ to love as we are loved, to live as Christ lived for us, we have both learned what love can really accomplish. We’ve seen how it is changed us.

I’ve long thought that the institutional church, especially the politically and theologically liberal church, no longer really believes in love anymore. (Jennifer goes farther in her sentiments.) The church believes in effectiveness, in programs and policy, in systems and structures, and the ache to accomplish or be part of something important in the world. It looks to the wrong history and tells itself the wrong story. In this story of power and progress, love is small thing, a grubby thing, and it doesn’t feed, serve, or save millions. It is ineffective.

The church has, at least since the late middle ages, been plagued by a beguiling but horrific dream — the desire to create a world in which burdens are lessened or even eliminated rather than borne together.

This bearing of each others burdens isn’t easy. And Paul knows that. He’s dealing with how to handle transgressions within the church here, and he’s counseling both caution and compassion. When a sister or brother sins, we should be gentle and bear their burden with them, but we should not get caught up in their burden. And he reminds us, that we aren’t made righteous because our sins our borne by those around us. Our work is our own, even as we carry — and are carried by — others.

But this love that Paul writes about is the most powerful thing in the cosmos. It meets us in our mess and doesn’t flinch. It conquers sin and death. It sweeps us up into itself, makes us one with each other and with God.

Two New Songs

I have two new songs — and I mean new, I wrote them during the last two weeks — over at SoundCloud. Please give them a listen…

“Fighting the Wind” is taken from bits and pieces of Matthew, but it was mostly about Jesus telling the disciples (as they faced a storm, and then as he walked upon the water) not to be afraid. And the disciples being afraid when they come upon the empty tomb, and are told Jesus is off to Galilee.

The second song, which I wrote at the end of last week, is based on the Ephesians reading for last Sunday — 2:11-22, and it was one of those deeply inspired pieces of music. I sat down with the guitar, my Bible, fixed the capo, stemmed that first Bbm/Fm progression, and had the melody and words immediately. I have no idea where it comes from. That happens a lot, and I both really like it and am deeply unnerved by it. Because I feel like I’m being used the τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος (the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Breath, which is actually a better rendering, simply because breath is what animates us, brings us to live, and it’s what Jesus gives us again.)

Anyway, I like both these songs. I hope you do too.

Hope Amidst the Lament

After yesterday’s rant/lament/whine, I need to make something clear:

I would choose this life. This life God has chosen for me.

Yes, I would choose going to seminary, to the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, even knowing how things would go, how difficult the process would be. I would choose to leave journalism behind. I would choose to be formed the way I have been formed, by the people who formed me. I am deeply sorry that I have hurt and disappointed people (especially on my first internship), and I do wish none of that had happened. But given the choice, I would choose this path again.

Even in 2012, when I graduated with no prospects and no clear future, I had concluded this.

And if I had to choose between writing a book and being approved for ministry in the ELCA, yes, I would choose the book. Knowing all that followed, and where it has led me. I would choose it. In the midst of a heartbeat. I would not think twice.

Yes, I would choose who I have become in the light of what Jesus has done with me — and yes, to me — over who I was.

It’s dumb, I know, but I dream of a mortgage and a car payment, and a child of my own (or two or three). I daydream of an ordinary life. But it is not mine to have. It is not my calling. It would have been nice to have been a parish pastor, but that’s clearly not my call either.

I often wish I could be someone different. But I also know that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” and in those moments when I am not anxious — because I have frequently found being me more trouble than it been worth — “my soul knows it very well.” God has spoken to me. God uses me. That causes me to tremble sometimes.

I know that I am called to bear witness, to something far bigger than me — to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and what that means, and what it does, and what it creates. I don’t know where that is leading me. I have never known where that is leading me.

But homeless and wandering in the wilderness, entirely dependent on the grace of God for food, for water, and for protection, it’s easy to “remember” and dream of the nice life left behind in Egypt. Even if the rich food and the comfort was only an illusion.

Baking bricks without straw, remember?

I take lament seriously. I do believe there is a place for wailing and weeping and bemoaning one’s fate, and doing so simply without trying to cover it in feel-good platitudes. I love Lamentations, especially the third chapter, where Jeremiah clearly and emphatically claims God is the author of his suffering and his woe:

1 I am the man who has seen affliction
under the rod of his wrath;
2 he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
3 surely against me he turns his hand
again and again the whole day long.
(Lamentations 3:1-3 ESV)

Now, Jeremiah doesn’t end it there, and it’s one of the reasons I find chapter three so very, very powerful:

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
(Lamentations 3:19-24 ESV)

This Lord, who has been breaking teeth and piercing me with arrows is also the same Lord I put my trust in. Jonah’s song (sorry, prayer) from the belly of the fish is similar. God has brought Jonah down, to the depths, deep into the waters of the sea, to the place where God is not (sheol שְׁא֛וֹל), to a place and a state where Jonah will never again gaze upon the Lord. But even in this place, God comes — God is — and rescues Jonah.

Even in this place, Jonah will praise and thank God.

This place — God has brought me down, but I will trust God to bring me up — is where Job eventually finds himself as well, surrendering completely to the work of God (and eventually seeing his material fortunes restored). Lamentations also ends on something of an ambiguous note, acknowledging the inscrutable timing of God:

21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
Renew our days as of old—
22 unless you have utterly rejected us,
and you remain exceedingly angry with us.
(Lamentations 5:21-22 ESV)

And it’s important we remember, in the very concrete here and now, we can speak of the uncertainty. However, we who follow Jesus know that we also have no such ambiguity. We know who and what our hope is. We know what we hope in. And hope for. Our hope is real. And he is risen.

I do not know what the future has in store for me. I do know that Jesus has told me not to be anxious, not to worry, and not to despair. Seek the kingdom first, and all you need will be added to you. And that’s hard for me right now. That has always been hard for me.

It is not impossible. It’s just difficult. More difficult than anything I have ever done. I have to make my own way — and that scares me. A lot. But I am not alone in this, and I know that. I have been called by a crucified and risen Lord to follow him. He is with me. And so I trust — I have to trust — that all he has called me to do (whatever it may be — I had no idea two years ago that included writing a book!) is possible.

Because he makes it possible.

Yes, I would choose this life. And had he not chosen me first, yes, I think I would choose to follow Jesus.

How Will Anyone Ever Know?

There’s a hymn I really, really hate.

Actually, there are several. I hate “On Eagle’s Wings” (ELW 787 for you ELCA Lutherans out there). I mean I loathe this hymn. I has an awful melody that’s impossible to sing well, and its tawdry sentimentality unsettles my bowels. I understand the lyrics are drawn from Isaiah, and some of the images from psalms, but it’s still a piece of dreck that I do not ever want to hear again. Continue reading